Sunday, 25 November 2012

The Prophecy Out of Bounds Chapter Three

‘So, you see,’ said Zareb Matosh, the taller of the two Zandrians. ‘We would be willing, more than willing, to manufacture and supply you with the vaccine, provided that you meet the conditions as specified.’
The second Zandrian, Alita Graven, pushed her spiky red hair back from her face. ‘You will agree,’ she said in a rough crackling voice, ‘that they are not at all unreasonable.’
‘It does leave the problem, still, though,’ continued the man, ‘that the vaccine is not stable and may not survive the journey. Presumably your scientists will be willing to work with ours on making the compound more stable, for the benefit of both our peoples.’
There was a long silence.
‘Well,’ said Alita, her voice rising in her nervousness, ‘do you think our terms are acceptable?’
The whole file had been produced in Universal English as the Zandrians were trying to sell something to the Terrestrans, even though it was the Terrestrans who were requesting the item. But amongst themselves, the Zandrians were actually speaking that little used language which they used almost as a secret language. It was a corruption of the old Luxemburg language. It was just about understandable if you had standard German or Dutch -  and not many people did- even though Razjosh actually spoke it fluently. He had first met it when he was about the same age as Kaleem was now.
Yes, the terms had looked reasonable enough. It wasn’t at all unreasonable to ask that the trading lines should stay open between Zandra and Terrestra. It wasn’t unreasonable to ask that in the future the Zandrians should be given first option to provide the vaccine plus any other medication the Zandrians could supply to Terrestra. And it wasn’t unreasonable that the Zandrians should want to come to Terrestra to discuss how the Terrestrans would recompense them for their efforts with the vaccine. At least, it wouldn’t be unreasonable to anyone except a normal Terrestran. Razjosh found it reasonable. He knew that other Terrestrans would not.
‘Well?’ said Alita. ‘When can we decide on the finer points?’
‘I’m afraid I can’t confirm that,’ said Razjosh. ‘I shall, of course, have to consult with the authorities on Terrestra.’
Razjosh watched Alita and Zagreb exchange a look of sheer disbelief. He could understand their surprise. There was nothing unusual about what they had asked. There was just something unusual about how the Terrestrans might react to that.
The two Zandrians seemed not to know what to say.
‘Believe me,’ said Razjosh. ‘I find your proposals excellent. You probably appreciate, however, that Terrestrans are extremely cautious. But I will take these ideas back to my people as soon as I can. Thank you for all of your efforts on our behalf.’
Razjosh bowed slightly and left the meeting room before the Zandrians had time to react further.
He walked slowly down the corridor. It was the same old story. He could see the senselessness of the Terrestrans’ isolation but could not be seen to admitting that to inhabitants of another planet.
How was Kaleem going to be able to deal with all of that? And it looked as if he was going to be facing these things soon.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

A Gallery for Nick

I'm interrupting The Prophecy to give you an excerpt from A Gallery for Nick which is free tomorrow and Tuesday. This is a new version of Nick's Gallery. It's been modernized and re-edited. Enjoy!

Chapter 2

Barney looked at his watch. If he cut through Tesco’s car park he’d just get back in time. He could still get home before his mother started calling his mobile. He started to jog.
As he got to the entrance of the store he realised how thirsty he was. Perhaps he could buy a bottle of water on the way through. Damn! There was a long queue even in the less than ten items isle. The kiosk was still open though and the queue there was slightly shorter. And he really couldn’t go on without a drink. Barney stood behind the others who were waiting.
It seemed to take ages. He glanced at his watch. Ten to ten already. It couldn’t be. He took out his mobile to double check. Oh no! It was out of juice. If he wasn’t back in ten minutes, his mum would be calling his mobile. And then calling Nick’s house if he didn’t answer. The man in front of him was almost finished. He started to slip his change into his pocket, but then turned to ask the sales girl another question.
“Hurry up,” muttered Barney to himself. “Come on, come on!”
“Can I help you, love?” asked another assistant who had walked over from the lottery tickets. “Only we’ll have to be quick. We shut in five minutes.”
“Yes. Can I have a bottle of water please?”
“Of course you can. What size would you like?”
“Oh, um, large.”
“That will cost you 17p. That shouldn’t break the bank, should it?”
“Oh. I em.” Barney fumbled in his pocket. He’d forgotten that he and Nick had bought ice cream down at the shore. Or rather, he’d bought them both an ice cream. He doubted Nick would pay him back.
“The small actually cost more,” said the woman. “The large bottlers are loss-leaders.”  She stared at him as if she thought he was a bit mad.
Barney blushed. Then, thank heavens, he found a 20p piece in his pocket.  
 “Yes, please give me the large,” said Barney offering her the 20p. 
The woman nodded and handed Barney the bottle of water and his 3p change.
As soon as he was outside, he pulled off the top and took a large swig of water. After two more mouthfuls his thirst was quenched. Should he dump the bottle or take the rest home with him? It was still quite heavy to carry. He really ought to get into the habit of carrying water with him, though, and if he kept this it might save him having to buy more. Then again at 17p it was hardly extravagant.     
“Hey, Barney,” he heard someone call. He looked round. Then he felt his cheeks burning. It was Cynthia Paridge and some her friends from school. Cynthia’s hands smoothed down her short tartan skirt and Barney couldn’t help looking down at her slim legs. He felt himself getting even hotter.
“You been round Nick’s?” demanded Cynthia, her mouth working hard at the chewing gum which slurred her words.
“Er, yeah,” mumbled Barney.
“The poor thing,” Cynthia almost spat. “Is he all right then?”
“Not too bad,” Barney murmured. But Nick was bad. And getting worse. How could he tell them that? 
“You should bring him down the park with us sometimes,” Cynthia suggested. “Do you good. And him. See a bit of life, like.”
Some of the other girls began to giggle.
Barney could imagine just what sort of life Cynthia meant.
“It’s a shame, a good-looking fellow like you, cooped up all the time with poor Nick,” Cynthia continued, “you need a bit of fun now and then.”
She was now standing right next to Barney, her head almost touching his shoulder. Barney moved away quickly. She stank of cigarette smoke.  
“Oh, what is it Barney,” Cynthia whined, “don’t you fancy me?” 
The others giggled.
“Er, I’d better get going,” said Barney, looking at his watch.  It was almost five past ten now and he had been due home five minutes ago.
“Oh dear, oh dear,” said Cynthia. “Has he got to be home with his mumsy-wumsy then?”
The others laughed again. Except for one. Sophie Gray was just staring at him. Sophie’s pale blue eyes seemed to be looking right into him. She wasn't wearing as much make-up as the others. She didn’t need to. She was gorgeous. Barney suddenly wanted to put his hand out and touch her long wavy blond hair. It looked so soft.
“Oh, come on then. Let’s go and find some real talent,” Cynthia called to her gang.
They all followed her laughing and joking. Sophie dawdled behind. She smiled at Barney.
“Isn’t he any better? Is he really getting worse? I mean will he…”
It was her turn to go red.
“Yeah. That’s about right,” said Barney.
“Oh dear. It’s so sad.” Barney thought she was going to cry. “But wouldn’t he like to come out sometime?”
“Well actually,” Barney began. Why didn’t people realise that he and Nick often went out? It was just that sometimes Nick would get tired. And sometimes people were embarrassed. Barney hesitated before he carried on. It was so hard to explain.
“Yes, you see,” said Barney. “We do go out. We go and watch the boats in the harbour.” He suddenly realised he was almost shouting.
“Oh, good,” muttered Sophie. She was looking down at the floor now.
“Oi! You comin’ or not?” Cynthia was standing with her legs apart and her hands on her hips. She was still chewing and she was frowning at the same time.
Sophie shrugged her shoulders and set off. Barney wished he had said more, that he had tried to explain. Sophie seemed really nice. And that hair!
Barney looked at his watch again. Twenty past ten! There would probably be a row when he got in.
It  was raining when Barney got outside. It made it seem even darker. He pulled his jacket over his ears so that it almost covered his head. Then he ran . Fortunately it was downhill all the way to his house.
At least this running's good for my training, thought Barney as he pounded down the road.
The television was on in the lounge when he got back.
“Sorry I’m late, Mum,” he called. He could tell his mum was only pretending to be watching television. She wouldn’t normally watch horror films.
“Oh, and why are you late?” she asked. She was obviously trying not to sound angry.
“I stopped to buy a bottle of water. There was a bit of a queue,” explained Barney.
“You should think to take some with you,” said his mum. “That boy again. Always thinking about him and never about yourself. What you do for that boy!” She got up off the sofa. “Well, I’m going to bed now. And you should too. You’ve got to get into that pool tomorrow, first thing.”
Barney heard the study door open upstairs.
“Is that Barney?” called a deep voice.
“Yes!” answered Barney and his mother together.
“Well get to bed! You have got to beat your front crawl time tomorrow.”
Barney opened his bedroom door. The geography homework lay unfinished on his desk. But he would have to leave that. He felt very sleepy now. And there was that horrible early start tomorrow. Then he’d got to work on Nick’s pictures. 
He felt tired enough to go to sleep straight away. But then, after he had got into bed, he couldn’t stop thinking about everything that was going on. Nick was getting worse. He was never going to be good enough in the swimming lesson tomorrow. He couldn’t keep up with his homework.
 He remembered the scene in the supermarket. He had never really noticed Sophie Gray before. She'd always just been one of the crowd, and not one of the ones who stood out at that. But tonight she had seemed really special. And he had not known what to say to her.  He wished he knew how to talk to Sophie.
Sophie! That lovely soft hair and the pale grey-blue eyes. She was concerned about Nick. The others didn't seem to be. She was quieter than the rest of the girls as well.  So different from all of the others. AND the best of all was that she seemed just a little bit interested in him. Finally, he fell asleep.    
Available free 19 and 20 November on Amazon.   

Sunday, 11 November 2012

The Prophecy Out of Bounds Chapter Two

Kaleem could not stand it a moment longer. The apartment was getting smaller and smaller. So, he was supposed to be becoming this Peace Child, was he? Perhaps even this rather special one?
But it was Razjosh who had gone swanning off to another planet, leaving him behind to just stuff his head full of this boring, boring … useful information? It was the same old, same old all the time. Even the reports about his mother brought nothing new. Neither did the information channels. More concern. More hysteria. No more answers.
Sod it. He was going out. He’d go and see Pierre. Kaleem smiled to himself as he pulled on an over-tunic. His heart raced as he left the apartment. The stairs to the surface seemed to take forever, but actually, when he checked, it had taken him just six minutes to get to the surface.
It was quiet outside. Well, of course it was. With a total ban on movement it was going to be. Yet, as he started listening, he realised it wasn’t so quiet after all. The air moved and leaves and other bits of vegetation were stirring. Things were rustling in the undergrowth. Something was buzzing, just very faintly. Kaleem guessed it was probably something to do with the energy systems.
There would be no transporters working. He would have to walk. Well, it wasn’t all that far to Pierre’s apartment, really. He’d enjoy the walk, wouldn’t he?
He was glad of the over-tunic, though. It was cold out there. It was a clear evening. A dark blue sky was dotted with gleaming stars. His breath came out in clouds. His heart raced as he made his way towards his friend’s home. He only needed to look at his communicator once. He just recognized the way somehow, even though the lack of noise, or rather, the different quality of the noise made it all seem so strange.
Just two more blocks to go.
Something stirred in a doorway. He heard the sound of metal on stone. Then a voice. It mumbled something.  Kaleem could not make out what. Another voice replied.
Kaleem froze. His heart now threatened to burst his rib cage. His mouth went dry. It might be one of the guards. He’d be for it now. What had he been thinking of? No, just a minute. He was here now. Hide. That was it.  And then run for it the first chance he got.
There was a small gap between two buildings. Kaleem squeezed himself in. He tried to hold his breath. He could hear some shuffling. The voices again.  They became clearer.
‘Spread a little gloomy news,’ he heard one voice say.
‘Yeah, stir ’em crazy. You got an assignation?’
‘Aha. Better go. Can’t give up on the goodies.’
‘Okay doke. Don’t forget man, clear the pass.’
As far as Kaleem could tell, the two strangers had walked off in opposite directions.  He counted to sixty. They must be out of sight by now. Hidden Information peddlers, as far as he could tell. So they really did exist, then? And they were out now, despite the ban.
It was quiet again out there. At least, no more human noise. He took a deep breath. He carefully looked from right to left before he came out from his hiding place. No sign of anyone.
It was okay. No one there.
He walked confidently out into the street. He would be at Pierre’s in no time.
Something jumped out at him. A hand grabbed his arm.
‘Now then young Mr Goody-goo?’ said one of the voices he’d heard earlier. ‘Now just exactly what can we do for you?’
The man relaxed his grip and turned Kaleem so that he was facing him
‘Well, then, what’s it to be and how much will you pay?’
Kaleem looked at the man. His had never seen hair so grey nor skin so wrinkled. Yet he stood too tally and seemed too strong to be ready for switch-off. He seemed worn, rather than old. His clothes were in tatters and his breath stank.
‘I don’t know what you mean,’ replied Kaleem.
‘Well, you’re out when you shouldn’t be,’ said the man. ‘So you sure must be in need of something. You know what the consequences will be if you’re caught.’
Perhaps I am, thought Kaleem. Perhaps I even want to be caught. It would beat the boredom of being stuck in all the time. And if I was caught, they’d have to take me off the Peace Child project. ‘I was just going to see my friend,’ he said.
The man laughed. ‘No,’ he said. ‘It doesn’t work like that. Nobody “just goes to see a friend” when there’s a movement ban. Especially not by walking like an idiot across open ground. What is it you want to know?’
So, he was a Hidden Information peddler. His eyes narrowed as he stared at Kaleem.
‘Go on, tell me. What do you want to know that’s being kept from you?’ he said slowly.
Kaleem’s heart was thumping. This just might be his chance to find out more about the Babel Prophecy – or possibly even about his father. Could it be Hidden Information, the circumstances of his birth? But there was a problem.  He had nothing to pay this man with.
‘I’ve got no credits,’ he stammered.
The man laughed again. ‘I don’t want credits,’ he said. ‘Do you think we risk using the normal banking systems? Haven’t you got something of value?’
He hadn’t. Unless you counted the Terrestra Seven. Or the Babel book, perhaps. Would a book be that valuable? ‘Maybe,’ he said. ‘A smart dataserve. Or a book.’
‘Forget the dataserve,’ replied the man. ‘Too obvious. The book, though, that might be something. What sort of book?’
‘A picture book,’ replied Kaleem. ‘With hand-writing on the inside. Last of its sort, I think. The Babel Tower story.’ He held his breath as he watched the man react.
The stranger’s eyes lit up. Then a cloud seemed to pass over his face. ‘What do you know about that stuff?’ he asked.
‘Not a lot,’ replied Kaleem. ‘I was hoping you’d tell me.’
‘No way!’ replied the man. ‘I ain’t going anywhere near that. The book, though, that might be something.’
‘Well, I’d like to know about my father,’ said Kaleem. ‘My birth records have disappeared and my mother, who’s ill right now, won’t say anything.’
‘Right,’ said the man. ‘Well, yes, there are some records which have been hidden and we do know how to get hold of them. And if that fails, we know some people who  know some other people who know of anyone cultured outside the system. We can look at those records and we can go and see those people.’ He held Kaleem by the shoulder until it hurt. ‘But first we go look at the book.’
Kaleem went to step out of the alleyway.
‘No, idiot,’ snarled the man. ‘We do not go over the top. We go through the old caves.’
‘The old caves?’ asked Kaleem. ‘I live in the old caves. They’re not connected anymore.’
‘That’s what you think,’ mumbled the man. ‘And stop giving me so much information. I might be forced to give it away one day. By the way - we do not use names. You are project five six seven two. I’ll call you Five-six for short and I am Peddler Ninety-two. You can call my Ninety for short. Now, okay, I do need to know where you  live so that we can see this book. But you don’t give me any information I don’t ask for, got it?’
Kaleem nodded and mumbled the address of the cave apartment.
Ninety’s eyes lit up for a split second. ‘Toff’s place then,’ he said. ‘So, even cave-dwellers don’t know about real cave-dwelling. Lucky. The lifts still work here and your cave system’s connected to the one here. So, come on the let’s get going.’
He bent down and lifted up a trap-door Kaleem had not noticed in the ground. There were steps leading down. Ninety set off into the darkness.
Kaleem could not move. What was he doing? If he followed Ninety there would be no going back. It was probably too late anyway.
‘Come on,’ shouted Ninety. ‘What’s keeping you?’
Kaleem followed him.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

The Prophecy Out of Bounds Chapter One

Danielle Thomas, Terrestra’s Head of Research, stared at the screen in the information room of the Supercraft 701. The dataserves on this vessel were almost as powerful  as the ones in her own laboratory back on Terrestra. It was just that some of the pictures weren’t quite so clear, and it took just a little longer for some of the data to load. All this was just making the work a little harder and she had a headache. She’d never had a headache before and it was not a pleasant sensation. 
‘I’d better go on diastics,’ she mumbled to herself. But she didn’t want to leave the information room while she was so near to confirming what she had suspected for some time now -that the disease which was beginning to cripple Terrestra was exactly the same as the Starlight Fever which was relatively common on Zandra. The main difference was that the Zandrians had a natural immunity to the disease. There were few deaths caused by it on Zandra - only the very young and the very old were usually affected and sometimes people who were slightly weaker anyway.
She stretched and yawned. It was no good, she would have to go and do something about this pain. Numbers were beginning to jump around inside her head and the screen was beginning to blur. Her throat was rather dry.
Goodness, she thought. I hope I’m not getting Starlight Fever.
The name puzzled her. So far she had found no reason why it had been called that.
No, she thought. My imagination must just be in overdrive. I don’t have a fever.
Seconds later, she was back in her cabin. Because she was such a senior figure, she had been given one of the very best on the craft. It was furnished with the old materials - real glass in the shower cubicle, wooden doors to the wardrobes, silk sheets and woollen blankets on the bed. Even at home she enjoyed a more normal mixture of ripon, plastiglass and plastikholz, the sturdy, pliable material from which most furniture was made. The lights were low in the cabin and soft, relaxing music was coming from a hidden dataserve.
She slotted her fingers into the diastic sensor and stared at the screen. She was aware of the machine beginning to vibrate a little and she could hear the water supply adjusting itself.
‘One hour’s sleep and half a litre at least of water recommended,’ said the soft lilting voice of the monitor. She had chosen the same archive voice she used on all of her other dataserves: Irish twenty-fifth century. She always imagined the owner to be a young woman of about her age. That voice had almost become a friend, which helped to compensate for the fact that she couldn’t have many of her own. She had to work long hours, especially now, and there was so much of her life that she had to keep secret, that it was difficult to have human friends.
‘Okay, I get it,’ she replied to the dataserve.
She helped herself to a glass of water. She slipped off her grey formal tunic and changed into sleepwear. That tunic too, was made of silk, and seemed also to soothe away her tiredness. As soon as she climbed into bed, the lights dimmed to blackness and the music became softer and softer until it, too, stopped altogether. She lived in an intelligent apartment at home, but it was nothing compared to this.
It only took her a few seconds to fall into a light, dreamless sleep. When the communicator woke her up one hour later, she felt fully refreshed.
The buzzer hadn’t startled her. It had been programmed to start gently and gradually get louder. As soon as she was fully awake, she replied to the machine.
‘Open audio only.’
‘Miz Thomas,’ said the voice of the Elder who had accompanied them. ‘Are you going to return to the information room soon? I did not want to move any of your files around. But I would like to talk about what you have found out.’
Danielle sighed to herself. She knew that Razjosh was an important part of this trip. But he always made her feel so uncomfortable. She had the feeling that he didn’t trust her because she was so young. It had been a great honour for her to be elected the youngest Head of Research ever. It had two downsides. The isolation and the fact that nobody quite seemed to trust you.
‘I’ll be there in ten minutes,’ she replied.
She dressed quickly. She checked her appearance in the large real glass mirror in the apartment. She decided to wear her long hair in a tight pleat. Maybe it would make her look a little older. Then she drew in her breath and mumbled. ‘Here goes, then.’
And she hurried off towards the information room.
Razjosh was already there. He was sitting in one of the comfisessels, his back to the door and facing the last screen which Danielle had been looking at.
‘Good afternoon,’ said Danielle as confidently as she could.
‘Miz Thomas,’ replied Razjosh, standing up and bowing slightly towards her. ‘I am so glad we can talk. I know how very hard you have been working on this. I realise you must be tired. But I expect that you are aware that I will need a full briefing before I can talk to the Zandrians about what we know.’
Danielle’s mouth went dry. Her pulse was going faster than normal. It was ridiculous being so nervous. She was the expert here. But there was something about this old man which always disturbed her a bit. When he looked at you, it was as if he could see everything you were thinking. The way he stood so formally and the slightly different style of tunic he wore did not help - neither did knowing that he was an Elder.
‘So, what have you found out?’ he said.
‘I’m almost completely certain that it is what they call Starlight Fever,’ said Danielle. ‘The symptoms are exactly the same as the ones we see in the Terrestrans, though not quite so severe. That often happens, of course, when a disease goes from one people to another or from one species to another.’
‘I see,’ said Razjosh.
‘Look,’ said Danielle. She called up the screens which showed the antibodies found on Kaleem and the ones which appeared on samples from Zandrians
‘Zandrians came mainly from Terrestra. There are a few native Zandrians also. The two races, both humanoid, are well integrated,’ she continued, ‘which makes it a bit of a puzzle as to why Terrestrans haven’t developed immunity after catching the disease. Apart from Kaleem, of course.’
‘Very interesting,’ said Razjosh. He was smiling at her now.
‘And they do have a vaccine,’ added Danielle. ‘But they only give it to the very old, the very young and those people who have a weak immune system.’
‘A little like with the influenza epidemics in the 20th and 21st centuries?’ asked Razjosh.
‘A little,’ agreed Danielle. ‘Except that it doesn’t mutate so much. Apart from this one time, when it’s apparently come to another planet.’
‘Carried by a Starlight Express perhaps?’ said Razjosh. ‘You wouldn’t know about those, of course, - Golden Knowledge, but I think it might be useful for you to know.’
Danielle’s nervousness had started to disappear. Now it came back threefold. She was about to be given some of the Golden Knowledge. She found it so hard to distinguish from Hidden Information – especially as her job involved dealing with hard provable facts. How could she be certain of anything anymore with these three sorts of information to refer to? And how could she be certain that anything she found out wouldn’t put her in danger?
‘Starlight Expresses were the old local transporter ships which used to go from planet to planet within solar systems,’ explained Razjosh. ‘’Express is a bit of a misnomer - they were rather slow and cumbersome, and it could take almost as long to get from Terrestra to Sedna as it’s going to take us to get all of the way to Zandra. They were called ‘Starlight’ because all of the walls were made out of plastiglass and you had a good view of the stars. They just went from planet to planet and you could get on and off as you pleased. They were so frequent that you didn’t need to book.’
‘So I guess it could be crowded in them and people could mix with all sorts of diseases they had no immunity to?’ asked Danielle. This looked like a good explanation for the name of the disease. It didn’t explain, though, how it was spreading on Terrestra. People still lived fairly isolated from each other and the ban on movement had not stopped it.
‘Do you think that’s it then?’ asked Razjosh. ‘You don’t look all that convinced.’
Danielle bit her lip.
‘It’s getting close to it, but it still doesn’t make complete sense,’ she replied. There was still something bothering her about this disease. It was not behaving like anything she had ever heard of before. And she knew a lot about disease. That had been her specialism before she became Head of Research. She had worked earlier at the medical centre, fine-tuning the diastic processes. Why did the disease only exist now on Zandra, and more recently on Terrestra?
Razjosh was staring at her. She began to feel uncomfortable again. ‘Show me all that you know,’ he said.
Danielle called up a few files.
‘There, you see,’ she said, ‘it causes sickness, fever, sore throat and delirium.  Sometimes the delirium can be so bad - usually only in the very old, the very young and the infirm - that the victim goes into a deep coma. And occasionally, as in the case of Maria Malkendy, the patient can go straight into a coma. This is very rare in a healthy adult.’
‘And they vaccinate?’ asked Razjosh.
Danielle called up another file.
‘They only vaccinate those people who have a high risk of becoming seriously ill from the disease,’ she said.
‘Do we know how they create the vaccine?’ asked Razjosh.
Danielle called up another file.
‘Using the disease itself, of course. But the other ingredients are not known to us on Terrestra,’ she said. ‘And the vaccine is not stable. They cannot manufacture and store vast quantities.’
‘Hmm, I see,’ said Razjosh. ‘I’m going to have my work cut out,  then. They probably won’t want to let any of it go.’
Danielle suddenly felt dizzy. The room was beginning to sway up and down. She grabbed the arms of the comfisessel.
‘Bring some water quickly,’ called Razjosh.
One of the Supercraft’s robots appeared immediately with a glass of water.
‘Sir,’ it said, offering the glass to Razjosh.
‘It’s for Miz Thomas,’ said Razjosh.
The robot glided smoothly over to Danielle. It offered the glass of water. She took it, her hand trembling slightly. Razjosh waved the robot away and it glided quietly out of the information lounge.
Danielle took a sip of the cool water and immediately felt better.
‘You have been working too hard, my dear,’ said the Elder. ‘There is nothing more you can do now until we get there. And even then, you must let me do most of the work. You should sit back now and enjoy the view, now that we have come out of super-drive.’
Danielle wanted to protest that she was all right now, that really she should try to find out a little more about the vaccine they would have to plead for. But already the old man  was commanding the files to shut down and the screens to retract. One by one, they lifted up to the ceiling. The information lounge was transformed into an observation deck.
‘At least we stay conscious when we slow down,’ said Razjosh.
Danielle could only hold her breath as she saw the view. She had not realised it would be quite like this. Of course, she had not been able to work whilst they were taking off - every passenger had been strapped onto their seats. But she had been so petrified that she hadn’t dared to open her eyes. It was so unheard of, for Terrestrans to leave Terrestra. Who was driving the Supercraft? The inhabitants of Terrestra were never meant to leave their planet, nor would they normally have any reason to want to. So who got to learn how to manoeuvre one of these things? And if it was someone from another planet, how and when did we communicate with them? Would they also be dangerous and disease-ridden to a Terrestran? And on top of all that, she was scared of normal flying within the confines of Terrestra’s atmosphere anyway. She had sat with her eyes closed, and her hands gripping the sides of the armrest. The craft had gone into super-drive and as she had been warned, she blacked-out. Once she came to, they were speeding away from Western Sector 3. She had made her way to the information lounge and already one of the craft’s robots was sorting out her files. She  just had a quick glimpse through one of the plastiglass windows before it was covered in data from her research. Soon she was absorbed in her work, the fear forgotten.
This time she was not afraid and the nervousness she had felt in front of Razjosh was also dissolving. She could only stare at the universe she saw through the window. It had been one thing looking up at the stars at night through Terrestra’s atmosphere. This was something else, though. The stars were more than twinkling. You could almost see the exchange of gases and the flow of the nuclear reaction which gave the stars their energy. The dark was even darker and the lights were even brighter. It looked more as if the planets and stars were gently gliding past them than as if they were hurtling through space at thousands of light years per minute.
‘Amazing, isn’t it?’ said Razjosh.
Danielle couldn’t speak. She just about managed to nod her head.
‘We sometimes forget exactly where we are,’ said Razjosh.
Both of them sat in silence and stared at the planets and stars outside.
There was suddenly a huge noise. Danielle found herself gripping the sides of her chair again.
The planets and the stars seemed to have stopped moving. One planet at the side of them seemed to be getting large.
‘There she is,’ said Razjosh. ‘That’s Zandra.’
Danielle watched as they came closer to what at first looked just a grey mass. Soon she could not see the sky beyond the planet. Its smooth surface gradually began to look like orange peel, and then she began to see real features on it - mountains, rivers, lakes. The grey turned to brown, green and blue. It didn’t really look so very different from how she would expect Terrestra to look from a spacecraft.
‘All passengers to safety decks,’ said one of the craft’s electronic voices.
Danielle’s legs were shaking as she made her way to her landing seat and strapped herself in. She closed her eyes and waited for the thud that would signal they had landed. Few of the other passengers were speaking, and those who did were chattering more excitedly, more nervously than usual. Was everyone perhaps as scared as she was?
When the bump did come, it was actually very gentle, almost unnoticeable. Before she even realised they had in fact landed, the crew of the Supercraft were issuing instructions for disembarkation.
‘Well, are you ready for this?’ asked Razjosh. He was standing, his arm held out towards the exit.
No she wasn’t. No way was she ready for this. This was completely crazy. Yet she had to do it. It was part of her job after all.
Danielle pulled herself to her feet. She felt heavy. It was almost painful to put one foot in front of the other. It was more than just Zandra’s natural gravity which was a little stronger than Terrestra’s and considerably stronger than the Supercraft’s though.  She just did not want to face these people from a different culture.
‘You really don’t need to worry,’ said Razjosh. ‘I’m the diplomat here. You just have to make a good job of presenting the facts. And we know you will.’
She tried to respond to his encouraging smile.
Razjosh turned and started to walk away. She followed him out of  the safety seat lounge, along the corridor and down the exit ramp.
They were waiting there, the five Zandrians.
Danielle’s first impression was that they were very different from Terrestrans. They seemed taller. One of them had pale brown skin. The others were white and two of them had the same colour hair as white Terrestrans. One had very pale yellow hair, and another red-brown, rust-like hair. Their tunics were slightly shorter than Terrestran ones.
Her second impression was that the Zandrians were very like Terrestrans. They had two legs, they did wear tunics and the salute they made to Razjosh was as understandable as any Terrestran greeting.
She watched, gob-smacked, as Razjosh returned the salute as if he had been doing it all his life and then spoke to them in words she could not understand, but which they clearly did.
She remembered what she had come here to do and, despite the warm Zandrian sun,  she shivered.