Sunday, 26 August 2012

The Prophecy Overground Chapter Five

Maria was already sitting at breakfast the next day.
‘I thought we could have a bit of a spread to-day,’ she said.
Kaleem looked at the table. It made a change, he supposed. There was fresh fruit, pancakes, honey and yoghurt and natural orange juice. His mouth started watering. He was certainly hungry and he would enjoy eating this. But could they afford it?
‘We need to celebrate. Not everyone is invited to receive Golden Knowledge,’ she continued.
‘Mum, are you sure this is okay?’ asked Kaleem. ‘I mean, it’s great, but how much did it cost?’
‘Oh. I’ll just take on a few more assignments this month,’ said Maria. ‘It’ll be all right.’
He didn’t know how she was going to do that. Where would she find more time from?
‘Mind you,’ she said, waving her hand in the air as if to shoo away some flying insect, ‘I don’t hold with all this prophecy stuff. Nonsense, really. But Razjosh is right. We must keep the old languages alive. Well, they’re not really old. They’re still spoken on other planets.’
Maria was speaking quickly. It was as if she didn’t want Kaleem to say anything. At last, though, she bit into a pear.
‘Mum,’ started Kaleem. ‘Why …?’
‘Mm,’ she said quickly. ‘I’d forgotten how delicious fresh pears could be.’ She took another bite. ‘You really cannot beat fresh fruit, you know.’ She closed her eyes and breathed in. Then she opened them again and stared at Kaleem.
‘Now what was it you were saying?’ she asked. ‘What were you going to ask me?’
Something about the way that his mother was looking at him warned Kaleem he needed to be careful. She was not going to tell today.
‘Well?’ she asked. ‘What, then?’
This was a game she often played. That look. Then he would be the one to say it was nothing really and it didn’t matter. It could wait.
He wasn’t going to let her get away with it this time.
‘Why doesn’t everybody learn the old languages?’ he suddenly blurted out instead of the question he’d wanted to ask. He couldn’t do it. He could not get past that stare.
Maria looked at him through her eyelashes. She pursed her lips. The corner of her mouth went down a little.
‘I guess they don’t want people to find out too much,’ she said.  ‘It might make them think about what other places and people may be like. Might want to go there.’
Kaleem suddenly had an image of the view through his skylight, and then of the sun shining on the park. There was a whole world out there. Other stars, other galaxies, other planets were peopled with those who had moved from here and formed  new colonies or who had been born there in the first place. Never once had he been invited to go and see it all.
Not that he had long to dwell on these things. The communicator buzzed.
Kaleem jumped.
‘Delivery for Malkendy,’ said the electronic voice.
Kaleem looked at his mother. She raised an eyebrow. Neither of them had requested a delivery. Maria indicated with her head that Kaleem should find out more. Kaleem clicked his fingers. The house robot whirred into action. The screen in the lounge showed the view from the camera just outside the apartment. Four large boxes were piled up by the entrance.
‘Read label,’ commanded Kaleem.
The robot whirred again.
‘Delivery is from Razjosh the Elder,’ it said in its tinny voice.
Maria was frowning. ‘What’s he sending us things for?’ she muttered. ‘I hope all of this isn’t going to make us too conspicuous.’
‘Well, we can’t just leave it out there,’ said Kaleem.
‘No, I suppose not,’ said Maria.
‘Transport,’ Kaleem commanded the robot.
The machine trundled away.
‘I really don’t want to be taking gifts from people, you know,’ said Maria. ‘I mean, it’s great, really great, that you’ve been picked out for this, but I do want us to carry on managing on our own.’
Kaleem did not know what to say. It seemed like hours before the little robot returned with the large packages. They looked even bigger as they glided into the middle of the apartment.
Kaleem and Maria stared at the boxes for several minutes.
‘Read tag?’ asked the little machine.
‘Yes!’ Kaleem.
Maria had closed her eyes.
‘Go ahead,’ commanded Kaleem.
‘Dataserve Terrestra Seven,’ said the machine.
Kaleem could not believe what he had just heard. The Terrestra Seven was the latest of the higher-grade dataserves. Not even Pierre’s was as clever or as sophisticated as that one.
Maria had opened her eyes again. Even she seemed not to know what to say.
‘There is an added message,’ said the house robot.
‘Read,’ commanded Kaleem.
‘Kaleem, Maria,’ said the machine. ‘Do not be offended by this gift. Kaleem has quite a hard job to do. He needs all the help he can get. The Terrestra Seven should make his work easier. It already contains the knowledge which Kaleem needs to begin.’
Maria turned to walk out of the room. Her face was very red.
‘Mum, it’s all right, isn’t it?’ asked Kaleem.
Maria waved her arm dismissively and shaking her head, she went through the opening.
Why was she like this? Kaleem could not understand why she was so reluctant to let other people help her? Anyway, it was him that Razjosh was helping, not her.
‘Assemble?’ asked the robot.
‘Yes, I think we should,’ answered Kaleem. ‘In my room.’
The little machine pulled the boxes along. It could pull and push things, it could read data tags, but it didn’t have fingers like the more modern robots. Kaleem had to put the dataserve together himself. The machine just told him what to do. Even so, though, less than one hour later, Kaleem’s old dataserve was in the boxes and the gleaming Terrestra Seven was set up, ready for use, in his work area.
‘Well, little robo,’ said Kaleem. ‘We did good. Now let’s see what  this beauty can do. He paused for a few seconds. ‘Power on,’ he commanded.
‘Would you like to customize applications?’ asked the dataserve.
‘What’s the choice?’ asked Kaleem.
He was amazed as the dataserve began to reel off a long list of types of voices. His old machine would have probably have argued and asked him to use standard terms.  ‘Clear away debris?’ asked the house robot.
‘Yes, please,’ answered Kaleem.
The ancient machine busied itself assembling the boxes into a line and pulling them out of the room. Kaleem could have sworn it was offended, and that it turned its back huffily at him. He smiled to himself. That was ridiculous. It was just a machine.
‘A young person’s voice. Perhaps one that would sound like my twin brother,’ said Kaleem.
‘A young person’s voice. Perhaps one that would sound like my twin brother. Do you mean like this?’ said the dataserve, sounding just like Kaleem. So he could say anything to the new dataserve, and it would understand exactly what he meant.
‘Great!’ he replied. It would really be like having a brother.
‘There are some files you need to work with straight away,’ said the dataserve. It didn’t sound bossy like the old one.
‘Good,’ said Kaleem. ‘Show me, then.’
He had half hoped the machine would ignore that command, because he was speaking as if he was talking to a friend. No such luck. The Terrestra Seven knew exactly what he meant.
‘Language awareness skills and knowledge,’ announced the dataserve.
Kaleem didn’t really mind. This new machine was totally fascinating.
Kaleem didn’t stop for lunch until three o’ clock in the afternoon. And then he took a sandwich back to his room. He would have carried on without dinner as well, if Maria hadn’t come to his room and dragged him away.
‘You can’t just sit at that machine all day,’ she said. ‘You do need to get air occasionally. You do need to get some exercise. You’ve got to remember the real world. You mustn’t get stuck in machine dreams.’
He wanted to explain to her that this wasn’t like any other dataserve he had met before. It didn’t mesmerise, but it showed you the real world, made you really experience what happened. What he had seen already!
Kaleem gulped down his main course. Then he looked at the chocolate mousse in front of him. It was usually one of his favourites. Today he didn’t want to eat it, though. He wanted to get back to his machine. His head was so full of ideas.
‘Can I get back to work now?’ he asked, pushing the bowl to one side.
Maria sighed.  ‘Be careful,’ she said, ‘be very, very careful.’
She scooped up a few of the dishes which had been served for dinner, most of which were hardly touched. The house robot picked up the rest.
As soon as they had gone, Kaleem took himself back to his room.
He jumped, though, as he went in. Someone was sitting in his chair. He hadn’t heard a thing though and there was no sign of a break-in. They’d done it without making a single sound.  Kaleem’s heart started thumping.
‘Well, young man,’ said a familiar voice. ‘What do you think of the programme so far?’
‘Razjosh!’ exclaimed Kaleem. ‘But how did you get in?’
‘This is not what it seems,’ said Razjosh. ‘All you are seeing is a machine generated hologram. Though you will probably agree that the Terrestra Seven is quite good at this.’
‘Well… yes….,’ stammered Kaleem. It was hard to believe that Razjosh was not real. He looked so solid and life-like.
‘I am actually communicating with you live, though of course I am really doing it from the Elders’ Citadel,’ said Razjosh. ‘Always when I wish to speak to you, and you are in your room, I shall appear like this.
‘Well, you have already learnt a lot for one day. Your mother is right. You need to take a rest. We can control your Terrestra Seven from the Citadel. When we think you have done enough, we shall deactivate it. Now go and eat your chocolate mousse.’
Razjosh disappeared. The new dataserve switched itself off. Kaleem told it to switch back on. It remained totally dead.
‘That’s good, then,’ he moaned. Suddenly, though, the chocolate mousse seemed a good idea.
He took himself off to the kitchen. The robot was about to empty it into the waste chute.
‘Don’t,’ he shouted. ‘I’ll have that.’
He snatched it away from the machine.
‘That’s more like it,’ said Maria.
‘Yes, and I’ll go for an hour on the exerciser later,’ he said.
‘Good,’ said Maria.
The chocolate teased Kaleem’s tongue and the creaminess slid smoothly down his throat. A while later, he worked on the rowing and cycling modes of the exerciser. He set the visuals to woodland. The pictures were disappointing compared with the ones that the Terrestra Seven produced. But he felt the exercise doing him good. He sensed that his body would relax well tonight.
Later, though, just as he was dropping off to sleep, he had a very uncomfortable thought. How dare the Council of Elders decide when he should use his new dataserve. Were they going to be interfering all the time, totally controlling his life from now on? At least that hadn’t been a problem with the old machine.
The exercising had obviously worked, though. He did not have too long to think about that. He was very soon fast asleep.
As soon as he woke the next morning, Kaleem got straight out of bed and commanded the dataserve to switch on. It did so immediately. So! Everything was back to normal. He was in charge again.
He was soon totally absorbed in what the machine was telling him. To-day’s lesson was something about how words didn’t translate exactly from one language to another. One word in one language meant ‘cosy and comfortable’, but also with a feeling of peacefulness. You just couldn’t put it into one word in English. And then in another language, related to that one, there was yet another word, which contained those same ideas, but also the idea of being in good company. Another language had several different words for rain. You could only give a description of  it in English. And if a word had two meanings in English, it didn’t necessarily in another language. Or if there were two different words with the same meaning, another language might only have one word for each. It was a matter of getting used to how these words were used, of getting a bit of feeling for the language. The best way was going to be mixing with the people who spoke those languages.
Fat chance of that, thought Kaleem.
Maria appeared from time to time, encouraging him to eat and to rest. Razjosh also came a couple of times as a  hologram.
‘Naturally, you won’t be able to visit the places which speak the languages you learn,’ said Razjosh. ‘Unless, of course, there occurs the type of emergency we’re training you up for. Then you’ll have to go fully competent anyway.’
Kaleem shuddered at the thought. And yet, goodness, that would really be something.
‘Well, you are understanding things quickly,’ Razjosh said.’ At this rate, you’ll be a completely trained Peace Child within three years. That’s a record. And don’t worry. It will be almost like the real thing. We have interactive hologram and artificial reality programmes  for you. You will really feel as if you’ve been there. Mind you,’ … Razjosh hesitated and frowned a little.
‘We do want you to learn to read. Fluently. So that you stop seeing the marks altogether on Wordtext files. So that you immediately get pictures in your head. Because when you do that with other languages, you can learn really quickly.’
The next day, Kaleem started on the little black marks which appeared on the white background. They gradually became more familiar. They started to make sense without him stopping to work out what the marks meant. It was hard work. His shoulders ached because his chair was not supporting his body properly. Slowly, slowly a few pictures began to form, without even becoming words first.
His back was aching and the back of his throat was beginning to irritate him. It was a little as if he were thirsty. He had been drinking plenty, though, and the diastic monitor had had nothing to say.
He felt a bit cold. He wrapped a spare tunic round his shoulders. He caught site of his face in the mirror. It was bright red. Suddenly his nose began to run. Clear sticky liquid was pouring from his nostrils.
There was a sharp stabbing at his stomach. It felt heavy and full, as if there were a lump there. Suddenly something was trying to get out. He felt burning fluid forcing its way up into his throat. His stomach jerked. The whole of his throat and chest convulsed.  Fiery liquid was in his mouth, then rushing out of it, and arching over towards the floor. This must be illness, he thought. Only we don’t have illness here.
The taste in his mouth was foul, though his stomach felt lighter now, relieved of some badness. He looked at the strange lumpy liquid on the floor. It stank so much that his stomach began to heave again. This time, though, there was nothing left to come out.
He just had time to notice his mother standing in the doorway. He registered how pale she looked, even for her. He heard her call ‘Oh no!’
Then the room began to spin and he found himself falling, falling, whirling through a dark space.

Sunday, 19 August 2012

The Prophecy Overground Chapter Four

‘What did you say he wanted to talk about?’ asked Maria. ‘Who did he say he was?’
‘Razjosh, the Elder,’ Kaleem repeated. He had already told his mother this three times. ‘He didn’t say what he wanted.’
‘Razjosh … Razjosh….,’ muttered Maria. ‘Which Elder, though? Did he say?’
Kaleem looked blankly at his mother.
‘What sorts of Elders are there?’ he asked. ‘I just thought Elders were Elders.
‘They all have a different function,’ said Maria. ‘Just like the Heads of Services do. I remember when ….’
Maria stopped suddenly.
‘You remember what Mum?’ asked Kaleem. Was she going to give something away at last?
‘Well, all I know is that there are about two hundred of them and they’re just there to, well, give advice and guidance.’
‘But who are they really Mum? How do they get to be Elders?’ asked Kaleem. It seemed unfair. It was as if people just became Elders, that they didn’t do anything to deserve it.
‘I don’t know,’ Maria said, frowning slightly. ‘They’re just there. They’ve always been there. I think they might be retired Heads, or something. But they do have specialisms. Because when…’
She stopped herself just in time again.
‘Because when what, Mum?’ asked Kaleem. He was finding it difficult to keep the  irritation out of his voice. Why did she have to be so secretive about it all?
They didn’t have time to argue any longer. The communicator buzzed. He was there.
‘Show,’ commanded Maria. Razjosh’s face appeared on the porthole screen.
‘Oh my goodness,’ she said. ‘What have we done to deserve this?
Kaleem shrugged his shoulders. It hadn’t seemed that important when he had first met him. Was it such a big deal, having contact with an Elder?
‘You are welcome, Razjosh the Elder,’ Maria managed to say at last. ‘Kaleem will show you to our apartment.’
Twenty minutes later, Kaleem was showing the old man in. He was surprised at how Razjosh managed the stairs. Kaleem was now used to the two hundred steps between  the surface and their cave. He expected the old man to struggle. He didn’t. He was almost as quick as Kaleem.
‘Mmm, said Razjosh,’ as he came in. ‘These cave homes were so secure and cosy, weren’t they? A pity more people didn’t decide to stay in them. We could have kept the surface beautiful then, couldn’t we?’
‘Can I offer you something to drink?’ asked Maria.
‘Do you still have cave water?’ asked the Elder.
‘Oh yes,’ replied Maria. ‘We have a natural spring near our cave and it is still piped into the apartment.’
‘Ah, such reminders of the old days,’ said Razjosh.
Maria went to the kitchen unit and returned with a glass of water. Kaleem could not understand what was so special about cave water. It was boring to him. They drank it all the time. Maria could not afford the high-density drinks that were now so popular amongst the people in Kaleem’s social group, nor the wines and liquors so loved by their parents.
The old man sipped the water. He seemed to relish it just as others loved wine.
‘Delightful,’ he commented. ‘But now to some even more traditional things.’
Maria looked pale and was biting her lip. She stood with her arms folded across her chest.
‘Won’t you sit down, my dear?’ said Razjosh. ‘I have many things to tell you.’
Maria nodded. She sat down on the edge of one of the chairs. She was frowning slightly.
‘You see, I am here in connection with the Babel Prophecy,’ the old man began.
It was that word again. Maria gasped. Razjosh looked at her intensely for a moment. Kaleem could not decide what to make of the Elder. He looked old, certainly, but  although none of his words or movements was hurried, he was definitely not feeble or slow.
‘Of course, these days, people take little notice of prophecies. Belief in the divine went out when the poison cloud came in,’ he continued. ‘Though its disappearance was  regarded as some sort of miracle, I suppose.
‘Anyway, whether we believe in prophecies or not, part of the role of the Elders is to maintain the effects of the Prophecy.’
This was beyond Kaleem.
‘Effects of the Prophecy?’ he asked.
‘What has to be done according to what the Prophecy has predicted.’
‘But if there’s no such thing as the supernatural,’ replied Kaleem. ‘Why do we have to take any notice of the prophecies?’
‘I didn’t say there was no such thing as the supernatural,’ said Razjosh. ‘I said people had stopped believing in the divine. But that’s not so important. Prophecy is largely a matter of common sense. The clairvoyants - the genuine ones - could see the future clearly. In fact their name comes from the French. It means ‘seeing clearly’. They can see things coming better than the rest of us. ‘
‘French?’ interrupted Kaleem.
‘Another language from another time,’ replied Razjosh.
‘Language?’ asked Kaleem.
‘Which brings us nicely to the Babel Prophecy,’ said Razjosh.
‘The Tower of Babel?’ asked Maria. Her face was flushed now and her eyes were glistening. ‘The tower they built to try to reach God? And were punished by God for being so arrogant?’
‘The very same,’ replied Razjosh. He was looking intently at Maria.
She blushed even deeper. ‘What’s the matter?’ she stammered. ‘That’s not Hidden Information is it?’
‘No, far from it,’ replied Razjosh. ‘That is Golden Knowledge. I  was just curious how you had come to know that.’
Maria shrugged her shoulders. ‘I just heard about it somewhere.’
Kaleem had never heard of Golden Knowledge. There was just what everybody knew and what you weren’t allowed to know, but tried to find out, the Hidden Information.
Razjosh nodded his head and half smiled at Kaleem.
‘Confusing, isn’t it?’ he said, ‘Golden Knowledge is what we Elders know and guard. We reveal snippets of it now and then to those who need to know. Which is what I’m doing now. The Babel Prophecy says there will one day be a very special Peace Child. A Peace Child who can overcome Babel. That means, overcome the difficulties which exist because people speak different languages.  One who can act as a bridge between peoples. All Peace Children attempt to do that. A very special one will succeed.’
‘But why do we need that here?’ asked Maria.
Kaleem was surprised at how fierce she sounded. ‘Everyone on Terrestra speaks Terrestran English.’
‘But not on other planets,’ replied Razjosh.
‘We don’t have contacts with other planets,’ said Maria. Her voice had become quite shrill. She was sitting right on the edge of her chair.
‘We don’t, and we seem not to need to,’ replied Razjosh. ‘But this is a matter of “just in case” and it would seem sensible to keep alive some of the old Golden Knowledge. We have always kept a Peace Child. The current one has grown rather old. It is time to pass on the knowledge.’
‘So, who is this current Peace Child?’ asked Kaleem.
Razjosh looked at him intently, one eyebrow raised.
‘Can’t you guess?’ asked the Elder.
‘You are?’ said Kaleem.
‘Yes, and it’s time to  train up my replacement,’ replied the old man.
‘So, why have you come here?’ asked Kaleem. He knew the answer to that one before Razjosh replied.
‘I think you know,’ said Razjosh. He raised the other eyebrow. ‘So what did you think of my little messages? Have you decoded the Wordtext file yet?’ he asked.
‘Some of it,’ said Kaleem. He realised suddenly that what had been most difficult about understanding the messages had not been so much turning the little black marks on the white background into words, which had meanings he understood. It had been that the total message which did not seem to make any sense. Some of it was clearer, now, though. He understood about the tower, and about what the Peace Child had to do. ‘But I don’t get the bit about the Mother.’
‘Earth Mother. Non-stopes conceptions and all that?’ asked Razjosh.
Kaleem nodded. Maria seemed to be choking.
‘Excuse me,’ she said and dashed out of the room.
‘Yes, well,’ said Razjosh. ‘Even we Elders struggle with some parts of the prophecies. We certainly aren’t clairvoyants. But for most purposes, you can interpret prophecies any way you want. Make of that what you will. But you do agree, that it makes sense that at least one person on this isolated planet of ours keeps in touch with the old languages?’
‘Well, yes, I suppose’ said Kaleem. ‘But why me?’
‘We watch all the young people like yourself,’ said Razjosh. ‘We look for certain aptitudes and attitudes which would indicate a reason for revealing some of the Golden Knowledge. We saw that you did indeed have the right attitude for the Peace Child Project. And we like to check every Peace Child to see whether they fit with the Prophecy.’
‘How?’ asked Kaleem. What attitudes or aptitudes did he have?
‘Well,’ said Razjosh with a sigh. ‘Oh this is a big subject. But one thing which is really, really important, is that you should have an appreciation of what we call otherness. That it exists. And that you can work with it and that it doesn’t have to work against you. It’s something along the lines of the stranger being the friend that you have not met yet. You can’t ignore the strangeness. But you can find the friendship beyond it. And one of the strangest things, of course, is that the sounds which come out of the stranger’s mouth mean nothing to you until you work at learning that language, which you understand better if you understand the speakers better. And you understand them better when you understand their language better. And so it goes on in an ever decreasing circle.’
Kaleem thought of Erik Svenson and Stuart Davidson, and how they treated him because he was a bit different.
‘But I’m the one who’s different,’ he protested.
‘Exactly,’ said Razjosh. ‘And don’t you cope with ordinary people well? Look at how you get on with Pierre LaFontaine and Rozia Laurence. As well as all your teachers and other adults.’
Kaleem blushed at the mention of Rozia.
‘I guess,’ he mumbled. Did he cope with being different? He didn’t think he did.
‘The strange messages I sent to your dataserve were an aptitude test. To see whether you had the right type of learning style and thinking skills to learn the old languages. You seem to have done remarkably well.’
‘Do I?’ asked Kaleem. He had found it so hard working out what the Wordtext files meant and he’d still understood less than half of it, though he had to admit he had found it really interesting.
‘We want to put you on a special programme. You will be exempted from some of your normal schooling, though you will have to keep up with the basics. And we shall need your mother’s permission.’
‘That’s fine,’ said Maria. She was standing in the doorway. Her cheeks were pink and her eyes were shining. Kaleem had never seen her look so animated.
‘That is good news,’ said Razjosh. ‘There will, of course, be some formalities. We shall be in touch shortly.’
Seconds later, he was making his way out of the cave. Kaleem offered to accompany him to the surface, but he shook his head.
‘You now need to get back to those Wordtext files as soon as possible,’ he said.
Five hours later, he had done it. His eyes were sore and his back ached. It had been tedious, matching and cross-matching the little marks from the Peace Child file and the dictionary file. But it had got easier as he went along. He had begun to remember what some of the symbols meant and some of the words. He knew a bit more of the story, from what Razjosh had told him. He now knew that the Prophecy said that there would be many Peace Children, but that one would come who would save the world. And that that Peace Child  would overcome Babel forever. There was still a lot he didn’t understand, about why the Peace Chid was called the Peace Child. But now he had a real idea about the role of a Peace Child and he found it rather exciting. In the end, he’d quite enjoyed this decoding exercise. He’d already learnt a few tricks that  would speed things up if he had to do this again.
‘Replay as voice file,’ he said to the dataserve.
‘Historical, note or storyteller mode?’ asked Tin Man.
Well, it would be good to be entertained. ‘Story-teller,’ he said.
‘Long ago, when Man had just started to live on the Earth,’ the dataserve started, ‘there were only a few people and they all spoke one language. Gradually, as children grew up and new families were made, the people moved more and more from the east to the west. They learned to build homes from baked bricks and strong mortar.
“We ought to show how clever we are,” they said, “and use our great building skills to create a great city. We shall make a great name for ourselves. People will remember us - even when we have spread out to cover the lands beyond where the sky and land meet.”
‘The masons worked hard. The tower, which seemed to lead up to Heaven, was completed. Men and women from the city began to climb up it.
‘However, God was not pleased.
‘“They are trying to be God,” he said. “Because they only have one language and they understand each other, they will be able to do anything they propose. I am the only true god. I shall have to confuse their language and make them move from this place to the four corners of the world.”
‘The people were enjoying their climb to the top of the tower. They were telling each other their news and their stories as they went up. The first began to get near to the top. Suddenly, there was an almighty rumbling. The ground began to shake. The tower began to topple. In their panic, they rushed down the steps or jumped from the tower. One person would hardly understand what another was saying. Many died.
‘Of those who survived, only a few stayed in the city near the tower. The building was never finished. The others moved away to other parts of the world, where they raised their families.
‘The languages continued to change, so that today the people who live in the west cannot understand the people who live in the east.
‘The name of the tower was Babel.’
Maybe we did all start off in one place, thought Kaleem, then spread out and filled Terrestra, just as people went from Terrestra and filled the other parts of the universe. If that was the case, we ought to speak more or less the same language, but we don’t.
The dataserve continued to blink at him.
‘Save and close,’ he commanded the machine.
‘Some story, eh?’ asked Maria. Kaleem turned to  see his mother standing in the doorway. Her cheeks were pink again and her eyes shining. He opened his mouth to ask again what she knew about the Prophecy.
‘You ought to get some sleep now,’ Maria said quickly.

Sunday, 12 August 2012

The Prophecy Overground Chapter Three

Kaleem slept badly that night. He was still awake at three in the morning. Then he dozed off for a short while, but was awake again by five. He gave up trying to sleep and got up.
The dataserve was whirring away quietly to itself whilst he dressed.
Now what’s happening? he thought.
‘Open,’ he commanded.
‘No spare memory,’ answered tin man. ‘Unable to open until download complete.’
It was unbelievable. Even a dataserve as old as his was built with far more memory than should ever be needed.
Must be on the blink, he thought.
He wandered into the kitchen.
‘Coffee and mixed cereal,’ he mumbled at the Autochef. The machine sprang into life.
The pipes clanked and whistled as he showered. He would probably wake his mother.  Everything was so old and noisy here.
The Autochef  bleeped to show that the breakfast was ready. Kaleem retrieved his mug and the bowl from the kitchen and took them into his room. His dataserve was now all lit up. Every light that could was glowing brightly.
‘Open,’ he murmured again.
‘Wordtext file ready on screen,’ said the machine.
Kaleem studied the screen. It was the same gibberish again. But no, it wasn’t quite the same.  He could understand more of the words this time.
‘Key to Loccospeak,’ he read. ‘Glossary of terms.’
It was still quite hard to decipher, but at least he was getting more used to understanding the symbols. And half of it seemed to be in standard Terrestran  English.
Kaleem studied it more carefully. Suddenly he understood.
It’s a type of dictionary, he thought. It must be the way they used dictionaries in the paper society days.
‘File list,’ said Kaleem to his machine. ‘Date and time headed.’
Tin Man started reeling off times and dates. Images flashed across the screen.
‘Hold file,’ said Kaleem as he recognised the other file with the strange symbols on it.
‘Split screen vertically.’
The two texts were now lined up side by side.
‘New file extra,’ said Kaleem. ‘Third split.’
‘Name of new file,’ said the machine.
‘Temporary name,’ he said ‘File 1 77 3156.’
‘Done,’ said Tin Man.
‘Yeah, I bet you have,’ Kaleem mumbled. It was such hard work getting anything out of this old machine. He wished he could have a dataserve like Pierre’s - brand new last week, not second-hand new like his. You could have a conversation with it. It would even suggest suitable file names. And you could tell it things like ‘Find me that file with all those funny symbols in that we looked at last night,’ and the file would be up on the screen in seconds.
‘Unknown command,’ replied Tin Man.
Oh, and Pierre’s dataserve spoke to him in a young man’s voice. So that you felt as if you were talking to a friend.
This dataserve was all he’d got, though, and he would have to make do. It was hard work looking at the two files and it hurt his eyes. Very slowly he was beginning to make some sense of the one which had arrived yesterday. Or at least, he was beginning to understand some of the words in it. He couldn’t make any sense of the message the words were trying to convey.
Something about a tower being built up to the sky. Something about people not being able to understand each other.
That’s appropriate, thought Kaleem. I’m having difficulty understanding this.
There was more about the Mother. And the Peace Child.
‘The Mother of the Peace Child shall be acquainted with Babel,’ he managed to make out. It was hard work, though.
Weird language, he thought. And who is Babel?   He remembered something. Hadn’t Maria told him something about alphabet? All the symbols which represented sounds were listed in a certain order. This was an alphabet. And dictionaries used this order. But what was that order? He knew it started with ABC. He worked on the symbols he could see. Yes …. It was possible to work out the order.
‘A B C,’ he dictated to the machine then ‘E …. F …. G …,’
‘H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z,’ said Maria’s voice from the entrance to his room. ‘Standard British alphabet, 2109. What on Terrestra are you doing?’
‘Display at top of File 2,’ commanded Kaleem. The symbols appeared at the top of the screen.
‘Oh, just stuff,’ mumbled Kaleem. After what had happened last night, he didn’t want Maria to know any more.  ‘File and close,’ he ordered the machine.
‘You’ve left your breakfast,’ Maria said.
Kaleem looked at the cup of cold coffee and the now pappy cereal. He shrugged.
Ten minutes later, he was in the Thorndike building. The lift was making its way up to the fifteenth level. Kaleem stayed at the back, trying to make himself as small as possible. Unfortunately Stuart Davidson spotted him.
‘Hey ho, Throw Back,’ he called. ‘How’s life down under? Seen the light of day yet?’
Other people in the lift turned and looked at Kaleem and then at Stuart. Kaleem managed to look straight ahead. The other passengers in the lift stared at him. There were one or two whispered conversations. Stuart poked Kaleem in the ribs. Kaleem had to look at him then. Stuart grinned at him. ‘You saddo,’ whispered Stuart.
The lift stopped and the doors sprang open. Stuart pushed hard into Kaleem on the way out, sending him toppling into one of the older grey-tuniced men.
‘Steady there,’ bellowed the man. He turned to his companion. ‘One of the problems, I think, about schooling them mainly at home. They have no social skills.’
Some of us do, thought Kaleem. We’re not all like Stuart.
Despite everything, Kaleem had arrived quite early. Stuart did not go straight into the meet room. Kaleem’s stomach seemed to jump up and turn over as he spotted Rozia Laurence, the only other person who was already there. She turned and smiled up at him.
‘Hi, Kaleem,’ she said. ‘Come and sit here.’
Kaleem sat himself down. The seat moulded itself to fit Kaleem’s body and supported his back beautifully. A pity they couldn’t get some of these comfisessels at home. He was sure it would make working for hours on end at the dataserve a heck of a lot more comfortable. Rozia was smiling at him. Oh, she was stunning. She took his breath away. Today wasn’t turning out so bad after all.
‘Any idea what this might be about?’ she said. ‘It’s not one of the scheduled meets. Not part of the course.’
Kaleem had convinced himself that it was something to do with the  removal of Maggie Johnston. ‘Perhaps it’s to do with what happened yesterday,’ he offered.
‘You mean Maggie?’ she asked.
Kaleem nodded.
‘Bit tough, though?’ said Rozia. ‘I mean, she was actually only trying to defend you.’
Well, it had looked like a good day. Now it was rotten again. ‘Yeah, I know,’ mumbled Kaleem.
There was an awkward silence. Others had started to drift into the room now. Rozia was waving at some of them. She turned back to Kaleem.
‘But just why do you still live in a cave?’ she asked. ‘I mean, hardly anyone needs to these days? What with …’
Kaleem was relieved that he didn’t need to answer that one. Not that he could anyway. But the room had suddenly gone silent. Someone had walked in. Some people gasped in surprise. There were no screens, this time. Just a very familiar face. Kaleem had not realised that Frazier Kennedy was so tall. He looked very serious.
‘Good Morning, students,’ he began. ‘We’ve called you to this meet because we thought it was important to make this absolutely clear to you. You can imagine exactly how important this is as I am here and I don’t normally speak to students directly.’
What Frazier Kennedy said was much as Rozia and Kaleem had guessed. It was to do with Maggie Johnstone’s dismissal. Partly at least. He also talked at length about the danger of dabbling with Hidden Information. He was frowning slightly and his voice sounded harsh and strained.
‘That was what Miss Johnstone was doing,’ said the Head of Education. ‘She has been researching amongst the data banks which are not open to the public. That in itself is a criminal offence and means that she has been involved in theft.’
He paused. His face relaxed a little.
‘You have probably not heard of Hidden Information before,’ he continued. ‘But it exists. And you are all old enough now to know that it exists. There is a complete body of knowledge that we have to keep from you. You cannot possibly know the whole, and unless you did know the whole, it would be of no use to you and would only confuse. More importantly, you could not make a wise decision if you based it on less than the whole.’
He paused again and looked around the room.
‘Even I am not capable of understanding the Hidden Information,’ he added quietly, ‘and am therefore not allowed access to it. Standard Information contains all you need to know.’
Kaleem felt uncomfortable when he thought of the messages which had come up on his dataserve. One or two of the others, he noticed, were looking at each other.  They’d probably been dabbling with Hidden Information as well.  But there was something else which disturbed him now.
He had seen Frazier Kennedy often enough on the screens. He was a very good-looking man.  He was just as elegant in real life as he looked on the screen. Being black helped, of course. You couldn’t see him blush or go white quite so easily. He always stood up so straight, too. He leant forward and propped his head on his hands, his elbows on the table in front of him. That just looked so familiar and Kaleem couldn’t work out hwy. He was sure he’d never seen him do that on a movie file.
Frazier Kennedy also had the habit of looking at the people in his audience individually. You always felt as if he was talking directly to you. He caught Kaleem’s eye. Kaleem felt as if the man could read his thoughts. The brown eyes penetrated right into him. Kaleem didn’t dare look away. His heart was racing. Could this man tell by looking at him that he had been doing something he shouldn’t?
Frazier Kennedy stopped talking for a split second. A hint of a frown appeared on his forehead. He faltered slightly. But only very, very slightly. His eyes drifted round to the next person.
‘I urge you not to go down that road,’ he said at last. ‘Any dabbling with Hidden Information will lead to severe punishment. Good day to you.’
He switched off his prompt pad, bowed slightly and marched out of the room.
No one spoke. Slowly, in small groups, the students left the room. There were some quiet whispered conversations, amongst the students who had glanced at each other before.
Pierre came over to Kaleem.
‘That was scary,’ said Pierre.
‘Yep,’ said Kaleem.
They walked over to the lifts.
‘Shall we go to the New Laguna?’ asked Pierre, as they stepped into the lift.
Kaleem shook his head. ‘Mum’s expecting me back straight away,’ he said .
He wanted to get back to his dataserve and the strange texts, despite Kennedy’s dire warnings. In some ways, even though he was really scared, the talk had made him even more determined to find out what was behind those messages.
The air outside was warmer than it had been the day before. Even so, most of the students were gathering around the transporter centre. There was going to be a crush, that was for sure. It would almost be quicker to walk. Erik Svenson and Stuart Davidson were already there. They were chatting to Rozia. They didn’t seem to have noticed him yet, thank goodness. If he got a move on, he might get away with it. They were looking the other way. He could go across the park again.
He stepped smartly through the entrance. They hadn’t seen him. Not even Pierre. He had almost thought about asking Pierre to walk with him, but that would have risked a confrontation with that pair of idiots. And anyway, Pierre may have tried to persuade him to stop out longer. He must get back to the dataserve.
There weren’t many people in the park again today. No one was walking the full length of it, as he was. Kaleem was not surprised, though, to see that there was just that old man again, sitting on one of the benches. An odd thing to do, Kaleem thought, this time of year. Outdoors felt all right if you were walking. It was hardly warm enough to sit for any length of time.
Kaleem could see him better this time. He was wearing an ordinary enough tunic, and the normal issue leggings. But he had tall boots as well, and his hair, silvery grey, flowed over his shoulders. As Kaleem walked past, the man seemed to be staring into space.
Kaleem shuddered. He stated to walk more quickly. He wished now that he had waited for the transporter after all.
Kaleem speeded up until he was almost running. He had the oddest feeling that someone was following him. He looked back a couple of times. There was no one there. Not even the man who had been sitting on the bench. That was worrying in itself. Since he had spotted him, Kaleem had not passed another exit from the park. Where was the old man? Who was he? What did he want? Kaleem looked and looked, but the man had now totally disappeared. There wasn’t really anywhere to hide, either. Unless he was so thin that he could fit behind a young tree trunk.
Kaleem came to the other end of the park. All he wanted to do now was get back down into the caves as quickly as possible. But then he wasn’t sure which was stranger - the old man or the messages on his dataserve.
Kaleem crossed the North Passageway. Just a few more steps and he would be there. It was so untidy here, compared with the park. Bits of bare earth and sandy rock had scrubby grass growing over it. The old frames which used to hold the tubes in the days of the Poison Cloud were still there, although now half rotted. They stuck up sorely out of the ground. The skylights which used to be there were now covered in dust. Except for the one in his and Maria’s cave, which his mother kept shiny and spotless.
Someone was sitting on a rock near the entrance. They never had visitors. He stopped walking and tried to see better. The figure stood up. Kaleem recognised the old man with the long silver hair.
‘Kaleem Malkendy?’ asked the man. ‘Cave dweller?’
That voice again. Kaleem shivered.
‘Come here, Kaleem Malkendy,’ said the man. ‘See, I’m not barring the way into  your home.’  The stranger was indicating the entrance into what used to be the lift shaft.
Kaleem moved towards him. His mouth was dry and his heart was beating faster.
‘Kaleem Malkendy,’ said the old man. Have you heard of the Mother? Do you know about the Tower?’
Kaleem felt himself going hot.
‘Have you found out how to use the dictionary yet?’ asked the strange old man. He was looking right into Kaleem, just as Frazier Kennedy had.
‘You do know what I am, don’t you?’ said the old man.
Kaleem shook his head.
The old man raised an eyebrow. ‘I am one of the Elders,’ he said. He held out his hand to Kaleem. Kaleem took it in his. The old man’s handshake was firm, the firmest Kaleem had ever felt.  ‘Razjosh, the Elder.’
‘I … started Kaleem. He didn’t know what to say. He’d heard of the Elders. He knew they rarely left the Citadel, wherever that might be – more Hidden Information. He knew that if an Elder summoned you, you were honoured indeed. But he knew no more than that.
‘Tell your mother I would like to meet with her in two days’ time,’ said Razjosh. He bowed slightly towards Kaleem, and then he was off.

Sunday, 5 August 2012

The Prophecy Overground Chapter Two

It was almost two hours before Kaleem was able to take another look at the strange file. First of all there had been supper with his mother. Then they talked for a while.
‘You really worry me sometimes,’ said Maria. ‘You just don’t go out enough. You don’t  mix with the others.’
I don’t go out enough? thought Kaleem. You can talk, Mum.
‘It’s in order, Mum,’ he said. ‘I like working here in the caves. I’ve everything I need on the dataserve.’
‘That’s exactly what I mean, though,’ continued Maria. ‘You’re working too hard. And you’re not getting enough fresh air.’
For goodness sake. This was the woman who spent all of her time facing a dataserve.
‘Oh, fresh air’s overrated,’ he said. ‘Not many people bother. Everybody prefers the ionised air in the apartments. It is better balanced.’
‘Not so good in the caves though,’ she said grimly. ‘They don’t bother too much with us. We may as well have come from the Z Zone.’
Kaleem felt uncomfortable. He wanted to suggest that he should go back to his room and carry on working. Maria always seemed so bitter when she talked about the Z Zone, but she always talked as if she knew more about it than she should. If she did, though, she refused to tell him much about it. He couldn’t imagine what it would be like in the Z Zone. He only knew it was for people who could not or would not fit in with the rest of society. He had a vague idea that the authorities made it as difficult as possible for people who lived there.
At least life here in the caves must be a little better than living in the Z Zone. He was engaged on a normal educational project. They had enough to eat and drink. They had Terrestran credits. True they were poor, when poverty did not officially exist. They lived in the caves to save credits. Others chose caves only because they had an aversion to sunlight. Their caves were luxurious. This cave was sparsely furnished and rather shabby. It was home, though.
‘Look, I’ll show you what else I’ve found out about what caused the poison cloud in the first place,’ said Maria suddenly much brighter.
Then he had to spend an hour and a half looking at files his mother had found or created.
‘So, you see, it probably was our own fault, but only because we were trying to undo the harm that CFCs had caused two centuries before!’
If she was that clever then, why did they have to live down here in the caves?  Surely she should have been in the President’s Research Association?
Kaleem frowned.
‘Go on then,’ said Maria brightly. ‘I’m probably boring you silly! Go and get on with your own work, if you must!’
Kaleem’s dataserve seemed to be sitting there grinning defiantly.
‘Wordtext file downloaded,’ said the tinny voice smugly every few seconds. ‘Data not recognised’
‘You bet you don’t’ said Kaleem, frowning at the screen.
‘Unknown command,’ continued the electronic voice. ‘Please allocate file.’
Kaleem stared at the file. It really did not make sense.
‘Store in new section. Name Peace Child. Retain on screen,’ he said.
‘Valid,’ muttered the machine and then seconds later ‘Done!’
Kaleem read through the whole file. It took him an age, as he could not read fluently in Wordtext and so few of the words made sense. But here and there again Peace Child, and The Mother. What was a Peace Child? And why did she or he have a mother with a capital “m”?
He noticed that some words that seemed to occur a lot were always in the middle of the lines.
Must be words like “but” and “and”, thought Kaleem. But a few “buts” and “ands” didn’t really help him to understand more.
Instead, he conducted a One World Archive search on ‘Peace Child’.
‘Classified Hidden Information,’ screeched Tin Man. ‘Do not request again, or authorities will be informed.’
Even my own dataserve’s against me, thought Kaleem. So it will have to remain a mystery. It was already past midnight. He decided he ought to go to bed.

‘Have you ever heard of Peace Child?’ he asked Maria at breakfast the next morning.
She almost choked on her coffee. The little colour there was drained from her cheeks.
‘How on earth did you hear about that?’ she asked.
Something told Kaleem it would not be a good idea to tell his mother about the strange Wordtext file.
‘Oh, er… not sure really,’ he mumbled.
‘Kaleem!’ said Maria sternly. The colour came back into her cheeks. In fact, she went very red indeed. And she was sitting upright. ‘Do not go messing with Hidden Information. Believe me, it is not worth the agony.’
What was she doing? Telling him not to mess with this or that, and not telling him anything about where he came from, why he looked like he did and why they had to live down here in the caves, although she was obviously well-educated and intelligent. They were living on the edge. They may as well have been in the Z Zone.
‘It’d be worth looking at Hidden Information if it helped me to find out what caused this mess!’ Kaleem blurted out. How dare she be so superior and so goody goody! ‘What are you trying to hide anyway?’
‘Kaleem, I will not be spoken to like that,’ Maria said quietly. ‘Please give me the respect I deserve. And if you can’t,’ she continued in an even lower voice, ‘please go to your room until you have calmed down.’
Kaleem immediately regretted having spoken to her so harshly. She hadn’t retaliated. She hadn’t bitten back. She didn’t really deserve that, he knew.
‘Oh Mum, I’m sorry,’ said Kaleem. They were the best of friends normally. And yes he knew that she had her reasons for not telling him everything about why they had to live like this, and that she really made the best of it for both of them.
‘Ok,’ said Maria, ‘and I promise you that one day you will know everything, but only when I can see a clear way out of it. Until then,’ she continued staring now straight ahead  ‘what you don’t know, you can’t give away and that might keep both of us safe.’ She then turned and looked straight into Kaleem’s eyes. ‘Be careful,’ she whispered. ‘Be very, very careful.’
Kaleem was glad to get back to the peace of his own room. He would try to forget about the strange file, at least for a while, and perhaps get back to some of his assignment. Dive into the work and become fascinated again by the New Earth Project.
‘Voice file waiting,’   squeaked Tin Man, as he walked into his room.
Maybe I should change the voice, thought Kaleem. But then he thought better of that. The woman’s voice on these early dataserves was even more irritating.
‘Receive!’ he commanded. He supposed he’d better listen to this. It could be Pierre trying to get in touch. It was more likely to be some trivial message about the project. They were always being given useless information. Or it might be one of those idiots trying to have another go.
‘Kaleem, the cave-dweller,’ said a deep male voice, ‘we shall meet soon. You have already received the Peace Child document. It will not make sense for a while. Keep it safe. Iris protect. Shortly, you will understand. Say nothing to anyone. Not even your mother. We’re trusting you with this one.’
Nope, it was getting worse. His whole life up to now, and that of his mother a complete mystery, then the strange Wordtext document and now the mystical voice. Kaleem the cave dweller indeed! Perhaps that and the nonsense document were somebody’s idea of a joke. Well, he’d just have to see. Maybe one day even, he’d find out the answer to the biggest question of all: Kaleem Malkendy. Best get stuck into the project and forget it for a few hours.
Soon, he was doing just that. He looked at how Terrestra’s surface had been replanted since the disappearance of the Poison Cloud. He searched through movie clips which showed accelerated growth programmes. Then he listened to the psychological reports about how most people were avoiding the fresh air because it was unpredictable. Or was it because they had been so used to living underground, away from daylight? Something else began to suggest itself as he realised what he was actually doing; using a machine as a replacement for real life. Should that be the focus for his Special Project? It sounded good. He asked for the Project Proposal template.
‘Suggest break and use of fitness equipment,’ said Tin Man. ‘Otherwise user will become strained.’
‘Okay, Tinny,’ muttered Kaleem. ‘When I’ve listened to the form.’
‘Warning,’ started the machine. ‘User will…’
‘Override!’ sighed Kaleem.
Oh this is going to take a bit of thinking about, Kaleem said to himself as he started answering the questions on the sound form. A pain shot through his back and his shoulder cramped up. Maybe I will have a go on the jogging machine or the rower after all, he thought.
‘Standby,’ he said to the machine.
‘Voice file waiting,’ said the irritating device.
‘Okay, download,’ sighed Kaleem.
‘Urgent meet called for New Earth Project participants. Day 77. 13.30. Compulsory attendance.’
What a pain! Why were they having another meet so soon? It was ridiculous. He’d have to face that bunch of idiots again.
He heard Maria leave her workstation and make her way towards the kitchen. She was probably going to get the lunch. That sounded like an even better idea than the jogging machine. Maybe he should go and lend a hand, to show that he was really sorry about the way they had quarrelled earlier.
But then Tin Man spoke again.
‘Voice file waiting.’
‘Go on then!’ muttered Kaleem.
‘Command not understood,’ said the metallic voice.
‘Download,’ Kaleem said quickly through clenched teeth.
‘Command not…’ started the machine.
‘Download,’ said Kaleem as slowly and as clearly as his impatience would allow him.
‘So, you  have another meet with your project group?’ It was the same deep voice that had called him “cave dweller”. ‘Good! Things are moving faster than we thought. I shall see you after the meet. Nothing to worry about.’
No mysterious ‘cave-dweller’ this time, though someone was actually going to contact him. And there was the strangely urgent meet. Two meets in three days.
The fitness centre could be a good idea, after all. Kaleem started to change into his sports’ clothes.
‘Do you want to help me get lunch?’ called Maria. Kaleem pulled his tunic back on over his sports’ top.