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Birthmarked, p.32
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       Birthmarked, p.32

           Caragh M. O'Brien
narrow lane where the shop awnings reached out over the side' walks. Drips fell from the awnings, and Gaia ducked her head each time they passed beneath one.

  "How's the gift?" she asked.


  They passed a second group of soldiers that appeared as unconcerned as the first, and Gaia began to feel some hope. But as they rounded another corner, she heard the sound of foot' steps behind them.

  "Are they following us?"

  "Don't look back," Leon said.

  Gaia kept walking, turning with Leon onto a wider street that descended in a wide, gentle arc toward the south gate. White storefronts, streaked gray by the rain, lined the street, and street' lamps cast paths of reflections in the wet cobblestones. From some apartment above, the spicy scent of curried stew mixed with the smell of rain, and tauntingly reminded her that the rest of the world was going on with routine dinner preparations while she might well be walking her last steps. Gaia stretched her stride to avoid a puddle. There were guards on the parapet of the wall and in front of the gates, but the doors of the gate were wide open. Gaia even had a glimpse of Wharfton through the open archway, a row of drab, gray houses, wet and hunched against the night. There was motion out there, people passing by.

  "It's a trap," Gaia whispered. "They're waiting for us."

  "Keep steady," Leon said.

  At that moment, a couple of men in white came out of a doorway on the left. They glanced curiously in Leon and Gaia's direction, and then one of the men stopped. He lifted his hand in a brief wave.

  "Hey! Grey!" he called. "I didn't realize you were going to the party. You've been far too reclusive lately."


  "We have to go!" Gaia whispered.

  But Leon released her and held out a hand to shake with the two men. "How've you been? We thought we'd get a look at the fireworks from the wall," he said.

  "Are they still having the fireworks with the rain?"

  "That's the plan." Leon said.

  The men were looking curiously at Gaia. She kept her face turned toward Leon so they wouldn't see the scarred side of her face.

  "You remember my friend Lucy Blair," Leon lied smoothly. "From archery class. This is Mort Phillips and Zack Bittman."

  The men looked surprised, but they offered their hands to shake. "Of course!" the first one said.

  "Nice to see you," Gaia said shyly.

  "Are they really going to let you up on the wall?" Mort asked. "Looks like they're busy with something. Have you heard anything about fugitives?"

  "Nothing lately," Leon said casually. "Good to see you. Let's catch up at the party."

  "Sounds good," Mort said. He pointed a finger at Leon. "I still have that book you loaned me."

  "Forget about it. I knew you'd never give it back," Leon said, his voice droll.

  The men laughed and started up the road. Leon offered his elbow again, and Gaia slid her fingers into the corner of his arm.

  "Do you know everybody?" she whispered.

  He gave her a smile but his eyes were watchful. "Yes."

  He's a far better actor than I could ever be, she thought. The guards behind them had stopped during Leon's conversation with his friends, and they had their heads together now. The guards down below had turned uncertainly toward their leader, a tall, white-haired man with a distinctive Adam's apple.


  "Even Lanchester?" Gaia asked.


  "I know the head guard, Sergeant Lanchester," she said.

  They were almost upon the gate now, almost near enough to run through. Gaia thought her heart was going to beat out of her chest. The guards, more decisive now, were lifting their rifles. The ones on the top of the wall already had theirs cocked and pointed at Gaia and Leon.

  "Do you trust me?" Leon asked.


  She did. Implicitly. She met his intense, searching gaze with absolute certainty.

  "Then take this," he said, and passed her the gilded gift bag with her sister inside. In the next instant, he grabbed her left arm and jerked it up behind her, twisting her hard up against him, and with the other hand, he bared a knife before her chin. She let out a shriek and instinctively struggled, desperately clutching her sister.

  "Let me through or I'll kill her," Leon called.

  "Let her go," Sgt. Lanchester called.

  The men were moving into the archway to block the exit, their guns aimed at Leon and Gaia. They closed one of the massive doors.

  "Clear out of the way!" Leon said. He wrenched her arm upward painfully and she let out another scream.

  "Stop!" she said. "Oh, please! Stop!" And then she was silent because the knife was biting into her throat.

  "Move!" Leon said again, edging closer to the archway.

  "Step back!" Sgt. Lanchester said to his men. "Don't fire! Don't risk killing the girl! Gaia, is that really you?"

  She was too afraid to speak. Leon was half carrying, half jerking her toward the great open gateway, and she was terrified that she would drop her sister. Already she was certain


  the bag was ripping. Leon jerked her arm again, and she gasped out as pain shot up her left shoulder. Sgt. Lanchester was shifting closer, his gun aimed at Leon s head. Leon held Gaia as a shield before him, and still edged toward the gate.

  "Just let her go," Sgt. Lanchester said, his voice deliberately calm. "She never did anything to you. Just let her go, and we'll talk about this."

  "Don't get any closer," Leon said. "Put up your gun."

  But Sgt. Lanchester came even closer, and his pistol was leveled at them. Gaia could see down the black of the barrel.

  "Don't shoot!" she begged. She felt tears brimming her eyes. She didn't think she could bear the pain in her shoulder any longer. She could feel her grip on her sister loosening, and still Leon was jerking her toward the archway.

  "Please, Leon," she whispered. "You're hurting-- " she gasped again as another twist of agony ripped through her, and then she closed her eyes as her head began to spin with pain.

  "Let her go!" Lanchester said again.

  As she felt a minute yielding in Leon's grip, she opened her eyes and was stunned and to see they'd reached the archway. They were practically through the door. Practically free! He still held her pinned against him, his cheek alongside her ear, his knife at her throat. For an impossibly long moment, her hope was as intense as her raw pain.

  "Run," Leon said softly.

  She didn't understand.

  He released her completely, pushing her stumbling out of the Enclave. She took half a dozen running steps before she realized he wasn't with her. She turned around and saw him swinging the door closed. With himself still inside.

  "No!" Gaia said. "Leon!"

  She stumbled back toward the door, but through the narrowing gap she saw a rifle butt crack hard into the back of


  Leon s head, and he was falling. For one, unblinking instant, Gaia couldn't think at all, and then she turned away from the lights and the wall. She gripped the ripping bag with her baby sister to her chest and ran blindly.


  Chapter 28 Returned Property

  AS ANGRY VOICES from the top of the wall followed after her, Gaia ran tripping into a crowd of people. They called after her, too, reaching out for her, but she pulled away and ran. There were groups of people everywhere in the streets, sitting in lines along the curbs and on stools they'd brought outside. She nearly fell over a group of children, and their parents shouted at her as well. It was bizarre, surreal, and she couldn't pause to try to make sense of it. All she could do was keep to the darkness, avoiding any lights that might expose her to the surveillance system, and run as fast as possible. Her left arm was still limp with pain and almost useless. A shrill, interior screaming de' railed any normal thought in her mind and kept her fixated on the last glimpse she'd had of Leon falling, unconsious or dead.

  "He can't be dead," she whispered.

  She stopped to ca
tch her breath and braced herself against a building. A light exploded in the sky and then a loud pop came from behind her. The crowd around her broke into a satisfied u Ooh!" She turned in amazement to look back in the direction of the Enclave, and saw a firework disintegrating in the foggy sky above the tower. As a second firework exploded, she


  realized finally what was happening: the celebration of Evelyn s birthday had gone on, uninterrupted, even as she and Leon had been scrambling to save their lives.

  She peered around to get her bearings and realized her feet had brought her to Eastern Sector Two, near her old friend Emilys home. The moist air tasted of wood smoke. While more fireworks boomed into the sky behind her, she swerved left and ran down two more streets to a small house at the end of a row. She rapped on Emily and Kyle's door, gasping for breath.

  When the door opened, she practically fell inward, and strong hands grasped her.

  "Gaia Stone!" Kyle said in astonishment. "Emily! Come quickly."

  She felt a strangled desire to scream again, and a new ripple of pain shot through her left shoulder joint. Kyle guided her to a chair by the fire. Emily was coming from the back room, wide-eyed. As he closed the door, the booming noises were muffled.

  "Gaia!" she exclaimed. "What happened to you?"

  Gaia turned back the bag in her arms, scrambling to get a clear look at her sister. The baby's eyes were open but other' wise she was still. Gaia let the ripped bag and the ledgers fall to the floor as she lifted the baby before her, holding her head gently in her palm. "You okay, Maya?" she asked.

  The infant's eyes blinked, and she made a little pursing face with her lips. Gaia sighed with relief, and snuggled her sister closer into her arms again.

  Emily and Kyle exchanged a glance, and Emily slid next to Gaia, wrapping an arm around her shoulder. Gaia winced in pain.

  "Kyle," Emily said. "Go see if anyone's following her."

  Kyle grabbed a coat from a hook. "I'll tell the others and get your father. Don't worry, Gaia. We'll watch for them. If the guards are coming, we'll get you out of here."

  Gaia looked at Emily clearly for the first time and saw her


  face was fuller, her auburn hair longer than when she'd last seen her. Her eyes were the same rich blue and as full of concern as ever.

  "Are you okay?" Emily asked. "What's happened to you?" She plucked gently at the fine white fabric of Gaia's cloak.

  "I need to change," she said, slowly. She needed to think ahead. Leon wasn't with her. He wasn't coming. He couldn't. It was still only barely believable to her. "I need to leave as soon as possible. Do you have any formula? Any supplies I can take into the Dead Forest?"

  Emily looked amazed. "Of course," she said. "But are you sure you want to go?"

  Gaia hardly knew where to start, and when she tried to sum up everything that had happened to her since she'd gone inside the wall, she couldn't do it. There was too much: her father, her mother, Leon. "I can't explain it all," she said. "But I do know I have to go."

  "We knew they were looking for you," Emily said. "They've been posting your picture on the Tvaltar, but they didn't explain why. What trouble are you in?"

  "It's not safe for me here," Gaia said. "It's also dangerous for anyone who helps me. I just realized -- they know you're my friend. I'm sorry, Emily. I shouldn't have come here." She turned toward the door and started to rise.

  Emily hushed her and pulled her down again. "Don't say that. You can't leave like this. We're glad to help, and I'm sure Kyle's got someone watching for us."

  Gaia rubbed her left shoulder, trying to squeeze out some of the pain.

  "You're hurt, aren't you?" Emily said. "Here. Let me help you into some other clothes. Does your baby need a bottle?"

  Gaia's heart was still racing, but she was able to breathe more regularly now. "Not yet. She's my sister. Maya."


  "Your sister? Where" s your mother?"

  Gaia gazed down at her sisters little face, infinitely sad. "She's dead."

  "Oh, Gaia."

  Gaia searched out her sisters little hand and lifted the fingers into the firelight. More muffled booms came from the Enclave. If she started thinking about her mother, the tears would start coming and she didn't know if they'd ever stop.

  "I'm so sorry," Emily said softly. "She was a wonderful woman."

  Gaia closed her eyes hard, feeling the tears start to brim despite her determination to keep them back. "Please," she said. "I cant think about her. I can't".

  "Of course not," Emily said kindly. "Just wait right here. I'm going to put Maya in something clean and dry, and I'll grab some things for you. You want me to take her?"

  Gaia nodded mutely. Carefully, she passed over the infant, and her hands felt emptier than they ever had. Emily passed quietly out of the room. Gaia slumped down onto the bench near the fire and let her face drop forward into her fingers. Every bone, every muscle in her body was weary from pain and exertion, but it was deep in her heart that she was most worn with misery.

  There was a sharp burst of staccato explosions outside, and a glimmer of light outside the window signaled the finale. Soon the streets would be a madhouse as people headed for their homes. She reached slowly for the pile of ledgers that had fallen to the ground at her feet and settled them in a pile on her lap. They didn't seem like much of a prize when shed lost so much. She opened the top ledger and scanned the first page. It was the list of adopted babies, a simple line for each:


  Jan 4,2385 Healthy boy. Lauren and "Tom,

  Tom McManus. Jr."

  Jan 16,2385 Healthy boy. Zoe and Nabu "Labib"


  Jan 17,2385 Healthy girl. Lucy-Alice "Joy"

  Mairson and

  Stephen Pignato.

  And on and on, year after year they went. This was what she had to leave behind of her mother and fathers legacy: a guide, or a way to open the wounds of loss for every parent outside the wall who had ever wondered what had happened to an advanced child. Now, if they chose to, they could know who had adopted their children and, if they investigated further, if they were willing to risk pursuing information within the Enclave, they could discover if their children had thrived or died. How many parents, she wondered, would really want to know? Her Mom, of course, would have died for these records. In essence, she did.

  Gaia flipped the pages and slowly ran her finger down the column of dates until she came to the one entry that still mattered most:

  Feb 12, 2389 Healthy boy. Jodi and Sol Chiaro. "Martin"

  That was her brother Arthur. He had become Martin Chiaro. Little good it did her to know; he was as lost to her as ever.

  Gaia closed the cover, and as she did, she noticed something shiny on the floor, mixed in with the gilded paper and a blanket that Leon had tucked into the gift bag. She reached down and pulled at a bit of chain, lifting it into the glow of the firelight. At the bottom of the loop a familiar disk of metal rose and pivoted slowly in the golden light: her locket watch.


  "Oh, Leon," she murmured.

  She could practically hear his voice insisting that it be' longed to her, especially now that she was free. She flipped open the tiny catch to see the words engraved within the cover: Life First. She wrapped the chain slowly around her fingers and gripped the cool watch, pressing her fist against her forehead. It was ticking. She would not cry. She would not.

  "You okay?" Emily asked, coming in again with Maya and an armful of clothes.

  Gaia shook her head. She was not okay. She didn't know if she'd ever be okay again. She wiped her wrist against her eye.

  When she glanced up at Emily again, she noted the sway of Emily's back as she held the baby, and the subtle curve of her belly. Gaia frowned. "Are you expecting again?"

  Emily laughed. "How like you to notice."

  Gaia glanced around the room more carefully, seeing the simple furniture and a high chair in one corner. The sound o
f people laughing passed in the row outside. "Where's your baby?"

  "Paul? He's down for the night." She smiled again. "Or so I hope. Here. Why don't you change? I mean, you look like a princess, but that's not very practical out here."

  Gaia slipped off her white clothes and dressed slowly in a brown dress and a blue, white-flecked sweater. She had to be careful with her left arm, but it didn't feel like anything was broken.

  "Here, you take her," Emily said, passing Maya back to Gaia. "I'll get you some stew."

  "I'm not hungry. I don't have time. Honestly."

  "You'll eat anyway."

  Emily bustled around, taking away Gaia's white discards and bringing her a steaming bowl with a spoon. As her fingers closed on the spoon, Gaia founds she was shaky with shock and exhaustion.


  "What are those?" Emily asked, gesturing to the ledgers.

  "I want you to take care of them," Gaia said. "They're the records of the advanced babies and who adopted them inside the Enclave."

  Emily's forehead creased in disbelief. "Are you serious?"

  Gaia lifted a spoonful of soup before her lips and blew gently on it. It did smell good, salty and rich with potatoes and meat. "Yes," she said. "Can you make copies somehow? Do you have people you can trust? Your parents?"

  Emily sat beside Gaia and turned a few of the pages. "This is incredible," she said, nodding. "There are a few of us, not too many, but a few of us that have started meeting up." Her expression grew more somber. "A few weeks ago, something frightened me badly."

  "When the raven was shot? On the shore?"

  Emily turned to her slowly, her amazement obviously. "How do you know about that?"

  "They were showing me," Gaia said. "They wanted to make a point."

  Emily s voice dropped. "They made their point. They've gone too far, Gaia. Taking your parents, and then raising the quota to five. A baker was roughed up in Eastern Sector One the other day by a couple of guards. People are starting to talk. Fireworks are not going to be enough to keep everyone happy."

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