It was fortunate that only Ken, Ryu, and Joe were at their usual spots at the bar of the Snack J.
"Oh, come on, Ken!" Ryu tried not to lose his temper as he pleaded with the commander of the Science Ninja Team, "What's the point of all my training if I'm just gonna sit on the Godphoenix the whole time?"
Jun was in the stock room, gathering supplies for the evening's business while Jinpei was at the movies.
"Yeah, Ken," Joe said from behind a newspaper, "Ryu ought to get off his fat ass once in a while."
"And how long have you been checkin' out my ass, Joe?"
Ken ignored that small exchange and let out an exasperated sigh. "We've been through this before. We need someone to stay behind in case -- "
"Why can't Jinpei stay behind?"
"Remember what happened the last time we tried that? He was so distracted --"
Ryu stormed off before Ken could finish his sentence.
The Owl blindly walked through Utoland City. What was the point of all this? Why was he being forced to waste his talents by babysitting the ship all the time? He wanted to make a difference. To someone. Anyone. And that wasn't going to happen on the Godphoenix. Why didn't Ken see that?
A tweet sound came from his communicator. Return to base immediately.
+ + + + + + + + + +
Ryu wasn’t sure he’d actually heard it – he was dozing off now and then as he waited on the God Phoenix for the rest of the team to finish kicking Galactor’s ass, so it could have been the beginning of a dream. Still, it seemed real enough to startle him awake. . . .
He flicked through the video sensors that showed the outside of the ship. Unfortunately, debris blocked the view of most of the ship’s underside. For some unknown reason, the large amount of dust that was still settling was interfering with the thermal sensors. So, Ryu had to rely on the audio sensors or go outside the ship himself to find out if there was anything going on.
And he wasn’t going to leave his post unless he had a good reason. That was his duty, after all, even if it meant doing absolutely nothing worthwhile.
From what he could see from the video cameras, Ryu had put the God Phoenix into living quarters. Judging from the size and some of the furniture, it probably belonged to one of the higher-ups, if not the base commander himself. Still, something seemed a bit off; he wouldn’t swear to it, but he thought he could see part of a rag doll sticking out from under a chunk of plaster that had fallen from the ceiling.
He heard it again. It was a choking, sputtering cough that sounded like it came from a child’s throat. He checked the sensors to determine where the noise was coming from.
It was in one of the last places he wanted it to be.
He got out of his chair and went toward the aft of the ship. When he reached the spot, he pressed a button and braced himself for an attack as a hatch opened in the floor.
A pile of dust with a pair of big, dark, terrified eyes stared up at him. And the dust pile was in what looked like it could have been a brass daybed...before the Godphoenix crashed through the wall.
Ryu leaned toward the hatch and squinted, trying to get a better look. “Uh, you okay, little boy?”
“I’m a girl.” the dust pile coughed.
“Sorry.” Ryu replied, “It’s hard to see you with all the dust.” And there’s the buzzed haircut the girl had. . .
The girl coughed again. As soon as she had quieted down enough, Ryu asked, “Can you walk?”
“The doctor doesn’t want me to.”
“Something bad might happen to my baby.”
The girl threw the dusty blanket off, revealing her swollen belly beneath a flannel nightgown.
“Oh shit.” the Owl breathed.
+ + + + + + + + + +
Even though Ryu had taken the utmost care in carrying her to the sick bay of the Godphoenix, easing her onto the exam table, cleaning the dust off her face, and giving her a bottle of water, the girl looked at him as though she expected him to suddenly punch her in the stomach. He sat on the table beside her -- but not too close. He looked at her without staring at the barcode on her left cheek, trying to think of something to say. But what? What could he say to her that wouldn't make him seem creepy? He couldn't just sit there -- that would be creepy, too.
"Um," he finally said, "my name's Ryu."
"Nice to meet you, Jyoti."
"Nice to meet you, too." she muttered.
Silence. Getting awkward.
"Um," Ryu said with a cough. No small talk was coming to mind, so -- "what, exactly, are you doing here?"
"I was on a school field trip to Bluestone National Park when the Galactors took us."
Ryu remembered hearing about this roughly a year and a half ago -- a couple dozen girls from Freemont Girl's Academy in Ameris vanished without a trace. Officials had several possible scenarios in mind, but they couldn't narrow things down, so the incident faded from the public's memory. He wondered if this had happened in other parts of the world, now that he knew Galactor was involved.
"That must've been really scary." he said.
"It was." she replied, "We were put in the back of a truck, and we were in there a long time -- it seemed like days. I don't know how far away we are..."
The other side of the planet! "Um, you're pretty far away from Bluestone." he told her.
"I thought so. This place never seemed like anywhere in Ameris." Jyoti paused a moment; Ryu thought she was fighting down a few tears. "Anyway, they divided us up between the girls who'd had their first periods and those of us who hadn't."
Ryu tried to swallow away a deepening discomfort. "Then what happened?" he tried to sound as calm as possible.
"I don't know what happened to the others. But everyone in my group had to take a shower and then put on dresses that looked like bags with holes cut in them for the arms and head."
"I guess you didn't like the dress, huh?" It was the only thing Ryu could think of saying to try to make Jyoti feel at ease.
"They were so ugly !" she cried, "They were an icky gray -- like somebody hawked up the biggest loogie ever !"
Ryu let out a laugh; he didn't expect her to become so animated. And, he had to admit it, it was good to see her act more like a kid -- it had to be a sign that Galactor hadn't utterly broken her spirit.
But that was short lived. Her expression fell. "Then they took us into a room and shoved us into chairs. The next thing I knew, they were shaving my head." A big tear ran down her cheek. "All of us were losing our hair." More tears came, and she started sputtering. "My hair used to go all the way down my back, and my grandma used to brush it and braid it but she can't do it anymore 'cause it's all gone!"
"Hey, it's okay." Ryu said as he carefully put an arm around her, "It'll grow back." He quietly hoped the girl would quickly calm down -- all the hyperventilating couldn't have been good for her, especially if she really was a high-risk pregnancy. He gently rocked her back and forth. "And, anyway, you look good with short hair."
"If I'm lying, I'm dying."
A few minutes passed. Jyoti's tears finally stopped.
"You gonna be okay?" he asked. She nodded as she stifled one final sniffle. Ryu took a quiet breath -- he didn't want to ask, but he needed to know more. "So...what happened next?"
"A soldier pulled me out of the chair and marched me to an office. He threw me in a chair in front of a desk and left.
"And that's when I got really scared." she continued, "The man sitting on the other side of the desk had a fancy uniform that looked like something I saw in the movies....kind of like a cross between a Nazi officer and an officer from the Soyuz Republic Union. And he had a mask that made his head look like it was a jellyfish."
"Was it the base commander?" Ryu breathed. He sounded more like a schoolgirl listening to a story at a slumber party than a member of the Kagaku Ninja Tai.
Jyoti was quiet for a moment. "You know, it's been a long time since I thought of him like that...but, yeah, it was the base commander."
"He asked me why I was crying, and I told him what I told you about my hair." She paused, expecting him to say something. He just looked at her, wide eyed, waiting for more. "He said he was sorry....he said it had to be done because our hair was hard to keep clean, and he didn't want any of us to get sick."
"So why -- ?"
"He said that we were special girls, that we're destined to be special women. So they didn't want anything to happen that would get in the way of our destinies."
"I'm not sure I --"
"I'm trying to tell you!" Jyoti shouted. She then gasped and her eyes grew wide.
"What's wrong?" Ryu asked, maybe a little louder than he should have.
"I'm sorry!" Her voice was small and shook as she scooted away from Ryu. "Please don't hurt me."
"Now, honey, why would I do that?" Ryu had never sounded more gentle.
"I've seen videos." Jyoti answered."Well, not so much of you as the other Science Ninjas...I have nightmares about the ones that show the Swallow using that string with the balls on the end to cut off the heads of little babies and then the Condor drank their blood!"
"Whoa, hold on there!" He tried not to raise his voice and scare her more. "I don't know who you actually saw, but I can promise you that none of us would ever do anything like that!"
Jyoti seemed to calm down a little, but she looked at him with doubtful, questioning eyes.
"Look," he said, lowering his voice, "I'll admit we've hurt and even killed some people. But we never set out to do that. We're just protecting people. If we don't act against Galactor, lots and lots of innocent people get hurt and die."
Her eyes said she wasn't quite sure.
"Okay," Ryu wasn't sure if he could convince her, but he decided to try something else. "I'll tell you what will most likely happen. Once the rest of the team gets back, we'll have a doctor take a look at you to see if you're okay. Then we'll get you back to your family."
"You'll really do that?"
Ryu drew an X over the center of his chest. "Cross my heart."
"That's exactly what will happen when the rest of the Science Ninjas get back?"
"Well, some people might want to ask you some questions. But I can't think of anything else." He gave her a moment to think. But then a tweet sound came from his wrist communicator. "Stand by." he said into his wristband. "Look," he then said to the girl, "I'll just be outside that door if you need me. I should be only a minute."
"Go ahead." Ryu quietly said into his communicator as soon as the sick bay door closed.
"Why the delay?" Ken's voice sounded slightly annoyed.
"It's kinda long and complicated."
Ken waited for Ryu to say more. When that didn't happen, he clicked his teeth and continued. "It looks like Galactor bugged out just before we got here. They left a lot of equipment and --"
"Yeah. How did you know?"
"We almost squished one when I put the GodPhoenix through the wall. She's in sick bay now."
"How bad is she?"
"She's not hurt, but, apparently, she's a high-risk pregnancy."
"Just like the rest..." Ken's voice trailed off.
"So how many are we taking?"
"None. We aren't equipped to handle their medical frailties, and there are just too many of them."
"What about Jyoti?"
"Yeah, the girl I've got here. I think we'd better take her back with us -- she's been through enough extra stress already."
There was a pause. "I'll make my decision once I'm back and have made my assessment."
Ryu entered the sick bay just as Jyoti finished getting back onto the table. He decided to pretend he hadn't noticed. "How're you doin', Jyoti?"
"Um, okay..." Her voice wavered a little and trailed off.
"Ryu, will you be mad at me?"
"Why would I be mad?"
"Well, I, um, kind of heard some of the things you said to Ken."
"I'm not mad. Just don't get into the habit of eavesdropping, okay?"
A moment passed. "Jyoti, is something bothering you?"
"Um, did I hear right, that other girls were left behind?"
"Yeah, that's right."
"Ken didn't say, just that there's too many for us to take with us."
A moment passed. "Are they like me -- they might lose their babies?"
"That's what it looks like."
Jyoti looked down. A large, round tear ran down her cheek. "I thought Brad cared, but he dumped me...he dumped us."
"The base commander."
Of course, Ryu thought, I should've guessed that.
"He told me I reminded him of somebody he liked when he was a kid. That's why he put me in this room next to his."
Ryu took her hand. He didn't know what else to do.
Jyoti stifled a sniffle and looked at her hand in his as she talked."I got a lot of shots that made me feel really yucky because I needed to have periods."
Something occurred to Ryu. "How old are you, by the way?"
"I'll be twelve next month."
Ryu swallowed down the nausea creeping up from his stomach.
"Nothing was like they told us in sex ed class."
"You had --?"
"At Freemont, everyone takes that class by the age of ten, since some girls are early developers."
"Didn't you have that --"
"Yeah," Ryu answered quickly, "but I was a little older."
"Oh. I guess it's pointless, anyway. Nothing happened the way the teacher said it would."
Ryu reached out and placed his other hand on Jyoti's shoulder.
"Even the baby," Jyoti started to say. Ryu grit his teeth. He wanted to tell her to stop, he didn't want to hear that part...but he knew she needed to talk, so he held his breath and braced himself. "didn't happen they way I thought it would."
"I didn't get this baby like they said I would in class. The Galactors made me have a medical procedure -- enfeeto?"
"Do you mean 'in vitro'?"
"Yeah, that's it -- in vitro."
Ryu relaxed a little. It wasn't as bad as he expected, but it was still unforgivable to put a little girl through this. And for what?
"And when all this was happening, Brad acted like he cared. But he didn't. He just ran." Tears started coming more freely.
Ryu pulled Jyoti close enough to put his arms around her. "Hey, look at the bright side."
"What bright side?"
"You're going home. You'll get to be with people who've missed you and who care about you."
"Really." a new voice from the doorway replied. Jyoti caught only a tiny glimpse of white before letting out a shriek and trying to bury herself in Ryu's arms.
"Hey, it's okay!" Ryu whispered to the trembling girl, "Ken's not gonna hurt you...I promise you. If he even looks at you wrong, I'll go at him!"
It took a few minutes for her to stop shaking. "I'm sorry, Ken," Ryu said to his commander, "It's just that --"
"I know." Ken replied, "The other girls saw the videos, too." He went over to the table and crouched down until he was looking up at Jyoti. "And you know what?" he said to her, "After all the stuff they saw me do in those videos, I'm kinda scared of me, too!"
Jyoti blinked a couple of times as she looked into Ken's face, trying to read what wasn't obscured by his visor. A thin smile appeared on her lips. She let out a small giggle.
+ + + + + + + + + +
The city of LaRamie is in the same Amerisian state as Bluestone National Park, but the city is in the southeastern corner whereas the park is in the northwestern corner. In downtown LaRamie is an ISO-run hospital considered one of the best hospitals in the country. But there is no surprise in that, since the ISO maintains high standards in its hospitals all over the world.
If anybody had been paying attention, they would have seen a happy-go-lucky looking young man carrying a small basket full of baby clothes and bottles enter a service elevator in a restricted parking garage. The doors closed.
Right away his mind went back to the meeting immediately after the Science Ninja Team rescued the schoolgirls Galactor abandoned.
"I don't understand, Hakase." Jinpei said, "Why did Galactor kidnap all those girls?"
"They're using the girls for a baby farm." Joe replied. He almost spat the words out.
"That sounds horrible." Jun hadn't said much since they arrived back at the Crescent Coral Base, but she seemed to be on the verge of tears the whole time. Ryu couldn't blame her -- he kept thinking about Jyoti and how she was literally forced to grow up before her time.
"So what's a baby farm?" Jinpei was being a typical kid of his age -- wanting everything spoon-fed to him rather than thinking it out for himself.
"I think Katse's recruiting methods needed to change." Ken said.
"Galactor's cross-generational hold on families isn't as strong as it used to be." Dr. Nambu added.
"Now that almost all the people in Galactor can't get beyond cannon-fodder rank..." Joe muttered.
"I still don't get it."
"Jinpei," Jun replied, "Galactor's planning to make those girls have babies for as long as they can have babies. And because Galactor would carefully control the environment those babies grew up in, they wouldn't be as likely to rebel, since they wouldn't be aware of what life's like without Galactor."
Jinpei bit his lower lip as he thought about what Jun said. "So...it's kinda like a puppy mill where mama dogs do nothing but have litters and the puppies are trained to be mean and fight?"
"That's right." Nambu answered.
A few minutes after the young man had entered the elevator, the Owl, carrying a gift basket, emerged on an upper-level floor. After a quick stop at the nurse's station, he stood in the doorway of a 12-year-old girl's room.
Jyoti was sound asleep. An older man and woman sat by her bed. They looked up, and their jaws dropped in disbelief. The man quickly regained his composure. "May I help you, sir?" the man said with a thick, Indirian accent.
"Um..." Ryu stammered a little, "I was just popping by to see how Jyoti's doing." He didn't remember entering the room; the next thing he knew, he was setting the basket down on a table by the bed. " I brought a little something for the baby... oh yeah, I'm Ryu..."
"Jyoti's talked about you so much, sir." the man replied.
"But we had trouble believing her." the woman added. Her accent was as thick as the man's. Ryu didn't remember Jyoti's accent being so strong. "It's one thing to hear about the Science Ninja Team helping others on the television," the woman continued, "but to hear your daughter describe how she was rescued...well, we were sure she was exaggerating, as many young girls do."
All Ryu could do was blush and mutter, "Aw, shucks..."
"Oh, and we've forgotten our manners!" the woman proclaimed, "I'm Jyoti's mother, Saheli, and this is Varoon, my husband and her father."
"Nice to meet you folks."
"Have you seen my grandson yet?" Varoon asked.
"Come, let me show you. And maybe Jyoti will be awake when we come back."
Even though he was in an incubator, Jyoti's baby appeared to be healthy. "She named him Ryu." Varoon said.
Ryu turned to him. "Really? I'm honored."
"If the boy turns out to be anything like you," Varoon replied, "then we will be honored."
Ryu just stood there, mouth and eyes wide open.
"My only child was in darkness, abandoned and confused." the father explained, "In those few moments you spent with her, you brought her back to us. She realizes that Galactor lied to her. If it hadn't been for you, where would Jyoti be now?"