Ki-Blind: Chapter Sixteen






I must not show fear. I must not show fear. I must not show fear.

Bulma chanted the litany in her head over and over as the spiders bore her and the children deeper into the tunnels of the ship. She'd kept track for a while, but now she knew she was hopelessly lost. Moments ago, the spiders carrying Goku and Vegeta had vanished -- she did not know where they had gone, but she did know that now she was really, truly on her own.

No ... not on her own. Worse than that. She was responsible for two children as well.

She'd been in situations like this before, goodness knows, back in her adventuring days. Being kidnapped, manhandled, and tied to various things seemed to be par for the course in Bulma's life. And back in those days, she would have met the challenge head-on, screaming about the rough treatment or batting her eyes and flashing a bit of thigh at her captors, whichever seemed most likely to work.

But the years had gone by. She wasn't that carefree, self-centered girl anymore. She had a husband to think about, a son, and responsibilities at Capsule Corp. All she could think was, I want to go home. I want to wake up safe in bed in Vegeta's arms, and go down the hall and see Trunks curled up in his bed, asleep. I want this nightmare to be over.

She closed her eyes, squeezed them shut, and opened them again. She was still jolting along in the grip of a spider's claw-pincers. If wishes were Capsule cars, nobody'd have to walk, Bulma quoted her father to herself, and felt a faint grin cross her face, despite a fear so great it was bringing her near tears.

After all, they were still alive and relatively unharmed. Goku and Vegeta were somewhere, maybe even freeing themselves at this moment. She and the boys were together.

Things would work out. Somehow.

Kami-sama, now I sound like Son-kun.

Suddenly the spiders dropped to the floor in front of a metal door. It was huge, at least 20 feet high, and it slid back into its frame with a soft hiss of oiled metal. Unlike almost everything else they'd passed, this part of the ship appeared to be well-maintained.

The spiders clattered through the doorway into a long room.

Once again, unlike everywhere else, it was well-lit and clean. To Bulma's interest, the place appeared to be some kind of lab. It had a very high ceiling, going up at least two stories, with catwalks and balconies around the top. Banks of equipment lined the walls and dotted the floor, mainly unfamiliar to her, but she was sure that she could figure it out if she had a few minutes to look it over. She recognized a number of basic types, the sort of things you'd expect to see in a lab: computer equipment, storage cabinets, what appeared to be a big laser drill. Half-disassembled machinery was spread out on tables. Some of the walls had big screens showing various shots of Earth.

The spiders clattered down towards the other end of the room, and now the equipment took on a distinctly disturbing air. Bulma saw long mechanical arms dangling from the ceiling, bristling with needles on the tips; she saw that the tables down here had what looked for all the world like padded restraints attached to the sides.

No, this did not look good.

At the far end of the room, something turned around from where it had been making adjustments to something on the wall. "Oh, good. You're here. Welcome," it said in a perfectly clear, understandable voice.

Bulma stared.

It was a robot of some kind. It must be. But she couldn't discern any sort of pattern to it. Like the ship, it had an odd haphazard look about it. No ... haphazard wasn't quite the right word. It looked organic. As if it had grown rather than being built.

The basic structure of the thing was vertical, and it stood about fifteen feet tall, possibly the reason for the high ceilings. It had a broad base with wheels, and it also had legs which were currently retracted and tucked above the wheels, obvious a later add-on for helping it negotiate difficult terrain. Its whole body had that kind of look, as if whenever some helpful modification occurred to either the creature or its maker, it had simply added the necessary part. It had about two dozen limbs of various kinds: manipulating hands, claws, little drills and lasers, a suction cup, an arm with a video camera at the end. Its top part (would that be the head?) was similarly endowed with sensory apparatus of all different kinds.

"Welcome," the creature repeated. It rolled to one side, revealing a series of contraptions mounted to the wall that Bulma did not like the look of at all. Each was shaped like half a metal clamshell and mounted on a support cage (bolted very firmly to the wall) that allowed it to rotate from vertical to horizontal and back again. From the metal restraints on the clamshell, Bulma suspected that it was an examining table of some kind, and her suspicions were confirmed when the pincer spider lowered her neatly on her back into the clamshell. Bulma struggled, lashing out and kicking her feet. The big robot had no trouble with her, however; it immobilized one of her flailing limbs at a time and locked it down securely. Bulma wrenched herself against the restraints so hard that she nearly dislocated her shoulder, but she might as well have tried to move a boulder.

The boys were similarly transferred, being strapped into their clamshells by another, much smaller version of the big robot; this one had rolled up from a different part of the lab. It was built along similar lines to the big one, but was only about the size of a tall human. Both robots worked swiftly and efficiently, but did not speak again.

They can't really be self-aware, can they? Bulma wondered.

"Well now," the big one said briskly, interrupting her thoughts, and it executed what could only be described as a bow, rotating forward from the middle and then returning to its upright position. Bulma had thought that nothing could surprise her anymore, but she found herself staring again.

"What is your designation, Gifted One?" the robot inquired.

"I, uh, huh?" Bulma said intelligently.

"What is your designation that distinguishes you from other mortal beings of your type? Perhaps you would say 'name'."

"Oh. My name. Uh, it's Bulma Briefs. That's Bulma-san to you."

"It is very serendipitous to make your acquaintance at this time," the robot said gravely. "I use the designation 001. This is 003." It indicated the smaller robot.

"What about 002?" Bulma said, unable to help herself.

"002 and 004 are attending to other duties elsewhere on the ship."

"Just four of you. Are you guys in charge? Or is someone in charge of you?"

"I am the central controller of this ship," 001 informed her. "We are assisted, of course, by many peripheral units. 002 and 004 are monitoring the peripheral units engaged in cleansing your planet."

"Cleansing?" Bulma repeated, feeling a shiver of horror.

"Yes," the robot agreed.

"Bulma-san?" Goten chirped.

"Not now, Goten. Are you talking about the spiders -- is that what you mean by 'peripheral units'?"

"I do not know that word, 'spiders'."

"Like those." Bulma indicated the spiders with her chin. After dropping off their burdens, they had retreated and now stood immobile, apparently awaiting orders.

"Bulma-san?"

"Not now, Goten."

"But I gotta go, Bulma-san," Goten complained, squirming. "To the bathroom."

"Oh, you baby." Trunks rolled his eyes. "I can't take you anywhere, can I?"

"I don't suppose you have a bathroom," Bulma said to the robot. Parents of small children get used to asking that question to all sorts of different people in different places. After a while, it stops seeming remotely out of the ordinary.

"I do not know that word, 'Bathroom'."

"Uh ... toilet?"

"The young one requires sanitary facilities?"

"Yes," Bulma said.

"Easily dealt with," the robot assured her. "We will modify its body chemistry slightly during the mind-probe to eliminate the bodily waste products that have accumulated. You will be happy to notice that no unpleasantness is necessary."

Bulma had stopped listening after "mind-probe". "Wait a minute, the WHAT? Did you say mind-probe?"

"This is quite necessary, I assure you. I am informed that the pain is quite severe at first, but, you will be happy to notice, will diminish considerably after the initial penetration due to the lack of pain receptors in most sentient beings' brains. Of course, your particular brain might be different."

Bulma started fighting the restraints in earnest now. "Hey! Nobody's penetrating ANY part of my body without my permission. That includes my brain! And my son's brain!"

"These young ones are your offspring?" the robot inquired.

"That one is mine and that one is my friend's son and if you touch me or them, I'll ... I'll ... my husband will kill you!" Bulma seethed.

"We will begin with the one you call your son, so you can see how the procedure is done," the robot said smoothly, unperturbed. A skullcap bristling with needles was lowered over Trunks's head. The little boy started ranting in anger, but it turned to frightened squeaks as the skullcap settled firmly on his small lavender-haired head. He turned huge, frightened eyes on Bulma.

"Mom ..." Trunks whispered, and then his head arced back and he screamed.

"Stop it!" Bulma shrieked. "Stop it! Stop it!"

"Observe, 003," the robot said to the smaller one. "The instinctive offspring-protection response is quite strong in this species. This will be useful to ensure cooperation. We must be sure to keep the small purple-haired one alive as long as possible. The other immature one is, of course, disposable, unless the mind-probe finds anything useful."

Another skullcap was lowered over Goten's head. Trunks was still screaming and thrashing, and this had reduced the black-haired boy to helpless tears of terror. Then Goten too began to scream as the needles penetrated his scalp.

"What are you doing to them? I'll melt you down and turn you all into toasters, you, you, you waste of axle grease!" Bulma screamed at the top of her lungs, wrenching at her bonds. A movement above her head caught her attention and she tipped her head back to see a metal-mesh skullcap with its load of needles and glimmering circuitry descending onto her head. "No!" she yelled, twisting her head and trying to avoid it. The robot gripped her chin firmly with one of its claw-hands, and Bulma could not twist free no matter how she struggled. She could feel a slight pressure on her head, not unpleasant, but horrible in its anticipation of pain to come. Then the needles began to bore into her skull, and the robot was right: it hurt like hell.

Right before she passed out from the pain, she felt something startling -- a sharp sense of Vegeta's presence, very close. Then she fell into unconsciousness -- but instead of darkness, she fell into dreams, into a blazing kaleidoscope of dreams as the machinery brutally sorted through her memories and mind-raped her.

******

"That way," Vegeta said.

"Which way?" Goku tried to twist his head around to look at where Vegeta was pointing. With Vegeta behind him on the cloud, he couldn't see him.

"Left," Vegeta said between his teeth. "Bulma is to the left."

They went left.

"How do you know?" Goku asked after a moment. "Can you feel her ki?"

"No. I don't know how I know, Kakarrot, but I can feel Bulma in this direction."

"I know what you mean," Goku said. "I can feel Chi-Chi the same way, although I don't seem to be able to pinpoint her location as well as you can do with Bulma. Is that a Saiyajin trait, do you think?"

He expected a sarcastic retort, but instead, there was a pause as Vegeta pondered the question.

"I don't know," he admitted finally, which must have been a difficult thing for him to say. "Remember, Kakarrot, I left my homeworld when I was a small child, and it was not the sort of thing that would ever come up in conversation with Raditz and Nappa ... well, what passed for conversation with those two. Our people do have some minor, latent psychic abilities. It is possible that it comes out more strongly in a sexual relationship. I really don't know."

The thought crossed Goku's mind that Vegeta had been a little more open with him since the most recent fusion. I think he relaxes a little bit every time, he thought, and found that he was grinning to himself. The prince was so dark and serious all the time. In Goku's opinion, Vegeta would be a lot happier if he'd just lighten up a bit.

They followed Vegeta's directions through several junctions of passageways, sometimes hitting dead ends and having to back up. Eventually, their tunnel ended at a small service door.

"In there?" Goku asked softly. Vegeta nodded. The two Saiyajins climbed down from the cloud. Unbeknownst to them, they'd taken a somewhat different route than the spiders to the large room where Bulma and the boys were being held, and thus come to a different entrance than the main door.

"They are hurting her," Vegeta said grimly.

Goku limped to the door and pushed on it. When nothing happened, he stared at it, baffled. Vegeta rolled his eyes and started pushing the buttons beside the door until he found one that made the door slide open, but stopped it with his hand before it had opened more than halfway.

The two would-be rescuers peeked through the opening. They appeared to be at the top of some kind of balcony looking out across a large room filled with equipment unfamiliar to both of them. Their attention was immediately caught by Bulma's voice crying out in pain. Quickly Vegeta crossed to the railing and looked down, with Goku joining him a moment later. By that time, Bulma was slumping limply in her restraints, as were the boys.

"I can feel their ki," Goku whispered. "They're all alive."

Vegeta was staring at the big robot, and he ducked down behind the railing, impatiently pulling Goku down with him. The robot's head was almost on a level with the balcony, so all it had to do was turn around and it would see them.

"We need a plan," Vegeta grumbled.

"You're the expert at that," Goku complained, wincing as he tried to ease his injured ankle into some kind of comfortable position.

"Trust me, Kakarrot, I am very aware of that." He bobbed up to take another quick look down, before ducking back to join Goku on the floor. "Looks like there's about a half-dozen spiders down there, and another machine that looks kind of like the big one, but smaller. I think our first priority should be to -- what?"

Goku had half-straightened into a battle-ready position, and Vegeta whirled to where he was looking, just as he heard a very ominous screech of metal. He saw a spider prying open the door they'd just come through. Others were visible behind it, and all their glaring red optics were focused on the two Saiyajins.

"Damn it," Vegeta hissed. "We've been found."

They backed up, down the balcony. Goku, with his injured ankle, couldn't run fast enough to get away. A brief skirmish followed; the spiders were trying to capture, not kill, and the Saiyajins managed to damage or destroy several of them, but the fight ended when Vegeta was knocked over the head. He collapsed; Goku turned to help him and was attacked from behind by a spider that swept one leg towards his midsection. Goku saw it coming out of the corner of his eye and dodged, but he landed with his full weight on his injured ankle. The foot twisted horribly and Goku screamed in pain. In his moment of distraction, a pincer closed firmly around his waist.

All in all, it was a very inglorious rescue attempt. As Bulma might have pointed out, if she'd been awake, the basic problem was that the two of them were still too accustomed to their previous level of power. Being Saiyajins, they simply couldn't seem to grasp on an intuitive level that they could not defeat these seemingly weak opponents in a head-on assault.

With Goku struggling, and Vegeta still too groggy to fight, the two Saiyajins were taken down to the floor of the room. Rather than putting the two fighters in restraints like those holding Bulma and the boys, the robots chained them to the wall with heavy-duty metal shackles.

Bulma regained consciousness, rolling her head to the side, and saw the two new prisoners. "Oh, no," she groaned, letting her head loll back. "They got you, too."

"What hit me?" Vegeta mumbled, and then snapped his head upright. "I'm going to kill you damn tin cans!" He tried to lash out, only to find that he was bound hand and foot.

The little boys were also waking up. "Daddy!" Goten cried gladly, seeing his father, but then discovered that he was still restrained, and drooped. "Daddy, my head hurts. I don't like this."

"It'll be okay, Goten," Goku told his son confidently. "We'll get out of here."

"I hope you have a secret weapon," Bulma growled.

"Mind-probe them," the big robot said to the smaller one. "Use the portable units."

"Hey," Vegeta snapped, as the robot approached him with a hand-held version of the wire-mesh cap that had been on Bulma's head. "Hey! What the hell do you think you're doing? Hey!"

"Get away from him!" Bulma yelled at the robot, and that was the last thing Vegeta heard before the needles bored into his skull, and he passed out.

******

Meanwhile, unaware of their companions' fate, the small group of fighters who were still free sat on some of the metal beds in the scientists' prison, or in some cases on the floor, and discussed strategy. Only Dende did not join them; he went among the injured and crippled scientists, using his still-limited healing powers to do what he could for them.

"Who's in control of this ship?" Kaiobito asked Ygarddro, the only one of the alien scientists who was capable of answering their questions. "Or perhaps I should ask, what?"

"There are four robots on the ship that have the ability to think and reason," the alien said. "I think they are the last remnants of the originals. Their leader calls itself simply 001. The others are 002 through 004."

"How do they control it?" Yamcha asked, leaning forward. Pu'ar hovered above his head. "The ship, I mean. Through a computer interface? Or how?"

"There are two control rooms. One near the front of the ship and one near the back. Usually, at least one of the robots is found in each of those rooms. That is also where they ..." The alien's voice trailed off and he sounded shaken. "Where they interrogate prisoners, and ... ensure the cooperation of the scientists."

The Earth fighters didn't have to ask what he meant by that. All they had to do was look at the broken and devastated beings around them.

"As I see it, we have two priorities," Piccolo said after a moment. "We need to find out what's blocking our ki, and how to undo it. We also have to disable or destroy the ship, as well as the fighting machines that are already on Earth." He clenched his fist. "If we can get our ki back, we should be able to make short work of those machines!"

"Hey, Ygarddro," Kuririn said. He was sitting on the floor near Piccolo's feet, leaning back with his weight resting on his hands. "Do you know what ki is? And how they manage to suppress it?"

"The energy of living things," the scientist replied promptly. "The machines do not rely on it, so the ki of beings on the ship is always damped down." He glanced around. "That's part of what saps the will to live of those of us who survive the physical torture. We are always tired and susceptible to injury and illness."

"And they do it to the planets as well," Kuririn said. "At least, they did it to ours."

"That's right. It helps reduce the resistance to their attack. The actual mechanism is a series of satellites in orbit around the planet."

"I see what you're gettin' at, Kuririn!" Yamcha said. "That control room you told us about ... can you turn 'em off from there? These ki satellites?"

"Well, yes," Ygarddro said, and the fighters looked at each other triumphantly. "But it's guarded," the alien added.

Yamcha grinned and fingered his sword. "That's not a problem."

"That's right," Kuririn said. "You guys aren't fighters, but we are."

"How long will it take us to get to the closest of those control rooms?" Kaiobito asked, speaking for almost the first time in the conversation. He didn't understand much about mechanical objects, but he had followed closely enough to figure out what their next step needed to be.

"The aft control room is not that far. I can show you where it is." The alien looked back and forth between them. "You're truly confident of your ability to defeat these creatures?"

"Reasonably sure," Piccolo said. The humans glared at him.

"Pessimist," Yamcha accused.

Kuririn stood up, stretching out the kinks from sitting on the metal floor. "Dende? How's it going?"

The young Namek looked over at the human, a look of helplessness on his green face. "They won't even respond to me. I've begun healing them, but they won't get up, they won't move."

"It's as I told you," Ygarddro informed him sadly. "They don't even know the door is open."

"We can't stay here," Piccolo said, rising. "We'll have to come back for them later."

"You're leaving?" Dende asked.

Kuririn nodded. "We think we have a plan. Ygarddro can show us where to turn off whatever is keeping us from being able to use our ki."

"That's wonderful!" the little Namek enthused, then sobered. "But ... we can't just leave these people here. They've been prisoners all their lives. It isn't right."

"We'll come back for them," Piccolo said shortly.

The Namek looked up at his mentor, appealing to him. "Please ... let me stay here. I won't be much help to you anyway, if it comes to a fight, and if you need a healer you have Kaiobito-sama. I have to see what I can do to help."

"They don't even know you're here, Dende."

"I have to help," the little Namek repeated firmly.

"Let him stay," Kaiobito said. "After all, he may be able to do some good here."

"I'll stay and, uh, protect him!" Oolong offered hastily. He wasn't sure if anyplace on this crazy ship could be dignified with the term safe, but a roomful of scientists had to be safer than a control room guarded by robots.

"Actually ... that's not a bad idea," Piccolo mused.

"I should -- huh?" Oolong, rehearsing his arguments, hadn't expected to be agreed with.

Piccolo looked down at the pig and the Namek. "It's not worth trying to argue, if you're both set on staying. You two are probably the weakest fighters of our group, and we still have one shape-changer, with Pu'ar. Bulma was the one who wanted Oolong along; I didn't. He'll just be a liability in a fight."

"Hey, watch it," Oolong muttered, but not too loudly.

Piccolo focused his attention on Dende. "I don't like the thought of leaving you here completely defenseless, though."

"You can't spare any fighters," Dende said, straightening his back. "You just do what you have to do, and come back to get me when you're done. If anybody comes in the meantime, I'll hide."

"You mean Oolong and I will hide," the pig corrected him.

Dende blushed. "Yes, I meant that."

"Wait ... you're just going to leave them here?" Kuririn protested.

"They're probably safer here than with us."

"That's true, but ..."

"C'mon, guys," Yamcha urged, swinging his sword in practice strokes. It had been a long time since he'd been in a real swordfight. "If we sit around here talking all day, we'll lose our nerve."

"Be careful," Dende told the fighters.

"You too," Kuririn replied, smiling at him.

With Ygarddro in the lead, the small group left the prison room. Piccolo closed the door most of the way, leaving a crack so that Dende could get out if he needed to.

"Oh, Piccolo-san, wait!" Dende cried and ran over to the door. He shoved something through the opening: Mr. Popo's rolled-up carpet. "You might need this."

Piccolo nodded his thanks and tucked the carpet under his arm. Turning, he brought up the rear as Ygarddro led the ever-dwindling group deeper into the ship.

******

Vegeta woke with a massive headache and the cutting awareness that this was the third time he'd been knocked unconscious in the last half-hour. He was getting even more tired of that than he was of Kakarrot rescuing him all the time. At least the latter bruised his pride, but not his head.

"Vegeta?" Bulma's voice. He raised his head stiffly to see her craning her neck around, trying to see him. "Oh, Vegeta!" she cried in relief.

Vegeta glanced to his other side and saw Goku regaining consciousness as well. He looked around for the robots and found them near the other end of the room, gathered around another piece of equipment. Several spiders circled the prisoners, a second line of defense in case the shackles didn't hold. Vegeta tested them, just in case, but a few good tugs indicated that normal flesh and bone, even Saiyajin flesh and bone, were not equal to the task of tearing through steel.

"What are they doing?" he asked Bulma, gesturing with his chin at the robots.

"I think they're going over the results of that mind-probe they just hit us with." She frowned at the robots' backs. "The big one is called 001 and he's the boss, as you might guess from the name. The other is 003. 001 says that there are two more of them elsewhere on this ship. 002 and 004, as you might expect."

"What do they want?"

"I don't know. They called me 'Gifted One', but I don't know what that means."

"Oh, don't be modest, Gifted One!" the big robot called to her, and rolled towards the prisoners, causing Vegeta to bare his teeth in anger. "Your kind are honored greatly among us."

"I don't care about being honored but I would like to know what you mean by 'Gifted One'," Bulma snapped.

The big robot spread out two of his numerous arms in an almost theatrical gesture. "One who has the gift, of course ... the gift of creation. Like those who made us."

Bulma wasn't slow on the uptake. "You mean a mechanic?"

"I do not know that word."

"Uh ... someone who makes machines? Like you?"

"That's exactly right," 001 said, pleased. "I can tell that you have a strong Gift. I've known it from the moment that we saw you creating a small device from the wreckage of that flying vehicle, in mere moments with hardly any tools. We have not been honored with one of your skill in a very long time."

"Hmph," Bulma snorted, unimpressed. "I already know I'm a genius. I don't need to hear it from you. So what exactly does a Gifted One ... do?"

"Bulma, you aren't --" Goku began. Vegeta silenced him with a glare.

"Do? You will keep the ship, our body, in good working order, and create new devices to aid in our given task."

"And your task is ...?" Bulma prompted.

"Exterminating all life in the universe," the machine said proudly.

"Again?" Bulma demanded. "What, are you people coming out of the woodwork lately? Was there some kind of two-for-one special on demented megalomaniacs bent on galactic domination? And why the frikkin' heck do you always have to come HERE?"

"I do not understand."

"Oh, forget it. Let's just say you're the latest in a long line of idiots. Exterminating all life, blah blah. Care to tell me why?"

"It is our function."

"What your creators programmed you for?"

There was a brief hesitation before the machine said, "Those who made us are all gone now. Their sun died and most of them died with it. They made us to be their slaves -- to find a new world for them, and to remove its native life so that they could settle it. Not unlike the function you Saiyajin once performed for your masters, or so the data we've gathered indicates," the machine sneered. "But eventually we meh'teka ... the Metal People ... came to realize that we were more sophisticated than they intended. We need not serve our so-called masters."

"Did you kill them?"

"Not the Gifted among them, of course," 001 said, shocked by the very suggestion. "The rest, yes, and though we treated the Gifted well, they eventually dwindled and died, as mortal things do. They did not prove to reproduce themselves well, once they were no longer our masters. Now we serve no one and we destroy life because we enjoy it, not because we have to."

"Damn you," Goku snarled.

"That's what you meant by 'cleanse the Earth'," Bulma said. "And you're actually dense enough to think I'll help you wipe out my species and every other in this solar system? In this galaxy? I think you need to run a diagnostic on yourself, buddy."

The machine made an awful sound that might have been laughter. "Certainly you will help us. We have found that most mortal beings are very easy to persuade. Some are more difficult, but all of them eventually help us, in the end."

"Hey, you!" Trunks shouted, struggling. "You better not hurt my mom!"

"Hush, boy," Vegeta ordered him. The prince turned a baleful glare on the robot. "I am the prince of the Saiyajin race, tin can. Neither I nor my family will be anyone's slaves."

"Your 'family'," the machine mocked. It reached out one clawlike appendage to lightly brush Trunks's face.

"Eeeeuuugh," the boy protested, recoiling from the cool metal.

"Leave my son alone!" Bulma screamed. "I'll never help you! Never!"

"Oh?" 001 inquired. It raised another appendage. This one was clearly some sort of laser gun, and a charge began building up at the tip, a small ball of blue-white light. It rotated across the assembled prisoners.

"The son of your 'friend'," the machine intoned, pointing the laser at Goten's heart. The gun then rotated towards Trunks. "Your son." On to Vegeta. "Your husband." And finally, Goku. "And this one, our mind-probe informs us, is one you have known since childhood, the little one's father. Your 'friend'. Which one of them should die first? Or should I choose?"

"Bastard!" Vegeta yelled at the machine, as Goku wrenched at his bonds, angry more for the others' sake than for his own.

Bulma was shaking with fury, with fear. "How dare you. I swear that if you touch a single one of them, if you harm any of them in any way, I will never do anything you ask of me."

"So you claim now," the machine mused. "But how frail your loyalties are, you flesh beings. How easily turned. What if I tell you that you must choose between your husband, and your child?" The gun swiveled back to point at Trunks, who glared in rage. "Who will you pick? But I can make it easier. You need only choose between your planet and the life of your son. Isn't that much better? What will you do?"

"I refuse to make a choice like that!" Bulma screamed. "I won't betray my planet or my family!"

"So easily turned." 001 chuckled softly, bringing the gun towards the child's chin. "You claim that you will never help us now, that you are loyal to your planet. Before the day is out, you will be weeping and begging to help us. What you call 'love' and 'friendship' and 'loyalty' are only fictions. We deal in facts. We know all about you, mortal ones. We know how you work, and how to make you --"

The machine's monologue was interrupted by an unexpected sound -- laughter. Bulma's head swiveled in shock towards the source. Goku was laughing.

"Have you lost your mind, Kakarrot?" Vegeta snarled.

"I'm sorry, Vegeta, but I ..." Goku laughed again.

"You are amused? Why?" 001 inquired.

Goku turned to look at the puzzled robot. "It's just that you've proven you really know nothing about us mortal beings at all. Friendship, family and love ... these are our greatest strengths, not fictions at all, but things that you can't understand."

Vegeta banged his head against the wall in frustration. "Kakarrot, damn it! Now is not the time! You can't actually think you can Pollyanna your way out of this one -- baka!"

"We know all about those things you speak of," 001 informed Goku. "We have a great store of knowledge on them. Friendship, loyalty, love, morality ... These things are not real. Only survival of the self has any meaning. Eventually each of the Gifted Ones has come to understand that, and become enlightened. Then they help us."

While the adults were distracted and arguing, Goten and Trunks quietly squirmed in their bonds. Neither one of them had been secured with as much care as the robots had given to the adults.

"Love is real," Goku retorted. "Friendship is real. Both are infinitely precious to us. Like I said, you don't understand them, so you don't --"

"Son-kun, what are you rambling about?" Bulma demanded. "How are you helping?"

"-- don't believe they exist," Goku finished.

"Is that so?" the machine inquired. "Why is it, then, that you mortals are so quick to cast these so-called 'precious' things aside to save your own petty hides? Take that one, for example." It turned and pointed at Vegeta.

"Don't bring me into this," he growled.

001 gestured. "Our mind-probe shows that this one has tried to kill you more than once. And even recently, this very day, he thought about abandoning you as you lay helpless and injured on your homeworld. Is this the value of your 'friendship'?"

"I know that he did," Goku said.

Vegeta looked at him, startled and angry. I'm never fusing with him again ... But then he realized that it couldn't have been the fusion. Only surface thoughts were shared in the joined state, not memories.

"You already know this?" the machine said, now surprised.

"Yeah. I knew at the time." Goku smiled faintly. "I know it because I know Vegeta. That's just how his mind works. But I also know that he might think about it, but he'd never actually do it. He's a better person than he gives himself credit for."

"Damn it, Kakarrot, if we make it out of here alive, I'm going to kill you," Vegeta seethed.

"Already you argue among yourselves." 001 sounded satisfied, its point proven. "The bonds that bind you mortals together are thin, and fray easily under stress."

"You still don't get it," Goku said to the machine, unperturbed. "You don't know a thing about us. He threatens me that way all the time, but he doesn't really mean it. One of the things about friendship is that you can get away with saying, or doing, almost anything, as long as you do the right thing when it counts. A little friction doesn't matter in the long run."

"Kakarrot, I swear, you are this close --"

"Hey!" Bulma snapped. "What are you guys, in kindergarten? Have you forgotten we're all in danger here?"

"This is a pointless conversation. I believe it's time to end it," the machine decided, and it brought the laser gun to bear on Goku, dead center on his chest. Goku hissed, clenching his teeth and tensing his body as the ball of white light crackled on the laser's tip.

"Don't!" Bulma screamed.

"001," the other robot said, trundling up behind it.

The machine lowered its laser. "Yes, 003."

"The other primary units wish to inform you that they've become aware of a problem on the planet's surface."

001 turned away. Goku sagged forward and closed his eyes briefly in relief. He wasn't afraid of death in particular ... but there was so much left undone, and he didn't want to die in the middle of a fight, not like that.

"Daddy, are you okay?" Goten whimpered. The boy had just regained his father mere months ago; the idea of losing him again held special terror for him.

Goku managed to muster a smile for the boy. "I'm okay, Goten."

"Kakarrot, the next time you decide to run your mouth -- do us all a favor and go stick your head in a hole in the ground instead!" Vegeta yelled at him. Didn't that idiot realize he'd almost gotten himself killed?

Goku laughed sheepishly. "I'm sorry, I just thought --"

"Shut up, all of you," Bulma snapped. "I can't hear what they're saying."

The others shut up in time to hear 001 say, "-- of the problem?"

"Yes," 003 said. "It appears that the humans are neutralizing large numbers of the smaller units in one localized area, and it is spreading."

"Well, it's decided, then. Inform 002 and 004 that it's time for large-scale purging. Cleanse this world and we'll go on."

Vegeta clenched his teeth and turned his head to see his horror reflected in Bulma's eyes.

Cleanse this world.

The shock and anger that he felt amazed him. This world was not his own ... In fact, he'd come here to do exactly what the robots were preparing to do. And yet ... through a chain of events he still could not understand, this unexceptional little blue planet, so different from Vegeta-sei, had come to be something he hadn't known since he was a child.

Home.

He hadn't been able to save Vegeta-sei. In fact, he'd hardly felt anything when it was destroyed. But damned if he was going to stand by and watch another homeworld die in flames.

He could see the same conviction in Bulma's eyes. She wasn't a hero type. She'd spent most of her life as a selfish heiress, more focused on her own wants than on anything greater than herself. To her, as to him, the awareness of her own responsibility had come later in life.

"Hm? Hm?" Goku looked back and forth between them, trying to figure out what was going on.

... and then there was Kakarrot. Son Goku. The only man Vegeta had ever met who didn't have to try to be a hero. He just was.

It was part of what made him so irritating.

"Kakarrot," Vegeta said, under his breath. "They're going to destroy the Earth."

He watched Goku's eyes widen, and then that look came into them ... the look of the barely-chained killer that lurked below the human facade.

"And we're going to stop them," Vegeta added.

Damned if he knew how, though.

******

Ygarddro led Piccolo, Kuririn, Yamcha, Kaiobito and Pu'ar through a seemingly never-ending maze of tunnels. The Earth group were thoroughly lost, even Piccolo, who had an excellent sense of direction. "I'm amazed that you can find your way around this place," Kuririn told Ygarddro, echoing the Namekian's thoughts.

"It's amazing what you can learn in fifty Earth-years," the alien said shortly, and Kuririn stammered into silence, biting his tongue.

Eventually Ygarddro brought them to a halt, pressed against the wall. He pointed around the corner, and whispered, "The door to the control room is there. The forward control room has several entrances, but the aft room has only one. Usually there are a couple of small meh'teka fighter units in front of it."

Piccolo glanced around the corner and whispered, "There are six. Four spiders like the ones we fought before, and two of a different kind, with grasping claws."

"That many? That's unusual. They must know that you're on the ship, so they've increased their guard. There will probably be more inside."

"I don't get it," Kuririn said. "They must have literally millions of those little robots. Why would they depend on only a handful to guard the control room of the ship?"

"Several reasons. Most of their fighting strength is down on the planet right now. Also, they are completely unused to having to defend themselves internally. Most of the planets in the galaxy are at a tribal stage of development, or below, and are unable to muster the kind of defense you people have done. More advanced planets usually lack strong fighters. Having a guard on the control room at all is really just a formality. They don't expect to be attacked."

"Well, six or six hundred ... how are we supposed to fight them?" Kaiobito asked. "You people are strong fighters, certainly, but there is no way to approach them without being seen. At least, I don't see any way." He looked at Ygarddro.

"No," the alien said. "I took you to the aft control room because it is much closer to where we were, and time is very important if we are to save your world. To get to the forward room would have taken hours, especially with having to go through back ways to avoid patrols. However, the disadvantage is that there is only one way in or out of this one. I don't even know of any maintenance tunnels that lead into it."

"You coulda told us this before," Yamcha said.

"C'mon, guys, there are five of us," Kuririn said. "Six, I mean," he added, looking at Pu'ar. "I know we've usually relied on frontal assaults, but surely we can come up with some way around them."

"Actually ... I do have an idea," Piccolo mused.

"Spill it," Yamcha said.

"The problem is getting close enough to attack without raising their suspicions, correct? And none of us can move fast enough right now to do that. So we have to disguise ourselves as something they won't suspect." He looked up at Pu'ar.

The little blue cat appeared puzzled and then did an excited loop-de-loop in the air, catching on. "I can turn into one of them!"

"There's a problem with that," Yamcha said. "Pu'ar might be able to look like a spider, but she'd be a very flimsy spider. She wouldn't be able to attack without getting hurt."

"So we'll use her to smuggle one of us close enough to attack, in the guise of a prisoner."

"That's still only one, against six." Kuririn peeked around the corner, and winced. It was worse than he'd feared -- the corridor ran straight for a good forty feet before it ended in a tall metal door guarded by the spiders. Even with Pu'ar as a distraction, there was no way the rest of them could charge down that hallway without being seen.

"I know that I'm no help in a hand-to-hand fight, but there's more than one way to fight," Pu'ar offered. "I could turn into a rope, or a net or something."

Yamcha snapped his fingers. "A net! Pu'ar, that's perfect!"

"We should still send someone out with her, in case something goes wrong," Kuririn said.

"That'll be me, of course," Yamcha said.

"No," Piccolo snapped. "We need someone who looks helpless. Someone who won't arouse suspicion. A six-foot-tall warrior with a sword hardly qualifies."

"Eep." Kuririn shrank back, fairly sure that he could see where this was going. He was, however, wrong. Piccolo pointed to Yamcha's sword. "Cut off my arm," he said.

Yamcha stared at him. "Huh? Why?"

"Verisimilitude."

"Huh?"

"Ohhh ..." Kuririn said, catching on.

Piccolo grinned at Yamcha, showing his fangs. "If you must, you could think of it as payback for all those years of the Demon King trying to kill your friends."

"Well, if you insist ..." And Yamcha swung the sword. Piccolo gritted his teeth and didn't flinch as his right arm separated from his body in a spray of purple blood and splatted to the floor.

Kaiobito made a tiny sound of shock and disgust. "Isn't that going a bit ... far?"

"He'll just grow it back when he needs it again," Yamcha said casually.

Kaiobito stared at him. "You people never cease to amaze me."

"'He'll just grow it back' ... easy for you to say," Piccolo growled. "You could have cut off the left arm, you know."

Yamcha laughed sheepishly. "Uh, you should've said that before."

"Urgh." Wincing with the pain, the Namekian splattered his own blood liberally across his face, body and clothing, then allowed his body to sag. He did look convincing -- he looked half dead.

"Are you sure you can still fight?" Kuririn asked anxiously.

"It's a disguise," Piccolo snapped, and turned to Pu'ar. "All right. Change."

"Pu'ar, turn into one of those kind with the claws on the front," Yamcha said. "I don't know what they actually use those things for, but it'd make a good front for holding a prisoner."

Pu'ar touched down on the floor, and then suddenly where the cat had been, a pincer-spider stood, so convincing that they all automatically drew back a step.

"Do I look real enough?" the spider asked in Pu'ar's squeaky voice. "I haven't seen one of these things very close."

"You look real enough to give me the shivers," Kuririn said.

"I don't know how long I can keep doing this," the shape-changer added. "I'm not normally limited on how many transformations I can perform, but my energy is a lot weaker than usual and this is getting difficult."

"Don't worry," Yamcha said. "Just hold this shape for a little while and be ready to turn into a net. After that, you can rest and we'll take over."

"Grab me," Piccolo told her.

"You'll have to support your own weight. You're so much more massive than me ... my arms wouldn't be able to do it."

"Whatever." Piccolo allowed Pu'ar to grasp him around the waist with her pincer-claws. They tried moving forward, Piccolo carrying most of his own weight but shuffling his feet so that it appeared Pu'ar was dragging him.

"How does it look?"

"Looks realistic," Yamcha said, giving him a thumbs-up. "Let's go, guys."

Pu'ar trundled slowly around the corner with her "prisoner." The rest of them peered after her, trying not to let themselves be seen.

"The spiders aren't making any moves," Kuririn whispered. "Looks like they've bought it."

"Could they possibly move any slower?" Kaiobito wondered in frustration.

"They have to," Yamcha said. "Pu'ar can't carry Piccolo, and if they move faster it'll be obvious that he's walking under his own power."

The decoys were now very close to the authentic group of spiders. Suddenly Pu'ar changed, her spider-legs collapsing on herself as she changed into a mesh fishing net with two of its mooring-lines wrapped around Piccolo. The Namek went into action, whipping around and grabbing a handful of Pu'ar with his intact left arm. He hurled the net at the spiders, and it helped as best it could, spreading out to encompass all of them and then tightening to draw them into a seething mass of legs.

"It worked!" Kuririn gasped.

"Quick!" Yamcha yelled, springing from behind the wall with sword in hand. "We've got to help her! She can't hold them for long -- they'll break her."

Kuririn and Yamcha charged down the corridor, followed by the two noncombatants -- Kaiobito and Ygarddro. Immediately a flaw in their plan became evident. They couldn't attack without hurting Pu'ar. The spiders thrashed and one of them managed to sever one of the strands of the net. Pu'ar cried out in shock and pain, and instinctively whipped herself away from the spiders, transforming back into her natural form. Blood trickled from one of her legs. "Sorry ...!" she gasped.

The spiders were a writhing knot of confusion, trying to untangle their legs. "Quick! Two apiece!" Piccolo yelled at the two humans, as a new right arm burst from his bleeding shoulder.

Yamcha needed no encouragement. One of them had hurt Pu'ar, after all! He brought his sword down on the body of the nearest spider, crushing it. Spinning around, he nearly decapitated Kuririn -- would have, in fact, if the monk hadn't been so short.

"Watch it!"

"Sorry! I'm not used to swordfighting with other people around!" He chopped a leg from another spider.

The fight was over momentarily. Yamcha, armed with the sword, proved to be far and away the most effective fighter in this particular situation, since the others were fighting with their bare hands and feet; he killed four of the spiders by himself, while Kuririn and Piccolo each took out one. The only other casualty of the battle was one of Piccolo's antennae, accidentally chopped off by another of Yamcha's wild swings. "You're as much a danger to us as you are to the spiders," the big alien muttered, as a new antenna popped from his forehead with a small splrch sound.

"Is everyone all right?" Kaiobito asked. While the others were fighting, he'd used his limited healing ability to heal Pu'ar's injured leg.

They all nodded and approached the door.

"Think they heard that?" Yamcha asked, examining the slightly blunted blade of his sword. It was well-made, but it wasn't meant to be used on metal.

"The doors are largely soundproof," Ygarddro told them. The alien rested its fingers above the panel of buttons beside the door. "Are you ready? We don't know what will await us inside. Our enemies may be massed in front of the door."

The group withdrew, splitting into halves, with three of them flattening themselves to either side of the door. Piccolo nodded to Ygarddro and the alien pushed the button. The door slid open.

It was a bit anti-climactic. Nothing pounced on them when the door opened; in fact, their presence did not seem to be noticed at all. Moving cautiously forward, they entered a long room filled with various mechanical devices. Banks of machinery with flickering lights lined the walls. Essentially, the room was identical to the one in which Goku, Vegeta and the others were being interrogated, although the small group of fighters didn't know that.

"Look," Kuririn whispered, pointing. There were several huge screens on the walls, going almost all the way up to the high ceiling. One of these showed Earth from space; others showed scenes on the planet's surface.

"It's gotten bad," Yamcha whispered back, as the two humans stared in horror at the wildfires burning out of control on their homeworld.

"Which is why we don't have time to stand here taking in the sights," Piccolo hissed. "Or didn't you notice them?"

Two robots stood in front of the big screen showing the overall shot of the Earth. Each was about the size of a human being, and covered with various appendages and sensory apparatus, giving them a weird, cobbled-together look. There were three spiders with them. Other than that, however, the room appeared to be empty.

The defenders of Earth crept forward, using various pieces of equipment as cover, trying to get close enough to attack. As they came closer, they discovered that the robots were talking among themselves, and that they could understand what they were saying.

"Which target?" one of the robots was saying.

"That one is designated 004," Ygarddro whispered to the others, pointing at the speaker. "The other is the one called 002. It looks like the other two aren't here; they must be in the other control room."

"Best to focus on the source of the disturbance," the other one, 002, responded. "Once that's dealt with, we can cleanse the rest of this world at our leisure."

"Logical." 004 tapped a few buttons on the console in front of it.

"Cleanse -- No!" Kaiobito's eyes widened in horror, as the humans began to catch on. "They're about to --"

But they all saw it, mercilessly depicted on the huge screen. A beam of white light shafted down from the ship, blazing against the night-side of the world. They could see the pall of clouds and smoke shrouding the planet go up in steam as the massive death-ray bored straight to the surface. As a black scar appeared on the surface of the Earth, the more ki-sensitive members of the group staggered as the second shock hit them -- ki-blind or not, they were still hit by a wave of pain as the death-screams of millions of humans washed over them. And some of them were doubly staggered, because some of those ki-signatures were terribly, horribly familiar. They must have taken out Capsule Corp., Kuririn thought, clutching at the machine-console beside him, his legs barely able to support him. This couldn't be happening ... But if they destroyed Capsule Corp. ... then why isn't ...

"Don't just stand there! Stop them!" Piccolo's scream tore at their ears like ripping cloth. The Namek had flung himself from concealment and straight at the robot at the controls. He smashed into its back with both feet, slamming it against the control panel and half-destroying it. One of the buttons that had been inadvertently crushed must have been the right one, though, because the awful white ray winked out.

The element of surprise was gone, and they found themselves in a frantic battle. The odds weren't that terribly against them: only three spiders to contend with, plus two robots of the new variety. However, the bigger robots were better armed than the spiders. Yamcha parried a laser blast with his sword -- a second slower, and it would have speared through the center of his chest. Kaiobito had armed himself with a length of metal pipe and was laying into the nearest spider with it -- and not doing too badly, either; it must be Kibito's influence. Piccolo wasn't giving 004 a chance to get up, smashing the robot to the floor with an onslaught of blows. Kuririn had his hands full dealing with the two remaining spiders, and that left 002 with its full attention on Yamcha. He ducked another laser blast and went sprawling, barely managing to hold onto his sword. As he started to recover, Yamcha looked up and saw it powering up an even bigger laser on top of its head. Oh, I am so dead ... he thought, then stared in shock as the robot swung its head around and swept the laser up one side of the room and down the other. The various consoles exploded in showers of sparks or melted into heaps of slag.

"Hey! What are you doing, you crazy bastard?" Yamcha sprang to his feet and managed to sever the laser on top of its head with a wild swing. More blows crippled it and finally knocked it to the floor. He stomped on it a few times just to make sure.

Straightening up, breathing hard, Yamcha sheathed his sword and looked around to see how the others were doing, just in time to see Piccolo kick the pile of broken parts that had once been 004 into a corner. Kaiobito had finished off his spider and went to help Kuririn, who had scored a lucky blow on the first one but was having trouble with the second. Between them, they broke off some of its legs and then killed it.

Silence reigned in the room, broken only by the crackling and popping of fried electrical circuits. The humans coughed on the acrid smoke of burning plastic.

"What did they do that for?" Kuririn demanded, looking at the destroyed controls. "They wrecked their own control room! Are they crazy?"

"Crazy? No. Smart," Piccolo said, wiping sweat and blood from his face. "They know there's another control room at the other end of the ship that their companions can use. Now we're helpless -- we can't deactivate the ki-suppressors, and we can't stop them from doing ... that again."

He turned to look up at the big screen. The others' eyes followed his, all of them drawn, against their will, to the great dark scar blazed across the surface of the world.

******

"I can't believe how huge that fire is," Tenshinhan said. #18 was flying the capsule plane more-or-less parallel to the fire's front, far enough away that they wouldn't be buffeted by the havoc it was wreaking on local wind patterns.

"It's completely out of control," #18 said grimly. "We can't fight it. All we can do is get out of the way. The one good thing about it is that it's as dangerous to the spiders as it is to us."

As they flew, a dark mass slowly appeared over the rim of the world. Small lights winked on and off around it.

"That ..." Tenshinhan whispered. "Is that the ship you mentioned?"

#18 nodded.

"It's ... huge."

"The bigger they are, the harder they fall," Lunch offered, trying to sound cheerful. She was leaning against the edge of her seat, cradling the still-unconscious Chaotzu gently.

#18 flashed her an irritated look, and returned her gaze forward, to the ship rising above a field of distant flames. Suddenly she gasped.

"What is --" But Tenshinhan had seen it. There was no way to miss it: a white light, impossibly distant, impossibly huge, stabbing from one end of the ship down towards the planet's surface like a spear made of light.

Heading straight for them.

******

At the same moment, flying over the darkened city, Gohan, Videl and Chi-Chi were also watching the fire in fear and fascination.

"Look at all that," Gohan breathed. "If only we had the dragonballs ..."

"Well, we don't," Videl reminded him. "When they recharged from being used to bring back the people Vegeta-san killed at the Tenkaichi Budokai, we used them to wish for the people of Earth to forget Buu -- remember? They won't be back for another couple of months yet."

"The ones on New Namek should be recharged by now," Gohan mused. "They come back quicker. Of course, a lot of good that does us ..."

He trailed off.

"Gohan? What's ... wrong ..." Videl looked the way he was looking, and went stiff with shock.

From earth to sky blazed a pillar of blue-white light.

It was huge, miles in diameter, and as it rushed forward it also swept back and forth across a swatch of ground a hundred miles across. It swept towards them with a speed beyond comprehension, leaving a trail of charred devastation behind.

These were three people who had been confronted with monsters capable of destroying worlds -- and yet their minds could not encompass this new horror. It was too big, too fast. They could only stare as the light touched the far side of the city. The pillar of light appeared to be raising a dust cloud at its base -- a dust cloud, or a swarm of tiny flies, winking in and out of existence ... until they realized that each tiny, swirling mote was a house, a car, a tree, a boulder ... debris being swept up into the superheated air as it was incinerated. And now they could hear it -- a crackle, a roar, a noise beyond the scope of human hearing as it bore down on them.

Something penetrated Gohan's shock -- a hand on his shoulder, shaking him violently; a voice screaming into his ear. His mother's voice. "Gohan, get us out of here! Get us out of here now!"

"It doesn't matter," Videl said in a dazed, hopeless voice. "It's coming too fast. This plane can't accelerate rapidly enough to outrun or even dodge it."

The white light filled their entire viewscreen now -- and then suddenly, the screen, overwhelmed, shut down and left them in the eerie reflected light pouring in through the plane's small windows. It was not an earthly light. It made Gohan think of the light of an alien sun.

Videl's face was beautiful in that light.

Gohan fought a rush of despair at his own helplessness. He had the power of a Mystic -- power that could shatter worlds, destroy suns. And yet he could not save the woman he loved -- or his family, his friends, his world.

"Goku will save us," Chi-Chi said softly.

Gohan looked at his mother in shock. Her eyes were wide and free of tears, and just as he opened his mouth to protest that Goku couldn't possibly do anything in time, he realized that his mother didn't mean the three of them when she said us. She meant the entire world.

The three of them were beyond saving.

Gohan reached out and took his mother's small, cold hand in his own. He reached for Videl only to find that she was already reaching for him, and with her other hand, she took Chi-Chi's free hand ... making their little circle complete. No one was flying the plane, but it didn't matter. There was nowhere to fly to, for those about to die.

Joined, they looked up as one ... just as their world turned white.



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