Birthmarked Page 11

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 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 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.

Gaia shrank between the guards. "No," she faltered. "I just saw it given to distressed 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.

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