Birthmarked Page 5

Until recently, she'd liked the colorful costumes, the music, and the dancing that splashed across the gigantic screen. She'd liked the short specials about life inside the Enclave, with its fashion and parties and glamour. There were specials about the Protectorate family, with his advanced son and his own son and his two twin daughters, just a little younger than she. She'd enjoyed the archive reels from the cool age, with all its strange technology, and the nature ones about horses and elephants and other extinct species.

But most of all, when she was very young, shed loved the fairytale stories that took her into a different life. These would stay with her for weeks afterward. She had only to close her eyes on her own back porch, and she would be carried away again to a world under the sea where mermaids sang, or to a land where dwarves lived in a wooded glade, or to a castle tower where a princess under a magic spell slept for years while the dust gathered around her and generations beyond the enchanted forest grew up and had children of their own.

She remembered in particular how on the night of her friend Emily Rupp's fifth birthday, Emily s parents promised to take Emily, Gaia, and their friend Sasha to the Tvaltar to see Rapunzel. To add to the excitement, Sasha had never been to the Tvaltar before because her family couldn't afford passes, so Gaia and Emily had the pleasure of anticipating their friend's delight.

"It's huge," Emily explained. "As tall as the Enclave wall, with moving pictures."

They were holding hands, with Emily in the middle, skip' ping ahead of Emilys parents toward the quadrangle.

"It gets dark before the show," Gaia said. "There are twinkling lights in the ceiling like stars, and on the side walls, other lights go down on a horizon, like sunset. That's how you know it's about to start."

"And people go every night?" Sasha asked.

"No. Well, maybe some grown-ups do. But only if they have Tvaltar passes," Emily said. When Emily leaned close to them, Gaia could smell the cake still on her breath. "My mom got them special. For my birthday."

Gaia just hoped Rapunzel was as good as the other shows she'd seen. Her mother had told her that the story had a tower in it, like the tower of the Bastion, and a princess with a very long braid. She, Emily, and Sasha had braided their hair on purpose for the show, and Gaia's brown braids were the longest. Sasha's blond braids were the shortest. Emilys red hair was so thin, they put it into one braid.

Soon they passed through the tall doors. Gaia looked back at Sasha, who was gazing up at the stars in the ceiling with suitable awe.

"What did we tell you!" Gaia said.

Sasha simply closed her lips, speechless.

Emily poked her. "I knew you'd like it. The show hasn't even started yet."

"Come on," Gaia said, pulling at Emily again, trying to lead her down the long aisle that sloped toward the huge screen. People were filling up the benches all around them, talking and laughing in merry voices. Many of the women waved paddle fans idly before their faces, and some of the younger men who'd let their arms become uncovered while working in the fields had bright red burns.

Gaia glanced back for Emilys parents, wishing they would hurry, and then, to her amazement, she saw them start to turn into a row of benches only halfway toward the front.

"Girls!" Emilys mother called.

Emily and Sasha turned obediently, but Gaia tugged at Emily's hand.

"No," Gaia said. "Let's go down to the front. That's where the good benches are. Look! There's plenty."

Emily shook her head. A couple of adults budged past them, jostling them.

"We can't go down there," Emily said.

"Why not?"

"That's where the freaks sit," Emily said.

Gaia didn't understand. She didn't know what a freak was.

She and her parents always sat at the front of the Tvaltar. That's where their friends were. That's where it was easy to see. She slipped her hand out of Emily's and turned to take a few more steps down the sloping aisle, toward the front.

"Gaia!" Emily's father called firmly.

But Gaia kept going, like she couldn't help it, like the slope was pulling her down. There were the benches where she and her family had sat the other times that they'd come. There was the boy with the cleft lip, and the boy with crutches. Their parents were mixed among them, still standing, talking to each other. She could see the quiet, moody boy who lived with the artist, and a very small girl whose arm didn't grow right. The girl lifted her hand and waved to Gaia.

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 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.

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.

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 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 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."

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