A shadow among shadows, a slight figure hesitated. Marble cool against her back as she straightened against the wall, she stopped to glance at her small radar. Detecting no ki's headed her way, she tucked the radar back into the folds of her black hooded jumpsuit and made a beeline down the hall. Two intersections north, four doors to the left, and out the Palace to race through the darkened gardens towards the Science Wing. There, she would lean against the outside alabaster and strip off her jumpsuit, folding it into her arms inconspicuously to walk the deserted halls back to her small, austere apartment in the basement, which Vegetasei's scientists begrudgingly called "home."...Home free. She would fall upon Gohan's sleeping form on the rough plaid couch in the living room, shaking him awake and laughing, and they would embrace tightly while she told him with real, honest-to-goodness conviction, "You're going home. You're going home." Everything hinged on the humble storage device nestled in her waistband.
She had met no resistance while uploading the data from the Military Wing, whose security was shockingly laughable. And laugh she would. She would break down into wild, desperate, sobbing laughter on Gohan's shoulder, because she was no spy, no secret agent. She was a peon, a measly lab aid, and here she had broken into the Saiyan Empire's system and hacked all their martial project data. Her heart, still hammering wildly, assured her she was still alive, a feat made possible solely because she had been lucky enough to survive to this day...the day her own science triumphed over the draconian technology ravaged from other cultures and repurposed by the Saiyans. Her hand touched her chest softly, willing her heart to slow. Freedom was right in front of her, she could almost reach out and touch it. It was palpable, it was heady. Just two more intersections to pass, four doors down, and a left out into the courtyard, where she could slip past the night blooming jasmine and snoring sentries with ease. If there was one thing living at the heart of the Empire taught her, it was that the Empire was becoming derelict, rotting from the inside in a greedy, cocksure stupor. The Saiyans had once been known for their preemptive strength; it was common knowledge now, at least on-world, that their pride was an empty gesture. The Empire had grown lax—which was exactly what she was banking on.
She crept down the hall mutely, palms grazing the walls for comfort and second sight. Saiyans had much better eyesight in the dark than Earthlings, but her radar assured her that there was no one around she didn't expect. She was just through the last intersection, with only two more recessed doorways to pass. She could begin to smell the salty air of the wide open world that the Palace's thick granite walls barred against. Only dust, sand, and salt comprised her knowledge of the outside world on Vegetasei. She had lived on the planet for years and could count the times she had breathed in fresh air on one hand. "Fresh" was relative, however, considering Vegetasei's heat cooked any moisture right out of the air, transforming the planet's breathable air into a stale afterthought. When she returned to her living quarters, she'd have to empty twin piles of sand out of her shoes, scrub away the dusty film that coated her skin, and stuff the rough toilet paper up her nose to counter a nose bleed. The outside world may have held all the newness of an adventure, but it owned none of the beauty or comforts of her home world.
The Science Wing was her world now. Life began there, every day at 0500, and ended there as she squeezed her eyes shut against the pitch of a lights-out curfew at 2100 each night. Vegetasei was all salt flats, an ancient, red giant hovering protectively near, and blearily long work hours, pushing someone else's small science. Although she was among other exiles, remnants and relics of worlds that had been purged like her own, and men and women of intellect who should have rightfully been a support structure when she had been shepherded to Vegetasei those eight years ago, friendship remained an Earth novelty, a memory buried in that distant, sweet spot in her mind, of which she rarely had the courage to step past the threshold anymore. Members of the Science Wing were contractually obligated to avoid rapport with their peers lest the paranoid Empire's secrets trickle out. Here on Vegetasei, she had only the drop tile ceiling, the throaty hum of her small fridge, and blinding fluorescent bulbs to keep her company. For the most part on Vegetasei, every day was the same—excepting the pervading, silent threat of disappearing in the night. Scientists who wronged an Elite, whether or not their data was correct, whether or not they knew about their data's sponsor, were routinely pulled from their beds for midnight executions. The Elites gripped the Science Wing with an iron fist. Both facts made this excursion all the more sickeningly thrilling.
Where would she go once First Strike granted her freedom? Bulma's breath caught with anticipation as she made her way down the hall. Would there be snow, a crisp, hushed blanket of it? A crackling fireplace a sentinel against long winters? Maybe the placating horizon offered up by the ocean? Maybe she would get a cottage in the thick of the mountains where she would wake up late each morning, reveling in the renewed ownership of her body as she stretched languidly, her back arching in the big, pillowy bed which she would childishly, reluctantly roll out of. She'd mosey across the house to make a pot of strong tea. The coffee in the Science Wing was weakly brewed and sour, and she wouldn't miss it. Maybe she would sit outside on the deck aimlessly, maybe read a book? She hadn't seen one in eight years. She'd hold the book to her face and flip through the pages, inhaling the brisk smell of cut paper. No computers in sight. She'd paint the living room a shocking green, the bedroom a dreamy blue. The teacups she savored her tea from, a deep red. She'd cook her own meals. She'd go into town for groceries, and the grocer would wave and call good morning, calling her name, not her number, #42019, as was her identifier on Vegetasei. She would never have to look at another lab or lab coat again, or the black hospital slippers they issued as part of her Sleep Uniform that she was currently sneaking through the Palace in. Instead, she'd go barefoot everywhere. Maybe she would have a closet full of dresses when she settled down, her wardrobe a performance of texture and pattern. And heels? She shied away then, cautious and unfamiliar with the intoxicating nature of daydreaming. Her wardrobe was issued on Vegetasei, not chosen. Like all scientists, the gray scrubs, white lab coat, and black oxfords were her standard, every day uniform. To sleep in, they were issued two pairs of scratchy, black pajamas and slippers. She owned four pairs of high waisted beige briefs, four beige underwires, and four pairs of pilled white socks. Could she—would she—wear heels? Her heart skipped a beat. She had spent years rolling her eyes at her mother's love of fashion and homemaking, and here she was, daydreaming heels and homemade biscuits drenched in honey. Pretty things hadn't been what kept her alive all these years, though. It had been the keen intellect and curiosity she had inherited from her father. She frowned resolutely, the last landmark in her line of sight. She would live to preserve her mother's memory, and she refused to die wasting her father's talents on a murdering Empire.
There the gardens lay, a sprawl of night blooming blossoms and several desert rose hybrids. A wall of labyrinthine hedges shielded any visitors of the garden from curious eyes in the Palace, a murmuring fountain poised in the center beneath a ribbon of stars. For just a moment, she could admit to some beauty on the world that held her hostage. She took a moment for a small, solemn smile. She could see the Science Wing just a ways further, a domed building with a few winking lights. With a tired sigh, she stepped onto the shadowed garden path.
Only to be shoved up against the outside Palace wall. It knocked the air out of her as she instinctually gripped the wrists which held her.
"What are you doing sneaking around the Royal Palace in the middle of the night?" A deep voice crooned.
Her blood ran cold. Not only did he know she didn't belong, but he sounded like he'd enjoy playing the cat to her mouse. She wasn't prepared to be intercepted or questioned...more like just slain.
"Getting a breath of fresh air, sir," she squeaked, trying to sound convincing.
She could only see his outline in the darkness, the set of his wide, round soldiers uncompromising, cape pins glinting against them. Like most Saiyans, he had wild, thick hair, which crested upward. The wild sweep of his hair was misleading, though. Rather than towering over her like most Saiyans, this one stood only a hand taller than her, and it made him seem more human, if only for a second.
She saw a cruel, hard smirk tug at his lips and knew she wasn't fooling him.
"Don't be foolish, little human. I've been watching you prowl around my Palace, and I demand," he encouraged silkily, "to know why."
To her horror, she giggled nervously. The Saiyans cruel smirk drooped into a hard frown.
Just as he began to seem to question her sanity, hundreds of volts of electricity erupted from a thong around her hand as it closed around his wrist. The shock of it gripped him, and he seized beneath it, loosing his grip on the collar of her shirt as he fell to his knees.
Sprinting through the garden, hurdling over rare orchids and bluebells, she raced towards the Science Wing. She had calibrated the stunner to take down a full-sized Saiyan, and she had no reservations in using it. She didn't anticipate to be intercepted by him again. But every cell in her body was screaming at her to run, to preserve the dream that for just a moment flickered with uncertainty when that soldier wrapped his fists around her shirt.
Just as she sailed over the last desert scrub, a hand fisted in the back of her shirt and the dream flickered in front of her and extinguished completely. She was flung into the air, soaring upward as her limbs waved wildly and she shrieked.
"I don't appreciate being played a fool," he growled below her as he cooly reached out and grabbed for her ankle, preventing her from smashing into the ground. It jerked her to a halt in the air to sway upside down beneath him. She prayed frantically that her radar and the storage device remained snugly in her waistband.
"Now, are we going to get down to business, or am I just going to have to cut this fun short and incinerate you before you even hit the ground?"
"Fun?!" She wailed. "Fun for you, maybe!"
He chuckled humorlessly above her. "I'm waiting."
If she gave up her position, she was dead, and the dream was dead with her. And if she refused to play to his fiddle, she was dead, and the dream dead, too. She fought back a cry of frustration. She had been so close, until this prick showed up!
First Strike was her only salvation. If she threw them under the bus, she may lose her way out. There had to be some middle ground she could take, some compromise which didn't completely bankrupt her. Plus, she was dealing with a low-level guard here. Saiyan brawn wasn't particularly known for it's reasoning abilities. Although he held her upside down, she may still have the upper hand.
"Alright, I'll spill! Just please put me down!" She hollered, trying to affect an air of contriteness.
Slowly, she was lowered to the ground, until her hands hit the gravel and he released her ankle. She let out a little "ooph" of air and pushed herself back to her feet, readjusting her head covering and patting her waist band. She relaxed an inch. The drive and the radar were still there in one piece.
The man cleared his throat. Though he was yet a silhouette against the night, she got the feeling he was not to be taken lightly, if his imperious posture indicated anything. He stood, arms crossed, legs braced, scowling, the gold tips of his pristine white boots glinting in the starlight. She couldn't make out any more of his uniform. Not an average guard, then. She gulped. He had kind of a beautiful face, actually, despite the monstrous fear he seeded in her. The sharp angles of his profile contrasted his deep, droll, smooth voice. His full lips were drawn into a no-nonsense line as he tapped his bicep. An Elite guard, then? Someone used to getting what he wants. Why was he so interested in her, then? In keeping her alive? He'd already had several opportunities to blast her. She was going to have to be very careful if she wanted to keep her head, but his lack of deadly recourse indicated that there was yet hope.
"I was taking something that wasn't mine." Slowly and deliberately, she reached into her waistband and palmed the radar, handing it over to him. He glanced at it down his nose but didn't touch it. "It's a ki radar. It locates and tracks ki's."
"But you didn't pick up on mine?"
She scowled, admitting with barely any grace, "No."
That seemed to please him. "You didn't pick up on mine for the same reason you didn't electrocute me to death." He flashed her a dazzling smile before quickly smothering it with malice. "Your...weapon..isn't calibrated for someone of my power level. Most guards have a power level I superseded while I was still in the womb. And that was who you were expecting, am I right?" A smug, devilish smirk grew on his face.
She crossed her arms and huffed.
"I can also suppress my power level," he spun darkly, and her heart gave a little thump. "So let's be clear. If you think you are dealing with the average Saiyan," he stepped toward her, peering at her with an eyebrow raised disaffectedly, "you have miscalculated."
"I was expecting that a Saiyan I crossed paths with would be exploding with overconfidence, and it seems I was proven right," she snapped reproachfully before she could think twice. Her eyes widened as she realized her error. Saiyans didn't tolerate name calling, no matter their rank.
His eyes flashed as his leg swept her feet out from under her. She fell on to her back painfully and winced as his hand closed around his throat.
"If you like to play," his canines glinted fiercely, "I can oblige."
"Hit a nerve, did I?" She croaked against his grip. Now wildly in fear of her life, words spewed haphazardly out of her mouth. Inside, she was screaming at herself for not properly cowering. She had years of experience in meekness. How was it at the one time it truly mattered, she had to wise crack?
"Who do you work for?" He growled, squeezing her throat to emphasize that he expected an honest answer.
What did she have to live for now? There was no way she was getting out of this alive. She fell to pieces inside. She was as good as dead.
The only thing that mattered was letting this Saiyan and this spiral of stars above her know just how humiliated she had been, how she despised all eight grueling years on this sanctified planet.
"First Strike," she grit. "So there, how do you like them apples!"
His initial consternation was replaced by flabbergasted scorn. "What? Are you daft, off-worlder?"
He was so sincere that it took her a moment to realize he was waiting for a reply. "You don't believe me?"
A frown creased his features again, drawing his eyebrows together, not unbecomingly. "You're an informant, than?"
She nodded against the more relaxed pressure at her throat.
"For First Strike."
Again, she nodded once, puzzled.
"And they sent you here to collect that?" He jerked his head toward the radar in her hand. He seemed to be buying her story, despite the imposing lift of his brows.
"Why? Of what use is that to a group of intergalactic guerrillas?" He spat.
"It's highly advanced technology. Don't be fooled by its simple function. This is a small scale device, a prototype. Just imagine if this were capable of long range," she bluffed.
His consideration drew upwards into a roguish smirk. "A First Strike spy, then." For some reason, his acceptance of the half-lie caused panic to churn in her gut. "Just what I needed," he purred.
"What?" Did she hear right?
His voice became steely. "You will play a game of duplicity for me. I need to know all First Strike's reports of goings-on in Saiyan affairs. Anything even passingly relevant to Saiyan politics, especially concerning Royals and Upper Elites, I need to be informed of. It goes without saying that I will spare your life tonight for this. Do we have a deal?"
"What? That's preposterous! First of all, I am not 007! And I don't report to anyone willing to share anything." It wasn't a lie, and her fear wasn't feigned. "I did what they wanted me to do and now I'm outta here. And how do I know you'll keep your end of the bargain?" The thought of making a deal with a Saiyan made her skin crawl. She wasn't even sure she could hold up her end of the bargain. First Strike had briefed her on nothing but what was absolutely imperative to claim the Saiyan's martial data. It was a highly dangerous mission, and the fact that they had sent some half-baked scientist to complete it spoke volumes for their value of her life. But when she had been notified of an offer from First Strike, a loosely-based intergalactic Resistance group notoriously and actively opposed to both the Cold and Saiyan Empires, with a job to gather some intel that could buy her absolute freedom, how could she refuse? The only other option was to sit and wait for her inevitable death at the hands of some snubbed Elite, Elites who regularly paid the scientists to contrive and falsify numbers that would advance their own politicking. Unfortunately, the scientists worked in the dark, deemed less than third class, off-world garbage whose only use was to unravel the technology the Saiyans couldn't figure out themselves. There was no room for advancement, and no window of opportunity headed her way. She had taken probably the only chance she'd ever get to get off planet. That she had made it this far was a deviation from the rule.
"For the same reason you will keep yours. You refuse at the peril of your life," he warned. "Not that I care personally whether you take one more measly breath or one hundred more. But I do not go against my word."
Her eyes flicked over his shadowed expression, scanning for cracks in his countenance, but he seemed sincere. She sighed and knocked her head against the gravel in exasperation.
"Okay, yeah, sure. We have a deal."
She was pulled suddenly to her feet, wobbling to regain her balance while he stood, simply observing her.
"Little woman," he crooned, and there was no mistaking his deadly seriousness. "I will hold my end of the bargain, if you hold yours." He held out his gloved hand and it began to glow, a blue as bright and cutting as the flame of a torch, until the effulgence peeled away from him and condensed in his palm. He twirled the ball of ki between his fingers thoughtfully. "Cross me, and your death will be the least of your concerns." The smirk he gave her was absolutely feral.
She gulped. "Where would you like to meet to trade information?"
"The gardens are fine," he remarked flatly, gesturing over his shoulder. "Every fifth day. I will expect you out here at this time. And I will expect," he glanced at her radar with apprehensive amusement, "you'll have no problems getting here?"
"I foresee no problems," she agreed grudgingly.
"Good. Until then," he called, and then jetted into the sky, his cape whipping behind him.
In the soft light of the stars, she saw the flash of the Royal House insignia on the breast of his armor as he swept upward.
She choked on a gasp.
The man wasn't a guard.
He was a Royal.
There was no way she would live through this.
She sulked the rest of the way back to the Science Wing after sweeping the area one final time for ki's. She didn't worry about guards once she reentered the Wing. The doors inside the Wing were all locked at curfew, effectively shutting everyone inside their living space, and Saiyans thought very little of off-worlder initiative. What they hadn't counted on was her technical prowess. She was surrounded by geneticists, physicists, entomologists...what no one knew about her was that she wasn't simply a scientist.
She was an engineering genius.
She uncovered the key pad outside the door in the dank hall and overrode the command. Her door wheezed open, sliding into the wall. She stepped into the darkness, and the door swept shut behind her, closing her in.
A lamp clicked on. Although they cut the power at curfew, she had rigged her electronics to her own power source from pieces pilfered here and there from the labs. She was in no danger of being caught; her apartment boasted no windows, and the door was air-tight.
Huddled on the couch in a ragged blanket sat Gohan, blinking against the light, although his raven-black hair was long enough now to hang loosely in his eyes.
She smiled gently and sat next to him, brushing the hair out of his eyes, and held his hand. Rubbing away sleep with his other hand, he looked up at her in anticipation, clutching her. "Did you do it?" He whispered.
Helplessly, Bulma broke out into a grin, which she followed with a curt nod. She pulled the drive from her waistband and held it out to him triumphantly. His eyes widened and his mouth parted in wonder.
Bulma then sighed, her hand falling into her lap. And then, cautiously, she put the drive in the drawer of the end table and began unwinding the mask from her head.
"I did it, although I got more than I bargained for." She threw the covering onto the table and again sighed. "I had to make a deal with the devil."
Gohan's big dark eyes raked her face in confusion. He was so mature for his age.
She chewed her lip. "I was cornered by a Royal, who gave me the option of either biting the dust or informing for him."
"On First Strike?" Gohan gasped.
She shook her head. "That's what's so curious about it. He wasn't interested in First Strike's activity aside from their usefulness as espionage against other nobles. Royals and Upper Elites, specifically. It's baffling."
"And you agreed," Gohan reiterated, needing her confirmation to accept this new turn of events that could have them spiraling into doom at any minute.
"Yes," she stated calmly, although she felt anything but. "He's not aware I'm a transplant, that I work in the labs. He assumed I was a spy, bade me to gather information on Saiyans for him, and blasted off."
"And you're going to?" He cast her a doubtful look.
She frowned, staring down at the ground in consternation. "I intend to. I have no choice! I'm lucky I escaped with my head!" She groaned, planting her face in her hand. "I need to call your mother."
Gohan squeezed her hand, and then nodded, gently extracting his hand from her nervous grip. "I'll go get the receiver ready." She nodded and peered out from between the gaps in her fingers. She heard rustle and clatter as Gohan uncovered and set up the receiver and she stared absently into her small, open kitchen.
Gohan had come to live with her just over a year ago. He was the only child of her childhood best friend. His quiescence, his straight, fine hair, and his grave studiousness, however, came directly from his mother. Bulma had balked when ChiChi asked her to take him on as a measure of protection. Here? Are you serious?! It turned out to be a wise gamble. Bulma got a lab aid out of it, and she also got her first company in seven years. Although Gohan was only ten, he, like her, had grown up these last eight years in dire straights. He was just two when Earth was purged. Bulma had been swept away by Saiyans ordered to gobble up anyone of any technical skill. Goku and ChiChi, however, had invoked the hand of God. Kami had seen what was to occur and spirited the little family away, away from their Mt. Paozu tranquility, never to return again. Since then, the Gods had used Goku as a tool, refining him in order to wield him as a sharply honed blade against galactic tyrants. The Colds and the Saiyans were spreading a taint, a creeping blackness across the complex beauty of the universe, and it was Goku's lot in life, they were all told, to halt their advancement. Once Goku had finished his training with Kaio Sama, the other Kai's had big plans for him—in territory his son couldn't safely follow. To be fair, ChiChi didn't have many places to send him. Bulma just happened to be the only known survivor, besides the Son family. ChiChi must have felt that, although it was hostile, Bulma's environment was at least stable.
Like a ghost, Bulma wandered into the only bedroom, watching Gohan as he set up her computer and used the appropriately secure channels to contact his mother. He was sharp and attentive, and Bulma knew it pained ChiChi that she couldn't secure a safer, more relaxed future for him, one where his only worries were fitting in and maintaining good grades.
There was only enough space for a small bed and a small desk, and Bulma squeezed beside Gohan, giving the screen baleful looks. She should be calling ChiChi to gloat about her success. Instead, she wasn't sure how well received the news would be that she had sold herself, and Gohan by default, to a Royal's whims.
As if the Elites weren't bad enough, the Royals were a particularly feared bunch. Ruthless, caustic, and self-serving, the only thing that held them back was their mood that day. Elites at least had to abide by Saiyan law; Royals made up the rules as they went. At the head of this oligarchy was the King, who was rumored to be so ill that he was completely removed from empire building, a responsibility left to his advisors. Beneath the King, but above the advisors, there were whispers of the solitary heir to the Saiyan Empire. The Dark Prince. Bulma shuddered, the Royal's hands ghosting against her neck. All that anyone knew of him was that they wanted to stay far, far away from him. He was the sins of the Empire made flesh. He had single handedly taken over a whole quadrant with the flick of his wrist. He was bad news. And anyone even remotely related to the man, giving her orders, was enough to send Bulma's heart flatlining.
Just as she began sinking into a pit of despair, the familiar chew of static erupted from the receiver, and after a few tense minutes listening to beeps thrown into the void, the screen's gray static transformed into a recognizable face.
ChiChi's worn, strong face smiled at them before settling into its characteristic glower. "I hope you have good news for me."
Gohan and Bulma glanced at each other before each taking a breath to speak. Gohan nodded apologetically, indicating that Bulma should start. Bulma clutched her knees, the lines from years of hardship now clearly etched on her face.
"ChiChi, I have both good and bad news. I've got the device."
ChiChi's face lit up. Bulma's success meant her son would be finally out of harm's way, residing with Bulma only until Goku could finish his tutelage under the Kai's and end this blasted war. ChiChi's dour constitution could only be stretched so far. She was wearing thin. Her husband trained day after day with the best sensei's the universe had to offer, leaving her bereft of companionship, responsible only for caring for his basic needs and with no time for affection. She was increasingly isolated, and the icy walls she had erected once Earth had been destroyed weren't going to hold too much longer. But instead of thawing out, she was breaking up. "That's great news! What's the catch?"
"I was caught," Bulma confessed wearily. "By a noble, of all people. A very...high ranking...noble."
ChiChi's eyes were as big as saucers. "You weren't killed?"
Bulma's face twisted into a wry smirk. "No. If you can believe it, he wants me to spy for him. And not on First Strike. On other Saiyans, through First Strike. That was the condition I met for my life."
ChiChi was uncharacteristically speechless. "Well. That is interesting. What about Gohan?"
Gohan fidgeted beside Bulma. Bulma shook her head. "He doesn't know about Gohan. Or that I live and work here. He should be safe. I disabled all surveillance before I left. There's no way I was followed or observed."
ChiChi nodded. "Don't give him any more information than you have to, Bulma. And stay low. I don't want either of you getting hurt when victory is so close in our grasp."
It took Bulma and Gohan a moment to understand there was more to her comment than just an acceptance. As far as they knew, this cold war between the Saiyans and the Colds, increasingly agitated by First Strike, was a chronic element in their lives. Gohan spoke first. "What do you mean, Mom?"
"Bulma may get her retreat first," ChiChi announced, "but we'll all have respite soon. Goku has Ascended."
Both Bulma and Gohan's jaws dropped.
"He's done it," she continued softly. "He's become a Super Saiyan."
"That's it. The war's at its end?" Bulma asked no one in disbelief.
ChiChi nodded gravely. "Word is that something big is brewing between the Colds and the Saiyans that First Strike has its hands in. That's when Goku will make his move."
"Home," Gohan sighed, the exhaustion evident in the slope of his shoulders.
"Home," Bulma echoed, sagging against him.
Now she just had to dance around this Saiyan Royal until her salvation arrived.