Marijam stuffed four old ripon tunics into the overnight case. She picked up the pretty pearl and gold jewellery box her aunt had given her. That, with other bits and pieces her aunt and grandmother had given her might be more useful as currency in the Z Zone than Terrestra credits, until she managed to get a false credit account.
She had briefly also thought about trying to make her way to the Citadel, where the Elders lived. She had heard rumours that they could be kind, and they would often help Normal Zoners who got in to some sort of trouble. But she had no idea how to get there. That would have meant delving into even more of the Hidden Information. At least she knew where the Z Zone was. Somehow, she thought, that was just as well. She deserved the poverty of the Z Zone more than the luxury of the Citadel.
She obstinately refused to let Louish help her with the packing. She said she wanted to get her thoughts straight about the Northern Lights Project. Louish had been taken in.
Neither of her parents mentioned Gabrizan’s disappearance again, nor how pale she looked. Oddly enough, over the last day or two, the nausea had all but disappeared. Just a hint of it now and then. Perhaps it was the shock.
Well, she was dressed smartly enough for a science project interview. She was wearing a newer, plain tunic. She washed her hair carefully and some of the shine came back. She didn’t look too bad in the mirror, even though she still felt completely drained.
Better keep up appearances, she told herself.
The pearl necklace her grandmother left her bought her some Hidden Information. If anyone found out, she would probably have to go to prison for the rest of her life. She shuddered when she thought of her meeting with the Ambassador, as he called himself. She would have sworn he was actually a Z Zoner, but one who spent an awful lot of time in the Normal Zones. He’d been so easy to find, too. Well, she’d known all along that some of the other kids in her social group sometimes accessed Hidden Information just for a bit of a laugh.
But it was nothing to laugh about. What she found out sickened her. She was almost grateful to the authorities for keeping that sort of information hidden. She had just two choices. She could give birth to the baby. That would be painful and could even kill her. Or she could get rid of it. That wouldn’t be all that pleasant either and was just as risky.
Both meant disappearing into the Z Zone. No-one in the Normal Zones would help with either. She would go there to get the help of the Z Zoners in delivering her baby, not in getting rid of it. It was Gabrizan’s baby. This would forever change her way of life and there would be no going back.
Marijam shivered as she thought of the Z Zone. She had found out more about it from the Hidden Information. She had already known that people who could no longer live in ordinary society were sent there. Until she’d got the Hidden Information, though, she had not known that Z Zoners did not have enough food, light and clothing. She had not realised that they had few dataserves and that any technology they did have was years out of date. The only concession they had to modern Terrestran life was a completely normal diastic system. The population there was getting thinner - maybe one day it would die out altogether. Would it though? she asked herself. Wouldn’t there always be misfits who needed hiding away? She flinched as she remembered what she had found out about birth control in the Z Zone. They had a full Stopes programme going on there. Not even Z Zoners got pregnant these days. But they also rarely made it to the hundred years and switch-off. They didn’t die of illness. They became tired, literally worn out, or they starved. They did die, the old way, and the average age for death was forty-five.
Marijam bit her lip when she remembered what it had been like getting that Hidden Information. No wonder they kept all of this from normal people. It was horrific.
Marijam looked around the room which had been hers for as long as she could remember. She had just a little more space in her bag. What else should she take? Then she saw it. Another gift from her grandmother. Oma had given it to her on her switch-off day. It was a book, a children’s picture book. Most stories were told in super-four vision these days, but this antique was beautiful. She found it hard to decipher the old-fashioned text. She knew the story off by heart, though, and she loved the pictures. She quickly flicked through the finely detailed paintings of the tower leading up to the sky. She loved the puzzled expressions of the people who found that they could not understand each other after they had tried to reach God.
Marijam heard her parents in the entrance hall to the apartment.
‘Are you coming?’ called Louish.
‘You go ahead, I’ll catch you up later,’ replied Marijam, trying not to let her voice tremble. It was really scary to think that she would never see her parents again.
The vacuum doors closed. Marijam stuffed the book into her bag. She took one last look around her room.
‘I’m sorry, Mum, Dad,’ she whispered. She thought about what might happen to her father after she had left. Would they allow him to carry on as a service head, if he couldn’t even deal with his own daughter? Just as well that he didn’t know why she had left.
Then she too walked out of the apartment.
The lifts to the surface had long queues to them. People chatted excitedly and jostled one another to get to the front of the queue. They won’t half feel dizzy, thought Marijam, when that real air hits them.
She decided it would be easier to get to the Z Zone across the top. The tunnels were so complicated underground. Many of them were blocked where roofs had caved in. The authorities had decided not to repair them. They didn’t particularly want Z Zoners mixing with ordinary people.
I hope they’re not going to spoil everything, she thought. It wasn’t going to be the same with everyone else sharing the outdoors. Oh, it wasn’t going to be the same without Gabrizan.
The lift stopped. A door had been set into the tube which went across the surface. People streamed out. Marijam enjoyed for a few seconds the thrill of breathing real air. But she was used to it, unlike the people around her. They looked dazed. Some clung on to pieces of rock. Others sat down on the ground. One or two were taking great gulps of air. Some medical workers walked about.
‘Don’t breathe too fast,’ they advised. ‘Don’t stay more than ten minutes. You’re not used to the changing temperatures or the natural mix of air.’
‘Isn’t this something?’ Marijam heard one woman say. ‘I’m so glad it’s happened in our life time.’
‘It’s a miracle,’ replied the man at her side.
Marijam put her hand to her tummy. I suppose this is a miracle as well, she thought. Only I think I’m off miracles.
Someone suddenly tapped her arm. She jumped.
‘It’s amazing, isn’t it?’ said a too familiar voice.
Marijam turned to see Ponty Davidson. ‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘though it makes you feel funny, doesn’t it?’ I hope he can’t see I’m already used to it, she thought.
‘Will you walk a little way with me?’ asked Ponty. His breathing became shallow.
‘I, er I think,’ stammered Marijam. ‘I think I need to go back in. I’ve already been out quite a while.’
She walked away from him, back towards the opening in the tube. She stopped at the entrance and turned to see what he was doing. He staggered a little and one of the medical workers came up to him. She watched him sit down as two of the medics now spoke to him. Then, his head was down between his knees. It was safe for her to go now. He would not see her.
She set off again. She went behind Ponty and the two medical workers. He was recovering. She must hurry. She quickened her step.
‘Marijam,’ she heard Ponty call. ‘Where are you going?’
She pretended not to hear. She walked faster and faster until she was almost running. The ground became rougher. She would have to be careful. But she didn’t stop until she could no longer hear the crowds. She turned once more to look. No one was following and most people seemed to be making their way back to the open tube.
She sat on a rock at the side of what was left of the road. She took out the map she had got from the Hidden Information. This was scary, oh so scary. I need to go south she thought. She looked up at the sun. It was high in the sky and straight ahead. One of the old twenty-third century roads could still just about be seen.
Well, this is it, she thought. She lifted her bag on to her back. She couldn’t walk too quickly across Terrestra’s broken surface. Yes, she was following the old E723 Super Highway. There were bumps and cracks everywhere and places where there was no road left, only a patch of mud. Sometimes the road had caved in completely and Marijam had to climb in and out of a huge hole.
You never know, she thought. This might hurt the baby and then there might not be a problem anymore. Then she felt ashamed of thinking that. After all, this was Gabrizan’s child who was growing inside her.
A couple of times she sat down to rest. She was able to use the mini compu to tell her the direction. She knew, though, that soon she would be in the area which was not mapped by Standard Information.
Then one time she sat down and pressed the button on the mini compu. The screen was completely blank.
That’s it then, she thought. I’m on my own now.
The sun was beginning to set. Marijam studied the map again. The Logan cave must be another couple of kilometres from here. Then she would be in the Z Zone.
Marijam felt as if her heart and her stomach were chasing each other as she trudged along those last two kilometres. Once she went into that cave, there would be no going back. She could still change her mind now and go home. Explain everything to her parents. Surely her father would find a way out? No. It would ruin his career as well. Better this way.
It was completely dark by the time she arrived at the cave. A faint pink glow came from the entrance. Marijam could hear a soft noise. Was it their old mechanical machinery? Were they managing better now that the surface air was breathable again?
Marijam followed the tunnel which led down underground. She could see where the pink glow came from. The pathway was lit with strange burning lights. She supposed it was some sort of gas. There had been nothing about that in the Hidden Information.
It was cold in the caves. The ground was uneven, not like the solid floors of the normal zones. It was mainly made of dirt, with some bits of natural rock here and there. She suddenly remembered her first climb to the surface with Gabrizan. The path to the exit had been just like this. A pain that was almost physical shot through her as she thought of Gabrizan. Then something else happened. Her womb seemed to contract. Then there was a real pain.
I’m going to lose it, she thought. I shouldn’t have done this.
The pain stopped almost immediately. There was a strange tickling sort of feeling, like tummy butterflies, but a little lower down.
‘You’re moving,’ Marijam whispered as she put her hand over her stomach. Gabrizan’s child was moving. So this had been the right thing to do.
The noise of the machinery grew louder. Marijam could also hear people’s voices. Her heart started crashing into her ribs now.
‘Sorry, baby,’ she muttered. ‘I don’t want to scare you, but I’m terrified.’
Marijam heard a sudden movement at the side of her.
‘Hey, what’s this then?’ a gritty voice rasped.
A gloomy figure stepped into Marijam’s path. The smell was the worst. She found it hard not to vomit again. This was what the unwashed must smell like, something she had never experienced before.
‘What do you want, then, little rich girl?’ snarled the man, wiping his hand on the dirty torn tunic.
A second figure came forward out of the shadows. This time it was a younger man. He was just as dirty as the first, and his brown tunic was made of the same rough looking material. But he didn’t seem to smell quite so much. His face looked a bit kinder too.
Marijam could not move. She wanted to run, but she could not get her legs to do what she asked them. Even if they had moved, she knew she would not be able to get far. She was too tired.
‘Well?’ asked the first man, grabbing Marijam’s arm so hard that she could already feel the bruise forming. ‘Why have you come here? Running away from something are you?’
‘Look, I’ve got some things you can have,’ stammered Marijam, pointing to her bag which was beginning to slip from her shoulders, ‘if you’ll let me stay.’
‘Go on then, get it open!’ shouted the first man, pulling the bag away from her and gesturing to the younger man.
The younger man took the bag and began to empty its contents on to the cave floor.
‘You won’t be needing those here,’ commented the older man, as the younger one piled up the few tunics she had brought with her.
‘No, you’ll be much too cold,’ said the younger man more kindly.
‘That’ll do!’ cried the other man. He snatched the jewellery box.
‘Hey, wait a minute, Franck!’ cried the younger man. ‘Take a look at this.’ He was holding the picture book. His rough hands were thumbing through the pictures.
‘My God!’ replied Franck. He also now started pawing at the book. ‘Does this mean…?’
The younger man nodded.
Marijam wanted to scream out to him to be careful. How dare such a brute touch her precious book.
Franck’ face was white and there were now beads of sweat on his forehead.
‘Do you really think this can have happened to us?’ asked the younger man.
Marijam didn’t have time to think what this might all be about. The two men quickly bundled her things back into her bag.
‘Ianus, we’ll have to get her to the wise woman,’ hissed Franck.
‘Well, we’d better get a kartje,’ replied Ianus. ‘We can’t risk anything happening to her. She looks exhausted already. We can’t expect her to walk any further.’
‘Right,’ said Frank. ‘You sit down there, Miss. Ianus will be back soon.’
The smell was still quite disgusting, but Marijam felt a bit more comfortable now. They seemed to think she was something special. Goodness knows what that was all about, but it was helping. And she was tired. Oh, so very tired. She closed her eyes. She could hear Franck breathing, but he didn’t seem inclined to say anything. When she opened her eyes again, he was staring at her and frowning slightly.
Ianus came back a few minutes later. Then Marijam realised what a kartje was. It was something from the last century. A type of small cart which hovered a few inches off the ground. She didn’t think there were any of those left. And she thought they had been called carrels. But then, this was the Z Zone. Anything could happen.
Ianus helped her into the small vehicle.
‘You’ll still have to hold on,’ he warned. ‘It can only keep about twenty centimetres off the ground, so it still goes up and down a bit’
Franck climbed in behind them with her bag. Ianus moved the controls, and soon they were rushing forward a little above the ground. There were some uncomfortable twists and turns and quite a few jolts where the ground suddenly dipped away or rose up.
Occasionally they passed groups of people who were working with their hands or on old pieces of machinery. They all wore the rough-looking tunics and had the same leathery skin. Some of them stopped their work and stared at Marijam.
‘Watch out! We’re on important business,’ Franck would call.
Ianus frowned at him.
‘We ought to keep quiet about her really,’ he said. ‘Make out that she’s nothing special. See what the old one says first.’
Marijam was beginning to feel very sleepy. This place was cold and uncomfortable. The people looked rough and it was clear that life was very hard for them. She wouldn’t have chosen to live here if she’d really had any choice. The thought of giving birth actually terrified her. If only she could have told her parents what had happened, or, better still, Gabrizan.
But she was beginning to feel safe. These two rough men seemed to accept her, seemed to have been waiting for her, almost. She had no idea why they thought she was important. But whatever it was, it was just helping her to be accepted and she thought she ought to be grateful.
The kartje stopped in front of a doorway which seemed to lead into a natural cave.
‘Old woman!’ called Ianus.
The door of the cave opened slowly. A woman stood in the frame. Her silver hair hung loosely over her tunic, almost reaching her waist. She peered at Marijam, a slight frown on her forehead.
‘Ah,’ she said. ‘So you’re here. I see you have the Book. At last. Come, we have been expecting you.’
The old lady’s eyes pierced into hers. Marijam wanted to run away. But she knew that all she could do was follow the woman slowly towards the door. Ianus and Franck went to follow her. The old woman put out her hand up to stop them and shook her head. Ianus handed her Marijam’s bag.
Marijam shivered. But this time it was excitement, not fear.