A white aerosol sprawled across the throne room of the Sovereign and lapped at the skin and clothes of Dr. Tomoe. He stood quietly before the throne of his mistress. She stared at him with purple irises containing neither darkness nor light in their centers and her small figure was a silhouette in a dress, as still as a mannequin.
"Another day without pure hearts," she commented. "Have you made it clear to those under your charge that failure is not to be tolerated?"
"Yes," he answered. "We have undergone a slight restructuring of personnel, but we are working on a plan to capture more hearts."
"Expedite your efforts, doctor. I need heart energy!" Her demeanor had melted into demeaning desperation. "Until then I am condemned to this prison, inside a body that is fading..."
The vested female shadow shivered. The curtains of haze parted to reveal a diminishing, diminutive despot. She held her head as she trembled and coughed in fits. She scrunched her eyes shut, but when she opened them, their newly present pupils reflected the ambient light.
The lenses of Dr. Tomoe's glasses shimmered without interruption, and the eyes beneath them had not blinked. The girl who had addressed him was not the mistress who had called out to her faithful servant. She rocked herself in pure bewilderment and confusion, but as quickly as the mood manifested it dispersed. Her body froze and her irises returned to the state of twin pure purple discs, once more without pupils.
"This body grows weak," she continued in half-breaths. "Its batteries need to be recharged."
Dr. Tomoe understood her request without further explanation. He had given himself willingly to the service of the Sovereign, but the sacrifice of his daughter led to a schism in the mind of his superior. Her body was also split between life and death; she was as incomplete as the subject of her next words.
"Attend to our guest," she ordered. "It's about time for him to earn his keep."
"Of course," he answered. "I believe he can be of assistance."
The mists thickened and the female body crumbled into cool slumber. The professor departed the area, hoping that this would be the last time his mistress went dormant.
A spotted, green carapace formed a natural body armor on Cell, but his covered limbs were spread out against his will and held immobile by thick green stems. From back to front, enormous muscular, plant limbs wrapped his body in knots. Cell jabbed the space in front of him with his tail, only for a swirling, near invisible buzz to swallow all sound. Nanobots, imperceptible to the human eye, ate his body, and arcs of energy held him in paralysis. Reluctantly, he brought his tail back from the invisible barrier and let it dangle from his back like one of the vines that bound him.
Dr. Tomoe watched the futile attempt at escape while flanked by two young women in labcoats. The respective colors of their hair, light green and near-white, complimented their green and blue heartless eyes. All three of the members of the Bureau of Bad Behavior stood at a tantalizing distance from him and their bio-extract persistently tugged at his desire.
"Now, now, trying to bite the hand that feeds you," Dr. Tomoe commented. He walked toward Cell, stopping inches away from where the needle had hit the boundary.
"That morsel was nothing," Cell replied through the slit that was his mouth. "I need more. More!"
"You're not going to get any more by being annoying."
"Annoyance is nothing compared to my endless hunger. I yearn to be complete. I need to absorb-"
"Yes, I know the speech." Dr. Tomoe pushed up on his glasses with his middle finger. "You're after a pair of androids that you've admitted are possibly more powerful than you. And it appears the fighters you mentioned have been hovering around the city. The last thing you need is to deal with them in the condition you're in."
"My patience runs thin, and you are aware that I can escape at any time I want." He exerted his muscles, causing the vines and branches buckle and snap.
"A pity, then." Dr. Tomoe turned away from his captive and walked slowly. "I just came up with a plan that would suit both of our goals, but never mind."
"What is this plan?" Cell half-asked, half sneered. His question spurred Dr. Tomoe to stop and slowly turn around.
"We need pure hearts to awaken our Sovereign. You need bio-extract to get stronger so that you may absorb the androids. We can't let you go because you'd eat up all the hearts in your...digestive discretions." Dr. Tomoe paused slightly in the habit of a lecturer. "On the other hand, a body without a heart isn't much use to you if it's dead, and I'd hate to let all those bodies go to waste."
"And your point?"
"We can take the hearts of a crowd. Then, before the victims die, we can let you out on parole to absorb the organic remains."
"You offer me table scraps," Cell hissed.
"Ah, those are just the appetizers," Dr. Tomoe replied. "Some of those sailor-suited nuisances will eventually be drawn to the scene. They're far weaker than you, of course, but they're strong enough to provide you with the energy boost you need. And once we've collected the hearts, you can roam free."
They both knew final sentence was a lie. As soon as they delivered the heart crystals to their boss, she would be strong enough to easily kill him. She had only let him live because she was unable to kill him now. Yet it unnerved Cell that she maintained a phantom hold over him. Until he was free of her influence, he was as much a captive to her as to his hunger.
"I accept your plan," Cell said.
"Very well." Dr. Tomoe walked away upon hearing the words of his prisoner, aware but unaffected by the unspoken ravenous desires of the latter. His assistants followed him to a solitary door in the back of the room, and all three stepped through the door. The artificial lighting in the section they entered was far brighter than that of the containment area and the two assistants were differentiated. Telulu, the green-haired woman, had her hair carried up into twin spheres, while Byruit's pale-blue, nearly white hair hung straight and down her back.
"He is getting stronger," Telulu noted. "Those Big Berthas won't be able to hold him forever."
"I agree," Byruit replied. "My nanobots were the only thing that saved us from being a meal for that chimera."
Dr. Tomoe did not bother to correct his subordinates. In truth, the creature had not increased in power but merely displayed more of it. The vines and nanobots only served as mild deterrents; they had not prevented him from escaping any more than the words the professor had spoken.
"Ladies, ladies," he said. "Let us not forget that childish competition led Mimet to her final reward. Our Sovereign's will is paramount."
"Yes, Dr. Tomoe," both assistants said at the same time.
"Make sure your plans are in order." He lifted his forearm and his index finger in the air. "We're only going to get one shot at this."
Trunks looked down at the table in front of him but saw nothing out of his fully functional eyes. Sounds held his attention more than the unchanging vision in front of him. He heard Dr. Briefs tinkering with a small metallic box in his section of dome, and the whimsical humming of Mrs. Briefs also floated in the air. The chaos reminded him of how little he had been able to change the course of events. He began to feel like a false prophet.
The ever-present weight of Goku imprinted onto the surface of his thoughts. All of his hopes had hinged on the idea that at least the future of this world could be changed. Instead, in spite of the efforts of Trunks, there had been no change in the condition of Goku. The androids roamed free, and another unknown creature wandered with motivations of its own. Trunks had not only let himself down, but he had dashed he hopes of the other fighters, he had failed the young version of the man who had trained him, and now he had involved others in his failure - the Sailor Scouts, Rini, and most strikingly Hotaru.
A girl who had barely known him looked up to him as her hero. Unlike Rini, whose maturity was blended with a childlike innocence, Hotaru was only a child in body, her mind as scarred by the losses she suffered as his was as that age. Unlike the Gohan who had trained him, he had been a poor mentor to her, keeping his distance.
In his younger years he would have flown off foolishly, looking for the fight he craved to bring him clarity. But the death of his mentor and his own failure to avenge that murder diluted his fleeting, reckless desires, and instead he turned his head toward the echoes of steps that approached him. An older female hand rested on his shoulder, attached to a body and face that were far younger in appearance only.
"Oh my, something must be weighing heavy on those shoulders of yours." Mrs. Briefs commented. "Would you like some tea and cookies?"
"No thanks," he replied.
"So who's the young lady you've been thinking about?" Mrs. Briefs giggled as the question jerked Trunks into full awareness.
"It's nothing like that."
"You can't lie to me." She circled the table and sat down in one of the empty seats. "There's only one thing that could give a young man wrinkles on his head like that. Girl trouble."
The casual mention of that type of relationship bristled him. Living in a world where survival had to be earned and guarded led to casual encounters or none at all. Romance and courtship were luxuries products of a time long past to him. The bond between him and Hotaru was of something more important - friendship - and he had to admit, he was not being a good friend.
"Oh, mom, quit teasing him!"
The cry echoed down the hall and bounced along the walls, losing none of its volume. The speaker, Bulma, soon entered the room at a brisk pace.
"I'm not teasing," her mother retorted. "I'm trying to help him out. Poor thing's so love-shy."
"Hmm..." Bulma seated herself in the empty chair across from her mother, and the two women looked at him with smirks that threatened to burst into grins.
"I think I'd better..." Trunks said as he lifted himself from the chair. Before he finished, he felt a slight weight on the arm of his jacket. Mrs. Briefs had touched him, and out of respect he returned to his seat.
"...listen to your elders." Mrs. Briefs completed. "Trust us, gals. We know more about women than you'll ever forget."
"Goku's still recovering," Bulma noted, "and nothing's new on the other fronts. Maybe a distraction is just what you need. Besides, if the future is as bad as you describe, you'd better enjoy the present while you're still here."
"I guess you're right," Trunks replied to both as he rose. "Thanks."
He departed from the room in steps, leaving them with only the breeze of his exit, followed by a rush of wind that settled into quiet. Less than a minute later, a second, more hurried set of claps banged against the hard floor. They looked toward the opening leading to the room. In it, Trista arrived, her dark green hair draped over her back like fine linen curtains.
"Bulma," Trista said. "I'm headed to ground zero. I need to survey the situation further in person."
"Oh," Bulma replied. "You just missed Trunks. He was headed there. Did you need to borrow a capsule plane?"
"No, thank you. I have my own means of transport." Trista exited the room, but neither Bulma nor Mrs. Briefs followed her with their senses. Instead, mother and daughter turned toward each other, and began to giggle the same jejune laugh.
Hot, thick air filled with the stench of chlorine greeted 18 as she surfaced from the depths of the pool. Her receptors would never get used to the smell, every new breath as unpleasant as the first. She disliked it as much as the all black one-piece bathing suit stretched across her body and the swimming cap on her head. There were other garments, more fashionable, she could have worn, but the regulations on swimwear were not aligned with her tastes. Not long ago she would have found the idea of rules themselves ridiculous, but this role of student had fit her like her swimsuit - snug and serviceable for the time being.
Her eyes darted toward 17 and Michelle, who raced each other in a series of laps, interrupted at times by classmates who sought to gaze at the female figure. Neither 17 nor Michelle wore caps to cover their hair, although Michelle had carried her hair back in a ponytail. Thankfully, 17 had held back enough to make the races even, although 18 noticed Michelle had made deliberate errors in her movements as well. Dismissing the interaction, 18 did not even take a breath as she dove again, letting gravity pull her into the tile-lined pool.
She and 17 had never been particularly remarkable or frequent swimmers, but the activity had been a childhood summertime excursion. Her mind went to a time before her inception as Android 18, a faded memory of playful peace that succumbed to a more distinct and recent remembrance of being surrounded by water. She remembered the jabs of needles, her face covered by a breathing mask, and an agonizing, seemingly endless pain in her chest. It was the last time she felt true pain or deep emotion.
The two of them had spent too much time water in thanks to their "enhancements," and as a reward, they no longer fatigued. Where once the discomfort from the weight of water would have been immediate, the weight of this liquid against her body was hardly noticeable. Her throat and windpipe did not burn from holding her breath; in fact she did not need to breathe. She pushed herself through the water in the same way she had done through the air, staying as close to the floor of the bottom of the pool while remaining mobile. It was only the unyielding freshness of sensation which bothered her, which made each new moment as powerful as what had come prior.
In spite of this internal awareness, not one thought displayed itself through her motions. She was not shaken by what she had experienced, but she could not attribute her detached nature to resolve or inner toughness; her anomie was not a survival tactic. Rather, her ordeal rendered her incapable of acclimating herself to the stimuli she could still perceive. Her only recourse was to withdraw from consequence as much as she could.
Her pensivity vanished like the bubbles reaching the surface, and in turn she followed in kind, breaking the boundary between of water and air without even a whimper. A second later, Michelle and 17 parted, and the former cut through the water in an arc, reaching 18. Both girls treaded water in synchronous ease.
"You're a much better swimmer than you let on," Michelle said.
"It's not my fault," 18 replied. "I was programmed that way."
Michelle smiled at the comment, then spoke. "I'd like to test you in a race, one day. Not here. This water is too saturated with chemicals."
"Agreed." Perhaps it was not her sensors that were unaccustomed to the smell. Or perhaps Michelle's connection the water heightened her perception as well. Whether their common judgment of the water was a sign of the buried humanity in 18 or a reminder that Michelle was not like the other students was irrelevant. It had been some time before 18 had agreed with anyone other than her brother on such a minute detail.
And the shrill noise of a whistle ensured it would be the last time for a while.
"Okay, everybody," an instructor's voice called. "Out of the pool!"
Both girls dutifully exited the pool. They joined the rush of teenagers who scrambled to the edge of the pool and hoisted themselves onto the tile, their bare legs and feet slapping the floor like flopping fish. The head and gaze of Michelle rose toward Amara, who descended from the bleachers beside the pool with a tee-shirt and shorts. She squinted slightly even though the light in the room was only moderately bright. 18 recognized the familiar signs of a headache, and the sight of Amara clenching her jaw drew a hint of envy from the android. She no longer had that excuse prevent her from engaging in communal immersion.
The three young women entered the locker room with their chattering classmates. While 18 and Michelle headed for the showers, Amara walked over to her locker via another route. The two of them found unclaimed spaces and pressed a metal button letting the water fall from the showerhead and all over their skin. After a cursory rinse 18 stepped out of the showers and toward the locker she had chosen. She opened the locker and hiding herself with the door, she dried herself off with a towel and changed clothes in the blink of an eye. Amara coughed, betraying that her emerald eyes had followed the movements of 18. In response, 18 coldly walked to the large mirror in the locker room to inspect the placement of her school uniform, and found a small section of her hair was limp and wet.
There had been a leak in the swimming cap. The stolid expression on the face of 18 sank into a imperceptible pout. Her skin was durable but would not regenerate, and her hair would never grow back. At least if the synthetic fibers atop her head were kept dry, she would be able to maintain a semblance of hair for the rest of her unnatural existence. Mistakes such as this would leave her bald, and the temptation to end the farce as a student magnified.
"You're always so quiet," Michelle said to 18 as she stepped out of the communal shower and walked toward her locker. "You never tell me what your hobbies are."
"Hobbies?" 18 asked.
"What do you do in your spare time?"
"This is my spare time."
"Then what do you do when you're not here?" Michelle hid her body behind a locker door but peeked around it as she changed clothes. "Do you have a job?"
The very word reminded her of the desperate orders she had been given and the objective she had abandoned. Killing Goku was what she was supposed to be doing, although the thought of the original "game" had become displaced by this newer one.
"Something like that," 18 answered. "And you?"
"We have other duties, too," Michelle said. "We just hate to see you by yourself all the time."
"And I could use partner for training," Amara offered, now clad in her male school uniform. "I need to get back into running shape and you look like you could keep up with me."
"I have my own means of having fun," 18 replied dismissively. She walked away from the two and out of the locker room, leaving the two cousins in stunned silence.
Telulu watched the maroon shirts and plaid skirts pass her without a second thought, as her own attire matched that of the students walking before her. The final bell of the school day had yet to ring but students, victims of their own yearning for freedom, flooded the halls from the classroom. She had yielded to their need of fresh air and released them early from her class for the price of the potted plants they carried. Their biology homework - plants she dubbed "Happy Blooms" - would be carried into their homes only for their red buds to blossom and snatch the hearts of the students.
It would be a happy bloom for her at least.
Her mood quickly soured upon the sight of more students, most of these without the Venus Heart Traps she had doled out. She cast a glance behind her at the rows of closed-budded flowers yet unclaimed. Those Venus Heart Traps would remain dormant. It had annoyed her how she had spent time to genetically engineer the fusion of plant and Heart Snatcher to create an entirely new life form, only for Dr. Tomoe to modify her plan. The entire school - no, the entire city could have been delivered to them on a platter.
The sour mood turned bitter upon seeing the golden head of her classmate. The blue-eyed woman walked in a line as straight as her hair, and Telulu. The girl in her sight had been called Sarah Adams, but that name meant as much to her as Lulu Woods meant to Telulu. The green-haired woman studied her movements and could not help but wonder if the blonde had already been indoctrinated into the Bureau and rechristened. Yet her pale eyes, though cold, retained the telltale pupils of one who held heart energy inside of her.
Telulu soon spotted the frost colored hair of Byruit, who approached her in the guise of fellow student teacher Julie Bidou. The two members of the Bureau of Bad Behavior were soon side by side, contempt plastered on both of their faces.
"The professor has taken an interest in her," Telulu noted.
"Way to state the obvious," Byruit replied. "I'm not Mimet, you know."
"But both of us could end up like her." Telulu retreated into the classroom, and Byruit followed her. "If we fail at this, Blondie could be our replacement."
"Not if she's gone."
"She's too smart to get caught in our trap. It wouldn't work."
"Then we bring the trap to her." Byruit picked up the one of the Venus Heart Traps. "Or three of them. One for each member of the Adams family."
Telulu picked up two of the pots upon hearing the remark, and the final bell of the day rang loudly, as if it were a delayed alarm. Both of the young ladies rushed to the door to see the thickening cloud of students, none of whom were who the person they had just mentioned. Their target had completely vanished from their view, leaving only the remaining hordes of students.
"Where could she have gone that quickly?" Telulu asked.
"Second opportunity at ten o'clock," Byruit alerted, and Teulu looked in the direction indicated by her words. She saw two more students, one in a male uniform and the other in a female uniform. The similarity in their features indicated their relation and their identity. Wordlessly, the two young women nodded, then pushed through the thinning crowd in a gallop, nearly running into their new targets.
"Hi!" Byruit greeted with practiced perkiness. "You don't know us, but we're two TAs. I'm Julie Bidou and this is Lulu Woods."
"I've heard of you, Julie," Michelle responded. "You're the top student in the national exams. Congratulations."
"Thanks." Byruit left the fact that she had tied for the number one ranking remain unsaid.
"Anyway, one of my students," Telulu said, "Brad Adams, left his biology homework. We tried to give it to him, but he seems to have gotten away from us. Since you're assigned to look out for him, would you two mind giving him a Happy Bloom?"
"No problem," Amara answered. Byruit handed Michelle the bundle of leaves and stems as soon as the words of acceptance had been spoken.
"And just in case he loses that one, there are two more plants." Telulu extended her arms, and Amara took the other two plants. "By the way, you two are going to the lecture tomorrow, right? I'll be giving some more out there if you want your own."
"Of course, we'll be there," Michelle answered. "We wouldn't miss it for the world."
"Or the extra credit," Amara half-joked.
"Perfect," Telulu answered. "See you there."
The pair of women walked away, leaving Amara and Michelle burdened with potted plants. The two cousins shook their heads at their fellow students as the distance grew between the two of them. Instead, they ventured toward the student parking lot, down a separate hall from where most of the students were headed.
"If I ever get that bad at lying, pinch me," Amara whispered.
Michelle reached behind the elbow of Amara with her free hand. Michelle pressed the fabric of Amara's jacket between her index finger and her thumb, catching the tight skin underneath in a strong, quick grip. Amara straightened up, mindful of the verdant presents in her hands.
"What was that for?" Amara asked,
"'Running shape,'" Michelle replied curtly.
"That's what you told Sarah a few minutes ago." Michelle flipped her hair in a quick swat. "As if you were ever out of shape."
"That was different..."
Michelle responded with mock hurt which presented itself as wordlessness, and Amara resigned to the end of the conversation. Even cousins were bound to disagree at times.
The sun seared the skin of those outside the Cherry Hill Temple, but inside the building, the shade offered a measure of relief. The air was still thick and humid, but the heated wood oppressed Raye and Chad far less than the filtered sunlight itself. They needed the relief, as they each inspected the various boxes and charms that were to be sold to the customers. Both of them mentally counted the numbers of the items as attentively as they counted the seconds and minutes of unspoken tension.
"Why couldn't you tell me?" Chad asked, his inquiry dashing through the hot air.
"I didn't think you'd be cool with it," Raye replied.
"I mean I can totally kick your butt." She stopped her work, then pumped and clenched her fist. "If you found out I was Sailor Mars, I thought it would have crushed your ego even more." Raye raised index her finger for emphasis and wagged it with wink. Her words were true, but the delivery was a lie of omission, full of false, flippant zest to mask the emptiness of the gesture.
"Raye, you're still trying to protect me. What's really going on?"
"Chad." Her stomach turned on its side and filled her mouth with water. She shook off the nausea and came closer to a box near him, and flipped through a row of charms. "What if the world as you knew it was going to end?"
"Well, I don't know actually," he answered, scratching his head. "What type of question is that?"
"It's the type of question I've been asking myself." She spotted a charm in the box that was broken, then fished it out and set it aside. "The enemies we're facing aren't like the ones we've faced in the past. These people want don't want to control humanity or conquer the world. They want to completely destroy it. I'm worried that this time we might not make it."
"You know, you might be right, but there's one more thing that's different."
"Now that I know you're Sailor Mars, we can be partners." He hugged Raye in a sideways embrace, and the face of the girl was frozen in a mixture of embarrassment and disbelief. "The team of Super Chad and Sailor Mars are going to save the world!"
"Super Chad..." Raye began to feel queasy again and fought the urge to throw up on the merchandise in front of her. If the figure in her dreams did not execute her, exasperation would kill her first.
The cousins had arrived at the high rise earlier than they expected, but stepped with speed nonetheless. Fortunately, the preliminary buzz to permit them passage upstairs was quite quick, and the two found themselves at their students' door. Michelle raised a hand to the door to the apartment, but dropped it as the door was opened by 18. She stood like a statue, out of her uniform and in a pair of black pants that matched her black vest. Books were stacked through the apartment, most closed, but some open, all clearly in use. Yet the cold stare of 18 served as an obstacle to any visual exploration.
"You brought me flowers," 18 greeted in a deadpan monotone. "How thoughtful."
"Actually," Michelle replied, "these are from two of your classmates, Lulu and Julie."
"Those two?" 18 recalled the memory of their piercing stares and their harmless hate. They were not even worth the effort to care enough to confront, let alone physically fight.
"They said something about Brad leaving his biology homework there," Amara said.
"16 doesn't take biology," 18 replied, "or forget things." Her insistence on referring to him by number chilled the cousins with a cold, clammy unease.
"We know," Michelle finished. "She probably just had a crush on him. Where is he, anyway?"
"He's been in and out."
"Do you think he'd mind if we'd leave these here?" Michelle asked.
"Suits me..." As soon as 18 spoke Michelle and Amara set one plant down each.
"Hey," Amara asked as she bent to the ground, "I know this is going to sound silly, but could I keep one?"
"Go ahead," 18 answered.
"We'd love to stay and chat, but we have an errand to run," Michelle stated. "Are you sure you didn't want to come with us later on?"
"I have a prior engagement. I'm going shopping with Mina."
"You didn't share that last piece of information with me," 17 interjected. He made his presence visible by nearing 18, placing himself in the cousins' line of sight.
"No boys allowed, 17." 18 tucked her hair behind her ear. "We girls have to have our secrets."
"Maybe we can meet tomorrow morning at the athletic club downtown," Michelle suggested. "And have that swim."
18 made a noise that could have been a rejection or bemused acceptance.
"Personally, I'd rather have real race with you," Amara said to 17.
"Not interested," 17 answered.
"Doesn't matter. You don't have a car."
"I don't need a car to beat you as slow as you drive."
"Tough talk." The muscles in Amara's face loosened slightly, contrasting with her aggressive vocal tone. "You want to back it up?" Her words were met with a shrug from 17's shoulders.
"I have my own means of having fun." The words were stated with the same pacing, tone, and volume as his sister had used earlier.
"And I thought you were a racer." Amara's face became tight one more. "Suit yourself. You don't know what you're capable of until you get yourself into gear. See you."
Amara and Michelle walked down the hall and toward the elevator, the former cradling the potted plant like a baby. Michelle pressed the down button to summon the elevator, only for the doors to immediately open. The pair stepped insode the elevator and waited for the same doors to close before conversing.
"Why did you want the plant?" Michelle asked.
"There's something not right about this," Amara answered, her gaze on the leafy mass she carried. "They're giving away the Happy Blooms at the lecture and in class. It could be nothing, but I think we need to bring this up at the meeting."
The elevator door opened, and the two were on the ground floor. They exited the lobby side by side, and parted only after they walked half a block to the yellow convertible to enter the vehicle and rejoined each other in their adjacent seats.
"We can check on them after the lecture tomorrow," Michelle suggested. A brief breeze ruffled her hair, and instinctively Amara looked the sky. Her eyes were drawn to the building, and watched 18, barely visible from the ground, engaged in a similar surveillance.
Brushing aside the gust of wind, Amara turned her head and to the space on the ground in front of her, and started the engine. Only when the yellow convertible pulled off from its parking space did 18 jump from the apartment balcony and rocket into the sky.
The sunlight flooded air heated the streets that Serena sauntered down with Luna slumped over her left shoulder. Mina served as a mirror to her, with Artemis similarly slung over her right shoulder, his white fur blending into her school shirt. In front of the two Rini stepped, her eager legs scurrying ahead of the two older girls. Her stride was broken by several pauses and sighs, as she waited for the slower walkers to catch up, only for her speed in front of then again. Eventually the little girl matched the glacial pace of her elders and the three sets of footsteps were in unison.
"I love Fridays," Serena said as she drew a deep breath. "No more school for two whole days."
"There's plenty of homework to keep you busy, you know," Artemis retorted.
"And that can wait," Mina replied. "We have a whole weekend to ourselves."
"If only you'd put this much energy into fighting the bad guys."
"Hey! We have not slacked off on saving the world." Mina waved her index finger in front of Artemis' nose. "You know, we did it twice already."
"You have to admit it, Artemis," Luna piped in. "They are right."
"Luna?" the male cat replied.
"When is the last time they actually needed our help?" She turned her head as best she could to face both Mina and Serena. "Over the years, you girls have improved."
"Thanks, Luna," both girls responded.
"Old habits die hard, I guess," Artemis admitted.
"Don't worry, I know you can't help but be overprotective," Serena remarked.
"You're one to talk," Rini interjected.
"Just what do you mean by that?"
"You're just hanging around me because you're worried I might get in trouble."
"As if I'd worry about a spore like you." Serena lifted her head into the air and closed her eyes.
"I see right through you." Rini turned around, but walked backwards in ease. "Just admit it that's true."
"It's not true," Serena answered, looking to the blonde next to her. "I just wanted to make sure Mina had a shopping partner at the mall."
"Actually," Mina corrected, "I was going to meet a friend there."
"And when were you going to tell me about this?" Serena stopped, bringing the stroll of the company to a halt.
"When we got there."
"We're here!" Rini yelled in glee, running past the iron fence that lined the inside of the sidewalk. The conversation had blinded Serena to her destination as she soon found the Mina had similarly passed her walking at a faster clip. Serena scurried to catch up as she heard greetings of joy, and stopped beside Mina, who stared at the Rini and her two companions, neither of whom were Hotaru. Trunks and Gohan talked to the little girl for a moment, the sight filling Serena with ease. As long as Rini stayed with these two guys, she would be safe.
Rini walked over to the door stretched her small body as far as she could, her fingers unable to reach the doorbell. Gohan stepped in and pressed the button for her. Mina continued to leer at the purple-haired teenager and her skin turned sanguine in concert with her thoughts.
"Hottie alert!" she shrieked with pure schoolgirl joy.
"Don't you have a boyfriend?" Serena asked with half-closed eyes.
"I can flirt."
"Boy-crazy as ever," Artemis commented.
Mina ignored the cat on her shoulder and closed the distance between her and Trunks in quick steps.
"Hi," Mina said. "I don't know if you remember me, but I certainly remember you."
"Hello," Trunks answered. His voice prompted a blend of blinks and giggles from Mina that seemed to comprise another language. Her body language caused the spectators to gaze in bewilderment.
"Why is she blinking her eyes like that?" Gohan asked Rini. "Is there something in her eye?"
"Cut it out!" Rini yelled toward Mina. "We're here to see Hotaru."
"So is that's what this commotion is about?" a new voice asked.
The entire gathering turned to face the wooden portal. Dr. Tomoe had opened the one of the double doors with nary a creak. Their communal surprise ensured that only the distant whine of traffic could be heard, and the sterile whiff of a house kept too clean was the only scent that mingled with any outdoor smog.
"Sorry to keep you waiting," Dr. Tomoe continued. "My assistant stepped out for a moment. Would you like to come in?"
"No thanks," Rini answered, stepping to the front of the group. "We just wanted to stop by to say hi to Hotaru." Rini watched as Dr. Tomoe ducked his head in the shadow of the doorway, his figure becoming more ominous in the shade.
"Hotaru, your friends are here!"
His verbal summons hailed light footsteps and loud breaths. In less than thirty seconds, Hotaru had arrived at the door, dressed in all black. She stood up straight, and forced her eyes wide open, which seemed to magnify rather than mask her overexertion.
"We thought you might have wanted to come with the mall with us," Rini said.
"Do you want me to go shopping with you?" Hotaru asked with slow, labored breaths.
"More like window shopping," Mina admitted. "We're kind of broke."
"Come on, you can't say cooped up in that house all day," Serena pleaded. "It's nice and warm and sunny. Maybe you'll feel better if you move around." A silent sigh escaped the lips of all but the two tactless blondes.
"I wouldn't mind," Hotaru answered, "but I wouldn't want to be a burden. I'd only slow you down."
"You wouldn't be a burden," Dr. Tomoe interjected. "These are your friends. They want you around. Besides, I have a few more preparations to make for tomorrow's lecture and I'm not good company when I have to co-ordinate special events."
"If it's okay with you," Hotaru said to the others.
"Of course," Rini answered.
"Thank you, daddy." Hotaru gave her father a hug then walked outside of the door. Rini took quickly took Hotaru's left hand to ensure she remained steady. Hotaru then turned to Trunks, and their eyes locked. A slight nod exchanged between them, and Hotaru tured to Gohan, the two passing each other a much quicker, less intimate swapping of nods. Soon the entire group turned away from the house and away from the parting gesticulations of Dr. Tomoe.
"Don't be strangers!" he called as he waved at them. "Remember, any friend of my daughter is welcome in this house!" He looked at the group directly with an all too amiable smile that did not disappear as the group walked away, but grew into a sinister grin.
17 stood in the apartment alone, puzzled by the stretch of solitude. The three androids had entered this city as one unit, and weeks later, all three of them had begun to lead separate, if still heavily intertwined lives. At times, it was easy to forget that this game was merely a time wasting exercise until they could kill Goku or counter the explosives within them. This was not one of those times.
Not that he cared about the lives the people in the city, but he certainly didn't want to die, and the thought of killing people just for the sake of killing was even and more boring than his current game, at least at the moment. But even Amara's words were a sharp reminder of the rules he had to play by. The desertion of the Lucky Foods van he drove ate at him. A mere scan of the license plate would have revealed too much of their previous activities to the wrong people, and the game would have been over before it began. Right now, it hindered another opportunity for the limited avenues of fun available to him, and he was determined that he, 18, and 16 were not going to pose as students forever.
His eyes fell on the plants Amara and Michelle had left. His first thought was to simply destroy these green ties to the mundane existence he pretended to take part in. He quickly imagined the scolding he would have received; when it came to "nice" things, 18 nagged incessantly. It was a bad habit of his to destroy things that were beautiful, and if he started there, he wouldn't stop until the entire apartment had been blasted into nothingness, and probably the entire building as well. The thought was fun, but the resulting chaos would be more boring than his current status. At least it was a challenge to see how long he could continue this ruse.
He picked up the two plants and opened the door in the back of the apartment, and entered the space of growing, green organisms. A bench with a bare spot was before him and 17 set one of the plants down. The plant was now mixed with its verdant brethren, an indistinguishable pattern of green to normal eyes. Of course, his eyes were far from normal, and as little as he cared about the garden, he could not completely make himself unobservant of the differences between plants. The abundance of details made all the impulse to destroy the autotrophic assembly more prominent.
Instead, 17 visually parsed the area for another clear space in the tangle of vines, roots, and stalks. In the midst of his analysis an idea smacked into him like a rock and he stopped. Someone else he knew would like a plant, someone who unlike him could appreciate it for its surface beauty rather than be annoyed by it.
He did not even close the door behind him when he launched himself out of the apartment. The game may have gotten stale, but a fresh twist emerged to renew its variety. He took to the air with the viridian organism in hand. He had the perfect place to leave it.
The mall rested on the outskirts of the city. Unlike the skyscrapers, towers, and apartments in the urban district, the edifice unfurled itself over stretches of land. The invitation of space beckoned shoppers weary of cramped streets to venture beyond the familiar districts.
Serena and her company had arrived by bus. The distance between the city and the mall was too far to walk, but flying was not an option with Hotaru in their presence. Instead, from the motor coach they had watched packed buildings pass to yield trees and open air, all while conversations fluttered through the air. Rini, Gohan, and Hotaru had made a game of counting the cars that passed, while Trunks had watched over the trio with a steadfast interest, and Mina kept her eyes on him. The cats had sat patiently on their owner's shoulders. Serena had closed her eyes, her thoughts filled with the promise of sales and bargains on outfits beyond her meager allowance.
The passengers of the bus gathered around the rear and front exits as the vehicle slowed, then all but pressed against the glass when it stopped. The bus doors slid open, and the crowd poured out of the holes like water through a sieve. Serena and the others had trailed this group and formed the last human drops to exit the opening. They took a leisurely walk toward the expansive building, feet pressing against clean, unbroken concrete toward the entrance, until they reached the multiple doors.
A security guard perked up from his glossy-eyed gaze before they could enter. He cleared his throat and pointed to the shoulders of Mina and Serena with a baton. The girls' eyes suddenly spotted the sign of regulations, atop were the words, "No pets allowed."
"Guess it's the end of the line for you two," Mina said to Luna and Artemis.
The cats dutifully sprung from their human companions and departed with a pair of unconvincing meows. They scurried away, and their human companions proceeded. Trunks and Gohan stepped ahead to open the doors for the ladies, who repaid their chivalry with banter.
"Too bad it doesn't say, 'No pests allowed,'" Rini teased. "Otherwise Serena wouldn't be allowed in either."
"I heard that!" answered the pigtailed blonde.
"Of course you did." Rini raised her hand and wagged a finger. "You're always hovering around and being a snoop. A growing girl needs her privacy, but you just can't stay away from me!"
"Can too!" Serena turned her back to Rini and raised her head in the air. "We'll meet up at the food court in an hour."
"Fine!" Rini also spun away from her partner, then joined the group of her friends, who began to head in the opposite direction. Mina stared at the departing Trunks with a piercing gaze.
"Earth to Mina," Serena called. "Quit drooling!"
Mina pushed aside her fantasies and met Serena's eyes with her own squinting, embarrassed orbs. The two golden-haired women walked together for a short distance until another flaxen haired female was within their sights.
"Hey!" Mina shouted to her before sprinting in that direction. Serena trailed her friend in a clumsy gallop, almost running into Mina when she came to a stop.
"Fancy meeting you here," 18 said.
Serena stared at the woman before her. The nagging sense of recognition pulled at the back of her head as she looked at the woman's white T-shirt and black pants, the young lady seemed to be a stranger.
"Oh," Mina greeted, "Serena, you remember Sarah from the Moonlight Masquerade."
"Of course," Serena answered abruptly. She struggled to envision 18 in the formal wear of that night. "Hi! I hope you haven't run into any more trouble."
"I wish," 18 responded.
"All right," Mina said, "let's get moving. There are sales and skirts just waiting for us to try them on!"
The three extraordinary young ladies departed into the crowd, and joined the ordinary shoppers in their common quest for bargains.
The afternoon sun smothered Amara in a barrage of light, and the light wind on top of the building offered no relief. Normally, she loved the heat and light offered by the sun but for once she would have preferred the cloak of darkness. The subject of her thoughts had no fear of any lack of light, and she too would have to descend into the void. At least with Michelle, who sat near the edge of the rooftop on the white railing, she would not be alone.
And with the third woman in a lavender business suit who approached them, they stood a chance at winning.
Trista entered the door that led to the roof, then walked forward, letting it swing shut in a decisive slam. Ironically, this open location afforded more privacy than any enclosed place. Unlike their apartment with its paper-thin walls, no people would bother the three unless they could fly. Amara checked the skies quickly upon the stray thought, but the clear skies showed no signs of hominid hoverers, at least for now.
"How are things going?" Trista asked.
"Slowly," Amara answered "There are whispers and rumors of Dr. Tomoe's experiments, but that's all they are. Nothing conclusive. But we may have a lead." Amara bent down beside her and picked up the potted plant she had laid. The green, leafy structure looked pitiful in the hands of the young woman.
"They're calling it a 'Happy Bloom,'" Michelle said.
"This is not plant that I recognize," Trista admitted, "which means it might be a new cultivar, or genetically engineered." Amara extended her arms, and Trista gently took the plant from her before closing it toward her chest. "Either way, I'll look into it."
"It was supposed to be for a student," Michelle added, "Brad Adams."
"So they could have been after the candidate, Sarah Adams?" Trista asked, not bothering to cover up that she already knew the answer.
"It's possible that Sarah may be the Sovereign we're looking for," Amara said. "If so, this plant may be a danger to her."
Trista wrapped her inner bemusement with outward stoicism. Michelle and Amara studied her, but the woman did not betray her mental dismissal of their assumptions. The fate of the world literally depended on her poker face.
"The Sovereign did not awaken in the futures I have seen," Trista admitted. "It is possible that it is because she had been eliminated before awakening, or even worse...corrupted."
"Then it's not a coincidence my dreams are getting more realistic," Michelle said. "I can see the figure more clearly than ever. A woman wielding a scythe standing on top-"
"A scythe?" Amara interrupted. "That means...the warrior of destruction..."
"Sailor Saturn," Trista finished, speaking the words with absolute dread.
"I see the symbol even now," Michelle recalled. "I can't see her face, but I saw her hair, and eyes full of evil."
"Could it be possible that the Heart Snatchers would revive her as their Sovereign?" Amara asked Michelle. "What if Sarah is Sailor Saturn?"
"I can't tell. But I don't think Sarah is ruled by the star of Saturn. We would have sensed it by now if she was. There's no way Sarah could ever cause the death and destruction in my dream."
Trista coughed. The sound, a mortal foible, was alien coming from her timeless lips.
"Still we can't be too careful," Amara noted. "We'll need to keep an eye out for anything else that's suspicious."
"Agreed," Trista and Michelle said at once.
"There's a lecture tomorrow at Infinity Academy. It'll be the perfect cover while the two of us snoop around."
"I'll let you know what I find out about this plant," Trista answered. "The sooner we unlock this mystery, the better." The trio nodded in agreement at the final words.
Upbeat, acoustic guitar driven music blared from the speakers of the mall while 18 effortlessly held the shopping bag in her hand. The logo on the paper container clashed with that of the store they were in now; Mina and Serena had pooled their pittances together for purchases at a previous stop. Mina held a few shirts on hangers and stared wistfully at an assortment of items in bin labeled "50% Off" in the front of the store. All of the objects featured Mina herself sporting a variant of the sailor suited uniform she had worn and donning a red, tapered domino mask. The cashier busied herself with organizing her station and was blissfully unaware that the blonde gazing at the discounted items was the same as the heroic figure represented in the merchandise - Sailor V.
Serena placed her full attention on the nearby Sailor V arcade machine, and her fingers scuttled the round, flat buttons with fierce pounds. The machine was listed for sale at a price that was several years worth of a teenager's allowance. The digital form of Sailor V mimicked the awkwardness of her controller, and in response, Mina carried her focus away from the merchandise and turned toward the machine. Her mind teemed with memories the months prior to her fateful meeting with Sailor Moon and the other Sailor Scouts. 18 steped in her line of sight to restore her to reality.
"So this is Sailor V," 18 noted. Her gaze was directed toward the cartoonish representation of Sailor V that adorned the side of the machine. The artwork was clearly added at a later date, as the hard shading was anachronistic in comparison to the flat coloring of the period.
"The one and only," Mina replied.
"From this angle, the bow in your hair resembles hers."
"We just both happen to be blondes with a thing for red ribbons," Mina shot back defensively. "It's not that uncommon."
"Then you didn't borrow the style from her?"
"Nope. Even though any resemblance between us is completely coincidental..."
"You flatter youself," 18 commented. "You don't look like Sailor V."
"Well, I guess that's a good thing. I wouldn't want people thinking I was a Sailor Scout."
"Speaking of Sailor Scouts, Sailor V looks a lot like Sailor Venus. Maybe those two are one in the same."
"No, I don't think so," Mina countered nervously, nearly dropping the blouses in her hand. "Besides, Sailor V probably looks totally different now. Maybe she changed her hair or dyed it. And she'd certainly be older than me."
"Who said anything about you?"
"Oh yeah." Mina laughed lightly.
"I have to admit, the girl has style." 18 pointed to the artwork on the panel. "That mini-skirt is more eye-catching as a separate piece. I like it better than that one piece bodysuit, color coded scheme."
"Everybody has to conform some time," Mina replied. "Besides, the Sailor Scouts saved your life. You shouldn't care about what they were wearing."
"Hi, ladies," the cashier interjected. "Have you found everything okay?"
"Yep," Mina answered. She walked over and handed the blouses to the cashier, who immediately began to remove the hangers and fold them. "Everything is fine."
"The total will be fifty twenty-two." Mina handed the woman the paper currency and coins.
"Are you getting anything?" Mina asked 18, who now stood at the bin.
"Here," 18 replied. She walked over to Mina and handed her a red mask. It was of poor craftsmanship, made of plastic which sported fine cracks along its edge. No one would mistake this for the actual mask she used to wear as Sailor V. Mina passed the mask to the cashier.
"Just this?" the cashier asked as she turned the plastic eyepiece.
"I'm taking the Sailor V machine, too," 18 stated.
"What?" Serena asked from the arcade machine. She separated herself from the console and faced 18, and the digital protagonist was soon replaced by a "Game Over" screen. "You mean this whole thing?"
"Sweetie," the cashier replied. "I don't think you can afford that."
"I said I was taking it," 18 insisted.
The cashier hurriedly pulled out a sheet of paper and a calculator and scribbled on it. She punched the numbers on the miniature keyboard in between the beads of sweat that began to form on her brow. She then entered a few key strokes into the register, which resulted in a series of numbers being displayed on the LED screen.
"That will be..."
18 smacked the cashier with a cold, hard look that in of itself threatened injury, and soon the worker's hand was also struck by a swat of paper bills. The eyes of the other blondes were as wide as dinner plates.
"I guess that's all the money you don't spend on food," Mina remarked.
"Take it before I stop feeling charitable," 18 said to the cashier.
"Your change," the cashier replied. She gave 18 the assorted currency and the mask in one, clumsy handful. Faster than the untrained eye could see, 18 had separated the pile and had stowed away the money safely, all while maintaing her grip on her shopping bag. "Would you like to have that machine delivered?"
"No," 18 answered. "I'll be back once I'm done shopping."
The three young women exited the store to the sound of a chime triggered by a sensor. They ambled before they stopped.
"Why am I holding your stuff for you?" 18 asked Mina during this pause as she held up the mask.
"Me?" Mina asked. "I thought you wanted this for yourself."
"No, I wanted to see how it looked on you," 18 stated, then lifted the mask to Mina's eye level. "Not. Maybe you do look a little like Sailor V after all."
"Thanks," Mina said. She caught a glimpse of herself in the glass panes, and squinted her eyes, pretending her blurred schoolgirl uniform was her attire as Sailor V. For once, her imagination failed her and she sighed, then put the mask in the bag.
"Personally," Serena butted in, "I think Sailor Moon is then times prettier than Sailor V."
"And I think Sailor Venus is a hundred times better than Sailor Moon," Mina countered facetiously. "The moon's not even a real planet."
"If there's a Sailor Scout for all of the planets, where's Sailor Saturn?" 18 asked.
The question shocked the other two schoolgirls and stopped their verbal exchanges at once. Serena twisted her left wrist toward her face and looked at her watch.
"Less talking," Serena ordered. "More shopping!"
In the idle moments that had been too plentiful for his tastes, Trunks had heard on occasion the mention a word which evoked drops of dread from the other fighters. Shopping. It was an activity which elicited unlimited disdain. Yet as he carried the bags of clothes for his companions, the aversion of the others bewildered him.
The aisles of clothes and merchandise, far from being an eyesore were a wonder in their superfluous splendor and diversity. There were men's wear, women's wear, jewelry, sportswear, shoes, hats, dresses, suits, and all sorts of clothing in one store alone. The mall had more stores that specialized in each of those items, as well as hideaways for electronics, greeting cards, and even candy. Not that he would buy anything for himself, of course. It bothered him enough that the freedom he experienced now could not by shared by the people of the future.
Amazingly enough, Hotaru seemed to share this unease. She clearly enjoyed Rini's company and her pale cheeks grew more vibrant as the two girls laughed. But this world seemed as alien to her as it did to him. She was too sheltered to take in the opulence of her surroundings, and he was too hardened by loss to see the happiness as anything more than a reflection of a past he could not change. Only at Rini's urging did she try on clothing, and despite this, Hotaru had refused to purchase any items.
Gohan and Rini, on the other hand, threw themselves cheerfully into buying clothes. Rini was especially enthusiastic, and her sentiment spread to Gohan as well. The four ambled their way through walkways congested with people and found an empty bench just long enough for the four of them to sit.
"This is a lot more fun with you than with my mom," Gohan said. "My mom always tries to buy me clothes I don't want. But you're getting exactly what you want."
"That's the way it's supposed to be," Rini responded. She looked to Hotaru, who smiled, but her short breaths revealed her fatigue.
"Hey, Gohan!" Rini continued. "I'd like to introduce you to some of my friends. Want to come?"
"Sure," he replied. He stood up and turned to Hotaru. "Hey, are you okay?"
"I'm fine," she replied. "Please go ahead without me. I don't want to hinder you."
"I think Hotaru just needs a moment to rest," Rini declared. "Come on."
"Then we should wait for her," Gohan protested.
"No, this will only take a second! Besides, Trunks is here. He'll be watching out for her." She winked the two she mentioned.
"Ooooh." His face lit up with belated understanding.
"Come on!" She sprinted away from the bench. Gohan followed Rini across the walkways of the mall, leaving the older girl and the young man to themselves and the mountain of bags. Trunks and Hotaru sat in quiet amidst the noise of the shoppers. The cries of children accompanied by talking adults ranged from merriment to sobbing disappointment.
"I haven't had this much fun in years," Hotaru finally admitted. "Three years."
"What happened three years ago?" Trunks asked.
"It's been three years since my mother passed, and I still miss her every day." Her breaths slowed and deepened. "Perhaps Ms. Kaori means well, but she's not my mother."
"I know what it's like to grow up without a parent. My father died when I was a baby."
"That's terrible!" She lowered her head after her outburst. "I should be thankful for the memories I had. You've had it so much harder."
"No, I can't say it's harder. I only knew him through the words of my mother. There's a hole that just can't be replaced, even if you can turn back time."
"All these happy families don't know what they have," Hotaru stated. "Even Rini and Gohan have parents who love them."
"That's why I'm going to make sure they never have to go through losing a parent." As Trunks spoke, it carried a determined tone she had heard once from her father.
I'll make sure I won't lose you, sweetie...
The unexpected memory jerked Hotaru and she reached out to Trunks with her right hand, resting it on his exposed hands. He reciprocated the notion and froze, the touch like the crossing of two wires. She sat at the edge of childhood and adolescence, vulnerable enough to be innocent, yet her mind mature despite her naiveté and inexperience. To her, Trunks was an idol, a wellspring of inspiration and force that bolstered her. To him, Hotaru was like the Earth he sought to protect, fragile and defenseless. He felt a portion of his aura flow into her, a noticeable weakness caused his shoulders to sag. Yet between the two was another connection, latent but perceptible and intensifying. Had she been slightly older and he slightly younger, the connection would have manifested beyond the yields of their own personal rules of decorum. Instead, their clasped hands were joined out of mutual need rather than physical attraction.
"Hotaru, there's something you need to know about me," Trunks began. "I come from the future."
"What do you mean?"
"In this world, I was only born a year ago. But I come from several years in the future. I traveled to the past, your present."
"If this is a joke, I'm afraid I don't get the punchline."
"It's not a joke. It's the truth."
"If you're from the future, how did you get here?" she asked.
"My mother built a time machine."
He expected her to laugh at the sentence, or to grow angry in denial. Instead her answer was distant in emotion, but honest in its acceptance.
"That sounds wonderful." She paused, readily absorbing the words he had imparted. "I've never thought too much about the future. I've always been worried that I might not live long enough to see it." Her face brightened in pure hope. "But maybe you can show it to me."
"No, you wouldn't want to go there. You see, I came to the past to prevent the future from unfolding."
"Why would you do that?"
"Because of two evil androids. They murdered innocent people, friends, and family. They weren't that different from those fiends you've come across. Soulless killers and without an ounce of compassion or kindness in their bodies." The edge in his voice quickened her heartbeat. "I hoped they could have been destroyed."
She recognized consciously that for the first time, he was capable of not just being a protector, but of shedding blood. It reminded her too much of the things people said she did when she had her blackouts, and she could not ignore the prick of unease his confession left.
"That's why," he continued. "If we're successful in beating them here, I have to return to that future, and I know I'll never see you again."
"So, you'll be leaving me too."
"Yes. But I wanted you to know why. I know it sounds crazy..."
"No, Trunks." Her eyes trembled and threatened to tear. "I believe you. Thank you for telling me."
Their hands remained clasped in wordless unison.
Artemis nestled himself on the ledge in the living room, His eyes were half shut and his mind half covered under the blanket of sleep. It had been exhausting for him and Luna to navigate their way back to their respective houses, sneaking aboard crowded buses and slinking through alleys only they knew about. Still, Mina would be back home soon enough.
A pre-recorded ding-dong summoned Artemis to full awareness, and he saw 17 at the door. He held a potted plant and remained stationary, seeming more like a mannequin than a man. In fact the distrustful expression on Artemis' face seemed more human than this man did.
The man simply did not smell right. In fact he hardly smelled at all, a faint trace of human odor that seemed both manufactured and subdued. This was not cleanliness but deception. His clothes carried more character than his body, and what Artemis gathered from those scents he didn't like. From a man who had no car, his regular clothes carried the aromas of foreign roads and exhaust. He was either a wanderer or a criminal, neither of which were suitable romantic partners for a normal teenager, let alone a Sailor Scout.
In the time Artemis' mind processed the thought, 17 was gone, the green plant the only remains of his presence. He had disappeared so swiftly he might as well have teleported. If a man was faster than his feline senses could gather, he was superhuman. Artemis hoped he was just getting old.
He looked at the plant, which had not yet bloomed. It only made him feel even older.
Bertie looked at the shoppers walking outside of the large opening at the front of the salon with a touch of envy in her heart. These people were enjoying the climate-controlled indoors, filling their shopping bags with purchases they could ill afford. The clipboard in her left hand and the pen in her right hand felt like dumbbells as she stood in the salon, but a quick look the tile floor beneath her feet reminded her of how far she had come.
Over the past year, their enterprise had grown from a cosmetics booth to a full-fledged beauty salon. All four sisters were, of course, excellent with makeup, and both the selling and application of cosmetics remained the staple of the establishment. Catzi fussed over a client in the swivel chair at the back of the shop. Prizma stood at a sink with cupped lip and a long hose with a showerhead. She turned on the water, pointing the nozzle in the bowl. Avery stood at the cash register and looked at the entrance, and Bertie followed suit. A pink haired girl and a dark haired boy entered the space the sisters had rented inside the mall.
"No kids allowed," Bertie joked.
"She's not a kid," Catzi responded, throwing her voice from the rear of the salon. "She's the rabbit." Her yells were punctuated by the muttering of a woman.
"And my, you must be a brave young man to come into our parlor," Avery said to Gohan. "Most men would rather be caught dead than enter here."
"It doesn't seem that bad," Gohan replied.
Avery chuckled in response, as did Bertie, but her laughter slipped into sudden silence as a trio of blondes stepped into the sale. Bertie did everything she could not to drop the bottle of shampoo as she watched the woman who accompanied Serena and Mina.
"Hey guys!" Serena yelled.
"Serena! Mina!" Avery called. The two blondes waved to the brunette, while the little girl stood akimbo.
"I knew you couldn't stay away from me," Rini said.
"It's not my fault you wandered away from your friends," Serena answered.
"Don't worry, we'll keep an eye on her for you," Prizma assured. "It will be like old times."
Gohan suddenly felt a rising unease of exclusion. Avery's description was apt; it was starting to turn into a spider web of women's gossip. He looked at 18, who was similarly quiet, and for a second his senses sounded a warning for something other than the trap he had found himself in.
"Hey," Gohan asked her. "Do I know you?"
"Of course, you do," Mina answered. "She was at the masquerade a few weeks ago."
"Oh, so you were Krillin's date," Gohan said.
18 replied with a cold smirk, and at the same time the already pale face of Bertie faded into the color of snow.
"What's the matter?" Avery asked her sister. "You look like you've seen a..."
Avery's mouth stopped upon studying the blonde stranger who stepped toward the counter. The woman was mechanically precise in her movements, but not rigid, every step measured to the same length, and every motion and angle calculated at distinct intervals rather than at flexible, random periods.
This was no human. This was an android. Whether it was sent to kill them or help them was beyond Bertie's knowledge. That it had arrived with Mina and Serena gave her a sliver of hope it was the latter.
"Would you like to try on some makeup?" Bertie asked. "Not that you need it, because you're already that gorgeous."
"No," 18 answered.
"We have a five-minute makeover in case you want to try it."
18 reacted to the sales pitch by turning away and rejoining the others.
Bertie had no more time to be scared, as a commotion from the back of the salon seized her focus. Bertie and Avery could feel the malevolent aura stir the air of the salon long before the woman who emitted it approached the counter. Where the blonde android had been a blank, soulless presence, an aura of discord followed the red-haired woman's every movement. Her hair was curled and loose, covering her golden earrings, and her face was painted with makeup to mask her pallor.
"That will be forty," Bertie remarked.
She pulled out the pieces of paper from her purse, the dropped the bills onto the counter. With a frustrated sigh, she turned her head to the teenagers who were making a commotion. Their conversation ended abruptly as they caught sight of her and her mood similarly shattered into shock. She walked toward them and stopped directly in front of the group. Mina immediately tensed with surprise and felt a hot flash of anger, while Serena's heart rate quickened out of fear.
"You," her voice grew softer and younger, stripped for once of all malcontent. Serena and Mina calmed themselves, as Kaori Knight hardly noticed their presence. Her attention was solely on 18. "Sarah Soong."
"Sarah Adams," 18 replied. Her unflinching stare was met with submissive blinks from the redhead.
"I must have mistaken you for someone else." Kaori Knight ended her words with a hurried walk away from the group.
"Miss," Bertie called after the redhead, holding out bills. "Your change."
"Keep it," Kaori Knight answered without turning around, stepping through the open space and into the hall of the mall.
"Huh?" Gohan asked. "What's going on?"
"That lady always acts weird," Rini replied.
"Hold on, you've seen her before?" Serena asked.
"Yeah," Rini answered. "She's like the butler or something at Hotaru's house."
"She's living with him," Prizma interjected.
"Living in sin, that is," Avery added.
"Hush!" Bertie interjected. "There are kids around...among other things."
"You know," Avery mentioned, "you girls could always come in for an appointment. We have so much to catch up on. And in the back, it's a lot more private..." She looked at 18, whose stare pierced her like an icicle. "No offense."
"None taken," 18 replied. "I assume you know how to work with synthetic hair."
"That's our specialty!" Bertie replied. "Aside from a five minute makeover!"
"I just might have to take you up on that offer."
"Maybe I will too," Serena said. "We have some catching up to do." She bent down to Rini and Gohan's level and took their hands in her own. "But first, we need some ice cream."
"Ice cream!" Rini shouted. "Hooray!" Rini, Gohan, and Serena exited the store, while Mina and 18 trailed them slowly.
"It was about time for you to meet up with your friends anyway," 18 said. "Go ahead."
"Aren't you coming with us?" Mina asked.
"I'm going back to grab that arcade machine. We both know how boys get if they don't have anything to play with for a few hours."
"Won't you need any help with that?"
"I can handle it." 18 walked away "See ya."
Mina's imagination created a scenario where 18 effortlessly lifted the arcade machine in one hand, and despite its implausibility, she could not make the mental mirage disappear. She then ran toward Serena, Gohan, and Rini. She left the store, and so did 18, ushering a whirlwind of relief through the salon.
Savory odors of the different food counters tickled the noses of the eaters and would-be eaters on the food court. Pizza, pretzels, French fries, chicken fingers, and sandwiches exuded vapors that proved to be irresistible to the tummies of the group of young people who entered the area.
Gohan and Trunks pushed two of the smaller tables together to make a six-seat table. Serena carried mountains of meats, starches to that table, and devoured the same mountains of food. Rini carried a plate smaller than the others, but still packed with food. Mina, Trunks, and Gohan had a normal assortment of victuals, although the rumbling stomach of the boy indicated he could have easily eaten more. Hotaru's bowl was notable in its sparseness. All except Hotaru had eaten cones topped with ice cream scoops, the only evidence of that dessert were traces of crumbs distributed unevenly across Serena's plate.
Hotaru instead focused on her singular bowl of noodles and liquid. She carefully lifted the noodles with the sticks, and between her movements her eyes would linger slightly on the plates of those on her table. Rini ceased her intake of food upon noticing slow motions of the rail-thin girl.
"Is there something wrong?" Rini asked.
"No," Hotaru answered, "it's nothing."
Her statement came not out of disgust, but out of unfamiliarity, but her words called an end to the marathon eating of Serena nonetheless.
"Please don't stop on my account," Hotaru begged. "I enjoy watching you eat. Maybe I can eat like that one of these days. But there's something else I'd like to mention."
"What is it?" Serena asked, her mouth shamelessly full of food.
"There's a lecture tomorrow afternoon at school."
"What's it about?" Gohan asked.
"Multiple dimensions," Hotaru answered. "My father is bringing in a professor from the other side of the world to talk about it. I'd like it if you'd come with me. It's open to the public so you don't need tickets."
"Sure," Rini responded, "we'll be there! When and where?"
"Two o'clock. At Infinity Academy."
"Thanks for inviting us."
"You're welcome." She pinched more noodles with her chopsticks. "I hope to see all of you there."
Hotaru brought more food to her mouth with care, and the others followed suit in silent harmony.
Dr. Tomoe poured brown grains from a test tube into a flask, then poured the contents into another glass container with a filter at the bottom. He placed the glass container abover another, similarly shaped, glass bottle. The water within the lower container splashed to life as a result of pillar of flame protruding from the Bunsen burner. In moments, water from the lower glass chamber infiltrated the dark granules in the upper container, forming an aromatic mud. He stirred the concoction like a witch doctor for a full minute before deciding that it was long enough.
As he turned the valve to quench the burner's fire, disappointment settled on him in turn. He did not have to make the preparations to create another Heart Snatcher. Rather, the liquid sat in test tubes and beakers, limitless potential for mayhem in liquid form. Dr. Tomoe watched the brown liquid drip from the top container, and the idleness cause his mind to drift.
Soon, he was mentally no longer amidst test tubes and centrifuges, but in a cave from an emerging memory, far from the controlled area of his laboratory. The air was no less cool and dry, but far more stagnant, and rocks jutted out from both walls and ceilings alike. It was a little rustic for his tastes; he preferred the pristine environs of his facilities, but in this situation, he had no choice.
His eyes fell upon his reasons for being here; two figures of importance. One was an old man whose bushy white mane fled down his back from the bald crown of his head. The mustached man studied the second figure before him on the makeshift slab. The body of a little girl had been placed on the elevated surface like a corpse, her deep purple eyes buried under still eyelids.
"Can it be done?" Dr. Tomoe asked
"So you plan to have her grow?" Dr. Gero replied. "In that case, an infinite energy model will not work. The process would freeze her aging...but there is an alternative."
"So can you help?"
"I can help," Dr. Gero stated. "However, in exchange I need your assistance."
"Name your price," Dr. Tomoe replied.
"I had a project to create an android purely out of biological material." Dr. Gero paused, hooking Dr. Tomoe's attention drawing it closer to him like magnet. "This android would grow and evolve. That framework I have mapped out. I would need an agent that will allow me to bind the genetic material I have collected from these disparate sources into one unique being."
The request was maddeningly simple. Dr. Tomoe was already in possession of a sentient substance that easily fused with DNA. It bound especially well to the genetic material of humans, and he had already begun to experiment with people in this manner. In most cases the subjects had transformed into uncontrollable monsters; only recently had he discovered that the material could fuse with inanimate objects as well.
Dr. Tomoe cackled in confirmation, a cackle that brought him out of the shade of memory and into the present of his laboratory where he continued his experiments. The bottom glass container was now full of brown liquid, and his wicked glee sustained his familiar laugh. He grasped the round-bottom flask, which was on the border of warm and hot, then lifted it into the air. He turned the glass container toward his mouth and arced his head back, downing the bitter liquid in one greedy gulp. His coffee had been a delicious unadulterated black and was now as much a memory as the moment he had recalled.
The Kame House sat as a domicile of respite as Goku slept. Chi-Chi sat by him in her faithful watch, while Gohan and Krillin stood beside the bed. Muffled sounds of a television traversed the thin walls, but even this background noise petered out into nothingness. It was the tense wordlessness of waiting that trapped words, song, and laughter alike. Instead, their eyes all felt the strain of watching the spiky-haired man breathe in and out in stressful recovery,
"Mom," Gohan said, chasing away the somber quiet. "I got invited to go look at a lecture."
"A lecture?" Chi-Chi asked. "To think, in the midst of this crisis you're still thinking of your schoolwork!" "I'm so proud of you, Gohan. Where is it?"
"At Infinity Academy."
Chi-Chi bounced to her feet upon the mention of the name.
"Oh, that's the internationally renowned school for the gifted!" the housewife cried. "How did you manage to find out about that place?"
"We've met a few people who go there." Gohan turned to Krillin. "By the way, I saw Sarah today."
"You did?" Krillin asked, panic stretching his eyes and mouth wide. "And there weren't any fireworks?"
"Why would there be any?" Gohan ignored the sweat beads of relief that formed on Krillin's head. "Hey, do you think she'll be at the lecture?"
"You know," Krillin replied, "maybe I should attend this lecture."
"Whatever has gotten into you," Chi-Chi commented, "I hope it lasts." Her eyes fell to the bed and her unconscious husband. "To think, Gohan, when your father wakes up, he's hardly going to recognize the scholar you've become."
Her declaration simmered as wordlessness conquered the room once more. The only sounds in the quarters were the heavy breaths of Goku drowning out the inhalations and exhalations of the others.
Serena sat in the living room of her house. Her mouth itched in anticipation to begin to converse with her friends. She and Mina nervously clamped their tongues between their lips as if the pink muscles had been seized by Luna herself. The cat sat by Serena, while Raye, Amy, and Lita each sat on the floor around a table. The footsteps of Rini and Serena's mother rumbled across the ceiling while the woman dutifully dragged her "niece" to the bathtub. For once, schoolwork had spared Serena from this chore, but she also wanted the little girl as far away from their discussion as possible; the more Rini knew, the more she would try to help. Their enemies could now apparently come back from the dead; Rini couldn't.
"You wouldn't believe who we saw today," Mina said, beating Serena to the punch.
"Who?" Raye asked.
"Kaori Knight," Serena and Mina answered in unison.
"That's impossible," Amy declared. "Maybe it's someone who just resembles her."
"No, it was definitely Kaori Knight," Mina insisted. "And, get this, she acted as if she knew Sarah."
"No way!" Lita yelled. "That can't be right!"
"Sarah didn't come back with us after that encounter." Mina's youthful face started to slump in despair. "What if she's involved with Heart Snatchers?"
"I don't think so," Raye declared. "She's definitely not a Heart Snatcher. There is something not quite right about her and her family, but..."
"Now, wait a minute!" Lita protested.
"You didn't let me finish! I was going to say they're not full of the same evil as our enemies."
"There's no way they're full of any evil. I can personally vouch for that."
"Lita, you don't exactly have the best track record when it comes to boys and the Negaverse."
"Knock it off!" Luna interrupted. "If this is Kaori Knight, it's more important that an enemy has been resurrected."
"But it's not like we can't handle that," Lita responded. "We'll just beat her again if she tries to mess with anyone."
"Like Rini," Serena said. "Or Hotaru."
"Yeah, the Sisters said she was living with Hotaru." Mina mentioned. "That poor girl and her father are living with a Heart Snatcher. No wonder she seems so lonely."
"Or maybe she's involved with them, too," Lita said dryly. "After all, anyone who knows a Heart Snatcher is a Heart Snatcher."
"That's not what I meant!" Raye countered.
"Shh..." Amy cautioned. "Keep it down. We're supposed to be studying."
"Speaking of studying," Mina said, "Hotaru invited us to a lecture at Infinity Academy."
"You mean the Sergei Ajimov lecture?" Amy asked.
"I guess. It was an open invitation, so you all could come."
"I wouldn't mind going, but I'm still on punishment," Raye mentioned.
"And I have to meet someone tomorrow," Lita said. Upon those words, Serena and Mina brought themselves within six inches of the eyes of Amy.
"Amy," Mina pleaded, "you aren't going to bail on us, too. We need someone who can translate all of this science stuff into something that's not Greek to us."
"I'd love to attend," Amy said, "but I have entirely too much schoolwork to catch up on." She picked up a notebook from the table and lifted it between her and Serena. "But if you're going, I hope you can take some notes."
"Notes?" Serena asked, retreating from the notebook.
"It's getting late guys," Mina said, similarly repelled by the bound sheets of paper. "Maybe we can see each other tomorrow? After the lecture."
All of the girls made noises in agreement. The quarter of Amy, Raye, Lita, and Mina gathered their belongings and walked out of the room, with Serena following behind them as a gracious host. The house was soon quiet again except for the playful sounds and footsteps from upstairs.
The night air was crisp and cool, inviting 18 and 17 to stand on the balcony. Years ago, such temperatures would have chilled the tips of their fingers and their noses, but they stood now, cognizant of the cold in the air but unaffected by it. Their eyes were treated to darkness sprinkled with electric lights, but the sleepless city served only as background noise to them.
"I ran into an old face today," 18 stated.
"Who?" 17 asked.
"How'd she look?"
"I said I ran into an old face. She's aged."
"She recognized you?"
"Definitely. On the other hand, Goku's son didn't."
"Those chumps," 17 remarked. "Any thoughts on what we're going to do about them?"
"They're determined to chase us down one way or another," 18 replied. "It's a shame. I like it here. It's a nice place to settle down."
"You're not the settling type."
"No, but this would be a fun little hideaway to visit every now and then." 18 leaned on the balcony railing. "It's so isolated from the rest of the world. The people in this city don't know what they're missing."
"Guess we'll have to bring our game to them."
The siblings said nothing else before heading into the apartment. It would be another sleepless night for three androids.
Mina crossed her arms and bit her inside lip. She walked at a pace that was nearly a sprint, but warmth was a fading memory. She should have brought a jacket to protect her from the the dry, heatless night, but she had not expected to be out this late at night. She tossed her own whispers of admonitions out of her head; it was far too cold to second-guess herself. Instead, she was guided more by the trails branded in her mind than by any visual cues.
She blinked. Her cool eyelids covered her colder eyes for a moment, then spread open, leaving her vision blurry. Yet the lit windows of the small, two-story house drew her closer. This was her home. In years past, she would take a shortcut, sneak around the back wall and foliage surrounding the house, then enter her home. Today there was no need for the alternate route, and it was far too cold to make any moves.
Despite the fact that her fingers were frozen, she did not fumble for her keys. She instead walked to her doorstep and pulled them out of her shirt pocket with a fast, smooth motion. She pressed the cold metal in her hand into the metal slot on the door, then twisted it. The lock slid, and Mina turned the handle of the doorknob to swing the portal open.
Yet the rush of warm air brought her no relief, and she dared not step through. Her mother stood at the door, her shirt covered with an apron and her dark hair tied back in a ponytail. Mina entered the house slowly, and her mother closed the door behind her child. There was no way out.
"What are you doing coming in at this hour?" she asked in a tone that was nearly a scream. "You told me you were going shopping with a friend!"
"I had a study session," Mina replied with a submissive hunch.
"Another study session?"
"An emergency one!"
"These study sessions don't seem to be helping your grades any. And now there are strange men leaving flowers at your door." Her mother raised a potted plant and shoved it in the face of Mina. "Don't say the cat dragged it in."
Mina shot a look at Artemis, who sat on the hardwoord floor. He yawned in response.
"If you keep this up, you're going to end up like your stupid father!" Mina's mother yelled. "You're grounded! You will not be going anywhere other than school for the near future!"
"But I was going to go to a lecture-"
"I don't want to hear it! No television and phone for you."
Mina dropped her head and trudged past her mother, then headed up to her room. Artemis followed Mina into her room. As soon as the girl closed her door, Artemis snickered at her predicament. Frustrated, Mina opened the window to her room, letting the cold air in.
"She certainly told you," Artemis mocked. As a reward for his comment, Mina quickly picked the laughing cat up. Artemis worked his paws as she carried him across the room.
"Hey, what are you doing?" he asked. oma placed Artemis on the very edge of the window ledge, and he nearly lost his balance. He caught the ledge with his forepaws, but the slam of the window almost made him fall again.
"Find somewhere else to spend the night," Mina ordered through the glass. "If I'm grounded, you're banished."
Artemis signed, then let himself drop to the ground. He would find somewhere else to sleep, preferably somewhere warm.
Dr. Tomoe squinted through bloodshot eyes. His lenses masked his exhaustion, but his mind began to slip. Even his enhanced physiology augmented by caffeine could not take the endless strain of staying awake. Despite this, he fought against dormancy. Cell, the being trapped in his lab solely by the power of the Sovereign did not sleep in spite of his confinement, and every moment Cell stayed awake was a moment less Dr. Tomoe had to get his plans in order. Cell would only be placated by androids - androids that thankfully did not match the description of the Sovereign.
The pull of memory jerked him again to the laboratory of Dr. Gero, and he was now again in the presence of its resident. Dr. Gero examined the reddish liquid in a test tube, almost completely ignoring the purple-eyed little girl that stood in front of Dr. Tomoe.
"This substance is remarkable," Dr. Gero said.
"Yes," Dr. Tomoe replied. "When distilled and carefully fused the proper nutrients, it can work wonders. As you have seen, it can merge even disparate biological samples. And those were some very interesting samples."
"Indeed, but this seems all too easy."
"It's not. Only in its refined state can it be used as a tool. But after what you've done for me, this is the least I could do." Dr. Tomoe framed the shoulders of the child Sovereign in front of him. "The new body you provided at my request is no less impressive."
"It's an improved version of an earlier model," Dr. Gero replied in a self-congratulatory manner. "Energy absorbing androids have a unique potential. Hunger can drive a creature more effectively than any other motive."
"Speaking of which, I think it's time for your guest to have her next meal."
His little mistress showed no trace of emotion at the statement. Dr. Gero led the pair past blueprints and computer consoles to another area of the lab. It was even more dimly lit than the previous section, but the myriad of monitors cast light on two giant vertical cylinders filled with water, which reflected the luminescence.
Inside the giant glass tubes were two humans. They were the size of adults, and their heads were fully covered with helmets with oxygen hoses. Leads collected the electrical impulses of their body and sent the information along wires to a computer. A monitor reflected this information to the humanoid audience - heart rate, blood pressure, and respiratory rate in three separate lines.
A hint of displeasure contaminated his anticipation; he had wanted to hear them scream.
The air around the girl began to glow purple while her irises heated into an intense red. Two bright purple arms of light branched from her body and reached through the glass, the water, and into the chests of the respective human sacrifices. The hands broke neither skin nor glass, but jerked the two victims in a seizure. Tones, beeps, and chimes sounded off as the hands rose from the torsos with a pink crystal in each hand. The alarms may as well have been silent horns, and in minutes most of the vital signs of the now heartless pair faded to nothing. Their chests stopped heaving and pallor painted their skin white.
The hands of energy pulled the shining crystals through the glass, then returned to the rest of the aura surrounding the little girl. Dr. Tomoe chuckled as the crystals slowly floated toward her. As they neared her head she opened her mouth and inhaled. The crystals entered her mouth and she swallowed, then lowered her head. The purple aura diminished and she closed her eyes again, digesting the heart energy.
"Such a shame," Dr. Tomoe commented. "These two could have lived long lives."
"Ah, but they will." Dr. Gero noted, pointing to the display. Their brains were still active. Dr. Gero produced two devices that resembled actual human hearts. Each device was a mixture of metal, plastic, and fiberglass, and remained firm in the tight, triumphant grip of Dr. Gero.
"Artificial hearts for artificial humans," Dr. Tomoe noted.
"Indeed. Replacing their hearts is just another step to immortality. With these new energy cores, their bodies will be forever powered. Never aging, never dying, never tiring."
"I like the way you think." His wide red grin grew even bigger. "Of course, I hope you don't mind if I prefer a more organic solution..."
Dr. Tomoe was brought to the present upon thinking of those words. The androids were synthetic soldiers that blended into the human populace. Yet the androids were destructive creatures, chaotic in their impulses. They were not much different from Heart Snatchers, laying incognito until it was time for them to strike. Finding them as things stood now would be nearly impossible.
He would figure out a way to bring those androids to his guest, and then Cell would take his rightful place as the first sacrifice on the altar of the Sovereign. His mind dropped from consciousness at last and as the sun rose outside of the laboratory, his breaths deepened and his heart rate slowed. The approach of slumber shut off his hearing and he passed into unconsciousness deaf and numb.
The bright orange sun reflected its light off the windows of the adjacent skyscraper and filled the athletic club with a bright, morning glaze. The light covered the dark purple swimsuit of Michelle and the rest of her body as she reclined in a poolside chair. Amara, clad in pants and a blouse, laid down her bare feet on the poolside like a bird of prey, watched the sunrise, then caught a move out of the corner of her eye. Her cousin also shifted her eyes.
18 entered the area with the sleek stealth of a panther. Her swimming attire was a black bikini, which revealed the preternaturally perfect skin on her body. A black swimming cap crowned her head, yet the eyes of Amara and Michelle were drawn to her curves. She friskily slipped into the water, and let it engulf her, then pushed herself back to the surface in an exhibitionist display. Michelle in turn, dove into the pool and joined her in movements no less graceful. They both drew their bodies against the pool wall and Amara stood at attention, at the midsection of the pool.
"I want you to give it your all," Michelle said to 18.
"On your mark!" Amara yelled. "Get set! Go!"
Immediately upon the final command, Michelle sprung from the wall and into a rapid succession of strokes and kicks. 18 let the woman swim for two seconds.
Then she followed, rocketing her body along the surface of the water in a streamline, horizontal dive. She was not paddling, or even holding her breath. She jet through the water like a bullet, shooting past Michelle and reaching the opposite end in a flash. She waited the remaining seconds it took for Michelle to reach her. The woman had increased her speed, but to 18, the period of waiting seemed like eternity. And she had to wait even more seconds for the wavy-haired woman to catch her breath.
"How did you do that?" Michelle asked.
"It's a gift," 18 answered. Her reply drew a puzzled look on the face of Michelle. Even in her element, her intuition overwhelmed her.
"But you were still holding back. How fast could you go?"
"Faster." The tone in her voice prevented Michelle from asking any further questions about her speed. Instead, 18 climbed out of the pool with ease. She threw off her swimming cap and shook her head. This time, her hair had not gotten wet, and she walked away.
"You'll be at the lecture later, right?"
"No, I won't."
"You're passing up on a free extra credit opportunity?"
"I'm not interested in listening to a boring lecture," 18 answered without stopping. "And I don't need the extra credit. Or any more Happy Blooms."
"I guess we'll see you Monday."
18 responded by continuing to walk away from the cousins in a perfect, precise tempo.
Mina sat on the bed in her room and looked at her homework piled up beside her. She had not even been allowed to let the others know that she wouldn't be able to make it; fortunately, she was able to contact Serena via their communicator. Still, the wound caused by her mother's pronouncement stung; it was easier to pretend the matriarch didn't exist. It was made all the easier when she departed and took her father shopping. The woman who screamed at her in her nightmares would not be back for several hours, and without Artemis to act as her conscience the idea of escaping her home tantalized her.
The door played its pre-recorded chimes in protest. Mina ran downstairs to the front door, then opened it and smiled at her visitor. Clad in wrinkled baggy jeans, a black T-shirt thrown over a white, long sleeved shirt, he presented himself the bad boy she sensed him to be.
"Good morning," Mina greeted.
"Hi," 17 said. He took a step but Mina spread her arms out and palmed the door frame.
"Now, now, dark and handsome." She gave a playfully bashful smile in the style of a coquette. "You have to ask to me to invite you in."
"No, I don't." Despite his answer, he made no effort to push past her.
"But I shouldn't let strange men in the house when I'm by myself." Mina giggled uncontrollably and reverted to her loose, playful grace. "Oh, come in."
She pushed herself away from the door and cleared the doorframe, and 17 took the cue to enter the house. Mina shut the front door behind him.
"Thanks for the plant," she said. "What type of plant is it?"
"Venus Heart Trap," he joked.
Mina grinned with approval. The beats of her heart thumped like horse hooves on a racetrack. Her skin flushed with the lukewarm rush that preceded a sweat. Her abdominal muscles tightened as she began to experience her own private summer of excitement.
"Upstairs?" he asked.
"Living room!" she answered.
The two of them bounded toward the living room in a race Mina had no chance of winning. Instead, she bounced off the furniture then pressed a button on the television set that laid on the floor. Similarly, she turned on the game system attacjed to it and took a controller, then handed 17 another controller as though it were a forbidden fruit.
He took it and pressed a button. It was good.
Pancakes, waffles, and bacon had been consumed hours ago, but their scents lingered in the air of Serena's house. Rini disturbed this domestic air by jumping down the stairs in juvenile glee. Serena followed her in a thumping dash. The noise caused Serena's mother to venture from the kitchen and into the main hall, where she watched the two interact.
"Hurry up!" Rini yelled. She stopped, allowing Serena to catch up with her. "We don't want to be late."
"Not so fast," Serena responded. "Let me check you over first."
"I'm fine." Rini fidgeted as Serena crouched and slid her fingers in the back of her collar.
"You were not. Your label was sticking up in the back."
"Hmph." Rini scratched the back of her neck and Serena stood up. A dark spot at the edge of her vision snagged her focus and she turned her gaze to her mother, who smiled with pride.
"You've really matured in these past few months," her mother replied. "I'm so glad you're starting to warm up to your cousin." The dark-haired woman whispered into Serena's ear. "I think someday you'll make an excellent mom."
"We don't want to be late for the lecture!" Serena answered in discomfort. She took Rini by the hand who yelled out. The girl's cry did not stop her, but the emergence of Serena's father from her living room brought the two young females to a halt.
"Serena?" he asked. "You're going a lecture?"
"That's right, Dad," Serena's answered.
"This wouldn't happen to be Dr. Ajimov's lecture, would it?"
"Why didn't you tell me sooner? I was hoping to get a shot of Dr. Ajimov. I can take you guys there. That is if you don't mind being seen in public with your dorky dad."
"We don't mind," Serena answered. "And we could sure use the ride. Thanks."
"Let me get my cameras and we're out of here."
Her father went into the living room and gathered his camera bags. He came out from the room wrapped in straps that carried sacks. He held a camera bag in his hand and Serena took the bag from him. It was heavy, but the presence of her father made it all the lighter. For the first time in a long time, she felt like an ordinary girl. As her eyes fell on the pink haired girl beside her, she realized she never would be ordinary again.
And the family walked out of the house into a quiet afternoon.
Trunks and Krillin were already at the front door of the Kame House when walked toward them door in a newly purchased T-shirt and jeans. Tennis shoes and socks covered his feet. He looked the picture of an ordinary city boy headed to a causal event.
And his mother grabbed him hard by the shoulder, halting his progress.
"Gohan!" Chi-Chi cried. "What on earth are you wearing?"
"Looks like you're in the doghouse, kiddo," Krillin remarked.
"No son of mine is going to go out dressed like that." She picked him up and set him on the other side of her, then bent down toward him. "It's bad enough you end up wearing those pajamas when you fight, but you are not going out of this house looking like a slob."
"Don't talk back to me! Just think how your father would react if he saw you like that. Goku and his friends are good at fighting, but they certainly don't know how to dress."
"Trunks," Krillin said under his breath. "A word to the wise, you might want to make a quick exit." Krillin heeded his own advice and edged his body toward the door.
"And where did you get these clothes anyway?" Chi-Chi asked her son.
"It's my fault, ma'am," Trunks confessed. "I took him shopping."
"Ever since you've been around," Chi-Chi said to Trunks, "you've been a bad influence on that boy. He's hasn't been sticking to his father's side in this illness, like he should!"
Trunks hung his head. This was the mother of Gohan and the wife of Goku. He would endure her legendary wrath in quiet obedience. In contrast, her rhetoric increased in volume, pitch, and words themselves.
"Catch you later!" Krillin shouted as he reached the door. He flew away and the sound of Chi-Chi's voice thinned into a string of dampened shouts.
The halls of Infinity Academy were large and spacious. Serena could hardly believe her eyes at the cleanliness and sleek design that compared to the dusty, worn walls of Crossroads Junior High. Infinity Academy was like university contained in a skyscraper, and she quietly lamented she would never have grades good enough to be accepted at this institution.
Serena walked between her dad and Rini, the latter whose hand she held. The three of them followed the noise and steps of a crowd. Laminated signs and potted plants that directed them to the auditorium, with the occasional security guard as reinforcement. As they entered the foyer, they packed tighter as the number of people grew larger, and it was only through sheer luck the three relatives were not separated. The lecture had certainly been popular, especially with the Infinity Academy students. Nearly all of the members of the crowd wore the maroon and plaid uniforms.
Rini swung her head around in several directions, looking up beside the legs and hips of those around her. Hotaru was nowhere to be seen, and Gohan and Trunks were also missing. Coupled with Mina's forced absence, Serena pondered sitting through the lecture with just her father and a brat for company. It did not seem pleasant.
She cast off the feeling and her eyes spotted a green haired woman in an Infinity Academy uniform who handed out plants at a table. She blinked; this was one of the students who had just been attacked recently. Thankfully, Serena's dad led their group to her table. The young woman lifted a potted flower and extended it to Serena. Greedily, the teenager extended her arms as well, but after a second, nothing was placed in them, and she dropped her hands.
"Sorry, sir," Telulu said. "Any unauthorized of recording the lecture is not permitted."
"What a lousy rule!" Serena's father shouted.
"It's policy. You can hand over the camera or you can stay outside."
"I'm not handing over my equipment." He sighed. "I'll just put it in the car." He then turned to the young ladies who had accompanied him. Serena handed him the camera bag, and her shoulder prickled from the release of the pressure.
"You two stay put for the time being," her father ordered.
Serena watched as her father walked toward the exit sign, yet her mind was immediately jarred by a sudden tap on the shoulder. She turned around to see another pair of students in Infinity Academy uniforms. These she knew all too well.
"Moonface," Amara greeted, then looked at the child beside Serena. "Peanut. What you two doing here?"
"We're going to the lecture," Rini replied. "We're just waiting for a few friends to show up."
"Are you sure you're up for this?" Michelle asked. "This talk is going to be long."
"Hey! Just because I'm a kid doesn't mean I can't pay attention."
"I hope you enjoy it," Amara said.
"Amara!" Telulu called. "Michele! I'm glad the two of you could make it! Julie's in the A/V room making last minute arrangements. She might need some help with that and I'm a little busy here..."
"See you later," Amara said to Serena before accompanying Michelle and their other fellow student away from them. Serena looked down and noticed a lack of warmth beside her legs.
Rini was gone.
Serena spotted the pink pigtails almost as soon as. Hotaru arrived, not wearing a uniform, but her usual black attire. She carried a black briefcase and her shoulders drooped, as if bringing it taxed her limits.
"Hotaru!" Rini called. She hugged Hotaru, but the taller girl did not move. "What's the matter?"
"I was expecting Gohan and Trunks to be here," she answered.
"You know how boys are. They can't be on time for anything. Besides, we're waiting for Serena's dad to get back. Maybe they'll show up by then."
The doors to the auditorium opened and the students entered it with their plants in hand. Serena, Rini, and Hotaru felt a growing sense of unease as the people emptied the foyer. Telulu returned, then pushed the now empty table to the side. She also left the foyer, where the three girls waited patiently and noiselessly, hoping they would not have to listen to the speech through the walls.
Dr. Tomoe sat in a chair at a desk next to a monitor and watched a man wearing sunglasses speaking sonorously. The speaker's yellow shirt his gray pants were visually dissonant with his brown jacket, but Dr. Tomoe paid little attention to him or his lecture. The man's theories were what he knew to be true; it was the heart from which the man spoke, and the hearts of those whom his words held captive, concerned Dr. Tomoe more than words or appearance.
At least he could partake in observing the taking of hearts, even if he had to exert a guiding hand in this latest scheme. Telulu's original plan had been to sell her Venus Fly Traps. It was clever, but had a central flaw she had overlooked - she would have to go all over town to collect the hearts once they were taken. In that time the Sailor Scouts would have confronted Telulu and potentially prevented a successful retrieval. Byruit, had by contrast, chosen to organize a plan on the school grounds, utilizing an upcoming standardized test as a cover. However, the exams were several weeks away, and the Sovereign needed hearts now.
A mixture of the two served as an elegant compromise. They would give away the plants to selected students of Infinity Academy who would take the plants home. While there would be some loss of hearts as those heroines would attempt to retrieve the stolen crystals, the Bureau would be able to collect the hearts in the auditorium with the rest of the plants. At worst, the Sailor Scouts would choose to scatter, rescue the hearts of the students who were not present at the lecture, allowing his subordinates to take the pure hearts here.
And at best, they would charge into the auditorium with their speeches ready, and that ungrateful guest would stop whining about not having enough to eat.
Dr. Tomoe turned his attention to a case file with the name Adams on it, and his eyes burned a hole through the photo of the yellow-haired female featured in it. Telulu and Byruit were more useful than Mimet, but the thought of adding the blonde to his collection proved delectable. He absentmindedly traced the outline of her body as Kaori Knight walked toward his side.
"Is that the girl you were thinking of initiating?" Kaori Knight asked.
Dr. Tomoe nodded in response.
"I know her," Kaori Knight continued, "and her twin brother."
"We lived in the same neighborhood."
"You knew Nik and Sarah Adams back then?"
"Soong, not Adams. They had a lot of problems. One night, they ran away from home and were never seen from again."
"That's interesting. I didn't think it was possible for street urchins to infiltrate my school."
"That's not the half of it. They were only a few years younger than I was at the time. But I just ran into her while I was out. She hasn't aged even one day since then, and it has been years."
"Thank you for the information. It seems my next assistant has a few skeletons in her closet." He set the file down on the counter, then turned his attention to Dr. Ajimov's lecture.
A glass box formed a coffin around the potted house plant. It hung its stem in a bow, its closed bud seeming to defer to the gaze of Trista. Her eyes were focused on the computer screen in the laboratory, but her thoughts totted aimlessly from exhaustion.
Sailor Saturn was not supposed to awaken.
She had not awakened in the timeline she had known, the one she had entered to fulfill the prophecy and enable the emergence of the purity Chalice. She had joined Neptune and Uranus in their suspicion of a young girl of being the Soldier of Silence, Sailor Saturn. Serena had befriended that girl, but at an enormous cost. It was the sacrifice of Neptune and Uranus that had awakened the Sovereign of Silence, whom it turned out was not Sailor Saturn at all. But their pure heart crystals had been forever stolen from them from the process, and the Chalice ended up in the hands of the enemy.
This was the future she had known. The foundation of Crystal Tokyo came at the expense of the lives of Sailor Scouts, and of many other lives which were taken by the androids who carved a path of destruction actoss the earth.
Then the universe was cleaved by the interference of that young man, although Trista mused, cleaved would have implied the universes were once the same. They were parallel dimensions, and Trunks had not merely jumped across time, but into another universe - albeit one that had unfolded nearly identically to his own.
Thus in one universe he had given advanced warning about the aggressors. There were still losses and deaths - the fate of Sailors Uranus and Neptune had not been changed - but the warriors were victorious over the androids and their future seemed safe.
Then the universes were cleaved once more by that other visitor, Cell. Like the technology used by Trunks, while Cell was able to cross both dimensions and time, he could not affect his own past. Otherwise, the consequences would have been immensely disastrous. Trunks had been drawn to the same dimension as well in his return trip.
If those two were to upset the balance, she would bring Rini across the dimensions to this universe to train, to a past all too similar the ones in the other worlds. Unlike the other two worlds, its history had not yet been written. As Sailor Pluto, she could prevent it from playing out in the manner it was destined to, and then Rini could return to the only home she would know - a future that was no longer possible for the moment.
Yet the thought of the Silence still encroached, now stronger than ever. Perhaps by allowing Rini to come back, Trista thought, she had herself been careless. Events had unfolded differently than she had expected. In this timeline Amara and Michelle had been preoccupied with the androids more than with the Sovereign of Silence, unknowingly forestalling different dark destinies at once. The more the Sailor Scouts and the androids connected with each other, the less likely it would be for either group to resort to either utilitarianism or egoist anarchism. In the same fashion as hydrochloric acid and sodium hydroxide, they would neutralize each other and create two compounds that were far less corrosive...in the short term.
However, the dreams Michelle spoke of sent a chill through Trista's spine. The monster, a monster she knew was from the future that should still be growing in a lab was now fully grown possibly feasting on a populace. The future had changed all too much. All because of Trunks.
And Rini...the friend of which she dreaded to name, even in thought.
Out of the corner of her eye a haze of red light flashed. She flinched and raised her arms, chiding herself for her inattention. She lowered her arms almost instantly, as she realized that she should not have been seeing the plant, which was now in full, red and pink bloom. It had waited for her most vulnerable moment but instead the plant itself was now turning brown and dying in a blaze of inglorious wither.
The Garnet Rod erupted from her in a soft glow and she felt her energy spike as it killed the plant. She stabilized herself and grabbed the rod, but her wordless burst of power instantly set off a dreaded reaction. Quickly her mind perceived the rapid approach of an overwhelming power. Unlike the plant, the power was not hidden, and all too familiar. She withdrew the transformation stick from her labcoat pocket and raised it into the air.
"Pluto Planet Power!"
In a flash, she was now Sailor Pluto, but she had little time to make her exit. Fortunately, as Sailor Pluto, a little time was all she needed.
Vegeta sped through the halls leading to the Capsule Corporation developmental laboratories, in search of the unusual power source which jarred him. This was not a power he had sensed before. It was low, soft in expression, but with a dark aura that caught his attention. He wanted to break through the walls, but that stupid woman of his would complain to no end if he needlessly damaged her property. He resigned himself to this rule out of practicality. Capsule Corporation would not be able to provide him with a place to train if all its funds were spent on repairs, and he needed to train to beat the androids...or Kakarot.
In spite of this imposed restriction reached the laboratory in mere seconds and opened the door. A broken pot and a dead plant covered in its own dirt were the only evidence that remained of a fight. That woman had been here. Her scent and the fading echoes of her power danced in the room.
He could not care any less about her presence, but what it represented annoyed him. For there to be another one of those powerful females in his presence would render him a disgrace to all Saiyans.
He looked around the room and gave a cursory glace at the photographs, clippings pinned on the bulletin board. His pride engulfed any curiosity he may have had in their contents. He had been made out to be a fool once again, and he barely kept the urge to destroy the laboratory in check.
Dr. Sergei Ajimov loved the sunglasses he wore. They shielded his eyes from the overwhelming stage lights. They blocked out the details of a crowd that assuredly had begun to lose focus on his speech. And the eyewear made it easier for him to read his notes without letting his face depart from meeting those of an inattentive crowd.
"...now let me explain the structural formula which supports it," he continued, his accent coating his words like a parka. He paused to took a look at the podium. Hidden from the crowd was a monitor which displayed the slides as shown on the large screen behind him, but that did not catch his attention. Instead, two small plants placed on platforms adjacent to each side of the podium extended the pause. These organic ornaments almost seemed to move.
He shook his head at the thought of these immobile decorations reacting to his presence, and wiped his forehead with the brown sleeve of his blazer. The stalks of the plants turned toward him relentlessly and their crimson buds opened leaves of the same color.
"Nyet!" he shouted.
He staggered as red lightning jumped between him and the plants. Quickly his body expelled his heart crystal and he slumped to the ground. Gasps and murmurs were thrown into the air, and the collective attention was on the safety of the lecturer. Some set the plants they held in their laps aside, while others picked up their potted plants, but neither action had any effect. The plants opened in a communal bloom. Screams and groans coincided with streams of crimson energy, and their union gave birth to more floating pink crystals. The crowd now void of breaths and heartbeats, with only the noiseless plants showing signs of life.
Amara tried her best not to let herself be distracted by the whirring of the air conditioning. It was artificial wind pumped through metal vents, rendering a room temperature too controlled and predictable for her liking. Instead, she focused her eyes on the multitude of screens.
Their green-haired classmate had led the two right to the room which housed sound equipment for the auditorium as well as several monitors which displayed scenes both inside and outside the building. Their light-haired classmate had then left them alone in a room that was essentially a surveillance system. It was almost too easy.
Amara checked the levels of the audio feed, making certain that the feedback did not drown the ears of the captive audience. It was not as difficult as she had anticipated; as an experienced lecturer, Dr. Ajimov knew how to adjust his voice and positioning long before his listeners heard the unwelcome squeal. The video, though captured her concern for entirely different reasons.
The man tumbled and fell, leaving a spot of light to float like a bubble. Michelle gasped and Amara grunted. Immediately, the power cut off and the entire room went dark. The audio feed of the lecture rattled an unpleasant hiss. Amara flicked switches, but her fumbling produced no changes.
Some of the monitors remained active in spite of the loss of power. A dark haired man wearing horn rimmed glasses pulled on the handles of the glass doors in the front of the building. The doors did not yield to his force; the power outage had locked them from the outside. She would have been amused at his antics had she not seen the guest speaker fall. At least this man was one civilian she did not have to worry about.
Within seconds, the backup generators kicked in, but now the once blank, dark screen was too light, illuminated by points of light that began to disappear one by one.
Amara and Michelle exited the room. They had seen enough.
The foyer carried the muffled essence of Dr. Ajimov's speech to Serena, Rini, and Hotaru, filtered through the thick walls. They waited for male companions who had yet to show up and whom they worried would not arrive until after the lecture ended.
Sudden yells and shouts preceded a net of darkness that was thrown over the trio. In a moment the lights were on again. But the lecture had ended far too early, and no one had departed from the auditorium.
"What was that?" Rini asked.
"I'll check it out," Serena said. "You get Hotaru out of here now."
Serena ran toward the doors that led to the auditorium. Rini tugged on Hotaru's arm, but Hotaru stood still as if mesmerized by an unseen force. Her purple irises flickered a dangerous red.
"Hotaru," Rini called. "Earth to Hotaru..."
"Rini..." Hotaru answered, her irises returning to their usual purple.
"I think we'd better get you home."
"You're right. But what about Serena?"
"She'll catch up!" Rini insisted, taking Hotaru's hand. "She's used to always being behind schedule."
The two girls retraced their steps and headed toward the entrance of the building. They barely took three steps before passing a security guard, who stood next to a plant. The plant next to the guard split its own bud and bloomed. In seconds, the Venus Heart Trap sent an arc of energy which covered the guard to the horror of Rini and Hotaru.
"Oh no!" Rini screamed.
The guard fell to the ground and his heart crystal rose from him like a phoenix. Plants and bodies lined the halls, each plant forming a chain with a matching heart crystal. Hotaru dropped her briefcase, and papers began to slip out of her bag one by one. They were trapped and no words could save them.
Byruit stood on the stage, her head adorned with a blue hat that matched the pattern covering her bosom. At the same time Telulu sat cross-legged beside her on the stage, her layered skirt folding over her thighs like fallen blooms. They were free of their student disguises or labcoats, now both in black dresses that reflected the darkness within their cores.
Telulu opened her palm to reveal a black star, which drew the crystalline hearts to it, sucking them into its flat form. They each entered the star-shaped portal until there were none left.
Byruit took the moment to mentally visualize the looks on the faces of Amara and Michelle. Perhaps, they would come running out of the back room and try to escape right past a foyer full of Venus Heart Traps. They could also be foolhardy and run into the auditorium to try to help the victims. She hoped for the latter; she wanted to personally execute the two for being goody two-shoes.
The doors leading from the foyer to the auditorium flung open, and the two turned to the opening. Instead of either of the two students she had hoped for, a blonde pigtailed sailor-suited heroine rushed in to confront her.
"I am Sailor Moon," the heroine began, "the champion of justice. You've stolen the hearts of innocent students, and for that you must be punished..." Her voice trailed off as Byruit and Telulu chuckled at the speech.
"So you've decided to choose attacking us over saving the other students," Telulu commented.
"What are you talking about?" She pointed to them. "I'm here to prune your hedges."
"She really doesn't know," Byruit noted. "I guess we'd better spell it out for her."
"Did you think these were the only Venus Heart Traps we had?" Telulu asked Sailor Moon. "Even if you defeat us, those poor people all around the city will die...not unless..." Telulu's face tensed.
"...they've split up!" Byruit finished. "A shame. One little Sailor Scout is hardly going to be enough for our special guest."
The words sent a shiver on nausea into Sailor Moon's stomach, although she did not understand why. The barrettes that clipped the balls of her hair seemed to shake.
"Hold it!" another voice yelled, stopping her quiver. "We've watched you snatch hearts long enough."
Telulu stood up upon heading the second voice, and Byruit looked around. Both of their sights set on a pair that were at the back of the auditorium.
"I am the Guardian Deity of the Air," Sailor Uranus introduced. "The wind rider of the heavens."
"I am the Guardian Deity of the Ocean," Sailor "The aquatic destroyer of the severe depths."
"I am Sailor Uranus!"
"And I am Sailor Neptune!"
"Three against two?" Byruit asked them in mock petulance. "That's not fair. You're supposed to be the good guys!"
"So where's the third stooge?" Sailor Uranus asked.
"We take care of our failures," Telulu retorted. "But don't worry, we've found another way of evening the odds."
Byruit followed her partner's cue. She snapped a finger and spotlight centered on the back of the stage. A green, vaguely human-shaped figure was pressed against a vertical, metal slab. With four limbs, its neck, and a tail each anchored by a brace, this was easily the ugliest Heart Snatcher Sailor Moon had seen.
Except it wasn't any ordinary monster. It had no black star on its body was it male. This was the creature Rini had told her about.
And he looked at the Sailor Scouts with slits that divided his pink hungry eyes.
Lita stepped off the elevator and walked toward the door to the apartment. 16 had asked her to stop by this afternoon in a polite, but short manner. She had arrived for once at the appointed time, with a shopping bag in her hand. Hopefully, he decided to let her forage from his garden, and the smells of fresh fruit and vegetables already
Lita knocked on the door to the apartment, and swiftly, 16 opened the door. She stopped herself from crying out at clothes he wore. He stood before her in a green cuirass that covered his chest and extended well above and beyond his shoulders. With green gauntlets ans boot covering a black unitard, he looked as if he belonged in a science-fiction convention.
"Please come in," 16 stated.
Lita stepped into the modestly appointed apartment, then closed the door. 16 led her to the door to his garden, and stepped back, letting her enter first.
She stepped through the portal this time did not stifle her scream.
The sound arose his curiosity and concern, and he followed her through the door. They were both wrapped in astonishment, an emotion completely foreign to his parameters, and for the first time since his awakening, 16 had been caught completely by surprise.
Decay permeated through the air, as this space, once emerald with life now became a cage of brown, drooping stems. The trees had grown barren and sagged while the sky was visible, the ceiling full of leafless light. Every fruit had shriveled in the face of this sudden death.
His sensors fed him data that contradicted with the complete ruin before him. There had been no damage to the structure, only the verdant life forms he had gathered. Had even the other androids caused this destruction, there would have been thermal residue or an energy signature to follow their actions. Instead these plants had their vitality artificially and irretrievably stolen.
It was completely illogical.
"Oh no!" Lita yelled.
She had caught sight of the object in the middle of the room. A marble, life-sized replica of Lita stood on a pedestal. She was in her school uniform, striking a pose with her hand to her chest. Despite her awe, Lita did not motion toward her likeness or mention it. She was all too aware of 16 and his gaze on a single pot with a green, potted plant in the midst of the destruction. She walked over to the sole survivor of this dead garden, as if it had a testimony for her ears alone.
As soon as he finished his sentence, the plant began to emit a red aura. The cramped bud loosened in a four petal cross, unfurling itself towards Lita. The visual output was minimal in comparison to the energy of the plant, and in the split second that the Venus Heart Trap had bloomed, it easily became the strongest living organism in the area.
His reaction was without hesitation. 16 lifted his right fist and rammed it into the Venus Heart Trap. It flew across the room due to the impact, and the pot shattered, instantly killing the than a second,
"Thank you," Lita said.
"It is," 16 replied, "as they say, 'Not a problem.'"
"I'm sorry about what happened to the garden."
"You did not cause this destruction. That plant did not belong here."
"Could that plant have done all this?"
"Given the energy it displayed, that is the likeliest conclusion."
"Where did it come from?"
"I was told it was a gift from our classmates."
Lita did not bother to reply with words of clarification. Instead she walked over to the statue
"Did this statue appear out of the blue too?"
"Negative. It is a personal construction."
"You mean, you made this?" "So this was the surprise! Thank you."
"My calculations indicate a 97% accuracy to the original model. For some measurements, I had to approximate."
"It looks perfect to me." "Wish I could say the same for the rest of this place."
"You said that it was from your school?" Lita asked.
"This means..." Lita stood up. "Um...I have to go."
"I understand, Sailor Jupiter."
The name rolled off his tongue as if it were merely a fact he recited. She stopped. She wanted to deny his address, but the calm manner in which he said her name vanquished her resistance.
"In the future it is imperative that there be more honesty between us," 16 continued. "In the interim, I will maintain your confidence."
"How did you know?"
"Your height, build, hair color, hair style, eye color, and skin color were all identical to those of Sailor Jupiter. Your vocal patterns were the same. Aside from clothing, my scanners indicated a significant increase in energy output in Sailor Jupiter, but no other differences."
"Scanners? Are you some sort of spy? A secret agent?" She took a fighting stance. "Are you working for the Heart Snatchers?"
He detached his left arm as easily as if it were a cheaply made table leg, exposing the metal, wires and circuits that made up his internal systems, then screwed it back in a similar fashion.
"I will maintain your confidence," he said, "but reciprocity in this matter is at your discretion."
Lita had no answer for him. Instead, she lifted her wrist communicator and opened the green lid from it.
Krillin sped through the sky and over the city where Gohan and Trunks were invited was to meet their friends. He didn't know how he was going to handle this situation. The warnings of Trunks had come true with regard to Goku, but 18 and 17 had not killed anyone in their journeys. In fact they seemed to be leading normal lives now. Killing them seemed wrong. No, it was wrong.
He saw the face of 18 in his mind in front of him her face appeared in reality, causing him to stop. She had sported yet another outfit, this one a red turtleneck covered by a mauve vest and matching mauve pants.
"Have you missed me?" 18 asked.
He ignored her question. Powers isolated were fading in strength in different spots around the city. The decline would have normally been imperceptible had he not become accustomed to the silent heartbeat of the city. At the same time, another longer, more massive drain shook his attention with the power of an earthquake. The regional blackout of life energy permeated skyscraper centered at Infinity Academy. These people - both all around the city and in that building - were being attacked in the same manner as he had been.
Yet the was another power in the midst of this drain. It was subdued, but unfamiliar clearly stronger than anything that had ever felt from this place. He didn't like it at all.
"What's the matter?" 18 asked. "Not in the mood for a chat."
"No. These are people dying in that building...and all around the city." Immediately "We've got to help them."
"Not my problem. I'm not built for heroism."
Krillin looked at the blank face of 18 and recalled the pain of his own suffering. She was a human-shaped machine, and for the first time, her beautiful visage disgusted him rather than stirred up feelings of attraction.
"Then you're no better than your creator," he retorted indignantly before flying off.
18 tucked her hair behind her ear in response to the insult, then descended to the ground. She might not have been built for heroism, but she certainly could make it fun.
The carpeted floor was warm with body heat. Mina's heart trilled in ecstasy. She held her breath and stifled what little intensity she could until the final moment. At last, her eyes were stretched wider than even she imagined they could go, and sweat beaded up on her skin. Her mind was solely on the car on the top half of the so much that she did not notice the pain in her thumbs until after her vehicular avatar crossed the finish line in front of her the car of her competitor.
"Yes!" she shouted as she dropped the controller. "I win again!"
She pumped her fists into the air once more as the television screen reflected her victory with pixellated fireworks. 17 in turn, was eerily still and dangerously bored.
"This is not as fun as I'd hoped," he said.
"Oh, don't be a spoil sport!" Mina teased. "You know, there's something I wanted to ask you. Has your sister ever mentioned a lady named Kaori Knight?"
The expression on 17's face changed from boredom to surprise, but Mina did not see this. Her wrist communicator began to ring as soon as she asked the question and she looked at it with a peevish pout. She replaced the frown with a nervous smile. 17 quickly returned his attention to the screen.
"Hold on!" she begged. "I think my phone is ringing."
She stood up and walked across the room and past the potted plant on the ledge. Sge made a show of picking up the receiver of the telephone. In the same motion, she opened her wrist communicator cover, and the face of her brunette friend appeared on the screen.
"Lita," she called, her focus away from the green plant beside her. Its red bud opened into a bloom. Red energy trickled along its leaves as the stem twirled to point the bud directly to Mina. The crimson aura expanded, heading for the teenage girl with an unnatural speed.
With the crash of an open palm, the white pot shattered against the hand of 17, banishing the invasion of red light. Resistant arcs of red energy enclosed the stricken plant as it sickened into a yellow brown, then died. Mina dropped the phone receiver upon the sight.
"Next time I'll stick to roses," 17 stated.
"Wait a minute," Lita asked over the communication watch, "you've got company?"
"Yeah," Mina replied. She picked up the phone receiver and put it back on the cradle, her ruse forgotten. "I think 17 just saved me from a killer plant."
"Ask him how he got the plant," Lita demanded.
"I can hear you perfectly," 17 replied. "Amara and Michelle gave it to us."
"They mentioned it was biology homework from our classmates."
"So they got it from somebody else," Mina said. She turned to 17. "Did they mention any names?"
"Lulu and Julie. Both of them are TAs." Mina shot a look of bewilderment at the abbreviation. "Teachers assistants."
"Wait a minute!" Mina pantomimed putting her hair in a bun then taking it down. "Did they happen to have green hair carried up in or loose, long pale-blue hair?"
An electronic recording of two subsequent bell chimes punctured the conversation.
"Oh no!" Mina cried. "My parents must be back early!" She trudged over to the door and opened it, only to see another blonde stare back at her.
"You?" Mina asked 18 with bewilderment.
"17," 18 addressed, ignoring her long haired-double in favor of her brother, "it seems like we might be able to have some fun after all at that boring lecture."
"Going to school on a day off," 17 remarked as he walked to the door. "Perish the thought."
"Wait!" Mina begged, her arm outstretched. "Where are you two going?"
"To do some gardening," 17 replied. As soon as he crossed the threshold of the door, he and 18 rose in the air and were soon out of sight. Mina ached to bask in astonishment, but the withered remains of the dead plant rooted her back to reality long before she heard the voice of Lita.
"16 split, too," Lita announced. "Those three-."
"We'll have to deal with them later." She ran out of the house and leapt over the wall that surrounded her home. Mina was grounded. Sailor Venus was needed more than ever.
Amy sat outside on the park bench and cradled an open textbook. Her eyes passed back and forth across the text on the pages, but the image blurred and faded out of her concentration. She wished she could have gone to the lecture, and imagined hearing the voice of Dr. Ajimov explain his theories. With two schools to attend and standardized tests to study for, she had no time for even academic extracurricular pursuits.
Her communicator sounded off its alarm and retrieved her mind from her regret. She quickly flipped her wrist toward her and removed the cover of the communicator. The faces of Lita and Mina stared at her side by side, divided by an thin, barely visible line, They were in two separate locations, but both were in motion the same look of panic seized their faces.
"What's wrong?" Amy asked.
"We got attacked by Heart Snatchers disguised as plants," Lita explained.
"Just a few minutes ago," Mina answered. "There more are Heart Snatchers disguised as plants all through the city. They were given to some of students attending Infinity Academy."
"All of them?"
"No, just the ones who take biology." Mina stopped running for a second, and her face stopped bobbing up and down. "Any plans?"
"If I had access to the school records I might be able to get the information directly the databases," Amy speculated while pulling out her mini computer, "but my computer is built for analysis, not for hacking through firewalls."
"We have to do something!" Lita cried.
"I could calculate the likely students and cross reference them with those who might be taking biology, but the potential victims are all over the city."
Amy supplemented her words with rapid, syncopated keystrokes on her unfolded computer. A shadow dropped from above, and a second followed. Amy stopped typing, but did not immediately notice the new arrivals.
"You won't need to do that," a male voice said from over the communications device.
"Who's that?" she asked
"It's me, Krillin," the bald man said. "I'm with Mina."
"We're here too with Amy!" Trunks said, not over the communicator but behind Amy. She jumped then turned to him and Gohan. The boy was wearing his usual purple fighting outfit.
"When the Heart Snatchers attack," Krillin explained, "their victims lose energy fast when it happens. We can sense when and where it happens, and it's already started."
"But there's something going on at the lecture," Mina blurted.
"Then we're heading for the academy," Gohan declared.
"No, we're not," Trunks countered.
"But Rini and Hotaru-"
"As much as we want to help them," Trunks explained, "these victims are all over the place, and those people could die if their heart crystals aren't returned to them. We need to get these scattered heart crystals back to their bodies as soon as possible first, then we can converge on the school. We can't be selfish here." He stopped himself from speaking the remainder of this thoughts. Or we'd be no better than the androids.
"He's right, ladies," Krillin said. "We can work on this a lot faster than you can. If you go to the Academy, you might be able to help out there. Once we're done, we'll meet up with you there."
"All right," Amy said.
"To Infinity Academy and beyond!" Mina shouted. The communicators shut off and in the radio silence, the parties went in their separate ways, by air and by land.
The androids sped through the sky as a pair, their speeds perfectly matched. Only the handles of the bags that threatened to tear from her hand differentiated the two human-shaped bullets in motion. The couple entered the apartment via the open balcony door and did not bother to close it.
18 reacted to her landing by going to the bathroom, her hands still full of clothes. She shut the door, sending a seismic shudder throughout the building.
"Since when did you ever have to make a pit stop before a fight?" 17 asked.
"I've been putting together an outfit just for this occasion," she answered, her voice muffled by the closed door. "And now I'm going to put it on."
"You want to change clothes, now?"
"Why not? I'm not going to ruin yet another ensemble in a pointless scuffle."
"Hush. I got something for you as well." She opened the door slightly and tossed a duster and a cowboy hat at 17 which he caught expertly. "Saddle up, partner."
He gazed at the coat and hat in confusion. The second was all that 18 needed to pass him unseen.
"Hurry up and put it on. I'll see you at school. No barging in early."
She flew off, almost, but not quite faster than he could follow. He shrugged his shoulders ten put on the coat. At least he'd have something new to wear to school.
Sailor Moon huffed and puffed in her sprint. She hopped in the spaces in the floor that weren't covered by bodies or Venus Heart Traps. In reaction, Telulu threw out her left arm and vines shot from her wrist. Sailor Moon dodged the green ropes with a leap that sent her smacking into a wall. She felt her legs give way and sank, only to see a red bloom meet her eyes.
Quickly, she kicked the white pot, smashing it and killing the plant inside it. It was one of few moments of victory in this battle.
Thankfully, the green guest had not joined in on the assault, letting the women combat each other. It had been more of a game of dodgeball for Sailor Moon than anything else, as she was not given even a moment to even catch her breath. Byruit had focused more on Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus, using her nanobots to prevent them
"Why don't you just give up now?" Telulu taunted. "You can feed by babies now, or you can feed them later."
Sailor Moon gave a stolid glare at Telulu, but her eyes averted to the battle between Byruit and the other Scouts. She had been firing her nanobots in a pattern that forced the two closer each other. Behind them was a cluster of hungry Venus Heart Traps that waited for the duo to get in her range. Without thinking, she pulled out the Purity Chalice.
"Moon Crisis Power!"
Her skirt and back bow were now bleached white and sheer linen served as spaulders. She twirled around and raised her rod in the air, gathering the necessary energy.
"Rainbow Moon Heart Ache."
Brilliance exploded in a supernova, releasing a ribbon of hearts. The string of hearts sought the pots in the audience and crashed in them with perfect precision. None of the hearts pierced the stage, but every Venus Heart Trap, including the ones behind. In response to the seemingly interminable light, Byruit and Telulu covered their eyes with their arms. The light even made Cell wince, and for a second, he thought of breaking free and absorbing all of the combatants before she turned her focus on him.
But the second passed. Fatigue washed over Sailor Moon after the release of energy and weighed her limbs down. She collapsed on the floor. Telulu's stance softened, and her face expressed sincere sadness.
"My babies..." Telulu mentioned woefully, "You did your job well."
"Huh?" Sailor Moon asked.
"You can only use that trick once," Telulu explained, regaining her haughtiness. "We know about all your limits. Those plants were sacrifice fly-traps. So you keep running around like that. Your little heart will give out in no time."
"And what about you?" Sailor Moon asked.
"We don't have that problem," Byruit responded.
The two members of the Bureau of Bad Behavior fired their respective weapons at Sailor Moon. She rolled out of the way of the nanobots, but the vines snared her like tentacles.
And an orange ball of energy broke through the vines, ending her temporarily paralysis. She almost wanted to call out to Tuxedo Mask, but he had not saved her. Instead Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune flanked her, each of them holding an object of power. For once the three were working together.
"So what," Sailor Uranus said to their opponents. "You'll be defeated long before we give up."
"She might not be bluffing," Byruit muttered to Telulu. "Maybe we should release the big guy now and have him finish up."
"Not yet," Telulu replied. "We can take care of them." As she spoke looked at the two plants Sailor Moon had missed, the two surrounding the podium stabbed Venus Heart Trap on the left of the podium with a syringe, then quickly repeated the action with the plant on the opposite side. The plants twisted and enlarged quickly, towering over all of the living organisms in the area. Each petal separated from the central bloom and shrunk, and in turn pods grew at the ends of the stalks. The pods split open to reveal rows of teeth that lined read maws large enough to swallow a human whole.
"This is what happens when you give a Venus Heart Trap fertilizer," Telulu explained. "They develop into an advanced form. I dub them Big Berthas. They feed on heart energy, so they aren't useful for stealing hearts, but they're perfect, undiscriminating executioners."
As she spoke, one of the Big Berthas extended its tendrils around Sailor Neptune,. The other plant grabbed Sailor Uranus and strung her limbs up like a marionette. Both plants lifted their human victims and wrapped their vines tighter around the necks of the two Scouts. Sailor Moon watched the sight, completely stunned at the speed of the plants.
"Mosaic Energy Blaster!" Byruit cried.
A a cold stream tiny metal machines buzzed toward Sailor Moon. This time, she did not dodge in time. Pain and weakness crept over her body and she toppled to the floor.
"It's a shame," Byruit said. "The professor said to let the big lug have your body. But I think my nanobots aren't going to leave enough for him to eat."
"Please stop it," Sailor Moon begged. "You don't know what you're dealing with."
"Even we can see that your friend here is just baiting you," Sailor Uranus cried as she snatched the large vine from her neck. "He's just waiting for us to defeat each other so he can swallow us all up."
"They know about him?" Byruit asked Telulu.
"I guess they aren't as dumb as they look," Telulu remarked. She looked up to Sailor Uranus. "It's a nice ploy, but don't worry, once you're unconscious you won't even feel your demise."
Telulu brought her right thumb to the left side of her neck then pulled her right arm across it vertically. In response, the Big Bertha tightened its grip on Sailor Neptune and recovered its grasp around Sailor Uranus's neck. All three Sailor Scouts were now silent prisoners in body and their minds were soon to follow into nothingness.
Bertie closed the cash register and wiped her forehead. The final client had exited the salon, and euphoria settled on her shoulders. One of these days, she thought, she would consider closing out her register before the end of salon hours That day was not today.
A rush of air passed her and she shook her head to find the android from yesterday standing before her. Gasps instead of screams came from her mouth, the woman was not hostile in her motions despite her icy, stoic eyes. Instead, she was clad in a trench coat, with exposed patches of skin jutting out from the opening in the front.
"You said you had a five-minute makeover," 18 said. "Can you make me look like this?"
18 handed Bertie a sketch on a piece of paper, then let the trench coat fall. Bertie looked at the exposed flesh of 18's arms and legs, the blinked at the clothes the android did wear, which resembled the picture she held. Her face brightened in excitement, as did that of Avery, who sped over to Bertie upon seeing the sight.
"We certainly can," Avery answered. "Sisters, we've got a job to do!"
The Four Sisters converged upon Android 18 like ants to a picnic, and covered her face in synchronous, silent harmony.
Screams followed by silence summoned Android 16 to the halls of Infinity Academy. It was not in his nature to be attracted by distress, but the death dealt by the single plant could not be ignored. He was able to detect presence of a nest of these unnatural beings in Infinity Academy on his scanners alone; he did not need to reach into his memory to locate them.
It was not in his nature to dwell on the past. Reflections were meaningless, intangible, and not useful for determining future behavior. Yet recently a new desire had emerged in him to extend his observation beyond that of the present.
He had been created to kill Goku, and consequently, he had developed a persona to mimic that of Goku. He had emulated his target's sentimental consideration for life, his mechanical mind more in tune with nature than the spirits of most humans. Gero was aware Goku had been driven by his kindness as much of his love of the fight, and that a truly worthy adversary would likewise share that ironic weakness. Yet the fierce warrior instinct of Goku could not be programmed into 16. The android had an abundance of weaponry, as well as the tactical and sensory skills to use them, but he would not even employ them even in self-defense. As a result, he was useless.
Gero had programmed him too rigidly in his duty to kill Gokum and too loosely with regard to his personality. 16 had no inclination toward finding his target or attacking any other living thing. He would not obey an order to destroy even the smallest animal. Gero had built the perfect weapon, but one that would never be used. 16 had been deemed a favor allowed himself to be shut down. As much as he disagreed with his creator, he would not rebel against him.
Now, he was mobile, it was within these protocols that he entered the building. White pots attracted his attention, and he destroyed each verdant organism, leaving the stars they removed untouched. The pink stars floated back to the bodies of their owners, who stirred slowly and weakly. These were mere outliers. The concentration of plants
He stopped in his tracks upon seeing a trail of papers spilled on the floor. The papers led to the harsh breaths of two young female forms huddling under a table. He walked toward the pair. One was a little girl with pink hair and the older, dark-haired girl wearing a dark outfit. He picked up the papers, mentally scanning them in the blink of an eye. The scattered pile of homework and notes contained a missive upon which the girl had written her name - Hotaru Tomoe. He saved a record of the image in his memory.
Hotaru turned her head upward to face him. Their eyes locked, and instantly, a kinship and an understanding had been reached. She was in need of protecting. He handed her the papers that had fallen, and she slowly placed them in her bag. In turn, her breaths, though still rapid, began to slow ever so slightly.
"Little ones," 16 stated, "it is not safe here. You must depart."
"Go ahead," Rini urged Hotaru. "I'll take care of it.
"No, Rini," Hotaru insisted as 16 picked her and her belongings up gently, almost like an amusement ride. "I can't just leave you here!"
"I'll be okay." Rini spun around, her knuckles digging into her hips. "I'll see you in a few minutes."
Her proclamation was proven false as she was raised off the ground, yelling in protest.
"Hey, put me down!" she yelled as she jostled against the firm shoulder of 16. Her wail bounced off his metal heart, and his sensors recorded her words as mere noise as he carried both children out of the building.
Byruit laughed as Sailor Moon kept her knees and palms pressed the floor. Vines confined Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus, weakening them through the sheer power of strangulation. Even if their reinforcements were to arrive it would be too late to save these three. Dr. Tomoe would be pleased.
After a minute, the bodies of Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune fell limp, and after another minute and Sailor Moon collapsed as well. Byruit reluctantly retracted her nanobots from the Sailor Scout. As much as they wanted to kill the Scouts; they needed to stay alive for the sake of their unusually silent, green partner.
A loud slam rocked the area and a stream of daylight invaded the auditorium. Dust, dirt, and concrete were flung into the air upon the impact. Standing in the hole was a human sized figure, who shot a beam of light at Big Bertha that held Sailor Neptune. The plant flailed ash shrieked in pain and loosened its grip on its captive. The Sailor Scout slipped to the ground, still passed out while the plant exploded into dead leaves and dirt.
"My baby!" Telulu cried in horror.
"Nice work," Byruit. "Which Sailor Snoop are you?"
"Take a wild guess." The debris began to thin and the cloud of dust settled. Soon the features of the chin-length haired woman began to emerge. Blonde hair was swept back in part by a red ribbon tied around the back of her head. Another ribbon was tied across her chest and it matched the red, felt mask in her face She sported a blue skirt that was bordered with a red stripe, while two red stripes were painted on the midsection of her white, short-sleeved shirt. A crescent moon symbol was painted on her forehead.
"Sailor V?" Byruit asked. "That's impossible."
"Whoever she is," Telulu proclaimed, "she's going to be a meal for my Big Bertha."
The remaining giant plant roared at the mention. 18 pointed her gloved finger at the Big Bertha, and a beam of light shot from it. The Big Bertha shrieked and slacked, releasing Sailor Uranus, before it too self-destructed.
"It is her!" Telulu shouted. "That's her signature Crescent Beam!"
"She won't be any match for my nanobots," Byruit said. "Mosaic Energy Blaster!"
18 coldly watched the swarm of machines. She wanted to see whether her outfit would stand up to the miniscule assault. Yet her desire was in vain, as the nanobots collided against an energy barrier. 18 she gave a scornful glare at the one who manifested the forcefield. 17 had pulled the orange bandana he wore around his face in addition to the hat and coat she had given him.
"Quit hogging the spotlight," 17 said.
"Showoff," 18 complained.
"Can this get any worse?" Byruit asked herself.
"Oh, yes it certainly can," Cell said, sounding as though he were directly behind her.
In disbelief Byruit looked at the slab which had held him. The titanium braces which held him in place were mangled and empty. She felt a clammy presence behind her and when she turned around she nearly leapt out of her skin.
The face of Cell was exactly sixteen inches separated from her own, just close enough for her to see every line and spot on what passed for a face.
Cell licked the opening of his mouth. The newcomers were still far away, and the other Scouts were immobile, easy targets he could attack at any time. The warning she had heard earlier echoed in her mind. She had done her job. She had immobilized the main course, and she was needed only for an appetizer.
Cell raised his tail and pointed the needle that capped it directly at her. She cowered and closed her eyes.
A scream that was not hers followed. Her face turned as light as her hair when she saw the needle sticking into Telulu. Unlike Byruit, she had taken a stance in defiance, but the pumping sounds that originated from the tail of Cell negated her efforts. Telulu was wilting like the flowers she had created. And in mere seconds she had withered to nothing, leaving only her dress and the black star she carried behind.
In response to this sight, Byurit operated for the first time in her short life with pure instinct. She thrust her wrist out and released the nanobots, but the cold, inhuman hand of Cell grabbed her wrist. His grip cracked the controls. In response, the nanobots surrounded her like a winter storm, eating away at her cells. They scathed her eyes, her fingernails, the spaces between her arms and her legs, the inside of her nose and the outside of her mouth. The slow torture of her own weapon delivered her an empathy far too late for her to repent.
The sharp drilling of his tail did not even hurt in comparison to the cloud of pain, and her awareness seeped out of her mind so fast that she could not complete the final thought that ached at her. She had lived by science; and she had died by science. Now she was silent.
Krillin stood over a brown-haired girl whose body laid flat against the grass. Immediately, he fired a blast of energy at the Venus Heart Trap that rested on the ground beside her, almost as if gloating. Its voiceless triumph ended in the flash of light, but Krillin was already focused on the shining crystal the plant had stolen. It made its way toward the girl, and Krillin made certain that it implanted itself into its original body before he pushed himself to the air.
The process of searching and destroying the plants proved to be more time consuming than he had expected. Trunks and Gohan were working even faster than he was, but their combined efforts seemed worthless. For every evil plant they destroyed, two more seemed to be nearby. All three of them worked separately against the potted organisms, but they only seemed to multiply. As long as it took him, though, he reminded himself it would have taken the Sailor Scouts far longer, even with their superior teamwork.
At last, though, the numbers had begun to die down. In fact, Krillin did not sense any more blooms in his area. There were a pair of plants on the other side of town, but he could sense that Trunks and Gohan were taking care of those two plants separately. He would rejoin them at the Academy. He could only hope the androids wouldn't be waiting for them there.
For the first time in weeks, Cell was mobile. The hunger still chained him to his goal, perfection, but the bio-extracts of the his former captors produced a good feeling that was almost pleasurable. Their life energy and genetic material had boosted his power more than he had expected. Had there been no others present, he would have eaten their unconscious enemies.
Yet the pair that faced him grabbed his attention. Despite the outlandish outfits they sported, he knew them all too well. Their appearances matched the memories that had been imprinted upon him.
These were the androids he had been looking for.
"Here comes a new challenger," 17 said.
Immediately, the hunger that compelled Cell to stick his tail into the bodies of all the unconscious life forms sharpened and magnified. Thoughts of perfection and gratification eclipsed him as he threw his tail forward toward the male android. Suddenly, the motion was stopped. It was stuck, not in the side of his target, but in the hands of the young man who'd caught it.
"Sticking your tail where it doesn't belong," 17 replied. "I don't know where that's been."
Cell grunted as an excruciating pain seared through the entire lower half of his body. In response he thrust his tail in a second effort, but found that he was only controlling air. In seconds, his tail was nothing but a stabbing, horribly crushed limb that he could not see, but a further visual inspection told him that the pain was lying. His tail writhed uncontrollably on the ground like a worm, no longer attached to him, but dying independently. A new tail would emerge from in the emptiness in his back in less than a minute, but even if it did, the temporary loss of his limb hit Cell with a message.
He was far too weak to attack these androids, at least as he was. Even with the hundreds of young meals in this auditorium, he would still be too weak. Upon seeing his goal, his hunger had gotten the best of him. He had to be more clever to survive long enough to work toward his goal, and far stronger to succeed in it.
He stretched the fingers of his hands wide and place his hands at the edge of his face.
Lifeless light seared the eyes of the sighted. In less than a second, it was dim enough for the androids to see again, and in more than a minute, it was dim enough for less resilient eyes to recover. But after the second and after the minute there were no traces of green except for the discarded plants, the sizzling Big Berthas, and Telulu's dress. Cell had made an escape, leaving the androids with no enemies to fight.
"Feel like cleaning this mess up?" 18 asked.
"Nope," 17 answered. "I'm through playing hero today. Let's go."
The brother and sister levitated themselves above the heart crystals, which slowly rejoined the bodies from which they came. In their fight to consciousness, Sailor Neptune and Sailor Uranus perceived their exit as the disappearance of two mere hazy forms. Like ghosts the androids were beyond the reach of the Scouts, and the twin bodies rose like spirits into the sky.
A click from the earth bid duo to look upon the ground. A bespectacled man with short, black hair pointed a camera at them with a long black lens. She had half of a thought to destroy the camera, but smirked at it and its user instead. Their apartment was close enough for them to change clothes with privacy.
Sailor Uranus struggled to get to her feet, then helped Sailor Neptune to stand. Sailor Moon received no such assistance, but stood up on her own. The stage was now littered with the residue of dead plants. Byruit's bodysuit and.
"Did we win?" Sailor Moon asked.
"No, we lucked out," Sailor Uranus answered, "if this is any indication." She picked up the black dress Telulu had worn and the star. "And it's no thanks to you. The real Sovereign would have used that Chalice to defeat the enemy."
"Now we have to find the real Sovereign more than ever," Sailor Neptune added. "Every moment that she remains hidden is a moment less the world has."
"But their hearts!" Sailor Moon protested, pointing to the crowd.
"We have more important things to worry about," Sailor Nepture remarked.
"The next time you see us, you had better hand over the Chalice," Sailor Uranus ordered. "You're not fit to wield it." She threw the black dress and the black star on the stage, and walked away with Sailor Neptune. The black star shattered upon impact on the ground and hundreds of pink crystals were thrown into the sky. The hearts of the students gravitated toward their bodies, while one stubborn heart remained on stage, then burrowed into the fallen body of Dr. Ajimov. The professor leapt to his feet, reactivated, then ran to the podium.
"And that my comrades," Dr. Ajimov shouted, "has been a demonstration of intra-dimensional space folding on itself!"
The audience applauded the statement, allowing Sailor Moon to exit the auditorium without notice. She ran down halls lined with pierced and burnt remains of Venus Heart Traps, and bumped into recovering people who were not the ones she searched for. She did not worry about the words spoken by her fellow Sailor Scouts. Instead, she made her way to the front door of the building and looked outside. It felt as though her heart was breaking, and despite herself, she cast another desperate glance outside the glass door.
Rini waved at her from the other side.
Sailor Moon opened the glass door. Sailor Venus, Sailor Mercury, Sailor Mars, and Sailor Jupiter stood outside, and Krillin dropped from the sky. She did not see them ar first, only Rini, and Hotaru who stood next to her.
Android 16 stood behind Rini and Hotaru. Upon viewing the sight Sailor Moon sprinted toward the young girls. She wrapped her arms around Rini tightly then released her, then gave a looser, but no less intimate hug to Hotaru.
"Oh, Rini!" Sailor Moon cried. "Hotaru! You're both okay."
"Looks like you guys took care of everything here," Krillin remarked.
"We can't take credit for this one," Sailor Mercury stated. "They were outside when we got here."
"You saved them?" Krillin asked 16. "Why?"
"It doesn't matter why," Sailor Moon answered with tears in her eyes. "I'm just glad you two are okay."
"You don't understand. That's an a-"
He stopped himself from finishing his sentence. Trunks had practically chewed his head off when he questioned him about the destructive nature of androids. But this creature, with its cold metal heart, held as much compassion as his own, perhaps even more. Despite the vast power of the cybernetic humanoids, the thought of killing them to protect the future rose in the back of Krillin's throat and tasted like bile.
"...an act of kindness," Krillin finished in a whimper.
"Thank you," Sailor Moon said to 16. The silent warrior nodded, then walked away, joining the late afternoon shadows of the building in a slow, steady pace. Sailor Jupiter and Sailor Venus both gave him a glance, one he noticed but refused to give away. His leave also caught the attention of Hotaru. He turned and nodded his head to Hotaru in an acknowledgment. For a second she felt a familiar connection, but she returned her attention to her hand with the brisk whiff of the wind. The lifeless letter threatened to fly away from her gasp, but she held onto the paper that contained her dreams and feelings with all her heart.
"Is that a letter you're carrying?" Sailor Moon asked her.
"It was for a friend," Hotaru answered. "I wanted to give it to him in person, but I'll just mail it to him."
"But it's for..." Rini began.
"It's not nice to read other people's mail!" Sailor Moon butted in, clearing away her previous concern. "Be thankful that someone saved your life."
"Yeah," Rini answered, crossing her arms, "but that someone wasn't you, 'champion of justice.'"
"You don't even have a sense of justice, or any other sense at all for that matter."
"Justice? Please. You're the one who can't spell it."
"You fungus!" Sailor Moon yelled, her face as red as a tomato. "You tricked me!"
Hotaru began to giggle as the two, pigtailed girls argued over matters in a spiral of pettiness. Words were tossed between them in a furious exchange which only drew louder and more shrill by the passing moment. At last they noticed the frail girl shaking with laughter.
"Are you okay?" Rini asked. "You're not getting sick again, are you?"
"No, I'm fine," Hotaru answered. "It's just the way you two argue, it reminds me of the way you argue with your cousin."
Her moment of amusement ended with the arrival of two figures from the sky. Gohan and Trunks dropped into the assortment of Sailor Scouts, children, and Krillin.
"Gohan!" Rini yelled. "Trunks."
"It looks like you two are all right," Trunks said. "For a second, we couldn't sense you."
"Yeah, we thought you might have been in trouble," Gohan added.
"It got hairy for a little while," Rini said, "but we got out of there." Rini grabbed Hotaru by the arm. "Hey, Hotaru. You had something to show Trunks."
"No," Hotaru replied, clutching onto the missive, "it's nothing. I didn't want to waste your time with something so silly."
"If you have something to show me," Trunks said, "I'm sure it's not silly."
"I...wanted to give this to you, if you wouldn't mind taking it." Hotaru lifted the letter and handed it to Trunks.
"Thank you." A white flash and a click pierced the air when Trunks took the letter, drawing the attention of the group. Serena's father held the camera to his face and repositioned himself in manic motions.
"Da-a-a-..." Sailor Moon began. "I mean, 'That guy I've never seen before in my life!' What are you doing?"
"Sorry, I just wanted pictures of the heroes who saved my niece," the man answered. "At least you looked after her. I'm going to give my daughter a stern talking to for abandoning her cousin."
"I suddenly remembered that I'm camera-shy!" Sailor Moon shouted.
"Me too!" Krillin yelled. "Let's get the heck out of here!"
Krillin shot into the air, along with Trunks and Gohan, while the Sailor Scouts ran away from the paternal photographer, throwing up cries of protest and bickering as he gave chase. Rini giggled and Hotaru laughed quietly at the sight of superheroes being driven away by a camera-wielding father. And they laughed silently long after the last sounds departed from their lips.