Disclaimer: the idea and characters of Dragon Ball are owned by Akira Toriyama. This is a simple non-profit fan parody.
Chapter 31 - Before blue eyes
"We have received a new report - some climbers returned from the northern mountain ranges sent us this video, shot with a smartphone, showing soldiers apparently dropping on some of the most inhospitable cliffs of the area. With this, we now have six confirmed locations in which fighting is taking place all around the world between forces which both seem to make use of vehicles and weapons belonging to the faction once known as Red Ribbon - after a peaceful summer during which however our King enacted the often controversial fortification of all the main cities, is this finally the reckoning after the terrorist attack at the Tenkaichi Tournament back in May? We asked our analysts-"
"Well, that doesn't look like it's going well," grumbled Pilaf, slumped into a puff sofa placed in front of the TV, so big and soft it was almost swallowing him whole. He had ended up reluctantly abandoning his majestic throne room and retreating into a castle wing with smaller, less ambitious architecture as it proved to be less drafty and cheaper to keep warm and clean. The Ox King had brought some prize money from the Tenkaichi Tournament to help with financial matters, but given his early defeat, it wasn't much, and some austerity had been in order.
"They were supposed to not have to fight at all," said Shu, sending the screen a worried look. He didn't even notice when Chichi took a peek at the cards in his hands, which in turn made her aware that something was wrong. She tugged at his robe.
"Is that where dad is?," she asked, eyeing a column of smoke that was rising from the desert, in another piece of blurry footage shown on TV.
The dog patted her head. "Oh, no, Chichi, that's the desert, your dad is in a forest area," he told her.
"Yeah, sure, but they said the forest too-" started Pilaf.
Shu stopped him dead in his tracks with a meaningful glance.
"Then again, huh, who knows how this damned thing is going," he ended up mumbling, turning his eyes away. "Not like they'll tell us anything."
"We're now live from Cilantro Town, where the best documented conflict has taken place, and the only one until now in which we can confirm that the Red Ribbon army has worked together with the Royal Defence Force. Our correspondent-"
"They let them snatch it, can you believe it!," shrieked Pilaf at that. "I'm sure that's what happened in that town. It should have been us, it would have worked out better. These damned incompetents can't even hunt Dragon Balls properly. They lost them right from under their nose!"
Shu sighed and thought it best not to mention anything about Mai and how the last hunt they led had ended up. He turned to Chichi, looked at his cards, the ones on the ground, then at the little girl, who was barely holding in an expression of infinite smug. The corners of her mouth were clearly dying to raise up in a self-satisfied smile. Obviously, something was afoot. So Shu just threw out his most useless card, and hoped the one from the deck didn't upset Chichi's plan. It didn't, and at her turn, she put down a suzuki grass card, capturing the full moon one.
"Three brights!," she announced triumphantly.
"Oh, no, I lost! No need to continue the game now, I could not possibly recover from this," moaned Shu, grabbing his head between his hands.
Chichi grinned and started a little victory dance.
"Well, now that I have been defeated, do you want to go test hitting those new target drones I made?," asked the dog, quickly reshuffling the cards in their box. "You can practice using your laser."
The girl nodded, and she picked up and wore her helmet. Why would the Ox King think that a helmet that incorporated both a dangerously sharp throwing blade lodged on top and a moderately powerful laser beam on its front was an appropriate gift for a child was anyone's guess, but now she was so attached to it, trying to take it away from her would have been a crime. So at least she might learn to use it proficiently and not harm herself or anyone that she didn't want to with it, had decided Shu.
They ran out. Before leaving the room, Shu sent one last glance at the TV, which Pilaf was still staring at while mumbling annoyed rants among himself.
"The King has still issued no statements about the situation, but sources tell us he's currently in a ready room with several important military and government figures, and some rumour, Commander Black of the Red Ribbon himself. One moment, we've just received a new video from Jingle Village, a small hamlet near the former Red Ribbon base of Muscle Tower, now apparently in the hands of the insurgents, where artillery fire has been heard from the locals for more than one hour now-"
Getting complimented was nothing weird - it was just the way it worked. For the boy it had always been the way things it worked. His parents' friends would always smile, ruffle his perfect blonde hair, look into his perfect blue eyes, and comment just how cute he looked. When he'd smile back and ask for something - like, if they had a cookie, or once a nice ribbon that a lady used to keep her hair pinned - they'd usually chuckle and agree, amused by his boldness. He'd eaten the cookies, and even worn the ribbon, though his parents seemed to find that weird and were slightly disapproving of it. He looked at them pleadingly, and they sighed and let him have his way. That was normal.
So having someone not only refuse him, but get as angry as the old shopkeeper had at him, well, that was a new, stunning experience. He'd noticed that, growing up, his charms seemed to affect adults less, but this was downright ridiculous. Sure, he had picked up that toy even before he'd gotten the guy to agree - but now here he was being called a thief, as if he didn't even mean to ask for permission at all.
It made him really annoyed. He tried to make it clear, and to do so, he fixed his eyes straight into those of the old man, wearing a disapproving frown. A long, hard stare with his perfect blue eyes.
"You shouldn't be so angry," he said.
The shopkeeper balked for a moment. He looked confused, as if he'd been mindlessly doing something he didn't really mean or want to.
"Ah, you're right, young boy," he said, suddenly far more subdued. "I really shouldn't."
The boy smiled. Yes, that was how things should be. He walked out of the shop, happy with his new toy.
"I'm sorry - I mean, I'm flattered to hear that, but I just don't like you, well, that way."
The young man in front of him, he could be eighteen in age, made a displeased face. Not heartbroken, not sad. Just... annoyed.
"I thought you liked boys," he said, "like me."
The other man ruffled his own hair, uncomfortable. He'd rather end this discussion quickly, just be elsewhere. "I do," he said, "but that doesn't mean I have to like all of them. You're just not my type. I'm sorry."
"Not your type?" Now there was outrage in his voice. "What are you saying? That I'm not hot enough? Not good enough for you?"
"What? No, look, you're - you're beautiful, really," mumbled the other, "you're just - look, I don't have to give you a reason, ok? I said no. That's it. I'm sorry. It's not going to happen. Ever."
The young man raised his face, now almost made ugly by fury. Almost: his hair were still those beautiful gold strands, his lineaments still perfect, and his eyes... those blue eyes, whose gaze made you feel so light...
"Look me straight into my eyes," he said, "and tell me that again."
The burning mountain emanated a fierce heat that scorched the entire area. Many soldiers had ditched their uniforms completely and walked around bare chested. General Blue didn't do it, and severely reprimanded any men he caught doing it. A uniform is, after all, the pride and identity of a soldier. Without it, an army is just a bunch of thugs.
It seemed like the fires had started a month before their attack. Some subterranean coal deposit, most likely, sparked by who knows what. They had not given them much thought to it before, but now they were growing and growing, engulfing the entire mountain in soot, making the ground dry up, poisoning it with fumes or even setting its vegetation on fire. This growing threat would easily smoke out their target - quite literally. The inhabitants were running away in droves already. General Blue felt satisfied that things would after all be easy enough, and victory would more or less accidentally fall in their lap. The brute that ruled this place was a tough customer, and he did not look forward to fighting him if not strictly necessary.
"General, a moment," said an officer coming close to him, a middle-aged ptero he identified as General Olive. "I bring orders from HQ."
"I'd been told to wait for someone, but I didn't expect someone so high in the command chain," replied Blue, smiling. "What was so important that I couldn't just be informed via radio?"
"I asked to get the chance to talk to you face-to-face myself, General," answered the other. "I'll get to that. But my main mission is to inform you that you should cease the assault on Frypan Mountain and retreat."
Blue blinked, taken aback by the sudden news. "What?" he asked finally, angry. "We're about to win!"
"It would be a rather empty victory," replied Olive. "Our customers do not feel it is worth pursuing any further conflict with a country that is evidently turning into ashes before our eyes. They have come to an agreement that they consider favourable enough to stop paying for our support. It has helped, it seems, that the Ox King is quite heartbroken over the loss of his young wife, and has conceded without much pushback. So, a job well done, General."
"Thanks." The man took a deep breath.
"You seem displeased, General Blue."
"I am," snapped back the other. "I would have rather seen this campaign end more definitely. It was my first command of such an operation, after all. This is... disappointing."
"Well, if you ask me, you're right. But I don't give the orders in this case." The ptero glanced at him sideways. "But you may be interested in knowing, let's just say, that you're not alone in feeling like our army could use a more decisive hand."
Blue looked at the other general. He saw that the ptero was trying to probe his reaction, as if he was being tested.
He knew he could pass the test, most likely, but that was not the point. He simply did not feel like submitting to some stranger's judgement at all.
"Intriguing," he said, planting his beautiful blue eyes straight into those of his interlocutor, "tell me more about it..."
The Dragon Ball had somehow found its way in the hollow of a tree, wedged inside a crack in the wood. Finding it had been annoying, but not too difficult once the Ox King had gained a good line of sight to it, as the bright orange gleam gave it away by starkly contrasting the dark brown and green of everything else around. It was faint, but the Dragon Ball seemed to shine of its own light in that dark cradle of wood. The Ox King tried sticking a hand in, and once it proved too massive, he simply scraped it out with a single index finger. The Ball popped right out, and rolled in his palm, as small compared to it as a marble would be to a more average one. A shining, orange marble with five stars inside. The man didn't say anything, looking at it with an expression made inscrutable by the helmet he wore over half his face, nor did he make a sound beyond some panting, as he caught his breath from the efforts of the last hour. The forest was unusually peaceful, though the sound of battle could still be heard in the distance. Attacks from the Instruments had all but ceased coming in the last minutes. The Ox King hadn't given much thought or attention to that, assuming they'd just ran out of men to send to the slaughter. He'd cut a lot of heads in his career, really, but today alone had still been enough to almost double the amount. Crazy bastards seemed not to know when they were beaten.
"Oh, that looks pretty," said a voice from above, with a mocking cadence. "Care if I take a closer look to it?"
The Ox King didn't deign that of an answer, nor did he even raise his head. Instead, he tossed the Dragon Ball in a pocket and swung his axe in front of him, slicing the tree the Ball had been inside off in a single strike, then in one fluid movement he let go of the axe, sticking it into the ground, and grabbed the trunk as it fell, sweeping with it in the direction the voice had come from. A couple more trees were crushed under the impact. Something jumped from the top of one of them - something that whizzed past, small and fast. All the Ox King could distinguish of it was the impression of a golden glint.
"As brutish as I came to expect of you," continued the voice, with a chuckle. "You fight like a barbarian."
"And ya fight like a coward!," shouted back the other. "Stop hidin' and come face me, and die like the rest of ya ninnies."
"Happy to oblige for the first part, not so much the second."
The small, fast, golden thing bolted from the tree where it had found refuge and landed on the forest's soil. In front of the Ox King stood a slender man, naked from the belt up, tall enough to reach barely his chest, with pleasant lineaments, golden hair and deep blue eyes.
"Ya don't get to choose that one!," screamed the Ox King, throwing himself at his opponent, hands ready to grab and crush him. The other slipped under them, then from the side, grabbed one of the Ox King's wrists and attempted a throw. Surprisingly, he didn't completely fail. The giant man's weight shifted slightly as the smaller one exerted a pull he absolutely didn't expect. Still, it was mostly the effect of surprise; it was a matter of simply changing his footing, and the Ox King became completely unmovable. Realising that much, the opponent let go and simply took the chance to slink away, putting some more distance between themselves.
"Yer a bit stronger than yer lackeys," said the Ox King. "Not much, though."
"In the spirit of keeping this civil, I'll introduce myself. I'm Flute, once known as General Blue," the other man bowed slightly, then raised his head to meet the opponent's gaze. "I don't like long, tiring, painful fights, so honestly, it would be better if you just hand me the Dragon Ball."
The giant man snorted. "Are ya daft? Ya want the Ball, ya come take it from my cold, dead hands."
Flute had a moment of surprise. He stood up, and stared into the Ox King's eyes as straightforwardly as possible.
"I said," he repeated, more slowly, "to give me the Dragon Ball."
He looked into his eyes.
His eyes that were entirely covered by a helmet and two binocular-like lenses that completely hid them from view.
"I said," roared the Ox King, "COME TAKE IT!," and he slammed his fists down in the spot where Flute had been until a moment earlier, cracking the ground under the impact.
"Oh, this is goint to be a pain," moaned Flute to himself, landing on one foot with a pirouette.
He retreated again in another agile leap. In terms of speed, the Ox King had a slight disadvantage - but the strength difference was so stark, a single blow could mean the end of the fight. Flute's hand went to his belt, and he drew a gun with a thin barrel from his holster. He aimed for the head and fired.
The Ox King's helmet rung like a bell as the bullet hit it and pierced a hole in its side. However, that was where it stopped. It drew some blood, but it could not penetrate the man's skin, leaving barely a scratch.
"Yer puny weapons don't hurt me!," roared the King, as he scraped the bullet off his helmet with a finger, while scooping a large amount of dirt and rocks with the other hand and tossing it in Flute's direction. The dust blinded and made him cough, and a few sharp stones wounded him, though he managed to dodge the biggest ones. The soldier flinched a moment, and when he reopened his eyes, he was there. Way closer than he should have ever let him come, and pulling back his massive fist, readying a powerful blow.
"And that's the end of ya," he said, and then he punched.
Flute took the hit by using his arms to shield his chest and face. It didn't do much. The power was like being hit by a grenade that just kept exploding. Feeling some his bones cracking and his ligaments screaming for mercy, Flute had his breath knocked out of him and the vague sense of having been knocked back at incredible speed. Of course, that couldn't go on for long, not in their environment. The tree that slammed hard against his back finally stopped his momentum, and he just fell on the ground, unconscious.
"...we've just received notice that Cobalt Team has made contact with the enemy," said General Copper. "That makes six out of six, Commander."
"I can count, General," replied the man, stone faced. Next to him, the King and Dr. Briefs were listening with far more concerned expressions. "It also seems to weaken your mole theory, don't you think?"
"Wouldn't any mole have their Team be attacked too to avoid suspicions?"
"Probably. But you still should be able to tell by the outcome of the fight," said the Commander.
"That should leave the late Green and Purple off the hook. Though who knows with these traitorous fanatics."
"General, well-reasoned, motivated suspicions can be a life saver. But vague, unfocused ones can be the ruin of an entire operation. Do not follow this train of thought too far until you have enough reason to believe there really is a mole at all. Keep focused on the actions as they are unfolding right now."
"Of course, and I trust our team leaders to take care of that at the best of their abilities," replied Copper. "At least the ones who are loyal."
The Commander sighed as the link was terminated. All around him, multiple pairs of eyes leered at him critically.
"Well, this has sure turned into a shitshow," said finally General Liu, breaking the silence with a sarcastic sneer. "Commander, is that really the best you could muster to command this operation?"
"The best would have been me," replied Black, irritated. "But it seems my presence was required for more important matters."
The General shrugged. "Yes, well, we need some way to make sure you guys don't completely go off the rails, don't you think? I guess things would have worked out better if all of your best and brightest hadn't switched to the other side. What a joke of an army you are."
"This is serious, Minister, and I expect you to take it as such," intervened King Furry, frowning. "Civilians have already died in Cilantro Town. And preventing the Instruments from getting their hands on all the Dragon Balls is of the utmost importance."
"Of course, Your Majesty. I apologise. I am just highly skeptical of the quality of the men to whom this important endeavour has been entrusted."
"You strongly objected to take any more active role yourself, General, on the grounds that the topic was too mythical to deserve such a large scale deployment. Have you had a change of heart seeing how seriously our enemies are taking it?"
"All their seriousness proves is that they are religious fanatics of some sort, Your Majesty," replied Liu, "not that whatever myths they believe in have basis in reality. But I would agree to action to stop them if it came to that, on a precautionary basis. If the Commander here thinks he's in over his head-"
"I have trust in the men I have deployed on the field," snapped back Black. "They will make the right decisions, and have the help of some of the finest warriors on this planet. All we need is to secure at least one Dragon Ball to turn the tide."
"Do we, though?," intervened Zeeman, the Minister for Science. "If we hypothesised that the Dragon Balls truly were so powerful, wouldn't we rather want all seven? Especially now that we have suffered from real damage, and it's likely to get worse. Aren't they supposed to be able to even bring people back to life?"
"I haven't witnessed that, but I've heard enough matching accounts to convince me that they have done just that for Miss Bulma, once. I don't know what the limit to their power is supposed to be. But this is not something worth debating if we do not have a plan of some sort. For at least one of them, you would need to storm the enemy's own base. We can not think of anything like that until we realise what is causing the information leak that has prompted these attacks."
"About that," said Dr. Briefs, "what makes you so sure that it's not really a mole, like your General says?"
Black hesitated. "I have good reasons," he said, "but so I do to not disclose that information, right now."
"You think they might be spying us? That there might be some kind of bug in one of our rooms?," asked Briefs.
"Possible. But our security should have protected us against that. It seems unlikely, and if they had access to our inner command centres, why not plant a bomb in them instead?"
"Then our communications? Could they have cracked the encryption?"
"Unlikely. Of course we changed all our protocols and keys after the betrayal. And our system is configured in a way that those keys simply can't be accessed and copied without physically connecting the receivers that will be deployed on the field to our mainframe first. Not even a mole could crack that unless they managed to somehow smuggle an entire receiver through our security. I do not believe that possible."
"Then why, Commander?," the doctor was wholly exasperated now. "My daughter is back there in your headquarters that you claimed were a safe place, and for all I know, she may be sharing that place with a traitor. So do you mind telling all of us what makes you so sure that there is no traitor, and we're being spied upon by other means?"
The man shook his head. "Doctor, the more people know a secret, the weaker it is-"
"I'm sorry, Commander, but I agree with the doctor," intervened the King. "This is critical information. We, too, need to know if we can trust you."
There were various nods of assent around the table. Commander Black took stock of all of them at a glance, then sighed.
"Very well," he said. "Doctor, as you'll understand when I finish explaining, one of the main reasons why I have withheld this information until now was to guarantee your own daughter's safety. I have already explained how we arranged for the maps of the Dragon Ball positions to be distributed among the team leaders..."
Flute came to his senses wondering how much time had passed, and immediately decided it must have been just a fraction of a second, because he was still alive. That would not last, though. The Ox King was marching towards him, determined to finish him. He was a juggernaut, slow, but inexorable. In a few seconds he would be above him.
He decided to take them. Any instant was precious to recover from such a blow. He didn't open his eyes beyond a slit, tried to remain immobile, and slowly took in a breath. The air burned a bit in his bruised lungs, but it still felt good. He thought some energies were coming back to him.
The giant was right above him, lifting a leg for his last step, one that would end with his foot stomping on Flute's head and crushing his skull like a snail's shell. The time out was over. As the foot came down-
"Ha!," shouted Flute, suddenly pushing against the ground and rolling sideways. The Ox King's foot crushed nothing but soil and undergrowth. Angry and surprised, he turned around, and was met by another gunshot that jammed itself in his helmet.
Behind his smoking barrel, in front of him, crouched on one knee, the blonde man was panting and smiling.
"I told ya," roared the giant, "that don't do anything to me!"
He tried kicking up some dust and dirt again, but Flute saw it coming this time and had already ran away. He jumped up on a tree, grabbed a branch and swung up, hurling himself towards the next one like an acrobat on a trapeze. The Ox King ran towards the trunk, axe lifted, ready to chop it down. Another shot struck the top of his head, denting the metal that protected it. He grunted in annoyance and sliced the tree off. His enemy was already two trees away.
"Stop jumping around, ya coward!"
"Make me," replied the other, with a grin, and fired again, and again, and again, as he kept leaping from branch to branch. A couple bullets missed, but most found their mark, hammering the Ox King's helmet each time. The man screamed and cursed every time, as they didn't hurt, but they kept denting it, and the sound they made alone was enough to leave him stunned and half deaf for a second every time it happened.
Flute perched up on top of another tree and was about to reload when the Ox King, blind with rage, slammed it with his shoulder. The tree creaked and started falling, and the man didn't have time to finish before it had crashed on the ground, dragging him down with it.
He moaned in pain, but managed to get up. He went back to his gun, but the magazine wasn't there any more - and it was his last. He looked down, to the foliage and spread out branches of the fallen tree. A quick glance showed the Ox King recovering from the slam, getting back in his combat stance and advancing on him, again, tireless.
"Come on," mumbled Flute under his breath, and then there it was, he felt angular metal under his hand that was searching under all the leaves. He grabbed the magazine, slammed it into the gun, felt it click.
"Yer finished!," screamed the Ox King, raising his axe and arm in preparation of a might swing.
Flute fired the gun again, twice. It hit him again. One bullet struck his forehead, the other one of the oculars, cracking the glass and bending the metal. With a loud groan of frustration, the man's swing was disrupted, and he took a step back, stunned.
"That blasted thing! I'm going to crush it in yer hand! I can't see right now!"
With a violent hand pull, the Ox King wrenched out the helmet from his face, ripping the metal apart as he tore it. The thing was reduced to a useless mess, dented and perforated in multiple spots, to the point that he could not have taken it out the normal way.
"There, now yer not going to bother me any more!," said the man. "What'd ya think that'd do? Ya think ya can kill me if I don't wear it?"
He looked down, to the thin, small man, tiny enough he could crush him in a single hand. To his blonde hair, his smug expression, and his deep, blue eyes.
"I sure do," replied Flute. "Now please stand still."
His eyes were fixated in those of the Ox King, and the giant man could not - no, did not want - to move any more. A corner of his mind screamed fiercely about that nonsense, trying to rebel. But it was useless. It was like a captain locked into a cell by a mutinous crew, who was now willingly steering the ship to crash on a rocky coast.
The Ox King's muscles stiffened. He remained standing, in a pose that resembled a soldier on attention but without the neat elegance conferred by habit and training. His eyes were staring forward rather dumbly, and did not look at anything in particular, certainly not at the man who had now pulled out a knife and was walking towards him.
"Crouch down, if you will. How damn tall can a man get," said Flute, twirling the blade in his hand. "Ah, that's better. Guess I can't really pierce your skin unless I go for a seriously weak spot, which is annoying. Oh, well."
The voice in his head kept screaming, harder and harder, and if its anger and hate could have become strength and motion, Flute would have been burned into ash and dispersed to the winds.
He did not have control any more, but he did have sensation. The cold tip of the blade pressed lightly against his right temple, ready to slide in and stab through his brain.
"By the way," whispered Flute, leaning in to bring his mouth close to the Ox King's ear, with a wicked smile, "I'm also the one who killed your wife," and after a second he pushed the knife in, all the way to the handle.
One blip disappeared from the Dragon Radar.
"The Dragon Ball in the forest has been put into a shielding container!," shouted Bulma. "Contact Green team to ask if they have it!"
General Copper lifted an eyebrow at the outburst but didn't say anything. "Do that," he ordered to the communication officer, who nodded and put himself to work on the radio.
Bulma bit the tip of her left thumb, tapping the fingers of the other hand back and forth on the desk. Let it be our men, let it be ours, she kept thinking back and forth, unsure who she was praying to. Not any God she'd actually met, for sure.
"Green team here," said a voice through the crackle of the radio. "We don't have the Ball. We've been barely holding our own, we lost half our men. Then the enemy started withdrawing spontaneously, just a few minutes ago."
There was a pause.
"We've just found the Ox King," the voice added. "He's got a knife through his brain."
"FUCK!," shouted Bulma, slamming both hands down and standing up from her seat. She was trembling. Slowly, like nothing had happened, she sat down again. Around, no one else said anything to her, or at all. It seemed she had expressed well enough everyone's feelings.
The man had a daughter, she remembered with horror, as it was usually hard for her to connect the image of the bearded brute with a broadaxe to that of a doting father. Wait, was she supposed to tell her? How would she even start doing that?
The feed from the King's cabinet room was restored. General Copper quickly and somberly explained the circumstances, drawing worried and angry reactions in equal measure. Bulma managed to meet her father's eyes through the feed, though she was sure he wasn't actually staring at her from his viewpoint due to the arrangement of the screens. She could tell he was probably thinking the same as her.
This is going wrong in so many ways.
"That makes two Dragon Balls we've lost to the enemy," said Commander Black. "What is the status of the others?"
Bulma gulped and checked. "All four are still on the screen and did not move for - no, one moment, one is moving! Right now, it's been picked up, I think, though the resolution isn't good enough to tell - it's off the screen! One Dragon Ball has been captured!"
There was a murmur across the room. "Which one, woman?!," shouted General Copper.
The girl shook her head. "The one near the Muscle Tower. Silver team," she replied.
"Establish a contact at once! We need to know what happened!"
The feed was opened, but there was no immediate response. Bulma held her breath as the minutes passed and only static filled the room from the speakers.
He wouldn't lose. He wouldn't lose. He just would NOT, damn it.
There was a click, and, "Silver team here," finally said a voice.
"Situation report?," asked the General. "Your Dragon Ball has disappeared from our radars."
"That checks out," replied the voice. "I've got it right here with me, safe and sound, sir."
The room erupted in cheer.
Ten minutes earlier
The operation had been fast and smooth; the Instruments didn't have time to realise what hit them. While the front of the Red Ribbon forces - now turned into the rear - held still them up at the entrance of the valley, slowly backing down as if they were giving in under the pressure and regrouping further inside, Colonel Silver, Goku and a platoon of selected soldiers with armored cars pushed as fast as they could towards the end of the valley, fundamentally unopposed. Goku either stopped or deflected most of the incoming artillery, aided by spotters and sensors that detected the cannons firing through either light, when visible, or vibrations transmitted through the ground. Before the other side could organise a resistance of any kind, they already were at the other end of the valley, where the Dragon Radar detected the Ball to be found. The precise spot appeared to be on the flank of the northern mountain.
"It's probably stuck in some crevice. Or might have been grabbed and left in a nest by a bird," suggested Goku. "Do you want me to recover it?"
The Colonel massaged his chin. "We could use having you at hand. But now that we're out of that death trap we can spread out, and artillery shelling should be less effective - plus you did some damage to them already. Can you find it quickly?"
Goku touched up to his visor goggles. "I can see the signal from the Dragon Ball here," he said. "Now that we're close it's pretty clear which one it is and I can tell it from the dummies. The closest one of those is still kilometres away from here. I should be able to pinpoint it."
"Very well, then-" gunfire interrupted him, erupting from some part of the southern flank of the force. "Dang it! Go retrieve the Dragon Ball, we'll clear the way."
The boy nodded and jumped away, rapidly climbing the mountain's rocky flanks, his nimble movements and tail both conspiring to make him look like a monkey. Silver turned around and ran up to his men, some of whom had dismounted from their vehicles and were taking cover behind them.
"Just a few enemies," explained the gunner, before quickly peeking out to send a burst of bullets towards a nearby rock, pinning one of the Instruments behind it. "Less than us, we think. They probably were the closest they could muster to answer to our maneuvre."
"Good. That was stupid of them," said Silver. "If Goku finds the Dragon Ball quickly enough, we can punch through before they get any reinforcements."
"Will the boy be up to it, sir?"
"He's sure to be faster than us. We would have needed mechas to move across that cliff." The officer tapped a button on his transmitter. "Rear guard, what's your status?"
"We'll luring them in, taught them a couple times not to underestimate us when they lunged in too deep," explained a voice on the other side, not without a glint of self-satisfaction. "Now they're being nice and careful, and we've had time to retreat properly. I think they might have just been notified that we've managed to break through the artillery barrage, because it looks like they're getting agitated."
"Great. If they make a mistake in their hurry, make sure they pay the price," replied Silver, smirking. "But focus on moving towards us. We're about to make a run for it, as soon as we get the Dragon Ball."
"Sure thing, Colonel. We're coming over there."
Fire kept coming from behind the rocks the Instruments were using as cover, but it was handily kept at bay by the response. One Red Ribbon soldier cussed in pain as he got his left shoulder shot through, and he was quickly dragged down by his team mates for medication. Colonel Silver ripped out the pin of a fragmentation grenade and tossed it high in the air over the enemy position; the explosion forced the enemy to stop their assault for a while.
Goku was climbing the flank of the mountain in leaps and jumps, sometimes barely grabbing the rock with one hand or foot to propel himself forward. The radar signal guided him infallibly, as the glasses had their own small incorporated receiver that supplemented the satellite data to enhance its short range, so that he would be able to locate the Ball within a radius of two metres.
When he finally reached it, it was a somewhat flatter part of the mountain than the rest; which made sense, considering that on any steeper slope, the Dragon Ball would likely have just rolled down until it found a place to stop. The plateau was covered in snow, with little to distinguish one spot from another. Goku started digging, shoveling off the snow with his hands. He hadn't yet appreciated what it truly felt like - such a strange substance, deceptively soft yet able to turn harder if compressed, and colder than almost anything else he'd ever touched (besides perhaps ice cream, to which Bulma had introduced him back during their first outing in West City - how long ago had that been?). Still, the details of this new sensation were only occupying a corner of his mind - his main attention was towards finding the Dragon Ball. The signal in his detector kept hopelessly dancing around, as the sensor could not pin point an exact location. If only there was any sign-
Goku stopped. He remembered something - when Bulma had built a box to shield Dragon Balls for detection, she had made so out of a microwave oven. He'd later learned better the details, but thing was, the sort of waves the Dragon Balls emitted could heat up stuff. Probably not as efficiently as the ones in the oven, which were specifically tuned for it, but if given enough time for the effect to accumulate, it might be visible.
He inspected the plateau's surface quickly. The storm had ended not so long ago, which was unfortunate as it would have erased any traces older than an hour. But maybe it had been enough time. The snow cover was smooth and flat.
Except for a small, bowl-like dip in a corner.
Goku ran there and plunged his hand into the soft snow. His fingers looked for something and found it, closing around a smooth spherical surface. He pulled out the hand, and with it, the Dragon Ball. It was the seven stars one.
"I have the Dragon Ball, Colonel," he said, punching the button of his radio.
"And not a moment too early!," replied the other. "Come help us!"
"Well, I wouldn't really expect-"
Goku jumped with all his power away from the flank of the mountain, just as his flying yellow cloud approached from the sky. He met it midway through, and for a moment he sunk back into the state of mind required for him to be able to touch it, one of complete single-mindedness and purpose. It was easy at this point for him, a trained reflex.
He didn't land on the cloud - instead, after quickly taking in the situation below him, he pushed off its underside, changing direction to his momentum and accelerating even further. He slammed right in the middle of the battlefield, blasting the ground like a cannonball. The Instruments stopped firing and merely looked stunned and terrified for a moment.
Bolstered by the sight of their ally and the panic among their opponents, the Red Ribbon soldiers jumped out of cover, pouring streams of gunfire forward. Two of the Instruments remained on the ground - the other thought it wiser to cut their losses and live to fight another day. The soldiers cheered and high fived each other as Goku handed his Dragon Ball to Colonel Silver, who offered his backpack and let it slide inside. As it was one of the special shielded backpacks designed by Bulma and Lazuli, of course, this would hide it from all further detection.
"Now we have to move fast, so they'll lose track of it," said Silver. "All on board the cars! Let's rendez vous with the rest of ours and get the hell out of here!"
The armoured cars and pickups started, filled to the brim with soldiers, guns out in case any threat showed again. They left the valley behind, moving southwards, through terrain that while still difficult was far less constricting. Behind them, they heard the fire of artillery coming again from the Instruments' positions.
"Will the others be fine?," asked Goku, worried.
Colonel Silver nodded. "You crippled their batteries quite a lot. They won't be able to sustain a continuous barrage. Not to mention, at this point I think they'll try to hit us. If those idiots we let go alive did their job well of explaining the situation."
"Maybe I should go out? Run alongside the cars to stop any incoming shells?"
"Only if we see them hitting any close, but if we move fast - one moment."
The radio on the dashboard rung with the distinctive sound indicating a call from HQ. Silver opened the channel.
"Silver Team here."
"Situation report?," asked General Copper's voice. "Your Dragon Ball has disappeared from our radars."
The man grinned. "That checks out. I've got it right here with me, save and sound, sir."
There was cheering on the other side, and a general sense of relief and elation that Silver found a little worrying.
"Are we the first team to capture a Dragon Ball, sir?," he inquired.
"That's need to know only," was the brusque response. "Can you set up a video link? We need to hear and discuss your full report."
"Sure, sir. Give us a minute."
Colonel Silver and Goku moved to the back of the vehicle, where there was a little more standing room. With the help of another soldier, they pulled down a screen from the roof of the car, which then got connected to the dashboard with a cable. Once they were well set up, including a small camera pointed at them, the connection switched from simple audio to video streaming. On the screen appeared multiple sections - the main one portraying the control room at Red Ribbon HQ, and a smaller rectangle in a corner featuring the King, Dr. Briefs, Commander Black, and the ministers of the cabinet. Everyone looked quite tense, now, all happiness for their team's success drained out of them quickly. Way too quickly for things to be going overall well.
"So," started General Copper, stepping forward before the camera, taking most of the frame. "We need to have a full report on your capture of the Dragon Ball. There are things that have to be clarified."
With a nod of acknowledgment, the officer duly started recounting the entire battle, from their first clash with the enemy at the entrance of the valley to their current victory. He praised his men's discipline even in the face of apparent defeat and highlighted Goku's fundamental contributions. The reactions to his story were mixed. Some were nodding along, evidently impressed and pleased by what they were hearing - most notably, the King. Some were noncommittal, such as Commander Black, which wasn't very surprising as he was almost always impossible to read anyway. But the reaction that surprised Silver the most was the one he could see on various faces in the control room, especially General Copper's. Diffidence. Suspicion.
When he got to the last clash with the Instruments and Goku's jump from the mountainside, he was interrupted.
"So what you are saying is, the civilian Goku was the one to physically retrieve the Dragon Ball, as well as turn the tides of the battle?," asked his superior.
"Well, mostly, yes, sir," replied Silver. Was he about to get reprimanded for letting a civilian do better than the Ribbon's own soldiers? "What about it?"
"Let me speak with the boy," said the general, abruptly.
Silver gestured to Goku to come fort, and he took centre stage in the frame. Copper's eyes, ever closer to the camera, now looked like they were trying to pierce into his; the bulging mass of his reddened cheeks and double chin, erupting from the uniform's collar and further engorged by the camera's wide angle lens, was dominating the picture. Goku did not appear especially intimidated or impressed, and he calmly set to answer the questions he received.
"It seems you have fought well," started the man. "It must have been hard for you, right?"
"Somewhat," said the boy, flatly. "I was not in direct danger most of the time, but I still needed to exert great control."
"Control, huh? And why is that?"
"I had to limit collateral damage. Protect the Ribbon forces. And limit my own strength."
"Limit it? While fighting an entire army? Why would you?"
Goku looked at what he could see the scene at HQ, scanning it all for signs of what this line of questioning could mean. He noticed that right at the edge of the frame, Bulma, sitting at her station, was obviously annoyed, but she couldn't get any message through to him.
"Because I did not want to kill unnecessarily," replied finally the boy.
Copper smiled. "Not kill? But they were our enemies. Piccolo cultists. Why hold back? They were a danger to you and our men."
"I still did not want to. I do not like to kill," insisted Goku, firmly. "Whenever possible, at least. I still believe a few might have died as a consequence of my action, of course. I counted three. And I can not guarantee that the artillery shells I sent back didn't kill more."
"Moral quandaries. How... convenient," General Copper's smile twisted in a sarcastic grin. "What do you say, Commander Black? Still of the opinion that we do not have to fear from anyone?"
"This is absurd, General," replied Black, frowning. "Are you seriously suggesting that the boy who just recovered us one Dragon Ball is actually in cahoots with the enemy?"
"You said it yourself, Commander. That the mole would also have their own team attacked, but that we would be able to tell from the outcome of the fight."
Colonel Silver's eyes widened. "I'm sorry, sir, a mole? What are we talking about here?"
But the discussion was getting heated, to the point where no one heard him, let alone answered him.
"Their team should have been doomed! And they're the closest to the enemy headquarters - but little brave Goku somehow saves the day, by sweeping in, beating an entire battalion all by himself, repelling an artillery barrage, and somehow, not even killing almost anyone in the process?"
"The strength of him and his fellow fighters is exactly why we ensured their collaboration," replied Black. "This is precisely within the expected parameters, and his actions reflect the psychological profile-"
"Expected parameters? The Ox King is dead, and he can win against that many soldiers? It was an act! It's the only explanation!"
Goku raised his voice, alarmed. "The Ox King is dead? What happened?"
"General Copper, you're out of line!," roared Black, raising his voice. "I will vouch personally if necessary! I can guarantee that Goku did not pass information to the enemy! You are ordered to stop your senseless accusations now and take some time to reflect about their inanity! You know all too well that information on the Dragon Ball positions has only been disclosed to team leaders. How would have Goku passed it to the Instruments? Or how you trying to drag our brave Colonel Silver too into your conspiracy theory?"
"He could have spied on him, he was close enough when he would consult-"
"General, that was a rhetorical question! I order you to-"
"I reject that order, and invoke the rights granted to me by Article 34 of the rulebook."
Commander Black may not have been usually one to show his emotions, but right now, he was displaying them in plain sight. His eyes were burning with anger. "You wouldn't."
Goku turned to the man next to him, confused. "What's Article 34?," he asked.
"A subordinate can reject a direct superior's order if they suspect them of being compromised in some manner - not sound of mind or cooperating with the Ribbon's enemies. A superior of the superior then gets to decide whether the case stands, or if the article was misapplied, in which case the subordinate may be punished," whispered back Colonel Silver. "It's never been used on a Commander, because, well, they don't have a further superior. This is absolutely insane."
"This situation may have brewed under the late Commander Red's leadership, but who was there to blind him to this cancer as it grew under his nose? Who's now preparing us to basically be disbanded, and erase years of building up the finest army this world can offer?"
"I'm trying to give the people of the army a better chance, you imbecile!," replied Black, now completely out of control. Next to him, the King and Dr. Briefs looked quite uncomfortable, unsure if they should interfere or not. Some of the ministers were outright snickering at the sight. "As I am with you now! Withdraw your accusations, renounce the Article 34 rights, or I will order everyone in that room who still understands what loyalty is to-"
"I will not! Unless you can give me any actually convincing argument for why Goku couldn't possibly be a mole - or why there would not be a mole at all!"
"Oh, for fuck's sake! This is so stupid!" Everyone turned to see Bulma raising from her seat and screaming with full lungs. Most seemed surprised, but Commander Black seemed downright alarmed. "Commander, if you will not say it, I will. General, Goku can not be the mole, no one can be the mole, because they did not have the full information about the position of the Dragon Balls."
There was a moment of silence. "What do you mean?" asked finally Copper.
"We said we'd give everyone maps with all seven positions of the Dragon Balls, but that was not true," she continued. "The Commander had exactly your same worries about the Instruments having left a mole inside, because he's not stupid, you know. So we gave everyone different maps, where only their target Dragon Ball was marked correctly, and the other were duds. This way, if someone was a mole, we would have found out by which site they sent the enemy to. But none of that happened. No one could have passed this information, because only the Commander and me knew about this plan, and only I had seen-"
She stopped herself in her tracks. The room had gotten really quiet, and General Copper was walking towards her. Commander Black was pinching the bridge his nose, troubled.
"See, miss Bulma, that is why I said you shouldn't disclose that, no matter what."
"Only you, huh?" General Copper stood in front of her and took out his gun, pointing it straight at her forehead. "That makes this very simple."
"DON'T YOU DARE LAY A FINGER ON MY DAUGHTER, YOU SWINE!," shouted Dr. Briefs, but he was behind a screen, and even had he been there, he couldn't have done much to help her, thought Bulma, as she stared down the barrel of a gun once more.
"Seriously?" she groaned. "General, do you think I would say that if it was actually me who passed the information to the Instruments? There must be some other way the enemy is using to spy on us!"
"Who knows. Step away from that console," he said, unwavering.
"Bulma, let them arrest you!," shouted Goku urgently. "I can always-"
"This is not an arrest," said Copper. "It's an execution. Why is that link still on? Cut it now!"
There was an explosion of screams of outrage and anger and worry - Goku, Dr. Briefs, Commander Black, the King. Others could only watch in bafflement and morbid fascination.
"General, if you really mean that, don't think for one moment I'll let you have your way," hissed Bulma.
"STOP THAT MADMAN! SOMEONE STOP-"
"GENERAL, YOU ARE AS MUCH OF A TRAITOR AS-"
"AS YOU KING, I ORDER YOU TO-"
"CUT THAT LINK! NOW!"
The call ended, abruptly. The screen, now black, only reflected back the shocked expressions with which Goku and Colonel Silver had watched the drama unfold.
"General, if you really mean that, don't think for one moment I'll let you have your way," hissed Bulma.
"STOP THAT MADMAN! SOMEONE STOP-"
"GENERAL, YOU ARE AS MUCH OF A TRAITOR AS-"
"AS YOU KING, I ORDER YOU TO-"
"CUT THAT LINK! NOW!"
Someone snapped out of the stupor in which everyone had seemingly fallen and executed the order. Connections to both the King's war room and Colonel Silver's team were cut.
"Much better," said Copper, with a smile. "And now-"
He didn't have time to say anything else, or shoot. Bulma darted forward with a sudden jolt in her movements and got inside his defence, getting past the stretched arm that held the gun and close to his body, looking at him from right in front of his chest. She'd been fast, too fast for any reaction. Too fast for a human.
Her left hand darted to the side and slammed right into the gun arm. It was not an especially graceful or well coordinated movement, it was just ridiculously quick. The hit was punctuated by a cracking and snapping sound, and General Copper screamed, his whole arm bent like it had acquired a new joint between elbow and wrist. His grip loosened, and Bulma's fingers immediately ran to the hand, snatching the gun out of it. Then the man's scream was cut short as a second blow, Bulma's right hand this time, pushed hard against his chest. Not hard as the previous blow, or it would have crushed his ribs outright, but hard enough to lift more than one hundred kilograms of general straight off the floor, and send him hurling gracelessly into a nearby desk, which crashed under the weight, spreading paper everywhere.
Bulma lowered her right arm, panting with the great effort. The left one now held firmly Copper's gun. Everyone else was still too stunned to react.
"Don't... follow me." she gasped, in between her deep breaths. "I will shoot... faster... than you can even think."
No one reacted, or tried to call her bluff. She simply walked to the edge of the room, back to the door and gun outstretched, watching out for any movement or sign of opposition. When her right hand found the knob of the door, she pushed it open and immediately ran out, leaving the room to finally explode in outrage.
She ran, clutching her gun, and her mind now screaming with the urgency of the thousand questions she needed answers to now, if she wanted to live any longer. Mostly, what to do, where to go, and how to keep avoiding the forces of what was arguably still the second biggest army in the world while she was smack at the heart of their power, and once the simple shock of seeing a teenager manhandle a general like he was a ragdoll wore out. She ran fast, but did not draw the power of her ki to do so - her whole body hurt enough as it was already. She wasn't even sure if she could have really made good of her threat back in the control room, had someone tried to shoot her. Certainly she couldn't have done much if they all decided to attack her, damn the consequences. And if she met any sizeable force ready for combat, she'd be dead, either killed by them or by her own Mark II chip if she pushed it any further without regard for her body's integrity.
An alarm blared throughout the corridors. A voice started barking something in anger about traitors loose on the base. Even without the blatant gasps of pain that punctuated it she could have recognised the peculiar tone of General Copper's arrogant tirades anywhere at this point. Apparently, not even having a broken arm, a few cracked ribs and possibly a concussion was enough to shut the asshole up. There was a small part of Bulma that wished she'd pushed just a little harder with her right hand.
She heard hurried steps, as Copper's call put the entire base in motion. There was a closet next to her, and she opened it and hid inside. She could hear a whole squad of soldiers marching past in the corridors, as she breathed in the dusty air and waited in darkness, and hoped dearly that no one thought to check her hideout. They ran past, and once silence had come back, she sighed in relief and stepped out. Definitely, hiding until the situation calmed down was the best strategy, but she needed a much better place than some cupboard.
Meanwhile, though, together with all the questions that were relevant to her immediate survival, there was another that racked her brain and pertained to a more long term concern about herself and the world at large. That is - how the fuck had the Instruments actually managed to create this entire situation? It was obvious at this point to her that this was deliberate. Not only had they gained intel they should not have, but they had managed to cause their enemies to be torn by infighting and suspicion by doing so. Bulma was really sure there could be no mole. No mole could have leaked as much information as they seemed to possess - not only on the Dragon Balls, there were other cases where they had seemingly known beforehand what to do precisely to inconvenience the Ribbon's forces the most, though that was not always, or Goku and the rest of Silver Team would have had a harder time prevailing. But still, how could they know things that had been so rigidly compartmentalised even within the Red Ribbon itself? Really, it would have almost required a fortune-teller to be able to divine some of the things that-
She stopped. Well, her thinking stopped. Her legs kept running desperately, carrying her forward, hopefully to safety. But if her guess was right, safety would be a much harder objective to reach.
"That bitch," she hissed, gritting her teeth.
"I have the Ball, my dear friends."
Flute smiled at the camera, one hand raised to hold up a shielded box. Its fingers were dripping with blood, a detail which he seemed to have purposefully ignored.
"Glad you're so happy, Flute," grumbled Cymbal, displeased. "Because things here keep looking more and more like shit."
"What, do you want me to come back and give a hand?" replied the man, with a slightly mocking tone. "If you ask nicely-"
"We'll do just fine," intervened Piano. "Just focus on linking up with whatever of our forces you can find close enough who need help. I'll leave the best choice to your judgement."
"As you wish. Flute out."
Cymbal turned to the old ptero, annoyed. "What was that about? We could have used that."
Outside, a distant explosion echoed, and the shockwave made the building tremble slightly. Distant, but not quite as much as it should have been.
"It would have taken him too long to fly here by plane," Piano shrugged. "and by then it will all be settled, one way or another. Trust me. I believe I have been of quite some use in this operation, yes?"
Cymbal snorted, which was as close as he'd get to an outright concession.
"Still not sure where you get all that information from," he said. "Your spy's good. If only you-"
"Tut, tut. My sources are mine," replied the other. "In fact, I think I will now go and consult them for a bit of help in this circumstance."
The younger ptero looked taken by surprise. "Wait, they can help us? Is your spy with the team that's attacking us?"
"You think I would admit it if that was the case?," asked Piano, with a smirk. Then he left the room, leaving the other more puzzled than ever. But not any less willing to follow wherever Piano's mysterious intel would lead - because until then, it had led only to victory, and even Cymbal wasn't stupid enough to deny that.
Of course, the spy was not with the attacking team. In fact, there was no spy at all - which provided a nice bonus, as it would generate a healthy amount of suspicion and infighting amidst the enemy. His method of gathering intel was far more infallible and powerful than that, and to be fair, he would have perhaps taken more pride in it if he didn't feel like it had almost literally fallen in his lap. Still, it was up to him to make use of this boon to the best of his abilities, and in fact, he suspected the long hand of the Maestro may hide behind what seemed like an incredibly lucky coincidence.
The room was, officially, part of Mai's apartments. He found her standing guard in front of it, as she'd been ordered.
"Any new information from her?," asked Piano.
Mai saluted quickly, then relaxed and answered, "No, sir. She's been resting for a while, I believe. The work is apparently taxing on her."
The ptero clicked his tongue. "Well, well, I'm sorry to have to disturb her up, then. But I'm sure she would not want to have an artillery shell blast her room open either, so I think she'll be understanding."
"Artillery?" Mai frowned. "Sir, I've heard the explosion, what is going on?"
"An old friend of yours, I believe," he replied. "But answering that question is precisely what I'm here for. If you don't mind?"
Mai nodded, and using a key she drew from a breast pocket she opened the door. Inside, the room was dimly lit, with only a small window with a closed Venetian blind letting some white light inside. There was a table, a bed, and little more; enough for a comfortable stay. A door in a corner led to a private bathroom.
The only occupant of the room was seemingly dozing off, but not on the bed. Nor was she standing or sitting normally either. Rather, she was huddled on top of a shiny floating crystal globe, the wide brimmed hat pushed on her head to shield her from disturbances. When she heard the door open, she raised her head.
"Is that you again?," she asked, with a hoarse voice. "I thought you knew all you needed."
Piano smiled and made a slight bow. "I apologise for disturbing you, lady Baba. I require your assistance once more."
Sorry for the extremely long wait! I just want to confirm that neither me nor this fic are dead, but unfortunately the whole pandemic ordeal has distracted me and caused me a lot of stress and additional workload, and, well, that resulted in me not having exactly either as much time to write or inspiration as usual. Don't expect very fast updates going on either - I'll try, but it'll be very hit and miss, depending on the situation - but I'm still on this.
This chapter also may have some of the darker stuff yet. I hope the tonal shift isn't too much, but it was always the plan that this arc would go some rather ugly places. It won't be constant but there will be some other moments of this caliber.
Thanks to all for reading and reviewing! I hope you're all fine in these hard times. Stay safe!