"Vegeta? I'm sorry to bother you. You have a phone call."
He followed Bulma back to her lab, knowing without any further prompting who had made the call. Only one person knew how to contact him this way. Moreover, it had to be urgent. No one made intergalactic transmissions, even post-Freeza, just to chat.
Vegeta settled himself in front of the terminal Bulma had used three years ago to call him on the space ship. She returned to one of her computers on the other side of the lab, but she might as well have stood over his shoulder: he knew she'd eavesdrop. Curiosity alone would have assured as much, even if the only other time this connection had been used hadn't resulted in his taking off for a month.
He focused his attention on the blue face in the monitor. "Lord Quinsa."
"Prince Vegeta, thank you for your time." The man bowed to his end of the connection, revealing a long braid much like his older brother's had been before Vegeta had killed him. "We've secured a space pod containing a Saiyan infant. Would you like to take possession of it?"
Bulma made no pretense of doing her own work now--Vegeta could hear how she'd stopped typing and swiveled about on her chair. "A Saiyan infant?"
"The pod looks to be about two decades old. It had gone disastrously off-course, and had been drifting in deep space. The infant was cryogenically frozen after life support failed, but otherwise seems sound and viable according to our scanners. We haven't dared remove him from deep freeze." Quinsa made another deep bow. "He is yours if that is your preference. My people have made every effort to retrieve the boy and preserve him from harm."
Quinsa was probably the only lord in Freeza's old territory who wouldn't try to kill a Saiyan on sight, and he'd probably extended no small effort to retrieve that pod unharmed. "I'm very interested. Can you keep the pod safe until my arrival?"
"Absolutely. We're maintaining it in an orbit on the dark side of one of our moons, and I have guards positioned nearby at all times."
"I'll be there. Thank you, Lord Quinsa."
"I am always at your service, Prince Vegeta." And here the connection cut.
Vegeta turned away from the screen.
"I'll have the space ship ready for departure in five hours." Bulma was already entering data into her palm pilot. "You'll need massive amounts of medical supplies if you're bringing back a sick child. I'd recommend against opening the pod before returning to Earth. You'll need a cryogenics storage freezer large enough to house the entire unit. In fact..." She hesitated. "I'm not sure if the dragonballs are available now. If they are, I'd rather wait until we've got them collected before opening the unit. Dende might be able to restore the boy, and if not, the Dragon can take over."
"You're taking nonsense." Vegeta left her office. "They said he's sound."
"Cryogenics is tricky." Bulma followed at a hurried pace. "Besides, he wasn't flash-frozen under controlled conditions. Minutes on the freezing end can mean the difference between life and death, and it's not always apparent at first. Haven't you ever heard of freezer-burn?"
Vegeta had reached his bedroom, and he pulled out his old Saiyan uniform, plus a few changes of clothes.
"There's no rush. You'll be ready by the time I have your ship fueled and untethered." Bulma squinted at him uneasily. "How long will this trip take?"
"Give it a month."
"Then you'd better say goodbye to Trunks before departure."
Five hours later, Vegeta found Dr. Briefs and Trunks at the foot of the space ship. Vegeta shook hands with Briefs and picked up his son momentarily, giving him the required squeeze. Trunks giggled. "You behave for your mother, okay?"
"For his grandparents, you mean. Ready to go?" Bulma came up from behind him, wearing a back-pack. "I'm ready."
"I'll explain on the way. Trunks will be okay, and Dad said I should go too. Don't worry, I won't embarrass you. Come on. They're waiting."
Vegeta followed her into the ship. "I should throw you out bodily."
"Do that. Then see how well you're able to manage the medical equipment in case of an emergency. You'll be spending a lot of time in this ship, and I don't want it to be for nothing because then you'll be in even a fouler mood when you get home." Bulma gave one last wave and a big smile to her son and then shut the door. "As soon as they're clear, I'll lift us off. Strap in, unless you'd rather do the honors."
Vegeta belted himself into the pilot's chair instead, leaving Bulma to stow her backpack before securing herself in the passenger seat. "They're clear," she started to say, but Vegeta had seen that for himself, and the rockets ignited beneath them.
Once the crushing acceleration had ended, he heard her voice: "We'll end up raising this child, since I know you won't just hand the kid off to anyone, and I know from experience you won't exactly be changing diapers. I'm effectively going to be this kid's mother. Call it adoption if you will--or even if you won't. But since this is going to be my kid, I'm going to go pick him up with you. Tell Quinsa I'm a medical assistant or whatever makes you happy. It won't hurt your reputation even if they think I'm your concubine. And don't worry about stumbling all over me on the ship. I brought a stack of books and journals I've been meaning to get around to."
Vegeta didn't look any less annoyed during the middle or end of Bulma's speech than he had at the beginning, and she stopped talking. They remained that way for hours.
The trip to Quinsa's planet would take a week in each direction. Vegeta and Quinsa had met in Freeza's court shortly after the destruction of Vegeta-sei. As Zarbon's youngest and least powerful brother, Quinsa had no official standing, but no one dared throw him out. Freeza seemed to delight in cherry-picking princes from various subjugated planets, and King Cold had allowed this practice as a harmless fetish. Barely an adolescent himself, Quinsa had taken an inexplicable liking to the terse, angry Saiyan prince. Quite a few times he'd given Vegeta advice on survival in the court. "Always owe someone a favor," Quinsa had whispered one day. "That way, someone has a vested interest in keeping you alive. If they're in your debt, they're more likely to want you dead."
Vegeta never would have called Quinsa a friend any more than he'd have called Bulma his wife. They traded favors and information, though. Quinsa had demonstrated some of the benefits of life in Freeza's court, and Vegeta had paid him back with insider information and choice assignments whenever possible. While training to become a Super Saiyan, Vegeta had stopped at Quinsa's fortress, a backwater, out-of-the-way planet which Freeza had sent him to commandeer and then promptly forgotten. After the dissolution of the empire, Quinsa had wisely kept his distance from the relay seizures of power, and amazingly, had kept his troops loyal and the natives in check. "It's not eternal glory," he'd said during that visit, "but it's better than I could have expected with Freeza alive."
He'd had Vegeta compete in the arena, had introduced him as the single-handed slayer of the Ginyu Force (omitting for political expediency the death of his own brother) and had raked in quite a lot of money for the chance to aid Vegeta's training. Vegeta had later turned over his bank account to Quinsa. "Arm yourself," he said before leaving. "I can't use the money any longer, and they won't forget about you forever."
"You only want me to be in your debt, Prince Vegeta," Quinsa had chuckled dryly as he accepted the account numbers and passwords.
Two years ago, after the Cell games, Quinsa had called for help in response to an attacker from the remnant of Freeza's empire. As a Super Saiyan, Vegeta had come to the planet's aid, and as a result, he now had a backup plan, a fallback position, forever. The populace all but worshipped him. Saiyans were now and always would be welcome on that planet.
An interesting payback, the fact that they'd found and protected a helpless Saiyan infant. This might just get them out of his debt. But that would also give Quinsa one less reason to kill him.
The week in transit passed more peacefully than might be imagined. Downstairs, in the living quarters, Bulma spent her time reading and ciphering at her computer; upstairs, Vegeta worked out. He didn't activate the gravity machine because it would flatten Bulma, but otherwise he spent the time much as he would have alone. Bulma had brought a single-sized futon for herself, and as they each fell into their own rhythms, she and he ate and slept at different times. He shifted back to the 28-hour day (with four hours of sleep per cycle) which felt more natural to his alien body; she slept a lot longer than she could at home while caring for an active three year-old. In general, she stayed in her bed, with her routines and her distractions and her meals, and he kept to his own as well. When their activities happened to coincide, they spoke briefly and then returned to their own pursuits.
It just didn't work any other way. Vegeta had tried it her way back in the beginning, but to what end? Just his own disgrace--even if no one else would have thought it disgraceful, even if no one ever even found out. He'd broken one of the strongest taboos the Saiyan race had ever enacted. And he'd done it to help her.
But thinking about that brought back other thoughts: Saiyan heritage, and a new Saiyan infant. Vegeta had tried several times to put together what exactly this meant to him. It meant one more subject for a kingdomless prince: Gohan and Goten and Trunks, and now this one. But lingering in his mind he found the hope of more Saiyans hidden out in space, waiting for a chance to reveal themselves and return to their race's pride and heritage. The more of them he managed to gather in one clan, the more the likelihood of finding others. He could imagine the Saiyan race alive again, thriving from its new home base the Earth. When sufficient in number, they could branch out and find themselves a new planet. Four or five Saiyans of average strength could clear-cut an entire inhabited world, so Vegeta saw no reason to believe that as a Super Saiyan he would not be able to have his pick of the universe. Together they could seize even Freeza's old seat of power.
From a few stray comments of Bulma's, Vegeta gathered she had different thoughts. She'd been watching Trunks get older and more independent, and she had begun thinking of having another baby. Apparently this infant had arrived at just the right time to keep her from raising the issue directly.
They radioed Quinsa when they reached his system. Shortly their ship picked up an escort which accompanied them all the way to the landing pad. Vegeta dressed in his Saiyan uniform, and Bulma wore an outfit which, while Earthly in its origin, made her seem appropriately professional to these alien eyes. Vegeta introduced her to Quinsa, giving her status as a doctor who would be taking charge of the Saiyan infant. Quinsa bowed deeply to her, hungrily eyeing her blue hair, and then accompanied them into his stronghold.
The building had changed a little since Vegeta's last visit. In their rebuilding, the people had taken it upon themselves to increase the beauty of the castle. While it retained the strength and the spherical influence of Freeza's empire, it now bore adornments which Vegeta didn't recognize, and which clearly did not fit the prior decor. He had to assume they were native trappings.
Bulma maintained respectful and unembarrassing silence all the way to Quinsa's private chambers, where he invited them to make themselves comfortable. He brought one of Vegeta's favorite drinks, then asked what Bulma desired. He specifically used the word "desire." Vegeta felt his power surge angrily, and he replied that the doctor would prefer a certain type of wine, and he named a specific vintage. Bulma seemed impressed; she also seemed impressed when Quinsa's butler produced it momentarily.
Seating himself, Quinsa said, "You may take possession of the pod as soon as you choose, Prince Vegeta. We paid almost all the money you left us in order to buy it back from the Sarcoptians, who found it during a routine surveillance mission. They wanted it destroyed, and so did their neighboring systems--all of which lost planets to Saiyan troops. My people have kept it safe in the interim since our communication, and they assure me the occupant remains stable within."
Bulma said, "May I ask, Lord Quinsa, how you've determined the subject's viability?"
Vegeta kept his face impassive. She was good at this. He hadn't realized she could alter her behavior this way, dropping her voice, speaking like a scientist in the midst of a delicate analysis.
Unable to take his eyes from Bulma's blue hair, Quinsa started talking about their scanning methodology and their various technological abilities. Vegeta could have cursed himself for not remembering that Quinsa was the only one of his race on this planet--and of course, he'd notice Bulma's hair. She seemed to have observed his attentions, too, because she had begun sitting forward and listening with a revolting eagerness--even though she couldn't have understood half the details. Earth was a technological third-world compared to even the least of Freeza's outposts. They didn't have routine space travel, for crying out loud! Vegeta's power surged again, and he struggled to keep it under control.
Luckily, like most of Freeza's old henchmen, Quinsa needed a scanner in order to detect power, so Vegeta had time to get a reasonable grip on his urges. When Quinsa turned back to Vegeta, he said, "Anything my domain can grant you, my Prince, is yours for the asking."
"We won't be remaining long enough to sorn your hospitality, my Lord," Vegeta said lowly. Bulma might hear the dangerous note in his voice; Quinsa wouldn't. "We will collect the pod and give you our thanks, and we will return."
"But," Bulma purred, "I would love to see one of those recovery chambers you were telling me so much about. They sound so...impressive."
Vegeta could have strangled her. Quinsa looked twice as tall, and he offered to show her to the medical units himself. Vegeta declined an offer to be escorted to his room, and he accompanied them. Quinsa never removed his eyes from Bulma. She walked with a slightly suggestive sway to her hips, and every so often she glanced at Quinsa from beneath lowered lashes.
As Quinsa keyed a code into the elevator, Vegeta whispered to her, "You're playing a dangerous game, woman."
She whispered back, "Let me. Don't be a dick."
They toured the medical units, and eventually Bulma got to see one of the recovery chambers. "I've tried so hard to recreate one of these," she said, running her finger-tips over the thick glass compartment which would fill with fluid during recovery phases. "Without the schematics, I've been unable to make any headway. It's so wonderful to see one in person."
Quinsa said, "I can get a copy of the schematics for you."
Bulma pressed her cheek against the glass and said, "I'm sure that with this, we can definitely save that little Saiyan's life. I'm almost afraid to ask, but I think you're our only help...may Prince Vegeta bring home one of these units?"
An hour later, Vegeta was still struggling not to blow out the windows with his ki.
"I told you not to be a jerk about it," Bulma said, filling up the bath tub. The noise of the water covered up her voice. They both knew the room was probably bugged to capture their conversation. Planetary hero or not, Vegeta was a stranger capable of detonating their entire solar system if he took it into his head to do so. Quinsa would want a little warning. Moving close to him, Bulma kept her tone low. "Tomorrow morning we'll be out of here, I'll never be back, and we'll have a medical chamber to boot."
He swallowed hard. "You were acting like--"
"I was acting like a horrible flirt, and he was acting like a boar-hound in heat. He never touched me. You were there the whole time. And I wouldn't let him." Bulma turned away from the bath and studied Vegeta for a thoughtful moment. "You're not jealous."
"No." It sounded like a lie to both of them. "Just go get in your tub and soak until you wrinkle like a raisin."
"I'd flirt with you too if I thought I had a prayer of you liking it." Then she turned back to the bathroom and locked the door behind herself.
They deplaneted without incident, although Quinsa did hint that Bulma could remain if she wanted. She sighed and said that her duty compelled her to return to Earth, and with Vegeta standing beside her, Quinsa didn't press for more.
They retrieved the small pod shortly after takeoff, and Vegeta exited the ship to bring the craft inside and into the cryogenic storage unit. Bulma instructed him on how to hook up their monitors to the hull of a craft at nearly absolute zero, and then she made sure to lock the freezer door in order to keep the pod in a stasis.
For much of the trip homeward, they returned to the same routine they'd had on the way out. From time to time, Vegeta noticed that Bulma watched him with provocative eyes, or that she acted a little racier than usual around him. She was right--he didn't like it. He didn't like it no matter whom the object was. The straightforward approach suited him better. One afternoon about two days out from Earth, as they lounged together on his bed, he found himself fingering her blue hair and wondering...if that was all Quinsa really wanted, why didn't he just order a shipment of blue hair-dye? Why not send a ship home for a bride? Didn't women on his native world want to become princess, even if it meant expatriation?
The sudden blare of a topside alarm startled both out of the bed and flying up the hatches- Vegeta literally, Bulma a step behind as she pulled on one of his shirts and climbed the ladder human-fashion. The light over the cryogenic freezer flashed red, and Vegeta could tell from the readings on the computer screen that the body inside had destabilized.
"We've got to get him out of there." Bulma hadn't bothered buttoning the shirt all the way up. Her fingers flew at the keyboard, making the monitor spit out dozens of numbers Vegeta only half-saw before they flashed away to make room for new statistics. "I'm bringing the medical chamber online right now. We're going to have to thaw the baby in the chamber, but I think it's got a feature to allow for that." She looked up. "What are you doing?"
Vegeta finished pulling on his gloves. "I'm getting him out of there."
Horrified, Bulma grabbed her laptop computer and dashed to the far side of the control station. Vegeta opened the freezer door, powered up, and reached inside the absolute cold toward the space pod. Its outer hull still registered three or four kelvin. Bulma couldn't even draw breath as she watched the charge around Vegeta crackle in contact with a surface temperature inimical to life in any form.
Unmindful of his audience, Vegeta laid his hands flat on the surface of the pod and clenched his fists on the seam of the door. The unit screamed protest, but the super cold metal cracked, and then he had a hand-hold to pry open the doorway. It opened only enough for him to get his hands inside to the wrist. He crouched down at the bottom part of the pod, where the doorway had also released enough for him to get a handhold. With a grimace, he pried the door upward.
It gave just enough for the Saiyan infant's head to tumble out. Vegeta looked positively nauseated as he grasped the head and turned it, guiding the shoulders out of an impossibly narrow opening, then pulled the rest of the baby's naked body free of the chamber that had cocooned it and given it life for so long.
Bulma whispered, "Vegeta--"
He backed out of the freezer and kicked the vault-like door to a close. With clenched teeth, he swallowed. "Open the medical chamber."
Bulma all but tossed her computer onto a chair and ran to the unit. Together, she and Vegeta attached electrodes and fed tubes down the ice-stiff baby's throat. She punched an IV the size of a wire into a seedling-sized vein that had the consistency of a slushie. Swallowing against her own terror, Bulma started the chamber filling with a thick blue fluid, and when she gave the word, Vegeta locked down the plexiglass lid.
For a moment they stood breathing heavily, watching the humming chamber assess the little one's condition and initiate a treatment schedule without any input from the users. A moment later, Bulma wiped her eyes.
Vegeta turned away with a huff.
"When you pulled him out..." Bulma shook her head. "It was so much like a woman giving birth." Raking a hand through her hair, she bit her lip. "It was just like when--"
"Enough!" Vegeta whirled around and advanced on her with eyes like fire. Dropping her hands to her side and taking several steps backward, she found herself with a chair at her legs and control panels on either side. "I don't want to hear about that ever again--ever! Under any circumstances! Do you understand me clearly, woman?"
There was a moment when Bulma couldn't talk at all, when her tight throat made no response to the frantic pleading of her mind. When motion returned to her at last, there were only tears spilling down her cheeks, and she covered her hands over her eyes. It happened soundlessly, and Vegeta watched it all, staring like an iron statue.
Bulma sat in one of the chairs, trembling too badly to keep standing, and once he saw her sitting, Vegeta went down the hatch. While he pulled the gloves off his cold-burned hands, Bulma sat at the copilot chair staring at the trembling of her own.
Several hours later, Vegeta returned to the command station, loose gauze bandages on his right hand, nothing on his left. Bulma had the freezer open, no longer dangerous with its thaw cycle completed. Her voice was tentative. "Do you want to know what I've learned?"
Vegeta folded his arms. "Go ahead."
"The baby's name is Tebega. He was sent toward a planet known as XC-9. There's some kind of black-box onboard, and it seems to indicate that about three hours after blast-off, the ship was bombarded by a series of energy blasts which caused a total system malfunction. I guess that's when life-support failed. Without its engines or its stabilizers, the ship tumbled aimlessly through space, and here we are." She looked up. "The last Saiyan infants would have been sent out when?"
"Raditz indicated that Kakarrot was the last Saiyan infant sent off-world."
"So this baby has been in stasis at least thirty years."
Vegeta paced toward the naked boy in the chamber. The little one's long tail floated in the gel, directionless and limp. "He looks older than a newborn."
"I thought so too."
"That would make him a second-class, or offspring of a second-class." Vegeta folded his arms and frowned. "Third-class like Kakarrot's father had their spawn augured immediately, since they were unlikely to pass. Some second-classes managed to hide them for a while, or else the rural augurs could only make the rounds every so often."
"Pretty damned barbaric, if you ask me."
"I don't recall inquiring your opinions regarding Saiyan heritage or culture, so feel perfectly entitled to reserve your biases to yourself." Vegeta regarded her over his shoulder. "Have you made any other discoveries?"
"I thought extracting his name from this machine was pretty good work in and of itself. There's nothing else here at all, except you can still see the blast marks on the side panel." As Bulma gestured, Vegeta came closer to take a look. "Looks to me as if someone was playing hockey with it. These are all glancing blows. A direct hit would likely have punctured the hull."
Vegeta was inclined to agree.
"Why would you want to play with something like this and not kill it?" Bulma folded her arms. "Any enemy of Freeza would have wanted the baby in the pod good and dead."
"And any henchman of Freeza would have thought it a good sport to play kick the monkey." He shook his head. "Freeza did a lot of things because they were funny, because it was cute to watch entire races squirm. If the flag ship had passed the pod in space, I wouldn't put it past Freeza to go to the observation deck and knock a few shots off, get it rolling good, try to make the Saiyan baby puke."
"In that case, I'm doubly glad Trunks ended that particular sport." Bulma exited the cryogenics storage unit and waited for Vegeta to leave too. He shouldered the door shut for her. "Tebega is doing all right in the medical unit, but it's giving me some numbers I don't like at all. Maybe I'm translating it wrong, but I don't think I am. There may be a lot of hidden damage to his body."
Vegeta went to the control panel and adjusted the ship's computer. "Then we need to get home a little bit faster."
"And program it to land us on Dende's lookout." Bulma glanced back at the chamber. "I don't think science alone is going to solve this problem."
When they landed at the lookout, Bulma felt the chamber had kept the baby's condition from deteriorating. Once out of cryogenic stasis, the baby's flash-frozen heart had resumed beating, and with encouragement the little lungs had started to inflate again. The feeding tubes delivered nutrition, the waste-removal tubes did their job, and the blue gel cushioned the tiny body against the forces of the outside world.
"He's effectively in a second womb," Bulma explained to Dende, "but I don't see any evidence that he's making progress toward surviving outside it."
Vegeta added, "Under ordinary circumstances, an unconscious patient wakes up of his own accord when he's ready. In the case of a conscious patient, the machine will mark progress and automatically discharge itself at the appropriate time."
"Let me take a look." Dende entered their ship with mild apprehension, glancing nervously at the gravity machine and the dozens of control panels necessary to maintain life in space. The medical chamber loomed imposingly in the far corner, and he headed toward that trying to keep his eyes from straying. Bulma had her hands folded as Dende concentrated on the baby.
"Well?" Vegeta frowned at the Namek. "Can you do it?"
"I'm not sure until I try." Dende ran a finger over his chin. "For something this total, I need skin-to-skin contact, but maybe I'm close enough to try."
As Bulma and Vegeta watched, Dende spread his arms against the machine in a hug, then placed his forehead against the glass very near to Tebega's still body. With a deep breath, Dende began glowing, a greenish aura which spread out from his hands to engulf Tebega. It penetrated the chamber and the blue gel within, and when it surrounded the infant, Bulma gasped with delight. The numbers on the medical chamber's readouts changed dramatically, fluctuating moment by moment as they noted and adjusted for the changes in the patient.
For several minutes, Dende remained in that position, until finally the glow receded, and he stepped backward looking pale. Bulma guided him to a chair.
Vegeta looked less than pleased. "The child isn't awake."
"I've done all I can. These are old injuries. The body has gotten used to them, and it's resisting healing. That's why I can't cure Yamcha's scars, or restore your tail." Dende took a deep breath. "I admit I don't understand cryogenic freezing. But the cold has damaged the baby's lungs, and possibly his heart and brain as well. I can't be sure."
Bulma said, "Then we need the dragon."
"That's the best we can do." Dende folded his arms. "I'm afraid the dragonballs were used recently enough that they haven't returned yet. It will take sixty days for them to be restored."
Bulma pushed Vegeta back. "He can't help it. Rules are rules. We might be able to keep Tebega alive for that long. And if we can't, we can always use the Dragon to resurrect him."
Dende said, "If you don't mind, I want to get the Dragon model and ask if it's possible."
For a quarter hour, Bulma and Vegeta waited silently beside the machine, Vegeta sitting with his back to the unit and his eyes closed. Bulma typed on her computer. When Dende returned, he placed the Dragon model close beside the machine, and he laid his hands on it while whispering in Namekian.
"What a lot of nonsense," Vegeta muttered.
"He's helping us. Just deal with it." Bulma closed the lid on her laptop and plugged it back into the control panel. "Can't you behave just for once?"
Dende opened his eyes. "Don't let the baby die," he said. Tears shimmered blue in the reflection of the medical chamber. "The Dragon can't resurrect him."
They said nothing whatsoever to one another on the way back to Capsule Corp. Bulma tried hard not even to look at Vegeta. He wouldn't have noticed if she had. He let her fly the ship.
Kakarrot. Damn Kakarrot.
Asking the Dragon to resurrect everyone killed by Freeza. With no limits on the request: anyone, anywhere, anytime.
The entire Saiyan race had briefly existed again...existed with no planet beneath their feet. Existed in the pressureless cold of deep space until their bodies exploded. Maybe that happened before they froze or asphyxiated. Maybe it wasn't as painful as it sounded.
And a dead Saiyan infant in a pod spinning madly had briefly awakened, and without life support had frozen solid.
Madness. Nothing was that powerful. How many other planets had Freeza destroyed on a lark? How many other entire races had met a renewed extinction for the simple fact that Kakarrot hadn't said, "On Namek."
Vegeta had toyed with the idea of resurrecting his people, if the Dragon would go along with the notion. With two wishes, he could wish back his kingdom--or the kingdom that would be his once his father was good and dead--and then wish back his subjects. For one reason or another, he'd put off making the decision. Now it turned out, the planet could return, but never the people.
He glanced at the medical chamber. Tebega remained unconscious.
The ship rocked unsteadily as Bulma landed it--landed more gracefully than Vegeta usually did when he simply crashed the ship into whatever clear patch of land he could find. Unbuckling from her chair, Bulma studied Vegeta momentarily.
He cast his gaze aside and exited the ship.
Several doctors from a nearby teaching hospital gathered around the chamber, interpreted the numbers Bulma gave, then discussed options among themselves. Dr. Briefs had flown a cryogenics researcher in from another country, and in the middle of all the doctors' mumblings, an interpreter would continually interject questions.
Eventually it was decided that the medical chamber was not, in fact, maintaining Tebega in a stable condition. Given the decrease in his blood oxygenation, the doctors predicted he could only linger another fifteen days in the chamber. They had some ideas for radical interventions which had the potential to pay off in spades, giving the baby months of life rather than days. On the other hand, if those procedures failed, the prognosis deteriorated rapidly. Bulma and her father locked themselves in a room with Vegeta and debated endlessly. Eventually, Vegeta said, "Take the risk. Saiyans pull through the most impossible odds. Look at what Kakarrot, Gohan, Trunks and I myself have accomplished."
Bulma said, "But you understand how chancy it will be, removing him from life support?"
Vegeta shrugged. "Saiyans get tougher as death draws closer."
The chamber was shipped, unopened, to the hospital. Bulma accompanied the medical team while Vegeta followed in the car with her father. The sight of the starch-white building left his pulse pounding. It was a good hospital, he reminded himself. Bulma had the best when it came to medical care, and so at this world-famous institution she had given birth to Trunks.
Vegeta hated the place. Hated the smell, the clean corridors, the sandwich shop by the lobby, the plants in the atrium, and the bulletin board in the hallway to the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. He watched the nurses' faces, looking for ones he recognized from three years ago. Luckily, no one he passed looked familiar.
When they reached the NICU, he and Dr. Briefs scrubbed their hands with the pink antibacterial foam that passed for soap, and then they entered the nursery for the sickest infants.
Most of the babies looked impossibly tiny. Compared to a Saiyan infant, a even a fullterm human newborn looks minuscule; Vegeta had been born at 22 pounds; Trunks had weighed thirteen and seemed impossibly fragile to only his father, even as everyone else had commented on his monster size. To Vegeta the preemies on oxygen and intravenous medication seemed like bean bag dolls, and he averted his eyes from their scrawny limbs and translucent skin. Some of their families had placed pictures or stuffed toys into the plastic bassinets, even though the babies couldn't have seen or understood or played with them.
In the far corner, the doctors had removed Tebega from the medical chamber and placed him into one of the bassinets. A nurse was running a heparin lock into the back of his hand, commenting as she did about the size of the boy. Three doctors were consulting about the dosages of the various medications they wanted to administer to stimulate healing in the frostbitten lungs.
Bulma approached. "They've decided to administer steroids to help his lungs, along with artificial surfactant, and after 12 hours they think he'll be strong enough to withstand the surgery, the way we discussed."
Vegeta hadn't taken his eyes from the flurry in the corner. "He came out of the chamber all right, then."
"Perfectly. That unit definitely saved his life. In fact, they're thinking of hooking a 21-week preemie into it, because there's no way they can save him with Earth-technology right now. They said it's almost like the womb." She glanced at Vegeta. "But you don't care. I know. At any rate, Tebega should go into surgery first thing in the morning. They've invited us to watch if we want, but I'm not sure it would accomplish anything. I've made sure they can page us if we're needed for any reason." She fumbled in her purse and found a small black box. "Keep this with you."
After about ten minutes, the nurses moved away from the bassinet and set it in the row with the other NICU babies. Vegeta approached and stood over the clear plastic cradle. It was artificially heated to body-temperature, and Tebega slept beneath a light blanket wearing only a disposable white diaper with a hole cut for the tail.
"He's desperately cute." Bulma leaned over and stroked the slack cheeks. "And that thick hair- will he keep this shape, or does it change as he gets older?"
"By the time he's three, it will be permanent. Right now it might possibly still change. It's less likely if he's second-class than third." Vegeta folded his arms as Bulma stroked the boy's arms through the blanket. "Why are you gawking all over him?"
"Because I'm a frivolous and silly female, and because touch is a scientifically proven stimulant to healing. You don't have to be such a jerk about it." Bulma hooked a stool with her ankle and pulled it close enough to sit on while she stroked Tebega. "Oh, look!" She lifted the limp tail and petted the soft fur. "He's got little rings on his tail! Goku never had that!"
"Those are baby-stripes. All Saiyans are born with those. In about a year, they'll fade." Vegeta took a deep breath. "Anything else?"
She watched Vegeta narrowly. "I think for our second wish, I'll ask the Dragon to give you back your tail."
"You've entirely given up hope for enjoying a romantic moonlit night, I take it?"
She chuckled, then hesitated. "I'd better warn the doctors not to let him see moonlight--oh, he can't." There weren't any windows in NICU. "Is there any way to inhibit him from changing?"
"It would kill him to change in this state. We used to have special drugs, but they're not good long-term."
"Maybe we should have the glands surgically removed so he can keep his tail." Bulma grinned. She leaned in close and spoke softly. "Tebega, you'll be a hit on the playground when you can swing from the jungle-gym by your tail. And when you're a teenager, all the girls will go crazy for your tail." She smoothed down the baby's hair with her fingertips and gazed at Tebega for a long time.
Vegeta left the NICU to get Bulma and himself some dinner. Dr. Briefs had long since departed the hospital, taking with him their means of getting home. No matter: when they wanted to leave, he'd fly them back. Bulma showed no signs of wanting to go, of course. She never stopped touching Tebega, talking, singing, telling him what a good boy he was. It was almost--
He was standing at the swinging doors that opened into the maternity unit.
Vegeta took a deep breath, and instead of heading to the cafeteria, he let his feet carry him through those doors.
Last year, he'd traveled back to the site of the Cell Games and looked at the scrub plants trying to gain a foothold on the sand-blasted landscape. He'd visited the wilderness where it had taken Kakarrot, Gohan, Krillin and Yajirobe all together to defeat him. He'd traveled in his heart to the Namekian valley where Freeza had shot a hole in his chest.
When the nurse at the reception desk asked if she could help, Vegeta shook his head and said he knew where he was going.
Bulma had labored with Trunks in room 119. She'd used all the tricks from that ridiculous course she'd conned him into attending as her "birth partner." Of course a man couldn't give birth with her, even if he stayed beside her and told her what a great job she was doing. But Vegeta humored her to a point. He refused to watch the birthing video, and this Bulma had tolerated with a shrill laugh. She apparently found it funny to think that a Saiyan prince who had worked as a hired killer apparently feared fainting at the sight of blood.
Of course, it wasn't that at all. He didn't bother to explain. All he said was that he would stay for however long she needed during labor, but he would leave the room for the child's birth.
At any rate, he had accompanied her for ten hours of labor, walking the corridors with her, breathing with her when she needed it, helping her perch on the huge green birthing ball, rubbing her back, and so many other useless measures. The nurses had checked her and said she was at six centimeters (the magic number was ten) and that she had hours to go; they suggested giving her an epidural. Bulma protested violently (the nurses kept thrusting medications at her, and she didn't want any) and instead asked if she could use the labor tub. Ten minutes later, Bulma had stripped and settled down into the jacuzzi. The nurses left her alone for the 20th time that day, and Vegeta sat alongside the tub.
After a little while, Bulma had great difficulty coping with the contractions. She'd begged and pleaded for them to stop, and because he knew ringing for the nurse would end up getting Bulma drugged, he tried hugging her over the side of the tub. She buried her face in his shoulder and tried to do her breathing. Between contractions, Vegeta stripped to his underwear and climbed into the tub, and when he squatted facing her, he held her so their faces were inches apart. Her body threw off as much heat as a half-powered Saiyan. She gasped and cried that she couldn't do it, that she was too scared, and she couldn't cope.
Three years later, standing again beside the empty labor pool, Vegeta looked around until he found the nurse call button he'd pushed when she had said that. Bulma was crying, and he knew he couldn't help. With her body possessed by this powerful force, unable to stop the flood of hormones and contractions, one after the next like repeat tidal waves, Vegeta watched helplessly. He clenched her tightly and tried to breathe with her. She had a hysterical note with every gasp. He rang for the nurse. The intercom said they would come in a few minutes. He stroked her hair. She bit her lip. She gasped and grunted hard. She half-squatted up out of the tub, and in that moment, her water broke--no, it exploded out of her. She started to hyperventilate, and Vegeta pulled her back down into the water. She tightened up her body again and let out a long slow moan. He pushed the nurse call button, and the intercom again responded that they would come in five minutes.
"Vegeta," she gasped, and then she pushed again.
Too late, he realized what was happening.
He recoiled, and she seized his shoulders. He could have thrust her backward, but he stopped because she-- She needed him. He was the only one there to help. And maybe he was wrong, and maybe the nurses would still come. They had said hours until it was time. She couldn't have progressed so dramatically in only thirty minutes, after laboring all day. He ordered her to stop, but she had a ferocity in her eyes that he'd never seen before in her--seen it in Kakarrot, seen it in Freeza, seen it in Raditz and Napa, seen it in Gohan just before he flattened Freeza. But never in Bulma: that sense of her own power. She wasn't listening to him. She heard only her own body. She pushed again, and with a loud cry, she pushed out a head.
Vegeta reached for the baby's head, and so did she. She had a vindicated smile as she touched the slick baby-hair, and then she grasped Vegeta's shoulders and pushed one more time. He held the head firmly and guided the baby out and down, turning the shoulders slightly to ease the passage, and in the next moment the entire slippery body lay in his hands. He raised the baby boy up from the water of the tub. Bulma sank backward against the side of the tub, laughing. He laid the protesting baby on her chest, and numbly he reached behind himself to release some of the water in the tub.
Standing here now, Vegeta bit his lip so hard he drew a single bead of blood. If he were granted to forget a single moment in his life, he would remember Gohan blasting him with Kakarrot's genki-dama. He'd keep the moment Freeza killed him. And he would retain that burning shame of watching Kakarrot sacrifice his life to save the world. But he would blot out the moment Trunks was born into his hands, because to witness a birth-- For a warrior to see a birth was forbidden. Absolutely forbidden.
Men had been killed--men had committed suicide--for this crime. And for the prince of the entire race to have seen...no, more than that, to have received a baby into his hands...his own baby--
Back then, he'd made sure Bulma and the baby were stable before climbing out of the jacuzzi. He'd pulled off his sopping underwear and tossed it into the trash bin, then powered up enough to dry his skin. He dressed in silence. The nurses still hadn't come. He walked the hall the nurses' station.
"Bulma needs you in the labor tub," he said in a low, unemotional voice.
Three nurses sat behind the desk, two with cups of coffee, one looking at a stack of forms. "We'll be there in five minutes."
"In that case," and remembering it now, Vegeta was surprised he'd kept himself collected enough to be sarcastic, "can you tell me how to deliver a placenta?"
The nurses had scrambled into action, paging a doctor, rushing to the labor tub, and ignoring him. Vegeta walked in the opposite direction, tracked down Bulma's parents in the waiting area and told them the baby was born, and then continued walking out into the hallway.
Outside, Vegeta flew up to the roof of the building and closed his eyes. He could see that wet blotchy head, the slippery purplish body, the thick pulsating umbilical cord. There hadn't been a tail. He could feel the cheesy coating on the baby's skin rubbing off on his fingers. He could remember Bulma's look of triumph as she nestled the baby close to her breast and regarded him in raw wonder.
She'd needed him. Without him there, she'd have delivered alone.
But with him there, he'd disgraced the entire royal line of the Saiyan people. Himself and now his male-delivered son, who would have been heir had there been a throne or a kingdom to inherit.
On the rooftop, he waited until the sun went down. If he got hungry, he never noticed. Bulma would have been cleaned up and returned to her room by now, her and the baby, to show him off to the grandparents and anyone else who came to visit. She was three stories beneath him, and he could detect the baby's power signature from here. The kid hadn't suffered for his impromptu birth and his father's disgrace.
What kind of penance could there be? And who to administer it? If after this day Vegeta never became a Super Saiyan despite all his determination and effort--now he knew why. His ancestors disapproved.
He could remember a Saiyan being allowed to make amends for a grave sin only once. The man had been sent on a pilgrimage of conquering, and as far as Vegeta knew, he'd never made his return.
In the parking lot, one of the delivery nurses walked out to her car, clicking her remote and getting an answering chirp from a large white import across the lot. Vegeta took aim and shot a blast at the vehicle. When the explosion rocked the neighboring cars, he pressed his mouth tight. The nurse stood screaming on the sidewalk--unhurt, but now in desperate need of a claims adjuster--and he watched her without faltering. Soon the police arrived, other nurses and doctors spoke to her, and later she went back inside, still crying. Too bad he didn't know which other cars the labor unit nurses drove.
After dark, Vegeta had returned to the maternity unit, and he entered Bulma's room without knocking. She was sitting up, the baby still nestled against her breasts, and she was touching, singing to, and cuddling the little bundle. She smiled gently. "He's so sweet, Vegeta. But he's stubborn, like you are. And he's strong. He can hold up his head already. Here."
He shook his head as she offered to let him hold the boy. Turning his face aside, he said, "I don't want you to give him my name."
Bulma frowned. "But we agreed--well, you made me agree he'd be named after you. For Saiyan tradition."
"He's an Earth child. Give him an Earth name." Vegeta turned and walked to the door. "I can't stay. As soon as I get the space ship fueled up, I'm going to train in deep space. I'll return in time for the androids."
Bulma had stared without speaking. Vegeta hadn't looked back as he left. It was the last time he saw her for a year.
Early the next morning, Bulma packed a bag and went to the hospital to watch Tebega's operation, and she remained in NICU by the boy's side until the evening. Her father wanted to know as many details as she could provide, and Vegeta contented himself to listen, knowing that within the flurry of words, eventually any details of interest to him were bound to present themselves. When Bulma's mother brought Trunks downstairs to kiss Bulma good night, he asked about his little brother, and Bulma promised to bring him to the hospital the next day.
Shortly, they fell into a routine: every day, Bulma would spend the majority of her time at the hospital. Sometimes Vegeta would accompany her in the morning; sometimes he would check in at lunch time and share a meal out in the hospital courtyard. Trunks would visit, but only for a few minutes, every other day, in the care of one of his grandparents.
Tebega had survived the operation on his lungs and heart, although the doctors made no more promises than before. Apparently the damage had surpassed their expectations, but the little Saiyan struggled gamely and refused to succumb. Machines performed every metabolic function possible: a warming table; a respirator; a feeding tube; intravenous lines; dialysis when the tiny kidneys refused to perform. While he never opened his eyes or reacted to stimulation, amidst all the machinery the little boy persisted in breathing. With all those wires around the boy, nobody could hold him or cuddle him. The best anyone could manage was hand-to-hand touch. Even a simple kiss was hampered by so much equipment.
Bulma took pictures. She bought small stuffed animals and pressed them close against Tebega's side. She left him a set of baby keys and a rattle he never reached for.
Sixteen days passed. Everyone breathed a little easier, glad they didn't have to face Vegeta after being unable to provide longer life than the medical pod would have. The sound of Bulma's voice became customary in the NICU, reading from Trunks' favorite books, singing softly, and sometimes just talking baby-nonsense.
Over time, the machines began to take over more of Tebega's life. The doctors looked drawn when they made their notations on the chart clipped to the foot of the bassinet. What little brain activity the boy still had was only erratic, and highly disorganized. He began requiring transfusions, and the internal bleeding swelled his tiny abdomen and left it distended.
Bulma's voice lost its cheer, and she seemed more careworn when she returned in the evenings; when Trunks played for her attention, she would snap angrily and leave him alone. Vegeta ceased speaking to anyone else in the household. The Dragon wouldn't be available for another 40 days, and that number dwelled in all their minds. For this patient, no one cared about quality of life, only quantity. All Tebega needed to do was survive, not recover. As long as the machines could keep him functioning, the Dragon could rescue the rest.
In the middle of the night, Vegeta awakened to a touch on his shoulder.
"The hospital called." Bulma's voice sounded thin and shaken. "They want us to come in. Now."
He reached for his clothes. "What's going on?"
"They wouldn't tell me. I'm afraid." She swallowed. "Vegeta, they wouldn't just call for nothing."
"Then stop talking nonsense. We'll find out when we arrive."
Bulma's father insisted on driving them, saying they were in no condition to drive themselves. Vegeta wondered vaguely what that meant. He felt fine, but for Bulma's sake he allowed her father to take the wheel. With a two-AM disconnection, he stared at the countryside and traveled without thinking about the where or the why. Deep inside the fog, there must have been a part of him processing with total clarity, enabling him to perform the mundane actions of unbuckling his seat-belt and unlocking the door, stepping out to the main doors of the hospital, and buzzing for a late-night entrance. All these little details got taken care of by a body hardly in the possession of its owner. A janitor was running a floor-polisher over the blue-tile floor with an even thump-thump-thump like a heartbeat. It wasn't until they reached the door of the NICU that Vegeta realized Bulma's hand was in his own.
The doctor met them at the entrance. "Tebega's had a downturn during the night." He kept his voice soft, and Bulma's half-hiccup almost covered up his next words. "We would like for you to decide what to do for him now. He coded twice already, and both times we managed to resuscitate him. But his condition is extremely poor. I don't think we can keep him alive much longer even with our most aggressive measures."
Vegeta said, in a voice that sounded to his own ears as if the speaker stood in the next room, "What do you want to do now?"
The doctor's eyes lowered. "Under ordinary circumstances, I would recommend issuing an order not to resuscitate, removing the infant from life-support, and offering comfort-care only."
Bulma said, "Can I hold him?"
The doctor nodded. "Once we remove the machines, we'll settle you into one of the private rooms, and you can care for him there."
Vegeta said, "How long could he survive without the respirator?"
The doctor opened his hands. "Ten minutes?"
"And if you keep him oxygenated?"
The doctor swallowed. "Probably not more than another hour or two." He couldn't directly face either Bulma or Vegeta. "I don't make this kind of recommendation lightly. But I know our limits, and at this point, we've done all we can. Dr. Wiliams, Dr. Abe, and Dr. Sonoma met with me in conference before we called you, and we're out of options. What we've been trying hasn't succeeded, and there's nothing left in the bag of tricks. It's our collective opinion that the medical chamber wouldn't help at this point."
Bulma whispered, "I'll sign the orders. But I want to hold him." She swallowed, and Vegeta realized that she'd slipped her arm up around his. He glanced at her, as if from behind museum glass. Her cheeks had a high flush, and her eyes looked feverish against the pallor of the rest of her face.
The nurse brought some paperwork, but first she gave Bulma a hug, then turned to Vegeta and offered her sorrow. He blinked at her. Saiyans always survived when everyone thought they'd die--that was how the race endured. If anything, this whole ordeal would only leave Tebega the stronger. He'd thank them for it in a few years.
Among the bili-lights and the blinking monitors of the NICU ward, two nurses expertly removed tubes and wires from Tebega's body. One of them cradled Tebega up out of the bassinet which had been his home for the past three weeks, and the other guided Vegeta and Bulma with a light touch on the arm. Off to the side, there was a small room where nursing mothers could feed their healthier infants on padded reclining chairs with a view of the parking lot. The nurses turned the lights to a low dim, and they settled Bulma in the recliner with Tebega nestled on her lap in a receiving blanket decorated with teddy bears.
"You fought hard, little man." She stroked his hair with her fingertips and kissed his warm cheeks. "We're here for you. You can stay a little longer."
Her throat tightened, and she looked helplessly at Vegeta. He watched her without a word.
"Here." She arose from the chair, and when she gestured, he sat there instead. After one more kiss, she handed Tebega to him, and then she knelt alongside Vegeta's knees and stroked the boy from there. Vegeta looked down at the bundle of the baby, remembering that when he had returned from training in space, Trunks was already this size. He touched the thick shock of black hair, then ran his hand over the boy's body, along his arms and down his legs. The tip of the tail just sneaked out from the bottom of the blankets.
Neither Bulma nor Vegeta spoke any longer. He watched the shallow breaths grow flimsier, further apart. He could feel the frail power signature fading within his arms, and over time, the baby's face became pale, almost entirely white. The tips of his fingers turned bluish, and then his hands as well. Whenever he drew a gasping breath, Bulma would whisper, "You're still here."
The boy's body grew colder, and Vegeta cuddled him close to his chest, rocking a little. Babies were supposed to be rocked. Babies weren't supposed to be left alone by the medical staff for nature to take its course, as if Nature were a god to be propitiated. After a while, he realized he'd been powering up a little, almost reflexively. When he wondered why, he realized he was trying to warm the baby. As if, if only he could get him warm again, everything would be all right.
This time, he sought Bulma's eyes, and she met them with a glassy shine in her own. "I don't-- Vegeta, this isn't real."
No, the light body in his arms was too real. This moment was too real. It would pass completely before the sun rose again on a pre-eminent teaching hospital staffed by the finest doctors and the most average nurses the world could provide. He couldn't remember how long it had been since Tebega's last breath. He pressed the skin beneath Tebega's arm, searching for a pulse. It came only faintly and unsteadily.
Vegeta said in a gentle, princely voice, "If you have to leave us, Tebega, it's okay. You can go."
Shortly after his dismissal, Tebega left them.
Afterward, Bulma recorded all the details in a new journal, trying to preserve the mementos of a boy's life without being able to preserve the most important part, the boy himself. She noted how they held and cuddled the baby until after sunrise, Vegeta talking to him and her singing; giving him his final bath; changing his clothes one last time; and then tucking him back into his bassinet to be brought downstairs to the worst part of the hospital. She didn't record how her father had arrived bloodshot to bring them back home, nor how Vegeta had told her brusquely to put away the phone book and not call any funeral directors, nor how he had retired to his room to sleep for a couple of hours if he could. She did mention that he seemed especially intent on giving Trunks a hug when the boy came down for breakfast.
Two days later, with a few of Bulma's friends gathered at a private site in the woods, Vegeta carried a breadbox-sized casket from the back of a black car. Gohan (with some "help" from Trunks) had gathered firewood and piled it in a semi-circle in the clearing, the only service he was able to perform for this boy of his heritage. With a black-clad Vegeta holding the white wooden casket in his arms, Bulma briefly read a Saiyan poem commemorating the dead. Vegeta had spent most of the night translating what he remembered of the funeral rite. Most of it was for warriors--who else had he ever sent off in his life, but warriors? Never women. Children weren't supposed to die. When children left, it was to conquer another planet. They never died; they just departed. No one ever considered that some of them didn't return.
You have been sent before us
To conquer another world,
To lay claim to the opposing shore
And to build there for us the fire of our homecoming.
May your light shine glory on us all.
May your wildness make us fierce
And may your fight make us all the stronger.
Vegeta proceeded to the woodpile and walked into the midst of it. Gohan closed the circle behind him. With his eyes closed, Vegeta powered up. Almost immediately, the logs ignited, and he stood ramrod straight among the flames, holding the impossibly small wooden box. He didn't flinch. He let the heat surround him, and he let it consume the box in his hands. Everyone outside the circle of flame blurred in the haze of the heat, then disappeared entirely behind the thick smoke. He waited until the box blazed, then rested it on the ground by his feet.
Vegeta burst directly upward out of the bonfire, arms spread, face soot-blackened, but his body consumed by the golden glow of the Super Saiyan power which rolled off him. Bulma and her family watched him from where they stood gathered together He hovered over the flames for another minute, then lightly touched ground on the far side of the flames. He waited until the fire had almost used itself up. Then he turned and walked away.