A couple of hours later, an unknown Cerik, another pilot came to the boat. He didn’t attempt to speak to James, and James kept silent. They lifted, and after a brief flight across the landscape, the boat settled near the main entrance of Home.
People began pouring out of the entrance.
“James! You’re back. We thought you were dead!”
Only half of the people were wearing their masks, and they quickly moved inside. Father raised his hands. “We will celebrate his return this evening. But I need to talk with him first.”
It was a long walk back to Father’s office, with the corridors packed with smiling faces. After so long with the Cerik, and the Ferreer and even the runners, the faces began to look all alike -- family. He tried to say thanks to everyone, but as he stumbled, he realized just how tired he had become.
Father led him into the office. Mother was already there. She looked him over carefully.
“He’s okay,” she said to Father after a moment. “And I don’t detect any distortion.”
He nodded. “That’s good. James, it’s good to have you back. I suspect you have a story to tell?”
Some hours after he had lifted off on the journey with Rita, a line of fire had flashed in the sky, stretching between Cerik’s moon and another planet. When Father had asked about it, he was told that likely the space ship had been destroyed in a charging accident. It had happened before. Mother had been monitoring his body at the time and she thought it was possible that he might have made the leap to another star, but she couldn’t be certain.
All they could do was to wait and see.
James gave his version, step by step.
Father shook his head. “I wasn’t aware that you were going on one of the large ships. I’m surprised one person was able to fly it.”
Father smiled. “I’ll want a book written, detailing everything you learned about the ship. We’ll need it eventually.”
When he related the visit with the Ferreer, Mother looked very worried. “They think of themselves as the next step in evolution.”
“Right. They don’t think of attachment as a problem. They had trouble understanding why I didn’t want my brain rewired so I could participate.”
Father scratched his chin. “It may seem like arrogance on their part, but it worked out in our favor this time. I had hoped you could get down, drop her off and leave before they could stop you, but they just don’t seem that aggressive. The hive mind lasts longer than any individual. It’s easy for them to wait until we ‘evolve’ and join them voluntarily.”
Mother nodded. “And until then, they can study Rita.”
No one smiled.
A feast was planned, but James demanded a bath and clean clothes. He was turned loose. There would be other interviews. He would be working for a long time, documenting what he had seen.
And the star maps will be the hardest.
From the beginning, one of his secret orders was to view and memorize the star patterns from both the Cerik space and Ferreer space. Abe had drawn a map from his memories of Earth’s stars, with nearly a five hundred dots on it. If he could do the same, drawn from his excellent views out the ship’s window, they would have the first possibility of building a three dimensional map of the stars, with some hint as to where the human homeworld might be.
It was going to be a long chore, but maybe some day, they might discover lost Earth.
James slipped into the water with a profound sense of relief. Did the Cerik bathe? He certainly hadn’t seen any hint of a bath on their ship.
A familiar splash caught his attention. Pam swam up.
He smiled. “I’ve been looking for you.”
She timidly approached. “I couldn’t get close. There were too many people.”
“Are you pregnant yet?”
She shook her head. “I was too upset when they said you might have died. Why didn’t you let me know you were going on a space flight?”
He shrugged. “It was a big secret.”
She settled up beside him. “I cried.”
He put his arm around her. “I’m sorry. I almost died, if it’s any comfort.”
She poked him. “No, it’s not.”
“And I’m taking down the broom, after the feast tonight.”
She leaned against him. “Can I get my place in line?”
“You’re the first one I’ve told.”
He sighed. He still had no idea how this whole sex thing would play out. He still might become a joke among the cousins, but that didn’t seem that important any more. He had work to do, documenting his trip, an writing a book on how to fly a boat. And after that, he had to get back into the repair shop. The hands-on experience he’d gained using the devices made some of the things on his failure shelf worth another look.
“You know, I was given the chance to be a telepath.”
“Oh? By the Ferreer?”
“Yes. And I was tempted. Tempted to be the new Father with Rita as the Mother, starting another U’tanse family on their planet.”
He chuckled. “When I told that to Father and Mother, they both shuddered.”
“Yes, they said as proud as they were of how their family had turned out, they wouldn’t wish that role on anyone.”
Pam was quiet for a moment. “Was Rita pretty?”
“Um. I guess. She reminded me of you. Sort of a Pam without a personality. That was the scary part. It is so wonderful being home, with real people.
“And I’m really glad you found me.” He pulled her tighter.
After a moment, he said, “But I’d better get dry, and get dressed. I’m looking forward to better food than biscuits.”
“And lots of girls trying to get your attention, I bet.”
“They can just wait their turn.”