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.