"It's definitely a miracle," said Rozia. "I really hadn't dared to hope for this much."
Kaleem had to agree. Petri was sitting in the shade. Full sunshine might be a bit much for her, yet, even with the magic of the medicine on Zandra. She was weaving a daisy chain. Seven months ago, when they'd first come to Zandra, she could hardly stand the gentle light of a low-level electric bulb.
"She's doing well," said Kaleem. "It's nice to see her looking happy." He remembered the first time he met her. The poor child had been in constant pain. Now she seemed like almost any other child.
Rozia touched his arm. "I really am grateful. You know that, don't you? To you. And the Zandrians."
Kaleem shrugged. "There have to be some perks about being the Peace Child." He cringed inwardly at his own words. He never liked to admit to this role. He wasn't really doing much at the moment in any case. He felt a bit guilty that he had such a generous allowance from both Zandra and Terrestra and that even Zenoto invited him back frequently. He wasn't actually doing any work for anyone at the moment. Sure, he had to keep his languages and his knowledge of other cultures up but this was so much of his nature now that he would do this even if he wasn't paid.
"This has been lovely," said Rozia. "But we shouldn't push our luck." She turned to her stepdaughter. "Come on little missy. Time to go."
Petri grimaced. "Oh. Do we have to?"
It looked as if there was going to be an argument. It was good to see Petri behaving like any other kid.
"Yes, we do," said Rozia. She shook her head and glanced up at Kaleem. "I don't want to take any risks. This is the longest she's been out in daylight."
"I'm sure she'll be fine."
Rozia bit her lip and frowned.
Kaleem touched her arm. "They are good, you know, the medics here."
"I know. I can't help worrying, though." Rozia started gathering up her things. "Come on then, Petri."
"Oh." The little girl began to pout . "I like it out here with Kaleem."
"Kaleem has to go as well. He's got work to do."
He didn't want to go. He just wanted to stay here forever and stare at her. The woman who would be the love of his life forever, no matter what happened. Even if she eventually found herself another man. She was some sort of angel or saint. He remembered how good she'd been with the Adulkis. She'd been so patient with these difficult, both physically strong and strong-willed adults who'd behaved like children and they'd loved her. She'd forgiven him for the really horrid way he'd treated her and she'd understood that he'd only left her because he thought he was a danger to her. Now she was taking so much care of a child that wasn't her own. On top of all that she was as beautiful as ever. The accident hadn't left any permanent scars –not any that showed, in any case. It was a surprise – and a relief – to him that she was on her own.
"Come on then," said Rozia, grabbing Petri's hand.
"I'll walk with you to the transporter station."
Rozia nodded. "That will be nice."
Petri took Kaleem's hand. "Now you two are joined together, through me."
Rozia blushed deep red and looked away. "Don't be silly, Petri."
As they walked Kaleem couldn't swallow. He couldn't think what to say to Rozia either. Whatever he said would be a lie; there was only one thing on his mind – how much he still loved her. He ought to get that out of the way first but suppose she totally rejected him? If he didn't confront her with this he could remain hopeful in his ignorance. Rozia just seemed embarrassed. He hated as well that he'd made her feel awkward. Perhaps he should keep his distance from her, pretend to be busy, put the whole problem on hold.
Petri had seemed oblivious to it all and had skipped along the pleasant pathway that was surrounded by artificial trees and bathed in late spring-light. She was singing to herself despite the brightness. Bringing her to Zandra had been the right thing to do. That was something at least. She would never have made this much progress on Terrestra.
A transporter came very quickly and Rozia and Petri clambered aboard. Something sank in him as they waved goodbye. Petri was enthusiastic. Rozia just looked sad. Was that a good sign? Was she sad that they were parting again? Or was it because she regretted seeing him today?
Oh, it was all too difficult.
He decided not to wait for a transporter himself. He'd do what he often did when he felt stressed. He began to jog, though he couldn't help chanting to himself as he ran "She loves me, she loves me not." Well, whatever. Of one fact he was sure: he loved her and always would.
It would have been three stops on the transporter, so a fair distance in fact. Yet it would only take him about twenty minutes to jog there. He began to pound along the pavements. They were crowded today and even the newly introduced channelling was not keeping people apart. At one point he almost bumped into a Zandrian droid.
"Oy, watch it snazzy boy," commented the machine.
Odd. That went against the normal robot code, didn't it? Though perhaps calling a Terrestran a "snazzy boy" was harmless enough. The machine was actually not hurting human life. But why would it bother? There must be some wrong programming there.
It didn't improve his temper. Nor did the jog have the normal mood-enhancing effect. It just made him feel tired, drained and aware that he wasn't quite as fit as he used to be.
He carried on pushing himself, even though his legs were beginning to ache and he was getting so out of breath that his lungs hurt. At least when he finally got home he could be pleased that he'd kept going. So he arrived at his apartment block out of breath, sweating and with hardly the strength to command the door to open.
He leant against the wall whilst he tried to recover. A few seconds later his breathing and heart rate slowed to something more normal. He still felt a bit weak. He decided to leave it a little while longer before attempting to get into the building.
One of the campaign holoposters caught his eye. His iris activated it. He watched with a mixture of disbelief and nausea as a fair-skinned, blond-haired Zandrian, who was so perfectly Zandrian that he was sure she was really a droid, described how Zandrians should stop offering so much medical help to people from other One World Community planets.
"We must put other Zandrians first," she said. "Whilst we feel duty-bound to offer help to the needy from elsewhere, are we actually helping them if all they do is drain our resources? Wouldn't it be better if we educated them to look after themselves more efficiently? Zandra's resources are not infinite."
"Stop," said Kaleem quietly. He should get the holoposter reported.
Now the strength returned to his limbs and his heart rate quickened again. He ran up to the apartment block door.
The monitor recognised his iris before he'd even said his name. The door opened immediately. He felt a level of fitness returning. The poster had fired him up.
He remembered living in the old cave system on Terrestra. He could still see the Z Zone there as well. That place where people lived outside of the system because of their sincere beliefs. Everything was improving now and that was down to people working together. How dare anyone try to stop that?
He decided to walk up the twenty flights. Half way up he started running again.
It was the autumnal part of the Zandrian day. Kaleem always rather enjoyed this – it provided a good bridge between the intense heat of summer and the bitter cold of winter. He thought of Rozia and Petri. This was actually the time that suited the little girl best. She was getting good, though, at tolerating all times of day. The Zandrian medics really had done wonders.
Kaleem sighed. Rozia and Petri. What he wouldn't give now to be going for a walk through the woods with them.
The communicator buzzed.
"Show me," he commanded.
The screen lit up. His heart jumped in his chest when saw Rozia and Petri standing at the entrance. Just when he'd been thinking about them. Rozia was frowning, though. She had dark circles under her eyes and she was quite pale. Petri, by contrast, looked full of life and her cheeks were pink.
He buzzed them in. What could they want? Was there something wrong?
"Have you seen the polls?" Rozia blinked as if she was about to cry.
Kaleem shook his head. He never bothered looking at the polls. They were rarely right for one thing and today's referendum was just a routine one.
"Well, you should take a look. Activate the dataserve."
"Report polls," said Kaleem.
Immediately the dataserve sprang into life. Kaleem was astonished to see a human reporter. Referenda like this one were normally so routine that they relied on the droids to analyse the polls about them and hardly anyone watched the reports. Did Rozia have good reason then for getting so paranoid?
She gripped his arm. "Do you see?"
He did see. Only 70% of people living on Zandra wished for Zandra to remain in the One World Community. This was extraordinary, but with 70% wanting to remain there was no chance that they would have to leave. Who were these 30% unhappy people, though? What was making them so unhappy? And why now all of a sudden?
Rozia bit her lip. "Do you think the polls are right?"
Kaleem shrugged. They rarely were. People often said they were against something but voted for it in the end as they were afraid of the status quo changing. They were just making a point. "Even if they are, does it matter? Even if the vote matches the poll: 70% of us want to stay. So, we'll be staying."
"But when I walk along the street, I think that 30% of the people are staring at us and wishing we weren't there."
"Well, they probably think the same about me. You can't think like that."
"At least you're half Zandrian. You look a bit Zandrian."
Yeah. Global citizen. Citizen of nowhere. Hadn't some famous 21st century politician said something like that once? She'd been right in a way but not the way he suspected she'd meant. "Yes, and I look half Terrestran. It's of no use either here or on Terrestra."
"I know. I know. But..."
She didn't finish. Petri wailed.
"What is it?" Rozia scooped her up.
"My eyes are stinging."
Petri was going red and it looked as if her face was swelling up.
Rozia looked at Kaleem. "She's had her meds. I don't understand."
Kaleem's mouth went dry. This just wasn't right. "Come on," he said. “Let's get her to a medi-centre."
By the time they got to the medi-centre, Petri was covered in blisters and was shying away from the light. The droid nurse triaged her straight away. "A human doctor is on her way. She will be here in approximately five minutes ten seconds," said the droid.
Good old Zandra. As efficient as ever. Thank goodness.
"I just don't get it," said Rozia. "She's almost as bad as she was before we came here."
The five minutes seemed to last forever, but when the door swished open Kaleem noticed that in fact only four minutes thirty seconds had gone by.
"Doctor Joahnsa Brooken," said the young woman, stretching her hand out to Rozia.
Rozia returned a Terrestran handshake and blushed deeply when she realised her mistake.
"Ah. I know who you are. The Terrestrans and the Peace Child. Your little girl has this nasty skin disease."
On cue, Petri wailed again. "Rozia it hurts. I want to go back to the dark."
"Come on then. Follow me to an exam room." Dr Brooken smiled at Petri. "We'll soon get you right."
Rozia put her arm gently round the child.
"Let me carry her," said Kaleem.
"Best not. There's a trick to it."
Petri continued to whimper. She was being so brave. It must really hurt. But why hadn't the medication worked?
Within a few minutes of getting into the examination room Doctor Brooken had given Petri a sedative and the child was dozing. She examined her with a medi-wand.
She shook her head. "This child has had no medication for thirty-six hours."
"But I used the wand on her this morning and last night. I did. Really I did." Rozia looked as if she was going to cry.
Kaleem put an arm around her shoulders but she tensed up. He took his arm away.
Doctor Brooken looked up at Rozia and smiled. "Don't worry. I believe you." She took a medi-wand out of a drawer and plugged it into the dataserve. "I'll give her an extra strong dose now and I'll give you a month's supply charged on to a wand. Get rid of the others."
"But why didn't they work?"
Doctor Brooken shrugged. "It's unusual for anything like this to happen. But ...." She sighed and bit her lip. Then she looked straight into Kaleem's eyes. "It's happened a few times recently. And always with patients from other planets. One for you, Peace Child, perhaps?" She raised one eye brow.
What? Someone had interfered with the wands? Who would do that?
The dataserve bleeped. Joahnsa Brooken removed the wand and placed another into the fast charge drawer. "This will take about twenty minutes. Then she should begin to recover. The spare wand should be ready as well –I'm putting thirty days' worth on and I'd like to see her again just before they're up. You'll be free to go soon. I suggest you come to me for future supplies and don't rely on the couriers or even the fast drawers."
She started applying the wand to Petri. "And come precisely to me. To be on the safe side."
This was getting unbelievable. What was going on?
After about ten minutes, Petri held out her hand. "Rozia, Kaleem," she said softly.
"Look," said Doctor Brooken.
The blisters were fading and Petri's skin was returning to normal. "That feels better," said Petri.
"It's good that she wants to hold your hands," said Doctor Brooken. "It's a sign that the pain's gone."
"Is she all right?"
Rozia had just come back into the lounge from Petri's bedroom. She'd been in there almost an hour and a half. Kaleem had thought about slipping out quietly. Perhaps she was staying with Petri so long to avoid him. On the other hand, though, wouldn't it look a bit crass if he'd gone without waiting to see how Petri was? So he'd stayed. He would rather she were cross with him for being too concerned than because he seemed as if he didn't care.
She looked so pale. All he wanted to do was take her in his arms, hug her, make her feel safe. He daren't though. That might spoil everything.
Rozia shook her head and pursed her lips.
"Does she have a fever? Have the blisters come back?"
"No. Nothing like that. Her temperature's normal and the spots have almost completely disappeared. She's not complaining of any pain. She's just scared it will all come back again and that the wand won't work properly."
"Did you use the wand? Did it work?"
"Of course I did. But there's no way of knowing for sure, is there? Can we trust this Joahnsa Brooken?"
What could he say? She'd seemed trustworthy. He always found it better to trust people anyway. Trusting people tended to make them trustworthy. Most of the time. There were always some exceptions. "Would you like me to stay?" There. He'd said it now. Would she realise, though that he genuinely meant it to be helpful.
Rozia shook her head. "No. No. It's all right. I think you're going to be busy, aren't you?"
About time he had something concrete to do really. "You're sure? They can find me here if they need me."
She shook her head. "You go home. We'll be all right."
"And you'll contact me or Joahnsa Brooken if anything else goes wrong?"
She nodded. "I'll contact you first."
That was something. Yet it was clear she didn't want him there. He smiled and nodded. "I'll be off then. I'll call you tomorrow anyway."
Kaleem arrived back just before it started getting bitterly cold. As he went to let himself into his apartment he could feel the heat coming up through the pavements. Really, the technology was superb on this planet. And cost effective. There was a lot that others could learn here.
Something nagged at him as walked into his unit, though. He found himself thinking about the polls. The actual results would start to come in soon. He should look to set his mind at ease.
He started to activate his dataserve but even before he'd finished commanding it there was a news override. Humanoid reporters again. Something big then. His tiredness vanished. He became alert.
"We have been subject to cyber-attacks," said the woman who was being interviewed. Kaleem recognised her but couldn't quite work out where from. "The earlier polls had been manipulated. Currently, they're saying a more normal 95% in favour of the status quo, 5% wanting change."
"That's still 2% different from normal. Is that of any concern?"
"We're not sure, but we think it might just be an effect of the polls themselves. You know: I will if you will. It's only a small effect anyway. Nothing to worry about."
"And have we any idea of where these attacks are coming from? Word on social media is that they're from Zenoto."
What? That was madness. The woman laughed as well. "Improbable. It's more likely to be some Zandrian kids messing around. We're pulling together all of our resources to track down who is doing this and they will be severely punished. Even if they are just kids."
"Thank you." The presenter turned to the camera. "We'll bring more news overrides as we get more information. In the meantime we'll pass you back to the polls and the early results."
The news override finished. Kaleem went to the kitchen and commanded a simple pasta and seafood dish and a bottle of beer. He returned to the lounge and carried on watching the results as they came in. Section after section reported between 95% and 100% wanting to remain in the One World Community. It was clear Zandra wasn't going to change soon. Nothing to worry about.
He cleared up and then listened to a music channel while he read some French Wordtext documents. He began to feel sleepy again. At least now he could rest peacefully knowing that all was well on Zandra. He'd heard nothing from Rozia either so he guessed she and Petri were fine. At least now he had an excuse for calling her tomorrow.
Almost as soon as he pulled the duvet over him and commanded all of the apartment's systems to go into sleep mode he fell asleep himself.
He woke late the next morning. The spring part of the day had already begun and natural light filled the room. There was still no message from Rozia so presumably all was well.
He got up, prepared breakfast and idly activated the news channel on his dataserve whilst he settled down to eat it. It was a normal droid newsreader. He blinked though when he saw the results of the latest referendum. A mere 52% of the population had voted that Zandra should remain in the One World Community. How had that happened? How could it have?
About the Peace Child Series:
Everything about Kaleem marks him out form the rest: the blond hair and dark skin, the uncomfortable cave where he lives and the fact that he doesn’t know his father. He’s used to unwelcome attention, but even so he’d feel better if some strange old man didn’t keep following him around.
That man introduces himself and begins to explain the Babel Prophecy – and everything in Kaleem’s life changes forever.
Gill James is published by The Red Telephone, Butterfly and Chapeltown.
She edits CafeLit.
She writes for the online community news magazine: Talking About My Generation
She is a Lecturer in Creative Writing and has an MA in Writing for Children and PhD in Creative and Critical Writing