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Birthmarked, p.19
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       Birthmarked, p.19

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  "Just an idea," she said. "It didn't help. My dad liked reversing things, like we had a funny backward alphabet song."

  "Maybe you need a bigger mirror," he said. He held out the code and gestured toward the mirror over the sink.

  She considered, then took the paper from his fingers. Holding up the page before the mirror, she was about to wipe the glass dry when again she caught a glimpse of something, just a hint of recognizable letters. Puzzled, she looked more closely, but the shapes shifted, and again it was a jumble of enigmatic symbols. She let out a grumble of frustration.

  "What is it?" Leon asked. He was standing just behind her shoulder.

  "I keep thinking I see something," she said. "But then it's gone."

  He leaned nearer to her, so that his arm nearly brushed her shoulder, and she instinctively shrank from him, keeping her gaze on his eyes in the mirror.

  "May I?" he asked politely, and then he used the towel to wipe the last vestiges of steam from the mirror. Gaia felt strangely crowded in the little space, even when he withdrew his hand again, and her lungs grew tight with the strain of breathing beside him.

  She focused intently on the mirror, her eyes scanning the

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  spaces between the lines, and then all of a sudden she saw some thing. She held her breath. Peering nearer, she was suddenly sure. She had been looking at the symbols, trying to find a pat' tern in them. But the pattern was between the symbols, in the negative space.

  "Look!" she said, pointing.

  Leon looked as baffled as ever.

  "Here," she said, turning with the paper and pointing to a gap between two symbols. "It's going backward now, but there are letters between the symbols. Oh, look!"

  "I don't see it," Leon said.

  She was flushed with excitement, and she impulsively grabbed his arm. "Here, I'll show you," she said, and pulled him back to the room with the desk. She laid the paper flat on the table, and picked up two of the pencils. Laying them along the horizontal lines between the symbols, she created a border above and below a line of characters.

  [Symbols Removed]

  "Look between the symbols," she said, pointing. "There are backward block letters in the spaces. Going backward." She

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  started on the right and moved left, bit by bit. G, L, M, V, T, L, M, M, R, V, L, I, R.

  Watching his face, she saw the exact moment when under-standing came to him. His smile spread warmly, and his blue eyes lit up with excitement.

  "What's it say?" he asked. "May I?" He took the paper again and went back into the bathroom to hold it before the mirror. She knew what he would see, and she was already thinking ahead to the next step. She took out more fresh paper from the desk and quickly jotted with her pencil.

  ABCDEFGHIJKLMNQRSTUVWXYZ

  zyxwvutsrqponmlkjihgfedcba

  "Oh, Daddy," she muttered, torn between sadness and satisfaction. "If this is it, you re too amazing." She was impatient now, and she practically snatched the paper out of Leon s hand when he brought it back.

  "What are you doing now?" he asked.

  But she didn't answer. She transcribed the letters from the top line of the code onto a clean sheet of paper, and used her reverse-alphabet to change the letters into their opposites. Puzzled, discouraged, she added the next line. She was halfway through the second line before she realized she was spelling names she knew. The names went right to left, like the backward letters, and something was still wrong -with the dates, but there they were:

  -REPS AJ-RSXY-XW

  IRO-EINNOB-ENOTS

  OL-LLIW-RSXY-WT-NO

  QZ-ELOOP-YMA-OCRUT

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  Her parents. Jasper Stone and Bonnie Orion. The backs of her ears tingled oddly, as if feathers there were invoking a message from beyond the grave. Gaia covered her face with her hands and dropped her head upon the table.

  "Gaia," Leon said softly. "What is it?"

  He was crouched beside her at the table, his face on a level with her own, and when she looked at him, her eyes were brimming with tears.

  "It's my parents," she said. "They started the record when they advanced their first child to the Enclave. My oldest brother. It lists my fathers name first, and then my mothers." She scanned the next set of symbols. "Each word is separated by one of these little circles or squares," she said, pointing. "This part, this repeating R S X Y part, must be a date. Mabrother Iris figured that much out. I don't know how the numbers work yet, but I know this designates my brothers birth."

  "Is his name there?"

  "No. Babies don 't keep their names when they're advanced. Only their birthdays. My father must have been thinking of that. It's not so much about the babies. It's really more ..." she struggled for the right words.

  "What?" he asked.

  She ran her hand slowly down the code, knowing now that she could decipher every name, and that she would find the names of many parents she knew back home. "It's a record of loss. A record of parents' loss, baby after baby."

  An abyss was sucking her inward and down. She was stunned to find that her own parents' names commenced the list, and yet it all made sense. Gaia had always known that her parents had given away her brothers, but having it spelled out before her in painstaking stitches of silk brought the loss home on a completely different emotional scale. The candles were lit

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  every night. The freckles were tattooed on each baby her mother delivered, as if each one was another son or daughter that Gaia s mother couldn't keep. The list went on and on, she realized, for hundreds of names. Her mother alone had turned in two or more every month, and that was just from Western Sector Three. All those babies. All those losses.

  "What have I done?" she muttered, stricken. She had continued it. She, Gaia Stone, in her duty to meet her monthly quota, had personally turned over six children to the Enclave.

  "Gaia," Leon said. "Take it easy. You re all right."

  "No," she said, clenching her hands into fists and hugging her arms around herself. Only now did she understand. She had sent those innocent babies away from simple, loving parents to become citizens of the Enclave like the ones who had filled the Square of the Bastion when the pregnant woman was executed, people who condoned the imprisonment of their doctors, people who allowed the suffering of children outside the wall, the pre longed imprisonment of her mother, the death of her father. "What have I done?" she repeated, her voice breaking.

  "Shhh," Leon said.

  She thought her heart would burst in her chest, and then Leon pulled her to her feet and wrapped his arms around her.

  "No, Gaia," he said into her ear. "You can 't blame yourself. You did what you thought was right."

  She was too appalled to cry. "That doesn't mean I'm not responsible. I took those babies from their mothers. I gave them to this-- to this insane society." Her voice became shrill. "And what about right now? I'm helping them right now with this code!"

  She tore free of his arms and grabbed the code, ripping it in half. "I'm as bad as you are!" she said. "As any of you!" She crumpled the papers and threw them away.

  Leon stood with his hands open, and his eyebrows lifted in

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  shock, giving his face a raw, hurt expression. She burned inside with the knowledge she'd somehow betrayed herself. If she could have clawed the truth out of her own chest, she would have. Her crime went deeper than following or breaking any laws. She had advanced those babies to a life that undermined anything in them that might be decent or humane. Advanced! The word itself mocked her.

  "We're not all bad," Leon said. His voice resonated with quiet conviction, as if, despite everything that had happened, he'd just discovered this to be true.

  "No? Then why are we still talking here?" she asked. "Why haven't you opened that door and helped me escape?"

  The time to cooperate was over.

  Until he realized that cooperation meant complicity, Leon was as guilty of supporting the Enclave as Mabrothe
r Iris himself.

  A clanking noise came through the window from the square below.

  Leon turned to look out.

  "What is it?" she asked.

  Gaia stepped beside him to gaze below. A group of red clad girls was being led across the square toward the Bastion. Through the gap at the bottom of the window, Gaia could hear the girls crying out in alarm and confusion, even as several guards tried to hush them.

  "What's happening?" Gaia repeated.

  "I don't know," Leon answered, his voice low. When she looked up, his eyes were intense and troubled. "I'm going to find out." He collected his hat and strode toward the door.

  "You're not leaving me here," Gaia said.

  Leon had a key he was fitting into the lock. "I must," he said. "I can't get you out now. It's complicated. You have to

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  remember, your mothers well-being is tied to your own. Keep working on the code. See if you can find out who my-- " He paused, and his eyes flashed darkly before he looked away from her. He picked up the crumpled pieces of code she had thrown and set them side by side on the top of the desk.

  Gaia's heart slowed to a cold, hard rhythm. It all made sense now. He wanted to know his parents. That was why he had come to help her. He was like Sgt. Bartlett. Or Mabrother Iris. She had been used, just as Myrna had warned she would be.

  She quietly reached for a pencil and slid it toward her across the desk. "Fine. You want to know your parents?"

  "Wait, Gaia," he said. "It's not like that."

  Her heart was a bitter stone in her chest. She could use information herself. She didn't know how yet, but she would find a way. There were all kinds of weapons. "What's your birth date again?" she asked coldly.

  She watched a hint of color redden his cheeks and lips, and the color made his blue eyes all the more vivid. She couldn't tell if he was anxious or ashamed or both. She didn't care. She steeled herself against his physical appeal and picked up the pencil, waiting. A banging noise came again from the square below.

  "It's April fourteenth, twenty-three ninety," he said.

  She bowed her head briefly and jotted it down. She didn't know how the system worked for dates yet, but she would figure it out. She smoothed the two ripped pieces of the code and lined them up together at the seam. "I'll see what I can do," she said numbly.

  "I'll come back for you," he said. "As soon as I can."

  She doubted it. She turned her back to him, already taking her seat again at the desk. Now that he knew how the code depended on reading the negative space, he could tell Mabrother

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  Iris, and together they could unravel the entire ribbon. They didn't need her anymore, not even for the dates. She was completely and utterly expendable. She heard him open the door, but she didn't turn to see him go.

  "Please, Gaia. You're safe here for now. Have a little faith in me," he said, his voice hardly more than a whisper. The next moment, he was gone.

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  Chapter 18

  One Chance

  ONCE GAIA REALIZED the first two names were her parents', and that the record must correspond with her oldest brothers birth dates, figuring out the numbers was a tedious but fairly straightforward matter. Her oldest brother had been born on February 12, 2389, and the symbols before her father s name were:

  [Symbols Removed]

  She had mistakenly first translated "I H C B - C D" into "R S X Y - X W" using the letter reversal system, but when she worked backward from the numbers of his date, and threw in the mirror effect, she discovered which letters her father had used for numbers. B C H I had to match 2389. From there, it was a simple substitution system: A = 1, B = 2, C = 3, and so on until J = 0. Similarly, D C became 43. She was stumped until she realized February twelfth was the forty-third day of the year. Instead of using months, her father had assigned a

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  number for each of the 365 days in the year, so that her oldest brothers birth, Arthurs birth, on February 12, 2389, was simply listed as 43-2389.

  Gaia should have felt pleased that shed worked out the code, but instead she felt flat inside, defeated. She couldn't escape the guilt that had seared into her once she'd realized how inherently wrong the baby quota was.

  She was deeply puzzled about her parents, and she wished she could go back and listen more carefully to conversations she had had with her father about her brothers. Obviously, he had omitted telling her about the ribbon, but he had talked about the freckles. Her parents must have been far more conflicted about advancing their sons than they had ever revealed to Gaia. Either that, or they had truly believed they were doing the right thing, the best thing for their children, even though they missed them terribly and continued to love them long after they were gone. Gould the two opposite things both be true?

  She scanned further down the code, to where the year changed to 2390, and then she found the parents who matched Leon s birth date: Derek Vlatir and Mary Walsh. She closed her eyes and leaned back, stretching the kinks out of her neck as she tried to absorb that Leon was Derek's son. The Vlatirs probably had lived in Western Sector Three back when Leon was born. If Leon hadn't been advanced, he would have grown up as a bakers son outside the wall. Leon might have become a completely different person: maybe even trustworthy.

  It was dark by the time Gaia worked out the code, her soup long gone, but a single spiral bulb in the ceiling had come on automatically as the sun set. The light went off if she was very still for a length of time, concentrating. If she waved an arm, it came on again. A tiny white box with a red pinpoint of light was positioned in an upper corner of the room, and that, she guessed, was the motion detector.

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  She stood before the window, gazing down at the quiet city while her tired gaze followed the streetlamps that descended in slow curves away from the Bastion. No one was out. The girls in red had not reappeared. The stillness smelled like the stones of the square down below.

  Leon had not returned.

  ][o surprise there, she thought.

  She touched her hand to the smooth pane of glass, wondering what Leon would give to know his father was Derek Vlatir. She wondered, also, if she would live to see Derek again and tell him his son had become . .. had grown to be ...

  Gaia closed her eyes and tilted her face against the cool glass. She didn't know what to think about Leon, but whenever she did think of him, an odd, tight feeling constricted in her chest. She wasn't just angry at him. She was disappointed, too. Deeply. It didn't matter that he was just doing his job, like any good soldier. She had thought she could trust him. Worse than that: she'd been stupid.

  She slumped back on the bed, looking at her mess of notes on the desk. I should rip everything up and throw it all down the toilet, she thought. That would be proof she wasn't cooperating anymore. Yet the gesture wouldn't do her any good with no one there to see it.

  She pressed her face into her hands, rubbing her eyes.

  When there was a quiet rap on the door, she sat up suddenly and the light went on. She must have fallen asleep. The door was opening, and her heart leaped with anticipation. When she saw it was Sgt. Bartlett with another tray, she was crushed. Stupid again! she thought. Leon wasn't coming. As she reached for the tray, the sergeant's gaze went first to the desk, and then flew to Gaia's face.

  "Did you figure it out?" he asked.

  "Maybe. It's hard to be sure," she prevaricated, taking a bite of

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  the bread. The stale, dry taste was heavy in her mouth, but she was hungry. Food came at strange times here. "How late is it?"

  "Around midnight. Can you tell me who my parents are?" he asked.

  She stopped chewing as an idea came to her. She swallowed. "Do you know anything about my mother?"

  He looked confused. "No. Is she here? In the Bastion?"

  "I believe so. I'm trying to find her," she said. "How badly do you want to know about your own parents? Enough to let me out?"

  The sergeant lean
ed his broad shoulders back against the door and crossed his arms. Muscles bulged under the black fabric. "It would be too dangerous," he said.

  She let out a dry laugh. "For you or for me?"

  He seemed to consider, and then he dug his fingers back through his blond hair in a way that struck her as very young. "Both," he said. "It isn't possible. Believe me. Anybody who helped you would have to be willing to leave the Enclave forever. Don't even ask."

  Leon obviously felt the same way, she realized bitterly. "Then don't even ask me who your parents are," she said. "You can wait like everyone else until it pleases Mabrother Iris to share the information."

  He gave her a long, scrutinizing look, and then he picked up the empty glass from the tray and stepped into the bathroom.

  Jerk, she thought. She took a nibble of the white cheese while she heard the water running, and when Sgt. Bartlett came back, she thought he looked pale beneath his tan. When she reached for the glass of water, he held it back a moment longer than was natural, and she saw he was watching her keenly. With an infinitesimal nod, he indicated the glass.

  Suddenly on alert, she reached for it again, and she saw a message written on the palm of his hand:

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  CAMERA

  Her gaze shot to his. His lips were closed in a grim line, and he was watching her closely. "You must be thirsty," he said in a normal voice.

  Afraid to turn, afraid to look, Gaia lifted the glass with trembling fingers to her lips. Oh, no, she thought. They'd been watching her the whole time. What she'd thought was a motion detector had to be also a camera. They'd seen her with Leon, and they'd seen him leave. Her mind raced. They were watching her with Sgt. Bartlett right now. Could they hear what she was saying, too?

 
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