Kaleem hardly noticed his extra confinement. In fact, he wasn't going out nearly as often as he was allowed. Officer Marten had even contacted him a couple of times to see whether all was well. He was beginning to quite like this officer. Whenever he contacted Kaleem or Kaleem contacted him they chatted freely. It reminded him of the relationship he'd had with Charlek when he'd been imprisoned on Zandra.
Now Kaleem was becoming totally absorbed in the history of Zenoto. There was so much more to the planet than he had ever imagined. It was widely believed for instance that the Zenotons weren't native to the planet at all and that they had been transplanted from elsewhere. Not so different then from the theory that life on Terrestra had begun as alien dust. Fascinating anyway that the Zenotons had not originally come from Terrestra as had most of the inhabitants of other planets. This indicated at least two other species of intelligent life other than Terrestrans. Above all Kaleem was intrigued by how similar to Terrestran humans they were.
The history of their planets followed similar patterns, too. There had been wars, class systems and even some genocide but the turning point came when in order to create a classless society they had abandoned money. Everyone's basic needs were catered for. Extras were "bought" by negotiation. Everyone only did the work they loved and felt passionate about. Droids were sophisticated because all the work that the Zenotons didn't want to do was assigned to them
He was just beginning to find out, though, that there was some discontent. Some Zenotons felt that their merit was not justly rewarded. That seemed to be a very human characteristic and possibly a reason why it might be difficult to bring in the Zenoton system elsewhere.
He was reading an old Wordtext article in Zenoton. It took a lot of concentration. It wasn't really Wordtext because the symbols that represented sounds were different from the Terrestran and Zandrian ones. But it was similar and it was totally fascinating as well. It detailed how droids had been prevented from becoming too sentient. When he did respond to his communicator he realised that it had been calling him for a good five minutes.
Ah. The President. He looked a little pale and tired. No doubt his job must carry a lot of responsibility. Exton cleared his throat. "I gather our history files must be fascinating. So glad you're interested. Well I have some more fabulous news for you. I want to give it to you in person. I'll send a transporter to fetch you."
Exton didn't wait for a reply. The screen darkened before even Kaleem had a chance to say anything.
He'd better get going, then. He closed down the applications on his computer. Was he dressed correctly for talking to the President? He went into his bedroom and glanced into the mirror. Was his grey old work tunic good enough? Well it was practical and inoffensive.
Even if he'd wanted to change, there was no opportunity. His apartment communicator buzzed.
"Transporter for Malkendy," said an electronic voice. "Please do not keep the President waiting."
He quickly climbed into the transporter. As soon as he was seated, the blinds slid down to cover the windows. So that's how it was going to be. Clearly Exton didn't want Kaleem to know where he was going. Why was it all so secretive?
"How long will the transit take?" he asked the machine's dataserve.
"Approximately seventy-five universal minutes. Would sir like some entertainment?"
"No thank you. Or maybe just some light music." He welcomed the thinking time. But seventy-five universal minutes? Almost two hours Terrestran time. This was really getting intriguing.
He sat back and relaxed. He started to assemble the knowledge he had of Exton. The man was a complete enigma.
Kaleem was surprised that the time passed relatively quickly. The transporter stopped and the door opened. "The door to the meeting place will open automatically," said the dataserve.
Kaleem stepped out of the transporter. He blinked. The light was extremely bright. One small solitary building stood surrounded by a huge formal garden and then wide open countryside.
The transporter departed. There was nothing for it but to go into the building. As he made his way towards it the door slid open.
"Come on up," Exton's voice said.
There was clearly no lift. Kaleem started making his way up a wide, stone staircase. It opened out at the top into a light and airy room. Exton was sitting behind an old-fashioned desk. He looked less sure of himself than he normally did.
"Sit," said Exton.
A comfisessel immediately floated towards Kaleem.
"I'll be frank, Malkendy. I want to know exactly why you planted that bomb." His eyes had grown icy again.
"I didn't. The trial proved that."
Exton shook his head. "The trial merely proved that there was not enough evidence."
"I still didn't do it. Why do you think I did? I have no interest in destroying anyone or anything on Zenoto. And if I were trying to fight you, maybe this sort of resistance group would be the last type of thing I would want to destroy."
"Are you telling me you were colluding with them?"
Exton nodded briefly. "Ever the neutral Peace Child. At some point you've got to take sides."
"No I don't."
"Why won't you confess to what you've done?"
Why was the man persisting? Kaleem shrugged.
Exton laughed. "You don't get it do you?"
"I did it."
Was he saying that he had deliberately murdered people? Why would he want anyone to destroy something he really believed in?
"Okay. But taking life?"
"They wouldn't mind. They'd be dying for their cause."
Kaleem stared at Exton for several seconds. "But it used to be your cause as well."
Exton nodded. "So they told you."
"What made you change your mind?"
"I'm concerned about what is best for the Zenoton people."
"Why are your proposals better?"
"They will allow us to trade more freely. We'll be more in line with the systems of other planets. We'll be more acceptable to the rest of the universe."
"Even if these systems aren't as good as what you've been developing up until now? Even if it is really the case that the universe would be better off with the old Zenoton system than what they've got at the moment?"
"That was just abstract ideology. It couldn't really work on a large scale. Okay, so most Zenotons worked with it well, but there were always some who rebelled. There wouldn't have been a resistance if there hadn't been something to resist."
He was beginning to make some sort of sense now.
He stared into the middle distance. "I really used to believe in what they were doing. They were once my friends."
"Then it's all the more puzzling that you might want to kill them."
"I didn't. That explosive device was only meant to irritate and get them out in the open. Something went wrong."
"You mean someone may have interfered with it."
"Any idea who?"
Exton nodded again. Then he looked straight into Kaleem's eyes. "I need your help. I believe it has to do with the House of Clementine."
"So why do you stay here most of the time?" asked Kaleem. "Isn't it a long way for you to commute to the government buildings?"
Exton nodded. "It's more peaceful here. I can take the time to think."
Kaleem looked at the walls of the building. This was Exton's home. So he didn't live in the official president's home.
"I like it here," Exton continued. "I'm not so surrounded by people. I can please myself what I do."
"But why did you have to bring me out so far?"
Exton grinned. "I had the feeling you would like the peace and quiet as well."
"So, how did you get involved with the House of Clementine?"
"It's more that it got involved with me. My father belonged to the House of Clementine but I didn't know anything about it when I was younger."
"Yes, even when I was a child. Just nine years old. My father took me out hunting one day."
"Hunting?" Kaleem hadn't realised there were blood sports on Zenoto. That seemed contrary to the Zenotons' normal gentle nature but they'd been full of surprises recently.
"Oh, don't worry. We don't hunt real animals. Just holos. When I was nine I didn't see the point and I didn't try very hard. That made my father really angry. He said I would never be a man. That I was a total let-down. He left me out in the forest."
This was beginning to sound like an ancient fairy-tale.
"Well, you obviously didn't die."
"I don't think that was ever his intention. Later, I found out that he'd had droids watching, ready to intervene if anything untoward happened. But I was taken care of so he needn't have worried."
"So, what happened?"
"I found a cottage in the woods and knocked at the door." Exton frowned and stared into the middle distance.
Goodness, this was really becoming like one of the old Wordtext stories he'd read. You couldn't make this up, though, could you?
"Did they let you in?"
Exton nodded. "Oh yes. And I know what you're thinking. You know about this stuff, don't you? Yes, it was the brave woodcutter and his kind wife. And yes, they offered me food and a bed for the night. Just like in all of your good fairy tales."
How did he know that Kaleem knew about that?
Exton laughed. "Except it wasn't. They gave me some sort of drug. And they started reprogramming my mind. When I eventually got home my father laughed. 'Well, well, well,' he said, 'so the Clems have found you. Good. It saves me a lot of effort.'"
"What about your mother? Wasn't she kinder to you?"
Exton shook his head. "She was never around much. She was a very successful actor." He sighed. "It's hard having two parents who are successful."
Kaleem thought of his own parents. Both were successful. His mother had survived and brought him up well despite some very difficult circumstances. His father enjoyed tremendous success with plant production on Zandra. The difference, though, was that his parents were totally unselfconscious about it. Goodness what would it be like if he had children? Was he successful? He had an important job, for sure. And was he going to succeed this time? Well, at least he was beginning to understand Exton a bit.
"Do you ever hunt now?"
"Occasionally. I've learnt to, just to show my father that I can. Would you like to try it?"
"Is this cold for real or is it just part of the holoscene?" Kaleem's fingers and feet were numb.
"You're right. It's all part of the holo."
Kaleem was beginning to get the hang of finding the holoed animal in the site of the revolver and he's even managed to hit a couple. He pulled the trigger again and the beast he was aiming at fell to the ground.
"Spot on. Hmm. Not bad for a beginner."
"I think I understand, though, why you found it a bit pointless."
"Yes. Though it wasn't just the pointlessness. It was also that my father thought it so important."
Kaleem bit his lip. When he'd been nine he'd have given anything to know who his father was and join in some activity with him. He got on well with Nazaret, now, on the whole, but he'd still never completely forgiven him for abandoning his mother even though he realised that Nazaret had not been able to help it. He's been whisked away before he'd found out that Marijam was pregnant and anyway that had been something that was not supposed to happen.
"Zenotons on Zenoto," Exton suddenly shouted.
Kaleem's heart rate quickened. Had something happened? Was Exton hurt? Had something gone wrong with the holoscene?
Exton had just gone into a copse. Kaleem hurried after him. He found the President staring toward the other edge of the group of trees. "It's there again, look." He pointed towards a small building. "Exactly like before."
"Should we go and look or keep well away?"
Exton shrugged. "What do you think?"
It could be dangerous. But they ought to go and look. Presumably Exton had taken some precautions. There would be a get-out plan. "Come on. Let's go."
A few moments later, Kaleem pushed open the door of the small house. There was a fire burning in the grate. It smelt of wood smoke. Something was cooking in a pot. The smell of beef stewing in red wine mixed with the woody smell. Fairy tales again.
A blinding light flashed across the room and he could no longer see anything. The light then started blinking on and off. A siren started wailing. "You are on House of Clementine property. Step outside. You are on House of Clementine property. Step outside." The message was repeated over and over.
Kaleem couldn't see Exton anymore. He walked backwards, fumbling for the door pad. He found it eventually and then was once more outside. The building looked like a harmless fairy tale cottage again. He still couldn't see Exton, though.
Then the forest and the house disappeared. It became warmer instantly and Kaleem had to remove his hunting coat. Now he could see Exton again. They were in some sort of huge metal hangar. No doubt this was a Holocene studio, though he'd never seen one quite so big before. Yes, he could see the laser projectors around the room. A transporter had entered the building. Another Zenoton was talking to Exton. He looked up and saw Kaleem. He then started walking over to him.
"You are on House of Clementine property. You are trespassing."
"What do you mean, House of Clementine? What is House of Clementine?"
The Zenoton frowned. "Stop playing games. We know you have been investigating us. Desist now."
Kaleem shook his head. "How? How do you know?"
The Zenoton threw back and laughed. "We have our spies everywhere. Everywhere. Take care, Kaleem Malkendy Peace Child."
The Zenoton raised his arm as if to strike Kaleem. Kaleem raised his own arm in defence.
Exton shook his head. "Give in to them. Don't fight."
Give in? No, he wouldn't. He lent forward towards the Zenoton, reached round his neck and pushed on a nerve. The Zenoton collapsed to the floor. Good. So that nerve was in exactly the same spot on Zenotons as it was on humans.
What should he do next?
Before he could think, a droid stepped out of the transporter. "Red alert, red alert," an electronic voice from the transporter's dataserve said over and over. Before either Kaleem or Exton had time to react, the droid had pulled Exton's arms behind his back and was pushing him into the transporter.
Kaleem watched helplessly as the transporter sped away.
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