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       Birthmarked, p.7

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 

  Gaia returned to the corner of the arcade to stand with her left side partially concealed by a pillar. Several other young women in red converged just in front of her, gossiping softly, and as guards started coming out of the tall, brick arch of the prison she overheard the tallest say: "No I don 't think so. He wouldn't dare be absent."

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  "Oh, my gosh. He's in front of the Bastion! Near the Protectorat's family!" another girl said.

  Gaia looked toward the mansion. The large double doors were thrown open, and a white-clad man and woman strode forward. Hints of gold gleamed in the fabric of their clothes, and the woman wore a wide-brimmed hat with stunning white feathers. Behind them came another couple even more dazzling than the first, until more than twenty people 'were scattered along the terrace in front of the mansion. They mingled with the other people dressed in white in an easy flow up and down the terrace steps. The Protectorate family and friends bore themselves with an unstudied grace that was even more impressive live than it was on the Tvaltar.

  "Rita actually danced with him?" giggled one of the girls.

  The tall girl spun around in response, and Gaia guessed she must be Rita. Her features had an arresting, sloe-eyed vitality, combined with hair the rich color of honey that spilled out from the edges of her red hood. "Are you suggesting I would lie about something so trivial?" Rita asked in clipped tones.

  "You? Lie? Oh, never," said the other girl.

  Gaia felt the flick of Rita's eyes and knew she was seen. For a sharp instant, she felt the intensity of Rita's scrutiny, like a cat scratching its paw over a bug, and then dismissal.

  "Keep your voice down, Bertha Claire," Rita said to the giggling girl.

  "He's just so dreamy," the girl teased, and Rita slugged her in the arm.

  "Ouch! Okay," Bertha Claire said, still smiling. "Did you hear he was promoted?"

  Even without looking at her directly, Gaia felt Rita shoot one last glance in her direction, and then turn her shoulder away. Gaia couldn't hear Rita's response.

  Gaia looked again at the people on the Bastion steps, and

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  this time she saw him: a tall, serious young man in a black uniform with a rifle slung over his shoulder. His black hat shaded the top half of his face, but she was near enough to recognize the angle of his jaw and the steady line of his mouth. She knew instinctively that Sgt. Grey was the guard the girls were gossiping about. He absently lifted his hat and ran a hand back through his hair. Beside him stood a blond guard, a taller young man, who nudged Sgt. Grey and nodded in the direction of the girls.

  Gaia looked quickly toward the jail before there was a chance she could meet his gaze.

  "He's looking this way! Rita!" Bertha Claire squealed.

  There was a hushed flurry of conversation among the girls, and then Rita's voice: "Would you stop? What are you, twelve?"

  Gaia deliberately drew farther back behind the pillar.

  By the jail, rows of prisoners were being filed behind the iron fence, and Gaia scanned each face fearfully, looking for her parents. The men and women looked weary, their faces as gray and worn as their prison garb. Some had their hands tied behind their backs, but others held each other in frightened embraces, their eyes scanning the crowd and the platform before the monument. Nowhere did Gaia see her parents.

  Gaia heard a thudding noise, and then a ripple of silence expanded outward from the center of the square where the platform stood. Two nooses had been slung from a beam, and the noon sun shone brightly on the gray ropes.

  "Oh, no," Gaia whispered, clenching her fingers into fists.

  A prisoner, his hands tied, had fallen on the steps to the platform, and Gaia saw him rest there, unmoving, until a guard came and raised him urgently to his feet to push him up the steps to the gallows. His brown hair was mussed, his clothes filthy, but his eyes were alight and defiant. He was followed by a young woman whose hands were also tied, and she needed

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  the guard beside her to help her keep her balance. Her black hair had fallen across her pale features, and her shoulders sagged in her gray prison dress. When she reached the top step and turned to face the crowd, there was an audible murmur from the spectators.

  The prisoner s belly thrust outward and up in the unmistakable bulge of pregnancy.

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  Chapter 7 Noon

  "OH, MY GOSH. SHE'S HUGE," said Bertha Claire.

  "Would you hush up?" Rita snapped. "It's an abomination."

  Gaia's outrage surpassed her shock. By her guess, the woman was due to deliver within days. She could not fathom any crime that would merit such a punishment. Why couldn't the Enclave wait another week, two at most, until after she had delivered? They must all realize that killing the mother would mean killing her innocent baby, too.

  Instinctively, she stepped down from the arcade and began to walk toward the platform. A guard threw a burlap bag over the mans face.

  "This verdict is wrong!" the prisoner yelled. "It's our right to marry and our right to have a child!"

  Gaia could see his wife say something softly to him. With his hands tied behind him and the sack over his face, he leaned toward her, and then Gaia saw something that broke her heart. The condemned man blindly shuffled his foot over toward his wife's until his boot met hers. His wife began to cry. The guard threw a second burlap bag over her face.

  "No," Gaia breathed.

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  The prisoner cried out again, his voice breaking: "Spare my wife! I'm begging you, spare my child!"

  Gaia looked around, incredulous that no one was intervening. It was a torture game, wasn't it? They couldn't really go through with this. She took another step forward, stumbling against a bearded man.

  "Watch yourself!" he snapped.

  Gaia heard a disturbance from the prisoners by the jail, and she looked over to see her mother's face. Her mother had pushed forward to the fence and gripped it with both hands; she was staring hard at Gaia across the crowded square.

  "Mother," Gaia whispered. She expected her mother to yell, to say something to the guard who was now fitting a noose around the male prisoner's neck, but her mother looked only at Gaia with a mute, pleading expression. She shook her head slightly, her lips bitten inward, and Gaia knew clearly what the message was: Do nothing.

  Shocked, Gaia took another step toward the platform. The guard was putting a second noose over the pregnant woman's head now.

  "Stop!" Gaia said.

  The people around her turned and withdrew from her. Their expressions were a mix of confusion and contempt. She took another step forward and held out her hand. "No!" she cried.

  But a hand on her arm held her back. "Idiot!" came a voice in her ear. "You want to see us all killed?"

  Gaia, frozen, turned to her right and found Rita's scathing eyes millimeters from her own. She watched as Rita's glare widened in surprise at her scar, and then Rita released her arm. On the platform, the two prisoners, hooded and noosed, stood side by side, their feet touching. The woman's head bowed beneath her hood as if she were crying, and her belly, enormous under her gray dress, seemed to shake with her grief.

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  Gaia looked to the people at the Bastion, and her shock turned to horror. No one was stopping this execution. It seemed impossible, but someone there must have ordered this murder. Why?

  Glancing toward the black-clad form of Sgt. Grey, she was startled to find his eyes upon her and Rita. In that instant, she perceived that he knew, somehow, who she was. Stop this, she thought, aiming all the power of her outrage in his direction. His hand clenched on his rifle strap, but otherwise he did nothing.

  Her gaze shot back to the platform as the guard spoke in a loud and terrible voice:

  "Patrick Carrillo and Loretta Shepard. You are found guilty of a most pernicious crime against the State. In flagrant disregard for the laws of the Enclave and the natural order, you have violated the Genetic Screening Act for Advanced Citizens, you have married your siblin
gs, and you have incestuously conceived a genetic abomination. For this, the sentence is death. Let you be an example to others who would so defy the will of the Enclave."

  There was one last cry from the man, a protest that Gaia could not understand for it was cut off by a banging noise as the trapdoor beneath the prisoners was released and they both dropped to their deaths.

  An awful, loaded silence weighed in the courtyard, and not a soul spoke. The only sound was a creak from one of the ropes as the bodies swayed slightly below. Around her neck, the chain of Gaia's locket watch grew heavy. She could feel the second hand ticking off the instants before the entombed baby would notice the distress of its mother's body. First it would feel the lack of movement, the thinning oxygen, the sluggish heart. Gaia only dimly grasped why the parents had been

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  condemned, but she fully understood the death sentence happening to the child.

  "No," Gaia whispered. She clutched the hard, round weight of her watch through the fabric of her shirt.

  "I don 't know who you are, or where you come from," Rita said, gripping her arm again and speaking in a low voice. "But you d better leave. A hundred people heard your outburst, and any one of them could decide to turn you in right now."

  Gaia barely registered her warning or noticed that several people were still watching them. She couldn't spare a look for her mother or Sgt. Grey. Her mind was entirely focused on the baby. "I must get to the prisoner," Gaia said.

  "It's too late," Rita said, twitching her red muslin hood forward to shade her cheeks from the sun. "They're dead."

  A desperate urgency was beginning to boil in Gaia's blood. She turned for the last time to Rita.

  "You don't understand," Gaia said. "I have to go."

  Gaia hurried through the thinning crowd toward the plat' form. The guard at the platform loosened the rope from above, and another man below collected the male prisoner's body and laid it unceremoniously facedown on a cart. Gaia arrived just as the woman's body was being lowered. Mercifully, the men left the burlap sacks over the heads while they slipped the nooses free to use again another time. Without looking, Gaia instinctively felt her locket watch circle into the second minute, and she began to panic.

  "Where are you taking the bodies?" she asked the man with the cart.

  He looked at her, frowning. "Are you from the family, then?" he asked.

  "Yes," she lied. "I'm supposed to stay with them until the others come."

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  "I was told they couldn't come until sundown," he said doubtfully. "Too disgraced to come earlier, not that I blame them. I'm to store the cadavers out of the sun. Will you be paying me?"

  "Tonight," she said. "My uncle will pay you tonight."

  He looked at her curiously. "What's wrong with yer face?"

  She turned her cheek away.

  "Come, girl. What's wrong with yer face?" he repeated.

  She turned to face him again and felt the barely restrained fury in her own expression. "Do you really think that matters at a time like this?" she said coldly.

  He tipped his cap at her. "No offense intended, Masister," he said.

  "Quickly, now," she said.

  The man did not move quickly, but he took up the two long handles of his cart and wheeled it over the bumpy cobblestones toward a quiet back street. Gaia felt hope seeping out of her with every meter they traveled. She knew the longer the baby remained without oxygen, the greater the chances of brain damage and death.

  They arrived finally at a narrow street. Off the end of it was a passage so narrow the cart could barely fit through, and then finally there was a small yard with a shed where the man lodged the cart.

  "They're likely to smell in a few hours," the man said. "They're safe enough here if it's vandals your worried about. If you like, you can wait at the pub around the corner. You'll see anyone arriving."

  "This is fine," she said.

  He looked skeptical. She busied herself with righting an empty barrel so she could appear to settle on it in the shade.

  "Suit yerself, then," he said, and ambled toward the road.

  As soon as the man's back was turned, she stepped inside

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  the shed and closed the wide wooden door. Cracks of sunlight came through slits in the wooden walls, and a spiderweb-covered window let in another block of grimy light, but Gaia was in such a hurry she barely noticed.

  She felt for the woman's pulse, but there was none, and a quick look at the woman s neck persuaded her she had died instantly from a broken neck. Gaia ripped at the woman's dress, exposing her pale, mottled belly. Pale streaks of blue crossed beneath the skin, and a heavy, unnatural clamminess clung to her, but Gaia pressed her fingers firmly against her still-warm stomach. There was no movement within, no flicker to indicate the infant might still live, but certainly the baby's heart had continued to beat, circulating oxygen through the placental blood, even after her mother was dead.

  Gaia closed her eyes and paused. She had never performed a blade delivery. She had seen her mother do it almost a dozen times, but only when the mothers life was at risk, and in most of those cases, the mother had died afterward. But here, the mother was dead already. There was nothing to lose, and there was a chance-- a remote one certainly, but a chance-- that she could save the baby inside. It took her less than an instant to realize she had made her decision already, the moment shed seen the mother drop through the hangman's platform.

  She reached into her satchel and swiftly chose the short, sharp scalpel in her toolkit. She cut low and firmly below the woman's belly button and gasped as the sweet-scented blood oozed sluggishly around the blade. There were three layers of muscle to cut through, tough but flexible, and when she reached the layer of the womb she had to be careful not to hurt the baby. She steadied the womb surface with one hand 'while she again drew the blade firmly. Next came a gush of amniotic fluid with its strong, earthy smell, and she could see the pale blue body curled inside. Gaia reached in and pulled gently, bringing

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  out a baby no larger than a loaf of bread. The limp legs dangled. A cream-colored, waxy substance clung in patches to his skin. Gaia smeared the bloody, mucousy covering off the baby's face and suctioned quickly with a rubber bulb. She secured her own mouth over the infant's lips and nose, ignoring the taste of blood. Gently, with hardly more than a puff, she breathed into the child. She saw his chest rise slightly. She gave the infant's chest three compressions, then tried another couple breaths of gentle air.

  Nothing happened. She turned the infant facedown and gave his back a firm slap, then breathed into him again, willing him to respond. She tried another round of chest compressions, then another. His body remained limp and unresponsive, and Gaia fought against tears of frustration. She was too late. It had been too long. He was dead like his father and mother, killed by the Enclave before he ever had a chance to breathe its corrupt air.

  She listened to the baby's beatless chest, checked his air passages once more, and breathed into him again, doing instinctively what she hoped was right and wishing more than ever that her mother could be there to help her. After another series of chest compressions she paused, peering at the little lax face. "Please," she whispered. She had given up her chance to see her mother. She had risked her own life to help him. He must somehow live.

  "What are you doing?" a voice said quietly.

  Gaia had not heard the door open behind her. She turned swiftly, clutching the baby in her arms, the evidence of the dead -woman's mutilated cadaver obvious beside her.

  The man was no one she knew. His dark hair fell in sloppy bangs over his forehead, and his face was pale. "You're mad," he said in awed tones. He backed slowly from the door, shock written in the expression of his face. She saw his boot heel

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  catch on a stone in the bright green grass and he nearly fell. "Boris!" he yelled.

  "Please," she said, following after him. "I was trying to save the baby. You must-- "
>
  He shook his head, backing quickly away as if he was afraid to turn his back on her. "You stay away from me," he said. Then he yelled again. "Boris! You d better get out here!"

  Gaia was terrified. Glancing back at her bag, she grabbed the scissors and cut the umbilical cord. Then she threw her tools back in her bag and snatched it up. She couldn't leave the lifeless baby behind. Panicking, she blew a last puff of air into his lungs, scooped him into the front of her tunic, and flew out the door. As footsteps came running in her direction, she scrambled rapidly up onto the top of the stone wall that en' closed the yard. She slid over, scraping her hand, and dropped into a pile of steaming compost. The rich, putrid smell swept over her, but she was back on her feet in a moment, scrambling through a garden to a gate. She pushed through, still carrying the baby and her satchel. A long alleyway opened before her and she ran.

  Voices rose in alarm behind her, announcing their pursuit. She fled along the alley, turned down a wider lane, looking desperately for a bakery or any familiar street. She glanced be' hind her to see soldiers chasing her on foot, their rifles pointed, and she shrieked in fear. Around the next corner, four more guards appeared on bicycles. She bounded sideways, crashing through another gate, into another garden. A group of ladies in white straightened to their feet around a table set with silver and lemonade, calling out. Gaia ran past them, seeing another gate leading out of the garden.

 
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