Sunday, 6 December 2015

Babel Chapter Three


Kaleem stared at his nectar. How could he get himself to drink this revolting stuff? He braced himself and took a sip.
He was surprised. It wasn’t as bad as he had expected it to be. He took another mouthful. Maybe it was okay. It was beginning to do something anyway. Perhaps he would take Ben Alki up on his offer. Perhaps he would go and see the inside of a switch-off ceremony and find out what it was really like.
He took another big gulp of his drink. He put the tumbler back down, and then saw that half of the liquid had gone.
Suddenly, there were voices outside the entrance to the bar. Girls’ voices. A lot of giggling. Kaleem took another sip of the nectar.
Seconds later, they were in the bar. Kaleem tried to make himself look small. Despite the dyed hair, they would recognize him, even if they didn’t know why they knew him. He took another large swig of his nectar. It didn’t seem as sweet as it had before and he could tell that it had quite a punch to it. Why had he thought this was so bad? It was really rather good.
The giggling and chattering stopped. Kaleem could feel them staring at him. He looked up at the mirror behind the bar. His heart missed a beat. Rozia Laurence was staring at his reflection. She went deep red. Kaleem felt the back of his own neck and his cheeks go red. He emptied his tumbler. Rozia turned back to the other girls.
“Who is that? I know that face,” he heard one girl say.
“Kaleem Kennedy-Bagarin,” he heard Rozia reply.
He looked up at the mirror again. Rozia was going even redder.
“The Peace Child you mean?” hissed one of the other girls.
“Yep,” replied Rozia. “I used to be schooled with him.”
“But I thought he was blond,” muttered another voice.
“I guess he’s dyed his hair so that people won’t recognize him so easily,” Rozia replied.
“Didn’t work, did it?” whispered another girl.
“Come on, let’s leave him in peace,” said Rozia, out loud. She looked up at Kaleem’s reflection and smiled. Her cheeks were still pink. She signalled to the others that they should go and sit in the corner on the far side of the bar.
The droid was pottering about behind the counter. It glided over to Kaleem.
“Would Sir care for another nectar?” the electronic voice asked.
Kaleem nodded. He was used to it now. He was enjoying what it was doing to him. The droid poured the drink. He took the tumbler, got down from the high hoverstool and made his way over to where the girls were sitting. He suddenly felt very bold.
“Hi Kaleem,” said Rozia, smiling at him. Her eyes opened wide as she looked into his. “Let me introduce you to the others. Della, Marina, Renate, Jayne, Margiet and Sophia.”
The girls giggled and started to fuss over him. Kaleem found it difficult to concentrate. He certainly wouldn’t be able to remember who was who, even if he did remember the names. They all looked the same. That was probably one of the big disadvantages of aiming at perfect Terrestran looks. They all had the correct pale face, and dark, sleek hair. They were even wearing very similar tunics tonight, all of them the pale purple silk of mourning. Only Rozia was a bit different. Her face was so pretty with its fine, delicate features. And the way she kept blushing. Did that perhaps mean what he thought it meant? Hopefully. Maybe he had time for that sort of thing now. Of course, she knew him from before he was chosen as the Peace Child, before he went to live at the Citadel with the elders and before he’d gone to Zandra. Everyone admired him now. Maybe she had liked him a little bit even back then.
One name stuck out though, Sophia.
“Funny,” said Kaleem. “Do you know Ben Alki Mazrouth? He was here, just now. He had been hoping a Sophia would come in. You’re not her are you?”
The girl called Sophia wailed. “Damn, I’ve missed him,” she said. “We left it too late!”
“We had a job getting out this evening,” Rozia explained. “What with the departure and the wake and everything.”
Why have they all come out on mass like that? Kaleem wondered. What chance would the poor guy stand?
“Oh no,” said Sophia, biting her lip. “I’ll never get to see him.”
No you won’t, thought Kaleem. Not if you keep on turning up too late and if you bring all your hangers-on every time. “Do you know where he lives?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Sophia slowly.
“Well, why don’t you get over there?” asked Kaleem.
“What?” said Sophia blushing. “I couldn’t. What would he think?”
“I’d say he’d be very pleased to see you,” said Kaleem. “Poor bloke’s had a tough day.”
“You just don’t do that,” another girl hissed.
“Well call him up at least,” said Kaleem. “Do you know his call sign?”
“Of course I do,” whined Sophia. “But I just can’t. If he’d wanted to see me, he’d have waited.”
“Are you actually…?” Kaleem started.
“No they’re not, but they’d both like to,” Rozia said. “They’re both just being incredibly stupid and not getting down to it.”
“Oh for goodness’ sake,” said Kaleem. He suddenly remembered a bunch of gigantic velvety black tulips, a blond version of Rozia and a missed opportunity. “On Zandra, if a girl fancies a guy, she just sends him a big bunch of Black Tulpen. He can either accept or decline. Saves a lot of bother.”
“Well what if a guy fancies a girl?” asked another girl.
“Just asks her out, like here,” said Kaleem. He took a mouthful of the wheat and rye. Oh, this was such a waste. Poor old Ben Alki, wanting a bit of nice female company after the horrible things he’d had to do, and here was the very one he’d wanted to be with, pining away for him. The nectar was making Kaleem much bolder than normal. “Come on then, call him,” he said.
Sophia hesitated.
“All right then,” said Kaleem, “call him on mine. Then he won’t know it’s you.” He stretched out his wrist so that the minicompu was facing Sophia.
“Ben Alki Mazrouth 2751,” said Sophia tentatively.
The minicompu buzzed several times before Ben Alki answered, and the screen remained blank.
“Oh dear,” said Kaleem. “Looks as if he might have gone to bed. Or he’s taking a shower.” He went to log out.
“Hello,” said Ben Alki’s voice suddenly.
“Hey there,” said Kaleem, “sorry to wake you. But I think there’s someone here who would like to see you.” He switched his minicompu over to visual and held it so that its camera was pointing at Sophia. Suddenly Ben Alki’s lean face was filling the small screen.
“Sophia?” asked Ben Alki, grinning.
“That’s right,” said Kaleem. “Now, shall we send her over to you or are you going to come here?”
“Send her over to me!” replied Ben Alki.
“Make him come here!” cried Sophia at exactly the same time.
“She can’t go over there,” said one of the other girls.
“No, not the first time, on her own,” said another.
“You’d better come here, mate,” said Kaleem. “I don’t know. We Terrestrans, eh? Bit old-fashioned or what?”
He couldn’t believe he’d just done that. Shy, different, awkwardly unterrestran, unzandrian Kaleem Malkendy-Kennedy-Bagarin had just had a go at match-making. And it looked as if it was going to be successful.
Suddenly their corner of the bar was buzzing. Everyone seemed to be speaking at once. Well, not quite all of them. Rozia and Sophia were in a huddle in the corner. Sophia fiddled with her tunic and kept on smoothing her hair. The other four girls – whose names Kaleem still could not remember, were all over him.
“Do they really do that on Zandra?” asked one.
“Yes…” he went to reply.
He barely had time to answer before another chipped in with; “Well what are Zandrian girls like? Which do you prefer, Kaleem, Terrestrans or Zandrians?”
“I don’t know. It depends…”
“So just exactly what is it like, going in a Supercraft? What does it look like out there?”
“Well. It’s sort of… it’s…”
Wow, you’re really brave you are… I bet it was scary when you were ill.”
“Yes, it was, it was, I erm…”
“Oh, you lot, let him have a drink. Can we get you another drink, Kaleem?”
“I, er no thanks” Kaleem managed to mutter. He leant forward and took another sip of the wheat and rye nectar. No, he didn’t want another. It had started to taste too sickly sweet again and the room was beginning to spin a little.
“Really, though,” said one of the girls. “What was it like going on a Supercraft? It must have been fantastic.”
Kaleem remembered looking out of the veriglass windows of the Supercraft. Yes, it had been fascinating to look at the planets and stars seeming to float by, once they had returned to normal drive. Yet, it had not been as intriguing as it might have been. On the way to Zandra, he was too nervous. On the way back, when he ought to have been more relaxed, he had been so disturbed by the voice file his mother had left him that he could not appreciate it. Besides all of that, he was quite nervous about coming back to Terrestra, meeting his grandparents for the first time, and being recognized as the Peace Child.
“I’d give anything to be able to do that,” the girl continued.
“Hi, guys, it’s me,” called a voice from the doorway suddenly.
The chatter stopped. Rozia nudged Sophia, who blushed deep red. Ben Alki walked into the room. He smiled slowly at Sophia. Rozia whispered something to her. Ben Alki made his way to the table where the girls and Kaleem were sitting. Rozia indicated the table next to them with her head and pushed Sophia over to one of the seats next to it. The others watched in silence. Ben Alki and Sophia sat also in silence smiling awkwardly at each other.
Finally, Ben Alki leaned towards Sophia.
“Can I get you another drink?” he said. His voice was hoarse and high-pitched, very different from the voice which had asked the elder the serious questions.
Sophia nodded and blushed even deeper.
Then the chatter started again, the barrage of questions. Just how many languages did Kaleem know? How did he manage to learn them? What had the prison been like? Was Charlek, the prison officer, really as friendly as they’d heard? Was it true that the food on Zandra was so much better that what they had on Terrestra? How did they manage to do that if they had no natural plant-life? Would the acorn programme really succeed?
They didn’t give him time to answer one question before the next one came along. There was a lot of giggling.
One girl, though, didn’t giggle, didn’t attack him with questions. She smiled gently now and then. Her eyes were wide open, reminding him a bit of the eyes of the adult-children in the dream he kept having.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ben Alki and Sophia walk hand in hand out of the door. He wished for a moment that he could do that. Slip away with a beautiful girl.
His throat became dry, but he could not face the mesmerizing sweetness of the wheat and rye nectar. He suddenly longed for cave water. He could not believe that he actually wanted cave water, after he’d been so bored with it for so many years. He wanted something that simple and now it wasn’t available. Not in a nectar bar, and not usually anywhere up on the surface.
Gradually, the questions stopped. The girls began to look tired-out by their own excitement. One by one, they started to leave.
Rozia didn’t, though. She stayed. He couldn’t take his eyes off her. She was gorgeous. Was she thinking the same? She kept avoiding his eyes. But then she would look up at him, smile shyly, blush, then look away again. She made no attempt to leave either.
The droid pottered around, clearing glasses from their table. Soon, the New Laguna was as quiet as it had been when he had first come in.
“I suppose we ought to go as well,” Kaleem said. He noticed that his voice had gone high and squeaky, just like Ben Alki’s had. He was trying to pluck up the courage to ask her if he could see her home. Stupid thing to say. It made it sound as if he didn’t want to be with her any more.
“Where can you get Black Tulpen on Terrestra?” said Rozia quickly. This time she did not blush. If anything, she looked paler than usual.
Kaleem’s heart missed a beat.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Babel Chapter 2 Kaleem


The last scene from Elder Joshran Kemnat’s Life Celebration presentation faded from the huge screen which had been erected in the Peace Park. Kaleem Kennedy-Bagarin’s left leg had gone to sleep. Because of the heat, they’d been advised to sit for this part of the elder’s switch-off ceremony. Of course, they’d all had to stand while the reposant was administered and while his friends and relations said good-bye in private, and while the old man became unconscious and died. The presentation though had been fascinating. That was why Kaleem’s leg had gone to sleep. He had sat without moving for the two hours of interviews and reminiscences. No wonder the man had been chosen as an elder. He had been so clever and kind.
Kaleem tried to stand on his leg. It gave way, making him tumble back down to the ground.
Pins and needles shot through as the blood gradually made its way back to his toes.
Other people around him were now making their way towards the transport decks.  Kaleem started to hobble along with them. He didn’t rate his chances of getting a transporter though. Apart from which, he was not sure where he was going. There seemed little point in going back to his grandparents’ apartment. They wouldn’t be back for ages. He didn’t fancy doing any work. He’d been at a bit of a loss since he had come back from his parents’ attachment ceremony on Zandra. He couldn’t settle to anything. Terrestra and Zandra were trading steadily now. That was all running smoothly. They didn’t really need him any more.
His leg started working properly again. He kept up with the rest of the crowd as they made their way towards the nearest exit from the park.
He suddenly remembered that was where he had first seen Razjosh. Here in this very park. Razjosh had been an old man, even then.  Now, he was almost as old as Joshran Kemnat.
Kaleem stopped walking, suddenly feeling nauseous. That meant that it would soon be Razjosh’s turn. Kaleem had never been to a switch-off ceremony before, so he’d never known what happened in the private part where the departant was given the reposant and then drifted into a final sleep. Before today, he’d never seen even the public part of the ceremony. It had always been something he’d rather not think about. Of course, not every ceremony was as well attended as Joshran Kemnat’s had been, not even for an elder. Kemnat had just been so popular. But was this going to happen to Razjosh soon?
Then he had another thought, even more awful. If Razjosh was going to face switch-off soon, then that would mean that he would become the only Peace Child. One day, he would be an elder too. And he would have no-one to show him the way any more. What if he pretended to be learning very slowly? Then they would have to keep the elder around for a little longer. No, Razjosh would see through that.
The nausea became even greater. Kaleem was sure he was going to throw up any second now. The bile rose into his mouth and his stomach retched. He felt hot and dizzy. He couldn’t stop the foul fluid coming up into his mouth, burning his gut and his mouth on the way. He heaved and spat out the evil-tasting liquid which spattered all over the ground, making an ugly stain.  Even getting rid of all that unwanted material from his stomach didn’t relieve the uncomfortable physical feeling, nor did it take away the horrible thought. Razjosh, to be switched off? No more Razjosh. He retched again, but there was nothing left in his stomach to come out.
He wiped his mouth and looked round. Good that no one had seen him. This would not do. Not out in public. It would cause a panic. They’d think he’d got Starlight again. That was ironic! He was probably the last person on Terrestra who would get it. The antibodies in his system were really strong. He was 100% immune to it now.
There was a bench nearby. Kaleem staggered over towards it. He was shaking now. He bent his head so that it was touching his knees. Then he put the fingers of his left hand on the pressure point on his right wrist how they’d showed him on Zandra. After five minutes he changed his hand over so that the fingers from his right hand were resting on his left wrist. The nausea gradually went away. He sat upright. He had stopped shaking.
The crowd was thinning out. He would set off in a minute or two. He was still not sure where. He did think for a moment of visiting the cave apartment he used to share with his mother, but then realized that it would still be locked up. Then he thought of Pierre LaFontaine. His apartment was not too far from here either. But somehow he didn’t feel like being with just one person. He preferred the idea of a crowd tonight. Somewhere where he could just listen and only had to join in the conversation if he really wanted to. Besides, there was no guarantee that Pierre would be in.
He decided to go to the New Laguna Bar. “New” . That was a funny name for it. It was over twenty years old, and underground. It still worked the same way it always had.  People of his age often came here.  And it was where his parents had first met.
In just twenty minutes he managed to walk to the entrance to the New Laguna. It then took the lift ten minutes to get down because it was built so deep within the old cave system.
It was disappointingly empty when he got there. A single barman was on duty and someone who looked just a little older than him propping up the bar. At least the barman was a human being, though, and not a droid. He also seemed to be only a little older than Kaleem. 
“Hi there,” said the barman. “What can I get you?”
“Wheat and rye, please,” said Kaleem. It was the nearest in taste to the Zandrian frega which he now preferred to Terrestran nectar. He found most of the juices here too sweet. This one was sort of savoury.
“Coming up sir,” said the barman. He was staring at Kaleem.
He’s asking himself if he knows me, thought Kaleem. And he can’t quite think from where. He caught sight of his reflection in the veriglass mirror behind the bar. That had been a real smart idea of his grandmother’s, dying his hair black. Not only did it make him look more Terrestran, it stopped people recognizing him straight away as the famous Peace Child. The different coloured hair put people off the trail for a while, but there might still be something recognizable.
Yes, his grandmother, Louish Kennedy, was pretty smart. Why hadn’t he thought of that himself? It would have stopped him looking so different from other Terrestrans back when he’d lived in the cave apartment.  
The bar man continued to stare as he poured the drink.
“Not many people in tonight, then, are there?” said Kaleem.
“No, it’s because of the switch-off, I guess,” said the barman. “People don’t think they should enjoy a drink on the day somebody’s switched off. A sort of sign of respect.”
Oh, here I go again, though Kaleem. Doing it different from everybody else. The one time I come to a bar is the one time everybody else stays home.
“Yeah,” said Kaleem, “but I wouldn’t have thought that people our age would be so bothered about a switch-off.”
The bar man shrugged his shoulders. “Probably not. Their olds might be, though.”
That was it, then, Kaleem guessed.
It was quite good, living with his grandparents. They wouldn’t dare try and pin him down. Not after what he’d been through, and anyway, they were just so glad to have him and Marijam, his mother, back in their lives after she had gone and disappeared into the Z Zone all those years ago. 
“Anyway, everybody liked him,” the bar man continued. “Even our lot. Wonder who’ll they pick for the next one?”
Of course, that was where Louish and Frazier Kennedy were tonight. As Frazier was still head of education, they had been invited to the wake for the elder of education and culture. The process of choosing the next elder would start at the same party.
The barman disappeared into the room at the back of the bar. Kaleem took a sip of his wheat and rye nectar. It was still too sweet really, but it was helping to quench his thirst.
“You must be as bad as me. We must be as hard-hearted as each other,” said a voice behind him. “Drinking when there’s just been a switch-off. Not the done thing.”
Kaleem turned to see who was speaking.
There was something familiar about the young man with a distinctively long face. Kaleem could not quite work out where he knew him from though. Before he had time to dwell on that, the stranger started speaking. 
 “I know you from somewhere, don’t I?” he asked Kaleem.
Kaleem hesitated.
The stranger shook his head. “Mmm?” he said.
Oh what the heck. It was not exactly going to cause a riot. People were really more interested in what he had done than in him, anyway. Most people still found him a bit freakish, despite the new hair colour.
“Imagine it blond?” he said pointing to his head.
The thin-faced man frowned even deeper now. “Yeah, definitely. Just can’t quite place you though,” he said shaking his head. 
“Zandra, acorns, vaccine, Starlight Racers….”  Kaleem continued.
“Yes! Peace Child … Kal . er?”
“Kaleem Kennedy-Bagarin or Malkendy, take your pick,” said Kaleem offering the stranger a Zandrian handshake.
The other man laughed.
“How do you…?”
“You just slot your hand into my fingers like that,” he said, guiding the man’s hand into his open fingers.
“That’s interesting,” he said. “Much friendlier than ours.”
“Yeah,” said Kaleem. Then he frowned. “But look, I know you as well, from somewhere.”
“Did you watch the ceremony today?” asked the stranger.
Kaleem nodded.
“Imagine ceremonial robes, then,” the stranger continued.
Kaleem nodded again. “You were the guy who …?”
“Yeah, that was me. I’m Ben Alki Mazrouth, master of switch-off ceremonies. Because I’ve got a long face and I’m generally so skinny, just like a skeleton, I always do the dark bit. They say I look the part. ” Ben Alki pulled a long face.  
Kaleem laughed. Suddenly he wanted to know more. A lot more. “What actually happens,” he asked, “in that bit we don’t watch. I mean, what’s it like, when they actually, you know…”
“Not pretty,” replied Ben Alki. “Not much to it though really. They’ve usually been so heavily sedated- the departants - for days really, and then a bit more so on the day, so they don’t really notice much. It’s a wonder they’re with-it enough to give out their gifts. No. It’s the relatives and close friends you feel sorry for. They really get stressed. Even those you’d think were pretty near to switch-off themselves and have seen it all before.”
Ben-Ali stopped speaking suddenly and stared at the wall behind the bar. He took a sip of his nectar.
Kaleem looked down at his wheat and rye. No he couldn’t bear to touch it. It was too sweet and he felt nauseous again. This was going to happen to Razjosh soon. In several more years’ time, this would happen to Marijam and Nazaret if they decided to live on Terrestra. He would still be relatively young himself then. Eventually, it would happen to him. Oddly, that did not bother him so much. He would not have to watch it, and as Ben Alki said, he would hardly be conscious.
He thought about the two other times when he had been drugged. Both times, he had fallen asleep instantly – oh, and he’d had that dream of course. Then he’d woken up several hours later and felt more or less all right.
Switch-off would be different. He wouldn’t wake up from that.
Ben Alki suddenly tipped his beaker of nectar back and drank it all in one go.
“Can I get you another drink?” he said to Kaleem.
“No thanks,” said Kaleem. “I’m still okay.” He pointed to the almost full glass of wheat and rye.
The barman had not come back.
“Any-one serving round here?” Ben Alki called.
Kaleem noticed the impatience in his voice. Perhaps it’s his work, he thought.
A droid marched into the space behind the bar. Presumably, the barman had gone off duty or else was still doing some work in the back room.
“May I be of help sir?” asked the electronic voice.
“Yes please,” said Ben Alki. “A rose and orange water. And make it a double.”
The droid busied itself getting the drink. Kaleem winced. Rose and orange water was the sickliest of all the nectars. A double, after the single Ben Alki had already drunk so quickly was bound to have an effect – probably a not altogether good one.
Ben Alki turned and grinned at him. “It’s okay,” he said. “I can take it. I’m used to it. You need this with the job I’ve got.”
“Mmm,” murmured Kaleem. He wasn’t sure.
“I bet you wonder why I do it,” said Ben Alki.
“Well, yes, actually ….,” replied Kaleem.
“It’s easy,” said Ben Alki. “I can’t be bothered to study to do anything else. The pay’s good here. Really good if you think about how gross it is. It’s the best solution for me.”
That’s true, thought Kaleem. He’s got a point there. In fact, it was the only unpleasant  task a human might be expected to do. Robots and droids did all the menial things – fixing broken machines, cleaning out the sewers and dealing with the rubbish. But most humans would shy away from conducting a switch-off ceremony because it was so horrible. Almost as horrible as having to issue the reposant or having to laser and mulch the corpse.    
“Actually,” Ben Alki continued, waving his tumbler at the droid, “it’s quite good at the moment. Less to do. The Starlight disease has done some of our work for us. They’re also allowing them another five years.” His words were beginning to slur. A shadow passed across his face. “Ah, but it’ll all get frantic again in a couple of years,” he said, “especially ‘cos of your work. Getting them acorns to Zandra, so’s we can have some vaccine in exchange.”  He hiccoughed. He grinned. “S’alright,” he said. “You’re a good egg.” He turned towards the droid that was standing motionless in front of him. “More’n I can say for you, sunshine.” He slammed his tumbler down on the counter.
“Sir will not be permitted any more nectar,” said the droid. Its automatic response had set in: Ben Alki Mazrouth would be receiving no more nectar today. He was a little over the limit already.
“Are you okay?” started Kaleem. “Would you like me…?”
Ben Alki stopped him before he could finish.
“No, it’s fine,” he said, suddenly sounding quite sober again. He looked directly at the droid. “Call me up a transporter.” He turned to Kaleem. “Just a pity she wasn’t here.”
“Who’s she?” asked Kaleem.
“Sophia,” replied Ben Alki. He slid off the hoverstool and walked towards the door in an absolute straight line. Whatever effect the nectar had had, it was wearing off rapidly. He turned in the doorway and grinned at Kaleem.
“Come and watch some time,” he said. “There’s an observation room. They can’t see you.” He waved and then disappeared through the doorway.

Sunday, 4 October 2015

Babel Chapter 1 Ben Alki

The Ceremonial Temple was as silent as ever, just like it always was before the switch-off ritual. Ben Alki Mazrouth took a deep breath. He didn’t mind this moment so much. He found it magical in a way, waiting for this most solemn of ceremonies to begin. Everything was as it should be. All the metal and veriglass fittings had been polished so that they reflected the bright lights from the chandeliers back up to the high ceiling. He cast an eye along the rows of plush comfisessels. They were hovering gently, waiting for the well-wishers to come and sit on them. He made his way over to the big plastikholz doors, which looked so solid they could convince you they were the really heavy wood like in the Citadel of Elders. He took another big breath and then opened first the right hand door and then the left. The mourners were waiting for him.     
They all filed in and sit down. He was used to the sad faces. He had served as the celebrant for one hundred of these rituals now. He knew just how impressive that was for someone as young as him. It was probably time he stopped though it was easier just to carry on. At least now he knew what to expect.
They sat down in the comfisessels, which swung and tipped to and fro a little, seeking a balancing point. One or two of the well-wishers whispered to each other. Others just stared, looking at nothing in particular. They all sat rigidly, some on the edge of their sessels, others picking imaginary fluff off their ceremonial purple tunics.
Ben Alki heard the tiny bleep which meant that Kemnat had arrived.     
“All rise to greet the departant,” Ben Alki called.
The family members were the first to get up on to their feet. They were followed soon after by the good friends in the outer rows. Those watching through the veriglass windows were already standing. There had not been enough room to offer them floating comfisessels or even old-fashioned hardsessels. The departant was one of the most popular elders Terrestra had ever known. On the dataserve concealed beneath his lectern Ben Alki could see the crowd outside. They were watching via the huge dataserve screens.  Suddenly they became quiet and pulled themselves to attention as the soft notes of an eccolute began to play a requiem-like melody. The curtains on the rear wall of the Temple silently glided open. The enormous bed, covered in drapes made from silks and satins and other old-world materials, and known as the Resting Place Entrance, slid into place.
Ben Alki saw the look of sudden shock in the eyes of the departant’s immediate family. That always happened, even if they were old enough to have been to many departure ceremonies. Most of the recent ceremonies had been for older departants. So, the people who had attended were older too. They’d pushed the age back for compulsory switch-off. After so many deaths from the Starlight Racer pandemic there was not so much need. Oh, he’d listened to all  arguments from those who thought that they should now let nature take its course but Ben Alki didn’t quite see how it would work. Apart from those who had succumbed to the Starlight disease, Terrestrans were a pretty healthy lot. Especially the Elders, who were so well looked after.
The woman at the end of the front row caught his eye.  He’d seen that look before as well. They hated him for what he did. Everyone knew that switch-off was inevitable, yet when it came to it, they didn’t want it to happen.
The woman’s eyes were red-rimmed and swollen as if she had been crying. Ben Alki guessed she must be the former attachment of the departant Elder.
Just as well the ones who are going don’t look like that, thought Ben Alki.
Of course, they didn’t. They were heavily sedated. Had been for days.
The side door slid open. Ben Alki didn’t like to think too much about what was actually about to happen at this point. This was just a job, he told himself, a highly paid one at that. He let his thoughts drift over to what he would be doing that evening. He might watch some sport on the dataserve or he might go along to the recently refurbished New Laguna nectar bar. Sophia Arkland might be there, if he was lucky.
The attendant guided the aged elder in. The old man looked fine. You would not know he was drugged up to the eyeballs. He looked with it and relaxed. The counsellor had obviously done his job well, convinced him that this was the right thing to do and that he had much to be proud of.  Ben Alki wondered what Kemnat Elder had selected for his life show. He’d have a lot to talk about for sure.
The attendant had now parked the hoversessel in the middle of the small platform. The elder was smiling at his family and friends. He looked as if he was being kind, but Ben Alki knew it was just the effect of the sedative drug he’d been given – even though it was true that Joshran Elder was a kind man.    
“Joshran Kemnat, Elder of Culture and Education, inhabitant of Terrestra, do you agree to the termination of your stewardship?” said Ben Alki. 
“I do,” replied the elder.
“And do you account to that stewardship every aspect of your life, including the physical, the intellectual and the spiritual, and of all those aspects of which you have charge including the personal?”
“I do,” replied the elder.
“Then it is fitting that the ceremony of departure may take place. Who is to bear witness?” The words came from Ben Alki’s mouth without him having to think. What am I really talking about? he asked himself.    
“We are,” said a man and a woman standing near the red-eyed woman.
Ben Alki guessed they might be Kemnat’s children. He passed them the small tablet dataserve and they pressed their palms to it sensors.
“Joshran Kemnat,” said Ben Alki “please make your way to the Resting Place Entrance. The reposant will be administered shortly.” Ben Alki turned to the dataserve. “Privacy settings,” he commanded.
The thick black curtains slid across the veriglass windows. The screen showing the crowds outside went dark, but seconds before the sound was disconnected Ben Alki heard a loud scream, followed by someone shouting “Don’t go, Johsran! We need you!” Hysterical sobs began just before the sound from outside went dead.
Up until now, all the fuss about Joshran Kemnat had seemed to Ben Alki just like some dramatic pageant, the beginnings of a movie. But no, what he had just heard was grief – raw, genuine and utter grief. His concentration slipped a little and the feelings he always managed to ignore during these ceremonies now began to take over. That had never happened before. He’d never known as much about the departants as he did about Joshran Elder.   
He pulled himself up sharply and began to move closer to the family members, whilst the attendant who had helped the old man on to the stage now helped him into the large bed.
“In a few moments my colleague will inject the reposant,” Ben Alki said to the well-wishers. “You will then have about forty minutes to say your goodbyes. He will suffer no pain. He will gradually become sleepy and will drop into a short coma.”   
The medic was already standing in the doorway. Ben Alki nodded to him. The man in the white tunic made his way over to the over-sized bed where the attendant was now helping the old man from the comfisessel into the Resting Place Entrance. Two other attendants were getting ready the gifts which the Elder had chosen for his near ones.
Ben Alki liked to keep well out of the way at this point. This may be his hundredth ceremony, but this part really spooked him. Besides, this was a really important last intimate moment for the family and close friends.
He went into the little side-room which had one-way veriglass. Malthus Smid, the annihilation operator was already there. 
“Won’t be another one for ten days,” said Malthus. “What are you going to do then?”
Ben Alki shrugged. That was definitely one of the perks of this job – especially since the Starlight Fever had done much of their work for them. You only had to work when you had to work. There were lots of days off; it was a sort of compensation for having to do a job that only a few were prepared to do. Most people would find it thoroughly gruesome and it was never discussed in polite society. As they were so well paid, Malthus and Ben Alki and the other employees of the Ceremonial Temple could afford to do really interesting things in all that spare time.
Ben Alki found himself thinking about Sophia again. Spending some more time with her would be a good idea.
“Do you think they will stop this?” asked Malthus. “Now that we’re not quite so crowded?”
Ben Alki did not know. Anyway, the vaccines and antidotes being sent from Zandra were working so well that they would soon be back to normal.
“I mean,” continued Malthus. “Now that we’re trading with Zandra, we might start trading with others and then we’d start catching all sorts of things and we’d start falling down like the Z Zoners do.”
Ben Alki shut his eyes – partly to think better, and partly so that he did not have to watch what was going on inside the Temple.
“I really don’t know,” he said. “I really don’t.”
Part of him wanted this whole business to stop; he’d decided some time ago it wasn’t actually right – he was actually helping with a murder. Another part of him worried about what he might do to earn a living if it did stop. At just nineteen, he was able to live a very nice life, thank you very much. He had no qualifications. It was not that he was not bright – no he prided himself on being pretty clever. But he enjoyed being lazy. All he’d had to do was learn to keep his face nice and serious. That had not been a problem. He really looked the part – tall, thin and with a rather long face. He was such a cynic anyway.
Mind you, next to Malthus, he was quite a saint.
“Oh sacred elders, look what he’s giving her,” cried Malthus.
Ben Alki opened his eyes and looked through the one-way veriglass. The youngest of the well-wishers, a girl who looked about eighteen, was kneeling at the side of the old man. He was handing her what looked like a permanent attachment robe.
“You don’t think the old guy’s offering to attach to her, do you? I mean, look well if they’re going to have sex. It has been known you know.”
“Shut up,” said Ben Alki. “He’s probably telling her he approves of her boyfriend.”
One by one the mourners made their way up to Elder Kemnat. Ben Alki was amazed every time at how calm the departants seemed. Okay, he knew about the drugs, but even so.      
“Oh, come on, lulus,” shouted Malthus. “Let him go to sleep. Then we can zap and compost and then we’re out of here. Should I change the air?”
The last of the well-wishers had made their way up to the Resting Place Entrance. Soon the elder would become sleepy and then he would slip into the coma. Reducing the oxygen in the air often speeded that process up, though the well-wishers never noticed the difference.
Ben Alki shook his head.
“Let him go in his own time,” he said.
“Boring,” said Malthus. Then he settled down. Both of them stared through the window. They watched the old man talking to his friends and family. It was clear he was getting tired. He closed his eyes and seemed to fall asleep. The well-wishers gradually stopped talking. A few minutes later, there was a tap on the door. Ben Alki opened it.
“He’s in the coma now,” said the medic. “I think we’ve got about ten minutes.”
Some of the well-wishers were weeping. Two sat on the bed with the Elder and stroked his hair. The rest just stood solemnly around the Resting Place Entrance, looking a little awkward, not knowing what to do.
“Respiration slowing,” said the medic, looking at his wrist dataserve. “Heart arrhythmic. Life signs weak.”
They say it’s peaceful, thought Ben Alki. But how do we really know what is going on? He could be still conscious, just paralyzed. Oh, he knew about all the research, how they’d measured the brainwaves and how there’d been no evidence of any pain or fear. But where had they got that idea from about going down a tunnel towards some light? Why on Terrestra was he doing this job?
“Death has occurred,” said the medic suddenly.
“Let’s go!” cried Malthus.
Ben Alki now made his way out to the people he must now think of as mourners.
“Our loved one has now gone,” he said, putting his solemn voice back on. “Please now say your last farewell. In a few minutes, we shall complete the ceremony in full view of the public.”
He turned to the man who had been named as Chief Mourner. “Let me know as soon as you are ready,” he said.
There was a mumbled conversation now amongst the mourners. The man Ben Alki had spoken to nodded his head.
“Ladies and Gentleman,” said Ben Alki. “Will you now make your way to your places?”  He turned to the dataserve.
“Public settings.”
The curtains behind the mourners drew back so that those behind the veriglass could follow the final part of the ceremony.
“Friends, relations, fellow Terrestrans,” said Ben Alki. “Our beloved Joshran Kemnat has now departed from us. We ask you to salute his body as it now makes its final journey to its last resting place. We invite you then to celebrate with us the life of this extraordinary man.”
He pressed the black key that only the dataserve at the Temple had. The large bed with the body of the elder slid back towards the hidden laser furnace and the curtains closed back around it. Even before the curtains had shut the lasers would have sanitized the Elder’s body and the grinders would be turning him into compost. He could imagine Malthus crying out with a great ”Yeah! Zap and mulch him baby.”  He could just make out the faint high-pitched sound which told him the lasers were already working. Or maybe it was the mulchers he could hear. He hoped that none of the mourners could hear it. He guessed not. In fact, he was fairly sure he only imagined it himself.
It was time for him to go. The new master of ceremonies, the one who was going to compeer the show to celebrate Kemnat’s life was already walking on to the stage. Ben Alki had volunteered to do this once or twice, to be the one who would celebrate the departant’s life. They’d turned him down.
“You have just the right type of face for the first part of the ceremony,” they’d said. “And we never let the same celebrant do both halves. We don’t want the celebrations to get mixed up with the mourning.”  
Ben Alki decided not to stay to watch the movie clips and hear the speeches and testimonials of those who had known the elder well. They’d been right. How could he celebrate the life he’d just helped to end?  
He made his way to a transporter deck. He would go to the New Laguna bar. She just might be there.