Kaleem stared at his nectar. How could he get himself to drink this revolting stuff? He braced himself and took a sip.
He was surprised. It wasn’t as bad as he had expected it to be. He took another mouthful. Maybe it was okay. It was beginning to do something anyway. Perhaps he would take Ben Alki up on his offer. Perhaps he would go and see the inside of a switch-off ceremony and find out what it was really like.
He took another big gulp of his drink. He put the tumbler back down, and then saw that half of the liquid had gone.
Suddenly, there were voices outside the entrance to the bar. Girls’ voices. A lot of giggling. Kaleem took another sip of the nectar.
Seconds later, they were in the bar. Kaleem tried to make himself look small. Despite the dyed hair, they would recognize him, even if they didn’t know why they knew him. He took another large swig of his nectar. It didn’t seem as sweet as it had before and he could tell that it had quite a punch to it. Why had he thought this was so bad? It was really rather good.
The giggling and chattering stopped. Kaleem could feel them staring at him. He looked up at the mirror behind the bar. His heart missed a beat. Rozia Laurence was staring at his reflection. She went deep red. Kaleem felt the back of his own neck and his cheeks go red. He emptied his tumbler. Rozia turned back to the other girls.
“Who is that? I know that face,” he heard one girl say.
“Kaleem Kennedy-Bagarin,” he heard Rozia reply.
He looked up at the mirror again. Rozia was going even redder.
“The Peace Child you mean?” hissed one of the other girls.
“Yep,” replied Rozia. “I used to be schooled with him.”
“But I thought he was blond,” muttered another voice.
“I guess he’s dyed his hair so that people won’t recognize him so easily,” Rozia replied.
“Didn’t work, did it?” whispered another girl.
“Come on, let’s leave him in peace,” said Rozia, out loud. She looked up at Kaleem’s reflection and smiled. Her cheeks were still pink. She signalled to the others that they should go and sit in the corner on the far side of the bar.
The droid was pottering about behind the counter. It glided over to Kaleem.
“Would Sir care for another nectar?” the electronic voice asked.
Kaleem nodded. He was used to it now. He was enjoying what it was doing to him. The droid poured the drink. He took the tumbler, got down from the high hoverstool and made his way over to where the girls were sitting. He suddenly felt very bold.
“Hi Kaleem,” said Rozia, smiling at him. Her eyes opened wide as she looked into his. “Let me introduce you to the others. Della, Marina, Renate, Jayne, Margiet and Sophia.”
The girls giggled and started to fuss over him. Kaleem found it difficult to concentrate. He certainly wouldn’t be able to remember who was who, even if he did remember the names. They all looked the same. That was probably one of the big disadvantages of aiming at perfect Terrestran looks. They all had the correct pale face, and dark, sleek hair. They were even wearing very similar tunics tonight, all of them the pale purple silk of mourning. Only Rozia was a bit different. Her face was so pretty with its fine, delicate features. And the way she kept blushing. Did that perhaps mean what he thought it meant? Hopefully. Maybe he had time for that sort of thing now. Of course, she knew him from before he was chosen as the Peace Child, before he went to live at the Citadel with the elders and before he’d gone to Zandra. Everyone admired him now. Maybe she had liked him a little bit even back then.
One name stuck out though, Sophia.
“Funny,” said Kaleem. “Do you know Ben Alki Mazrouth? He was here, just now. He had been hoping a Sophia would come in. You’re not her are you?”
The girl called Sophia wailed. “Damn, I’ve missed him,” she said. “We left it too late!”
“We had a job getting out this evening,” Rozia explained. “What with the departure and the wake and everything.”
Why have they all come out on mass like that? Kaleem wondered. What chance would the poor guy stand?
“Oh no,” said Sophia, biting her lip. “I’ll never get to see him.”
No you won’t, thought Kaleem. Not if you keep on turning up too late and if you bring all your hangers-on every time. “Do you know where he lives?” he asked.
“Yes,” said Sophia slowly.
“Well, why don’t you get over there?” asked Kaleem.
“What?” said Sophia blushing. “I couldn’t. What would he think?”
“I’d say he’d be very pleased to see you,” said Kaleem. “Poor bloke’s had a tough day.”
“You just don’t do that,” another girl hissed.
“Well call him up at least,” said Kaleem. “Do you know his call sign?”
“Of course I do,” whined Sophia. “But I just can’t. If he’d wanted to see me, he’d have waited.”
“Are you actually…?” Kaleem started.
“No they’re not, but they’d both like to,” Rozia said. “They’re both just being incredibly stupid and not getting down to it.”
“Oh for goodness’ sake,” said Kaleem. He suddenly remembered a bunch of gigantic velvety black tulips, a blond version of Rozia and a missed opportunity. “On Zandra, if a girl fancies a guy, she just sends him a big bunch of Black Tulpen. He can either accept or decline. Saves a lot of bother.”
“Well what if a guy fancies a girl?” asked another girl.
“Just asks her out, like here,” said Kaleem. He took a mouthful of the wheat and rye. Oh, this was such a waste. Poor old Ben Alki, wanting a bit of nice female company after the horrible things he’d had to do, and here was the very one he’d wanted to be with, pining away for him. The nectar was making Kaleem much bolder than normal. “Come on then, call him,” he said.
“All right then,” said Kaleem, “call him on mine. Then he won’t know it’s you.” He stretched out his wrist so that the minicompu was facing Sophia.
“Ben Alki Mazrouth 2751,” said Sophia tentatively.
The minicompu buzzed several times before Ben Alki answered, and the screen remained blank.
“Oh dear,” said Kaleem. “Looks as if he might have gone to bed. Or he’s taking a shower.” He went to log out.
“Hello,” said Ben Alki’s voice suddenly.
“Hey there,” said Kaleem, “sorry to wake you. But I think there’s someone here who would like to see you.” He switched his minicompu over to visual and held it so that its camera was pointing at Sophia. Suddenly Ben Alki’s lean face was filling the small screen.
“Sophia?” asked Ben Alki, grinning.
“That’s right,” said Kaleem. “Now, shall we send her over to you or are you going to come here?”
“Send her over to me!” replied Ben Alki.
“Make him come here!” cried Sophia at exactly the same time.
“She can’t go over there,” said one of the other girls.
“No, not the first time, on her own,” said another.
“You’d better come here, mate,” said Kaleem. “I don’t know. We Terrestrans, eh? Bit old-fashioned or what?”
He couldn’t believe he’d just done that. Shy, different, awkwardly unterrestran, unzandrian Kaleem Malkendy-Kennedy-Bagarin had just had a go at match-making. And it looked as if it was going to be successful.
Suddenly their corner of the bar was buzzing. Everyone seemed to be speaking at once. Well, not quite all of them. Rozia and Sophia were in a huddle in the corner. Sophia fiddled with her tunic and kept on smoothing her hair. The other four girls – whose names Kaleem still could not remember, were all over him.
“Do they really do that on Zandra?” asked one.
“Yes…” he went to reply.
He barely had time to answer before another chipped in with; “Well what are Zandrian girls like? Which do you prefer, Kaleem, Terrestrans or Zandrians?”
“I don’t know. It depends…”
“So just exactly what is it like, going in a Supercraft? What does it look like out there?”
“Well. It’s sort of… it’s…”
“, you’re really brave you are… I bet it was scary when you were ill.”
“Yes, it was, it was, I erm…”
“Oh, you lot, let him have a drink. Can we get you another drink, Kaleem?”
“I, er no thanks” Kaleem managed to mutter. He leant forward and took another sip of the wheat and rye nectar. No, he didn’t want another. It had started to taste too sickly sweet again and the room was beginning to spin a little.
“Really, though,” said one of the girls. “What was it like going on a Supercraft? It must have been fantastic.”
Kaleem remembered looking out of the veriglass windows of the Supercraft. Yes, it had been fascinating to look at the planets and stars seeming to float by, once they had returned to normal drive. Yet, it had not been as intriguing as it might have been. On the way to Zandra, he was too nervous. On the way back, when he ought to have been more relaxed, he had been so disturbed by the voice file his mother had left him that he could not appreciate it. Besides all of that, he was quite nervous about coming back to Terrestra, meeting his grandparents for the first time, and being recognized as the Peace Child.
“I’d give anything to be able to do that,” the girl continued.
“Hi, guys, it’s me,” called a voice from the doorway suddenly.
The chatter stopped. Rozia nudged Sophia, who blushed deep red. Ben Alki walked into the room. He smiled slowly at Sophia. Rozia whispered something to her. Ben Alki made his way to the table where the girls and Kaleem were sitting. Rozia indicated the table next to them with her head and pushed Sophia over to one of the seats next to it. The others watched in silence. Ben Alki and Sophia sat also in silence smiling awkwardly at each other.
Finally, Ben Alki leaned towards Sophia.
“Can I get you another drink?” he said. His voice was hoarse and high-pitched, very different from the voice which had asked the elder the serious questions.
Sophia nodded and blushed even deeper.
Then the chatter started again, the barrage of questions. Just how many languages did Kaleem know? How did he manage to learn them? What had the prison been like? Was Charlek, the prison officer, really as friendly as they’d heard? Was it true that the food on Zandra was so much better that what they had on Terrestra? How did they manage to do that if they had no natural plant-life? Would the acorn programme really succeed?
They didn’t give him time to answer one question before the next one came along. There was a lot of giggling.
One girl, though, didn’t giggle, didn’t attack him with questions. She smiled gently now and then. Her eyes were wide open, reminding him a bit of the eyes of the adult-children in the dream he kept having.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Ben Alki and Sophia walk hand in hand out of the door. He wished for a moment that he could do that. Slip away with a beautiful girl.
His throat became dry, but he could not face the mesmerizing sweetness of the wheat and rye nectar. He suddenly longed for cave water. He could not believe that he actually wanted cave water, after he’d been so bored with it for so many years. He wanted something that simple and now it wasn’t available. Not in a nectar bar, and not usually anywhere up on the surface.
Gradually, the questions stopped. The girls began to look tired-out by their own excitement. One by one, they started to leave.
Rozia didn’t, though. She stayed. He couldn’t take his eyes off her. She was gorgeous. Was she thinking the same? She kept avoiding his eyes. But then she would look up at him, smile shyly, blush, then look away again. She made no attempt to leave either.
The droid pottered around, clearing glasses from their table. Soon, the New Laguna was as quiet as it had been when he had first come in.
“I suppose we ought to go as well,” Kaleem said. He noticed that his voice had gone high and squeaky, just like Ben Alki’s had. He was trying to pluck up the courage to ask her if he could see her home. Stupid thing to say. It made it sound as if he didn’t want to be with her any more.
“Where can you get Black Tulpen on Terrestra?” said Rozia quickly. This time she did not blush. If anything, she looked paler than usual.
Kaleem’s heart missed a beat.