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Birthmarked, p.18
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       Birthmarked, p.18

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

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  with the Nursery's birth date records from when the advanced babies first arrived inside the wall, we can figure out the birth parents of our children from outside the wall. At least from Western Sector Three. So far, your mother is the only midwife we can find who kept records."

  "Have you asked the others?"

  "Obviously."

  Gaia wondered if her mother had heard about these investigations, and if that was why she had given her ribbon to Old Meg a few weeks before she was arrested. Gaia frowned, and Mabrother Iris tilted his face, watching her.

  "You have another question?" he asked dryly.

  "Why didn't you keep track of the birth parents before?" she asked. It seemed an obvious thing to do.

  He lifted an eyebrow, leaning back slightly. "Why, indeed. There was a misguided idea of equality and fairness-- all babies from outside the wall were equally worthy, so there was no need to track their heritage, theoretically. They were true members of their Enclave families, with all the rights of blood. No ties to the outside. That was the principle decades ago, when the Enclave first rescued babies from abusive parents on the out' side. Furthermore, the anonymity was supposed to elevate everyone's sense of responsibility: there was a community obligation to raise all the children, to create an Enclave that was best for everyone. Absurd, of course. Parenting doesn't work on a massive scale. By its very nature, it's individualistic. Yet even the Protectorat's family believed in the anonymity once."

  Gaia thought of Leon, adopted by the Protectorat and his first wife. No one knew who his biological parents were.

  "There were practical reasons, as well," Mabrother Iris continued. "Some of the more shortsighted parents outside the wall objected to advancing their children. They wanted to trace the adoptions and reclaim their offspring. In one case, a

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  grandfather actually broke into the wall and tried to take a two year old he thought was his grandson. The parents inside the wall wanted to be sure that could never happen, and so we had to promise there were no records. No records connecting specific babies to specific birth parents outside."

  Mabrother Iris faced her directly, and his gaze grew somber.

  "Your mother's code-- or your father's, I should say-- is vitally important now."

  She couldn't hide her frustrated confusion. "I still don't see why," she said. "What good does it do to know who the parents are? If you just care about the genes, wouldn't it be simpler and more precise to test each person's DNA?"

  He looked at her curiously. Then he ran a finger along the edge of the picture desk, frowning in thought. "You're turning out to be quite an interesting mix of ignorance and information," he said, with an odd note in his voice. "Do you know what DNA is, exactly?"

  She hedged, trying to recall what her mother and father had taught her, back in the evenings when they had walked together by the unlake. "I know it's a person's genetic code, and each person's code is unique, like a fingerprint."

  Mabrother Iris frowned. "True, for a start. We've taken the DNA of many families within the wall. People we're worried about. Now we're linking traits for health problems with the genes. Some of the simpler ones, like recessive hemophilia, we've known about for a long time. Others, like infertility, are far more complicated."

  "So can't you just take the DNA of all the people outside the wall, too?" she asked. "That wouldn't be too invasive, would it? Can't you tell, then, how people are related?"

  He shook his head. "That would be like adding more hay to the haystack when we're looking for one needle. The DNA alone without the family relationships is far less valuable when

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  we want to identify a specific, significant gene. But that's beside the point. From you, we need to know the birth parents of the advanced babies from Western Sector Three," he said. "That's our top priority. Your code is the key to that in-formation."

  "But-- " Gaia was still confused.

  "Trust me," he said ironically, nudging his glasses. "Do your bit. Decipher the code." He pushed a button, and a long piece of paper began to roll out of a side slot of the picture desk, then another. He pulled them out and handed them to her. "This is the first half of one side, enlarged. If you find you need more, let me know."

  Gaia took the enlarged copy of the ribbon; every silk thread was clearly visible and impenetrably obscure. Mabrother Iris made a gesture toward Sgt. Bartlett, who started forward.

  "You've undoubtedly asked my mother to do this same thing," she said. "Why do you think I can solve it when my mother can 't?"

  His smile didn't reach his eyes. "Because you re smarter." He took off his glasses and polished the lenses with his hand' kerchief, and when he looked up, his strange, dilated eyes seemed to look right through her. "You have twenty-four hours to prove you can help us on this. It's not a game."

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  Chapter 17 The Baby Code

  Sgt. BARTLETT ESCORTED Gaia to a small, clean room with pale yellow walls and a large window. A wooden desk and chair lined one wall, and a simple cot, made up with sheets, pale gray blankets, and a pillow, lined the other. A nap row door led to a compact bathroom, and Gaia could see folded white towels on a shelf beside the sink. A clean gray dress hung on a hook over a pair of tidy black shoes.

  She stepped to the window, which also overlooked the square, but from even higher up. It was open a hand's width at the bottom and rigged to open no further. She could see the white roofs of the prison and other buildings, and in one yard, a quiet place where the sun didn't touch yet, a woman in red was hanging laundry on a line. What she wouldn't give to trade places with that woman right now.

  Sgt. Bartlett cleared his throat from the doorway, and she turned sharply. She hadn't even realized he was still there.

  "The clean clothes are for you after your shower. Do you need anything else?" he asked.

  She searched his brown eyes, and for the first time, she saw

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  a yielding in them. He was young, too, she realized. Maybe a bit older than Leon. His lips were fuller, with more color, and his features were even and tanned. He was taller than Leon and broader through the shoulders. Where Leon was pale, grave, and intense, Sgt. Bartlett had a confident, natural insouciance, despite his serious work.

  "Does Leon know I'm here?" she asked.

  His eyes flickered before his expression became politely neutral again. 'I'll inform him."

  "May I have something to eat?" she asked. "Some water?"

  "Of course," he said.

  She slumped into the chair. At least they didn't mean to starve her. In her fingers, she clutched the printout Mabrother Iris had given her. She'd never been much of a reader-- there had been few books outside the wall-- and the task of deciphering the code seemed insurmountable.

  "I need something to write with," she said. "And clean paper."

  "They're in the drawer," Sgt. Bartlett said, gesturing toward the desk.

  "Ah," she said. She glanced up again at the blond guard, and it seemed to her that he was lingering needlessly. His fingers clenched against the side of his leg, causing the fabric to twitch suddenly. The mannerism struck her as familiar, though she couldn't see why it should.

  "Is there something else?" she asked finally.

  She saw him hesitate, and then he stepped fully into the room and closed the door behind him.

  "Is it true the freckles mean a person was born in Western Sector Three?" he asked.

  Startled, Gaia tried to remember precisely where she'd been in her conversation with Mabrother Iris when Sgt. Bartlett

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  entered the room. He had untied her just before she drew the freckle pattern, she recalled. She nodded slowly. "Yes."

  He closed his eyes briefly, and Gaia knew it was more than simply an idle question.

  "If I have the freckles-- I'm not saying I do-- but if I do, I'd want to know who my parents are," he said now, his voice urgent. "If you could help me, I'd be grateful."

&
nbsp; She half expected him to pull up his trouser leg and take off his boot right then to check for the freckles. "I don't know the code," she said helplessly.

  He looked confused, disappointed. "But you must know something," he said. "Didn't your father tell you anything?"

  She stepped to the desk and smoothed the papers on its surface, inspecting the first line closely:

  [Symbols Removed]

  The symbols didn't look like any alphabet she'd ever seen. She rubbed her forehead, fighting back the despair and fear.

  "Think," Sgt. Bartlett said gently. "Think of everything your father ever taught you. It must be there in your mind some' how. Was he an educated man? Did he speak other languages?"

  "He was just a tailor," she answered.

  Her father had been an autodidactic tailor who had never needed a pattern for cutting out material. He'd been able to visualize in his mind how every scrap of fabric would need to be cut, even for the most complex garment, and he never made a mistake. But also, he'd loved games and tricks and codes and patterns. She remembered again the way he sang the alphabet song backward. He'd played the banjo for hours, inventing his own tunes.

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  Pulling the chair near, she sat before the desk, frowning. She could do this. She must, somehow. She would think of her father and his sewing things and his capable, wide-knuckled hands. She would use every hint she had and try to read her fathers mind. As her gaze unfocused, she heard the rhythmic sound of his foot working the treadle of the sewing machine, half humming, half clicking. But then sorrow, like an under' ground stream, seeped into her mind, slowing her thoughts. In so many ways, she wished he were there with her.

  "If only he were alive," she muttered.

  "He is. In you. Somehow," Sgt. Bartlett said. When he smiled encouragingly, a faint glimmer lit his brown eyes. "I need to go." He hurried to the door. "I'll be back later with food. If you need anything else, a dictionary or anything, I'm supposed to get it for you."

  She swallowed, nodding, her eyes already scanning over the symbols, looking for anything that might be familiar, that might be a clue. He shut the door softly as he went out, and Gaia sank her chin into the palm of her cool, smooth hand.

  Forget the running clock, she told herself. Forget that Mother s life depends on my cooperation. Thin only of Dad. She closed her eyes and heard the treadle sound again. She summoned a mental image of him sitting near the window at his machine, hunched over to peer at the fabric as it passed under the speeding needle. He always stopped when she came near, sitting back and stretching his arms over his head. His brown eyes were kindly, warm, and his voice overflowed with laughter. Then he would lean close and pull one of her braids with a little, teasing jerk she could still feel. "Hey, squirt."

  It hurt to think of him, even the happy memories, but she tried to summon what she knew. Because of his reverse alphabet song, which she'd remembered when her mother sent her the note about Danni O, it was likely he'd done some reverse of

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  letters. On inspiration, she pulled the mirror out of her pocket, and tried looking at the symbols through that:

  [Symbols Removed]

  "This is impossible," she muttered. It looked just as indecipherable this way.

  Another hour passed, and the only thing she gained was a neck crick from tension. She flexed her arms in a stretch and leaned back. She'd found several symbols that repeated, but not in any way that made sense to her. She was getting nowhere.

  She was hungry, too. Standing, she went to the yellow door and tried the knob. It was locked. She knocked on it, wondering how she was supposed to ask Sgt. Bartlett for something if he wasn't there. There was no reply.

  At least she could drink from the sink. As soon as she entered the little bathroom, she decided to clean up. The shower water was hot and delicious on her skin, strangely comforting when her mind was in turmoil. She opened her mouth to the warm spray, drinking. Soon she was dressed in clean clothes, and she found a ball of socks in the pocket of her new dress. She pondered the socks, remembering her fathers lemon-shaped pincush' ion, and wondering again how that boy could have gotten it. The same thing could happen, she realized, with any information she gave Mabrother Iris. Once it was out of her hands, she had no control over where it might end up or how it could be used.

  Then again, it wasn't like she had a choice at this point. Until she deciphered the code, she had nothing to bargain with. She needed to at least appear to be cooperating if she was ever going to see her mother. She had to keep trying.

  As she stepped back into the little yellow room, softly rubbing her short wet hair with the damp towel, she noticed

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  the top paper with the code had blown to the floor. Her eyes, unfocused for a moment, simplified the code to a pattern of blurry lines, and for an instant, she thought she saw some thing. She blinked rapidly and leaned nearer. As she reached down for the paper, it was gone, whatever it was, and the dazzling confusion of symbols was as baffling as ever.

  "What did I see?" she asked herself.

  She dropped the paper to the floor again and walked back into the bathroom, determined to retrace her steps.

  "I must be going mad," she muttered.

  She stood in the bathroom doorway, looking over at the code on the floor, and squinted. From here, the code looked like lines of color against a background of brown. Due to the angle and the distance, the background emerged conspicuously as narrow bands of brown, regular stripes.

  "Read between the lines," she whispered, letting her eyes focus normally again.

  This time, when she set the paper on the table, she tried looking at it not for each individual symbol, but for the space between the lines.

  [Symbols Removed]

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  There was a knock on her door, and she backed toward the window, trying to smooth her wet hair with the towel.

  Leon opened the door, carrying a tray. Her lips opened in unspoken surprise. Her mind scrambled back over memories of their last conversation, and the bread he'd bought her, and Myrna's awful pronouncement of his crimes against the state.

  "Take this ," he said, thrusting the tray toward her. She tucked the towel under her arm and took the tray while he looked quickly down the hall and then carefully shut the door.

  "What are you doing here?" she asked.

  "I came to see if I could help," he said. "Are you making any progress?"

  Her heart constricted with doubt. "Did Mabrother Iris send you?" she asked, setting the tray on the desk. "Do you know anything about my mother?"

  He gave her a peculiar, pulled look. "I came myself," he said. "As soon as Bartlett told me you were here. I haven't heard anything about your mother." He straightened slowly, his expression grave.

  "I'm sorry," she said quickly, holding her damp towel in both hands. "It's just-- " She was afraid of being manipulated, and the truth was, Leon did something to her. She might as well admit it to herself. Even now, she felt better just having him there. Strangely charged, too. He was still watching her with his pensive, guarded expression, and she finally threw up a hand. What if he was a tool of the Enclave? It wasn't like she had anything to lose.

  "I thought I saw something," she admitted. "A sort of optical illusion. But I wasn't sure."

  "What was it?" he asked.

  She reached over the bowl of soup and picked up the roll of black bread, casting her gaze over the code again. "I don't know. It was there when my eyes were unfocused, I think." She took

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  a nibble of the bread, and as if that triggered her hunger, she was suddenly ravenously hungry. She bit off a huge bite.

  "Careful you don't choke," he said. He took off his hat and set it beside the tray, watching her with a frown. "I'm glad to see this situation hasn't affected your appetite," he added dryly.

  She had a perverse desire to laugh. Or cry. Or both. She finished chewing and swallowed.

  "Good bread?" he asked.

  She nodd
ed. If he said anything nice to her, anything gentle, she was going to burst out sobbing.

  He nodded, too. "Let's see this mysterious code."

  She swallowed thickly. As he leaned over the desk to inspect the papers, she stepped nearer to him. He braced a hand on the table, flipping the top sheet over and twisting it in different directions. She consumed the last bite of her bread. His shoulders were broad, and she could smell the clean fabric of his black coat, as if sunshine still clung to him.

  Somehow that, too, confused and troubled her. She wanted sunshine of her own.

  Get a hold of yourself, she thought sternly. She turned to step into the bathroom and hang up her towel, and as she did, she took a furtive look at herself in the mirror. A hint of moisture on the glass softened the harsh clarity of the image, and for once she forced herself to look directly at her face. This is the face of a girl who may die soon, she thought. Beauty was irrelevant. Her right cheek was faintly flushed from her shower, and her brown, short hair lay in damp, untidy waves around her brown eyes. The left side of her face was scarred a blotchy red-brown from her earlobe to the tip of her chin and up across her cheek to her eyebrow. The tender skin looked as if someone had taken a wrinkled page of tissue, soaked it in colored glue, and stuck it madly across her face. A mask, she thought, not

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  for the first time. It looked like she wore a hideous, permanent mask. Anyone who said anything to her about it not being that bad was clearly lying.

  Cold, sobering reality steadied her nerves once more. She needed to solve the code. Nothing else mattered.

  "Gaia." Leons voice came in an undertone from the door' way. "What's the mirror for?"

  She jumped self consciously, then realized he meant the little hand mirror shed left on the desk.

 
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