‘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?
‘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.
‘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