"You're all right now? You really are a brave girl you know. I can't think of many Terrestrans or Zandrians who would put up with what you have to suffer day in and day out." Marijam stroked Petri's hair. The little girl pulled away.
Rozia couldn't help smiling. It was obvious that Marijam thought the world of Petri. Was it her imagination or could Rozia see some sadness in her eyes? She would probably like grandchildren. It didn't look as if it would happen, though. Kaleem was showing no sign of getting attached. She didn't know how she felt about that. Glad that he wasn't looking at anyone else or sad that it couldn't be her.
"Should I make some tea?" Marijam asked.
It was so warm and cosy here even if a little old-fashioned with the home-made throws over the comfisessels. It was kind of Nazaret and Marijam to have invited her and Petri to stay indefinitely while they sorted out what had happened to her credits. Tea just made it even better.
"That would be nice."
"Some juice for you?" Marijam asked Petri.
"Actually, could I have tea as well?"
"Of course, sweetheart." Marijam made her way towards the kitchen,
"Why does she fuss so much?" Petri was frowning. "Doesn't she realise I'm not a child anymore? Why doesn't she get the house droid to make the drinks anyway?"
"She's just being kind. She must think she's being more of a hostess if she makes it herself."
Petri sighed. "I know. It's just that it's so awkward."
Rozia nodded. It was difficult living in someone else's space all of the time.
The door to the lounge slid open and Nazaret walked in. A comfisessel glided over to him and he sat down "Good morning you two. How are you doing?"
"We're fine," Rozia replied. She wanted to ask him if he'd found out any more about her credits and why everything had been shut down.
He seemed to read her mind. He shook his head. "I've spoken to everyone I can get hold of. They have no idea why everything's been frozen."
Rozia swallowed hard.
Nazaret hovered nearer to her and touched her lightly on the arm. "Don't worry. You are most welcome to stay here as long as you like."
Rozia just about managed to smile. She knew that she was welcome. Of course she did. But it didn't make her feel any better. She couldn't go out and give them some privacy. The flat was pleasant enough but it was clearly really only meant for two people. She and Petri were sharing the small guest room that clearly wasn’t meant for extended stays. But it was getting more and more uncomfortable out there. She really didn’t want to walk about outside. And she hated being so dependent on other people.
Marijam came in with the tea. She grinned. "Of course you are welcome. You mustn't worry at all. We'll take good care of the two of you. Any friend of Kaleem's is a friend of ours."
Petri grinned. "See, Rozia. Kaleem's mum thinks so too."
Rozia felt her cheeks burning. She looked down at the floor.
Nazaret laughed. "You would be welcome, my dear, even if you weren't a special friend of our son."
Rozia wasn't sure if that made it better or worse. She smiled and sipped her tea. Oh she felt so useless and pathetic.
Kaleem called round that evening. He was doing that a lot and was staying over quite often as well. "I can't expect you to do everything for Rozia and Petri," he'd told his parents. "It's only fair that I should come and help." He had to sleep in his father’s study and that made Rozia feel even more awkward.
Were they such a burden? He barely spoke to her. Clearly they were a nuisance then.
Most of the time she didn't know what to say to him. Every now and then, though, they would have animated conversations just like in the old days. Just after that he would go all silent and moody.
"Can we talk?" she asked him that evening.
He shrugged. "What is there to talk about? We're doing our best to find out what's actually going on. We'll get it sorted. Don't you trust me?"
"Of course I do."
"Well then." He yawned. "I'm shattered. I'm going to bed."
And so he went. Was he trying to avoid her? Why would he never stop and talk to her? Was it so bad being in a room with her?
"What's the matter?" asked Petri after Rozia had got up for the seventh time that night. "Do you want Kaleem to be your boyfriend?"
"Of course not." Drat the girl. She was too good at figuring things out. "I'm just wondering whether we shouldn't go back to Terrestra."
"Why do you want to do that?"
"Because there are too many people who don't like us here."
"But there are a lot of people who like us."
Rozia nodded. "I know. It makes it difficult. At least we would be at home on Terrestra."
"You should be more like Kaleem. Your home should be where you are. I like it on Zandra. Even though there are some silly people here. I want to stay." She turned over and went back to sleep.
Rozia was awake for a while longer. Should they go or should they stay? If they went back, they would be free from all of the hate, the plots against them, and Kaleem's mood swings. But if they went she might be giving up all chance of being with Kaleem again. Besides, oughtn't she stay and fight this thing?
Eventually, weary and still undecided, she fell asleep.
"I don't know why you don't move in permanently here," said Marijam looking pointedly at Kaleem. "Then you two could see each other more of the time. You could even share a room then Petri could have her own"
Rozia blushed bright red.
Petri squawked. "Go on Kaleem. Move into Rozia's room. I'd like to have my own bedroom."
Yes, yes. That would be very nice. It just wasn't going to happen. Kaleem shook his head. "Stop it, Mother."
Rozia got up from the breakfast table and started clearing the dishes. "I really wish I could go back to my own apartment. I hate having to rely on you all. You've been so kind..."
Marijam put her hand on Rozia's shoulder. "Sweetheart, there is no question. You are to stay here as long as you like. Even after this mess is sorted out. And leave all of that to the droid."
"Cool!" Petri was grinning.
"Well, thank goodness it's all got back to normal for most of us. Do you know why it hasn't for Rozia?" Marijam looked meaningfully at Kaleem.
Why did they always think he had the answer to everything? Kaleem shrugged. "Maybe I'll find out later." He ought to get going. Especially as he intended to jog. Though maybe that was quite a good option. The public transporters were running slowly and they'd been asked not to use private ones. It would give him a chance as well to get a feel for what people were thinking.
It wasn't that easy running along the pavements. It seemed that every man and his droid were out there today. Since the cyber-crash and the shocking referendum result people had felt a lot more need to meet others face to face. Kaleem didn't quite get that, actually. Didn't they all feel as uncomfortable as he did? Just under half of the people you met didn't want Zandra to belong to the One World Community any longer. Yet he didn't know a single person who thought that way. Who were these people? Why did they want to break away? Why did they want to live in isolation from the rest of the universe?
The crowd thinned a little as he came to the first suburban ring. It was warming up. Spring was almost here. He had plenty of time. He would be able to shower and change when he got to the Executive Council building. He still had an hour before the meeting.
A couple of men came running towards him. What the heck were they doing? They were on the wrong side of the road. Joggers and hoverers had to follow the same rules as transporters. Everyone knew that. It made sense, didn't it? It prevented accidents and kept everyone safe. They made no sign of giving way to him, though, so he jumped off the path.
"Watch it, snazzy boy!" cried one of the men.
Snazzy boy. That again. What was it? There was something familiar about it but he couldn't quite place it. Was that just because he'd heard it so recently? And why had those two been so defiant about running the wrong way?
"Snazzy boy?" he whispered to his communicator.
The device whirred and spluttered for a few seconds. "Networks overloaded." Again. Still. Ah well, he'd have to save it for later.
He turned to watch the men move away. They were running quite slowly and seemed to be arguing. One on each side of the divide, then? And why were they being so difficult? He guessed he wouldn't get an answer soon.
He turned as well and started to jog again.
The Executive Council building was as overwhelming as Kaleem remembered. It lacked the homely atmosphere of the Citadel of Elders he was more used to on Terrestra. Here it was all clear veriglass and faux-steel. Tiled floors gleamed. Hoversessels glided effortlessly towards visitors, picked them up and transported them to their meetings. Insipid music played in the corridors. It was clearly supposed to have a calming effect. It only irritated him, though.
Kaleem's sessel took him to a small board room where a catering droid was setting out coffee and pastries.
"Executive Tyler will be here presently," the droid informed him. "Please help yourself to some refreshment." It bowed and left the room.
This would be the first time he'd met Tyler, the executive of Home Affairs. He never usually made any public appearances. He was normally represented by his personal droid. Kaleem's business was anyway more often with outward-looking executives. Well goodness knows how long the man would be.
The jog had made Kaleem hungry. Why not? He took a pastry and poured himself a cup of coffee.
He was just taking his second bite of the pastry when the door swished open and a sessel carrying Executive Tyler glided in.
Kaleem almost choked. It wasn't a man. Besides which he knew her.
"I guess you're surprised, Kaleem. Yes, I'm attached now and I took my attachment's name because I wanted not to be dependent upon my father's reputation. How are you, Kaleem?"
"Very well. You?" He felt his cheeks burning as he looked at his former lover.
"Very well indeed. I won't bother shaking hands with you. We know each other much too well for that. And we should not kiss or hug as that might be dangerous, given our past history. Best get down to business." Her pupils were wide open and her eyes were sparkling, though. Was she flirting with him?
He looked away. "Half of the population, more or less, want to break away from the One World Community. The other half want to stay. There is no easy solution," he mumbled.
Ella sighed. "Stating the obvious, Kaleem. We expect more of you than that."
He looked at her again. Her eyes were cold now. Thank goodness.
"There has to be a third way."
"Oh, who's the Buddhist now?"
"It's always the way." He knew that so well now. The solution was always an alternative to both opposing ideas. Compromise never worked.
"And you will execute that how?"
"I suspect there is some dissatisfaction with the One World Community. We need to find out what it is and see if we can address the concerns. Make the One World Community attractive again to those who are disillusioned."
"And who are these people?"
"We don't know – apart from the fact that they're just under half of the population."
Ella nodded. "Will you be able to find them?"
"I'll need some help. I expect I'll have to do some sort of infiltration."
Her face softened and she half smiled. "We'll provide you with whatever help you need."
"Well, I'll come up with a plan and contact you again."
"Do that. Thank you, Kaleem." She came over to him and rubbed his arm. "You know we could have been so good together, you and I. Still could be. It's not working out all that well with Tyler. My thoughts are elsewhere. You of all people must understand that."
Oh yes, he did. It didn't stop her being very attractive and desirable, though. What was she suggesting? It was tempting ... Then he remembered the conversation they'd had at breakfast. Rozia needed him now, even if only as a friend and not as a lover.
He shook his head. "Sorry ... I can't."
Ella sighed. "I guess not. Better get cracking, then Peace Child boy. You're going to be busy."
Kaleem hardly noticed most of the journey home. It had been such a shock meeting Ella again. It had stirred up some old feelings but he really didn't want to go there again.
And what about Rozia? Was there really any hope there? Or had he really scuppered that one forever? It had been right to leave her at the time. He'd been a danger to her. The timing hadn't been great, though, and he'd had a lot of criticism for that. It had taken her a long time to recover from the injuries she'd suffered because of him. She of all people, though, had really understood why he'd done what he thought he had to. Oh, it was this wretched job of his again. And now there was something else new for him to deal with.
He didn't jog this time. He just walked quickly.
He was almost back at his parents' apartment and hadn't really much idea of how he'd got that far when something grabbed his attention.
A lot of noise was coming from one of the big news screens. He stopped to look up and saw masses of people were marching along the streets in another part of the town. A protest march. That was something you didn't see much on Zandra.
A droid announcer spoke: "Thousands of people who voted to leave the One World Community have taken to the streets, making use of their democratic right to protest. This is the first time this has happened on Zandra in 200 years. These protesters are worried that their opinions are being ignored and that a 48% minority is highly significant."
Well. So that was them then. Kaleem watched the screen for several minutes. The camera zoomed into some of the crowd and he looked carefully for anyone he knew. There was no one. That was a relief. They looked ordinary enough Zandrians and there were clearly also one or two foreigners in the crowd. The usual sort of mix, then. What was eating them?
He guessed he would find out soon enough. He was going to get to know these people one way or another. He had to.
He turned away from the screen and carried on back towards his parents' apartment.
He jogged the last half kilometre, reached the apartment block, and lined his iris up with the scanner. A few seconds later he was in the apartment. It seemed oddly quiet. No one was talking. Petri was not playing with her toys. She would usually mumble to herself, making up stories about the little figures she liked to play with. Had something happened? Was she ill again?
Marijam came into the lounge, carrying a cup of tea.
"They've gone home."
"Home? How can they?"
"Your father's gone with them. He's hooking up everything to our credits. Rozia didn't want him to at first. Then he persuaded her by saying of course he knew she would pay us back as soon as she could. You haven't found out any more, have you, about why her credits have been stopped?"
Kaleem shook his head. That remained a real mystery but one he couldn't get to just yet. There were other, bigger matters to deal with first.
"So how was your meeting? Have you got an action plan yet?"
"A very vague one." He hesitated. Should he tell his mother about meeting Ella?
"Go on. Spit it out."
Yes, she always had this knack of knowing. "Executive Tyler is actually Ella Raymond. Tyler is her attachment's name."
"Oh!" Marijam's eyes grew round and she almost spilled her tea.
Kaleem sighed. "If Rozia's gone home, I may as well do the same."
Marijam nodded. She held up her cup. "Look at it as being a cup half full," she said. "Petri wants you and Rozia back together. And if that doesn't work out ... there's always the other one."
"Mother, she's attached."
Marijam shrugged. "Few attachments are permanent these days."
What was she saying?
She grinned and shook her head. "No, your father and I are rock solid." She looked at her cup and held it up again. "Half full, remember."
It was high time he was going. "I'm going to pack," he said as he left the room.
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
See other episodes: https://www.cafelitmagazine.uk/search/label/The%20House%20of%20Clementine