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       Birthmarked, p.8

           Caragh M. O'Brien
 
She pushed through it, catching her satchel on the latch. She stumbled, freed herself, and looked desperately for an escape.

  "There she is. Catch her," cried a man s voice.

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  She shrank back against the gate and looked frantically back at the women in the garden. It looked like she had disturbed a post-execution card party, and the genteel ladies were watching her with curiosity and alarm. Their white hat brims hovered at expectant angles.

  "Help me," she pleaded.

  Soldiers closed around her. One pulled roughly at her satchel, and the other tugged at the baby.

  "No!" she yelled, yielding the satchel but holding on to the baby with all her might. With wild eyes she struggled back from them, crouching against the wall, protecting the baby tightly in her arms.

  The soldiers boxed her in. She could see their shiny boots, their black-clad legs, the petrifying apertures of their rifles. Her heart was beating erratically against her lungs, and she gasped for breath. Never had she been so terrified. Her hood had slipped back during her desperate run, and she kept her gaze down, knowing her disarrayed hair covered her scarred face.

  "We've got her, Cap'n," one of the men said.

  "Hold your fire."

  Gaia tucked the little head of the baby against her throat, gently cradling his shape close to her warm skin. One of the soldiers stepped nearer, and she winced when he pulled her hair back to reveal her face.

  "Would you look at that now," the unfamiliar soldier said quietly.

  Gaia blinked, her cheeks burning, and anger rising as she knew she was being examined: a freak and a criminal. She jerked against the guard's grip, but since he did not release her hair, her scalp stung with pain.

  A tall, blond soldier moved forward next. "I believe we've found your missing girl from the outside, Captain," he said in a light, cultured tenor.

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  Gaia looked through the group of men. Capt. Grey stood there in the sunlit street, his black uniform unruffled, a new glint of braid over his left breast pocket. It was he who had called to hold fire. Under the black brim of his hat, his expression was unyielding and firm.

  With her face still twisted upward, she patted the baby to indicate the real crime in their midst. "Look who's been murdered," she said scathingly. "Captain"

  He betrayed no reaction. "Take her to the prison," Capt. Grey said. "Leave the baby with her for now. I'll notify the Nursery we have a new delivery."

  The guard holding her hair finally released it, but only to hustle her roughly to her feet.

  "But, Captain," the blond guard said. "It's the abomination."

  Gaia saw Capt. Grey's eyes flash swiftly, and then his voice was calm. "It's a baby, Bartlett," he corrected. "And a healthy one by the look of it. The girl's skills are obviously too good to waste. The Protectorat will hear of it."

  Gaia gasped at his description of the baby. Before she even looked down, her throat felt the first tentative movements of the baby she held there so possessively, and then she eased the little weight against her shoulder, untangling his body from the sticking, damp fabric of her tunic. The infant boy's head rolled with a familiar bobble, his skin showed a mottled red, and with a lurch of his uncoordinated arms, the baby gave out his first, mewing cry of outrage: outrage at being alive.

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  Chapter 8 Life First

  THE PRISON WAS NOT what Gaia expected.

  There were no dark, dank walls of stone or chains or piles of dirty straw. The blond guard, Sgt. Bartlett, and four others led her into a small, well-lit, antiseptic chamber and left her there with the baby. From Gaia's side, the door had no handle or keyhole, but there was a small opening at eye level. Opposite the door, a window with clean panes of glass was open to the faint breeze, but when she went near, she saw bars on the outside, black barricades that sliced the view into rectangles and matched the dread that constricted her heart.

  The baby in her arms needed more care, and she wished she had her satchel, or at least something to feed him. Without even a blanket to wrap him in, she continued to swaddle him in the front of her red tunic, which was stained and damp with blood.

  "Little pumpkin," she muttered. "Little motherless lump."

  She shivered as a vivid memory of what she had just done to his mother flashed through her mind. She couldn't help wondering if the dead woman's family would try to track down the child. She didn't even remember the woman's name.

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  Loretta something? She began to wish shed kept a record of the births she'd helped with. She could recall them all so far, but in time, it would be easy to confuse them. Gaia remembered the ribbon in the packet on her leg and she was more convinced than ever that it was her mothers record of births. When the guards found it, they would soon guess that it was valuable, and she would be in even more danger for concealing it.

  Swiftly she pulled up the hem of her skirt and removed the pouch. Glancing quickly at the little opening in the door to see that no one was watching, she untied the strings and took out the brown, silk-sewn ribbon. The markings made as little sense to her as ever, but she knew anyone would recognize it as a code. She stood, holding the baby, and turned her back to the door. Gently cradling the child's warm little head against her throat, she walked to the window. Did she dare to throw the ribbon away, to toss it out to the chances of the wind? Below, she saw a narrow street. She was several floors up, and beyond the black bars, she could see the roofs of the buildings with their neat white tiles, their solar panels, their black and white cisterns of water, their pipes that spanned from roof to roof, and their whitewashed chimneys. One of the chimneys was wider than the others, and built of black brick, and she realized she could smell the baking of fresh bread.

  "The baker," she whispered.

  If only she'd located Derek's friend earlier. If only she could get the ribbon to him. Footsteps approached in the corridor, and she was forced to decide: throw the ribbon out the window, or keep it only to have the guards take it from her.

  Quickly sitting cross-legged on the floor, she set the infant on her skirt. Then, with both hands she smoothed her long brown hair back behind her head. Rarely did she expose her scarred face so bluntly, and her fingers were unaccustomed to tying ribbons in her hair, but she fumbled the ribbon twice

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  around her head in a band, then knotted it in the back as she had seen other girls do.

  She finished just as eyes appeared in the opening of the door, and then she picked up the baby and scrambled again to her feet.

  It was Capt. Grey who entered first, followed by Masister Khol, Sgt. Bartlett, another guard, and an older man carrying a small case with a handle. With an air of authority, the older man touched the glasses on his nose and came forward for the baby.

  "A table," the man said, and Sgt. Bartlett instantly stepped out.

  "Are you a doctor?" Gaia asked.

  He was already taking the baby out of her arms, and she had no way to refuse.

  "Be careful," she said.

  The guard returned carrying a small table covered with a sheet of white paper.

  "What are you going to do?" Gaia asked, as the doctor set the infant on the table. She looked anxiously to Masister Khol, but her face was impassive.

  "Take her away," the doctor said. He took out a rubber and metal contraption, fitting it in his own ears as he leaned over the baby.

  Gaia saw the guards coming for her and backed into the corner. "Wait!" she said. "You aren't going to hurt him, are you? I think he's okay. He just needs to be nursed and bathed. If you have some purified air for him-- "

  The doctor turned sharply. "Purified air? You mean oxygen? What do you know about oxygen?"

  She drew back farther, but the guards grabbed her from both sides, their fingers biting into her arms.

  "You have oxygen outside the wall?" the doctor demanded. He sounded furious.

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  Gaia shrank between the guards. "No," she faltered. "I just saw it given to distr
essed babies on the Tvaltar. Is that wrong?"

  The doctor eyed her intensely for one more moment. Then he turned to Capt. Grey.

  "You're wrong about her, Captain," he said in a dry tone. "She's dangerous. I'd put her down immediately if I were you."

  Gaia gasped, her gaze flying to Capt. Greys. He simply nodded to the guards, and they pulled Gaia toward the door.

  "Be careful with him!" Gaia called. "Look after him, Masister."

  Masister Khol didn't even turn her head as Gaia was pulled from the room, and Gaia's confusion and fear multiplied.

  "Please," she pleaded with Capt. Grey over her shoulder. "They won 't hurt the baby, will they?"

  "If you'll cooperate with the guards," Capt. Grey said, "we can talk in a minute."

  She took an anguished glance at the baby, and then at Capt. Greys stony face. His eyes were cold and unyielding, but some' thing in the intensity of his gaze made her stop struggling. The guards moved her quickly down the hall, down a flight of stairs, and then another. They seemed to be moving deeper into the prison, and she saw more doors with little peek panels in them, all closed. Lightbulbs, spaced along the ceiling, came on automatically as she and the guards passed into their range, and the conspicuous electricity was further proof she'd entered an alien world. For an hour or so, they left her in a small, windowless chamber, checking on her occasionally through an open slot in the door. Then a buzz, sounded and the door opened, and her escort moved her again. They came at last to a short hall with another barred window at the end. Here the guards stopped, and one of them opened the door to an office, guiding her inside.

  Gaia saw a desk and several chairs, a lamp and a phone, and

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  what she guessed was a computer, the first she'd ever seen in real life.

  "Do you want me to tie her, Captain?" said one of the guards.

  Gaia turned to see Capt. Grey entering through the door.

  "Please," said Capt. Grey.

  Startled, Gaia felt rough hands behind her quickly cross her wrists and tie them together. It took all her pride not to squirm, and then the man let her go. A strand of hair had come loose from her ribbon, and her locket watch had slipped out to hang loosely over her red tunic. When she tossed her head to flip the hair out of her eyes, it slid forward again along her left cheek. She fixed her gaze on Capt. Grey's face, waiting impatiently for him to look at her directly so she could gauge his intentions.

  But his eyes were on the object in his hand: a lemon-shaped pincushion, with all of its pins pushed into the sawdust so that only the pinheads sparkled on the surface. Gaia gasped. Mine, she thought, and knew he had gone through her satchel. He slowly took off his hat and set it on the table beside the pin-cushion, and for the first time she saw his full face. His eye-brows were black, his features more even than they'd seemed once by candlelight. He turned to the guards.

  "Leave us," he said.

  The men left promptly, closing the door. In the ensuing silence, Gaia's heart beat so heavily in her chest she was afraid he could hear it. When she twisted her wrists to test just how tightly her ropes were tied, she felt a bite in her skin. Capt. Grey stood behind the desk, not speaking, and with the tapered fingers of his left hand, he gently turned his hat once upon the desk. She was unprepared for his calm, dispassionate expression when he finally lifted his gaze.

  "You do realize what trouble you're in, don't you?" he asked. His voice was low and unexpectedly resonant in the small space.

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  She slowly shook her head, and wished all her hair was loose so she could hide her exposed scar. She saw his gaze shifting over her face, studying her with thoughtful, unnerving precision.

  When he frowned, his eyebrows lowered in a pensive line. "Gaia," he said. "You've violated the cadaver of a traitor to deliver a baby which, by all rights, ought to be dead."

  She wondered if he realized he was using her first name, as if they'd been friends once. "I thought he was," she admitted. "But I had to try"

  "Why?" he asked.

  She stood straight. "It's what I do," she said simply.

  "Deliver babies?" he verified.

  She nodded.

  "No one told you to do this? You aren't working for someone?"

  Puzzled, she frowned at him. "Who would ask me?"

  When he didn't answer, she remembered how Sgt. Lanchester had asked her about babies for a price, and she wondered how much of a black market there was. Or perhaps there was some' one else who would want this baby, someone who disagreed with the Enclave. She was grossly ignorant, she realized. But that was because she was innocent, if he would just see it.

  Capt. Grey picked up a pencil and tapped the eraser lightly on the pincushion. "Gaia, I'm going to ask you once more if you know anything about your mother's records."

  She felt the skin on the back of her neck prickle and wondered how he could not have noticed the ribbon that held her hair back. "Captain Grey, I don't," she said.

  His blue eyes shot suspiciously to hers, and she knew he'd registered her emphasis on his formal title. "I know you're lying," he said. "I hoped you would realize on your own that turning over the record is the right thing to do."

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  "Why is it important?" she asked.

  "Hasn't anyone explained to you how this all works?"

  "What is there to explain?" she asked. Through the prism of the Enclave's injustice, she saw her life in Wharfton with new clarity, and she could barely contain her sarcasm. "We advance a quota of babies, and let's face it: not one of them ever grows up and wants to come back to us, so they're obviously happy in here. Until you decide to execute a couple of them. In exchange, we get the glory of serving the Enclave and decent water and rations, just enough so we can keep a fairly expendable population living in poverty outside the wall. We're a sort of reserve for when the Enclave needs extra soldiers or field hands or babies. Am I right? Or is there some other explanation I'm missing?"

  Capt. Grey paced a few steps to the window, frowning, and then turned.

  "I see you have a voice after all. Why don't you sit down?" he said.

  "Why don't you untie me?" she countered.

  "I can't," he said.

  Now she was surprised. "But you're in charge."

  He gave a brief, bitter laugh. "I'm doing what I can for you, though I've no idea why. It's obvious to everyone else that I ought to turn you over to Mabrother Iris without delay. I'm probably being tested. But I've also gotten to where I am by using the gray edge of the rules and doing my own thinking. So, it's within my prerogative to interrogate you before I turn you over."

  "Or let me go," she said.

  He took a step nearer, his eyes steady and intent. "I don't think I can do that," he said slowly.

  "Why not?" she asked. "Keep me until night and then let me go. I promise to disappear and never come back." Even as

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  she said it, she knew it was a lie. She hadn't seen her parents yet, beyond that glimpse of her mother, and she had to find some way to rescue them.

  He gave a half smile and leaned back on the desk, partially sitting on it. "Let me tell you something," he said. "The people who founded the Enclave planned carefully for years to build this oasis from scratch. We're the ones who developed the post-oil technology. We harnessed the solar and geothermal energy that we needed to grow the mycoprotein and purify the water. It's because of us that there's enough food for everyone, inside and outside the wall. Without us, most of your ancestors would have died wandering the wasteland, nomads hoping to find some peaceful settlement. But you found us, you leeched off us, and we decided to make it work."

  Gaia resented his little lecture. Much of this information, or propaganda, was common knowledge via the Tvaltar, but the postcard version of the Enclave left out little things like executing pregnant women. As far as she was concerned, that made everything else she'd learned from the Tvaltar suspect, too.

  "If you re really so superior and civilized," she said,
"shouldn't you feel an obligation to be even more generous and compassion-ate to us? Like maybe start by not calling me a leech to my face?"

  He frowned and held still for a moment, as if she'd startled him with a new idea. She wondered how much he, too, had been told what to think.

  "I demand to be released," she said. "And I demand you release my parents as well."

  Still frowning, Capt. Grey picked up the lemon pincushion and tossed it once as he spoke. "There's one problem, one that might inspire your own compassion. The Enclave made a miscalculation. It started with too small a population inside the wall."

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  "Why is that a problem?" Gaia asked.

  Capt. Grey paused before continuing. "Our children are dying. Not all of them, but far more than used to. And our mothers are increasingly infertile."

  He had her attention now. "What do you mean the children are dying?" she asked. "How? Why?"

  "Different causes," he said. "There's a rise of hemophilia. That's our biggest concern."

  "What's hemophilia?" she asked.

  He tilted his face slightly. "They bleed to death. From any little scratch."

  Gaia found this hard to believe. She had once seen a woman bleed to death after she delivered a baby, but that was different. Capt. Grey turned his gaze toward the window, where the cool light from outside traced his profile. She could see the pale skin on the back of his neck, below his dark hair, where the edge of his black collar met his skin, and it seemed incongruous to her that such a young man should have his responsibility.

  A knock came on the door. Capt. Grey dropped the pin' cushion on the desk, strode to the door and opened it, but Gaia could not see who was on the other side.

  "A little more. Ten minutes," Capt. Grey said quietly.

  She grew nervous again as he closed the door. She couldn't help feeling he was the only thing stopping the hungry, savage system just outside the door from swallowing her up, and yet she was afraid to trust him. He was part of the system, too.

 
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