Adoro - Is there life out there?
Copyright © 2009 SM Worsey
People throughout history have speculated on whether there is life out there, on other planets. We wondered whether we’d discover primordial slime, little green aliens, or whatever. Few ever dared hope that there would actually be human life!
Now we know for sure that there is, thirty light years away, on a planet twice the size of our own. I still can’t get over it. This is the biggest news ever. Literally, everybody’s talking about ‘The Transmission.’
This is such an exciting time to be alive. The collective buzz is incredible. People who were depressed have snapped out of it, teenagers are signing up for science courses in droves, and all the classic old alien films have been re-released.
I'm engrossed in thinking about all this as I lean my bike against the back wall of the university, on my way to my evening tutorial with Terio. The stars gleam down at me from the clear winter sky as I stand there, gazing upwards, for once giving them the attention they deserve.
I'm trying to clear my head, because I'm always a bit nervous about knocking on Terio’s door.
Pe’s such an important and busy person at the best of times, and since the Transmission has been plunged into matters of worldwide importance. The media spotlight will soon turn on pim and pis colleagues. It is our university after all that has been given the honour of decoding the Transmission and preparing a response.
We’re certainly not the most prestigious university in the world, or even in this country, but we have unrivalled expertise in Social History research; a subject that is generally considered a bit ‘soft’.
Having been extensively published and featured many times on Computerweb broadcasts, Dr Terio, Dr Salkie, Professor Raqim and the other lecturers in our department have been collaborating on what our response will contain. It’s such a massive responsibility, and they have only a month to work on it.
Getting my nerves together, I knock on Terio’s door.
‘Come in,’ comes a chirpy response, and so I enter the office.
It’s a small, cramped room, cluttered with paperwork and books. Terio is sitting behind pis desk, wearing reading glasses.
‘I’ll keep this short if you like,’ I offer. ‘I know you must be stupidly busy right now.’
‘Oh, it’s alright,’ pe replies, a grin spreading across pis thin face.
‘I can’t pretend I haven’t got lots of sleep to catch up on, but day to day teaching duties must continue, after all.’
I relax, taking a seat.
Terio has a reputation for being grumpy if disturbed, but I have never had a bad experience with pim, personally. In fact, pe’s my favourite lecturer, and the one I’ll miss the most when I graduate.
‘Can I ask about the transmission?’ I enquire, tentatively.
Terio nods. ‘Feel free.’
‘Is it true what the media are saying, that there are only two genders on Earth?’
‘Yes indeed,’ pe replies. ‘We’ve examined the data from every angle, and it does indeed seem that on Earth there are only males and females. No third gender whatsoever!’
‘We’re going to issue a press statement confirming it tomorrow,’ pe adds, yawning widely.
I sit there quietly for a few moments, my mind buzzing.
‘What do you think the implications of that might be, for their society?’ Terio asks me finally.
I look up, startled. Pe is tapping pis chin with a light pen and gazing at me intently. I realise that this is some kind of test, and that I’m clearly expected to offer an impressive intellectual insight, but I’m nervous. All I can think about is how much of a fool I could make of myself before this great mind.
‘Err, well,’ I venture, ‘I reckon they won’t be as technologically advanced as us. Given that you Andrels are born with bigger brains and a higher intellect than men or women, and that you’ve been responsible for the majority of scientific discoveries and inventions over the last hundred years or so, I’d say that a society with just males and females in it must definitely be lagging behind us.’
‘I see,’ Terio replies, nodding politely.
I can sense pis disappointment and I feel foolish. This is such a bloody obvious thing to say. Even the really lowbrow Computerweb sites are drawing conclusions like this. Feeling angry with myself, I blurt out the next thing that comes into my mind. ‘They’ll also be less evolved socially.’
Pe frowns at me. ‘How so?’
‘Well’, I continue, thinking on my feet, ‘…our society has been through massive changes over the generations. You andrels have pretty much equal rights now, but it took hundreds of years for that to happen. You had to fight, and the rest of us had to ask some serious questions about equality. In a world with just men and women, everybody would be equal, so they would never have had to go through that learning process,’ I conclude simply.
Pe laughs. ‘That’s excellent! You know, Salkie and I sat up debating this only the other night, and it took us four hours to come to that conclusion. You’re pretty good at thinking outside the box.’
I sit back, flushing with pride.
‘Now, if you don’t mind,’ Terio says in a more serious voice, rummaging in a file, ‘…let’s go through your essay.’
As much as I would love to learn every single name and treat them all as individuals, it simply isn’t possible when dealing with an intake of almost two hundred new students every year. There’s always three or four characters that stand out, though and I try not to show any favouritism, though it’s hard not to.
Clarine is one of these. A mature student, who is very level headed and eager to learn. She always asks questions, and seems to treat education as a privilege, rather than simply something to move onto after school. To be honest, I would have given up teaching by now if it weren’t for students like her, so I had looked forward to our tutorial, and find it as stimulating as I’d hoped.
I’m just getting ready to head home afterwards when there’s a knock at the door. It’s Salkie.
‘Still here?’ she asks, peering in.
‘I’m just leaving,’ I say. ‘Back tomorrow, first thing, don’t worry.’
‘Good,’ she replies. ‘Between you and me, I’ve got some concerns about the way Professor Raqim’s handling this. I suspect he’s being censored.’
‘Censored?’ I ask, bewildered.
‘He’s been in several video conferences today with the Power Institute,’ she replies. ‘I’m worried that they’re putting pressure on him to tow some kind of political line. I don’t like it at all.’
I rub my eyes and can’t think of a response.
‘Come on,’ she urges. ‘You cycled in, didn’t you? You look exhausted. I’ll take you home and we can talk more on the way. My pod’s just outside.’
Salkie steers her pod towards the East side of town, effortlessly skimming the tops of trees. Within ten minutes, she’s touching down outside my house. ‘I can’t believe you don’t have a docking bay!’ she laughs.
‘I prefer cycling,’ I reply, slightly defensively. ‘More sociable. Keeps me fit.’
‘Well, to be honest I’d come in by community pod tomorrow, if I were you,’ she advises. ‘We are at risk, you know. There are nutters out there who don’t think we should be working on this alien communication at all.’
I take her point. ‘I’ll walk in, and wear an invisibility tube,’ I suggest with a playful grin.
These tubes are a marvellous idea, though sadly not invented by our place. They consist of coils of a special ‘meta-material’ fabric just a few nanometres thick. This bends all the light that hits it, making anything underneath invisible. I’ve walked around town in mine occasionally, and get a real kick out of people’s puzzled faces as they just see an area of slightly distorted air moving around in front of them.
Salkie laughs. ‘You and your expensive toys! You should spend some credits on your house, or clothes or something instead!’
I climb out, shaking my head. ‘Save your nagging for your offspring! I’ll see you tomorrow, dear.’
‘Okay,’ she waves, sealing the door.
I watch her elevate and then zoom away, feeling more troubled than I’m letting on. I desperately hope she’s wrong about Raqim.
My lectures don’t start until five after sunrise the next morning, so I take the opportunity to visit my sister in the birthing centre. This is the second time I’ve seen her baby, a cute, fluffy haired little thing; born slightly premature, as andrels usually are.
‘We’ll be going home tomorrow,’ Katey tells me, peering down into the cot. She sighs. ‘I’m trying not to be disappointed.’
‘About having an andrel?’ I ask.
She shrugs. ‘Well, you know how it is. I really want to have grandchildren one day.’
One in every sixteen babies is born an andrel. The proportion is similar for all animals. They reckon it’s caused by a recessive gene. The number of adults is slightly reduced, on account of the fact that their bone and muscle structure is not quite as well developed as other people, so they are physically weaker and more prone to serious illness, especially as children. It’s as if nature has done this as a way to compensate for their superior brainpower.
Of course, by employing a careful diet and exercise regime, it is possible to minimise the impact of this to some degree, but an andrel will never be as fit and strong as a man or woman has the potential to be. The major difference, however, between them and other people is that they don’t have sex organs. In the past, they were regarded as freaks, and had a lowly place in society. Being infertile, they would often be killed at birth, and those who were spared would be put to work as slaves.
Fast-forward a thousand years, and society is very different now. The human mortality rate has plummeted because we all have heating and clean water, and intellect and enterprise are now valued far more than brute strength and ability to continue the family line. It’s recently become illegal to openly discriminate against andrels. But still, people do, and my sister is clearly disappointed by the gender of her first child.
‘Tommi was hoping for a boy, to take to Hoverball matches,’ she shrugs, but I know that’s not really what’s going through her mind. I feel uncomfortable and excuse myself, as I don’t want to be late for university.
I sleep in the next morning and am running late, so I take the community pod after all.
Just as I arrive, flustered, at my office, my pager band bleeps and there’s a message from Salkie, ‘Urgent meeting regarding Transmission. Umbrel Room.’
I’m baffled, because that’s the largest meeting room in the place, and there’s only eight of us in the department. When I walk in, the room is packed. Every member of staff in the university is present. I can’t spot Salkie in the crowd, but I catch sight of Jant, and take the vacant seat next to pim.
‘What’s going on?’ I whisper.
‘I’m not sure, pe replies, frowning. Raqim called us all here, but he hasn’t arrived, yet.’
‘What about the students?’
‘Not many lectures happen this early on a Comday. Those that were scheduled have been cancelled.’
I’m just about to respond when Raqim comes in with his usual arrogant swagger.
The proportion of men, women and andrels in academia is roughly equal, but it is very rare indeed for a man or woman to reach Professor level. Raqim therefore feels he has something to prove, but he takes it too far. He’s so obsessed with status that he focuses all his attention on boosting the standing of the department, rather than on ensuring the students are well provided for and happy. He can also be very spiteful, and has hurt my feelings more than once. I try as hard as I can to like him, but he’s just not my kind of person.
‘Let’s get straight to the point,’ he shouts above the chatter, so we all shut up and listen.
‘As you are all aware, we have just finished analysing the decoded data from the Transmission, and are due to issue a media statement confirming our findings today,’ he begins, scanning the rows of faces in the room. ‘My collegues Doctor Terio and Doctor Salkie will assist me with the broadcast at seven after sunrise.’
He pauses for a moment, as if to focus his thoughts.
‘The Social History Department was due to begin compiling our response transmission on behalf of the whole of the Adoro, which was to be sent in confidence to the National Space Centre and broadcast in one month.’
He takes a deep breath. I can feel the bombshell coming, and the indignation is already rising in my throat.
‘However, under orders from the Power Institute, this plan has now been abandoned. All further dealings with the Transmission will be carried out by them, including a full review of the global security implications of making our presence known to aliens.’
He folds his arms and stops talking. There’s uproar. Most people in the room look deflated or baffled, but some of us are angry.
‘This is ridiculous!’ I shout. ‘On what grounds do they base this decision?’
‘A return broadcast confirming our existence with details of our population, resources, technology, culture and history would be playing into alien hands,’ he explains. ‘It would give them all the data they need for a potential future invasion!’
There’s more shouting, but Raqim just stands there, his arms folded and mouth set into a stiff grin. ‘This is not open to debate,’ he concludes, then turns and sweeps from the room.
I’m running early for my lecture due to cutting short the visit to my sister, but there isn’t time to get to the library, so I figure I might as well just loiter in the corridor and read the notice screen. I’m just walking past Terio’s office when the door opens and pe peers out.
‘Clarine? Have you got a moment?’
I walk in, and find pim standing by pis desk with Salkie. I can sense a subdued atmosphere in the room, as if their energy fields have contracted.
‘Is something wrong?’ I venture.
‘There is,’ Terio replies. ‘Tell me, are you still short of credits?’
I nod. ‘Yes, I’m having problems. Why?’
‘I am overworked,’ pe explains. ‘I could do with a research assistant. Are you interested?’
‘Well, yes,’ I respond hesitantly, ‘…but I doubt I’d get clearance to work here.’
‘Forget clearance,’ pe replies impatiently, ‘…it would take far too long. Besides, this is work I’ll be doing from home.’
I must have looked uncertain, because Salkie leans over and speaks quietly. ‘We will have a word with the admin staff, and make sure your monthly education fee is refunded, and we can top up your earnings from our own pockets. It’s all a bit unofficial.’
I shrug. ‘Fine.’
‘I will meet you somewhere, later,’ Terio suggests, looking relieved. ‘It isn’t safe to discuss this on university premises.’
‘You mustn’t mention this to anybody,’ Salkie adds mysteriously.
‘Is something wrong?’ I ask again.
‘Let’s just say that forces from above have stopped us from working on the Transmission,’ says Terio sadly, ‘…but Salkie and I are going to continue with our work regardless, and make sure that the response broadcast goes out!’
There’s something deliciously secret and exciting about this. I feel as if I’m being drawn into some kind of conspiracy. I have no choice but to nod and smile at them, because any other reaction would be dishonest.
‘Good,’ Terio asserts. ‘We’ll speak more this evening.’
She’s at the café before me, sitting at a corner table with a glass of fermented pumpkin juice. I order a lime flower infusion and join her.
‘On the light stuff?’ she asks, by way of making conversation.
‘I need my head clear right now,’ I reply. ‘Besides, I used to overdo the heavy drinks.’
She nods. I fill her in on this morning’s meeting and the subsequent chat I had with Salkie.
‘I mean, it’s ridiculous!’ I growl. ‘It took just over thirty years for the Transmission to reach us from Earth. Our reply will take just as long to get back. Even if they were to launch some kind of attack immediately and can travel at the speed of light, that’s another thirty years!’
I shake my head. ‘Sixty years is a long time! We’ll only just be alive then, probably.’
‘Besides,’ I add, ‘…imagine what a waste this is! For the first time in history, we’ve proof there’s life out there. For the first time, we have a communication we can read and respond to. A chance to reach out to some distant planet!’
‘…Yet officialdom paranoia has decided to quash the opportunity,’ Clarine concludes for me.
‘Yes indeed,’ I reply gravely, removing the infusion bag from my dish and placing it in the compost tray. ‘It’s a stupid, pathetic, paranoid waste.’
She looks at me intently over the top of her drink. ‘So, what do you want me to do?’
I’m encouraged by her enthusiasm.
‘I want you to come around my place, after college, several times a week. We will do as much research as we can; sometimes with Salkie, sometimes not.’
‘I assume I’m not to discuss it in college?’ she asks.
‘Definitely not!’ I reply with feeling. ‘Especially not by pager or Computerweb. All electronic communication coming into the college is directed through one ‘bridge’, and theoretically could be intercepted. It’s not worth the risk.’
We talk a while longer and then I give her my address and we part company.
‘Get some sleep, doc,’ she smiles.
‘I’ll try,’ I reply weakly.
We start the very next day.
Terio’s house is much smaller than I was expecting. Pe welcomes me in and shows me up to a lovely old study in the attic, with sloping roof windows that look out into the branches of a huge Elmer tree.
Salkie arrives soon afterwards. She hardly ever has any time to relax, what with her demanding job and three young offspring, but she never lets it show. I’ve never met a more cheerful person. She stands by the window, chatting to Terio and running through something on the computer screen. Sunshine streams in and makes her hair and face glow like a halo.
Her hair has masses of texture and is a really deep colour that changes according to the light that falls on it. Sometimes it looks black, sometimes grey, and sometimes deep blue. Mine seems a drab brown in comparison.
‘You have such amazing hair!’ I tell her.
She smiles, ‘Thanks! Did you know that the Earth humans have hair on their bodies?’
‘On their bodies?’ I gasp. ‘Surely that would swish about and get in the way?’
‘It’s not like head hair,’ she grins. ‘According to the Transmission, it’s much shorter. Thicker.’
‘There’s so much we could learn from them,’ I sigh. ‘I wonder whether they evolved in the same way we did?’
‘There was nothing about that in the Transmission,’ Terio informs me. ‘We can only guess, for now, and ask such questions in our response.’
‘Well, I’m clear on what I have to do,’ I reply. ‘Just keep me supplied with food and drink, and I’ll work into the night.’
It takes us three weeks. On the last day of work, Terio saves everything onto a computer plate and stares at it, lovingly.
‘We now need to get this data to the Space Centre,’ pe explains. ‘I have two sympathetic contacts there, who are just as indignant about this whole thing as we are. They’re prepared to bypass security and get our Transmission out, thought it will cost them their jobs, and they’ll probably have to go into hiding.’
‘It’s so ridiculous,’ I agree. ‘Why do you think the Power Institute are so determined to stop this transmission?’
Terio shuffles uncomfortably. ‘Salkie and I have a theory. We can hardly bear to think of it, but we wonder whether the powers that be are exploring the option of invading Earth at some point.
We always leave college separately, taking different routes to my house so as to avoid suspicion. Clarine arrives about half an hour after me, and we then go straight to my study.
I have never been more motivated by any project, but I get twice as much work done when she is around. We bounce ideas off each other, and soon become very tuned in to each other’s energy fields. I can even more or less tell when she is approaching the door, which is somehow re-assuring.
I look around my cluttered house and realise that, I have spent too much time alone. I have neglected myself, and become a recluse.
Clarine asks me about the Power Institute on the last day, and what their motives could be. So far, we have avoided talking about them, as if not wanting to get weighed down by negativity. We discuss the possibility that some kind of aggressive incursion might be made from Adoro to Earth.
‘We know that Earth is extremely rich in mineral resources,’ I explain. ‘It is twice the size of Adoro, yet has eight times the population!’
‘We know that they burn mineral fuels, and keep captive animals for meat. The only way that they could possibly do such things in a sustainable manner is if their world is exceptionally fertile and has unlimited ability to neutralise the effects of pollution.’
‘That must be true,’ Clarine replies thoughtfully. ‘There’s no way we could keep captive animals here, we’d starve ourselves! The amount of vegetation needed would be phenomenal. I remember covering that in school’.
‘It is a sad fact,’ I reply, sliding from the table and pacing the room in agitation, ‘that despite all our efforts, there will be food and water shortages in the more arid parts of Adoro within the next generation. Some people could even starve, due to the greed of others.’
‘Is that why you live so frugally?’ she asks me with interest.
‘You could say that,’ I reply. ‘The current fashion for large houses and luxury really bothers me, to be honest.’
‘I think you’re right,’ she smiles at me, though there’s sadness in her eyes. These are big themes, after all. Our world has reached a turning point.
The bell chimes, making us both jump.
‘That will be Salkie,’ I tell her. ‘Why don’t you make some juice? I’ll pop down and let her in. She’ll be thrilled to hear we’ve finished.’
Terio starts to walk downstairs (pe doesn’t believe in lifts!) and I’m trying to clear my mind as I walk through into the kitchen, because the conversation has left me feeling sad. All I want to do right now is celebrate our achievement, and look forward to the future.
I’ve only just started picking through the fruit store when I hear a loud shout, followed by crashing, scraping and multiple raised voices. Running to the kitchen window, which overlooks the street, I peer out to see vehicles parked either end, blocking it. I can just about make out the Institute logos on the sides.
One of the voices sounds like Salkie. She’s in distress.
I start angrily towards the stairs, but my Pager band vibrates in Level Three urgency, so I stop and glance down. It’s from Terio. A single word:
My blood runs cold. I have absolutely no idea what to do. Hide where? Have they taken Salkie? Are they coming into the house? For Terio and me?
Thinking quickly, I dash back into the study, grabbing my coat and bag, and side open the window. The drop down is too great, and besides, the house is surrounded.
I haven’t climbed trees since I was a tot. But …I recall being really good at it.
I have to take the risk that Terio has found some way to evade them. It would be too dangerous to wait for him, and I can’t feel his energy field any more. Perhaps he has left the house already?
Sitting on the window frame, I try to step out onto the nearest branch. It’s too far. Glancing round the room, I look for something, anything…that will help me reach that damn tree. Typical. Terio has all sorts of clutter in the place; books, old maps, telescopes, electrical gadgets, …but no rope or netting or anything useful like that.
I try again, this time wriggling my whole body out, balancing precariously on the ledge with my legs splayed against the wooden cladding of the wall, and my left hand tightly gripping the frame.
The tree waves its branches at me, coaxingly. I can hear commotion on the stairs. I ram both elbows hard against the frame, kick back hard at the wall with my legs, and jump.
Mercifully, with a thumping heart and scraped shins, I’m gripping the branch a moment later, and I manage to swing into the secluded heart of the canopy. I can see the street clearly now. Agents are walking around the house, frantically paging messages, while Salkie is being escorted to a van by two tough-looking men. She looks unhurt, thankfully.
There’s no sign of Terio.
There’s no way I can get down from the tree, because I’d be spotted instantly. I can’t risk paging Terio, in case they’re monitoring the nearest communication bridge. I just have to sit tight, and wait.
I had half been expecting this to happen last week. By the time today came round, my fear had gone off the boil. I’d relaxed and convinced myself that we’d somehow got away with it.
The tube is exactly where I’d left it – in the cupboard on the landing, together with the map and bag I’d packed for such an emergency. I slip the coils over my head and flatten myself against the wall as I silently creep downstairs and out of the back door, frantically paging Clarine as I do so.
I have to pass through the hallway, and can just about make out that they’re taking Salkie away. If only I could stop them. If only I could shout to her.
I hear them on the stairs as I leave the house. They’ve got laser guns. I can see the sights moving across the walls in angry darting spots of green. What were they expecting? Armed resistance from a couple of middle-aged university lecturers?
Why did I get Clarine involved in this? She’s just a student, with her whole life ahead of her.
I curse my stupidity as I cross the garden and peer through a crack in the back gate. There’s two agents there, but they’re staring down the lane, so I open the gate and slip out quickly, easing it shut behind me. They don’t notice.
I turn the corner and flop into the bushes with relief. I should be safe, now.
I can feel Clarine’s energy field close by. She must be out of the house. In that tree, I bet. I dare not page her again. Why did I drag her into this?
It feels like hours.
I listen to the faint sounds of Terio’s house being trashed, while gripping onto that tree for dear life. Eventually, the vehicles leave, the agents disappear, and the neighbours go back indoors. Silence descends on the scene.
It is now one before nightfall. I start to think about climbing down. Then I hear a whispered shout.
‘Clarine? Are you in the tree?’
I waggle a branch in response, daring not speak.
Terio’s arm pokes out of a bush on the corner of the lane. I leave the tree, half sliding and half clambering, and run over to pim.
‘I can’t believe you’re safe!’ I gasp. I’ve never been so relieved about anything in my life.
‘Same here,’ pe whispers as I join pim in the bushes. ‘We can’t go back in the house, I’m afraid. It’ll be bugged.’
‘I dared not page you,’ I explained.
‘Wise move,’ pe replies with a grim expression. ‘They’ll have all the communication bridges in this area under surveillance by now. I have to get my band de-activated as soon as possible.’
I gasp. This is a big deal. It’s highly illegal to tamper with your band. We power them down when we go to sleep, of course, but from the age of five, having a fully-functioning band during all waking hours is a condition of full Adoro citizenship. How else can we send text messages to each other, parents monitor their offspring, or the Power Institute send out public warnings and broadcasts?
A tiny minority of people do get them removed, as there are secret clinics in every city that offer the service, but by doing so, they forfeit all rights to have a job and earn credits, which effectively means they have to live the rest of their life as outlaws.
‘There’s a clinic on the edge of town,’ Terio tells me. ‘I’ve got them primed and expecting my arrival any day, so I’m going straight there.
Pe stands up and slides something over pis shoulders, promptly disappearing from sight.
‘An invisibility tube!’ I marvel. ‘I’ve heard of those, but never seen one!’
‘Nice joke,’ Terio replies as pis voice begins to move away from the bushes.
I hadn’t meant it as a joke. I follow behind, trying to guess where pe is by the sight of bent grass underfoot.
‘We should stop talking,’ pe advises me. I nod.
We reach the clinic an hour later. Terio removes the tube once pe is sure that there is nobody in the reception.
‘This will take a couple of hours,’ pe informs me. ‘Once I’m done, I’m going to the coast. It’s four days walk from here.’
‘Didn’t they destroy the plate in the raid?’ I ask, puzzled.
Terio smiles. ‘I made a copy.’
‘Thank you for all your help,’ pe adds, laying a hand on my shoulder. ‘You’ve been amazing. I strongly advise you not to go home tonight. Stay with a friend. I don’t think they’re aware of your involvement in this, but …just in case.’
‘You say that as if I’m not coming with you!’ I exclaim.
‘You’re not!’ Terio replies, sternly. ‘I’ve put you in enough danger already. Leave me now. Go and stay somewhere for a few days.’
We embrace briefly as they call pim into the operating room. It feels strange to hug my teacher after all this time. I want to tell Terio that I’m not going to leave under any circumstances; that we’re in this together, a team. The words won’t come out, so I say nothing as pe follows the surgeon.
Two hours. I’ve got serious shopping to do.
The operation is straightforward. My wrist hurts and I can’t bend it properly, but they said to expect that.
I open the door to walk back out through the reception, but back up with a jolt, because there’s a woman sitting on the bench near the door.
‘Who’s she?’ I ask the surgeon urgently.
He crosses the room to speak to the receptionist, then returns, looking faintly amused. ‘She came in with you.’
Baffled, I re-open the door and peer over at her. It’s Clarine, but she looks completely different. She’s had her hair re-styled and dyed a darker colour. She’s also wearing totally different clothes, with a floppy hat.
‘Aha! You’re out at last!’ she exclaims, standing up as I walk over.
‘What are you doing here?’ I frown.
‘I got us each two changes of clothes, plus some bottled water, fire lighters, and a week’s supply of energy bars. Some of it will have to go in your bag.’
‘This is insane!’ I growl. ‘Didn’t you listen to me? I said to leave!’
She rolls her eyes. ‘Sorry to be blunt, but you’re not my lecturer any more. You’re no longer ‘Doctor’ Terio. You’re not even my boss. You have no authority over me.’
She shrugs apologetically. ‘You can’t order me around.’
I wince. She’s right, of course. This operation has removed my entire status in society, not just my band.
‘You mustn’t do this,’ I insist.
‘What would you do,’ she asks me, ‘…if the boot was on the other foot? If it was me fleeing to the coast. Would you seriously just leave me to it?’
Reverse psychology. This isn’t fair! ‘Of course I wouldn’t!’ I reply indignantly.
‘So what’s your problem?’ she asks patiently as I collect my bag and tube from the receptionist.
‘My problem,’ I reply angrily, ‘…is that you are a bright student with your whole life ahead of you, about to get up to your neck in a situation of my making.’
‘I don’t want to leave,’ she insists. ‘We’re a team, Terio.’
‘I gave up on life a long time ago,’ I sigh. ‘My future means nothing to me. You could do all sorts of things with your life. Have a family, or anything.’
‘I’ve never had any ambitions, and I don’t want offspring’ she tells me sincerely. ‘I just want to do what’s right. And …what’s right is sticking by you and seeing this through. So …get that tube on and let’s get out of here.’
I can’t win this argument, and she knows it. I shrug and pull the tube over my head.
‘Let’s head straight for the forest,’ I suggest. ‘We should be safe for a while, once we’re deep in the trees.’
We walk in silence until we reach the cover of the forest, then make only sporadic conversation as we pick our way through.
By andrel standards, Terio is extremely fit; probably on account of cycling everywhere, but pe still struggles to keep up with me, so I slow my pace.
‘I advised the clinic to expect a raid,’ Terio tells me. ‘After all, that’s the last place anyone will be able to track my signal to. The staff were beginning to pack up and move when we left. Their kit’s pretty portable.’
‘They seemed very helpful’ I reply, flicking a starfly from my hair.
We walk until eight after moonrise, which takes us thousands of metres into the forest. Our feet are aching by the time we enter a sheltered clearing with lots of branches scattered around.
‘Can we stop and sleep for a while?’ I ask.
‘I think we should,’ Terio grunts, sinking wearily onto a log.
I gather kindling and light a small fire. Terio sits gazing into it expressionlessly, wrapped up in a blanket like a thick cloak.
‘What did you mean by, ‘…gave up on life’?’ I ask pim as I put some water on to boil.
‘I guess I’ve been depressed,’ pe replies. ‘I shouldn’t have mentioned it, really. It was a bit melodramatic.’
‘I thought you really loved your job?’ I suggest. ‘You know …the research. The awards. Teaching us lot…’
Terio shakes his head. ‘I would have given up ages ago, if it wasn’t for Salkie’s friendship, and the positive attitude of a handful of students like you.’
‘Society is changing,’ pe adds miserably. ‘Hardly anybody wants to learn for the joy of it, anymore. It’s all about status, and moving up a credit level.’
‘Everybody has aspects of their job they don’t like,’ I reason. ‘You just have to make the most of your spare time. Grab some fun where you can. Try not to live just for work.’
I drop an energy bar into the hot water, and stir it carefully. ‘Can I share that blanket?’ I ask awkwardly.
Terio shuffles along the log slightly, and I sit down next to pim, pulling some welcome warmth over my shoulders.
‘Men and women don’t experience life quite like we do,’ pe says dreamily, staring into the flames. ‘You have relationships. Families. Affection. You don’t have to centre your life around work like we do.’
I’m beginning to understand what pe’s getting at, now. I’d never thought about this before, and I can’t think of a response that doesn’t sound insincere. I realise, as I sit there, that my role on this trip will be of vital importance. Terio has lost pis status, pis place in society. There is nothing left for pim now but this mission. Pe has staked everything on it, and needs my support to cope with the emotions that are coming up.
We drink the energy soup, let the fire burn down, and arrange our blankets on the floor. I lie there for a while, deep in thought and struggling to sleep.
Terio is shivering. I wriggle over and wrap myself around pim from behind, pulling the top blanket tight. The embers glow a deeper orange as I eventually drift off to sleep.
I wake well into the morning. The forest is very peaceful, and the ground surprisingly soft.
Clarine is pressing against my back, her right arm under my neck, almost like a pillow. I want to lie here as long as possible, enjoying the sensation of warmth, and sound of her breathing into my ear.
I remain still for as long as I possibly can, but eventually, the urge to relieve myself is overwhelming. With great reluctance, I extract myself from the hug by wriggling out from under the blanket. This wakes Clarine of course, and she looks up at me blearily as I stand and shake the stiffness from my legs.
‘What time is it?’ she yawns.
‘I’m not sure. I think we can rest a while longer. We shouldn’t get to the next city before dark, if we can help it.’
I disappear into the bushes for a while. I assume Clarine is asleep when I return, so I creep back between the blankets very carefully. She pushes up against me, drowsily. I’d love to put my arm round her, but dare not, as she might take offence.
I didn’t think for a moment that she’d come. I didn’t even dare consider that possibility.
I can’t relax properly, because my heart is pounding and I’m so aware of her presence that it’s almost agonising. I lie there, wide-awake and very still.
‘We should get up,’ she says after a while. ‘I’d feel safer if we were moving.’
I carefully pack everything away while she visits the bushes. She returns with a wet face.
‘There’s a spring,’ she grins. ‘Let’s drink as much as we want, and top up our bottles.’
We push on through the forest. It’s hard going underfoot, and I don’t bother with the tube while we’re under this much cover.
We could have reached the coast in one day by Community Pod, but it would have been far too risky. They’ll be searching all the pods right now, both private and public. We can only hope that it’s just me they’re looking for. I know that it isn’t possible to fly pods through the forest, and few walkers ever leave the designated paths.
Eventually, we reach the other side as dusk is falling.
‘This is excellent timing,’ I say, chewing on an energy bar as we crouch in the shadows, waiting for total darkness.
‘Do you think they’ll be searching the streets?’ Clarine asks quietly.
‘Difficult to say for sure,’ I reply, scratching my head. ‘They might have given up on me, or they might have issued a broadcast that I’m the world’s number one most wanted terrorist. I honestly don’t know.’
‘I haven’t had any public alert broadcast on my band,’ she says hopefully.
‘They might have screened students and potential friends of mine out of it,’ I consider.
‘Can they do that?’
‘Oh yes,’ I sigh. ‘It’s very sophisticated, these days. They can also work out your known distance from the nearest pager communication bridge. That’s why I had to get rid of my band. To people who know what they’re doing, they act as a tracking device.’
We fall silent for a while, each deep in our own thoughts.
There’s no comms bridges deep in the forest, of course, but once we reach the city limits, Clarine could potentially be tracked. That’s a risk we have to take. Eventually, we nod to each other. It’s time to move on.
‘I’m glad you’ve come, Clarine,’ I tell her sincerely.
We stick to the back streets. Both moons are waning, so the night is quite dark, though of course the streets are all lit to some degree.
‘We need to speak to someone with a terminal. Someone who can check what’s on the Computerweb,’ Terio suggests.
‘Do you know anyone in this city?’ I reply as quietly as I can.
We round a corner and enter a street with people in it, so we both fall silent until the danger has passed.
‘Salkie’s brother lives here,’ Terio responds eventually. ‘I don’t know whether to risk calling in on him.’
It takes us many hours to cross Albenham City. It’s huge; three times the size of our hometown, and we take quite a few wrong turns. The sun is beginning to rise as we arrive at the far side of it. We’ve barely rested or eaten all night, and Terio looks exhausted.
‘I’m pretty sure that’s his address,’ pe says weakly, pointing to a large stone house overlooking the river. ‘I recall staying there once, years back, while on a conference.’
‘I’m going to knock,’ I tell pim. ‘You wait here. If I’m not back within five minutes, assume the worst and carry on without me.’
A fat, friendly-looking man answers the door.
‘I’m one of your sister’s students…’ I begin to explain.
‘Is pe with you?’ the man asks hopefully.
‘Thank skies above you’re safe. Come in. I’m Darlo, by the way.’
I summon Terio and we enter the house. The man looks baffled until Terio removes the invisibility tube.
‘Wow!’ he exclaims. ‘That’s a neat gadget you’ve got there. No wonder they haven’t found you yet.’
‘Are we safe, here?’ Terio asks, sinking onto a chair. Pe looks a mess. Pis wrist is bleeding through the bandage, and there are leaves and twigs in pis hair.
‘I’ll put my sons on lookout,’ Darlo grunts. ‘You get a bath and change that dressing, mate.’
Terio nods, looking relieved.
‘I’ll explain what’s happened, and check all the latest broadcasts,’ I offer as pe makes pis way to the bathroom.
‘You’re a star,’ Terio says, giving my arm a grateful pat.
I turn to Darlo, urgently. ‘We need news.’
I have never enjoyed a bath as much as this. In fact, I relax so much that I pretty much fall asleep and slide under the water, waking again with a splutter. I take my time over washing and then change into some of the clothes Clarine bought for me. They fit really well, and are appropriately nondescript, though that doesn’t exactly matter when I’m wearing the tube.
Darlo has lit a fire, and is ladling soup into bowls. It is some kind of spicy blend of beans and root vegetables. I take a bowl and sit close to the fire, drying my hair as I eat.
‘This feels weird!’ Darlo laughs. ‘I’ve only just got up to have breakfast and get ready for work, yet here we are sitting round a fire, eating soup!
‘We’re sorry to impose,’ Clarine tells him. ‘We don’t know anyone else in this town, and we’ve been walking all night.’
‘I have to get my youngest up and ready for school, or he’ll be late,’ Darlo explains. ‘All I can suggest is that you get your heads down in my spare room for a few hours, and head off when you’re ready. I’ll show you where I leave the swipe key.’
‘Have you heard from your sister?’ I ask.
Darlo shakes his head. ‘Not a thing. I just know they’re holding her for questioning. They’d better not hurt her. Bastards.’
Darlo leaves the room and turns his attention to his family.
‘I took a good look at the Computerweb news broadcasts,’ Clarine explains. ‘They’ve circulated a clear picture of you, and gone into detail about why you’re wanted for questioning, but there’s no mention of you carrying a copy of the data. I reckon they think they destroyed it all.’
‘It’s hard to know what they think,’ I reply moodily. ‘If they catch me and torture me, I’ll know for sure what they’re after.’
‘They won’t capture you!’ she insists, placing her hand on my knee. ‘We’ve given them the slip, and if we’re careful, we’ll deliver that plate successfully and then our job is done.’
‘You’re always so positive,’ I sigh, scraping my bowl.
‘I had a bad childhood,’ she replies dreamily. ‘I got so sick of being scared and miserable and lonely that I made an active decision to look on the bright side a few years ago, and I’ve never looked back.’
I look her over, carefully. Has she been lonely? Does she really know what that’s like? It occurs to me as I sit there that this must be very strange for her. I taught her for years and she must have looked up to me as a source of knowledge and inspiration, but now I’m a tired, frightened fugitive unable to show my face to the world.
‘Was there any mention of you in the broadcasts?’ I ask her.
‘They mentioned that one of your neighbours reported seeing a woman climb down from the tree just after the raid,’ she replies. ‘They gave a vague description and said I’m also wanted for questioning.’
‘They didn’t specifically say that I’m with you, though,’ she adds thoughtfully. ‘Besides, it wasn’t a very accurate description, and they went into detail about my hair, which of course looks quite different now’.
‘Thanks for checking,’ I yawn. ‘I really must get to sleep. Where did Darlo say that spare room is?’
I show Terio the room, and pe flops thankfully down onto the bed and passes out. I watch pim for a few minutes as I rummage in pis bag, digging out pis old clothes so I can wash them. The fresh bandage is still clean. Pis wrist must have stopped bleeding, thankfully.
I hang the clothes up to dry, eat some fruit and then lie down on the rug by the fireplace. Sleep doesn’t come easily, despite my exhaustion. I’m struggling to adjust my body clock to moving at night and sleeping by day. Even so, I force myself to lie there, occasionally dozing, until very late after sunrise.
We hide the swipe key where Darlo showed me, and then continue our journey at dusk. Terio seems much refreshed by pis sleep, and is able to move at a faster pace than yesterday. We spend most of the night crossing the mountain range, reaching the moors beyond at about three before sunrise. The lights of the next city are just about visible in the distance.
‘We have to cross these moors before we can rest,’ Terio tells me, slipping the invisibility tube over pis head. ‘There’s no cover here at all.’
This scenery must look beautiful by daylight. As it is, all we can make out is dark clumps of vegetation, pale, smooth rocks that loom up one by one, and the vague horizon, where the deep purple moor meets the pale edges of the sky.
This is probably the most risky part of the whole journey. A pod route skirts the edge of the mountain range, and then widens when it reaches the moors. Most pods stay within marked sky lanes, but the moors are free open country with no flying restrictions, so theoretically one could pass overhead at any time.
We’re also likely to meet groups of walkers if we’re still out here by sunrise, although this is not a designated leisure day, so any we do meet are likely to be retired people or conservationists. They are unlikely to pay me much attention, although they will probably think it is strange that I’m out walking on my own.
One advantage of this flat open country is that nobody would be able to take us by surprise. We’d be able to see any approach from miles off, especially if they’re using lights to see their way. So we risk talking as we go.
‘I’m sorry if I’ve seemed grumpy of late,’ Terio says after a while. ‘I don’t mean to be difficult company.’
‘You’ve had a nasty shock,’ I reply. ‘Don’t worry about it.’
‘The strange thing is,’ Terio muses, ‘…when we first set out, all I could think about was how much I’d lost. Yet now that I have nothing, there’s nothing more they can take from me.’
I can't see pis expression through the tube, of course, but I can tell that pe is smiling.
'They ended my old life and took my house, my job, my identity, ...but I was in a rut, wasn't I? So it doesn't really matter, does it? Now I'm just free to do what I want.'
I'm just about to reply to this; to say all the re-assuring things I want to express about how I’ll do all I can to help Terio find a new place to live once all of this is over, when my pager band begins to vibrate.
'We must be within a communication zone,' I say in surprise. 'Could you light the torch a minute? I hate to lose my night vision, but I should read this.'
We reach the edge of the moors as the rising sun lights the horizon in beautiful streaks of pale gold. I glance backwards and allow myself a moment to catch my breath and savour the view. We’ve made good time, and now have only one more forest and a small town to pass through before we reach the river estuary that will take us to the coast.
Clarine receives a pager message as we cross the last short stretch of open country. It’s not quite light enough to read the tiny text, so I pass her the torch and she shines it onto her wrist, frowning deeply.
‘Oh bugger!’ she gasps. ‘The fool!’
She looks up with fear in her eyes. ‘It’s Darlo. He’s telling us that his house has just been raided.’
‘Shit!’ I curse. ‘If he’s suspected of some kind of involvement, they’ll be monitoring his communications. That means that even if they didn’t know you were with me before, they do now!’
‘They’ll also know which direction we’ve taken!’ Clarine wails. ‘What do we do?’
We notice a large collection of pearly white rocks on the very edge of the moor, just before the forest begins, so we scramble over these, dropping into a secluded gap in the middle. Safe from public view, I remove the tube and we discuss our options.
‘We need to separate,’ Clarine suggests. ‘I’ll take the footpath through the forest. You take one round the edge. If they pinpoint my current location as here, they’ll come after me and won’t think to follow you the long way round.’
‘I reckon you’re right,’ I reply. ‘The map shows that the paths converge at a bridge on the bend of the river, about a thousand metres before the city limits. Let’s meet in the small patch of woodland just beyond that bridge.’
‘I should easily get there first,’ Clarine considers. ‘If I’m not there when you arrive…’
Our eyes meet. I nod. There’s nothing more to say.
Clarine shares out the energy bars and what’s left of the water. I notice that she puts most of the supplies in my bag.
‘I’m not very hungry,’ she lies.
‘I really hope I see you again,’ I tell her in a small voice.
‘Oh, you will!’ she grins, trying to brush away my fears.
We stand up, hoisting our bags onto our backs.
‘Goodbye for now,’ she says, hugging me tightly for a long moment.
Then, with one hand raised in a wave, she scrambles out from the rocks without a backward glance, and sets of at a fast pace towards the path. I pull on my tube and start along the other path. Her energy field slowly fades into the distance until I can no longer sense it, but I can still feel that hug all around me.
The path is straight, tediously straight. It bisects the forest in an ugly slash of white gravel. This must be a purely a functional path for the use of forestry workers, as no attempt has been made to soften the edges and blend it in with the terrain.
I pause for a moment to change into fresh clothes and eat an energy bar. My legs are crying out for a rest, but I know it is impossible. Some unknown menace is closing in, seeking me.
I’m desperately worried about Terio. His vulnerability has shocked me, and our sudden separation brings frustrated tears to my eyes. I wipe them away. I cannot allow myself the luxury of wallowing in regret. I cannot control my current circumstances. I just have to push on. Stick to the plan.
The forest is very dark to begin with, but as the morning wears on, the sun rises above the canopy and lights my way. I pass a group of three coming from the other direction. This seems strange, as they must have been walking through the forest in the darkness. Either that or another path joins this one from the side.
A tight knot of fear sits in the pit of my stomach as I pass them. I try hard to avoid their gaze, but they are clearly in the mood for conversation, and I know that ignoring them would come across as rude and suspicious. So I look up as they greet me.
‘You’re walking alone!’ says an elderly andrel, aided by a pair of sticks.
‘Are you lost, dear?’ asks one of the two slightly younger men just behind pim.
‘No, I’m fine,’ I reply. ‘I’m a botany student, collecting leaf samples.’
They nod, exchange some thoughts on the weather, and continue on their way.
Botany student? What did I admit to being a student for? Am I stupid?
The forest goes on and on. I walk at a steady pace, trying to keep my mind empty. The trees are closely spaced here with hardly any vegetation growing under them, and there’s little birdsong to break up the eerie silence. It’s all just monotonous tree trunks, dappled sunlight, and this endless straight path. I glance back occasionally, but there’s no sign of anybody behind me.
Hours pass and I slowly lose awareness of my surroundings and zone in to kind of meditative state as I crunch the gravel ever onwards. I run out of drinking water and seem to be hallucinating as the trees begin to thin.
The edge of the forest is within sight, at last. I can make out low wooden buildings through the trees. I need to rest, but I’m exposed here. I have to keep going until I get to that patch of woodland beyond the bridge. There I can hide, and wait for Terio.
The path runs straight past the front door of the largest building, and I have no option but to stay on it, as this side of the forest is bordered by a tall metal fence with only the one small gate that I can see. I quicken my pace as I pass through the gate and approach the building, fearful that there could be people waiting for me inside or behind it.
As I pass the front door, it opens very slightly and an urgent voice whispers, ‘You. Over here. Now.’
I freeze, trying to control my rising panic. The door opens fully, and a head pokes out. I break into a run, but the person at the door shouts at me desperately to stop, so I spin on my heel and stare back at them, bewildered.
‘They’re waiting for you down there!’
I can now recognise the voice and face as female.
‘What do I do?’ I wail aloud, trying not to break into tears.
‘Get in here!’ the woman hisses, and I make an instinctive decision to trust her. She closes the door behind me.
‘You’re that lady on the run, aren’t you? The one they’re looking for in connection with that missing academic?’
I nod. ‘Can I trust you?’
She’s dressed in a smart green uniform. A forestry worker, no doubt.
‘I’m no friend of the Power Institute, or any of the other damn lot,’ she replies. ‘They told us you were on this path and gave us instructions to inform them of sightings of any groups of less than three people. You don’t quite match the description you gave, but I thought I’d better check before letting you walk into their trap.’
‘Where are they?’ I ask.
‘Sitting in a concealed pod, just beyond this compound. You would have walked straight into them.’
She puts a kettle on to boil. ‘They’re not expecting you for another hour or so. You must be a fast walker.’
‘What can ...can I do?’ I ask weakly, struggling to get my words out.
She frowns at me. ‘You look exhausted. Sit here.’ She nudges a bench towards me with her foot, and I sink onto it, heavily.
‘What, err, happened to Pim?’ she asks. ‘Doctor Terio?’
‘We split up because somebody sent me a pager message just outside the forest,’ I explain. ‘It referred to my being on the run, unfortunately. We thought they’d be able to use that to locate me.’
‘Looks like they did,’ she replies, placing a hot drink in front of me. ‘My manager is going to take over here. I am going to conceal you under a pile of gravel in the back of a forestry truck, and drive you beyond their sight. It won’t be a comfortable ride, unfortunately, but I can’t exactly sit you next to me in the cab.’
‘Thank you,’ I say sincerely. ‘I honestly don’t know what they’ll do to me if they catch me.’
‘I’m afraid they’ll catch your companion,’ she sighs. ‘The outer ring path is tightly enclosed by hedges this end, and they’ll have a team posted on that one, too.
‘Terio’s wearing an invisibility tube,’ I tell her, sipping the infusion.
‘Blimey!’ she laughs. ‘They won’t be expecting that. Pe might just make it past them, if pe’s quiet enough.’
I hand her my water bottle to fill and tell her about the plan to meet Terio in the woodland just beyond the bridge. She expresses approval at this choice of hiding place, and waits for me to finish my drink.
I stand up, wincing at the pain in my feet, and we make our way quietly over to a chunky vehicle. I climb onto the back and she passes me an airtight bag. I step into it and seal myself in, then lie down as she shovels the gravel on top of me.
The whole world seems to vibrate as the vehicle starts up. The gravel presses down almost painfully, and I’ve never experienced anything so claustrophobic. The vehicle stops at one point and there’s an agonising wait while presumably the agents peer in to check that she has no passenger. Then there’s vibrations again as we move on. I can’t hear a thing.
I lie there for about half an hour, feeling the air in my bag become stale. Panic grips me as I realise that I’m running out of oxygen, but then the vibrations stop once more and a moment later a patch of gravel disappears before my face, followed by more and more of it as I unzip the bag and fill my lungs with welcome gulps of air.
‘Wow, I never wanna do that again!’ I grin as I heave myself free of the gravel and pull the bag off.
I’m completely drenched in sweat and my hair is sticking out in all directions as I jump from the truck and look around.
We’re parked up in a lovely patch of broadleaved woodland, carpeted with early spring flowers.
‘This is the only small wood around here, so it must be the one on your friend’s map,’ the forester explains, folding the bag and stashing it under her seat in the cab.
‘The path Terio will take over the bridge enters the woodland just over there,’ she adds, pointing to our left. ‘What you need to do is choose a place where pe will see you, but where others can’t from either the path or any pods flying above. That’s the tricky part.’
‘I think pe’ll be able to sense my energy field,’ I tell her. ‘We’re pretty tuned into each other in that way. So I reckon I’m best hiding as close to the path as possible, but completely concealed.’
‘Sounds like a smart plan,’ she nods at me. ‘Good luck, eh?’
I smile at her gratefully.
‘Oh, actually,’ she says suddenly, pulling a card from her pocket, ‘I’ve thought of something. A friend lives on this boat just further down the river. Why don’t you see if she’ll give you a lift the rest of the way?’
‘Can we definitely trust her?’ I ask, excited by this suggestion.
‘I’ll send her a vaguely worded page message,’ she assures me. ‘Just knock on her boat and tell her ‘Janiite’ sent you.’
She wishes us luck again and then climbs back into the truck and drives away as I begin my search for a hiding place.
I have never felt so tired, or so nervous. I will my legs to move ever forwards, as a battle rages in my head. I must not worry about what might be happening to Clarine. I must assume that I will meet her beyond the bridge. Follow her example. Stay positive.
As I reach the far side of the forest, I can see low-slung wooden buildings ahead in the distance. The path curves around the back of them and runs behind a steep hill, then out of sight towards the bridge. There are three men standing on the path, peering towards me. At least one of them is armed. What are they doing loitering there?
I glance around, but there is no option but to pass them. The forest is enclosed by a severe metal fence at this point, and the path is bordered to my left by a ragged, thorny hedge. I draw hesitantly closer.
I’m in luck. They’ve chosen quite a wide part of the path to stand around on. I should be able to squeeze past without touching them if I’m very careful.
Holding my breath and treading with absolute silence like a mountain cat, I creep slowly past. The tension in my limbs is unbelievable. My lungs feel like they’re going to burst.
I make it, speeding up again once I’m safely out of their hearing range.
Another half an hour’s walk takes me to the bridge, where several paths converge, including the wide, paved one to the nearby town. The bridge is busy with walkers and again I have to move in absolute silence.
After another half an hour, I leave the path and head into the patch of woodland that I saw on my map. It is a beautiful spot, full of delicate spring flowers and bursting buds. Insects hum in the gentle warmth of the evening sun as I part pick my way through the drooping branches, seeking Clarine.
I can feel her energy field. She’s here! A shiver of delight runs through me and I move in the direction it seems to be coming from. There’s a low bank at the far end of the wood, covered in dense bushes. I make for it, knowing with deep joy that Clarine is hiding there.
‘Horsfield!’ I say loudly.
It’s the name of a historian that Clarine quoted in a recent essay. We had agreed on it yesterday, as a code word that indicates that it is safe to show ourselves.
She shouts it back with enthusiasm and I pull off the tube and scramble up the bank, as Clarine parts the foliage and scrambles to her feet. As she jumps up to greet me her legs seem to give way underneath her, and she lurches against my chest, knocking me flat on my back.
‘Well, hello Clarine!’ I grin, sprawling in the long grass with her on top of me.
‘Oh, I’m sorry,’ she giggles. ‘My legs have stiffened up, I think.’
‘It’s all right,’ I reply dreamily. ‘I’m just glad to see you, dear.’
I don’t make any attempt to get up or push her off, and so she lays her chin on my chest, looking into my face for a moment. We seem to have gone beyond awkwardness, now. I think we both understand how much we depend on each other.
‘As much as I’d love to rest, we have to keep moving,’ I suggest at last. ‘I assume you would have mentioned by now …if they’d paged you?’
It has weighed heavily on my mind ever since we parted early this morning. Clarine will have been within reach of a pager signal from the moment she emerged from the forest. All it would take for the Power Institute to accurately track her is to send a succession of messages. We’re not dealing with amateurs here; surely they’ve thought of this?
‘I haven’t heard a thing,’ she tells me, sitting upright and pulling a leaf from her hair. ‘That’s what’s so weird. There must be a comms bridge somewhere nearby and I’ve been lying here for nearly two hours, but they haven’t been in touch.’
‘Well, that’s a relief,’ I smile. ‘We can’t relax too much, though, they could page you any time.’
‘Maybe they’ve chosen not to?’ she suggests. ‘After all, it would reveal to me that they’re definitely on my case.’
We can’t even begin to guess what they’re up to or how much at risk we are, so we decide to put such thoughts to the back of our minds and focus on reaching the Space Centre safely. I decide that I do need to rest for a short while, and so we talk in low voices as the sun sets beyond the trees. Clarine tells me about her ride in the back of the gravel truck and shows me the card that the forester gave her. It has a picture of a small blue boat.
‘Travelling by boat could be risky,’ I yawn, ‘…but so would passing through the town on foot. We might as well speak to this woman. If she’s unhelpful, we can always run away.’
We leave the cover of the bushes at around one after sunset. It is over a day since either of us have slept, and I feel dizzy, with a growing headache, but the urge to evade capture floods us with adrenaline and spurs us ever onwards. Clarine stumbles slightly as she walks, but does not complain.
We double back to the bridge and then pick our way carefully along the riverbank. It is steep and the going is difficult in the dark, but we feel considerably safer here than we would have been on the floodlit path above.
A row of boats are moored up on the bank, with groups of people sitting on or around them, chatting, drinking and smoking pipes. The boat we seek is on the very end of the row, a short distance beyond the others.
I keep my coil on and sit down in the grass as Clarine ventures down to the water’s edge and taps on the wooden door of the boat. It opens almost immediately, and a woman’s face pokes out. ‘Hello?’
‘Hello,’ Clarine replies. ‘I would like to ask your help. Janiite sent me.’
I can’t make out the woman’s expression in the dark, but her voice sounds friendly enough. ‘Oh, of course! She asked me to drop a couple of people off at the film theatre. You must be one of them. Climb aboard.’
Clarine glances round and gives the pre-arranged signal, so I hurry down to the boat. It is a chunky narrow houseboat with the name ‘Messenger of Peace’ painted in swirling letters on the side. How appropriate, I think as I step inside.
‘My friend is invisible,’ Clarine explains as she pulls the door shut after me.
I remove the tube carefully, making the woman jump.
‘My name’s Rebla,’ she tells us, so we introduce ourselves.
‘Those names sound familiar,’ she says. ‘Don’t tell me you’re…’
‘I’m the academic on the run from the Power Institute,’ I explain quickly. ‘Clarine is my research assistant. We need to get to the Space Centre as quickly as possible.’
I briefly outline our mission, and Rebla claps her hands in delight. ‘I can get you to the harbour by morning,’ she offers. ‘I can’t take this boat on the open sea, but it’s only a short walk from the harbour entrance to the pier head, where you can get a ferry to the Space Centre Island.’
‘Not many of us boat folk have computer access,’ she adds. ‘I certainly didn’t recognise you, as I never bother looking at news reports. I just get the urgent bulletins on my band. You probably won’t be spotted on the river, but I’d suggest staying below deck, just in case.’
‘Thank you ever so much,’ Clarine tells her sincerely.
‘It’s an adventure, init!’ Rebla laughs.
She shows us a cupboard full of cooking ingredients, and asks us to make a pot of stew while she drives. She then climbs the stairs out to the rear deck, unties the boat and casts off. The boat drifts to the centre of the river, and then begins to vibrate as Rebla starts up the engine.
Clarine and I look at each other and smile.
‘Do you mind if I lie down?’ I ask weakly.
‘Course not,’ Clarine replies, clattering pots. ‘You crash on that settle. I’ll cook.’
I watch her chopping onions and bognuts for a while, until the rhythmic chugging of the boat engine lulls me to sleep.
I add more logs to the old iron stove and twist the hob vents closed until the stew stops boiling and drops to a simmer.
Terio is lying on pis back along the length of the settle. I feel very drowsy and unsteady on my feet, but the floor of the boat is uninvitingly cold and hard. I cross the narrow space and attempt to squeeze onto the settle next to Terio. Pe stirs in pis sleep and moves over for me, pressing against the boat wall.
‘That enough room?’ pe mutters drowsily.
‘Yes, thanks,’ I reply, lying down beside pim.
Terio turns pis head slightly and kisses my cheek, which takes me by surprise. ‘I’m very fond of you, Clarine,’ pe says dreamily.
I’m extremely moved by this. ‘Let’s make sure we don’t get separated again,’ I reply, my eyes brimming with tears as I gaze up through the long, narrow window at the stars moving overhead.
We must have both fallen deeply asleep, as I’m woken hours later by the sound of Rebla stirring the pot. The boat has stopped moving and the cold, faint light of dawn streams in through the windows.
I sit up, rubbing my eyes. ‘Where are we?’
‘About two hours from the harbour.’ Rebla replies. ‘This stew looks pretty good. I’ve moored up here so we can eat.’
I shake Terio awake and we join Rebla at her small table. I’m too drowsy to have much of an appetite, but force myself to eat a big portion, as I don’t know when I’ll next get a meal.
We stay awake, then, and I make myself useful by washing up and sweeping the boat. Terio dons pis tube and joins Rebla on the deck, but they don’t talk much as the boat engine is too noisy to allow anything below a shout.
We turn a bend and the harbour comes into view, at last. Terio comes back below deck and pulls a sheet of card from pis bag. ‘I packed a ferry timetable, weeks ago,’ pe explains. ‘By my reckoning, there’s three of them a day, and one leaves in just over an hour. Wonder if we’ll make it?’
Rebla moors the boat just outside the harbour walls. ‘You’ll make that ferry if you leave right now,’ she suggests, giving us directions.
We change into fresh clothes and then thank her briefly for her help.
‘A pleasure,’ she replies. ‘Get on with you now. Don’t linger.’
We step ashore, with me safely back under the tube.
‘It’ll be a nice change, once I can see you all the time,’ Clarine comments.
‘You mean you don’t think this is an improvement on my normal looks?’ I joke.
The boat journey has saved well over a day of walking, and allowed us a precious few hours’ sleep, so we’re in good spirits as we make our way through the harbour. However, we still have to get on that ferry somehow, and we don’t really have a cunning plan worked out for that.
It is fully light, but the bright sunshine of the last few days has given way to overcast weather, with ominous grey blankets of cloud rolling in from the sea.
‘My tube is useless in the rain,’ I tell Clarine when I’m sure no passers by can overhear.
We don’t spot anyone loitering around the pier head that looks even remotely like an Institute agent, which really surprises us. However, we do soon find the ferry. It is a small wooden boat with an outboard engine, lashed to a bollard with stout hemp rope.
Our hastily devised plan was for Clarine to attempt to charm the skipper into taking her to the island with a tale about a ‘boyfriend’ working there, and some news of a family tragedy to discretely impart. If this didn’t work, I was going to attack him, her or pim from behind, giving Clarine a chance to jump onboard while I untie the boat and push off.
It was a stupid plan. I realised this as soon as I set eyes on the skipper – a hulking brute of a man, covered in skin ink pictures, with squinting eyes and arms as thick as my thighs. No way would I be able to make him overbalance, even while invisible. I also doubted that any cute sob story from Clarine would have an effect.
‘I have to tell the truth, don’t I?’ she says quietly, as if reading my mind.
Stepping over to the man, she clears her throat and tells him that she needs to get to the Space Centre with great urgency.
‘Staff and invited guests only,’ he grunts. ‘No permit, no ride.’
She begins to plead with him, but he takes a step towards her and clamps a hand on her shoulder as if to shove her away.
Fired up with adrenaline and outraged at the sight of Clarine being attacked, I fly at the skipper with a vicious yell that causes all four waiting passengers to whip round in alarm and stare in the direction it came from.
Unfortunately, my charge is cut abruptly short when I trip on a coil of rope and crash to the ground with a grunt, the tube riding up over my body to reveal my legs up to the knee. The small crowd by the boat gape in astonishment as I scramble to my feet in humiliation, slipping the tube back down as I do so.
Just as Clarine breaks free of the skipper’s grasp to try to join me, one of the passengers pushes forward and gives a shout.
‘No! Don’t become invisible!’
It is a somewhat overweight man in a smart suit, with bushy grey hair and fleshy, bright red cheeks. He looks vaguely familiar.
‘Is that you, Doctor Terio?’ he shouts over hopefully.
I remove the tube and face the man, blinking. ‘Yes’.
‘My word, so it is!’ the man squeaks excitedly. ‘We hoped and preyed you’d come.’
He turns to the skipper and tells him forcefully to allow us passage.
‘Am I safe to reveal myself?’ I ask, still wondering whom this man is.
‘Of course!’ he grins, holding his hand for me to shake. ‘Pretty much all the agents have been recalled by now.’
‘Recalled?’ I ask, grasping his broad hand to shake it.
‘Well, on account of the bombs, of course!’ he exclaims.
Clarine and I look at each other, baffled.
‘You mean you haven’t heard?’ he gasps. ‘You really have been hiding in the bushes this last few days, haven’t you!’
Clarine opens her mouth as if to tell him this is more or less exactly what we’ve been doing, when the skipper begins to protest that we’re holding up the ferry.
‘Get on, get on,’ the smartly dressed man ushers us, waving his hand at the boat. ‘I’m Doctor Stenleigh, by the way, joint Director of the Space Centre. We’ll talk properly once we’ve landed.’
The boat wasn’t really designed for seven people, so we all have to squeeze up quite tightly. I don’t mind this, because as we leave the shelter of the harbour, the wind cuts through my clothes, making me shiver. Terio sits upright and elegant in the prow of the boat, pis arm around my shoulders and greying hair billowing in the breeze.
Stenleigh tries to make conversation as we set off, but we can only catch a few words over the roar of the engine and the clapping waves, so he lapses into silence and just smiles across at us.
We disembark on the jetty and Stenleigh ushers us straight into the entrance hall. He takes an iris scan from each of us and inputs it into a computer.
‘Top security, here,’ he explains. ‘That’s why we have no access for pods.’
We are introduced to the other seven scientists and astronomers who work at the centre, two men, two women and three andrels. The youngest of these steps forward to take the computer plate from Terio.
‘It is a real pleasure to hand this over, at long last,’ Terio tells pim sincerely.
‘We’ll get on it right away,’ the scientist grins. ‘It’ll take a few hours to code it.’
‘We will make the Transmission as soon as that’s done,’ Stenleigh informs us. ‘In the meantime, lets’ pop up to the tower room, to talk.’
He shows us into a small square room with two walls lined with comfortable benches and cushions. There’s a computer terminal cleverly built into another wall, and a huge window taking up almost the entire forth one gives a breathtaking view of the open sea.
Through a combination of asking Stenleigh questions and trawling a range of Computerweb news sites, we are able to deduce what has been happening in the wider world during the two long days since we spoke to Salkie’s brother.
Collective outrage at the raid on Terio’s house that caused Salkie’s capture and Terio’s sudden disappearance resulted in our entire university suspending its operations and walking out on strike. A ripple affect spread throughout other universities and within a few hours, almost every academic institution in the country had joined the lockdown.
When news broke that Terio had removed pis pager band, pe was officially classified as a threat to worldwide security, and an urgent appeal paged out by the Power Institute for pis capture. However, not only were all staff and students from our university, together with other known associates of Terio screened out of this appeal, but we were also put under surveillance, with all messages to and from our bands being intercepted.
Darlo’s message enabled Institute agents in the area to pinpoint my location, predict my passage through the forest, and quickly scramble to ambush me. They also issued an immediate order for my arrest, broadcasting a full description of both Terio and I on all of the Computerweb news sites, in order that we would be spotted and seized if we somehow managed to slip through their net.
Professor Raqim had reacted to this by immediately bribing an Institute official to scramble the wavelength of my pager band. Within an hour, all messages to me had effectively been blocked. An order was then made for Raqim’s arrest, and four heavily armed agents dispatched to our university to take him prisoner. They were repelled by over a thousand students, and forced to leave empty handed.
By the time Terio had joined me in the woods beyond the bridge, every single university on Adoro had locked down in protest, together with over half of the schools. The Power Institute made some half-hearted attempts to forcibly occupy some of the colleges, but they were outnumbered each time by determined staff and students, and began to retreat, releasing Salkie from custody in a vain attempt to calm the situation.
An anonymous Institute worker then leaked a highly confidential document to one of the top Computerweb news sites, giving details of high-level discussions about the possibility of a potential future invasion of Earth.
Just a few hours later, while Terio and I had slumbered peacefully on Rebla’s houseboat, a series of bombs had exploded, ripping apart the austere granite headquarters of the Power Institute, and plunging their operations into chaos.
We assemble in the giant telescope room at seven after sunrise. It is exactly two Sun months to the day that the original broadcast from Earth was picked up here, in this very room. A huge transmitter was rigged up by the Space Centre staff some weeks ago, and they’re now bursting with enthusiasm to use it.
They have actually prepared six different versions of our Transmission, because, as one of the coders, ‘Daveley’, points out, technology on Earth will have moved on over the last thirty years, and by the time they get our message, will have moved on yet again.
It seems strange to think that all our carefully researched and edited words and pictures are about to be beamed through space as bits of computer code; basically, just pulses of electricity.
‘Are you nervous?’ Stenleigh grins as he paces the room importantly.
‘I’m beyond nervous,’ I reply.
Clarine chats excitedly to Daveley, who puts a set of headphones on her and invites her to tinker with some of the equipment. Eventually, the telescope operators report that they have fixed to co-ordinates for Earth to an acceptable level of tolerance, so we all fall silent as the Transmission is sent.
‘On its way!’ Daveley reports with a grin.
He and Clarine jump up and spontaneously hug, while Stenleigh and I whoop and slap our hands together. Clarine then grabs me by the elbow and spins me round, with some of the others joining us in a kind of spontaneous folk dance.
‘Sorted!’ Stenleigh announces, folding his arms in satisfaction. ‘Now we just need to make this public. I’m going to page all the reporters I know, and see if I can rig up a live interview to go Global in an hour’s time. Are you game?’
‘Certainly,’ I reply. ‘Can I borrow a hairbrush?’
Our interview is broadcast spontaneously on every Computerweb site. The panel of reporters hardly ask any questions; they just let us talk. This suits me fine.
Clarine and Stenleigh introduce the piece and each briefly explains their involvement, but they leave the main bulk of the broadcast to me. I step into the camera zone, clear my throat, and begin.
‘Men, women, andrels and offspring of the four nations of Adoro. I address you as one of a small group of history scholars chosen almost two months ago to represent our planet by preparing a return Transmission to the distant planet of Earth.
The Transmission we received from Earth changed our entire perception of our place in the universe. For the first time in history, we knew for certain that we were not alone; that across the distant reaches of space, there were other people.
It was a great honour being chosen to prepare a response on your behalf, but this honour was brutally snatched away from us by the Power Institute. My colleagues and I decided to stand up to this bullying and continue with our work, regardless. Only time will tell if we did the right thing. As you know, Doctor Salkie was recently imprisoned, and Clarine and myself were forced to go into hiding. I have now forfeited by identity as an academic, and almost all my rights as an Adoro citizen. I will take any punishment that is due to me.
As Doctor Stenleigh has just explained, our data reached the Space Centre safely, and it has now been transmitted to Earth. In just over thirty years, they will receive our broadcast, and hopefully will rejoice in the news of our existence, just as we did when we discovered theirs.
We know that these people are like us in many ways, and are likely to have faced some of the same problems. We also know that there are fundamental differences between us. There are so many questions we can ask each other, and so much knowledge and experience yet to share.
Our society has evolved considerably over the last thirty years. We andrels now have equal rights, many diseases that used to kill millions have been eradicated, and we have a quality of life that previous generations could never have imagined.
With recent developments in hyperspeed travel, it is possible that we will soon have the technology to travel through space faster than the speed of light. It is even possible that some of you watching this broadcast will actually set foot on Earth one day.
Let us make sure that we are welcomed, when we do. Let us build on the developments of the last thirty years, by eradicating some of the problems of our own making. We have become lazy, greedy and wasteful. Obesity levels are rising, and depression has become widespread. Our complacency has caused power outages and water shortages in some areas. We must address these issues for the good of our world, not continue to let them grow worse.
When we finally meet the Earth people face to face, let us do so proudly, as a united, healthy and happy people. Let us communicate with Earth in the collective spirit of co-operation, learning, and trust.’
I end the broadcast, stepping back to take my place beside Stenleigh.
‘That was excellent, mate,’ he enthuses, patting me on the shoulder. ‘Dynamic stuff! Now we just have to sit back, and wait for them to come and arrest us!’
The adrenaline that sustained us on our journey ebbs away like the tide, leaving us exhausted. They allocate us two small rooms, so we spend the next three days just pottering round the small island, chatting to the Space Centre staff, and getting plenty of rest. Terio in particular spends most of the time in pis room, reading and sleeping.
I watch the ferry boat pull in to the jetty three times each day, but no agents ever step out. I feel very cut off from the outside world as I trawl the Computerweb every few hours for news.
The Power Institute has stopped communicating with reporters, and has issued no public statements since the bombings. It is as if they have locked down, just like the universities.
There is a small, relatively contained street riot in our hometown of Branford Hill, plus much larger, more destructive ones in Albenham City, Blueport and Burwell-in-Valley. Many public buildings have been gutted by fire, but there are no reports of any deaths.
Terio’s speech causes considerable controversy and debate, with many influential writers and policy makers backing pis sentiments and calling for an enquiry into dismantling the Power Institute altogether.
I fill Terio in on all of this as we sit together in the tower room on the third day, sipping fermented berry juice and watching black storm clouds range across the sky.
‘I’m amazed that Professor Raqim took such a risk to help us,’ I say.
‘So am I,’ Terio agrees. ‘I owe that man an apology.’
‘Stenleigh has offered to charter a private pod back to Branford for us,’ pe adds. ‘I think we should take up his offer, and get the first boat tomorrow to meet it. We could be back at the university to see Raqim and Salkie by tomorrow evening.’
‘Good plan,’ I agree, ‘…though it’s a shame neither of us will be able to go back there properly.’
‘What do you mean?’ Terio frowns. ‘You will, probably. I won’t.’
‘I can’t be a student any more,’ I explain. ‘I need to go up a credit level if I’m to support both of us, and that means switching to full time work.’
‘Support both of us?’ pe asks, staring at me in surprise.
‘Well, of course,’ I shrug. ‘You can’t earn a living any more, so you’ll have to live with someone, and when I said that on the boat about not wanting to be separated again, I wasn’t just referring to this expedition.’
Terio looks really moved by this. ‘That’s very sweet of you,’ pe says in a small voice, ‘…but you need to think this through properly.’
‘What about your future? What happens when you want to have a relationship? A boyfriend? You won’t exactly want me around, getting in the way and invading your privacy, will you?’
I walk over and put my arms around pim from behind, resting my cheek against pis.
‘Now then!’ I say in a mock stern tone. ‘I have had boyfriends, as it happens, and I even had a girlfriend once, too. I know what it’s like to have a fun time and sex life and stuff, but that’s not what I want any more.’
‘You deserve to be desired by someone,’ Terio insists. ‘Davely asked me just before if you were single, in fact. Be with someone like him who can fulfil you, not an aging sterile.’
‘You’re only about ten years older than me!’ I reply indignantly. ‘Besides, you know as well as I do that we have a connection, Terio. I’m not looking for a good time in bed, I want a companion. Someone I can love and trust with all my heart and soul. So stop trying to pretend otherwise, cos that’s you.’
Terio continues to stare intently out of the window and doesn’t respond. I can feel pis shoulders trembling, so I kiss pis face really gently and then leave pim alone, to think it over.
The pod touches down in the university courtyard the following evening.
Hundreds of staff and students have turned out to meet us, and I feel very nervous as we prepare to step outside, because I have no idea what the mood of the crowd will be.
‘Just hold your head high,’ Terio suggests, squeezing my hand. ‘We’ve done nothing wrong.’
The crowd erupts as we step out and walk towards Raqim, who emerges from the main doorway, flanked by the other four professors.
Raqim walks straight over to Terio and raises both palms in the traditional greeting for someone who has been away. Terio places pis own, smaller hands against those of Raqim, and they smile at each other.
‘Welcome back,’ Raqim says. ‘The students have really missed you, of course. We hope that you will return to teaching as soon as possible.’
‘I cannot work,’ Terio replies.
Raqim assures him that they will find a way around this, and then expresses approval in the sentiments expressed in the broadcast. He then turns to me.
‘I trust my intervention with your band paid off?’
‘Yes,’ I nod. ‘I haven’t had a pager message since.’
‘I know that we are not friends, Terio, and that you question my methods,’ Raqim continues, ‘…but you must understand that my initial co-operation with the Institute was purely an act of desperation. I genuinely did not believe that I had any other choice but to comply.’
He peers into Terio’s face, sincerely. ‘I thought that they would close the university down and arrest me if I refused. So I went along with their wishes, despite the pain I felt.’
‘Attacks on my staff were a step too far,’ he concludes, folding his arms. ‘As soon as I heard about the raid on your house and Doctor Salkie’s imprisonment, my co-operation ended.’
‘Where is Salkie?’ Terio asks him urgently.
‘She’s spending time quietly, with her family,’ Raqim replies ‘I will take you to see her, just as soon as we have finished here.’
An understanding passes between them as they talk. Raqim is now eager to win Terio’s favour for the first time, and Terio’s face seems to register a newfound respect for Raqim. I realise that there will be a much better working relationship between them from now on, and I feel a surge of joy as I stand with them in the evening sunshine, the crowd still shouting and cheering in the background.
‘I only wish that I’d had the courage to stand up to them right from the start,’ Raqim reflects as they begin to walk along the line of staff, so that Terio can greet each of them in turn. ‘Then you would not have had all that trouble.’
‘Oh, it wasn’t such a bad adventure, now that I look back on it,’ Terio assures him. ‘I’ve spent over twenty years studying history, after all. It’s about time I helped to make it!’
The university are unable to pay someone of my non-citizen status, but there’s nothing to stop me from volunteering, so I go back to work the very next day. I set about my duties with an enthusiasm I haven’t felt since I first began teaching, over fifteen years ago. The students do seem to love having me back, and a constant steam of them call in at my office to chat.
The university takes Clarine on as a part time library assistant, so that she can continue her studies. In some kind of complicated fiddling of the accounts, she gets put on the lecturer credit stream, so earns enough to keep a roof over both of our heads.
‘Does it feel weird, to be back?’ she asks me, poking her head around the door of my office towards the end of the very first day.
‘I guess it does,’ I reply. ‘We were only away for a week, but it feels so long.’
‘My application for a house has been accepted,’ she tells me. ‘There’s a list of vacant ones, here. I’d like you to choose one, seeing as you’re a bit more particular about these things.’
‘Are you sure?’ I ask, taking the list.
‘Yeah’, she shrugs. ‘I don’t care where we live, as long as it has a nice view.’
My old house has been re-allocated already. Most of my things were destroyed in the raid, but thankfully all my books were spared, and the new occupants handed them over to the university a few days ago.
I choose a spacious flat on the top floor of an old stone warehouse that has recently been converted into accommodation. There are views over the town in three directions, with the fourth side looking out towards the distant forest. The roof is flat, and we decide to establish a garden on it.
We are in the process of moving in the few small items of furniture that we own when a pod lands beside us in the street. Salkie clambers out, waving a piece of paper.
‘We’ve been pardoned!’ she beams.
I take the letter and study it, carefully. It is from the Power Institute, and says that the orders of arrest against myself, Clarine and Raqim have now been withdrawn, and all charges against Salkie have been dropped.
‘That’s a relief,’ I reason. ‘It’ll be nice to know there won’t suddenly be a bang on the door.’
‘I did wonder why they hadn’t come for us,’ Clarine says, wiping her hands on her trousers and peering at the letter with interest.
‘Of course, there’re only doing this because they fear the public outburst if they take any further action against us,’ I suggest. ‘I don’t believe for one minute that they’ve made this decision willingly, and besides, I’ll still be a band-less social outcast for the rest of my days.’
‘I wouldn’t be so sure,’ Salkie smiles. ‘The tide is turning, Terio. Haven’t you been following the news?’
She bends to help me lift a wooden settle into the lift. ‘There’s been increasing calls for having a pager connection to be made voluntary, again. The way things are going, it will soon be legal to turn them off whenever we want, or even to get them removed, like you did.’
‘There’s also increasing pressure for the Institute to justify its existence,’ she adds thoughtfully. ‘That’s what all these riots have been about. The Institute was only ever supposed to monitor social trends and ensue that everybody felt safe and secure, but they’ve got completely out of hand and people now feel that they dominate and invade every aspect of our lives. They’re just not happy any more. There’s going to be a lot more social unrest before all this settles down.’
‘I reckon you’re right,’ I reply. ‘This is an interesting time to be alive, for sure!’
‘I want to research a book on the history of Institutions, and potential future trends,’ Salkie tells me. ‘Fancy coming on board?’
‘Sure,’ I smile. ‘I’d like to get stuck into a big project like that pretty soon, but first I want to take some time out. Go for a walk on the moors, and things like that, just for fun. After all, you’re always telling me to get out more!’
Sharing the flat with Clarine seems strange, at first. I have lived alone since I left the orphanage as a teenager, so simple things like placing something down and finding that it has been moved somewhere else take a bit of getting used to, but I’m determined to adjust as soon as I can. After all, the benefits of having someone to come home to and share meals with completely outweigh such minor niggles.
We lie back on the roof one night, the stars gazing down at us in twinkling little points of light. There’s an old grey blanket underneath us, and I recognise it as one of the ones I packed for the journey.
‘Remember the first time you hugged me?’ I ask Clarine dreamily. ‘We were wrapped up in this blanket, then.’
‘I remember,’ she replies, moving closer to slide her arm under my neck. ‘You were shivering.’
‘I wonder where Earth is?’ I muse. ‘I seem to recall it being about there, just a few degrees from the East star.’
I point vaguely at the sky.
‘I wonder how far away our Transmission is, now?’ Clarine replies.
‘You could do the maths, if you like?’ I suggest playfully.
‘I can’t be bothered!’ she laughs. ‘I just like to think of it, speeding through the sky towards the distant people.’
‘I wonder whether we’ll both still be alive, when Adorons finally get to meet Earth people face to face?’ I speculate, propping my chin up on my hand and smiling down at her.
‘I hope so!’ she enthuses, her eyes glowing.
‘I hope so, too,’ I reply, leaning over to kiss her.
Doctor Stenleigh webmailed me earlier, to tell me there’s a spectacular asteroid shower predicted tonight. Clarine and I should get a good view of it from this roof, provided it doesn’t cloud over.
Right now, we’re too wrapped up in each other.
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