It was his fluttering eyelids that called him to a stop. He’d found the way to speed up the boat, and had dug into the Delense menu pad options. He could force it to go even faster, at the expense of all the automated safety features.
But that flutter wasn’t Ferreer attacking his mind, it was just exhaustion.
He left the boat on automatic and settled down beside Rita.
“It’ll take most of the day to get us there. I need to rest. Is that okay with you?”
She was expressionless. Her eyes were open, watching the navigation screen, but she might well be asleep or in a trance.
He looked into the sack. She hadn’t been eating. He pulled out a bottle and coaxed her into sipping until her body’s need for water took over and she gulped down the whole bottle. He put a biscuit to her lips and she nibbled about half of it. He almost dozed off, holding her. Enough for now.
He stretched out on the floor, his arm around her and closed his eyes.
She was warm beside him. “I’m glad you removed the broom.”
He was content to hold her and not think about it. Warm, smooth, and curved, there was little to think about.
“We could stay together.”
He grunted. “You know that won’t work.”
“They would let us.” She held him tighter. “Everything would be different. You wouldn’t be an outsider anymore.”
He shook his head, “My duty...”
“<U’tanse! Has your mind been eaten yet?>”
James shook awake, wrapped in Rita’s blanket and her arms.
“What?” He pulled free and got to his feet. “<What did you say?>”
“<Have the Ferreer eaten you yet?>” The angry voice came from the ceiling overhead.
Oh, the shouter. I forgot.
“<No. My mind is still my own. I was sleeping.>” He checked the navigation screen. “<We are half way there.>”
“<Has the female’s mind been eaten?>”
James looked at Rita, watching him. “<I don’t know.>”
There was a grumble of disgust, and the sound shut off.
James took a moment to compose himself. He had been asleep, but he wasn’t sure she had been. He glanced back at Rita. She was half undressed.
His body was feeling guilty. He had memory of holding her. Certainly we didn’t have sex while I was asleep. I’m still dressed. I’d know, wouldn’t I?
He closed his eyes and took a deep breath. He’d dressed the little ones all his life. She was just the same. Just more developed.
James made her get up on her feet and he tugged her tunic back into place. She was a little girl, in his care. He wouldn’t take advantage of that. He combed her hair back with his fingers.
“Rita, are you in contact with the Ferreer?”
“They know she is coming.”
What mind said those words?
“Tell them... Tell them to leave my mind alone!”
“You and Rita would be happy together. It would be no different than Mother and Father, a couple starting out on a new planet. Only this time, the Ferreer would be there to help, every step of the way.”
James tried to ignore what she said. The closer they got to the planet, the more animated Rita’s body became. She wandered about the cabin, looking at the blue planet growing visibly larger and more detailed on the screen and watching him.
He locked his mind down with his best ineda. It made no difference to her.
She said, “You don’t need to do that. Those surface thought tricks work fine against point telepaths, but not against an endless array.”
“I’ll make my own choices. I’ll do anything to keep my own mind.”
He slashed his finger through the air, refining the target landing zone. The original one had been in the ocean.
“Don’t do that.”
“Don’t go straight in. It will overheat your craft. Remember how the boat pilot chose a gentle curve when taking you out of the Cerik world atmosphere? Use that technique to gently curve down to the surface.”
He barely formed the thought when Rita walked a few steps closer and said, “We can read surface thoughts, and memories, and dreams that you can’t even recall. We also remember the thoughts of Cerik who came before, flying boats like yours. We have their training. You would be wise to take this advice.”
He was resistant, but what they said made sense.
Rita approached the display and touched a point on the planet’s image. “This would be a good landing place. It is flat, with clear weather, and we can get a reception party to take care of Rita very quickly.”
It occurred to him that the Ferreer had total control over Rita. With their experience, they could probably land the craft with her.
“Yes,” she said. “But wouldn’t you enjoy doing it yourself?”
He looked at her face. The eyes were like Pam’s, the hair and skin like Pam’s, but the smile was old and wise. The effect was a little unsettling.
“Tell me when I’m doing it wrong.” The Ferreer wanted them to land safely. He could trust them to give him good landing advice.
He activated the distance shouter. “<This is the U’tanse again. I am approaching the atmosphere.>”
There was silence for a moment. “<Has your mind been eaten?>”
“<I am still myself, but my passenger speaks with the words of the Ferreer.>”
There was no reply.
Rita said, “He is frightened.”
“The Ferreer are the monsters Cerik frighten their cubs with.”
“The Cerik who lived here were content.”
“Their bodies gave out from old age. They were all male, so no new ones were born.”
“Would you have allowed that?” The Cerik were his childhood monsters.
Rita tilted her head. “There are currently seven species, from various worlds, that live together as the Ferreer. Rita will be the first of number eight. And it would be wonderful if you stayed with her and became the father of more.”
The display shifted into a map of the terrain below. Rita whispered in his ear, "See where the river curves. Aim for that."
James was having trouble making sense of the image. The only maps he'd seen were internal corridor maps of Home and fanciful drawings of the human home world. This was closer to Father's sketchings of Europe than anything else.
"The fat line is a river?"
"Yes. See where it bends. Try to land in the center of the curve."
James tried to put everything out of his head but the task of making two gentle curves -- the altitude and the direction.
New details of the land appeared as he approached. There were brown, cubical structures. Many small buildings scattered evenly through tall dark green and black vegetation. Broad tan fields were circled by uneven rows of green.
Rita pointed. "That field is where you should land."
He slashed the air and placed the targeting icon right in the middle. The shifting view of the ground began slowing dramatically.
A moment later, they were down. James left the engines idle but in standby.
Rita smiled and took his hand, "Please come out and meet the People."