(Continued from Forbidden Fruits)
Sakura woke up reluctantly. Her body felt slow and clumsy, and carrying the triplets was actually uncomfortable. Groaning, she sat up slowly, noting that she was still in her club gear. Blearily, she glanced around the room, her green eyes blinking uncertainly. The room she was in was comfortable bedroom. A window on the wall showed an idyllic scene of a high mountain lake. The room was well-furnished with carpets and plush bedding.
Awkwardly she rose and went to the door. It led to a hall which opened to a hallway. There were three bedrooms on the right, each designed for a child. The other side of the hall held a bathroom and another room, also comfortable and with a computer. The hallway ended in a large room with an open floorplan.
The windows, Sakura realized, weren’t windows. They were computer screens, each showing her a different image. It wasn’t until she looked up that she saw her first true window; an overhead skylight that showed her a field of stars.
She went perfectly still, panicking but doing so in her quiet way. Her mind was still piecing together the last hazy minutes at the club. Mostly all she could remember was laying down on a couch and then a sting in her leg. She reached around her, feeling for Nature just to confirm the dread she'd felt growing when she'd figured out the "windows" and seeing the starfield. Only the microscopic colonies of life, mostly hers, answered her. There wasn't any plant or creature living within....within a far distance. She slid down the door frame, fighting back tears as she panicked a second time - flashes of Scrambler's attack on the Crèche spinning through her mind despite the lack of any overt attack on her.
It took several minutes for her to pull herself together again and make a second prowl through the space she was confined in. There was a door in the living room that she couldn't open, giving her the dubious respite that this wasn't an entirely enclosed "apartment" with only warpers or teleporters able to come and go from it. The three children's room told her that who'd ever taken her intended her to stay put for at least past her due date and most likely much farther than that. Eventually she stalked into the office room, figuring that the computer wouldn't be of much help but might at least give her some clue as to her abductors and their reasons or plans for taking her.
There was no internet connection on the computer. Sakura found games, books and all manner of entertainment, but there was no internet or useful programs - useful to her escape. A calendar told her it was the same day that she'd opened the club. The clock told her it was a few hours after she'd been at the club last. There was a program on the computer for changing the windows, and she found that one didn't respond to her commands at all. It remained an idyllic scene of a tulip-filled field despite every effort of hers to change it.
Hours passed with little to do to occupy her. Sakura's fear abated in time; she couldn't sustain that reaction in the face of nothing happening. When she grew hungry, she raided the kitchen to find plenty of food in storage. She thought about not eating, but rationalized that if they'd meant her harm, they would have already have done it to her. All indications where that she was meant to be comfortable here for a long time.
After she'd eaten and cleared away the dishes, she noticed that the main screen flickered once. Then the image settled into that of a backlit form. "Ms. Konohanasakuyahime. How do you feel? Have you recovered from your ordeal?"
"Konohanasakuyahime is titular," she snapped, her English clipped in her anger. "Adding 'Ms.' to it redundant. Insulting, technically. And as my 'ordeal' is hardly far from over, I cannot yet be recovered from it." She leveled a glare of imperial haughter even her father would have been impressed by. "And how I feel is not your privilege to know. Who are you and why have I been kidnapped and imprisoned in this place?"
“Who I am is unimportant, clearly. We have met before. You do not recognize me.” The voice did seem vaguely familiar to Sakura, but she still couldn’t place a name to it. “I’m not a powerful nova, so I’m not surprised that I failed to make an impression on you.” The shadowed form shifted then spoke again; Sakura was growing more confident that it was a Dutch accent. “As for why you are here, it is because you turned down my proposal, and I am not a man who takes no well. I asked you to aid donor novas in becoming pregnant. You denied my request.”
“Were you trying to become a father to a bunch of supermen or just make an army?” Sakura asked with a twist of her perfect lips.
“An army. Ah, I see you’re still self-righteous about that,” her captor said. “My offer has not changed. Agree to do as I wish, and I’ll pay you well in addition to giving you freedom.”
Rage seethed beneath her smooth, calm demeanor.
It was said with the finality of death, no room for negotiation and only the faintest touch of her anger deepening it to bone-chilling timbre. "You have made an error in judgement, one that most likely will cost you your life. I abhor violence and needless death, but I cannot say the same of many of the friends that I have made over the past year. They tend to be...protective...of me to a vicious degree." Images of Shiv flashed through her mind, the bound woman's easy violence against any perceived threats to the Crèche, Lucrezia or herself in the days after Scrambler's attack. "This is the only warning I will give you. Return me to my club and I might be able to keep you alive. Keep me here against my will and you will die. Most likely very unpleasantly at the hands of people I've likely never met. This is not a threat. This is an offer to try to help you survive your mistake."
She studied the shadow on the screen pulling out details at a pixelated level and committing it to memory, searching for more clues to give her an identity. "You have a decision to make: cling to your pride and a plan that will never be fulfilled by me and be a corpse in short order, or return me with all the speed and secrecy you can muster and then spend the rest of your life hiding that you did this. The better you become at hiding, the longer you will live."
The words were cold, calculated, and delivered with the all the calm certainty she could muster; she even believed most of it. That didn't keep the trickle of fear and adrenaline from dripping down her spine in coiling in her gut with a mounting pressure of panic. She clamped down hard on any sign of weakness, though. If she gave this man any hint that he was in control, she'd lose any slim hope of ending this without pain and bloodshed. That she wasn't completely sure of who's bloodshed added acrid heat through her body.
“I will take my risks. You see, I feel that there is much more at risk here than my life. A reward worth my time and effort even if I die.”
“An army.” Sakura said the words with a derisive twist of her lips.
The form shook its head. “A defense force. The humans are starting to see the future. They’re starting to realize that they are losing and if they don’t act soon, they will be removed from the world. To that end, novas need to have a unified force that will defend them. Not the Teragen or Utopia or anyone with their own agenda. An army of defense.”
He paused before adding, “I want your help with that. I need your help with that.”
"Then hire elites." Her tone was as acid as the fear curled up in her heart.
The man sighed in annoyance. "Elites are loyal to money. I will not be...outbid...in a war for survival-"
"Then leave." Sakura cut in without sympathy. "Novas aren't going to be wiped out by baseline humanity. At the very worst for novas, Earth becomes irrelivant and not worth the constant friction to remain on the planet. At. The. Worst. There are other worlds....a whole universe to go live in away from Earth. You say you want a defensive force? Then hire or find some novas that will take you and yours away from baselines. That's defensive. You want an army to win a war that evolution - Nature Herself - has already declared the outcome of."
She crossed her arms, "So cut the self-deluding crap and at least take responsibility for what you're really doing, and why."
“I am. Regardless of what you’re too pacifistic to acknowledge, Earth is the home of novas as well as humans.” The man was still a shadow to her but she could see his hands as they rose and clasped in front of his face. “Why should I leave because small-minded people won’t accept their own irrelevance? Defense can be as much about offense as defense. Is that really what you want for your children? That they’ll have to find a home among the stars because the creatures that share their birthplace won’t accept them? I want more for my children: the right to choose whether they can live here in peace or among the stars.”
The man fell silent again, waiting to see what her response would be.
"Peace?" she huffed her contempt even as she took in every minute detail she could discern from the play of shadows over his hands. "With your defensive offense force of nova children brought into life not to be the next generation of nova children but to be your personal quantum army? If you don't want better for you children than that, you don't deserve to have them."
"You call others 'small-minded' and 'irrelevant'. You're scum. A man who kidnaps a pregnant woman to coerce her into unconscionable acts. Who threatens by preparation to keep her and her children confined until she does as you bid. You are no architect of the future and certainly no man fit to be a father. You are a coward too afraid to do yourself what you would demand of children. You are a hypocrite that casts derision with words and fear with actions. If these enemies of yours are irrelevant, then they areirrelevant. Your own actions elevate them not only to equals, but to superiors that you dread."
"Earth is a cradle. A seed. A beginning. It is not the sum of all any of us are and we need not kill our brothers and sisters, our cousins and progenitors, over a bit of dirt.Evolution isn't just about a node or oposable thumbs. It's about growth beyond the smallness from which we start. Earth is becoming too small for the power of Her children. Leaving isn't a retreat, it's a vanguard. An acknowledgement of the quantum gifts that propel the nova race beyond the seed of a single planet. Baseline humanity does not have that privilege. They must either come into the greater universe as our guests and partners or wait until their technology can match the quantum powers a nova is gifted with." She sat back, green eyes tight and disdainful. "So stop your whining, find a different hobby, and let me go before you find your own life cut short by this stupid and useless stunt. I will never do what you want and you have no way of forcing me to. You can threaten me, you can even threaten my children, but you cannot do what I do. In the end, that is my power and I will never choose to use it as you desire."
She placed a hand over her womb, "My children will have their choice. It is a simple fact of nature. They are novas and they will be powerful enough to choose whatever they desire. The question is not if they are capable of living on Earth, but if they will choose to. How they live, who they are, these are choices they will have as they grow into themselves. They are not tools or weapons to be used at the whim of their parents. I am their mother, not their god or master. They were not conceived out of cold, uncaring calculations of a warmonger."
She chose her next words with precision, setting them with all the venom she could muster to shame this man who had not even the courage to show his face to her. "I will not be raped of my free will by the likes of you."
"Then you will find these accomidations merely adequate. I am the only way you're leaving, the only chance you have to see living things other than yourself and your children. Think on it." The screen blackened, leaving her alone again. Sakura investigated some more, but there was nothing else for her to find or see. She did notice that the reading materials had shrunk, or she thought it had. Beyond that, there was nothing for her to do.
The only thing that she noticed was a banging noise; following the sound, she saw one of the cabinet doors move. When she opened it, there was new food there. Somethinghad just replenished the food for her. She wasn't completely alone. Either it was a robot-
Or there was someone here she couldn't sense.
She frowned at the thought and decided that she was not in a sharing mood. She took the plate of food and sat down at the kitchen table, enveloping herself in a bubble of quick time while she worked. She made a mental list of all the spores and bacterium on herself, the food, and her surrounding furniture, and picked out a small micro-lifeform closest to her needs. It grew at levels too small to see, using the energy Sakura fed it to grow and divide and grow and divide until the Blossom Princess had what she needed - a close approximation of micro-algea. The plant rooted on her meal and quickly spread, devouring every speck of organic material in less than a minute thanks to Sakura's alterations.
She sighed, then began in on the now protein-rich salad, tucking the meal away with inhumanly swift and precise movements. Then went to the plush cream-colored couch and laid down, for all purposes appearing to take a post-meal nap. Curled up around her children, she focused inward, producing her silk as quickly as she could but keeping all of it save her clothes completely translucent. The process took hours even outside of her personal bubble of time, but once she was finished she was surrounded by meters and meters of a fine net that moved at her command. She concentrated on the space outside her bubble, slowing down the time there to give her one more edge in the seconds to come.
Then she unleashed the silk. It rippled and flowed over every surface, invading each room of the apartment until it covered everything. And anything above a microscopic level that moves would find itself bound under the living blanket. Now, let's see if I've caught anyone or just wasted a perfectly fine meal.
Through her web, Sakura learned a couple of interesting things. First, there was more to her complex than she had seen. Many of the cabinets through which she was supplied had false backs, allowing someone to restock goods without entering her area. The second interesting thing was that once her webs had worked their way through the false backs, they trapped someone under them. The problem was that Sakura couldn't get to that person - he or she was in the other area, which was unavailable to her.
She stood, moving her web as she moved her body to keep the areas saturated as well as to bring whomever she had ensnared to one of the upper cabinets in the kitchen, pulling up a stool the counter before using the leverage of her silk to pop out the back of the cabinet. She maneuvered her temporary prison until she could see them through the back of the cabinet.
Her eyes flashed briefly with triumph, even if was only a small victory so far. "Now, I believe you and I have some negotiating to do."
“I really can’t negotiate much.” The man seemed chagrined and somewhat resigned. “I don’t have any power here over your fate. The best you can do is ensure you don’t get new food delivered to you.”
"What is that you do here? I would hardly think my captor would put a nova here merely to stock cabinets." She regarded him cooly, weighing him with calculating eyes. "What is your name?"
“My name is Conrad.” He smiled, his teeth white against brown-tinted skin. “I’m here to keep people from finding you, as well as making sure you’re in good health.”
She smiled in return, "So, you do have some power over my fate. You could stop whatever it is that keeps me from being found." There was an undertone to her voice, not a direct command but a subliminal insinuation that reverberated through whatever means it was that she was holding him bound that not doing so would be dangerous for him. "Were you listening to my conversation with your....employer?"
“Not at all, ma’am.” Conrad was still smiling. “You can kill or terribly injure me if you’d like. It won’t get you released any faster. It might help you be found, but I’m the redundant system beyond the quantum dampners.”
"Unlike your employer, Conrad, I do not engage in such barbaric actions against others. The most I would do is render you unconscious so that your powers might relax." She sighed, "You do understand that you are in danger from this? Like I warned your employer, the people looking for me do not share my dislike of violence and will hold you as responsible as him unless you assist me in escaping." There was complete honesty in her words, tempered with a weary and sad conviction that this entire situation would lead to pointless violence and death.
“And I understand ma’am, that I live a life full of danger and risk. If your friends kill me, my children will prosper.” Conrad sighed though he was still smiling. “If your friends destroy me… I knew that was a possibility, and it is every time I sign the dotted line.”
"You love your children?" She asked softly.
He paused a beat. “As much as I can, yes. I’m away a lot, providing for them. Making sure that they can have a good life even if they are baselines in a nova world.”
"You understand that the people looking for me are Teragen?" She let that begin to sink in and pressed on with, "They're not known for their self-control when it comes to matters like this. Or for restricting the battlefield to those that 'signed the dotted line'."
“They have no reason to come after my family if I’m dead, especially if you’re not dead.” He shrugged awkwardly against the bonds holding him. “They’ll not feel the need for vengeance then, and I’m supposed to keep you alive.”
Sakura lowered her head, amazed at his naitivity in this. "Conrad, if I'm alive I'll be lucky to talk my friends out of killing everyone involved or that might have been involved. I have no hold over Geryon or Shrapnel or any of the other Terats that follow their creeds. Do you think they will let your baseline family live or profit from your death?" She looked back up him, intense green eyes conveying only utter sincerity. "This was not the line to sign. Save yourself, save your family, by helping me escape. I have a chance to protect you and them, then."
He swallowed at that, though she still wasn’t sure if he believed she was right, or just needed to believe she was wrong. “I can’t let you go. I literally can’t release you. I can’t let you go or help you escape. I don’t have that power or the way to communicate. This is a one-way trip for me, until you agree to do whatever it is that he wants.”
"You didn't even ask?" Her question was half-whispered and almost angry. She put a hand to her womb and took several deep breaths to calm herself before stating, "He wants me to create an army of nova children for him use as a personal army against baselines. He's holding me and my unborn children hostage, with the intention of keeping me here until I capitulate. Imprisoning my children with me and no doubt intending to use them to leverage me if I refuse past the point of giving birth to them." She sighed, "I am not asking you to snap your fingers and free me, Conrad. I am asking you to save yourself by trying. By telling me everything you know and doing everything that is within your power to get us both out of this mess."
“And I’m telling you that there’s not really any way I can help. I’ve told you what I know. I didn’t need to know more.” He sighed. “And yeah, this is the standard way a mission is run.”
He felt the bonds around him loosen until he was gently set on his feet. "I suggest you think, very carefully and very well, on what you can do, Conrad. For the love you have for your family, if not for any compassion towards me or my own children. I will not do what he wants. Ever. And those that promised to protect me, they will come, even if they think I'm dead, just to ensure that anyone responsible or involved in this shares that fate."
She let her silk go limp through the entire compound, leaving it where it was for now but allowing Conrad to move around. An image ran through her mind, of Scrambler in the Creche and everything Chang had told her of him. He would be one to track down Conrad's family and kill them as a warning to any others against touching a fertile, pregnant, and fertility-bestowing nova. She moved away from the kitchen, laying back down on the couch to rest and think. It was a clever, careful trap, but no plan was perfect once people were involved. She just had to find the right leverage, the overlooked crack in Eikenboom's plans. Idly she began teasing at the bits of life and organic material in her prison, debating what she could make that might prove useful; eventually she drifted off.
“Just open the ‘lock?” Conrad asked warily several days later.
“Yes,” Sakura insisted. “Open the air-lock, just like you were getting a shipment. Wait until everything’s outside – you’ll see it once it’s in the sunlight – and then come back in. That’s all I’m asking.”
He took a breath and let it out slowly, debating what to do not that she’d actually put the decision squarely in front of him. Finally he crossed his arms and shrugged. “Okay, but I don’t see what good it will do. We’re not even facing Earth.”
“Baby steps, Conrad. We do what we can.”
She heard the hiss of the air-lock as he opened the first door and directed all the microbial lifeforms she’d engineered over the past four days into the small room with him. After a moment she heard it seal again, and then silence. It took Conrad nearly five full minutes to come back inside. He glanced over at her only once and muttered, “That’s ‘baby steps’? How…it’s hard vacuum out there!”
Sakura just smiled.
(Continued in Losing Sakura)