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Birthmarked, p.26
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       Birthmarked, p.26

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Gaia clicked her jaw shut, shaking her head.

  Sephie laughed. "You think you know every child in the Enclave just because you saw a few of them for an hour when they were born," she said. Then she turned to Gaia. "You've had your visit with our pregnant celebrity. Now, I told you to go."

  Gaia understood: Sephie was allowing her a harmless glimpse of her mother, and nothing more. Gaia looked in alarm at Masister Khol, but she was calmly sipping her tea as if she had no interest in Gaia whatsoever. Despair shot through her, and she looked desperately at her mother. Her mother's head was hanging wearily.

  Gaia's mind raced. "If she can't have tea, should I get her some water, then?" Gaia asked, keeping her voice low.

  Sephie looked up, her eyes narrowing cautiously. Then, as if

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  making a decision, she nodded. "Here's gallantry," she said, and pointed to a cup on the shelf. "Fetch her some."

  While Gaia took the cup into the bathroom to get water from the tap, she tried to think how else to delay her departure. The women were talking of news outside the tower. Julia's voice was light, with occasional laughter, and Masister Khol's tones were lower and steadier. Water rushed into the little metal cup. If she could find a way to get her mother out while the women continued acting normally, she might buy time before anyone behind the security camera realized any thing was wrong.

  "Pass me that blanket, will you, Joyce?" Sephie said to Masister Khol. "She's tired again. I think what she really needs is more iron, by the way. Not to mention a little sunshine. Bed rest doesn't mean she has to lie indoors every second."

  "Do you want to tell the Protectorat or shall I?" Masister Khol asked.

  Gaia came through the bathroom doorway with the cup of water.

  "If he came up here, I'd tell him myself," Sephie said. "Since he doesn't, it'll have to be you." She dropped the blanket around Bonnie's shoulders, and with a pale hand, Bonnie drew it closer across her chest.

  "I'm a little sleepy myself," Julia said, with a yawn and a stretch. "What I wouldn't give to walk around the market for a bit."

  "Why don't you take another snooze?" Masister Khol said dryly.

  Julia appeared to miss the sarcasm. "No, no," Julia said, laying her head on her white pillow. "I want to help Sephie." She tucked her feet up onto the bed and her face went slack with sleep.

  "Well, of all the lazy nerve," said Masister Khol. A moment

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  later, her head tilted back to rest against the back of her chair. Gaia watched in grim astonishment as her eyes began to close. Her teacup tipped, spilling liquid into her lap, but Masister Khol was so deeply asleep she didn't notice.

  "You viper," Sephie said softly to Gaia. "I kept up your cover. I let you have your little visit."

  Gaia watched Sephie stumble toward her rocking chair and grip the armrest as she sat heavily. She lifted her heavy lidded eyes to Gaia.

  "Take her, then," Sephie said. "At least they can't blame me."

  She was asleep.

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  Chapter 23 Maya

  WHAT'S HAPPENING?" Gaias mother asked, a new alertness in her eyes.

  Her hands flying, Gaia bunched the extra blanket and a pillow into a heap on the bed and threw another blanket over them to fake a sleeping form.

  "Quickly, mother," Gaia said, gripping her arm firmly and guiding her upward. "We have no time at all."

  "Gaia?" her mother asked, her voice lifting in wonder.

  "Please," Gaia whispered urgently, wrapping an arm around her waist and practically carrying her toward the door. "We have to get out. Now. Before they see."

  "Oh, Gaia!" her mother said breathlessly. "I can't believe it's you!"

  Gaia wrenched open the handle, pulled her mother out to the landing, and shut the door. The maneuver from bed to landing had taken no more than six seconds, and if anyone in surveillance had happened to look away during that instant, they might not see that anything was wrong with the people in the tower cell-- not until they looked closely at the women and saw they weren't talking, but sleeping.

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  "Oh, Mom," she said, hugging her as hard as she dared. She inhaled the scent of exhaustion and desolation that lingered on her mothers skin, while her mother s bony, swollen body shivered under the thin fabric of her blue dress.

  "I can't believe it's you," her mother said again. Her narrow arms pressed around her daughter, trembling. Then she peered into her face, gazing in wonder. She touched Gala's cheek. "What happened to your face?"

  "Be careful. It's a mask. Quickly, we have to leave." She drew her mothers body alongside her own and held her firmly around the waist as they started down the steps.

  "I'm so weak," her mother whispered. "I'm sorry."

  "It's okay," Gaia said, her mind racing. She couldn't take her mother out the door she'd come in with Masister Khol because the guards would immediately be suspicious. But she had to get to Leon or Mace Jackson somehow. Her mother stumbled, and when Gaia caught her, she groaned.

  "Are you all right?" Gaia asked.

  "I've had some spotting," her mother said. "I've been on bed rest. This is the most exercise I've had in I don't know how long."

  "How did this happen?" Gaia asked, helping her down another step.

  Her mother gave a faint laugh. "In the usual way. A lifetime ago."

  "But, I mean, it's Dad's, right?" Gaia asked. She had to ask. "Why didn't you tell me you were pregnant?"

  As they approached an oblong window, her mother gripped the sill and the sunlight dropped on her pale hand, giving it a translucent blue color as she braced herself against the darker stone. Gaia couldn't believe how small and fragile her mother looked.

  "I'd had so many miscarriages," her mother said, her voice

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  thin. "I didn't hardly dare to hope myself. But we were about to tell you. Your father was so excited. It feels like a lifetime ago now. And then, when we were arrested, the baby saved my life. Your father-- "

  A clattering noise rose from below. Gaia clutched protectively at her mother and could feel her trembling. Her mothers arm was slung around Gaia's neck, and she silently pressed her face against Gaia's right cheek.

  A peal of laughter echoed up the tower staircase. "I can't believe you!" came a merry, girlish voice. "What kind of a present is that?"

  There was the sound of a scuffle, and then a man's quiet laughter, and then a sharp, jingling noise.

  "I mean it!" the young woman said again playfully.

  There was an indecipherable grumble, and then a low voice: "You'll be the death of me, Rita. I swear."

  "Shhh!" Rita said. And then, "Okay. Now."

  There was a shuffling sound of footsteps, and then a thud of a door closing, and then silence. Gaia was certain she'd recognized the voice of the pretty girl Rita who had tried to warn her not to get involved with the executed couple. Her mother bent over suddenly and gasped.

  "Oh, no," she groaned.

  "What is it?" Gaia whispered.

  Her mother turned beseeching eyes on her. "Leave me, Gaia. Leave me here. Hurry down and you can escape." She slid her pale, blue-veined hand under the curve of her belly.

  "No," Gaia protested, resisting panic. Her mother couldn't be going into premature labor, not here, not now. She held her mother more closely than ever. "I'm not leaving you. We'll find a way."

  Her mother came down a few more steps with her, then a half dozen more, and then Gaia felt her sag. Sweat broke out on

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  Gaia s forehead under the mask, loosening it. What am I going to do? she wondered desperately. Her mother slowly sat on one of the steps, lowering her head into her hands and holding very still, as if concentrating in pain.

  Gaia couldn't just deliver her mother's baby there on the steps. It could take hours, and soldiers would be coming as soon as one of the women in the tower above recovered enough to raise an alarm.

  "Should I take you back up to Sephie?" Gaia asked. "Mom?"
r />   Her mother shook her head. It was hardly a definitive answer, and Gaia was torn, trying to think what would be best for her mother.

  "Are you sure?"

  "I'm not going back," her mother said.

  Below, Gaia could see the door that Rita and her boyfriend must have come through. It could only lead into the Bastion, to one of the upper floors, she guessed, since it was the first door they'd come to. It would lead them farther from freedom, but Gaia didn't see any other choice.

  She hurried down the steps to touch the latch, and it lifted easily. She peeked out the door and saw it led to a hallway much like the kind she'd traversed on her way to the yellow room. The peaceful yellow walls and runner carpet looked deceptively welcoming.

  "Come with me, Mom," Gaia whispered, beckoning.

  "Where are we going?"

  "We have to find a place to hide you," Gaia said, hoping she sounded more confident than she felt. "Are you okay?"

  She nodded. "For now." She held one hand to her stomach, and Gaia reached for the other.

  Gaia checked down the hallway once more and looked along the ceiling for camera lenses, seeing none. She had no idea how to find her way out, but she knew generally where the courtyard

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  and the school she'd escaped through before must be, and she headed in that direction, north through the building. Her mother couldn't go far. When she came to a corner, she looked again for camera lenses and saw none. Either Mabrother Iris didn't see a need for surveillance in the secure, upper hallways of the Bastion, or the Bastions inhabitants insisted on their right to privacy.

  They passed several doors, hearing nothing behind them, and then the hallway opened onto a long, covered balcony.

  "Let me rest," her mother said, leaning over.

  Gaia could see a courtyard three stories below. At Gaia's level, arched openings and pillars led all around the upper perimeter of the courtyard in one continuous balcony. Voices carried upward, and Gaia ducked down behind the balustrade, bringing her mother with her so they would be out of sight.

  "Where are we?" Bonnie asked.

  "Near the school," Gaia said. "If we can cross around to the opposite side of the balcony, we'll be above the school, and there might be another way down."

  A whistle blasted and loud voices came from below.

  "Attention! We have an escaping prisoner. Let no one in or out of the Bastion. All guards to your stations! Immediately!" The whistle blew again.

  Gaia heard a flurry of footsteps along the hallway behind them, and when she turned, she found Rita and a young man skidding to a stop before them. Her red, sleeveless dress was askew, and the buttons of his brown shirt were half undone.

  "Oh, no," Gaia whispered, sheltering her mother behind her where they crouched.

  Rita's honey-colored hair was tumbled around her face, her expression grim. The young man hurriedly stepped forward, shielding Rita behind him.

  "It's them!" the man cried.

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  Beside Gaia, her mother moaned quietly again, and Gaia lifted pleading eyes to Rita. The man leaned toward the balcony, clearly intending to yell an alarm, but Rita clutched his arm.

  "Not a word, Sid," she said in a sharp low voice. "If you call down, they'll find you and me together. Is that what you want?"

  Sid backed away from the balcony, his expression openly confused and angry. "But, Rita-- !" he began.

  "Be quiet," she snapped. Rita came forward and crouched beside Gaia. Gaia felt her frowning, penetrating gaze. "It's you," Rita said in a flat tone. "Why am I not surprised? Are you insane?" She scowled at Gaia's mother, and then back at Gaia. "What are you doing with her?"

  "She's my mother," Gaia said.

  Rita's almond eyes widened in shock, and then she glanced quickly at her boyfriend. "Give me a hand," she said. "Quickly."

  Sid hesitated another moment with his powerful arms crossed, and then he angrily moved behind Gaia's mother. "You're going to get us both killed," he whispered to Rita.

  Rita was leaning over. "No, you are, moron," Rita said to Sid. "Hey. She's in bad shape, isn't she?"

  Gaia guided her mother up with Sid's help, and then pulled her mother's arm around her neck and braced her against her hip.

  "Come on," Rita said.

  But Gaia's mother let out another moan and her knees buck-led. Sid swore and scooped her up into his arms.

  "Where to, genius?" he demanded.

  Rita turned back the way they'd come and hurried them along a narrow hallway, then up another staircase. They were going farther from the only way Gaia knew out of the Bastion. Yet she had no other choice than to trust Rita, and a few moments

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  later, Rita pushed open the door of a small room. Gaia, and Sid with his burden, followed her closely inside.

  As Gaia shut the door, Sid knelt on the floor and gently laid Gaia's mother on the wood where she sagged, her face contorted in pain. Gaia was dimly aware that they'd entered a long, narrow room with shelves along the walls. She crouched beside her mother, taking her hands. "It's okay, Mom," Gaia said.

  She glanced up at Rita, who was passing her a pile of white towels and sheets. "Here," Rita said. "We have to go. I'm sorry, but this is the best I can do. I have to get Sid out of here some' how. Sid," she said to him. "We're going past the library, to the school. You're going to be okay."

  They heard more shouting noises and loud footsteps passing in the hall. Gaia saw Sid's face go chalky with fear, and she was certain hers was the same. Rita had her hand on the door' knob, waiting. As she tucked a strand of her blond hair behind her ear, Rita looked utterly unflappable.

  "If you make it until dark," Rita said, frowning, "I might be able to come back. But don't count on it."

  "Thank you," Gaia said. It was still hard to breathe normally. "You saved our lives." She slid several towels under her mother's head for a pillow and glanced up again at Rita.

  "I heard what you did for that convict's baby," Rita said. "That was the bravest thing."

  "What?" Sid said, obviously confused.

  But as Gaia understood, she was filled with gratitude. "I just had to," she said.

  Rita gave a determined nod, and her eyes flashed once more in Bonnie's direction. "Take care of her."

  "What baby?" Sid insisted. "How do you know this guy?"

  Gaia realized he had not yet recognized who she was.

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  Rita took Sid's arm. "Are you ready, my sweet troglodyte?"

  "You re the one slowing us down," Sid said.

  Gaia watched them hesitate one more instant by the door, and then Rita opened it and they were gone.

  As Gaia focused again on her mother, she saw that her eyes were closed. Her face was relaxed in the relief and exhaustion that came between contractions. It was frightening how quickly her contractions had started up, and how intense they were. Gaia knew, since her mother had had three children, that this fourth child could arrive more quickly and with less pain than the earlier ones, but she was also alarmed. She had no assistance and no tools to use during the delivery.

  "It's okay, Mom," Gaia said softly, when her mother moaned again.

  "Heaven help us," her mother said. "What have we come to?"

  Gaia glanced more carefully around the room to see what there might be to use, and mentally thanked Rita again for her quick thinking. They were in a kind of laundry room or giant linen closet, with rows of shelves where towels, sheets, and blankets were neatly folded. At the end of the room, two large, white cloth bins stood on rollers, and from the way their sides bulged, Gaia guessed they were full of dirty linens. At the end of the narrow room, a tall, thin window let in enough sunlight for Gaia to see easily. A look at the door showed her there was no bolt. Anyone could come in at any minute to discover them.

  Gaia took a quick look at her mother's closed eyes and hurried to the end of the room, near the window. She rolled aside the two bins and quickly layered blankets and sheets into a pad against the wa
ll. Here, with the bins arranged to block the view, they would be shielded from a cursory glance into the room.

  "Mom," Gaia said, and her mother opened her eyes. "Can you move with me, down there?" She pointed.

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  Her mother nodded and held up a hand. Gaia gripped tightly, and helped her mother to a hunched, standing position. Carefully, moving slowly, they passed the shelves, and her mother sank onto the makeshift mattress. Gaia bunched fresh towels under her head, and collected the others from where they'd first come in. With the bins arranged at Gaia's back and the window above her mother, Gaia had the sense of being in a sort of laundry nest. She pulled off her jacket so the extra cloak and the rope fell out of her shirt. When she tossed off her hat, she felt a piece of the mask along her forehead break free with the brim.

  "There you are," her mother said gently with a crooked smile.

  "I'm sorry, Mom," Gaia said. Her throat tightened. "I didn't know you were pregnant when I came for you. You would have been safer if I'd left you with Sephie. Should I go back for her?" She remembered Sephie was drugged into sleep. "Or find another doctor?"

  Her mother shook her head and touched a finger to Gaia's cheek. "I want to be with you," she said. "Couldn't be in better hands."

  Gaia let out a choked laugh. "How early are you?"

  "I'm around thirty five weeks. It'll be a small one. But it's strong." Her mother caught her breath, and Gaia put her hands on the bulge under her mother's dress, feeling the contraction tighten her belly. When it eased, Gaia gently lifted her mother's gown out of the way. Blood was seeping out of her mother, oozing onto the white towels. Gaia's heart froze, and then started up again in alarm.

  "Don't worry, Mom," Gaia whispered. "I'm going to see how dilated you are, okay?"

  She nodded, and Gaia examined her, feeling the hard knob of the baby's head. She forced herself to smile at her mom, and

 
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