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.
‘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.
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.