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Protected_Planet_3: Elder Kaitlyn

Protected Planet #3, The Elder Kaitlyn

Bran and Xendra were happy. Together they walked, hand in hand, back from tending the palfreys, the dog-ponies, this planet’s version of gentle horses.

‘We’ll have to think up a name for the two we brought from the smaller continent. They’re recovered well by now. The kaitlyn are pleased with their healing, too,’ Xendra said. Her light brown hair waved in the warm breeze, her loose tunic and trousers fanning round her slim outline.

‘They’re both bay, one male, one female. The female maybe Walnut, the male Beech? He reminds me a bit of coppery beech leaves. And Walnut reminds me of those warm, light brown nuts. Easy to open, if you do it right.’

‘You’re mostly thinking of their colour for names – maybe. We’ll have to see if Xillia and Yanni agree. They’re as fond of these palfreys as we are.’

‘They’ve put a lot of work into helping them trust people again,’ Bran said. ‘They deserve to be consulted. Yanni is getting to be quite a good aircar pilot too.’

‘If you say that, First Officer Bran McNulty, that means Yanni is an excellent pilot.’ Xendra laughed. Bran was without doubt one of the most skilled pilots who’d ever been in the Space Navy or the Merchant Space Service. Xendra regarded him fondly. His once pale face was now bronzed, his dark brown hair lightened by the planet’s sun. His brown eyes smiled into her dark grey ones.

Arrived at Homecamp, they began preparing stew and tea for the others.

But they were interrupted.

Two kaitlyn came into camp, something so unusual, that there must be something very wrong somewhere. Xendra took Bran’s hand, already beginning to go deep into herself to ask the cat-beings what they wished.

The two kaitlyn extended their hands, each taking a human hand in his own pad, long finger-toes, claws carefully retracted, curling round the soft human hands. Sensing came to Bran and Xendra.

‘Trouble. The smaller continent. Kaitlyn need help, territory in difficulty, plants sick, dying. Food plants of the kaitlyn. Go. Meet – old meeting place – lake with river.’

Bran and Xendra bowed to the two kaitlyn. The kaitlyn beckoned, towards their north-forest area. Bran and Xendra followed, speculation rife as they walked. Would the three kaitlyn who came from that continent wish to return, or stay here? What would the Elder wish? Evacuation of the smaller continent kaitlyn here? Supplies of food to the smaller continent? What if we cannot help the territory?

They arrived at the north-forest, met by the three who had come from the smaller continent. Bran and Xendra now linked hands with the five kaitlyn. Less confident, they had not wished to come into Homecamp themselves. Xendra understood that. They wanted to stay here, but if Bran and Xendra felt they were needed on the smaller continent, they would return.

With the clearer communication, Bran and Xendra understood it was a sensing which the kaitlyn had picked up. Partly from the kaitlyn there, partly from the plant-life affected, through the planet itself. ‘ A sickness, an unwellness. The flow of the life cycles imbalanced. Go, evaluate. Return for advice if needed.’

The circle broke. The kaitlyn sang their farewell song and bowed. The humans echoed the song and bowed low. The kaitlyn went back to their forest.

Bran and Xendra returned to Homecamp, straight to Captain Nero’s boat-quarters. ‘We need a conference, sir. The kaitlyn want us to go to the smaller continent to investigate a problem.’

‘Call Xillia and Yanni. Alicia is here, I’ll tell her.’

The six gathered round Homecamp fire. Xendra put the root-stew back on.

‘So, essentially it is a scouting party that’s required, to find out just what is wrong,’ Captain Nero rubbed his neck again. ‘Couldn’t be anything those two, Yisto and Xepher, did while they were alone over there, I suppose?’

‘Why should you think it was Yisto or Xepher? Why always blame them?’ Alicia asked. She twisted her mousy-brown hair, damp and loose after washing, back into it’s usual pigtail braid.

‘Because it so often was, Alicia. Remember what they did – and how we had to rescue you from them, even from Exile Island?’ Bran defended his Captain, almost automatically. ‘I for one was downright glad when Wilf and his Navy ship arrived to take them off this planet. The point is that we don’t know what’s wrong right now. Of course you are going. It’s a question of what you need to take with you. Yanni, Xillia? Palfreys maybe? Doctor Alicia, perhaps? Food and water, of course, by the sound of things.’

Captain Nero agreed with Bran. Yisto and Xepher had caused nothing but trouble while on this protected planet. But why didn’t Doctor Alicia, an otherwise sensible woman, see that too?

‘We are to meet other kaitlyn at the lake. Now that is strange too, it’s much more northerly than the kaitlyn here would like. I’d suggest myself, Xendra, Yanni, Xillia to begin with, at least,’ Bran said.

‘You can fly back, or send Yanni back with the aircar if you need anything from Homecamp. It’s all too vague at the moment. Alicia and I can attend to the palfreys and the agriculture meantime. Now eat up, sleep, and go in the morning.’ The Captain grizzled head nodded goodnight. He drew Alicia towards their boat-quarters.

On the flight over, Bran allowed Yanni to take the controls, though he couldn’t help watching every move Yanni made. Yanni ran a hand through his black hair.

‘Stop fussing, Bran. You’re enough to put him off,’ Xendra said. ‘Don’t mind him, Yanni. Only last night he told me you were a good pilot.’

Bran grinned at his mate. ‘You weren’t supposed to tell him that! There’s always room for improvement – don’t get a swelled head, Yanni.’

‘As if he would.’ Xillia’s blonde ponytail swung a negative. ‘He’s too nice for that.’

‘If you are all done discussing me, could you start watching for that lake we’re to find? We should be getting near – there’s the coast,’ Yanni said.

They watched the smaller continent pass below them, the mountain range to their right. ‘Over there, Yanni,’ Bran said, pointing. Yanni flew the aircar towards the lake they were to find, taking it in to land on the more stony area just north of the lake. The same lake Bran had landed on seasons ago. Yanni gently set the aircar down.

‘Good landing. Don’t forget the immobiliser.’

‘As if I would, Bran.’ Yanni had already checked the aircar was securely settled and parked.

The four alighted and began to walk toward the lake, taking extra food packs with them. Bran and Xendra held hands, to help their awareness, their sensing, of the kaitlyn who were to meet them here.

They felt themselves being watched. Accustomed to the boldness of the north-forest kaitlyn of the larger continent, they continued their slow approach to the lake shore. These kaitlyn would need to be assured of their intent only to help. Arrived, they settled patiently. The kaitlyn would come when they were ready.

Sensing rather than seeing the kaitlyns’ approach, Bran and Xendra rose, holding hands and bowing. Yanni and Xillia followed their example, also taking each other’s hand.

Two kaitlyn slowly approached, thin kaitlyn, their brown fur and darker brown rosettes dull, lifeless-looking. Xendra and Bran each took a food packet in their free hands, and approached slowly, offering the food ration pack to each kaitlyn. They held in their minds the picture of kaitlyn eating.

The kaitlyn took the packages, looking into the dark brown and dark grey eyes of Bran and Xendra, remaining deep inside themselves, holding the green and amber eyes of the kaitlyn. Bran and Xendra maintained the picture of the kaitlyn opening and eating the packages. The kaitlyn sat back on their hind quarters, each delicately opening a package with their nimble front paw-hand claws, their long toe-fingers curling to break a small piece, sniffing, tasting it. Then ate it. And another piece, and another.

Sufficed for the time being, they bowed in thanks, the humans also bowed in return.

Bran and Xendra, deep in themselves, tried to ask what was wrong that they were so thin.

‘This is hard going. Help us, please,’ Xendra said, extending her hand to Yanni, who, joined with Xillia, took it.

On impulse, Bran extended his hand to the kaitlyn, hoping to enhance their sensing, their communication with the kaitlyn. One took his hand. Gently Xillia on the other end extended her hand to the other kaitlyn. It was taken. All with paws and hands linked, the humans waited, as open to these kaitlyn as they knew how.

The kaitlyn had been forced out of their tropical zone. The fatlings had come, though thin now, the berserkers had come, following their food source. Even the palfreys came. The kaitlyn were pushed north and south. Into the temperate zone. Where they met more berserkers, for not all had gone to the tropics, some had remained, with some fatlings, some palfreys. But, north, the food was ill. The water was not good. The kaitlyn felt ill, more than half-starved. The berserkers, those vicious long-jawed hunters, like bear-wolf creatures, were a problem for the kaitlyn now, too.

Questions rippled through the group, from one or other mind.

‘How many kaitlyn?’ Xendra.

‘Twenty or thirty’. A kaitlyn.

‘Can we supply food, water, refugee camp?’ Bran.

‘Can we correct the imbalance?’ Xendra.

‘Protection against berserkers – what and how?’ Yanni.

‘Can we help improve the water?’ Xillia.

‘Where is the worst affected?’ Bran.

‘We show.’ The kaitlyn bowed. Bran’s hand was dropped, but Bran asked in his mind, ‘How far? Do we need the flyer?’

The kaitlyn looked at each other. Then conferred in mind and sung notes, too fast for the humans to follow.

‘The fly machine. We come.’ They bowed. The humans bowed in return, releasing each other’s hands. As one, they returned to the aircar, taking the food packages with them.

Yanni lowered the ramp. ‘You’d better fly it, Bran. I wouldn’t want to wobble about with the kaitlyn here.’

‘Sure. And we’ve no idea where we’re going.’

‘You’d better get in Bran,’ Xendra said. ‘In case somebody sits in the pilot’s chair.’

‘If you can, Xendra, place yourself where you can touch me. I might need clear directions, where to fly, where to land.’

Bran settled himself while the others invited the kaitlyn to seat themselves. One went to the front passenger seat, one went behind Bran. Xendra took the chair behind the front kaitlyn. After Xillia entered, Yanni pulled up the ramp and sat behind with Xillia.

Bran started the engine, lifting the aircar above the trees. Xendra took the hand of the kaitlyn beside her, twisting in her chair to place her hand on Bran’s shoulder.

‘Try to keep her steady, Bran. I’m just perched here.’

‘Will do. Now which way?’

‘East. And a bit south.’

‘East-south-east?’

‘Probably. Feels about right, anyway.’

To Bran’s surprise, the kaitlyn beside him placed his hand on Bran’s knee. He sighed in relief as the direction came more clearly to him. He changed course to two points east of south-east.

‘I’ll stay low, so the kaitlyn can see the ground. I don’t know how far they want us to go.’

Bran flew on, Xendra staying in close rapport. Towards the southern belt of the temperate zone, about 200 yens from the lake, he felt he was to land.

‘Here?’

‘I think so.’ Xendra felt the kaitlyn’s eagerness.

‘We can always take off again.’ Bran looked for a clear space to land among the trees below. He saw a section with fewer trees, more grain-grass. Bran estimated they were near enough the centre of the northern temperate zone of the lesser continent.

Bran settled the aircar in the small area, almost avoiding the grain-grass. Yanni opened the ramp, allowing the kaitlyn to descend, followed by the others. Bran set the aircar’s immobiliser while the others took packs and extra food. They followed the kaitlyn, who led them towards other kaitlyn gathered by another lake. All were thin, like the two guide kaitlyn.

‘Wow. We’d better get more food. A lot more food,’ Yanni said.

‘And water,’ Xillia added.

‘First, let’s take samples. They said the water and the food was bad.’ Bran reached into his pack. He selected several small containers. ‘Get some water and some of the grass-grains and plants too. Then you or I can fly them back to Homecamp when we fetch some more supplies for these kaitlyn.’

Xendra wondered if the kaitlyn wanted to go to the main continent. She took Bran’s hand, going deep into herself. She wasn’t sure. With a deep bow, she offered her hand to one of the kaitlyn who’d met them. The kaitlyn took her hand. ‘Do the kaitlyn wish to go to the main continent? Or stay here? Any who may wish to go, we could take in the flyer.’ .

The kaitlyn bowed. Bran and Xendra returned their bow. Xendra released the kaitlyn’s hand. He began singing. The kaitlyn gathered, clearly listening, conversing among themselves. About thirty, perhaps, Bran thought. They’d need at least two, maybe three flights if they all wanted to go. The flyer had eight seats, but could take up to twelve humans.

‘Is there room, supplies enough in the main continent? We don’t even know how many kaitlyn are there already,’ Xendra asked.

‘Best wait and see what they want to do. They might not all want to go anyway.’ Bran would have preferred to ask the Elder Kaitlyn first, but the offer was made. ‘If we do take them, we must consult with the Elder Kaitlyn, though.’

‘He’ll be waiting, I’m sure,’ Xendra said.

They waited for the kaitlyn’s decision while Yanni and Xillia got the samples.

‘If the kaitlyn stay, Bran, would you like me to fly these samples to Homecamp? And bring back as much food and water as the flyer can carry?’

‘Yes. And an igloo. And anything we can use for protection for the kaitlyn against the berserkers.’

‘Fencing? Webbing? Something to make a sort of protective corral?’

‘That’s the idea.’ Bran knew the kaitlyn had been pushed north, but this was the home area of the berserkers, and he’d seen some spoor already. ‘Enough for some protection. There’s still some berserkers here – they didn’t all go into the tropical zone. And you know how bloodthirsty berserkers are.’

Meantime, some ten or so kaitlyn had stepped forward. Seeing their approach, Yanni said, ‘Maybe you’d better do the flying, Bran. You and Xendra. Looks like they’ve decided.’

Bran and Xendra held hands for better communication. ‘We wish to go, spread out the requirement for food. And we wish to converse with our cousins. We may return here later?’

Bran and Xendra understood. ‘Certainly. We can fly you now, and return you here whenever you wish. Come. We can go and return again with food and water for your brethren and sisters.’

The kaitlyn followed the four to the aircar. They took all the supplies from the aircar for the kaitlyn and for Yanni and Xillia.

‘See if you can raise Homecamp, tell them to have more supplies for us. Enough for about 20 kaitlyn and ourselves. We’ll be back as soon as we can. Watch out for berserkers – the food is bound to attract them,’ Bran told Yanni. ‘Take care.’

With the eleven kaitlyn who wished to go settled as comfortably as they could, the weaker or older ones in all the seats available, Bran gently lifted off. He flew steadily, flying to just north of Homecamp, near to the stream bordering north-forest. Those kaitlyn who could see out of the windows, watched, fascinated. By the songs, Xendra guessed they were describing the land, coast, ocean, islands, coast and land to those sitting on the floor.

Despite herself, Xendra smiled. So like any human, excited to see new things, new parts of their world. But the kaitlyn were well behaved, content to sit still until Bran landed. Bran pulled down the ramp for the kaitlyn to descend, then Bran and Xendra bowed to the kaitlyn before leading the way to the north-forest. They sang the questioning notes and stood waiting.

Xendra was sure it wouldn’t be long before the north-forest kaitlyn arrived. Bran wasn’t surprised to see forms in the trees already.

The north-forest kaitlyn stepped forward, the Elder Kaitlyn with them. Songs and bows exchanged, the north-forest kaitlyn led the kaitlyn from the smaller continent into the forest.

Bran and Xendra stood together, holding in their minds that they wanted to report to the Elder Kaitlyn. He, with two others, came forward and bowed. The Elder Kaitlyn’s grey-white fur and pale rosettes contrasted with his companions’ still-brown fur and deeper rosettes. Bran and Xendra bowed and waited for the kaitlyn to extend hands. The circle of kaitlyn and humans joined, thought flowed freely. The Elder Kaitlyn’s presence always made free exchange easier.

Bran and Xendra held in mind the land they’d seen, the poor quality grain-grass, the bad-smelling water, the berserkers and fatlings in the tropical zone, the kaitlyn in the temperate zone with berserkers present still, the samples they had taken for analysis, the food and water, igloo and protective enclosure that they meant to fly back to the kaitlyn remaining on the smaller continent.

Bran and Xendra waited for the Elder Kaitlyn’s thought to come in, wise, precise. It came, but with some added quality. A gentle power flowing into her, it seemed to Xendra. To Bran it was something powerful, benign and ancient as the planet itself.

‘Go. We approve. Do whatever you can for our cousins. These who have come may stay here, or they may return later if they wish. After the life cycle balance is restored. Consider, my children, the whole. My blessing is upon you, each of you. Receive it, each of you. Take rest now, my human children, it is well.’

Bran and Xendra bowed deeply to the Elder Kaitlyn and his two companions. They waited till the kaitlyn had returned to the edge of the forest, exchanging bows again then. Bran stood quiet, feeling strange in himself. He opened his eyes, watching Xendra. She also stood motionless. He kept her hand in his. Something odd had happened. Something very odd.

‘Did you feel something, Xendra? Something strange inside you?’

‘Yes, but I don’t know what it was, Bran. I just feel kind of queer. But not ill or anything like that.’

‘Me too. Well, let’s get back to Homecamp.’

They reported to the Captain and Alicia, but didn’t mention the queer sensation both had inside themselves while the Elder Kaitlyn thought at them.

‘You should eat and stay here tonight,’ Captain Nero said. ‘That’s been enough for one day.’

Alicia already had the samples in the hospital-igloo. ‘I don’t know how much I can do with these samples, but I’ll have a go. Meantime, we’ve already got root-stew on, and tea.’

‘Yanni and Xillia got through on the comlink then?’

‘Yes, and we’ve got food packs, webbing fencing – not a lot, but at least some. And you can help us dismantle the igloo. We’ve emptied one ready for you,’ Captain Nero said.

‘But eat first.’ Alicia was already at the cookpot, with four bowls and mugs of tea. ‘If I know you two, you gave the others all the food you had with you.’

While they still ate, the comlink sounded. Bran began to rise, but Captain Nero waved him back down.

‘Homecamp here. Any trouble over there?’

‘We’re fine, sir. Just tell Bran to bring my bow and arrows, too, please? He was right about the berserkers. We distributed the food and water, of course. Next thing we knew, several berserkers had gathered like vultures.’

‘Yanni, were you hurt? Xillia? Was anybody hurt?’

‘No, sir. The kaitlyn were something else, sir. They made a defensive circle – and pushed Xillia and me into the middle along with their young. The kaitlyn defended us, sir. The berserkers took one look at all those teeth and claws, and ran away.’ Even over the comlink, they could hear the half-amused, half-disgusted tone of his voice. ‘And now it looks like the kaitlyn are guarding us. There’s two of them patrolling all round us. They’ve already changed guards over once. I think they mean to guard us all night, sir.’

‘We have some webnet, and you’ll have an igloo when Bran and Xendra fly back tomorrow. And Alicia has those samples, she’ll start whatever analysis she can manage soon. Is that all for now?’

‘That’s it for now, sir. Goodnight.’

Bran and Xendra were smiling to each other, visualising the cat-beings, teeth and claws out, surrounding the weakest. Including Yanni and Xillia.

‘Against several berserkers, I have to admit, the kaitlyn were probably right to surround Yanni and Xillia like that,’ Bran said.

‘I’d never have thought of the kaitlyn defending humans,’ Alicia said.

The Captain thought to himself, no, you wouldn’t, Alicia, that’s what’s wrong – you don’t understand just how intelligent and just plain good the kaitlyn are. But he was wise enough not to say it aloud. Bran and Xendra understood, he could see, the Captain didn’t even need his empathetic touch on them to know how they felt about Alicia’s non-rapport with the kaitlyn. But maybe the kaitlyn’s action would make Alicia think.

Just to drive the point home to Alicia, the Captain said, ‘It shows a real grasp of the threat the berserkers posed to Yanni and Xillia, as well as to their young. And bravery facing the berserkers off. And common sense, guarding everyone. Couldn’t have done better myself. I wish I’d been there.’

‘They would probably have had you in the centre too, Captain.’ Xendra smiled at him. ‘They know you’re our leader. And no-one puts leaders, with only bare human hands, in the front line against berserkers.’

‘I have to admit, you’re right. The berserkers are bloodthirsty even when they have plenty of food. And right now it seems there isn’t enough food to support the populations they have – whether berserker or kaitlyn, palfrey or fatling. We need to find out what’s wrong.’

‘I’ll tackle the analysis first thing, Alex. Though what I can do I’m not sure. I’m a doctor, not a chemist. But meantime we all better get some sleep.’

Alicia led the Captain to their boat-quarters, while Bran and Xendra retired to their igloo. But even back in her home igloo, Xendra’s sleep was troubled by dreams of ravening berserkers, water not fit to drink, Yisto and Xepher in the mountains, rivers of blood running down into the whole lesser continent.

‘Bran, my dream last night.’ Xendra hesitated to tell even Bran about it, but it had been so very clear cut, still so clear in her mind. ‘Maybe it was just a nightmare, but I was dreaming of Yisto and Xepher in the mountains, and rivers of blood running down into the continent, into the whole continent. And berserkers, jaws gaping. And water I couldn’t drink, though I was so very thirsty.’

‘Xendra, my love, you may have seen what really is wrong. Suppose those two left something, or did something, in the mountains. There’s bound to be rivers running from the mountains into the land. Blood might represent something that has no business being there.’

‘Remember all those streams when we were over there before, Bran. Some of them are bound to run inland – they can’t all be on the ocean side – and those mountains were high.’

‘So. First, feed and protect the kaitlyn there. Then, my love, we have to go hunting for where the poison is coming from.’

‘Do we tell the Captain and the others? It was just a dream, Bran.’

‘Yes. And you have a strong link to the kaitlyn. And the kaitlyn have a link to all the creatures, to all the plants on this planet. And to the planet itself.’

‘Well, I’m not telling Alicia that bit – she’d think I’d cracked under the strain. But maybe we could mention my dreaming of Yisto and Xepher, the mountains, and the rivers?’

‘That much she might accept. And I think we should. She might not be looking for stuff like explosives or something – some sort of stuff totally foreign to our planet, anyway.’

The Captain listened carefully, nodding to himself. He got their unspoken idea. After all, he too, with Bran and Xendra, was spokesperson for the planet. He turned to Alicia. ‘Sounds like it might be worth running tests for traces of explosives, acids, sulphide, that sort of stuff. Remember Yisto and Xepher blew up one of the kaitlyn when they were over there. I guess explosives could taint the water, and perhaps that’s caused the famine conditions.’

‘I’ll do what I can, but I don’t think I can manage all that, Alex. We’re not geared for that type of analysis.’

‘Perhaps we’d better start mapping rivers as we fly back. If there’s something in the mountains it could be flowing down in one of the rivers. It’s worth looking, don’t you think, sir?’

‘I certainly do, my boy. Now, let’s get this stuff to the others.’

Working together, the aircar was soon packed and prepared for lift off. Alicia insisted Bran and Xendra ate before they left. Nevertheless they were soon back over the smaller continent. Bran flew directly to the central area where they’d left the others.

‘I don’t want to delay getting the igloos and webbing to them. We can map the river system later,’ Bran said.

‘I’ll just map what I see. There was a river running out of, or into that north-eastern lake near the mountains. I don’t remember now which way it was.’

‘The more mapping, the better. But don’t worry too much. I want to fly over soon. We could go high up, just under any cloud cover, for an aerial view.’

Bran brought the little flyer to land near the gathered kaitlyn and Yanni and Xillia. The humans took the igloo to erect first, then the kaitlyn helped to load the food and water into it. Yanni had his bow and arrows ready on his back, while they ran the webbing round from one side of the igloo’s door to the other side, making the door open into an enclosure.

‘Better make sure the kaitlyn can manage the catch of the webbing gate.’ Xendra didn’t want them feeling trapped rather than protected.

She showed the nearest kaitlyn how it worked, sure that these kaitlyn would see that everyone knew. The youngest wouldn’t be able to reach the catch, but the kaitlyn would see that the young were protected, inside the barrier.

‘We can have at least some of the kaitlyn inside the igloo. If they wish to be inside, that is,’ Xillia suggested.

‘We’ll leave it to them. We, or some of the kaitlyn, could use the flyer at night, too,’ Bran said.

‘Do we need to stay?’ Xendra asked. ‘Shouldn’t we be trying to trace the rivers?’

‘Rivers?’ Yanni asked.

Xendra explained her dream. ‘So if we follow rivers back up to the mountain range, we just might find something those two left – something poisoning the place.’

‘And remember, the two of them were here quite a while. And they trapped and abused those palfreys, not to mention blowing up one of the kaitlyn and trapping three. Maybe the kaitlyn had started to feel pushed out of their tropical zone, even back then?’ Xillia asked.

‘It makes sense,’ Bran said. ‘I did wonder at the time at the kaitlyn being so far north, that time we found the wounded kaitlyn.’

‘And that wound was due to explosives. And that couldn’t have been very long before they made that attempt on hijacking our aircar. Otherwise those hurt palfreys we found would have been dead. So the trouble could have started a long time ago. Even from Yisto and Xepher’s arrival here,’ Xillia said.

‘Well, you two are the best communicators with the kaitlyn. Suppose you two tell them before you fly off? Or do you want to stay here while Xillia and I fly off?’ Yanni asked.

‘Bran, I think Yanni has a point. It’d probably be better if some of us stayed here. And Yanni is handy with that bow and arrow, maybe better if we left them here?’ Xendra had a sudden thought. ‘Do the kaitlyn know you can hit a bullseye with that bow and arrow of yours, Yanni? If not, you better demonstrate. So you might get to be among the defenders, not the defended young again.’ She laughed at his screwed-up face.

‘I’ll demonstrate, but you and Bran better do your communication thing first. Tell them about you going mapping and about my bow and arrow. They’d need to give me a clear line of fire or I couldn’t shoot.’

‘Right. Let’s do it.’ Bran and Xendra held hands. As an afterthought, she took Yanni’s hand, while he took Xillia’s hand. Xendra gave the rising notes of the questioning song of the kaitlyn.

Two kaitlyn came near, singing and bowing. The four sang and bowed. Bran and Xendra went deep inside themselves, thinking, picturing themselves flying over the river system, trying to find any poison going into the lakes and land. And then of Yanni’s bow firing, his arrow thunking into a target, and into a berserker. And of Yanni and Xillia staying with the kaitlyn.

A picture of the flyer coming back with more food and water formed in Xendra’s mind. She held a picture of going to the main continent and bringing back more food, of Yanni and Xillia holding their communicators, picturing another communicator in Captain Nero’s hand, on the other continent.

Song broke out, the kaitlyn bowed to them. The four sang and bowed back. Xendra thought that sensing had been easier than the last. Perhaps they were getting accustomed, one to another.

‘I think I got that. I’ll go over there and demonstrate my shooting. Please wait, in case I need you to ask them to keep clear.’

But when Yanni brought his bow up, arrow at the ready, all the kaitlyn in front of him moved well to either side of him. Yanni chose a low branch, well within his range, and shot. He lowered the bow, then slung it across his back. Once his bow was stowed, the kaitlyn came, looking at the arrow solidly stuck in the branch. Yanni went to retrieve it. ‘Might need it later, you never know.’

‘Good. They know when your bow is dangerous and when it’s not. Well, children of the kaitlyn,’ Bran paused, smiling. He’d unconsciously used the Elder Kaitlyn’s term. ‘You might not need to be packed away inside the defensive circle. But you, Xillia, you aren’t an archer, you stick inside the defences.’

‘Don’t worry, Bran. The kaitlyn and I will look after her. Away you go, while you have daylight. And take enough food and water, too.’

‘Yes, sir, Yanni, sir.’ Bran gave Yanni a salute, grinning. ‘Thanks, Yanni, you’re a good one. Should’ve been in the Space Navy.’

‘Oh no, he shouldn’t. If he had, he might never have been here with me.’ Xillia took Yanni’s arm, but she was smiling. ‘Go, the pair of you. We’ll be fine. Look, even the kaitlyn are laughing at us.’

It was true. Some of the kaitlyn were looking, singing to one another. Xendra found herself wondering if they were laughing in their own fashion. ‘Well, don’t forget to use the comlink if you need us. Bye.’

She tugged Bran toward the flyer. ‘Come on Dad, the youngsters will be fine. Let’s go hunting for poison.’ Xendra waved back, seeing Yanni’s black hair and Xillia’s yellow ponytail standing out among the brown kaitlyn.

Bran lifted the flyer up, rising and circling, looking for lakes and rivers. Beside him, Xendra watched carefully.

‘Would there be any obvious sign, Bran? Like wilted grasses, yellow leaves, something like that?’

‘I suppose it would depend just what the stuff was. And we have no idea. Explosives, water purification chemicals, insecticides, acid, chlorine, iodine – who knows? I sure don’t.’

‘Whatever would they brought any of that kind of stuff here for?’

‘Again, who knows? Neither seemed to worry about the results of what they did on others. And Yisto was a geologist. For all I know he took acid or explosives for geological studies and analysis. Or something else entirely for whatever those two wanted to do, or thought they wanted to do.’

‘If it’s all as vague as that, maybe we should be trying another line of attack. As Elder Kaitlyn might say, look, but with another dimension?’

‘Fine, Xendra, but how?’

‘Well, why are you flying straight for the mountain range? A hunch?’

Bran glanced over at her. She was right. ‘When we here before, when we were trying to catch Yisto and Xepher, there was a bleak mountain. I felt drawn to it then. We never did find out why – I got another hunch, so I headed back towards the flyer – and that’s when we found the hurt palfreys.’

‘Then you saw Yisto and Xepher near the plane.’ Xendra nodded. ‘So you’d then have no reason to go back to the mountain. And now you’re flying straight back there.’

‘As good a place as any. We’re trying to find just one tiny asteroid in a whole solar system of rocks.’

‘Your hunches have a habit of being right. Didn’t I just say we should tackle this on another dimension? You’re doing exactly that.’

‘I suppose that’d be one way of putting it. Sounds weird, but, well, maybe so. If I don’t try to put it into words, it feels right. But if I try to explain it, nothing makes any sense.’

‘So don’t explain, just do it. Don’t think I’m criticising, I’m not. Elder Kaitlyn would approve, too, I’m sure.’

‘He’s some fella, though. Wise, yet kind. The sort you’d follow anywhere, into anything.’

‘He’s all of that, Bran.’

‘Better keep a lookout – for whatever it is we’re looking for, though we don’t know what that is. If you see what I mean. We’re near that bleak mountain now.’

Bran wanted to settle on the mountainside, to go himself on the bleak stones, feel the wind, the strangeness of the wind, tugging and puffing. The streams that silent ran, or gurgled. They should be running free, happy and laughing. Bran sensed that they were not happy. Something disturbed the streams, something in them that should not be. Their composition disturbed, unhappy, indigestion in them. From what they knew not. But felt the wrongness.

And Bran felt it. An indigestion in the stream, in himself, in the planet. He sought, not knowing how he sought.

He said, ‘I feel we should set down and search. Search here. The stream has indigestion.’

Xendra swung towards Bran, her gaze concentrated on his bronzed face – no longer white with space, but bronzed in the sun. And saw his unthinking sentence suddenly register with his own brain.

‘Did you say the stream has indigestion? You don’t mean you do?’

‘Did I say the stream? I don’t know why I said that. I feel strange, though. Queer, somehow.’

‘Maybe you should land, Bran, whether it’s something physical or something non-physical. Let’s go down and take a look.’

Bran did feel queer, but he flew the aircar with all of his usual skill. He chose a comparatively flat stony patch, settled the flyer gently down, parked and immobilised it.

Alighted, they took well-stocked packs from the flyer.

‘Any hunch now, Bran – which way?’

‘Up, I think. That way, maybe.’ He pointed towards a bare, uninviting rocky slope, dark and shadowed in places despite the sun creeping towards noon-high.

They went, walking, scrambling, using their hands in places.

‘Did you bring a rope, Bran? We might – ‘ She broke off, sniffing the breeze. ‘What’s that smell? Do you smell it?’

They stopped. A stream gurgled downhill nearby. And a nasty, rotten egg kind of smell.

‘Over there, I think.’ They moved towards the stream. The smell was stronger.

‘Whatever it is, it seems to be coming from the water. You said the stream had indigestion. Looks like you were right, Bran.’

‘Well, the water is coming from higher up, let’s follow it. Maybe the problem is coming from up there somewhere.’

‘Maybe better take a sample of this stream while we’re here.’ They did so, then followed the stream up, over bare rock. They climbed steadily.

‘Wait a moment, we should mark this stream. So we could see it from the air.’ Bran delved into his pack for white sealant. He squirted a circle on the dark bare rock. ‘I thought this stuff might come in handy. It’ll dry quickly, and that should stand out from a good distance. Okay, that’s tacky already. Let’s go.’

They climbed higher, scrambling and slipping on loose stones, but the way was an easy enough climb.

‘Bran, do you see that dark slash? It’s directly above the stream. Maybe a cave?’

‘And I often thought Yisto and Xepher would want to find a cave – they were trying to hide from us, after all. Worth a look.’

They moved upward, angling across the stream, narrow now, to the cave mouth.

‘Careful!’ Bran caught Xendra’s arm. ‘Look.’ Slimy wetness showed on the rock.

‘Your ‘indigestion’ maybe?’ Xendra asked. ‘What about another dollop of that sealant here, too?’

‘And another sample, too, if I can manage it.’

‘Well, be careful. Anything that could give a stream indigestion, and affect the whole territory, might do you no good either, Bran.’

He put another circle of sealant nearby, a little away from the wet areas, but he couldn’t get enough of the wetness directly. He went back down to the stream for another sample of the water, taking the sample from just below where the wet stuff ran into the stream.

Bran stowed the labelled sample away carefully. Taking his torch, he waved towards the cave. ‘Let’s have a look, but be careful.’

Trying to avoid the wet area, they went into the cave. Inside, they stopped while Bran shone the beam around. Seeing nothing, beam on the rock floor again, they went forward. The cave narrowed, still rising slightly into the mountainside. Pausing again, Bran sent the beam round. Now they saw something. Containers, several of them.

Beam directed at the ground, they approached the three containers. And heard before they saw the drip. Drip of something, coming from one of the canisters. The smell was strong now, irritating their eyes.

‘This has to be it, Bran. Can your sealant stuff stop that drip?’

‘Should do. It’s meant to keep anything out. If I can get enough of it on, with that drip.’ He pulled the sealant out, handing Xendra the torch.

‘What about pulling it out to the light first? If they carried it in, we should be able to carry it back out.’

‘It wouldn’t have been dripping then, though. And I shudder to think just what that stuff is. It’s probably not wise to get it on ourselves.’

Bran took the sealant, covering his hand with part of his bedroll. Some sealant stuck, but most was forced off the container by the drip. He persisted, again and again.

‘Bran, that container must be at least partly empty. Try tilting it.’

He grinned up at her, his dark brown hair sticking to his sweaty forehead. ‘Never occurred to me. Thanks.’

He turned the canister onto its side, rolling it. The sealant showed clearly, surrounding a small hole. Easily now, he put a dollop on the hole.

‘That should stop it for now. But we’ll have to do something about this stuff.’

‘What do you think it is?’

‘I’d reckon some sort of acid, maybe something for testing rock. Maybe even they thought of mining – I’ve no idea, really. But that smell is like some type of sulphur or sulphuric compound.’

‘It gave the stream indigestion, anyway. By the smell in here, I’m not surprised.’

‘Maybe we should get out into the fresh air. I’m beginning to feel queer. And I don’t mean the Elder Kaitlyn kind of queer.’

‘Come on then. Leave this for now.’

Back outside, they breathed deeply. Bran moved over, higher, and sat down. Xendra followed, pulling her water bottle from her pack.

‘Here, have some. You were bending right over that stuff, and it couldn’t have done you any good.’

‘I’ll be all right in a minute or two. But what are we going to do with those containers? All three of them.’

‘Put them where they can’t do any harm, of course. But we’ll have to get them out of there first.’

‘And put some protection over them, too.’ Bran thought. ‘Something impervious to acid. Then what? Bury them somewhere?’

‘I suppose so. But meantime, we’d better report back to the Captain. He has a way of coming up with something. Maybe something in the Titanic, even?’

‘And we’d better contact Yanni and Xillia, too. Come on, I’m all right now.’ Bran rose, looking at his mark near the cave. ‘If there’s any sealant left, I’d better make the mark bigger first, though.’ He squeezed the last dregs out of the tube, adding to the circle, a thick line pointing toward the cave. ‘All done, love. Let’s go.’

They went back down to the aircar, lifting off. Once high enough, Xendra tried for Homecamp, but didn’t get through.

‘Probably the Titanic isn’t overhead right now. You should get Yanni and Xillia though, we’re high enough. Tell them we’re going to Homecamp.’

Xendra reported to Yanni and Xillia. Yanni wasn’t surprised to hear of the acid left by Yisto and Xepher. ‘I’ll bet they wanted to mine the mountains for something – something valuable, anyway.’

‘Or fertilizer, maybe?’ Xillia asked.

‘Or even just analysis of samples,’ Xendra said. ‘I’m not going to bother about even trying to ask them anyway. If you’re all okay, we were going back to Homecamp to report to the Captain. We’ll need something to put those three containers into. And we can bring back some more food and water.’

‘Sounds good to us, Xendra. See you.’

Bran flew back to the larger continent. He landed the aircar in Homecamp. Neither Captain Nero nor Alicia were there.

‘They’re maybe at the agriculture plot. Let’s have a wash first.’

‘And maybe put some root-stew on, too.’ Xendra started the stew cooking, Bran helping her, before retiring to their own igloo.

Bran took the samples from his pack, drawing the bedroll out too.

‘Look at this, Xendra.’ He held his bedroll spread out. Holes dotted it. Large holes and smaller holes.

Xendra sat down. ‘Good job you used it, Bran. Better the bedroll in holes than you in holes.’

‘I guess we’d better stow it in whatever outer protection we put those three containers in. I’ll roll it up and leave it here meantime.’ He wadded it tightly, area with the holes carefully in the centre, and placed it in a far corner of the igloo.

They washed and changed into fresh loose tunics and trousers. ‘Maybe we’d better be careful with the clothes we were wearing, too. Not to contaminate our water, I mean.’

‘Good idea, Xendra. Now let’s see about finding the Captain and Alicia.’

Checking on the root stew first, they walked towards the agriculture area and Xendra plants. Busy with their hoes, the Captain and Alicia at first didn’t see them.

Bran called over to them. ‘We’ve got root-stew on, and plenty to tell you.’

Captain Nero rubbed his neck, Alicia tucking a stray mousy-brown hair behind her ear. All four went back to Homecamp, where the stew was ready. Tea on, meal eaten, the Captain said, ‘All right, spill it, you two.’

Bran and Xendra told of setting up the refugee camp, the netting, the stream and its smell, the three containers, and sealing the leak.

‘You’ve been busy. Do you think that’s the only three containers? I mean, any more anywhere?’

‘We just followed the stream that stank. We crossed other streams lower down, but we only smelled that one.’

‘Why do you think it was that container causing the smell in the water?’ Alicia asked.

‘Because my bedroll has holes in it. I’d used it round my hand while I stuffed sealant over the hole in the canister. And that stuff that was leaking out holed my bedroll.’

‘Acid, presumably, and sulphur smells like rotten eggs. And if it had been leaking for long enough into that stream, it would’ve run into the temperate zone, into the water, and presumably into the vegetation.’

‘But you are always blaming Yisto and Xepher. Who says it was anything they did that caused the problem on the smaller continent?’ Alicia protested.

‘Who else? They were there for months, remember. And I helped carry their stuff into the mountains when they first went there. Just after they’d arrived on the planet, remember – a long time ago,’ Bran said.

‘It’s my fault.’ Captain Nero bowed his head, rubbing his neck. ‘I should never have let them go off like that. And certainly not that soon.’

‘We did want to explore the planet, sir.’ Bran tried to comfort his Captain. ‘But the question is, what do we do with those containers? One already has leaked. We need to make them safe. Have you anything up your sleeve, sir?’

‘Something to contain strong acid? Or alkali, maybe?’ Xendra paused, thinking. ‘Or both. The other two containers could have anything inside them.’

‘We could send word to the hospital-prison, and ask Yisto and Xepher what they left there – if they did leave anything there,’ Alicia said.

‘I’m sorry, Alicia, it’s not worth the time or effort to do that. We have to figure out something to do with the stuff. Three containers, my boy? How big?’

‘About six by three by four yens, sir, roughly. I didn’t measure them.’

‘And the two of them must have carried them, so presumably not that heavy.’ Captain Nero’s grizzled head bowed as he thought.

‘I think we have some storage bins still on the Titanic. I don’t like the idea of that stuff in my old Titanic, but I don’t like the risk of pollution to this planet, either. And the smaller continent is already in trouble because of that stuff.’

Alicia still stood stiff. ‘Shouldn’t we find out what is in those containers?’

‘You said yourself, we’re not geared for detailed chemical analysis. And I’m not particularly interested in finding out – I just want the stuff safe.’

‘If you’re thinking of getting the stuff to the Titanic, suppose we use igloo flooring in the flyer – we could wrap the containers too, while we move them.’ Bran paused. ‘And we still have my friend Wilf coming back here. He said he’d check up on the Titanic in another six standard months.’

‘From his last visit, Bran?’ Xendra who’d been listening, quiet and attentive, asked.

‘Yes. He shouldn’t be all that much longer.’

‘Then let’s turn in for tonight. Tomorrow we have some flying to do, my boy.’

Captain Nero and Bran loaded up the flyer, taking their space-suits with them, and the spare covers for the igloos, the best protection they had available.

‘Can I come too?’ Xendra asked.

Bran and the Captain looked at each other. ‘Weight isn’t a problem, sir.’

‘Nor space in the flyer. Come on then.’ The Captain turned to Alicia. ‘We won’t be gone long, Alicia. We’ll be back well before noon.’

Xendra took a spacesuit, following the two men into the flyer. Bran lifted off for the lesser continent’s mountain range.

‘Captain, I wanted to ask you something. Something delicate, if you don’t mind?’

‘Yes, Xendra. Carry on. It’s Alicia, isn’t it?’

‘Yes, sir. I know she loves the kaitlyn and the palfreys, but, quite frankly, I am worried by how she always defends Yisto and Xepher.’

‘So am I. We did mate, but I told her then I can never leave this planet. Not that I want to, mind you. Which is something for an old space dog like me. But I’m not so sure now, about this planet being good for Alicia.’

Bran glanced over at his Captain sitting beside him. ‘You’ve already been considering the possibility that Alicia might want to leave?’

‘Just so.’

‘Wouldn’t you be lonely without her, Captain?’ Xendra wriggled a bit. ‘I mean, Bran and I are mated, Yanni and Xillia are mated too. You’d be on your own.’

‘I’m an old Merchant Space Captain, my dear. That wouldn’t bother me. I admit I appreciate your friendship, all of you. And there’s the kaitlyn, the palfreys, the agriculture. Even my old ship up there – even if she is a bit of wreck, she’s still there. I’d be fine.’

Bran looked over at his Captain. ‘Supposing Alicia did leave here, has she somewhere to go to? She’s still a Doctor, of course.’

‘And a good one. I thought having a doctor with us was necessary, but I think perhaps she might be bored here. Maybe that’s part of the problem. Remember how keen she was to go to Yisto and Xepher on Exile Island? We couldn’t persuade her not to trust them. And she did try to help them psychologically.’

‘Didn’t do much good, though, sir. But I see what you mean.’

‘Perhaps she still wants to go and help them. Maybe that’s why she keeps defending those two even now they are held in a secure hospital.’ Xendra thought back. ‘I don’t know how they managed, but they seem to have convinced the doctors they were mad, not bad.’

Captain Nero sighed. ‘I’m a simple man. I’d have expected them to be standing trial for what they did here. But I hear they’re cosseted like a couple of prize orchids or something.

Bran smiled. ‘As long as they’re somewhere secure, sir. But do you want us to suggest going off-planet to Alicia – just gentle hints, or maybe talking of other places in front of her?’

‘If she doesn’t start bringing it up herself before your friend Wilf returns, maybe.’

Xendra noticed him rubbing steadily at his neck. ‘We’ll help, Captain. She’s a nice lady. Perhaps not quite in the right place for her, but she’s not going to make our lives miserable, or anything like that.’

‘Xendra’s right, sir. You’ve got us. And we can be tactful naggers, sir. Just a tiny hint here, then maybe a smidgeon of another little comment there. You might be surprised, sir.’

‘What’s this, Space Navy tactics, First Officer?’

Bran blushed. ‘Well, with personnel, sometimes a little verbal nudge in the right direction is better than trying to get somebody transferred off a ship, sir.’

The Captain smiled. Bran noticed, and grinned at him. ‘All very suave, sir, I assure you.’

‘All right, you two, do as you think best.’ Captain Nero threw up his hands. He turned in his seat so his light blue eyes could look at Xendra. Bran glanced over at the Captain’s movement. ‘Just – oh, just whatever you think.’

They flew on, silent, till the mountain range came into view.

‘Maybe better tell Yanni and Xillia what we’re doing, sir? About the canisters, I mean?’

‘Good idea, I’ll do that.’ Captain Nero’s voice was steady, untroubled as he spoke to Xillia over the communicators.

‘Thank you sir. But we’ll need more supplies soon, Captain.’

‘We’ll see to that, Xillia. Are you all right until tomorrow?’

‘Of course, sir. A couple of days, maybe even three. But by then we’d be needing more food. There’s been a few more kaitlyn coming here, and we’ve seen several palfreys here too. The palfreys haven’t come inside the enclosure yet, but they might.’

‘Understood, Xillia. We’ll bring some fresh grain-grass, food-packets, water, very soon.’ The Captain signed off, looking cheerful.

‘She’s a good kid. So’s Yanni. Once we’re back at Homebase, we can take the palfreys and ride out to gather some grain-grass for you to take back over here.’

‘No argument with that, sir. But you’d better keep a look out for my white markings now.’

Spotted, Bran landed near. ‘That’s the best I can do.’ They took the protective sheeting, drinking water, torches from the flyer. Bran set the immobiliser and followed. Xendra had already led his Captain a fair way. Bran hurried to catch up.

‘Sir, could I ask you something now?’

‘Ganging up on me, eh?’ The Captain looked at Bran, head tilted, grey-white brows raised. ‘Well?’

‘When we’re up on the Titanic, sir, I’ll have to leave word that we have dangerous chemicals on board.’ Bran broke off, a sudden smile on his face. ‘Incidentally, that’s another charge against Yisto and Xepher – if Wilf had known his ship was carrying and delivering that sort of stuff, he’d have told me. So they couldn’t have declared it. But that’s not what I was going to ask, sir.’

Xendra smiled up at Bran. ‘Wilf – he was talking of retiring here?’

‘Exactly so. Sir, I’ve shipped with Wilf before. He’s a good egg. Space Navy, of course, in communications. I’d like to send him a personal message as well as about the chemicals. Suggesting that if he still is thinking of coming here to Kaitan, a crash course in medical aide studies might be a good idea, that, just possibly, no guarantees, but just maybe there might be need for someone with some medical knowledge here?’

‘You mean, two Navy men against one merchant Captain? Bran, really!’ But the Captain was grinning. ‘Have you booked Alicia’s passage too?’

‘Oh, no, Sir! Of course not.’

‘I assume you’ll mention we might have a doctor – fully qualified, mind – looking for a berth out?’

Bran tried to look innocent. ‘Who, me, sir?’

Captain Nero slapped Bran’s arm – then suddenly serious, took his ex-First Officer’s wrist. ‘You think this Wilf could fit in here?’

‘He’s landed here with supplies three or four times before. Last time he sat with us eating. Every time he’s spoken of wanting to retire here. I did tell him we had a selection committee. Strict but fair. He didn’t bat an eyelid – and he knows of the kaitlyn, and that this planet Kaitan is a protected planet. I know Wilf, sir. He’s like your Titanic. Wouldn’t let you down.’

‘Good. Send your messages, Bran. All of them. Er, just phrase the bit about the medical vacancy very carefully, though – in case Alicia ever found out – she’d think I was trying to get rid of her.’

‘Bran’s good, sir. And I remember Wilf too, he seemed a sensible man to me.’

‘Captain, sir, you said ‘medical vacancy’. Not ‘possible medical vacancy’. You must really believe Alicia wants to leave.’ Xendra pulled his arm through hers. ‘You’ve got us, remember. And if this Wilf does come, just think of all the campfire yarns those two Navy men will be spinning.’

‘Well, she’s not gone yet, and Wilf isn’t here yet. If he comes. But thanks, you two. Now, let’s get some work done.’

They headed on, reaching the cave. Xendra took the lights, leaving the men with the protective sheeting. She threw the beam on the cave floor, looking for any gleam of wetness. An oily sheen showed, but the floor wasn’t wet. ‘Mind your feet. It could be slippery,’ she said.

Bran and the Captain wrapped each container well, Xendra lighting them as best she could. The men carried each container, one by one, to the cave mouth.

Outside, Xendra said, ‘I didn’t notice the rotten egg smell, did you?’

‘A bit, but I’d say nowhere near as bad,’ Bran said. ‘Good. Well, let’s go get the flyer, so we can haul those into it. Xendra, you’ll be all right till we come back?’

‘Of course. Don’t you worry. You start worrying about exactly what you’re going to say in those messages!’ Xendra waved them off, as she settled upslope with her waterbottle.

It didn’t take the men long to return. The slope was too steep to land. Bran hovered while the Captain lowered ropes for Xendra to fasten round each container in turn, so the Captain could pull them into the flyer. Finally Xendra, agile and slim, pulled herself up the rope. The Captain helped her in.

‘You should have put the rope round you, Xendra.’

‘I didn’t think of it, Captain. But it wasn’t far, and I knew Bran would hold her steady for me.’

‘All the same, Xendra, the Captain has a point. You could’ve rolled right down that mountainside.’

‘Okay, next time I’ll tie the rope round me. But meantime, maybe you’d better land somewhere so you can get your spacesuit on.’

They did. Then Bran took the craft up to the Titanic, orbiting above. Her hold was open to space now, the Blob having attached itself to the hull on their last voyage, holing the Titanic and irradiating it. The Navy had removed both Blob and hull to a safe distance for study.

The Captain directed Bran into the open hold. ‘Better make sure we leave this stuff in permanent shade. Take it far over to starboard, we can use those storage units.’ As directed, the three containers, still wrapped in protective sheeting, were locked into the Titanic’s storage.

Bran took the flyer out of the hold, docking instead with the crew quarters. They went in, the Captain looking with pleasure round his ship, while Bran sent his messages.

‘All done. Enjoyed your visit, Captain?’

‘You need to ask, Bran? Of course. I told you the Titanic would never let us down. She’s still serving us yet. Okay, let’s go, we’ve got people to feed.’

Bran took the flyer back into atmosphere, and back to Homebase. Spacesuits stowed and palfreys saddled, they went to find Alicia. But she was taking her gear out of the boat-quarters which she shared with the Captain.

‘Whatever are you doing, Alicia?’ the Captain asked.

‘I thought I’d switch my quarters back to the hospital-igloo. I could rig up some curtains in there.’

‘Well, you could have curtains in here, if you wanted.’

‘No, Alex. I’d like to make it more homelike. With curtains. Maybe even make myself a dress or two.’

Bran and Xendra said nothing, but looked at each other. They knew they were thinking the same.

‘Well, if you want to, Alicia. But you could have the spare igloo for your quarters. You don’t have to use the hospital-igloo, with all it’s equipment.’

‘Thanks, Alex. But I’ve got nearly everything stowed there already. You could carry that box for me, though, if you like. And that little case, and my portable computer.’

Each lifted one of the items, following Alicia to the hospital-igloo. Alicia had already rigged a curtain, made of blankets, over the far section of the igloo.

‘You should’ve waited till I was here. I’d have helped you.’

‘Alex, thanks. I thought you might mind less, if I just moved out.’

Bran and Xendra went out, leaving the Captain and Alicia alone. Alicia noticed their going, but Captain Nero didn’t.

‘Alex, I wanted to see if you’d mind if we broke mating. Nothing personal. It’s just I thought – I hoped – it might be easier to tell you in here rather than your own boat-quarters.’

‘You don’t have to try to explain. You’ve been a good mate, but if you want to step back from me, that’s all right, Alicia. Few things last for ever. But, I did warn you, I can’t leave this planet Kaitan, you know. Not as long as the kaitlyn need me – not as long as this remains a Protected Planet.’

‘I know, Alex. And I’m sorry, I should maybe have discussed this with you first. I’m missing things, Alex. The hospital. Dresses, pretty fabrics instead of these dull tunics.’ She turned away from him, hiding her expression. ‘It’s not that I want any of you sick, don’t think that. But I miss helping people, Alex.’

‘Do you want to go back to being a Doctor, Alicia? Off this planet? I’ll understand if you do. Sometimes I just wish I could be in space again, on the Titanic, delivering cargo all over the galaxy.’ His voice sounded wistful. ‘But the Titanic can never be spaceworthy again, and I have a job here instead, a job I can’t leave, ever.’ He watched her running her fingers over her computer. ‘But if you want to go, to go back to being a doctor, Alicia, I’ll never hold you here. You know that.’

‘Yes, Alex. I know. I do miss being a doctor. It’s not the clothes, really.’

‘Perhaps you were just too good a doctor to settle for five of us. A total population of five doesn’t give you much work. Not that I want any of us ill, any more than you do. But I can understand the itch to be doing the job you love. Of course I understand that. Give it a bit of thought, my dear.’ He hesitated. ‘The Navy ship – it’ll be back soon. If you really wanted to go on it – ‘ he stopped speaking.

‘That’s what got me thinking, Alex. When you were talking about taking that stuff up to the Titanic, that the Navy ship will be back soon. So I thought if I just moved my quarters, we could see.’

‘All right. If you want to go, of course. And you could always come back if you wanted to. But meantime, could you come and help us collect some grain-grass? The youngsters over there have palfreys to feed now, as well as kaitlyn. We were thinking of riding south to harvest some for Bran and Xendra to fly back tomorrow.’

Alicia faced him, a small smile on her face, her green eyes suspiciously bright. ‘Of course Alex. Lead on.’

Bran and Xendra had the four palfreys saddled, with Walnut and Beech on lead reins. ‘We thought they could take a load of grain-grass back.,’ Xendra explained.

‘Good idea. Let’s go.’ Captain Nero mounted, heading directly south.

A silent party they were, pads of the palfreys moving quietly through forest and grain-grass. They rode on, not wishing to harvest too close to the north-forest kaitlyn’s ranges. The sun climbed to almost noon before the Captain signalled to stop.

The four loosely tethered the palfreys near a stream and shade. Taking scythe, shear or a pruner, and a sack each, they set to work, each fanning outwards . Each of them worked hard, bending, cutting, gathering. Only when their sack was stuffed full did Bran and Xendra return. The Captain was next. Bran, the first back, left his full sack and went to help Alicia fill hers.

Xendra drank some water from the stream, then closed the full sacks. Bran and Alicia back, he offered her some of the water. Alicia eyed the stream. ‘I’ll be fine till we’re back in camp.’

Bran tied two sacks each on Walnut and Beech, patting them as took their lead reins. He handed Walnut’s rein to Xendra, already mounted on Lady. Bran and the others mounted, riding back to Homecamp. They settled the palfreys back in the paddock, rubbing them down, checking their paws and fodder. All well, they carried the sacks of grain-grass, stowing in the aircar, before loading it up with water and food-packets.

‘I reckon we can still get back before dark, sir.’

‘You’d be better eating and resting after all that work, and go tomorrow. I told Yanni you’d be tomorrow, after all.’

Xendra agreed. ‘I’m tired, Bran. And I could do with a wash and change of clothes before we return.’

‘All right, love. I’ll help with some of our famous root-stew, then we can relax.’

‘Any word from our north-forest kaitlyn, sir, while we’ve been gone?’

‘No, Alicia and I have been tending the palfreys, and hoeing the roots and the Xendra plants. But we haven’t seen the kaitlyn. I’ve felt their eyes on me sometimes, but no more than that.

‘I expect they would let you know if they had any problem, sir. I just wondered if they were managing with the extra kaitlyn we brought over.’

‘Did you ever get any analysis on those samples we brought? Just as a matter of curiosity?’ Xendra asked, hoping to draw Alicia into the conversation.

‘I can’t do chemical analysis, I told you. All I can say is that those samples are strongly acid. Both the water and the grasses tested more acid than our local water and similar type of grasses.’

‘Which, with the smell of rotten eggs, is about what we expected. Well, once the Space Navy come and pick them up, they’ll probably analyse the stuff,’ Bran said.

‘When are they coming, Bran. And is your friend Wilf coming again too?’ asked Xendra.

‘Shouldn’t be much longer. We’ll be needing more food-packs and more fuel, too.’ Bran turned to his Captain. ‘You did request more, didn’t you sir? If not, we’d better head back to the Titanic to send off a message pretty soon, before Wilf arrives.’

‘Might be a good idea, my boy. But after you’ve delivered these supplies to Yanni and Xillia. I did have a normal order in, but if we have to feed an extra thirty or so kaitlyn, plus some more palfreys, maybe it might be an idea to pop up with a request for more.’

‘There’s nobody for the Navy to pick up this time, sir. They’ve had someone to ship out each time, so far. What with us sending them first two patients, then another two patients, their doctors must be quite happy that we’ll have no more for them to tackle.’

‘You reckon their doctors would be overloaded, Bran? How many doctors do the Space Navy have, anyway? While I was still a regen, I was always aware of the presence of doctors. They seemed to be everywhere.’ Xendra couldn’t entirely repress a shiver, thinking back to that time.

‘At least one doctor to every interstellar ship. And if any star system is heavily populated, often one to each solar-system ship as well. Not to mention at least one doctor, usually more, per Navy base. Depends on population size. As I recall, there weren’t that many doctors really – they were always complaining of being short staffed. And there always seemed be doctors who weren’t Navy personnel, just to help fill vacancies. The non-Navy doctors were usually on the bases rather than the ships, of course.’

‘And I suppose the doctors had to treat non-humanoids as well as humanoids?’ Xendra’s voice showed her genuine interest.

‘Of course. Our ship-doctors helped any being. They had computer records on the relevant biology and stuff. I was just an officer, but I know the doctors had an awful lot of data on an awful lot of sentient types, including humanoid. I helped with communications, and you should’ve seen the amounts of data that just one doctor would request.’ Bran shook his head, remembering.

‘All this is very interesting, and I’d like to hear some of your tales, Bran, but you two had better get some rest. Goodnight.’ Captain Nero didn’t look at Alicia.

Then he turned to her. ‘Time for me to retire for the night too. Goodnight, Alicia.’ He gave an inclination of his head to her, and left for his own boat-quarters. She nodded back to him, before going to the hospital-igloo.

Bran and Xendra entered their own igloo. ‘Do you think we overdid it, Bran? I actually was interested, but maybe we kept on a bit about doctors in the Navy?’

‘Well, it’s done now, love. And I was thinking back too. Not that I want to go back to space, my love. Just indulging in reminiscences. If the Captain hadn’t stopped me, I’d have gone on longer.’

‘So much for subtlety. Ah well, sleep well, Bran.’

In the morning, they readied themselves and the aircar for takeoff. ‘I miss the palfreys,’ Xendra said. ‘It was great having them all with us yesterday.’

‘Ah, the palfreys. You didn’t miss us, then?’ Captain Nero was standing, hands on his hips, head up, teasing her.

‘Of course, sir, how could we not miss you two too?’ Bran smiled while giving a mock salute.

The Captain laughed. ‘Get going, the pair of you.’

‘That’s just what Yanni and Xillia said to us, too,’ Xendra said.

‘I’m not surprised. Go!’ But he was smiling. Even Alicia, standing alone, had a slight smile on her face.

They went, Bran taking the aircar up, flying back to the smaller continent and the refugee camp there. Comfortable together, the flight didn’t seem to last long. Bran brought the flyer down near the igloo. Xendra lowered the ramp.

Yanni and Xillia were already approaching. ‘How goes it, Bran?’ Yanni asked.

‘Fine. We hauled those three containers up to the Titanic, and I’ve sent off a message to the Navy, warning them of the probable contents. And we’ve got more supplies with us.’

They started work, unloading, carrying the goods to the igloo. Bran finally checked the immobiliser and closed the aircar, before heaving a sack of grain-grass onto his shoulder. Yanni, returning, took another. Xendra and Xillia carried one between them. ‘I’ll come back for the last one,’ Bran said.

‘I’ll get some food on for us,’ Xillia offered.

‘Not much for Xendra and I. We had breakfast already.’

‘Okay. But I’ll bet you could do with a rest – you’ve been busy, what between hauling chemicals and hauling food, water, grain-grass for us.’ Yanni surveyed the piles of fresh supplies in the igloo as he spoke.

‘How’s everything? You two, the kaitlyn, and what about the palfreys you mentioned?’ Xendra asked when they had sat down together. She studied the kaitlyn. They looked thin but their fur wasn’t so dull.

‘Getting better. At night we’ve got more kaitlyn in here, and palfreys often are nearby. A few come inside with the kaitlyn, but some of the palfreys stay on the outside. Some of the kaitlyn are on guard at night, and Yanni takes a turn sometimes too. We have the young inside the igloo, and Yanni insists that I stay in the igloo at night,’ Xillia said.

‘Is there any improvement in the water or the grasses?’ Bran asked. ‘I’ll have a look round after this snack, while we have light.’

‘I’ll come with my bow, then. You’ve got to watch for berserkers, even in daytime. I haven’t noticed much difference, though.’

Outside the protective webbing, Bran and Yanni headed off toward the lake. Xendra stood, worrying about them. Till she noticed three kaitlyn starting to follow the two men.

Xillia noticed Xendra watching. ‘They do that with us – a sort of guard for us, I guess.’

‘The kaitlyn protect you?’

‘Like mother hens, Xendra. You wouldn’t believe how they look after us. That first night was just typical of how they have cared for us. We maybe fed them, but the kaitlyn are our defenders and protectors.’

‘Do they guard the palfreys? I mean, if its the same palfreys who come here?’

‘It’s not as obvious, but yes, I think they do.’ Xillia’s deep blue eyes unfocussed as she remembered.

‘One night, the palfrey were just outside the fence, in a copse of trees. Several berserkers were prowling, we knew. Then we heard the palfreys scream – berserkers had surrounded them on all sides, they were trapped against our fence. Six kaitlyn simply leaped over the fence into the midst of the palfreys, and pushed outwards. Six sets of claws and teeth, all upright on their hind legs. The berserkers scattered.’

‘How did the palfreys react?’

‘Once the kaitlyn had seen the berserkers off, the palfreys whistled a bit, and stayed put in their copse. That one over there.’ Xillia pointed to a stand of ten or more large trees beyond the webfence.

Meantime Bran, Yanni and their kaitlyn guards, were walking toward the lake. Bran wanted to know how the land, the water, was reacting now the leaking canister was off-planet. Yanni wasn’t Xendra, but he did have a sensitivity. Bran took Yanni’s hand. Yanni, surprised, jerked back. ‘Just trying to sense, Yanni.’

‘What am I supposed to do?’

‘Just be open to me, the kaitlyn, the lake, the grass, the grain-grass, the trees.’

Bran walked, waiting. Little came to him. Perhaps he couldn’t turn it on and off. He shook his head, disappointed in himself. One of the kaitlyn guards came beside him, took his other hand.

And Bran sensed the unease of the surroundings. Lake, its waters slightly sick. The grasses, feeling weak, squeamish. The planet, it’s lesser continent north temperate zone unbalanced, elements mismatched.

Bran wondered if there was any improvement since the containers were taken away. With the kaitlyn’s forepaw in his, he seemed to feel there was some improvement, but berserkers, fatling, palfrey, kaitlyn, were wrongly placed. Seek the Elder Kaitlyn, came the thought.

Bran gave a small bow. The kaitlyn released Bran’s hand, returning to his self-imposed guard duty. Bran gave a song-note and a deeper bow. He stood, looking round. By his side, Yanni waited, taking his lead from Bran.

‘I think we need the Elder Kaitlyn. Which means going back to the main continent, with Xendra of course. What about you, Yanni?’

‘Whatever you say, Bran. You reckon the Elder Kaitlyn could help the land and water recover?’

‘That’s what we need to find out, Yanni. Let’s go back. But what about you and Xillia – would you, or one of you, stay here?’

‘No problem for me, either way. I think Xillia would say the same, but you can ask her.’

Xillia opted to stay. Bran and Xendra would go to the Elder Kaitlyn. Yanni, though eager to help, felt he might be more use in the smaller continent.

Again Bran and Xendra flew back. To the stream beside the north-forest, while the lesser continent was fresh in their impressions. Arrived, Bran and Xendra crossed the stream, approaching the north-forest. At the edge, they gave the questioning call, and waited.

Not for long. Kaitlyn shapes appeared. Bran and Xendra, hands clasped, sang and bowed, holding their request for the Elder Kaitlyn in their minds. Two kaitlyn sang and bowed, then beckoned Bran and Xendra forward. Into the forest they walked, following their kaitlyn guides.

The Elder Kaitlyn waited. With at least a dozen well fed, sleek, kaitlyn. Xendra noticed the difference between these kaitlyn, healthy, fur shining, compared with the kaitlyn they had just left.

The circle of kaitlyn, all holding hands, extended forepaws to Bran and Xendra. Bran and Xendra closed their eyes, picturing, remembering, feeling how the lesser continent was. Lakes, rivers, land, grasses, grain-grasses, trees, small creatures, fatlings, berserkers, palfreys, kaitlyn.

In the circle, they felt the lesser continent as it should be, happy, content, small creatures, fatlings, feeding, reproducing. Berserkers in the temperate zone, chasing, hunting, feeding. Palfrey grazing, roaming, running, herds together in the sun and wind. Kaitlyn warm, well fed, happy, in the tropical zone. The planet, balance restored, at peace.

How long Bran and Xendra stood there, they never knew. They felt kaitlyn drop their hands. The Elder Kaitlyn himself was in front of them, holding a forepaw out to each of them. Bran and Xendra automatically took his hand in their free hand. The three stood.

No words came, not then. A sense of age, of wisdom, of eagerness, of life, of anticipation, of love. Love for the kaitlyn, for the palfrey, for the fatlings, for the berserkers, for the seas, for the land, for the trees, for the grass-grains, for the grasses, for the plants, for the planet, for the humans. For the six humans, for the seven humans, for the six humans. And power. Gentle power.

Then the words formed. ‘My human children, you grow, you develop. Deepen yet more your love, one to another, one to all creatures, all beings, all land, all water. I watch over you, all kaitlyn watch over you and your fellows. In return, watch over us, watch over all on this planet. Grow yet more in sensitivity, in love. Help that one human find her true place. Help my cousins, kaitlyn, palfrey, berserkers, fatling, find their place in the smaller continent. My blessing is upon you, each of you, my human children. Go, rest now.’

The Elder Kaitlyn released their hands, inclining his head to them. Bran and Xendra stood a moment, then bowed.

Two kaitlyn approached, bowing, before walking toward the forest edge. Bran and Xendra bowed and followed. Back outside the edge of the north-forest, the kaitlyn sang and bowed. Bran and Xendra also sang and bowed, before walking back, still hand in hand, across the stream, back toward the flyer.

Still silent, they boarded, Bran flew to Homecamp.

They looked at one another, still feeling solemn. ‘We’ve had something, Xendra. Now we’ve got to do whatever we can.’

‘We have responsibilities, Bran. Let’s see how we can help.’

They alighted, automatically moving toward the campfire, looking for the Captain and Alicia. ‘They must have heard the flyer’s engine. Let’s try the boat-quarters,’ Bran said. No answer. They went to the hospital-igloo, entering.

Alicia was sitting at her desk, her head sunk in her hands. Captain Nero sat beside her, his arm round her shoulder. He didn’t move as they entered.

‘Come in you two. She’s distraught.’

Bran went to his Captain’s side, Xendra to Alicia’s other side. ‘What’s wrong?’ Xendra’s voice was quiet, soothing. ‘Can we help?’

Alicia sobbed. ‘I can’t stay here. I can’t leave. I hate it here, I love you, Alex. I love all of you.’

‘Hush, Alicia.’ Xendra looked over at Bran. A human in the wrong place, the Elder Kaitlyn had said. Bran nodded at her.

Xendra took a deep breath. ‘I don’t know if this’ll help or not, but we just spoke with the Elder Kaitlyn. We wanted to go to him first while we had the smaller continent fresh in mind. And he was pleased that things are a bit better. But after that, he said he loved us, the Elder Kaitlyn loved all six of us humans. But he said one human was in the wrong place. He told us to help that human find the right place. Then we come here and find you like this.’

She paused, letting that sink in a minute. ‘I’d say, Alicia, it’s maybe you who are in the wrong place, being here. Judging by the state of you, that is.’

Bran picked it up. ‘It’s not that we want rid of you, Alicia, nor do the kaitlyn. But you must admit you haven’t looked happy for a while.’

‘That’s true, Alicia. I thought it was maybe me, that you just wanted to break mate-bond with me. But you’ve been even more unhappy since you moved in here.’ Captain Nero glanced round. ‘I think you are missing being a doctor, Alicia.’

‘But you need a doctor. I can’t leave you.’

Bran raised an eyebrow at his Captain, who nodded. ‘Alicia, remember Wilf, my space-navy friend? The one who ate at our campfire after Yisto and Xepher were taken off Rock Island?’ Alicia nodded, but didn’t look up.

‘Wilf has been saying for years now, ever since he first came, he wanted to retire here. Wilf isn’t a doctor, but he is sure to have some training. Less than a doctor, but more than a nurse – I don’t know the correct term. Suppose, just suppose, he was ready to retire and come here, how would you feel about going back to doctoring then?’

Alicia ran her hands over her face and eyes, then reached for a packet of wipes. Xendra pushed the packet near Alicia. ‘Thanks. You’re not just saying that, Bran? Your friend really does want to come here? And he has some medical training?’

‘I’m no doctor, Alicia, I couldn’t tell you what Wilf knows about medical things. But the Navy does have training for those who want to take it. The Navy always seems to be short of doctors. So they dreamed up this training to give a certain basic training. It doesn’t make an officer a doctor, just able to help where there’s no doctor on board. But as to Wilf wanting to come here, I think he really does want that. I’d be surprised if he doesn’t turn up asking to be taken aboard. Aboard this planet, I mean.’

Captain Nero sat quiet, still holding her. ‘Would it make you feel better if we went up to the Titanic and sent a message asking Wilf to come, and to ask if there was a berth for you as a doctor? Where you would want to go? I don’t want to keep you here if you don’t want to stay, Alicia. If you want to go, I’ll help. We’ll help.’

Alicia sat silent, tears still running freely. Captain Nero sat, waiting, mopping her face.

‘What sort of bases are there?’

‘All sorts. The Space Navy has bases just about anywhere you can think of. Planets, moons, satellites. Earth type, methane type, ammonia type. Those bases of course are really little cities, enclosed against the atmosphere. But there’s a lot of bases on earth-like planets, oxygen type. Some desert planets, some cold, some mostly water. All sorts. But they always, always are short of doctors. And the doctors aren’t all Navy people. A lot of civilian doctors work on Navy bases, including nice planets. And with all sorts of creatures, but mostly, I believe, the doctors work with intelligent sentient beings. Including a lot of humanoid types.’

‘So you weren’t just trying to get rid of me, talking about doctors?’

‘I’m sorry, Alicia.’ Xendra squeezed her wrist. ‘Remember I was once Regen – I always seemed to see doctors – in fact, they were always doing something to me. I was just interested. We just got talking. After we went back to our igloo, I did say to Bran I felt I’d gone on about doctors that night. You ask him.’

‘I wouldn’t bother to waste my time. He’d back you up any day, Xendra. But I must admit, you did sound interested. But I felt you wanted rid of me. Just after I was trying to back off from Alex.’

‘No, my dear. None of us are trying to get rid of you. I have to admit though, I have felt that you weren’t happy, that you were maybe thinking of going off-planet. But you never said anything, and I didn’t want to ask. Maybe I should have, I’m sorry I didn’t, Alicia.’

Alicia smiled then. ‘No, Alex. I should have told you. We did promise each other to talk together. I didn’t. And I can see why you didn’t want to ask. I remember you said at the start that you couldn’t ever leave this planet. If I left, I’d have to go without you.’

‘It’s hard, love. But I can’t go. No more can Bran or Xendra. None of us three can leave this planet. Not while it has protected status. But you can, you don’t have to stay. Neither, mind you, do you have to go. Just if you want to, if you feel you need to go.’

‘That’s it, Alex. I need to go. Not so much wanting to go – but maybe I do. But if I do go, what about you, Alex?’ Alicia glanced over at Bran and Xendra. ‘I mean, there are only two other ladies on this planet, and they’re both sort of taken already, if you see what I mean. What about you?’

Captain Nero smiled gently. ‘I’m an old space dog, love. I just need companionship. These young things can have their passion, I just want a good yarn, good fellowship, a good mate – I mean in the sense of a pal, a friend. Don’t stay here out of just mate-ship loyalty, Alicia. That’s great of you, but really, my dear, you don’t have to worry about me. Not like that, anyway.’

‘Could I perhaps make a suggestion,’ Bran asked. ‘I was going to ask you, sir, to send for more supplies, more food-packets, more fuel too. I want to leave food in the smaller continent, to tempt the fatlings and berserkers back north, out of the tropical zone. So the kaitlyn can have their tropical zone back, you see. And we need that done soon, sir.’

He paused, looking at Alicia. ‘If Alicia would like, I could send a message to Wilf saying – something like we are ready to consider his application for residency here on Kaitan. And asking about any places for Alicia to doctor somewhere – in a Navy base, maybe a humanoid world, or whatever she’d like.’

‘Up to you, Alicia. Honestly, none of us are trying to get rid of you, please believe that.’

‘I do, Alex. And just sending a message can’t do any harm. I don’t have to go.’

‘Dead right. And that’s a good idea, about the food, my boy, but we’d better do that pronto.’

‘I can fly us up now, sir. The sooner the better for the food to arrive. You should see those kaitlyn over there, sir. Thin, fur dull, and the palfreys no better.’

‘Okay, report later about that. Go. Do you want to come too, Alicia?’

‘Maybe I should. Let’s all go this time.’

Suited up, Bran flew all of them up to the Titanic. ‘Bran, circle round the cargo area. Let’s just see there’s no new hole.’

Bran circled the Titanic as requested, before docking at the crew area. They went to the Control Room to send their message capsules, for food, fuel, and an extra igloo. Including a message that Bran sent to Wilf, saying to revise those medical programmes, and the planet Kaitan’s selection committee would consider his application for residency. No guarantees, of course. Bran reckoned Wilf would understand though.

Bran stepped back from the controls. ‘Anything else, folks?’

‘Let me see your Sick Bay,’ Alicia asked.

They went there, watching Alicia examine the surroundings and equipment, Doctor Nostrin’s old office. She touched the computer. ‘Can you let me study the medical data in here, Alex?’

‘Of course.’ The Captain waved Bran forward. ‘If Bran can get the data downloaded into a portable computer, that is.’

Bran went to the desk, opening drawers. Xendra stepped to a cupboard, pulling out a small computer. ‘Would this do? I saw Angda use it to monitor me.’ She handed it to Bran.

‘Give me a moment. This needs some power.’ After restoring ship’s power to the computer desk and attaching the portable, he punched several keys. He watched the screens. Finally he closed it down, putting the ship’s power back on stand-by. He handed the computer to Alicia. ‘This ought to work if you connect it to the ship’s boat.’

‘Thanks, Bran. And Alex. And you, Xendra, you knew where to look in the first place.’

Bran glanced over at his Captain. ‘You always said, sir, the Titanic would never let us down. Well, do you want to go back now?’

They did. Bran flew them back to Homecamp, where Alicia promptly headed over to the boat-quarters with the computer. Captain Nero followed her after giving both Bran and Xendra gentle slaps, clearly intended as thanks. They took the spacesuits to stow back in the igloo.

Supper was comfortable that night, conversation flowing freely. Bran and Xendra reported fully on the smaller continent, its kaitlyn and palfreys especially. Xendra recounted Xillia’s tale of the kaitlyn protecting them and the palfreys. Alicia was more animated than she’d been for a long time. Eventually the Captain rose. ‘If you want to share my boat-quarters instead of that dreary hospital-igloo, you are quite welcome, you know.’

‘Dreary – oh no, hospital-igloos, sick bays can never be dreary to me. But I’d like to move back in with you Alex. Thanks.’

Bran, Xendra and the Captain promptly went to the hospital-igloo to help carry Alicia’s things back to the boat-quarters. Smiles all round, everyone retired.

‘Well, folks, how about taking the palfreys and going foraging again? Then Bran and Xendra can take another load back to the smaller continent.’

‘Good thinking, sir. Xendra and I will go saddle the palfreys.’

They headed south-west, riding for a couple of hours before stopping to harvest grain-grass. This time, though, the atmosphere was filled with giggles and laughter until they worked themselves too far apart to hear each other’s jokes.

Four sacks bulging, Walnut and Beech carried two sacks each, while Daystar had Bran. Lady was always Xendra’s favourite. Sun, being the biggest, carried the Captain. Buddie’s paws stepped carefully with Alicia. That was one sensitive palfrey, Xendra thought, watching.

Tired, the four rode, content and peaceful, together back to Homecamp. Palfreys unsaddled, unloaded, Bran and Xendra rubbed down their own rides plus Walnut and Beech, while the Captain and Alicia attended to the palfreys they had ridden. The stream still ran fresh in the palfrey’s paddock. Bran spread some of the gathered grass-grain for the six palfreys, before hauling the four sacks towards the aircar.

‘What about us doing a bit of hoeing, Bran?’ Xendra suggested.

‘Fine by me. Want to see your kaitlyn friends?’

‘Any time. I feel something has already happened, though there’s really nothing changed.’

‘Sounds odd, but I agree. And the Elder Kaitlyn? Did I imagine it? Did I really sense the planet, the indigestion, that sort of thing?’

‘And did we really already know that Alicia wanted to leave? Mind you, the Captain seemed to sense something, but he’s got his empathetic touch to help him,’ Xendra said.

‘The more I think about it, the more I try to put it into words, the less I understand it.’

‘Then don’t, Bran. Just let it happen, like you let your hunches happen. And follow it. Like you follow you hunches.’

‘Let’s grab our hoes. How did a nice simple Space-Navy officer get into all this?’ Bran’s dark brown eyes lit as he grinned at Xendra. ‘Come on.’

They hoed, working on the Xendra plants as well as their own crop of roots. Taking some back to Homecamp for the next stew, Xendra turned back to Bran. ‘Do you think Wilf will really come?’

‘Yes. Remember the Elder Kaitlyn. He said he loved the six humans, the seven humans, the six humans. Sounds to me like Wilf joins us before Alicia leaves. Of course, the Elder didn’t put names, I did – but notice his six, seven, six.’

‘So you reckon Alicia might not leave with the next ship?’

‘That’d be my guess, Xendra. You haven’t had much luck with doctors. But Wilf won’t be a doctor, as such. Just in between nurse and doctor level. He always liked communications better. But I always thought one day he’d want a non-suave planet somewhere. All wild, untamed.’ A mischievous glint came into his eyes as he looked at her. ‘Like us. Just like you and me.’

‘All right, you big spacehound. Just for that, you can peel and chop those roots for me. Though I suppose you would anyway, Bran. Thanks.’

Together they prepared the meal, content in each other’s company. Once it was ready, they called Captain Nero and Alicia. She was deep into the computer, studying sentient life forms, their anatomy and physiology.

‘Thanks, Bran. But I’ve so much to learn! I’ll never be ready to hold my own with your space-navy doctors!’

‘Hey, they won’t know all that stuff – we used to send off messages asking all sorts of things, about all sorts of types of sentients. You wouldn’t believe what our space-navy doctors didn’t know! You don’t need to learn all that by heart. Nobody does.’

‘That’s just what I’ve been telling her, Bran. Thanks, my boy.’ Taking Alicia’s hand, he drew her away from the computer. ‘Come on, eat. You have the basic skills, it wouldn’t matter whether the patient is an elephant or a dolphin or anything else, you’d treat them the same, wouldn’t you?’

Alicia didn’t look convinced, but allowed herself to be drawn to the campfire, and be handed a bowl of stew. The Captain tried to switch to non-doctor items. ‘I suppose you’ll fly back tomorrow with the sacks, more food, water, fuel, Bran? Alicia, would you like to go too? For a change of scenery?’

‘Of course you could. There’s one igloo over there. Some of the kaitlyn use it at night, but there’s the aircar if you’d rather sleep in that,’ Bran said.

‘I don’t know we can do very much more except for ferrying supplies and water. I would like to get the kaitlyn back into the tropical zone, though. Somehow.’

‘Once those extra supplies come, that should help. Your plan is just to dump caches to attract the fatlings and berserkers? What about the kaitlyn while the berserkers are on the move?’ Captain Nero said.

‘As long as the kaitlyn are in a big enough group, they seem able to protect themselves, sir. It’d be any isolated ones, any weak, any injured, or any old.’

‘Remember we brought eleven over here. I’d imagine they might’ve been the more vulnerable ones,’ Xendra said.

‘Do you think your group over there are most of the kaitlyn? I don’t suppose every last one,’ Captain Nero paused. ‘If it were possible to have all of the displaced kaitlyn together – as long as we could feed them, of course – it might be comparatively safe.’

‘There had been some kaitlyn coming to the refugee camp while we were away. Xillia said so,’ Xendra said, remembering.

‘So, Alicia, do you want to go across?’

‘No, I don’t think so, Alex. I’ll just stay here. I must study, and we need to care for the palfreys and the agriculture plots. I don’t want to leave you with all that to do.’

‘How soon could more supplies come, Alex?’

‘Bonesdran isn’t that far away, and after what we put in our message, I’d reckon not that long. Maybe just a few weeks – or already maybe on it’s way. Bran, what do you think?’

‘I don’t know, but I’m hoping it’ll be soon. This is a protected planet, and we made it clear our protectees need help. That’ll give us priority, sir. More like days than weeks, I’d hope.’

‘Let’s hope you’re right. We’ll send over all the food-packets and fuel we can spare, anyway, and more water. Plus those four sacks.’

‘They’ll be put to good use. They were very glad of the first four sacks we took over, sir. I’ll go back in the morning.’

The flyer carried more food, water, fuel cells, grain-grass, Xendra and Bran back over the ocean, back to the refugee camp.

Xillia and Yanni and his bow, came, helped with the off-loading and stacking in the igloo.

After some tea brewed outside the igloo, Bran broached his idea to his friends. ‘You all know how the Elder Kaitlyn is concerned about getting this continent back to how it used to be. We’ve sent messages asking for extra food to be brought. I wanted to seed this northern tropical zone with food-packets, to try to draw the berserkers, and the fatlings too, back up here from the tropical zone. So the kaitlyn can take back their tropics.’

‘Yes, but what about individual kaitlyn safety – and palfrey safety – if or when hordes of berserkers suddenly reappear?’ Xillia asked.

‘Exactly so. Here’s my idea. Can we, with the kaitlyn here, call for the others, any individual kaitlyn, to come here? Xendra?’ Bran asked.

‘I don’t know. With the connection the Elder Kaitlyn has, quite possibly. With just us, I simply don’t know if we can.’

‘No harm in trying,’ Yanni said.

‘We’d best have as many kaitlyn as possible. All holding hands, since that seems to increase the sensing. Whether it’d reach any kaitlyn out there I don’t know.’

‘We can try. But we’d best have some kaitlyn on guard while we’re concentrating, though,’ Xillia said.

‘Xendra, you’re the strongest communicator, have a go at telling somebody what we want to try.’ Bran took her hand.

Both went deep into themselves. The kaitlyn, noticing their stance, realising they wanted communication, came up and took their hands.

‘Reach out, bring other kaitlyn. Some keep guard.’ Xendra

All but three kaitlyn joined hands, Yanni and Xillia taking kaitlyn hands.

‘More food-packets coming, then place them in this zone. Draw berserkers back here from the tropical zone. Berserkers and fatling.’ Bran.

‘Call kaitlyn, palfrey, here for protection, food, water.’ Xendra

‘Together kaitlyn protect each other against berserkers before going back to tropical zone’. Bran.

Xendra and Bran sensed a slight shift. They stood, trying with all that was in them to send out a call for kaitlyn to come here, for palfrey to come here. For protection, food, water. They stood, deep in themselves, concentrating. Until each individual felt his or her concentration slipping. One by one they surfaced, came back to themselves.

The four humans glanced at each other, seeing awareness back in each other’s expressions, and bowed deeply to the kaitlyn.

The kaitlyn, except the three still on guard, bowed back.

Bran said, ‘Another thing I had in mind. The grain-grass on the southern temperate zone should be healthy. Suppose we take the flyer there and gather some? We’ll need to feed the palfrey as well as kaitlyn.’

‘Assuming more come. But even if no more come, we still could use fresh grain-grass,’ Xillia said.

‘Are all of us going?’ Yanni asked. ‘If so, maybe Xendra could tell Bob here what we’re doing.’

‘Bob?’ Xendra asked.

‘I called him Bob – the one with the dark cheek rosette. It’s often he who’s nearest us. So when Xillia and I tried to communicate with the kaitlyn it’s usually Bob we tried to connect with.’

Xendra and Bran looked at each other. The youngsters had indeed done well. And maybe connecting with the same individual would build up an easier rapport.

Xendra took Yanni’s hand. ‘I think that’s an excellent idea. I wish I’d thought of it, well done, Yanni.’ She reached for Bran’s hand, who took Xillia’s.

Bob, she saw, was nearby. He came, taking Yanni’s and Xillia’s hand in his own.

‘I’ll bet you some of the kaitlyn come too,’ Xillia said.

‘I doubt that, but I wouldn’t put any money on it,’ Bran answered.

‘Us four, flying machine south, gather grain-grass, return here.’ Yanni.

‘I come, others come. How many fly machine carry?’ Bob.

‘Ten with grain-grass.’ Bran

‘We come’. Bob

Bows exchanged, Bob sang to his kaitlyn friends. He and five others walked toward the flycar.

‘Xillia wins, I lose.’ Grinning, Bran took sacks and empty boxes to the aircar.

Yanni helped carry sacks. ‘I’ve learned never to bet against her, Bran. She’s so often right. But you’d better do the flying again. Some of us’ll have to sit on the floor.’

Bran lifted off. Yanni, Xillia and Xendra had settled themselves on the floor, leaving as many kaitlyn as possible to use the seats and see out of the windows. The three of them watched the enjoyment of the kaitlyn, seeing their land roll by under them.

The extensive forests didn’t allow many landmarks to be seen, but the kaitlyn were deeply engrossed in watching their land below. Xendra began to wonder if they somehow sensed their land, unseen, below the tree canopy.

Bran flew beyond the tropical zone, into the southern temperate zone. The kaitlyn beside him placed a forepaw on Bran’s knee. Taking that as a signal to land, Bran circled to find a clear space for the flyer to land. The kaitlyn pointed with his other forepaw. Bran, descending, saw a small stony patch, not unlike the area at Homecamp. He slowly took the flyer down, landing as gently as he could.

Ramp down, the kaitlyn alighted, looking round them. Xendra watched them carefully. Were they sensing the land, palfrey, berserkers, any kaitlyn, she wondered. Sacks and boxes unloaded, Bran set the aircar’s immobiliser.

None of the four had been this far south on the smaller continent, so Bran bowed to the kaitlyn, waving his arm around, hoping the kaitlyn would take the lead. Bob inclined his head to Bran. Xendra stifled a giggle. It was so much like the officer of the watch handing over to another officer. But she and the four followed Bob. Two of the kaitlyn walked behind them.

‘I guess we are guarded, Bran. You know, it was a bit funny, when you handed over to Bob then, but really, these kaitlyn could be more intelligent than we are. It’s just the communication that’s hampering us.’

‘I agree. We really should be telling them more. Maybe they understand more than we think they do.’

Xillia heard. ‘I keep remembering how they guarded us against the berserkers that first night. Since then, I’d believe anything of the kaitlyn.’

‘And it wasn’t our idea to try to communicate with the same kaitlyn. That was theirs. Bob was always somewhere near us. The others would be moving about the camp, patrolling, guarding, eating and so on, but Bob was close to us. At first we thought he wanted to guard us. Maybe he did. But Bob was always there, so if we wanted to tell the kaitlyn something, or ask if they were all right, we just naturally reached for his hand.’ Yanni said.

‘And in the camp as we were, we didn’t need guarding inside the camp. So we began to think it was communication. Maybe he is the strongest kaitlyn communicator, just like Xendra is our strongest at sensing.’ Xillia turned to smile at Bob, still beside her.

‘That’s something I never thought of,’ Xendra said. ‘You could very well be right. Maybe it’s not just the Elder Kaitlyn sensing everything. Maybe these kaitlyn were sort of sending as well.’

‘Not quite, I think,’ Bran said. ‘I sense that the Elder Kaitlyn tunes in, as you might say, to kaitlyn, palfreys, berserkers, and so on, and the land, water, the planet. Just as he tunes in to us humans.’

‘You mean, something like a comlink? One on each end? But that’s just what Xendra said – that these kaitlyn here were sending.’ Yanni put his hand on Bob’s shoulder, who was walking on his hind legs beside them. ‘When Bob is in the circle, I get things clearer than when he isn’t, I know that much.’

‘You convince me even more of one thing at least, Yanni. This planet has to be protected. We, humans, haven’t done this planet any favours, and we have to help them all we can,’ Bran said.

‘Incidentally, you two, it’s possible that Bran’s friend Wilf wants to join us. And when we were back at Homecamp, Alicia was talking of leaving here to go back to doctoring. But it’s all just talk at the moment,’ Xendra said.

‘Alicia? I’m not that surprised,’ Xillia said.

Yanni nodded. ‘Haven’t you noticed? We’ve grown closer to the kaitlyn and the palfreys. Even you two have somehow got better at communication. Alicia hasn’t.’

‘This planet seems to me to make you more what you were.’ At the surprised expressions of the others, Xillia went on, ‘I mean, it seems to draw out the essential you, what most makes you tick, and make you more like yourself. Look at Angda. Angry, rebellious, even murderous, at least in intent if not fact. Doctor Nostrin, caring for her as well as limiting her worst intentions. Yisto and Xepher, rebellion again, and downright nasty at the end. But they didn’t start out that bad. Conversely, us loving the kaitlyn, the palfreys, everything. The Captain, a gentle old man as well as being a leader. You two, deep in with the Elder Kaitlyn, and Bran seriously saying the planet communicates with the Elder Kaitlyn. If not with him too.’ Xillia stopped, eyeing Bran carefully.

‘Young lady, just don’t tell Doctor Alicia all that,’ Bran said.

‘So you admit it?’

‘Guilty. Yes. I always did get hunches, but since coming here, it’s been more than that. Like the planet sort of talks to me. Oh, not like you talk to me. But somehow, kind of like feelings, like a whisper of a rumour inside me. And not all the time. Just sometimes. And I have to agree, Xendra has got stronger at communicating with the kaitlyn, that seems to be her speciality. And you two are both growing in communication as well.’

The kaitlyn had walked quietly all this time, but now Bob sang.  The other kaitlyn were now all singing, conversing together. Xendra looked into Bob’s eyes, seeing the intelligence. He met her eyes, his amber to her grey. Xendra felt this was a younger version of the Elder Kaitlyn. Perhaps a future Elder Kaitlyn. Yanni and Xillia were right. She bowed her head to him. Looking up, she could have sworn a twinkle was in his eyes as he gave a slight inclination of his head to her. Bob was hardly a dignified enough name for this kaitlyn, but Xendra supposed he wouldn’t bother about a thing like that.

The humans had stopped when the kaitlyn began their song. Now Bob began to harvest grain-grass. The humans followed his lead, as did the other kaitlyn. But the kaitlyn did the harvesting, pulling at grain-grass stalks with their hands and teeth, while keeping watch with eyes and ears. Xendra noticed that though they worked, and how they worked, yet always one of kaitlyn watched and listened. Xendra stopped worrying about berserkers, and concentrated on gathering grain-grass. She took some root plants, too, noticing the leaves of some they had on the main continent.

They worked on, filling sacks and boxes, inevitably scattering over the land as they worked. But at least one kaitlyn remained close to each human at all times. Xendra looked over at Bran, hoping to catch his eye. He glanced over, grinning at her slight inclination of the head – each of the four with at least one kaitlyn close by. He’d noticed already. So had Xillia and Yanni, she was sure.

They worked till one of the kaitlyn gave a single note. The kaitlyn began to close up together, the humans following. Back in a bunch, carrying boxes and sacks of grain-grass, Bob led them back towards the aircar.

‘I’m glad Bob knows the way, we were so busy talking I forgot to check the compass,’ Bran said.

‘Well, you must admit, it was an interesting conversation. And we were following Bob here, remember,’ Yanni said.

‘Bob knows exactly where we are, and where any berserkers are, don’t worry.’ Xillia, loaded with a full sack, walked confidently, securely.

They walked on, weaving through the trees, Bob always leading, humans always with a kaitlyn near, and two kaitlyn at the rear. The stony patch came into sight. Bran opened up the aircar, lowering the ramp. He waited while everyone loaded the aircar and climbed in, before entering himself, pulling up the ramp. As he’d expected, none of the kaitlyn had sat in his pilot’s chair, and equally as he’d expected, Bob was in the front passenger seat beside him.

Smiling, Bran took off, flying back north to the refugee camp. They landed, off-loading the flyer, and securing it.

They spread some of the grain-grass, stowing most of it in the igloo. Xillia took the roots, beginning to prepare root-stew for the humans. But she stopped when she noticed the approach of several strange palfreys. She walked over to the web-fence gate, opening it so they could enter if they chose.

The palfreys came forward, slowly but not appearing afraid. Yanni, noticing, brought more grain-grass from the igloo, placing the bundle near the new palfreys. They whistled, and gathered to eat. Six, no, seven palfreys gathered round the grain-grass, eating. Xendra went to check on the bowl of water, then called Bran to help her bring more water.

Bob and some of the kaitlyn watched. Xendra wondered what they were thinking, and she took Bran’s hand. Thinking was maybe the wrong word. She got a sense of contentment. The kaitlyn were pleased, she was sure. ‘We’ll have to get some more grass again tomorrow,’ she said aloud.

Bob sang a single soft note, almost like a lullaby. They would go again tomorrow. Meantime, Xillia was back at the root-stew, keeping an eye on the new palfreys.

The humans gathered that evening, eating root-stew. Yanni offered a bowl to Bob. He waited till it had cooled before tasting it. ‘You’ll be starting something, Yanni,’ Xillia said, smiling. Bob did indeed seem to like it, using a spoon as the humans did. The other kaitlyn watched him, singing a little, but seeming to Xendra to be quite happy that their leader was trying Xillia’s stew.

The kaitlyn on guard duty moved to open the gate. A kaitlyn came in. Bob rose to greet the new kaitlyn, while others gave the newcomer a food-packet. More kaitlyn came that night, in ones, twos, threes. Each time greeted by Bob and each new kaitlyn given a food-packet. A sense of contentment and hope spread throughout the refugee camp.

The kaitlyn guards on duty, everyone settled to sleep.

In the morning, Bran tried to contact Homecamp. He was beginning to worry about rations. By now there were at least twice as many kaitlyn, at least forty he reckoned, and now at least fifteen or so palfreys. In the igloo they had enough for perhaps two, maybe three, days. He reached the Captain, asking about stocks of food.

‘We’ll manage for a while, Bran. There’s the iron rations still boxed up in the igloo. Not very palatable, but needs must.’

‘I’d forgotten about the emergency rations, sir, I was just thinking of the food-packets. We might need them. Yesterday we went south to gather grain-grass, but we really need a constant supply. The sooner Wilf can get here, the happier I’ll be.’

‘He can’t be here for a while though. Can he?’

‘I’d guess, even given our emergency call, at least quite a while. Months rather than weeks at worst.’

‘But he was coming anyway, Bran. Didn’t you tell me he might already be on his way before we sent that emergency message?’ Bran knew the Captain meant the first message they’d sent, the message they’d never told Alicia about.

‘Yes, that’s right. And even if he hasn’t brought all we asked for, in an emergency on a protected planet, the Space Navy will give us all they can possibly spare. As well as what they’d actually brought for us.’

‘So don’t worry so much Bran. I know, my boy, you’re over there, you’ll feel responsible. We’ll manage though. Just do what you can, it’ll work out.’

‘A hunch of yours, sir?’

‘Yes. It’ll be fine. Now take your team and go gather more grain-grass.’

‘Yes, sir. Thank you, sir.’

So the days passed, Bob and other kaitlyn going in the flycar to gather grain-grass, more kaitlyn and palfreys joining the refugee camp. Occasionally Bran or Yanni flew back to Homecamp to collect more food-packets and fuel. The Captain kept careful count of the remaining food-stocks on his side, Bran and Yanni doing the same on the lesser continent, but the kaitlyn’s fur began to improve from the dull, lacklustre they’d seen at first, to a brighter,  healthy sheen. The palfreys too, their coats shone with the fresh grain-grass constantly supplied by kaitlyn and humans.

Eventually the iron rations appeared, sent from Homecamp with apologies. Not tasty, but nourishing. The kaitlyn and humans ate without complaint. The refugee camp was now full with both kaitlyn and palfreys.

Bran considered taking some kaitlyn to the main continent, or trying to increase the fenced area. It’d be simple enough to cut down trees, but none of the humans liked the idea. Not until or unless there was no other option. Yanni summed it up. ‘Leave it to Bob, Bran. It’s their planet. We’re just the helpers.’

Bran watched. Not everyone now could fit in the enclosed area, but Bob seemed to have things under control. With the extra kaitlyn, there were at least six guards on constant patrol round the perimeter of kaitlyn and palfreys each night. No matter that some were on the outside of the web-fence, Bran knew the speed kaitlyn could spring into action, defending the weaker ones within.

The Captain’s voice on the comlink was always strong, encouraging. Whether in person or by voice, the Captain steadily supported Bran. But weeks had passed, months had passed.

One day, Bran stood gloomy. He had promised food to these kaitlyn, to these palfreys. Now some seventy kaitlyn, some forty palfreys. And there couldn’t be much more food to bring over. If any. He stood, sunk in despair. The fur of the kaitlyn and palfrey alike was shiny now. But there simply wasn’t enough food left now to supply them all. And the northern temperate zone grain-grass and water wasn’t yet fullly recovered. Better, but not back to normal. The chemical still stank in the water, still in the grass. It would still make kaitlyn and palfrey alike sick if they had to eat it.

Bran stood surveying those he had let down. But Bob appeared beside him, toe-finger beckoning. Bran followed. Bob collected all four, leading them out of the enclosure, away from the refugee camp. He extended his hands towards the humans. They linked hands.

‘Take courage,’ came Bob’s ‘voice’ inside them all.

‘Help is at hand. All will be well, all is well.’

And, not words so much as an inner certainty came to Bran. It would be well, it is well. Peace, hope, love, courage flowed into the four humans.

Bob still stood, holding their hands. ‘Your friend, your human friend, comes. Comes soon. He is welcome to us, welcome as you are. All is well. Blame not yourselves. You four, the Captain, your new friend, is and will be one with us. I say so. You four, fly to your Captain, return to us. Go with my blessing upon you.’

Bob bowed slightly, releasing their hands. The four bowed back, deep bows. Bran felt like saluting – a smile, the first in weeks, tugged at his lips at the thought. He bowed to Bob, a deep, respectful bow. Bob headed back to the refugee camp.

As ordered, the four headed to the flycar, Bran lifting off for Homecamp. The four didn’t say much on the way, each thinking of Bob, his words to them, his encouragement, even praise, to them.

Landed back at Homecamp, the Captain came out of his boat-quarters to meet them. He walked steadily, but didn’t look happy.

‘This’ll be the last, Bran. There’s no more. Apart from grain-grass, roots, leaves, that is.’

Bran slapped his shoulder. ‘It won’t be long, sir. Help is coming, and won’t be long.’

‘There’s been no word, Bran. Is this one of your hunches?’

‘Not exactly, sir.’ He glanced round, wondering where Alicia was.

Guessing his thought, the Captain said, ‘She’s poring over that confounded computer.’

‘Well, sir, the kaitlyn told us. He told us our friend was coming, he was nearly here, and he would be welcome, would be one of the kaitlyn, like you, sir, Xendra, Yanni, Xillia and I are.’

‘Was this your kaitlyn friend Bob?’

‘Yes, sir. I wish it was a more appropriate name but he is special, sir. He’s like a younger Elder Kaitlyn, sir, and I’d say, almost as powerful. In time, perhaps Bob might be even more powerful. And he said ‘all will be well, all is well’. And I believed him, sir. Despite how much, or how little, iron rations are left.’ Bran placed his hand on his Captain’s shoulder. ‘And, sir, I can’t tell you how much your support has meant to me, all this time. I couldn’t have got through without you.’

‘You speak as if it was all over.’

‘Somehow, it is. Bob told us, all four of us, to come over here, and fly back. I suppose there is something to take back?’

‘Come on.’ the Captain beckoned all four to the storage igloo. ‘Load these up and come and have some root-stew before you fly back.’

The Captain turned quickly away. There were only four boxes of emergency rations. The four of them took a box each, stowing it in the flycar, before heading back to the campfire.

‘Go look at the palfreys, you two. I know you’ve missed them, and you haven’t been over for ages. We’ll fix the stew,’ Xendra said.

The Captain brought plenty of roots and an extra fuel cell. The three peeled, chopped, boiled. Bran got the tea going.

‘How goes it sir? With Alicia, I mean?’

‘She’s not happy, Bran. She pores over that computer, studying all the sentient life forms as if her life depended on it. She does stay in the boat-quarters with me, but she doesn’t say much.’

‘I’m sorry, sir. And we can’t stay – Bob said we were to return, and I think he meant all of us.’

‘But are you all right, Captain?’ Xendra asked. ‘Bob wouldn’t want us to neglect you.’

‘Child, I’m all right. I just get on with brushing down the palfreys, taking them for exercise, collect fodder for them, hoe and weed, collect roots and leaves for us. And I don’t forget the Xendra plants, my girl. Not to mention cooking, cleaning, washing.’

Bran looked over at Xendra. ‘Sounds like you are doing all the work all by yourself, sir.’

‘No matter. You said it wouldn’t be long now. And remember I’m an old space Captain. You wouldn’t believe how lonely that can be sometimes. This, here, is nothing to worry about. But I’m going to fetch Alicia out to eat with us all.’ He rose, marching off to the boat-quarters, returning with an obviously reluctant Alicia.

However, the six sat round the campfire, eating root-stew, drinking tea, and making small talk until Alicia rose, returning to the boat-quarters.

‘Back to that computer, no doubt,’ Captain Nero said.

Xillia looked at the Captain before taking the dishes away to wash. Yanni clapped the Captain on the shoulder before going to help her.

‘They’re good kids,’ the Captain said, smiling despite his gloom.

‘Yes. And you’re a good Captain. It’s not your fault she’s like that,’ Xendra told him.

Bran backed her up. ‘And remember it won’t be long. Wilf and food-packets are coming. Bob said so. And kaitlyn don’t lie. Just you keep an eye on that communicator, or Wilf will be landing here and you not here to welcome him home.’

‘Home, Bran? You think he’s coming to stay?’

‘Yes. I do. Just you wait till you hear some of his yarns, sir. Even if we four stay over there a while longer, you won’t be lonely with him around, sir. I guarantee it.’ Bran saw the youngsters returning.

‘Well, for now, sir, if you don’t mind, I have orders from Sir Bob to return.’

‘Go, my boy, of course. It was good to see you all. Tell Sir Bob thanks.’

They took off. Yanni asked, ‘What’s with the ‘Sir Bob’?’

‘That particular kaitlyn reminds me of the Elder Kaitlyn over here, Yanni. If he’s not a future Elder Kaitlyn I for one will be more than somewhat surprised. I didn’t plan on saying Sir Bob, it just came out.’

‘I’d say it’s very appropriate. Sir Bob is a leader right now, anyway. You’ve seen how he runs the camp, the kaitlyn, the palfreys. And that this morning with us – well.’ Xendra shook her head, her brown bob swirling. ‘You two must have felt it too.’

Yanni and Xillia looked at each other. ‘Yep, we did,’ Yanni said.

‘Yes, fine, but did you see the Captain? What’s Alicia thinking of?’ Xillia asked.

‘Her doctor studies, I’d guess. You said it yourself, Xillia, this planet makes us more like ourselves. She’s a doctor.’ After her regen experiences, Xendra could never be too fond of any doctor.

‘Anyway, assuming Sir Bob is right, and I’ll bet he is, Wilf will be here soon. The Captain will be in good hands then.’

‘What did Wilf do, Bran? I know you said he’d been thinking of retiring, but what did he do in the Space Navy?’ Yanni asked.

‘Mostly communications, and I think he had some medical aide training – in between doctor and nurse level.’

‘Can he fly – oh yes, he must – he flew that shuttle last time,’ Xillia said.

‘Yes, he could handle this sort of flycar no bother. Or the Titanic’s boat – she can still fly, you know, though she’d use more fuel than this little flyer.’

‘What rank is he, Bran? Do you know?’ Yanni asked.

‘Last I knew he was Communications Officer. Once he was a First Officer in the Space Navy, but he got reduced in rank.’ Bran grinned, but sensing their interest, he went on, ‘You should get him to tell you about that. Basically he got into a brawl on a planet. He always maintained he was just defending a couple of planetary natives, sentient dog-types, I think, or maybe they were more cat-like, I don’t remember now. Anyway, he laid out thre merchant spacemen and a couple of planetary police who tried to break it up. He always said he didn’t realise the last two were policemen.’

‘Sounds like our kind of fella,’ Xendra said. ‘I guess Sir Bob got it right. He’ll have to meet the Elder Kaitlyn, but this sounds good to me.’

‘He never got his First Officer restored?’ Xillia asked.

‘No, by then he was older. I think myself he could have got it back, but he just wasn’t that bothered. He always liked communications, and he never liked all the red tape Navy First Officers had to learn and remember. Different red tape on every planet, practically. But always there was red tape, computer-work, paper-work, permits, health inspections. Never mind food, fuel, water, air, medical, spare parts and repair supplies, and formal planetary functions too, sometimes. You get the idea.’

They did. ‘Can’t wait to meet him.’ Yanni summed up their impressions of Wilf.

Bran flew on, landing back beside the refugee camp.

The four, feeling absurdly cheerful, carried the four boxes to the igloo. ‘I know we should all be feeling gloomy, but look at us,’ Xendra said. ‘I don’t even want to go grain-grass gathering, I just want to stay in camp.’

‘We could have a day off, don’t you think, Bran? Maybe wash our clothes? Do you reckon the lake water is good enough for that?’ Xillia asked.

‘Yes. Not for drinking yet, at least not without purification, but it is improving. The running streams are much better now.’

‘Then I’ll use the stream just before it enters the lake. Give me your clothes.’

Xillia went rummaging in the igloo for clothes and bedding to wash. Eventually all four took their spare tunics, trousers, blankets to the stream. Sir Bob, ever watchful, sent two kaitlyn with them, though he remained in camp.

The next day all four, Sir Bob, and more kaitlyn went south to collect more grain-grass and as many food-roots as they found, to eke out the dwindling food supply.

In the northern temperate zone the grass was improving, but the chemical taint from the mountain had spread far before it was checked. The contamination had been high on the mountain, so had been carried for many months throughout the temperate zone. Thus the land still was affected. Grain-grass and grasses grew, but still the chemical was present, though the amount was less now.

Again, and again they went foraging. Then, when despair was again eating at Bran, despite Sir Bob’s continued perky carriage, it came.

The comlink sounded. ‘The Navy is here, Wilf speaking. Where’s that place of yours, I’ll bring you supplies.’

Wilf did. He flew the Navy’s shuttle, loaded with food-packets, fuel and water, landing near the lake. Bran was waiting, with his friends and Sir Bob by his side.

Almost before Wilf had alighted, Bran was hugging him. But not for long. Bran wanted Wilf to meet Sir Bob. The others watched Wilf carefully.

Bran took Sir Bob’s hand and Wilf’s in his own. Aloud he said, ‘Wilf, this is the head kaitlyn of the smaller continent. We call him Sir Bob.’ And deep inside himself, he tried to tell Sir Bob that this was Wilf, his friend. Maybe he should’ve had Xendra in, but this he wanted to do himself. ‘Wilf, we show the kaitlyn respect by bowing. They have sung-notes too, but just copy the sound as best you can when you hear it.’

Sir Bob reached for Wilf’s free hand. Surprised, but with a look at how Bran held Sir Bob’s hand, Wilf took the offered hand while inclining his head to Sir Bob.

Bran sensed Sir Bob. ‘Welcome, friend of Bran, friend of my friends. I greet you. My blessing rests upon you, receive it. Welcome.’

Sir Bob released their hands, giving a sung note and bow. Bran and Wilf returned the note, both gave a deep bow. Other kaitlyn, ranged behind the four and Sir Bob, sang and bowed. Bran and the others sang back, bowing. Wilf took his lead from his friend, copying the sung notes and, his face very serious, bowing deeply.

Then the four and Wilf unloaded the shuttle. Sir Bob himself helped carry supplies, as well as many of the kaitlyn. Thus the shuttle was unloaded quickly.

Bran turned to Wilf. ‘Are you staying with us, Wilf?’

‘I’m here, Bran, if you’ll have me. I take it these are the people I need to impress?’ He nodded toward the kaitlyn.

‘Yes, but you’ll have to go in front of the Elder Kaitlyn, near Homecamp – on the larger continent. They use a sort of telepathy. Xendra’s our strongest communicator, so we’ll come with you.’

‘We’ll all come with you, Wilf,’ Yanni said. ‘Just for a while.’

Yanni, holding Xillia’s hand, turned to Sir Bob, trying to tell him they wanted to be with Wilf when he met the Elder Kaitlyn. Xendra felt sure Sir Bob would know already.

‘I’d need you anyway, Bran. That’s the Navy’s shuttle, and I’ll have to fly her back to the ship. Would you fly up with me so you can bring me back? Assuming I pass inspection, that is?’

‘Of course. We’ll have to take both ships then.’

‘You go with your friend, Bran. I’ll fly our aircar.’

Yanni turned back to Sir Bob, keeping it in his mind that he might be gone a couple of days, but would return. Sir Bob bowed to him. Taking that as assent, Yanni and Xillia bowed before going to their aircar. Wilf, Bran and Xendra bowed to Sir Bob, Bran and Xendra holding it in mind that they, the two of them, would return. Sir Bob returned their bow. Xendra would have sworn she saw a twinkle in Sir Bob’s eyes, before the three went into the Navy shuttle.

Both craft flew back to Homebase, Wilf, in the larger craft, landed west of the Titanic’s boat, while Yanni landed near the hangar-igloo.

The Captain was waiting for their return, pot of root-stew on, tea ready to put on. Alicia was not in sight.

‘Welcome back, Wilf. Now, I don’t want to rush you, but if you don’t mind, I think we should take you to see the Elder Kaitlyn now.’

‘I’d rather get it over with, anyway, sir. Then, if he approves, I gather I can stay?’

‘Exactly. His decision is final. Come on then.’

Captain Nero marched towards the north-forest, Wilf, Bran and Xendra, Yanni and Xillia, following. Bran, trying to cheer both the Captain and Wilf, told of Sir Bob’s evident approval of Wilf. The Captain only grunted.

‘I don’t know which of them is the more nervous,’ Xillia whispered to Yanni.

The stream crossed, near the north-forest edge, the party halted. Xendra gave the questioning notes, twice. They waited. Two kaitlyn showed themselves – Xendra was sure they’d already been there, waiting. They led the six humans into the forest. Bran had Xendra’s hand, Yanni held Xillia’s. The Captain and Wilf walked without touching.

The kaitlyn led them forward. Then stopped, the humans also stopped and waited. Shadows appeared, then the form of kaitlyns. The Elder Kaitlyn with his companions, approached. The humans and their escorts bowed.

The Elder Kaitlyn, with two companions on each side, approached. He beckoned to Bran and Xendra. Hands joined, they stepped forward, bowing. All five joined hands.

The Elder Kaitlyn’s ‘voice’ came. ‘Well done, my human children, very well done. Now join with your companions, not Wilf yet.’

Xendra told them to join hands, but Wilf was to wait.

Together, the humans waited. The Elder Kaitlyn’s ‘voice’ spoke.

‘My human children, well done. I am well pleased. Tell this one to join us.’

‘Wilf, join in the circle,’ Xendra said. Bran and Xendra released each other’s hand, offering their hands to Wilf. He stepped forward, took their hands. His palm was wet, Xendra noticed. ‘It’s all right, don’t worry. Just try to relax, listen with your mind, inside yourself.’

Wilf bowed his head, and stood, waiting before the Elder Kaitlyn.

Xendra sensed peace, comfort, even a healing, flowing. Then the ‘voice’ of the Elder Kaitlyn.

‘It is my place to accept or reject applicants for permanent residence here. But you, Wilf, friend of my friends, are welcome. You may stay as long as you wish to stay. I know my cousin of the smaller continent is well pleased with you. His judgement is sound. I welcome you. On this planet, respect for all living is the key. Respect for kaitlyn, respect for palfrey, respect for fatlings, respect for smaller creatures, even to a degree compatible with safety respect for berserkers. Also respect for land, for water, streams, grasses, grain-grasses, plants, trees. Respect for the planet itself. And respect for each human. These with you are my human children. Respect, love, compassion, courage in adversity, defence of the weak, I know you have. Listen within yourself, be open to me, be open to kaitlyn. Love, respect, peace, openness. Be welcome here, my human child. Take joy and comfort, my human children, my six human children. Go now, rest. If or when you have need, return to see me again. I am here for my children. If you do so wish to return to see me, send your thought before you, wait at the forest edge as you have been taught. My human children, go now and rest’.

The Elder Kaitlyn sang. The kaitlyn released the humans, bowing.

All the humans sang the note and bowed deeply. Bran and Xendra still held Wilf’s hand. He stood, trembling and white-faced. The six waited. The escorts surveyed Wilf, in no hurry to lead him away. Wilf blinked several times. Xendra released his hand. Bran changed his grip to under Wilf’s arm.

‘Take your time. The Elder Kaitlyn is something else. He’d never hurt you, but he’s a whole lot of statesmanship, leadership, and more besides,’ Bran said, giving Wilf time to come to.

‘He sure is. The Navy Disciplinary Board was nothing to him.’

‘Well, you were defending sentient beings. I think the Elder Kaitlyn somehow knew about that – I did mention it to the others. We, that is, Sir Bob seemed to know you were coming a few days before you arrived.’

‘After that, I wouldn’t be surprised that he did. Yikes, you might have warned me.’

‘I did mention that we had a selection committee. How could I describe the Elder Kaitlyn? You’d have thought I was shooting nova-juice or I was just plain crazy.’

The two kaitlyn escorts evidently decided Wilf was sufficiently recovered. They began to lead the way back to the edge of the forest. There, they sang farewell and bowed. The six humans sang and bowed, waiting till the kaitlyn had returned to the forest. Then they headed back to Homecamp.

Bran noticed that Captain Nero looked happy. Indeed, everyone strode along, jaunty now. Wilf was still a bit subdued.

‘Eat, first, I think. If you have time, Wilf? Or does the ship need to have her shuttle back right now?’

‘I’d rather take the shuttle back now, Bran. And come back to stay. If, sir, that’d be all right with you, Captain.’

‘Of course. It’ll give you time to settle yourself anyway. Bran, don’t you dare disappear back into that Navy ship, you hear me? I want you back!’

‘Don’t worry, Captain, he’ll be back.’ Xendra was supremely confident. She knew the planet was part of him. And that he knew it too. She smiled at them both. ‘See you.’

Spacesuits on, the two pilots lifted off. Bran in the aircar followed Wilf into the Navy ship’s large airlock, waiting till his friend had handed the shuttle back. Wilf had the craft logged in, and himself now off duty, retired from the Space Navy. He stepped back from the Navy officer, saluting smartly. Bran punched open the aircar’s door. Wilf settled himself in, safety straps on, signalled that he was ready. Slowly the officer opened the airlock door to space, Bran gently flew the little craft back out, back home.

Perhaps as well doing that right after the meeting with the Elder Kaitlyn, Bran thought. Silent, Bran flew the little ship back to Homecamp, parking it. The Captain was waiting. ‘Welcome home, Wilf, Bran. Get your suits off, the dinner’s ready.’ The Captain was smiling now, pleased and happy.

They gathered round the campfire, then the Captain went to persuade Alicia to join them, to welcome Wilf.

The seven sat, eating the root-stew, drinking tea. Bran wanted to know how much Wilf had brought – all of their requests, or just some.

‘We got your message asking for emergency supplies. You know I flew a lot directly to you, but there’s a whole lot more in the storage igloo.’

‘And a new igloo, we put it up while you were taking the shuttle back – I’m surprised you didn’t notice it, Bran,’ Captain Nero said.

‘Did you get the message about my request for a position as doctor?’ Alicia had to ask, but she was nervous.

‘Yes, I passed that on myself to the non-Navy medical personnel recruitment section. It’s there, Alicia. I’m sure they’ll want you. That is, if you really want to leave here.’

‘I miss being a doctor. I’m not really needed here. But I understand you have medical aide training?’

‘Yes, ma’am. Just very basic stuff, intended for the times there’s no doctor on board, emergency use only, type of thing. But I took the course, and I brought the tape with me so I can review it, or refer to it if need be. And computer data, such as your hospital-igloo probably has, on sentient species as well as on humans.’

‘Well, I wish you well, Mr – nobody has mentioned your surname.

‘Denlan, Wilf Denlan, ma’am.’

‘Mr Denlan, I hope you’ll like it here.’

‘Did you get that stuff from the Titanic, Wilf? Or do you know, now that you’re retired?’

‘It’s been packed into the Wolf’s hold, Bran. We got your warning about it leaking and corrosive. We padded it well. Actually, you had it pretty well fixed up in the Titanic. There was no sign of any more leakage. Those two really should face charges for that.’ Catching Bran’s slight shake of his head, Wilf stopped.

‘Did you have any outrageous retirement parties?’ Xillia smoothly changed the subject.

‘Who, me?’

‘Yes, you. Bran told us to ask you how you got demoted – sounded like quite a brawl,’ Yanni said.

‘Oh, it was just these three merchant shipmen – not quality merchant men, sir, you know the poor sort you can get.’

Captain Nero tried to hide his smile, but couldn’t. ‘I do, go on, I’m not offended, Wilf.’

‘Well, it was in a bar planetside, and they’d had a bit too much. It was a simple planet, not industrialised, I mean, and it had sentients. Looked a bit like dogs, actually, in shape, but they were intelligent, rated full humanoid, you understand. Well, these three were loud, lewd, making nasty comments about dirty dogs.’ Wilf flushed, his voice sounding angry. ‘That was bad enough, but then they started jostling these peaceful sentients. They did have jaws, and teeth, but they were keeping their jaws firmly closed. And then these three tried to force liquor on them. They don’t drink, these particular sentients – I like them, nice gentle folks. ‘ He paused, clearly thinking of his friends, the Kanids who had later taken him into their own home.

‘So, I saw red then, and just waded in. If I’d stopped with those three, I might’ve got away with it, but then the local law appears. Trouble was, the local law happened to be human, not the local sentients. So I laid them out too. It wasn’t till the ambulance arrived for all five that I knew I’d flattened a couple of law officers. They weren’t that badly hurt, any of them. Concussion on the merchant spacers, all of them. The lawmen were only out for half an hour. And they demoted me for defending my friends!’ Wilf’s voice sounded hurt.

Watching his new friend’s expression, hearing his tone, Captain Nero started laughing, a deep belly laugh. Even Alicia smiled, while everyone else laughed. Wilf himself smiled, as he glanced round them all.

‘Did you never get the First Officer post back after that, Wilf?’ Captain Nero finally managed to ask.

‘No. It wasn’t so bad though, really. When they busted me, they promoted the Chief Como to First and demoted me to Chief Como.’ Seeing Alicia’s raised eyebrow, he added, ‘Chief Communications Officer. I’d been a como before,’ Wilf paused, thinking back.

‘And it wasn’t so bad, more of a sideways shift than down – just one grade down. So by the time they’d have considered me for a First again, I’d have had to change ships. And I was getting older by then, I’d only about five standard years left, and I just couldn’t be bothered. So I stayed with my ship. And my shipboard friends.’

Bran and Captain Nero could understand that.

‘More the Navy being seen to be disciplining you, mollifying the planetary law,’ the Captain guessed.

‘And after that, you rescued us, and set about your retirement plan,’ Bran said.

‘Dead right.’ Wilf looked round Homecamp, the other six. ‘As soon as I saw this place.’ He noticed Alicia, the only solemn face there. ‘But ma’am, I know you were asking about a non-Navy doctor position. If you wanted, you could apply for a Navy doctor position. Just a suggestion, ma’am. The Wolf’ll still be in range, I could tell the como to send it on. If you like. It’d give you more vacancies to choose from. And the Navy isn’t that bad.’

‘Surely I’m too old, Mr Denlan? And there must be regulations, examinations, health checks and so on?’

‘Frankly, ma’am, the Navy is so short of doctors, they aren’t too fussy.’ He heard Xillia’s laugh turned into a cough, her face scarlet. ‘I mean, you aren’t that old, and I’ll just bet you know plenty about medical matters. And you’ve been here on this planet for several standard years, you must be pretty healthy.’ Wilf glanced over at Xillia, who nodded. He’d saved his blunder.

‘Well, asking couldn’t do any harm. Would you send such a request for me, Mr Denlan?’

‘Sure. Lead me to your comlink.’

‘The ship’ll be back soon, in a quarter standard year. I’ve asked for an extra supply run, what with us feeding the smaller continent.’ Captain Nero rose. ‘Come on, Wilf, I’ll show you our gear. And can you ride? You must see our palfreys.’

Xillia and Yanni followed. ‘Come on, do your comlink stuff, we’ll show you the palfreys. They’re really beautiful, and so gentle that you almost can’t fall off,’ Xillia said.

Bran and Xendra picked up the dishes, taking them for washing. ‘I can see why the kaitlyn like him, Bran. And why you do, too.’

‘He’s got a heart of gold, Xendra. He’d do anything for anybody. Especially those who can’t stand up for themselves.’

‘Like those dog-type sentients. And look how gentle he is with Alicia.’

‘I must say he recovered well there – I didn’t know where to look, when he said the Navy weren’t fussy!’ Bran smiled. ‘I’ll ask him about the vacancies when Alicia isn’t there. If I know him, he’s checked them out.’

But not that night. They showed Wilf to his new igloo, bedroll already placed there by Yanni and Xillia, with his bags, ready for his first night on the planet. Like the others, he woke at regular watch-shift change times, but settled back.

He was the first up in the morning, preparing breakfast porridge. Bran took his chance.

‘What about doctor vacancies, Wilf? Don’t tell you didn’t find out what’s available.’

‘Yep. There are some human-type base vacancies, but they’re all quite a way off. Nearer ones are non-human sentient. I logged about twenty vacancies, but of course that keeps changing. Would she want non-human bases? Or there’s a frigid human planet. Not just cold, frigid.’

‘I just wondered. Frigid worlds would have shelters, domes, everything inside, of course. Our Alicia is not really the non-suave wellington-boot type, it turns out. We thought she’d settle here, but she really isn’t happy.’

‘It’s a big step for her. She knows you lot, whereas she’d be going off into the unknown. But if she did go Navy, she’d have everything she needed, at least till she retired.’

Xendra joined them, followed by the others. ‘Alicia’s a bit touchy, Wilf. Let the Captain know about those vacancies, but leave it to him to tell Alicia. Or not. And don’t be surprised if she starts quizzing you on medical matters.’

‘You reckon she wants to make sure Wilf would be able to – well, be medically competent, Xendra?’ Bran turned to Wilf. ‘I hope you did study those medical aide programmes, Wilf.’

‘Sure I did. But are you going back to the smaller continent today? Or would you show me round your place here?’

‘Can you ride, Wilf?’ Xillia asked.

‘Not really, but any spacer has good balance. I reckon I could stay on, and you said they were gentle.’

‘Then we’ll take the palfreys. They could use some exercise by the look of them.’ Xillia couldn’t wait to be with her palfrey friends. ‘I’ll show you the tack. You can have Lady. She’s Xendra’s favourite – if you’ll let him, Xendra?’

‘Of course. Lady, or maybe Buddie. She’s careful of her rider. You should’ve seen her with Alicia, placing her paws with such care.’

‘Okay, we’ll leave you Lady, Xendra.’ She glanced over at them. ‘I suppose you’re both coming with us? We can ride a southerly semicircle. That’ll give you an idea of the land.’

‘Do you suppose we could get the Captain to come too – tell him the palfreys need exercise.’ Bran turned to Wilf. ‘There’s only six palfreys, but I don’t suppose Alicia would want to come anyway. I’ll go ask the Captain.’

In the end the six set out, leaving Alicia poring over assorted non-human sentient anatomy. ‘You’d think there could only be so many basic body types.’ Captain Nero shook his head. ‘But she’s so afraid of not being good enough to be a doctor again.’

‘I see, sir. Well, I’m sure there’s a post somewhere for her. If she really wants to leave a place like this.’ Wilf was still holding on to the saddle, while Buddie followed the other palfreys without him needing to direct her.

‘Most of the kaitlyn are in the tropical zone. The palfreys are more in the temperate zones. But watch out for the berserkers, they are the predators here, smallish bear-like with ferocious natures and big teeth. They’re mostly in the temperate zones, along with the fatlings, the rabbit-like creatures that the berserkers hunt. And trees pretty much everywhere on this planet.’

‘I saw that from the Wolf on our approach, sir. You can imagine I was studying the planet as much as I could.’

‘I’ll bet. It’s good to have you, Wilf. I’m looking forward to hearing those tales Bran says you have.’ The Captain rode easily, relaxed. ‘The four of them have been over on the smaller continent, and I know they’ll want to go back soon. I’d like you to stay at Homecamp for a bit, help with the palfreys, tend the agriculture plots, camp chores, things like that.’

‘Of course, sir, but you’ll have to show me what to do with the palfreys. And which are weeds and which are not, too.’

Xillia’s blue eyes glinted with amusement. ‘Or you’ll be digging up the food-roots, and nurturing the weeds?’

‘Something like that. But I’m a good learner.’

The Captain led them more south now, beginning their return, before Wilf got too sore with the unaccustomed riding. Xendra dismounted, gathering armfuls of grain-grass. Seeing her, the others stopped, following her example.

‘This is the stuff the palfreys eat, and the kaitlyn too, at least a little. And the foodstuff that’s contaminated by those chemicals we found,’ Bran said.

‘You didn’t want me to say much last night, but really, anyone shipping that kind of stuff undeclared should be facing prison sentences. They’ll analyse whatever it is, and we know who brought it.’

‘We didn’t realise till the damage was done. And I know you didn’t know that kind of acid was in the cargo. You’d have told me,’ Bran said, simply stating a fact. ‘But I stopped you because Alicia, for some reason beyond me, always tries to defend Yisto and Xepher. Despite everything they did, including hitting her and holding her to ransom in exchange for the aircar.’

‘You should’ve seen our revered Captain, Wilf. He fairly flattened Yisto,’ Yanni said.

‘And Yanni kept hold of Xepher despite all she could do.’

‘Till you came up and flattened her, Xillia.’

‘We used arrows tipped with a sedative,’ the Captain explained. ‘Of course they took a bit of time to work. And, unfortunately, we hit Alicia too.’

‘Thanks to Yanni, who used her as a shield. But it wasn’t bad, we got the arrow out and the sedative washed out of Alicia pretty quickly,’ Yanni said.

‘Maybe you should teach Wilf to use a bow and arrow, Yanni.’ Bran turned to Wilf. ‘He’s our best archer. And this is a protected planet.’

‘You don’t want suave weapons,’ Wilf nodded. ‘Not here.’

‘Don’t think we’re always shooting people, Wilf. We don’t. But those two were a problem, I have to admit.’ Xendra shook her head.

‘Did you hear of Xillia’s theory, sir? That this planet makes people more like their intrinsic true selves? Bringing out the nastiness in Yisto and Xepher, and the just plain caring of Yanni and Xillia – though she didn’t claim that for herself, of course.’

‘That makes sense, my boy. I always felt guilty about allowing Yisto and Xepher to be on the planet in the first place. That could be right.’ The Captain turned to Wilf. ‘It was after those two that the Elder Kaitlyn declared he would do the selecting of permanent residents.’

‘The planet was already declared Protected, or I don’t see how we could’ve made that stick,’ Captain Nero said. ‘As it was, I felt he’d do a better job than I had.’

‘Don’t forget, sir, the selection committee had passed them before they got here. You shouldn’t blame yourself,’ Xendra said. ‘And we got Yanni and Xillia. Look at them, don’t they balance things out?’

‘More than balance, my dear. Thanks. But come on, we’ve got all we can carry. Mount up, Wilf, then I’ll hand you up this – no, just you hang on. We’ll carry the grain-grass.’

The palfreys walked through the trees, five with sheaves balanced on their saddles, Buddie carefully stepping, adjusting herself to Wilf’s weight. He began to relax, leaving it to the palfrey to carry him safely.

They returned to Homecamp. Xillia and Yanni began to introduce Wilf to palfrey-care, checking their pads, rubbing them down, checking their feed and water. They hadn’t gathered that much grain-grass, so they gave it to their own palfreys.

Bran and Xillia prepared supper, then showed Wilf their agriculture plot and the Xendra plants, which the north-forest kaitlyn still enjoyed.

As expected, next day, the four felt they should return to the lesser continent. But they were happier leaving the Captain with Wilf to help him.

‘He’ll be good for the Captain,’ Xillia said after they had lifted off.

‘I’m glad he’s here.’ Yanni waved back at the two watching Bran’s take-off.

‘Me too. Another very nice ex-Space Navy man.’ Xendra, beside Bran, patted his knee.

Bran smiled at her in return. ‘I’m glad you three approve. I’ve known Wilf more years than I care to think about, and he’s one of the most dependable men I’ve ever known.’

‘I hope he stays. The Captain needs someone like that, someone more his own age,’ Xillia said.

‘I think he will, Xillia. After you’ve been constantly on the move in space, a nice, settled planet is just the thing. I wouldn’t want to go back into space now, either Navy or merchant.’

Despite enjoying their time at Homecamp, the four were happy to see Sir Bob and the others again. In their absence, more kaitlyn and more palfreys had arrived. Bran wanted to see, or rather, sense, the state of the waters and the grain-grass.

Sir Bob called four other kaitlyn, and led them out of the refugee camp, towards the lake, north-east, towards where the then contaminated streams had run.

Grain-grass was undoubtedly growing. Bran plucked a few shoots, turning them in his hand. He turned to Sir Bob, wanting his opinion. Sir Bob looked at the specimens, then beckoned the four and two kaitlyn into a circle, leaving two kaitlyn on guard.

They went into themselves, wanting to sense how the planet was recovering. Time slowed. In terms of soil, of lake, of growing plants, the months that had passed since contamination were not long. And, Xendra was certain, without the healing the kaitlyn were sending out, the planet’s sickness would have been worse, would have been longer. Much longer.

They stood. Xendra, the others, sensed the healing going out. Bran, more tuned to the planet, sensed the stirring. Not recovered, but perhaps convalescent now. Not full strength, not yet, but better.

They stood. Then words came to the group.

‘Improving. Not whole yet.’ Sir Bob.

‘Well enough to start seeding food? To draw berserkers?’ Bran.

‘Soon. Not yet.’ Sir Bob.

Sir Bob sang and released hands. The others followed his lead.  Each singing, releasing, bowing.

A quiet group went toward the refugee camp. The forest looked normal, but they had Sir Bob’s word that it was not yet healed, that it was still suffering from the poison.

Wanting to be doing something, Bran touched Sir Bob’s shoulder, asking if they could go to gather more grain-grass.

For answer, Sir Bob sang. Six kaitlyn replied, and the four gathered sacks and boxes, going to the aircar. Bran took off, heading south-west. After landing, the group began harvesting the grain-grass, the kaitlyn as before keeping watch. Bran did notice one berserker, but six kaitlyn were enough to have it heading away from the group.

A few days passed.

One night in refugee camp, Bran felt uneasy about Alicia’s attitude to Wilf. ‘What did you folks think of Alicia calling Wilf, ‘Mr Denlan’?’

‘I think she wants to be his boss, in a medical doctor sense,’ Xillia said.

‘And she wants to keep distance from him.’ Xendra paused. ‘Like a teacher-student, or Professor Doctor to a raw beginner, perhaps.’

Yanni listened. ‘I think Wilf is very considerate of her. You notice he started calling her ma’am? Not Alicia.’

‘Are you uneasy, Bran? A hunch?’ Xillia wondered why he’d brought this up. ‘You could always bring him over here, maybe show him those hills or something. He might like a chance to fly the aircar.’

‘I just don’t feel right somehow. Maybe I will head back to Homecamp tomorrow. It’d make sense for Wilf to know a bit about this continent. We might need him when we try to shift the populations back.’

‘And you can let him fly your precious aircar, Bran.’ Yanni sat smiling, knowing Bran preferred flying to being a passenger.

‘I’ll pop over tomorrow. Do we need anything? Or anyone want to come?’

No-one did, not this time. They would stay with Sir Bob.

Bran landed the aircar at Homebase the next day, to find no-one in sight. Xendra went to check on the palfreys, petting them, especially Lady.

Bran tried the boat-quarters, but no-one was in. He headed for the hospital-igloo. He heard raised voices. Bran went forward, making little sound.

‘You know that is not correct. In any case of hydrocephalus – ‘

The Captain’s voice broke in. ‘Alicia, you’re not fair to him. I’m sick of how you nag at him, how you pick on him, you know he’s not a full doctor. And since when did you have to do more than dress a cut or a bruise, let alone treat a baby with hydro-whats-it – ‘ the Captain broke off. ‘Oh, Bran. Yes, can we do something for you?’

Alicia was flushed, fists on her hips. Wilf stood near the table, looking mutinous – Bran knew he was, just, holding his temper in check. And his Captain was standing, glowering, every inch a Captain who feels forced into rebuking an equal-rank officer.

Bran said, ‘Yes, Captain. I’ll need Wilf to fly over the smaller continent when we move the berserkers. I came to ask you to let me have him for a few days.’ He paused a moment. ‘I know Wilf is valuable to you sir. He’ll be doing most of the work around here, grooming palfreys, hoeing, cooking, cleaning, washing, and all that, but if you could spare him for a few days, maybe?’

‘Yes, my boy, if you need him, of course. If you don’t mind, Wilf, that is?’

‘Be glad to, sir.’ Wilf’s eyes were still narrowed. ‘But don’t you go overdoing it while I’m away. And be sure to call if you need me back, sir.’

‘I will, thanks. Want to go now?’

They did. Bran told Wilf to get familiar with the aircar controls. Not that Wilf would need to, Bran knew, but it’d get Wilf out of here.

Bran took a deep breath. He might regret this, but he’d heard enough. ‘I heard you, Alicia. You have no right whatsoever to examine Wilf’s qualifications in anything at all, and that includes medical matters. Wilf is a retired Space Navy Officer and my friend. You cannot use him as an excuse to stay here instead of just being the doctor you are somewhere else!’

Alica deflated. Without a word, she went out of the hospital-igloo.

Captain Nero sighed, leaning back on the hospital examination table. Bran went to him, putting his hand on his Captain’s shoulder.

‘What about you coming with us, sir, and leaving her to stew for a while?’ He paused. ‘I hope I haven’t made things worse for you, but, well.’

‘I guess you had a hunch, Bran. This has been brewing ever since Wilf arrived. I don’t want to yell at her, but she’s been asking for it. And I might’ve said a lot more than you did, so don’t worry.’

‘I know you’re fond of her, sir. And she’s all right, but this isn’t fair to either you or Wilf. And yes, I felt uneasy last night. I don’t really need Wilf to know the lesser continent. That was the only excuse I could think of.’

‘Well, maybe I should come – but that’d leave her alone. I’ll tell you, Bran, I never had half as much trouble with ship’s crew as I have here on this planet!’

‘I’m sorry, sir. If you think of anything I, or any of us, can do to help, let us know. But if you want to stay here, maybe I’d better just take off with Wilf.’

‘Do that, Bran. It’s a good idea, anyway. And the more pilots who can fly the aircar the better.’ He sagged. ‘Just don’t keep him away too long, will you?’

‘I won’t. I’ll tell the others, and between us we’ll think up something.’ Bran felt worried about his Captain. I hope, he thought, but didn’t say. Aloud he continued, ‘Might be worth trying the kaitlyn. I’ll take off, but I’m going to take Wilf to the north-forest – remember the Elder Kaitlyn? He seemed to expect Wilf to need to see him again. After that we can fly over.’

The Captain nodded. ‘Fair enough, Bran. Go to it, my boy.’

Bran left the Captain in the hospital-igloo. Approaching the flyer, he signalled Wilf to move over, and wasted no time in lifting off. He headed north-west, flying nowhere in particular. He wanted to talk.

‘Wilf, I’m sorry. I told her she had no right to examine you, in no uncertain terms. I got a bit angry, but, well, there it is.’

‘Navy to the rescue, Bran. Thanks for breaking it up, anyway. I don’t know how to take her. I’ve tried to keep my temper, for the Captain’s sake. But she was asking me about premature babies who had hydrocephalus, for goodness sake! And about shunts to drain the excess fluid.’

‘By the sound of that, hardly Navy medical aide stuff.’

‘Exactly. Pure doctor stuff. Yet, I can sort of see her point. If a baby did happen to get born here with that, who’s here to help but me?’

‘In the first place, we’re not going down that road, nobody is pregnant, and don’t beg for trouble if or when one of the girls does get pregnant. In the second place, we have kaitlyn. And kaitlyn have powers she’ll never understand, never acknowledge. Once, a young kaitlyn had a head injury. He looked right bad. Alicia was doing her stuff, but the kaitlyn parents and Xendra were doing something else. If you ask me, it wasn’t Alicia who healed that young one, but Xendra and the kaitlyn. Yanni and Xillia were helping too.’

‘And I suppose you had nothing to do with it – of course.’ Finally, Wilf smiled.

‘Well, I tried, of course. I don’t know if I helped at all – the Captain too. We were all just sort of rooting for the youngster. And he came to, fine. The parents carried him back to the north-forest. And that’s where we’re going. Right now. I told the Captain we would go ask the Elder Kaitlyn. Something has to be done, and the Elder Kaitlyn is a wise fella. After that we can fly over to the other continent. I promised the Captain we’d think of something.’

Bran swung the flyer round, taking her in a circle back to the north-forest stream, landing a bit more east than usual. ‘Come on.’

Bran led Wilf over the stream, into the forest. He stopped at the edge, giving the questioning song. And waited, but not for long. Bran was sure the kaitlyn would somehow have known of the upset at Homecamp. Bran sang and bowed, Wilf following his lead. Two kaitlyn sang, bowed, beckoned. Bran and Wilf followed. The Elder Kaitlyn was there, flanked by his two companions. The Elder Kaitlyn inclined his head while the others bowed deeply. They clasped hands.

Bran held in his mind, ‘We need advice sir.’

A sense of peace, of calm, of soothing flowed. And flowed.

Finally, a thought came. ‘My son. My sons. You did well to come. We will help, though she will never know it. She needs courage. You, my human children, do what you can to encourage her. We, the kaitlyn will help. Wilf, my human son, come to me whenever you have need. Take peace. Fly a little, but return, remain near me for a time, my son Wilf. My son Bran, well done. For now, go.’

The Elder Kaitlyn sang, inclining his head. The others sang, bowing in return. Bran, grateful, gave the Elder Kaitlyn a second bow, Wilf faithfully copied his action.

As before, the kaitlyn escorted them back – nearer where the aircar was, Bran noted. They sang farewell, bowing, the humans echoing the farewell. Bran and Wilf returned to the aircar. Bran lifted off for the smaller continent.

‘It’s not so bad, Wilf. We’ll go visit the smaller continent. Wait a moment, I’ll land on the coast. Then you can fly us.’

Bran directed Wilf’s flight, showing him the mountain range, the lake, then directed him south over the tropical zone into the southern temperate zone, before turning to the refugee camp. Landed, they walked to their friends.

Sir Bob was near as the four discussed Alicia’s attitude to Wilf, the Captain’s obvious weariness, the visit to the Elder Kaitlyn, his advice to encourage Alicia. The five, with Sir Bob, sat silent, considering what Bran had told them.

‘Should we maybe have the Captain over here for a while? Sounds like he’s had enough. And he’s been alone with Alicia for months now,’ Xillia said.

‘I can’t see Alicia wanting to come over here. She’d want to stay with the computers,’ Xendra said.

‘Should we ask her, though?’ Yanni ran his fingers through his black hair. ‘I’d go back and stay at Homecamp for a bit, at least. If you wouldn’t mind, Xillia.’

‘Seems to me you need the personnel here more than at Homecamp. And you were right, Bran, it’s the Captain who does the chores, not Alicia. She just pores over that confounded computer.’

‘I’m beginning to wish we’d never given her it,’ Bran said.

‘Seemed a good idea at the time.’ Yanni turned to Wilf. ‘That was when Alicia was first thinking of leaving this planet, taking up doctoring again. So we got her a computer with all those different sentient body types and so on. Since then, she’s done nothing but study it.’

‘Except when she’s getting at me,’ Wilf frowned. ‘That’s not good for anyone, to get too deep for too long. I take it, she’s been at it for ages?’

‘Months, seasons. Not that this planet shows the seasons much, Wilf. But it has been ages.’

‘So a bit of something else would be good, but how do we prize her off that computer?’

‘We did get her to ride south with us once or twice, to gather grain-grass for our palfreys here.’ Xillia glanced over the camp. ‘Apart from that, she doesn’t do anything else.’

‘So, how would it be if one of you came back with me, and kid on we need her help? Show me how to care for the palfreys, how to cook, how to do the agriculture – that’s true for me, anyway, I need to learn that.’ Wilf looked round them. ‘I mean, so the Captain can come over here for a while? Who wants a dose of me and Alicia?’

‘You I’ll have any day,’ Bran said. ‘But for that idea to work, it has to be somebody that Alicia thinks doesn’t know all that already – or at least, some of it,’ he amended. ‘Yanni and Xillia are good with the palfreys, Yanni with bow and arrow. Agriculture, that was more Xendra and I – we liked being near the kaitlyn, but I used to ride.’

Bran turned to Sir Bob, wondering what his opinion would be. He looked thoughtfully at the kaitlyn, suddenly sure he’d understood most, if not all, of their discussion. He said aloud, ‘What do you think, Sir Bob?’

Sir Bob moved to touch both Bran and Xendra. The thought came to them. ‘ Wilf and Bran, there for a time.’

‘What, us two?’ Bran exclaimed. ‘Wilf and me at Homecamp? With Alicia?’

‘For a time. Not long.’ Sir Bob said, in calm thought-speech tones.

Bran looked at Sir Bob suspiciously. ‘You’re not laughing at me? You know that’s about the last thing I want to do!’

Xendra started to laugh. ‘Oh, yes, he knows! Alicia doesn’t stand a chance! Get going, you two – Yanni, you’d better go too, to fly the Captain back here.’

After Bran and Xendra had hugged enough, the three took off, Wilf flying back to Homecamp, landing as neatly as Bran.

The Captain appeared, surprised at their quick return. ‘I didn’t mean that soon, has anything happened?’

‘Well, sir, the Elder Kaitlyn told us to encourage Alicia, that she needs courage. And Yanni is going to fly you over to refugee camp. Wilf and I will stay here for a bit.’ Bran glanced over at the boat-quarters. ‘Like you said, sir, don’t stay away too long, please.’

‘Um. You’re telling me, not asking me?’

‘Quite so, sir. We, all of us, reckon you need a break. Go on. It’s about time you saw the refugee camp anyway.’

‘Well, I must admit, I wouldn’t mind. All right. I’ll just get some things and be right with you.’ Captain Nero turned to go to his boat-quarters. ‘Just as well we ordered extra fuel, isn’t it?’ Bran was relieved to see the Captain’s grin.

‘Very wise of you, sir.’ Bran waited near the aircar, Wilf and Yanni staying close. Alicia was almost certain to come out of the aircar.

She did, following the Captain. Bran took the initiative. ‘I’m sorry, Alicia, for spouting off at you. Please forgive me. We need the Captain’s advice about the situation on the smaller continent, so we asked him over for a bit. And I’ll stay here while he’s gone.’

‘Very well. You and Mr Denlan can run the camp. I’m busy studying.’ And she went back to the boat-quarters.

Captain Nero sighed. ‘Good luck, my boy. You too, Wilf. I won’t stay away too long, though, don’t worry.’

Yanni settled himself in the pilot’s chair, the Captain in the front passenger seat. Bran and Wilf waved the Captain off, then just stood looking at each other. ‘Well, what were you doing before Alicia was roasting you? What needs doing?’

‘We could do with digging up some roots. And the palfreys. And cooking stew.’

‘And washing her clothes too, no doubt.’ Bran slapped his friend. ‘Come on then, hoes at the ready. Let’s dig, then we’ll enjoy the palfreys.’

Together they hoed the agriculture patch, the Xendra plants, which the kaitlyn still enjoyed, before gathering some food-roots. Bran took Wilf to the palfreys, setting him to grooming them and checking their pads for any stones or cracks in the pad. Daystar kept nudging Bran.

‘Maybe she wants a bit of exercise or something. Want to ride?’

‘Have you recovered from the last ride yet?’

‘That was days ago. I’m game. Show me how to saddle them up.’

So Bran on Daystar, Wilf on Buddie, rode out. Bran took Wilf north-east, towards a lake, somewhere they didn’t usually go.

‘Just for a change. It’s open enough, at least for this planet, we’d see any berserkers.’

‘I thought they were mostly in the temperate zones? Not the tropical zone?’

Bran nodded. ‘You’re right. I’ve been so long over there, I’m thinking of the lesser continent. Since the land got contaminated, the berserkers got hungry and more of a problem than they used to be. Sorry.’

‘No, no, I’m just asking. Interested. I like this planet, but nothing is ever absolutely perfect.’ Wilf kept a hand on the saddle, but risked turning his head towards Bran. ‘She won’t chase me off, you know.’

‘You might be right, Wilf. I’d be happy to see our good doctor off, but not you. And I’m sure the Captain would rather have you, too.’

They continued riding, chatting, Bran occasionally demonstrating riding skills to Wilf, but content to let Buddie follow Daystar. They loosely tethered the palfreys while the men gathered grain-grass for the palfreys, and Bran looked for food-roots. He found some, showing Wilf the plants. They returned, tended the palfreys, before preparing stew.

‘Does she usually come out for food, Wilf?’

‘The Captain insists, I think. I’ll go ask her to come.’

Alicia did consent to come to the campfire for the meal. She was taciturn, however, and the men had somehow nothing to say. Rummaging in his mind for some safe topic, Bran suddenly asked, ‘What happened to those hydroponics, Alicia? If they’re still going, we could use some of the leaves in the stew.’

‘Nothing could help this stew.’

‘But there used to be some hydroponics plants in the boat-quarters. Are they still going?’

‘More like house plants now, they wouldn’t be much use.’

‘Well, could you show us? Under this sun, they might do better in the open.’

‘I’ll hand them out to you.’

‘But we’ll need you to show us what to do with them. Hydroponics was never my line,’ Bran said.

‘All right. Come on, I’ll hand them out. You can do what you like with them.’ They followed her to the boat-quarters. ‘On second thoughts, you’d better come and take the tank. It’s too heavy. And that nutrient too.’

Wilf and Bran entered the boat-quarters. Bran remembered it as comfortable, homelike. It looked more like an office now, bare, bleak.

‘On second thoughts, maybe the Captain likes the plants? I see what you mean, too. Not much use as food-plants.’ They were indeed small.

‘As you wish. But if you’re not taking them, please allow me to return to work.’

They left, glad enough to go. Washing the dishes, Wilf said, ‘So much for getting her away from that computer. I see what you mean, she’s not a welly type.’

‘She wasn’t like that at first. She’d muck in with all the camp chores. Maybe she needs psychiatric help. Or just plain courage, like the Elder Kaitlyn said.’

‘It’s a strange feeling, that kind of words in your head, feelings inside you. A bit overpowering.’

‘But real. And the kaitlyn promised help. Something will happen.’

Bran stopped, so motionless, Wilf noticed. ‘What bit you?’

‘The Wolf. Can you still reach her?’

‘Should. If I can use planetary alignment. Where’s assumed galactic north? She was heading back to Bonesdran. If I can send the message at the right planetary rotation, yes.’

‘Assumed galactic north, that way. Ask about the doctors treating Yisto and Xepher. And ask for psychiatric doctor vacancies. They’ll tell us the analysis of that stuff, I suppose?’

‘My como friends will. Now wait a minute.’ Wilf walked towards the comlink equipment, trying to figure out planetary and ship positions. About now, in fact, he reckoned.

‘Now. I’ll have to do it now. But you’ll have to explain.’

‘Sure. I’ll keep an eye on the boat-quarters.’

Bran watched, outside the igloo. No sign of Alicia. He waited, keeping watch. Not that it mattered all that much, but he was trying to figure her thinking. Wilf came back out, smiling.

‘Just wait till he’s back. I’ll have something to say about that last crack of his. Planetary mudheap, indeed! Well, you going to spill?’

‘Yep. Now, remember I said Alicia is always defending Yisto and Yanni? And she tried psychiatric stuff on them when they were together on Rock Island?’ Wilf waved him to go on.

‘Come on, let’s make a special stew.’ They selected some food-packets and a few roots. The two sat, heads close, while they prepared it.

‘Alicia was always defensive of Yisto and Xepher. But after we got Alicia off that island, she was even worse. I mean, we couldn’t say anything about those two without Alicia jumping down our throats. And Yisto and Xepher are reckoned mad, aren’t they? Which is why they’re not treated as criminals?’

‘Yep.’

‘So, suppose they’re not mad. Suppose they, knowing the Navy was coming, used Alicia to learn how to present themselves as mad? Further suppose, she knows it – or is afraid of it?’

‘Can’t admit the possibility even to herself? So what do we do?’

‘Maybe, instead of avoiding Yisto and Xepher, talk about it.’

Wilf worked, his blue-grey eyes narrowed. ‘Slight change of subject – do you lot ever feel tired?’

‘Of course. We work here, Wilf boy. But we sleep well, and we’re fine.’

‘One thing the medical aide programme did include was vitamins, minerals, trace elements. None of you feel you’re missing something? Cravings, irritability, tiredness, excess hunger, that sort of thing?’

‘Nope. We’re all fine. Why?’

‘Bodies are different. Let’s start adding some of the food-packets to every meal. Maybe Alicia needs more nutrients in her feed.’

‘Seems odd that it should be only her, but the Wolf will be back with more food-packets – and of course we were mainly using just local roots, grains, and so on. Lately I suppose the Captain was keeping the food-packets he had for the kaitlyn, palfreys, and us on the lesser continent. So he’d’ve been using local roots for himself and Alicia.’ Bran gazed into the cookpot. ‘But the Captain looks all right, Wilf. Just worn out. With her.’

‘He’s an old merchant ship Captain. You’d reckon if he had any special nutrient needs, they’d’ve shown up long ago. But what did Alicia do before she came here? Where was she before?’

‘She never talks about it. I think it was a suave base somewhere though. And she came to us as a doctor, so I suppose she was a doctor then.’

‘Never talked? And she came with four regens? Regens you lot were taking in after the Regen Centre was shut down? Regens – they took damaged humans, grew back their bits, and sent them out as space fodder – expendables.’ Wilf stated it, not asking. He knew Bran had left the Space Navy, unable to stomach the Regens getting hurt instead of him. They got killed too, ordered to do things only a robot should be sent to do.

‘You think that’s where she came from? An out-of-work Regen doctor?’ Bran frowned. He ran his hand over his eyes, through his brown hair, finally looking at Wilf. Brown eyes into blue-grey.

‘Now I really don’t feel guilty for chewing her out. I wonder if the Captain knows?’

‘I’m only guessing, Bran. It does fit together, though.’

‘Yep. Well, let’s feed the brute. You go tell her, Wilf.’

They ate, Alicia with them. Bran collected himself, pushing the memories of hurt regens away. ‘Alicia, what would the authorities do to criminals who pretended to be mad just to escape a criminal’s remedial therapy?’

‘Why, nothing much. Apart, that is, from treating the person for the original crime.’

‘Suppose the criminals had picked the brains of a doctor, so they could learn to pretend to be mad? To escape the remedial programmes – would the doctor be at fault? Or disciplined or something?’

‘Of course not. The mind is a fascinating field. Even known psychiatric conditions have variations. Any experienced doctor knows nothing is absolute in psychiatric matters.’ She put down the bowl. ‘You two – Mr Denlan just out of the Navy. What are you saying? That I put Yisto and Xepher up to seeming to be mad? To escape criminal action against them?’

‘No, no. Just with that chemical stuff – Alicia, they had to be up to something. Whatever they brought, it should never have been brought here. And I’m not suggesting you deliberately coached them to seem to be mad. I do think they picked your brains though, that time on Rock Island. Until they tried to use you to get the aircar, and presumably maroon us on Rock Island.’

Bran looked into her green eyes. ‘And in my opinion, if they had taken the aircar and left us on Rock Island, we would have been left to die there.’

He glanced over at Wilf. ‘There’s only water there. We kept supplying them with food and fuel. I very much doubt if the positions were reversed, that those two would have kept us supplied.’

‘I’d suggest that action, though mercifully only hypothetical, could be considered the action of a mad person.’ Wilf spoke quietly, eyes down, not challenging. ‘Needing treatment, anyway.’

Alicia’s tense erect posture sagged. ‘That’s what I’ve been afraid of. That they did use me. That they were criminal all along. And I was wrong. But once I’d started defending them – you remember, they weren’t bad to begin with, at least – but once I started defending them I felt I had to keep on defending them.’

‘Eat your stew, Alicia, while it’s warm. Wilf thinks you may be lacking some vitamins or minerals or something. We put food-packets in there.’

Alicia looked up, interest in her green eyes. ‘Wilf thinks? From those training tapes?’ She ate her stew silently.

‘Why should you bother about me, Wilf? After how I grilled you? And I must admit, knowing about nutrition is more practical than the stuff I’ve been grilling you on.’

Wilf looked at Bran, questioning. Bran gave a tiny nod. Better to clear the air.

‘You know ma’am, I had to be accepted by the Elder Kaitlyn. Or rejected. But he took me, ma’am. And when he did, I was told, ma’am, to respect the life on this planet, all life, all the native life and my fellow humans. I’m trying to do that, ma’am. You’re a doctor, you’re unhappy. It’s my guess you want to leave here. If you’ll pardon me, ma’am, you don’t seem to me to be the farmer type, pigtailed, welly booted, up with the sun plowing the fields. You seem more the suave type, clothes shops, hair salons, fashion, shoes maybe, entertainment, and people. A lot of people around you. And doctoring, helping those said people. Here you can’t do that. In my opinion, if you’ll excuse me.’

‘I do want to leave, yet I don’t. And Bran was right, I was trying to use you, Wilf, as an excuse – I can’t leave the Captain and the others without a doctor. Help is so very far away, it takes so awfully long to reach us, even in an emergency.

‘Humans have been surviving catastrophes for millennia. You can’t ruin your life, Alicia,’ Bran said. ‘ I think you should ship out when the Wolf comes back. And the Captain’ll see you comfortable. You’re thinking you need a job to go to. Suppose you just take a holiday? If, or when, any planetary personnel chooses to leave here, they have pay coming. You’ve been here for several standard years. You’ll be able to live in luxury for some time to come, at least.’ Bran was glad the Captain wasn’t here. Wilf didn’t know any better – or did he? Bran caught Wilf’s sideways glance, but Alicia didn’t seem to have noticed.

‘Is that true, Bran?’

‘Of course. Anything else would be slave labour. And remember how we landed up here – the Titanic and the Blob? We all got rich on the reward, especially the Captain. While we’re here, Wilf, we draw our pay in food, fuel, shelter, but if or when we leave, we have the balance of the pay due to us. You’d have quite a whack, I’d reckon, Alicia. Enough for quite some time.’

‘And, ma’am, I’m sure you could get a job as a doctor any time you wished, whether with the Navy or attached to the Navy.’

‘Call me Alicia, Wilf. You’ve got more about you than I thought. You were a communications officer, you sent off my application – applications – did you hear anything back?’

‘If there had been anything, I’d have told you, ma’am – Alicia. But I did ask around. There’s vacancies on planets with humans, but they’re far out, and vacancies on a frigid world – the kind you need total enclosure to live – your own warm world perched on a planet whose sun is only a star, ma’am. And nearer posts on non-human worlds. And then there’s the psychiatric doctor vacancies, ma’am, all over the place. Especially on Moon 9.’

‘Moon 9!’ Bran exclaimed. ‘That was where the Regen Centre was.’

‘Well, now it’s a rehab medical unit, strictly above board. A secure unit for the worst ones.’

Alicia sat silent. The two men waited. ‘I know Moon 9. I wouldn’t mind going there again.’ She rubbed her empty stew bowl. ‘I worked there before it closed down. Bran, Wilf, you’re not stupid. You’ve maybe guessed. But we had four Regens – they had every right to hate the people who did those awful things to them. I couldn’t tell them.’

Bran nodded. ‘And you’ve been bottling it all up, feeling guilty, letting it fester inside you, ever since. I don’t know about Yisto or Xepher, but I’ll bet you ten to one, no, a hundred to one, that Xendra, Xillia, Yanni wouldn’t hold it against you. Why don’t you just tell them, then go get yourself a job somewhere? And I’m not saying that to get rid of you, despite what you might think.’

‘I’m fresh here, ma’am, but you look like one unhappy lady to me, and from what you’ve been asking me, you know your stuff, Doctor ma’am. You could slay ’em in the space lanes, any day, I’m sure.’

‘Maybe I should go and swot up psychiatric conditions.’

‘Oh no, you shouldn’t. Come on with us and do some hoeing. In the sun, in the fresh air.’ Wilf rose, held out his hand to help her to her feet. ‘We’ll do the dishes later. Come on, Bran, you too.’

Alicia allowed herself to be walked, in the sun, to the agriculture plot. ‘Now ma’am, you stay over there, out of the mud, and tell me what to do.’

Bran worked, somewhat apart, letting Alicia dictate to Wilf. He let them work on together for some time. He noticed Wilf was working with Alicia positioned in the shade of the trees. And, did he sense eyes on them? Kaitlyn eyes from the north-forest. It would be all right now. A kaitlyn’s thought, or his own?

Bran left it to the others to call a halt, but they continued all afternoon, till the sun was going down. He laid down his hoe. ‘Time for supper, you two. There’s the palfreys to care for tomorrow, you know. And Wilf needs teaching about their care, too, Alicia.’

‘Well, perhaps I should get a bit more exercise. If you want, Wilf, I could show you grooming tomorrow morning?’

‘I want, yes please, ma’am. I don’t know anything about palfreys or horses.’ Wilf started to hold out his grimy hand to help her over, then looked at it. Alicia followed his look. She smiled, but she took his hand nevertheless.

‘Wilf, do you recommend another food-packet for supper?’

‘Yes, ma’am, I’d suggest it.’

They ate, and retired. Next morning, Alicia did go with Wilf and Bran to the paddock, each of them checking over and grooming the palfreys.

‘We’ve been neglecting them. Suppose we go for a ride and maybe get some grain-grass for the smaller continent?’

‘I’m game. Bran, you’d better lead. Then, perhaps, Bran, you’d fly me over to the other continent – maybe I should see it before I go. And apologise to the others, too.’

Wilf and Bran snapped round, gaping at each other, then at Alicia. ‘If you like, Alicia, of course,’ Bran said.

Wilf recovered from his surprise. ‘I’ll stay at Homecamp while you two are away.’ They wouldn’t need him. But first they saddled up the palfreys.

Wilf rode Lady, while Alicia had Buddie, Bran rode Sun, with Daystar and Beech on lead reins. Wilf took Walnut’s rein while he held on to Lady’s saddle.

They rode south-west, not too far, then gathered sackfuls of grain-grass. They didn’t hurry, the palfreys, hobbled, had fresh pasture to crop. Wilf and Bran worked steadily, Alicia absent-mindedly. Nevertheless, the sacks filled up. Before the sun rose to noon, Bran called enough. The party rode back. The palfreys rubbed down, paws checked over, they carried the sacks to the aircar.

‘Let me freshen up a bit first, Bran. I won’t be long.’

Fairly soon, Alicia waited by the aircar. Wilf opened it, let down the ramp for her. Bran appeared, taking the pilot’s chair. Wilf wondered, was the Titanic above horizon?

Wilf waved them off. ‘So long. See you.’

There wasn’t much to say on the flight over, but Bran noticed Alicia absorbed in the scenery below, as interested as the kaitlyn had been. He flew over to land near the refugee camp, lowering the ramp for her. He looked toward the camp, not surprised to see Sir Bob and the others approaching. He secured the aircar.

Alicia wasted no time. ‘I’m sorry. I’m going to leave this planet soon, but I wanted to apologise to you, Xendra, you, Xillia, and you, Yanni. I was one of the doctors at the Regen Centre. I apologise for what I, we, the Regen Centre, did to you. I was afraid to tell you. You have every right to hate me.’

‘There’s no need to apologise, Alicia. We’re all fine,’ Xendra said. Xillia just hugged Alicia, while Yanni held her hand.

Captain Nero stood speechless. That was more, much more, than he’d expected. Then he cleared his throat. ‘If you really want to leave, Alicia, I have accrued salary for you. I couldn’t tell you how much off-hand, but it’ll be quite a bit. You won’t need to find a job for quite some time. If you really want to leave, that is, but that is entirely your own choice.’

Bran managed to hide his surprise. Wilf, he’d bet Wilf had used the comlink after they’d left. He turned back to the aircar, pulling the sacks of grain-grass out.

‘Thank you, Alex. I hadn’t expected wages, but that’ll help while I get myself settled somewhere.’ Alicia’s tensed muscles suddenly relaxed.

Xendra took Bran’s arm in hers. ‘Come on guys. Let’s show Alicia our refugee camp before she goes.’

They fell in, carrying sacks, Captain Nero escorting Alicia, Sir Bob near Yanni and Xillia.

Alicia was surprised by the bustle of the refugee camp, full of kaitlyn and palfreys. Some kaitlyn chatting together, playing together, or tending palfreys – all so much like a human refugee camp. She blinked, unconsciously drawing closer to Alex. ‘I’m glad to have come, Alex, but I wouldn’t mind going back to Homecamp when you are ready.’

‘After lunch, then, my dear. We have Xendra’s root stew on.’

Alica smiled. The lunch, including Sir Bob, went quickly, filled with chatter and laughter. And Bran talked of starting the food drops in the north temperate zone, to try to lure the berserkers back up, out of the tropical zone.

But he didn’t hurry the lunch along. He surreptitiously watched Sir Bob. If he didn’t miss his guess, Sir Bob was helping Alicia’s healing process along. Pretty rapidly too, judging by the sound of her laugh. Sir Bob met his eyes. The intelligence in Sir Bob’s amber eyes always surprised Bran, though he should be used to it by now. Why on earth, or why on this planet, Alicia couldn’t seem to grasp the kaitlyn’s unique talents, he’d never know. Sir Bob let one of his eyelids droop, just a little. Bran smiled. It was enough that they knew, even if Alicia never did.

They sat together, Yanni, Xillia, Xendra were keeping Alicia talking, laughing even, with them. The afternoon wore on. Cheerful conversation still flowed freely. The sun began to lower. Bran said, ‘I hate to hurry you, but if you want to fly back tonight, we’ll have to go soon.’

The Captain looked up at the sun. ‘You left Wilf alone, of course, Bran. I suppose we’d better go, Alicia.’

‘Of course, Alex. I’m coming. But I’m very glad to have seen all this, and to have spoken with you all.’

Together they walked to the flyer. Xendra hugged Bran. ‘Don’t stay over there too long, Bran. I miss you.’

‘Back soon, love, you can count on it.’

The Captain handed Alicia into the front passenger seat, himself taking a seat behind. They flew back to Homecamp. Wilf, having seen the flyer come, was already holding more food-packets for the evening meal.

‘Welcome back, Captain, ma’am, Bran. Supper’s nearly ready.’ Wilf brought more bowls and cups, adding more water and the extra food-packets to the cookpot, while the Captain helped Alicia to descend.

‘I’ll go and work out your wages, Alicia, while supper cooks.’

Left together, Bran slapped Wilf on the back. ‘Good work, you como, you.’

‘Us officers have to cover each other’s backs, don’t we? Just give that stew a stir for me, would you?’ So when the Captain and Alicia joined them, they were innocently serving up the evening stew and tea.

‘I wouldn’t have believed it’d be that much, Alex.’

The Captain looked steadily at her. ‘You don’t seem to realise it, Alicia, but you are a very good doctor. And you are worth it. Those are your due wages. Not an iota less. You earned it.’

‘Then I’ll ship out with the Wolf, and maybe eventually go to Moon 9 to join the doctors there. Wilf tells me it’s a secure psychiatric medical facility now. If I’m good enough for that.’

‘Listen Alicia. I’m an old space dog of a merchant Captain. I know quality when I see it. You’re good enough. If that’s what you want, go for it. Want to bet with me, that you’ll get it?’ He put his hand on her shoulder. ‘I can’t lose, Alicia. You’ll get what you want. You’re good, my dear. Come on, let’s turn in. Tomorrow’s another day.’

Bran rose, finding Alicia stirring porridge with Wilf. He’d wanted to apologise to his Captain. He went to the aircar, running unnecessary preflight checks. He glanced over at the Captain. He was coming with food-packets, as many as he could carry.

‘You wanted to start the food-packet drops, Bran. Better take some back with you.’

‘Sir, I’m sorry about the wages – ‘

‘Not a word, my boy. Quite right, actually. Though I just hope the rest of you stay, or we’ll be broke! Come on, help me load her up.’

They loaded the flyer with more than Bran wanted to take. ‘Wilf thinks Alicia might have a high need for vitamins or something like that, sir. Better keep some for her.’

They joined the others for breakfast. ‘Wilf, what’s this about vitamins? I meant to send three quarters of our food-packets over, but Bran wouldn’t have it.’

‘I don’t know, sir. It’s just a thought. I was asking Bran if any of you got tired, irritable; not ill, sir, just not quite your normal bouncy selves. You know cat-body types have a high requirement for vitamins compared to dog-body types. I just wondered if Doctor Alicia was getting enough nutrients in her food. But I have no idea really, I just wondered.’

‘You know, the kaitlyn always liked those leaves – the Xendra plant ones. Maybe they supply something the kaitlyn need but don’t get in the north-forest,’ Bran said.

‘Could very well be, Wilf. Won’t do any harm to use the food-packets anyway. The Wolf will be back with more soon anyway.’

Bran took off, loaded with food-packets, the three giving him cheerful waves as he went.

Back at Homecamp, he took the others up to drop opened food packets some distance away from the refugee camp. He flew east, making food-drops, then west, dropping more opened food-packages.

At the refugee camp, they noticed Sir Bob, with many kaitlyn gathered about him. They parked the flyer, then approached Sir Bob. The humans stood by, ready to join in if needed. Sir Bob extended one hand. They all linked up. The thought-speech went out. Calling the berserkers, the fatlings to eat. Calling any endangered palfreys here, calling any endangered kaitlyn here.

The next days saw them busy, making food drops, gathering grain-grass, tending the bustling refugee camp. The land and lake waters continued to improve. Healing waves were sent out daily. And Sir Bob doubled the guards on the camp, and always sent a guard with any who left the camp, even just a little way out of the camp area.

Bran or Yanni flew back to Homecamp for supplies, or flew south to gather more grain-grass there. Homecamp continued a happy place, the Captain and Wilf always staying positive about Alicia’s abilities. Bran was sure he’d be using his empathetic touch on Alicia too, helping her.

Time passed. The new grain-grasses, the new grasses, grew. More and more berserkers were seen in the temperate zone. Finally Sir Bob, five other kaitlyn with him, beckoned the four, and they joined hands.

Time to fly to the tropical zone. Try for re-location.

Bran flew them south, Sir Bob with a hand on his knee, guiding the flight. Sir Bob wanted to land. ‘Look for somewhere to put down, folks. I think this is it.’ Bran circled, till an opening appeared, a stony patch near a lake. He flew the flyer down, landing gently. He lowered the ramp, waiting till the kaitlyn alighted, then secured the aircar.

Sir Bob and the other kaitlyn were standing, scenting, sniffing. Sensing. Keeping two on guard, the others joined hands.

It seemed to the four, that Sir Bob was sensing the area, questing for kaitlyn, palfrey, berserkers, fatling. They stood, the four not knowing if they were helping or not. But they stood with their kaitlyn friends, concentrating on staying open inside themselves.

Thought-words came to them all, familiar now.

‘Fly kaitlyn here. How many in flyer each time?’ Sir Bob

Bran thought. ‘Eight seats, but could take twelve, plus carry goods, and she could lift quite a weight. One pilot, twenty maybe? More, if they’d squash in together.’

‘We squash. Commence.’ Sir Bob.

‘Palfreys? Leave behind? Bring?’ Xillia.

A warm feeling swept the entire group.

‘We ask them. You carry palfreys if palfreys wish?’ Sir Bob.

‘Of course. If you can keep them calm.’ Bran.

‘We can. Commence. Back now, larger group.’ Sir Bob.

They commenced. Bran flew back to refugee camp. The others returned with the kaitlyn, while Bran stayed by the flyer, awaiting his passengers. Sir Bob approached with more than thirty kaitlyn. The kaitlyn packed themselves into the storage area, filling the flyer from the back, some on seats, some between seats, some wedged against the sides. None on the pilot’s chair, though, or the front passenger chair.

Bran looked at Sir Bob with a smile in his dark brown eyes. Sir Bob placed a hand on Bran’s shoulder. ‘You and I. Too many?’

For answer Bran bowed Sir Bob in, then got in. A kaitlyn had to shuffle along to allow the ramp to be stowed. Bran made sure all the doors were locked, then took off for the stony spot. Packed as she was, Bran handled the flyer carefully, the engine working somewhat harder than usual, but coping well. He flew her to the stony area, so like homecamp. He gently settled the flyer. Sir Bob was out first, keeping watch as the kaitlyn alighted.

Bran reckoned Sir Bob wanted to direct the camp or whatever the kaitlyn’s version of home might be. He secured the flyer, awaiting Sir Bob’s lead, prepared to follow or stay in the aircar. In the silence, he heard a stream. Not too far away, he thought. This could indeed be another Homecamp, here in this smaller continent. Fairly flat stone, water, trees for the kaitlyn. Sir Bob beckoned, Bran followed the kaitlyn towards the stream, a little way on the west side of the stony area. Sir Bob led the group back to the aircar, signing Bran to stay there.

Bran opened the aircar, sat down inside to wait. Sir Bob led his kaitlyn into the thick woods, eastwards. They must be checking the area out. But the kaitlyn knew already the area was safe enough.

Sir Bob returned alone. Bran immediately opened the door, setting the ramp for him. Back inside, Sir Bob placed his hand on Bran’s knee. Bran got the idea Sir Bob wanted more kaitlyn brought. Twice more that day Bran flew kaitlyn south, leaving them there, returning with only Sir Bob. Then Sir Bob led him back to the refugee camp, much emptier now. Yanni and the girls had the evening meal on.

‘Should we still be dropping food parcels?’ Yanni asked.

‘I’d guess so. But it’s up to Sir Bob, how he wants it done.’ Bran looked over the camp. A lot of palfreys. But the kaitlyn were close to them.

Following Bran’s gaze, Xillia said, ‘I guess the kaitlyn are asking the palfreys what they want to do.’

‘We can carry them, of course, we’ve done it before. But we’ll need at least some kaitlyn with us to keep them calm.’ Bran considered palfreys in the aircar. ‘We could take most of the seats out of the flyer. It’d make carrying palfreys easier.’

‘If you ask me, Sir Bob won’t want the palfreys left in danger.’ Xendra was looking, not at the camp or the palfreys, but at Sir Bob.

‘Well, I’m going to turn in. The boss’ll tell us when he’s ready.’ Bran, smiling, gave the merest wink at Sir Bob before heading for his bedroll.

In the morning, Sir Bob wanted a food airdrop. He came too, watching as Bran flew east, the others dropping open food-packs, then west to drop more food-packs. Sir Bob watched every move, every pack, every landing place.

‘Reckon the general is pleased, Xendra?’ Yanni asked.

‘I think so. Home, Bran.’ And Bran flew back to the refugee camp. Once landed, Sir Bob placed his hands on Bran and Xendra’s shoulder. They linked hands with the others.

‘Seats out. Palfreys now.’ Sir Bob.

Leaving just the front passenger and pilot’s chair, it didn’t take long to remove the other seats. Without the weight of the chairs themselves, Bran thought – how many palfreys? How many kaitlyn with them? Two, three, four? More?

Bran turned to see palfreys and kaitlyn approaching. Ten palfreys, four kaitlyn. Bran felt he could take more than that. The flyer had a mighty strong floor, and a powerful engine for its size. He put his hand on Bob’s shoulder, he could take another five palfrey at least. Sir Bob beckoned to the others.

Five more palfrey, with another two kaitlyn, approached. Bran stood back. The ramp clear, the kaitlyn herded fifteen palfreys in. Yanni and the girls would have to return to camp, but already the two kaitlyn who’d brought the additional five in, were escorting them back. Sir Bob took the passenger seat. Bran took the pilot’s seat, and checked all the doors were locked closed. Grinning to himself – they’d never believe this in the Space Navy – he took off, as gently as he knew how, flying steadily, evenly, landing equally gently. He lowered the ramp. Sir Bob was out first, then two kaitlyn, then the palfreys, coming down the ramp as if they’d done this all their lives. Finally the last two kaitlyn alighted. Sir Bob sang to them, the palfreys whistled. And Sir Bob remained by the aircar while the party moved towards the forest.

Sir Bob waited. Then, sure they were safe, Sir Bob put his hand on Bran’s shoulder. ‘Fly back, please.’ Bran did. He landed at the refugee camp.

Sir Bob sang. ‘Again?’ Bran wondered. He waited by the aircar. Sure enough more palfreys came. They loaded, as before, he flew them south. And returned for another batch. There weren’t many left now. Bran flew them south, returned. The last of the palfreys loaded on, Bran took them to join their herd. Four flights, about fifteen palfreys in each flight. Bran and Sir Bob flew back to a depleted refugee camp.

Yanni said, ‘Sir Bob won’t want to leave us undefended. Nor the stores.’

‘But there’s a nice site there. It looked so like Homecamp, we could settle there. Maybe that’s what Sir Bob means us to do,’ Xillia said.

‘I wouldn’t be at all surprised. How many are left here now anyway?’ Bran asked. There were still some palfreys, and twice as many kaitlyn. About another palfrey load, if they wanted to go south, and maybe three, or two packed in kaitlyn flights. He looked over at Sir Bob. Was that what Sir Bob wanted? And the igloo and stores – they’d need maybe two flights more for that.

The comlink sounded, Wilf’s voice calling them. ‘Hi you lot. We’ve heard from the Wolf. She’ll be here in another three planet days. If you want to say goodbye to Alicia, you’d better come by then.’

‘Hi Wilf, yes, we can’t come tomorrow, maybe not the next day, but we’ll be there. See you, my friend.’ Bran stood, grinning. Things, people, were slotting back into place.

Next day, Sir Bob had the remainder of the palfreys taken south. Then Sir Bob drew them into a circle. The thought-words came.

‘Food-drops now. Then the stores south, the igloo, my people, and yourselves. To your places.’ And again, a warm sense of well-being flooded the group.

Sir Bob came with the four for the food-drops, west and east again, And, guarded by the kaitlyn, they loaded the flyer with stores. With the palfreys all south, they fitted the seats back in the flyer. All four flew south to help unload. Then back for the igloo.

South again, the four set up the igloo, slightly west of centre, nearer the stream, and began to put the stores into it.

‘Time to go, I guess?’ Xillia looked around. ‘It is like Homecamp you know. A home from home.’

Yanni moved closer to her. ‘Come on, it’s not us who’re leaving. We can stay here now while Bran and Sir Bob get the others here.’

‘Right again, Yanni.’ Xendra was standing, her hand in Bran’s and Sir Bob’s. She hugged Bran. ‘Go get ’em, love.’

And Bran and Sir Bob did, landing north, picking up more kaitlyn, taking them south. And one last run, taking the last twenty kaitlyn south, to the new campsite.

‘We could have the old igloo here – you know, the one we left on Rock Island. We holed it, but it’s still weather-proof,’ Yanni said.

‘We’ll bring it back after seeing Alicia off.’ Bran paused. ‘That is, I am assuming you two, at least, want to stay over here on this continent?’

Xillia’s eyes filled. She blinked. ‘I was dreading saying goodbye to Sir Bob. I’d like to stay here. At the least, spend some time over here.’

‘No reason why not. I’ll ask the Captain about another aircar. It’d be handy having one on each continent. Even just a little planet-only runabout.’ Bran thought. ‘Not counting the Captain, we’ve got three pilots now, with Wilf here. You bet I’ll ask.’

‘Good. Come and have supper now. We can ask when we’re there tomorrow, and the Wolf will be coming. If the Captain orders another flyer, she can take the order with her.’

After breakfast, the four flew back to Homecamp. Each of them were careful to greet Alicia as warmly as the Captain and Wilf. Bran pushed the aircar into it’s hangar-igloo, to leave plenty of room for the Wolf’s shuttle craft.

The Captain came to join him. ‘Good thinking, Bran. We’ll need the room, we have a little flyer coming, and a couple of igloos, as well as the food-packets, bedrolls, blankets, fuel cells. Plenty of fuel cells.’

‘Sir?’ Bran was taken aback. ‘But I was going to ask you if we could get another flyer. Even just a little one. Xillia and Yanni, sir, they’re fond of Sir Bob, and of many of the kaitlyn, and of the palfreys on the lesser continent. I think they’d like to stay there. Not to stay away, you understand. Just spend a fair bit of time over there.’

‘Bran, my boy, there’s one thing I’ve learned. If you take responsibility for people like those two have, you tend to continue to take responsibility. I guessed Yanni and Xillia would want to be on the smaller continent. As you say, most of the time at least. Hurry up, you don’t want to miss their faces!’

Xillia and Yanni headed to the palfreys, grooming them to spotless perfection. Everyone helped spruce up Homecamp, before the shuttle arrived. Alicia gathered her things. The Captain gave her the authorisation slip to draw her pay from his Navy-held account – the reward for the Blob, thanks to the old Titanic. He didn’t leave her time to get too emotional.

‘We must cook, my dear. Maybe Wilf’s friend will fancy some real homefire food. Come on, all hands on deck and all that.’

The comlink sounded. The Wolf’s shuttle was coming. They stayed close to the old Titanic’s boat while the shuttle landed. Wilf’s friend alighted, Wilf hurried forward.

‘You, Jacko, what ho! Come, meet everyone. Then can you wait for some real stew?’

‘Yes. But I’ve got messages, as well as a load in here. I need the Captain, and Doctor Freema.’

Wilf led Jacko to them. ‘Sir, I have all items ordered, sir, and a message for Doctor Freema. I carry a request from the Chief Medical Officer on Moon 9. First message is from the Chief Medical Officer. He requests the presence of Doctor Freema to help determine the mental health of the pris – er, medical detainees, Yisto and Xepher. Second message is from said Yisto and Xepher, which states, Doctor Alicia, ‘come, we need you’. Reply, ma’am?’

Dead silence. The others suddenly found something to do, away from the officer, Alicia and the Captain, stirring stew, getting bowls, cups, admiring the shuttle – anything.

Bran and Wilf went to admire the shuttle. ‘Brass-necked pair, ain’t they?’ Wilf whispered.

‘You’ve no idea, my friend. They’re coming.’ Bran jerked his head.

‘Come on everyone, we’ve got stores to unload, Yanni, Xillia, come on.’ The Captain called and waved them over.

Jacko opened the cargo doors, setting the ramp in place, and began to lift igloo sections forward. Enough for two igloos. Then he beckoned them in. ‘I need a hand with this next item.’

Captain Nero pushed Yanni forward. A lovely little aircar runabout, small but able to carry six at a pinch, awaited him. ‘Come on then, Yanni, don’t you like your little flyer?’ He squeezed in behind Yanni, grinning. ‘Let’s not hang about, son.’ Yanni shut his jaw, and carefully backed the flyer down the ramp, helped by Jacko, the Captain, and Bran, who’d followed his Captain.

‘Young people need their own home, don’t they – your igloo, your hangar-igloo, your transport.’ The Captain was thoroughly enjoying himself. Yanni and Xillia just gaped at him, speechless. ‘Well, I suppose you’d like to be with Sir Bob and the others? Mind, I want you back here regularly. Or else I’ll take the little flyer off you.’

‘No sir, um, yes sir, I mean thank you, sir.’ Yanni took Xillia in a bear hug. In short order the shuttle was emptied, most of the food and fuel placed in the storage igloo.

They gathered for their last meal together. Jacko was looking around him, enjoying the fresh air. ‘I honestly don’t know how you can leave all this, ma’am.’

‘I miss being a doctor. And I want to help those who suffered through that regen programme. I can’t do that here.’

‘Wilf, you scoundrel, I’ll see you again sometime. But now I need to get back to the Wolf. If you are ready, ma’am?’

Captain Nero carried her things, checking she had the authorisation slip. She took the computer they’d given her from the Titanic. ‘A memento of your kindness, Alex. Of all of you and your kindness.’ The Captain and Jacko handed her inside, then Jacko hopped in, settled himself for takeoff. The others moved back to allow the shuttle room. And the shuttle lifted off, heading for the Navy ship, the Wolf.

Wilf guessed they’d be feeling a bit down. He chivvied them to load up the aircar and the new little flyer, with the igloos, food-packages, fuel. The little airtub could only take less than half the amount the aircar could, but between the two flyers, everything was loaded up. Bran, Wilf and Yanni studied the airtub’s controls.

‘Sure you’ve got her, Yanni? We can take her up for a trial run.’

‘Good idea.’ The three pilots piled in, leaving the others grinning at them.

‘Never fails. Pilots and flyers,’ Captain Nero watched the little airtub lift off, Yanni flying with Bran beside him, Wilf behind.

They rose, Yanni flying steadily, dipping, diving, ascending, turning, getting the feel of the little flyer. He brought her back down, landing her with only the slightest of bumps.

‘Well, go tell Sir Bob the good news. But see you come back in a seven-day! And you two, Bran and Xendra, come back after the youngsters are settled.’ Captain Nero watched them go. Wilf let him be for a while, then called him to help with the hoeing. ‘Just to keep me right, sir. Which are plants, which are weeds, I mean.’

The aircar and airtub flew to the lesser continent, Bran waited till Yanni, still strange to the controls, landed first. He eased down with hardly a bump. Bran followed him down. They set up their own home igloo, the hangar-igloo, and stored the fuel cells and most of the food-packets in the first igloo.

‘How about we take the airtub and do some food-drops?’ Bran suggested. ‘We want to keep the berserkers and fatlings up north. Keep them there, as well as tempt more to go north again. You’ll have to keep doing that for a while yet, Yanni.’

‘You three go,’ Xendra said. ‘I’ll get some root-stew going for the evening meal.’

‘You’ll be safe, Xendra?’ Bran looked round, but couldn’t see any kaitlyn.

‘If you ask me, I’d reckon Sir Bob and the kaitlyn are looking after us. Can’t you feel them? At least, that you’re being watched?’

‘I can, actually. Okay, see you soon.’ After a quick hug, he joined his friends in the airtub.

Xendra prepared the meal. But she kept in her mind the invitation to Sir Bob. He waited till the airtub had returned and been pushed into the hangar-igloo, and everyone was gathered round the campfire.

Then Sir Bob appeared. Yanni and Xillia rose first, Bran and Xendra slightly behind. Yannni said aloud, ‘Welcome to Hopeton.’

Sung greetings and bows exchanged, Xillia handed Sir Bob a bowl of the root-stew. They ate. Bran and Xendra stayed overnight at Hopeton, using the old igloo.

After breakfast, Bran and Xendra prepared to return to Homecamp. ‘Call if you need us, and don’t forget to come back over to the main continent.’

‘Yes, sir, no, sir,’ Yanni was grinning.

Sir Bob appeared from the forest. He sang, bowed, extended his hands. The four echoed his song and bow, then clasped hands together. They knew, each without knowing how, this would be the next Elder Kaitlyn. Sir Bob to them, Altan to his own people, spoke in their minds.

‘Thank you, human children of the kaitlyn, for your help to us, to our planet. All you human children of the kaitlyn, be welcome on both continents, any time, any place. Be free, be at home on both continents with us. Take my blessing upon you. Stay in peace, go in peace.’

Each sang and bowed to Sir Bob. Bran and Xendra lifted off for the main continent. Yanni, Xillia, and Sir Bob watched.  They were home.

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