Sunday, 31 March 2013

The Prophecy, At the Citadel, Chapter One

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.

Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Prophecy Out of Bounds Chapter Twelve

Chapter Twelve
Kaleem called up all seventy-nine channels, one after the other. It was the same story over and over. Every single one of them reported an attack by the Supercraft Excelsior. They all claimed that Terrestra’s aggression was just an act of self-defence. The same images were shown over and over again. The flash of light from the Terrestran Scout, and the silent shattering of the right wing of the Supercraft Excelsior.
‘We have to show them that no approach will be tolerated,’ said one of the Head of Diplomacy’s officials on all seventy-nine channels. ‘The attack was meant to shock, not to maim. We shall not accept infringement of our orbital space from aliens.’
So much for diplomacy, thought Kaleem.
He called up several of the two hundred non-news channels. But each time, just as they started to load, they would flip to the nearest news channel.
‘Terrestrans are requested to keep movement to a minimum,’ said one of the robot newsreaders. ‘Emergency alert code five is implemented. Movement is allowed only for personnel who need to report to work stations.’
Kaleem wondered for a moment whether he could use this to get over to the medical centre to see Maria. Surely the droid guards would be too busy directing people to the correct muster stations to be bothered with him? It might be worth a try.
‘There will still be severe punishments for Terrestrans found away from home without need,’ continued the robot. ‘Minimum fine, seven thousand Terrestran credits.’
Better not then, thought Kaleem. Maria barely earned seven thousand credits in a year. He shuddered as he remembered his recent narrow escape.
He continued his search for anything other than news.
‘Broadcast group seven twenty-three,’ he mumbled. The familiar music of the fitness channel’s hourly change of programme started up. The screen flickered and changed for a few seconds to the standard news broadcast. Then there was a whoosh and crackle and suddenly a very clear picture on the screen.
There was no sound except a very gentle tinkling, like small wind chimes on a breezy summer afternoon. Unusual figures were moving across the screen. They were recognisably human, but they were somehow flat and two-dimensional, and they were wearing strange clothes. There was something very familiar about the colours though - those rich blues, golds and silvers. Some Wordtext appeared across the bottom of the screen.
Kaleem could read it easily now. The picture it made in his head was as clear as the picture he could see on the screen. Clearer in fact - because the movie in his head had real people in it. He watched them building the tower and making their way up it. Then he saw the flashes of lightning and the people running down the outside staircase. They were shouting and couldn’t understand each other. Kaleem recognised some of the words, though.
That was Canadian French, he thought, as he heard one man shouting abuse at someone who had punched him on the steps. The man replied in Swiss German.
Yet no sound came from the dataserve. There were just the soft chimes of the tubular bells. The flat pictures and the Wordtext rolled on. Then more Wordtext rolled over the screen. There was a list of names and jobs next to each other. That faded.
Then there were real, three-dimensional people - two women and a man. They, too, were wearing odd clothes - certainly not the normal tunics worn on Terrestra, though what the women had on looked almost like a tunic.
‘So, how exactly does this story fit in with the Peace Child Prophecy?’ said the man. ‘And what do you understand the role of the Mother to be?’
Now the sound was actually coming from the dataserve’s sound card.
Kaleem felt a rush of blood come to his head. He was aware that his heart was beating rapidly now and his mouth was going dry.
‘Well, I’m not exactly sure that the three things do fit together as an absolute truth,’ began the first woman. ‘They are often associated, because of the concept of mother - the idea that the female who nurtures  - and that may not even be a human mother - it could even be a series of events - will be the one who produces a person capable of sorting out the misunderstandings that arise when people just can’t understand each other because of different languages and perhaps, more importantly, because of different cultures, different ways of life.’
‘But that is precisely how prophecy works,’ said the other woman. ‘It creates a set of symbols which can be applied to help us rationalise a set of events.’
The sound and the pictures on the dataserve screen wobbled a little. Then it went silent. There was now only a soft green light coming from the screen.
No, thought Kaleem. Don’t let this go. I really want to find out about this.
He tried to think about what he’d heard. Yes, it made sense. Why not use the Peace Child Prophecy to explain about bringing harmony back? But it was so peculiar how similar those pictures on the dataserve had been to the ones in the book he had found. He shivered.
He had no more time to think. A dazzling white light came from the screen suddenly and then Razjosh was standing there in a hologram.
‘We have to move on,’ said Razjosh’s holo. ‘You need to experience the other worlds through the holoprogrammes. It’s not ideal, but it’s the best we can do at the moment.’
Kaleem wanted to ask him about the movie he had just seen. Somehow, though, it was difficult to ask a holo such questions. If Razjosh had really come here, it would be so much easier. Or was that just an excuse he was making? He almost hoped that the Elder would bring up the question himself.
‘We’re sending you to Polynket,’ said the Elder. The hologram was beginning to disintegrate. ‘I’m sure you will find that interesting. The picture of Razjosh faded in and out of view. Suddenly, though, it steadied, and it was hard to believe that the Elder wasn’t actually in the room. ‘They are different from us in a most remarkable way,’ said Razjosh.
‘Razjosh,’ began Kaleem. He wanted to talk about the Prophecy. ‘Do you think…?
The now clear holo of the Elder looked at him. It was that all-knowing stare again. Surely, even in a holo, Razjosh could tell exactly what he was thinking. Kaleem lost his nerve.
‘Will the holos be more stable than this?’ he said. ‘I mean, it’s hardly going to seem realistic if things keep fading in and out, is it?’
The holo stared at him for a few seconds.
‘Don’t worry,’ said Razjosh. ‘You will have full power for your programme. We’re only saving power on non-urgent messages. Your training has been given number one priority.’
The holo snapped out. There were a few seconds of complete darkness. Then Kaleem could hear his dataserve humming faintly. The room gradually lit up again.
Except that it wasn’t his room. He was outside, standing next to a round, vibrating  vehicle. It hovered slightly above the ground and it seemed to be in queue of similar machines. There were about ten in front and they stretched out behind as far as he could see.
‘It’s such a waste of time,’ said a voice next to him.
New Middle German! It would be. That was the one language he found really difficult. It still had all the inflections and standard new spelling from the German of the 21st century, but only on the old words. Ones they borrowed from other cultures had no inflections. He was bound to make mistakes all the time. It was a good job this was just a holo exercise and not the real thing.
‘Energy shortage again on Polynket and everybody panics. Everybody’s queuing and they know they’ve got to pay at least 50 universal credits or ten Polynket rupels even if they can only load a couple of unicharges. Madness!’
The speaker was a boy about his own age. He had dark hair and looked almost exactly like a white Terrestran, except that his skin was a shade darker. The other people standing nearby all looked similar. And no one was wearing a tunic. Everyone was wearing the same tight fitting leggings and jacket, though there were a variety of colours.
Kaleem felt almost naked at first, though as they moved slowly forward towards the building, he began to enjoy the feeling of freedom these new clothes gave him.
‘I’m Carlton, by the way,’ said the boy.
‘Pleased to meet you,’ said Kaleem. ‘I’m Kaleem.’
Carlton grinned. ‘I know,’ he said.
‘I bet they’ve hardly any room for any more charge,’ said Carlton. ‘Whereas I’m genuinely down to street charge only. This baby will just about manage to limp in on the residual power from the walkways.’
He pushed the strange-looking vehicle forward to the space left by the one in front. It was beginning to make a strange whirring noise.
‘She’s really struggling now,’ said Carlton. ‘We may have to go on to wheels and run her along the ground soon.’
They were moved forward again.
‘You see?’ said Carlton. ‘That idiot only took thirty seconds. A full charge should take at least two minutes.’ He sighed. Then he grinned. ‘Still, I suppose it’s good for the economy. He’s paying the energy company far more than his recharge is worth. That should eventually make it cheaper for the rest of us. And eventually people will get fed up of all this queuing and will only recharge when they really need to.’
‘So how much energy does … -erm?’  Kaleem started to say.
‘Ten rupels or 50 universal credits,’ Carlton continued for him. ‘Almost a full recharge.’
The vehicle made a loud clunking noise. Two wheels dropped beneath it. It sank to the floor.
‘Good job you’re here,’ said Carlton. ‘It takes two to wheel an Autoflieg.’
There were now only two Autofliegs in front of them. Kaleem helped Carlton to wheel the broken down vehicle along towards the entrance of the building. It wasn’t heavy. It was just slightly awkward to steer.
The two vehicles in front only took a few seconds each to recharge.
‘Typical,’ muttered Carton.
The driver of the second Autoflieg looked annoyed.
‘I’m not doing this anymore,’ she said to Carlton. ‘I think I’ll use a bit of your sense. It’s stupid, wasting all this time and all these credits.’ She got back into her Autoflieg. There was a loud whoosh and the vehicle sprang into the air and rushed forward and out of the building.
Carlton grinned at Kaleem.
‘Not a bad idea from the Oberrat,’ he said. ‘Better than restricting the amount of recharge you can buy.’
Kaleem remembered seeing something in an archive clip about energy shortages on Terrestra. The vehicles had queued for hours, in the days of the old fossil fuels, burning more fuel as they did so, to buy the small amount allowed. This was a better idea here, and it was already beginning to work.
The droids were already hooking up a thick wire to the power socket on the Autoflieg as Carlton looked at the small camera which scanned his eyes in order to process the credits. The small craft lit up straight away and then hovered above the ground. Two minutes later the recharge was complete.
‘Full power restored,’ announced one of the droids. ‘Fifty-two universal credits deducted. Value in rupels, ten point four’.
‘Get in,’ said Carlton. ‘You’re going to enjoy this.’
The doors on both sides of the craft slid open. Kaleem found he almost had to lie down in the seat. A set of straps and restraints moulded itself around him. The craft sped forward out of the building and began to climb upwards.  Then it rotated through ninety degrees, so that Kaleem thought he was almost standing upright. They carried on upwards.
‘Levelling off,’ said the Autoflieg’s dataserve. Now it tilted them forward another forty-five degrees, which gave Kaleem the sensation that he was flying through the air. He could look down and see Polynket’s surface.
‘What do you think?’ asked Carlton.
‘It’s brilliant,’ said Kaleem.  Below him Kaleem could see blue-capped mountains and green lakes. Every now and then there was a city with buildings pointing into the air. Between them were stretches of green and brown land. It was very much as he would expect Terrestra to look - except that he’d never been in a flying transporter on Terrestra.
They seemed to be flying very close to other Autofliegs.
‘What stops us from crashing into them?’ he asked Carlton.
‘Force field buffers,’ replied Carlton. ‘It’s impossible for them to touch each other. So when we drive them we just point them where we want to go and they do the rest. In fact, we don’t really have to drive at all.’ He took his hands off what Kaleem had assumed was the controls of the craft.
Kaleem shrieked. Carlton laughed. Another Autoflieg seemed to come right up to them, hovered for a few seconds, and then sped backwards from them. The occupants waved wildly.
‘You don’t need to be scared,’ said Carlton. ‘It’s all under control.’
Kaleem kept quiet for the rest of the journey. It was hard enough, following everything Carlton was saying. Replying was just impossible. He listened carefully to what the other boy said, trying to get clues as to which words needed inflections and which ones didn’t. But it was such a puzzle. Carlton had been programmed not to answer if Kaleem used the words wrongly. He was getting too used to Carlton’s blank stare. So he contented himself with just looking out of the window.
‘Nearly there,’ said Carlton after another twenty-five minutes. The Autoflieg flipped into the upright position and began to descend.
‘We’re going to the Denta Mill engineering works,’ Carlton explained. ‘The mill-wheel has seized up and I’m helping to free it.’
The Autoflieg hovered for a few seconds in the upright position and then gently rotated so that they were almost lying on their backs. It made its way slowly forwards and then came to rest, hovering a metre above the ground next to a stone platform. The seats tilted forward slightly so that they were almost upright again and the doors sprang open.
‘Park,’ commanded Carlton.
The craft extended its wheels again and all the motor sounds stopped. As soon as the two boys had got out of the craft, a couple of droids wheeled it into a garage slot.
‘Come on then,’ said Carlton. ‘Let’s go and look at this big wheel.’
Kaleem followed him out into the open air. It was just like Terrestra on  a Spring afternoon.
‘We face two suns,’ explained Carlton. ‘So there is no day and night. As soon as one sun sinks the other rises. It’s always light, so there is no natural night. We all have different living cycles. We belong to the blue time zone - hence the blue suits.’
It was true. All the other people around them were wearing blue - exactly the same shade of blue as Carlton and himself.
‘Our day runs from three Uva time to seven Zena time,’ explained Carlton. ‘Uva has been up three hours. Zena will come up in another five hours. Oh, by the way, we measure our hours exactly like sixty Terrestran minutes.’
It sort of made sense.
‘So what’s happened to the mill wheel?’ asked Kaleem. He suddenly felt bold with his words. He must have got the inflections right because Carlton turned to answer him.
‘Silted up,’ explained Carlton. ‘Won’t turn.’
Soon they were looking into a deep well at the gigantic stuck  wheel.
‘So what does it do?’ asked Kaleem pointing to the mill wheel.
Carlton did not seem to have heard him. He started talking to one of the other engineers there. Kaleem found it quite difficult to follow what they were saying, but he did hear them mention water.
‘So what does it do?’ he asked again, after Carlton had finished talking to the others. This time he had remembered the inflected word for ‘it’ when he referred to the mill wheel.
‘This is what generates most of our energy,’ Carlton explained. ‘It’s because this has seized up that we’re short of energy at the moment.’
Kaleem could see what the engineers were doing. They seemed to be just putting more and more water into the wheel pit. Black liquid mud was pouring out.
Kaleem wanted to ask about that. He remembered that the word for water came from the old language and therefore had to be inflected.
‘Are they really just pouring water into it?’  he asked. ‘Why don’t they take out the wheel and dig out the mud?’ Kaleem felt rather pleased with his effort this time. He must have got it right again, because Carlton replied straight away.
‘Well, we could have done that,’ he said, ‘but that is rather a big job and the wheel could get broken in the process. This way we are loosening up the silt and cleaning the wheel at the same time.’
Kaleem helped Carlton all day, with just a short break to drink some fruit juice and eat something which was a bit like a sandwich. It tasted good because he was so hungry. The rest of the time, they helped to pour in the water. There were droids working there as well, but all too often they got soaked and stopped working. Some of the engineers shovelled out the now softened silt. The wheel was beginning to move a little.
‘It’s four of Zena,’ said  Carlton suddenly. ‘The end of our shift. The reds will be coming in soon. Let’s go and get cleaned up.’
Kaleem enjoyed the shower.
‘The company will take care of our laundry,’ said Carlton. ‘That’s your locker there.’ He handed Kaleem a disk key.
Kaleem pressed the disk and the beam hit the door of the locker, which opened immediately. Inside was a blue uniform, identical to the one he just taken off.
‘Let’s go and relax,’ said Carlton.
Kaleem didn’t jump every time another Autoflieg came right up to them this time. He actually enjoyed trying to work out which vehicle would back off first. He noticed as well that all the Fliegs travelling in the same direction as them were blue, and the ones going towards the engineering site were red.
‘Is everything colour-coded then?’ he asked  Carlton.
‘Yes,’ he replied. ‘That way we know who’s doing what.’
‘Well, can people from different colour bands mix?’ asked Kaleem.
‘Of course,’ replied Carlton. ‘I used to be a yellow.’
‘So why did you become a blue?’ asked Kaleem.
‘Because I got the job with Denta engineering,’ replied Carlton. ‘It’s no big deal. You just have to alter your eating, working and sleeping patterns.’
It all seemed so very logical. Perhaps a bit too logical for Kaleem. It was all so neat and tidy. He didn’t think he ought to comment about that, though, and anyway, he’d begun to find it a bit difficult to talk again. This language was a really tricky one, and words from other ones kept popping into his head.
It must be dreary, though, he thought, having to wear the same colour all the time.
Carlton, of course, knew what he was thinking. Well, of course he did, he was all part of the programme, wasn’t he? These holoprogrammes were all very good, but that’s all they were - programmes.
‘We have to wear our colours when we’re out and about,’ said Carlton ‘So that other people can respect our time zone. But once we’re in private space, we can please ourselves.’
‘So what do you do during your time off?’ asked Kaleem.
‘Exercise, virtual outings, drinking in the bars, visiting the dataserve simulations,’ he replied. He was slowing the Autoflieg right down now. It was tilting into the upright position, ready to land.
‘I thought we might go to juice joint,’ he said. The Autoflieg was near the ground. Kaleem heard the wheels drop and the machine tilted them back into the sitting position.
‘You’ll need a jacket,’ said Carlton. ‘The air’s cooled inside.’
A jacket seemed the last thing that he’d need as he stepped out into the heat of Zena’s mid-day.
‘Believe me, it will be cool in there,’ said Carlton, handing Kaleem a pale blue jacket.
Kaleem noticed that Carlton was jiggling something in his top left pocket. He took a small glass ball from the pocket and transferred it to his right pocket.
‘Three down, two to go,’ said Carlton.
‘What?’ said Kaleem. There seemed to be a strange way of thinking on this planet - minimum amount of refuelling when there  was an energy crisis, throwing water at muck rather than digging it out, and wearing jackets indoors. But moving marbles around was just the limit.
‘We’re learning to think sideways,’ said Carlton. ‘The marbles help us to make sure we do it at least five times a day. You transfer a marble from one pocket to the other every time you manage to think laterally. Vertical thinking has stopped working.’
Yeah, right, thought Kaleem.
He just about had time to catch a glimpse of the juice joint. Not that different form a nectar bar. And there were colours here - in fact, shafts of rainbow lights illuminated groups of drinkers - though they were mainly blues, because of the time. He realised he was thirsty and looked forward to trying the juice.
But then the bar and its occupants started breaking up. He could hear the faint whir of his own dataserve.
‘Yeah, okay, I get it,’ he mumbled to himself, ‘but I would have liked to stay a bit longer and try at least one juice. I could have tried my New Middle German a bit more.’
‘I know, I’m sorry,’ said Razjosh. ‘I’ve brought you back early again. But we have to go. You must pack at once.’
It was actually Razjosh this time, not a hologram.

Sunday, 17 March 2013

The Prophecy The Z Zone Two

The body of the Mother carried on growing. She became less comfortable. The shine went from her hair. The tremendous energy had begun to wane, as she found her now huge form harder and harder to move.
She could feel the baby moving almost all of the time now. What before had seemed a neat trick, a sweet moment, now became an annoyance. The outline of the foot appearing on the belly now meant a kick in the stomach, heartburn or an uncomfortable feeling under the ribs.
She found it difficult to eat. There was no room for her food. The baby was taking up all of the space inside.
She moved less, and when she did move, she felt heavy and ugly.
I’m glad he went, she told herself. I’m glad he can’t see me like this.
‘The head is engaged,’ said the old woman, one day as she felt the Mother’s belly. ‘The baby will be here soon.’
At times she would walk around their cave home. She had to walk, even though she did not feel like it, because if she didn’t her legs would cramp up and she would have excruciating pains travelling through the whole of her body.
As she walked, she could feel the head of the life inside her bouncing on top of its exit. She was sure that at any second it would just fall out.
I wish the baby would hurry up and come, she thought to herself.  I would like my body back.
But  then she would feel sick with fear. The old midwife had told her what to expect of the birth. The baby would not just fall out. There were likely to be hours of pain, fluids dripping from her body, blood flowing between her legs, and high temperatures. The baby would not be cute and clean when it appeared. It would be covered in blood, and wrinkled, most likely and with a thick fleshy cord coming from its belly.  But the worst thought of all was of that great head, which she could already feel so keenly, forcing its way through that gap so much too small.
There was going to be very little help in the Z Zone. If they had still had all the technology available in the normal zones, it would have been of little use here. Even the Z Zoners, with the exception of Narisja, had forgotten about birthing and she had not practiced it for many years.
The older woman put the Mother through her lessons. She told her how to breathe - shallow for when the pains were sharp and she wanted to push, deep for when she needed to relax. She showed her how to push, how not to put the energy into her throat but to direct it downwards, and so help the baby on its way.
‘Then we will put Him on your breast and give Him His first milk. That is the milk which is rich in nutrients and fights disease,’ she said. She ignored the Mother’s grimace at the word ‘disease’. ‘You have fine breasts,’ she continued. ‘The Child will be well nurtured from these breasts.’
The Mother shivered. She did not like to think of the child sucking at her nipples. It was animal-like. It was barbaric. It was just not done these days.
They still looked at the book. The Mother slowly found herself absorbed by the story. She imagined the people planning their great city and building the tall tower, which would lead them up to God. She saw them as flesh and blood, not just as the paper cut-outs here, though they did look fine in their silver and gold clothing.
‘Read it to me,’ said the old woman. And the Mother read it, from beginning to end. Her eyes skimmed across the Wordtext sections. She did not need to read them. She knew them so well.
She felt more and more uneasy as she came to the part where the tower began to tumble. It looked almost nothing in the pictures, but she could imagine the people screaming, and the children falling then searching in vain for their mothers and fathers in the debris on the ground.
‘Those poor children,’ she said to Narisja
‘You are bound to think of the children,’ said Narisja, ‘in your condition.’
At least they had mothers and fathers, thought the Mother, rubbing her huge belly, unlike you, my poor little one. She tried to stop the tears as she thought of how it might have been if Gabrizan could have been there with her.
‘It is so good that you are here,’ said the older woman. ‘It is so good that you came to the Zone, carrying the Babel book.’ She spoke as if she had not seen the Mother’s tears. But the Mother knew that her old friend understood her pain.
She could move less now, and the dancing had stopped. She had time to think. And she thought of what might happen after the birth. Would Narisja still keep her prisoner here? One day she dared to ask.
‘Narisja,’ she said, ‘what should happen to me and the child after he is born? Should we stay here?’
The older woman stared at her for several minutes. Then she looked away. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath. She turned back to the Mother and looked deep into her eyes.
‘The Child will know what is best to do,’ she said. the old woman. ‘We must trust in Him.’
Now it was the turn of the younger woman to look away.
This is nonsense, she told herself. It was just a mistake. They are hiding me behind a prophecy. Then she shuddered again as she remembered that the Stopes programmes had failed, though the Stopes programmes never failed. It was the book, the simple story in which Narisja had so much faith, which had saved her. Nevertheless, she asked herself what sort of life she and the Child would lead here, in the Z Zone.
The days followed the usual pattern. The Mother rested more and more. The older woman completed the chores. One day the Mother woke up, full of energy again.
‘I want to help you to beat the rugs,’ she said to Narisja ‘I want to boil the bean soup and want to move all the dust out of the cave. It must be clean for the sake of the child.’
And she set to, broom in hand. She sang as she worked. She swept and scrubbed, she peeled and scraped. She felt strong. She felt brave. She felt happy. She was reluctant to lie on her bed for the midwife to examine her.
‘I must get on. I must get everything ready for the baby,’ she said.
Eventually she had to let the older woman look at her. There was a fire in the eyes of the midwife as she gently felt around the contours of the swollen belly. The old woman put the listening tube to the lump.
‘Good,’ she murmured. ‘Very good indeed.’
‘May  I go now?’ said the Mother and rushed from the bed. She took the feather duster and started to flick it high up the cave walls. Nothing was going to beat her.
Suddenly there was a sharp pain in the small of her back. She dropped the duster and held her breath, trying to count the pain away. Something warm trickled from the space between her legs. She saw the blood dripping to the floor. A gush of water, warm and steaming, which she could not control splashed around her feet.  Then came the second pain.
The old woman smiled.
‘Good,’ she said. ‘It is time.’

Sunday, 10 March 2013

The Prophecy Out of Bounds Chapter Eleven

Kaleem replayed Razjosh’s message several times. It was really very scary. If the Terrestrans couldn’t accept the Zandrians’ terms, there would be no hope of getting the vaccine back to Terrestra. And without the vaccine, more people were going to die.
He called up a news channel.
‘Seventeen more deaths,’ said the news robot. ‘All in the X sector. Concern is growing that an antidote will not be found quickly enough.’
That’s not really true, thought Kaleem. There could be thousands dying and they wouldn’t actually say.
‘They’re letting out enough facts to keep people on their toes,’ Razjosh had said. ‘But not enough to cause panic. If people really knew how bad it’s become, then there would be even more riots.’
Kaleem flicked back to Razjosh’s message. The hologram was really very convincing. It looked even more real than the ones from the Elders’ Citadel. That Supercraft must really be something.
Razjosh looked serious and tired.
‘We have to step up the programme even further,’ said the old man. ‘It won’t be easy, I know. You’re working pretty well flat out now. And there’ll be more visits to holographed planets. We have to move on even more quickly.’
It was that hesitation again. Kaleem could not help but think that Razjosh actually wanted to tell him something extra, but didn’t dare to. At least not from so many light years away and in holographic form. And he couldn’t begin to guess what that may be. New Hidden Information then?
The dataserve’s communicator sounded.
‘Receive,’ commanded Kaleem.
Kaleem felt his stomach turn as he recognised Oxton Mesrip, one of three medical workers assigned to look after Maria. It was all piling in now. Had Maria got worse?
But the man was smiling. ‘We have some good news,’ said Oxton. ‘Your mother has woken up. She is not yet speaking and she is still very weak, but she has come out of the coma. She has no fever, and it seems that she is fighting the disease and is winning.’
‘I should be there,’ said Kaleem.
‘Er, no you can’t can you?’ said Oxton. ‘Remember there is still a movement ban on. We want to keep a very close eye on her and conduct further tests. And we don’t want too much excitement for her at the moment. But we’ll keep you informed.’
The screen went blank. Kaleem felt almost relieved that he hadn’t got to go out again. But what was it going to be like now? Was it going to perhaps be even worse now that Maria was awake? Would she go back to being how she had been before? Or would she need him to look after her? Would she improve enough to leave the medical centre? Or would she be forever in this strange state? This disease was so unknown. Perhaps Razjosh would be able to tell him more when he got back.
A news flash message came on the screen. This time it was one of the more familiar human newsreaders who spoke.
‘A Supercraft Excelsior has been spotted making its way towards Terrestra,’ said the man. For once he did not speak in the normal even tones of the news presenters. His voice seemed agitated and his face was clearly strained. ‘It entered the exclusion zone at Universal Time 15.23 this afternoon. A broadcast from another Supercraft of unknown origin, has assured the authorities that this means no harm to Terrestra. However, it has been considered that this could be a hoax. In the next few hours, a decision will be made about whether to consider this a hostile approach and therefore what action if any should be taken. Keep your news channels open to stay informed.’
This was ridiculous. The Supercraft had been sent with the Elders’ approval. So why didn’t the news channels know? Was the Supercraft going to Zandra Hidden Information? Or Golden Knowledge?  They must know about it. Maybe they did. Maybe somebody was giving away information they should have kept secret. Or maybe the news creators had just kept their eyes and ears open.
Kaleem’s stomach turned again. There was definitely going to be trouble. No way would the Terrestran authorities let that Zandrian Supercraft get anywhere near Terrestra. Even if it was on an aid mission. They wouldn’t stop to ask.
It’s going to be a complete disaster, he thought. This definitely took the edge away from the good news about his mother.
He opened a data file from Razjosh. It was in Wordtext. Kaleem could read that quite easily now. It was almost a relief now to be doing some ordinary work. Normally, this would have seemed tedious. But today he was glad to have something to get on with that took his mind off these other matters.
‘There is a universal grammar,’ he read. ‘Every language needs to express past, present and future tenses, active and passive voices, indicative and subjunctive moods.’  Kaleem scratched around at the back of his mind. Yes, he could just about remember what that meant.
He read on.
‘Always there will be a default word order. In some languages parts of speech are indicated by word order. In others, inflections are used. But every language must indicate who is doing what in each sentence.’
Kaleem though he could just about grasp what this meant. And inflections - wasn’t that like the endings on words in languages like German?
‘Each language uses its prepositions differently. But each prepositional idea you have in your own language must be expressed somehow in the language you are studying, as will all notions of time.’
Now that did sound familiar. In English you went by car but in German you went with it.
‘There will in any case be idiomatic uses of words and expressions in all languages. They must be learnt as separate entities. And finally, each language will have a system of gender and plurals, some languages being more complex than others in these matters.’
Yes, he knew that! That was such a lot to learn sometimes.
‘These then are the five fundamental points of any grammar system. Look for them in any language. Knowledge of this will actually accelerate structural competence.’
Ah! thought Kaleem, and then there’s all the rest. All those words, and all the different bits and pieces you need to know to do those things.
‘And as if all that is not enough, plus the whole word system which underlies all of this, you have to get used to all those cultural differences. So, we’ll soon need to work more with the holograms.’
Ha! Ha! Ha! thought Kaleem. Well, I’ve got my work cut out, then, haven’t I?
He was just about to open one of his other data files. He did not have chance to, though, because the news channel cut in again. This time it was an override news flash. It was the same newscaster as before. This time he looked even more strained.
‘We regret to announce,’ he said in that voice that the newscasters reserved for the most serious bits of news, ‘that the arrival of the Supercraft Excelsior has indeed been deemed to be an act of aggression. A verbal warning was given. This was ignored, and the protection authorities had no alternative than to fire warning shots. One of them damaged the right wing of the Supercraft. The damage was only superficial and in no way has harmed its functioning. It has now turned away from the planet. A tracker has been attached to find out its origin.’
So stupid, thought Kaleem. The Supercraft Excelsior had come in peace. It had brought a source of help in the fight against this terrible disease. And the Terrestrans had attacked it. Why didn’t they know that?  So what is a Peace Child supposed to do about that?