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Birthmarked, p.22
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       Birthmarked, p.22

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  "It doesn't fit," Pearl mused aloud. "Why aren't your hands burned, then?"

  Gaia curled her fingers closed, confused.

  "When a baby's falling, she tries to catch herself with her hands," Pearl explained. "You would have burned your hands first."

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  Gaia shook her head. "That would depend on the height of the vat and the angle I was falling. I don't actually remember it, but that's what I've been told."

  Pearl tilted Gaia's face toward the overhead light once more before she released her. "I know burns, Gaia," Pearl said. She pushed up the sleeves of her dress and showed her own muscular arms, the pale skin flecked with little streaks of brown, a myriad of new and older, fading scars. "When you work with hot trays and ovens all day long, you naturally get your share of nick burns, and worse from time to time. A burn such as yours-- well. I wondered if someone did it to you on purpose."

  Gaia drew back from the woman. The only people who could have hurt her like that were her parents.

  "It was an accident," Gaia said quietly.

  "What does it matter now?" Oliver asked. "Can you cover it up?"

  Pearl settled her sturdy body back on her stool, and slowly nodded. Gaia dropped her gaze to her hands in her lap, wishing she could erase what Pearl had said.

  Yvonne clapped her hands together. "I knew it! Mom once made the most amazing mask for me for school. I was supposed to be this ghost girl, and nobody even recognized me. Tell her, Mom. You do it with a crepe, right? And flour mixed with spices to make just the right color powder. Right?"

  As a silence stretched out, Gaia felt Pearl's eyes on her even when she wouldn't look up. Her wrists had healed from when she had been tied several days before, but the skin was still tender when she tentatively pressed on the marks. She couldn't bear to think that her own parents might have burned her, but she couldn't forget it, either.

  "I'm sorry," Pearl said gently.

  Gaia sniffed once. "I just know you're wrong," she said.

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  Pearl gave her shoulder a quick squeeze. "Then I'm wrong," Pearl said. "Come. Let's figure out this mask."

  There was a light tap on the door. Everyone froze. Gaia's gaze flew to Pearl, whose rigid expression told Gaia it was not Mace outside. Silently, Pearl pointed Gaia toward the stairs, and Gaia flew up them as noiselessly as she could, stopping near the top where she could crouch to peer back down. Her heart thudded in her chest as Pearl turned out the light, and then Gaia heard the big door open.

  "Please," came a whisper. "Let me in."

  Gaia clenched her hand on the banister.

  "Were closed," Pearl said sternly. "Come back in the morning."

  "Wait!" the voice came again, more clearly. "Derek Vlatir sent me."

  Gaia's heart leaped in recognition and then fear. Leon! Why had he come? She couldn't see anything down below except a faint beam of moonlight falling on the floor. Pearl opened the door to let him in. The moonbeam widened, then vanished as Pearl clicked the lock closed.

  "Oliver. A candle," Pearl said.

  There was a scratching noise and a match flared. Leon stood just inside the door, his back to the wall.

  Pearl had a knife pointed at his heart.

  "You'd best explain yourself, son," Pearl said.

  Oliver lit a candle and placed it on a brick that protruded from the oven. He held a cleaver in his other hand. In the faint light, Gaia could see Leon's face and disheveled clothes. His jacket and hat were gone. From her angle, she couldn't see his eyes under his messy bangs, but wariness was visible in his motionless form and the tight line of his unshaven jaw.

  "What do you want with us?" Pearl said quietly.

  "Mace Jackson knows my father."

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  Pearl was standing very straight. "We do not have the honor of being acquainted with the Protectorat," she said.

  Leon kept his hands against the wall behind him. "My real father is Derek Vlatir. He sent me to you."

  Pearl slowly withdrew the knife. Gaia, gripping the banister, came down a step and saw Leon s face open with surprise when he glanced up. She almost believed he was happy to see her, and then his expression dimmed.

  "You re here," he said quietly.

  Pearl glanced sharply at Gaia. Gaia came down the rest of the stairs and went to stand beside Yvonne, who slid her arms around her waist. Confused emotions kept Gaia silent, but her breath came quickly, and she peered intently at his lean, disheveled appearance. The single candle flame cast a weak light over his skin and the black of his shirt while he held himself motionless.

  Leon turned back to Pearl. "Derek Vlatir was questioned tonight because the Protectorat believed I would go to him for help. He was right, and the guards nearly caught me. But Derek sent me back through the wall, and now-- " He stopped. He shot another look to Gaia. "He thought Mace would help me."

  Gaia thought rapidly. If what he was saying was true, then in the last four days, Leon had unraveled the rest of the code, gone all the way outside the Enclave, found his birth father, and then returned.

  "Why didn't you return to the Bastion?" Gaia asked.

  "I can t."

  "Why didn't you leave for the wasteland?" she asked.

  "I couldn't," he said, his voice low. "I didn't know where you were."

  A strange, slow flip moved in her gut. She swallowed hard. She didn't know what to say.

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  Pearl put her knife up on the rack and pulled the little hanging measuring spoon to turn on the light again.

  "Clearly, you two know each other," she said. "Put back your cleaver, Oliver."

  "But he's the Protectorates son," Oliver said. "We're harboring a fugitive. He could get us all killed."

  "You heard the boy. He's not exactly waving the Enclave banner tonight, is he?"

  Oliver put away his cleaver, and Yvonne slipped away from Gaia, stepping toward the table.

  "Are you a fugitive, too?" Yvonne asked.

  Leon shifted his gaze to the girl, and his voice softened. "Apparently."

  The girl nodded, and Gaia breathed more easily. Pearl moved to the oven and opened the door to stir up the coals. She moved the pot of soup that had cooled on the hearth back into the embers.

  "Have a seat," Pearl said. "Let's hear what news you have."

  Leon hesitated, as if waiting for a cue from Gaia, and with a nod she beckoned him forward. He accepted a chair and brought it up to the table. Gaia uneasily took a place opposite him. In the brighter light, she could see his black shirt was of a rougher quality, like ones men wore outside the -wall. Though he smiled slightly at Yvonne when she drew up a stool near him, Gaia could see the edginess in him.

  "I know where your mother is," he said. "She's alive and in fair health."

  "In the southeast tower," Gaia said.

  He tapped a slow finger on the table. "How did you find out?"

  "Mace told me."

  He nodded, his gaze sliding toward the oven. "I also found out where your father's buried," he said.

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  Gaia waited, tense, and Pearl came to put a hand on her shoulder.

  "He's in the potter's field, outside the wall," Leon said. "Where they bury paupers."

  Gaia closed her eyes as sorrow, for a long moment, silenced everything inside her. It hurt to think of her father, and there was something terribly final about knowing where his body reposed. It should have been some small comfort to know he was outside the wall, but she only felt the hard stone of her grief melting inside her, which was even worse.

  "There now," Pearl said. "He's at peace, honey. You just remember that."

  Gaia opened her eyes and turned to Leon. "Why did they arrest my parents in the first place?"

  Leon rolled his black sleeves to the elbows before resting his forearms along the wooden tabletop, and still he didn't speak.

  "Did my parents actually do something wrong?" Gaia asked.

  "I don't think so. No."

  "Then why-- "

>   "They kept a record. That was why they were arrested."

  "But keeping records isn't illegal," Gaia said. "How did the Enclave even know about it?"

  "We heard a rumor that one or more of the midwives were keeping records, and then, when we questioned your parents, they were obviously hiding something. Once your parents refused to cooperate with us, they technically became traitors."

  She realized that he was evading her gaze, and that he had been since he'd come in. Something had happened to him in the last four days. A quickness was missing from him. She felt a barrier between them, too, one that caused a quiet coolness to settle within her.

  She dropped her voice. "What's really going on with my mother's code?"

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  "I'm trying to figure out how to explain," he said. "It's intricate."

  Oliver leaned back into one of the darker corners, idle and watchful, while Pearl brought Leon a bowl of soup.

  "Thank you, Masister," Leon said.

  "You might as well eat something while you answer Gaia's questions," Pearl said. "Just start from the beginning, and we'll try to keep up."

  Gaia could feel him gating past her shoulder, sorting through memories or information that was invisible to her, and then he lifted the spoon from his bowl of soup. Little Yvonne held up a finger. "Don't drip," she said.

  "Imagine," he said to Yvonne, "that your mother gave you twenty three spoons for your birthday." He slid the spoon between his lips.

  Yvonne's eyes lit up. "That's a crazy gift."

  He set the spoon back on the rim of his bowl. Gaia pulled her sweater more securely around her and leaned back, watching him answer the girl.

  "Yes," he said to Yvonne, his voice warming. "But they were very interesting spoons, all made out of chrome, and each one was a little different from the others so you could tell them apart. And then, to your surprise, you opened your father's birthday gift, and it was twenty three more chrome spoons. When you looked at them closely, you could match up your father's spoons with your mother's spoons into pairs."

  Yvonne scrambled off her stool and came back with a couple of spoons. "Like this," she said, setting them on the table under the light.

  Leon nodded. "Yes. But remember, there are forty-six all together, half from each parent."

  "Chromosomes," Oliver said, coming reluctantly forward from his corner. "We learned about this in school. The chrome

  240

  spoons are chromosomes, and we have them in every cell of our bodies."

  "Go on," Pearl said.

  Leon held his soupspoon up toward the light so that its edges gleamed. "Each spoon has dents all along its length, so many you can hardly see them all, each right against the next, some longer and some small. The dents are genes. How a dent on one spoon interacts with its matching dent on its matching spoon determines what traits you have, like brown eyes, or connected earlobes."

  "Or blood that clots properly," Pearl said softly.

  Gaia looked over to see her watching Leon closely.

  "Yes," he said.

  Gaia expected Pearl to mention Lila, but she said no more. Yvonne fidgeted restlessly beside her, and Gaia patted her knee reassuringly.

  "Are we getting to my parents?" Gaia asked.

  "I said it was complicated," he said.

  Her pulse jumped at the slight edge in his tone. That was more like Leon.

  "We 11 get there, Gaia," Yvonne said. "What's DNA? That's what I want to know."

  "It's the chrome of the spoon," Leon said, running his finger-tip along the whole length of the spoon. "It's what makes up every dent, the basic material of every gene, from one end to the other. I'm not saying everything about you is determined by your genes, but they matter a lot."

  That fit with what she knew, Gaia realized, with her eyes fixed on his spoon. She had never quite understood what DNA was, but with the chrome in all the variety of those spoons and dents, she could easily see that each person's DNA was unique.

  "Okay, go on," Yvonne said.

  241

  Leon frowned briefly. "There's another part of the story. They've found an Enclave boy, a toddler named Nolan. He has the genes that say he should have hemophilia, but he doesn't have it. His blood is fine."

  Pearl gasped. "How can that be? Did they cure him?"

  "No," Leon said. "His parents brought him to Mabrother Iris's lab when his older brother's hemophilia became apparent. His was mild, but they worried Nolan's would be bad. Instead, the lab determined that Nolan was born with some beneficial suppressor gene that's counteracting the hemophilia." He paused. "It's like there's a dent on some other spoon, far from the hemophilia dent, that cancels out the hemophilia."

  Gaia frowned. "Is that possible?"

  "Yes. And that's why Mabrother Iris is so excited." His voice darkened. "Nolan's mother is from the outside. And she has a freckle tattoo on her ankle."

  Gaia exhaled an enormous breath and leaned back in her chair. "Oh, no," she whispered. Focus on the freckle tattoos would bring more attention to Western Sector Three, which could only make things worse for people there.

  "I still don't understand," Yvonne said. "Why does that matter?"

  Leon brushed back the hair over his ear, and turned toward the girl. "There are really three steps for what happens next. First, the Enclave has to identify more kids like Nolan who don't have hemophilia even though their genes say they should. Second, they want to identify the suppressor gene," he said. "They can find it one of two ways: breed Nolan with other kids like him, or track back through their family trees to narrow in on the gene by a process of elimination. Of those two options, the second one is far more humane and faster, too. Once they identify the suppressor gene, they're ready for the third step: they can test everyone to see who has the suppressor gene, and

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  those people can be selected to marry hemophilia carriers to eliminate hemophilia in their children."

  Gaia watched him stir his spoon once through his soup, as if he were losing his appetite.

  "My head's spinning," Pearl confessed. "What does this really mean for us? For all of our friends inside the wall right now?"

  Leon set the bowl aside. "They're taking the freckle-tattooed girls and boys to test them to see if they're like Nolan, carrying the suppressor gene. It won't be very invasive. They'll just take some blood and a swab sample from inside their cheeks. When they identify a few more people like Nolan, then they'll locate their parents."

  "From outside the wall?" Pearl asked.

  "Yes. From outside the wall. And they'll work back from those parents to study the family trees."

  "But the freckles aren't a guarantee of anything," Gaia objected. "There's no connection between the tattoos and the genes."

  "I know," Leon said. "And Mabrother Iris and the Protectorat know that. But the people with freckle tattoos are the only ones we can work with, the only ones with known birth parents."

  "Because of my mother's code," Gaia said.

  He nodded. "It was the key," Leon said. "They were watching us through a camera. I should have known. Bartlett should have told me. They've deciphered it all by now."

  "They were using you, too?" she said.

  He nodded once. "When they saw me go into your room, all on my own, they couldn't believe their luck."

  "Did Sergeant Bartlett set you up?"

  "I don't know for sure. It wouldn't be like him. Not on purpose. He just knew I was interested in you."

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  Her heart gave another little kick. What, she wondered, did Leon say to Sgt. Bartlett about me?

  "What will they do once they identify the suppressor gene and find the people who carry it?" Gaia asked.

  Leon templed his fingers together, and they cast a sharp shadow on the tabletop. "They're thinking long term. Once they can identify the suppressor gene, they'll test all the babies outside the wall and take the ones who have it. They're patient," he said.

  The dawning horror made Gaia moment
arily speechless. "All of them?"

  "They'll be the most desired, most precious advanced children ever," he said flatly. "The mothers of those children will be encouraged to have as many babies as possible, all for advancing. And when those babies grow up, they'll have their pick of the elite families to marry into."

  Pearl cleared Leon's soup bowl away. "It all sounds awfully farfetched," she said.

  "Accept it. It's fact," Leon said.

  Gaia leaned forward and gripped her hands together upon the table. "What happened to you, after you left me?" she asked.

  A muscle clenched in his jaw. "I went to my fa-- to the Protectorat and Mabrother Iris. Mabrother Iris congratulated me on my progress with you and explained the promise of the suppressor gene." His voice dropped to a low, mocking frequency. "He told me who my parents are. Always a reward with Mabrother Iris. And then he wanted to know if I could find the baby you saved, the one from the executed couple."

  "You're kidding," Gaia said.

  Leon passed a hand before his eyes, and when he lowered it, he still wasn't looking at her directly. "That baby could be another one like Nolan. They want you back, Gaia. They want to hold you up as a hero for saving him."

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  "No," Pearl muttered.

  Gaia s breath caught.

  Leon shook his head. "I told them the baby was dead," Leon said.

  Pearl was leaning against the sink. "Is it?" she asked.

  Leon turned to her and spoke quietly. "I don't really know. There's no trail in the black market for babies, unless Masister Khol keeps some record. And she'd be a fool to do so." He shifted back toward Gaia's direction. "That's why you have to leave. You re not safe anywhere here, not in the Enclave, not in Wharfton. If they find you, they'll use you. You won't have any choice."

  Gaia sat in silence among the others, her mind reeling with the new information. The Enclave wanted to use her for political purposes. That was worse than them wanting her dead, but she was even more concerned for what would happen to the families in Western Sector Three. They stood to lose even more babies.

 
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