Marion had only rarely visited the Red Desert. It was an inhospitable place where only the most adventurous spirits went to test themselves. Aineytta had countless stories about her first born son and his friends crossing the desert on solar yachts or hover trikes or some such thing. She had never mentioned them hiking in the desert. It was no place to be on foot. Looking out through the tinted windows of the transporter she was acutely aware of how dangerous a landscape it would be to the ill-prepared. It wasn’t merely sand such as in the Sahara desert. It was far bleaker than that. In many places there was nothing but bare red rock, scoured clean of any topsoil by winds and baked dry by the relentless sun. The yellow sky that she had become used to above the verdant and watered southern plains looked thoroughly alien here. She could almost imagine it was a different planet than the one she spent most of her days on.

She was one of fifteen women aboard the transporter. The only men were the two pilots and four of the Presidential Guard who were there because she was aboard. Usually she hated being surrounded by security, but on this occasion she was glad of their presence. If anything did go wrong, they would protect all of them.

Nothing SHOULD go wrong. The hover transporter was an efficient vehicle. Its engines were powered by solar batteries which recharged continuously as long as there was daylight – and there was plenty of that here. Kristoph had explained that it was a long journey because it was not possible to take a straight line across the Red Desert. There was a wide section of it known as ‘Dark Territory’ where nothing mechanical could go. Even a TARDIS would be affected by the curious magnetism of the rocks beneath the surface of an area more than two hundred miles wide. The shuttle gave the Dark Territory a very wide margin.

It seemed impossible that anything would live in the Red Desert, but she had read about at least a dozen creatures that did. There was a type of lion at the top of the food chain, and several species of snake, most of them deadly, and any number of insects that she didn’t much like the look of. And amazingly, there were tribes of people living in the desert. They were called Outlanders or Outsiders by those who lived in the Capitol, or in a more impolite term, Sheboogans. There were rumours about how wild they were: they were naked but for tattoos all over their bodies, they were cannibals, they would attack any city-dwellers who were foolish enough to stray near their camp.

Kristoph said that was all nonsense. They were Gallifreyans who chose a simple way of life, eating what they could kill, living nomadic lives, sleeping in tents at night when the temperature dropped. Some of them were city-born men who had ‘dropped out’ and chosen to join the Outlander tribes, others were born to that life.

Kristoph had been getting ready for a Session in the Panopticon when he told her about the Sheboogans. He had straightened his collar over his elaborate robes and jokingly said that he was tempted by the idea of covering his body in tattoos and hunting Pazithi Lions for his supper. The only thing stopping him, he added, was the thought of Gold Usher having an apoplexy about the constitutional crisis his defection to the desert would cause.

She wasn’t especially worried about Sheboogans. She was mildly curious about what they looked like, but if none turned up on this occasion she wouldn’t be sorry.

The low conversations in the cabin rose in volume and tempo. Ahead, though still distant, the camp could be seen now. It was beside one of the rare oases in the desert where water was to be found. A smudge of grey that looked greener as they drew closer, was a small stand of scrubby trees. Beside it was a compound of low, long huts built of a reddish wood that nearly blended with the desert surroundings. There was no fence around them. The fact that the next watering hole was more than a two day walk away was restraint enough.

No fence, no gate. Nothing to indicate that this was home, school and workplace to twenty young Gallifreyans and their teachers. The women in the transporter, most of them mothers to those youngsters, looked at it in dismay as the vehicle came to a stop, gently settling on the ground.

Marion was one of the first to step down from the transporter, flanked immediately by the guards. Talitha Dúccesci kept close to her. She was nervous about being here. That was true of all of the women, of course, but Talitha seemed particularly distressed.

They were escorted into one of the largest huts. It looked like it was meant to be a refectory usually. Tables had been set out so that one boy could sit opposite his parent at each and be able to talk. The room was spartan and functional. The well-dressed wives of Gallifreyan aristocrats viewed it unhappily and then put on brave smiles as the boys filed into the room through another door and took their seats.

“Madam de Lœngbærrow, if you would come this way,” Marion was told. “Lady Dúccesci, you also.” The man who greeted them thus was Lord Artemus, a retired master of the Cerulian Academy who had been appointed as headmaster of this Academy without a name in the middle of the desert. He didn’t wear robes, but a pair of sand coloured lightweight trousers and a jerkin in the same fabric fastened at the waist by a leather belt with his family crest on the buckle. Around his neck was a loose that might be wrapped around the head like an Arabian headdress against the dust of the desert. The boys all dressed the same, but they had thick cords for belts. They were practical clothes for the environment.

Marion and Talitha followed Lord Artemus to a side room. There was no table there, but there was a chair. Sitting in the chair was Gynnell Dúccesci, Talitha’s young half-brother in law. He looked pleased to see her, and stood to allow her to hug him before he turned and looked at Marion. His expression and his body language were of somebody who was thoroughly ashamed of himself. He bowed deeply at Marion and when he managed to speak his voice shook.

“It... is an honour, madam,” he said rising from the bow.

“I was glad to come,” Marion replied, hoping to put the boy at his ease. “My husband is busy with affairs of state, and asked me to come here to see how you are all getting on.”

“Gynnell has been tasked with showing you around the compound,” Lord Artemus said.

Marion noted that the teacher referred to the boy by his first name. She understood that it was unusual to do so. In the Academies the students were called by their surnames – the Houses of which they were justifiably proud to be sons.

Gynnell and the others, sent here as punishment for their crimes of youthful impetuosity were not called by their surnames here. They had to earn back the right to belong to those great aristocratic Houses they came from. That was one part of their punishment, that psychological estrangement from their family, as well as the physical distance from home.

Lord Artemus spoke in a low voice to Gynnell, then left the room. The boy glanced at the two women uncertainly.

“I’ve brought you some things,” Talitha said. “They told me I could bring small gifts of fruit and chocolate.” She offered a small package to him. He took it from her.

“Thank you, Aunt Talitha,” he answered, setting the package down on a side table. “It is kind of you.”

“I wish I could do more,” she told him. “But the rules...”

“We are denied luxuries,” the boy said. “But we are not uncomfortable. Our essential needs are provided for.”

“That is good,” Talitha managed to say.

“I will show you where we sleep, first,” he added. He turned towards the door. Marion and Talitha followed him. In the refectory there was a noise of multiple conversations going on. The mothers clung to their son’s hands over the tables. Comfort packages were set aside for now. The comfort of a loving expression, of softness and affection was what they craved for the time being.

When they stepped out into the compound, two of the Presidential Guards fell into step behind them. Gynnell led them to an identical long, low building which proved to be a dormitory. It was, again, a spartan room. Each boy had a bed and a cupboard to keep spare clothes in. The cupboard had an enamel cup, a comb and a small leather bound book with a pen set neatly upon it. The bed had a single pillow and two rough grey blankets neatly and precisely made. The floor was plain wooden planks. There were plain light fittings in the ceiling. When those lights were put out, there were no individual lamps at the bedside.

There was a shower room and washbasins as well as toilet cubicles through a door at the end of the dormitory. It was all scrupulously clean but bare and functional.

“You clean the bathroom yourselves?” Marion asked the boy.

“Yes, madam,” Gynnell answered. “We clean all the rooms. And take it in turns to prepare the meals. Supplies are delivered weekly.”

He brought them next to one of the classrooms. Marion had seen the classrooms at the Prydonian Academy. They had the best that Gallifreyan technology could offer in the way of computers at each desk, viewscreens for interactive lectures, even holographic teaching aids. They had a library that was eight storeys high, an observatory, well appointed science laboratories, sports fields and gymnasium.

The classrooms here had wooden desks and chairs, a whiteboard fixed to the wall and very little else. There were no computers. The boys had to write their essays by hand on blocks of paper with a pen and ink. Every teaching aid their fellows at the Academies had, they managed without.

“I miss books,” Gynnell said mournfully. “There are none here. The Masters give us information by brain buffing sessions. There is no chance to read a book quietly and take in the words.”

“We were told, expressly, not to let you have books,” Talitha said apologetically.

“I know. I understand. It is a part of our punishment, to be denied even such a small thing. We are taught the set curriculum. We are keeping up with our school work. We have no cause to complain.”

“I could speak to my husband,” Marion said. “Perhaps some books could be made available.”

“Madam...” Gynnell turned to her. “I was not... in any way... I was not asking for anything. Least of all from you... or his Excellency. I could not... I would be ashamed to ask. The President granted us our lives... and the opportunity to regain our futures. To ask for anything more would be...”

He looked down at his feet, unable to make eye contact with Marion, or even to raise his head before her. She felt very sorry for him. Of course, he was the one who had shot at Kristoph, causing him so much pain and distress. Even now, his second heart was still not quite regrown. But for all the shock and grief he had caused, Marion couldn’t hate the boy. She could not resent him at all. And she felt very sorry for his plight.

“You don’t have to ask,” she said. “Let me ask for you.”

Gynnell struggled for something to say in reply to that.

“What do you do for exercise?” Talitha asked him. “You cannot possibly play lacrosse out here in the heat of the desert.”

“We play in the evening when the sun is setting,” Gynnell replied. “And Lord Bellissan takes us on route marches in the early morning when it is still cool. Other times of day we use the gymnasium.”

He brought them there next. In contrast to the classrooms, this was well equipped with apparatus for the exercise of the body, including fencing swords and martial arts weapons. Fighting skills were prized among the aristocrats of Gallifrey, even the officially disgraced ones.

“It must seem odd to you, that we are allowed to use swords,” Gynnell said. “How easy it would be for us to take up arms against the adults who guard us. But what use would that be? Our best hope is in proving ourselves trustworthy again. Before this... my ambition was to join the military service. I hope that may still be possible. I may not be given a commission, but at least I could be accepted in the ranks.”

“Oh, Gynnell...” Talitha said. Her Gallifreyan eyes, without tear ducts, were nevertheless glassy. Her husband’s young half brother was the closest she had to a son. Until she had a child of her own, he was in any case, Lord Dúccesci’s heir. It grieved her to see him in this place as much as the mothers who sat with their sons in the refectory.

“That hope keeps me going each day,” he said. “That I may yet serve Gallifrey, instead of being a burden.”

And that seemed to be the view all of the boys here in the desert camp held. Later when Marion had a chance to talk to some of them, they expressed remorse for their actions and acceptance of their ongoing punishment, as well as ambitions to take their places in Gallifreyan society when their penance was done.

The mood on the journey back to the Capitol was an odd one. Spending time with their sons had been both a heartening and a disheartening experience. Seeing that the boys were fit and well had been reassuring, but the camp was a stark reminder that they were being punished for a terrible crime and would continue to be punished for a very long time.

Marion went to the Citadel. Talitha Dúccesci went with her, because her husband was speaking on a finance Bill in the Panopticon. They sat in the Presidential Chamber, drinking herbal infusion and reflecting over what they had seen in the course of this afternoon. By the time their husbands sought them out they had reached some definite conclusions.

“I see no reason why they shouldn’t have a library,” Kristoph said. “I’ll make the necessary arrangements. But it should be a Gallifreyan library, none of your subversive foreign literature, my dear.”

Marion laughed. Kristoph had meant it as a joke and she took it that way.

“Sir,” Talitha said in a hesitant voice. “I think... I believe it would be better if their fathers were to visit next time, as well as their mothers. It... would be good for the boys to know they still had their support. And... it would be easier on the mothers if they were not facing the ordeal alone.”

“Most of the fathers were busy in the Panopticon, today,” Lord Dúccesci pointed out. “The High Council was sitting...”

“You know that’s an excuse, Malika,” Kristoph told him.

Talitha looked at her husband pleadingly.

“Malika... if you... Gynnell is your ward. You have cared for him like a son ever since your own father died....”

“And he betrayed me as much as the other boys betrayed their fathers,” Lord Dúccesci replied. “I do not object to you going to see him, but I cannot. I will not formally disinherit him. As yet, no patriarch has brought a petition of disinheritance before the High Council. But to ask us to look upon these young traitors as sons, as heirs, as members of our Houses... it is too much.”

“I understand,” Kristoph said in a calm, quiet voice. “I would feel the same way if one of my own House had done as they have done. But I would hope I would be able to swallow my pride for the greater good. Malika... won’t you try?”

In the Presidential chamber, the Lord High President had called Lord Dúccesci by his first name. He was making a personal plea to him, separate from his political position. It was the only thing he could do. Even as Lord High President, he could not order any of the men to visit their sons in their desert compound. It was their choice. He could only hope to prevail upon them to change their minds.

“He is your heir, Malika,” Talitha reminded her husband as the silence lengthened. “Can you turn away from him?”

“He is only my heir because we have no child, yet,” he replied.

“Then...” Talitha bit her lip hesitantly, then gathered her strength. “Malika, if you will try to forgive Gynnell... I will... I will submit to you. I will bear your fruit willingly and happily at the first convenience.”

Lord Dúccesci was startled by that suggestion. So was Kristoph. Marion was not. Talitha had told her already that she meant to use that as her trump card. Of course, under the terms of the Alliance of Unity, a wife was duty bound to bear her husband’s ‘fruit’. But by custom, a husband would wait upon his wife’s consent. Talitha was giving her consent with conditions attached.

“I cannot decide for the others,” he pointed out. “Even if I agree to see the boy.”

“The others would follow your lead,” Kristoph told him. “You are the highest ranking of the men affected by this affair.”

“That is not a position I take any pleasure in,” Lord Dúccesci replied dryly. “Very well, I will consider the matter. Talitha, come. This has been a tedious day. I wish to eat dinner at home with my wife.”

Talitha stood and went to his side. He bowed peremptorily to Kristoph, even more so to Marion, then left the Chamber with his wife.

“I think he has the right idea,” Kristoph said. “I should like to eat a quiet dinner with my wife, too. We have a longer journey to our home. Time enough for you to tell me all about your inspection of the camp. Then when we get home, over dinner, we will put it from our minds and talk of music and literature. This is a matter we must all face again another day, but it will do no good to worry unduly.”

“Yes,” Marion agreed. She was tired. It had been a long day. To put it aside over dinner was something she would be glad to do.