The ten-year-old girl glanced round at the sound of her father's voice, then back at her friends Lisa, Amy and Brent, with whom she had been playing soccer in the street. She was reluctant to leave the game, but she knew Liam would never have come all the way from the Conference Centre unless something was wrong.
Her auburn curls bouncing, Sophie ran towards Liam and was about to fling her arms round him in her customary greeting when he looked at her gravely.
"Sophie," Liam began, "Radha told me to speak to you as soon as I could - I'm afraid the Authorities ruled against us again."
"I see," Sophie replied. The news didn't surprise her - it never did. Ever since she could remember, Liam and Radha had been at loggerheads with the Authorities over various issues within the New Babylon Colony and the Authorities had always ruled in favour of President Maile and her followers.
"The question is," Liam was saying, "what do we do about you? If you stay, you'll end up being sold into Service like I was - and not everyone here is like Radha and her family . . ."
"What's the alternative?" Sophie could think of no way out of the dilemma which faced Liam, no way of avoiding the life of servitude to which all Whites were condemned. It was a far cry from the ideals which had brought the Founders to the planet Xanadu in their bid to create a world free of the injustices of Earth, where everyone was equal regardless of race or religious beliefs.
But that had been before a band of militant Ethnics had seized control, renamed the Colony (originally named Gallileo after the famous astronomer) New Babylon and declared that all Whites were to be their Servants. Ever since then, the Authorities had sided with the Ethnics and condoned all their policies.
"You may have to leave," Liam said gently. "Just for a little while, until we can get rid of the System."
"But where would I go?" Sophie asked, her mind flitting over reasons why even life as a Servant would be preferable to leaving New Babylon altogether and possibly never seeing her friends again.
"Did I ever tell you about that man who came here from Xanadu Peak?" asked Liam. "It was over eight years ago so I doubt if you'd remember, but Jeff promised me his people's Colony was open to any White's who needed to take sanctuary. It's run on rather strict lines though . . ."
As the father and daughter walked towards Radha's house, they came across President Maile, a stocky Hawaiian woman of forty-five, whose strict interpretation of the System was well known. Sophie was too young to remember the previous President, but the adults often said that, during Maile's time in office, things had changed in New Babylon. Whether those changes were for the worse or for the better largely depended on whether one was a White or an Ethnic . . .
Maile never allowed Whites - even small children - to pass her without bowing and Liam, who knew better than to cross her, bowed deeply. But Sophie felt rebellious and stared Maile full in the face, resenting her for having put Liam in an impossible position. This act of flagrant insolence irked Maile greatly; she was a firm believer in the idea that Whites had to know their place - even if that meant having it beaten into them.
"Bow, you White brat!" she yelled, lashing out with her hard hand and sending Sophie sprawling on the ground. Sophie staggered to her feet and, fighting the urge to spit on Maile's face, forced herself to obey.
"Maile won't forget your disobedience," Liam said later. "If she ever took you as her Servant, she'd make an example of you. It's no good, Sophie - you'll have to leave or your life soon won't be worth living. We almost swayed them too," he added under his breath.
"But couldn't you try again?" Sophie asked. "If the Authorities do agree to scrap the System next time, I won't have to leave you and Radha and her family."
Liam shook his head sadly.
"If only it was that simple," he sighed. "But you know the subject can't be raised at another debate for three years and by then it'll be too late. You'll be thirteen and they'd never let you go if we did lose again. It's better to leave now and stay away until I send word."
Liam broke the news to Radha that night as she sat mending her daughter Indira's trousers. Officially, it was Liam's job to deal with the household chores, but Radha was keenly aware of the injustices of the System and regularly made a point of doing her own work. Some of her neighbours said she was demeaning herself, but she prefered to think of it as living by her principles.
Sophie had been a baby when Liam came to work for Radha's family so she had never been exposed to the brutal treatment that most Ethnics subjected their Servants to in a bid to assert their authority over them. But she did know that her parents had once been Servants to an especially cruel man, who had forced her mother to have an abortion every time she became pregnant. In the end, Liam, unable to stand her pain, had resolved to make sure the next child they conceived would be saved. Not long afterwards, Sophie was conceived during a stolen moment of passion in a linen cupboard.
When she learned she was going to have a baby, Sophie's mother struggled to keep it a secret, wearing loose clothing to hide her expanding middle. But the man she and Liam worked for found out and flew into a towering rage - he was one of those Ethnics who did not want his Servants tied to the responsibilities of children - and attacked the heavily pregnant woman so brutally that she was left in a coma from which she never recovered. Sophie had been born by caeserian section, leaving Liam homeless with a small baby.
It was this incident that had opened Radha's eyes to the injustices of the System and prompted her not only to take Liam and Sophie in but also to start actively campaigning against it. She maintained that Whites and Ethnics should be equals, that the System which made Whites socially inferior was morally wrong. But, every time she raised the issue, a barrage of counter-arguments was directed at her; rhetoric, she called it - an endlessly recycled supply of excuses to keep Whites in their place.
Whites, she was reminded time and time again, had set themselves up as being "superior" to the Ethnics on Earth, calling them savages and declaring their cultures morally inferior and, therefore, wrong. In the worst cases, attempts had actually been made to wipe out whole groups of Ethnics (the word was a generic term in New Babylon for anyone who wasn't a White) and even those who survived had often lived in poverty. Anyone who didn't believe that Whites were not to be trusted had only to study Earth History - in particular the period from the 16th to the 20th centuries - to see that this view was justified.
But Radha remained unswayed and had even brought Sophie up alongside her own daughters, even though White children were usually actively discouraged from associating with the children of their parents' employers. The forty-year-old Indian woman and the ten-year-old Caucasian girl had developed a mutual affection, which had made the inevitability of their being forced apart by the System - which required all Whites to be put into service with another Ethnic family as soon as possible after their thirteenth birthdays - all the harder to bear. Now, three years earlier than they had expected, that moment had come.
"I wish you could stay, Sophie," Radha said with a sigh. "But Maile will never allow any White to escape Service, so you'll be better off at Xanadu Peak."
"I wish I could stay too," Sophie replied. "But you and Liam are right - I can't."
There was a knock on the door and Radha got up to answer it. "Kibibi!" she exclaimed when she saw the tall Vice-president of New Babylon standing there dressed in her usual long green gown. "What brings you here at this hour?"
"I just came to say I'm sorry about what happened today," Kibibi replied. She and Radha had known each other since they were girls, but had never exactly been friends. "I'm sure you'll get there one day though . . ."
"No thanks to you and Maile!" Radha retorted, not in the mood for false sympathy. "Ever since I started this, the two of you have vetoed my proposals."
Kibibi sighed and placed her hand on Radha's shoulder to try and calm her.
"If it's any consolation," she said, "I won't be for scrapping the System next time, but I won't be against it either - I'll stay neutral from now on. I've been doing a lot of thinking and I'm being to believe that you might be right, Radha. Our System merely reverses the racial inequalities of Earth - it doesn't get rid of them."
Saying goodbye was not going to be easy.
Sophie was in the room she shared with Radha's twelve-year-old daughter Indira and was currently packing a small bag ready for the journey to Xanadu Peak. The two girls - one raven-haired and brown-skinned, the other red-headed and freckle-faced - were closer than sisters and had been together throughout their childhood. Indira, sitting on the end of her bed, was weeping softly, dreading the loss of her friend and wishing desperately that there was some way to help Sophie to stay in New Babylon.
Sophie finished her packing and sat down beside Indira. "Please don't cry, Dira," she whispered, using her pet name for the older girl. "I'm not leaving forever - only until the System is scrapped."
"Oh, Sophie!" Indira wept. "If only you didn't have to go. If only things weren't so against Liam and Radha . . ."
"Liam said we might win next time," Sophie said soothingly.
"He's been saying that for years! But it's never happened and it probably won't not while Maile's President. Tomorrow, you'll go and I'll never see you again.
Sophie fished in her pocket for a tissue. "Tell you what," she said. "You can come with us when we set out in the morning. That way, we'll be together a little longer."
Indira dabbed at her eyes and nodded her agreement, thinking that a journey to Xanadu Peak might actually be an adventure, even if it meant leaving Sophie with the people who lived there. Those people were so secretive that few from New Babylon had seen them and Jeff was the only person from Xanadu Peak who had had contact with the people of New Babylon in recent years.
The next day, a large crowd of people gathered to see off the people on the expedition to Xanadu Peak. Liam sat astride Radha's hoverbike, a small vehicle that looked vaguely like a wheel-less version of the old motorcycles that once been used on Earth - the pillion was loaded with a bivouac and supplies to last the ten-day journey to Xanadu Peak. Indira and Sophie, meanwhile, shared a hoverbike borrowed from a sympathetic neighbour, which was unburdened except for Sophie's pack of clothing.
"Well, I guess we'd better get going," Liam said as he and Indira prepared to start the engines on their hoverbikes - whether you were an Ethnic or a White, you had to be at least eleven years old to pilot one. But, before they could do so, a young woman barged through the crowd, stormed over to Radha and began berating her - very audibly.
"This is madness!" she yelled. "Sending a child away from everything that's familiar to her, all the people she loves!"
"Lata!" Radha shouted at her eighteen-year-old daughter. Six years older than Indira, she could not have been more different from her younger sister. Whereas Indira was quiet and tended to avoid confrontation, Lata could be very outspoken when she chose to be.
"I don't see Sophie having much say in this," Lata went on as if her mother hadn't spoken. "Oh no - you and Liam just up and send her away, no thought to her own happiness. And you want the Whites to have more control over their lives!"
"Lata!" Radha said again.
But Lata was not ready to stop her tirade. "You're using Sophie as a tool to help your campaign!" she accused. "That's the only reason you took her in, isn't it?" She refused to listen to Radha's heartfelt pleas that this was not true. "You were using her in this . . . this propaganda!"
Finally, Radha managed to get a word in edgeways. "This is only temporary, until we can get the System scrapped."
Lata snorted derisively. "Oh yes? Why don't you tell that to Maile," she said, jerking her head towards the President as she walked towards the throng with her face resembling a thundercloud.
"I was informed of your little plan," she said to Liam and Radha. "Well, it won't work because - while I have any say in it - the System stays! As for you," she told Sophie, "you will either get down off that hoverbike now and accept your position in society or I'll have you declared Outlawed!"
There followed a shocked mutter among the assembled people. To be Outlawed from New Babylon was the ultimate punishment and had never before been imposed on a child, White or Ethnic. But that wasn't the only thing that made people uneasy; Sophie might be leaving the Colony as part of Liam and Radha's campaign, but was it cause for such a penalty? If things didn't work out at Xanadu Peak, she would have nowhere to go since, once a person was Outlawed, he or she was automatically denied shelter at any of the homes in New Babylon.
But Radha knew what Sophie must do. "Go, my child, go!" she urged. "For the good of us all!"