Chapter Fourteen

The three of them began a journey with no foreseeable end, although the general destination was clear. They would make for the Coast, the same coast which Sophie had visited with Liam, Radha, Lata and Indira when she was a child, and follow it to New Babylon. It would be safer than trying to cross the Plains, where they would be exposed to the elements and to any pursuers.

"I hope we can make it," Mario remarked as he trudged downhill with Karen and Sophie.

"We'll have to now, won't we?" Sophie replied.

Mario shifted the small pack of supplies which he was carrying, the hunks of dried meat and a few travel cakes left over from the recent Pilgrimage. The latter, flat unlevened biscuits, were often carried by members of the Sect if they were travelling for any length of time. "But can we?" he asked. "I mean, if they chase us, Karen's too little to run far and she's getting too big to carry for very long."

For a moment, Sophie questioned her decision to take Karen with them, realising that she should have known a three-year-old might prove a liability. If she had left Karen behind, the little girl would have lived out her life as Linda's adopted daughter, raised in a strictly regulated society, and would never have known any other life . . . But it was too late to think of all that now, so Sophie just shrugged her shoulders.

"We'll just have to make sure they don't catch us," she said. "We'll walk at night and hide during the day. And, if we do run into anyone, we'll split up. I'll take Karen in one direction; you go in the other. That way, we won't be seen together."

Mario could see the logic in this. He had risked his future by committing arson and kidnapping Karen, both of which could result in his expulsion from the Sect. But he knew that, if he was seen with Sophie, he would also be charged with associating with an excommunicate. And that carried a penalty even more severe than being sent to the Wild Place.

From early childhood, he had been told stories of those who broke this ultimate taboo and paid a heavy price. He had never really believed it - he had no faith in the True Beliefs in spite of Osbert's constant attempts to "convert" him - but now that he was breaking that taboo himself, he remembered those half-forgotten lectures. The penalty for associating with someone like Sophie was death for both parties at a public execution in the Compound. He shuddered at the thought of having his life taken by another human being, of being (there was no other word for it) murdered in front of people he had known all his life . . .

Sophie saw the strained expression on his face. "Mario, are you all right?"

He nodded slowly. "It's . . . it's nothing. I was just wondering what we'd do if they did catch us."

Sophie had been wondering the same thing, but she knew there was little she or Mario could do to save themselves if that happened. That was why she had suggested trying to stay away from any pursuers.

That night, to avoid dwelling on his possible fate, Mario thought back to the few happy memories he had of his life in the Sect. Most of them concerned events that had happened during the first six years of his life and were now somewhat vague, but there was also the moment he visited the Mating House for the first (and, as it turned out, only) time . . .

It had happened less than a week before the Pilgrimage, at a time when most of the Sect's adult population was visiting that building; they had to burn off as much sexual energy as they could in preparation for the journey to the Holy Place, during which they would have to remain celibate. It was considered especially important for young men to couple before the Pilgrimage lest they succumb to the Temptation along the way - and that was why a young woman named Adeline had invited Mario to have sex with her.

It had nothing to do with love or affection; all that mattered was that they were close in age (he was sixteen years old and she was seventeen) and were not brother and sister. Adeline had calmly led Mario to a vacant mattress and, without looking at him, took his hand and gently guided it down her shirt. He found himself moaning in ecstacy as he felt the smooth skin of her breast, accompanied by a throbbing sensation in his loins. He closed his eyes, savouring the moment . . .

The next thing he knew, Adeline had eased him down on top of her and was unfastening his shirt, her hand massaging his chest. He opened his eyes and saw her lying beneath him, completely naked with her legs spread apart. His loins throbbed again as his first sight of a naked woman caused him to feel a pulse of Temptation. He paused, trying to recall what to do next.

"Is this your first time?" Adeline asked, seeing his hesitation.

Mario nodded; he was breathing too hard to speak.

"Then let . . . me help you." Adeline was breathing heavily herself now. With that, she reached toward his trousers and deftly undid the fastening, closing her eyes as she lowered them out of the way. She reached towards the young man's hardening shaft and felt it respond to her touch as she used her free hand to guide Mario's hand towards her own intimate regions. Mario felt his arousal grow, could think of nothing else but Adeline. He was ready for her and she was ready for him. He eased himself down on top of her, feeling her breath on his cheek. Then, he entered her . . .

Recalling his first sexual encounter reminded Mario of what had happened between Sophie and Benito. It was only now that he had lost his own virginity that he understood the extent of their feelings towards each other, how those feelings had led Benito to go against the Sect's taboo against falling in love. Mario had still been a prepubescent boy at the time, too young to understand why adults liked to do such things. Now, however . . .

He glanced sideways at Sophie and Karen. The young woman was sleeping with her arms around her daughter, the latter bearing the look of innocence common to all young children. This little girl was, he realised, part of himself - after all, it was his brother who had sired her.

The two-day journey to the Coast proved uneventful, but the danger of being caught remained ever present. Everyone from the Sect was a potential enemy, even hunting parties - and there was always at least one patrolling the countryside.

Sophie knew there was no risk to Karen, or to Mario if one of these parties spotted him. The danger was that all three of them might be seen together so, on hearing the slightest movement, they would disappear, vanishing noiselessly into the undergrowth and waiting until the danger had passed. The tension was no lost on Karen.

"Why are we hiding?" she whispered one day, while she, Sophie and Mario huddled in a small hollow.

"Because we don't want anyone from the Sect to find us," Sophie whispered back.

"Why?"

"You see," Sophie tried to explain, "I wasn't really supposed to go back to the Sect - I only did it to get you and Mario. But it would make people angry if they found out and . . . and they'd punish us - me and Mario - very badly. You wouldn't want that, would you?"

Karen shook her head. She didn't quite understand what being "punished very badly" meant, but she did catch the urgent tone in Sophie's voice. "Are we running away?" she asked next.

"Well . . . yes - I supposed we are," Sophie replied.

They had been following the Coast for three days when the encounter they had dreaded came.

Sophie was keeping an eye on Karen while Mario crouched by a rockpool, waiting for any signs of movement. Since the Sect did not raise animals, hunting was the only way they could obtain meat and everyone, males and females, was expected to be well-versed in at least the basics by the time they came of age at sixteen. Learning how to fish was also an essential skill and Mario had been catching fish in the Pool near the Sect's Compound since he was eight. And, now, with the supplies he had stolen from the Sect nearly exhausted, he had decided to try and catch some of the fish that swam in the rockpools. He held the empty pack and waited . . .

A swift movement in the water caught his attention. He pounced, swooping down with the pack and scooping up several reddish sardine-like fish. These redfish, as they were called, tasted best fried in a pan and served with a mixture of vegetables, but cooking was out of the question; the smoke might alert any pursuers. Still, Mario thought, the redfish might taste just as nice raw.

He was just straining off the water in the pack when he heard a movement behind him and looked up to find himself staring into the baleful eyes of Aidan.

"We'll see what the Jury has to say about your little escapade," Aidan said grimly. With that, he grabbed Mario by the back of his shirt and hauled him away from the rockpool and onto the sand. There, he doubled his fist up and rammed it into the young man's face. Mario tried to roll away, but Aidan was too quick for him and, the next thing he knew, he was lying on the ground while the Disciplinary of the Men's Hall punched him again and again. Sophie, hearing the commotion, forgot her own safety as she rushed forward to help.

"Let him go!" she yelled at Aidan, who jerked his head up on hearing her voice.

"You!" Aidan exclaimed as he recognised her as the young woman who had been expelled from the Sect for uttering the ultimate Heresy. "You were behind this . . . this flagrant act of sacrilege!"

"Yes," Sophie replied. She was determined not to show any fear. "And, what's more, Mario went along with it."

"Then you are both sinners whose lives are worth nothing!" Aidan yelled, his face purple with rage. Sophie shuddered. Even Osbert had never shown such an expression, the dark look of one who holds nothing but contempt for whatever is in front of them. Karen too had never seen such an expression on a human face. She had seen Aidan pounce on Mario and start beating him up, but the dark fury on the older man's face frightened her more than the physical violence.

Sophie hurried back to her daughter as she started wailing with fright. "And Bjorn?" she demanded, trying to keep her voice level. "Was his life worth nothing as well?"

What in the Spirit's name are you talking about?"

"I mean," Sophie replied, "that Bjorn died because of your mindless bigotry, your inability to accept anyone who thought differently from the rest of you. You disowned him - called him a Heretic! And it left him with nothing . . ."

She paused. "I'm the only one who dares to say his name!" she sobbed at last.

Aidan looked at her sternly. "If Astra's brother is dead, it was the Spirit turning against him. As for you and Mario, may the Spirit have mercy . . ." With that, he pulled out a thin leather thong with a noose in one end and slackened it off in preparation. "Mario first, I think," he added as he loomed over the youth lying on the sand, swiftly looping the noose over his head.

Sophie closed her eyes tightly and covered Karen's with her hand. She hoped Mario would die quickly, without too much of a struggle, but she knew that would mean less time before she had the noose tightened round her neck. And, with a sickening feeling, she knew she had failed Benito; she had been unable to get Mario to safety.

But, just as Aidan was about to tighten the noose, Sophie heard a zinging sound which she hadn't heard for ten years - the sound of a New Babylon laser pistol. The thud of something falling heavily followed, then silence. What had happened? She decided that the only way to find out was to open her eyes, so she did so and looked round to see a young woman standing only a few metres away, her skin a rich golden brown, her black hair blowing in the breeze. She held a laser pistol in her right hand. Aidan lay motionless, a small hole burnt in his shirt.

"Come on, Sophie!" the young woman urged. "Before someone else shows up!"

Instead, Sophie jogged over to Aidan and Mario. She knew, without needing to be told, that Aidan was dead, but he wasn't her main concern - Mario was. She quickly knelt at his side and removed the noose from around his neck. "Are you all right?" she asked.

Mario sat up gingerly. "I - I think so." Then, he glanced round at the young woman and studied her closely. She seemed to be slightly older than Sophie and, with her blue trouser suit, brown skin and thick dark hair, she looked like no-one he had ever seen before. No, he had seen someone like her; when Sophie first joined the Sect, she had come with a man and a girl with brown skin. He vaguely recalling glimpsing the latter, but he was so young at the time that he barely remembered anything about it. Could that girl have grown into this woman? He did not know, but he did know that she had more than likely saved his and Sophie's lives; had it not been for her . . . He glanced at Aidan's body and shuddered.

"Thanks . . . um . . .?" Mario looked at Sophie questioningly.

"This is Indira," Sophie told him, gesturing towards the young woman. "Indira, this is my daughter, Karen." She indicated the little girl beside her, who was currently looking at Indira with quiet fascination. It was, Sophie realised suddenly, the first time Karen had seen an Ethnic. "And this," she went on, "is Mario. He's a friend of mine."

Indira studied the trio closely. Karen, by the look of her, had to be around three years old, which would mean Sophie was seventeen when she was born. And then there was the young man, Mario. Was he Karen's father? There was certainly a slight resemblence, even allowing for age and gender difference, but he was clearly too young. Her uncle, then? Maybe, but hearing the full story would take a while . . .

In the end, she shrugged. "Well, Mario," she said simply, "it's a good thing I was here. And I think the three of you had better come with me . . ."

"Back to New Babylon?" asked Sophie, who was still dreading the reception she might receive. Maile had, after all, Outlawed her.

"Yes," replied Indira. "I'm sure Liam and Radha will be able to persuade the Authorities to lift your banishment - after all, things have changed there lately. I only wish . . ."

"Wait!" Sophie protested. "I never knew anyone had sent for me - are you saying the System's finally been scrapped?"

"Not completely. But we reached an agreement last year; no more Whites would be taken as Servants and those who already had been would be allowed to leave their employers if they wished . . ." Indira paused. "Radha travelled to Xanadu Peak as soon as she heard. But, when she saw you had a child, she assumed you were happily settled and didn't want to leave."

"Well, she assumed wrong then!" Sophie shot back. "I never felt like I belonged there - even after Karen was born. I only stayed because I thought there was nowhere else for me!"

Indira had often wondered why her mother hadn't spoken to Sophie in person, but that would have to wait. Right now, she had to get Sophie, Mario and Karen to New Babylon before any more Sect members showed up; she didn't know why, but something told her Aidan had not been alone. The question was, why had he tried to kill Mario? In fact, there were plenty of questions she wanted to ask, but there would be time for that later. "Quickly!" she urged, glancing anxiously back at the beach.

Sophie and Mario exchanged glances and decided that their safest bet was to follow Indira; at New Babylon, they would be safe if anyone from the Sect came looking for them. It would take a while for them to adjust - Sophie would have to relearn things from her childhood and Mario and Karen would have to get used to the advanced technology of New Babylon - but they felt sure they could do it. So, with Sophie carrying Karen in her arms, they followed Indira.

Sophie thought back over her life with the Sect, recalling how Liam had sent her to Xanadu Peak in a bid to save her from being sold into Service. "Would he have done it if he'd known what it would be like for me?" she wondered, her mind flicking to the brutal beatings Osbert had delivered, the harsh judgement of the Jury . . . But some good had come out of her time there, she reasoned - Karen existed as a direct result of Sophie's trysts with Benito and, even though she knew she would never see her first love again, she was grateful to be the mother of his child.

The Sect was in the past now. And, with the abolition of the System in New Babylon, it was time to look forward to a new beginning, a new Xanadu dawn.