Ki-Blind: Chapter Eighteen






The spiders, for whatever reason, had not returned to the great swathe of devastation where the laser beam had swept across the planet's surface. Thank goodness for small favors, Tenshinhan thought grimly. He was sitting crosslegged on the charred black ground, with Chaotzu in his lap. His small friend still had not regained consciousness, and it was starting to worry Tenshinhan deeply. He felt Chaotzu's pulse, a light flutter against his palm, like the beating of a hummingbird's wing.

Lunch knelt beside him and laid her head lightly on his shoulder. Marron, sleeping, was tucked into her arms. She said nothing, and, like Tenshinhan, watched the cyborg twins trying to evoke #18's latent energies.

"No," #17 said impatiently. "Not like that. You're still trying to draw on ki and you just don't have it."

"I'm trying," #18 growled at him. "This is like ... I don't know what it's like. Like trying to learn to write with my left hand ... if I wasn't ambidextrous. I had no idea my reflexes had become so entrenched at relying on ki."

She has to learn to do it, Tenshinhan thought. She's the only chance we have left ... well, her and Seventeen, and I'm still not sure we can trust him. He couldn't believe how much they had lost, in just a few short hours. He was still trying to wrap his mind around it. Gohan was gone. Dr. Briefs was gone -- and with him, any chance of re-creating the destroyed spider-deactivating device that #18 had told them about.

And the others ... nearly all the strong fighters they had ... were up on that ship.

He raised his eyes to the ship. It hovered above the landscape, seeming bloated and obscene in the darkness. So wrong, so very wrong and out of place. What was happening up there? Were Goku, Kuririn and the others even still alive?

We can't count on it, he thought, steeling himself for the possibility. Their friends might be dead ... and if so, only the four of them were left -- two cyborgs, a pregnant woman and himself -- to defend their world.

******

The numbers on the screen continued to flash rapidly, and while none of the Z-senshi could read them, the speed with which they were changing didn't help their frame of mind at all.

"Let's think," Yamcha said, pacing in small tight circles. "Let's think. Let's think. Let's think. Aaaaagh! I can't think of anything!" He gripped two fistfuls of his hair and yanked on it.

Pu'ar floated quickly over and started massaging his shoulders (one shoulder, actually, that being all of him she could reach at once) with the tips of her tiny blue paws. "It's okay, Yamcha-sama. Remember what the therapist said. Deep breaths ..."

"A mental meltdown sounds good right about now," Kuririn sighed, leaning on one of the destroyed consoles and resting his forehead on his palms. "What better time to panic than when we're all about to die?"

"We're not dead yet," Piccolo said grimly. "Let's consider the situation. We need to do one of two things: either turn off the self-destruct, giving us more time to recover our ki, or turn off the machinery blocking our ki, so we can deal with the self-destruct. Ygarddro, is it possible to do either one of those things from this room?"

"No," the alien said dolefully, looking around at the smashed equipment.

"Could we repair it?" Kaiobito asked.

"Not in ten minutes," Kuririn said without raising his head from his hands.

"Where else on the ship can we do it?" Piccolo persisted.

"From the other control room. But it would take too long to get there."

"Aren't there any backups or anything?" Yamcha asked, relaxing somewhat as Pu'ar started on the other shoulder. "They've got to have a contingency plan for this!"

"If there is, I don't know about it," the alien said. "Remember, they don't tell us everything."

"Well, then think it through!" Piccolo snapped. He whirled on the humans. "The two of you understand machinery, at least somewhat. How does it work? Somewhere there is a key. There has to be."

"Actually ... that's a good question," Kuririn said, running his fingers through his hair. "How does it work? The ki-suppression field ... that's created by satellites, right?"

"Correct," Ygarddro said, "and I could go into detail on the mechanism, but there's hardly time for ..." He trailed off.

The Z-senshi all spun to look at him. "What?" they chorused.

"When the satellites are deployed around a planet, the first to be released are a series of linked control satellites. Otherwise, the signal couldn't make it around the curve of the planet, and they need to activate them all at once in order for the field to take hold correctly -- as well as to maintain the element of surprise. Those satellites send the signal to the others to activate or deactivate. If we were able to use the controls here, all we would do is send a signal to the nearest control satellite to relay the deactivation command to all of them. It could also be done manually, from the satellite itself." He deflated. "But we can't get to the satellites. We prisoners weren't allowed to have spacesuits, small ships or anything that would have enabled us to escape."

Kuririn grinned, a shred of hope starting to re-establish itself. "But we do!"

"Is it possible to get there in time?" Piccolo asked Ygarddro.

The alien nodded. "If you had some way to survive outside the ship. The nearest control satellite would be directly over this room, and probably very close. We could get there quickly from here."

Yamcha dug into his pocket for his spacesuit, which he'd capsulized. "Kaiobito, you still have yours too, right? The only one we don't have is the one Kuririn and Piccolo were wearing when they separated."

Piccolo's antennae twitched spastically at the reminder of the fusion, but he was too preoccupied at the moment to complain. The wheels turning in his head were almost visible.

Yamcha studied Ygarddro. "The suits expand or contract to fit who's wearing them, but I don't think there's any way we could get one to fit somebody with four arms. Maybe if we had time to refit one of the suits ... but we don't."

"He's the only one who knows how to disable the satellites, though!" Kuririn protested. "Unless you do?" he asked Yamcha hopefully. Yamcha shook his head.

"I could give one of you directions beforehand," Ygarddro said doubtfully. "But it would be difficult ... I'm not that familiar with the satellites, and I won't know exactly what we'll see until we get out there."

"What about Pu'ar?" Kaiobito offered. "Could she turn into a spacesuit?"

They looked at the cat, who drooped. "Not right now," she squeaked sadly. "I still have enough energy to manage small transformations, but I couldn't hold a shape for very long."

Kuririn shuddered. "I guess we don't want her changing back in deep space."

"Do your suits have some sort of communication device?" Ygarddro asked.

Yamcha nodded. "Yeah. There's a radio in each suit."

"Then we can use the ... 'radio' in the suit left behind, and I can tell someone else how to disable the satellite."

The humans perked up. "That'd work!" Yamcha said. "We'll send one person, and the other radio can be used to send directions to him."

"This would be so much easier if we could just blast the damn thing out of the sky," Piccolo grumbled.

"So who'll go?" Yamcha asked.

Everyone was looking at him. He sighed. "I guess I'm the only one here who knows anything about machines, aren't I."

"I would go if I could," Kaiobito said, "but I don't think I would understand the instructions."

"There's another problem too," Kuririn said. "How are you going to get from the ship to the satellite? We can't fly, remember?"

Piccolo chuckled softly. "Now that's a question that I have an answer to." He pulled Popo's flying carpet out of a fold of his cape.

"Tools," Ygarddro said. "You'll need tools." The alien shuffled over to one wall and hunted until he found an undamaged cabinet; opening it, he took out a gray metal cube and handed it to Yamcha, who stared at it.

"Open it like this." The alien pressed a small indentation in the side, and the top slid back, revealing rows of tools. Some were recognizably similar to Earth tools, like pliers and a small hammer. Others more closely resembled medieval torture devices. "Do you know how to use these?"

"Some of 'em," Yamcha admitted.

"He'll have to tell you how to use them as you need them. We don't have time for this," Piccolo snapped. "Ygarddro, how do we get outside the ship from here?"

The alien pointed. "Go back out the door, down the corridor, and the first access panel on your right will take to to a maintenance shaft that leads directly to an airlock at the surface. Once you're outside, you should be able to see the satellite easily. I'll describe what to do when you get there."

"Gotcha." Yamcha uncapsulized his suit, and buckled his swordbelt over it, more out of habit than anything else. He took the toolbox in one hand and the carpet in the other.

"Wait!" Kuririn cried. When everyone looked at him, he faltered a bit, but he said, "There's still thousands of spiders outside the ship, right? What if one of them attacks while Yamcha's working on the satellite?"

Piccolo considered, and grimaced. "You're right, but we only have one other suit. If someone else goes, then we won't have any way to give them instructions."

Pu'ar drifted up. "I can't change into a spacesuit, but I could probably become a radio, for short periods of time." She started to concentrate on the transformation. Piccolo put a big green hand over her head, stopping her.

"Not yet. Save your energy," the Namek said. He looked down at the humans and Ygarddro. "Would that work?"

"I think so," Yamcha said.

Piccolo turned to Kuririn. "And the logical second person to go ... since you volunteered ..." The corners of his mouth twitched as the short human's eyes widened. "For several reasons," the Namek added. "You're small, so you'll fit easily on the carpet with Yamcha. You're a fast fighter, which will be an asset in low gravity. And in addition to that -- you're probably the only other one of us who would be able to follow Ygarddro's directions if something happened to Yamcha." His antennae quivered slightly in vexation at the admission of weakness, but he knew himself well enough to know that it was true. Machines stumped him, and always had.

Kuririn took a deep breath, and accepted the capsule that Kaiobito handed him. He uncapsulized it; the spacesuit snugged down to fit his smaller body.

"Ready?" Yamcha said.

"Ready."

Yamcha unrolled the carpet and the two humans climbed on. "Pu'ar, wait a minute or so, and then become a radio and try to contact us," Yamcha told her.

"Right, Yamcha-sama!"

The humans slipped the helmets over their heads. "You know what," Yamcha said to Kuririn, privately over the suit radio. "I don't have the foggiest clue how to steer this thing."

"I think you're supposed to give it mental directions."

"Oh, really?" He concentrated.

"WAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!" Both of them nearly tumbled off as the carpet zoomed out the door and zipped down the hall. Kuririn ended up lying in Yamcha's lap. Embarrassed, he scrambled off and got a better grip on the rug.

They rounded a turn and there, to their right, was a metal access panel. It wasn't screwed down and Yamcha slid it out of the way, revealing a dark shaft going down.

"Down?" Kuririn said. "Shouldn't it be going up? Do you think this is the right one?"

"Dunno." Yamcha stared into the depths. "Well, we don't really have time to go back and ask."

"True."

The shaft appeared small, but the carpet dropped into it with room to spare. As they plunged downwards, the humans experienced a weird, stomach-wrenching sensation, and then became aware that the shaft had become horizontal and they were now cruising forward rather than down, though they hadn't noticed a change of direction.

Kuririn started laughing.

"What is it?"

"We're idiots," the short human said, still giggling. "There's no up and down in space. The ship must have its own artificial gravity, and what it considers 'down' isn't necessarily down with regards to the Earth. We're probably feeling Earth's gravity now." Bulma had explained the mechanics of artificial gravity to him during the trip to Namek in excruciating detail. At the time, he'd been mostly trying to ignore her, but now he was glad that at least some of it had sunk in.

Yamcha didn't have time to reply, for they'd reached a dead end. The shaft stopped at a round door with a rotating crank-handle. The humans checked their suits and found that all the indicator lights were green -- rather surprising considering the rough treatment that the suits had had to endure when they'd originally landed -- and then each took one side of the crank handle. Slowly, with much resistance, it began to rotate.

"You know -- umph! -- my suit says that I only have about fifteen minutes of -- oof! -- air. How about yours?" Kuririn said as they struggled with the handle.

"Hmm? Where do you check?"

"Inside your helmet, second set of numbers from the left." Another thing he'd learned from Bulma.

"Yeah, about the same," Yamcha reported.

They were both silent momentarily, as they forced the handle and the door reluctantly began to slide back. Then Kuririn said, "I don't suppose it matters much. If we don't succeed, suffocation will be the least of our problems."

"I forgot what a ray of sunshine you can be," Yamcha said, as the door lurched back creakily into the side of the shaft, and then the two humans forgot to bicker as they were confronted by an unforgettable sight.

The door was not a true airlock, which would have had a second chamber and a second door between the environment inside the ship and the vacuum of outer space. Instead, it opened directly onto the surface of the ship.

It's like a junkyard, Kuririn thought -- a junkyard for giants.

The ship's scarred, cratered surface stretched in front of them literally for miles before ending in a series of huge antenna arrays that rose like the towers of a distant city. The exterior of the ship was a mess, with pieces of its thick metal skin peeled back by collisions with asteroids or by ancient battles, some of the scars still straddled by scaffolding and looking as if they had been abandoned halfway through the rebuilding process. Everywhere the two humans looked were other signs of the vessel's great age -- huge dark scars as if it had flown through the coronas of suns; boulder-sized meteors embedded in its hull; giant, arcane structures of every description bolted to the surface that might have once had a purpose but now just contributed to the impression of neglect and abandonment.

Beyond the towers of the distant antenna arrays, the Earth began. They were orbiting in the upper atmosphere, low enough to feel some amount of gravity but too high to have breathable air. Below them, a dark sea of clouds stretched out to a bright line at the gently curving horizon, where the sun would soon peek around the side of the planet. They could see the upper edge of the atmosphere itself, a blurry line of midnight blue shading slowly into the utter darkness of outer space, and there the stars began: too many stars for the human mind to comprehend, brighter than the stars on the clearest winter's night. Among them, the red lights of the spiders flickered in an incomprehensible, oddly beautiful aerial ballet.

"Wow," Yamcha whispered, absently snaring the flying carpet before it could drift away.

Kuririn was speechless. Juuhachi, I wish I could show you this, he thought.

"Are you there?" a voice squeaked suddenly in his ear. He jumped.

"Pu'ar, it's you! It worked!" Yamcha exclaimed.

"Actually, this is Ygarddro," the voice squeaked over the suit radios. "Are you outside the ship?"

Yamcha and Kuririn looked at each other, trying not to laugh. "I guess it makes sense that a Pu'ar radio would sound like Pu'ar," Yamcha said over the suits' private channel. "Yes, we are," he told Ygarddro.

"Excellent. Do you see the satellite?"

They'd been so captivated by the view that they'd forgotten to look. Kuririn tilted his head back, scanning the sky.

"There!" Yamcha pointed to a small glimmer, a flash of blue light among the stars. It might have been just another star -- but then it turned slightly, and they could make out its bulkier shape. "Yes, we see it," he told the alien. "We're on our way."

They had a moment of nervousness when the carpet sank sluggishly under their weight, but then it seemed to recover, perhaps adjusting itself for the new flying conditions, and they rose into the sky. Kuririn swallowed and tightened his grip on the carpet, realizing for the first time that they should have thought of some kind of tether. He did not relish the idea of falling into that far-too-distant cloud layer.

"I wonder how in the world Dende managed this without a suit?" Yamcha mused, perhaps trying to distract himself from the thought of falling, too.

"I overheard him tell Piccolo that he used his healing powers," Kuririn said, grateful for the distraction.

"Healed himself as he went, you mean?" Yamcha said in surprise. "I didn't know he could do that."

"Neither did I. Maybe he didn't, either. It was a very brave thing for him to do. I wonder how he's getting along."

"Probably better than we are. At least he doesn't know about the self-destruct," Yamcha pointed out.

"Ignorance is bliss, huh?"

"When your world is about to get blown up, it probably is." He fell silent, as they closed on the satellite. At length, he said, "The ones I really wonder about are Bulma and the others. We haven't heard anything from them since we were separated."

"Hey, this is Goku we're talking about here," Kuririn said, forcing cheer into his voice. "If Goku can't handle himself, then who can? It's a huge ship. Even if they're trying to find us, they could wander around forever without being able to sense our ki."

Yamcha chucked softly. "Yeah ... and if I know Goku, he's probably solving the whole problem for us, and we'll get to that satellite to find out that we're redundant ... as usual."

Kuririn glanced up at the slight note of bitterness in his friend's voice. "At this point," he said fervently, "I wouldn't mind."

******

The sound of Goten's neck breaking was loud as a gunshot in the suddenly quiet room.

001 released the boy's body and he fell into a little crumpled heap ... impossibly small ... impossibly fragile.

Trunks, struggling to pull himself back to his feet, made a tiny strangled sound. His eyes were two great blue pools in his bloodless face.

Vegeta stared at the child's body, not wanting to look at Bulma ... or Goku. It could so easily have been Trunks ...

But it wasn't as if he had no feelings at all for Goten, either. Though he would deny it to his last dying breath, the kid had grown on him over the last few years. After all, the brat spent so much time at Capsule Corp. that he might as well live there ... and Vegeta felt a sick sensation in the pit of his stomach, staring at the child's body.

003 was struggling, attempting to right itself, but the boys' attack appeared to have knocked out some vital part of its navigational system, and all it managed to do was flail around like a stunned bird. Abandoning Goten's body as if it was nothing more than rubbish, 001 leaned over to check on the other robot's operational status.

Goku watched it all, unmoving as a statue. The veins bulged on his arms and in his face; his eyes were wide, staring.

In a few minutes, he'd just lost everything. Everything. His wife. His sons. For the second time ... for the second time, they'd all died, and he'd been unable to protect them.

In that moment, something inside him snapped.

Goku screamed.

There was nothing human in that scream. Goku might have married a human; he might have lived among humans all his life; he might even consider himself one of them; but he wasn't. He wasn't. That scream was the scream of an animal, a predator -- a primal shriek that tore from his throat and went on and on.

Vegeta staggered as a wave of energy rolled over him. Ki? Impossible! he thought, stunned, even as the heat of it scorched his unprotected skin. He turned his head, squinting against the wind that whipped back his black hair. Distantly, he heard Bulma cry out, but his attention was entirely captivated by Kakarrot.

Golden light swirled around Goku in an ever-growing tower of flame. Blue lightning flashed down his arms and flickered over the spikes of his hair. His eyes were open impossibly wide, the pupils shrunken to tiny specks. His hair stood on end. If he'd still had a tail, it would have been stiff and bristling. Waves of ki battered at Vegeta, enough to flood even his dulled ki-sense painfully.

Goku's mouth was open but he wasn't screaming anymore -- either that, or it had passed beyond the upper edge of hearing. His hair flashed gold, black, gold.

Where is he getting this ki from? Vegeta thought in astonishment.

And then he knew. Because he'd seen it done before, hadn't he? He'd done it before.

His life. He's burning up his life.

But he'd never seen anybody do it like that before. In one burst, yes. I've done that. But little by little like this ... he's killing himself an inch at a time. I didn't know it could be done on a conscious level. It shouldn't be possible ...

But wasn't that Kakarrot's way -- to do the impossible?

Even if it killed him.

******

They reached the satellite without incident. None of the spiders were near enough to be visible as anything more than a distant glimmer of red light.

When they were close enough, both humans caught hold of the satellite and swung down from the carpet. Yamcha rolled up the carpet and stuck it through his sword belt, then opened the tool box.

The satellite was about the size of a capsule car. It had no place for the humans to stand, but it did have grapples all over it -- probably designed either for maintenance robots to hold onto, or for some kind of automated system to catch hold of its round body to deploy and retrieve it, but either way, they functioned just as well as handles for human hands. Kuririn hooked his legs in such a way that he had his hands free, and held the toolbox for Yamcha.

"Okay, Ygarddro, we're here," Yamcha said into the suit radio.

"Do you see a panel cover -- about the size of one of your outstretched arms?" the radio squeaked.

Kuririn suppressed a smile. It was still difficult to hear that high-pitched voice and imagine the bulky alien rather than Pu'ar's tiny flying shape.

"Yep, it's right in front of me."

Following Ygarddro's directions, Yamcha pried the cover up, revealing a snake-nest of tangled wires. Both humans stared in dismay, but the alien began to give directions, and Yamcha followed to the best of his ability, clipping wires and crossing and rewiring them.

"Wouldn't it be easier to just blow it up?" Kuririn asked, watching the mechanic work.

"It would serve no useful function," Ygarddro said in Pu'ar's voice. "If one of the satellites stops functioning, the others just continue with their programming. The ki-suppressing field is very stable except for a few seconds when it's starting up. You have to send a signal to directly shut them down, or you'd have to blow up at least half of them to get the same effect."

"How may are there?" Yamcha asked, the tip of his tongue sticking out of the corner of his mouth as he concentrated on a stuck bolt.

"Two hundred and six at the last count, I believe."

"Oh."

"Hey, is this going to affect the ship's ki-damping field too?" Kuririn asked, an unpleasant thought occurring to him. "It can't be caused by the satellites, since you said it's there all the time."

"That's true, but the signal can go the other way, too," Ygarddro explained. "When the planet-sized ki field first establishes itself, the ship's field goes off for a few seconds -- as I said before, the field has to be established all at once or it won't be stable. I'm having you two rewire the satellite so that it will send the initiation sequence, causing all the satellites to turn off, as well as the machinery on the ship. But the satellite will never send the signal to turn it back on, so it'll stay off."

"Ah," Kuririn said.

His attention began to drift, as it seemed that there wasn't much here for him to do other than hand Yamcha tools from the box (usually the wrong tools, it seemed to him, with nothing but Ygarddro's vague descriptions to go by). He tried to keep himself alert by looking out for spiders.

"Ha!" Yamcha said suddenly.

Kuririn looked around, startled. "Huh?"

"The pathetic, weak humans are back in the game," the human said triumphantly, as he carefully wound a red wire and a blue wire around each other. "You realize that, right?"

"What do you mean?"

Yamcha turned from the mess of wires he was sabotaging. "I mean ... we're saving the world here, Kuririn. Do you realize that? You and me. Not Goku. Not Gohan. Us. I don't know where Goku is or what he's doing, but obviously whatever he's doing isn't helping us out much, for a change."

"We don't know that," Kuririn said, but it sounded lame even in his own ears.

"Hmph. Kuririn, think about it. Do you realize how long it's been since we've been able to even approach their level? We work just as hard as those guys -- maybe even harder, but we'll always be second best. It's not our fault they have Saiyajin blood. But right now, it's even, Kuririn. We're not behind those guys anymore. We can do anything they can do."

Kuririn gave his friend a quizzical look. "What ... are you suggesting that things should stay this way?"

Yamcha snorted. "No. I'm just sayin' -- think about it. We're saving the world. Not getting blown up or stabbed or killed. Not sitting on the sidelines feeling worthless while our friends get beat to a pulp. We're the heroes this time around. When's the last time that happened?"

Kuririn's slow, shy grin answered Yamcha's more confident smile. "I guess, maybe you're right -- so we'd better stop talking and get back to doing it!"

Yamcha high-fived him. "Yeah, that's the spirit!"

After a moment more of watching Yamcha work in silence, Kuririn said, "You know, maybe that's not the way to look at it, though."

When he paused, Yamcha prompted, "Go on."

"Well, what I mean is ..." Kuririn fumbled for the right words. He wasn't good at talking, not like Bulma or #18 -- those self-confident people who were never shy about what they wanted to say. Or like Gohan, who, though shy and quiet himself, still was smart enough to organize his thoughts effortlessly. And this was an important thought, Kuririn felt -- a thought he'd never had before, one that seemed to wrap around the ragged edges of his life and make it neat and tidy just as if it had been capsulized in one of the Briefs' capsules.

Yamcha pried a stuck anchor clip loose with his screwdriver and caught it in one gloved hand before it could fly off. "I'm listening," he said quietly.

"I guess what I'm trying to say is ... with power like that, you also get responsibility that's just as big. You're always going to have people watching you and second-guessing you, having people ask if maybe it would have all gone better if you'd done this instead of that. I mean, with you and me, up here today -- we know that those damned robots got off one good shot with the laser, and millions of people must have died, including some that we know ..." His voice faltered, but came back stronger. "Not to mention all the homes and animals and plants that were destroyed. Even if we use the dragonballs to fix everything, even if we have Shenlong erase their memories like we did with Buu -- and I hate doing that kind of thing, even when I know it's the right thing -- then we'll still know. We'll know that all those people died because we were too slow."

"Kuririn ..."

Kuririn smacked his fist into the side of the satellite, almost flinging himself off into space in the unaccustomed light gravity. "I don't want to be the guy who saves the world, Yamcha. I don't want to have all that responsibility and guilt come down on my shoulders. And you know, if you're as powerful as Goku and all of those guys, or even as powerful as us -- then you can't ever put that responsibility down, and I hate it sometimes. Because when something powerful and dangerous comes along, you're the only one who can help. You can't just sit back and be scared like a normal person while somebody else takes care of it ... because there isn't anyone else. I think even Vegeta started to realize that, eventually. It doesn't matter what you want to do -- if you want to be something other than a fighter, or if you want to have kids and a family. This responsibility means that you might have to leave your dreams unfulfilled, your wife a widow, your kids orphans.

"When all this is over, Yamcha, I just want to go back to Kame House and sit on the beach with #18 and watch Marron play in the sand. I wish I was there now. I want my mind to be filled with thoughts of my wife and daughter, not of ... of all the things I did wrong today, and all the people who died because I did the wrong thing ..." His hands clenched; he squeezed his eyes shut, trying to get control of himself.

A large hand settled on his back.

"Hey, look," Yamcha said. "I'm like you, basically -- an ordinary guy, right? I know I'm not cut from hero-type material. Kami, I wish I was, and sometimes I really miss bein' a part of the team and going up against guys like Nappa and Cell, as much as it sucked at the time. I'm a helluva lot happier wandering around in the desert with Pu'ar than I ever was fighting aliens and cyborgs. But, you know ... I've always believed that whether you deserve it or not, everybody, sooner or later, gets their moment -- and this is ours, dammit. No matter what happens, if we die, if we get blown up or if we succeed and the spiders kill us a few seconds later -- we were there, man. We were the ones in the right place at the right time, the place where Goku usually is. And we tried our hardest, and no matter what anybody says afterward, no matter how we second-guess ourselves, we'll still know that we did our best. Also, don't cry in a helmet. Bad idea."

Kuririn laughed a soft, slightly choked laugh. He raised a hand towards his face automatically, but it merely clicked against the glass faceplate. "You're right."

"Another first," Yamcha remarked cheerfully.

Ygarddro's voice -- in Pu'ar's squeaky tones -- cut into their ears. "Are you finished with the twelfth set of wires yet?"

"Just finishing up," Yamcha said, hastily sliding back over to the access panel. He clamped the wires carefully and let go. "Now what?"

"Now look up. There's a light on top of the satellite. Is it glowing?"

"A red light?"

"Yes."

"It's glowing," Yamcha said, and when there was no reply he snapped, "Well? Is that bad? Good? Did we save the world or are we all about to be blown up a few minutes ahead of time?"

"Hopefully, it's good," the alien said. "The red light means that it's transmitting. If everything was done correctly, it should be transmitting a shut-down code that will turn off the other satellites."

"So we wait," Yamcha said, settling down against the satellite's grapples.

"Yeah," Kuririn said. "I guess we wait."

******

Goku brought his arms forward, laced with blue lightning, and the restraints on his wrists shattered in a shower of sparks. Momentum carried him forward onto the floor.

"What are you doing?" 001 demanded, spinning around -- literally; its wheeled base remained stationary, while its top half rotated 180 degrees.

Goku merely stared at him, his body sheathed in flames. He was fully into the Super Saiyajin mode now, and his pupilless blue irises were so wide that none of the whites of his eyes could be seen -- it was as if his eyes were pools of blue-green fire.

"I demand that you stop what you're doing right now!" The machine's voice rose in a mechanical version of panic, as its shoulders rotated forward and huge lasers unfolded out of them. The tips of the lasers glowed with balls of white energy and two beams of light speared towards the Saiyajin.

Goku raised his hand and batted them away. He opened his mouth but he didn't speak -- he merely snarled.

"I said, stop!" the machine keened, powering up the lasers again.

In eerie silence, saying nothing, Goku leaped. His speed wasn't quite the preternatural, beyond-the-human-senses speed of the normal Super Saiyajin, but it was still beyond anything 001 was equipped to stop. Both of Goku's fists punched through the machine's center -- its chest, or the equivalent. Its voice turned to a high-pitched squeal of damaged vocal circuits. Still silent, Goku pounded its body, flattening it, his fists rising and falling as if he himself was a machine.

The smaller spiders in the room reacted automatically to the threat and charged en masse. Goku whirled on them, a wave of fire rippling outwards from his body, flinging their small metal forms into the walls where they disintegrated into showers of shrapnel. Bulma screamed again, trying to shield her face as flying bits of metal rattled against the wall around her. But Goku wasn't finished -- he pointed at each of the charred corpses, and a bolt of energy lanced from his finger, searing holes through the spiders' bodies and through the walls. Out-of-control lightning sparked around his body, drawn to the metal of the room -- random lightning strikes stabbed at the ceiling, at the walls. One grounded near Trunks, who cried out and scuttled closer to Goten, futilely trying to shield his friend's body from the energy.

"Damn it, Kakarrot! Control your ki!" Vegeta shouted, fighting against his own bonds in helpless frustration.

But Goku wasn't in control -- Goku was clearly farther out of control than he'd ever been before. Light danced over his body, illuminating the room in ghastly shades of blue, turning the warm tints of human skin to the gray pallor of a corpse. It was the only light in the room, since most of the lights had been destroyed. The damaged walls and ceiling had begun to give way -- pieces of the ceiling fell to the floor, landing around them in a lethal rain. One of the pieces skewered the hapless 003, which gave a final keening shriek before it died.

Goku flinched violently at the noise and spun on 003, a bolt of light lancing from his hand to fry what was left of the dead robot. Vegeta saw, in astonishment and horror, that the uncontrolled heat of his ki was so great that it had charred and melted his gi in a black circle over his heart.

If he keeps at it, he's either going to kill himself, burn completely out -- or he's going to blow up and kill MY mate and son, too. Vegeta strained against his bonds. I don't have the strength to escape ... unless ...

DAMN IT! If Kakarrot can do it, so can I!

He reached down inside himself, brutally clawing at his own life energy. He had surpassed all his body's other limits in the past -- he'd become a Super Saiyajin, he'd learned to withstand pain right up to the point of death-agony. Now he reached the final barrier: not the mind's fear of dying, but the body's -- its instinctive drive to protect itself. It was not that hard to die quickly, if one was prepared. Humans did it all the time, weak as they were -- a mother throwing her body between her child and a speeding hovercar ... a soldier covering his comrade's body with his own ... the trick was to do it so quickly that the body's instinct for self-preservation could not kick in.

But dying a little at a time, as Kakarrot was doing, as he himself must do ...

Goku's hair flashed back and forth between gold and black, gold and black, as energy crackled wildly around his body. He didn't have enough energy to stay permanently in his Super Saiyajin form, but was continually falling out of it and pushing himself back in, through sheer force of will. When his hair turned black, it was streaked with gray.

Vegeta tore at his own life by the roots and gasped in shock and pain as golden light flared along his arm. He tore himself from the wall and his bonds disintegrated into a million fragments.

He stumbled, weak and sick and gasping just from that little burst of energy. More. He needed more. He fell to his knees, half-blinded by a blue-white flash as another wave of Goku's lifeforce wiped out most of the surviving spiders and nearly fried Bulma and Trunks as well.

"Kakarrot!" Vegeta yelled at the top of his lungs. "Stop it! Power down, you fool!"

The energy flaring around Goku had faded from white-gold, to golden, to orange, and now had begun to take on a reddish hue. Lightning burst from him in wild explosions, striking the walls and sending sparks cascading around Bulma, who cried out and tried to twist her head away to shield her face. Sparks shot up and down Goku's hair -- mostly gray now, more gray than black or blond.

Vegeta leaped.

It was incredibly dangerous to touch a transforming Saiyajin -- and beyond insanity to do it without the protection of ki. The stray energies that tore up the surrounding scenery could easily do the same to a human or Saiyajin body. Vegeta hit Goku from behind, bearing him to the floor. He screamed in pain as the flesh of his arms and chest was seared agonizingly by the crackling energy, but he managed to hold on.

"Kakarrot!"

Vegeta drew on his own life-ki, battering down his body's very urge to live, overcoming the most basic drive of the living flesh with the sheer force of his willpower. He had to do it, or else he would be incinerated on the spot. He screamed, gold light flashing around his body. He could not summon the energy to turn Super Saiyajin, but he could at least keep from being charred to ash as Goku's ki flared, impossibly, ever higher.

"I am your prince and I order you to desist!"

There was no response from Goku except another wave of energy. Vegeta struggled to hold him down.

"Kakarrot!" he yelled into Goku's ear, shaking him violently, battering his head against the floor in desperation to knock some sense into that thick skull. "Kakarrot, think! You've lost nothing you can't regain! The dragonballs can bring Goten back! Listen to me, you moron!" In his own mind, he heard the distant echo of Kuririn's voice during the Cell Games: Vegeta, you fool, we can bring Trunks back with the dragonballs! Oh yes, he understood ... he understood too well.

"Kakarrot! You've avenged your son -- look!" He gripped a handful of Goku's hair, smoke curling from around his fingers as the fabric of his gloves blackened and crisped, and yanked the other Saiyajin's head up, forced him to look at the flaming wreckage of 001. "What are you trying to prove now? Idiot! Baka! Do you hear me, Kakarrot?"

But he didn't hear, he wasn't listening. The ki-fires of Goku's rage flared up around Vegeta. It was all he could do to keep from being burned alive. This isn't like Kakarrot -- what's wrong with him?

But he realized the truth then. He saw it in those blazing aqua eyes -- he wasn't really dealing with Goku anymore. Goku was too far gone to even understand what was happening. It was like the Oozaru transformation, a complete descent into savagery, and yet beyond even that, for even in the Oozaru state, some degree of self-preservation remained. Goku was lost to anything but rage, in an irreversible downhill slide to self-immolation. It wasn't that he was trying to kill himself or others -- just that he didn't know how to do anything else.

"Kakar--"

No. Not Kakarrot. Kakarrot was a Saiyajin name -- and though he had struggled in the past to remind Kakarrot of his Saiyajin pride, it wasn't the Saiyajin that he needed to reach now. It was the human in the Saiyajin.

"Goku," Vegeta said.

He wasn't screaming anymore; he couldn't. Between screaming at the top of his lungs, and inhaling the superheated air around him, he'd blistered his throat and rendered himself nearly mute. Vegeta held Goku pinned to the floor with his body weight -- and just the fact that he could do that, when Super Saiyajin Goku should have been able to throw him off like a rag doll, indicated how close Goku was to the end of his strength, the end of his life. Vegeta leaned forward and spoke into Goku's ear, as loud as he could speak now, which was nothing more than a hoarse whisper. Goku could not possibly be able to hear him over the roar and crackle of the energy surrounding them. Yet still Vegeta spoke, tearing each word painfully from his burned throat, as if he could somehow be heard and understood.

"Goku. Stop this. You can do it; it's still in you to regain control. Do you hear me? Goku? For Chi-Chi ... and Gohan ... and yes, for Goten too ... Stop it ... now ..." And the final word, the word he'd never spoken to Goku before, the word he'd sworn he would never use to that man, never, no matter what ... "Please."

Nothing happened -- and then, suddenly, like a switch turning off, the ki-fire flickered out.

Sudden silence. Sudden darkness. Most of the lights in the room had been destroyed, and they were left in a dim twilight, lit mainly by the fires burning here and there in the wreckage of the room. Someone coughed in the smoke. Somewhere, something fell from one of the shifting piles of debris, crashing into the rubble with a clatter that was shockingly loud in the stillness.

Vegeta rose cautiously to his knees. His body ached to the core and his arms hurt with a blinding pain. He'd managed to protect himself, for the most part, from having his flesh stripped away by Goku's fires, but he was afraid to look down and see how bad the damage actually was. He was exhausted -- as depleted as he'd been when the Gogeta fusion broke. Only massive effort, and the iron will of his pride, kept him upright.

Gentle wisps of smoke drifted up from Goku's hair -- which was salt-and-pepper now, rather than black. Vegeta felt the other Saiyajin's neck with his sore fingertips, finding the light flutter of a pulse in Goku's carotid artery. He did not know how much damage had been done by the ki-fire. It was possible that Goku's internal organs were charred to ash, and if so, he would be dead in moments. Vegeta was too emotionally depleted to care. He staggered to his feet, swaying.

"Vegeta!" a familiar voice cried through the smoke. Vegeta stumbled toward the source. Bulma still dangled from her bonds, her face covered with dust and streaked with tears. She looked beautiful to him. Vegeta tugged at her shackles and, somewhere within himself, found the strength to crack them away from her slender wrists -- she had not been secured as firmly as the two Saiyajins. She stumbled and caught herself on the wall.

"Are you all right?" she asked him. Vegeta nodded. He had no strength to do more.

"And Trunks?"

"I don't know," Vegeta rasped. Bulma looked around, in time to see her son's dusty pink head emerge from a pile of rubble. Trunks fumbled with the pieces of metal trapping him, moving as if he was in a dream-state. After watching his mother tortured, his best friend killed, and his father and the man who was almost a second father to him nearly being incinerated, Trunks appeared to be on the verge of a severe case of shell shock.

Bulma clambered over the rubble to help her son. Vegeta saw her pause and gasp as she started to help Trunks extricate himself. Coming a bit closer, the prince realized that his son had gotten buried because he was shielding Goten's body from the falling wreckage.

Bulma hugged Trunks, who didn't respond; his small body was rigid and shaking. Then she reached for Goten, and Trunks came suddenly to life, putting his arm over the younger boy's corpse.

"No, don't touch him," he said in a voice that shook so hard the adults could barely understand his words. Tears welled in his blue eyes, cut paths through the dust and filth on his cheeks.

"Trunks, honey, it's Mama," Bulma said, reaching out her grimy hands to move her son gently aside. "Let me pick up Goten. I'll carry him."

Kneeling, Bulma tucked her arms under Goten's body and picked him up with excruciating care. Trunks just stared, wide-eyed and unblinking.

"I was supposed to take care of Goten," he said in a choked voice. "He's younger. He's just a kid. I'm the big one. I was supposed to take care of him."

Bulma looked helplessly at Vegeta. Her hands were full, so she couldn't comfort her son. Vegeta found himself moving forward until he could put a burned hand on Trunks's shoulder. The boy's muscles were tensed up as solid as stone. Vegeta shook him gently.

"Help your mother," he said in a hoarse whisper. "The dragonballs will bring back Goten. This is no time for grief. It is time for you to be a man now."

"Vegeta, how is Son-kun?" Bulma asked, as Trunks turned back to her, still moving slowly, like a sleepwalker.

"Alive," Vegeta replied. He felt disoriented and disconnected, as if a hazy curtain was drifting between himself and reality. He shook his head, trying to snap himself back to reality. He was exhausted and possibly in shock from his burns, and they were hardly out of danger yet. Somehow they still had to get off this ship, a ship full of spiders ... and, being unable to fly, they had no way to get back to the ground.

Self-destruct ... hadn't 001 said something about the ship self-destructing? Only a few minutes ago ... but it seemed years, now. He couldn't remember.

The family picked their way across the rubble, back to Goku, who lay unmoving in the center of a ring of metal burned to black. Vegeta crouched down beside his enemy, his rival ... his friend. He shook Goku's shoulder, causing pieces of the charred gi to flake off in his hand. "Kakarrot. Wake up," he snapped, and then remembering that it had worked before, "Goku. Son Gok --"

He froze as a strange feeling stole across him. Something had just changed. What was it?

He could feel Bulma and Trunks's ki.

Vegeta raised his hand and formed a small ball of ki in the palm. He was still completely worn out, and doubted if he could even raise the energy to fly at the moment, but whatever was blocking their ki was gone.

"What is it?" Bulma asked him.

"We can use ki again."

There were no words to describe what a miracle it felt to him at the moment. It was like having a veil fall away from his eyes, like having crutches fall from his legs. He had all his senses back, all his faculties back. He felt Goku's faltering ki beside him, and then reached out across the ship. Yes, they were all there, Kaiobito and Kuririn and Piccolo (separated from the fusion, apparently) and Yamcha and -- Dende? What the hell? And several other weak ki-sources that he could not identify.

Vegeta's hand on Goku's shoulder tightened in suppressed excitement. "Kakarrot. Goku. Time to wake up now. We need you to teleport us. We're all getting out of here."

Goku stirred. "Veh ..." He twisted his head, and Vegeta caught a glimpse of his face -- hardly recognizable anymore, ravaged by grief and by the damage he'd done to his body. "Did you just call me Goku ...?" Still a master of stating the obvious, it seemed.

Vegeta waved a hand impatiently. "There's no time to screw around," he rasped. "Our ki's come back. Are you able to teleport?"

Goku tried to push himself up on his arms, then fell back weakly. "Don't know," he murmured. "Where should I go?"

"Piccolo," Vegeta decided. Wherever Piccolo was, the Namek probably had a better idea than anyone of what was going on elsewhere on the ship.

"Hold onto me," Goku whispered, and Vegeta tightened his grip on Goku's shoulder and reached out to put one hand on Trunks's small body, while the boy put an arm around Bulma's leg.

There were no spectacular fireworks, just a flicker, and the small group blinked out, leaving the room empty as the flames flickered dully and smoke curled around the wreckage of a robot that had masterminded the destruction of a thousand worlds.

******

In the other control room, Piccolo and Kaiobito looked up at the ceiling as if they could somehow help the humans deactivate the satellites (looking in entirely the wrong direction anyhow, but they didn't know that). Pu'ar had just reverted into her normal form for the second time in the conversation, panting. Holding herself in radio shape was taking every last ounce of energy that she possessed.

Suddenly Piccolo felt a strange rushing sensation throughout his body, starting in the core of his being and tingling out to his extremities and down to his toes and the tips of his antennae. It was a bit like the fusions that he'd experiences with Nail and Kami-sama, but less extreme, less invasive. He must have gasped, for Kaiobito looked quickly at him and then the blue god's eyes widened as he felt his own equivalent of the same thing.

"Our ki," Piccolo gasped, and then roared aloud, "Our ki!!!"

He raised his hand above his head and a ball of light arose in his palm, flaring up towards the ceiling and then falling back into his green skin. The Namek started laughing uncontrollably.

"It worked?" Ygarddro asked them. "I feel ... I feel better than I have in years!"

"It worked," Piccolo agreed, unable to keep the fanged grin off his face. "Pu'ar! Change back into that radio and we'll tell K --"

"No, don't bother. I should be able to use Instantaneous Transmission now," Kaiobito told him, grinning just as broadly. "I'll get them! Hold on!"

He vanished, reappearing seconds later gripping a stunned Yamcha and Kuririn by one wrist apiece. The two humans stood for a moment, staring; then they took off their helmets and started laughing too.

"We did it!" Yamcha yelled, punching the air. "We did it!"

"Um ... guys, the countdown is still counting down," Kuririn said, pointing up at the screen.

Yamcha snorted, dismissing it. "We can easily deal with that now. We've got our ki back! All we have to do is what we normally do -- blow up the ship or somethin'."

"The ship is going to to blow up! That's the problem!"

The euphoric mood evaporated and the group stood staring at each other, realizing that their original problem hadn't been eliminated by the re-introduction of their ki powers.

"Hey!" Kuririn said suddenly. "Now that we can sense ki, can anybody feel Gok --"

Foomph! With a rush of displaced air, the small tableau of Goku, Vegeta and family teleported into the middle of the floor.

"--ku," Kuririn finished. "Goku!"

Hearing his name, Goku raised his head -- or tried to; he looked half-dead, battered and burned from head to foot. The rest of the group didn't look much better.

"Guys!" Bulma cried, her exhaustion-slumped shoulders straightening as she saw them. "You're all okay!" Then she saw Ygarddro and her mouth opened at the sight of the alien. "Uh -- what's --"

Vegeta interrupted her, his hoarse, rasping voice cutting harshly across her question. "Where's Dende? I felt his ki; is he with you? We need a healer."

"Not with us; he --" Kuririn broke off, seeing Goten. He'd started to rush forward to reunite with his friends, but he stumbled to a stop in front of Bulma, hands dangling at his sides helplessly. "Is he ... uh, is he ..."

Bulma gave her head a brief shake and glanced down at Trunks, who was clinging to her leg, looking as if it was the only thing holding him up. Kuririn's eyes softened with sympathy. His gaze went from Trunks to Goku, lying on the floor next to him, and widened in shock when he saw, up close, the extent of the damage. Goku's gi was almost entirely burned away, and parts of his body were horribly seared.

"I can heal--" Kaiobito began. Piccolo gripped his arm, hard, and turned to glare at him.

"Not now!" he snapped. "This ship is going to explode in ... if my time-sense is accurate, and it usually is, about a minute. You have to teleport Ygarddro to the other control room so he can shut down the self-destruct from there."

Kaiobito nodded and went to Ygarddro, taking him by the arm. Ygarddro spoke, giving him directions apparently, and the two of them vanished.

"Dammit, what's going on here!" Vegeta snarled hoarsely, steadying himself on the nearest piece of machinery. He refused to reveal how close he was to collapsing. It looked as if the other group had been fighting as well; the place resembled a war zone.

"I'll make a long story short," Kuririn said, looking up at him from his crouched position next to Goku. "We ran into some trouble and this ship is going to self-destruct. Yeah, that sums it up pretty well ..."

"It shouldn't be a problem soon," Piccolo growled. "Kaiobito and Ygarddro just went to --"

He broke off as the god and the alien popped back into the middle of the room. Both looked shaken. "The other control room is worse than this one," Kaiobito said. "It looks like there was fighting there, too -- it's almost completely destroyed."

"There's nothing I can do from there," Ygarddro added.

Piccolo bared his fangs. "You mean you can't shut this off?"

"No," Ygarddro said quietly.

"We have less than a minute now," Kuririn said softly, and added, looking up at Vegeta and Bulma in the realization that they didn't know: "When the ship explodes, it'll take the Earth with it."

Bulma swallowed, tightening her grip on Goten. Vegeta leaned against the piece of debris that he'd found for a prop, unable to take this in. "Dragonballs ..." he said.

"Dende will be killed too," Piccolo said.

"But ..." another voice rasped. Kuririn looked down at Goku in surprise. Goku looked so bad that it was hard to believe he was still conscious -- hard to believe he was alive, actually. The Saiyajin managed to prop himself up on one arm, and gave the rest of them a shaky, lopsided grin. "Then ... we'll use Instantaneous Transmission ... go to Kaio-shin-kai or somewhere else safe."

"He's right!" Kaiobito gasped. "We can teleport to anywhere in --" His eyes widened and something in his face changed, hardened. "Grab hold of me or each other! Now!" he shouted at them.

They obeyed -- Kaiobito didn't give orders often, but when he did, people listened to him, even this group. He'd centered on Dende's ki and the entire bunch of them materialized in the middle of the scientists' prison.

Dende jumped when he saw them appear out of the corner of his eye, and spun around, a smile breaking across his face. "You did it! My ki is back, and yours must be too!"

"No time for that," Kaiobito said, and turned to Goku. "Are you capable of teleporting with a group of people? I don't have time to heal you, I'm sorry."

"Don't worry. I can do it," Goku rasped.

He didn't look capable of it; he was being half-supported by Kuririn, since he didn't even have the strength to keep himself upright. But Kaiobito nodded -- if Goku said he could do it, then he could do it.

"Then take them to Earth ... no, farther away than that," Kaiobito told him, and looked around the room, at the unresponsive scientists. They looked a little better than they had before; Dende had managed some limited healing. However, they continued to sit and stare at the floor or walls of their prison.

COME HERE! The command might have been shouted out loud -- no one was certain, for Kaiobito's voice had roared it inside their minds. Injured, old and catatonic as they all were, the scientists flinched as one being. Slowly, their heads rotated to stare at the god.

COME HERE! DON'T MAKE ME SAY IT AGAIN!

One by one, they began to lurch to their feet and shuffle over to the group of Z-senshi. Kaiobito turned back to the others. "Goku-san, take them as far away from here as you can teleport in your current condition. Kaio-shin-kai, if possible. If this doesn't work, you won't want to be on Earth."

"What are you planning?" Piccolo demanded.

Kaiobito smiled grimly. "I'm going to take the ship as far away from here as possible. I don't know if I can do it -- I've never tried to transport anything this huge before. But we only have a few seconds -- so go, Goku-san, go now!"

Goku's eyes closed as he concentrated, trying to marshall his scattered thoughts and focus on someone's ki, anyone's ki who wasn't here. Someone far away. He couldn't feel anyone ... he could barely feel any ki beyond the group of his friends around him. It was terribly difficult to muster the concentration. He kept fuzzing out, slipping half into unconsciousness. And then he realized that it was hopeless, he'd never be able to find one in time; he was too tired, too sick, too weak.

"Goku-san, why are you still here?" he heard Kaiobito scream, sounding distant and echoing emptily in his ears. "Get out of here!"

He was slipping. Passing out. Dying? There was only one chance, only one crazy thing he could think of. He thought of a person. Two people. Three. He could find their ki's anywhere ... anywhere in the galaxy. He was too dizzy and scattered to realize that what he was trying to do was impossible. He only knew that he had to do it.

So he did.

The group vanished. Kaiobito was left standing alone in the prison room. "Finally," he sighed, and wondered how much time he had -- seconds, no more. He closed his eyes and concentrated as hard as he could. He had to take the ship somewhere utterly uninhabited, but at least big, empty, uninhabited places were one thing the universe had in abundance. He got a mental fix on a good place, somewhere between this solar system and the next, and gave every ounce of his energy over to the task of moving an impossibly large object.

As he lost himself in the strain, the thought crossed his mind: This is very irresponsible. I didn't want to tell the others this, but I probably won't have the energy to teleport back out. My ancestor is going to hunt me down in the afterlife and re-kill me ...

******

She'd finally got it! #18 gasped in triumph as she managed to unlock her internal power supply and soared into the air. But even as she opened her mouth to speak, she froze in the grip of a much greater shock.

Whatever had been blocking her ki ... had just vanished.

She looked down to see if the others felt it too, and saw that they had. Tenshinhan was looking around wildly, and then he raised his hand and formed a ball of ki in his palm. Lunch looked confused; she wasn't a ki fighter, so she probably hadn't noticed anything different.

#18 touched down lightly, flying with much more confidence. It wasn't a total loss. She seemed to be able to tap into both power sources now -- her cyborg half and her human half. She would have to experiment and find out how much more power this actually gave her.

"They did it!" Tenshinhan yelled, staring up into the sky. "They're alive!"

#17 chuckled softly. "Well ... I'm simply not surprised."

In Tenshinhan's lap, Chaotzu stirred. Apparently the slight ki-surge had been enough to bring him around. "Ten ..." he mumbled weakly.

Tenshinhan bent over his small friend, grinning in relief, and laid his hand against Chaotzu's temple. "Nice to have you back."

Chaotzu smiled and closed his eyes again, but his breathing was steadier.

"We still have the spiders to deal with, don't forget," #18 said.

Tenshinhan laughed softly. "With ki, it'll be easy.We've suffered losses, but I think we've finally won." He looked up at #18 -- and then his eyes went past her, into the sky.

"What is it?" #18 said. She looked behind her. And stared. The huge dark mass of the ship was shimmering -- ripples traveled back and forth across its surface. And then, before her eyes, it vanished.

******

Vegeta closed his eyes on the ship, a wave of exhaustion overcoming him, steadied by the pressure of Bulma's hand on his arm. When he opened his eyes again, it was to blinding golden brilliance, shocking after the dim lights of the ship. It had worked. Kakarrot had teleported them somewhere. But where?

"Oh no ... not you too," he heard a voice say. A familiar voice.

Wait ... I thought he was ... Vegeta looked around, into the startled face of a very puzzled-looking Son Gohan.

Then he knew where he was. And he should have known earlier; he'd been here twice, and he'd have to be a total moron not to recognize those golden clouds, not to mention that distinctive pagoda in front of him. Normally he was much quicker on the uptake, but he was exhausted and pretty badly shaken up; it annoyed him that he hadn't figured it out sooner.

Somehow, Kakarrot had teleported them into the afterlife.

"Hey ... wait ... huh ... what ..." Kuririn looked back and forth in shock. A long, long line of dead souls wound away from them and finally vanished into the clouds. The attention of every soul was fixed firmly on the ragged group of Z-senshi who had materialized in the midst of them.

The nearest were Gohan, Chi-Chi, Videl -- and Goten, sitting perched on Gohan's shoulder.

"Hey, if you guys are dead, where are your halos?" Gohan asked, looking above their heads.

"We're not dead, fool," Vegeta rasped. Although he felt fairly close to it.

"What do you mean, you're not --" Then Gohan finally noticed his father, lying slumped beside Bulma's feet. "Dad ... omigosh ..."

Goten hopped down and ran to his father. "Daddy!"

"What is going on here!" Chi-Chi wailed.

"That's what I'd like to know!" Bulma snapped.

Piccolo chuckled. "Of course he brought us here. He must have fixated on you," he told Gohan and Chi-Chi. "If nobody tells Son Goku something is impossible, he just does it, doesn't he? He's used Instantaneous Transmission to get himself to the afterlife before."

"I suppose he has, at that," Vegeta murmured. And so he had. During the Cell Games. To Kaio-sama's planet. The rest of them had been too distracted to notice, at the time, that Goku had managed to teleport himself somewhere that wasn't even in the conventional universe. But then, that was Goku for you ...

"Idiot," Vegeta growled, looking over at the burned and unconscious Goku, who had been transferred from Kuririn's lap to Chi-Chi's softer one, with his family hovering around him. He could barely feel Goku's ki at all. Heck ... he could barely feel his own ki. What happened if you died in the afterlife? Did you even notice? He felt himself teetering again, and this time there was nothing to hold onto, so he managed to turn his fall into a controlled collapse into a sitting position. It almost looked intentional.

Bulma sat down beside him. Trunks had run over to Goten, upon seeing his friend alive again (well, sorta), but she was still holding Goten's body, which was decidedly ... creepy. She gently laid it down on the fluffy gold cloud-surface under them, and looked at her husband. She opened her mouth to speak -- and, just then, Kaiobito appeared in front of them.

They looked up at him, as did the rest of the Z-senshi (aside from the unconscious Goku). Kaiobito was wearing a halo.

"That could have gone better," he said with a nervous laugh.

"The Earth --" Kuririn began.

"Is fine," Kaiobito reassured them. "No, I got the ship a good distance away. It's been completely destroyed, I imagine." He frowned. "Along with myself. I didn't have the energy left to teleport away. At least it was fairly quick."

"Dende!" Vegeta barked. Or tried to. His throat still felt as if he'd been swallowing glass.

"Yes, Vegeta-san?" the small Namek asked.

"Heal Go-- Kakarrot before he goes ahead and dies," Vegeta snapped, "and we're all stuck here. He's the only one left who can get us home."

"Oh -- of course!" Dende knelt down beside Goku and laid his hands over the unconscious Saiyajin's spiky, partly gray hair.

Vegeta found himself slumping again. Luckily he came to rest against Bulma's shoulder. She poked him lightly. "Caught you. Almost called him Goku again," she said, smiling.

"Shut up, woman," Vegeta rasped with his eyes shut.

"You look like the next candidate for Dende's healing powers yourself."

"Hmph," he managed.

He wasn't terribly aware of the next few minutes -- he was not precisely unconscious, but he drifted through it in a haze of exhaustion. The next thing he knew was a warm glow spreading through his body, washing away the fatigue and pain. He knew what it was, and opened his eyes to see Dende standing over him with glowing fingers outspread.

The little Namek wiped the back of his hand across his forehead when he was done. "I don't know if I've ever healed so many people at once."

Next to them, Kaiobito was healing Bulma's minor cuts and bruises. "Ahhh ..." she sighed, stretching.

Goku practically bounced over to them. He appeared to be fully healed -- his hair was even black again. His gi had not been so fortunate; little pieces of it flaked off whenever he moved, and there was barely enough left to cover him. His energy (and cheerfulness) seemed to be back to normal -- but Vegeta wondered if he was the only one who noticed a shadow in Goku's wide eyes. Even as resilient as he was, it would probably take him some time to recover from the events of this night.

"We can't use the Earth dragonballs yet -- they haven't recharged from when we erased everybody's memories about Buu -- but Piccolo reminded me that the Namek ones don't need an Earth year to regenerate," Goku explained breathlessly. "So I'm going to take you all back to Earth, and then I'll go to New Namek and have the elders help me get their dragonballs together." He waved his arms, getting the other's attention. "Hey, everybody! Hang onto me. We're going back to Earth!"

"See you soon, Dad," Gohan said, as the living members of the group gathered around Goku again.

Goku reached down to ruffle Goten's hair, and touched his fingertips to his forehead. "You'll see me again in a few minutes."

"Okay!" Goten chirped. He didn't seem to have even noticed that he'd died.

The golden clouds and radiant light disappeared -- replaced by charred black earth, and the overwhelming smell of smoke. It was like going from heaven straight into hell.

#18, #17, Tenshinhan and Lunch spun around to face the new arrivals. For #18, everyone else may as well not have existed; she saw only one face. "Kuririn," she breathed.

"Daddy!" Marron squealed, worming out of her mother's arms to scamper over and hop up into her father's waiting grasp.

After a brief flurry of hellos (and a few disbelieving glances at #17, who stood aloof from the rest of them, glaring at them with his hands on his hips) the Z-senshi looked around them, stunned briefly into silence. It was one thing to see the laser blast from outer space -- clean, cauterizing, like a surgeon's tool. It was quite another thing to stand on the barren scorched earth, hazed with smoke, like the world after an apocalypse.

The only good thing about the laser death-ray was that it had eliminated the danger of fire, in this region at least. There was nothing to burn. The smoke was even starting to thin out from the air, though the smell of soot still hung heavily on the senses like the smell of death itself.

"Do you want me to take you all someplace else?" Goku asked, his cheerful voice hushed.

Tenshinhan was the first to respond, shaking his head. "No. I'd rather stay here."

"Me, too," Bulma spoke up quietly. Her parents had died in this spot.

The others nodded. Goku smiled at them, saying nothing, and touched his fingers to his forehead. He vanished.

They waited.

Nothing happened.

"It'll probably be a little while," Vegeta broke in impatiently. "Even with that Instantaneous Transmission of his and the cooperation of the Nameks, it'll take Kakarrot some time to collect all the dragonballs."

"He's right," Kuririn sighed. Reaching into his pocket, he took out a pack of cards. "Well ... I do have these. Anybody up for a game?"

"Me!" Bulma exclaimed, eager for a distraction.

Most of the humans were interested; most of the others weren't. Bulma, Kuririn, Yamcha, Oolong and Chaotzu (who'd been healed by Dende) ended up in a circle, playing some kind of silly Earth game that involved laying down cards -- Vegeta didn't have a clue what the rules were, and didn't care.

#18 sat beside Kuririn, with Marron sleeping in her lap. Pu'ar hovered in her usual spot beside Yamcha's shoulder. Trunks lay with his head resting in his mother's lap, possibly sleeping, possibly just wanting comfort -- a very un-warriorly thing to do, but at the moment, Vegeta didn't have the energy to rebuke the boy. Next to Chaotzu, Tenshinhan watched the game in silence, crosslegged, with Lunch's head resting on his shoulder.

It was a very quiet game, devoid of the usual banter that normally accompanied a gathering of this particular group of people. Vegeta got the impression that they were huddling together, for comfort or protection, whether they realized it or not. And why not, he thought. It's been a long, difficult night for everyone. All they've known has been destroyed.

Speaking of which ... he looked around for the alien scientists. They, too, were huddled together, in a little knot nearby. Some of them had lapsed back into their catatonia and were merely sitting on the charred soil, while others looked around with the dazed expressions of wakened sleepwalkers. Dende and Ygarddro appeared to be trying to explain the situation to them, without much success.

Vegeta wondered what was to be done with them now. Most of them were old, and the last survivors of their kind. Resettle them on Earth, maybe? He grimaced -- if he knew that woman of his, they'd probably end up living at Capsule Corp. for the foreseeable future, while she picked their brains about every bit of technology they'd ever seen, as she'd done with him when she first invited him to live there. Maybe he could talk her into moving them to a peaceful South Sea island or something -- for their own good, since they had been so isolated for so long; he could probably work a good argument up. In the meantime, they'd hardly be noticed among the planet's eclectic mix of aliens, cyborgs, humans and even the occasional blob monster ... and speaking of which, for the first time he wondered, without too much curiosity, where Satan and Buu had gotten off to. At least, thankfully, they'd stayed out from underfoot this time.

He raised his eyes back to the sky and settled in to wait. Scattered spiders came nosing around from time to time, as the night wore on; Piccolo and Vegeta dealt with them, leaving the humans to play their game. The spiders were, as Vegeta had suspected, no challenge whatsoever with ki. On top of that, they seemed lost and aimless, their purpose for existence gone.

Overhead, the sky lightened slowly, changing from black to a deep rich blue, graduating into a pinkish tinge near the horizon. Despite himself, Vegeta found the colors intriguing, captivating in their variety. Had he ever really looked around him, at the world that was now his home? The amount of time he'd spent on Earth (nearly eight consecutive years, plus several intermittent years prior) was by far the longest he'd ever stayed in one place. Even as a child, he'd rarely spent that much time on Vegeta-sei, since his elite status required him to travel to other worlds. And after that planet's destruction, the vast majority of the time when he wasn't fighting was spent on spaceships, going to or coming from somewhere. He knew of sunrises; he understood the physical phenomenon just fine. But he couldn't ever remember a time that he had paid attention to one.

Maybe that time had come.

He watched the clouds (or perhaps columns of smoke from the fires) turning to crisp gold near the horizon, lined with fire along their bottom edges. The pink flush slowly crept up the sky, blotting out the stars. In his peripheral vision, he noticed how the increasing light began to gradually increase the color saturation of the people around him. Bulma's hair brightened from gray to blue; #17's scarf changed from a murky near-black to vivid orange.

And, in the ever-lightening world around him, something was happening. Below the horizon that he was watching so intently, he could now discern movement -- not purposeful movement, such as an animal might make, but a whirling omnidirectional motion akin to the swirling of water around the base of a waterfall. Vegeta tensed, but then relaxed, as he recognized it for what it was. He'd just never seen it up close before.

That swirling was the movement of change. As it swept toward the group, the soft voices of the card players died out. Vegeta glanced around and saw that everyone -- even #17 and most of the alien scientists -- were looking towards the horizon ... towards the miracle approaching them.

Eddying behind the swirling motion, in the light of a new dawn, a ripple of greenery spread down from the distant hills. Trees arose in the blink of an eye -- hills reforested even as they watched. The carpet of forest rushed over the residual fires, blotting out the flames as if they had never been. The change became even more dramatic as the dragonballs' magic reached the outer edge of the city. Buildings arose, rebuilding themselves in the blink of an eye. Streets spread out like water flowing around the feet of the buildings.

Behind the group lay charred devastation; before them, in the direction of the rising sun, was an untouched world, the world that had existed when the previous morning dawned, before the battles and sorrows of the previous night. And then the change was upon them, and even Vegeta found that he was bracing himself -- for what, he did not know. But he felt nothing except a slight rush of wind on his face. And then he found himself standing hip-deep in an ornamental rosebush that had rebuilt itself around his legs. Bulma and the other card players were sitting on a patch of lawn grass, and there was a sudden startled splashing as the scientists and Dende found themselves knee-deep in the Briefs' carp pond.

They were in the gardens of Capsule Corp.

Before they had time to react, animals began to come to life around them -- cats rose from the grass, stretching their lithe bodies; a baby pterodactyl unfolded its wings from one of the trees; butterflies unfurled from the hedges like bright-colored flower buds opening into flowers.

Bulma half-rose from the grass. "Mother?" she called. "Father?"

The front doors to Capsule Corp. opened, and the couple stepped out onto the lawn, looking around them in amazement and blinking in the light of the newly risen sun. Bulma scrambled to her feet with a choked sound (dumping Trunks into the grass in the process) and ran to throw her arms around her parents.

The sounds of the city were back, Vegeta realized -- the whine of hoverjets, the sound of voices, laughter and shouts outside the walls of Capsule Corp. He wondered how much the people of Earth remembered. Did they know they had died? Or did they believe it was still the previous morning, and the past day had been only a dream?

Kaiobito appeared nearby, minus his halo and looking, as usual, a bit confused. He immediately had to leap out of the way of a capsule plane that set down on the lawn in a gust of wind that scattered the abandoned playing cards into the shrubbery. Reminded of his own predicament, Vegeta extricated himself from the rosebush with as much dignity as he could muster, while the door of the plane was flung open and Gohan hopped out with Videl's hand held tightly in his.

On the grass, nearly forgotten by the adults, Goten's small body stretched sleepily, and he opened his eyes and sat up. Confused, he rubbed his eyes and looked around, settling on the nearest familiar person, who happened to be Vegeta (still trying to get rose thorns out of what was left of his spandex). "Uncle!" the boy cried happily, running over to him and flinging his arms around Vegeta's leg.

"Ouch," Vegeta muttered, peeved, as several rogue thorns were driven into his thigh.

Goten tipped back his spiky head and looked up at the adult Saiyajin. "Where's Mom and Dad, Uncle Vegeta?"

"Your mother's over there," Vegeta growled, pointing at Chi-Chi, who was climbing down from the plane with Gohan's assistance, a dazed look on her face. "As for Kakarrot, he should be back any ... minute," he finished, as Goku materialized in the middle of the garden.

"Daddy!" Goten yelled, unlatching himself from Vegeta's leg (to Vegeta's relief; it was starting to hurt quite a lot) and running over to his father. "Daddy," he said happily, jumping into Goku's arms. Goku accepted the little boy's hug with a slightly stunned look of happiness. Once again, Vegeta was aware of that shadow of sadness (barely perceptible ... but there) beneath the younger Saiyajin's happy facade.

I wonder if this has finally shaken the idiot out of his always-look-on-the-bright-side mentality, Vegeta thought -- and despite the many times that he'd wished Kakarrot could manage to develop at least a small cynical streak, he felt a strange, unaccustomed twinge at the idea now.

"Goku-san!" Chi-Chi said, seeing him. In moments, Goku's family and friends were clustered around him. Vegeta limped to the outskirts of the group, picking thorns out of his legs. Damn that brat. Some of them were driven in so deep that it was going to take some digging to get them out.

"It's really okay, then?" Kuririn asked, holding Marron against his shoulder. "Everything's back?"

Goku nodded. "I had Porunga restore all the damage caused by the robots and the fire, and bring back to life everyone ... well, all the non-evil people who were killed since yesterday afternoon."

"Well, I'm going back to my planet, then," Kaiobito said, and winced: "The planet that used to be mine, I mean. And probably get yelled at when I get there, too." He bowed slightly to Goku and the others. "Goku-san, and all of you -- once again, I'm amazed at the way you people can pull victory out of near-certain defeat. We gods owe you a debt, as usual."

"You did a lot this time yourself," Goku said, smiling at him.

"I suppose ... I did, didn't I?" Kaiobito blushed a darker blue, and blushed darker still when Bulma planted a light kiss on his cheek.

"Thanks for saving my guys," she said, winking at him.

Vegeta bristled. "Wait a minute -- 'guys'?"

Kaiobito realized that retreat was sometimes the best option and, with a little wave, teleported out.

In the silence following the god's departure, Dende cleared his throat. "Um ... I guess I should be getting back to my Lookout, too. Even with everyone having been brought back with the dragonballs, I suppose there's going to be a lot of confusion on Earth as things get sorted out. I should be there to deal with any problems that arise."

"Oh, I almost forgot to give you this." Yamcha handed him the flying carpet.

Dende grinned. "I don't need it now ... I can fly. But Mr. Popo wouldn't be too happy if I left it behind." He waved as he launched himself into the sky. "See you later, guys!"

They waved to him until he was just a small flying speck, swallowed up by the newly risen sun.

"He has the right idea," Piccolo said. "I had best be going, as well."

"Sure you won't stick around?" Gohan asked him.

Piccolo shook his head. "I need some solitude. Meditation." He grinned briefly. "But you know how to find me if you need me."

Gohan smiled back at him. "Thanks for saving me and Videl."

Piccolo nodded, and took off.

"Yeah, we oughta be going too, guys," Kuririn said. "Um ... Bulma, could we borrow a capsule plane? We have a lot of people to get back to Kame House, and not everyone can fly."

"Gee, thanks for remembering me, for a change," Oolong grumbled, and then perked up considerably. "And speaking of me ... I believe we had an arrangement," he leered at Bulma. "Would you like to do it here or go back to --"

A shadow fell across him.

"Do what here?" said Vegeta's dangerously quiet voice.

The pig rotated slowly to look up at the Saiyajin looming over him, arms crossed.

"Um ... I, er, that is ..." Oolong twiddled his fingers, looking away with what he probably thought was an innocent expression.

"I think you were going home," Vegeta said in the same quiet tone. "Weren't you?"

"Yes! Yes, yes I was!" the shapechanger babbled, and fled in Roshi's direction. "We were just going home, right?"

Thank you, Bulma mouthed at Vegeta, and turned to Kuririn and #18. "Of course you can take a plane. But won't you stay for breakfast first? It's been a long night and I'm sure everyone could use something to eat."

Goku's stomach rumbled, and he grinned sheepishly when Chi-Chi gave him an annoyed glare. "I could eat," he said.

"You can always eat," Chi-Chi muttered, but her frown dissolved into a smile at Goku's wide-eyed innocent look. It was just impossible to stay mad at him.

Kuririn glanced up at #18, who gave him a quick smile, just a twitch of the lips. "Sure, we can stay for breakfast," he said. "It's been awhile since the gang's been in one place."

"Since the last crisis, I suppose," Yamcha said. "Why does it always seem to take a massive threat to the planet to get us back together again?"

Looking around, then up at his wife, Kuririn asked her softly, "Where'd Seventeen go?"

#18 smiled slightly. "He left while the rest of you were talking to Goku. He just flew away -- it's how he is."

"I was really surprised to see him here."

"So was I," #18 admitted.

"Do you think ... do you think he'd like it if we came and visited him sometime?" Kuririn asked.

#18 considered it. "You know, until tonight I would have said no. I've left him alone because I thought it was what he wanted. But ... I'm not sure. Perhaps we should try it."

Kuririn nodded, and shifted Marron's soft, heavy weight against his chest. "Sometime soon."

"Um ... excuse me?"

The Z-senshi's attention was drawn to the completely forgotten group of scientists. Ygarddro, their unofficial spokesalien, stood awkwardly (and somewhat damply, from falling in the carp pond) at the head of the group.

"Oh, I'm so sorry! I forgot about you. Poor things -- you don't have anyplace to go, do you?" Bulma spread her arms to the group of scientists. "Would you like to stay here at Capsule Corporation with me? We have plenty of room -- and you can tell me all about the technology on your homeworlds."

Vegeta rolled his eyes. "Knew it," he murmured.

"We would like that," Ygarddro said quietly. "Thank you ... and thank you all for freeing us. Words cannot express our gratitude."

"I wish we'd been able to do more for you," Goku said. "We can't bring back your destroyed worlds; it's been too long, so our dragonballs can't help."

"You have done enough ... more than enough. We are forever in your debt."

"Does that mean they're going to pay rent?" Vegeta murmured to Bulma. She stomped on his foot.

"Come on, everyone." Bulma looked around at the group. Ragtag and bedraggled, they would have drawn some stares walking down the street -- but they were all alive, intact, and she felt a sudden surge of affection for them, for all of them. Well, except maybe Oolong. "Let's not stand around talking on the lawn. W ho wants food?"

A chorus of assent greeted her suggestion. Bulma grinned.

Life goes on ...



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