They were all at the board room when he arrived. They were talking vigorously but he caught nothing of what they were saying. They stopped abruptly and all turned to look at him. Then Janice Wilton exchanged a glance with Rogery Mentis and Patrick Tyler did the same with Jadee Elliott.
Jadee Elliott smiled at him. "Don't worry, Kaleem. We forgive you for following Terrestran habits. I'm always too early for meetings on Zenoto. They have the same habit as the Terrestrans – always turning up exactly on time, not a minute too early or too late."
"I'm glad I'm not late. I gather you've started without me?"
"Not really," said Rogery. "I was just sharing some forecasts and worst-case and best-case scenarios. You know. Depending on whether you manage to persuade Exton to step down or to reverse his decision about the Zenoton monetary system. Or whether you're entirely unsuccessful."
"Ah, you've that much faith in me, have you?"
The four Zandrians stared at him blankly.
He ought to have remembered they didn't share the Terrestran sense of humour.
"Well, we do want him to give up this crazy idea one way or another," said Patrick Tyler. "If that means he steps down, so much the better, surely?"
"So what are you saying?" asked Kaleem "The only solution is that he abandons his plan to revert to a normal monetary system?"
"We can't see it working any other way," said Patrick. His eyes were cold as he looked at Kaleem. Kaleem wondered whether he suspected about him and Ella.
"So you're all pro the Zenoton money-less society?" asked Kaleem.
Rogery nodded. "The predictions for the whole of the Community – and indeed systems that aren't in the community - switched over to this are extremely good. There will be a more stable economy and a more stable society. There are some hurdles to be got over first. But that's achievable. Unfortunately what Exton is proposing runs exactly contrary to this."
"You see, it's just like our health system," said Jadee. "So many Zenotons have told me how much they envy us that."
"Presumably we're the envy of everyone?" said Janice.
"Except that there's now quite a bit of xenophobia on Zandra." Kaleem shuddered inwardly as he remembered recent events. He thought of Rozia again and how she felt she had to return home.
"Are you saying you agree with Exton?" Patrick was frowning.
"No, not at all. I think the Zenoton monetary system – if you can call it a money system – is the best in the universe." He glanced at Rogery. "We would do well to adopt it everywhere." He looked at them all now one by one. "And maybe we should also all adopt the Zandrian health policy."
"So why don't you want to persuade Exton to revert or to get rid of him?" Patrick was frowning and he had folded his arms across his chest.
"That might be easy enough but I suspect someone similar would just take his place. We'd have to peel one after another off."
Janice nodded. "There are countless examples of that in the history of politics. You get rid of a leader because they have evil ideas only to replace them with another who is just as evil but has weaker leadership skills and also causes chaos on top of the other problems."
"Exton is certainly strong," Patrick added.
"It's difficult to understand why the Zenotons elected him," said Jadee.
"There must be something, don't you see? There is something causing them to be discontented." They were now all staring at him.
"So how would you approach Exton?" asked Janice.
"I would have to find out what motivated him."
"You'd befriend him?" Patrick's tone was cold.
"Maybe. We're both young. It might work."
No one said anything and everyone was looking down at their tablets.
"He's young, strong and really believes that he is right and that he is doing the best for his planet." Would they buy that? Kaleem held his breath.
"Well, I suppose it's your job to think the best of everyone." Patrick was frowning hard.
"It's a bit more than that," said Kaleem. "I have to find out why people behave as they do and offer them an alternative that doesn't compromise the other party. Something is really worrying these people."
"But what kind of thing can you mean?"
Kaleem was actually convinced that the problems on Zandra and on Zenoto had the same cause. He was also sure that it was something sinister and evil. Could it be to do with the House of Clementine? He knew so little about that really but he did know that it had constantly interfered in human activity. He shrugged. "I've no idea. Maybe we'll just have to find out." Now was probably not the time to introduce them to the concept of Clementine.
"Do you really think it so bad on Zandra?" asked Jadee.
"Well, nearly half of the people want to leave the Community. There are all these brown tunics marching and parading. There's a lot of tension between the Zandrians who want to carry on as normal and the ones who want to break away from the Community." Kaleem closed his eyes. "And I've got personal experience of a sudden dislike of strangers."
Patrick banged his fist on the table. "Oh come on. If it's Rozia and Petri you're talking about, that's hardly a good example. Look how well they've been treated by my attachment. Any attack on them may really have been an attack on you, perhaps from someone who wanted to sabotage this mission."
"You may be right." It was best not to argue, even though the first problems for Rozia and Petri had started before everything had gone strange on Zandra and Zenoto. "But please, give me the time to work properly with Pangwit Exton."
"I think we should do that," said Janice quietly. The others nodded.
Yes, he would certainly keep his ideas about the House of Clementine to himself for the moment at least. Well, this meeting didn't seem to have achieved a lot. Not to worry too much though. There was still a long journey ahead of them.
An alarm started ringing. A flashing light showed that it was a Level 2 Alert. This meant that they were not in immediate danger but that the crew had important work to do and that the passengers were to keep out of their way.
"All crew to the engine floor. All passengers please return to their cabins. Meals will be served in cabins until further notice. There is no cause for alarm. We will keep you updated."
"That seems to be that, then," said Patrick.
As they made their way back to their cabins Kaleem noticed several of the crew rushing towards the engine floor. They looked serious but not afraid.
His cabin seemed peaceful in contrast. Soft music was playing and the lights were dimmed.
"Please feel free to select an entertainment channel," the dataserve announced. But then a news flash loaded.
"We would like to update you on the current state of affairs. Supercraft Bellatunda II is now on mission to help Supercraft Camarada. She is on her way to Terrestra and has experienced a small fire and has lost power to all but two of her engines. We intend to bring the passengers on board Bellatunda II and we shall delay our further journey to Zenoto whilst we and the Camarada's engineers repair the Camarada. We apologise for any inconvenience."
Kaleem shivered. That was the supercraft that Rozia and Petri were travelling on, wasn't it? He hoped they would be all right. Transferring from one supercraft to another in space was not always that easy. He hoped they hadn't been hurt by the fire. Then, though, he might see her again.
The news flash ended. He wanted to find out as much as possible.
"I wish to speak to Kendrick Manton," he commanded his dataserve.
Kendrick had not been pleased at first. "You'll get in the way. We have to have all areas clear. The priority is to allow the crew to do their work undeterred."
"I'm used to keeping a low profile," Kaleem had argued. "It's part of my job. Anyway, I believe there are two people who are very important to me on that craft."
Kendrick shook his head. "It will still seem as if I'm giving you some extra privilege. Other people might not like it."
Kaleem took a deep breath. "I can be very reassuring if anyone is scared. You could really benefit from me being here."
He hoped Kendrick would consent. It would be torture just sitting waiting in his cabin.
There was a flurry of activity. Droids and human personnel began to move swiftly in every direction.
Kaleem spoke to a couple of the people. He used an old mantra Razjosh had always been keen to repeat. "Easy now. One step at a time. Be mindful." He held his breath and hoped that it would work this time. .
The people he'd spoken to directly slowed down. This seemed to have a calming effect on others.
Kendrick frowned. "All right. All right. But please, keep out of the way."
So, here he was now, on the communications deck. The screens had been lifted and he had a full view of the stricken supercraft. Its lights were low. The shuttle containing the engineers from the Bellatunda II had just docked and they seemed to be making their way now safely into the Camarada. At the same time a rigid covered causeway was projecting out from the Bellatunda II towards the Camarada.
"It will hook up in a few minutes and then it will light up. That will mean the Camarada's passengers are making their way across." Kendrick was now being generous with his information. His trick had worked, then?
A few moments later the causeway did light up. Now Kaleem held his breath. It seemed easy enough. The causeway was rigid and airtight. However, there had been a couple of disasters when supercraft had been linked like this and only in fact ten successful transfers. There wasn't a lot of need for this. It was a pity they couldn't use shuttles but generally they wouldn't evacuate travellers quickly enough.
"You should go down to the reception station. You should be able to spot your friends there." Kendrick rubbed his shoulder.
The reception station was already heaving. Kaleem watched the people emerging from the causeway tube. Most of them were Zandrian but there were a few Terrestrans too and just one or two from other planets. Their faces relaxed as they stepped on to the deck of Bellatunda II. Faces remained pale, however. A hospitality team offered them drinks. The beverages must have been drugged. Relaxation turned into euphoria and the ones who had already consumed their drink started chatting excitedly. They were being shown to some of the lounges that had been set aside for them. There was no way that they could all be offered cabins. There was a backlog anyway in getting them across. It was getting more and more crowded. Hopefully, though, the repairs would not take too long and then they could all be got back on board the Camarada. There would be some anxiety then but for now the spiked drink was taking the edge off.
Where were they though? Rozia and Petri?
Every aspect of society was represented in the people that Kaleem watched. Old people, business people, young people, babes in arms, children, rich and poor people. But where were the two he was waiting for?
At last he saw them. Of course, the lights had hurt Petri, despite her medication, but he could see that she was trying not to cry. She was such a brave little girl. All these other people should be ashamed if they considered what she had to put up with.
Rozia was frowning and her shoulders were stooped. It was so unusual for her to be defeated like this. Understandable though - it was such a responsibility looking after Petri. And now this. No wonder she was tired.
She didn't see him for several minutes and he had to push his way through the crowd to get to them. There were so many people here he had to watch very carefully so that he didn't lose sight of them.
At last, though, she looked straight at him and beamed.
"Kaleem!" called Petri.
A few seconds later he was right by them. Petri hung on to his tunic. He couldn't help but open his arms to Rozia.
To his great surprise she fell into his arms and began to cry. It felt so good to hold her. He held her tight until the tears stopped. Then he kissed the top of her head. "It's all right. You're safe now."
Petri wobbled his tunic. "Can we have one of those drinks?"
Rozia pulled away from him. "I suppose it can't hurt?"
Kaleem shook his head. "I think you might want to avoid those. I'm sure they've got something in them. Come back to my cabin and I'll order up something ordinary."
Rozia nodded. "That's a good idea. I can re-medicate madam there."
They made their way to his cabin. Although her skin was obviously still sore, Petri was amazed by the Bellatunda II. "It's so much nice than the Camarada. Why is Kaleem's supercraft better?" She kept touching the panels and feeling the furniture.
"Our supercraft is fine as well. This one's just a bit newer."
"Oh, it's so fine it caught fire and broke. I say Kaleem's is better. People who give up and go back to Terrestra don't get nice things."
Rozia looked at Kaleem, half smiling. Kaleem didn't know whether to laugh or tell Petri off. The girl was growing up. Just because she was little didn't mean she wasn't getting older. They would do well to remember that.
Once they arrived at Kaleem's cabin, Rozia flopped down into a comfisessel. "It's good to get away from all the panic," she said.
Kaleem nodded. "I'll order some tea."
"And a fruit juice for Petri."
While they waited for their drinks to appear, Rozia got on with wanding Petri. The girl seemed self-conscious, so Kaleem made a show of looking at his dataserve. Yes, Petri wasn't a very little girl any more. She really was growing up now.
"It's still all working all right?"
"Yes, everything works perfectly - at least when the supercraft is functioning correctly. The lights on the causeway made it a bit difficult but she's all right now."
They sipped their drinks in silence. Petri must be feeling better. She was watching a film on her communicator. He ought to find out where they were going to be accommodated, he supposed. He was enjoying their company, though. He didn't really want to broach the subject but he really had to.
"I wonder how comfortable it's going to be for you all," he said to Rozia. "You'll have to sleep in one of the lounges, I think."
Rozia nodded. "Yes, I was wondering about that." She looked around Kaleem's cabin. "Would there be room for us here?"
Well, he had a big enough cabin. That was for sure. There were two generous double beds in the bedroom and the sofa in the lounge would make a third.
"Of course. I just didn't think you'd want to."
Rozia shrugged. "It would be more restful here."
"I'm sure it will be fine." It would be nice having the two of them to himself for a few hours.
He contacted housekeeping and asked if it would be all right.
"No problem at all," said the droid operative. "One of my colleagues will make up the extra beds."
A few minutes later, two droids arrived with bedding and soon Kaleem's cabin was transformed.
There really was something different about Rozia. They chatted easily just like they used to. The hours sped by and soon it was time for dinner. They decided to order Terrestran food and were soon enjoying a chicken dish with rice and a fine French wine. There was sparkling mineral water for Petri but Kaleem persuaded Rozia to let her have a little wine with her water.
"Can we have ice-cream for dessert?" asked Petri.
"I don't see why not," said Kaleem.
The ice-creams arrived and Kaleem began to feel almost as if they were a little family. Better not go too far down that route, though.
"That was really yummy," said Petri. "But I'm tired now and I want to go to sleep."
"Then so you shall," said Kaleem. He exchanged a glance with Rozia.
Petri took herself off to the bathroom.
"That is one side effect of all this medication. She needs more sleep." She chuckled. "It's a bit of a relief, actually. She's getting really cheeky."
Petri emerged from the bathroom. Kaleem had lent her a spare tunic to sleep in. It was much too long for her and he and Rozia had to stop themselves from giggling as she tripped over the hem a few times. She climbed, with considerable difficulty, into what had been Kaleem's bed.
Kaleem and Rozia returned to the lounge area.
"I'm sorry I couldn't find anything a better fit," said Kaleem.
"Don't worry," said Rozia. "I think she was putting it on a bit. She enjoyed the attention."
"Stop whispering, you two," Petri called. "I know you're laughing at me. Anyway, I love this bed." She snuggled down.
"We'll be quiet so you can sleep," said Kaleem.
"No need. We really don't have to worry about making a noise, you know. She's a sound sleeper when her meds are working and they are working now." Rozia beamed at Kaleem.
He was sitting on the sofa, already made up as his bed. To his great surprise she came and sat down right next to him. Perhaps though, if they were going to talk, it was better like this, that they sat really close together. Despite Rozia's reassurances, he was still worried that they might disturb Petri.
She laid her head on his shoulder. "You know I was really scared when the fire broke out on the supercraft. I thought our lives might be over. I don't want to waste another moment."
"You're safe now, though, aren't you?"
"Yes, but you don't know when something else might happen."
"I suppose not."
She sat up and turned to face him. "I never stopped loving you; you know that, don't you? I was very fond of Julien but it was never the same as with you. "
Something leapt inside Kaleem. He didn't know how to respond to her. He couldn't speak anyway even if he had known what to say.
Then she leant forward and kissed him. More gently than she had just before she and Petri had left. My goodness, how he'd missed that. Ella was all very fine but he realised that everything with her had only been lust. This was the woman he'd always loved and still loved. In fact, he couldn't see himself loving anyone else. He fell into her caresses and felt himself loving her back. Yes, loving her, not making love.
"Are you sure we won't wake her?" His voice was hoarse with emotion.
"Even if we did, I'm sure she'd be delighted to find us in bed together."
"But won't she be puzzled?"
Rozia laughed. "You were right. She is growing up. She knows all about everything. And besides, she keeps saying 'You should get back with Kaleem. You two are so right for each other'."
Rozia kissed him again.
It was like the very first time all that time ago when he'd taken her to a very special hotel and then worried about whether he'd done the right thing. And yet it was a little bit different. They still knew each other's bodies so well though he winced a little when he felt the scar on her back from the injury that had really been his fault. They made love three times altogether and spent a good deal of the rest of the night talking. Petri didn't stir at all.
Now Kaleem was wide awake and both Rozia and Petri were sleeping peacefully.
He decided to get up. He went to the bathroom and took a shower. When he got back, Petri was sitting on the sofa bed and grinning at him. She must have realized.
Rozia stirred. She blushed bright red. "I'll go and get ready," she muttered.
He thought of the brooch. He opened the drawer where he kept it and slid it out of its pouch. "What do you think?" Was he really asking a young girl for advice?
Petri just stared at the piece of jewellery.
"Where did you get it?" said Petri.
Petri touched the brooch. "This is really special."
"Yes it is. Very special."
He told Petri all about how it had been made.
The bathroom door opened. Rozia came out. She looked more composed now. She smiled tentatively at him.
Petri dashed towards the door. "Just do it," she said to Kaleem as she pushed it open.
"What was that about?"
Rozia looked so gorgeous. Kaleem pulled her towards himself and kissed her. It would have been so easy just to make love again. Petri would be quite a while in the bathroom, wouldn't she? Then he must make an effort now to find out where they were at. He pushed her away again gently. "I have something for you." He handed her the brooch.
She examined it carefully. "It's beautiful."
"It was made on Zenoto. Perhaps it will remind you that that planet isn't all bad. So maybe you needn't worry too much about me." Was he being presumptuous? "If you care at all." Oh, why had he said that?
"Of course I care. You should know that."
"Then come with me. Stay with me. Both of you."
Rozia shook her head. "I can't. It might be too dangerous. Especially for Petri. I want to get her safely back to Terrestra. If we came with you and something happened you might give us both up for our own sakes, just like you did to me before." Ouch.
"But you'll keep the brooch?"
"Of course I will. I'll wear it every single day and I'll think of you. There will never be anyone else for me."
"For me neither." He kissed her on the lips.
She pulled away from him, looked into his eyes and stroked his hair. "Come and see me when your mission's complete. Let's see where things are then."
Kaleem nodded and pinned the brooch on to her tunic.
The bathroom door burst open. Petri ran in and hugged them both. "I knew it. You two will be together. You'll be attached when Kaleem gets back from Zenoto."
It was clear that the little monkey had been listening at the door.
Kaleem's communicator buzzed. "Send," he muttered.
"It's time for your guests to re-join their supercraft," said an electronic voice.
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