Marion had been perfectly understanding, Kristoph reflected as the Presidential Shuttle rapidly decelerated from its maximum speed and the shutters automatically opened up over the windows revealing a landscape of rust-red below and a sun still low in the sky but already burning hot. She had accepted that their quiet day in the garden with Rodan would have to wait. She didn’t even bother to point out that there were plenty of other people capable of mounting a search. He was the Lord High President. He didn’t need to be involved.

But the Arcalian Camp in the Red Desert had been his idea. He felt responsible for the welfare of the boys. So when he was awoken early this morning with the news that four of the youngsters were missing he summoned the shuttle at once. Marion ordered a hasty breakfast for him while he waited, fully understanding his need to be part of the rescue mission.

“We will be at the camp in five minutes, sir,” said the pilot.

“Thank you,” he answered. “There is no more news, I suppose?”

“No, sir.”

That would be too easy, of course. He fully expected to spend several days scouring the Red Desert, looking for all of the old rest-halts that the Celestial Intervention Agency had established when they used the camp as a training centre. He was one of the few people who knew where most of them were. That was his justification for making himself a part of the rescue mission if anyone had the temerity to question him about it.

The Camp was in sight, now. From a distance it was almost camouflaged against the desert sand with the wooden huts weathered by frequent sandstorms but now it came into view. The most distinctive feature was a flagpole bearing a bright blue Arcalian banner that the boys had made in one of their craft lessons. As he watched, a second flag was run up the lanyard – the Presidential crest. He smiled and wondered if he should mention that it was an intergalactic tradition never to put two flags on the same pole. It implied that the one on top was superior to the one below, and in this instance that would be an act of Treason.

But there were more important things to worry about than flag etiquette, he remembered in the next heartsbeat. The shuttle landed and one of his own Presidential Guards hurried to open the door for him. The boys themselves formed two lines of honour for him as he alighted. They all knew this was no social visit, though, and their faces were all anxious.

He was escorted by two of the older boys to the main hall where the search and rescue plan was being put together by a group of volunteers. Lord Dúccesci was one of them, even though his half brother wasn’t one of the missing boys. Indeed, Gynnell Dúccesci was there with him, dressed in desert wear along with all those preparing to go on the search.

At his side was a man Kristoph hadn’t expected to see – the outlander who used to be known as Marvic Braxietel before he eschewed Time Lord civilisation and went to live in the desert by his own wits.

“How did you know of our need?” Kristoph asked him. He was dressed in only a loincloth made of animal skins and his body covered in tattoos the meaning of which the Celestial Intervention Agency’s greatest cryptologist could not begin to decipher. The adults who had come to take part in the rescue, some Chancellery Guards with experience of the desert, a few Celestial Intervention Agency men who talked far less than everyone else, were surprised by his appearance as much as his presence there. The boys among the group were fascinated by him and only concern for their missing friends dulled their desire to crowd around him asking questions.

“This boy came to tell me of the problem,” Braxietel answered. “He reached the bottom of the escarpment, at least. I came down to him, and hearing his story I came back with him. Whatever help I can be, I am at your disposal.”

“I am sure that you will be of every possible help,” Kristoph answered. He looked at Gynnell Dúccesci. “Do you mean to say that you’ve already trekked into Dark Territory and you still intend to go with the search party?”

“I used a hover trike with a solar sail,” he said. “It only took me a few hours. I stayed the night in the Outlander camp and we came back first thing this morning. I have rested and eaten, and I am ready to do my part.”

“Well, you can ride in the Presidential shuttle with me,” Kristoph said. “We can cover as much territory as possible from the air.”

“I have sent my people to search the Dark Territory just in case,” Braxietel said. “But I understand that the boys were heading north on this occasion. Unless they were drastically off course they will not be within reach of our scouts.”

“The effort is appreciated, all the same,” Kristoph assured him. “Will you, also, ride in my shuttle? Your tracking skills will be useful when we are closer to their last known position, but that was a thousand miles away eight days ago. We must use the technology at our disposal first.”

“I shall do so,” Braxietel answered him. “Let us not waste any further time. The sun rises higher by the minute and the desert burns beyond the endurance of city-bred men.”

Kristoph led his party out to the Presidential Shuttle. Lord Dúccesci and his brother were with him. Malika fitted Braxietel’s comment about city-bred men, but he had volunteered to play his part straight away. Gynnell was city-bred, too, but he had lived in the desert for nearly three years, now. He had taken part in regular treks across country. He was used to the dry air and the baking heat. His skin was tanned almost as darkly as Braxietel’s was beneath his tattoos and his limbs were strong for one of his youth. He was quite capable of leading this rescue mission, not merely taking part in it.

“I hope you don’t count me as one of the city-bred men,” Kristoph added as they took their places on the shuttle. Braxietel looked at the padded seats and then sat cross legged on the floor with his back against the bulkhead. He had not used a chair for a very long time.

“You are not,” Braxietel answered. “And the master who went with the four boys was experienced, too, so the boy tells me.”

“Lord Glasson,” Gynnell explained. “He was appointed to teach us survival skills. He has taken us all out into the desert many times. This trip was the farthest, yet. My brother presented the school with a set of hover-trikes, and he proposed a trip to find the Northern Oracle.”

“The WHAT?” Malika Dúccesci looked at his brother curiously. Braxietel’s eyes narrowed. Kristoph bit his lip thoughtfully.

“The Northern Oracle is a myth,” he said. “It is supposed to be a relic of the time before Rassilon, before the Creation of the Time Lord race. But it doesn’t exist. We have enough satellites and sensors up there monitoring this planet. Something like that would have been found.”

“If it existed, MY people would know it,” Braxietel added. “This seems like a fools’ errand.”

“I don’t think any of them really expected to find the Oracle,2 Gynnell pointe out. “But they were heading towards the polar circle. That was interesting enough even without mythical portals. I would have liked to have gone, but I went on the last trek, and it would have looked like favouritism because my brother bought the trikes. I studied the route they were going to take, though, and I kept in contact with them by short-wave radio signal until eight days ago. They stopped responding. Lord Artemus thought they were just out of range. He told me not to worry. But it’s been too long, now. That’s why he called for help. It’s why I went to find the Outlanders. I hoped they would know something.”

“My people know very much that the city-dwellers cannot hope to know,” Braxietel said. “But we were hunting to the south when this party set off north. We saw none of the usual signs of city-dwellers in the desert – no camp fire remains or tracks in the sand, discarded food containers....”

“We’ve been taught not to do any of those things,” Gynnell pointed out. “Lord Glasson... I think he is a former Celestial Intervention Agency man. He is very knowledgeable. He knew of the bunkers, like the one under the rocks where we hid in when we were on the run. We asked him, but he wouldn’t admit that he was from the Agency. But... then, he wouldn’t, would he?”

“I couldn’t say, either,” Kristoph said with a knowing smile at young Dúccesci who always found such matters fascinating. “That would be a breach of Agency protocol.”

He didn’t know Glasson. If he WAS a Celestial Intervention Agency man he joined long after he left that work. It must have been long after the Agency abandoned the desert camp, too, but an agent with an interest in the old training methods was perfectly free to try his wits and his stamina against those extreme elements. Glasson could well be an expert in desert trekking. But if so, then it was doubly puzzling that this party ran into trouble. With an experienced man in charge and the hover trikes to carry enough food and water for a long expedition, they should have been all right.

He looked out of the window. The desert below was virtually featureless. The position of the sun told him roughly where they were and that they were heading due north along the route the boys and their teacher had travelled before they lost contact with Gynnell Dúccesci back at the camp. Two other shuttles were travelling to the north-west and north-east to cover the area they might be in if they went off course due to faulty navigation.

“Even if they have learnt some of the ways of the desert, there will be some traces that I can find,” Braxietel said confidently. “Outlanders know instinctively far more than a Celestial Intervention Agency man can learn.”

“I hope you are right,” Kristoph said. “We’re approaching the place where the boys last made contact.”

The shuttle slowed and hovered almost silently before descending. There was no air displacement as it landed on the sand. Nothing was disturbed. The search party carefully avoided making more footprints than necessary when they alighted. Braxietel searched carefully, dropping to the ground every so often to examine the sand.

“They camped here overnight,” he said. “They did, indeed, cover the signs, but they can be detected, all the same. There is still a faint smell of the buried ashes of their camp fire and other indicators. They set off northwards as expected.”

He looked towards the northern horizon as if expecting to see the boys and their teacher on their hover trikes, but of course no such thing happened.

“There is no point in following on foot,” Maliki Dúccesci said as Braxietel prepared to follow the traces only he could detect of a journey made over a week ago. “They were on trikes. We should continue travelling in the shuttle.”

“He’s right,” Kristoph observed. “Come, my friend. You may continue to enjoy the comfort of our technology for a while longer.”

The shuttle continued slower, and only a mere six foot above the sand. It used stealth mode and caused no disturbance to the desert. Braxietel crouched at the open door and observed the lie of the land, picking up signs that were invisible to everyone else and directing the pilot.

“There!” he called out after several hours. “A mile ahead or less.”

Everyone else looked, but could see nothing at first, even looking through the front of the shuttle where the glass was polarised against the sun’s glare. It was several minutes later before they could make out what Braxietel had seen, and minutes more before they recognised the outline of tents and the hover-trikes standing by.

There was reason to hope, but when they landed and approached the camp it was obviously empty.

“They weren’t attacked,” Kristoph confirmed. “There is nothing damaged. They appear to have taken their food and water supplies and continued on foot.”

Braxietel confirmed that guess, pointing out still visible footprints in the sand.

“There are more than five sets of prints here,” he added. “They were met by two people wearing soft coverings on their feet.”

Braxietel himself had pieces of soft leather tied around his feet as protection against the burning sand.

“Do you mean they met some of your people?” Malika Dúccesci asked. “Even so, why would they go with them?”

“To see the Northern Oracle?” Gynnell suggested. He was looking northwards. He put his hand to his forehead to shield his eyes and squinted. “Sir… I think… I think I can see….”

“Sweet mother of chaos,” his older brother swore as he looked where he was looking. They all looked. They blinked and stared, unable to believe what they were seeing.