So, our dear Peace Child, trapped by one of the oldest concerns in the history of the universals. Will you be able to give her up that easily? Will you? A brave try but what exactly are you doing in that shower?
There it was. Exton's barrier. If you didn't know better, Zenoto now looked like any other ringed planet and in fact quite beautiful in its own way. Zenoto had always been beautiful. Kaleem remembered the first time he'd seen it. Its deep red was as impressive as Terrestra's blue. The splashes of lemony yellow and emerald green worked the same way as Terrestra's touches of white, green and brown. If anything Zenoto's colours were even more vibrant.
How he would love to show Rozia and Petri this. Petri would clap her hands and dance with delight. Rozia would nod and smile quietly and whisper. "It's so lovely."
Rozia. Petri. They had been back on Terrestra for weeks now. Petri was well. Rozia seemed content if not exactly happy. They'd communicated often but it was becoming awkward. He had little to report. Just day after day trundling through space. He'd not dared to talk too intimately. She seemed shy of it too. She was always wearing the brooch, at least, though. But she might have been removing it as soon as they'd finished talking.
Rozia and Petri were like this beautiful planet. His relationship with them was like this curious ring around it – cold, blue, metallic and yet beautiful and full of promise if you stopped fearing it.
"Soon be there," said Kendrick.
As he spoke the supercraft slowed and Kaleem could tell by the change in engine tone that they were about to dock. His stomach flipped. What would happen now? Would they just be allowed to carry on and land on Zenoto normally or would there now be a lot of questions and examinations?
One of the communication team stepped on to the observation deck. He nodded to Kaleem. "Sir. President Exton is on the barrier ring in person. He wishes you to board and speak to him."
"I'll have to consult with the rest of the team."
"Understood. But he says you are to come alone."
"Tell him we'll get back to him as soon as possible."
Kendrick was already summoning the others to the observation deck. They all arrived within a few moments.
"We should monitor you and pull you out the minute anything goes wrong," said Janice Wilton.
"He has a damn cheek," said Patrick Tyler.
"I think we have to conform." It was so obvious to Kaleem. "We have to meet his requests. He just wants to talk and I'm kind of good with that. It goes with the job title."
"I'm sure no one on Zenoto would harm Kaleem. Not even Exton." Jadee idly fiddled with her correspondent badge as she talked.
"I certainly can't see any problem with letting Kaleem go down to the barrier." Rogery Mentis grinned at him.
Patrick sighed. "Very well, then. But we monitor you very closely." He turned to the communicator. "Tell Exton Kaleem Malkendy will be with him shortly."
As Kaleem was about to leave the observation deck to make his way to the shuttle bay, the dataserve screen opened. Pangwit Exton appeared on the screen. The ever present smirk played on his lips. He bowed slightly. "I look forward to welcoming you, Kaleem Malkendy."
"I'll be with you soon," muttered Kaleem.
Barely twenty-five minutes later Bellatunda II's shuttle was docking with Zenoto's barrier. Close to the barrier looked bleak and unfriendly. The docking hangar had guards surrounding the inside walls. Kaleem had never seen a Zenoton guard so heavily armed. There had never been a need for them before. Only when he had been kept prisoner on a supercraft had he been guarded by Zenotons. These looked completely different from those. Colder – and completely bored.
There was no resistance, however, as he left the shuttle. The Zenotons who met him were at least polite and almost friendly. A little more distant, though, than Zenotons had been towards him before.
He was shown into a room that was lined with dark fakewood panels. The thick carpet gave a spring to his step. There was no one else in the room but it looked as if he was expected. A table covered in plates of rich canapés and jugs of fruit juice was laid for two.
A door at the far end of the room slid open.
Exton walked in. He indicated with a wave of the hand and a nod of the head that Kaleem should sit down.
"I've been looking forward to meeting you," the young president said. "I think we can have a very intelligent conversation."
Exton's deep blue eyes looked right into Kaleem's. All traces of the smirk had vanished.
Kaleem took his time looking at Exton. He would wait until he spoke again. This was a trick he'd used lots of times before. It made the person you were talking to feel uncomfortable.
Exton nodded. Was he trying to say that he knew what Kaleem was up to? "Well, Peace Child, what have you really come for?"
"To try to understand. It's always about that."
"You don't want me to try to change your mind?"
"I never do that. But I do try to make you understand the other point of view."
"How do you do that?
"Question away, then." He was smirking again now.
Kaleem gave himself a few moments to think – or at least, appear to look as if he was thinking. "Okay. Why is it of benefit for Zenoto to go back to an older way of trading?"
"Well, it puts us in closer contact with other planets."
"How does it do that?"
"We're using the same currency, in a manner of speaking. We can negotiate more easily."
"How does it make it easier?"
"We don't have to negotiate for so long. The terms are clear."
"What is so wrong with the established Zenoton way?"
"It's often abused."
"So if it's so often abused, why has it lasted for so long?"
Exton paused for a few seconds. "People don't like change."
Exton seemed unsure of himself. Time to go in another direction. Kaleem nodded.
"So why did you use this for election campaign?"
"Because the way without money was getting too popular. We Zenotons were getting worried that we would lose something that was unique to us."
"And hence your building of this barrier ring?"
Exton actually blushed. "I think it's my turn to ask you some questions."
Kaleem sat back, held his hands up in the air and then placed them at his sides. "Go ahead."
Exton cleared his throat. "What do you expect to achieve by coming here?"
"I'd like to maintain the peace. And get down to the bottom of what is really going on in the universe."
"What do you mean, what is really going on?"
"There are strange things happening on Zandra and possibly on Terrestra too." A picture of Rozia and Petri flashed in front of him. They'd not said much about what was happening there. Had that been deliberate? Were they keeping something from him?
"Well, we need to bring some law and order now."
"Who are "we"?"
"Those of us who are willing to take charge of the world."
"Willing? Isn't it more a matter of wanting to?"
Exton shrugged. "Either way. But I intend to do it."
Ah. That was it.
"And will you let me visit Zenoto?"
Exton didn't say anything for several minutes.
Kaleem raised his eyebrows.
Exton's eyes were steely. "All right then. But you come alone."
"Can I go back and debrief my colleagues?"
Exton stood up and adjusted his jacket. Kaleem wondered at the Zenoton's short hair. He'd had it cut in a Zandrian / Terrestran style. He seemed to be cutting himself off from the world but at the same time mimicking it. "Out of the question. I will arrange for some of my people to bring you down to the planet. We will supply you with everything you need. There is no need for you to return to your ship. I will be in contact again soon." He snapped his heels together and then he was gone.
What would happen next?