Her parents. Jasper Stone and Bonnie Orion. The backs of her ears tingled oddly, as if feathers there were invoking a message from beyond the grave. Gaia covered her face with her hands and dropped her head upon the table.
"Gaia," Leon said softly. "What is it?"
He was crouched beside her at the table, his face on a level with her own, and when she looked at him, her eyes were brimming with tears.
"It's my parents," she said. "They started the record when they advanced their first child to the Enclave. My oldest brother. It lists my fathers name first, and then my mothers." She scanned the next set of symbols. "Each word is separated by one of these little circles or squares," she said, pointing. "This part, this repeating R S X Y part, must be a date. Mabrother Iris figured that much out. I don't know how the numbers work yet, but I know this designates my brothers birth."
"Is his name there?"
"No. Babies don 't keep their names when they're advanced. Only their birthdays. My father must have been thinking of that. It's not so much about the babies. It's really more ..." she struggled for the right words.
"What?" he asked.
She ran her hand slowly down the code, knowing now that she could decipher every name, and that she would find the names of many parents she knew back home. "It's a record of loss. A record of parents' loss, baby after baby."
An abyss was sucking her inward and down. She was stunned to find that her own parents' names commenced the list, and yet it all made sense. Gaia had always known that her parents had given away her brothers, but having it spelled out before her in painstaking stitches of silk brought the loss home on a completely different emotional scale. The candles were lit every night. The freckles were tattooed on each baby her mother delivered, as if each one was another son or daughter that Gaia s mother couldn't keep. The list went on and on, she realized, for hundreds of names. Her mother alone had turned in two or more every month, and that was just from Western Sector Three. All those babies. All those losses.
"What have I done?" she muttered, stricken. She had continued it. She, Gaia Stone, in her duty to meet her monthly quota, had personally turned over six children to the Enclave.
"Gaia," Leon said. "Take it easy. You re all right."
"No," she said, clenching her hands into fists and hugging her arms around herself. Only now did she understand. She had sent those innocent babies away from simple, loving parents to become citizens of the Enclave like the ones who had filled the Square of the Bastion when the pregnant woman was executed, people who condoned the imprisonment of their doctors, people who allowed the suffering of children outside the wall, the pre longed imprisonment of her mother, the death of her father. "What have I done?" she repeated, her voice breaking.
"Shhh," Leon said.
She thought her heart would burst in her chest, and then Leon pulled her to her feet and wrapped his arms around her.
"No, Gaia," he said into her ear. "You can 't blame yourself. You did what you thought was right."
She was too appalled to cry. "That doesn't mean I'm not responsible. I took those babies from their mothers. I gave them to this-- to this insane society." Her voice became shrill. "And what about right now? I'm helping them right now with this code!"
She tore free of his arms and grabbed the code, ripping it in half. "I'm as bad as you are!" she said. "As any of you!" She crumpled the papers and threw them away.
Leon stood with his hands open, and his eyebrows lifted in shock, giving his face a raw, hurt expression. She burned inside with the knowledge she'd somehow betrayed herself. If she could have clawed the truth out of her own chest, she would have. Her crime went deeper than following or breaking any laws. She had advanced those babies to a life that undermined anything in them that might be decent or humane. Advanced! The word itself mocked her.
"We're not all bad," Leon said. His voice resonated with quiet conviction, as if, despite everything that had happened, he'd just discovered this to be true.
"No? Then why are we still talking here?" she asked. "Why haven't you opened that door and helped me escape?"
The time to cooperate was over.
Until he realized that cooperation meant complicity, Leon was as guilty of supporting the Enclave as Mabrother Iris himself.
A clanking noise came through the window from the square below.
Leon turned to look out.
"What is it?" she asked.
Gaia stepped beside him to gaze below. A group of red clad girls was being led across the square toward the Bastion. Through the gap at the bottom of the window, Gaia could hear the girls crying out in alarm and confusion, even as several guards tried to hush them.
"What's happening?" Gaia repeated.
"I don't know," Leon answered, his voice low. When she looked up, his eyes were intense and troubled. "I'm going to find out." He collected his hat and strode toward the door.
"You're not leaving me here," Gaia said.
Leon had a key he was fitting into the lock. "I must," he said. "I can't get you out now. It's complicated. You have to remember, your mothers well-being is tied to your own. Keep working on the code. See if you can find out who my-- " He paused, and his eyes flashed darkly before he looked away from her. He picked up the crumpled pieces of code she had thrown and set them side by side on the top of the desk.
Gaia's heart slowed to a cold, hard rhythm. It all made sense now. He wanted to know his parents. That was why he had come to help her. He was like Sgt. Bartlett. Or Mabrother Iris. She had been used, just as Myrna had warned she would be.
She quietly reached for a pencil and slid it toward her across the desk. "Fine. You want to know your parents?"
"Wait, Gaia," he said. "It's not like that."
Her heart was a bitter stone in her chest. She could use information herself. She didn't know how yet, but she would find a way. There were all kinds of weapons. "What's your birth date again?" she asked coldly.
She watched a hint of color redden his cheeks and lips, and the color made his blue eyes all the more vivid. She couldn't tell if he was anxious or ashamed or both. She didn't care. She steeled herself against his physical appeal and picked up the pencil, waiting. A banging noise came again from the square below.
"It's April fourteenth, twenty-three ninety," he said.
She bowed her head briefly and jotted it down. She didn't know how the system worked for dates yet, but she would figure it out. She smoothed the two ripped pieces of the code and lined them up together at the seam. "I'll see what I can do," she said numbly.
"I'll come back for you," he said. "As soon as I can."
She doubted it. She turned her back to him, already taking her seat again at the desk. Now that he knew how the code depended on reading the negative space, he could tell Mabrother Iris, and together they could unravel the entire ribbon. They didn't need her anymore, not even for the dates. She was completely and utterly expendable. She heard him open the door, but she didn't turn to see him go.
"Please, Gaia. You're safe here for now. Have a little faith in me," he said, his voice hardly more than a whisper. The next moment, he was gone.
ONCE GAIA REALIZED the first two names were her parents', and that the record must correspond with her oldest brothers birth dates, figuring out the numbers was a tedious but fairly straightforward matter. Her oldest brother had been born on February 12, 2389, and the symbols before her father s name were:
She had mistakenly first translated "I H C B - C D" into "R S X Y - X W" using the letter reversal system, but when she worked backward from the numbers of his date, and threw in the mirror effect, she discovered which letters her father had used for numbers. B C H I had to match 2389. From there, it was a simple substitution system: A = 1, B = 2, C = 3, and so on until J = 0. Similarly, D C became 43. She was stumped until she realized February twelfth was the forty-third day of the year. Instead of using months, her father had assigned a number for each of the 365 days in the year, so that her oldest brothers birth, Arthurs birth, on February 12, 2389, was simply listed as 43-2389.
Gaia should have felt pleased that shed worked out the code, but instead she felt flat inside, defeated. She couldn't escape the guilt that had seared into her once she'd realized how inherently wrong the baby quota was.
She was deeply puzzled about her parents, and she wished she could go back and listen more carefully to conversations she had had with her father about her brothers. Obviously, he had omitted telling her about the ribbon, but he had talked about the freckles. Her parents must have been far more conflicted about advancing their sons than they had ever revealed to Gaia. Either that, or they had truly believed they were doing the right thing, the best thing for their children, even though they missed them terribly and continued to love them long after they were gone. Gould the two opposite things both be true?
She scanned further down the code, to where the year changed to 2390, and then she found the parents who matched Leon s birth date: Derek Vlatir and Mary Walsh. She closed her eyes and leaned back, stretching the kinks out of her neck as she tried to absorb that Leon was Derek's son. The Vlatirs probably had lived in Western Sector Three back when Leon was born. If Leon hadn't been advanced, he would have grown up as a bakers son outside the wall. Leon might have become a completely different person: maybe even trustworthy.
It was dark by the time Gaia worked out the code, her soup long gone, but a single spiral bulb in the ceiling had come on automatically as the sun set. The light went off if she was very still for a length of time, concentrating. If she waved an arm, it came on again. A tiny white box with a red pinpoint of light was positioned in an upper corner of the room, and that, she guessed, was the motion detector.
She stood before the window, gazing down at the quiet city while her tired gaze followed the streetlamps that descended in slow curves away from the Bastion. No one was out. The girls in red had not reappeared. The stillness smelled like the stones of the square down below.
Leon had not returned.
]\[o surprise there, she thought.
She touched her hand to the smooth pane of glass, wondering what Leon would give to know his father was Derek Vlatir. She wondered, also, if she would live to see Derek again and tell him his son had become . .. had grown to be ...
Gaia closed her eyes and tilted her face against the cool glass. She didn't know what to think about Leon, but whenever she did think of him, an odd, tight feeling constricted in her chest. She wasn't just angry at him. She was disappointed, too. Deeply. It didn't matter that he was just doing his job, like any good soldier. She had thought she could trust him. Worse than that: she'd been stupid.
She slumped back on the bed, looking at her mess of notes on the desk. I should rip everything up and throw it all down the toilet, she thought. That would be proof she wasn't cooperating anymore. Yet the gesture wouldn't do her any good with no one there to see it.
She pressed her face into her hands, rubbing her eyes.
When there was a quiet rap on the door, she sat up suddenly and the light went on. She must have fallen asleep. The door was opening, and her heart leaped with anticipation. When she saw it was Sgt. Bartlett with another tray, she was crushed. Stupid again! she thought. Leon wasn't coming. As she reached for the tray, the sergeant's gaze went first to the desk, and then flew to Gaia's face.
"Did you figure it out?" he asked.
"Maybe. It's hard to be sure," she prevaricated, taking a bite of the bread. The stale, dry taste was heavy in her mouth, but she was hungry. Food came at strange times here. "How late is it?"