Disclaimer: the idea and characters of Dragon Ball are owned by Akira Toriyama. This is a simple non-profit fan parody.

Chapter 34 - Crouching Turtle, Hidden Crane

One month ago

There was an air of meditative quiet around the dojo, exactly as it should be for such a place. The water ponds were barely rippling, caressed by a feeble breeze, and back and forth swayed the lotus plants, their flowers full in bloom and filling the air with a fragrant scent. Cicadas sung loudly, and the only other sound was that of the rustling of the clothes of the two men who kneeled on their cushions at a low table, in a porch which opened on the garden. The Crane Hermit, Shen, wore sunglasses and a curiously shaped hat, with a head on top like a bird's, and his usual green and yellow blouse; his brother, Tao Pai Pai, the infamous assassin, had forgone his pink clothes for a more formal flowing, breathing silk robe.

"Bring the tea, Tien!," shrieked the Hermit, suddenly breaking the atmosphere of peace, "we haven't got all day."

A young man, wearing the Crane school's uniform and his head shaved, came out of the dojo, carrying a tray with effortless precision and grace. He lowered himself, put down cups for both men, poured tea, and just as swiftly and silently as he'd come, he left, not without a quick bow.

But what caught most Tao Pai Pai's attention was his forehead, where a third eye opened right in the middle.

"Your pupil?," he asked, raising an eyebrow. "Quite the well mannered boy."

"Yes, good ones are hard to find these days, but I guess he's all right," replied the master. "And very strong. He's got talent. I was thinking, next time, I might even enlist him in the Tenkaichi Tournament. Seeing that even that old Turtle in some ridiculous disguise had the gall of-"

"I don't care about tournaments, you know," replied quickly Tao. He knew very well that letting his brother go on about his old rival was a guarantee of a perpetually derailed conversation. "I'm here to talk about something else."

Shen snorted. "Ah, yes, you've never been one for fame. Except you're the most famous guy in the family, in spite of all your efforts. So, what is it that you want to chat about? Since you must be so business-like even when we're having tea in such a nice place."

Tao drew a small sip, then put down his cup. "Piccolo."

There was a crack of shattered porcelain.

"Tien!," called the Crane Hermit, tossing aside the shards, "I need a new cup! And bring a rag to clean the table!"

A grunt of ackowledgement came from inside, then, before Tien, another pupil came out - much shorter, and so white-faced he looked like a circus clown. "Tien is filling the cup, but I will clean up, master," said the little thing, floating above the table and spreading open his palms. Porcelain shards and spilled liquid alike lifted off from the table. The droplets of tea gleamed like glass beads in the sunlight, spherical but slightly wobbling in shape under the telekinetic force that kept them afloat.

"Good job, Chiaotzu," replied the Hermit. "By the way, I changed my mind. I don't need the tea. Tell Tien to stay inside, and neither of you come out until we've finished talking, do you understand me?"

"Understood, master," replied Chiaotzu with a little nod, "We will do as you ask." Then he floated away, carrying all the stuff he'd cleaned up with him.

Master Shen turned to his brother again. "Now that they're not bothering us, what's this about Piccolo? I trust you wouldn't just want to hear me tell the story. You know I hate doing that."

"Someone came looking for me, hired me for a strange job," said Tao Pai Pai. "About three weeks ago. I don't care about my customers much normally, but the whole situation was very curious. So I looked into him."

"I wonder if that bit of looking into left a substantial trail of bodies."

"Not at all. It was just fun, after all, not work. And my name alone makes people very talkative."

The assassin took a sip of his tea, while his interlocutor only could fiddle with his hands and hope for him to get to the point already.

"It turns out this guy was from the large organisation that broke off from the Red Ribbon Army. During the incident at the Tenkaichi. I had worked with the Ribbon sometimes, so that's how they heard my name first - though I still don't have a clue about how they found me. I trust you've heard of them?"

"I may be a lonely old geezer living like a hermit with only two pupils for company, but I do have a TV," grumbled the other. "Of course I've heard of them."

"Ah, that's common knowledge, sure. But what most people do not know is their objective. Apparently, they want to bring Piccolo back into this world."

The Crane Hermit felt sorely that he was missing some tea, now. This would have been a good moment to spit it.

"Are they crazy?!," he shrieked. "They can't-"

"They are, and yes, they probably can too," replied Tao, with a wry smile.

"You're not actually helping them, are you, brother? I don't know how well they're paying-"

"I am helping. I pledged to do a job, I got paid in advance, even. I will honour that," curtly said the other. "But they might offer me more jobs after that, and I might help them with those too."

"Why? For the love of the heavens, why? I know you did not face Piccolo personally, but I can assure you-"

"Let me tell you a story. Back when Piccolo first was roaming the Earth, I once passed through a little village on my way to a job. They had been visited by the Demon King, and he had left the kind of mark you came to expect from him. I'm not sure why did he even leave someone alive, except perhaps that he found it amusing to think about how much they would struggle afterwards."

"The thing is, all these survivors were facing starvation in the upcoming winter. Too many fields, too few hands to work them, you see? But even so, I already had a reputation, and when they heard my name, they gathered everything they had and paid it to me, to kill Piccolo. It was a pittance, really. Some sacks of rice, a few chickens. But I accepted it as a fair price."

The Crane Hermit snorted. "I didn't make you so sentimental, brother. Those peasants got what they wanted anyway, in the end, and by now, they've been dead for centuries. Are you telling me you feel still beholden to that?"

"Sentiment has nothing to do with it. I accepted a contract. It's a stain to my honour that it has gone unfulfilled for so long, and that Piccolo is still alive. But do you realise why did I even accept such a small price in the first place? The truth is, I was already interested. I had heard the stories, and I wanted to face him personally. You and Muten have had that chance, albeit when you only were students."

"And we would have gotten destroyed if old Mutaito didn't conjure that crazy trick!," shrieked Shen. "And even if I knew how to replicate it, I have no desire of giving my life for the sake of taking down that monster!"

"Neither do I, worry not," his brother scoffed. "And had I truly gone through with it at the time, I would have lost for sure. But do you really think he would be such a difficult opponent now? We have centuries of experience and training under our belts. The martial arts have been refined way past what they were at the time. Your memories of him are those of an impressionable young man facing an insurmountable threat. I feel confident I am now at the peak of my power. I have not met a real challenge for years."

"And you say you despise tournaments? You're crazier than most of the people who fight in those!"

"What can I say? Maybe all my years really are catching up to me," said Tao, smiling. "Just to make things clear, I did not come here to ask you for advice. You will not sway me. I have already decided to help these people - as long as they can make it worth my while, of course, I do not run a charity enterprise. But I thought I would let you know. Since I'm throwing my lot with them-"

"They're going to win," said Shen, pinching his nose. "Oh, by all hells, they're going to win and free him, aren't they?"

"Unless they run out of money to pay me with first," confirmed Tao, smiling. "I confide no one in this world would be able to stop me, after all."

Not even you, brother, said his stare, and the Hermit didn't even feel like objecting anything because, yes, that sounded about right.

"If you can't be dissuaded from this madness," groaned the Crane Hermit, "what do you even expect me to do?"

"What you see fit," replied the other, getting up from the table. "You have around one month to prepare. Adapt, act, fight, if you don't feel like only entrusting things to me. Do what you need to survive and protect what you care about."

He gave him a last, smug smile.

"Last time you faced him, you did that very well, am I right?"


Chiaotzu hovered a few metres above the tips of the trees, looking around with a binocular. Not too far from there, there was smoke rising from the forest, and a few patches of cut vegetation, but the explosions and shooting had stopped for a while. The little man's eyes focused especially on that area, but now and then he checked nearby spots too. Finally, he descended, handing back the binoculars to his master, who had extended an expectant arm as soon as he'd gotten in range. Those things were expensive.

"The battle is over," reported Chiaotzu. "There's one big dead guy with a beard they're carrying away. I think he was one of the two who were fighting earlier."

"Probably the Ox King, from the sound of it," snorted Shen. "An old pupil of the Turtle geezer. Figures that such poor teachings would fail him one day. What about the other army?"

The pupil pointed a finger towards the north-east. "They're going in that direction. I think they have a camp. I've seen some planes taking off."

"Let's move then, or we'll miss them," said Tien, hurriedly.

"What did I say about giving orders before I do?"

"I'm sorry, master."

"That's better. Now let's move, or we'll miss them."

The group of three martial artists moved swiftly and silently through the forest. Tien and Shen ran effortlessly at inhuman speeds, and despite the difference of age, there was no sign that the old master had any trouble keeping pace with his younger pupil. Meanwhile, Chiaotzu simply levitated while keeping a hold of Tien's shoulders, and let himself be carried that way.

When they arrived, the camp was still in activity. The Instruments' soldiers were quickly tearing it down, though, re-encapsulating the various temporary structures, caches of supplies, and vehicles, while deploying the planes on which then they loaded personnel and caches of material. A perimeter of guards was posted all around, and they did not seem the kind that expected visits - more the shoot-on-sight kind. So, Shen decided, there was no point bothering with trying to reason with them. As long as the damage was limited, everything could be forgiven in due time. He gave a sign to Chiaotzu, who nodded with his eternal cheery (and somewhat creepy) smile and then proceeded to point a finger towards one of the guards and send a thin zap of ki through his entire nervous system, shocking it into utter paralysis. The guard's muscles went into spasms and stiffened, his mouth started foaming, his eyes remained blocked wide open, and his very diaphragm contracted and pushed every ounce of oxygen out of his lungs at once. After a few seconds, the guy was knocked out and Chiaotzu mercifully ended the technique. This, Shen insisted in calling the "Crane School Paralysis Attack," even though Chiaotzu had developed it on his own, neither he nor Tien had managed to learn it since it required a level of fine ki control that was plain freakish, and would mostly be useless in any battle against a worthy enough opponent, since it could only affect those whose own ki couldn't act as a natural defence against the trick.

They slipped through the gap left open in the perimeter.

Inside, it was somewhat easier to avoid detection. The place was still crawling with soldiers, even though some had already started leaving, but there also were plenty of half-disassembled structures, or vehicles just left out in the open, and everyone was so busy, they simply could move fast from cover to cover and never be noticed. Eventually, they ended up spotting someone who clearly acted important - a young blonde man wearing an officer's uniform. Inconspicuously, they simply walked to his side, approaching from behind.

"Operation's shaping up quite nice, huh?," said Shen, as casually as if he was talking about the weather.

"Yeah, it sure is," replied Flute. It took him approximately a second to process fully what had just happened, grab his gun, turn around and shoot. At the end of it, he found himself staring at an old man holding a bullet between thumb and index finger.

He raised his eyes and noticed that the old man was wearing sunglasses, as well as his two bodyguards following him from behind. The man grunted in frustration and put away his clearly useless gun. "Who in the world are you?," he asked.

"Master Shen, the Crane Hermit. I have a dojo around here. These are my two pupils, Tien and Chiaotzu. I was meditating in my rooms when I was disturbed by all your shooting and blowing stuff up-"

"I apologise for that. We'll be on our way, so be reassured it's a one time thing," replied Flute drily.

"-but on our way here, we've heard some interesting things. Some of your soldiers told us you fight to give the world to the strong."

The officer frowned. "Who told you that?"

"Oh, don't worry, when they wake up I'm sure they'll rejoin you. But that sounds interesting. We are quite strong ourselves."

Flute took another look at the three of them, head to toe. He seemed to appraise something about them - be it their physique, their expressions, or just the way they'd positioned themselves in front of him, half surrounding him and looking at him from three different directions.

"Sure," he said finally, with a shrug and a smile. "Who am I to stop you? Welcome aboard. Come with us and I'll let you meet someone who can explain you our whole deal better than me."

The King's private council room had gone through a lot after the link from Red Ribbon HQ was cut brusquely by General Copper, but very little of it had an effect on the bigger picture, which was the root of their problems. At first, Dr. Briefs had a full on panic attack. For all intents and purposes, he had just seen his daughter ordered to be sent to death. He kept screaming with anger for a while, red in the face; most of his rants were aimed at Commander Black, but not all, and it was a good thing all in all that King Furry wasn't too hung on that whole lese majesté thing. Then he ran out of voice or breath, and ended up collapsing on a chair, in a dark mood, holding his face among his hands and sobbing uncontrollably. He finally managed to calm him down when Commander Black reassured him that, despite how much he would have disapproved of it in normal circumstances, he should know that Bulma had experimented on herself by implanting her new microchip inside her; and surely she wouldn't have let some obese general best her if she could do something about it. General Copper would be lucky if he ever walked again, after what she'd likely do to him.

"That does sound like what Bulma would be like with super strength, yes," managed to say the doctor, wiping out his tears and managing to keep any further ones mostly inside. He still remained extremely depressed, and sat in a corner without contributing anything to the discussions. Commander Black could not hope to get a much better result anyway with his little white lie. He did omit that he didn't exactly know that Bulma had installed her chip on herself; rather, it was just a very well-informed guess from everything else he knew of her and Dr. Gero's activities. He had mostly avoid knowing more on purpose, for the sake of plausible deniability about the whole human experimenting on minors without their parents' explicit permission. Also, he really hoped this was how things had gone. He would eventually sock General Copper personally for his idiocy, but him having gotten a well-deserved advance already from a seventeen years old girl was just too precious an image to let it go.

Next had come the discussion about what to do and how to act from now on. Commander Black found himself put on the spot again, and this time he did not even have the heart to defend himself much.

"Two mutinies in a few months, and you managed to lose a whole army!," said General Liu. "That's surely one way of ending up in the history books."

And the thing was, he was absolutely right. So, unable to object much, and overcome by his own dark thoughts, though he might show them less than Dr. Briefs, Black simply tried to comply and do his best to cooperate with the organisation of a quick response with what was left of the anti-Piccolo forces still under their control, namely, the Royal Defence Force. Having secured the cities and confirmed that every other battle was taking place in far off rural areas, it was agreed that at least some of the RDF could be mobilised to assist in the fighting. The question was whether the individual Ribbon forces present on the stage could be trusted to cooperate - which in the end came down on a judgement on their individual leaders' character. Black gave his best analysis of that, though his recent experiences left him somewhat doubting about his quality as a judge of character.

"Colonel Silver is smart and honourable. He will instantly see that taking down the Instruments takes priority," was his conclusion. "The same applies to Major Cobalt. Colonel Violet is very adaptable; she will do what has the best chance of getting her and her men out alive, and would not engage on a second front for the heck of it. Major Ocra is the one I would be more wary of. He's ruthless and suspicious, and might agree with General Copper on this matter. He would not plunge himself in an unnecessary battle that he can't win, but he might be suspicious or uncooperative."

It was at this point that they received a phone call. Or rather, since phones were forbidden in the meeting room, the security detail outside, to whom all the participants' cell phones had been left in custody, received a phone call. It arrived on Dr. Briefs' phone, and the officer talking quickly explained that he'd gotten the number from the doctor's wife; and he'd gotten her number from a manager in Capsule Corporation to whom he'd explained the situation; and he'd gotten in touch with him thanks to being directed after he made enough of a stink at CC's customer service, whose number was stuck virtually on every piece of non-military equipment they were using. The caller introduced himself as Major Brown, from Colonel Silver's unit. He quickly explained their situation - how Goku had stepped up and taken the matters in his own hands, how Silver and two more augmented soldiers had gone to help him fight. They did not know much about the Dragon Balls any more, but last they'd seen, the ki signatures of the two fighters had been moving fast north, away from the battlefield. He also explained that they'd gotten far enough to pack up and start moving with planes again, though they were hoping to wait for Colonel Silver to return before they did that. Black hesitated a moment, but in the end he ordered that they don't wait. The safety of the entire force took priority, and they might not have as easy a time withdrawing if they gave the enemy time to reorganise. Colonel Silver could well look after himself, and find a way to get in touch and rejoin on his own.

Having one line of contact made it easier to find a connection to the other groups. Soon, using just regular phones, albeit they switched to apps providing encrypted calls as soon as possible, Commander Black and his officers had formed a new small command network. Major Cobalt and Colonel Violet were contacted almost immediately afterwards. They both confirmed having recovered their assigned Dragon Balls and being in the process of withdrawing from the battlefield, having suffered some losses from the attack. Major Ocra was harder to contact, but when he spoke with Commander Black, while reluctantly, he agreed to the need of coordination at this moment. In particular since, as he had to admit, his team had suffered easily the greatest casualties, and many had been taken prisoners after their initial defeat. That the Instruments would keep them alive as hostages was just a faint hope, given their ruthlessness. Since all forces were weakened, a plan was conceived for them to meet and concentrate at a spot south-east of the Capital, where they would receive assistance and cover from the RDF. After that, something else had to be decided; the current situation would be of three Dragon Balls controlled by the Red Ribbon, two by the Instruments, and two more in Goku's hands, wherever those might be - and it could have been three and one instead, if Goku's attack on Muscle Tower had been unsuccessful or cut short by the unknown interference, which at the moment no one knew. That was not a result anyone would be happy with. At some point, a reckoning would have to happen; it was just a matter of deciding where and when it would be more convenient, and manoeuvring so the enemy would be coaxed into it.

Another thing remained unknown. Of all the teams they managed to get in touch with, no one had received any further messages from HQ, and no one knew what was going on there.

Darkness. Stiffness. Pain.

The sound of an argument escalating into a screaming match. One particular hoarse, raspy, angry voice raising above all.

Cold metal constraining all movement. The stench of chemicals. Thirst. Sense of suffocation.

A door opening, then being slammed violently, sending vibrations to shake the metal and the air itself. More arguing, this time more easily made out.

"...the nerve! The absolute nerve! To think about searching my laboratory, putting their paws on all of my stuff, breaking who knows what with their clueless mitts, just because that fat imbecile-"

"Please speak with more respect of the General," said a female voice, then adding, in a lower tone, "at least where his men could still hear us."

"Oh, I'll speak of him how I damn please! I've survived worse trouble than this! Knuckleheads and brutes, the lot of these guys, with guns for brains. I collaborated with the girl, so what? As if I were some sentimental dumbass who would risk his career over-"

The metal sarcophagus, a mold meant to press into shape plastic casings for humanoid robots that looked almost like an ancient torture device, crashed open. Out of it tumbled to the ground Bulma's figure, barely able to stand on all four on the floor.

"Why, I love you too, old goat," she said, still gasping for air. "It's nice to know you have my back."

Lapis and Lazuli, who were escorting doctor Gero, exchanged looks and decided to bolt to the aid of the girl. The doctor simply remained staring at her, utterly dumbfounded.

"That mold is delicate!," he shrieked. "I'd have you fix the damage if I didn't know you'd just screw it up even worse!"

Bulma breathed heavily as the twins helped her to her feet. "By all means, do scream and alert everyone to my presence. I'm sure that will be easy to explain, after you went to all that effort to avoid them searching the laboratory."

"How long have you been in there?," asked Lazuli.

Bulma pinched her nose. "Almost since the beginning. I did not have a chance to actually escape the whole base, so I simply broke a window to make it look like I'd jumped outside, then tracked back and hid in here. I'm guessing that didn't work?"

"It did for a while," explained Lapis, handing to her a bottle of water, from which she drank avidly. "They followed that trail for some time, but eventually realised from the surveillance cameras that you had not escaped anywhere, and so they figured the trick out."

"Eh, it was worth a shot. But to answer Lazuli's question... I have no idea. I was just locked in there, mostly I was simply worried about not breathing too loudly. How much time did pass?"

The blonde girl shrugged. "Three hours, more or less. The whole base is a mess. After the number you did on him, Copper has gone full crazy. He's locked everything down. All communications interrupted, we haven't heard from the search teams any more. He's started questioning people, some have been arrested, and-"

"-and let's tell the whole story from the Big Bang since we're at it!," shouted Gero. "I don't care about any of that! I want you out of the lab now! Before anyone else comes snooping around!"

"Sorry can't do." Bulma crossed her arms. "We're all going. You will help me escape."

The doctor's eyes crossed. "What the hell makes you think-"

"I realised something very important on my way here," she continued. "And I need to tell everyone. If this whole place has gone as crazy as you say, there's no way we can get access to good communications while we're inside here. I had to leave my smartphone behind before entering the control room, but even if I had it using it would just help them find me faster. I need to get out, the fate of the whole world might depend on that. So, sorry to drag you all into this, but you will help me."

"I don't mind," Lapis shrugged. "If you ask me, I was just thinking of ways we could make a run for it myself. I'm not going to stick around until Copper decides that everyone who's ever exchanged two words with you should be put in front of a firing squad."

"I do mind! I'm not leaving my laboratory and my precious work!," protested Gero.

"Now, that's just silly. Of course you're not going to leave that, we're going to need it," said Bulma. "You're going to stuff everything that's irreplaceable and can go unnoticed into capsules, and we're carrying the lot of it with us. Everything else, you'll get a newer model of at Capsule Corporation."

"I-" Gero hesitated, thinking of the offer. "Why would I even risk this all helping you? Who cares! Get lost!"

Bulma pointed at her ears. "Did I wear any earrings this morning?"

"How in damnation should I know?!"

"Suppose I did," she continued. "Then maybe I lost them during my escape here. Maybe the security cameras would show them on me earlier. And maybe they just happened to fall and roll under some of this machinery, or in some other corner of this messy lab. And maybe they would be in a very hard to find place, where we could never locate them in a few minutes, but a full investigation team searching the lab would eventually find it, and make the connection-"

She smiled. He frothed at his mouth.

Lazuli finally broke the stalemate. "I'll get in touch with dad, tell him to ready his van," she said. "I think it'll be best if we all get out of here as soon as possible."

The ride on Flute's plane was pretty comfortable. While most grunts would be shipped around packed tight like sardines in landing crafts loaded at maximum capacity, officers in the Red Ribbon enjoyed some luxuries proportionally to their importance. Having been a general before his defection, and always particular about his own comfort, even more so than anyone else in the army, so his personal plane was straight up extravagant. But for this trip, he spent his time in the cabin, keeping up to date with a constantly evolving situation and giving orders on the fly, and graciously left his personal lounge to his new guests. Now Chiaotzu had found a large beanbag chair and had sunk almost entirely in it, occasionally making angel shapes by waving his little arms; Master Shen was carefully inspecting the minifridge's content and picking the most expensive spirits to loot; and Tien simply stood on attention, seemingly unable to make out what to do with luxuries.

"That's my best pupil," said Shen, proud. "Always focused and ready to react to danger, aware of his surroundings! You should learn from him, Chiaotzu." He then took a swig of Yahhoi whisky from a can.

"Master, can we trust this man?," asked the best pupil. "Didn't he let us in too easily?"

The master snorted. "What a stupid question. Of course we can't trust him. He just saw his options were limited, because we had the upper hand. He realised we're strong. If we're on his side, good, and if we're his enemies, he figures he might as well fight us on his own turf and have a better chance. He's a coward, but a smart coward. Probably has some trick up his sleeve."

"But we're on his side, right?," said Chiaotzu. "Like master Tao."

"Don't be a dunce! We're on our own side," snapped back the master. The little pupil bowed his head, humbled by his teacher's reproach. "Tao can look after himself. We look after us. We're here to scout the situation and decide where it's better for us to stand. Remember! Hiding in the shadows, biding our time, finding our enemy's weak spots, adapting and fighting only when victory is assured - that is the Crane's way!"

Then, satisfied after his little spiel, Shen put his drink on a table. "Now," he announced just as solemnly, "I gotta go to the can."

The two pupils were left to their thoughts and meditations. Chiaotzu kept dreamily looking at the ceiling, from his position sunk in the beanbag.

"I'm sure master knows best," he said, "but doesn't that sound more like a snake than a crane?"

"You said it, master knows best, so why even bring it up?," snapped Tien, staring judgmentally at the other with the full indignation of all three his eyes.

"And anyway," he added later, "it would be a cooler animal, if anything. Something like a tiger."

Historically, war had always been defined by the need to maintain constant and reliable supply lines able to keep an army running. For that reason, when Dr. Briefs first introduced capsules to the world, he transformed military strategy more than any new ultimate weapon would have. Suddenly, supplies stopped being a problem; months worth of food, ammo and fuel, not to mention entire armoured divisions, could be stuffed inside a single plane's hold. The limiting factor suddenly became human soldiers, who couldn't be stored in capsules (or to be more precise, they could: they just wouldn't be of much use afterwards). Tactics changed accordingly, with armies enjoying fully their newly boosted mobility and using it to move around, strike quickly and deeply at key objectives, and then vanish just as quickly. This was how the war for the Dragon Balls had started, and how it had been planned jointly by the RDF and by the Red Ribbon: a series of incursions, which combined with the advantage in knowledge given by the fake Dragon Ball signals, would lead to a fast resolution. The ideal goal was to end up with six Balls versus the Instruments' only one, thus luring them out in the open and with the best chances at picking how and where to fight them. But as all the best strategists know, plans don't have the best survival record upon contact with the enemy.

Now, there were still three full Red Ribbon teams on the field in possession of a Dragon Ball, plus the now headless Silver Team trying to join up from the north. Coordinating their movements would have been easier had they had the chance to simply pack everything up and speedily withdraw by air, but that was not an option any more. Ocra Team had been decimated while Muten was looking for the Dragon Ball underwater, and among the lost supplies were many of the planes necessary to transport the troops. As a result, what remained of it (which was not much) was forced to move by land, still hounded by whatever stubborn remnants of their Instruments attackers had not been destroyed by the old master. Though they were keeping their distance, now.

Cobalt Team had had more luck, but it still had suffered some losses, having had to defend and search for the Dragon Ball while surrounded. Yamcha had then managed to punch a hole in their encirclement large enough for them to break through, but again, taking off was not an option. It would have taken time and room to decapsulate all planes and load them, and they had neither. Their rearguard was still occasionally getting into skirmishes with the Instruments, and battles for air superiority between fighter planes were taking place above them. Until the sky was safe, taking off with slow, heavy cargo planes would have been suicide anyway. Yamcha would have gladly tried to help, though he doubted he could take on literally the entire division pursuing them, but Major Cobalt was categorical about the need for their strongest asset to protect the Dragon Ball. In fact, she was confident that right now, trying to draw him away to then sweep in and steal it with a strike from some force currently kept in reserve was exactly the strategy the Instruments' were attempting, and so playing into their hands was just not an option.

Finally, Violet Team was flying, because they had never had to encapsulate their planes. However, they still were not free to move. They were flying south fast, but were continuously engaged by Instruments air forces which hounded them away from the Capital. Even having the HEP-II chips helped little in that circumstance - however strong, no one could fly, or shoot beams, and certainly no one was confident enough to try something crazy like trying to catch a plane with a jump when their own source of strength was so temporary and unreliable. Giran did have wings, but they didn't allow him to fly especially fast. A fighter jet would run circles around him, then riddle him with holes before he realised what even happened.

So the three forces converged approximately towards the same area in the southwest of the main continent, pushed and pulled by the terrain and the way the Instruments harassed them, as they avoided direct clash and a final strategy was being decided. The first two to meet up were Cobalt and Ocra teams. They were still moving through the desert, but Major Cobalt had been slowly snaking around, trying to lose or outmanoeuvre her pursuers, occasionally engaging when the terms were favourable, while Ocra had simply zoomed as fast as possible away from his own, having much more limited options. When they learned that they were getting close, thanks to their new simultaneous link with Commander Black, Cobalt arranged to force the Instruments into a confrontation to the north of her position, and from the east managed to walk in Ocra, with a host of exhausted and wounded soldiers. The lines quickly reformed then behind him to stop his pursuers. The two officers met and immediately started talking tactics and future movements. Behind them, Yamcha and Muten, who had accompanied them, were left idle in the middle of a mobile camp, designed to turn into a convoy at a moment's notice.

"I know you," said the master. "You were at the Tournament."

Yamcha beamed. "Yes, that sure would be me!"

"You lost against my pupil."

The other's enthusiasm drained quite a bit. "That's also me," he said. "Well, Tournaments are just sports. This is a real fight, and you won't see me losing here!"

"I hope so." Muten looked around, and on two of four sides of the camp, he could see explosions and fighting in the distance. He spoke in a worried tone. "I wonder if we're not making a mistake here. Maybe we should strike as quickly and hard as possible. Battles aren't won by waiting."

"Well, I mean, I'm confident in my strength, but-" Yamcha hesitated. "You don't think we could take all of them, just head on? If we got tired while deep in their ranks, well-"

"Goku did, up in the north. But that boy's got stamina for days. I feel already a bit winded from only blowing up a couple dozen tanks with a Kame-hame-ha."

"Ah, yeah, I feel you! I fired this one Kame-hame-ha, and it left me short of breath too."

The old man raised an eyebrow. "A Kame-hame-ha? Impressive," he commented.

Yamcha perked up again.

"And how powerful it was?"

"Blew up a bunch of sand," he muttered quickly. Then, "Anyway, now that there's two of us we don't really have anything to worry, right? We can sure just destroy them."

"There's more of them too," commented Muten, staring again at the battle with a thoughtful look. "And we still have to protect the Dragon Balls at all times. But if we carried them in battle with us, we'd risk them being destroyed. Though at this point, I wonder if it would really be a bad thing."

"It sure would! Major Cobalt thinks we should use them to resurrect everyone who died in the battle on our side. That sounds like a good idea. Have you heard about the Ox King? I hear the man had a daughter too, the poor child-"

Muten looked at Yamcha eerily at that. There was a genuine moment of surprise, and then he turned his head away, bowing a little, leaning on his stick. Suddenly he seemed to act older, less like a springy martial arts master and more like the decrepit octogenarian he looked like.

"You didn't know?," asked Yamcha, suddenly wishing he'd not said anything.

"My old pupil," muttered the old man. "No, I didn't know. I suppose not telling me might have been Major Ocra's idea of being thoughtful. As far as the Dragon Balls, I guess I have to live with the fact that it's hard to let go of power that you can use for your own ends just to avoid it falling in the wrong hands. It seems so easy to simply keep it out of them, after all. We just have to do it."

"That's the spirit!," exclaimed the other. "It's going to be fine. From what I hear, we're just waiting to re-join forces with Giran and his team, and then we'll be looking to put ourselves in the best position for the battle. They're still looking for a good place. It should be somewhere near here, easily defensible, where the Dragon Balls could be stored safely even without our help-"

The news network's report had become more and more disjointed and fragmented throughout the hours. Now they only showed bits and fragments of random out of context footage of battles captured here and there, but it wasn't especially more useful than them just admitting they had no clue what exactly was going on any more and switching to airing old cartoons.

Pilaf, frustrated, shut the TV off and tossed the remote on the couch.

"Well, one thing's for sure!," he exclaimed, proud. "No matter how long these idiots keep blowing each other up, no one is going to come and bother us here in our magnificent castle!"

Dragon Balls were all in all very small things, thought Piano, as he pensively turned three of them around in his claw, keeping them in balance and making them roll on his palm. He could afford to do that, as the entire plane's hull was shielded to hide their signal from the enemy; and he found it pleasant, soothing somehow, to look into the depths of those three shining objects. As if he could gain a glimpse of their magical power, and within it, find the wisdom and cunning he needed to emerge victorious from the upcoming battle.

Two of the Balls he'd picked up with the backpack that Tao Pai Pai had ripped from Goku's back; the third one had been brought by the team who managed to get it from Cilantro Town, beating the Ribbon and the RDF to the prize. A fourth one was on its way with Flute, who had achieved the most resounding success yet, by straight up killing one of the enemy's main fighters. That meant he would own the majority of the Dragon Balls; but in the end, it was inconsequential, because any less than seven of them was useless, and the last three would be so much harder. As soon as the first two had been recovered, and he had assumed leadership at the Muscle Tower due to everyone else having been kindly incapacitated by Goku, his first move had been to order a massive movement of as much of the army as possible to rendezvous with the rest in pursuit of the Ribbon forces still carrying the Balls. Defending a base was pointless; it had just become apparent how a single powerful warrior could tear such a static position to shreds. This was now all or nothing; either they could bring back Piccolo and secure their victory in the next twenty-four hours, or the enemy would have all the time they needed to consolidate their position, put the Dragon Balls out of his reach, and take their time grinding them to dust. Considering the reports he'd received about at least two more of the warriors helping the enemy, he should by all means have been discouraged. The strength he was up against was overwhelming. But then, this entire enterprise had been an uphill battle. What saw Piano through it all was faith and pride; faith in his Maestro's guidance, and pride in having been acknowledged and chosen as his favourite, who would eventually see his return accomplished. He did believe in strength, and genuinely did not feel like he lacked any. Regardless of his physical abilities - as long as he won, it meant he had strength. And as long as his Maestro's favour graced him, opportunities would keep presenting themselves, if he knew how to see them.

"Sir, Flute is calling. They're ready for rendezvous, and he wants to know if he should bring along his guests?"

"Hm? Ah, yes. Have them brought here."

"With all due respect - are you sure, sir? From the reports, it seems they're dangerous. I can not guarantee your safety if-"

The ptero smiled and waved a hand. "It's all right, Violin. We would never gain anything if we didn't take risks. And in this meeting, I sense opportunity."

The woman tapped her heels and saluted, then went to carry out her orders. Soon, out of the window Piano could see Flute's plane looming over, as the two vehicles started the complex manoeuvre required to hook them while on air. There was no time for landing during this fast troop movement. The two planes aligned velocities, with flashing spotlights serving as useful references to their pilots who were attempting the manoeuvre in the dim light of the sunset. As they were flying one above each other with almost no relative motion, a plastic tubular tunnel was let down from a hatch in Flute's plane, and got locked to one on top of the other. Having established this umbilical cord between the two vehicles, both hatches opened. Flute, followed by his guests, climbed swiftly down a ladder. Once they were inside, the hatches closed down again, and after retracting the connector tube the two planes went their own separate ways. Before they could reach his room, Piano had opened a safe, let his Dragon Balls fall inside, and locked it back. It was built in such a way that it became almost invisible, its door perfectly camouflaged in a wall of the same colour and material, with no visible seam.

The door opened, and in walked Flute, followed by the little troupe of martial artists he'd brought with him - one could be forgiven for thinking it was a circus instead. An old man in a funny hat, a strongman with three eyes, and what by all means looked like a little floating clown. Of course, it would not do to speak up such first impressions, and Piano merely greeted them with a slight nod.

"Here is it," said Flute, handing a little metal cube. Piano received it and acknowledged his subordinate, then quickly stored it away in a place different from the other Dragon Balls. He could tell among his guests, the old man was burning with curiosity - his sunglasses prevented one from reading his eyes, but still, it was obvious he was taking in details from all around. Piano turned to him.

"Now to welcome our guests," he said, his beak curling up in a smile, "I hear you're interested in joining our cause?"

"We don't know your cause, yet," replied the Crane Hermit, "except that you appreciate strength. The world to the strong, or something to that effect, right?"

He nonchalantly sat back on an armchair without being asked, scratching his ear with a finger. "That sounds quite good to me."

"Indeed. The world to the strong; that is our salute and our creed," confirmed Piano. "A world in which authority comes from the unconstrained use of strength in all of its forms, as it should. No further embellishments are required to this simple truth of the world."

"Yes, as I always say," egged on Shen, "these youngsters should give us more fucking respect. I could bend any of their weak spines with my little finger!"

Piano laughed. "Maybe you should. As for our objectives, right now we are mostly set on achieving both the greatest means towards our goal imaginable, and rectifying a great injustice. As stories will tell you, centuries ago lived the great King Piccolo, the strongest being to ever walk this Earth. His rule was as inevitable and absolute as his power made it. But... lesser men found a way to hamper it, and imprison him, cursing him to an awful fate. That shall all end today, and his strength will back our cause."

"Piccolo, huh? Nice, nice," Shen reacted as if he had only now heard of the name. "And how are you going to do that?"

Piano waited for a moment, immersed in thought. He looked at the man in front of him, and finally came to a decision. He picked back up the cube that Flute had passed to him earlier and opened it, revealing the orange shimmer inside. Shen avidly peered inside, his two pupils behind him also sneaking in a peek while trying to appear unshaken. As soon as he thought the glimpse was sufficient, Piano closed the box shut again and quickly put it away.

"A Dragon Ball," he explained, "an ancient device which, when gathered together with its six counterparts, can grant any wish."

The Crane Hermit looked taken aback. His frown deepened. Behind him, even Flute appeared puzzled by Piano's choice to reveal so much.

"So how many of the things you have, then?," asked Shen, pinching his moustache.

Piano sighed. "Just the one, for now," he said. Flute didn't flinch. "But we have plans to secure all of them. And a formidable ally in doing so. In fact, it might be time to call him in again, unless of course you feel like lending a hand."

"I doubt any ally would be worth more than us three to you!," boasted Shen, laughing. "Maybe if you had the help of the great assassin, Tao Pai Pai."

"What a coincidence," replied Piano, "that is exactly the person who's helping us."

"Oh?," the old master grinned. "Tell you what, then. Prove it to me, and I'll help you. As long as we can get a good standing in that 'new world' of yours."

"Of course. I am sure you would well earn it by yourself. It should be time to get the report on his previous mission anyway; it's been several hours since we last saw him."

The ptero drew from his pocket a phone, still wrapped in plastic. He unfolded it, turned it on, and pushed the only big, green button that appeared on it.

"Odd," he said after a moment, and his pronounced brow corrugated for the first time in the entire conversation. He put the phone down. "It does not seem to be on. Flute, please go call Violin in the other room. Tell her to bring our guest."

When Violin arrived, she had Baba in tow, walking - her crystal ball was always in check, instead, wrapped and kept under Violin's arm. When they walked in, Piano noticed something - Baba's eyes drifting to the new guest, perhaps a flash of recognition, but she immediately dissimulated any reaction. As for Shen, with those sunglasses it was impossible to tell whether he'd noticed her or not.

"Lady Baba," said the ptero, turning to the witch. "I would like you to locate our hire Tao Pai Pai for us. We haven't heard from him yet."

The old woman looked around, frowning. "Give me my sphere," she finally said.

"Violin, if you please."

The crystal ball was unwrapped and put in front of the seer, all while still being held firmly. She glanced at Violin with disdain, then turned to the sphere, waving her hands and muttering concentration mantras, trying to form a connection with the assassin who had been sent to fight Goku.

This time it took me a long time again - next chapter (that I've just finished) was really hard to complete. Sometimes I'm really the type who makes perfect the enemy of good, and this is the result. Thanks to you all still reading for staying with this story regardless!