Birthmarked Page 13

She turned her face away, stung. "This burn was not life-threatening. It just made me ugly and undesirable so the Enclave didn't want me."

He shook his head impatiently. "Not the burn itself. The pain. The infections that might have followed. The bleeding."

Gaia breathed in rapidly, painfully, as if he had physically hurt her. She hated that she was scarred, and none of his logic was going to persuade her there was anything good about the burns she had endured.

"I never wanted this!" she said, her voice cracking. She bit her lips hard against an impulse to cry.

Capt. Grey was very still. Then he came around the desk again, near to her, but she refused to look at him.

"Gaia," he said softly.

His gentleness only confused her more. She focused on the corner of the gray walls, and when she felt his hand touch lightly on her shoulder, she flinched away.

"You don't understand," she said scathingly. "Children on the outside of the wall suffer, too. They bleed, too. They get fevers that rage for days and then kill them. And their mothers grieve when they die. What good is all your power-- " she jerked her head to indicate the lamp, the computer "-- when you leave the rest of us to suffer? When you can kill a woman who is nine months pregnant? What kind of society is that?"

He backed toward the door. His eyes, which had seemed so alive and warm for a moment, clouded over and grew distant. "Those two today knew they were advanced from outside the wall. They knew they had to pass the genetic screening to become engaged. They lived with our advantages and our laws all their lives, but when the results showed they could be sib' lings, they still decided, selfishly, to get married and conceive a child." His jaw shut stubbornly. "We would have wasted precious resources on their child, and then he would have died before his tenth birthday, long before he could sire a healthy child of his own. Even his parents knew that."

"You're defending murder because their child could be a waste of resources?" she demanded. "Is that what you re telling me? Guess what. The baby 's alive. Now what?"

She could see a new degree of pallor in his cheeks, and he evaded her gaze.

Fury shot through her as she guessed he was probably let' ting that doctor kill the baby. "You re a coward," she hissed. "That's it. Turn me over to Mabrother Iris, or whatever you call him. Give me your worst. I have nothing more to say to you." She strode over and kicked her heel against the door. "Hey!" she called. "Get me out of here!"

Capt. Grey made no move to restrain her further, and she hated the way he retained his composure. As he reached for the door handle, his eyes met hers briefly. "I'll do what I can for you, Gaia," he said in a low voice.

"Like that will be much," she spat out.

She only made him laugh briefly, and she was too angry to care that there was an acrid edge to his mirth. Then he opened the door and called a guard. "Sergeant Bartlett," he said, "take her to Q cell. Make sure she has something to eat, and a shower, and clean clothes. Bring her personal effects to me, and then I'll need a courier."

"Yes, Captain," Sgt. Bartlett said, and briefly saluted. Three more guards surrounded her when she stepped into the hall, as if she were a highly dangerous person who could overthrow any number of burly men with her hands tied. She raised her chin proudly.

"Be good, Gaia," Capt. Grey told her, his voice grave. She still refused to look at him, but she could feel the heated flush of anger again in her cheeks. "Cooperate with the guards. For your own sake," he continued.

"Be good yourself, Captain," she said bitterly. "If you know how."

Chapter 9 The Doctors of Q Cell

"MAKE IT QUICK," the female guard said as Gaia stepped into the shower. Gaia hurried out of her red skirt and tunic, slipped her feet out of her shoes, and handed the pile out to the guard. She kept back the ribbon and hooked it over a knob out of the guard's sight. Already she missed the familiar weight of her pocket watch around her neck.

Stepping into the shower, Gaia marveled that the water came out warm, whole streams of it, from a pipe in the wall. The waste of energy astounded her. And the soap was a soft, blue bar that foamed readily on her skin and in her hair. Such luxury in a prison was beyond her wildest imaginings.

"Out!" called the guard, and passed her a cloth towel, followed by underclothes and a gray tunic that fell past Gaia's knees. Her skin tingled under the coarse fabric of the garment, and her fingers fumbled as she hurried with the three white buttons down the front. There was no comb, but Gaia did her best to smooth the tangles in her hair, and then tied it back again with her ribbon.

The guard looked at her skeptically when she stepped out, clean and dressed. When Gaia reached for her shoes, the guard pointed her to a pair of worn loafers instead. Gaia slipped her narrow feet inside, discovering as she did so that the shoes were too big.

"You'll have to hand over the ribbon," the guard said. "Like as not they'll cut yer hair off in Q, anyway."

"Until then, I might as well keep it," Gaia said.

The female guard, an elderly woman with muscular arms and a hard jaw, squinted at her. She grunted, turning away, and for an instant Gaia thought she was assenting. Then the guard turned back rapidly and backhanded Gaia hard across her right cheek, hitting with such force that Gaia's head snapped sideways on her neck.

Gasping, Gaia fell to the stone floor, and the guard yanked the ribbon out of her hair.

"You'll learn not to be smart," the guard said.

Gaia bit back tears, pressing her fingers to her throbbing cheek. She watched despairingly as the guard added her ribbon to the pile of her shoes and clothes.

"Enter!" the female guard yelled, and Gaia 's familiar escort of guards reappeared as if they'd been waiting just outside the door.

With her cheek throbbing, she straightened to follow them. The men walked her down several corridors, and more flights of stairs until the place began to smell musty, as if fresh air rarely penetrated this far within the walls. When they reached the end of the last hallway, one of the guards opened a large wooden door and stepped aside.

Gaia peered inside, and saw only a dim, empty hallway, shadowed in gray.

"I'm supposed to be fed," she reminded Sgt. Bartlett.

"Fancy that," he said coolly, and gave her a little shove forward.

"Is this Q cell?" she demanded, turning.

But the guard closed the door.

"When will I see Capt. Grey again!" she called.

She heard a laugh, and the peek hole in the door opened sharply. "I doubt you'll be seeing him again, though I'll tell him you asked. He 11 be touched, I'm sure." Sgt. Bartlett's voice deepened, and his brown eyes were sharp in the metal rectangle. "Let's just hope you haven't screwed up Grey's career for him."

Gaia felt an urge to poke her fist through the peek hole to smash the man's eyes, but he closed it then, leaving her to blink against the darkness.

She turned, listening, waiting for her eyes to adjust, and pressed her cool fingers against her sore cheek. She was in a short hallway, and farther ahead, it turned a corner. She heard soft voices of women. She walked quietly, curious, and heard her belly rumble with hunger. Because of Capt. Grey's directions to the guards, she had been expecting some food, and now she wondered if they had disobeyed him, or if he had just said it in her hearing so she might think he was on her side.

With her fingertips touching lightly on the wall, she progressed forward to the corner, and there, as the room opened up to a large, high-ceilinged cell, Gaia paused. Three small windows were open high above on her left, casting a soft gray light into the room and illuminating half a dozen women who stood in pairs or sat on the wooden benches. They were all dressed in gray, as she was, and they all had cropped hair that fell in bangs over their eyes and reached, in back, just to the napes of their necks.

Gaia searched each face eagerly, hoping to find her mother, but though most of the women were her mother's age or a little older, none were familiar. Disappointment slid through her like a stone into a deep lake. The women were silent, their expressions watchful.

Finally one of the sitting women stood and came forward, holding out her hands. "I would say welcome," the woman said. "But this is hardly a place you'll rejoice to be. I'm Sephie Frank. And who are you, child?"

"I'm Gaia Stone," she said.

There was an instant hum of surprised voices.

"Bonnie's daughter?" Sephie asked, peering closely at her face. "Do you know where she is now?"

"No," Gaia said. "I thought she was here, in prison."

"She was with us for a few days," Sephie confirmed. "When she was first arrested. But then they moved her out of Q cell. That was when, three weeks ago? We saw her from a distance during the execution this morning, too, but not to talk to her."

"How about my father? Have you seen him?"

Sephie looked quickly at the other women, and their voices stilled. Someone coughed into her hand. Dread, like a double dose of gravity, pulled at her bones. It was possible the situation was even worse than Derek had told her.

"What do you know?" she asked quietly. Her voice dropped on the stone floor and rippled outward into an ominous silence.

Sephie stepped nearer and put a gentle hand on Gaia's arm. "Your fathers dead," she said. "He was killed trying to escape. Weeks ago."

"No," Gaia said. "It can't be true." Her knees sagged, and Sephie guided her to a bench. "I heard his execution was scheduled for next week."

The women looked at each other. "I'm sorry," Sephie said.

Gaia shook her head. "All this time, I've been serving, delivering babies. Certainly someone would have told me." Her voice faltered. Gould it honestly be true? Her sweet father, who sewed so beautifully, who brought a gentle laugh and a wise word to everyone on the street, who played the banjo like a devil was riding him, who radiated joy in the presence of her mother-- how could he be gone and she not know it? Gaia felt a shudder of pain knock through her.

"I'm sorry," Sephie repeated.

Gaia was dazed with disbelief. Her father could have suffered. She couldn't bear to think it. With no idea of where he'd been killed, she imagined him running wildly through the green wheat field toward the wasteland, his brown shirt flap' ping out behind him, his hat flying wide, his strong body bucking as shots drove him facedown into the waves of grain.

"Please, no," she moaned. She'd risked her life to come into the Enclave. To save him and her mother. And she was too late.

"But your mother's living," Sephie said.

"For how long? Isn't she scheduled to be executed?"

Gaia looked from one face to another, and their confusion gave her hope.

"We haven't heard that," Sephie said. "It's possible, of course, but no one here has heard that." She lifted her hand against her chest. "When you went after the baby, she must have been proud."

"How can you know that?" Gaia said, her voice tight.

"It's what she would have done herself."

The other women murmured their assent, but Gaia remembered her mother's silent message: do nothing. Now that Gaia knew her father was dead, it made more sense. Her mother had wanted Gaia to be safe, to protect herself.

"Gaia, everyone knows what you did today, saving that baby," Sephie said. "Even here we heard about it. You've forced people to think."

Gaia was in shock, but her eyes were adjusting more completely to the gloom of the cell, and now she made herself scan the features of the women around her. Brown-haired Sephie had a gentle, sad face that reminded Gaia of a full moon, with widely spaced gray eyes and a small mouth. This woman had known her mother, here, in this cell, and now, when Gaia needed kindness most, Sephie was offering it.

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