Reep sat in a circle of Nameks, showing all his teeth in a ferociously jolly grin and occasionally flinging his limbs in the air just on general principle. His - they had given him a gender specific pronoun, just as they had given him a name; to the Nameks it was merely the type of assignation they would give to one another for ease of conversation, but to Reep, it was a phenomenon. He had never been happier in his life.
Dende knelt over the small pile of papers and wood, attempting without much success to focus his energy enough to start a fire. Dende was a healer, not a fighter; his power simply was not sufficiently incendiary to light the flame. Moot knelt beside him.
"Here sir," he said in a light, quiet tone that Dende himself would have used once. "Let me help." And between the two of them, the paper began to smolder.
The Nameks - all of whom were gathered in that room - moved closer to the fire; the vote to remain inside the building rather than go outside to that nothingness had been as unanimous as it had been silent. Anything was better than out there.
"You'd almost think they planned it this way," said Muuri, leaning back and relishing the sensation of warm, red light shining through his eyelids. "What would be the chances of us all - every last one - being healers?"
Dende shrugged and moved back; the heat from the quickly growing blaze was more intense than expected. "I just would like to know how these Saiyan-types and the extra dragonball are connected."
"Are you sure that's really what it is?" asked Muuri, lazily observing the room for the first time in the light. "It may look like a dragonball, but it certainly does not behave that way."
Dende sighed and declined to answer.
"And while we're asking questions," Muuri mused, "it might be good to wonder about time. From our calculations, we've both been here the same amount - two days. And yet the dates don't fit; we 'disappeared' fully two weeks before you did."
Dende shook his head. This was giving him a headache.
"And for that matter," continued Muuri in the same mildly curious tone, "what is that?"
Dende looked up. On a desk in the far corner of the room, partially hidden by haphazard bric-a-brac and overturned furniture, was a small, metal device. It stuck out like a live thing, gleaming and out of place.
“Good question,” answered Dende.
"Ooooooh," marveled Reep. "Maybe from Bulma the Wise."
"Bulma the what?" repeated Muuri, but Dende was already moving and didn't answer him. Taking a chair leg with fire at one end to light his way, he pushed between broken filing cabinets and jumbled furniture and made his way over. The little machine was made of some metal he did not recognize, but a moment of inspection at least showed what the device itself was. He seemed to recall seeing something like this when he was on earth.
"Dende," called Muuri through the gloom. "What have you found?"
"Well," said Dende. "I think it's an audio recorder of some sort." He caressed the casing pensively. "This metal is so strange… it feels like the outside of this building. Almost vibrates when I touch it."
Muuri scratched his head. "Now, why would someone go to all the trouble to leave that there?"
Dende looked up. "Leave it here? On purpose? Could it be a trap?"
Muuri looked down at Reep; the small creature seemed not in the least bit worried. "Nope," Muuri said confidently.
Still mechanically stroking the metal, Dende brought the thing over to the fire for a better look.
"What is it?" asked Moot, reaching out to touch it. "It feels alive."
"Yes, yes!" said Reep. "From the Real." Muuri and Dende looked at one another, nodded in silent agreement, and Dende pushed the "play" button.
"It is the year 792. The earth and everything in it is now gone, and so is everything else, as far as I can tell. I'm beginning to think I made a mistake by saving us; there can be no winning, no resolution, and the only thing I've saved anybody for is dissolution."
The voice on the tape was female, articulate, and completely without hope. It was also, without a doubt, Bulma's.
"My invention of the Junsei-Aion has turned out to be much more important than I had imagined; for reasons God only knows, it is the only substance resistant to Gero's poison. Everything not at least laced with the iron is just… is gone when the Black touches it, and so I went ahead and made the stupid decision to rebuild the Capsule Corporation and everything in it out of Junsei-Aion. I even found a way to blow glass with the Perfect Iron in it, so we could have windows. I don't know why, but Trunks felt windows were so important." The voice choked slightly. "Of course, by the time I got the windows in, Trunks was already dead."
There was a short pause, just long enough to make the listeners wonder if there was no more, and then Bulma spoke again. She had regained control.
"The Satan City council went ahead with its plan to try to implement a form of my Junsei-Aion in what they called ‘the Canopy,’ a huge, stupid thing of iron-laced glass. I told them it was too big, that it wouldn't be able to support its own weight, and I was right; the Canopy cracked on the first day. The irony of it is, the Black didn't get through that way. It learned a new trick and came through the ground to get at people. I can only thank God that so many were already long dead from the androids and didn't have to go through this.”
She paused again, and in the interim Dende mused, "Cracks in the sky. Of course." Muuri shushed him.
“Personnel update: Roshi is gone now, too. I had hoped, when he went away, that he’d come back - that he wouldn't leave me - but now I realize he never intended to come back in the first place. He went to ‘make his peace with God,’ he said, to meet his fate, and I can't really blame him; he went as only a man who faces living forever in the midst of disillusionment could.
"Oolong has passed away in his sleep as of last Tuesday; if his undisturbed covers were any indication, he went with no unease.
"Mr. Satan," and she paused again. When she continued, it was more slowly, with very careful control. There was bitterness as well as loss in her voice. "Mr. Satan has taken the short way out. I had thought that anyone who could still face every day cheerfully even though he went from being mobile and strong to almost completely crippled by the androids would be able to take anything, but when poor Bee went into the Black, he just stopped smiling. I found him today, with a knife in his hand and his throat slit. God only knows how he managed it with only one arm and 1/3 of its mobility available, but he was always a very determined man. I certainly know nobody helped him with it, because now that he's gone, I am the last living being in the universe."
Again a pause; again the Nameks waited.
"Everyone around me has died in or because of the Black, except for Oolong, and at this point I don't even think there's a Heaven left for him to go to. The Black can't get me here, I know; I built this place to withstand it, and for what it's worth I can say that I've finally reached one of my life goals: my genius has surpassed that of Gero's." There was a moment of silence, and the center of the silence was cut by one, single sob. She was weeping.
"They say - or they said,” she continued, her voice strained, “that some people are just born with bad luck. Maybe that's so; and maybe some planets are made that way, and maybe even entire dimensions. I don’t know; maybe even the gods. I never would have thought that I was capable of believing such a thing, but now, at the end… I…. it’s just not fair!" Her voice had begun to take on the hysterical edge of shouting, and that would not do; she stopped and once again regained her composure.
"I don't really want to stay," she said in clinical tones, "and try as I might I cannot think of a good reason. I have decided to leave this brief record to serve as testimony to what happened, in case someone from Somewhere Else should ever find this place, and then I will go to join Roshi. He, at least, I think died in peace."
And that was the end. Muuri was silently weeping.
"My, friend," Dende turned to Reep addressing him gently, "may I ask - where did you come from?"
Reep shook his head sadly; big, glistening tears swelled in his protruding eyes and dropping to the ground without ever touching his cheeks.
"Old," he said. "Old. Created since the Beginning of Real. Don't know how - made knowing everything. Already knew about Bulma the Wise, who tried and failed, and Trunks the Mighty, who went to fight the Black and was swallowed. And the ball - " Reep nodded toward the thing sitting on Dende's lap like a garishly colored beach ball - "and the End. Know everything, but before you have been all alone. Waiting for you."
Moot looked up. "For how long?" he asked.
"Forever," said Reep, and hung his head.
"I just want to know one thing," said Muuri. "What is the Black? And if it did, as Bulma said, destroy everything, then… where did it go?"
No one cared to answer him.
Vejiita had given up on trying to plot out a logical course of action. Sighing and feeling quite useless, he sat back and rubbed his eyes; he'd been staring at that damned computer screen all morning. To say there was no sign of Gohan was an understatement; they had found where the unfortunate boy had exited the ship – his blood was still floating in space – but then it was as though he simply vanished. A thorough DNA scan of the area had produced nothing, which was patently impossible. Everything about this was impossible. If the ghost of Broli had suddenly risen from the depths of Hell and confessed to eating Gohan's corpse while singing o Solo Mio at the top of his lungs, Vejiita would hardly have been surprised.
His intercom buzzed.
“Come in,” he said distractedly, not really caring at this point if it was the murderer or not.
The door shished open and there stood Chive.
“My lord Vejiita,” she said respectfully. Vejiita turned to look at her.
“You look nice,” he said almost before thinking. She was wearing a kind of casual soldier’s gear, a white gi-like thing sashed loosely around her waist. For some reason, her presence was making him uncomfortable. He swiveled his chair back toward the computer console. “What is it you want, Chive?”
“Only to see that your… needs… are taken care of, my lord,” she said, and her tone left little doubt as to what she meant. Vejiita looked at her.
“What? Have you gone mad?”
Chive had the decency to look embarrassed. “Well – no, my lord. You know, as king, it is your right to – “
“I know what my rights are, baka,” Vejiita said. “I don’t care to take advantage of them right now. Go and be profligate at somebody else.”
He turned to the computer screen again, ending the discussion. He glanced back; Chive was still standing in the doorway.
“What is it?” he said, irritated. “I told you, I don’t want…”
“Perhaps it is not so much a question of what you want as what you need,” she said, managing to sound coolly efficient and seductive at the same time.
Vejiita snorted. “Was that supposed to be a clever answer? I hope not, because my six-year-old daughter could probably come up with a better one.“
“I am very capable, sir.” Chive sounded slightly offended.
“Oh, I have no doubt of that,” Vejiita replied caustically.
“My lord, I will be blunt,” Chive said. “With, of course, your permission.” Vejiita sighed deeply; he was not in the mood for a moral dilemma.
“I could just order you to go away,” he said.
“Yes, you could,” Chive agreed sedately.
Vejiita sighed and closed his eyes; family life really had left him too soft.
“If I let you speak your peace, will you leave?” he asked.
Chive hesitated. “Well… I… yes, if that’s what my lord wants.”
“What I want is for everybody to go away and leave me alone, but I don’t…” I don’t want to infuriate anybody who just might be a ruthless, shape-changing killer, flitted through his mind, but his mouth quickly rejected it; “… want to be bothered by anybody right now. I am extremely busy.”
Chive bowed low at the waist; Vejiita noted with some annoyance that her gi gapped open most immodestly as she did so. “Then I will leave you alone, my lord,” she said. “for as long as you care to be so. My offer – and its explanation - await your convenience.” With that, she turned and left.
Vejiita’s expression was one of disgusted incredulity. Not giving Chive another thought, he turned back to his computer again and tried to figure out where the hell Gohan had gotten to.
He did not see Chive’s own expression melt into one of fury the moment she left the room. “Pheromones still aren’t Bulma’s,” she muttered, and marched off after her own pursuits.
Gokuu walked slowly down the hall towards his room, chewing slowly over what Vejiita had told him. His head was hurting from the effort.
Everything Vejiita had told him was true; he had no doubt of that. This bizarre rumor, akin to boogey-men and Big Foot, was one concerning the survival and eventual revenge of the planet Vegeta-sei's original owners: the Tsufuru. As a rumor, it had persisted on that planet for a while - at least since 720 when the Saiyans had begun to make their move to claim the planet for themselves. Every Saiyan child had heard it at least once in his or her life: the story that supposedly, the Tsufuru were not all killed; that there were some who were actually smart enough not to fight back, but instead went and hid deep underground - and there concocted a most devilish scheme.
These people - these Tsufuru - actually mutated their own bodies.
As little as a true Saiyan warrior regarded his life when it came to battle, he knew well enough to treasure the thing that was his body. To take care of it, for it was his tool, to value it, for it was his pride, to harden it, for it was the brilliance and pinnacle of his race. To actually bring harm to one's own body was more than horrific - it bordered on religious taboo.
Yet, that is just what these Tsufuru did. They infected their own genes with an altered form of a microbe, a bio-weapon developed on one of the planets the Saiyans had already conquered. The bug worked simply and effectively; it dissolved one's genes. It was something so horrible that even the Saiyans knew it had to be stamped out of existence, and they did just that - destroying the entire planet in the process.
One would have to be mad to purposely infect one's self, and yet this was just what the brilliant but amoral Tsufuru had done. They had mutated the mutagen and then infected themselves one and all - supposedly to the effect that it merely slackened their DNA, but did not completely dissolve it. And they could change shape. Affect their actual genetic structure to mimic whatever they wanted. Their revenge, it seemed, was imminent - but there was one problem.
They could not hold their new forms.
Tsufuru after Tsufuru eventually contracted the original infection and died, often melting horribly and slowly as they did so. It seemed their profane rebellion had come to an fitting and most poetic end. But then - horror upon horrors - the Tsufuru found yet another way. They discovered that their new bodies had enhanced properties only glimpsed at in their former selves.
Tsufuru, you see, so the legend goes, were actually only a little bit more energy than matter; it was one of the reasons that they were physically so weak and the Saiyans had beaten them so easily. When they made love, for instance, it was for them truly a joining; their inner selves merged, and the energy they shared was their very souls.
Supposedly, one of the Tsufuru had found out a way to actually drain that soul - that energy - from other beings. In doing so, he discovered a hard yet wonderful fact: the new energy he drained not only made him stronger, it also postponed the dissolution of his DNA and kept his body from running all over the place like melted syrup.
The more he drained, the less like butter he became. Until finally - so states the myth - he reached a plateau of stability. And then, he did the unthinkable; he made himself look like a Saiyan and went out to join society.
So, there it was; be careful, boys and girls, because if you're not good the evil shape-changing Tsufuru will take on your worse fear - he can read your mind, didn't we tell you that? - and come to get you. Because he's still alive today, and hiding, and he only wants one thing… to get revenge by stealing bad little boys' and girls' souls.
Utter poppycock, of course; even if there had been such a disease - which was highly unlikely; no record of such a thing existed - the chances of Tsufuru surviving, mutant, in such a society for so many years was zero to none. Until today's incident and Bra's revelation, Vejiita had believed just that.
Gokuu still wasn't quite sure what to think; he'd picked up definite undertones of nearly forgotten fear from Vejiita; of recollection of sleepless nights, waiting breathlessly for the wicked Tsufuru to come out from under the bed so he could fight it and show his power. Vejiita had stopped being even remotely afraid of them by the time he was four; at one point he'd wanted nothing more than to see one so he could crush its face for being disrespectful to its own body. Of course, this had never happened, and the story for Vejiita had faded the way Santa Claus had eventually faded for Gohan.
Vejiita thought that at least one - maybe all - of the beings on this ship could be Tsufuru.
Gokuu, in his own instinctive way, had thought of something else. There was a different timeline with Trunks; several of them, in fact. Well, what if there were an alternate time-line with the Tsufuru? What if somewhere there were thousands of them out there, all waiting and looking for Saiyans so they could have their revenge?
One simple question; if any of that was true, then why were they - Gokuu and Vejiita - standing there unmolested? Why had only Gohan died?
None of it made sense, unless of course it was more than simple revenge they were after.
What that could be, Gokuu did not know - and to be honest, he did not want to find out. Right now, he had only one thought in his shocked, exhausted brain; to get to Goten and protect him at all costs. He did not know if the Tsufuru were real or not, but he did know one thing: any monster that wanted to go after his youngest son would have to go through him first, and said monster would be in for a surprise.