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.’
‘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.’
‘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.