Ki-Blind: Chapter Thirteen

About two hours after Tenshinhan and Chaotzu sealed themselves in the old mine shaft, they emerged by a different exit, on a different face of the mountain. Both were filthy from crawling through narrow tunnels, and a couple of times they'd hit a dead end and had to backtrack. In several cases, too, they'd hit tunnels through which only Chaotzu could pass, but he refused to go without his bigger friend, so they'd had to find a way around.

The ruddy light of afternoon spilled into the tunnel through a partly-overgrown opening, looking wonderful to both of them after hours in darkness. Tenshinhan stopped Chaotzu with one outstretched hand and cautiously approached the opening, peering out. They had come much lower on the mountain's flank, and the area around the mine shaft was overgrown with the low, thorny bushes that grew in this dry part of the world. He saw no spiders in their immediate vicinity, but groups of them were flying overhead, their darting black shapes making him think of flies buzzing in the afternoon sky.

"I don't think they're actively hunting us," Tenshinhan said softly after a moment. "They're just flying around looking for anything that moves. Look." One of the spiders peeled off suddenly from its comrades and darted downward towards a mountain goat on the rocks below. The terrified animal sprinted for cover, but was not fast enough; one of the spider's lance-like legs pierced its back. The goat writhed and screamed in pain until the spider finished it off. Then it flew back to join the others.

The soft-hearted Chaotzu had covered his face in horror. "That's awful ... they just kill for the fun of it."

"I don't think it's fun, exactly," Tenshinhan murmured. "More like business. They don't seem to have any emotions at all. They're just machines."

Looking across the rocks below them, he saw the bodies of numerous other animals that had been killed and abandoned. Tenshinhan wondered why the spiders had not been doing that earlier -- they had pursued himself and Chaotzu, but left the animals alone. Their goals must have changed, and he didn't like it at all. They didn't seem to use the dead bodies for anything. They just killed and then moved on.

"What should we do?" Chaotzu asked softly.

Tenshinhan shook himself back to reality. "We should get back to Lunch and find out how she's doing."

The current home of the nomadic trio was an abandoned bandit hideout, not too different from the one where Yamcha and Pu'ar had once lived. Tenshinhan had left Lunch barricaded inside, under strict orders not to leave, while he and Chaotzu went to investigate the falling "meteors." Actually, he'd tried to make Chaotzu stay behind as well, but his friend refused to leave him.

Lunch had been a brunette at the time, which meant that she'd been terrified of the strange lights in the sky and obedient to his instructions to stay behind. If she'd sneezed since then, though, there was absolutely no telling where she might be now.

Sometimes it was like living with a 2-year-old ... a 2-year-old with an arsenal of assault weapons.

"I can check on her," Chaotzu offered. He reached out with his limited telepathic abilities, seeking Lunch's familiar mind. It had been a long time since he'd relied on his own skills -- normally Tenshinhan was so much more powerful that he allowed his bigger friend to take the lead in almost everything. Tenshinhan's ki-sense could keep tabs on Lunch; Tenshinhan's powers would protect them. But now, the tables were turned in a very strange way. Tenshinhan was still physically superior, but Chaotzu was the only one who possessed extrasensory abilities.

Chaotzu's eyes snapped open. "Uh-oh."

Tenshinhan's eyes narrowed -- all three of them. "What do you mean?"

"She's changed into ... the other Lunch. She said that she's out looking for us. She wants to know where we are."

"Well, don't tell her! Tell her to go back home. We'll meet her there."

"I don't know if that's a good idea," Chaotzu deferred. "She'd probably be safer with us than traveling through the ... uh-oh. Oh ... never mind."


"She said a spider just spotted her, but she shot it."

"She what? That idiot ... she'll have them all on her back before she figures out what she's doing."

Chaotzu picked his words carefully. "You know ... blond-haired Lunch can probably defend herself about as well as you or I, right now."

"That's not the point. She shouldn't be out here. She may be aggressive, but she doesn't have any experience fighting. She's overconfident -- she'll underestimate her enemy and get killed." Tenshinhan sighed. "Ask her where she is."

Chaotzu did so. "She says she's not sure. She's in a ravine ... probably a few miles from the hideout. She says there are a lot of spiders above her."

"In a ravine. Well, most of the ravines around here are tributaries of the same water system," Tenshinhan mused. "Tell her to go down the ravine -- downhill, that is, away from the mountains. If we can find a drywash or something around here, it will probably lead us to the main canyon system, and we can meet her there. It'll keep her out of sight of the spiders."

Chaotzu relayed this information. "She says she wants to fight."

"Tell her to stay low! Blast it ..."

Tenshinhan looked around, seeking the dark shadow of a streambed among the rocks that might lead into the valley's alluvial drainage system.

"There. Chaotzu, what did she say?"

Chaotzu smiled. "She said that you'd better let her shoot a few spiders before we go home, but she's not trying to attack them now."

"Good. Let's go."

They left the safety of the cave mouth and moved swiftly among the rocks, staying low. Soon they reached the nearest ravine that Tenshinhan's sharp vision had spotted, a narrow cleft in the arid landscape. In the rainy season it would be a treacherous, raging cataract, but at this time of year, the streambed was dry. Tenshinhan slid down the rough bank, with Chaotzu floating at his shoulder. He relaxed somewhat once they were hidden from the spiders.

The two of them followed the dry watercourse, Tenshinhan alternating between walking and jogging, while Chaotzu kept pace. In due course they entered a larger canyon, and there, sitting on her hovercycle and waiting for them, was Lunch. She was wearing leather motorcyclists' gear, and her face was smudged with dirt. A gun almost as big as she was rested against her thigh.

"Hey boys!" she grinned. "Need a ride?"

"What are you doing out here?" Tenshinhan demanded. "Didn't I specifically tell you to stay at home?"

Lunch snorted. "You told the other me. Maybe she's happy to be your little housewife, but I'm certainly not. Figured you boys couldn't handle yourselves."

"We were doing just fine," Tenshinhan retorted.

"Oh yeah, getting trapped and killed by spiders is sure my idea of a good time." Lunch patted the seat behind her. "Get on. You may not be the brightest bulb in the box, but my kid needs a dad."

"Your ... uh, your what?" Tenshinhan asked, climbing on behind her and wondering what game she was playing now.

"My kid. Our kid." Lunch looked at him over her shoulder, her eyes mischievous and bright. "That's what I really came out here to tell you. Last time we went through a town, I picked up a capsule home pregnancy test, just in case. Well, I've suspected for a while, but now I know for sure. You're a daddy, big boy."

Tenshinhan fell off the hovercycle.

"Tenshinhan!" Chaotzu flew down to help his friend. "Are you all right?"

"I ... I'm not quite sure," Tenshinhan mumbled, staring at Lunch. "Are you positive?"

Lunch nodded.

Chaotzu cried out with joy and hugged his big friend around the neck. "That's wonderful!"

"Yes, don't you think that's wonderful, Tenshinhan?" Lunch inquired, her eyes narrowing dangerously.

"Uh ... yes ... yes it is ... I think ..." Still stunned, he got back onto the hovercycle behind her.

"You don't sound happy."

"I'm a bit shocked! News like that will do that to a guy!"

Lunch revved the engine. "Well, you'd better be happy, that's all I've got to say about that. And if we stand here talking any longer, we'll be spider food."

"Take us home," Tenshinhan told her. "We can try to formulate a plan and see if we can contact any of the others."

Lunch looked over her shoulder at the two of them. "What about Chaotzu? Can't he talk to them?"

Chaotzu shook his head. "I don't have much range at all, unless I know somebody really well." He was ashamed to admit it, but he had been neglecting his own training badly. He could probably have enhanced his psychic abilities to great heights ... but with the Z-senshi always around, it never seemed necessary to spend the time. Inwardly, he vowed that if they got out of this alive, he'd start relying more on himself, and less on the powers of others.

"Which way should I go?" Lunch asked, kicking the bike into gear.

Tenshinhan looked around. "Which ravine did you come out of?"

Lunch pointed.

"Okay. Take us back that way; it'll be the quickest way to the hideout. And driiiiiiiiii--" His voice changed to a hoarse yell as she slammed forward, rocketing off a boulder and careening into the ravine.

"--drive carefully!" Tenshinhan protested as the hovercycle bounded over the rocks. "Your baby --"

"Oh, I can tell the next eight months are going to be a joy," Lunch griped. "Maybe I shouldn't have told you yet."

Chaotzu hung onto Tenshinhan's arm to keep from being knocked off the back of the hovercycle. "I wonder how many eyes it'll have," he mused, delighted.

"I wonder what'll happen when it sneezes," Tenshinhan muttered, frowning as he tried to imagine a toddler with Lunch's blond personality.

"I wonder why I bothered rescuing you two," Lunch grumbled.

They whipped around a corner on the hovercycle -- and there, not fifty yards in front of them, were at least a dozen spiders, on the ground in the ravine.

"Crap!" Lunch yelled, skidding to a halt.

Too late, Tenshinhan realized that he had made a very, very bad mistake. The spiders who had originally become aware of Lunch's presence had not given up looking for her -- and now the three of them had driven straight into the patrol.

The spiders all turned and oriented on the hovercycle and its passengers. Lunch shouldered her gun and fired into the middle of them. A cloud of smoke and dust blossomed skyward.

"Oh -- great!" Tenshinhan snapped. "Now they all know where we are!"

"Hey, you want to do it, macho man?" Lunch retorted, shoving the gun into his hands.

Several spiders emerged from the dust cloud, rose into the air and shot towards them. Lunch, her hands now free to drive, fishtailed the hovercycle around and headed back the way they'd come.

Tenshinhan tried to aim the gun on the bouncing hovercycle, but he was afraid that he'd pull the trigger at the wrong moment and accidentally blow Chaotzu's head off. He'd been a martial artist all his life -- he had never fired a gun before, and he suspected that if he actually managed to hit a spider, it would only be by sheer luck.

Chaotzu concentrated, and one of the spiders dissolved into a fireball in midair, temporarily distracting the others.

"Yes! Chaotzu!" Lunch cheered, waving her arms in the air. The hovercycle started to go into a spin.

"Hands on the controls!" Tenshinhan yelled, and Lunch grabbed the handlebars and kept them from tipping over. "Don't do that," he muttered as she straightened out the vehicle.

"Oh, bite me." Lunch crouched over the handlebars, and then choked on the dust kicked up by the tires -- the dust cloud they'd raised going the other way. Tenshinhan realized what was happening a moment too late to do anything about it.

"No! Lunch! Don't ... breathe it in," he finished, as she sneezed. The blond cascade of hair flying in his face suddenly rippled dark as night, and Lunch gave a tiny shriek and lost control of the hovercycle. It skidded onto its side, flinging them all off. The spiders, not expecting this, overshot them and went racing down the ravine, only to brake themselves against the far canyon wall.

Tenshinhan picked himself up. Lunch had landed on top of him; she was trembling in terror, but seemed unharmed. Chaotzu had landed against a boulder a little farther on. The gun lay in pieces among the rocks, but the hovercycle seemed to be intact.

"Lunch! Chaotzu! Are you all right?"

"I'm fine, but ... but ..." Lunch looked up at the spiders bearing down on them. "Eeek!" she shrieked, trying to hide behind Tenshinhan.

The spider zeroing in on the two of them blew apart, its metal pieces flying against the canyon walls. "Ha ... that'll show you," Chaotzu gasped, staggering to his feet.

"Lunch -- get Chaotzu!" Tenshinhan cried, dragging the hovercycle upright. Lunch nodded and ran to pick up the short man. Tenshinhan stared at the hovercycle's controls -- he'd watched Lunch operate it dozens of times; surely it couldn't be that hard ...

"Here ... I can do it ..." Lunch offered shyly, nudging against him. She was holding Chaotzu clasped against her chest. Blood was trickling down one of his arms, and he was gripping his side.

"Chaotzu --"

"I'm fine. Don't worry about me. We have to get out of here."

Several spiders were hovering above them now, and more were swooping in from the sky to join them.

"Lunch ... sorry about this ..." Tenshinhan bent down and picked up a handful of dust. "We need you the other way now ..." He flung it into her face. Lunch coughed, and sneezed. Her hair turned gold, and she dropped Chaotzu. Tenshinhan lunged to catch him, and received a punch in the face from Lunch that almost knocked him down.

"What are you thinking, making us crash like that?" She grabbed the hovercycle's handlebars and started the engine.

The spiders seemed to come to some kind of collective realization that their prey was about to escape, and dove in a mass. Chaotzu stiffened with concentration, and the creatures scattered as they were knocked back by an invisible shield.

"I can't ... keep doing that ..." he gasped.

"How bad are you hurt?" Tenshinhan asked, holding him protectively as he got back onto the hovercycle.

"I think some ribs are broken ... it's not that bad, but -- Look out, here they come again!"

Lunch gunned the motor and they burst forward, easily eluding the spiders. The cycle skidding into the main canyon. Lunch pivoted and headed downhill, away from the mountains.

"No, go the other way!" Tenshinhan yelled, but looking back and seeing the cloud of spiders rising behind them, he realized that their way back to the possible safety of the mineshafts was now sealed off.

They rocketed down the canyon, several times coming within inches of violent, fiery death as Lunch expertly guided the vehicle around the twists and turns. A few of the spiders were not so lucky, and plowed into the canyon walls with small explosions. Suddenly the ground dropped away beneath them, as the canyon they were following met a much larger canyon. In the rainy season this would be a waterfall -- now, it was a cliff, with a ribbon of whitewater foaming at the bottom.

"Hold on!" Lunch yelled as the hovercycle bounded over the lip. For a moment they seemed to hover in midair; then the bottom fell out of Tenshinhan's stomach as they plummeted. He clung to Chaotzu with one arm and Lunch with the other. The wind roared in his ears. They hit the water as if smacking into concrete, but the hoverjets took most of the impact of their fall, and the hovercycle, its metal structure groaning from the strain, leapt forward with a rooster tail of water rearing up behind it.

"Yaaaahhhhh!" Lunch screamed in excitement.

We may survive the spiders, but I don't know if I'm going to survive my girlfriend, Tenshinhan thought, hanging on for dear life as they tore down the narrow river, careering over sandbars and narrowly avoiding logjams and boulders jutting up from the water's frothing surface. Glancing behind him, he saw that they were still being pursued.

"Oh ... that's not good," Lunch yelled suddenly. Tenshinhan looked forward and saw that they were heading straight for what appeared to be -- solid rock. At some point in the past, an avalanche had blocked the canyon, creating a lake behind a mountain of rubble. The water had forced its way through the obstacle, and now they could see that the river ended in a snarling mass of whitewater at the base of a heap of house-sized boulders. Presumably, it had found a channel under or through the blockage.

There wasn't time to turn around.

"Hold your breath!" Lunch yelled, the wind catching her words and tearing them away from her mouth. She forced the handlebars downward and they broke the surface of the water in a massive explosion of spray.

For a split second Tenshinhan thought she'd lost her mind and meant to take them under the natural dam. Then he realized her plan, and it was a good one -- to use the dragging effect of the water to slow them enough to stop before they hit the rocks. Unfortunately, as soon as they were underwater, the engine died and they completely lost all ability to brake, accelerate or steer. The river's powerful undertow caught hold of the group and dragged them towards the rocks.

Lunch ... Chaotzu ... I'm sorry, I've failed you ... Tenshinhan thought, struggling to hold onto them both as the river's current sucked them under. They were battered against the rocks like a cork churning in a shaken bottle -- but they rebounded off; they were not smashed, and that was because they were still moving, there was still someplace to go. For a moment it was pitch black and Tenshinhan completely lost track of right and left, up and down. Then they popped to the surface of the water, bruised and half-stunned and half-drowned, all of them coughing and gasping, and Tenshinhan trying to blink the water out of all three of his eyes.

Once he recovered his presence of mind enough to tread water, holding onto Chaotzu with one arm, Tenshinhan realized that they were floating along in a relatively gentle current. The river here was smooth. He looked back at the mound of ancient rubble that had blocked the water's flow ... and then forward, and his jaw clenched. The walls of the canyon were sheer. There was no way that he could see to climb out. At least they appeared to have lost their pursuit. Tenshinhan tread water slowly, conserving his energy. Chaotzu was limp against him, but was breathing.

Lunch paddled easily at his side, coughing and sneezing as she tried to clear from her lungs and sinuses the water she'd accidentally inhaled. She flickered back and forth between her blond and dark-haired forms.

"Are you all right?" he asked her anxiously.

"Do I frikkin' LOOK all right, you -- *SNEEZE* oh, Tenshinhan, thank goodness you're all right! I was so worried -- *SNEEZE* and if you ever, ever, ever take me anywhere near water again, I don't know what I'll do to you, Tenshinhan, you piece of -- *SNEEZE* ... Chaotzu! Is Chaotzu all right? I was so worried when I saw him get knocked into that -- *SNEEZE* I'm freezing to death goddammit! When I see one of those spiders I'll wring its fuckin' neck! -- *SNEEZE* ..."

... and so on. When the sneezing fit eventually ended, the wet hair plastered around her pretty face was dark, for which Tenshinhan was privately grateful.

"Lunch, are you all right?" he asked anxiously. "You don't think ... that the baby ..."

Lunch smiled weakly and shook her head. "I'm not very far along yet. I don't think that getting bounced around a little bit will hurt me." She looked around. "Do you think the spiders are gone?"

"I think we lost them pretty good back there." Any human would have easily figured out where the three refugees would surface, but the spiders didn't seem to have that kind of reasoning capacity.

The only thing he didn't know was how they were going to get out of the water. As the current carried them on, the water was starting to get choppy and rough again. He wondered how long they could swim, and how long it would be before they hit another stretch of whitewater. Glancing sideways at Lunch, he saw her looking around in interest at their surroundings, admiring the bright colors in the banded sandstone cliffs to either side. She didn't seem to have realized their new peril and he decided not to say anything yet.

"Chaotzu?" Tenshinhan carefully shifted his grip on his friend. Chaotzu was still unconscious. Tenshinhan felt for a pulse (relying on his powerful legs to keep them from sinking) and found that it was weak and rapid. Chaotzu had probably been hurt worse in the hovercycle crash than he'd let on. "Just like him ..." Tenshinhan muttered, gritting his teeth.

The current swept them around a bend in the river. Tenshinhan braced himself to herd Lunch towards the side if it turned out that they were heading into whitewater, but instead, what he saw completely amazed him.

A house.

It was built in a natural hollow in the cliff face, where the rock appeared to have been worn away by an old bend of the river at some point in the past when the river's bed was much higher than it was today. Now, the sandstone was carved into a natural overhang that would have made the dwelling completely invisible from the air, and the high-water marks on the walls of the canyon ended just below the ledge where the house was built. It was quite elaborate, made mostly from mortared sandstone, but with a few modern-looking domes and additions. A ladder led down from the ledge to the water, where a small boat bobbed alongside a floating dock.

"Lunch! Swim that way!" The current was already carrying them past the house. The two swimmers stroked out for the dock. Tenshinhan grabbed onto it, and hoisted the waterlogged Chaotzu to safety.

"Tenshinhan --!" Lunch, who was not as strong, couldn't fight the current. She was being carried away. Tenshinhan pushed off from the dock and grabbed one of her hands. He towed her back with him, using all his strength to fight against the force of the water. When they finally reached the dock, he was so exhausted that he had to cling to the side and breathe heavily for a few minutes while Lunch pulled herself up beside Chaotzu. Then she reached a hand down to help Tenshinhan get out of the water.

When they had recovered their breath and Tenshinhan had checked on Chaotzu, Lunch asked, "What is this place?"

"I don't know." Tenshinhan looked around. It was a bizarre mixture of new technology and old -- the dock itself was nothing more than a wooden plank that used a few empty plastic ten-gallon water jugs as flotation devices, but the boat was very new-looking with a modern electric motor. The ladder leading up to the next level was simple metal pipe bolted to the rock.

"Ready to climb?" Tenshinhan asked, turning to Lunch -- only to see her staring in shock at the top of the ladder. Tenshinhan's head snapped up. A dark figure had appeared above them, standing on the edge and looking down. Its hair fluttered in the wind down the canyon.

Tenshinhan stiffened.

"Oh, it's only a teenage boy," Lunch said in surprise. "What's a boy doing out here in the middle of nowhere by himself?"

It wasn't a boy. Tenshinhan didn't trust himself to speak. He wondered if they should just jump back into the water -- if they even had time to try something so desperate.

The person at the top of the ladder was #17.

"Lunch," Tenshinhan said softly. "Don't move."

Lunch looked at him without comprehension. "Why? He's just a kid."

Come to think of it, Tenshinhan recalled ... Vegeta's wish to Porunga to restore the Earth had included the instruction that no evil people should be brought back. The fact that the wish had gone ahead and worked on Vegeta himself had delighted Bulma and Goku to no end ... and, Tenshinhan mused, perhaps since #17 had been restored, the android had changed just as his sister had.

But ... could the androids be considered evil at all? Even in Future Trunks's time, they seemed not so much malicious as just completely incapable of understanding or empathizing with human life. They killed and played with humans as a boy might play with a captured wild bird without understanding that he was causing it harm. Tenshinhan looked up into #17's pale ice-blue eyes and saw nothing remotely human or sympathetic. #18 had regained at least some of her lost humanity through her husband and child ... but no one had seen her brother since he was restored to life and vanished into the wilderness.

Now, it seemed, Tenshinhan and his friends were the first to make contact again. How had the years changed #17 -- for good, for ill, or not at all? Tenshinhan looked up at #17, who looked back down at them, immobile as a statue.


After the ZX-72 flew off into the night sky, the defenders of Earth grouped in the lab to strategize. Mrs. Briefs brought them dinner ("Nobody saves the world on an empty stomach") and while they ate, Gohan and Dr. Briefs sketched plans on napkins and sheets of graph paper, mumbling about wavelengths and cosines. Videl tried peering over their shoulders, but she couldn't understand what they were drawing, so eventually she wandered off to stare at the screens while she sipped her coffee. She wondered where her father was, but realized that she wasn't terribly worried -- concerned, but not worried. Her father seemed to lead a charmed life. If anybody could get through this crisis unharmed, it was him.

#18 joined her, carrying a sleeping Marron in the crook of one arm. Her augmented strength gave her one advantage that human mothers didn't have: she could carry Marron indefinitely without fatiguing.

Videl smiled at her, a bit shyly; #18 glanced at her and then looked at the screens without saying anything. Videl gulped. #18 intimidated her -- in fact, most of Gohan's friends intimidated her. They were all either famous (like Goku) or much older than herself (like Kuririn) or just plain unfriendly (like Piccolo, #18, and Vegeta). In fact, the only one who didn't scare her was Bulma, and even Bulma was scary sometimes. She wondered how Gohan could deal with all these strange people without batting an eye. Well, he'd had a lot of practice.

"--in the western sky?" #18 was saying.

Videl realized that the other woman had been talking, and was now looking at her as if some kind of a response was required. She opened and closed her mouth nervously.

"Well?" #18 snapped. "Did you or didn't you?"

"Uh ... what?" Videl stammered.

#18 rolled her eyes. "That glow in the western sky. Did you notice how long it's been there?"

"What glow?" Videl asked, realizing that she sounded like an idiot. #18 huffed, and pointed to one of the screens. She was right: there was a glow in the sky above the city. It stood out because so many of the normal city lights were dark.

"What's that?" Videl said, leaning closer. "It looks like fire."

"That's exactly what it is," #18 said grimly. "I assume you haven't been standing here long enough to notice how quickly it's grown. Or if you have been, you obviously weren't paying attention."

"... I guess not," Videl said in a small voice, wishing Gohan would come rescue her. To her surprise, he did.

"Hey, you guys," Gohan said cheerfully, stepping up behind them. "C'mon over here. We're discussing strategy."

"I thought you were discussing parallel circuits and broadcast frequencies," #18 said shortly.

Gohan just smiled, shrugged and led the way back to where the others were grouped around a table with a map spread out on it. Looking at the map, Videl recognized it as a recent Briefs invention. The map was thin enough to be folded, but touch-sensitive and the user could scroll around or zoom in on particular areas. At the moment, it was zoomed out, showing the whole world.

Everyone looked expectantly at Gohan.

"Um," he said, suddenly self-conscious. "Uh ... we're here." He used a stylus to touch a point on the map, causing it to light up with a glowing purple dot.

"We know that," #18 said, jiggling Marron, who had begun to fuss.

Gohan blushed slightly. Videl was gratified to see that she wasn't the only one who was intimidated by Kuririn's brusque wife. "Uh, right. Now here's where Bulma-san's ki detector, which is similar in nature to Saiyajin scouters, shows a ki that should be Tenshinhan and Chaotzu. It's too high to be anyone else."

"In the middle of nowhere," Master Roshi remarked. "As usual."

Gohan nodded. "They may be in trouble. One of our first priorities should be sending someone out to retrieve them. The other thing we need to do is field-test our spider-deactivating system. Before we go building something large-scale, we need to make sure that it actually works. Any fine-tuning needs to be done at this stage. So ..." He looked around. "We need some volunteers."

"Father and I can go in our ship," Chi-Chi said. In the calm that sometimes overtakes people in a crisis, even she had accepted Gohan as the group's leader, in the absence of Goku, Vegeta or any of the other people who normally took charge.

"I should be with the group who's testing the spider-deactivator," Gohan said. He chewed his thumbnail thoughtfully until Chi-Chi smacked his hand. He winced and withdrew it. His newfound authority only went so far.

"Why?" Videl asked.

"Because I know how it works. Dr. Briefs can stay here to make more of them, and try to rig up a system to broadcast it over a wide area."

"How would you do that?" #18 said, showing a bit of interest.

"The problem," Gohan explained, "is that the broadcast device has to produce several frequencies at once. Some of them are easily blocked by objects in the environment and even by the atmosphere itself, so it doesn't carry very far. It would carry much farther in space and I suspect that's where it's meant to operate. The more power we can supply to the broadcaster, the more distance we can get from our signal. I'm thinking that radio and TV stations would be perfect ... actually, the ideal situation would be to use the communications satellites, but it looks like most of them aren't functioning. First, we need to experiment and see how well it works on actual spiders, not just the one we have in the lab." He gestured at the still metal carcass half-dismantled on an examining table. Everyone took an automatic step away from it.

"Well, how about this," Master Roshi said after a moment. "#18 and I can go pick up Tenshinhan and Chaotzu in one of the capsule ships--" he leered at #18, who glared at him "--while Gohan, you'll try out that gizmo of yours."

"What about me?" Videl asked.

"You can come with me," Gohan offered. "I'll need someone to help me with the, you know, the testing and all."

"Unchaperoned? I think not!" Chi-Chi snapped. "We'll take Father's plane."

Gohan winced. Obviously being trapped in a small space with his girlfriend, mother and grandfather was not an ideal situation for him.

"What about my father?" Videl asked hesitantly. "I haven't seen him since all of this began. Does that machine show where he is?" She nodded towards the ki detector.

"I -- I don't know, Videl," Gohan said. "If it does, only Bulma knows. The only ki's that I can readily identify are Tenshinhan and Chaotzu. Everyone else, all the normal humans, kind of run together." He smiled and patted her arm. "He's probably with Buu, and safe. The detector doesn't show Buu, either."

"I hope we find him," Videl said sadly. "If I go with you, can we look for him?"

"Of course we can."

"Let's move!" #18 said sharply. She handed Marron to Mrs. Briefs with gentleness not suggested by her rough words.

"Lead on," Master Roshi leered.

"Oh, you're not going with me. Someone's got to stay here who knows how to fight -- to protect them." She gestured at the Briefs.

Ultimately, it was decided that Chi-Chi, Gohan and Videl would take one plane, while #18 went alone in another to pick up Tenshinhan and Chaotzu. Master Roshi and Gyu-Mao would stay with the Briefs at the lab, while Dr. Briefs continued to refine the spider deactivators; he and Gohan would stay in touch via radio and work together to develop a long-range system.

"Good luck, everyone!" Mrs. Briefs cried, waving.

"We'll need it," Gohan muttered under his breath as they parted ways.

With Videl flying Chi-Chi's plane, they soared up into the night sky. The first thing Gohan noticed was that the ominous red glow was much more noticeable outside. Either that, or it was getting bigger quickly. Or nearer.

"Let's go over and take a look at that first," he suggested to Videl, then noticed her look of shock and horror, and followed her eyes. She was looking down into the yard of the Capsule Corp. buildings. Capsule Corp. was one of the only buildings in the immediate vicinity whose lights had not gone out; it had its own power supply, so its roof and grounds were lit with floodlights. By that light, Videl and Gohan could see that the Briefs' pets had been slaughtered, the bodies strewn around in a horrific display of carnage.

Gohan looked to make sure that his mother hadn't seen it. Chi-Chi was making tea in the back, and Gohan quickly gestured to Videl to take the plane higher.

Videl had seen his glance, and she lowered her voice so that Chi-Chi couldn't hear. "They left the animals alone before. What are they doing now?"

"I don't know," Gohan whispered. "But I don't like it at all. We've got to find some spiders and test this thing on them."

Chi-Chi popped up between them, acting in her self-appointed chaperone role. "Tea? It calms the nerves."

Gohan smiled nervously and accepted a cup. "Videl, see if you can find some spiders."

"That's weird," Videl said, flying over the mostly darkened city. "There don't seem to be any around."

"Probably because this part of the city's been evacuated," Gohan said. "Try over there." He pointed towards the glow in the sky, where they could also see small explosions.

As they flew nearer, all conversation ceased. It was indeed a fire ... a huge fire. The glow was reflecting not from clouds, but from smoke. On the ground, a sheet of flame seemed to march on towards the horizon.

"Oh, Gohan," Videl whispered. "It's like the whole world is on fire. I hope my father is all right ..."

"Spiders," Gohan whispered, pointing.

They'd found the spiders as well as what was left of the army. Near the forefront of the flames, the remnants of the army were pinned down by an uncountable mass of spiders. From the air, the red lights of the spiders' sensors glowed like a bed of coals themselves. Though each individual spider was no match for a man with a gun, the great mass of them overwhelmed the defenders, immobilizing tanks and bearing down soldiers with their sheer numbers.

"Gohan, they're gettin' killed!" Chi-Chi shouted at her son. "When are you gonna use that thing?" She pointed at the deactivator.

Gohan gulped. "I wasn't planning on field-testing it on this many. I was hoping for one or two." He drew a deep breath. "But Mom's right. If we don't do something, they'll all die."

He got up and opened the door of the plane. The wind whipped his dark hair back from his face as he leaned out. "Mom, hand me the deactivator."

"Gohan, be careful!" Videl cried.

"I'm as safe as the rest of us," Gohan said. "Videl, listen. I don't know what the range on this thing is going to turn out to be, and I don't have any idea how long it'll take to affect them either. It was almost instantaneous on the one in the lab, but that was under controlled conditions. If this doesn't work, we're going to have a lot of very angry spiders following us, so be ready to outrun them."

Videl nodded, gripping the controls of the plane in sweat-damp hands.

"Please be careful," Chi-Chi said softly. "With my Goku-san and Goten gone ..." She stopped and swallowed.

Gohan smiled reassuringly at her, and to Videl, he said, "Okay. Take the plane down for a low pass."

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Dragonball and Dragonball Z, all characters and situations are (c) Akira Toriyama.