Kaleem’s face ached.
‘There is a theory,’ Razjosh had explained ‘that once you are about twelve, your palate has set - that is your ability to change the shape of your mouth to produce certain sounds, so that any sound that does not appear in your own language cannot be produced easily. It takes a lot of training to get beyond that. It would be almost easier to rebuild your face - but we don’t have time and though we might alter you to fit one language, you might not then be right for another - including your own.’
He looked at Kaleem, who thought he saw something a bit like pity in the eyes of the old man.
‘No,’ sighed the Elder. ‘It just takes hours and hours of training, and, I’m afraid, pain for you.’
Kaleem felt as if he wanted to tear every tooth out of his mouth. Then, as well, the words and language structure he had been grappling with would spin round and round in his head, keeping him awake each night. When he did eventually sleep, though, he was thankful that it was without dreams and at least he was avoiding that nightmare.
‘You need to rest,’ said Razjosh one afternoon. ‘No more work for now. You have a big holoexercise coming up.’ Then he deactivated the learning programmes on Kaleem’s dataserve and left.
Kaleem’s room at the Citadel was far more luxurious that the one in the cave apartment. It was mainly furnished with the old materials - though not quite so luxurious as those in the Chief Elder’s apartment. Even so, for a few moments at least, Kaleem was enjoying the softness of the down-filled pillow against which he was sprawled. He watched the entertainment channels on the dataserve in his room, trying to forget all those foreign words for a short while. He couldn’t concentrate though. The strange structures and words form Zandrian kept popping into his head.
Every now and then, he looked out of the window. That was one thing he really liked - having a window. He could see out beyond the crystalline edge of the city to large stretches of untamed but still young woodland and beyond that to flatter, heath land. Just at the edge of that he could see a few cultivated fields. But it really gave him no clue as to where the Citadel actually was.
The communicator buzzed.
‘Receive,’ commanded Kaleem. Oxton grinned at him.
‘Good news to-day,’ said the young carer. ‘We have weighed her, and she is putting weight back on steadily. We can soon stop the extra high protein units. And she is not watching quite so many old movie clips.’
‘What is she doing?’ asked Kaleem.
Oxton’s face fell a little.
‘Not really a lot,’ he said. ‘Just sitting and staring into space. Day dreaming. And she’s still not responding all that much when we talk to her.’ He paused and frowned. ‘Mind you, she did start saying something the other day.’
‘What was that? asked Kaleem.
‘Something about …. The tower book….where was the tower book? Does that mean anything to you?’
‘Not an awful lot,’ replied Kaleem. That again, he thought.
So, she’d gained weight. That was good. But she was still behaving oddly and now the whole issue of the Babel story was back.
Oxton grinned again.
‘Hey, don’t worry,’ he said. ‘She is getting better. And they’re doing some research about recovery of coma patients - looking at the archive records from the last millennium. It seems the physical recovery always comes first.’
‘Thanks,’ said Kaleem. ‘Say hello from me, won’t you?’
‘Will do,’ said Oxton. ‘And we’re still trying to get her to come on to the movie phone.’
Oxton waved and then the screen went blank.
‘Resume movie clip?’ asked the dataserve.
‘No,’ sighed Kaleem. ‘Set relax mode.’
He stood by the window and watched the view as the blinds slowly lowered. The lights in the room dimmed and the strange wind-chime music started, with the sound of waves spilling gently on to a beach behind it.
As he lay on the bed, the pillow moulded itself to the back of his head.
I suppose they ought to call it a comfipillow, thought Kaleem. Or better still, a comfikissen, if they’re going to use the same mixture of old English and German as they did for comfisessel.
The room now smelt mildly of pine forest. The air felt like warm seaside air.
The relax mode was beginning to have its effect. As his eye lined up with the time-clock, a gentle dataserve voice informed him that it was two minutes past three in the afternoon of day 325, year 3516.
I suppose an hour’s better than nothing, he thought, as he drifted to sleep.
What seemed like only seconds later, he was wide awake again. The room had returned to daylight setting and the air had more oxygen in it. Razjosh appeared in the communicator.
‘Time for the final batch of holoteachers,’ he said. ‘This is the last chance. The most important lesson of all. And then we’ll see!’
We’ll see what? thought Kaleem. What are they actually expecting?
‘Are you ready then?’ asked Razjosh.
‘I think so,’ said Kaleem. He was now really completely alert again. What was going to come now? He’d got used to meeting the unexpected. Yet every time they managed to produce something even more surprising.
‘Okay,’ said Razjosh. ‘I’m sure you’ll be fine.’
Fine, maybe, thought Kaleem. But not spectacular or even convincing.
The daylight of the room faded. If he listened very hard he could just about hear that faint hum of the dataserve. But even that small hint of what was really going on was soon muffled by the convincingly human sounds of the holoteachers
Kaleem was sitting in a room with several other people. He knew they weren’t actually people - they were just holograms generated by very clever dataserves. Yet it was easy to be taken in.
He and eleven others were sitting on comfisessels along one side of the room. There were other people in front of them wearing contraptions on their heads that looked a bit like hair and a bit like curly woolly hats. But, intriguingly, blond hair like his own poked out from under the hats.
To his left sat two women in grey tight-fitting suits. Between them was an ordinary looking man. He, too, had hair like Kaleem’s.
There was something very familiar about the whole scene. But Kaleem just couldn’t think where he had seen it before.
The person sitting next to him nudged him. Kaleem turned to look at her. He guessed she was about his age and she also had blond hair, but it was a much darker colour than his own.
‘You have to do everything the big man says,’ she said.
She was speaking English. But it wasn’t quite Terrestran thirty-fifth century English. He could understand her all right. It was just odd, very very odd. He listened to one or two other people speaking. He could hear words here and there from those sitting opposite them. They made sense, but they sounded strange.
‘I’m Kyli’, by the way, continued the young girl. ‘And you’re in a court of law on Super Kanasa. We have laws here that go right back to the twenty-fifth century and we speak the tongue that the Canadians used then - more or less.’
It was even more confusing than when he had been on other planets which spoke a completely different language from his own. It was just a word or two here and there that was different. He was more disturbed by that strange way of saying some of the familiar words and the way Kyli’s voice went up and down in slightly the wrong places.
Another man with one of the strange hats on, and a long black tunic over loose floppy leggings came in.
‘All rise,’ he said.
Everyone in the room stood up. A door which Kaleem had not noticed slightly above them and to their right side opened, and a tall, broad-shouldered man, with a longer hair-hat and an even more voluminous tunic than the other man walked in. He sat down on a comfisessel which immediately wrapped itself around him, but hovered so that he was always a little higher than the rest of the people in the room.
‘We’re part of the jury,’ whispered Kyli. ‘We have to listen to both sides of the casik-story, and then decide who’s the right - the blamed or the blamers.’
‘Bring forward the blamed one!’ said the big man.
‘He’s the judge,’ said Kyli.
‘Silence in the jury,’ boomed the judge.
The two women in grey brought the man into the middle of the room.
He turned to the man in the black tunic.
‘That’s the write-it-down,’ said Kyli.
‘What is it, the charge?’ asked the judge.
‘Not looking out for extra mile,’ said the write-it-down.
‘What is the show?’ asked the judge.
‘If I may, milord,’ said one of the men with hair-hats on. ‘May I call eye-baller Thomant, who says the blamed watched Old Mother Gossipen struggle up the penty-slope from the provisions centre. He did indeed carry her holdy-all, but only as far as their path followed the same direction aim. He should have gone the extra mile to her living-in.’
‘Thank you, that has clarity,’ said the judge. ‘What says Thomant?’
A man without a hair-hat stepped forward. He looked really very much like anyone from Terrestra, except that he wore a quite short, tight-fitting tunic and loose leggings. He went and stood behind a high counter.
‘Right, Mista Thomant, what say, you saw the blamed give back Old Mother Gossipen the holdy-all back afore she being at her living-in?’
‘That is so, your honour,’ said Thomant. ‘He left her at the angle of the walkway and the penty-slope. She had to fight her way with the ponderful holdy-all. The blamed did not seem to give it mind.’
Kaleem was astounded. This man was being tried for just not carrying a bag all the way home for an old lady.
‘What say you, blamed sir?’ said the judge. ‘Is this the really happening?’
‘It is the truth, your honour,’ said the man. ‘I didn’t give it to mind, the old female up the penty-slope to help.’
‘How be you called?’ asked the judge.
‘Arnold of Forest,’ said the man.
‘Who protects this man?’ asked the judge. ‘Is there an out-talk?’
One of the people wearing a hair-hat, who Kaleem had thought was a man, stood up. As soon as the person began to speak, Kaleem realised that it was a woman, a girl even, not much older than himself.
‘The blamed had a heap of troubles on his brain,’ she said. ‘He had to move rapidly to his living-in, because his childers and spouse ailing were. He had medicine for them merchanted. He wanted that they should as soon as doable it take in.’
‘Is this of the reality, Arnold of Forest?’ asked the judge.
‘It is so, your honour,’ said Arnold of Forest.
The judge seemed to be mumbling to himself and was looking down at a small hand-held dataserve.
‘Well,’ he said, turning to where Kaleem and Kyli and the other ten people were sitting, ‘jury partners, what you must now deliberate is this: not whether the blamed was wrong, that he has given to, but whether he had ground enough to do as he did. And if he didn’t have ground enough, whether he needs to be reinstructed in how to weigh up how to make conclusions.’
The judge stood up.
‘All rise,’ said the write-it-down.
Everyone in the room stood up as the judge walked out.
‘This will be a long session,’ whispered Kyli. ‘And we must all be of an understanding.’
They were shown into a room by the write-it-down.
They were given drinks and food that wasn’t all that different from things Kaleem knew from Terrestra. It was just the names that were so odd - a sandwich was called a between-the-breads and coffee was bean juice. It was easy enough to understand. Kaleem hardly dared say anything, though. At worst they would not be able to understand what he said, at best they would think he spoke very strangely.
The arguments seemed endless. They seemed to be going round in circles. Arnold of Forest should have taken the bag the whole way to the home of the old lady. But then he was worried about his family. Well, ten minutes wasn’t going to make all that much difference to them. Modern medicine was so effective that it would work straight away. So, was it a question of retraining? And was retraining to be about better understanding of where the greatest need was, or was it to be about being less emotional?
Kaleem had to listen carefully. It was easy enough to understand the words, but the combinations were more difficult.
It’s even harder, he thought, hearing your own language with these funny differences than it is hearing a new one.
He realised that the arguments were also strange.
‘You’re a fraction silent,’ said one woman to him. ‘Don’t you opine?’
‘He’s an in-traveller,’ said Kyli quickly.
‘An in-traveller?’ said the woman. ‘How uplifting. Out of where have you travelled in?’
Kaleem was about to say from Terrestra, but then realised that that would not work. No-one ever moved from Terrestra.
‘He’s on a secret undertaking,’ said Kyli quickly.
This is ridiculous, thought Kaleem. It’s just machines. It doesn’t actually matter.
There was a knock on the door. Before anyone could answer, the write-it-down had come into the room.
‘Remember, you must all arrive at a common meaning?’ he asked. ‘Have you chosen a before-sitter? Remember you must all understand together.’
A man who had more or less organised them all the time stood up.
‘Should I be the before-sitter?’ he said.
The others in the room nodded and mumbled agreement.
‘So,’ he said, sitting down again, ‘shall we go round all that are here and see if there’s concord?’
‘Needs he retraining?’
‘That is so,’ said everyone in turn.
When they came to Kaleem, he managed to say the words quickly and with his voice going up at the at the end just like the others had.
‘Good do!’ whispered Kyli.
‘Retraining in measuring up the for and again?’ he then asked.
‘Not so,’ was the answer that everyone gave. There was an emphasis on the first word. This time Kaleem found it harder to get the sound right. He went red as everyone stared and there was a slight pause.
This is madness, he thought. They’re just machines. Why am I blushing?
The round continued.
Then came the final question.
‘So, it’s to be the not so feeling much training?’ said the before-sitter.
‘Good so,’ said everyone in turn, nodding their head vigorously.
Kaleem got away with mumbling the ‘good so’ and nodding his head.
‘So,’ said the before-sitter, ‘we can go back to the deciding congress.’
The write-it-down came into the room straight away.
Kaleem smiled to himself. He must have been listening to everything, he thought.
They were taken back into the court room.
The write-it-down had just said ‘All rise’ and the judge had just started to walk back into the room when everything froze and the soft whirring of the dataserves began.
Kaleem was back in his room. The screen was on and both Razjosh and Chief Makisson were looking at him.
‘There’s a transporter outside your room,’ said Razjosh. ‘You’re to come straight up to Chief Makisson’s quarters. Urgently.’
The Chief Elder nodded. The screen went blank. The door of his room slid open. The transporter pod - a small one-seater was hovering outside. Kaleem stepped into it. It hurtled along the corridors and over other pods. Minutes later he was standing outside Makisson’s office. He had hardly pointed his iris at the scanner when the door slid open.
Chief Makisson indicated that he should sit down. The comfisessel just had time to mould itself to him when the Elder spoke.
‘Well, what did you make of the court room on Super Kanasa?’ asked the old man.
‘It was a bit strange,’ said Kaleem. That was an understatement. ‘Why were they making so much about so little?’
The Chief Elder raised his eyebrows and looked towards Razjosh.
Oh, come on, thought Kaleem. That was all produced by machines. That wasn’t for real.
‘The people on Super Kanasa are really strong Christians,’ said Razjosh. ‘Christ, the prophet, taught that if someone slapped you on the face, you should turn your cheek so that they could slap the other one. If someone asked you to walk a long way, you should volunteer to walk an extra mile. The other point is - just as there is no disease - or, rather, there wasn’t - on Terrestra - there is no crime on Super Kanasa. Courts don’t need to deal with crime. They just deal with people who are a little short of perfection.’
‘You do understand, don’t you, said Chief Makisson, ‘that place travellers - and above all the Peace Child - have to respect the beliefs and habits of others?’
Kaleem nodded. What did they think? Of course he respected the lives of others. That lesson had been hammered home even more strongly than even the complicated language lessons. Besides, he was not exactly the same as everybody else himself, was he?
‘It will be different physically from here,’ continued Makisson, ‘and that is more important than you might think.’
‘I know, sir,’ replied Kaleem.
‘You will have to think differently,’ said the chief Elder.
‘I think I can do it, sir,’ said Kaleem. Hadn’t that been the point of the hololessons?
‘But the most important thing is that they have different values form us,’ said the Elder, with a sigh. He stared at Kaleem.
Kaleem blushed and looked at the floor.
‘I’m sure he’s ready, sir,’ said Razjosh quietly.
The Chief Elder was looking at Kaleem thoughtfully.
‘Hmm,’ he said after a few seconds’ silence. ‘We really do need the Peace Child now. That should at least be clear.’
There was another short silence.
‘We are sending you as our ambassador,’ said Chief Makisson.
Kaleem felt the blood rush to his head. This was still too soon.
‘Why not Razjosh?’ he asked.
‘We tried that, remember?’ said Razjosh. ‘Anyway, I’m too much an Elder. I’ve been doing it for too long.’ The old man stopped, as if he were about to say something else.
‘We want someone who will really blend in, who will be able to understand the people there and become like them,’ said Chief Makisson.
‘You’ve shown us that you can,’ said Razjosh.
But that was just with machines, thought Kaleem. ‘It was easy with the holoteachers,’ he said.
Razjosh laughed. ‘You made a much better job of your assignments than I did when I worked with the holoteachers,’ he said. ‘My goodness, I got angry with them. And I argued with my tutor. But I got there in the end, I guess.’
Kaleem shrugged. He knew how much it hurt when others made decisions about you just because you were a bit different. He’d actually found that part of his training quite easy.
‘Well, we think you’re ready anyway,’ said Makisson. ‘You’re right about it being easier with holoteachers. In case of any problems we’ll hide you behind the Babel Prophecy.’
‘Hide me behind a prophecy?’ said Kaleem. ‘I don’t understand.’
‘We make use of prophecies when we need to,’ explained Razjosh. ‘We’ll make your story fit the Babel story if anything goes wrong and you run into trouble with the Zandrians.’
‘But how will you know?’ protested Kaleem. What were they going to do? Abandon him on a planet which was already beginning to fall out with Terrestra? At least he didn’t look completely like a Terrestran. That was something.
‘You won’t be exactly on your own, anyway,’ said Razjosh. ‘I shall be coming with you as well.’
‘How can you do that?’ asked Kaleem. ‘They’ll know who you are. And you’ve already said you can’t go and become one of them.’
‘I shall not be visible,’ said Razjosh. ‘I have a hiding place on Zandra. I shall not tell you where it is – then you will not be able to tell any-one else.’
‘Where?’ asked Kaleem. This was getting more confusing by the minute.
‘I was sent there on a Peace Child mission just before you were born,’ said Razjosh. ‘Something which was, as it turned out, far less important than what is happening now, though it seemed quite a big thing at the time. I have people I can go to, who will keep me hidden. ‘
‘But …?’ began Kaleem.
‘Most planets have the equivalent of a Peace Child,’ said Razjosh. ‘I’ve met a few of them, including the one on Zandra.’
Nothing is ever what is seems to be, then, thought Kaleem. There’s all sorts of stuff going on that we don’t get to hear about. So people have been leaving this planet all the time, after all.
‘The Babel Prophecy states that a Peace Child will overcome the effect of the Tower of Babel,’ said Makisson. ‘If the Zandrians find out who you are, we will say we have sent you because we really thought you were the Peace Child of the Prophecy and that you were there to make the peace.’
‘I get it,’ said Kaleem. ‘That’s what they were talking about then, wasn’t it?’
‘That was what who was talking about?’ asked Razjosh.
‘The people in the movie clip,’ Kaleem replied.
Razjosh and Chief Makisson looked at each other.
‘Which movie clip?’ asked Razjosh.
‘The one you sent after the attack on the Zandrian Supercraft?’
‘We sent you no movie clips,’ said Razjosh. ‘Even we weren’t allowed to interfere with the information channels that day.’
‘What was it about?’ asked Makisson.
The two Elders frowned as Kaleem described as best he could the discussion he had seen about the Babel story.
‘So, you think they were saying more or less the same as we were?’ asked Razjosh. ‘That prophecies are used to symbolise and explain what is actually happening?’
‘Yes,’ said Kaleem, ‘except that there was also all this stuff about the Mother.’
‘Aha, that bit of the story,’ said Razjosh. ‘No-one has ever found a rational explanation for that. Odd as well that your mother will not tell us who your father might be.’
A lump formed in Kaleem’s throat. He found it difficult to swallow.
‘But what’s even more worrying, is where the movie clip came from. Why was it sent? Who sent it? How did they even manage to on a day when all channels had to be filled with information?’ said Makisson.
‘It is very strange,’ said Razjosh. ‘But I actually think now, we need to worry a bit more about my meeting with the Council of Heads.’
‘You see,’ said the Chief Makisson, turning to Kaleem. ‘Even we Elders have to rely on the good-will of more ordinary folk. We’ll never get you two off the planet and on to Zandra without the help of the Head of Transport and he cannot agree to it without permission from the whole of the Council of Heads.’