He was not sitting waiting for Kaleem in his room, as he had done on other similar occasions. He was standing in the lounge.
‘He will only need clothes for the first few days,’ he heard Razjosh say to the house robot. ‘But we will need to make the apartment secure. Go round and shut down all units - apart from the dataserve in Kaleem’s room - on secure standby, yourself last of all.’
‘The dataserve is to remain open?’ asked the machine, almost defiantly.
‘Until all files created by Kaleem Malkendy for the Peace Child project have been uploaded. We can set it to secure shut-down from the Citadel.’
The machine seemed to hesitate for a split second. It moved slightly towards him. Kaleem thought it was looking at him. But then it whirred and clunked.
‘Sir,’ it said and rumbled out of the room.
‘If there is anything particular you want, tell it,’ said Razjosh. ‘But don’t worry about anything too practical. We can sort that out once we’re at the Citadel.’
The Citadel? Only Elders were allowed in the Citadel, weren’t they?
‘I know, I know,’ said Razjosh. ‘I’m surprising you again. I do apologise. But you can see how urgent it’s all got, can’t you?’
Kaleem’s mouth had gone dry and he was feeling slightly dizzy. He licked his lips to moisten them. He had the odd feeling that he was floating. This could not be real.
‘Well, is there anything personal you want to take with you?’ asked Razjosh. His voice was rather sharp.
Kaleem said nothing.
‘We really must hurry,’ said Razjosh. ‘Go and take a look in your room.’
The house robot was coming out of his bedroom when he arrived at the door. It was carrying three of Kaleem’s tunics - a worn grey one, an immaculate blue satin one he had not yet worn and a black formal one - and some other items of clothing.
‘Are these suitable, sir?’ it asked.
‘I guess,’ mumbled Kaleem.
‘Command unknown,’ said the machine.
‘Affirm,’ said Kaleem. What did he care about what he would wear? He’d really rather like to know where exactly he was going. He had no idea where the Citadel was and neither did anyone else as far as he could tell. And he would really like to have had some idea of why he was going there.
The machine trundled on its way. Kaleem looked around his room. How could he decide what he wanted to take, when he didn’t know where he was going or what was going to happen there?
The blue and gold book was lying on his bed. He picked it up and looked at the pictures. He remembered the movie he had seen. He turned the pages slowly, taking in the story again through the pictures and the Wordtext captions. In his head, he could hear all the languages he now knew competing with each other for meaning. But he wasn’t confused like the people in the pictures. He could understand what each of them was saying. He was so absorbed in what was happening on the tower that he did not hear Razjosh come and stand in the doorway.
‘Ah yes,’ said the Elder, less aggressively now. His voice had become calm again. ‘The Babel book. Yes that must come. Hurry now, though, we mustn’t delay any longer.’
Kaleem wondered for a second whether this was the moment to tell Razjosh about the movie. But the old man did not give him time to speak.
‘We shall go and see your mother before we leave,’ he said, ‘and I also think it would be a good idea for you to visit your friend. You need to remind yourself who you are before the real intensity begins. We have clearance.’
Razjosh was striding towards the entrance to the apartment. Kaleem knew his only choice was to follow.
‘All systems on secure shut down,’ said the house robot as it looked at them through the movie window to the outside. Its voice was even more impersonal than ever. It was not using its programmed accent any more. ‘Going on to secure stand-by.’ The movie link faded.
A private transporter was waiting outside the entrance to the cave apartment.
Seconds later, the vehicle was making its way silently towards the Medical Centre. Kaleem’s stomach was churning. He thought he might be about to vomit again. He remembered his illness and shivered.
The transporter smelt of newness. The comfisessels were so advanced that the wearer could almost not feel them at all. There was absolutely no sense of movement, except when you looked through the veriglass windows and saw buildings and other vehicles passing by.
Kaleem looked at the Elder.
‘Grip the sides of the comfisessel,’ said Razjosh. ‘That will stop the nausea.’
Kaleem did as Razjosh had said. It seemed to work. But how did Razjosh know about nausea? When there had been no illness in his lifetime until now?
But this wasn’t illness. This was … Kaleem didn’t know what it was. It didn’t just come from the strange way the transporter was moving. It was all those other things that were going on as well. So how come other people hadn’t felt like this even when they weren’t ill?
Maybe life was just too easy, he thought.
The nausea subsided gradually, but as the transporter pulled up outside the Medical Centre, Kaleem’s stomach turned over again. His mouth went dry and he was trembling slightly.
Oxton Mesrip was there to meet them.
‘Your mother is physically fine,’ he said, as they walked along the white-walled corridors. ‘And she is sleeping and waking normally. We have noticed rapid eye movements, so we assume that she is also dreaming.’
At least Oxton sounded optimistic. He was a tall man, and actually quite young. Kaleem guessed he was only a few years older than him. There was something about the way that he walked purposefully along the corridors that made you think he knew what he was doing.
‘She’s eating and drinking regularly,’ said Oxton. ‘But she still won’t speak, and hardly responds when she’s spoken to. She does seem to enjoy watching old movie clips and makes some response to those.’
He stopped walking.
‘This is her room,’ he said. The door remained closed. ‘Don’t expect too much,’ he said. He lined his eye up to the scanner and the door slid open.
The blinds were down at the windows and the room was almost in complete darkness, lit only by the images moving across the dataserve screen. Maria had her back to them.
‘You’ve got visitors, Maria’ said Oxton quietly. He touched her back lightly.
‘Close file, lights on,’ he said in a more normal voice, speaking towards the dataserve console.
The room flooded with light. Kaleem could see that it had become a much more comfortable room. There were comfisessels and pastel-coloured rugs and cushions. A pale blue throw covered the bed. There were pictures of mountains and forests on the wall.
Maria sat stiffly with her back to them. Her back was hunched.
‘Don’t you want to say hello to your visitors, Maria?’ asked Oxton.
Slowly she turned towards them. Kaleem’s heart was racing. The nausea returned.
He could not believe that this old woman, who now stared at him, was his mother. She seemed to have aged at least twenty years. Her hair had obviously been brushed and was neatly tied back. It seemed dull and life-less, though. Her skin looked tired. It didn’t seem to fit her anymore and hung loosely. She may be eating and drinking all right now, but the weeks in the coma had done their damage. There were dark circles around her eyes. For a few seconds, though, there was a flicker of recognition. She was staring at Kaleem. There was almost a question in her gaze.
‘Mum,’ whispered Kaleem. He put his hand out to touch her.
She shrieked and pulled away. She shut her eyes, folded her arms in front of her chest, hugged her shoulders, and started rocking herself backwards and forwards.
Kaleem swallowed hard to try and get rid of the lump in his throat.
‘She was like that with all of us when she first came out of the coma,’ he heard Oxton say quietly to Razjosh. ‘But she’s generally all right now with those of us she knows.’
Maria turned back to the dataserve screen. She started whimpering and pointing to it.
‘Okay, okay, Maria, easy now, easy now,’ said Oxton. ‘Resume file, low volume,’ he said to the dataserve.
The movie continued. It was a story set on the day the poison cloud lifted.
‘That’s one of her favourites,’ said Oxton.
‘What else does she like?’ asked Razjosh.
‘Actually,’ replied Oxton, ‘anything set in that time. Even the old news files.’
The lump in Kaleem’s throat would not let him ask the questions he was desperate to ask. He felt Oxton’s hand suddenly on his shoulder.
‘She is improving every day, you know,’ he said. ‘I think we’ll have another major break-through soon.’
Oxton was right, he knew. She was at least awake now. But soon wasn’t soon enough. He was going away. He had to go away, he knew that. He just wished he could tell her why.
Razjosh and Oxton continued to talk. Kaleem could understand little of what they were saying. Razjosh seemed to be describing what they had found out about the disease and then all sorts of complicated medical details about how Maria was at the moment.
Kaleem tried to make sense of the movie that Maria was watching. It was some sort of romance. But it was difficult to follow what the characters were saying because the volume was so low. Every so often, though, there was the hint of a smile on her lips.
‘We’d better go,’ said Razjosh. ‘You’ll continue to send daily reports to the Citadel?’
‘Of course,’ said Oxton. ‘Are you going to say good-bye to your visitors, Maria?’
Maria just pulled herself into a tighter ball and whimpered. The dataserve obviously understood what she meant. The volume went up.
Kaleem did not want to look at the two men, but Razjosh came over to him and turned him round so that he had to look at the Elder.
‘You can see why you have to go, can’t you?’ he asked.
Kaleem could only nod. The knot in his throat seemed to be getting tighter, was almost stopping him from being able to breathe. Suddenly he wanted to punch or kick something or someone. He couldn’t move, though.