It only took Kaleem ten minutes to get over to the Executive building. Ella had sent a transporter for him. Obviously this was urgent. In those ten minutes he'd been able to get the gist of it. Zenoto had a new president. The elections had been sudden because there'd been a massive argument in their parliament. The new president was Pangwit Exton. Kaleem had never heard of him before. He looked young – very young, maybe even younger than Kaleem himself. He seemed to have come from nowhere. And he didn't look completely Zenoton.
As soon as he stepped out of the transporter the door to the Executive building buzzed open. Seconds later he was in the lift and soon after that he was seated in Ella's office. She had six screens open.
"I'm trying to find out as much as I can about him. Look." She pointed to a screen where a Zenoton child was playing with a Zandrian mother. "I'm surprised they didn't want a pure blood."
What did she mean? That was an odd expression anyway. "Why wouldn't they like mixed race?"
Ella shrugged. "I don't see that they wouldn't particularly. It's just that they've never done it before."
"Have you found out anything else about him?"
She shook her head. "It's really difficult. He hasn't any record of being involved in politics before."
"Why are we so worried? Isn't it up to the Zenotons? If they want a new president why shouldn't they have one? "
"Fair enough. It's just that it happened so quickly. It makes you wonder. And we know so little about this man. We don't know what he might do."
She had a point.
A static picture of Exton appeared on the news screen. Yes, he was young. He was obviously very tall and there was something about the way he was standing that made him look arrogant. Was that a bit of a smirk on his face? A supercilious smile in his eyes?
"Panjit Exton, aged just twenty-three, is the youngest president of Zenoto ever. Indeed, he's the youngest president in the known universe. However, in terms of experience, President Exton is second to none. He completed his education at the age of eleven and is possibly the universe's greatest mathematician. Maybe we can trust this young man with the Zenoton economy. Indeed, he may be good for the whole universe. There are high hopes that he will be able to bring about financial stability universe-wide. We'll be going to a live interview with him soon."
"He seems like a bit of a nerd," said Ella.
"Quite probably." And there was definitely something in Exton's expression that Kaleem did not like. It may just have been the way the camera had caught him. But he definitely didn't like what he saw.
"Before we go over to Zenoto," said the reporter, "we're going to talk to our politics expert, Janice Wilton."
A woman about the same age as Marijam appeared on the screen. There was something about her that made Kaleem want to trust her. She wore a plain emerald green tunic and a pale blue scarf. Her hair was silver rather than grey. She looked smart rather than glamorous.
"So, Miss Wilton, how has this extraordinary situation come about on Zenoto?"
"Well there's actually been some unrest for quite a while over there. Particularly amongst the young. There's a lot of concern that because of the extraordinary economic set-up on Zenoto they are not able to trade easily with other planets."
"Are they not, really? They do trade, don't they? Do they need to in fact, though? Don't they have everything they need?"
"Well, they have a lot. Most certainly. But if they want to influence the universe, they need a bigger presence. And it's Exton's generation that wants that."
"Even so. How did he get through the democratic process so quickly?"
Janice Wilton laughed and ran her fingers through her hair. "I think he was waiting in the wings, ready to jump in as soon as the opportunity presented itself."
"Some people are suggesting that a full democratic process has not been followed."
"Oh, I can assure you it has." A chart appeared on the screen. As the cursor moved across, a voice-over read out the times and dates. The chart disappeared and the reporter and Janice Wilton reappeared.
"So, everything has taken hours, rather than days, and in some cases just minutes?"
Janice Wilton nodded. "So clearly this has been very well thought out. They've just been waiting to put this into place. A very clever mind is obviously behind this. I suspect Exton himself."
"My god." Ella shook her head and put her hand over her mouth. "This is worrying."
"Worrying indeed," the reporter continued. "Now perhaps quite appropriately we can go over to Zenoto where the new president is addressing the news channels there."
The screen was now filled with Pangwit Exton's face. He looked even more arrogant now that they had a live picture of him.
"It is imperative," he said "that Zenoto has more contact with other systems, and I'm afraid that is going to mean that we have to trade using normal economic factors and not some grandiose idea about abundance for all."
There was a loud outcry in the background.
Exton held up his arms. "I know, I know. Many of you think that this is putting back centuries of work that we Zenotons have done. Yes, we tried to convert the rest of the universe, but they just wouldn't have it. There was a popular expression on Terrestra centuries ago: 'If you can't beat them join them.' We young Zenotons want to be part of the modern world, rather than live in some isolated idyll. If that actually means going back to older ways, then so be it.
"My immediate plans are to monetize our supply stores so that they operate the way others call "shops". Then I shall audit working patterns. Zenotons will soon be enjoying earning an honest crust and then they can really appreciate what they gain for their efforts. Like any other creature in this universe."
A close up of Exton showed eyes that stared without connecting and a smirk on his lips.
Kaleem shook his head. "There's something not at all right here," he said. "It all sounds reasonable but he doesn't look reasonable. And what he's planning is such a shame. He ought to be looking for a way of making the rest of us see sense."
"Zenoto will be great again. Zenoto will take its rightful place in the world. Zenoto will lead." He punched the air and now a cheer came from another side.
It seemed familiar to Kaleem. He couldn't quite work out why, though.
The screen suddenly went blank. He turned to see Ella smiling at him.
It was one of those looks again. Would he be able to get out of this easily? She stood up and walked over to him. She put her hands on his shoulders. "I'm sure we could do something that would make this all go away. For a while at least."
Her perfume made him feel dizzy. He closed his eyes and breathed in deeply. There was nothing he would rather do than sink into her arms and make love to her.
"Come with me." She shivered, taking his hand gently. "I can make this right for you. You know I can."
He shouldn't. He knew that. But he wanted to. Just to melt into her for a short while ... what would be the harm? Who would know? Rozia wouldn't and anyway actually it was nothing to do with her. Ella wouldn't be stupid enough to let her attachment know.
"You know you want to." She pulled him towards her.
He wanted her now. He really did.
Suddenly though he remembered Razjosh. It was startling, almost as if his old mentor were suddenly with him in the room. He could feel his presence, even though he couldn't see him.
"It's your duty as Peace Child to secure the peace at whatever personal cost. Your reward comes as you guarantee the joyful lives of others. You must never pursue your own needs." It was almost as if Razjosh was whispering in his ear. He pulled away from Ella and turned to look. Was there some sort of technological trick going on?
"What's the matter?" Ella was frowning and the corners of her mouth were turned down.
Kaleem shook his head. "I'm just thinking about Rozia and Petri."
"They're all right now aren't they? Don't forget I'm going to look after them personally."
He nodded and turned away from her. Hadn't what he'd just heard from Razjosh the exact argument he'd used to justify his abandoning Rozia?
It was just as well he did. The dataserve snapped back on. It was an executive override.
"Ella, Kaleem." A young Zandrian nodded at them.
Ella blushed. "Kaleem, this is my attachment, Patrick Tyler. You've probably not met before. What do you want, Patrick? "
Patrick rolled his eyes. "This isn't a social call or a domestic matter. God knows when they'll give us any down time. Kaleem, I'm a junior executive for Outward Affairs. We need to talk to the two of you immediately. Please, both of you. Make your way up to the seventeenth floor."
The screen went blank.
"That was close," said Kaleem. "We really need to be more careful. In fact we shouldn't take the risk at all."
He turned his back on her and went towards the door but not before he'd seen her scowl at him.
The Outer Affairs offices were grander than anything Kaleem had seen anywhere before. Certainly the meeting room in the Citadel of Elders had been very plush in an old-fashioned way. But here was the most up-to-date luxury. From the veriglass walls he could see a vista of the whole town and beyond.
"It's actually a holoscene," Patrick explained. "We don't want to get distracted by what's going on outside."
"Can we do introductions quickly and then get down to business?" a shorter, blond-haired woman said as she used a dataserve to upload files to the screen.
Her name was Jadee Elliott and she was the special correspondent for Zenoto. A tall young man introduced himself as Rogery Mentis. He was a futurologist. The other young woman was Saleen Davisk, an economics expert.
"Right," said Jadee. "Let's get started then."
"I'm quite concerned about what's happening to my friend Rozia and her stepdaughter, Petri," said Kaleem.
Patrick frowned. "I don't think we can deal with personal matters in this meeting."
That wasn't what he meant. "They're just symptomatic of what else is going on."
"I don't get you." Jadee was looking at him with her eyebrows raised but her tone was warm and friendly.
"They're receiving some persecution from people who have become xenophobic. And people are making noises about them draining our health care systems."
"This happens when people become afraid," said Rogery. "Get rid of what's causing the fear and the fear will go away."
"That's rather obvious, isn't it!" Just how did they justify a futurologist's existence?
Rogery shrugged. "Xenophobia and fear are real. They make people behave in irrational ways."
How could this have happened? Zandra had always been a peace-loving and welcoming planet, and Kaleem did know to his cost that it could be very severe with people who tried to be secretive. Now, though, it seemed it had its own secrets. "Have you got any idea what's behind all of this?"
"Something very manipulative and mysterious," said Rogery. "And we need to weed it out."
"It's a bit like what's been happening on Zenoto," said Saleen. "And look at this."
Some charts lit up on the wall. "The exchange rates have been going crazy over the last few weeks. Look at all of these dramatic spikes and drops." She pointed at some columns in red.
It didn't mean a lot to Kaleem. "How does this compare with what's normal?"
"Show prior twelve months," Saleen commanded the dataserve.
More charts appeared but this time without any red and no real spikes or dips.
"Has this been influenced by the situation on Zenoto?" asked Patrick.
"Possibly," replied Saleen.
"I think what goes on on Zenoto is the business of the Zenotons and not ours." Jadee's eyes were bright and her cheeks were red. "I don't think we like what they're doing but it has to be their decision."
"I agree," said Patrick. "But it might be useful to find out exactly what triggered that."
There was a general mumbling of agreement. Kaleem could predict what was coming next.
"Well, we need to send someone out there who can see what's happening. Someone who's been there before. Someone who they'll trust."
They were now all looking at him.
Jadee looked happier and was nodding now. "And someone who has the skills."
They were all still staring at him.
So, he was to go and spy on Zenoto. Inevitable, probably. But it would take him even further away from Rozia.
The meeting ended shortly afterwards. They only made very vague plans. But it was going to happen quite soon. He would be going away on another diplomatic mission.
As he made his way home later he tried to work out what Razjosh would say about it all.
No doubt he would be optimistic. "Zenoto is a fine planet. You have good friends there. You should be able to enjoy your time there."
Annoyingly Razjosh would also have seen what had been happening to Rozia and Petri as a positive. "Of course it's not pleasant for them. But it's not their fault. And it's how they deal with it that counts. Anyway, you must uncover the hurt that is causing this to happen."
And how exactly was he supposed to do all of that. "Tut, tut, Kaleem. You know how. See both sides. Explain each to the other. Make them see that no harm is meant."
How, though. How?
"Open-minded discourse." Oh yes, that, just like the child's "why questions". Why is this an easier way for you? What do you gain form this? Why is that better than what you had before?
"No never easy. And it's crucial that you do this with your heart. You must absolutely respect the people with whom you are dealing."
Even if they don't deserve my respect.
"Come on now. You are the Peace Child. You know what you have to do."
Oh yes he knew all right. He'd arrived back at his apartment block. He rushed up to his flat and activated his dataserve.
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