The last scene from Elder Joshran Kemnat’s Life Celebration presentation faded from the huge screen which had been erected in the Peace Park. Kaleem Kennedy-Bagarin’s left leg had gone to sleep. Because of the heat, they’d been advised to sit for this part of the elder’s switch-off ceremony. Of course, they’d all had to stand while the reposant was administered and while his friends and relations said good-bye in private, and while the old man became unconscious and died. The presentation though had been fascinating. That was why Kaleem’s leg had gone to sleep. He had sat without moving for the two hours of interviews and reminiscences. No wonder the man had been chosen as an elder. He had been so clever and kind.
Kaleem tried to stand on his leg. It gave way, making him tumble back down to the ground.
Pins and needles shot through as the blood gradually made its way back to his toes.
Other people around him were now making their way towards the transport decks. Kaleem started to hobble along with them. He didn’t rate his chances of getting a transporter though. Apart from which, he was not sure where he was going. There seemed little point in going back to his grandparents’ apartment. They wouldn’t be back for ages. He didn’t fancy doing any work. He’d been at a bit of a loss since he had come back from his parents’ attachment ceremony on Zandra. He couldn’t settle to anything. Terrestra and Zandra were trading steadily now. That was all running smoothly. They didn’t really need him any more.
His leg started working properly again. He kept up with the rest of the crowd as they made their way towards the nearest exit from the park.
He suddenly remembered that was where he had first seen Razjosh. Here in this very park. Razjosh had been an old man, even then. Now, he was almost as old as Joshran Kemnat.
Kaleem stopped walking, suddenly feeling nauseous. That meant that it would soon be Razjosh’s turn. Kaleem had never been to a switch-off ceremony before, so he’d never known what happened in the private part where the departant was given the reposant and then drifted into a final sleep. Before today, he’d never seen even the public part of the ceremony. It had always been something he’d rather not think about. Of course, not every ceremony was as well attended as Joshran Kemnat’s had been, not even for an elder. Kemnat had just been so popular. But was this going to happen to Razjosh soon?
Then he had another thought, even more awful. If Razjosh was going to face switch-off soon, then that would mean that he would become the only Peace Child. One day, he would be an elder too. And he would have no-one to show him the way any more. What if he pretended to be learning very slowly? Then they would have to keep the elder around for a little longer. No, Razjosh would see through that.
The nausea became even greater. Kaleem was sure he was going to throw up any second now. The bile rose into his mouth and his stomach retched. He felt hot and dizzy. He couldn’t stop the foul fluid coming up into his mouth, burning his gut and his mouth on the way. He heaved and spat out the evil-tasting liquid which spattered all over the ground, making an ugly stain. Even getting rid of all that unwanted material from his stomach didn’t relieve the uncomfortable physical feeling, nor did it take away the horrible thought. Razjosh, to be switched off? No more Razjosh. He retched again, but there was nothing left in his stomach to come out.
He wiped his mouth and looked round. Good that no one had seen him. This would not do. Not out in public. It would cause a panic. They’d think he’d got Starlight again. That was ironic! He was probably the last person on Terrestra who would get it. The antibodies in his system were really strong. He was 100% immune to it now.
There was a bench nearby. Kaleem staggered over towards it. He was shaking now. He bent his head so that it was touching his knees. Then he put the fingers of his left hand on the pressure point on his right wrist how they’d showed him on Zandra. After five minutes he changed his hand over so that the fingers from his right hand were resting on his left wrist. The nausea gradually went away. He sat upright. He had stopped shaking.
The crowd was thinning out. He would set off in a minute or two. He was still not sure where. He did think for a moment of visiting the cave apartment he used to share with his mother, but then realized that it would still be locked up. Then he thought of Pierre LaFontaine. His apartment was not too far from here either. But somehow he didn’t feel like being with just one person. He preferred the idea of a crowd tonight. Somewhere where he could just listen and only had to join in the conversation if he really wanted to. Besides, there was no guarantee that Pierre would be in.
He decided to go to the New Laguna Bar. “New” . That was a funny name for it. It was over twenty years old, and underground. It still worked the same way it always had. People of his age often came here. And it was where his parents had first met.
In just twenty minutes he managed to walk to the entrance to the New Laguna. It then took the lift ten minutes to get down because it was built so deep within the old cave system.
It was disappointingly empty when he got there. A single barman was on duty and someone who looked just a little older than him propping up the bar. At least the barman was a human being, though, and not a droid. He also seemed to be only a little older than Kaleem.
“Hi there,” said the barman. “What can I get you?”
“Wheat and rye, please,” said Kaleem. It was the nearest in taste to the Zandrian frega which he now preferred to Terrestran nectar. He found most of the juices here too sweet. This one was sort of savoury.
“Coming up sir,” said the barman. He was staring at Kaleem.
He’s asking himself if he knows me, thought Kaleem. And he can’t quite think from where. He caught sight of his reflection in the veriglass mirror behind the bar. That had been a real smart idea of his grandmother’s, dying his hair black. Not only did it make him look more Terrestran, it stopped people recognizing him straight away as the famous Peace Child. The different coloured hair put people off the trail for a while, but there might still be something recognizable.
Yes, his grandmother, Louish Kennedy, was pretty smart. Why hadn’t he thought of that himself? It would have stopped him looking so different from other Terrestrans back when he’d lived in the cave apartment.
The bar man continued to stare as he poured the drink.
“Not many people in tonight, then, are there?” said Kaleem.
“No, it’s because of the switch-off, I guess,” said the barman. “People don’t think they should enjoy a drink on the day somebody’s switched off. A sort of sign of respect.”
Oh, here I go again, though Kaleem. Doing it different from everybody else. The one time I come to a bar is the one time everybody else stays home.
“Yeah,” said Kaleem, “but I wouldn’t have thought that people our age would be so bothered about a switch-off.”
The bar man shrugged his shoulders. “Probably not. Their olds might be, though.”
That was it, then, Kaleem guessed.
It was quite good, living with his grandparents. They wouldn’t dare try and pin him down. Not after what he’d been through, and anyway, they were just so glad to have him and Marijam, his mother, back in their lives after she had gone and disappeared into the Z Zone all those years ago.
“Anyway, everybody liked him,” the bar man continued. “Even our lot. Wonder who’ll they pick for the next one?”
Of course, that was where Louish and Frazier Kennedy were tonight. As Frazier was still head of education, they had been invited to the wake for the elder of education and culture. The process of choosing the next elder would start at the same party.
The barman disappeared into the room at the back of the bar. Kaleem took a sip of his wheat and rye nectar. It was still too sweet really, but it was helping to quench his thirst.
“You must be as bad as me. We must be as hard-hearted as each other,” said a voice behind him. “Drinking when there’s just been a switch-off. Not the done thing.”
Kaleem turned to see who was speaking.
There was something familiar about the young man with a distinctively long face. Kaleem could not quite work out where he knew him from though. Before he had time to dwell on that, the stranger started speaking.
“I know you from somewhere, don’t I?” he asked Kaleem.
The stranger shook his head. “Mmm?” he said.
Oh what the heck. It was not exactly going to cause a riot. People were really more interested in what he had done than in him, anyway. Most people still found him a bit freakish, despite the new hair colour.
“Imagine it blond?” he said pointing to his head.
The thin-faced man frowned even deeper now. “Yeah, definitely. Just can’t quite place you though,” he said shaking his head.
“Zandra, acorns, vaccine, Starlight Racers….” Kaleem continued.
“Yes! Peace Child … Kal . er?”
“Kaleem Kennedy-Bagarin or Malkendy, take your pick,” said Kaleem offering the stranger a Zandrian handshake.
The other man laughed.
“How do you…?”
“You just slot your hand into my fingers like that,” he said, guiding the man’s hand into his open fingers.
“That’s interesting,” he said. “Much friendlier than ours.”
“Yeah,” said Kaleem. Then he frowned. “But look, I know you as well, from somewhere.”
“Did you watch the ceremony today?” asked the stranger.
“Imagine ceremonial robes, then,” the stranger continued.
Kaleem nodded again. “You were the guy who …?”
“Yeah, that was me. I’m Ben Alki Mazrouth, master of switch-off ceremonies. Because I’ve got a long face and I’m generally so skinny, just like a skeleton, I always do the dark bit. They say I look the part. ” Ben Alki pulled a long face.
Kaleem laughed. Suddenly he wanted to know more. A lot more. “What actually happens,” he asked, “in that bit we don’t watch. I mean, what’s it like, when they actually, you know…”
“Not pretty,” replied Ben Alki. “Not much to it though really. They’ve usually been so heavily sedated- the departants - for days really, and then a bit more so on the day, so they don’t really notice much. It’s a wonder they’re with-it enough to give out their gifts. No. It’s the relatives and close friends you feel sorry for. They really get stressed. Even those you’d think were pretty near to switch-off themselves and have seen it all before.”
Ben-Ali stopped speaking suddenly and stared at the wall behind the bar. He took a sip of his nectar.
Kaleem looked down at his wheat and rye. No he couldn’t bear to touch it. It was too sweet and he felt nauseous again. This was going to happen to Razjosh soon. In several more years’ time, this would happen to Marijam and Nazaret if they decided to live on Terrestra. He would still be relatively young himself then. Eventually, it would happen to him. Oddly, that did not bother him so much. He would not have to watch it, and as Ben Alki said, he would hardly be conscious.
He thought about the two other times when he had been drugged. Both times, he had fallen asleep instantly – oh, and he’d had that dream of course. Then he’d woken up several hours later and felt more or less all right.
Switch-off would be different. He wouldn’t wake up from that.
Ben Alki suddenly tipped his beaker of nectar back and drank it all in one go.
“Can I get you another drink?” he said to Kaleem.
“No thanks,” said Kaleem. “I’m still okay.” He pointed to the almost full glass of wheat and rye.
The barman had not come back.
“Any-one serving round here?” Ben Alki called.
Kaleem noticed the impatience in his voice. Perhaps it’s his work, he thought.
A droid marched into the space behind the bar. Presumably, the barman had gone off duty or else was still doing some work in the back room.
“May I be of help sir?” asked the electronic voice.
“Yes please,” said Ben Alki. “A rose and orange water. And make it a double.”
The droid busied itself getting the drink. Kaleem winced. Rose and orange water was the sickliest of all the nectars. A double, after the single Ben Alki had already drunk so quickly was bound to have an effect – probably a not altogether good one.
Ben Alki turned and grinned at him. “It’s okay,” he said. “I can take it. I’m used to it. You need this with the job I’ve got.”
“Mmm,” murmured Kaleem. He wasn’t sure.
“I bet you wonder why I do it,” said Ben Alki.
“Well, yes, actually ….,” replied Kaleem.
“It’s easy,” said Ben Alki. “I can’t be bothered to study to do anything else. The pay’s good here. Really good if you think about how gross it is. It’s the best solution for me.”
That’s true, thought Kaleem. He’s got a point there. In fact, it was the only unpleasant task a human might be expected to do. Robots and droids did all the menial things – fixing broken machines, cleaning out the sewers and dealing with the rubbish. But most humans would shy away from conducting a switch-off ceremony because it was so horrible. Almost as horrible as having to issue the reposant or having to laser and mulch the corpse.
“Actually,” Ben Alki continued, waving his tumbler at the droid, “it’s quite good at the moment. Less to do. The Starlight disease has done some of our work for us. They’re also allowing them another five years.” His words were beginning to slur. A shadow passed across his face. “Ah, but it’ll all get frantic again in a couple of years,” he said, “especially ‘cos of your work. Getting them acorns to Zandra, so’s we can have some vaccine in exchange.” He hiccoughed. He grinned. “S’alright,” he said. “You’re a good egg.” He turned towards the droid that was standing motionless in front of him. “More’n I can say for you, sunshine.” He slammed his tumbler down on the counter.
“Sir will not be permitted any more nectar,” said the droid. Its automatic response had set in: Ben Alki Mazrouth would be receiving no more nectar today. He was a little over the limit already.
“Are you okay?” started Kaleem. “Would you like me…?”
Ben Alki stopped him before he could finish.
“No, it’s fine,” he said, suddenly sounding quite sober again. He looked directly at the droid. “Call me up a transporter.” He turned to Kaleem. “Just a pity she wasn’t here.”
“Who’s she?” asked Kaleem.
“Sophia,” replied Ben Alki. He slid off the hoverstool and walked towards the door in an absolute straight line. Whatever effect the nectar had had, it was wearing off rapidly. He turned in the doorway and grinned at Kaleem.
“Come and watch some time,” he said. “There’s an observation room. They can’t see you.” He waved and then disappeared through the doorway.