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Birthmarked, p.28
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       Birthmarked, p.28

           Caragh M. O'Brien

  Leon's face drained of color, and Gaia hurried across the tiles to stand beside him.

  "No, Miles. You can't," Genevieve said quickly, grabbing the Protectorat's arm.

  Winston was coming closer, and Gaia pressed nearer to Leon, guarding the baby in her arms.

  "She's right, father," Rafael said. "He's the one person you can't eliminate. It would be political suicide."

  Gaia glared at Leon's brother. It was no surprise that he bore no physical similarity to Leon. His even features and care' fully combed, light brown hair were familiar to her from the Tvaltar specials, but there was something in his intense expression that drew her attention. Perhaps it was in his bearing, or his innate sense of entitlement, but in some elusive way, the younger brother resembled Leon.

  "I appreciate your concern, both of you," the Protectorat said dryly. "But I'll take my chances."

  "Miles, think," Genevieve urged him. "He's more important than ever right now-- your own advanced son from outside the wall. He even has the freckles. He's the future. And Gaia Stone is practically a hero. Look at her!"

  "Dad, please! You can't kill them!" Evelyn said.

  The Protectorat's mouth closed in a grim line, and his flat eyes yielded nothing. Winston was hovering just behind Gaia, and when he put a hand on her arm, she jerked forward.

  "You're despicable," Gaia said to the Protectorat, a catch in her voice. "A man who would kill his own son. How can you call yourself the Protectorat?"

  The Protectorat barely looked at Gaia before turning to his wife. "He's not mine. He's never been mine. I tried to reason


  with him four days ago, and what did he do? He ran. He's a catastrophe waiting to happen," he said. "Not to mention that he's acquired a mouthy, low-born slattern from outside the wall."

  Leon angled toward Genevieve and spoke softly. "How can you bear to stay with him, Mother?" he asked.

  With two steps forward, the Protectorat backhanded his fist against Leon's jaw. Leon's face whipped to the side and he stumbled back.

  "You'll be silent," the Protectorat said.

  Gaia saw Genevieve's complexion whiten, and Leon's sister gasped, covering her mouth. A trickle of blood came from the corner of his lip, but Leon was straightening again with slow deliberation.

  "Enough of this nonsense. Who is the baby?" the Protectorat demanded.

  Mabrother Iris stepped forward and nervously adjusted his glasses.

  "It's Bonnie Stone's child," Mabrother Iris said. "I was just coming to tell you we've located the body of the prisoner in the third floor laundry room. The infant, as you know, has as good a chance as any from Western Sector Three to have the suppressor gene. Just as the girl here does." Mabrother Iris turned to Gaia. "Is it a boy or a girl?"

  "It's mine, you bastard," Gaia said. "You're not taking it."

  The Protectorat turned again to Winston. "The girl was raised outside. You can see what she's like. Dispose of her already."

  "But, Father. Think of the gene pool," said Rafael, coming to stand near his father. "You have to think of her genes."

  To Gaia's alarm, the Protectorat suddenly grabbed her chin, jerking her so that she stumbled forward, her face clearly exposed for inspection.


  "Would you have this?" the Protectorat hissed at his son.

  Rafael's gaze narrowed in a slow inspection while she stared defiantly back. Rafael's gaze faltered, shot briefly toward Leon, and then down. His answer was obvious: no.

  And in spite of everything, in the face of all the other more important dangers that threatened her, it still stung that some' one, some boy, found her ugly. Gaia burned with sudden hate for all of them.

  The Protectorat saw. He smiled slightly.

  "I thought not," said the Protectorat, releasing her with a flick. He turned back toward his family. "I cant thrust her on any family I know, no matter what her genes are. She's a freak, not a hero. I'd rather make a hero out of Myrna Silk."

  Leon had been standing tensely throughout this exchange. "I'd take Gaia," Leon said, his low voice resonating in the space.

  Gaia caught her breath and turned to find him watching her with his steady, intrepid gaze. She realized he had hardly spoken a word in the Protectorate presence, as if Leon despised him and distrusted him so completely that he wouldn't give his adoptive father the satisfaction of seeing Leon try to defend himself. But Leon was defending Gaia.

  Leon's father laughed derisively. "Perfect," he said.

  "He's right, Miles. Can't you see?" Genevieve said. "Think how it would appear if we took them in. He'd be reclaimed, totally submissive, and she'd be the hope of the Enclave. They might even have a child, one of the children you need, all under our guidance, and we, we'd be the heroes."

  The Protectorat's face hardened. "You forget what he did," he said bitterly.

  There was a silence during which the baby made a small, sucking noise in Gaia's arms and wiggled briefly. She instinctively drew her closer, shushing her.


  "I haven't forgetten," Genevieve said quietly.

  Gaia s gaze flew from one tense face to another. Genevieve's hands clenched to her chest, and a bit apart from her, Evelyn seemed lost inside herself Rafael, also standing aloof, had his hands buried in his pockets. The Protectorat was a stone. Finally she turned to see Leon s jaw rigid, his vivid eyes bright with defiance. For a fleeting moment, Gaia felt the presence of the missing sister, an absence as palpable as if a live twin had just descended the staircase beside Evelyn, only to vanish.

  A touch of color rode high along Leon s cheekbones. "For the last time," he said softly. "I never touched her."

  The Protectorat spoke distinctly and slowly. "You re a pervert and a liar. As far as I'm concerned, you might as well be a murderer." He abruptly turned away. "Do it quietly, Winston," he said. "Now."

  Gaia felt Winston and the guards closing in on them, and Evelyn gave a shriek of protest. But Genevieve and Rafael had run out of objections, and Gaia realized with a shock that Leon stood frozen, doing nothing to resist, as if something his father had said proved he deserved to be killed. What was this insidious power his father had over him?

  "No!" Gaia said.

  On impulse, she pulled Leohs arm in the one unexpected direction, bolting forward toward the stairs. The Protectorat grabbed for them, but Genevieve lost her balance and pitched forward into his arms. Gaia shoved hard into Rafael, and when he gripped her arm, she jerked down and free. Then she and Leon ran up the great, curving staircase, gaining crucial seconds on the guards who wove through the family to follow.

  Gaia sprinted up the stairs two at a time. Near the top of the staircase, Leon overtook her. His hands were still tied behind him, but he led rapidly to the right.

  "Quickly!" he shouted to Gaia, and she flew after him,


  around another corner and bouncing off the wall of the hall' way with one hand for leverage. He slid to a stop before a small, half size door. "Open it!" he commanded, and Gaia jammed her thumb into the latch and yanked. She followed him out in a blind crawl, closing the door behind her, and for an instant she feared they were trapped on a balcony. A second look showed her they were on the roof of the solarium, and a narrow iron catwalk led over the arch of the glass panes.

  Leon stepped out ahead of her. "Follow closely," he said. "Take my hand."

  She reached to where his hands were bound behind him and felt the firm clasp of his fingers. If he slipped or lost his balance, he would have no way to catch himself before he crashed through the glass and fell fifty feet to the floor of the solarium below.

  "I've got you," she said, and hitched the baby closer in her arm.

  She forced her feet forward on the narrow rails. From be' hind came the noise of guards running in the hallway. She could only hope that they overlooked the little door. She and Leon reached the apex of the roof and started down the other side. Terror urged her to go more quickly than she would have dared, and she suck
ed in her breath as her balance teetered. Leon jerked her back in line and then wobbled himself while she clung to him.

  "Forward," he said fiercely. "Now, Gaia. Don't pull me back."

  They reached the far side of the roof with its corresponding little half door just as a voice called out behind her, and then a bullet blasted into the wall beside her face, scattering a spray of burst stucco.

  "Hurry!" Leon urged her as she reached for the door handle, and then he was nudging her ahead of him. Gaia pulled him


  through, and then they were running again down another hall' way, to another staircase, one that spiraled downward into increasing darkness. Windowless walls of stone echoed the clatter of their hurrying feet. She stumbled once and gasped, slashing her hand against the wall.

  "Gaia!" he called, turning back for her. "Are you all right?"

  "Yes," she said, feeling the sting along her palm, and dimly perceiving a dark line of blood. She repositioned the baby in the nook of that arm, so her good hand was free. The air was cool and smelled stale, of old sawdust and onions. "Where are we?" she asked.

  "It's the wine cellar," he said. "It should have lights. Ah." They'd turned the last corner, and a motion detector flicked on a light bulb, revealing a long, low-ceilinged room with mason' work arches. As she hurried behind Leon, twisting between a dozen tables and shelves loaded with old pots and potatoes and turnips, Gaia glimpsed catacomb like cavities filled with bottles and barrels. Leon gave a savage kick to a tall, wooden work' table that had a row of drawers.

  "In here," he said to Gaia, over the rattling. "See if there's a knife."

  Gaia glanced back at the doorway, hearing footsteps.

  "Hurry!" Leon commanded.

  She ripped open drawer after drawer, scattering their con' tents on the floor, until Leon tapped his boot onto a sharp, serrated knife. Gaia laid the baby on the table and grasped the knife. She slipped it into the rope that bound his wrists, and with three jagged tears, she had him free.

  "Yes!" Leon hissed, curling his freed wrists in front of him.

  Gaia snatched up the baby just as the first guard appeared. "Stop there!" he yelled.

  "Here!" Leon said, grabbing her hand and ducking into one of the niches. A gunshot exploded, and another bullet hit the


  wall beside her. She hit the floor. Leon was yanking barrels away from the back wall, and she had a terrifying moment of suspecting he'd led them to a dead end, but then a deeper blackness opened in the wall and cool, dank air touched her face. Leon grabbed her shoulders and pushed, and she stumbled forward into nothingness, bracing her body to protect the baby as she fell against a stone wall.

  She felt Leon fall against her, and then the door slammed shut behind them and they were pitched into the black of utter darkness.


  Chapter 25 The Tunnels

  Gaia'S EYES WIDENED against the darkness, searching for any glimmer of light, but the black was complete. She could hear Leon shoving something by the door, and then sharp banging noises and muffled voices came from the other side.

  "Help me push," Leon said.

  Completely blind, she put out her hand and felt him wedging something solid and hard against the door. She put her shoulder beside his and pushed as best she could with Maya in her other arm. The door shuddered but didn't move.

  "It won't hold them long," Leon said.

  The baby felt even smaller in the dark, and Gaia wrapped both arms around her. "Where are we?" she asked.

  "It's the tunnel from the wine cellar," he said. "Remember the map?"

  She heard a scratching noise, and then brilliant light burst from the tip of a match. Leon's frowning face appeared in the glow before he lifted the wick of a candle. A violent, battering noise came from the door, and Gaia jumped. She saw they'd wedged a bench into the woodwork of the door, but already it was buckling.


  "They're following us!" Gaia said.

  Leon grabbed a couple more candles from a box on a shelf, and then he was moving. He lifted the candle toward a narrow tunnel carved into the bedrock and shielded its flame with the cupped fingers of his other hand. "Hold on to me."

  "Just go. I've got you."

  She gripped the back of his shirt and flew after him. The one flame was enough to reveal the dark stone walls and ceiling of the tunnel, where, at intervals, wooden beams had been added to support the walls and ceiling. She once dared to look behind, where their forms cast a huge, frightening shadow back into the blackness. Once the tunnel forked, and Leon took the right tunnel. Then it forked again, and he went left.

  There was a crashing, splintering noise behind them, and loud voices.

  "Hold tight! Hurry!" Leon said, speeding faster so that the flame flickered wildly.

  With each turn, the voices of the men fell farther behind.

  "Quietly!" Leon said, slowing his pace hardly at all.

  Gaia stumbled forward, gripping even more tightly on his blue shirt for balance.

  He stopped. "All right?"

  "Yes," she said, regaining her balance.

  He started on again. As the distance between them and the guards increased, their voices diminished and then vanished entirely. Gaia could hear only her own labored breathing and her footsteps chasing Leon s over the uneven ground. In places, the tunnel had caved in, and they had to scramble over and around dusty rubble and stone. Maya gave a little whimper in her arms, and she saw Leon look back over his shoulder to her.

  "All right?" he asked again.

  "Are we lost yet?" she asked.

  He let out a laugh. "Fiona and Evelyn and I used to play down


  here," he said. His voice had an eerie, muffled quality against the close walls. "Remember how you asked about hide-and-seek? Here. Take my arm now beside me. It's a little wider here."

  "It's just kind of creepy," she said. A feather touch traced her face, and she looked up to see the ceiling was lined with spider webs, ashy thin in the darkness. She looked back the way they had come. "I don't hear anybody," she said.

  Leon nodded and lifted the candle in the still air. "They'll come," he said. "They'll just be slower because they'll have to figure out which way we turned at each fork." He started forward again, shielding his flame. "Hold tight."

  "Where are we going?"

  "There's a place ahead where we can decide. If it's not caved in," he said.

  She sped with him several more minutes in silence until they came to a widening of the tunnel, an area where the path diverged again. When Leon finally stopped, she released her grip on his arm and peered around her. Several wooden wine crates were arranged in a rough square, enclosing a little area beside the nearest wall. At her feet, an old gray cushion had been used for a mouse's nest, laced with black feces and seed husks. Leon was lighting a couple of fresh candles from the stub of the old one and he passed the first to her.

  "Here," he said.

  She lifted her candle to cast light into the crates. Shreds of chewed paper lined the boxes, the remains of comic books and magazines, and mixed in with these she saw the distinctive shapes of a yo-yo and a handful of scattered jacks. One shelf higher up contained piles of papers. A map of the Enclave and Wharfton, coded with colored marks and stained with damp, was fixed to the wall. The cool, earth's cented air was chilly to her, uninviting, and it was hard for her to imagine children playing here. Normal children, at least.


  "What is this place?"

  "Command central. Our fort. Fiona and Evelyn and I used to hole up here, long ago." With the toe of his boot, he pushed at a tin container and marbles rolled inside. "Fiona was obsessed with figuring out who my true parents were and where they must live. Especially when I turned thirteen. That's when I had to decide whether to live outside the wall or not, but of course, no one ever does. It was a game with endless possibilities and no solution." His gaze shifted from her face to the map on the wall. "How ironic to be here now
, when I finally know the answer. We only have a few minutes, but from here we have a choice which way to go. You okay?" he asked.

  She nodded. "Good enough, considering."

  "I take it you found your mother," he said.

  Gaia tried to form the words to say she'd died giving birth, but they wouldn't come. Instead, she glanced down at the baby and saw her murky blue eyes were focused on the candle in a vacant, dreamy way.

  "It was bad, wasn't it?" he said. With his sleeve, he wiped at the corner of his mouth, erasing the trace of blood from the Protector at's blow.

  "I couldn't save her," Gaia said, and then stopped before her loss could overwhelm her.

  "I'm sorry, Gaia. I wish I could have done something."

  He had tried, she realized. He'd been caught trying to get to her. Later, maybe, she could let herself think of her mother, but now she had to save her sister. "Maya will need food soon," she said. "Where do these tunnels go?

  He lifted his candle to the left. "This way goes northeast toward where the wall meets a cliff. It ends in the cellar of a bar. If we could make it out of the bar, we'd be close to the wall, and we could run for it." He nodded toward the right.


  "This way cuts a bit south and east, to the cemetery near Ernie's cafe where I saw you that day."

  "Near the garden with the boulders?" she asked, stepping close to the old map on the wall. "The cafe's here on this little square?"

  He nodded. "Yes. The tunnel collapsed in places, but we might be able to get through. When I was last down here, it was passable, but that was a few years ago."

  "Who else knows where the tunnels lead out?"

  "Half a dozen people, probably. My sister Evelyn, for sure. The Protectorat must know of the bar exit. This was an iron mine long before the Enclave was built here, but most of the tunnels have fallen in, and they're not safe."

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