Petri was covered in spots and blisters again. Her eyes were running. She was worse than Kaleem had ever seen her before.
"Make it stop, Rozia. Stop it hurting."
Rozia frantically rummaged through a drawer. She found a flask of fluid and a wand. Kaleem held his breath as she passed the wand over the child's body. Petri continued to whimper.
"It will pass, sweetheart," Rozia murmured. "Try to sleep."
Petri pushed Rozia away and grunted. "Why isn't this stupid wand working?"
"Please try, Petri."
"I can't sleep. It hurts too much." Petri started screaming.
"I know. I know. Let's try some of this." Rozia looked up at Kaleem and frowned. "Good old Terrestran soothing gel."
She removed the cap, squeezed some on to her hands and started smoothing it on to Petri's body.
"Ow, ow," the little girl cried.
"It will start working in a few minutes. Hang on in there."
Rozia was right. Petri's screaming turned to a grizzle, then back to a whimper and as her eyes gently closed she stopped altogether and soon it was clear she was sleeping peacefully.
"That's something, at least."
Rozia shook her head. "It won't last. It'll wear off and then she'll wake in agony again."
They crept back out into the living area.
"I don't get it," said Kaleem. "That wand didn't work. But hadn't you given her her meds anyway?"
"Of course I had. Clearly that wand didn't work either."
"Well, was that a spare or something? I thought Ella had arranged to deliver them individually as and when you needed them?"
Rozia nodded. "Yes, so there'd be no chance for any interference. It clearly didn't work. That other was just a palliative one. They're sent every time just in case she's beginning to resist the meds."
"So you think there's been some interference?"
"I don't know. They could just be defective wands, I suppose."
"Goodness... if they're breaching that kind of security..."
"Or she might be getting worse."
He could see tears forming in Rozia's eyes again. Again he just wanted take her into his arms. He didn't dare though.
"Let me talk to Ella. See what she can find out."
It took a while for Ella to answer. At last she did, though, and her face lit up when she saw Kaleem.
"I'm at Rozia's apartment," Kaleem said quickly.
Ella's smile faded for a split second. Then it returned to her mouth but not to her eyes. "Well, Rozia, Kaleem, what can I do for you?"
"Two wands don't seem to have worked," said Kaleem.
Ella frowned. "That's terrible. Shall I send a medic over?"
Kaleem looked at Rozia. She shrugged. "It would be a shame to wake her now that she's asleep."
"Well, here's a plan." It was Executive Tyler speaking now, not Ella. "If she wakes again and is in pain, let me know straight away and I'll get someone over there. In the meanwhile, send the wands back and I'll get them analysed."
Kaleem nodded. He placed the wands in the return drawer and keyed in Ella’s coordinates.
"Got them. I'll get back to you as quickly as I can." The screen went blank.
"You should go home," said Rozia. "You must still have a lot to do and a lot to think about."
"No, I'll wait until we find out. I'm not going anywhere until then."
They sat on the sofa. It was suddenly awkward knowing what to say.
"If she is getting worse...,"
"Don't say that. Don't say that."
"But wouldn't it be better to stay here? Isn't medical research more advanced on Zandra?"
"Yes, but it feels so dangerous for us now."
He couldn't argue with that. Zandra was rapidly becoming a place he no longer recognised. He sighed.
Rozia frowned. "Yes, I know. It's lose, lose."
That was so unlike her. Normally she was so optimistic.
The dataserve bleeped and the screen came back into life.
"It's puzzling," said Ella. "Both wands were completely empty. But they were fully charged when they were dispatched. Two more are on their way. We've put extra tracking on them. Any further problems, get back to me."
The screen went blank.
"I knew it."
"At least it means that Petri hasn't deteriorated."
"So, we can return to Terrestra."
"But if Ella's going to monitor it even more closely?"
"I just don't feel safe."
The drawer edge illuminated to show that a delivery had arrived. Petri began to whimper.
Rozia grabbed the wands. "Let's see, shall we?"
"No, come with me. I couldn't bear it if they don't work."
Kaleem followed Rozia into Petri's room.
"We've got some new wands," said Rozia. "These should do the trick."
"They'd better. It's all sore." Petri grimaced.
Rozia looked at Kaleem and nodded. He primed the palliative wand and handed it back to Rozia. As soon as Rozia started applying it the blisters and sores started disappearing from Petri's body.
"Better," murmured the little girl.
"At least that seems to be working," said Kaleem.
Rozia nodded. "We'd better give her the normal meds now."
Kaleem once again primed the wand.
"I want Kaleem to wand me," said Petri.
Kaleem looked at Rozia. She nodded. "It's good for her to get used to other people."
Using the wand wasn't as easy as Rozia had made it look. He kept going either too fast or too slow and the wand constantly bleeped in protest.
"Kaleem's useless." Petri giggled.
"Don't be such a cheeky little monkey." Rozia was frowning.
"She's right, though, I am. Just like with the kaartjes." Rozia had been so much better at driving those strange little vehicles than he had been when they lived together in the Z Zone.
"Oh, you weren't so bad really. That was a long time ago anyway."
There was now an awkward silence again. Kaleem got a little better control of the wand and it finally gave its double bleep to show that the treatment was complete.
"I'll get going," said Kaleem.
"Don't go just yet. Wait in the lounge while I tuck her in."
Kaleem made his way through to the lounge. Dare he hope? Maybe that conversation about the kaartjes and their time in the Z Zone meant something? And now that Petri's medication was sorted again?
She seemed to take an age. He had the impression that she was hesitating. At last she came through though.
"I know what you're thinking," she said as she came into the lounge. Her eyes were fixed on the ground and she wouldn't look up at him. "We're still going back though."
"Why? Now that Ella's really fixed the meds? She will take care of you. You know that."
"Yes, yes. She's been very good. You all have. But you'll be going away soon as well."
"My parents will look out for you and if Saratina comes?"
"They would. I know. But it isn't just that. We just don't feel wanted here. By too many other people. My mind's made up." Now she looked at him and he could see the tears in her eyes. That was something at least. It was as hard for her as it was for him.
"I'd best get going then."
Rozia nodded and pressed the buzzer that opened the main door to the apartment.
Kaleem left without another word. He ran down the fourteen flights of stairs and out into the cold night. He jogged home, despite the cold.
He decided he would go and see her again the next day.
The poor, poor child. I wish I didn't have to be so cruel. Yet on the other hand I'm glad. I so often have to suffer physically like that. What they all do hurts me. I am the physical manifestation of their rot.
The outside door to Rozia's apartment block opened almost as soon as Kaleem touched the buzzer. The screen was only on for a few seconds.
"Come on up," said Rozia. She was looking down and her voice was hoarse. He suspected she had been crying.
The lift transported him up in seconds and the door to her apartment was already open when he got there.
Rozia was not in the lounge. He could hear her talking to Petri. The house droid was busy packing things into crates.
"What's going on?" asked Kaleem.
"Mz Rozia and Mz Petri are preparing to leave for Terrestra."
"When exactly do they expect to leave?"
"I do not have that information, sir. Would you like me to ascertain the exact departure date from Mz Rozia?"
"No, it's all right. I'll ask her myself." Kaleem went towards the inner hallway that led to the bedrooms.
The droid stood in his way. "I'm afraid I can't allow you through there. Mz Rozia gave strict instructions that you were to wait in the lounge. I could go and tell her you're here, sir, if that would be helpful?"
"Yes, please do that."
"Very well, sir."
What was Rozia playing at? What was going on back there that she didn't want him to see? He could actually override the droid easily enough but he didn't really want to do that. That would be disrespectful towards Rozia.
A comfisessel hovered towards him and he sat down. Goodness, this place was beginning to look cold. Rozia had made it such a comfortable home for herself and Petri. Now it was beginning to look bleak.
Rozia appeared in the doorway. He'd been right. She'd been crying though she'd probably been trying to disguise it. Her make-up was immaculate and her hair was shining. She'd been tidying herself up and hadn't wanted him to see her looking miserable. But he could see the swollen cheeks and the red eyes beyond the make-up.
He just wanted to take her into his arms and hold her close. He didn't dare, though.
"You're going back to Terrestra then? Definitely?"
"I still don't understand. I thought Ella was guaranteeing the meds?"
"She is and I'm sure she would make sure the supplies came through regularly. But it isn't just that. "
She sighed. "We were out earlier and we were attacked."
Kaleem felt the blood thudding in his ears. "Attacked. Who by?"
"No idea who they were. But they had a real go at Petri. She still had a slight rash and, well, her colouring is a bit odd for Zandra anyway. Then they had a bit of a go at me as well. Told me to get back to Terrestra. So that's what we're going to do."
Kaleem wanted to punch a wall or do something equally violent. He kept his hands to himself though and dug his fingernails into his palms. "If I could only get hold of them. They didn't hurt you, did they?"
"No, it was just verbal. You would have to talk them round and you probably would. But that all takes time. Too much time."
"You know I'd look after you don't you?"
"How can you when you're going to Zenoto?"
"I won't go. I'll stay here."
"Do you really have that choice?"
"Someone else can do it. It sounds anyway as if things here are getting worse. Maybe I should be staying on Zandra after all."
Rozia shrugged. "It was only verbal."
"No, enough is enough."
"You surely won't get the care on Terrestra that's offered here?"
"Probably not, but things are improving all the time. And at least they accept us there."
"Where are you going to live?"
Rozia smiled and blushed. "In what used to be the Z Zone. There are still some underground apartments there. They've made them really nice. They'll also be ideal for Petri. They don't let the sunlight in."
"If you stayed here, you wouldn't have to worry about that."
Rozia shook her head. "I'll be able to get more work more easily on Terrestra. Everyone has been so generous here but it's time I looked after myself. And Petri will be able to find more people like her to play with. There will be people who look like her and there’ll probably even be some with the same condition. "
"But the pain? Surely you don't want her to go through the pain?"
"We'll manage. They do have pain relief on Terrestra, you know. It's not that primitive."
"I wish you wouldn't go."
"And I wish you didn't have to go to Zenoto but you do and here's nothing we can do about it."
Neither of them had any more to say. Then she stepped towards him. She put her hands on his shoulders and kissed him on the lips. They both hesitated for a second. She pulled him into a proper embrace.
The months melted away. He was back where he should be, in her arms. What was she expecting, though and how far could this go? Whatever was happening now was surely only temporary. He had to go. She couldn't come with him. He could see that she was right as well. It would be safer for her to be on Terrestra and he would even feel happier with her there while he was away.
She pulled away from him, in fact. "We can't do this."
He nodded. Yet it had felt so right. They belonged together didn't they? Yet time and time again this demanding role of his would get in the way.
The tears were streaming down her face.
"Rozia," he whispered his voice hoarse. He was fighting back the tears himself.
"I love you," she said. "I've never stopped loving you. But you're unreachable."
"Rozia," he said again. He loved her too. Didn't she know that?
She shook her head. "We can't go back. It's too late."
The droid ambled into the room. "Reactivate? I have been on standby for twenty minutes."
Rozia turned to the droid. "Please complete packing."
Kaleem watched her as she continued to sort her belongings into piles. "Just how soon are you going?"
Rozia wouldn't look at him. "In three days' time."
At least he had three days. A lot could happen in that time, couldn't it?
"But you've packed pretty well everything."
"We're going to stay in a hotel at London Harbour. A supercraft can take us to Terrestra. We don't know the exact time of departure yet. It will be handy to be nearby." She wiped her hand across her face. "Please go now, Kaleem. It's too painful with you still here."
"Perhaps when I've finished on Zenoto..."
"If you get back. And then what will come next? There's always something."
"But we can keep in touch, can't we?"
"I don't know ..."
"I'd like to know how Petri gets on."
Her face softened. She half smiled. She knew he cared at least.
She nodded. "Yes, of course. I'll let you know. Perhaps via your mother or your grandmother. But go now. Please."
Kaleem moved towards the apartment door.
Then Petri screamed.
Both he and Rozia ran towards her bedroom.
"It's all right sweetheart," said Rozia.
Petri nodded but looked as if she wanted to scream again. Her breath was coming is short, sharp pants.
Rozia turned to Kaleem. "Can you prime the palliative wand while I get her undressed?"
Kaleem located the charger and pressed it gently. The wand lit up and whirred softly. He handed it to Rozia as she gently pulled up Petri's clothing. "You are a brave girl," said Rozia. "I'm sorry if I'm hurting you."
Petri shook her head but Kaleem could see that her fists were clenched and her face was white. She was biting her lip. She must be trying not to scream.
Rozia worked with the wand gently but steadily. Gradually the blisters disappeared and Petri's skin took on a more normal colour. She relaxed and began to look sleepy. Rozia kissed her head. "You can't go back to sleep yet, monkey child. You've got to have your med wand as well."
Kaleem started preparing it.
"I want Kaleem to do the wand."
He looked at Rozia. She nodded. "I'm sure you'll do better than last time."
He moved nearer to Rozia and Petri and started waving the wand carefully above the child's body. It still kept warning him that he was going too fast or too slow.
Petri giggled as the wand constantly bleeped but perhaps not quite as often as the last time. "Kaleem still needs wanding lessons but he's better than he was."
"I do. You're quite right."
"Don't you be so cheeky. But I suppose it shows you must be feeling better if you can be naughty like that."
"I am better. Kaleem is magic with the wand- even if he can't drive it properly."
Rozia looked at Kaleem. "Let's hope this one has worked as well," she said.
"Would you like me to stay and see?"
"There's really no need. But there is something I'd like to talk to you about before you go. Wait while I put her back to bed. Come on Petri." She bundled the little girl off towards her bedroom.
It took Rozia quite a while. There were some arguments about whether Petri had cleaned her teeth and then she declared she wanted Kaleem to tuck her in.
"Kaleem's too busy. Come on now. Be good."
"He's still here though. You said you wanted to talk to him. Why is he still here?"
"Yes I do need to talk to him. But you would dilly and dally too much if he were here. Now into bed and not another word."
Petri grumbled but Kaleem couldn't hear exactly what she said. He busied himself disposing of the two used up wands. Obviously Rozia didn't want him to get too close to Petri. This showed she was still intent on returning to Terrestra? Oh how he'd hoped that she was about to tell him she had changed her mind and was going to stay on Zandra. Fat chance of that.
Then it went quiet.
A few seconds later Rozia came into the lounge.
"I just wanted to thank you for being so supportive," she said.
Kaleem shook his head and shrugged. Why wouldn't he be?
"You're still such a good friend, even if..."
Even if what? They were no longer lovers? "I try my best."
"I know that, but you have other work to do. And actually I don't think I can manage without you here. So..."
She sighed. "That's why we definitely have to go back to Terrestra."
"But you've seen how good the medication is for her here. They'll monitor it even more closely now. And you have a hotline to Ella. Nothing else can go wrong. My parents would always help out as well."
Rozia shook her head. "It's not just that. It's because we're not wanted here. We have to go."
"There's nothing else I can say that will persuade you?"
She shook her head. "You'd better go now." She activated the apartment door which slid open. Her arms were folded across her chest and she was looking at the ground.
"This is goodbye, then?"
She nodded. She was still looking at the floor.
Kaleem left the flat, ignored the lift, ran down the stairs and then started hurrying towards his own apartment.
Kaleem sat in the dark in his own apartment. He tried to relive every single contact he'd had with Rozia. When they'd been schooled together and she'd been different from the others. Then they became lovers. He remembered the first time they made love. How it had been when they'd lived together in the Terrestran Z Zone. How wonderful she'd been with the Adulkis, managing to let them play but making sure they were safe. He smiled when he thought of her skill with a kaartje compared with his own clumsy attempts. That had just all repeated itself with the wand. Then there was that awful day when she was so badly injured. And the worse one when he realised he had to let her go. The worst day of all came when he actually went to tell her this. Then she'd half come back into his life and he'd had the hope that they might get back together again and that they could now be a couple again. The danger was past, or perhaps it wasn't. Anyway she'd dashed that hope. Soon they would be further apart than ever. Darn their Peace Child role.
The dataserve lit up. Patrick Tyler's face appeared. "Hi Kaleem. We need to bring your mission forward. That young Zenoton is getting crazier by the minute. Can you be at the Executive building at first light tomorrow? We'll send a transporter."
"I guess I don't have a choice." Kaleem was surprised at how bright his voice sounded.
Tyler laughed. "See you then."
The screen went blank again. Well, at least it might take his mind off Rozia.
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