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       Birthmarked, p.4

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Freaks, Gaia thought. They let the freak families sit in the front.

  "Gaia!" Emily's father said.

  She jumped as his hand came to rest on her shoulder. "We're sitting back here today," he said gently.

  An usher came toward them. "Hey, Theo. She can sit up here," the man said casually. "She can bring her friends, too, if you want."

  Emily's father took her hand. "Thanks. That's all right."

  Mutely, she felt him tug her gently. "Come on, Gaia," he said softly. "The show's starting soon."

  She realized suddenly that most of the people had sat down now and the chatter was dying down. Turning, she saw the rows of faces and watched as one by one, as if on cue, they all began to turn toward her and Emily's father. Gaia was wearing a new dress, a pretty brown one her father had made for her just the week before, with a soft, curved collar and a bow in the back. Matching ribbons were carefully tied at the ends of her braids. But she knew the people were not noticing her clothes. They were staring at her scar. And as she and Emily's

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  father walked back up the aisle, to the place where Emily and Sasha were already sitting with Emily's mother, Gaia heard whispers. Muttering. She didn't have to hear individual words to know it was pity. The only thing that stung worse was the deeper message: freak.

  Not even Rapunzel, the most amazing Tvaltar show she'd ever seen, could make Gaia forget what she really was. Just before the end, she begged Emily's mother to let her leave early, before the lights came up, to avoid the staring crowd. To clinch any last doubt Gaia might have had, Emily's merciful mother agreed with her, and took the freak out.

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  Chapter 4 The Folded Triangle

  GAIA BLINKED AND THE MEMORY VANISHED, leaving only a trace of the old shame. Even the worst feeling, with time and familiarity, became tolerable. A pigeon was audibly pecking at the dirt before her feet. Perry had turned back to his friends, and the baby made a small shifting motion in her arms. As Gaia left the quadrangle and continued upward toward the gate, she passed a couple of Enclave men dressed in white and evaded their gazes with the brim of her hat.

  Gaia's job was to advance a baby, and that's what she would focus on. Today's mother, Sonya, had not objected or complained. She had known when Gaia arrived that this was a third child of the month, and Sonya had accepted that the infant would be advanced. This, and knowing Sonya had two kept children already, should have made advancing the baby easier for Gaia, but she found the woman's passivity disturbing. She kept expecting someone to react like Agnes had, with tormented, heart-wrenching cries. But no one did, and Agnes had vanished along with the agony of that night. Gaia didn't know whether she'd been arrested or fled, like Old Meg, to the wasteland.

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  Gaia glanced down at the sleeping child and wearily touched his little ruddy cheek. "You 11 have a good life," she whispered.

  Uneasy, she wiped a strand of her dark hair back over her right ear and glanced up at the banging, sloshy noise of a filthy boy who was washing dust from a rain-collecting panel.

  "Are you wasting water?" called a voice from the doorway behind him.

  "No, Ma," he said, his sponge dripping over the bucket.

  "If you take your hat off, so help me, I'll knock your head off, too. I don't want you burning."

  "I got it on."

  He nudged his hat back to grin up at Gaia, his teeth white and his feet wet in a dark track of mud. From above, an unseen man laughed pleasantly, and Gaia heard the clink of dishes.

  Despite the crude simplicity of the Wharfton homes and the endless work, life outside the wall had a raw decency for a moment. At least no one ever actually starved. Her parents' arrest and continued absence were making her question things she'd taken for granted and see the impoverished community outside the wall with new eyes. Perhaps the three advanced babies from their sector were simply payment for the water, mycoprotein, and electricity the Enclave gave them all. Perhaps the exchange, stripped of its veneer of privilege and promise, was that simple. And was it worth it? She passed another row of sunny, scrappy hovels and wondered if the people behind the rattan shades were watching her progress, secretly celebrating that this was the last quota baby for May

  Eastern Sector Two had reached its quota, too. Gaia had heard the news the day before from Emily's mother, who only pretended to be sorry that her grandchild would not be advanced. Emily was bright-eyed with excitement to be a mother, and her husband Kyle strutted around the wharf with his

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  black hair thrown back, full of muscle-bound pride. Their child was likely to have a completely un-extraordinary life outside the wall, like Emily and Kyle, and grow up to serve the Enclave also. Gaia couldn't quite be happy for them, knowing how they would struggle, but neither was she sad, and that added to her confusion.

  As the road ascended, Gaia had a view of the unlake on her right. It was almost possible, from this higher vantage point, to imagine how Unlake Superior had once been full of fresh water, a vast supply that had stretched all the way toward the shimmering southern horizon. Now Wharfton marked the edge of a great, empty basin that sank into a valley of granite, with alluvial fans of boulders and ledges of aspen and wildflowers. Where once there was water, now the only hint of blue came from the washed-out gray of pure distance.

  To her left, looming larger with every step that drew her closer, was the massive wall of the Enclave.

  The doors in the wall were open this time of day, and as Gaia came around a last bend, she could see through them to the clean, cool-looking buildings behind the wall. Cobblestones opened in wave patterns along the street, and a row of tidy shops with white awnings dropped a layer of inviting shade beneath them. A pair of colorfully dressed girls stood under an awning, peering in a shop window. A young woman in red called to them, and they followed obediently up the street out of sight, their matching yellow hats bright in the sunlight.

  "So this is the last one this month, is it?" the guard said as Gaia approached. "The third?"

  Gaia knew him well by now. Sgt. Georg Lanchester, the taller of the two guards who had been on duty the night she'd advanced her first baby, had an avuncular, talkative personality, and she had learned that he'd grown up outside the wall before he'd joined the guard. She couldn't help watching his Adam's

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  apple as he talked. A second guard in a matching black uniform and black, wide-trimmed hat glanced at her briefly, obviously bored. Gaia gave him a respectful nod.

  "Hello, Mabrother," she said to Sgt. Lanchester. "Any news of my parents?"

  Sgt. Lanchester pushed a button on a panel inside the door.

  "None that I've heard, Masister. I've heard a rumor as concerns you, though."

  She looked up edgily and began to rock, instinctively shifting her weight between her feet to begin an easy rhythm for the child in her arms. Painfully, she pushed the thought of her parents out to the edge of her mind again. "What would that be?"

  "They're saying they'll raise the quota to five in June," Sgt. Lanchester said.

  "Five!" she exclaimed. "It's never been higher than three, and usually it's one or two. What's going on?"

  "I couldn't say," Sgt. Lanchester said. "There's a real desire for babies, apparently. In fact," he leaned closer, "if you happen to hear of any mums as would like to do a little business on the side, completely legitimate you understand, I could connect you up with some very worthy parents on the inside."

  Gaia kept her expression completely neutral, but she was inwardly horrified. Had her mother had to deal with this? What would she have done? She certainly didn't want to offend Sgt. Lanchester, but she was not about to start negotiating the trade of babies. That's what he was implying, wasn't he? She glanced at the second guard, but he had moved several paces away and was facing the other direction, out of earshot.

  "There'd be some nice Tvaltar passes in it for you," he added, confirming her suspicion.

  "Thanks," Gaia said. "It's a thought. I'll
get back to you on it."

  Sgt. Lanchester nodded, looking pleased. "There's my girl. I

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  knew you were a right one. Completely on the up and up, you understand," he said. "But I'd just as soon you not mention it to anyone but me. Some very worthy families I know, but they'd like to keep it all discreet." He wiggled his eyebrows briefly toward the other guard.

  Then he straightened and beckoned to the man. "You should see this baby," Sgt. Lanchester called. "He's a right swell little man."

  The guard walked nearer, took a brief look, and said nothing. He was an older man, with slightly graying hair, and square, narrow shoulders. When he stared openly at Gaia's scar, her cheeks grew warm with embarrassment, and she angled her hat brim to block out his face.

  The guard grunted and turned away.

  Gaia looked past him, curious for another view of the Enclave, and farther up the curved street she could see Masister Khol coming down the hill, her white cloak flapping out behind her in the sunlight. She paused when a man greeted her, and twitched her hood forward as she leaned near to speak with him for a moment.

  A middle-aged woman in a blue dress edged past, heading down toward the quadrangle with a basket over her arm. "Good afternoon, Masister," Sgt. Lanchester said, tipping his hat. "Fine day, isn't it?"

  As the woman gave a cheery reply, Gaia felt a familiar pang of longing. People from the Enclave could come out if they wished, but very few from Wharfton ever went inside the wall, and then only when expressly invited to perform some service or deliver some good. Not even the farm laborers entered except when they brought in the harvests to store in the warehouses near the mycoprotein plant. Was there no way to earn a place inside the wall? Her desire confused her, mixed now with fear for her parents.

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  Masister Khol came through the gate. "Ah, Gaia!" she said. "Do you bring us a little boy or a little girl?"

  "A healthy boy, Masister," she said politely.

  The woman made a little ticking noise. "Girls are very much in style just now. That's okay, though. There are plenty of traditional fathers who still want a little junior. Come to Masister," she said sweetly, reaching for the child.

  Gaia leaned the baby gently toward Masister Khol and was startled to feel something sharp against her fingers under cover of the child's wrap. She glanced at Masister Khol, but the woman's face showed no unusual expression. Still, Gaia could feel her shoving something toward her, and Gaia quickly grasped it and tucked it into her pocket without letting the guards see.

  "Such a sweet little mouth he has," Masister Khol said. "And he's how many minutes?"

  Gaia's pulse quickened. She lifted the locket watch that hung from around her neck, trying to act naturally. "Seventy two."

  "She arrived here a good fifteen minutes ago," Sgt. Lanchester said. He stepped aside to let two of the men from the Enclave pass back inside.

  Masister Khol nodded her head reassuringly. "It's no matter. Anything under the ninety minutes is fine. Lovely, lovely," she crooned. She gave Gaia a warm smile. "That's the quota for this month, then, so I probably won't see you again until June. Keep up the good work, Gaia. You're being well compensated, I hope."

  "Yes. I have all I need," Gaia said. "I'm glad to serve the Enclave."

  "As am I," Masister Khol said.

  "And I," Sgt. Lanchester echoed.

  "And I," said the second guard.

  Masister Khol was turning back into the gate.

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  "Is it true the quota may go up to five next month?" Gaia asked.

  Masister half turned back, looking closely at Gaia. "Where did you hear that?" Masister Khol asked.

  Gaia glanced at Sgt. Lanchester and saw him shake a quick negative of his head.

  "It's just something I overheard around the quadrangle," Gaia improvised. "It isn't true, is it?"

  Gaia saw the two guards exchange glances, and Masister Khol frowned.

  "You speak as if an increase in the quota would be unwelcome to you," Masister Khol said quietly.

  "Oh, no!" Gaia said quickly. "I just want to be prepared."

  Masister Khol's reproving expression lightened somewhat. "The Protectorat makes those decisions," she said. "I could not confirm or deny it. But I will say, our babies are going to only the very finest families in the Enclave."

  "Don't they always?" Gaia asked.

  Masister Khol's smile was guarded. "Of course. The future of all of us depends on it."

  Gaia nodded. She knew this to be true. And she sensed that this was not a good time to ask questions. She reached into her pocket, fingering the sharp object Masister Khol had passed to her. When she realized it felt like paper folded very tightly into a tiny triangle, a spark of excitement almost made her jump.

  Before Gaia knew it, Masister Khol had slipped back inside the Enclave with the baby, and Sgt. Lanchester opened his hand toward the road behind Gaia.

  "There you go, Masister," he said kindly to Gaia. "We don't want to block the way, now. And get some rest while you can," Sgt. Lanchester added. Under the wide brim of his black hat, his eyes were warm with concern.

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  "Thank you, Mabrother," Gaia said.

  She was weary and thirsty, she realized, especially there in the hot sunlight, but more than anything, she was curious about the triangle in her pocket.

  "I serve the Enclave," she said.

  "And I," the two guards answered in unison.

  Keeping her fingers wrapped around the triangle in her pocket, she started back down the main road and veered into one of the narrow lanes of Eastern Sector One. She waited until she had turned several corners, passed a row of merchants, and then, ducking into a quiet doorway, she pulled out the object. It was a small, tightly folded piece of brown parchment, and when she smoothed it open, she was startled to see her mother s handwriting:

  Destroy it. Destroy this. to to WZMMRL.

  Gaia frowned at the last letters, surprised at the gibberish. She flipped the paper over, looking for clues, but the back was blank.

  "Got yourself a love note?" a man s voice asked.

  Gaia turned, quickly thrusting the note back in her pocket.

  A short, bearded man was standing in the door-way beside her, shaking out a towel to create a cloud of flour. Her family always bought their bread from Harry's on the west side, so she'd never visited this bakers shop. Now, as he pointed to her pocket, she felt a blush rise in her cheeks.

  He chuckled and gave a teasing jerk of his head. "Let me guess. You've got yourself a sweetheart inside the wall, pretty girl like you. Isn't that right?"

  Gaia blushed more deeply and turned to face him fully. She watched his friendly expression turn to surprise, then wincing pity.

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  "You're Bonnie's daughter, then," he said. All the teasing -was gone, and his voice was quiet and warm, like a loaf of good black bread. His brown eyes, gentle and concerned, lingered on her scar as if he would heal it if he could.

  Gaia's surprise rose in her lungs like a swift bright bubble. "You know my mother?" she asked.

  He took a quick look up the street, then made a beckoning nod and backed into his doorway again. He had a way of ducting his chin so that his dark mustache and beard concealed his lips.

  "You don't remember me, do you?" the man said. "I'm Derek Vlatir. My wife and I lived in Western Sector Three when our kids were little. I've known your parents my whole life. Please come. Come in."

  Curious, Gaia followed him into his bakery. In the blue' walled kitchen, Gaia looked around at the two great ovens, the sacks of flour, and a long wooden table with slabs of brown dough upon it. Sunlight gleamed on a row of measuring cups. Through another doorway, strung with a curtain of brown beads, she could see a single counter that served as the front of his shop. Though there was nothing unusual about the bakery, Derek's quick movement to close the door behind them and his furtive glance into the other room put her on alert.

  "We only have a minute," he sai
d.

  "You've heard something," she said.

  He nodded, and she saw now his concern for her went far beyond mere pity for her scar.

  "I don' t know how else to say this. Your parents are in the Enclave prison," he said. "They've been accused of being traitors, and this morning they were sentenced to death."

  Gaia backed against the doorframe. "That's impossible," she said. "They've done nothing wrong!"

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  "That may be," Derek said. He looked back over his shoulder and took a step nearer to her, speaking softly. "But they're set to be executed next week."

  "How do you know this?" Gaia demanded, suspicious. Her heart was pounding with fear. He might be tricking her. He might be a guard in disguise testing to see if she herself was loyal or not.

  "Listen," he said. "I know this is hard to hear. It's hard for me, too. I've known your parents since we were kids, so when they were arrested, I asked my baker friends inside the wall to try to see what they could find out. I kept hoping I would have better news, and then this morning I heard this. You have to trust me." He held up his hands, as if they could plead for him.

  "Why didn't you come tell me?"

  "I've tried twice already," he said. "Both times you were out, and I couldn't exactly leave a message. I was planning to come again today and wait for you if I had to. I'm sorry, but your parents aren't coming back."

  Her throat tightened, and she clutched her hands into hard fists. She didn't want to believe him, but he had no motivation to lie. The note in her pocket. Had her mother sent it because she knew she was going to die?

  "They would tell me," she protested desperately. "The Enclave would at least tell me." Who else knew this? Did Theo Rupp?

 
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