Gengis Hall 231 was just like any other meet venue that Kaleem had been in – either here on Zandra or on Terrestra. Boring, but particularly so when your meet partner was running late. Kaleem stared at the holoscene which showed through the window. At least it was convincing. You really felt as if you were looking at a view through a window, just like you might on Terrestra. It was storied from a real place: one of the infant forests, complete with bluebells, ice-bells and all the rest, one of the very forests that his father was working on.
He gets everywhere, thought Kaleem. He wished Edmundson would hurry up. He needed to find out what he wanted. He was beginning to imagine all sorts.
The dataserve whirred into life. Edmundson’s face appeared on the screen.
“Listen Kennedy,” he said. “I’m going to be another fifteen minutes at least. Load the stuff about acorn and vaccine exchange. You tell me what those statistics mean.”
“Of course,” said Kaleem.
Edmundson was still not giving anything away.
The screen blanked over before Edmundson said goodbye. In fact, Kaleem, supposed, he probably hadn’t said goodbye. Edmundson never wasted time on superfluous words. Before he even thought about what he’d been asked to do, the screen suddenly started showing the Supercraft at London Harbour and Zandra Dock 1. He was now watching similar scenes to the ones he’d seen yesterday. He didn’t bother, though, this time asking for the Figurescript version of the statistics. He was fairly certain that Edmundson couldn’t read Figurescript.
It was quite mesmerising listening to the robotic voiceover. “Day 116 3520, acorns imported 7500, vaccine exported 5679. Viability in package from day 116 3519 96%. Vaccine to date 97% effective. Forecast for new needs, Day 118 3520, 17,000 acorns, 18,644 doses of vaccine. Forecast for reciprocal needs met Day 220 3527…”
Goodness, if I ever can’t sleep, thought Kaleem, I’ll load some of this stuff up.
It struck him as he watched the split screen picture of London Harbour and Zandra Dock 1 that although Zandrian droids and Supercraft were not quite the same, there was more the same about them than different. The Supercraft were more or less the same shape and had the entrances in exactly the same places, the droids were the same height and walked in the normal slightly stiff manner and the metal containers being loaded at either end were exactly the same size, colour and shape, but the Zandrian ones had a green cross on them to show that they held medication and the Terrestrans had green hexagons to show that they contained plant life.
“Do you see what’s missing?” a voice behind him asked.
He turned to face Don Edmundson. The man was even scarier in the flesh than he was usually on screen. There was absolutely no expression on his face at all.
Kaleem shook his head. He just couldn’t think with Edmundson staring at him like that.
“Doesn’t it strike you as odd that there are no people around?”
Kaleem looked back at the screen. Well there were people, but only a very few. Most of the work was being done by the droids.
“I mean, getting on and off the Supercraft,” said Edmundson.
“Forecast daily rate for this lunar period,” the robotic voiceover droned on.
“Fine, we know,” said Edmundson, looking pointedly at the dataserve screen.
The screen went blank immediately and the serve itself gave a final bleep.
Edmundson nodded to Kaleem that he should sit down and took one of the not-so comfisessels himself.
“Everything is going according to plan,” said Edmundson, “as far as acorns and vaccine are concerned. But another part of the bargain was a greater connection between the people of Zandra and Terrestra. I don’t see it happening.”
“What do you mean exactly?” asked Kaleem.
“I mean that we need people, Terrestrans, to come to Zandra now. And we need to get Zandrians on Terrestra.”
Yes. Of course. Kaleem had known that all along. In fact that had even been his excuse for coming here. Or that was what he had told everyone including his parents and his grandparents: he was here on a Peace Child mission. He had to oversee the first visits to Zandra from Terrestrans and then increase the number of visitors from Terrestra to Zandra. There had been just a few – himself, his mother and the small team that had come across on the first mission to Zandra in search of the vaccine against the Starlight Racer disease. If he was honest, though, he had really come here to get away from Rozia and everything associated with her.
“Well? said Edmundson. “Do you have any concrete plans yet?”
“No,” said Kaleem. “You can imagine how carefully we have to tread with Terrestrans.”
“I don’t have to imagine,” replied Edmundson quickly. “It’s all too obvious. It was part of the original agreement that an exchange of persons as well as materials would actually take place. You and your mother are hardly enough. And besides, that is not an exchange: there are no Zandrians on Terrestra.”
Kaleem knew he was absolutely right. He would have to do something and soon. He would probably have to ask Razjosh for ideas.
“I suggest,” Edmundson continued, “a person exchange. Six people go from here to Terrestra, and meet with six Terrestran delegates. They travel back to Zandra with our people. Not too much to ask is it, just for a start?”
No, it wasn’t. But Kaleem knew he would be pushed to find six. Maybe Pierre and Stuart. Razjosh was too old really and probably wouldn’t count as he’d been before. Rozia, he knew, would come like a shot. He daren’t ask her, though. He wouldn’t be able to cope with her being there. Not now that she was with Julien. Abel and Kevik – but they were too busy in the Z Zone. Saratina maybe? But how would they react to her here? No, he shouldn’t think like that.
“Well?” asked Edmundson.
“It sounds reasonable,” said Kaleem. Reasonable but almost impossible.
“Good,” said Edmundson. “I’ll get Emmerline to show you the ideas we’d had.”
Kaleem shuddered. Edmundson’s secretary droid was famous. It was always difficult to remember that she wasn’t a real woman. She was so life-like and always carried so much authority. But of course, not being human she never tired.
The door swished open and in she came. Only the slightest jerkiness in her movements and the data that started streaming across the screen as she moved into the room gave away that she was a droid and not a sexy young woman. She moved her hips as she walked and her long straight blond hair flowed behind her as she moved. She was connecting directly with the dataserve, though. Soon images flickered and flashed making Kaleem blink. So, she was a droid after all.
“Data download is now complete,” said Emmerline. The voice was astoundingly human. No way was she a droid. Why was Edmundson the only one to have something as sophisticated as this? She tossed her sleek hair back and smiled at Kaleem and Edmundson.
“Talk him through it,” said Edmundson.
“Yes, certainly. A delegation of about six persons should go to Terrestra. Kaleem should help decide who. They should have a diplomatic tour, stay in a good hotel but also have direct contact with Normal Zoners and of at least one in the newly integrating Z Zone. They should have ample opportunity to sample Terrestran food…”
“What would you know about that?” whispered Kaleem. Droids didn’t need food – well at least not the same sort that humans needed.
“It’s a most important part of human life,” said Emmerline, staring at him. The pupils on her artificial eyes widened as if she was trying to take more of him in.
Great elders, she was scary. The scariest female that Kaleem had ever met… not that she was really female, he reminded himself. She was just a machine.
“Essential, in fact,” continued Emmerline. “Fundamental. And also extremely puzzling why food is so much better here on Zandra than on Terrestra where you have better raw materials.”
Kaleem had to concede that one. And he had no idea how they did it either.
“Naturally, we would also like to learn more about your diastics systems,” continued Emmerline. “My searches reveal the following academics may be able to give advice.”
Movie clips of Terrestran scientists showed for a few seconds each on the screen.
And to think all you need is microchips and some good programming, thought Kaleem.
“We would also like to arrange a discussion between the delegates and a committee made up of heads of service and elders. And yourself of course.” She flashed Kaleem another smile. She flicked her hair out of her eyes and her pupils grew even larger as if she were flirting with him.
For a few seconds Kaleem was almost convinced that she really was human and that it was just some trick of Edmundson’s and a female friend of his. Edmundson seemed to be finding it all extremely amusing.
“Show him the timetable,” he said to the droid. It was clear he could hardly keep his face straight.
A chart immediately appeared on the data screen.
“These show the timings,” said Emmerline. “Red is for food discussion, blue for investigation of scientific matters, yellow for social activities and purple for further negotiation of the peace.”
Now Kaleem wanted to giggle. This was just too much. It was much too precise.
Edmundson suddenly looked stern.
“Stand-by,” he ordered Emmerline. “You see, she really is a droid.”
“No, no,” said Kaleem. “I just found it all too neat and tidy. You can’t do things that quickly.”
“Hmm,” said Edmundson. “But it ought to be a lot more focussed than you’re making it.” He turned back to the droid. “Continue,” he commanded. “Show Terrestrans on Zandra.”
A movie clip loaded on to the screen. Kaleem gasped. There were Pierre, Stuart, Saratina, Rozia, Sandi Depra and Ben Alki. They were here, on Zandra, looking at one of the oak plantations. Of course, why hadn’t he thought of those two?
“It‘s all right,” said Edmundson. “She can read your mind.”
“But I never thought of Ben Alki or Sandi Depra,” Kaleem murmured.
“Good, isn’t she?” continued Edmundson. “She can even read your subconscious mind.” He was grinning.
Here we go, thought Kaleem. Another mission impossible.
The droid whispered something to Edmundson. The executive’s face went pale.
“Really? He said. He turned to Kaleem. “I’d get home as soon as possible if I were you. You don’t want to be caught here with me with what might be about to happen.” What was he talking about?
“Go on, I mean it,” said Edmundson, his face now red. “Skedaddle.”
Kaleem could see that he meant business. He set off home.