Kaleem gazed thought the window of the apartment he'd been given. This was a real view, not a holoed one. The lemony sky reflected on the deep red rocks. The green water glistened in the strong sunlight. A gentle breeze made the long fronds of grass sway. Zenoto was still amazing, even if it was having problems at the moment.
He was reasonably comfortable here. The apartment was light and airy. The furnishings were smart. The food was very good. He couldn't really complain.
He needed air, today, though, but he'd been forbidden to go outside if not accompanied. At least they allowed droids to accompany him. They had not been intrusive. They'd just let him get on with his exercise. He wondered though, what they might do, if he tried something unorthodox. He just might today. He'd been getting nowhere.
Exton had been polite enough. He'd even shown him certain aspects of Zenoto that he'd changed. He'd answered Kaleem's questions calmly and fully but Kaleem was no nearer understanding why the president was behaving the way he was.
The barrier was now more solid. Many supercraft and other space vehicles were being turned away. Zenoto was becoming a closed planet. Yet President Exton was making trade deals with individual planets all over the place. None could have been fulfilled yet, surely, as the new monetary system was not yet in place. If it all happened, it would bring so many changes throughout the civilised universe. If it didn't, there would be so much anger directed at Zenoto. He shuddered to think what might happen.
The Zenotons were divided, just like the Zandrians. Did it all have the same cause?
He'd been here three months now. He was getting nowhere. He was in effect under house arrest. He'd not heard anything of Rozia and Petri for quite a while. He was only allowed access to local news channels.
He commanded the dataserve to show him the latest. There was another protest march against Exton. It was becoming violent as Exton's supporters started attacking them.
Then he noticed a woman in the crowd. That was surely Jadee Elliott. How had she got here? It made some sense, he supposed. She was a correspondent and it was her job to be here. Yet she wasn't acting like a correspondent this time. She was trying to hide. She was also talking to a Zenoton who had a large red scar across his face. How had that man got that? Zenotons usually didn't get into fights.
She disappeared from the screen.
That was it then. He'd decided. He was going to have to find out what was going on out there.
"Inform droids I'm going for a run," he commanded the dataserve. He would have to find a way of getting rid of them. Perhaps if he headed for where he'd seen those crowds they might get separated anyway.
He was soon out on the road that led towards town. He had gone a few hundred yards when the droids caught up with him.
"Sir, you must wait until we arrive," one tinny voice said.
"Well, you take too much time," Kaleem muttered. "I'm only going for a run."
"We are the latest spec," the other droid answered. "And you know our presence is required at all times when you are out of your apartment."
"So let's see if you can keep up with me." Kaleem started to speed up. He must try and find Jadee. What was she doing? He was pretty certain he knew exactly where she'd been when he saw her on the video clip. Not that he could guarantee she'd still be there.
He made his way down the hill towards the nearby town.
"Sir," said one of the droids. "You are going towards a built-up area. That is not desirable. May I suggest that we turn off unto the park?"
No, you may not.
He accelerated again and was soon at the centre of the town. As he slowed his pace and the droids actually stopped running – their walking pace was the equivalent of Kaleem's slow jog – he found himself surrounded by crowds. He enjoyed for a few moments the sensation of being amongst ordinary people. It was busy here but relatively calm. People were just going about their normal business.
He noticed one of the droids was sending a message. Was it requesting reinforcements? Should he just comply and go back with them?
No, enough! He had to get something done.
He saw his opportunity. A man was negotiating with a market-stall holder who was displaying some fine textiles. At least money had not yet come back to Zenoto. He ran over to the stall and pushed the Zenoton out of the way. "I think my need is greater than yours." He pulled the roll of cloth off the stall and threw it over the droids.
The droids whirred and spluttered for a few seconds and then shut down.
He knew it wouldn't be too long until someone else found him. The chip in his right arm would help Exton's people to locate him. But he had a little time. He was now pretty near where he'd seen Jade.
Then he saw him – the man with the scarred face. That was a bit of luck. He might be able to take him to Jadee. He started to follow him.
The Zenoton walked briskly but with a bit of a limp. Every so often he looked over his shoulder as if he was expecting someone to be following him. Kaleem had long ago perfected the skill of making himself almost invisible and the man clearly had no idea he was being followed.
They took a zig-zag route through the town. It was clear that this man knew what he was doing. Kaleem recognised where they were. They could have got there in a third of the time. The Zenoton was certainly trying to confuse anyone who was watching.
At last the man made his way into a shop. Kaleem stood outside on the street, looking into the window. It appeared to be an antique shop. Some of the items on display were really old. A large musical instrument made out of real wood dominated the window. There was also a small table. It looked like real wood again. Its top was made of a very yellow metal. Then there was a small figure of a woman in the same metal. He had the feeling it was some sort of bell. His mother had talked about her grandmother owning something similar.
An elderly Zenoton appeared in the doorway. "Can I help you, young man?" Thank goodness he didn't recognise him.
Kaleem pointed to the metal figure. "Is that a bell?"
The expression on the Zenoton's face changed. His eyes narrowed and he frowned. "Come in quickly. The others are already down there."
The man ushered him across the shop and through a door hidden behind a curtain. He slammed the door behind Kaleem. A set of uncarpeted steps led down to another door. The light was dim in there but as soon as he started walking again the staircase lit up. The door at the bottom swung open and Kaleem fund himself in room with about twenty other people. There sitting right in front of him were Jadee and the man with the scar.
Jadee sprang up out of her seat. "Kaleem, what are you doing here?"
"I followed him." He pointed to the scar-faced man who was now looking at Jadee, obviously expecting some sort of negative reaction to the fact that he'd been followed.
"Zabren. Kaleem." She waved her hand vaguely as an introduction. "But how did you get in?"
"I asked if that metal figure in the window was a bell."
Jadee chuckled. "Thereby showing that you understand about antiques. Yes, that would be enough for old Gentio to be convinced that you were one of us."
"Well, who are you?"
"We are the resistance. I'm working with the anti-monetary Zenotons to resist the change to monetarism. And you'd better sit down for the next bit of information."
Everybody in the room was staring at Kaleem. He sat on the comfisessel that Jadee had pushed towards him.
"Our founder was Pangwit Exton."
A few of the others nodded.
"What? So what happened?"
"Power went to his head. He was actually making some crazy suggestions and first of all he was replaced as leader and eventually asked to leave. So he then chose to do everything he could to undo what we were doing. Including becoming president and changing the regime."
"What made him so motivated?"
"His parents were high achievers. He always had to prove himself. Of course I 'm no psychologist but that's my guess."
"So this resistance existed even before Exton got into power?"
Jadee nodded. "There was always some dissatisfaction amongst the Zenotons. Pangwit is just using that as a tool."
She'd called him by his first name. That was interesting. He would find out more about that later.
"How did you get through the barrier?"
Jadee tapped the side of her nose. "I'm not going to give away all of my secrets. Not even to you. But let me show you around."
The resistance centre was impressive. Kaleem found the people interesting and friendly. They were doing really good work and they were clearly using many of the diplomatic techniques he was familiar with. The most important though was that he now knew that Exton didn't really believe in what he was doing. That was useful. But he couldn't stay here for ever.
"I suppose I should get back. I'm surprised they haven't found me yet."
"They won't get a signal on your chip down here. The minute you step outside they'll probably pounce. But do come back here as often as you can now – if you're allowed out again after your escape." Jadee grinned. "Your expertise would be useful."
Kaleem braced himself to go outside. They would probably swoop on him as soon as his head was out of the doorway. At least now though he had something pretty powerful he could use against Exton. No, against wasn't the right word. He wasn't against the man. He wanted to understand him, persuade him that peace rather than conflict was the better option and that peace could mean everyone could win.
He was soon out in the open air. Nothing happened for several seconds. Then, though, much as he had expected, a police transporter drew up. Two droids and a Zenoton stepped out. Kaleem held his hands above his head. People stopped to stare.
"I'm glad that you're coming without a fuss," said the Zenoton.
"I was just curious about that antique shop," said Kaleem. Would this man know about Exton's former activities? "Your droids obviously can't cope with crowds very well."
The two droids in the transporter clicked and whirred.
"I'm sure police droids are finer-tuned."
The droids settled down.
"Well, you will be interviewed," said the Zenoton officer.
A blast suddenly shook the transporter. Kaleem and the Zenoton officer turned to see what was happening. A ball of fire was rushing towards them along the street. People were running and screaming. The air was hot and smelt of melting plastic.
One of the droids became very active. "The explosion seems to have originated in the antique shop, sir," it reported. "All occupants have been killed. There are no survivors.
This must be the nearest the Zenoton had to the court rooms that were used on Zandra and Terrestra. It was a modern building, high-ceilinged. Light streamed through wide veriglass windows that looked out on the city. There were no holographs. It lacked the formality of a Terrestran court. There were no wigs and robes. Yet it was somewhat more formal than a Zandrian one. Zandrians conducted all of their legal business in normal meeting rooms. Today, here, there were quite a few Zenotons in smart business tunics. Those who made up the equivalent of the judge and jury wore a red band over their grey tunic. The woman with the green band and the man with the purple must be the equivalent of barristers. All in all, though, it felt more like a conference than a court hearing.
Exton was there as well. He sat on an elevated comfisessel, his elbow on his knee and his fist up against his mouth. He was frowning and staring at Kaleem.
The murmur in the room got louder and louder and soon everyone was shouting in order to make themselves heard.
The judge lifted up his hand. A bell sounded. This must be it, then. Kaleem's stomach lurched. Certainly not a conference, then.
"So, let's begin," said the red-banded man who sat a little apart from the others. "Kaleem Malkendy, Peace Child, you are accused of planting a bomb at the premises of Gentio Robizen, antiques dealer. You are also accused of deliberately absconding from your droid guards. How do you answer to these charges? Do you verify them or decline them?"
"I decline both."
"Very well. I will ask my colleague for the enforcement of the charge to question you."
The woman wearing the green band stood up. "So Kaleem Malkendy, let us start with the relatively minor charge that you deliberately absconded from your droid guards. What do you say to that?"
"Yes, all right, I did. They were getting annoying and very agitated. I thought they might become a nuisance to the general public. So I switched them off the only way I could. I threw some cloth over them to confuse them. I wasn't trying to escape from the regime here. I was just trying to stop a pair of out of control droids harming the general public. If you hadn't picked me up I would have made my own way back to my apartment."
"Why were you down in the town anyway?"
"I'm forbidden from going into town, am I?"
The young man wearing the purple band stood up. "Can we confirm if indeed Malkendy is forbidden from entering our built-up areas?"
Exton cleared his throat. "Not specifically, though he is not allowed to fraternise with Zenotons. What was he doing talking to Robizen?"
"Well? What do you say, Malkendy? Why were you talking to the antique dealer?" The woman was now frowning at him.
"I was intrigued with a very old bell I saw in the window."
"You were a very long time in that shop. We lost your signal. Why was that?"
Kaleem shrugged. "I was down in the cellar. I think the layer between ground floor and the one below must be very thick."
"And Robizen must have had a lot of intriguing bells."
Everyone in the room laughed except the judge and Exton. A smile flickered across even their lips, though.
"Or were you wiring up a bomb?"
"Why would I want to do that? I'm here to negotiate the peace. Not to cause more friction. Besides, why would I want to harm an antiques dealer and the people who work with him?"
"Why indeed? Or why would anybody else for that matter? But someone did. Was it you?"
Kaleem shook his head. "No." If only they knew. They might be quite happy, in fact, that the resistance had been destroyed, depending on whether they were really behind Exton or not. Could they tell he was lying? He realised that he was digging his fingernails into his palms. He glanced quickly at the President, who was clutching the arms of his comfisessel.
"Right. Thank you Mz Stanton. What do you propose Mr Arquis?"
Arquis stood up. "I propose that Mr Malkendy had nothing to do with the bombing. Or at least, we do not have enough evidence to prove anything either way. He has however, been somewhat truculent in his misuse of his free time and that the charge that he deliberately absconded from his guards should be upheld."
The judge stood up again. "Then we shall put it to the vote. Selected Zenotons, will you please make your choices."
Was that it?
There was absolute silence as the other red-banded Zenotons tapped away on their mini-dataserves. A screen showed their verdicts. They appeared to be unanimous. Kaleem was guilty of having deliberately got away from his droid watchers but not guilty of planting a bomb.
Everyone started clapping. Why? Were the congratulating the jury for being unanimous? Were they clapping Kaleem for admitting to one offence and being found not guilty of the other? Or were they just pleased that it had all been over in less than ten minutes?
The judge stood up again. "Well, that was short and simple. Now Mr Malkendy, we just have to find a punishment for you." He turned towards Exton. "President Exton. What do you suggest?"
Exton stood up. "More security. Less freedom. Malkendy's excursions will be limited to twice a week and he will be accompanied by one human and two droid police officers."
The judge nodded. "Somewhat restrictive for someone with the diplomatic role that Mr Malkendy enjoys. However not too punitive. May I ask you, Mr Malkendy, what we might offer you to make your stay with us less boring, so that you are no longer tempted to escape from your guards?"
"I'd like to research the history of Zenoto a little more."
The judge looked at Exton. "Well?"
"We can give him access to the people's files. That can't harm."
That would be something. Not a lot because they would be heavily censored for sure. But at least they might give him some insight into what motivated the Zenotons. He'd always taken their good nature for granted. There must also be something that made some of them somewhat dissatisfied. Maybe he would be able to find out what.
Soon Kaleem was speeding in an armed police transporter back towards his apartment. As Exton had commanded he was accompanied by two droids and one human officer. The droids said nothing and he was aware that they were also armed. Best probably not even to move. The human officer didn't appear to have a weapon but he wouldn't allow Kaleem to get eye contact with him, let alone make small talk.
Kaleem looked out of the window. The transporter was taking a strange route to his apartment. They were probably trying to keep him out of the public's sight.
Who could have planted that bomb there and why? How would whoever had done it have known about the resistance group operating in the cellar of the antique shop?
The transporter's communicator bleeped. Exton's face appeared on the screen.
"How can I help, sir?" said the human officer.
"Put Malkendy on. His personal communicator is still blocked. And this call is private by the way."
The officer moved so that Kaleem could get closer to the dataserve. He activated the internal barriers of the transporter so that Kaleem was in effect alone with Exton.
"Malkendy, there are things that you and I need to discuss. I'm inviting you to a private meet. It won't be for a few days yet but I'll send for you. There is something you need to know."
bout 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