Ki-Blind: Chapter Fourteen






The prince of the Saiyajin race seethed. He couldn't do anything else at the moment.

The spider's pincer held him just under his ribcage, digging into his stomach and making it difficult for him to breathe. Vegeta was no stranger to discomfort, but it was different when it was being inflicted by somebody else and he could do nothing to remove it. He didn't even have enough strength at the moment to raise his head, so all he could do was watch the metal floor passing under his feet, and grit his teeth as the ache where his weight bore down on the pincer grew slowly into dull, throbbing pain. The space suit had been torn apart when he and Goku separated, so he was back to his usual tank top, which didn't provide much protection.

Losing his ki-sense again after being part of the Gogeta fusion was like being stricken deaf and blind all over again, but still he strained his senses. He was able to feel Bulma's ki, and the boys'. He couldn't feel Kakarrot's ki, but he could see him out of the corner of his eye, and Goku appeared to be alive, though no stronger than Vegeta at the moment. His ki must be so low that Vegeta couldn't even pick it up, even though no more than a few feet separated them.

Lovely. Just lovely. Of all the times when he wouldn't have minded Kakarrot being stronger ... Worthless Kakarrot, Vegeta fumed, but he was mainly angry at himself -- angry for letting his thinking become clouded by everyone else's optimism and participating in a fusion that left them worse off than they had been before ... angry because he and his mate and son were being taken to an unknown destination and he could do nothing to save them.

He could feel his strength slowly returning as his body replenished its reserves of ki. He wasn't sure if he'd ever been this weak without being physically injured. Using ki was like walking or breathing -- it was almost impossible to be too exhausted to do it, without something being physically wrong.

Vegeta flexed one hand. Yes, his strength was definitely returning. He didn't want the spiders to know this, however. He was starting to be able to feel Goku's faint ki, so Goku must be getting stronger, too.

But without ki attacks, without weapons, how could they free themselves, Bulma and the boys without getting killed? The sting of his failed battle against the spiders on Earth was still sharp. Between them, he and Kakarrot had only managed to kill two of them, and Goku had ended up badly injured as a result. He'd done somewhat better a little later on, fighting the spiders in the cave, but that was only after he'd decided that he was probably going to die and didn't care if he got hurt in the process.

I intend to live, he thought grimly, narrowing his eyes. He raised his head a trifle, enough to catch a glimpse of Bulma's blue hair. I intend to live through this, and I intend my wife and son to live through this. A slight shift of the spider's pincer brought Goten into his field of vision; the little Kakarrot-lookalike dangled helplessly in the spider's grasp, sucking his thumb as he tended to do when he was frightened. And Kakarrot's brat as well, Vegeta thought to himself, slightly irked; he still refused to admit that the kid had grown on him over the years. And ... fine, why not go all the way ... Kakarrot too. We're all getting out of this, and as the prince, it is my responsibility to make sure that we do. I just don't know how yet.

******

"Stop."

It took a moment for the small group of humans and assorted other creatures to realize that the word had not been spoken aloud, but whispered into their minds. They responded, however -- flattening themselves against the wall while a spider patrol scuttled by in the tunnel adjoining their own.

When the spiders had passed, Dende and Kaiobito -- who were leading the group -- leaned out into the tunnel, looked both ways, then looked back and nodded to them to come forward.

"I forgot about you being able to read minds," Kuririn said softly to Kaiobito.

"I can't at the moment," the god responded. "It is all I can do to manage small telepathic contacts. My telepathic abilities were never that strong to begin with, and have been weaker since the fusion with Kibito. I cannot pick up any of your thoughts."

Well ... that was good, at least. Kuririn didn't feel like he had anything to hide, but it still wasn't pleasant to think of someone else walking about in your mind. He cast a glance back at Piccolo, who was bringing up the rear. The two had not spoken to each other since regaining consciousness, and continually found excuses to be at opposite ends of the group.

Kuririn found that he couldn't remember much of Piccolo's thoughts. He had a dim recollection of what it was like to regenerate one's own body parts -- not a specific memory but a very visceral understanding of what it was like. He had a similar feeling about shape change, and the thought occurred to him to wonder if it could be taught. He now knew what it felt like, and what mental processes were required to get it to occur -- could he learn to do it on his own?

I can't imagine what use it would be, though, he thought glumly. Besides, #18 probably wouldn't let me do it in the house. She'd say it sets a bad example for Marron.

He was still curious. He fell back to walk alongside Yamcha and Pu'ar, who was back in her accustomed place above Yamcha's shoulder. Of the four who had been involved in the fusion, only the little blue cat seemed unbothered by it. She was back to her usual, cheerful self.

Oolong had not stopped complaining once, except for the times that he was hushed by the others when they were hiding from spider patrols. Kuririn could hear him muttering to himself: "--wasn't worth THIS, I'll tell you for sure. That woman can go jump off a cliff for all I care. Ugh. I keep reaching up and wondering what happened to my antennae. Antennae! Pigs aren't meant to have antennae. It's not natural. I don't know why I'm doomed to --"

Kuririn tuned him out again.

Yamcha looked down and noticed Kuririn. "How are you doing?" the scar-faced fighter asked. He strolled along easily, the sword held loosely in one hand.

"Me?" Kuririn said. "I'm all right. Really," he insisted, seeing the look that Yamcha was giving him.

"That must have been freaky," Yamcha said. "What was it like?"

Kuririn tried to figure out how to describe it, but gave up. "Not as strange as you'd think," he said finally. "I mean, it seemed pretty normal at the time. A little like ... I don't know, like how you normally have conflicting desires inside yourself, only in this case the different voices in my head really were different voices. Uh ..." He realized that Yamcha was giving him that look again. "Not too bad," he finished lamely. "But I wouldn't want to do it again."

"Especially now that we know fusion doesn't help that much," Yamcha said.

Kuririn nodded. Turning his attention back to the two gods leading their party (one small and green, one slightly taller and blue) he mused aloud, "So where do you suppose we're going? Did Dende mention it while I was unconscious?"

"Nope," Yamcha said. "He seems to know where he's going, though."

Kuririn was glad somebody did. All the different passageways looked similar to him. They joined and diverged apparently at random, curved in strange ways. They walked through huge rooms full of rusted, apparently abandoned machinery. An entire ship occupied only by robots, he thought. Did it once have living inhabitants, or has it always been this way? he wondered.

"The ki source is close," he heard Kaiobito say, and Dende responded, "Yes. It's right down here."

They were now in a hallway with doors along the sides. It was scaled to slightly larger than human size, as if it had been built for beings who were seven or eight feet tall. Dende paused at some of the doors, and stopped at one. Unlike the other doors, which were corroded and looked as if they hadn't been opened in years, this one had worn a shiny groove on the floor and it had several new-looking electronic locks, with small red and green lights blinking complacently on them. Dende peered through the small window in the door, then tapped on it. "Hello?"

The others gathered around Dende. "Who is in here?" Kaiobito asked.

Dende looked up at the rest of them, his eyes very sad. "Prisoners," he explained.

Prisoners -- of course! Kuririn thought. In their restricted ki-sensing condition, what they'd taken for a single large source of ki was actually a number of small ones all in one place.

Dende pressed his hand to the door. "Hello?" he said again.

A voice called back from inside, speaking the Universal language that many beings (including Namekians and humans) could understand -- though strangely accented. "Hello? Is it you, little green one?"

"Yes, it's me. I've brought friends, and we're going to try to get you out."

Kuririn stood on tiptoe to look through the small window in the door. He saw what appeared to be a dormitory-style room, but very drab and drear, made all of metal. The "beds" were metal slabs, the lighting dim, and the whole area gave off the feeling of a prison cell. He could see several beings inside, all of different races, sitting or slouching (or whatever their species did) on the metal slabs. None of them looked up. The only one who showed any interest in them was the one in front of the door who had been talking to Dende. It had four limbs and four eyes, though one of its eyes was closed by an old scar. Its entire body, in fact, was scarred. Looking at the others, Kuririn saw that they were even more decrepit, many of them crippled, with artificial or missing limbs.

"Who are they?" he asked softly, moved by pity.

Dende looked at his friends, his face troubled. "They are scientists whose worlds have been destroyed by these machines. This one here is Ygarddro; he is the youngest among them, and the only one who still has any interest in the outside world. The others, as you see, do little more than sit. I'm not quite sure how long Ygarddro has been here, but based on how long he says his species lives, I would guess about fifty years."

"Fifty years?" Kuririn repeated in horror, trying to imagine living in this horrible place for so long.

Dende nodded.

"But why are they here?" Piccolo asked.

The young Namekian frowned. "Because the machines believe they are blessed by the gods. The way Ygarddro explained it to me, the machines that you've seen, the ones you call spiders, are under the control of smarter ones. However, they do not know how to repair themselves. They believe that the ability to build machines is a special blessing given only to mortals. As a result, on the worlds they've destroyed, whenever they found a being who demonstrated the ability to build or repair machinery, they took them along." His eyes closed in sorrow. "The machines ... would torture their families to force them to help, and after their families died, they ..." His voice shook. "They'd torture the scientists themselves, until finally they were beyond all cooperation. Most of those you see here are like that. They've lost all will to live."

Kuririn clenched his fists. "That's awful! We have to free them."

"Bulma," Yamcha gasped suddenly.

Everyone looked at him. "What about her?" Kaiobito asked.

"Bulma! Do you think they know about her mechanical abilities? Do you think they'd try to do to her what they've done to these people?"

Dende's eyes widened. "I don't know. And you don't know where she is?"

"Somewhere on the ship, that's all I know."

Piccolo spoke up suddenly. "If they were truly watching us through those hovering devices back at the capsule ship -- they would have seen her build that ki-detecting device. Would that be enough for them to conclude that she's a scientist or mechanic like these people, Dende?"

"I ... I don't know," the young kami faltered.

"She's got Gogeta with her," Kuririn said, trying to be hopeful. "At least ... she did the last time we saw her. He'll protect her."

"She's also got her son with her." Yamcha's fists clenched. "If they're willing to do all this ... and they find out that Bulma can repair machines ... what will they do to her?"

******

"Bring the Gifted One to me, along with the children. They will be useful as leverage."

"What about the warriors?"

"Kill -- no. Imprison them. They may be useful later, to ensure the Gifted One's cooperation."

******

The burdened spiders scuttled along the tunnels and then entered a series of shafts where they took to the air, flying sluggishly. Vegeta watched his surroundings as they flew, trying to put together the layout of the spaceship in his mind. Sometimes they would be speeding down a narrow tunnel; other times they flew through giant open spaces filled with incomprehensible machinery. Most of it had a deserted, abandoned feeling. Vegeta thought of Bulma's earlier comments on how the ship's architecture made no sense. He was inclined to agree with his mate. It's like it wasn't designed but just sort of built itself, she'd said. To Vegeta, it looked as if that was more or less what had happened -- not the ship actually constructing itself, but being constructed haphazardly, with new sections added at random, while old ones were converted to new purposes or just forgotten about.

He tried to think of anything similar that he'd ever seen before, but kept drawing a blank. The closest thing he could picture were refugee caravans from some of the worlds he'd had a hand in destroying. When the removal of a world's inhabitants went slowly (as it sometimes did; Freeza's forces were chronically understaffed in the frontier areas) some of the inhabitants would try to escape, cobbling together a fleet from private ships, garbage scows and anything else that would fly.

Vegeta's jaws clenched. He remembered blowing up such caravans ... laughing as they spiraled into the atmosphere of their homeworld, blazing like comets. He did not think of those days very often. He tried to drag his thoughts back onto the topic at hand.

Was it possible that this was some sort of refugee ship, then? It could be, but if so, what had happened to the inhabitants? This ship was old. Vegeta didn't know how old, but from seeing the scarred outside, and now the converted and modified inside, he suspected that it might have been flying between the stars for thousands or millions of years. Perhaps it even came from another galaxy besides this one ... which would explain why he had never seen its like before.

Suddenly a change in the spiders' flight pattern drew his attention. They were presently soaring through one of the giant open caverns. Many of the lights in its ceiling were dim or burned out, so he could tell nothing of what was under them except that it was very far down, and he could make out dark shapes that might have been machinery or even some sort of dwelling places. But that wasn't what had alerted him. Their little group was splitting up. The pincer spiders carrying Bulma and the boys went one way, accompanied by a few of the smaller spiders and floating spy-eyes, while the rest of them peeled off, bearing Goku and Vegeta with them.

No! If they were separated in this huge place, they might never find each other again -- and certainly not before the spiders did whatever they wanted with Bulma and the children. Bulma had become aware of the change and begun to struggle, but her weak human arms were helpless against the powerful pincers.

Vegeta glanced at Goku out of the corner of his eye and briefly met the other's eyes. It looked like Goku was alert and awake. Neither of them were even back to their pre-fusion strength, though. He glanced back towards the other group of spiders. He could just catch the flutter of Bulma's blue hair and Trunk's small, pink head, but in a few more seconds, they would be gone.

He didn't know what to do. He couldn't come up with a plan for this. One thing he did know, though: right now, he knew which way the group carrying Bulma had gone. Once the spiders took him and Goku down who knew how many of these damn twisting, winding tunnels, he doubted if even he could find his way back. Lowering his eyes, he now saw that they were flying over a giant tank of some kind of liquid, rippling oily-dark in the dim light. He couldn't tell what it was, but at least it would break their fall somewhat -- provided it wasn't acid or something equally toxic. At least their chances were better than if they fell straight onto the floor.

Vegeta met Goku's eyes again and wished he dared speak, to explain what he wanted to do, but if these spiders were like the ones on Earth, they could possibly understand words. The Saiyajins' only chance at the moment was surprise. The spiders still thought them too weak to move. Vegeta mouthed at Goku, "Go on three. One."

Goku looked at him blankly. Vegeta flicked his eyes towards the spider carrying him, then the one carrying Goku, and down at the rolling, dark liquid below them. "Two," he mouthed. Goku's eyes widened a bit and they mouthed together, "Three."

Both Saiyajin came suddenly alive in the spiders' grip. Goku was being held under the arms, and since his hips were slimmer than his chest, he simply vaulted upwards and slipped out of the spider's grasp and landed on top of it, balancing lithely. The startled spider clacked its pincers, but couldn't reach him.

Vegeta was being held around the stomach, under the ribcage, and the pincers were digging in too tightly to do the same thing, so he seized one pincer in each hand and tore them from the body. The muscles of his arms screamed protest, but he was still several times stronger than a normal human. He flung the pincers away from his body as he fell, plummeting towards the dark surface of whatever was below him. He kept the presence of mind to straighten his body out, pointing his feet down, and hoped against hope that he was falling into something that wouldn't immediately poison him.

The initial shock when he hit was so great that for a moment, he couldn't tell what he'd fallen into. The liquid closed over his head and reflex took over; Vegeta stroked towards the surface. His head broke through. He'd closed his eyes and clenched his mouth shut as he'd fallen, but now he had to open his eyes again -- better to go blind from some alien chemical than to get stabbed through the head by a spider. Also, he had to breathe; all the air had been knocked from his lungs by the impact.

He opened his eyes and his mouth at once, gasping for air, and realized that whatever he'd fallen into was shockingly ice-cold. It trickled into his eyes and he recoiled from the burning sting, sure that he'd just blinded himself -- then blinked, realizing that the stinging he felt was nothing more than his eyes responding to the coldness. He ran his tongue over his lips, tasting it. Water. Sort of oily and dirty, but just water. Is it my destiny today to fall into EVERY cold body of water in or around this planet? Vegeta thought, flashing on the mountain river where he and Goku had fallen when they'd lost their ki. The gods definitely pulled no punches when it came to the great cosmic joke that was his life.

Treading water and blinking it out of his eyes, Vegeta squinted upwards, looking for Kakarrot and the spiders. He saw them after a moment. Goku was still balancing on top of his spider like a trick rider at a rodeo, despite its attempts to shake him off. Fortunately, the spider's dodges and rolls as it tried to throw Goku were thwarting the others' attempts to attack him. As Vegeta watched in some amusement, two of them dove for Goku at the same time, only to collide in midair and go tumbling off into the darkness. He heard a metallic clang as they hit the floor, and then realized that if Goku didn't jump off that spider soon, he was going to be carried out of reach of the water -- and then he'd really be in trouble, because he couldn't jump off without breaking a leg (or his neck) when he hit the floor. Why don't you jump, Kakarrot, you idiot? Vegeta wondered, but then he realized that Goku couldn't, because of the three remaining spiders flying around him. They weren't very maneuverable in the air, but they were more agile than a falling man, and they'd be on him in a flash as soon as he jumped.

Distraction time, Vegeta thought, and he slapped his arms down against the surface of the water with all his strength, sending water fountaining into the air and a wet crack echoing through the empty space around them. "Hey! Morons! What are you, blind? I'm down here!"

The spiders swarmed chaotically and then two of them dove towards Vegeta, who immediately submerged. That left Kakarrot one spider to deal with, plus the one he was riding; hopefully he could handle it, because he was on his own now. Vegeta stroked in a random direction, realizing that he might have just made a very stupid mistake -- fighting underwater, with no weapons, against potentially faster opponents. He'd better try to avoid them, and hope that the cold, dark water confused their sensors. Where were they, anyhow? Had they entered the water? If they had, he couldn't tell their ripples from the reverberations around his own body caused by his swimming. He rotated underwater, looking around, but it was too dark; he couldn't see. His lungs screamed for air and he had a horrifying moment when he didn't know which way the surface was, but then he got oriented again, and swam in the slightly-less-dark direction. His head broke the surface and he gasped for air. Damn, that water was cold! It made it hard to hold his breath for more than a few seconds. Normally, he would be able to fight underwater for several minutes. Of course, normally he had ki to help keep him warm underwater, too.

Vegeta looked around. Multiple ripples were spreading across the surface of the water, and neither Kakarrot nor the spiders could be seen. Damn, damn, and double damn. The spiders must be in the water. No telling where Kakarrot was, and he couldn't spare the attention to try to search for Kakarrot's ki, as limited as his ki-sensing ability was right now. Hopefully Goku'd made it into the water without being injured or knocked unconscious when he hit. And why the hell am I wasting time worrying about Kakarrot when I'm in this much trouble? his inner voice demanded furiously. He rotated slowly in place, trying to tread water without splashing, trying to see into the dark water. The ripples reflected what light there was, and made it impossible to tell what was under the surface. The spiders can stay underwater indefinitely; they don't have to breathe. All they have to do is find me. Damn it! I've got to get out of here!

He took a deep breath and ducked beneath the surface -- a person can swim faster underwater, and less noticeably too. And came face-to-face, or rather, face-to-glowing-red-light, with one of the spiders.

Oh, shit.

It must have been sneaking up on him, either that or hunting for him and having trouble finding him in the dark water. It was aware of him now, though. Not more than ten feet away, it flattened its legs against its body and propelled itself towards him, looking rather like a squid.

Vegeta dodged. His head broke the surface involuntarily and he took advantage of the moment to gulp another breath of air before diving again. The spider was turning around to take another go at him, but one thing they couldn't do very effectively (in the water or the air) was change direction. Even though the legs on this kind were not quite as slender as the kind down on Earth, they still didn't have enough resistance to allow them to maneuver effectively. Vegeta, however, had hands and feet to swim with, and he drove himself into the spider with all his force, feetfirst into its body. Remembering how easily the legs came off the Earth ones, he grabbed one leg in each hand, planted his feet against its body and yanked them off. The spider tried to do what the one on Earth had done to him and grab him by the waist while he was distracted, but the drag of the water slowed its second set of legs enough that he was able to see them coming and move his hands to intercept those legs too. He ripped them off, and watched the spider's body sink helplessly into the depths. Water rushed into his mouth as he grinned a predator's grin and splashed back up to the surface, spitting water and taking a few deep breaths until his body stopped shaking for lack of oxygen. He still trembled from the cold, though.

One down, three to go, unless Kakarrot managed to take some of them out, but I can't count on it. I need to get out of this water before I'm too helpless from the cold to fight anymore. He could see the edge of the giant water tank -- or something, anyhow, rising out of the water; it was difficult to tell in the poor light if it was the side of the tank or just some sort of monitoring station or barrier in the middle of the water, but it was something he could climb onto at least.

The decision made, he pivoted and dove again to stroke for the side, and the suddenness of that motion probably saved his life. He just felt something brush his foot as it missed him. Damn, it's one of the other ones! Vegeta swung around underwater, but it had vanished in the darkness. Forget about where it went -- swim for the side while it's turning around, it's your only chance! he told himself, feeling the cold of the water starting to lock up his muscles. He swam with all his energy, as the cold water rushed over his body -- splashed to the surface for air, then dove and swam again. When he came up for air again, he saw that he'd almost run into the side while he was swimming underwater. And it was definitely the side of the tank, it had to be -- a long dark barrier curving gradually in both directions. Vegeta swam up to it and touched it with his hand, feeling cold, slimy metal. He looked upwards. The top was about ten feet above the surface of the water. From dry land, he could have jumped that high, even without ki -- but without a solid surface to jump from, he couldn't possibly do it, and it was too slick to climb.

Something brushed his leg again, and Vegeta almost screamed. I hate not being able to see my opponent! He held his breath and ducked beneath the surface just in time to almost get stabbed through the head by a sharp spider-leg; it grazed his cheek and he felt the slick metal of its body slide past his shoulder before it rebounded in slow motion from the side of the tank. The cold, dark water had to be messing up its aim badly. The spiders must be reliant on either infrared or on the human-visible light spectrum in order to see. Regardless of that, however, the spider had the advantage, because it did not need to breathe, nor did it feel fatigue or cold. All it had to do was keep fencing with him until Vegeta was too tired and weak to fight back.

And meanwhile, Bulma and Trunks were being taken farther and farther away ...

That thought galvanized him. I am the prince of the Saiyajin race! I will not die in the water like some kind of damned fish! He tried to seize its legs, but he was as affected by underwater drag as the spider (actually more so, since his limbs were thicker in comparison to his body) and missed completely. It missed him on its next attack, however. The two opponents whirled in a graceful underwater ballet of death, while Vegeta's lungs ached for air. He was going to have to come up again soon, and once he did that, he wouldn't be able to see the spider. He let momentum carry him against the side of the tank and planted both his feet. When the spider came around for another attack, he launched himself towards it. The spider was not maneuverable enough to dodge, and Vegeta ran into its body -- but headfirst this time, not feetfirst, so he didn't have any leverage to pull off its legs. They grappled with each other, slowed by the drag of the water so that they seemed to be fighting in slow motion. The spider couldn't attack effectively with its opponent so close to its body, but Vegeta couldn't manage to twist himself into a position where he could pull off its legs, and dark spots began to dance in front of his eyes. The ache for air had grown to a desperate agony. If I don't get to the surface soon, I'm going to --

Pain lanced through his skull and he saw stars. The spider had managed to whack him in the back of the head with one of its legs. Worse than the actual damage, though, was his involuntary gasp of pain and shock. Water rushed into his mouth and nose. Normally, he would have been able to protect himself with ki, but now he gagged as water flooded into his throat. Vegeta lashed out in the beginnings of something he almost never experienced -- terror. He scored a lucky hit, crushing the spider's body against the wall. But the damage was done; his vision darkened as he choked, his body contorting, his lungs spasming as they tried to rid themselves of water. But there was no air to breathe. He couldn't see anything, and his flailing hands and feet encountered only water. He didn't know where the surface was, where the side was. There was only water and darkness and cold.

I'm going to die, he thought, very lucidly. And that was the last thing he remembered; the next thing he knew was pain, pain in his head and lungs and chest. He was doubled over, coughing up mouthfuls of water, and every spasm sent fire stabbing at his lungs. Strong hands held him steady. Considering the way his life had been going lately, he had an idea whose hands they were, even before Goku's voice said, "Just breathe. Deep slow breaths. It's okay."

"Don't tell me what to d--" he snapped and sent himself into another agonizing coughing fit. His entire respiratory system felt as if it was on fire.

"Just relax," Goku said soothingly, easing his grip as Vegeta's coughing quieted and the prince found enough strength to support himself. "You almost drowned."

Saved by Kakarrot ... again. He was getting very tired of it. At least now he knew that Kakarrot wasn't dead. Vegeta pushed himself woozily to his knees. Goku steadied him with a hand on his shoulder; Vegeta started to push him away, then decided it really didn't matter considering that Kakarrot had practically been hugging him a minute ago. Speaking of which ... a horrifying thought occurred to him. "Kakarrot --" he said, between fits of coughing. "I didn't -- when I stopped breathing, tell me you didn't --"

Goku looked puzzled and then his face lit up. "What, give you mouth-to-mouth? No. Once I drained the water out of your lungs, you started breathing on your own." He started laughing. "You should have seen your face just now."

"Oh, shut up," Vegeta snarled. He got to his feet, with a little help from Goku, who let go as soon as it was clear he could stand on his own.

"Seriously, Vegeta ... are you all right?" Goku asked him. "You weren't breathing when I dragged you out of the water, and you were cold as ice. I thought for a minute you were dead."

"I'm still cold as ice," Vegeta muttered, rubbing at his arms. He then realized that the top part of Goku's gi was wrapped around his shoulders. Aaargh, he thought. It did help warm him a bit, though, and he was aware that it wouldn't help them at all if he collapsed from the cold.

Goku filled him in on what had happened. After Vegeta provided a distraction ("Thank you, by the way") Goku had realized that he couldn't possibly hit the water if he jumped off now; he was over the floor, and the fall would probably kill or seriously hurt him. So he tried a desperate move and jumped off the pincer spider onto the other one. His weight was too much for the smaller model and bore it down to the floor in a controlled fall, as he'd hoped. Goku had still broken his ankle when they hit, but the spider was badly damaged enough that he'd managed to finish it off by stomping on it with his uninjured leg. The pincer spider chased him down, but using the dead one as a weapon, he finished that one off, too. "Those kind with the pincers, they don't fight very well, and their legs aren't sharp like the other kind. The only thing they can really do is electric-shock you, and that's only if they can get hold of you."

After destroying the spiders, he'd started wondering where Vegeta had gotten off to. Hampered somewhat by his injured ankle, Goku had climbed up onto the edge of the tank in time to see the start of the fight before Vegeta ducked underwater and didn't come up.

"I figured you were in trouble, so I jumped in and used your ki to find you in the water."

"How did you get out again?" Vegeta asked, wringing out his sodden black hair.

"I kinda dragged you along the side until I found a ladder where I could climb out. I was afraid I'd waited too long, but there wasn't much I could do for you in the water, and I had to get you out of the water because you were so cold."

As he spoke, Goku sat on the floor, wrapping his ankle with strips torn from the leg of his gi. He had replaced his nearly destroyed clothing at Bulma's (she had learned to keep a spare gi on hand for the inevitable battle-damage) but this gi was starting to look similar to the other one. Vegeta paced back and forth in front of him, trying to recover body heat. His teeth had finally stopped chattering, but his lungs still hurt and his legs were shaky.

"How's your ankle?"

"Not too bad," Goku said, testing it -- which, in Son-ese, probably meant, 'I'm in excruciating pain when I walk.' Vegeta noticed that Goku paled slightly when he put weight on it.

"Here, you can have this damn thing back again -- it's wet and heavy." Vegeta gave him back the top of his gi. Broken bones and pain were a combination that could lead to shock, but staying warm would help with that.

"You're okay?" Goku asked, shrugging into it.

Vegeta was too weary to come up with some sort of sarcastic comeback, so he offered Goku a quick, tired half-smile. "Yeah. I'm all right, Kakarrot."

Goku smiled back, and straightened. He looked up at the side of the water tank. It curved out of sight in both directions -- the thing was as big as a small lake. "What do you suppose that's for?"

"I don't know, Kakarrot. Could be part of some kind of life support system -- it is interesting that there's a breathable atmosphere here, since all we've seen so far are robots. Could be part of a cooling system. Could be a habitat for some aquatic alien. Who knows." He looked around, mentally locating their position. "Okay ... the spiders with Bulma and the brats went that way. No telling how far, though. Can you feel their ki?" He had finally been forced to admit, to himself at least, that Goku's ki-sensing abilities were quite a lot better than his right now.

"No," Goku said.

It figured. Vegeta sighed and started looking around, hunting through the rusty junk around the artificial lake.

"What are you doing?" Goku asked him, limping after him. "I thought you wanted to go after Bulma and the boys."

"I do," Vegeta said, digging a length of corroded pipe out of the debris and testing his weight on it. "First, though, you need some kind of cane or crutch. Otherwise you'll completely cripple yourself." He handed the pipe to Goku. "Try that."

Goku tried leaning his weight on the pipe. "It's a little better. But we won't be able to move very fast. Do you suppose it would be better if you --"

"Do not let the words 'go on ahead' cross your lips, Kakarrot," Vegeta snapped. "You and I both know that one of us, alone, has very little chance of rescuing them. Hell, two of us probably don't have much chance either, but it's better than the alternative."

Goku nodded, acknowledging his point.

They started following the curve of the tank side. When they came to the spiders that Goku had destroyed, Vegeta paused, staring at the crushed bodies. "Too bad the woman's not here," he mused aloud. "Those things can fly. There has to be some way to get them to fly again, maybe under our control."

"Do you know a way?" Goku asked, leaning on the pipe. Just the little distance they'd walked so far had been difficult for him. He would never take flying for granted again!

Vegeta shook his head and muttered a curse under his breath. "I can do routine shipboard maintenance, but that's it. I'm certainly no mechanic."

"Hmm," Goku mused, his eyes becoming distant.

Vegeta eyed him. "What now, Kakarrot?"

"I just thought of something." He looked up at the ceiling high above them, a look of intense concentration on his face. This time, Vegeta figured out what he was doing; he'd seen that look before.

"You're calling that cloud again, aren't you?"

Goku nodded. "It can't possibly hurt to try."

"Can it come to you anywhere? Even indoors?"

Goku gave him an isn't-it-obvious look. "It's a cloud, Vegeta; it can go through things."

Vegeta glared at him.

Oblivious to the prince's annoyance (or choosing to ignore it, a skill he'd had lots of practice at developing) Goku went on: "The only problem might be if we're too high. Kinto'un can't fly this high carrying passengers. But if it can get up here on its own, inside the ship it should be able to -- Ah!"

His sentence trailed off as the golden cloud swooped down towards them. "Well, I'll be damned," Vegeta muttered.

Goku tossed the metal pipe aside as Kinto'un came to hover in front of him. He tested his weight on it cautiously, and then held out his hands to Vegeta, who shook his head. Goku withdrew his hands, looking disappointed.

"You're not going to ride on it with me? But it worked before --"

"It isn't that," Vegeta said impatiently. "You can't support my weight and your own standing up, not on that ankle. Sit down."

"Oh. You're right." Goku sat down carefully -- he was clearly in quite a bit of pain -- and looked across at Vegeta. "This might be a little awkward."

"A little?" Vegeta snapped, trying to figure out a way to keep himself on the cloud without sitting in Kakarrot's lap.

"When we were younger, I'd sometimes carry Kuririn by having him hang onto my back," Goku said. "And he was about the same size as me, while you're smaller. Smaller than I am now, I mean, not smaller than Kuririn."

"Yes, I always have that, don't I," Vegeta sighed. He went around to the other side of the cloud and took hold of Goku by the shoulders.

"Your arms will tire quickly that way," Goku pointed out. "Put your arms around my neck or chest. Otherwise, you might fall."

Try as he might, Vegeta could not think of another way. Holding onto each other by the arms, as they had done before, had worked adequately, but his biceps had been aching with fatigue on just that short flight, and he didn't see any way to do it with Goku sitting down -- not without his legs hanging through the cloud, at any rate, which looked even more idiotic than hanging onto Kakarrot.

"You will never tell anyone about this," Vegeta said between his teeth, hooking one arm around Goku's neck, and the other around his chest.

"If you wrap your legs around me --" Goku began, but he must have felt Vegeta's death-glare without even being able to see him. "... uh, never mind."

They floated off the ground. The cloud moved a bit sluggishly, having some trouble with two adult passengers in the lighter air pressure on the ship. Soon, however, they were high above the floor.

"Are you comfortable?" Goku asked.

"No," Vegeta snapped, "but I'm not in danger of falling off."

Vegeta still could not figure out how Goku controlled the direction of the cloud's flight, but it swung around to orient in the direction that Bulma had been taken. He focused on getting his rigid back muscles to relax, allowing the muscles of his arms to take the weight of his body. Goku wasn't hard to hold onto -- the cloud was perfectly solid to him, so he wasn't in danger of tipping over, and he was warm too. Vegeta was still chilled to the bone from being in the water.

"This way?" Goku said.

"Yeah."

The cloud swooped over the dark water. Vegeta glanced down, instinctively checking for spiders. He'd learned (after several hard lessons) to never assume that an enemy was dead without seeing the body -- even though he knew that these particular spiders had been de-limbed or crushed, one part of him expected to see the glaring red light rising up through the water. But the water remained dark ... dark and cold. Vegeta shuddered and looked away.

"Are you still cold?" Goku asked. He'd felt him shiver.

"I'm fine, Kakarrot," Vegeta said shortly. Actually, he was warming up nicely now that he was sharing some of Goku's body heat, but there was no chance he'd tell that to Kakarrot.

The cloud glided onward, into the darkness.

******

"Not that it isn't important, but we can discuss Bulma's situation in a moment," Kaiobito said. "Right now, let's set these people free."

"I tried to break down the door, but I couldn't," Dende said. "I wasn't strong enough."

Piccolo looked at the solid metal door. "I don't think any of us are strong enough right now." He turned to the shapeshifters. Oolong promptly hid behind Dende.

"I could turn into a crowbar," Pu'ar offered.

"Crowbar?" Piccolo said. He wasn't familiar with human tools.

"I don't think it'd help," Yamcha said, running his finger down the edge of the door. "It fits too close. There's not enough of a crack to get a crowbar into." He examined the locks. "I don't know this type, but Pu'ar, do you remember what we did that one time we had to break into the armored car with the electronic lock on the safe?"

Pu'ar saluted. "Yes, Yamcha-sama!" She turned into a very large taser and floated into his hand.

"Stand back!" Yamcha told the others cheerfully and used Pu'ar to short-circuit the locks.

The others watched in amazement (or, in Piccolo's case, slight annoyance). "Is there anything you don't know how to break into?" Kuririn asked.

Yamcha laughed, embarrassed. "Lock picking skills aren't much use when you can tear off a door with your bare hands or punch through it. I'd completely forgotten that I used to have to use other methods."

Pu'ar returned to her normal shape and Yamcha kicked the door. It didn't budge. "Huh. That should have done it."

"It opens out," Kuririn said, pointing to the worn mark on the floor. "There must be a handle or something."

There was no handle; the door was smooth. There was, however, an instrument panel on the wall with a large button. Kuririn pushed the button. Nothing happened.

"Maybe there is a code or something," Yamcha said.

Kuririn sighed. "Everyone who knows about this kind of thing is somewhere else. Bulma, Gohan, Vegeta ..." He looked over their group. Piccolo and Dende were completely useless with technology. Oolong was ... well, useless with just about anything. From the blank way Kaiobito was staring at the instrument panel, technology was not exactly his forte either. Basically, it was up to himself and Yamcha to figure out how to open the door. He started to turn to Yamcha and then smacked himself in the forehead. "Honestly, if we were any dumber ..." He turned to Dende. "Dende, ask your friend inside how the door is opened."

Dende blushed darker green. "Uh ... right!"

Ygarddro, who had heard the conversation, told them which buttons to push, and a moment later, the door swung slowly open.

"You could have volunteered that information instead of letting us stand there looking like idiots," Yamcha snapped at the alien.

Ygarddro withdrew somewhat. "I did not think of it," he said in his accented speech. "You must understand ... it has been a very long time since I've been encouraged or even allowed to think for myself. And as for them ..." His gaze turned to the other creatures in the room. "I doubt if they even understand that the door is open."

Dende walked among the room's inhabitants. Most of them did not even seem to see him. A few watched him with a dull, listless expression. "The door is open! You're free! You can leave," he told them, but none of them responded.

"I tried to tell you," Ygarddro said. "They are barely aware of their surroundings. They have been here so long, and all that they cared about is gone. The meh'teka continue to feed them only because they do not want to deliberately kill the Gifted Ones."

"Meh'teka?" Piccolo repeated.

"The Metal People. That is what they are called."

"I recognize that language," Kaiobito said suddenly. "It's a very old language, and it's never been spoken in this part of the universe. All the speakers died out long, long ago."

Ygarddro made a motion that might have been a nod, if he'd had a neck. "That must be the builders of the meh'teka. I don't know anything about them. The meh'teka do not talk about them."

"Do you know anything of these people?" Piccolo asked Kaiobito.

He shook his head. "Not much. This was around the time when Buu was first released, so I had ... other concerns. They weren't an unusual race in any way, as I recall -- just another spacefaring race, in another galaxy than yours. There was some kind of cataclysm on their homeworld and they went extinct long ago."

Piccolo turned to Ygarddro. "These meh'teka ... what do you know about them?"

"I know little," Ygarddro said. "I've done maintenance on the ship, that's all. They have machines that produce thousands, even millions of the low-level drones that you've seen. They use these drones to destroy all life on the worlds they encounter."

"Why?" Kuririn asked.

"Because they hate living things. I do not know if there is a reason. As I told you, I know little about the meh'teka or why they might have been created."

"Ygarddro-san told me that they follow a predictable system with the worlds they destroy," Dende said. "They hate all life, without regard for its kind, but intelligent life is the only sort that can offer resistance to them, so they ... kill those first. The first wave of drones -- what you call spiders -- are programmed to recognize intelligent species and slaughter them. Once those are dealt with, they kill everything else on the world at their leisure, and burn it to make sure nothing survives."

Kuririn shuddered, remembering how the spiders at Kame House had spoken to them, saying, "Humans ... destroy!" before they attacked. They'd seemed uncertain about #18, starting to attack her only when she attacked them.

"But it's worse," Dende said softly. "They also have a powerful laser array on the ship. If they encounter significant resistance on a planet ... if their assault spiders seem to be failing ... they will use the lasers to cauterize the surface of the world."

He seemed to have trouble getting the words out. The reaction among the Z-senshi was sheer horror.

"If Bulma's father's invention works ..." Yamcha breathed.

"They'll all be killed ... along with all other life on Earth ... as soon as whoever's in charge finds out about it," Piccolo finished.

They all looked at each other. Their mission had now become desperate -- they were working under severe time pressure. And they still didn't know how they were going to do it.



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