Kaleem could not concentrate on the verb patterns of advanced Flemo-french. They weren’t really particularly difficult. It was just that Razjosh was taking so long. When would he let him know about the outcome of the Council meeting? Something was definitely brewing, coming to a head. Both Razjosh and Chief Makisson were so tense at the moment. Elders were supposed to be in charge, weren’t they? They were supposed to know what they were doing. They just didn’t seem to. And both of their faces looked grey and strained.
No, it was no good. He couldn’t concentrate to-day. The screen just flickered meaninglessly.
‘Close down files,’ he commanded.
Gentle wind chime tones were now coming out of the sound system. The room was intelligent: its dataserves had worked out exactly what he needed - almost. The lights were beginning to dim.
Actually, thought Kaleem, this is not what I want. I just need some exercise now
He began to jog, out through his door and along the corridors towards the exercise centre. Already his head was beginning to clear.
I can’t help it, he thought, I can’t just sit there all the time. I’ll go nuts.
He bounded along the narrow corridor. Occasionally, when he was sure no-one was looking, jumping up at the walls on the sides of the corridors. He tried to jump higher each time. As he landed for the seventh time, he collided with someone.
‘Well, I’m glad to see that someone has some energy left,’ said a voice which Kaleem recognised straight away. It was Razjosh.
Kaleem scarcely recognised what he saw, though. He had seen the Elder look serious and worried before, but now he looked totally defeated. He seemed his age, and greyer than ever.
‘No good?’ asked Kaleem.
Razjosh shook his head.
Now what? thought Kaleem. He had been scared and excited at the same time about leaving Terrestra. He ought to have been relieved. But he wasn’t.
There was no expression at all on the Elder’s face. Kaleem was so used to him being in charge, always knowing what to do.
‘Can we go back to your room and see what you have been doing?’ asked Razjosh.
Razjosh normally did not ask questions unless he wanted to know something. He usually told you what to do.
‘I’ve worked on all the verb patterns,’ said Kaleem a few minutes later when they were sitting in his room. ‘I’m scoring about 75% in the tests.’
‘Not bad, not bad,’ mumbled Razjosh. He seemed to be staring out beyond Kaleem.
‘I think I’ve got the cultural components buttoned down as well’, added Kaleem.
Razjosh just nodded his head.
‘I mean that is one of the languages they use on Zandra, isn’t it?’ asked Kaleem.
The Elder did not reply.
‘Do you think we’ll ever be able to get there?’ asked Kaleem.
Still the old man was silent.
‘What will happen then?’ continued Kaleem.
Razjosh just shook his head and pursed his lips.
Razjosh’s personal communicator buzzed suddenly. Kaleem could not make out what was being said to Razjosh.
‘I think it is better that we meet with Chief Makisson as well,’ said Razjosh. ‘Twenty minutes? And be careful. Don’t wear your official clothes.’ He ended the communication rather abruptly, without even bothering to say goodbye. ‘Come on,’ he said to Kaleem. ‘We have business to attend to. Someone important is coming to see us.’
Ten minutes later, they were with the Chief. Apparently the Head of Health was coming to see them.
‘Will she be safe?’ asked Makisson. ‘Will anyone have seen her?’
‘She’s usually really very careful,’ replied Razjosh. ‘I think I know what she is going to say. I thought it best that she came in person, rather than risk even the secure communication network.’
‘Yes,’ said Makisson. ‘It’s all very difficult right now, but we are bound for the moment to remain within the law. Even though we know that the Heads of Ministries have not chosen wisely.’
‘I think we may have to go against the rules,’ said Razjosh.
Kaleem noticed that Razjosh’s face was slightly flushed and his eyes were suddenly very bright. His own stomach was beginning to churn again. Chief Makisson said nothing. He just sat with his hand over his mouth, tapping the side of his cheek with his finger. He was frowning.
The door swished open. A tall young woman, dressed in a plain grey ripon tunic, swept into the room. Kaleem couldn’t help gasping loudly. She had the Terrestran, cave-induced pale skin all right. But her hair was all wrong. Kaleem had never seen anything like it. It was a bright, rusty red.
‘No-one saw you?’ asked Makisson.
The woman shook her head.
‘Your journey wasn’t too unpleasant?’ asked Razjosh.
She shook her head again and grinned.
‘Forgive me,’ said Razjosh. ‘How rude of me. I should introduce you.’ He beckoned Kaleem over to him. ‘Let me present Kaleem Malkendy, rising Peace Child. Sandi Depra, Head of Health.’
Sandi grinned at Kaleem.
‘Hey, I like it,’ she said. ‘So, I’m not the only one with funny hair. Well, I guess a Peace Child has to be special.’ She turned to face the two Elders. ‘I think the mission should go ahead. And I’m volunteering to go. It is just a little bit to do with my ministry, after all.’
The two Elders remained silent.
‘I’m sure there’s a good few others as well. I even voted against the mission. Ponty Davidson actually was telling people that he had managed to Spy-trap most of the dataserves. He’s been threatening all sorts of stuff to people who stood against him.’
‘Spy-trap?’ asked Makisson. ‘How is that still possible? The controls on our secure machines would never allow it.’
‘Ah, he’s a clever man,’ said Sandi. ‘He’s managed to build some very sophisticated programmes.’
The two Elders were still looking at each other as if they could not believe what they had just heard.
‘There must be others,’ said Sandi. ‘After all, some people even voted for you going.’
Still, there was no word from the two Elders.
‘Why is he so against it?’ asked Sandi.
Razjosh cleared his throat. ‘The usual Terrestran problem,’ he said.
Makisson turned towards Sandi.
‘You’d better stay in the Citadel for now,’ he said. ‘Show Miz Depra to one of the guest suites,’ he said to the room robot.
‘Have you contacted the Medical Centre about your mother yet today?’ Razjosh asked Kaleem. ‘Perhaps you should do that now. Chief Makisson and I have a few things to discuss.’
‘Ah,’ said Sandi. ‘They want us out of the way. Big men’s talk.’
Kaleem felt a bit embarrassed to hear someone speak like that in front of the Elders. But they didn’t seem to have noticed what she had said.
‘See you later, then, Funny Head Mark 2,’ she said as they left the Chief’s room.
Kaleem had hardly been back in his room two minutes, when the communicator buzzed. Well, he had been dreading contacting the medical centre anyway. He always preferred it when they contacted him, took him by surprise. So, he had come the long way back and dawdled all the way at that. He was quite glad to be distracted by a message.
‘Receive!’ he commanded. Sandi’s face was grinning at him from the main dataserve screen
‘Hey Funny Head,’ she said. ‘Can we meet? I’ll fade out with boredom if I have to stay in my room. I have to have people around me.’
Well, it would nicely stop him from having to find out - or not find out which was more likely - anything about his mother.
‘Sure,’ he said, and suggested they met in the Stella Bar - a small nectar bar which had a display of the night sky on the ceiling.
‘I thought it would be good to swap notes about what it feels like having this outrageous hair,’ she said tugging at a sleek red strand. ‘And theories about how it happened.’
Well, that would be good. No-one had ever given him any clue before - apart from that slightly clumsy attempt by Maggie Johnstone, which had ended up with her being suspended and him being called a throw-back.
In the end there was very little time. Sandi had hardly sat down when her personal communicator went. Kaleem could just make out that it was another young woman, a bit like Sandi.
‘Well, you’d better get your butt over here. And double fast ,’ she said. ‘I don’t think they really believe me, you know. We’re in the Stella Bar….,’ She paused and frowned. ‘Oh, you’ll think of something. Go on, be bold.’
She snapped the communicator off.
‘Danielle Thomas. Head of Science. She went with Razjosh to Zandra. By rights I should have gone. But they were afraid about people not trusting a freak. I ask you. It’s only here I’d look like a freak. They have blondies and red-heads still on Zandra. But come on, tell me, how much trouble has it been to you?’
Kaleem told her all about the incident with Maggie Johnstone, Stuart Davidson and Erik Svenson.
‘Well, throw-back, yes I suppose that’s one idea. But who knows? I think it was having to put up with this funny hair that made me so determined to make it. To show them all. That was what drove me to being Head of Medicine. Perhaps it’ll help you to become a good Peace Child.’
Being different was a qualification for being a Peace Child, was it? Maybe he’d rather not be a Peace Child then.
There was an awkward silence between them. Sandi stared at the entrance to the bar. After a few moments her face lit up.
‘Hey, here comes Danielle,’ she said. ‘Perhaps she’ll have some ideas.’
Kaleem liked Danielle. She seemed more responsible and quieter than Sandi. She smiled warmly at Kaleem.
‘Razjosh told me so much about you,’ she said. ‘He really thinks highly of you, you know. I’m so glad we can meet at last. I’m sure we’ll be able to work well together.’
Kaleem found himself blushing. It was obvious that the two young women had a lot to talk about, though. Soon, he was just listening to them and not taking part at all in the conversation. It seemed a bit awkward as well that Sandi had just asked Danielle to come here, without permission from the Elders. He ought not to be part of this.
And besides, he couldn’t put it off any longer. He must contact the medical centre. He mumbled his excuses and left.
Even before he was back in his own room, his personal communicator informed him that the medical centre was trying to communicate with him.
‘Refer to ’serve in room,’ he mumbled. That would delay the communication another few minutes. His stomach began churning again.
Oxton’s cheerful face was already filling the main screen when he walked into his room.
‘Hi there,’ he called after Kaleem had completed the connection. ‘She’s talking more today, and she has eaten a little extra. I think we are turning the corner.’
‘Won’t she come and speak to me?’ asked Kaleem. Was she after all getting back to normal?
‘I’m afraid we haven’t got quite that far,’ said Oxton. ‘She won’t face a dataserve camera. But she does still keep talking about that tower. Are you sure you don’t know something about it?’
Kaleem wished he could tell Oxton what he did know. But he just didn’t dare. He shrugged and shook his head.
‘So, just what has she been saying, then?’ he asked.
‘The mother has done her duty. And something about a tower. No-one can quite make out what she means. But it seems quite serious to her.’
Kaleem felt himself going hot. It seemed that his mother was making him out to be something really special. Surely it was just a part of her illness, though?
‘Hey, cheer up,’ said Oxton. ‘Don’t worry about it. At least now she’s watching less of those old movie clips. She’s seeing a mind specialist tomorrow.’
A mind specialist? This was serious. Oh, yes, a few people on Terrestra did need the help of the mind doctors. Physical health had been perfect, before the disease arrived, but there had been one or two people who could not cope with the perfection expected in every other aspect of life on Terrestra. And even though the mind doctors helped, if people knew you had been to one, you were no longer respected. It was a bit like being a throw back with funny-coloured hair.
‘Does she really have to?’ he asked.
‘Don’t worry, don’t worry,’ said Oxton. ‘No-one apart from you, and perhaps Razjosh and the folks here at the Health Centre will ever know. And we’ve done some more research - looked at some more archives about coma patients in the past and it seems this is common. There is often an imbalance in the mind after weeks of being in a coma. The mind has had time to get down to some real deep-seated stuff.’
The dataserve warned Kaleem that there was another urgent message waiting.
‘Okay,’ said Oxton. ‘I’d better get out of the way. Really, try not to worry.’
Razjosh was waiting to speak to him.
‘Come quickly to Chief Makisson’s room,’ he said. ‘There’s a transporter waiting outside for you.’
It must be urgent, thought Kaleem as he got into the small indoor transporter. I could have walked there in ten minutes.
Two minutes later, he was once more sitting in the Chief Elder’s room. Sandi Depra and Danielle Thomas were there as well. Sandi was now looking serious and Kaleem thought that Danielle looked a little pale. The main screen of Chief Makisson’s dataserve was split into five. Four men and one woman, dressed in ministry tunics, were looking out at them.
‘It seems,’ said Razjosh, ‘that quite a few people, after all, think that we should go.’
‘It will have to be done in secret and against all democracy,’ said Makisson.
‘We really do need a Peace Child,’ said Sandi.
‘We are here to help,’ said one of the voices from the dataserve.
‘Well, are you ready to be a Peace Child for real?’ asked Razjosh.
Kaleem noticed him exchange a glance with Makisson. The Chief Elder nodded.
This is it, thought Kaleem. This is really it.