Kaleem tossed and turned. The backs of his eyes were burning. His bedclothes became damp with sweat. He was aware now and then of Maria coming into his room. Sometimes there were other people, people he didn’t know. He could hear them whispering but couldn’t make out what they were saying. He ached all over.
Maria or the house robot occasionally brought him drinks or soup. But he could barely swallow. He was hardly awake, anyway. And when he was, all he wanted to do was go back to sleep.
He could not understand anything his mother or any of the others said to him. His throat felt as if it was on fire if he tried to speak. It was an effort to move. Even allowing his eyes to follow something made his head throb. The gentlest light seemed to cut his head into pieces. He preferred to keep his eyes and his ears tightly shut.
Then he would sleep, though, and the dreams came. They were starkly real dreams, vivid and brightly coloured. They were full of people he had never met, but whom he had a sense of knowing well. Strange things happened, which he understood as he dreamt but made no sense when he awoke.
Then he started to dream the same dream over and over again. He was walking out of a tall, narrow building, on to a hillside covered with grass which looked artificially green. He could see children playing, picking daisies, and making chains with them. Then one after the other, the children would turn round. He felt afraid as they did so. He found that he was right to feel afraid. They were not children at all but very small adults with old wrinkled faces. One of these small people would take him by the hand and lead him into a tiny chapel, where a large book lay open. Candles burned at either side. The pages of the book were plain, but they soon filled themselves with writing. An invisible hand would tear out the page and throw it away, and then the next page would fill with words - words he couldn’t read, despite his new skills.
Always after this dream, he would wake up, pain searing through the whole of his body. Sleep, dreamless sleep, would have been the best option. But at that point, he did not want to go back to sleep. He feared having the dream again. It wasn’t so much the content that scared him - although the ugly faces of the old children were alarming enough, - it was more that he always had the feeling that there was something he was not understanding, and that the dreams would carry on until he did.
Gradually, the other dreams became less strange. Only the one about the book and the children continued. He now knew what to expect with that one. As he dreamt, he tried to understand. Yet each time, he became more sure that he was missing a point and he really should know what was going on.
He slept a little less. He began to sip the drinks and eventually one day he managed a whole bowl of soup and stayed awake for most of the afternoon. Maria sat with him. For the first time in goodness knows how long, he had actually felt hungry.
‘The soup was good,’ he managed to say. This time his throat did not hurt and he was able to look around the room without the shooting pains in his head. ‘Is there any more?’Maria beamed Well, I’m glad you still appreciate my cooking,’ she said.
‘You really had us worried,’ she said, as he finished the second bowl of soup. She was looking serious again. ‘Razjosh thinks that this may have come from the outside. Or it may be some disease that has lurked around dormant, since before the poison cloud. That’s why the diastic monitor didn’t pick it up.’
‘Razjosh has been here?’ asked Kaleem.
‘Oh often,’ said Maria. ‘He’s very concerned about how you’re getting behind with the Peace Child programme.’
Kaleem could not fail to hear the edge in his mother’s voice.
‘He doesn’t seem at all concerned that here you are, struck down by some mystery illness, on a planet that has not known illness for over two hundred years. No, no, all he’s concerned with is whether you’ll be ready in time. In time for what I don’t know.’
After that first day, Kaleem was awake more and more often. The fever went away altogether, he started eating regular meals, and soon he was out of bed and able to walk a little around the apartment. He was still rather weak, and he certainly did not feel like working - not that Maria would have let him anyway. Nor did he want to know anything about what was happening in the outside world.
Then one morning he woke up, feeling completely normal. Another part of him, which had been away for a long time, seemed to have returned suddenly.
He jumped out of bed. It was just as if he’d never been ill at all. He bounded into the kitchen, where Maria was already instructing the house robot about breakfast.
‘Oh,’ she said. ‘You seem to be better.’
‘How long have I been ill?’ asked Kaleem.
‘Exactly seven weeks,’ replied his mother.
Seven weeks. Seven whole weeks. The time had gone so quickly!
Things seemed to gradually go back to normal after that. Razjosh appeared to him several times in the holograph. The Peace Child programme was started again. Kaleem had forgotten a lot of what he had learnt and much of it had to be repeated.
‘We need to get on,’ Razjosh said as he stood in holographic form by Kaleem’s workstation. ‘You have to complete at least one whole unit. We need to know that you’ll be fit if you’re needed. I’m getting older. I’ll soon not be able or want to travel anymore. And even Elders eventually have to face switch off.’
Kaleem could not believe what he had just heard.
‘Do you really mean I might have to leave Terrestra?’ he asked. ‘You mean go to another planet or even another part of the universe?’
‘Oh yes, you may have to travel,’ Razjosh said to Kaleem. ‘There are people who still travel through the galaxies from Terrestra. We have scouts who keep an eye on others. But we go quietly. We do not want others to know of us. There would be little point in you learning all these skills if you weren’t to put them to use,’ said Razjosh. ‘You may have to negotiate for us one day.’
‘Have you …?’ Kaleem started.
‘Oh yes,’ said Razjosh. ‘How do you think we got rid of the poison cloud?’
‘That’s right,’ continued Razjosh. ‘We let people believe it was some sort of miracle. But it wasn’t. We got rid of it with the help of some of our friends from another world. Not that you should ever say anything, not even to Maria. That is classified Golden Knowledge.’
‘Well if I did have to travel, would you come along as well?’ asked Kaleem.
‘That depends,’ said Razjosh, ‘on just how far into the future we’re talking about. Look at me. I’m an old man.’
Kaleem could not imagine carrying on with this project without Razjosh. He could not think what to say.
‘Just work hard, now that you’re well again,’ said Razjosh and he disappeared.
Kaleem did work hard. He became so familiar with Wordtext that he could read it from the screen as fast as he could speak English. It amazed him that since he had recovered from his illness he could work better, concentrate more. He seemed to understand everything more easily. He worked hard on the four skills of listening. speaking, understanding information texts and constructing information texts, in three of the foundation languages -the ones on which all others are built. He looked at the backgrounds to those languages, studying the people of the planets where they were spoken.
He was grappling with a Wordtext file, written in French, which was spoken on three active planets in his own solar system alone, when he heard a commotion coming from the main chamber of the cave.
Maria had obviously just let someone in. He recognised Razjosh’s voice.
‘Put on the news channel,’ Razjosh was saying. He was actually in the lounge, this time for real, not just as a hologram. ‘Then you will see for yourself.’
The news was dreadful. Three more boys had become victims of the mystery illness.
‘Illness has been unheard of on Terrestra for over two hundred years,’ the newscaster was saying. ‘Officials at the Health Ministry are saying that it must have come from space, possibly lying dormant on our planet since the time of the dispersal of the poison cloud. Health Department scientists are working on producing antidotes which can be added to the diastic systems. There is no cause for alarm.’
‘I think there is a cause for alarm,’ said Razjosh. ‘In fact the Council of Elders is generally in agreement about that. But, of course, we’re playing it down to the public. The Department of Information is keeping a watch out, and much of the real story is being hidden.’
‘Thank goodness for that,’ said Maria. ‘We don’t want everyone knowing our business.’
‘Well, there is that,’ said Razjosh. ‘But the greater concern is, where did that illness come from? And also, will people be able to cope? We’re not used to feeling ill anymore.’
No, thought Kaleem. We’re not.
He remembered how frightening it had been. How uncomfortable. The nearest to it he had ever experienced before was the slight tired feeling when he had done too much work, or the fidgety feeling he had when he’d sat still for too long. There had been easy remedies to that. A quick burst on an exerciser, a walk outside, or a drink of coffee or of fortified caffeine juice had soon sorted that out. But when he was ill, there had been nothing which had relieved his discomfort. Even when he was asleep, he had felt odd, except in that one dream which came over and over again. Then he had felt normal. Well, disturbed, yes but more alert and more lucid than normal.
Maria was biting her lip and staring beyond him and Razjosh. She was even paler than usual. Suddenly, she seemed to wake from her daydream.
‘Do you think it’s going to spread?’ she asked. ‘Will they be able to stop it?’
‘Who knows?’ replied Razjosh. ‘We can only hope.’
It occurred to Kaleem that not only had he recovered from the illness, but also it had somehow enabled him to work better.
‘Does it really matter, though?’ he asked. ‘Look, I’m all right. And I also appreciate being well.’ He hesitated about telling Razjosh that he thought it had improved his capacity to learn.
‘That is fine, and good,’ he replied. ‘But we know from the old days that not everyone responds the same way to illness. A trivial virus, known commonly as a cold, could kill a baby or a very old person. And some people made complete recoveries from more serious diseases, but others didn’t.’
Suddenly Kaleem felt depressed. Okay, he had recovered well from it, but that illness had been terrible. If that was being ill, he never wanted it to happen again. No wonder disease was not welcome on Terrestra. That was bad enough. But it was just his luck as well! It would be him who was the first to catch something which threatened the way everyone on Terrestra lived. Different again.
‘However,’ continued Razjosh, ‘we shall need to do tests on you. To establish what the virus is and how much immunity you have developed, and see if we can culture a vaccine and an antidote and add it to the diastic water supplies.
It would also be useful,’ he added, turning towards Maria, ‘to know as much as possible about the parenting of Kaleem. Do you have the Stopes records to hand?’
Maria went very pale.
‘I’m sorry,’ she said. ‘I have an urgent assignment to finish.’ She rushed out of the room.
‘But it wouldn’t take long….’ said Razjosh.
‘She doesn’t have our Stopes records,’ said Kaleem. ‘She won’t tell. She just won’t say anything.’
For a few hours, Razjosh and Kaleem looked for his birth records via the dataserve and information centre, and found nothing. There was absolutely no record of his birth or conception.
Kaleem was hardly surprised. He had, of course, tried that himself several times. And Maria had told him nothing.
‘It’s just an error,’ she would say, every time Kaleem asked her about it. ‘They still happen. It’s not important. You’re a quite normal young man, aren’t you?’
But I’m not, Kaleem always thought. I’m so different.
At least with Razjosh present they had been able to look further. He could access Golden Knowledge. But perhaps the secret wasn’t there. Perhaps it was buried in the Hidden Information. Even Razjosh wasn’t allowed to look there.
There was nothing. Nothing at all.
‘Well, it happens,’ said Razjosh. ‘Unusual these days, but it does still happen. And a bit of a nuisance in this case. Your mother has told you nothing?’
Kaleem shook his head.
Razjosh sent Kaleem out.
‘Give me time to talk to her without you there,’ he said. ‘Come back in an hour.’
Kaleem walked and walked, through the park and then out into the town, way beyond where they’d had the two school meets earlier. He was not far from the Laguna bar and was almost tempted to go in. But he might meet someone there and he wasn’t in the mood for conversation. He scuffed the ground with his feet. Why did she have to be so secretive? Why wouldn’t she tell him what he wanted to know.
The cold began to nibble at his fingers and his toes despite the fact that he had been walking so quickly that he was almost out of breath.
He turned back towards the cave. He was calmer and tired when he arrived home.
Razjosh was still in his room staring at his dataserve.
‘Well, have you found anything?’ asked Kaleem, hoping that there just might be something.
The Elder shook his head. He looked straight into Kaleem’s eyes. That piercing blue again. That feeling that he could understand everything you were thinking just by looking at you. Kaleem shivered.
‘Nothing,’ said Razjosh. ‘I’m afraid she’ll have to be brought in for questioning.’
Then Razjosh left.
Maria stayed in her room. Kaleem knocked on her door several times, but she refused to answer. The door stayed firmly locked. Eventually, late into the evening, he forced the door open and walked into her room.
She was sitting on her bed. Tears streaming down her face. She quickly stuffed something down the side of the bed.
‘He was a wonderful man, your father,’ she said.
The next morning, Kaleem found her pottering about in the kitchen. The kitchen robot stood lifeless in the corner. She had obviously deactivated it. Another good breakfast was spread out on the table.
‘Mum, you’ve gone to a lot of trouble,’ he said. ‘Are we celebrating again?’
Maria turned and faced him. She was even paler than the day before.
Her pupils were wide open and she stared at him. She pointed to the table.
They could not afford all of this, they really couldn’t.
Kaleem had no appetite. He wanted to know more about what she had said the previous evening.
‘You say he was wonderful, my father,’ he said. ‘So tell me about him.’
Maria crumpled and fell to the floor.