The stranger was walking over towards them.
‘Hi, you guys,’ he said. ‘Can I introduce myself? Gabrizan Taylor. I’ve just come in with my folks. My old man’s involved with the Cloud Project.’ He shook the hands of those people nearest to him.
How cute, thought Marijam. Where on Terrestra did he learn that?
Gabrizan stretched his hand out towards her. Marijam was annoyed to find herself trembling slightly. She felt as if her chest was going to burst. Her cheeks flushed bright red. This time not because she was embarrassed or felt uncomfortable. This was exciting. Even so, she was glad that it was too dark for anyone else to see. Two deep blue eyes met hers and she felt as if she was being drawn in. Before she could take his hand, though, Rainer interrupted.
‘How come you’re here, then?’ he asked. ‘I thought the Cloud Project was based in Melbin.’
Gabrizan appeared thoughtful for a second or two.
‘Well’, he said suddenly, ‘you can hardly see the Northern lights that far south. If that’s what they are. Both of my parents are here to investigate them.’
‘Will you be schooled through Project 57?’ asked Sadie.
‘I think so,’ said Gabrizan. ‘It’s similar to the Alexander Project we did down there.’
‘Oh, I hope they’ll put you in our Social Unit then,’ said Sadie.
‘I guess they will,’ said Gabrizan, smiling warmly at Sadie. ‘They suggested I came here.’
Marijam’s fingers were pressed into her palms. Hands off, he’s mine, she thought, trying to catch Sadie’s eye.
The excitement was growing in the Laguna. People were now squashed up against the dark walls of the cave. Marijam sipped her nectar slowly. As the sweet liquid smoothed the back of her throat, she began to feel like she belonged.
Gabrizan was deep in conversation with Rainer now. She could not hear what he was saying, but they were both frowning. Every so often one of them would shake his head or rub his chin thoughtfully, occasionally looking up at the big screen and pointing to something.
Probably trying to work out what has been happening, she thought. She wanted to join in but knew that if she tried she’d be tongue-tied as usual. And anyway, it was actually quite nice just sitting there watching him. His blond hair and his brown skin fascinated her. She couldn’t help noticing how tall he was.
‘Hey,’ said Sadie, ‘what are you staring at?’
‘Oh, nothing,’ said Marijam, going red again.
‘You don’t fancy him do you?’ asked Sadie.
Marijam turned away from Sadie. She was certainly not going to answer a silly question like that.
She was facing the two boys directly now. Gabrizan waved and smiled. She just about managed to smile back.
I hope I don’t look stupid, she thought.
She saw Gabrizan mutter something to Rainer. Both of them looked at her again. Rainer gestured with his hand towards her.
They’re talking about me now, she thought and tried to get away, but she was hemmed in. Gabrizan was walking straight towards her. Rainer stayed behind, and Sadie rushed straight towards him.
Thanks, Sadie, thought Marijam. She couldn’t cope with this sort of thing. She wanted the comfort of her room with the skylight and the dataserve.
A hand was held out across the table. Marijam leant forward to take the hand. She was trembling.
This is ridiculous, she thought. I’m behaving like a complete idiot.
The handshake was firm. She wasn’t used to people her own age shaking hands with her. And even an adult’s hand had often been limp and damp.
‘I’m Marijam Kennedy,’ she managed to say surprisingly calmly. ‘I’m on Project 57’.
‘Hello, Marijam Kennedy,’ said Gabrizan slowly. ‘I’m really glad you’re on Project 57. That’s where I’ll be schooled. Let’s hope they have a meet soon.’
He’s flirting with me, thought Marijam. He’s flirting and I actually think I like it. But I don’t know what to do.
He was smiling at her now, his eyebrows slightly raised.
Suddenly the News screen sprang into life, and filled with her father’s face.
‘This is a special announcement for all seniors,’ he was saying. ‘What has happened tonight is of monumental importance and is going to change dramatically our way of life on Terrestra.’ Frazier Kennedy paused. People gasped. Some reaffirmed their opinion that what had happened tonight was something to do with the poison cloud moving. Others also speculated what had caused that to happen. When everyone had quietened down again, Frazier continued.
‘Obviously you will wonder what I mean by that remark and you will no doubt have many theories about what actually happened tonight. What has happened is much too important to discuss via a News screen. Therefore, all seniors are to return to their homes immediately and be ready for a meet in their normal Project Room at 9.00 a.m. sharp tomorrow. And allow plenty of time for the journey. Everyone else has also been called for a meet at their work centres. The transport systems will be overloaded. But don’t worry, and sleep well. It is just good news.’
The screen went blank again. There was silence at first. Then some students pushed towards the exits. Others got in their way as they lingered behind, unwilling to be sent home when there was so much to talk about. Gabrizan stood to one side as Marijam struggled out from behind the table. He walked behind her as she turned towards the door. He kept close to her most of the way towards the transporters. The crowds left them little other choice. She didn’t want to turn and look at him. That would have seemed so rude. But she knew he was at her side all the time. That made her feel proud, as if she were royalty, and she was sure everyone was looking at her.
I am being ridiculous, she thought.
‘This is where I leave you,’ said Gabrizan, as they arrived at the A Transporters Deck. The grey platform was crowded. Already she could hear the high-pitched whirring of one of the steel-nosed jet-trains. The usual swish of air as the machine hovered near the platform told her she was going to have to leave this fascinating person very soon.
‘Save me a place at the meet if you get there before me,’ he added putting his hand gently on her back. ‘And if I’m there first I’ll save you one.’ He smiled and winked.
Marijam felt a big lump in her throat.
‘See you tomorrow then,’ she managed to just about whisper.
* * *
‘You look very smart today, sweetie,’ said Frazier Kennedy.
Marijam plucked nervously at the edge of the navy tunic.
‘Not that you need to dress up. You’ve inherited your mother’s good looks,’ her father continued. Then he laughed, looking at himself in plastiglass window as the private transporter pod they were using sped though the dark tunnels. ‘You certainly didn’t get them from me.’
If only you knew, thought Marijam.
She had had no trouble feeling wide awake this morning, despite not getting to bed until well past midnight, and then being too excited to sleep for most of the night. She had dressed really carefully today, something a bit better than the grey ripon tunic, but nothing too showy. She was fairly confident that the well-cut navy suede-effect tunic was just right. And she knew exactly why she had made an effort with her appearance.
There was just one other person in the room when Marijam arrived at the room designated for her group’s meet. Her heart started pounding as she went through the door and saw him. Gabrizan signalled with his head that she should sit next to him. She felt herself blush again.
‘It certainly seems clear out there,’ he said as she sat down. ‘Have you had a look yet?’
She hadn’t actually. She realised she hadn’t bothered looking through her skylight when she got back the night before. She had had other things on her mind. She shook her head.
‘Anyway,’ said Gabrizan, leaning back into chair, his arms jangling limply at his side and his legs stretched out in front of him. ‘I want to know all about you.’
As the others arrived, Gabrizan punched questions at her.
‘Do you have any brothers and sisters?’ he asked.
‘No,’ she replied. ‘I’m an only child. What about you?’
‘Just one sister. Is it as good as they say, then, being the only child?’ he asked.
‘I don’t know really… it’s a bit lonely sometimes…,’ she answered.
‘Makes sense. There couldn’t be another as gorgeous as you.’
Marijam felt her cheeks start to burn. She tried to be polite and ask him similar questions back, but his answers were dismissive. His home was fairly ordinary. He wanted to know about her. And he seemed to find her answers so interesting and delightful that she really began to feel important. His eyes smiled at all of her answers.
Soon the room was full. The dataserve’s tinny voice proclaimed that all students on Project 57 were present. Frazier walked into the room.
‘Right, folks,’ he began, ‘you will be pleased to know that the speculation was correct. The poison has indeed dispersed. Every single trace of it has vanished and in one night of astounding electrical activity. We are not quite sure how or why it happened yet, but the main idea we have so far is that some strong force entered the cloud and seeded it, just like they used to in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.’ He then showed them pictures of rain clouds over the African mainland from the year 2005. Small primitive aircraft had flown into them dispersing chemicals, which helped the clouds to release their moisture. ‘The case is a little different here,’ he added. ‘Something has set up electrical charges within the cloud. We believe it is from a type of metal not found on Terrestra, as we have already tried this with every metal known on Terrestra. This has discharged the poison from the cloud. That was what produced some of those glorious colours you saw last night.’
Marijam noticed that Gabrizan was now sitting forwards on his seat, his knuckles white as he gripped the sides. There was a slight frown creasing his forehead. Marijam caught his eye and he relaxed, flashing her a wide smile. His eyes danced again for a few seconds, but then the concentration came back.
Frazier was now showing pictures from the night before.
‘You are a very privileged group,’ he said finally ‘to have witnessed something like this in your final year of schooling. There are five research places now open to students of Project 57. Anyone interested can apply through InterEducation as usual.’
Everyone sat in silence for about ten seconds, then everyone started talking at once. Questions were shouted out without the normal order and discipline in a school meet – especially when the Head of Education was there. Frazier Kennedy did his best to answer them, but even he was not his usual unflappable self.
For a short while Marijam forgot who she was sitting next to. Even Gabrizan seemed less important than the news they had just been given. So the poison cloud was gone after all that time, and it had gone so quickly in just one night of the most fantastic light display she had ever seen.
‘Are you going to give it a go?’ asked Gabrizan, now sitting back in his chair again, and pulling her out of her day dream.
A little thrill of excitement ran through her as she looked at him.
‘I think I’d like to,’ she managed to say. There was a strange lump in her throat and she thought her voice came out a bit squeaky. She was really interested in the project, but she was fascinated by him.
‘Well, I’m going to,’ said Gabrizan. ‘Hey, don’t you think it would be good for the two of us to work together? Maybe we could take on a joint research project. It would be a great Part II.’
Wouldn’t it just? thought Marijam. Especially if I was doing it with you.
‘Will you meet me later?’ asked Gabrizan, as they were about to leave the seminar room. ‘There is something I think you would really like to see.’
‘Oh, just one thing,’ called Frazier Kennedy as the students started to make their way towards the exit. ‘No-one will be allowed up to the surface for a while yet. We need to carry out further tests, then get it ready. We’re pretty sure it’s safe out there, but we must be certain. We think the strange metal entered Terrestra’s atmosphere randomly, but we have to be sure that it was not fired or planted there by people from another planet. Also, it will take some getting used to the outside air. Anyone caught going out before the all-clear is given will be dealt with severely. Everybody needs to get used to the idea anyway. But,’ he paused. There was a twinkle in his eye. ‘Some of the outer plastiglass comes off the windows straight away.’
‘Intersection Q5A. Seven fifteen,’ Gabrizan whispered.
Marijam turned to see Gabrizan walking away from her. He waved and grinned.
* * *
‘Well all I can say is,’ said Louish Kennedy, looking at her daughter in the silver silk, ‘he must be a pretty important guy. I’ve never seen you look so well-groomed. It’s good to see you get away from that dataserve a bit as well.’
‘It’s the new chap, isn’t it?’ said Frazier, grinning hugely. ‘That’s okay by me. He’s quite a man. Got his application in for Project Northern Lights already. And it’s looking good!’
Already? thought Marijam. How on Terrestra had he managed that? She would have to get cracking. But not tonight. She briefly thought of the chaos she’d left in her bedroom. All of her tunics were strewn across the bed. It had taken forever to decide what to wear, and even now she wasn’t sure. But it was time to go. The silver silk would have to do.
* * *
Marijam had never been to Q5A or even to this side of town before. It was right where this cave network ended. A transporter system could take you to the next network, but it would usually take a long time for one to arrive.
There was something dull and tarnished about the caves here. They looked as if they had not been cared for in a long time. Marijam was so nervous that when her arm brushed one of the sides, she sprang away, startled.
‘Leave me alone!’ she shouted. It had only been the bare rock, though. She put her hand on its surface. It was cold and clammy. Obviously, it had not been dehumidified and damp-proofed like the other cave networks she knew.
‘You look gorgeous,’ said a voice. Marijam jumped again. She hadn’t seen him there, standing in the shadows.
‘Thank you,’ she managed to remember to say.
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘You’ll find this unbelievable.’
‘Where are we going?’ she asked.
‘Don’t be frightened,’ he said. Could he see how much she was shaking? ‘Nothing’s going to hurt you.’
She followed him along the cave path. It was really rough just here. There were loose rocks, which you couldn’t actually see, all along the pathway. Marijam tripped several times. Once, she fell to the floor, grazing her hand.
‘Are you all right?’ asked Gabrizan, moving towards her. He sounded concerned.
‘I’m fine,’ she said, quickly getting back up before he could help her. She wasn’t really. Her hand was throbbing. But she felt too embarrassed to admit that she was hurt. He might think she was clumsy.
What a silly time to wear a silk tunic, she thought.
It was really hard to walk. And it was so dark here. She supposed it was because they were so close to the edge of the cave network. Every so often, Gabrizan turned to see whether she was still coming.
‘Nearly there,’ he said, as they came to a real bit of cave where it was even more difficult to keep going.
‘Here,’ he said a few minutes later as they arrived in front of a steel door.
Gabrizan took a strange looking object out of his pocket and started to work at the door’s lock with it.
‘What’s that?’ asked Marijam?
‘Have you not seen one before?’ Gabrizan was not looking at her. ‘It’s a just a little gadget I always carry with me. It’s especially good for opening stubborn doors.’
In seconds the door was open. Marijam realised what was happening. She remembered her father’s warning about how it might not be all right outside and how people would be punished if they were caught.
Gabrizan turned to face her.
‘It will be all right. Really, it will. Trust me.’
Marijam’s mouth went dry. The shaking became worse. Gabrizan was still staring at her. His eyebrows were slightly raised as if he was asking a question. He smiled slowly. Of course she could trust him!
‘I’ll be behind you all the way,’ he said. ‘It’s only a few metres up here. But you might feel funny when the air hits you.’
Carefully, Marijam stepped on to the first rung of the metal ladder. She made her way up slowly. She was afraid of what she was going to see at the other end. Gabrizan didn’t say anything as they went up, but she knew he was behind her and that reassured her.
‘We’re half way there,’ he said suddenly. ‘Just another twenty rungs to go.’
Marijam could feel the air on her face now. It felt like the way the water from the cooler tasted. Of nothing, but cool and fresh. Everything seemed to be jumping around and she couldn’t focus her eyes on anything.
‘Careful,’ said Gabrizan, gently. ‘Don’t breathe in too much at once. You’re not ready for the natural mix yet. There’s actually more oxygen out here than in what they pump through the caves.’
How does he know? thought Marijam. How can he know it’s that safe?
Marijam couldn’t help feeling excited, though, as she came to the top of the shaft. She felt even dizzier as she let go of the rungs and pushed herself onto the surface of Terrestra. There was something soft and powdery beneath her hands. Pink dust.
‘It’s been scorched,’ said Gabrizan, coming up behind her. She was glad he was there. It made her feel safe. ‘It will soon be green again, though,’ he added. ‘Now that the poison cloud’s gone, they can bring the plant life back.’
‘How long do you think it will take to come back?’ she asked. After all, the cloud had arrived gradually. No-one had realised at first. But she remembered from her history lessons that the plants had started to die and then people started to cough and choke on the bad air. The authorities at the time had decided to get everything that lived underground. Would it come back just as gradually?
‘I guess it’ll take a while,’ he said. ‘Oh, but just look at that,’ he said, pointing towards the dark blue sky.
Marijam stared at the stars. They seemed so near, and she could see so far. A bright moon was shining. It seemed to Marijam brighter than the sun usually was. There was no plastiglass or rim in the way. A breeze tickled her neck. There was the faint scent of something a little familiar but which she could not name.
‘What’s that?’ she said.
‘What?’ asked Gabrizan.
‘That sort of green smell,’ she replied suddenly realising it was what the greenhouses smelt like, only not so overpowering.
‘I wonder…’ He grabbed her hand.
Gabrizan walked rather quickly. Marijam found herself slipping on the pink powder. It was so different from walking on the special surfaces in the caves. Each step took longer as she kept on sliding back. Soon she was out of breath.
‘We’re nearly there,’ said Gabrizan.
Marijam could hear water rushing. It sounded like a huge tap running. The ground beneath them had stopped being soft and had now turned into solid rock. It was hard and cold beneath her feet. Gabrizan stopped suddenly. Marijam shivered. Gabrizan put his arm around the waist and held her closer.
‘Look,’ he said.
In front of them a waterfall tumbled over the rocks.
‘Can you see it?’ asked Gabrizan.
Marijam looked to where he was pointing. Nestled in the rocks were a few strands of green.
‘That’s what you could smell,’ he said, ‘ferns which have lived despite the poison cloud.’
Marijam breathed in deeply. She could taste the air. There was something sweet about its dampness, and underneath a taste of something like fresh salad. The breeze danced around her cheeks again.
‘How did you know it was here?’ she asked Gabrizan.
‘I’d seen there used to be a waterfall on the map,’ he said. ‘And when we noticed the green smell, I guessed it was still there.’
Marijam bent down and touched the ground beneath her. Its hardness and rough surface startled her. She drank the air, swallowing mouthfuls at a time. She looked up at the sky again. She had never seen so much sky. She had never seen its blueness properly before. The poison cloud had always cast a grey shadow.
‘It is so amazing,’ she said quietly. ‘So …. it’s hard to describe… well, alive, I suppose..’
But there was something else.
Marijam turned to face Gabrizan. He was staring at her, his eyes wide open.
‘What I see is also fantastic,’ he murmured.
Marijam suddenly felt uneasy. Yet tingles of excitement ran up and down her body. Gabrizan touched her face gently.
‘You’re so beautiful,’ he said. Then he laughed suddenly.
‘Come on,’ he said. ‘We’d better get back. Being outside for the first time is too much of a shock.’
But Marijam knew they would be back. Oh yes they would! Outside was definitely good!