"Are you sure we shouldn't have someone else with us?" asked Jadee. Her face was pinched and very pale.
"Absolutely not. They'd never believe us anyway."
This was familiar territory to Kaleem. He realised that Exton was looking at him, expecting agreement. He sighed. "You're probably right. Let's see if we can solve this on our own. We can always call for back-up later if we need to."
"All right then. Let's get on with it." Jadee walked towards the transporter and the door slid open. Kaleem and Exton followed.
"Well, now what?" Kaleem asked.
Exton spoke to the control panel. "Daschia community," he commanded.
"Valley route or high road?" the machine asked.
"Valley route." Exton looked up at the other two. "We're less likely to be seen that way. It may take a little longer and it may be a bit rougher but it's ultimately safer."
The transporter started to glide along smoothly.
"How long will it take?" asked Kaleem. Why did they need two days' supplies?
Exton shrugged. "Two or three universal hours. No more I shouldn't think. But we don't know how long we'll need to be there to get this all sorted."
Jadee was staring out of the window. "Where on Zenoto are we going?"
Kaleem and Exton turned to look out of the window. It was getting darker and they seemed to be in a tunnel.
"I didn't quite mean that when I chose the valley route," said Exton. He turned towards the control panel. "Explain route."
"This unit is following the ancient, forgotten trails," the dataserve responded. "This is compatible with your need for secrecy."
Exton nodded. "Clever machine, after all. And yes, there was always something a bit odd about the Daschia community. They were hung up on some old ways."
The transporter slowed as it negotiated some bends in the tunnel. There was very little clearance between it and the sides. It was getting darker and darker. Were they going underground or up inside a mountain? Kaleem had no sense of whether they were going up or down or even staying on the level.
Then there was a terrible crunching noise as the transporter wedged itself into the wall. Was the tunnel too narrow for it? It whirred and clicked for a few seconds whilst the three of them remained silent and held their breath. Just as suddenly as it had stopped, it started moving again and even began to pick up speed. As it rounded another curve, they were flooded with light. The transporter charged forward and they were out of the tunnel.
"Goodness." Jadee pointed at the view from her window. They were now on a plateau. The land was uncultivated and peculiar rock formations rose up from the ground. They looked as if some intelligent life form had sculpted them.
Kaleem had never seen anything like it before. "What is it?"
"It's called a torcal," Exton explained. "One of the most famous ones was actually found on Terrestra."
"There it was to do with erosion in mountains made from flat-lying limestone. Here though there is no such explanation."
Jade turned to her brother. "Do you think someone has created this artificially?"
Exton shrugged. "Maybe."
"You seem to know a lot about it though." Kaleem could at least credit him with that; Exton was well-informed.
Exton grinned. "You wouldn't expect less of a president, surely?"
"I suppose not."
"Oh, look, it's finished."
Kaleem looked where Jadee was pointing. Yes they were in more normal Zenoton terrain now. The transporter was following a conventional route. There was still very little sign of civilisation though. Perhaps that was nothing to worry about. Zenoto was a sparsely inhabited planet. You wouldn't expect to find the big conglomerations you found on Terrestra or Zandra.
"We'll soon be a little nearer civilisation," said Exton.
The transporter carried on its journey quite smoothly now. Beautiful as the scenery was it soon became monotonous. Jadee's eyes closed and soon she was snoring gently. Exton had his eyes closed as well but Kaleem didn't think he was asleep. He felt drowsy himself but something told him he should try to keep awake.
He remembered some of his earlier training. He didn't need sugary or caffeine-filled drinks to keep him alert. It was more a matter of pure will-power. He also found it useful to think of a time when he'd not been able to sleep.
It did the trick and soon he was wide awake again. He carried on observing the landscape. There were some signs of civilisation now. There was a dwelling here and there. This was odd. He had always thought that Zenotons were sociable creatures and lived in communities. He would ask Exton about it later.
Something made him look through the rear window. He wasn't sure what it was. There was a shadow or something. Yet when he looked closely there was nothing. Perhaps it was just a feeling. Or maybe not. Could he hear something as well? A faint rumble, perhaps?
Exton opened his eyes. "What's bothering you? You look worried."
Kaleem shrugged. "I thought I saw something. Or even heard something. We might be being followed."
Exton frowned as he looked back the way they had come. He shook his head. "I can't see anything. We've been so careful about this. Nobody can possibly know we've even left." He stared hard at Kaleem. "I think you're feeling the power of the beast. It will be watching."
Surely not? That sounded like a fairy tale.
Exton nodded towards the side window just as they passed one of the isolated dwellings. "Daschia hermitages. It means we shouldn't be too long now."
Jadee woke up and rubbed her eyes. "Are we nearly there yet?"
Exton laughed. "Impatient as ever."
"I think not. They all went in the mass suicide," said Exton.
Jadee sighed. "I've heard they're a bit weird. Very antisocial. And they have a very peculiar belief system."
Kaleem couldn't believe what he was hearing. "You're sure they're all dead now?"
Exton nodded. "Yes. It's confirmed. I actually think the hermits promoted the suicides. They used a form of mass hysteria."
"Awful. But actually what they believed was pretty grim. That they were the chosen ones and that they would be given eternal life on Zenoto."
This didn't quite make sense. If they believed they were entitled to immortality on Zenoto why would they kill themselves unless they thought they were going to come back to life after everyone else had died or left the planet?
Exton folded his arms across his chest. "I actually think the beast got to them."
More fairy tales.
"You really think that this beast is a tangible, living creature?" Kaleem asked.
Exton nodded. "Yes and no. It too might also be a result of some sort of mass hysteria. But to those who feel it it's real enough. Don't you feel him?" He was staring at Kaleem now. Kaleem could almost believe that Exton himself was the beast.
Jadee suddenly shivered and went pale. Kaleem felt a curling in his spine too and had the feeling that something terrible was going to happen. Everything was black inside. It was as if he was feeling the black mood of a hundred or so people.
"Oh yes," murmured Exton. "He's around all right. You sure can feel him now."
The sky was blackening and the first drops of rain were starting. Serious stuff on Zenoto. When rain came here it came thick and fast and if the liquid touched your bare skin it burnt.
Within seconds the rain was crashing down on to the roof of the transporter. A wind sprang up and they were buffeted violently from side to side. The vehicle was still moving forwards but only very slowly. They could barely see out of the windows. The noise was tremendous, like rocks hitting the roof, and even within the sealed unit they could smell the sickly Zenoton acid.
"Will it hold, do you think?" asked Jadee.
"Hope so," Exton mumbled.
Kaleem realised that the road ahead was rapidly turning into a river. "Do you think we should try and get out?" he asked.
"Definitely not," replied Exton. "That fluid hurts. We're safer here."
At that very second the transporter lost its connection with the ground. Jadee's arm crashed into the side of the vehicle. There was a loud crack. She screamed. Kaleem suspected she had broken something. He too was flung into the side and a pain shot up from his hip. He had to take deep breaths and count his way through it.
"Hopefully the storm will soon be over and we'll find a resting place," said Exton. "Give location," he commanded the control panel.
There was silence. It seemed that the transporter had lost its operating system. "Perhaps when everything's dried out we'll be able to get it working again," he said.
That certainly wasn't to be. The roof snapped off and Kaleem found himself catapulted away from the transporter.
"Don't let the fluid touch your skin," Jadee called.
"But don't worry if it does," shouted Exton. "It will smart but it won't kill you." It was too late. His hands were already sore. Just at that moment, though, he realised that he was quite close to the side of the road that had now become a river. A handy tree trunk allowed him to pull himself up. He turned to see what was happening to his companions.
Oh no. The transporter was beginning to disintegrate. He watched in horror as Jadee and Pangwit fell out into the water.
The river was rising rapidly. Jadee and Exton were drifting further and further away from Kaleem. There was nothing he could do. Exton just looked like a terrified boy rather than a president who had lots of responsibility and who had to make important decisions. Kaleem held his breath as he watched them drift towards the river bank. The transporter seats were at least acting like rafts and they looked as if they were going to hold.
Jadee flung herself forwards and grabbed on to the branch of an overhanging tree. He watched her wriggle until her feet were on dry ground. That was something at least. But what of Exton? He was still struggling for sure.
Another surge of water came. The seats drifted away from the bank. Jadee screamed. Then the two seats came apart. Exton was still strapped into his but it looked to Kaleem as if he was trying to get out of it.
"Don't be a fool," Kaleem shouted. It was clear though that he couldn't be heard. It was of no use anyway, for at that very second the seat came apart and Exton was flung into the river.
He started to swim. Kaleem could see he was quite a strong swimmer. Was this some House of Clementine training? He was actually swimming against the current but at least he was making his way towards the bank.
Jadee ran round to where he was heading. Seconds later she was helping him out of the water. It looked as if they were going to be all right after all.
Kaleem watched them have a short conversation and then they started shouting at him. It was no good, though. The water was thundering too much for him to be able to hear. He pointed to his communicator but he doubted that any of them would work. All three of them would be soaked through.
Miraculously his own pinged and he could see Exton speaking into his. He opened his. It crackled a lot. "You stay put and we'll get some help. You're not to put yourself into any sort of danger. Can you keep out of sight? Will you be all right?"
"I guess so." This was going to be a bore. "Can't you just use your communicator?"
"Well of course we'll try that first but we're not sure how long this signal will last. We may actually have to make our way back rather than wait for someone to rescue us."
There were a couple more crackles and then Exton's communicator died. Exton shrugged and waved. Kaleem switched his off. He should try to save the battery.
He watched Exton and Jadee set off.
There was a sudden sound of rushing water that was even louder than what he had heard before. It sounded like another flood surge coming. He had to move. Now. He started running. Could he out-run this water? He would have to try.
He ran and ran, occasionally looking behind him to see what the water was doing. It just kept on coming. He didn't know whether he would make it. Then, just as suddenly as it had started, it stopped. There was one final surge and the new wave was over. In fact, he even thought the other water was subsiding a little. It seemed less noisy now. Perhaps it was just the contrast.
He realised he had no idea how far he'd come. Surely he couldn't be too far away now from where they thought the beast was hiding? If he existed at all, of course.
Yes, this looked like the road towards the Daschia settlement where they believed he'd been living. And even if there was no beast, there was definitely something not right there. He looked at the river again. It seemed calmer but he didn't like the look of it. There might well be another sudden surge anyway. The path towards the settlement was pretty desolate. There were no signs of any vegetation and it was covered in a very black form of shingle. But it would be safer than staying near to the river.
He would do it. He would follow the path. He had his communicator. The other two would get help. What harm could it do, really?
The light was bizarre. Everything was grey and damp but there was nevertheless an eerie brightness about everything. Kaleem found himself screwing up his eyes. It was strange, though, walking along this path. His feet hardly seemed to touch the ground. It was almost as if he was floating. Was it some sort of force field?
What was he walking on, anyway? He bent down to touch the dark material. It burnt his fingers. He pulled his hand back quickly. The material that made the path was hard and brittle. He looked at the bottom of his shoes. There was not a trace of anything there.
He carried on. He would have expected the strange substance to be hard underfoot and perhaps crunch when he stepped on the finer pieces. But nothing happened and in fact walking was easy. It was as if something was pulling him along. It was deadly boring, though. Nothing but a black path, grey sky, cool damp air and his own company. The normal vibrant Zenoton colours were missing.
He felt more and more uneasy as he went on. There was something very wrong here though he didn't know exactly what it was. There was an atmosphere of heaviness. The further he went the heavier it became. It was pure evil. He knew that. He wasn't sure, however, how anyone could actually know what evil was. This was nasty, though, certainly. It seemed to suck the life out of him.
As he went on, just putting one foot in front of another, it got darker, colder and damper. He gradually became aware of a smell of rotting vegetation or perhaps even flesh. It made him gag.
He wasn't sure where he was going but he felt an urge to carry on.
Something began to become clear in his mind.
A strange orange glow surrounded him. The smell seemed even worse now. Then he could see him. The beast. Large, orange, and foul-smelling.
What the heck? Was he sleep-walking? Dreaming while he was awake? Was his imagination working overtime?
He shook his head and tried to concentrate on the path ahead.
Wait. It was a little lighter now. And it was a vaguely orange light.
There was something else amiss. It wasn't just that feeling of evil now. There was something about to happen. It was like just before a Terrestran thunder storm. Except here there weren't any birds to stop singing here, nor any domestic animals to seem disturbed. The atmosphere was charged, though. It didn't feel dead anymore. Something was waking up. There was a curious energy stirring.
The ground beneath his feet began to rumble. Vibrations passed through his whole body. Then the path began to shake. Was this an earthquake? Like they used to have on Terrestra? He remembered the landquake on Zandra. That had been frightening enough but this threatened to be more. At least there were no trees that could fall on him, not on this stretch of the path. What should he do, though?
He didn't have time to think. The path lifted up and he had difficulty keeping his balance. It subsided again, almost throwing him to the ground. Then it came up again.
The rumbling had now become loud cracks and bangs and the path snaked up and down. He had to keep his balance and didn't quite manage it all of the time. Twice he fell down as the path came back up to meet him. A few times it slapped the back of his head. The loose pebbles attacked his face and hands and pummelled his calves and thighs. He began to get the measure of it after a while. Oddly it reminded him of riding a kaartje in Terrestra's Z Zone. That made him remember Rozia. She had been so good at driving kaartjes.
There were a few more twists and turns and then the shaking began to subside and Kaleem was able to stand on firm ground. Eventually it stopped altogether. It gradually grew lighter. The sky was no longer so dark and the path that carried on forward was sandier now.
He set off again. He was covered in scratches and bruises and he was aware that he was limping but he didn't think he'd suffered any major damage.
Indications of the Final Days, my friend? Will there be a great calamity now? If there is, will you survive? Or is this melodrama? You decide.
He trudged on along the path. He was slightly stiff but he became more and more convinced that he'd suffered no real harm. In fact, even the scratches and bruises seemed to be healing up quickly now. Were they even real?
A faint sun now peeped out from behind silvery clouds, dissipating the orange glow. The feeling of evil was diminishing. Had he been imagining things? Had the earthquake been real?
It became even more mysterious, though. He began to have a real sense of where he was going. He knew, and he didn't know why or how he knew, but he most certainly did know that he was looking for a home that was in a cave. Could he have just been thinking about his own childhood home? No, it wasn't just that. This cave home was more luxurious. Or at least it had been. He could see it quite clearly now. Fading beauty, definitely.
He began to hear a whimper. Was that the beast? Was it in pain? The whimper changed to a growl and then to a roar. He sensed anger but pain as well. Disappointment, maybe. He suddenly felt sorry for the creature. But what was this? What was he thinking? Did this thing really exist? And if it did, and it was as evil as they supposed, why should he feel sorry for it? Was this just a Peace Child thing?
Suddenly the smell was overpowering. It was now like rotten flesh. This was definitely real. He gagged and tried to cover his nose and mouth. Yes this was real, whatever it was. Had something died here? Could it be death itself that he could smell? Did this mean the beast was dying? Would that be the end of all of their troubles?
He wanted to turn back, to turn away from this horror, but he knew he would have to confront it.
He took as deep a breath as he dared and quickened his pace.
He heard a faint rustling from both sides. Perhaps a wind was getting up. The rustling became louder. Something tapped his arm and then something brushed his leg. He looked down. His foot was caught in a shoot from a nearby plant. He hadn't noticed the scenery change. It happened very suddenly. At least everything was a bit greener now, a little less desolate.
He tried to shake his foot loose but then he watched in horror as another shoot wound its way around his other foot. Soon there were fronds and thin branches snaking their way towards him and threading themselves around his body.
In just a few seconds he was completely stuck.
The shoots and the branches didn't look very strong but as he tried to pull away from them, hoping that he would be able to break them, they just pulled tighter and tighter. What was he going to do?
He mustn't panic.
He realised that this vegetation would eventually die; he could see that it was no longer attached to the trees. But he might have to wait a long time for that to happen.
Then he had another thought; this couldn't be real. Trees just didn't behave like that. Something illogical was going on. And even if something more logical were happening, his Peace Child training taught him that although bad things can happen to good people, the universe is rarely fully hostile. It was always a matter of attitude.
So, these fronds and branches weren't really hurting him. They were just bits of vegetation. They were annoying and they were in the way. Eventually, and possibly sooner rather than later, he could be rid of them.
He pulled some of them off his arms. A few found their way back round him but they mainly stayed away. He bent down and started removing them from his feet and legs.
Then they were all gone.
The path led out of the woods. He arrived in what looked like a deserted village. The desolation was back.
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 Writinghttps://www.cafelitmagazine.uk/search/label/The%20House%20of%20Clementine