The truth dawned on Kretz then, with the brightness of a starburst. "Your species does not colonize planets. You colonize space."

            She nodded. "We colonize suns. Or, rather the life-envelope around suns. That was the idea, anyway. Most suns are unlikely to have suitable planets, and terraforming of the ones that do have would take centuries. We're not interested. We stopped being a planet-bound species two centuries before we left our own solar system. Why should we want to climb back down the gravity-well? There was no evidence of other intelligent life out there, and the habitat inhabitants wanted away from the restrictions of system government." She smiled wryly. "A few writers have speculated that the SysGov wanted to get rid of us as badly as we wanted to see the back of them."

            The vastness and sheer grandeur of the undertaking was almost overwhelming. Kretz shook his head. "Miran stayed on Miran. There was once talk of colonizing other planets around other stars, but when we failed to exceed the speed of light and discovered that the nearest star—our sun's companion—had no planets of suitable size and potential habitability, interest turned back to the Miran system. Even the ideas about making other insystem planets habitable to Miran were abandoned many years ago. The furthest—beside this expedition—that we've been was an automated probe to the companion-star. Less than one in forty thousand Miran ventures into space, at all. Our few industries struggle to find personnel. If the people of your last habitat were friendly, and prepared to work up there, they could have been welcomed."

            "We nearly had the same thing happen, apparently," said Amber, "if ancient history is to be believed. Humankind nearly turned inwards. Space was too big, too expensive, too remote from the problems we had on our own world. Then the space habitat and the ideas of increasing the surface area within them changed the equation."

            She stood up. "Anyway, I have to get back to work. The old systems are creaking, and the administration is too busy spending money on themselves to allocate real resources to refurbishment, let alone the vat replacement we ought to do. Besides, we'd have trouble with the electronics and heavy engineering. I'll see if I can finagle some bits out of the museum for you later."

            Kretz had fairly little hope of his being able to patch alien components onto his suit radio… but, she'd gotten the suit back for him, after all He had to keep trying. Trying and hoping. And later he realized that he'd under-estimated her grasp of the situation. What she brought back was a powerful transmitter—with a frequency scanner. "We'll just use it as a repeater," she said. "I found out that you can still hook this lot up to an old external aerial. There is a jack in the main lab. I'll set it up there, and you can stay here."

            When she came back, Kretz switched on the suit-set. Tabbed send. "This is Kretz calling the Spacecraft or any other receivers. Respond."

            He waited and repeated. "This is Kretz calling the Spacecraft or any other receivers. Respond."

            An incredulous Miran voice came from the speaker. "Kretz! Kretz, come and get me! Come armed. Come quickly."

            It was a male Miran voice. Abret. Abret on the edge of hysteria.

            "Abret, give me a full situation report." Kretz tried to keep his voice calm, his own emotions under control. He knew that he was probably failing. Fear and hope mingled. Hope because at least he and Abret could fly the spacecraft, together. Fear because Abret might be unreachable. He braced himself mentally for the worst. He still didn't expect what he got.

            "It's Derfel. He's gone mad. The locals have made him their ruler. I think… I think they're going to kill me. I'm a prisoner."

            A voice cut in. A female voice. Selna. "Kretz? Kretz, where in the name of the first mother are you? Are you safe? Are you injured?" She sounded rational, and scared.

            "I am safe. I am alive and reasonably well," he said reassuringly.

            Abret spoke. "Kretz. Selna's alternating between fury and screaming and suicidal despair. I've been receiving her, but I haven't been able to talk to her. The hormonal imbalances and the situation has been very hard for her. Be careful. She's not stable."

            "I want to come and get you. Kretz, I need to get back to my birth-nest area, NOW," said Selna. "Tell me how to find you?"

            "You can't get here, Selna. I am two beads away. I am in touch with Abret. I'll be trying to reach him, and we'll get back to you as soon as we can," Kretz said soothingly.

            "No! You must come NOW!" She shouted. "Don't you understand you stupid male? I need my nest territory. I need it NOW."

            "Calm down, Selna. I'll come as soon as possible, I promise. I just need to rescue Abret," said Kretz.

            The name sent her snarling "Abret? Abret has the lifecraft. Tell him to come back here NOW!" she screamed.

            "He's a prisoner, Selna. I've just got to free him," And cross two more of these alien habitats, which could be occupied by… almost anything, thought Kretz, but he didn't say that. She was frightened enough.

            It was difficult, talking to Abret, with Selna constantly butting in and alternately being reasonable, shouting at them and then pleading, but Kretz felt better for it all the same. There was nothing quite like feeling that you were not totally alone. The awkward part was going to be explaining to his hosts that he had to leave soon. Preferably as Selna put it, NOW.

            There was also the question of Howard.