Promised Page 25

Diffused sunlight dropped down a deep shaft from high above. Gaia gave a whoop of happiness, and then a sob of gratitude.

A naturally hollow, open space, five meters high and twice as long, had been outfitted as a shelter. A basket of knitting rested beside a rocker, and an unlit globe lamp was centered on a small table. Blankets were heaped on a cot, and Gaia was wondering how anyone could have brought a bed this far through the tunnels when the blankets moved. A teenage girl gave a snuffly snore and opened sleepy eyes.

“Hey,” she said, perching herself up on an elbow. “Wait. I know you.” She frowned, crinkling her nose. “Aren’t you supposed to be rotting somewhere in the wasteland by now?”

Gaia was so happy to see another human all she could do was laugh. “I’m alive. Go figure.”

She took a step nearer, taking in the deep circles that underscored the girl’s eyes, her spindly, pale wrists, and her swollen belly. Blonde braids fell around the petite, pert face, and Gaia finally put the details all together.

“Sasha?” Gaia asked.

The girl sat up completely and rubbed her nose with the heel of her hand. “Who else?”

Gaia was speechless with amazement. Sasha, Emily, and Gaia had been inseparable as little girls in Wharfton, but due to a falling out, years had passed since Gaia and Sasha had been close. Meeting her anywhere would have been awkward, but this was bizarre. “What are you doing here?”

“I left. I quit the Vessel Institute,” Sasha said.

“So I heard, but why are you here? Where are we?” Gaia asked, looking up the long shaft toward the natural light. They had to be a dozen meters underground.

“We’re under Summit Park,” Sasha said. “Didn’t Mabrother Cho send you?”

Gaia didn’t recognize the name. “I found you by chance. I’ve been lost down here for hours. I was looking for Leon Vlatir, the Protectorat’s son. You haven’t seen him, have you?”

“I think I’d have noticed him. The answer’s ‘no.’”

Gaia swallowed thickly. “Could I have some of your water, please?” She’d eaten Mace’s two rolls but nothing else all day.

“Sure,” Sasha said, pointing to a jug on the shelf. “Help yourself. Have you seen my grandpa? How long have you been back?”

“Just a few days,” she said, and drank a long swallow of the cool water. “I haven’t seen your grandfather. Why haven’t you gone out to Wharfton?”

Sasha snorted. “Because I’m not stupid. They said we could leave whenever we wanted, but that was a crock. Rhodeski doesn’t want any failures, not with his precious pilot program.”

Gaia focused on Sasha’s wrist, which bore no bracelet. She pulled a stool over nearer to the bed. “I don’t understand. Emily said anyone could leave,” Gaia asked.

“Yeah, well, she lied,” Sasha said. “When I told Emily I wanted to quit, she got all upset. She told me, as a friend, I had to reconsider. And I was like, what? They can’t make me stay, and she said there’s a room in one of the towers where they’ll put anyone who tries to quit. She said I’d be stealing the promised baby, so they’d have the right to imprison me.”

“Then how did you leave?”

“I snuck out.” Sasha shifted around on the cot so her feet came over the edge, and Gaia could see the worn soles of her droopy socks. Her ankles looked swollen with edema. “I couldn’t stand it anymore. I don’t want to give up my baby. So what if it’s not mine, biologically? It could be half mine. And even if it isn’t, it feels like it’s mine. All mine.” She spoke as if she’d been just waiting for a chance to explain her reasoning. “It wouldn’t be alive without me. I’m not just some vessel. It knows my voice and it travels with me everywhere. I even know when it hiccups. It’s the sweetest thing, Gaia. It’s changed me into a mother. I’m not going to let that go.”

Gaia’s heart went out to her. What Sasha was saying matched what Gaia believed, and she’d vicariously felt the same conviction countless times while she’d attended childbirths. But she’d only ever known mothers carrying their own children. Now she couldn’t help trying to see it from the other side, imagining the dreams of the biological parents.

“Have you thought about the other parents, though?” Gaia asked. “They might be ready to love the baby just as much as you do.”

Sasha leaned forward and her sharp eyes glittered. “I don’t care if this baby was promised a hundred times over. This baby is part of me. It is mine. Forever.”

Gaia brushed some of the cobwebs off her skirt. “I understand. But you can’t stay down here.”

“I can for another month,” Sasha said. “Then I’ll have the baby and I’ll sneak it outside the wall somehow.”

“It’s not safe. You can’t deliver down here alone.”

“I’ll get some help. I have a friend who brings me food. He can help. Besides, it’s a natural thing, right? My body will know what to do.” Sasha poked a pillow behind her back. “You probably don’t want to hear this, but there were plenty of mothers outside the wall who had babies on their own when they were afraid you midwives would take them away.”

Gaia could hardly think how to reply. “Plenty of those babies and mothers died, too,” Gaia said. “Childbirth is not something you play around with.”

“Okay, listen. If you’re just going to bug me, why don’t you leave?” Sasha said. “You never liked me anyway, so don’t pretend you want to help.”

“Excuse me?” Gaia said.

“Ever since we were kids,” Sasha continued. “Remember? One minute you and me and Emily were best friends, going to the Tvaltar and whatnot. I used to laugh so hard I peed my pants. The next minute you wouldn’t even talk to me. You were off playing your little fancy word games with Emily.”

Gaia was shocked. Hurtful memories raced back. “You were the one. You didn’t go to Emily’s birthday party because I was there. You said I was too weird and ugly.”

Sasha scrunched up her nose. “So? I’m sorry. I was stupid. You didn’t have to hold it against me forever. Emily finally was nice to me again, but you never gave me another chance.”

Gaia looked at the petite, pregnant girl with her droopy socks and felt the old sting dissolving. At this moment, there wasn’t one thing about Sasha’s situation that Gaia envied.

Sasha leaned back and shook a finger at her. “You’re still weird looking, come to think of it.”

Gaia let out a laugh. “I don’t know what we’re going to do for you.”

“There’s nothing to do. I have to stay hidden. If they find me, they’ll keep me until I deliver, and then they’ll take the baby and say I died in childbirth.”

“They wouldn’t.”

“Want to bet? They can’t leave me alive,” Sasha said. “A sorry dead girl is better than a rebel in the Vessel Institute, isn’t it?” She picked up a hand mirror and turned it in the soft glow of dropping sunlight, sending an oval of reflected light around the stone walls.

“Are there other women in the program who feel the way you do?” Gaia asked.

“What do you think?”

“How many?”

“Six that I’ve spoken to,” Sasha said. “They’re all terrified. They don’t see any solution except to play along.”

“They should all speak up,” Gaia said. “The pilot program should be stopped.”

“Clue in, Gaia,” Sasha said. “Rich Enclave couples are paying huge amounts for our babies, a hundred times what we earn for our stipends. When the Vessel Institute reports one hundred percent success, they can expand like crazy. They’ve already picked out the next girls to invite in. Soon they’ll have dozens of us in their baby factory.”

“How do you know this?”

“Because I’ve got ears,” Sasha said, sarcastic. “I’m not smart the way you and Emily are. I’m not educated, but I listened enough to know what was really going on before I cut off my bracelet and came underground.”

Gaia didn’t want to believe it, but she knew in her heart that it was possible. People desperate for babies could easily be indifferent to the women who bore them, especially if the eager parents were paying a steep price and the breeders were removed out of sight.

“I can’t believe Emily is part of this,” Gaia said.

“She doesn’t care jack about anything since Kyle died, except her boys.”

Gaia thought back. “She blames me for Kyle’s death.”

“Well, yeah,” Sasha said broadly. “That was easy to do when you weren’t even here. Easier than blaming herself or Kyle for choosing to do stuff that got him killed, that’s for sure.” Sasha brought the mirror before her face.

Gaia noted the circles under her eyes again. “When’s the last time you had a checkup?”

“Don’t get any ideas.”

Gaia smiled. “Come on, Sasha. You know I do this all the time.”

“Nuh uh. Not happening.”

“At least come out with me,” Gaia said. “I have friends you could hide with in the Enclave. The Jacksons. I know they’d help you. Don’t be stubborn about this.”

“I’m not stubborn. I just don’t trust anybody.”

Gaia wished she could simply tell Sasha what to do, but she wasn’t one of the people of Sylum. “I have to get back to the tunnel under the library, by the Square of the Bastion. Do you know the way?”

Sasha’s eyebrows lifted, and then she pushed to her feet. “That’s far from here. I’ll walk you back. You’d never find it.”

Sasha carried a lantern and with unerring footsteps, led Gaia back to the tunnel below the square. Sasha refused Gaia’s repeated offers of help, and stopped at the bottom of the ramp to the library. “I’ll be fine,” Sasha said.

“I don’t even know how to find you again,” Gaia said.

“Mabrother Cho does. He cooks for the Bastion. If you really need to find me, he can lead you.”

“Promise me you’ll get help when you go into labor,” Gaia said.

Sasha gave a wry smile. “I’ll try. If you could get word to my grandpa to tell him I’m okay, I’d appreciate that.”

Gaia didn’t think Sasha was okay at all. She reached gently around her to give her a hug. Then, with a last good-bye, she headed up to the library and pushed the door open.

*   *   *

Gaia brushed silently through the shelves, and climbed the basement steps. She avoided the front of the library where people were softly talking, and tiptoed down the hall to the back entrance. Gaia cracked open the door and peeked through the crevice. After her hours in the tunnels, her first breath of outside air was unbelievably sweet and fresh, but she was also frustrated by how much time she’d lost: practically an entire day.

She wished she could return to Mace’s to see if he had any news of Leon, but she didn’t see how she could walk openly in the streets, or even over the roofs in the daylight. Her scar would never go unnoticed.

“Gaia, wait,” Rita called softly, coming down the hall. “What happened? You were gone for hours.”

Gaia glanced down at her clothes to see that she was covered with stringy spider webs and dust. She touched her hair and more dust came free in her fingers. “I got lost. I’m fine, though. Did Leon come back?”

Rita drew her aside into the kitchen. “No. I was worried about you. I went to the Jacksons to see if they knew anything about you, but they’ve disappeared.”

Prev Next
Romance | Vampires | Fantasy | Billionaire | Werewolves | Zombies