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Birthmarked, p.20
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       Birthmarked, p.20

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  It was all she could do not to scream in frustration. She took another bite of her cheese, chewing slowly, and Sgt. Bartlett went back to lean against the door in his former position. She saw he had his hand fisted tightly in his pocket. In fact, a faint tremor of tension was visible all through him, now that she was watching for it. She hoped it wouldn't show to whomever was watching.

  "What happened to those girls?" she asked, trying to make it sound like she was beginning an idle conversation.

  "What girls?"

  "I saw them earlier in the square," she said. "It looked like they were being rounded up and brought to the Bastion."

  He shook his head, puzzled. "I don't know who you saw," he said.

  She grew impatient. "Before. When Leon was here. Haven't you talked to him?"

  Sgt. Bartlett glanced away from her in a way that instantly put her on alert. He seemed to be choosing what to say, and she realized he, too, was caught in the problem of needing to appear as if he had not told her they were being watched. Why had he warned her about the camera? He

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  seemed to make a decision, and his brown eyes were serious as he gazed at her.

  "He was taken to meet with the Protectant," he said. "Shortly after he left this room earlier today. No one's seen him since."

  "Well," she said dryly. "Let's hope he and his father are having a nice chat."

  He turned toward the door. "If you 11 excuse me," he said. "I'll be back for the tray in ten minutes," he said. "Help your' self to more water if you want it." He nodded toward the bathroom.

  Water? She wanted to scream. What she needed was to get out of here. She gripped her fists together and turned away.

  The door closed softly behind him, and she let out a whoosh of pent-up air. What was she supposed to do now? A camera was aimed at her every move. She was afraid to look up at the little white device in the corner of the ceiling, but she was certain now that that's where the camera lens was hidden.

  A burst of realisation hit her: the camera didn't reach the bathroom. And that was where Sgt. Bartlett had gone. Trying to look unconcerned, she walked first to the window, then to her tray to take the last morsel of bread, and then, with her glass, she headed into the bathroom. She stepped around the corner, closed the door, and stared at what she saw on the mirror glass:

  1 Chance

  October 24, 2390

  Sgt. Bartlett had written the message with the wedge of blue soap that lay by the faucet of the sink. Her heart pounding, she dampened a corner of towel and rubbed frantically at the soap on the mirror. October 24, 2390, she thought, repeating the date in her head to memorize it.

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  Her hand went still on the glass.

  She already knew that date. That was her brother Odin s birth date. She instinctively drew her fist to her lips.

  "I can't believe this," she whispered. "He's my brother."

  Could she be sure? What if there were other advanced babies born on the same date? The answer "would be right in the code.

  Checking the mirror one last time to be sure it was clean of any evidence, Gaia walked back into the yellow room. With a soft clink, she set the glass on the tray, and then stepped before the code. It took her several minutes to look up his birth date, but it was clear that only her parents' names were listed by that date. Sgt. Bartlett was her brother Odin. Unquestionably. Her mind was racing.

  Sgt. Bartlett's blond hair and fair complexion made no sense to her because she and her parents were all dark. But it was possible, she supposed. Not all children looked like their parents. He was going to be astounded by the news.

  When he returned, she must be ready for anything. She put the little mirror in her pocket. Doubtless Mabrother Iris, or whoever had been watching, already knew what she had discovered-- she'd been quite open with Leon while she was unraveling it, but she'd do all she could not to reveal anything more on her own. She ordered all her notes in a pile so they'd be ready for her to grab.

  There was a soft rap on the door and Sgt. Bartlett opened it. Expectant, she took one look at his face and knew he had a plan, but more extraordinarily, she saw an echo of her father in his brown eyes. Now that she knew to look for it, the faint resemblance was unmistakable. She was struck with pleasure, and then fear.

  "We have seventeen seconds to get out," he said quietly.

  Gaia grabbed her papers and flew after him down the hall.

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  He led her down a narrow staircase, up another, through several doors, and around half a dozen corners. At a closet, he pulled out a red cape with a hood.

  "Go through the school courtyard," he said. "Move slowly, straight through the school, and go out the opposite door. You'll be in the street. From there you'll have to find your own way."

  "Where are you going?" she asked. She hadn't expected to split up from him so soon.

  "That's my business." He was putting on a brown shirt and a dark hat. "Quick," he said. "Who are my parents?"

  She gripped his hands tightly. "Bonnie and Jasper Stone from Western Sector Three," she said. "You're my brother."

  His cheeks went pale as incredulity and amazement made him frown. He stared intently at her face, as if memorizing and testing every feature.

  "How is that possible?" he said.

  "It's true." She knew it in her bones, in the deepest fiber of her being. "You're Odin Stone. You have an older brother, too, who was also advanced to the Enclave. I don't know who he is here. Our father's dead. Our mother's imprisoned, but I don't know where."

  There was a noise from above and shouting. Terrified, she reached for him, and he crushed her to him for an instant.

  "My sister," he said, his voice cracking. "It's worth it, then." He pushed her away. "Go! Now!"

  There was another shout and loud footsteps on the staircase above, and then she gripped the knob of the door and pulled. She heard more shouts behind her, but didn't dare to look back. She could only hope Sgt. Bartlett was getting away. She pulled her cloak carefully around her face and walked across an open courtyard, shadowed and hollow sounding with night. It was painful to keep her stride normal when every instinct urged

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  her to run. Glancing up, she saw a woman closing a window, but the woman paid no attention to Gaia below.

  When Gaia reached the door, the knob opened smoothly in her fingers. She had to push with her shoulder to make the heavy wooden door open, and her fear increased again. What if the next door was locked and Sgt. Bartlett had sent her to a dead end? A light flickered on in the hallway and illuminated cream-colored walls. To her right, the hallway opened on a lit' tie room with a fireplace that glowed with coals.

  An elderly woman in white glanced up from beside the fireplace. "Good evening, Masister," the woman said in a sleepy voice.

  Hardly daring to breathe, Gaia said, "I serve the Enclave."

  "And I," she murmured, turning back to the fire.

  Feeling like an imposter who could be exposed at any moment, Gaia walked purposefully down the hallway, passing closed doors and a tall, old-fashioned grandfather clock that ticked quietly in the stillness. At the end of the hall, the passage opened in two directions, and on impulse Gaia turned left, the darker direction. She had progressed only a dozen paces when she realized she'd made a mistake. She was in a kind of dormitory, with two rows of beds. Her arrival caused a light to go on automatically above her, and the blanketed shape on the closest bed turned in her direction.

  "Where've you been?" a girl's voice whispered, sounding annoyed and curious.

  Gaia backed up a step. The person sat up further, and Gaia could see she was a teenage girl in a white nightgown, close to Gaia's own age. Brown curls framed an oval, open face with a straight nose and a generous mouth. Her eyes were growing rounder, and she instinctively pulled the blanket up toward her chest.

  "Who are you?" the girl said, her voice still quiet.

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  "My mistake," Gaia said, backing up another s
tep.

  If the girl let out an alarm, Gaia would be caught. Gaia pulled the hood of her cloak nearer the left side of her face, but the movement was another mistake. The girl gasped.

  "You re that girl with the scar!" the girl squeaked.

  "Shh!" Gaia said. "Please!"

  Gaia turned and fled as quickly as she could, retracing her steps and continuing in the other direction. Around another corner, she found a large wooden door that matched the first one she'd come in, and she opened it firmly. Soldiers were running down the street, and she backed up, waiting until they passed.

  She slipped through the doorway and into the street, heading away from the direction the soldiers were going. Her heart lurched with every step, and she couldn't get her bearings. She wanted to go downhill, but whenever she tried to, she saw more soldiers, so she was forced to head uphill. Finally she came to a street she recognized. A cafe was brightly lit, and men were laughing loudly in a group by the bar. If she headed uphill, she would come to the garden where she and Leon had talked once. If she circled back, she might be able to reach the bakery with the black oven, but that was close to the Square of the Bastion again, where there would certainly be more soldiers. She didn't know what to do.

  At that moment, the men in the cafe burst into laughter, and two of them came out, calling good-byes. They headed toward the left, and on impulse Gaia turned back, west, toward the square.

  She hurried now, losing her nerve. It seemed she could hear footsteps and voices all around her. Walls boxed her in on the right, and lights bolted on above whenever she came to a streetlamp with a motion detector. Cameras, she feared, could be anywhere. She turned a corner, and saw a group of soldiers

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  approaching from the other direction. Her heart sank into her black shoes, but there was nothing to do but keep walking toward them, hood up, shoulders square.

  She was about to enter the ring of light from a streetlamp when she heard a sharp, low voice from her right.

  "Stone!"

  A thick-bodied, short man beckoned to her from a dark doorway, and she almost wept with relief. Ahead, the soldiers were picking up their pace, on line to intersect with her.

  "Quickly!" the man said again, but Gaia was already speeding toward him.

  He pulled her in with a strong hand and shut the door behind them. Gaia was in a narrow passage with a low ceiling. The air smelled of garbage and urine, but as she hurried behind the man, she could see a warm, yellow light ahead of her. He pulled her through another door and closed it tightly, sliding a bolt across it.

  Gaia had never been so happy in her whole life. Before her, warm and massive, stood the hearth of the black ovened bakery.

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  Chapter 19 Jacksons' Bakery

  THE BRICK OVEN WITH its massive chimney bisected the bakery into the front shop area where Leon had only the day before bought her a small black loaf, and the back work area, where now Gaia stood catching her breath. The warm smell of bread welcomed her like an embrace. A great wooden table stood in the center of the room with a lamp above casting a circle of light upon it. The white string for the lamp had a small measuring spoon tied to the end as a pull tab, and the metal gleamed from use. A teenage boy and a no-nonsense woman stood quietly before the oven, their sleeves rolled up and their hands flecked with flour and bits of dough. Just then, the back door opened again, and a young girl of nine or ten with bright pink cheeks hurried in. The girl threw back the green hood of her cloak, grinning.

  "You found her!" the girl said.

  The baker ruffled her light brown hair in a loving, proud gesture that reminded Gaia of her own father. "Didn't I tell you she'd come?"

  "How did you know?" Gaia said.

  The woman wiped her hands in her copious apron. "We've

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  been watching for you nonstop since we heard you were moved to the Bastion. If ever you had a chance to get free of the guards, it would be now or never. Mace was hoping you d try to come to us."

  "I was looking, too," the girl said excitedly. "I was supposed to call 'Stone!' to you, and if you showed me your scar face, I would take you in."

  Gaia slowly pushed her hood back and watched the curiosity on the girl's face as she inspected Gaia's scar.

  "Exactly," the girl said, sounding satisfied.

  Gaia smiled, but she knew she wouldn't be safe there long. "I was seen coming in with you," she said, turning to the baker. "You can't keep me here or you'll be in trouble."

  "I don't think so. That was a sauna parlor, there, where I found you," the baker said. "They'll just think you were working the late shift."

  Gaia was baffled. "A sauna parlor?"

  She saw the baker and his wife hesitate.

  The girl clarified in her open, childish voice. "He means it's a brothel."

  The baker clapped a hand to his forehead.

  "What?" the girl said. "It's a very discreet, high-class brothel. Tell them, Oliver."

  "Real nice, Yvonne. Thanks," the teenager said, blushing. His mother looked murderous. "Hey, Ma. It's not like I go there. I just told her-- "

  "Enough," her mother said. "Why don't you go up on the roof and keep an eye out? Tell us if any guards start up our street."

  The teenager ducked his head and vanished up a narrow flight of stairs.

  The baker cleared his throat. "Ah. Well. Here's a nice introduction to our family. My precocious daughter there is Yvonne,"

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  he said, nodding at the girl. "I'm Mace Jackson, and this is my wife Pearl. That was Oliver."

  Pearl came over and gave Gaia a big hug.

  "What you've been through I can't begin to think," she said in a gruff voice. She gave Gaia a roll of warm, buttery bread, swirled with cinnamon and sugar, and pushed her gently onto a stool. Her kindness should have made Gaia relax, but she could feel anxious jitters in her veins as she sat down, and though her mouth watered, she couldn't take a bite of the cinnamon roll.

  "What's our plan?" Gaia said to Mace.

  "It depends on what you want to do," he said.

  She took a deep breath, holding the roll between dainty fingers. "What are my choices?"

  "I could get you out of the city at daybreak," he said. "Oliver and my apprentice, Jet, often go out for wood, and they could take you with them in the bike cart. It would be risky, but I think it could be done."

  Gaia remembered the carts drawn by bikes that occasion' ally came out of the wall. She pictured herself hiding in one, maybe under some sacks. She'd be in danger of discovery every time the cart lurched over a bump or a guard poked the sacks.

  "Is there any other choice?" Gaia asked.

  "You could stay with us," little Yvonne said. "We have an extra bed in my room."

  Gaia glanced from the girl to her mother as Pearl shifted backward slightly. Though Pearl's expression remained concerned and kindly, there was sorrow in her gray eyes that Gaia didn't miss.

  "Thank you, Yvonne," Gaia said gently.

  The girl took a step nearer and tilted her face in a bashful smile. "It was my sister's bed," she said. "I know she'd want you to use it."

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  Pearl cleared her throat in the silence.

  "But not for long," Gaia said. "It wouldn't be safe for you."

  "Were safe enough, as long as you stay inside," Pearl said. She hesitated, and then touched her chin with her knuckles in a thoughtful manner. "My other daughter, my Lila-- she died last year from complications of hemophilia. We decided then, all of us, that if we could do something to help the people out' side the wall, then we would. We didn't guess that a girl would show up on our doorstep, let alone the one who saved that convict's baby, but here you are."

  Gaia lowered her gaze for a moment, doubting she was worthy of their kindness. "Do you think the people outside the wall could have helped save your daughter? Is that why?" she asked quietly.

  Pearl shook her head, her eyes dry and lost looking for a moment. "No. Nothing that simple. We
just don't want any other family to go through what we've gone through."

  Mace was rolling up his sleeves. "We're thinking a generation ahead, if you get my meaning. For the whole Enclave, the way we're supposed to. My family carries the recessive gene that leads to hemophilia, and so, well-- " He stopped himself. "That's neither here nor there."

  "No, please. I want to know."

  She saw Mace and Pearl exchange a glance. Then Pearl leaned her knuckles on the edge of the table as she sat on a stool.

  "There's too many of us now carrying the hemophilia," she said. "There's children like Lila all over the Enclave, and their families are all grieving. I don't know if we need to advance a ton more children or just open the gates permanently, but it's time to start working with the people outside the wall. They're the ones who are going to save us in the end."

  As Gaia pondered Pearl's altruistic explanation, it changed

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  how she saw the people of the Enclave. This family's loss was being played out all around the city, everywhere a child died. The problems of inbreeding, she realized, had already affected real families.

  Mabrother Iris was trying to solve that problem on a massive scale. And yet, she didn't see how identifying the parents of advanced babies from Western Sector Three would help. There must be more to it, something Mabrother Iris had not told her.

  "You understand it's dangerous for us to say this," Mace said. He looked at Yvonne. "This can't go any farther than this room."

  "I know, Daddy. I didn't say anything."

  "Have you heard some girls were arrested today?" Gaia asked.

  "They weren't arrested. They were taken to a special school," Pearl said. "Some boys were taken, too."

  "And why were they chosen?"

  "They all had a certain freckle pattern on their ankles," Pearl said.

  "Oh, no," Gaia groaned. She closed her eyes and bent her face into her hand. "It's started," she whispered. The Enclave had already made a move based on what she'd told them. It was her fault! She looked up again, blinking. "They're going to control more and more," she said. "Who gets taken without notice. Who you marry. Who gets to keep their babies. Can't you see? We have to stop them."

 
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