Kaleem stared at the kitchen. There was something that didn’t look quite right. The he remembered from the briefing that it worked in a totally different way from the ones on Terrestra. There was so much to remember. At least all the information was on the strange-looking dataserve that Razjosh had given him. He had become quite used to how that worked. Now he was hungry, though, and didn’t want to go back and work on the machine.
Ah, that was the problem. There was apparently no device for cooking the food, nor for keeping it cold. The cupboards were similar enough to Terrestran ones. He touched one of the bright red doors. It didn’t feel any different from the ones back home in the apartment he used to share with Marijam.
But here there was no house robot pottering about. The machines on Zandra were all built in. How was this kitchen going to produce food?
He found the switch. There was a second dial next to the light control. He turned it and a dataserve screen opened in the nearest cupboard.
‘Ready-made or self-prepare?’ asked an electronic voice.
Kaleem wondered how it would be possible to prepare food without somewhere to cook. He’d go for the ready-made this time.
A screen with five pictures came up.
‘Meat, fish, artificial protein, vegan or vegetarian?’ asked the dataserve.
Kaleem looked at the pictures.
Yeah, I fancy meat, he thought.
The screen immediately changed to a picture of five different meat dishes.
‘Rabbit, bull, piglet, watercat or mountain hog,’ offered the machine.
Kaleem smiled to himself.
Watercat, no thanks! he thought. He did want to try something new, though. He settled on the mountain hog. Perhaps it would be a bit like pork.
Before he had time to speak, the whole kitchen started to vibrate. Within seconds, there was the smell of food cooking.
Kaleem used the waiting time to take a look at the rest of the kitchen. He opened some of the drawers and found items that were near enough the same as the ones he used on Terrestra. He even found some dishes and plates, though they did look a little odd. They were completely square and rather shallow. Nowhere, though, was there anything in which or on which to cook.
One of the drawers suddenly slid open. It contained one of the strange square dishes filled with some sort of meat in a red sauce and white bits of something else. There were two grips either side of the plate. Although Kaleem could feel the heat of the food, the handles were quite cool.
He carried the dish into the small living area. He would look up more about food preparation while he was eating. He sat in the one and only chair - something which was a little like a comfisessel, but was not as good at moulding itself around you as the ones he was used to.
The food was still too hot to eat at first. Kaleem started loading up files, using voice command to start with. Soon, though, file after file came up just as he thought of it.
How does it do that? he asked. Something else the Terrestrans are missing out on.
‘Would you like to access the history of machine and mind integration?’ asked the machine.
‘Stick with the cookery lesson,’ said Kaleem, out loud this time. He could see he was going to have to keep this in check.
So that was it. You ordered up the ingredients you wanted and prepared the food as you wished. Every item you needed was delivered into that special drawer. The only exception was the knives, because everybody had their own preference about what to use for cutting food.
I don’t think I’ll bother though, thought Kaleem. Mountain hog was something he would certainly have again. It was a little like pork, but it had more taste, and it was very, very tender. The little lumps of white material he had noticed were a cross between mashed potato and pasta. They were beautifully light.
‘Would you like to see the full range of dishes for this month?’ asked the dataserve.
‘No thank you!’ shouted Kaleem, ‘But what’s for …?’
Before he could finish the question a picture of five different desserts had appeared on the screen. He was just about to remark that the one with the red swirls looked nice and ask whether it was raspberry or strawberry or some other fruit peculiar to Zandra, and a movie clip of how the logan fruit was cultivated was just beginning to load, when an icon appeared in the corner of the screen, informing him that he had an important message coming through.
He ought to look at it, he supposed. No sooner had he thought that than the movie message loaded.
‘Tulla Watkins,’ said the young Zandrian. ‘I wish to be mentored through the Level 2, Intel Flemish course. I would also like to arrange a physical meet as soon as possible.’
Suddenly Kaleem’s appetite for desert had completely gone. This was serious now. He really had to take up this new identity of language mentor. Already somebody wanted to meet him.
Two hours later, he was sitting in the Zandrian version of a comfisessel at the Ambassador Club. It was a strange place. It had been decorated in the style of the 21st century Earth, with laminate flooring, shiny black tiles and stainless steel. Kaleem doubted that the materials were real. He knew that Zandra lacked the rich resources of Terrestra, and even there, artificial things were more common than real ones. The holoscreens, dataserves, chairs which only attempted to mould themselves to you, and robots were a bit of a giveaway as well. Yet it was comfortable and elegant.
Tulla had not yet arrived. He kept his eye on the doorway. The robot waiters hovered around him.
‘Is sir ready to order?’ one croaked in an electronic voice that was even more irritating than those of the Terrestran models.
Kaleem just shook his head. He didn’t want to speak Zandrian to them. They would probably notice the small oddities in his voice more easily than a human. On the other hand, it might have been good to practice on a machine before trying out the real thing. His results with the holoprogrammes had been excellent - he had gained 100% on every test - but somehow now that he was actually here…
He didn’t have to wait much longer. He recognised the golden blond hair of Tulla Watkins as soon as she came through the doorway. She had replaced the dull moss-coloured ripon tunic she had been wearing earlier with one of a bright, silky blue material. Her face looked slightly less pointed than it had on the dataserve screen. In fact, she was rather gorgeous.
She hesitated before she walked right into the room.
Kaleem stood up. His heart was beating fast now. It wasn’t just because he was worried about his Zandrian, though. She was lovely and even had hair and skin just like his own. She looked quite good on the screen – but just another well-kept female. Here in the flesh … he could hardly breath. How was he going to be able to concentrate on working with her?
Tulla spotted him a few seconds later. She grinned and waved.
‘I was so impressed by your CV,’ she said, as she sat down. ‘So many languages and so proficient at them.’
Another waiter robot was hovering nearby.
‘Frega juice,’ she said.
‘Sir?’ asked the robot.
Kaleem signalled with his hand that he would have the same.
‘Two frega juices?’ asked the robot. ‘Which account?’
‘So, how did you get so good at them?’ asked Tulla.
Kaleem shrugged, still dreading the moment he would have to speak.
‘I really must improve my Intel Flemish as soon as possible,’ said Tulla. ‘When can we start?’
Kaleem swallowed. He just could not speak. She was so sexy, for one thing. Also, there was a very strong chance that he might give the game away as soon as he opened his mouth.
‘I mean,’ continued Tulla. ‘Are you very busy at the moment? Could we start tomorrow?’
Kaleem put his hand together in front of his mouth, the tips of his middle fingers touching his nose, and nodded gently. The body language was easier, somehow.
The robot arrived with frega juice. Kaleem fixed on the electronic eye of the robot.
‘Iris imprint successful,’ said the robot.
Kaleem held his glass of frega juice up to Tulla. She touched his glass with hers.
‘Zandra’s joy in our work together,’ she said.
Kaleem gave the Zandrian bow.
He took a sip of the frega juice. This was the real thing. It seemed to be ten times more powerful than what the holoprogrammes had produced. He could feel the fire burning his gullet and stomach as the juice went down. His brain seemed as if it was going to explode.
‘How about two hours per day for a Zandrian month?’ he asked, suddenly knowing that his Zandrian was going to be completely flawless. ‘Then we’ll review it.’
‘Great,’ said Tulla, grinning.
Kaleem did not want to stop talking to this fantastic creature. There was no problem with his Zandrian now. She, too, made no move to go home.
‘Well, it’s all great,’ she said eventually. ‘I’m really looking forward to starting.’
‘I’ll start work on your programme as soon as I get back to my place,’ he said. ‘I think we should be able to start in a couple of days time.’
She did not offer him the normal Zandrian hand shake, but touched him lightly on the way out.
Kaleem sat for a few moments absolutely dazed.
She actually understood me all right, he thought. And I think she likes me.
He decided not to take the direct route home, but found a rather complicated route back to his apartment on the Zandrian transporter system.
It was noisier on the capsule that it was on the Terrestran equivalent. It seemed also to be the done thing to chat to one’s neighbour.
‘I’ve not seen you on this route before,’ a young man next to him said.
‘New post,’ said Kaleem. ‘Actually, I’ve just started working as an independent language expert.’
‘Wow!’ said the young man. ‘That’s a hard one. Good luck with that.’
By the end of the journey, they had become friends, and each had entered the other’s call signs into their wrist communicators. It looked as if Alistare Rogerin was going to become a good friend and even a possible customer.
Things were looking good. He had arrived. He could talk to the people on this planet.
Then he was back in his apartment, putting together a learning programme for Tulla. Their first assignment looked as if it was going to be easy. His first student would surely get good results fast. She was certainly eager to learn, and the little bit of Intel Flemish he had heard from her had been excellent. He wasn’t really all that sure why she needed coaching. She seemed capable of sorting it all out for herself.
Never mind that, though. It was going to be worth working with her to keep looking at those cool blue eyes and that amazing smile. It was such a relief, too, to not have anyone thinking your hair was a strange colour. Yes, this was going to work. At some time, of course, he would need to be in touch with the health authorities. He would need to reveal who he really was eventually. For the moment, though, he was in the phase of building up trust. Razjosh would give him the signal when he needed to move. That was likely to be a long way off yet. He could just enjoy this for the moment.
A communication message appeared on the dataserve screen. He ought to see what that was. The message opened at once. Apparently, there was a messenger robot outside with a delivery. He should see what it wanted. The robot appeared on the screen.
‘Special delivery from Tulla Watkins,’ said the robot.
Interesting. What would she be sending him?
That was okay. The security door of the apartment opened and the machine trundled in.
‘One consignment of Black Tulpen,’ said the robot. ‘Miss Tulla Watkins sends them in recognition of her pleasure at the work you are doing for her.’
Kaleem stared at the velvety tulip-like flowers. He knew exactly what they meant and he also knew that they must have cost Tulla a week’s credits. He just couldn’t accept these. Apart from the expense of them, the implication was enormous. He just couldn’t get into anything like that, not this soon.
It was common enough for Zandrian girls to do the chasing. Zandrian men were just as happy as women to accept gifts of flowers. Tulpen, anyway, were a symbol of love or lust. Black ones spelled it out. That girl wanted him. The flowers said that she really, really wanted him. She wanted to kiss him all over. He closed his eyes for a few minutes and tried to imagine what it would feel like to have her hands stroking his bare skin. That would be wonderful. He daren’t do it though, he just did not dare.
It wasn’t that he didn’t fancy her. Goodness, that had been obvious enough at the Ambassador Bar. The frega juice had probably had its effect too. It had been almost embarrassing, and he was sure she had noticed. Perhaps that was why she had dared to send Black Tulpen. Even now, as he looked at the suggestive flowers and thought of what her message probably meant … He blushed. Oh, for goodness’ sake, why was he getting embarrassed in front of a robot?
The machine was standing there, whirring gently, and blinking its electronic eyes.
‘Accept gift?’ it said suddenly.
Kaleem did not know what to do. Should he offend his first customer, and probably lose her as well? Perhaps he had misunderstood Zandrian ways. Perhaps a female offering a male Black Tulpen was not so serious after all.
The robot continued blinking.
‘Answer required,’ its electronic voice whined.
It was no good. He would have to decline. Perhaps he could send the Tulpen back, and then get in contact with her and explain that for the moment, he only wanted to be her teacher. That would not be easy, especially as it was actually not true.
‘I do not accept,’ he said. He guessed that Zandrian messenger robots were as adept as the ones on Terrestra at understanding human voices.
The robot continued to blink and whirr. The note changed now and then, as if it was computing something.
‘Dismissed,’ said Kaleem. ‘Return to sender.’
‘Answer required in Zandrian General,’ replied the machine.
That was in Zandrian General , thought Kaleem. Now what do I do?
He tried again.
‘I do not accept. Dismissed. Return to sender,’ he repeated.
The little machine chuntered to itself, a little louder this time.
‘Message not understood,’ it said suddenly. ‘Message not understood. Message not understood,’ it cried, its little voice getting louder and higher-pitched each time.
Oh heck. Help me! thought Kaleem.
The screen of the main dataserve in the apartment lit up.
‘Client does not wish to accept gift,’ it said to the robot. Its voice was very similar to the robot’s, yet it seemed so much more intelligent. ‘Return to sender.’
‘Understood,’ said the robot and turned. It started wheeling away from the front door. ‘Gift not accepted. Return to sender,’ it mumbled to itself.
‘Thank you,’ said Kaleem to the large screen. I’m cracking, he thought. I’m actually thanking a dataserve.
‘Pleased to be of service,’ said the loudspeaker. The screen then switched itself off.
Kaleem drew a deep breath. This was not easy. He hadn’t really expected it to be. Yet earlier it had seemed to work. The kitchen had been a surprise, even though he had actually been instructed about what it would do. He had been terrified of his first encounter with real Zandrians, even with real Zandrian robots. Yet that had been all right in the end. In fact he’d done rather well, in communicating at least.
Now, though, there was this whole sticky problem between him and Tulla. It wouldn’t have been so bad if she hadn’t also been his first customer.
Then, as well, it was such a pain to have not been able to make a simple messenger robot understand. The waiters in the Ambassador had understood him in the end. What was different?
Kaleem suddenly wished he could contact Razjosh. The Elder, was, after all on the planet. That, however, was strictly forbidden. He was only to contact his mentor in a dire emergency. He couldn’t simply call him up because he was finding life a little difficult, because he had got into a bit of a tangle with a girl and because a simple droid had not understood him.
He suddenly remembered the story of the tower. He shivered. They had built it because they thought they were equal to God, and then they found out that they were not and they could not even understand each other.