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Birthmarked, p.13
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       Birthmarked, p.13

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Gaia gasped with pleasure and amazement, instantly forget' ting her precarious footing.

  "Can you see anything?" Sephie asked from below.

  "Yes. The city," Gaia said. "And the sky."

  Below, the women murmured their approval and excitement.

  "Can you reach the window?" Cotty asked.

  Gaia nodded. "If I turned, I could, I'm sure, but I can 't turn while I'm up here."

  "Is there anything to attach a rope to?" Cotty asked.

  Gaia squinted into the mirror, inspecting the edges of the opening. "I don' t know."

  "Come down. Quickly," Myrna said. "The guard's coming."

  Gaia scrambled down in a panic.

  "Hurry!" Sephie said.

  All eight women tore at the blankets, pulling them apart, and they dragged the benches breathlessly back to their old places. "Quick, you there," Sephie said, pointing. "To your beds!"

  Half the women fled so that when the guards came around the corner, there were only a few women left sitting in the dim common room.

  Gaia's heart was racing. She kept her arms crossed, her eyes down, and in the dim light she saw a dark spot on her wrist. It was a narrow line of blood, and she hid her scratched

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  wrist quickly beneath the sleeve of her other arm, applying pressure. "Persephone Frank?" the guard said.

  Gaia felt Sephie stiffen beside her on the bench. Her round face had never looked so much like the moon, solemn and distant.

  "Yes?" Sephie asked.

  "Yer to come with me," he said.

  Gaia looked up in dread, not knowing what this could mean. Myrna stood.

  "What are you taking her for?" Myrna said in her dry, hard voice.

  The guard said nothing.

  "It's late," Myrna pressed him. "Will she be back tonight?"

  Sephie turned and gave Gaia a quick hug. "Be careful," Sephie whispered. "Stay strong."

  "Sephie!" Gaia whispered, suddenly afraid for her.

  Sephie turned to hug Myrna, too, and her pale fingers clutched the fabric on Myrna's shoulder into gray puckers. Then the guard was taking Sephie's arm.

  "Release me," Sephie said, wresting her arm free. "I'm coming."

  Gotty began to sob, and the other women came from the bedrooms, disturbed by the commotion. "Sephie!" they cried.

  But Sephie was preceding the guard out the door, her chin level, her calm expression steeled to endure whatever might come. The heavy door closed with a tight, suffocating bang.

  "What will they do to her?" Gaia asked in a hushed voice, turning to Myrna.

  Myrna shrugged, turning toward the corner, running a hand slowly along the wall.

  "Myrna!" Gaia demanded. "What will they do?"

  Myrna sent her a scathing glance. "Why ask me, idiot? I don't know anything."

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  "But, don't you care?" Gaia asked.

  Myrna turned away without answering, closed her eyes, and leaned her forehead against the wall. She lifted one heavy fist and rested it near her face, as if the only thing she could bear was to merge herself into the stone. In that one stoic, lonely gesture, Myrna revealed an intensity of suffering that stunned Gaia.

  "Oh, no," Gaia whispered, refusing to believe that harm could come to Sephie. Sephie was so good, so generous.

  Gaia sagged down upon one of the benches. Slowly the other women, even Myrna, went to their beds, but Gaia kept her gaze on the third window and the deepening purple square of sky. She didn't know what she was listening for, but she listened late into the night, not daring to think of her mother, hoping only that the guards would bring Sephie back.

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  Chapter 13 Birthmarked

  THE FIRST NIGHT AFTER SEPHIE was taken away, Gaia tried to rally the others to help with the benches again, but Myrna, sitting stubbornly, spoke in a low, sharp voice. "You're putting all of us at risk with your foolish games."

  "But we could escape," Gaia said.

  "You could," Myrna corrected her. "Or you could drop to your death on the other side. Even if you used the blankets to make a rope ladder, as I'm sure you've been thinking, the rest of us couldn't all climb up to the window. Some of us couldn't even fit through. As soon as the guards discovered your escape, the rest of us would be killed as accomplices."

  Gaia looked around the room, seeing the truth reflected in the other women's eyes. She was certain she could escape. Positive. But how could she endanger the others?

  "At least you have a shred of a grasp on reality," Myrna muttered as Gaia sat, her eyes on the windows above, her dream slowly fading into dusty ashes.

  "It's all right," Cotty said quietly, leaning near to pat Gaia s knee. "We'll find another way out. At least you started us thinking."

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  Or pointlessly, hoping Gaia thought, not certain whether the women were better off or worse than they'd been before she came.

  Over the next few days, they heard nothing of Sephie or of Gaia's mother, not from the guards, and not from anyone they chanced to see when they went out of the prison to tend to patients. Gaia woke often at night, restless with grief for her father and anxious about her mother. In the lonely darkness, she would try to comfort herself with memories of happy times outside the wall, little things, like the fried eggs and honey bread she and her father had made for her mother s birth' day breakfast, but the images would evaporate until she was left with only the sound of Gotty breathing from the bunk opposite hers. Then she would return to thoughts of escape, and her mind would circle fruitlessly until exhaustion, near day break, would finally tumble her into a last, fitful cycle of sleep.

  Weeks passed as Gaia became Myrna's assistant, often inciting her sarcastic tongue. Gaia never complained. The work was a distraction from the grief and fear that haunted her, and al' ways she hoped that she might learn something of her mother when she was out of the prison.

  Twice they were lined up behind the fence outside the prison to watch other executions: one man was accused of smuggling a woman in from outside of the wall to hire out as a prostitute; another was accused of buying blood on the black market for his hemophiliac son. There were public floggings, too, for a teenage lover who was caught sneaking into a girl's home, and a woman who carelessly contaminated a vat of mycoprotein at the factory. Gaia winced with each whiplash.

  But there were good things, too, Gaia found. Now and then, a guard would deliver small tokens to the doctors in the cell, items that led the doctors to think their work was appreciated and that soon one of them might be freed: a book, a small

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  jar of honey, a skein of wool and new needles, and an anatomy chart.

  Then once, miraculously, an orange was delivered.

  "How could this be?" Myrna said, lifting the orange out of a small box and letting a green tissue fall away. She turned the fruit in the light of the window so that the porous peel glowed orange before the women. "Who would send this, and how could it make it past the guards without getting filched by one of them?"

  Gaia reached for the orange sphere, wondering at its cool weight on her palm. She was reminded of what Capt. Grey had once said, that cooperation in the Enclave was rewarded, and it seemed to be true. "Maybe that man you stitched up yesterday owns an orange tree," she suggested.

  Myrna lifted a card from inside the box and angled it toward the light. Farsighted, she tilted her head back slightly to read it. "It's to you. Gaia Stone, Q Cell. But it doesn't say who it's from."

  "Me?" Gaia said, pulled, taking the card and pondering the small, neat handwriting. "Could it be from Sephie? Could she be free after all?"

  Cotty reached for the orange, and Gaia passed it over, watching as the older woman lifted it delicately before her nose. "Who cares where it came from," Cotty said. "It's an orange. I haven't eaten an orange in years."

  Gaia laughed. "Well, let's have it now." As if the orange were a jewel divided among them, the women held up their sections to the light before eating them. Gaia savored her se
ction, biting it in two, letting the bright, juicy taste of it pucker every cell on her tongue before she swallowed. She glanced up to find Myrna still watching her thoughtfully.

  "What?" Gaia asked.

  "Nothing."

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  But Gaia felt a shiver of warning along her arms. She knew what Myrna was thinking. Sephie couldn't have sent in an orange. And this token had nothing to do with how well Myrna had treated some patient. Someone had an interest in Gaia, someone with enough power to deliver an orange through prison walls.

  Gaia bit through a piece of tangy peel. Who was it, she wondered. And why her?

  One late afternoon, when Myrna and Gaia had finished delivering a premature little girl, Gaia glanced up at a trio of soldiers relaxing before a cafe and was startled to recognize one of them as Capt. Grey. She and Myrna were surrounded by four armed men, but Gaia hardly noticed the escort anymore,

  "Hey!" he said.

  "Sorry," Gaia murmured, and she paused to wiggle her heel back into her loose shoe.

  Capt. Grey lifted a small white coffee cup, tipping his head back so she had a clear view of his fluid profile as he swallowed. To her eyes he looked thinner, but he wore his customary black uniform and broad-brimmed hat, and carried himself with his usual loose-limbed ease. If she had allowed herself to think of him at all during her weeks in prison, it had been to dismiss him as a cowardly cog of the machine, a man who would let an innocent baby get killed. But it struck her now as outrageously unfair that he was free while she was a prisoner. How dare he be enjoying a cup of coffee! With friends even!

  "Guard! Hold there!" Capt. Grey commanded.

  The soldiers stopped and came to attention. Myrna stopped too, and though Gaia was compelled to stay beside her, she averted her face.

  "What is it, Captain?" Myrna said brusquely.

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  Gaia could hear his boots approaching over the cobblestones, and still she kept her gaze studiously on a flowering vine that grew on the wall beside her. He brought a faint scent of coffee with him, a scent from freedom. A savage spike of jealousy twisted through her before she could control it.

  "Has your apprentice been useful?" Capt. Grey asked, his voice quieter now that he was near. Gaia was struck by his cultured, smooth tone, so different from the harsher voices of the guards she'd grown accustomed to.

  "She does tolerably," Myrna said.

  Gaia was surprised enough to turn back toward the older woman. Her black eyes regarded her frankly from under her straw hat, and then she lifted her eyebrows faintly. This was the closest thing to praise that Gaia had ever heard from Myrna.

  "I'll bring her back to the prison," Capt. Grey said.

  Gaia looked up to see him nodding at the surprised sergeant.

  "Proceed, Sergeant," Capt. Grey said decisively. "I'll be responsible for Masister Stone."

  "Yes, Captain." The guard saluted.

  Gaia absolutely did not want to be left with him, but she had no way to protest. She looked at Myrna in time to see her expression return to its customary ironic lines. With a peremptory huff, Myrna took the doctors bag from Gaia's grip, leaving her hands free of their usual burden. A moment later, the guards were in step around Myrna, and they were turning the corner. Their footsteps faded on the cobblestones, and Gaia heard a clink of china from the cafe on the corner as the rest of the world went on.

  Gaia was left alone with Capt. Grey. It was unexpectedly painful to be standing in front of him, even though this was the closest she'd been to freedom since the dismal day she had

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  been captured and taken to the jail. She looked past him, down' hill, wondering if she dared try to run, but a quick look at his agile physique reminded her he could easily stop her.

  "You re doing well?" he asked finally.

  At his quiet voice, she peered up into the shaded line under the brim of his hat. His blue eyes regarded her with the steady gravity she remembered from before, from back before she'd known what he was truly like, and a tinge of color rode high along his cheekbones. Why, she thought. Why do you care?

  A breeze swirled her gray dress against her legs, and she instinctively smoothed the material. "As you see," she said coldly.

  He pivoted beside her and gestured an invitation with his hand. "Walk with me."

  "Do I have a choice?" she asked, and then she wished she could take it back. He didn't deserve to know she was angry with him.

  But he simply murmured "Ah." When he began to walk, she was compelled to fall into step beside him.

  It was a clear, beautiful afternoon, and they were gradually ascending a sloped street in one of the quieter residential areas, toward a neighborhood she'd never visited. The tinkle of a wind chime stirred from over a window. Purple and white phlox cascaded cheerfully over the top of a nearby stone wall. Sunlight sifted through the weave of her straw hat, casting freckles of light on her nose and cheeks that shifted, out of focus, as she walked.

  When she'd first peeked into the Enclave, the physical place had seemed like a paradise to her, all white walls and purity. Then when she'd witnessed the first execution, she had been shocked by the brutality beneath the facade, and she'd believed there was nothing here she could trust. Gradually, on her trips with Sephie and then Myrna, she'd seen a practical

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  side to the Enclave: the routine of the thriving market, the steady work of the doctors in Q cell, and the satisfaction and dignity that came with working well, even when they had little hope of freedom. Many hard-working, decent people kept the foundry, glass factory, and mills going to produce useful goods. There were things to respect here, lives that weren't all brutality.

  This new area had a quiet loveliness to it, an inviting atmosphere that matched the heady scent of the honeysuckle. It felt older somehow, more settled, unhurried. The white of the homes was more of a cream color, and there were more shade trees and wider sidewalks. A park opened along the summit of the hill, and children ran after a soccer ball, their voices bright and intense. Though the area looked nothing the same, it kind of reminded her of the unlake. If she weren't a prisoner and he weren't a guard, they might have been two companions taking a leisurely stroll on a warm summer afternoon. But she was unwilling to let down her guard. This man was not a friend.

  "I hope the orange was ripe," he asked.

  "That was you who sent it?"

  He slid his hand in his pocket. "A friend told me she saw you looking at them at the market." His voice dropped to an easy resonance. "Well, 'drooled' I think, was the word she used. I would have sent more, but they're hard to come by."

  She remembered the other gifts for the doctors. She glanced up at his profile. "Did you send the yarn? The book and things?"

  He met her gaze briefly. "I suggested it to the Protectorat. You've made a lot of people think, Gaia. He's had some pres-sure about the doctors in the prison lately, and sometimes little things help."

  So he was responsible. She thought of the day they'd received the orange, and the way the mood in Q cell had lifted slightly since then. It was still prison, it was still horrible, but

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  there was a little hope there now. A pigeon mingled among several wrens at the side of the road, pecking at crumbs, and she stepped passed them and up the curb. I should thank him, she thought, but the words stuck in her throat.

  "I was put on the decoding detail for your ribbon,"' he added.

  Her nerves buzzed with alarm. They had discovered, then, that the ribbon was a code. How long would it take to decipher it, or had they already? She glanced up and found his expression pensive.

  "I should say, I was put on it at first," he corrected, his voice dry. "Then I was moved to a less sensitive assignment. Apparently, I'm not trustworthy where your case is concerned."

  She peered ahead up the road and gripped her hands together before her. "I should be grateful, I suppose," she said.

  "Why is that?"

  She shrugged and let sarcasm tinge her
answer. "With your keen mind, you probably would have deciphered it in a few days."

  "So you knew it was the record?" he asked.

  She'd made a mistake, she realized. "No," she lied.

  "Do you know what it says?" he asked.

  She folded her arms around herself "Why are you asking me this? I have no interest in cooperating with you. If you want to coerce me, of course you can try. But I won't willingly tell you anything. The Enclave killed my father." Mentioning him brought back the hurt again.

  Capt. Grey paused beside a stone wall, leaning both his hands on it and directing his gaze toward the view. "That shouldn't have happened."

  She let out a strangled laugh. "No? You don't think so?"

  "We make mistakes, too," he said quietly.

  She almost laughed again. Did he realize how absurd he was? The Enclave didn't just make a few mistakes. The whole

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  system was inherently unethical, and he was admitting only the tiniest chink. She followed the direction of his eyes and saw the gray, sloping expanse of the unlake, smoky blue toward the horizon, while at the near edge, the shabby houses of Wharfton were almost completely concealed behind the hill' side and the wall. Anyone living here and seeing this view regularly could easily overlook Wharfton and forget its struggling people even existed. The peculiar beauty of it seemed to mock her, as if it, too, thought her losses were insignificant.

  She twisted her fingers together. "You didn't even tell me he was dead." Her voice came out with a catch. "You could have told me, anytime, but you didn't."

  Capt. Grey turned slowly then to regard her. "I'm sorry," he said.

  Until then, she hadn't realized that was what she wanted to hear. She knew it wasn't Capt. Greys fault, particularly, that her father had been killed, but someone should have told her, and he was the one who had been in contact -with her before. For an instant, she was near to tears, and then his apology released a pent up dam of questions within her.

 
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