Sunday, 28 October 2012

The Prophecy Overground Chapter Nine

‘Desperate times call for desperate measures,’ said Razjosh.
It irritated Kaleem that he had come here and he had made a point of telling the old man that. Kaleem had still not been able to go and visit Maria. Every single Terrestran had been told to stay in their living quarters. Kaleem had not minded too much at first. The Health Centre was in constant touch. They were making sure that that particular channel was always open for him. It was not as if there was all that much point in being there either. Maria was making no sort of response to anything they did. Day after day the same process had repeated itself. Kaleem would contact the centre and talk to the medics. They would explain what else they had done to help Maria out of the coma and would tell him of any other ideas they had had about what had caused it, not that they had any, really. He would also give them a little more information about the life that he and Maria led together. The medics would look for clues in that, but usually found none. They were getting nowhere.
Once a week he had been going to the medical Centre and sitting with his mother for a short time, watching her breathing in and out very gently, but otherwise not moving at all. It was as if she had been switched off too soon, but that something was keeping her breathing. He would talk to her about anything he could think of, but always at some time he would come back to asking her about the book and where it came from, and then where he had come from. Still, she did not move, did not seem to hear his voice. The visits were beginning to seem pointless, anyway. It was the same nothingness every time. They had told him he should keep on coming, though.
Now that he wasn’t allowed to leave the apartment he could get more work done. It made him worry less about Maria, somehow. So that wasn’t the problem really, even though that was more or less what he had said to Razjosh.
He had worked like mad. Now, though, it felt as if the four walls of his room were pressing together. It didn’t help going into the other room of the apartment. They seemed to  be getting smaller as well. Using the indoor exerciser was not as good as getting out.
But what was really making him angry was that Razjosh could go against the rules whenever he pleased. Just because they had been elected by other Elders didn’t really make them all that different from other people, did it? Did they really know any better?
‘One rule for Elders and another for ordinary people,’ he blurted out to Razjosh, after he had let him in. ‘You can go about as much as you please and the rest of us have to drive ourselves mad being cooped up inside all of the time.’
Kaleem felt his cheeks burning. Razjosh did not flinch. He stared until Kaleem just had to turn away. He didn’t seem to be at all disturbed at the way Kaleem had spoken to him. Kaleem almost wished the Elder had become angry, too. That would have been easier to deal with.
‘It was best not to come in holographic form this time,’ said Razjosh at last. ‘It is too easy to spy into cyber information, even with the security on our channels. And what I’m going to tell you now is a secret from even some of the other Elders.’
Kaleem looked at the old man. He noticed the dark circles round his eyes and that he was standing a little more stooped than normal. Kaleem suddenly remembered his manners.
‘Would you like some cave water?’ he asked.
‘That would be very acceptable,’ said Razjosh, sitting down.
Kaleem called to the house robot. A few seconds later the aging machine trundled noisily through the opening to the kitchen, carrying a small tray with a beaker of liquid on it.
‘Cave water, for whom?’ it asked in its tinny voice.
Kaleem nodded towards Razjosh. He watched the old man take the beaker and hold it up to his lips. Even as he sipped the liquid, some colour seemed to come back into his cheeks and he seemed to sit up straighter.
‘Definitely one of the better inventions in the caves,’ said Razjosh.
‘Thank you master,’ said the robot, and swivelled round on the spot. It made its way noisily back to  the kitchen, muttering ‘These humanoids don’t know they’re born yet. Cave water. Any machine worth its screws and chips can make cave water.’
‘Where did it learn that?’ asked Razjosh, beginning to laugh.
‘Normal parrot program,’ said Kaleem, shrugging his shoulders. Then he began to giggle. ‘I thought it was getting a bit stuffy not long ago,’ he added, remembering how it had looked when the new dataserve had arrived.
‘Well,’ said Razjosh. ‘The parrot programs do seem to work quite well on these old machines. For all the fancy new technology, the newer models lack the sense of humour of these original robots.’
Razjosh finished his water. He looked serious again, but not as tired as before.
‘Well, Kaleem,’ he said. ‘It is all getting much more urgent now. There are  many more deaths occurring than they are actually reporting.’
Kaleem felt himself go hot.  ‘How many?’ he asked.
‘There have in fact been over seven hundred. But news about the deaths has now been made into Golden Knowledge,’ said Razjosh. He seemed to be staring at Kaleem. ‘As well as the deaths,’ he added, ‘there are now fifteen other people in comas. Just like your mother.’
‘So,’ said Kaleem. ‘Is it the disease itself as well that is causing the coma?’
‘It would seem so,’ replied Razjosh. ‘Those patients who go into a coma incubate the disease for longer. It is very likely, therefore, that your mother, and not you, introduced it to Terrestra.’
That can’t be right, thought Kaleem. I’m sure she’s never been off the planet.
Razjosh did not seem to notice Kaleem’s concern.
‘So,’ continued the Elder. ‘Some of us have agreed that the time is right for me to make a journey some time soon. We’re forming an Extraordinary Council and in a few days’ time, I’ll be leaving Terrestra.’
‘Where will you go?’ asked Kaleem. He could not imagine what it would be like to leave Terrestra. Their schooling programme had never mentioned travel to another planet as a possibility. Other planets had always been treated as if they did not exist.
‘The scientists have identified one or two planets which have experienced a similar disease to this one. We’ll be going to find out more. Of course, this has to stay a secret. This really is Golden Knowledge,’ replied Razjosh.
‘So what about me?’ asked Kaleem. Why was he being brought up as the Peace Child if he was not going to be allowed to help. Was all this hard work for nothing?
Razjosh sighed.
‘Of course you’re impatient to help,’ he said. ‘That is only natural, but we don’t think you’re quite ready yet.’
‘But I am!’ protested Kaleem. He’d worked really hard, hadn’t he? He’d managed all right with the modified Spanish, hadn’t he?
‘No, you need to work more with the holoprogrammes. Your language techniques are fine at the moment, but you don’t yet know enough about being in the culture.
‘While I’m away, you can get some more done.’
‘But you were the one who pulled me back from Tarantet!’ cried Kaleem. This really was so unfair. ‘I was just beginning to understand.’
Razjosh was looking at him intently.
‘Yes, yes, yes, I know,’ he said. ‘But there is something else as well.’ He paused and looked away from Kaleem. Then he looked at him again.
‘We think,’ he said slowly, ‘that there is more to the Prophecy than we had realised. We have to be careful with our Peace Child.’
He was staring at Kaleem, obviously waiting for a reaction. Kaleem’s mouth had gone dry and he shivered.
‘Listen,’ said Razjosh. ‘I’m returning you to Tarantet. You’ll pick up where you left off. And I shall come to you once more before I go.’
Razjosh turned and made his way out of the apartment. The little house robot whirred along in front of him and opened the door. Even it seemed to sense that this was a serious moment and it shouldn’t say anything.
Kaleem rubbed his head. What should he make of all of this? The dataserve sprang into life again and the room gradually grew dark.
The smell told him that he was back in the fish dome before the lights came back up. Then he saw Loretta waving to him. She looked even more like Rozia this time.
‘Are you ready for lunch?’ she asked
He nodded. It was actually getting quite difficult to make yourself heard. The air control was now working hard against the heat.
‘We’ll just have time to eat before the storms begin,’ shouted Loretta,
The cafeteria was full when they arrived. They took the last two seats. Kaleem watched some of the others eating. They had what looked like two pieces of card joined together with a sort of yellow paste. They were drinking a pink liquid.
‘Mmm,’ said Loretta. ‘Homogenised pumpkin protein and crushed loganberry juice. Not bad.’
A girl about the same age as Loretta deposited two packages and two tumblers full of the pink liquid on their table.
They could get robots to do that, Kaleem found himself thinking.
Loretta was already opening her packet.
‘Don’t drink the loganberry juice too fast,’ she warned. ‘It contains a sleeping draught and you can feel a bit dizzy.’
The pumpkin spread was quite acceptable and the juice tasted like some of the drinks he’d had on Terrestra. He missed the breakfast he’d had earlier on Tarantet, though.
It was getting noisier and noisier in the cafeteria. People were talking more and more loudly to drown out the sound of the air control. And behind all that there was another noise, a faint rumbling.
‘Time to get down to the hammocks,’ said Loretta as he took the last mouthful of the pumpkin sandwich. He was already beginning to feel a bit sleepy.
‘Can you hear that clunking?’ asked Loretta as they queued for the stairs which would lead them down to the hammock rooms.
Kaleem nodded.
‘They’re putting the covers on the domes,’ she said.
The walk down to the hammock rooms took twenty minutes. Kaleem realised that it  would be even harder walking up later. By the time Loretta had shown him to a hammock and how to get himself balanced in one, he could hardly keep his eyes open.
Once he was safely settled, he fell straight asleep without even taking the time to dread having the usual dream.
He didn’t dream, but he did wake up several times to hear the roaring and battering which was happening above their heads. One or two other people stirred. They managed to turn themselves without falling out. He didn’t dare move. He would be bound to drop to the floor, making a lot of noise and waking those around him. Loretta was sleeping peacefully at his side. She looked more and more like Rozia all the time.
The last time he woke it was to find Loretta shaking him gently.
‘Come on,’ she was saying. ‘Time to go back to work.’
She looked straight into his eyes.
I can’t believe she’s not real, thought Kaleem.
She blinked and looked down, holding the hammock for him as he struggled out.
‘I will show you what I am doing to the plants,’ she said as she led him to one of the outer domes. ‘Well, what do you think of the sand?’ she asked as they made their way along the linked passages.
Kaleem could scarcely believe what he saw. The landscape had changed completely. There were now hills where the land had been completely flat before, and in places it was flatter where there had been hills.
‘How will you find your way home?’ he asked.
Loretta grinned at him.
‘I’ll follow the sun, of course,’ she said.
Of course, thought Kaleem. It was obvious, wasn’t it?
He found her work interesting. She was measuring the growth on some of the plants, testing them for which nutrients they were lacking and adjusting a mix of feed to accommodate their individual requirements.
‘It’s a bit like what our diastic monitors do to us,’ he said.
‘I’ve told you,’ said Loretta sharply. ‘We can’t afford to run too many machines.’
But he hadn’t mean it as a criticism. He’d been trying to say they were the same. And this wasn’t even for real. If it was this difficult in a world operated by machines what was it going to be like in a real world? Or might it be easier?
Kaleem decided to keep quiet. Besides, he was still finding the language tiring to follow. It wasn’t all that difficult, but he did need to concentrate. He walked beside her, handing her the tools she needed and helping her to mix the feed. No one seemed to question his being there. But then they wouldn’t, would they? This was all a set up.
‘You’re getting good at this,’ she said as they came to the last plant in the dome. ‘We could give you a job here.’
That would be something, thought Kaleem. Spend the rest of my life trapped in artificial reality.
‘We’ll go now,’ said Loretta. ‘The cool starts soon.’
The journey back was much more pleasant. It was still quite warm compared with Terrestra, but Kaleem noticed that the silkon was not sticking to him so much. The sun had almost gone down completely when they reached Loretta’s home. Kaleem recognised the house, but not where it was standing. You could no longer see the sea, as it was hidden behind a mountain of sand.
‘How come the house didn’t get covered?’ asked Kaleem.
‘It has automatic shields, like the ones over the domes,’ said Loretta. ‘They not only protect the building from the sand, but also have a force field that keeps the sand a certain distance away.’
The temperature inside the house was quite pleasant now.
‘We’ll eat quickly,’ said Loretta, and then I’ll show you what we do for entertainment on Tarantet.’
She quickly prepared some sandwiches like the ones they had had at lunchtime and mixed a fruit juice.
‘All of this food is high in proteins and vitamins,’ she said. ‘It should give you plenty of energy.’
What was he going to need energy for?
‘We’re going sand surfing,’ said Loretta. ‘We do that every evening for two hours or so, then we usually meet up at some pear-juice bar for a couple of drinks to make us sleepy. We ferment the juice of the prickly pear, which grows on the sand wastes.’
Loretta showed him how to put on his sand suit and how to use the big sand skis, which he had to slip on over his shoes and which made his feet three times as long as usual. As they were almost as wide as they were long, almost round in fact, he had to hold his legs quite wide apart just to stand upright.
‘You’ll soon get used to it,’ said Loretta, as she showed him how to hover up the slope of a dune and glide down the other side, ‘it’s much easier to keep moving that to just stand still. ‘
Kaleem was surprised to find that she was right. In no time at all, he had really got the sand skis working. He was actually managing to keep up with Loretta as she made her way through the dunes. Soon, he was really enjoying himself. He loved how the skis rushed down the side of the hill to give you enough momentum to get up the next.
They met lots of Loretta’s friends. She introduced all of them to him. She simply said ‘This is Kaleem.’ Never once did any of them ask him who he was or what he was doing there. They just answered ‘Hi Kaleem.’
Something wrong with the programming, there, thought Kaleem.
The time went very quickly and soon Loretta was showing him into a pear-juice bar. It was out in the open, and it was actually very pleasant sitting under the inky star-dotted sky, sipping the pear-juice, which was beginning to make him mildly sleepy again - that and the chatter from the rest of the people there. There were more and more people to meet, so he really needed to concentrate. He didn’t know which were more tired - his head and his brains or his legs. It would have felt quite cool by now if he hadn’t have been rushing around so much before. He realised that he was stiffening up as he sat there.
‘You’ll sleep well tonight,’ said Loretta. ‘Come on, I think we’d better go home.’
It was quite a struggle getting back. The stiffness was really kicking in now. Loretta did take them back by the most direct route, though.
‘You can go to your bed,’ said Loretta. ‘But the programme will finish soon after you lie down.’
Kaleem didn’t care. He was glad to stretch himself out in the strange bed, and gradually feel the tiredness drift from his limbs as the pear-juice carried on with its effect and soothed him towards sleep. He’d not taken in much about the bed earlier. Now he noticed that the cover looked just like ripon, but was softer, lighter and warmer at the same time.
He was right on the edge of sleep as he asked himself what Pierre would have made of him spending all day with a girl. For goodness sake, he’d actually slept at her home - that must be worth a few talking points. Then he heard his own voice announce from the dataserve. ‘Programme completed. Message waiting.’
Kaleem groaned to himself as he felt the bed change back to his own.  There was a slight adjustment to his clothing. The smooth silkon changed into the coarser but closer fitting ripon. That woke him a little, but still all he really wanted to do was sleep.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Razjosh’s voice. ‘You can stay in bed. And I apologise for appearing in holographic form. But there is so little time. I am part of the new committee and it has already been decided that I shall go tomorrow.’
Suddenly Kaleem was wide-awake again.  He sat upright in bed.
‘Go where?’ he asked.
Kaleem could not stop the questions from tumbling out.
‘Probably to Zandra,’ replied Razjosh.
‘Well, where’s that?’ demanded Kaleem.
‘Two days’ journey by Supercraft,’ said Razjosh.
‘Why Zandra?’ asked Kaleem.
‘Our Head of Science believes they have had the same illness there,’ said Razjosh. ‘We’re going on to talk to them.’
‘Who’s we?’ asked Kaleem.
‘Myself, the Head of Science, one or two other negotiators, and of course the crew of the Supercraft.’
‘And this Supercraft …. is it safe ?’ he asked.
Razjosh’s hologram smiled.
‘If that can’t get us there, nothing will. There’s nothing better.’
‘So what will you be doing exactly?’ asked Kaleem more slowly now. This was the big question, he knew. Because whatever Razjosh was going to do, it was something which he might have to do one day.
The hologram smiled again.
‘I shall be using all of my language skills, all of my negotiating skills and all of my knowledge of their culture to help the scientists find out more.’
Kaleem suddenly wished he wasn’t being trained to be a Peace Child.
‘Whilst I’m gone, you will be completing more of the programme, and visiting two more virtual cultures,’ said Razjosh. He paused. ‘You can do it,’ he continued. ‘You will be the Peace Child. I’ll keep in communication with you via the dataserve.’ Then he was gone.
Kaleem was too awake to contemplate going back to sleep. He got out of bed and went into the main living area. Perhaps he would have another drink. The house robot trundled over to him.
‘Does sir require anything?’ it asked. ‘Maybe some cave water. It can be very soothing for the nerves, you know.’
Where does it get it from? Kaleem asked himself. Then it struck him that this machine was doing exactly what he was supposed to do. It had picked up the language of another and was understanding perfectly when to use it.
No big deal, being a Peace Child, then, thought Kaleem. Even a machine can manage

Sunday, 21 October 2012

The Prophecy Overground Chapter Eight

Just a few minutes later Kaleem was sitting in Pierre’s room, in the modern apartment block in the centre of town. From a window they could see down on to the city lights. Pierre’s room was so different from Kaleem’s. Really comfortable furniture and all the very best information equipment.
‘How come you’re out so late, anyway?’ asked Pierre.
Kaleem hesitated before he replied. He had not thought about that. He could hardly tell Pierre what he had been doing.
‘Oh, someone called to see about my mother - and to see how I was getting on my own at home,’ he replied at last. That sounded reasonable he supposed. ‘I felt like some fresh air, so I walked to the transporter terminal with them. Then it seemed so nice out here there, that I carried on walking a bit. I hadn’t really realised how late it had got.’
Pierre stared at him.
Oh dear, thought Kaleem. He thinks I’m a lunatic.
‘How’s the Terrestra Two project going, anyway?’ asked Pierre.
‘Not so good,’ replied Kaleem. In fact, he hadn’t touched it for weeks. Not with everything else that had been going on.
‘I’m glad you said that,’ said Pierre grinning. ‘It’s a real tough one, that. And I’d much rather play Zipchance. Have you got up to level five yet?’
Zipchance, thought Kaleem. When on Terrestra did he have time to play that? Apart from the fact that he’d only just got a dataserve powerful enough to support it. He’d played it once before - here in fact, at Pierre’s place. And he had enjoyed it. Even beaten Pierre that time. Now, of course, Pierre had had much more practice.
‘Shall we have a go?’ asked Pierre.
Kaleem knew he had to. He would look silly if he refused. He was going to look silly anyway. He nearly always did, after all. He nodded to Pierre.
Pierre set up the dataserve. The towers appeared at the corner of the room.
‘What will you be?’ asked Pierre.
‘A white foot soldier,’ answered Kaleem.
‘Then I’ll be a red one,’ replied Pierre.
They took up their places between the towers. The other figures formed. They were joined by more foot soldiers, the four holy men, their four knights and their lady and lord.
‘Foot soldier one, advance two forward,’ said Pierre.
The foot soldier with the number one on his tunic moved towards the centre of the room. He was now standing directly facing a red foot soldier.
‘On guard,’ shouted the red hologram.
‘Accept,’ replied the white one, drawing his sword and standing ready.
‘Knight one, one forward and one up,’ said Pierre. The knight moved forward and sprang up into the air and to the side.
The moves were slow and steady at first. Kaleem held his breath as he moved himself upwards. Although he knew he really was still standing on the floor, the programme was so clever in the way it moved the holograms to give the impression that he was flying, he knew that he was going to feel just as dizzy as if it had really happened. He braced himself. Then came the rush of air and then he was looking down on most of the pieces. Pierre was not yet on the upper level, and Kaleem found himself looking down at him. He looked so real, too. Not like a hologram at all.
Kaleem had been a little too busy thinking about that. He had not noticed that Pierre’s first holy man was threatening his lady.
‘Watch it!’ Pierre warned. Even his voice was coming from below.
Kaleem started to concentrate again. The game became busier. Twice Kaleem’s lord was under attack. He managed to get out of it each time, but almost had to give himself up to do it the second time. Then, though, he managed to block Pierre’s lady. She had nowhere to move which wouldn’t bring her lord under attack, and it was illegal to deliberately expose your own lord to danger. Kaleem’s knight only needed to make one move to take her. If she moved, though, one of Kaleem’s holy men would be attacking Pierre’s lord.
Pierre had to sacrifice his lady. She was the most powerful player. Without her, he had little chance. But Kaleem still did not expect it to be easy. He knew from  past experience that he could keep all of his pieces easily defended. He had no idea, usually, how to lead an attack.
Except that this time it seemed different. He was concentrating better. He seemed to be able to see forward more easily, to be able to predict where the different moves might take him. This time he used his knight more boldly than he had before, he himself skipped around between the eight levels,  making his other foot soldiers do the same, and he was less afraid to send his lady in to do battle. He received no penalties for slow moves this time. He was certainly thinking more clearly.
It was not long before one of his towers, his lady and he himself were holding Pierre’s lord in defeat.
‘Game over,’ announced the dataserve. ‘Kaleem Malkendy to level three.’
‘Wow!’ cried Pierre. ‘You’ve gone up two levels in one game. Well done. That was amazing. How did you do it?’
Kaleem shrugged his shoulders. He said nothing.
‘It’s as if you’ve got new brain power or something,’ said Pierre.
That must be it, thought Kaleem. It had felt as if his brain was working better. And he’d certainly been having to use his head a lot recently. Pierre was staring at him. He didn’t know what to say. He looked directly at Pierre and Pierre looked away.
‘Would you like to play something else?’ asked Pierre.
Kaleem realised he didn’t. He really couldn’t think what to say to Pierre. He remembered the times they had been to the meets. He and Pierre had chatted easily enough then. But perhaps not as easily as some of the others. Kaleem was always conscious of his peculiar looks, even though Pierre didn’t seem to be bothered by them.
‘Perhaps Unimaster or Triple Spender?’ Pierre suggested.
Kaleem at least knew those games. He also knew that that was the last thing in the world he wanted to do. He would actually find them boring now. Yet he didn’t want to offend Pierre. For goodness sake, he’d got to have some friends, hadn’t he? He noticed Pierre glance at the astroclock.
I must seem a real bore as well, thought Kaleem. ‘I think I’d better get going,’ he said out loud. ‘It’s getting late.’ That at least was true. He did not add that he needed to be up bright and early the next morning to carry on with his work.
‘Well, I’m glad you  came,’ said Pierre, as he showed Kaleem out of the apartment. ‘Let’s meet up again soon.’
Kaleem nodded. But he knew that he probably wouldn’t. Even with Pierre he was beginning to feel awkward. Razjosh’s wretched programme was actually making it worse.
Within minutes of the logged request, a transporter was depositing him outside the entrance to the caves. Less than half an hour later,  Kaleem was in bed and sound asleep. He did not lie awake tossing and turning as he had done so many times. Neither did he dream. For once, sleep was a complete escape. He woke the next day, refreshed and completely fooled by the familiar comfort of what he thought was his own bed.
Oh no, he thought as he rubbed the sleep out of his eyes. It’s started.
The room he was in was much bigger than his. It was no longer in a cave. Sunlight streamed through an open window. A breeze ruffled the curtains. He swung himself up into a sitting position.
‘CreĆ­a que no ibas a despertarte,’ said a girl’s voice.
Kaleem looked around the room to see where the voice was coming from. She was standing by a large cupboard, half hidden by the partly open door. She was tiny, compared with the people from Terrestra. Her clothes were mauve. Her tunic certainly was not made of ripon. It was long and straight, reaching right down to the floor. There were  two long slits at either side, going right up to her waist. Underneath she wore baggy leggings.
Kaleem recognised the language. It was modified Spanish. That could mean one of several different planets. He was about to ask her where they were supposed to  be.
‘Your clothes are hanging up in the cupboard,’ she said, still in modified Spanish. ‘Come downstairs when you are dressed. My name is Loretta, by the way.’
Kaleem started assembling the words in his head to ask her where they were supposed to be.
‘The shower unit is in the room opposite this door,’ she said before he could bring himself to speak. ‘Be as quick as you can.’
Kaleem walked over to the window. There was a salty smell, almost a taste in the breeze which came through the window. He lifted the curtain up a little. The view outside almost made him gasp. There was nothing between the building they were in and a vast area of flat creamy brown sand which lead to the sea, the blueness of which  was punctuated by frothy white foam which tumbled and melted into the water. The sky was a slightly lighter shade of blue than the sea. The sun was shining hotly.
The room was really warm. Kaleem looked around carefully. There was absolutely no sign of an air controller.
‘Hurry up,’ called Loretta. ‘We don’t have much time, and there’s a lot to do.’
The shower at least was respectably warm and fierce. Kaleem found his clothes hanging in the cupboard. They were very similar to the girl’s, but grey. They felt strange at first. He was so much more used to the tighter tunic and leggings worn on Terrestra. He felt awkward as he moved. He seemed to get tangled up in the loose folds of the leggings and the tunic twisted from side to side. Yet even as he moved down the stairs, he realised that because the clothes were looser, he had more freedom actually within them.
It was so hot there, that he was beginning to sweat even before he got to the bottom of the stairs. Then he noticed another advantage of his new clothes. Their very looseness allowed the air to circulate between them and his body. Terrestran clothes would have been suffocating in this heat. And these clothes were made of a soft, clean material which seemed to absorb his sweat. These strange shoes, which had hardly any uppers, seemed to mould themselves to his feet. He was surprised at how easily he could walk in them.  He had thought he would not be able to keep them on.
He found her in a big room, the floor of which was covered in large, cool, white  tiles. Along the whole of one side were large wooden cupboards with intricately carved doors. She was at one end, in something which looked a little like the kitchen unit in the cave apartment — except that there were more cupboards, they were wooden instead of metal and there was no sign of a kitchen robot.
She was cutting through what looked like a large yellow ball.
‘Here on Tarantet, we always eat fruit to start breakfast,’ she said. ‘And we always eat most for breakfast. It gets too hot later. We work after breakfast until it gets unbearable. We have a light lunch. Then the sand storms come. We sleep through them and work again afterwards. We eat again once it is dark.  But only snacks then. So breakfast is important. Eat well!’
‘Well, don’t you have any air control?’ asked Kaleem. The words felt awkward as they came out.
Loretta laughed.
Kaleem hoped his accent had not been that funny.
‘We can’t produce energy, like you do on Terrestra,’ she said. ‘It would make this planet even hotter. We get most of our power directly from our sun and from the wind when the sand storms come. We use it mainly for cooking, producing water … you did enjoy your shower, didn’t you?’
Kaleem had been concentrating so much on working out the meaning of the words that she was saying that he almost forgot to reply.
‘Well?’ she said. ‘Was it all right? We do enjoy our baths and showers. Our one indulgence.’
‘Yes, yes, it was fine,’ Kaleem stammered.
‘And what do you think of the silkon?’ asked Loretta.
‘Silkon?’ asked Kaleem. Had he heard that word right?
Loretta tugged at her tunic. ‘Silkon,’ she repeated. ‘A cloth woven from a mixture of the thread of the spiny spider and one spun from the fibres of the cocon plant. It makes a really heat repellent cloth. One that absorbs sweat without producing stains or smells.’
Kaleem touched his tunic. It was certainly cooler than the air around him and he no longer felt sticky.
‘Sit down,’ said Loretta. ‘Eat and drink.’  She carried plates and cups over to the table. ‘The fruit first,’ she said putting down bowls filled with chunks of yellow. She made a few journeys backwards and forwards, carrying plates of food, and then sat down to join him.
‘There is mountain cheese, meat from the Shellna goat and the Menita pigdog, Tarantet melons, quomnet yoghurt and fraya nectar - oh, and the lumpna beverage, which I personally never touch - most people our age don’t - but it’s the nearest we have to your Terrestran coffee. Should I make some?’ She went to get out of her seat.
Kaleem nodded his head. Perhaps the caffeine would help. He’d been up less than an hour and he was already feeling exhausted. Probably the heat and having to concentrate so much,’ he thought.  Up until now he’d found Modified Spanish one of the easier languages, but Loretta spoke so fast, and there were so many other new things to take in. He would certainly have welcomed a cup of Terrestran coffee. But it was easier just to shake his head than even to find the words for ‘yes, please.’ Besides, there was no guarantee that this lumpna drink would be anything like what he was used to  - or  even be at all drinkable.
Loretta had started tucking into her melon. She smiled at him, almost shyly. Her skin was dark like his, yes, but her hair was also dark, more like a Terrestran’s than his own. ‘Aren’t you going to eat your melon?’ she asked. ‘Don’t tell me you’re like some of those others from Terrestra - afraid of new experiences.’
That slight teasing reminded him of the day of the class meet. Of course Lorreta had spoken more in fun. But it was just the sort of thing that  Stuart Davidson  and Erik Svenson would say.
She carried on staring at him, her eyebrows raised in a question.
‘No, no, it’s not that,’ he said. ‘I just have to concentrate so much more than normal. This is the first time I’ve really had to use my Modified Spanish.’ That was partly true at least.
She smiled at him and continued eating her melon. Kaleem had to work hard to remind himself she wasn’t real. He didn’t really feel like eating. He watched her finish the melon. She looked up at him again and then looked alarmed when she saw that his bowl was still full. Quickly, he spooned some of the fruit into his mouth. Then he had no trouble eating the rest. He had never tasted anything this delicious.
‘You see,’ said Loretta as he finished his melon. ‘We grow everything naturally here on Tarantet. On Terrestra, you have modified your crops for so many centuries that they no longer have any taste.’
Kaleem wanted to protest that their vegetables were grown out of doors these days, and rain fell naturally from the clouds, no longer poisoned.
‘I know you think you’ve gone back to nature,’ she said. ‘But you really have no idea what nature is.’
Kaleem thought it best not to argue. Razjosh had warned him about something like this happening.
‘If you think you are about to argue when you’re in another culture, just take it steady, sit back and watch what happens,’ he had said.
So Kaleem carried on with his meal. He had to admit, everything else was as good as the first course had been. The tastes were sharper than they were on Terrestra. Were they really, though, or was it just a clever trick from the dataserve. But how could it do it? Using Terrestran resources to produce something which was better than what was normally produced on Terrestra? He decided not to think about that for too long.
He didn’t say much. He listened to Loretta a lot, though, and it gradually became easier to understand her. Occasionally he would have to ask her to slow down or repeat something.
At last, they finished their meal. The implements they were using were quite similar to Terrestran knives and forks. The fork had three prongs instead of the normal four and the knives were really, really sharp. But the basic idea was pretty much the same. The spoons were exactly the same, though Kaleem was not sure what any of the metal was. At the end of the meal, he put his knife, fork and spoon in a neat heap, facing upwards at the twenty past four position on his plate. Loretta made a big X with her knife and fork, face down on the plate, and put the spoon, also face down vertically through the middle of the X. She stared at Kaleem’s plate. ‘You want some more?’ she asked. Her eyes were round with astonishment. ‘Oh, I suppose you Terrestrans are so much bigger than us. And our food is so much better…’ There was a twinkle in her eye.
‘I couldn’t eat another thing,’ said Kaleem. He had already really eaten more than he had room for because everything had been so delicious.
‘Then put you knife, fork and spoon properly on your plate,’ she said. ‘Don’t they teach you manners on Terrestra?’
‘But this is good manners on Terrestra,’ he replied, pointing to his plate. The words had surprised him by coming out so easily.
Loretta laughed.
‘Okay, okay, okay,’ she said. ‘Cultural differences. Fair enough.’ And she stood up and started to clear away the plates.
‘You don’t have robots to help you?’ Kaleem struggled to ask.
‘No, I told you,’ said Loretta, ‘we conserve our resources as much as we can here. We use most of our energy to make water. So that we can feed the plants. Which is where we’ll be going as soon as I’ve finished here.’ She handed Kaleem what looked like a piece of ripon. ‘Don’t tell me,’ said Loretta. ‘You never have to dry the dishes on Terrestra.’ She took the piece of fabric back off him. ‘Look, like this,’ she said. She slowly rubbed a cloth over the wet dish, until it was dry and shiny. ‘And hurry. We should have left for the compound by now.’
A few moments later, they were walking through the tall doorway with the heavy wooden door, out into the bright sunlight.
‘Hmm,’ said Loretta. ‘The caldura’s coming early today.’
‘Caldura?’ asked Kaleem. That was a word he had not heard before. It sounded very much like the Modified Spanish word for ‘heat’ - calor.
‘Oh, yes,’ said Loretta. ‘The second stage of heat. We have seven different words for heat here on Tarantet. Everyday, we go through each stage - and then the sand storms come.’
‘Ah,’ said Kaleem. He couldn’t think what to say. Not that he wanted to say anything. It was so hot there. Even the cool silkon was clinging to him and felt damp. And this was only the second stage.
He supposed they would go to the compound - whatever that was, by some form of automatic transporter like they had on Terrestra. He looked around in each direction. No sign of any pod. No machinery noise.
Loretta whistled. From a dilapidated shed a few metres away from the house a small vehicle moved. It had no wheels. It glided almost silently towards them. Kaleem could just about hear the swish of whatever power system was driving it.
‘Solar powered,’ said Loretta. ‘Of course, it won’t work once the sand storms come. You have to make sure you’re not out and about then.’
The vehicle continued to hover in front of them. Loretta took a small square object out of the pocket in her tunic and pointed it towards the vehicle. A panel slid open. There were two seats inside. She then slotted that disk into a mouth in the panel just below the front window. There was a strange half wheel sticking out in front of her.
‘It’ll take us about ten uniminutes to get to the compound,’ said Loretta. She grabbed the half wheel, pulled it towards her and the vehicle lifted up higher into the air. She pushed it down with her left hand and it went towards the left.
Kaleem realised that she was steering it herself.
‘So, you don’t have automatic transporters, then?’ he asked.
‘No,’ she said. ‘There’s not enough energy to make everything automatic. And with so few people living here… we can go in any direction we like. You just keep a look out for others.’
A faint, quite pleasant breeze came into the pod. He tried to find out where it was coming from with his hand.
‘Natural air-conditioning,’ said Loretta. ‘The air comes in through small vents as we move. A good job we don’t get traffic jams here. Even in the caldurosa, it would be unbearable.’
‘Caldurosa?’ asked Kaleem.
‘The third stage of heat. With a bit of luck, we’ll be inside the compound before it begins.’ Her face looked grim. She pushed a button and the pod speeded up. They were flying quite high now over the vast stretches of sand. The sea glistened in the bright sunlight which reflected off the top of the water almost dazzling Kaleem. He held his hand out an touched one of the clear panels.
‘Yes,’ said Loretta. ‘it is plastiglass, just like you have on Terrestra. After all, it was invented before the poison cloud arrived. It was originally invented to keep out the glare of the sun. Which shows how bright our sun is, if it’s in your eyes despite the glass. Lucky for you that it was better at keeping the poison away.’
She made the vehicle go down and slowed it to a hover.
‘Just in time,’ she said. ‘Let’s hurry before the caldurosa starts.’
Even walking out into the caldura was hard. It was already hotter than a sauna. Loretta seemed to notice that he was struggling.
‘Never mind,’ she said, ‘at least there is proper air-conditioning, like you have on Terrestra, inside the domes.’
The first dome they visited was where they were producing salad foods.
‘This is the middle-sea dome,’ said Loretta. ‘Named after your Mediterranean. We keep it cool enough to produce peppers, tomatoes and colcats. All high in fibre and vitamins. Essential for humanoid life.’
The plants weren’t growing in soil. Loretta explained that they were fed directly from the air and with a special liquid which contained all the elements they needed for healthy growth. Sunlight, of course, they could obtain via the plastiglass.
Loretta had to work here for a while, so Kaleem was allowed to wander through the other domes. Nobody seemed to worry about him being there.
Why don’t they try to produce more energy? He thought. Surely they can get something out of these storms? Or can’t they use the heat directly somehow?
He remembered, though, something else that Razjosh had warned him about.
‘Don’t question things until you understand,’ the elder had said. ‘Remember, what seems odd to you is natural to them and what we do instead will seem just as odd to them. Absolutely exactly as odd.’
Kaleem was looking forward to seeing the sand storm. It would come that afternoon. Loretta had said. She had told him to meet her in the fish dome. They could eat lunch and then go to the storm shelter. It sounded as if the storm was going to be quite spectacular.
Kaleem had been in the fish dome about ten minutes, when he began to notice a strange whirring noise. It was very faint at first. The sky above the dome suddenly went dark. Loretta came in through the airtight doors. She waved to him. The whirring noise became louder. The sky had gone completely black now, and streaks of lightning were rushing across the blackness. Was the sand storm coming early? He waved to Loretta.
But instead of waving back, she froze. Then she seemed just to dissolve into the air. His tunic changed back suddenly to a normal Terrestran ripon one. That was bound to happen sooner or later. But why now? Why hadn’t he been allowed to experience the sand storm? Might that not have made him more able to understand?
His own room came into view. He could hear his own dataserve chirping away to itself in the background. He had been so absorbed in the world on Tarantet that he had forgotten it was not real.
A hologram of  Razjosh was standing in front of him.
Kaleem opened his mouth to say that he’d wanted to stay and see the sandstorm. There was something about the expression, though, on Razjosh’s face which stopped him saying anything. Not that Razjosh gave him any time to, anyway.
‘There have been five more deaths,’ said Razjosh. ‘And there are twenty others critically ill, not expected to recover. I am going away. You must keep on working on the language programmes.’
Then he was gone. No explanation of why, when or where he was going. Or when he was coming back.
Kaleem ordered the info screen on.
‘The fifth death happened at four a.m. this morning, Central Time,’ said the reporter. ‘The health scientists have no further knowledge of the source or nature of the mysterious illness. As a precaution, all Terrestran citizens are confined to home base. Deliveries by machine only. All machines will be sanitised before and after entry to all buildings.
‘Shut down,’ said Kaleem. So he wouldn’t be able to visit Maria any more. All he could do, he supposed, was get back down to work. Perhaps he would be needed soon, though he hadn’t any idea what he might be expected to do.
‘Continue programme,’ he whispered.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

The Prophecy Overground Chapter Seven

The information channels spoke of little else that evening. Kaleem flicked from one to another.
It was a seven-year-old boy. He had only become ill the day before. He had not been in contact with anyone who had had the disease.
There were groups of angry people outside the main medical centres.
‘Parents are demanding that a vaccine be produced as soon as possible,’ said the newsreader. ‘This first premature natural death is causing widespread alarm.’
Various scientists gave their opinions on why it was proving so difficult to find an antidote.
‘It would seem,’ said one, ‘that it is not acting in the same way as those known previously on Terrestra before all disease was eradicated. It is going from strength to strength and is resistant to all anti-viral drugs we have been able to manufacture.’
It was as if it was Kaleem’s fault. He had been the first to be ill. He had somehow brought the disease to the planet. Yet that was crazy. He had never left here.
And his mother knew something and didn’t want to tell. Not that she could at the moment, even if she wanted to.
Razjosh appeared in a hologram that evening.
‘It is alarming,’ he said. ‘But there will be an answer. We may have to go outside, though… I’ll come in person tomorrow. We need to step up the programme. Make sure you have plenty of sleep.’
Kaleem did not go to bed particularly early. He could not resist watching further news bulletins. For a few fleeting moments he wondered what he might find out form Hidden Information. But he’s have even less chance of getting to that now. They were watching him too closely.  And then any new information they didn’t want to share with the public would be buried even deeper than usual.
The whole story of the arrival and then of the lifting of the poison cloud was told over and over again. They were constantly making a connection between it and the arrival of this illness.
When he did eventually get to bed he couldn’t sleep. Thoughts about the story of the tower, the illness, his mother’s strange background and strange coma turned round and round in his mind. When he did at last fall sleep, he saw people dying, streets covered in bodies and people climbing towers which disappeared into the sky. Then came the usual dream. This time, one of the children, a girl, looked at him intensely.
‘You brought this disease here,’ she said. ‘You must carry it away. It is written.’ The pages of the book turned more rapidly this time, filled up with writing more quickly, and even more pages were ripped out.
Razjosh came early.
‘We need help and we can only get it from outside,’ he said. ‘We must get on.’
Kaleem’s heart started racing.
‘You mean actually go there?’ he asked Razjosh.
‘Of course,’ replied the old man. ‘That is always a possibility for the Peace Child. That is the main point really. Does that scare you?’
A wave of heat passed through Kaleem. It was rushing towards his head. He was sure that when it reached his brain, he would explode. He felt himself grin.
‘Not really,’ he said. It did scare him, in fact but it was also exciting. And if he were to help find a way of fighting the disease, that would make him feel less guilty about being part of the cause of it.
‘Good,’ said Razjosh. ‘Every waking minute now, you should spend on the programme. Taking care, though, to get enough food, rest and exercise.’ The Elder looked carefully at Kaleem. ‘You actually look rather tired now.’
Kaleem shrugged.
‘I couldn’t sleep,’ he said.
‘That’s to be avoided at all costs,’ said Razjosh. ‘You must take responsibility for yourself. Do whatever needs to be done, and use the diastic monitor often and carefully.’
Kaleem suddenly missed Maria. She usually made sure he used the diastic monitor twice a day. With her away, he was only using it every other day - if he remembered. He had even ignored the alarm three days running when it had told him his check up was now overdue.
‘And,’ Razjosh continued, ‘I shall teach you some of the programme directly. We may be able to take some short cuts which the machines would never allow.’
Kaleem stared at Razjosh.  The excitement he had felt a few minutes ago was disappearing rapidly. How much more was he going to have to do?
‘You’ll see,’ said Razjosh. ‘It will work. You can do it.’
The next day found Razjosh and Kaleem studying a Wordtext file carefully.
‘I’m going to do something a little different with this,’ said Razjosh. ‘I’m going to make it look more real.’
Seconds later, they seemed to have a piece of paper in front of them.
‘People always used to read words this way,’ said Razjosh. ‘And there is a particular method which works when you’re using a Wordtext file in another language.’
The text was in German. Kaleem found it less easy to read than Spanish. The sounds which the symbols represented did not build words which sounded like English. But at least all the symbols built a sound, and there was only one combination of symbols for each sound. French was much more awkward and there was so much to remember about different spelling methods in English, that it was quite hard to read, despite it being his own language.
‘Imagine yourself reading it out loud,’ said Razjosh. ‘In fact as there is no-one here except me, you may as well read it out loud. Then point at the words you recognize or which sound like English with the laser pen. The dataserve will store them and show. Tell the machine what these mean.’
Kaleem did this. So far, the text seemed to be about a girl who had suddenly left home. He did not have all of the detail.
‘Do this three times,’ said Razjosh.
Kaleem did so. Now there were more details clear.
‘Now look at the sentences as a whole,’ said Razjosh. ‘Do you understand them? Are there some with one or two words missing, where you can guess the meaning because they couldn’t really mean anything else?’
Kaleem tried that. Most of the text appeared in English.
‘Of what you don’t yet know,’ said Razjosh, ‘try to find the key words in these sentences. Use the dictionary to look those up.’
Kaleem found he only had to look up five of the thirty or more words remaining until suddenly the whole text made sense. The last pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fell into place.
Razjosh and he looked at five more texts that day -another German one, two Spanish, a French one and even one in Dutch, which was a language Kaleem had not tackled before. Yet, as he worked through the stages Razjosh had suggested before - admittedly more carefully and more slowly, the meaning of the text did eventually become clear.
‘Do you see how it’s possible to get to grips with even a quite difficult text this way?’ asked Razjosh.
Kaleem nodded. In the end it had been possible to understand every single word in each of the texts, though it had been quite hard work, especially with the Dutch one. Words were now beginning to float in the air in front of Kaleem. They didn’t go away even when he shut his eyes. There was a gnawing feeling in his stomach.
‘Can we stop and have something to eat?’ he said to Razjosh.
‘A good idea indeed,’ said Razjosh. ‘And afterwards, I suggest a walk on the surface, where I will tell you something else you need to know.’
When Kaleem returned from the kitchen with the house robot and a pile of sandwiches and drinks, Razjosh was looking at the Babel book.
‘Have you any idea where this came from?’ he asked Kaleem.
Kaleem shook his head.
‘This was so famous in its time,’ said Razjosh. ‘Davina Patterson was known for her retelling of myths and Bible stories. But we thought the very last copy of this had long gone. How do you come to have it?’
Kaleem told Razjosh how he had found it in Maria’s room. He pointed out the strange marks at the beginning.
‘Yes, that’s handwriting all right,’ said Razjosh. It simply says ‘To my darling granddaughter, from Oma. Remember this story always.’
‘Oma? As in grandmother?’  asked  Kaleem.
‘That’s right,’ said Razjosh. ‘There are still echoes of the old world. But what your mother probably didn’t know when she was first given this book - and probably still doesn’t know -  is that another part of the Peace Child Prophecy is that the Mother would arrive carrying this story.’
This prophecy idea was getting even more weird. Was Razjosh saying that this book proved that Maria was the special mother and he was therefore the special Peace Child?
‘Oh, don’t worry,’ said Razjosh. ‘More often than not, we just use prophecy as a convenient explanation for what is going on around us.’ Razjosh looked through the book again. ‘Beautiful, beautiful,’ he muttered. Then he sighed. ‘It is odd, though, that she should mention the Mother idea and then turn out to have been hiding this book. Maybe she has been in the Z Zone. People saw her with it and decided to name her the Mother.’
Kaleem jumped at the mention of Z Zoners. He didn’t really know much about them, other than that they lived outside the bounds of the cities in the area called the Z Zone and that they dealt with and had access to Hidden Information. He caught sight of his dark skin and light hair in the mirror. Was that it then? Was he the child of a Z Zoner? Not that he would know. He was not even supposed to know how they existed, let alone what they looked like.
‘Do you think I came from there then? Is that why I’m so different, so unacceptable?’ he asked.
Razjosh looked at him sternly.
‘You’ll have to get used to a lot more differences than those you would find in a Z Zoner,’ he said sharply. ‘A lot more. If you’re to be a real Peace Child.’
Kaleem blushed.
‘Well, I think we’d better eat,’ said Razjosh.
But Kaleem hardly touched his food, despite being so hungry earlier. Razjosh, on the other hand, ate heartily. He seemed not to notice that Kaleem was only picking at his food. Kaleem certainly didn’t feel like going for a walk, but didn’t dare to turn down the suggestion when Razjosh put it forward again. The atmosphere between them was strained as they walked.
‘Tomorrow I shall send holographs,’ said Razjosh.  ‘They will play the parts of the many people you need to get to know.’
They did not speak at all as they made their way out of the cave system.
‘Let’s go towards the town and through the park,’ said Razjosh, when they at last arrived at the exit.
They walked steadily over the uncultivated land towards the park.  There were few people out there.
‘Everyone got too used to living underground,’ commented Razjosh. ‘They came out and had a quick look, then tried to recreate the atmosphere of the caves inside buildings. They have a slightly better view, of course. But look what they’re missing.’
The sun was going down, making the shadows of the trees stretch along the ground. This low light was extraordinary, making everything more vivid and at the same time softer.
‘They’ve forgotten how to live on the surface,’ said Razjosh. ‘But there are other places and other peoples who enjoy this all the time. They could teach us a thing or two. Perhaps you would have been able to learn about that, and have shown the rest of us, Peace Child, if you weren’t needed in other ways.’
They walked on in silence. A breeze cooled the back of Kaleem’s neck.
This is real, he thought. The virtual scenes don’t feel like this.
It was almost completely dark when they arrived at the edge of the park. The town was beginning to light up.
‘All that activity,’ commented Razjosh. ‘All that busyness, but do they know what they’re doing? They’re getting a bit too comfortable.’
Kaleem and Razjosh strolled for about half an hour along the city walkways. Kaleem hoped that he would not see anyone from his group. What they would make of him walking along with an Elder they did not know. He guessed he would either not hear the last of it or else they would be so surprised that they would treat him as even more of an oddity.
They began to talk again, about practical things to do with the programme. Kaleem thought he would never be able to get fully to grips with what Razjosh was expecting him to learn.
‘It’s all so complicated,’ he said. ‘There is just so much to learn.’
‘Yes, there is,’ said Razjosh. ‘And this is only the beginning. You have yet to learn the people as well as the way they speak. You should remember, though, that we wouldn’t have chosen you if we hadn’t been sure you could do it. Tomorrow you will see.’
Kaleem knew that something really important was going to happen the next day.
‘I don’t really understand about the holoprogrammes,’ he said.
‘They will teach you about ways of the people,’ he said.
They were now right by a transporter station and a unit was waiting.
‘No more work to-night,’ said the old man. ‘Relax a little.’ He stepped on to the transporter.
Kaleem suddenly remembered that Razjosh had said he wanted to tell him something else.
‘What was the other thing?’ he shouted after Razjosh.
Razjosh simply smiled and waved. Seconds later he and the machine were gone.
Kaleem realised how near he was to Pierre Lafontaine’s apartment. He suddenly felt like some company his own age. He called up Pierre on his wrist communicator.
‘Yeah, come over,’ said Pierre. ‘I’ll see you in a few minutes, then.’
Kaleem decided that he wasn’t so strange, after all. Just like anyone else, he was on his way to see a friend. All those hours spent working with machines on the old languages suddenly seemed unreal. So what, if his mother was a bit mysterious about where he came from and about her life before he was born? It would be good to see Pierre. Good and completely normal.