It was a little after four-thirty in the afternoon when Kristoph roused the boys from their sleep. They ate another meal and drank some liquid. It was auto-rehydrated and didn’t taste as good as fresh water, but it was enough for their needs as they prepared to set off again into the desert.

The heat was overwhelming almost as soon as they stepped out of the tent. They realised at once just how well the inner skin protected them. They quickly got the tent down and folded up into Kristoph’s pack and turned their faces to the south-west. Their destination before they stopped again tonight was an oasis that lay in that direction.

“Fresh, cool water,” Gynnell said, hopefully. “The very thing.”

“If we find it this time,” Mica told him. “The last time we tried, we never even got close.”

“We weren’t being led by Lord de Lœngbærrow last time,” Gynnell replied.

“Yes,” Riven pointed out. “That was our mistake. When we planned to escape from the lawful authority of Gallifrey we should have asked the President of that lawful authority to guide us.”

The boys laughed. Now that the nightmare was over they could do so.

“If you boys had just told me what was happening, there would have been no need to run away at all,” Kristoph told them. “Surely you knew you could trust me?”

“We had no way of contacting you, sir,” Nico explained. “We didn’t know if any of our masters might be in league with Khane. We couldn’t tell anyone who might bring our fears to you.”

“Even so, should anything else worry you, don’t do anything so drastic again. You might all have died. You might be troublesome to the lawful authority of this land, but we don’t want anything to happen to any of you.”

That was a startling thought to them all. They had been so used to being renegades, trouble makers, delinquents who had been sent into the desert for punishment, and to be out of sight and sound of the families they had shamed, that it seemed incredible to them that anyone cared for their welfare at all.

“Sending you to the desert hardly seems like a punishment,” Kristoph said with a wry smile. “I’ve had petitions from fathers asking to send their boys to join you. Not just from the Arcalian Academy, but a couple of Prydonians, too and a Cerulian.”

“Boys who have caused trouble at their Academies?” Adred asked.

“Funnily enough, no,” Kristoph answered. “One, at least, is a very accomplished young man. His father thinks the challenge of life in the desert would be good for him.”

The boys looked at each other and wondered what to make of that news. They wondered at first if the President was joking with them, but he seemed to be perfectly serious.

“It’s a radical idea,” he added. “Teaching our children to be self-reliant and resourceful. Would it breed more rebels, I wonder?”

Now they really weren’t sure if they were being teased or not.

“I would give the go ahead,” Kristoph added. “To make your camp into a fully fledged Academy in its own right, if I weren’t just a little worried that the Celestial Intervention Agency might regard it as their junior training facility and pick off the best of you for their future assassins.”

That idea gave all of the boys food for thought as they walked through the desert in the late afternoon. So did the view of the desert as the shadows lengthened. It changed minute by minute. What had looked like endless iron red plain proved to have outcrops and escarpments that cast deep shadows and depressions that they found themselves walking down into so that they lost sight of the wide horizon. In these depressions and in the shadow of the rock formations, there was far more flora and fauna than elsewhere. Most of it was hardy ground hugging plants with tight, spiky leaves that hoarded the little moisture there was in the air or in the ground where they dug their roots. In one place, though, they found a low bush that covered quite a large area of ground. It had hundreds of reddish-yellow fruits on it, each half enclosed in a thin green leaf. Kristoph plucked one of the fruits and tasted it.

“Desert Rymes,” he said. “I’ll hazard none of you have ever seen them growing wild. You’d know them as ‘Dessert Rymes’ sliced up and dried out and covered in sugar before being sold in fancy candy boxes.”

He guessed right. They were all surprised to see the wild fruits. Kristoph told them to eat a few now, and fill their pockets for later. The juice was cool and refreshing. They put as many as they could in the pockets of their jerkins and walked on up the slope that led them out of the depression and back onto the wider desert.

“Not everything is safe to eat,” Kristoph warned them. “Don’t go trying that without my advice, at least not until you’re experienced enough to go it alone out here.”

They fully accepted that the Lord High President, among all his other wisdom, knew which fruits of the desert were safe to eat.

They walked steadily and covered many miles in the hours before the sun began to drop low on the horizon. Kristoph assured them that the oasis was close and they would be there by sunset. There was no obvious sign of it as they walked, but again they fully believed him.

“Not far now,” Kristoph assured them. But there still wasn’t any sign that it was.

Then Mica and Nico, walking slightly ahead of the others, gave an excited shout, followed by a cry of distress when Nico suddenly fell away from view. Kristoph quickened his pace and caught up with Mica. He looked down the gentle slope where Mica had rolled. He was having trouble standing up again. Kristoph moved quickly but carefully down the slope to where he had landed right beside a wide blue lake of water with trees, actual trees, growing beside it.

“Just a sprained ankle,” he said examining the boy quickly and carefully with his sonic screwdriver in tissue repair mode. “Lie still for a few minutes, you’ll soon mend.”

“No, he’s hurt,” Mica cried out as he reached his brother’s side. “He’s bleeding, look….”

“No, I’m not,” Nico answered. But when he put his hand to his side there was something that looked very much like blood there. Kristoph laughed softly.

“You just invented the Dessert Ryme Smoothie,” he told him. “You just rest. You’re excused tent making duty.”

The others put up the tent, quickly and quietly as the last rays of sunlight glanced over the oasis. Kristoph, meanwhile, made a campfire with sticks gathered from under the trees. The boys were surprised when he lit it by rubbing two small sticks together.

“Why didn’t you use your sonic screwdriver, sir?” Salika asked. “Or a thermic match.”

“Because there may be times when an agent has neither and must live or die by his own wits,” Kristoph answered. “A fire at night is necessary not only against the cold – and it DOES get cold even here in the desert, you may be sure – but to ward off predators.”

The boys all looked to the hand held crossbows that Kristoph had taken from his pack. They were no bigger than a stazer gun, but the bolts were lethal enough. They were not toys.

“Will we need to kill animals?” It was Gynnell Dúccesci who asked the question.

“If they come close to the camp and are not frightened by the fire, we shall have to,” Kristoph told him. “Otherwise we will only do so for food.”

They knew that was a part of the adventure, living off the land, fending for themselves. But none of them were sure they could do it. Not even Gynnell, who had proved himself a good shot with a crossbow when he attempted to kill the President.

“It’s not something everyone can do,” Kristoph said. “We will see if any of you have the instinct. My wife dislikes the idea of hunting for sport, but she does not object to killing for food, which is what we will do later. For now, I have something a little less fearsome for your supper.”

He put a pile of small white, misshapen objects on the ground beside the fire. The boys took one each and looked at them curiously.

“Ground fruits, they are called,” Kristoph explained. “Though they are not a fruit at all, but a fast growing fungi. They grow where there is clean water nearby and some warmth to ferment the soil.”

“It tastes like bread and cheese,” Nico commented.

“And it has the same nutrients,” Kristoph told them. “It has never been cultivated as a food source because it withers quickly once picked. But it is another life saver in the desert, and if any of you should consider a contemplative life when you’re older, the Brotherhood of Mount Lœng make them a staple of their ascetic diet.”

“Can you really see any of us becoming Contemplative brothers?” Salika asked.

“You can be what you want to be,” Kristoph told them. “Your futures are yet to be written. That is why I gave you the chance to rise above the difficulties you got yourself into. When you are adults, transcended Time Lords, you will have the chance to be anything you strive to be.”

“What if… one of us chose to join the Celestial Intervention Agency?”

Kristoph paused. That was a question he knew he ought to have expected from one of them. He had talked openly about his agency training as a way of showing them that the things they were doing here had a practical purpose. But he had no intension of making them into meat for the Agency’s grinder.

“My wife has urged me not to encourage our son to follow me into that career,” he said. “If I were to encourage other men’s sons to do what I wouldn’t wish my own flesh and blood to do I would be a hypocrite and worse. That must be for your own hearts when you are old enough to make such a decision for yourselves.”

The boys nodded as if they understood.

“But you don’t have a son, sir,” Riven pointed out. Kristoph was a little surprised to realise that the boy was right. Only a week ago he had spent time with his future son. The memory stuck with him, and in his mind he was acutely aware of his responsibilities towards that young man who was far more like him than he would have wished him to be. In his mind, yes, he did have a son.

And here and now he was responsible in a fatherly way towards these boys who had so many of the qualities he knew his son had. Yes, they had been led astray, but not so far that they couldn’t be led back by the right guiding hands.

Was he using them as a substitute for the children he didn’t yet have? Yes, perhaps he was, a little, but in a good way, surely? He was helping them to believe in themselves again and not to live in shame for the mistakes they had made.

Or was that just the excuse he made to himself?

If it was, it wasn’t a bad excuse, he argued. He was doing them good.

But it was just an excuse.

The night darkened as they ate their foraged supper. Stars came out in the sky. Nico, who had been the navigator on the abortive escape attempt not so long ago, came into his own now as he identified the constellations above their heads.

“Very well done,” Kristoph said to him. “You’re quite an accomplished astronomer already. My father would be impressed by you.”

Nico was pleased by the compliment.

“I disappointed him in that respect. I lacked passion for merely looking at stars. I wanted to visit them.”

“Have you visited many of them?” Adred asked. “Their planets, that is… not the stars.”

“One or two,” Kristoph replied. He looked towards the western sky. “That one has always been important to me. That very faint one. It doesn’t look very impressive. I don’t expect you to know it, Nico, my boy.”

Nico surprised him by identifying the very faint star as ‘Sol’ a rather short and uninspiring name. The boys all wondered why it should be so important to their Lord High President.

“The third of the major planets orbiting that star is called Sol 3 even in the books of astronomy my father wrote. But I know it as Earth. It is the home world of the race called Human. We Time Lords regard ourselves as superior beings to almost every other race in the galaxy. We dismiss other, weaker, races easily. But it is not inconceivable that we may be wrong in that conviction.”

“Your wife is Human,” Gynnell said. “She comes from that world, so far away?”

“She does.”

“She was kind to me.”

“She is a kind woman,” Kristoph agreed. He was on the point of saying something more when a noise disturbed them all. It was an animal roar somewhere nearby. The boys all blanched in fear. Two of them, Gynnell and Salika, were close to where the weapons were left. They grasped two of the crossbows and checked that the bolts were engaged. Both boys turned in the right direction, judging the location of the animal by their sense of hearing before it was possible to see it drawing closer to their group, showing no fear at all of the fire. Kristoph reached for a weapon, too, but he was sitting on the other side of the fire. The light from it spoiled his night vision and he didn’t have as good a view of the animal as the other two did.

“Steady,” Kristoph told them. “Wait for the moment… Don’t be scared. Don’t doubt yourselves.”

The other four boys held their breaths, literally, as they waited to see what would happen next. The danger was obvious. The huge creature was fully capable of pouncing, from where it now stood, and killing either Gynnell or Salika instantly. They had once chance to kill it, first.

“Choose your moment, boys,” Kristoph said again. “Rassilon guide your hands.”