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Chapter 3

A Dirty Pair/ Iria: Zeiram fusion
by DB Sommer

Any and all C+C appreciated. You can contact me at: sommer@3rdm.net

Disclaimer: Dirty Pair created by Hideki Sonoda and Haruka Takachiho.   Iria: Zeiram belongs to Crowd, Bandai Visual, Mitsubishi Corp, Banpresto and US Manga Corps.

An ocean of brightly dressed people seemingly stretched from one side of the downtown street to the other as the mass of commuters hurried across the road, emerged or entered buildings, accosted street vendors, darted in between cars and massive transport trucks, or moved quickly in what appeared to be giant circles.

Whereas the ground was dominated by the living, the massive buildings that were built so close together commanded the skies by seeming to stretch all the way to the heavens. They hemmed the populous in as though the streets were nothing more than an enormous maze designed for the gods to watch the indigenous population of Zanibat, the largest city on Delabar, scurry around like a giant colony of lab rats.

"Gee, there's seems to be an awful lot of people still alive for a place that Zeiram was supposed to be hanging out," Kei said.

"This is odd," Yuri admitted to Kei as she narrowly avoided being trampled by a small herd of commuters that broke off from the main pack and were frantically scurrying about. Apparently getting to work at the last minute was a habit indigenous to the population of Zanibat, if not the entire planet.

For all of her efforts, one man towards the end of the throng jostled Kei. He hesitated for only the briefest of moments, taking the hat (another cultural trait since everyone seemed to wear one) off his head without losing his pace, and gave a brief nod over his shoulder to Kei. "Apologies. Places to go." Without another word, he continued onward.

Iria listened to Kei growl at the man, only to be bumped a second time by another person. Iria had yet to be jounced since she had elected to remain behind the pair, allowing them to blunt the streams of humanity enough to keep them from bumbling into the bounty hunter. It worked, somewhat.

"It's possible Zeiram is in hiding and building up an army of his monsters so he can more effectively demolish the planet. That was his basic strategy on Myce." Iria found she had to raise her voice to be heard; the din of traffic was threatening to drown out every word she said. She turned her attention to the computer on her wrist. "Did you find any information on an increased number of disappearances anywhere on the planet?"

"Nothing yet," Bob said as he constantly scanned the general flow of information that was being broadcast over open frequencies.

"Maybe Zeiram didn't come here after all," Yuri offered.

"Damn!" Iria's shout was loud enough to be heard over the din of the city, causing several people to look her way (though not bothering to do more than slow down. They did have 'places to go'). "This is the only lead we had."

Seeing Iria's temper begin to fray, Kei took it upon herself to comfort her mentor, much like the bounty hunter had done with her when she was younger. "He could still be here. And if he's not, well, this is Zeiram we're talking about. It's impossible for him to lay low for long."

"We're the best troubleshooters the 3WA's got," Yuri bragged. "We'll dig up something on him."

Bob spoke up. "Get me direct access to a computer terminal that's hooked up to an interplanetary database, and I can begin a real search."

"Yes. That is the first thing we should do." Iria felt herself calming down. She should have known better than to expect Zeiram to simply be rampaging down the streets, making himself an open target for the three of them to take out before dinnertime. But she had wanted him dead this instant. Every minute of the trip to Delabar, which had only taken a day, made her hatred of Zeiram increase. Upon seeing the static-filled image from the station's camera of Zeiram, Iria had picked up the same impression Kei had: this was the exact same monster that she had killed before. Working from Kei's assumption that this was the original Zeiram had been a driving force for Iria before viewing the tape, but upon seeing the monster's form, even electronically, the feeling that this was the original tripled as Iria felt the suspicions satisfied within herself.

She had failed to get any sleep, though with her current emotional state there was no chance of her combat abilities being hindered by that. She was a better fighter now than she had been all those years ago, but managing to kill Zeiram had been as much a matter of luck as skill. Besides, there was no telling if her adversary had gotten more powerful over the years as well.

Too much was unknown. They needed to find Zeiram and the mystery behind his resurrection. "What's the nearest public access building?" she asked Bob.

Power ran through a neural net, accessing systems that Bob thought of in terms of actual memory rather than electronically stored pieces of data. "The Benjamin Dover Library is located only a couple of blocks southeast of here. It's open to the public, so we'll be allowed to hook up to an off-planet net and get all of the information we need."

"Let's go," Iria forced her way through the teeming throngs of people. They would be back on Zeiram's trail in a matter of moments. The library was only two blocks away, after all.

"How could it possibly take over half an hour to walk two lousy blocks?" Iria grumbled.

Kei shrugged. "I think it was because we were fighting the flow of traffic instead of going with it. It would have taken us even longer if things hadn't died off at the end."

"Probably the end of the morning rush around here," Yuri said as they stared at the Benjamin Dover Library.

The library stood in stark contrast to the other megalithic structures that were the norm for the capital city of Delabar. Whereas most of the other buildings were sixty plus stories high, the library was no more than ten, though constructed of the same material, decorated in the same style, and adorned in the same dull slate-gray tones as the other buildings. It was squat, its base taking up three times the space that the other buildings did. It appeared as though it could have at one time been among its taller brethren, save for the fact one of the gods had compacted it with a giant sledgehammer.

"It looks like they don't take their literature as seriously as they do their other businesses," Yuri stated blandly as she compared it to the other structures. The other buildings still had many people going in and out of their doors. The library had nary a soul to do either. At least it meant they could probably get a computer link right away.

The trio of women entered, and were surprised to see that the interior contrasted sharply with the outside. Bland and indifferent without, the inside was a menagerie of bright colors, from blazing red carpeting to banana yellow walls that would make others believe that if they peeled the plaster away a white fruit would be found underneath.

"Reminds me of your apartment," Yuri commented to Kei.

Through two sets of transparent doors, the women entered the lobby and saw an obese man sleeping upright in a one of the comfortable chairs lining the entryway. He was dressed in an outfit that identified him as a security guard who was currently securing as much sleep as he could. Beyond him was a long, semi-circular desk that stretched nearly the entire length of the lobby. To the right and left were the entrance and exits to the library proper. A mechanical laser marker and pass system to count the number of people that entered the library was next to them. Behind and above the desk, in large red lettering, was the word, 'Greetings.'

There was but one person manning the massive front desk: a young blonde woman that wore a business suit that looked more suited for a boardroom than a receptionist. Kei noted the girl was far more attractive than the squirrelish types she had become familiar with in the few libraries she had been in during her life. Curiously, it was almost always older and more shrewish women that were the norm at most places; an odd universal constant whose reasons escaped Kei.

The librarian, Janet Nagumo, turned her attention from her pile of paperwork and looked the three newcomers over. The assessment was cursory and concise: two bimbos wearing little more than overly large bikinis with sidearms strapped to their hips and a third, older woman that was shorter than the others and less bimbo-looking. She bore a distinctive mole on her left cheek and wore a worn-looking brown cloak that hid her torso from sight, but allowed the white and black body armor that covered her legs to show clearly. She even had a pair of high-tech goggles resting on the top of her head, completing the macho, ready-for-action look. Janet hated women like this; they reminded her of her old job.

The receptionist's open reaction was to raise an eyebrow at the trio. "I think you're in the wrong place, ladies. Babes and Bullets is two blocks farther down. All we have here are books that have lots of words in them, not pictures."

"Ha, ha," Kei retorted dryly. "Are you usually this courteous to people that come here looking for information?"

"Most people don't come here armed if they're looking for information." As Janet watched the trio carefully, a vague sense of unease began to take root. There was something about the two bimbos that seemed familiar to her.

Yuri could feel the time they were wasting. She said, "We need access to your computers."

"I doubt if they'll do you any good. There's no voice activation system so you need to be able to spell to use them."

Kei suppressed the urge to pistol whip the girl, no matter how badly she deserved it. "Look, we're troubleshooters with the 3WA."

"And I used to be an accountant with them before coming to my senses and quitting," Janet retorted. "That doesn't give you the right to come barging in here arm…" her voice trailed off as her eyes widened and she gasped. "Oh, crap! You're the Lovely Angels, I mean Dirty Pair, aren't you?"

Two faces began twitching.

"You look a whole lot older than I thought you'd be."

The faces twitched far more violently.

"Look, you worthless number-cruncher," Yuri growled in irritation, "we're here on an official assignment and have the authority to go around armed."

"So shut up and let us through," Kei snapped.

"I want to see that authorization in writing." Janet held out her hand.

"It's an emergency situation and lives are at stake so we don't have to," Yuri said, crossing her arms, content that she had the upper hand.

Janet's scowl increased. "I don't see an emergency. Toby! Wake up!"

The security guard awoke with a snort. He looked around and tried to reorient himself to the world around him.

Once Janet was convinced he had, she continued. "These women are illegally armed. I want you to escort them out."

Toby looked the women over, assessed the situation, and reacted accordingly.

"They don't look armed to me." He sat back in the chair and closed his eyes again.

"Spineless bubblebutt," Janet mumbled under her breath.

"Now you'll let us in." The way Kei said it let Janet know it was a statement, not a question.

Regardless, Janet crossed her arms defiantly. "No. I know you two. You're going to blow the place up and leave me without a job, and maybe without a life, too."

This was the part Yuri hated the most; their undeserved reputations. "We do not destroy everything and everyone around us!"

Janet shot to her feet and began wagging her finger at Yuri. "Yes, you do. Part of my job was to help manage all of the payments to the grievances that were filed against you for the damage you inflicted on the galaxy at large. That was one of the reasons I quit. You two were personally responsible for making me work around the clock!"

"Are you sure it wasn't your pitbull-like demeanor that failed to endear yourself to your coworkers which drove you away?" Yuri said with a sly smile as she leaned forward and over the desk.

Janet leaned forward in answer, unwilling to back down. "Do you remember three years ago how your budget was slashed and your salaries cut back?"

"Of course." Yuri had been forced to cancel a vacation with her then boyfriend due to the twenty-five percent pay cut.

"Those were based on my recommendations."

It was Yuri's turn to suppress pistol-whipping the woman, no matter how much better it would have made her feel.

While the two women traded deadly looks with one another, Kei wandered over to the entryway to the main floor of the library. Examining the laser marker and pass system next to it, she noticed a small metal box protruding from the device. It was easy to see that was where library members could slide a passcard through to shut down the field and walk through to be counted. It also seemed to route the primary supply for the machine as well. Getting a solid grip on it, Kei gave a powerful tug. A glance over her shoulder showed Yuri still locked in a test of wills with the librarian. Kei spit into her hand, gripped the box even tighter, braced her foot against it, and pulled hard.

Yuri and Janet broke off eye contact at the sound of bolts being forced from the housings. They turned to see a box of metal and protruding wires being casually tossed in the air by a wickedly smirking Kei. She repeated the gesture a couple of times before tossing it to Janet, who reflexively nabbed it out of mid-air.

"Aww, that piece fell off and now the system seems to be broken." Kei said with a remarkable amount of wide-eyed innocence.

"I guess we can go on in then." Yuri gave Janet a 'we got you' grin as Kei and Iria proceeded to enter the library proper.

Just as the trio passed by the now burned-out entryway, a trembling Janet, determined to get one last shot in, shouted, "Hey, Kei! Remember how Sergeant Bastian said the reason he broke up with you was because he felt your relationship was going nowhere and emotionally his needs weren't being satisfied?"

Kei answered, "Hell, yeah. We went out for almost six months and I really liked hi… Hey! How did you know about that?!"

Janet shook her head sadly. "I was afraid of that. He must have forgot to mention that the sex with me was ten times better, too." As a final gesture of contempt, she stuck her tongue out at Kei.

It took all of Iria and Yuri's strength to restrain the redhead from storming back and twisting Janet into a human pretzel. Unsalted, of course.

Once Kei was calmed down enough for the other women to escort her further into the library and out of sight, Janet slammed the ruined piece of metal into the desktop. She turned to relieve her irritation at the nearest available target.

Taped to the chair, written in a barely legible scrawl was a note. It said: "Emergency root canal. Won't be back for a few days. Places to go. Toby."

At last, Janet's shoulders slumped in defeat and the librarian began hitting her head into the desktop. She should have known better. Now she was learning the lesson so many others had already discovered.

Nowhere was far enough away to be safe from the Dirty Pair.

"I wish I had your people skills."

"Oh, be quiet," Kei snapped back at Iria.

A smile crept across Iria's features despite her fiercest attempts at hiding it. Watching Kei in action had been amusing. Still, she was uncertain if she would have dealt with the situation any better than the troubleshooters had. The librarian had been a royal pain from the moment they had entered the building, though the history she had shared with Kei and Yuri went a long way to explaining it. Had those comments been directed at her, Iria probably would have pistol-whipped the mouthy little bitch.

Once inside the main floor of the library the trio looked about the room in wonder. Numerous shelves stuffed full of written books formed aisles tens of meters long in every direction away from the front. There were at least hundreds of thousands, if not a million books within the building if every floor held the same.

The trio moved to an open area in what they assumed was the center of the building. Looking up they could see the sunlight pouring through the skylight ten floors up. Open stairways led upward to each level that was surrounded by what appeared to be blackened wrought iron railings that would have been more appropriate for an outdoor balcony than the interior of a modern building.

Kei appraised the upper floors. She didn't like railings. It seemed every time she ended up in a shoot-out with people and there were railings nearby, at least several of them ended up plunging over the side after being shot and would die in excessively flamboyant fashion. It was like something out of a cheesy low budget action thriller. Maybe that was what her life had become, save there was no good looking guy waiting for her at the end of the movie, and the outcome was looking increasingly bleak with each progressive year.

The unusual melancholy that threatened her backed off when Yuri let out a low whistle. "Take a look at all of these books. I can't believe they haven't converted them all to disks. Can you imagine how much space they would save?"

A voice drifted from behind a section of shelves. "That is because of specific instructions left by the founder of the library, Mr. Benjamin Dover."

The speaker wheeled into view from the set of library shelves it had been returning books to. All three of the women recognized the model of robot by sight: an AR-10 Manservant Droid. Built low to the ground and having the general shape of a garbage can, the robots only came as high as Iria's chest, the smallest of the women present. There were movable plates on the outside that opened to allow a multitude of slender utility arms to emerge from the main body of the robot. Each limb possessed a different tool that had a specific function. They were a versatile item that had a limited amount of popularity on the open market about five years ago due to their low cost. But since then they had lost what favor they had to newer, more efficient, and less twitchy models that were being manufactured.

"Blech. Don't they have real people here to work the place?" Kei never cared much for robots doing other people's jobs. Part of that was because so many of the darn things had tried to kill her in the past, though she supposed that was a bit biased since far more human beings had tried to kill her than robots. And most of the time the robots were acting under orders from other people. Still, she preferred dealing with human beings rather than machines. Flesh and blood were far more unpredictable and interesting than a robot that only performed whatever functions it was programmed to do.

"There are a handful of security guards, maintenance personnel, and human librarians to deal with certain tasks," the robot explained. "But the majority of work is handled by myself and fellow siblings of the AR series. There are over a hundred of us to deal with the maintenance of books and other materials in the library, as per Mr. Benjamin Dover instructions. He felt we would be more efficient in upkeeping the physical written material within the building than humans would. I am proud to say that during our five year tenure here not one page has even been accidentally creased by myself or any other siblings of my series."

"What was that you were saying about Mr. Dover wanting so many real books here?" Yuri asked. She could not recall the last time she had seen such in incredible sum of written material in one place, except for the forms' center in 3WA headquarters. That building was at least three times as large and packed to the top. Nowadays only collectors, primitive cultures, or traditionalists tended to use or even want written books. Most people found electronic information more convenient. Yuri admitted that was the way things had to be, but she still had a weakness for paying the extra money for a real book now and then, especially for her favorites: harlequin romance novels. Kei had always criticized them as 'corny smut that was better used to wipe your ass with than read,' but Kei was tasteless, so Yuri understood and accepted the completely invalid criticism.

The robot 'cleared' his throat, similar to how Bob usually did to gain the others' attention. "Mr. Benjamin Dover was one of the wealthiest men on the planet, making his fortune from brokering information. When he was towards the end of his life, he decided he wanted a suppository of information that -"

"Wait a minute!" Iria interrupted. "What was that again?"

The robot began repeating what it had previously said. "I said that when he was towards the end of his life, he decided he wanted a suppository of-"

"Hold on," Iria interrupted again. "Do you mean 'repository'?"

The robot processed the information. "Yes. That was it. Sorry about that. Programming glitch."

"I'll say. I think I could do without an information supplement of that kind," Kei giggled.

"Continue," Yuri ordered.

The robot picked up where it had left off. "As I was saying, he decided to create a suppository of information that would benefit everyone. However, he was afraid that there might be some sort of cataclysm that would wipe our ability to employ technology, or somehow eliminate access to the information net. For without the ability to build upon the knowledge of others, the centuries of advancement of civilization could possibly be lost within a generation. So he created hard copies of the information that would more commonly be stored on datadisks. Before you is the greatest suppository of books -"

Kei began giggling. "Hey, Yuri. Why not try their War and Peace enema? I hear it's long, but satisfying, just the way you like it."

"Did I say something humorous?" the robot asked.

"Just continue." Yuri shot Kei a warning glare that seemed to not affect her partner in the least.

The robot did as it was ordered. "Before you is the greatest suppository of books in this section of the galaxy. Mr. Benjamin Dover invested the majority of his billions into the library. It took over a hundred people ten years to track down all of these original books and another three years to restore them to their high quality. Nowhere is there a collection that is as comprehensive or as vast as this. If I was capable of pride, I would be proud to announce that the library is scheduled to be classified as one of the modern wonders of Delabar."

"Ha, ha! I can see it now!" Kei interrupted, barely able to speak between laughs. "Come to Delabar and see the Ben Dover Book Suppository, where you'll leave sore but smarter. WAHAHA!"

Yuri's face turned red in fury at the childish behavior. Before she could say a word, Iria gave a curt, "Knock it off." Much to Yuri's surprise, Kei did so instantly, even going so far as to say she was sorry and placed her hands behind her back in shame. A sincerely contrite Kei was not something Yuri had seen all that often even after a decade of being partners. In a way, it was disturbing to see her acting so docile. But not so much that Yuri failed to wonder if she could do the same thing. She'd have to get Iria to give her some pointers.

This time it was Iria who took charge. "Not to be rude, but you do have computers here linked to off-planet information nets, right?"

The robot almost seemed reluctant to admit it. "Yes. There are banks located on levels five, seven, and ten. But I must recommend you check out a book. It's not often you can have access to so many reading possibilities, and there is little that is as enjoyable as holding a real book."

"Have you ever read one?" Kei asked.

"No," the robot answered.

"Then how would you know if they're enjoyable or not?"

The robot was silent for a moment. Then it began to utter a continuous string of, "I… I… I…" By the time it had hit the twentieth one in rapid succession, it began jiggling and smoke poured out of its top.

"Kei, you moron," Yuri chided. "You've got it stuck in a paradox loop. You know how twitchy AR-10's can be."

"But it's a legitimate question," Kei pleaded.

There was a loud squawk by the robot as flames shot out of the round groove the swiveling top was attached to. Like a rocket at blast off, the head suddenly shot up and into the air and going almost as high as the sixth level before losing its velocity and falling back down, nearly landing on Iria in the process. It bounced once before coming to a stop on the floor.

"It's not my fault," Kei said.

"Yes, it is," Iria and Yuri said simultaneously.

The sounds of people roused by the noise reached the ears of the trio. "Let's get out of here before we're blamed for this one," Kei said as she made for the nearest stairway.

"But you ARE responsible for it," Iria protested as Yuri shot past her too. She watched as the two girls ran up the stairs and disappeared on the fifth level.

Bob suddenly came to life on Iria's wrist. "Are you going to stick around and explain things?"

"Of course not." Iria pulled a small object from a pocket on her weapons belt. She held it straight up in the air, aiming for the underside of the sixth level that was next to the stairway Kei and Yuri had just ascended. She pushed a button on the side and a small spike with a wire thin cable attached to it shot out from the top, traveling upward until burying itself in the metal that composed the ceiling of the fifth level. A second button on the cable climber was pushed and Iria ascended the wire, pulled by the small but incredibly powerful motor inside the device.

Upon reaching the appropriate level, she hit a button that released some slack in the line and allowed her to arc above the railing and land on the fifth floor itself.

"Most people would have simply walked up the stairs," Bob pointed out.

"It's a good thing I'm not like most people then." Iria grinned as she retracted the line and hurried to catch up to her companions.

By the time she arrived they had already sat down next to a terminal: Yuri at the keyboard while Kei was seated in a second chair next to her.

"Allow me," Iria said. Yuri deferred to her and got up so that Iria could sit next to the keyboard, despite the fact she was not going to be the using it. Yuri pulled up a third chair while Iria plugged Bob into the system.

"Now we wait." Iria kicked back in her chair, Kei and Yuri following suit.

Unknown to the trio of women, shortly after Bob first accessed the system and began entering his queries, a certain program flared to life in response to the keywords in the questions. Information was gathered, and a decision was made in less than a second. A multitude of programs became active simultaneously. A security camera pivoted away from the shelves it was pointed at to where the trio was seated. Visual images of the women were captured and their pictures were sent out to another, far larger and faster set of computers located in a building within several miles of the library. Almost instantly more signals were sent across the planet until a match was made at the spaceport with the identities of women and their ship. More information was gathered as off-planet databases were accessed. Theories were extrapolated and were given to the individuals that had activated the program in the first place. A decision was agreed upon less than a minute later, and a message was sent.

The entire process took less than four minutes.

Alan Wierzbaski hurried past the seemingly endless series of identical cubicles until he arrived at the one designated as his, differentiated from its fellow cubicles only by the number engraved on the slot next to the opening to it. Megashorne and Valoxy would not even allow their workers' names to be assigned to their workspace. 'Individuality negatively affects work performance', or so it was stated in one of the endless sea of memos that were circulated to the workers every day.

Alan tossed his trench coat, then his briefcase on one of the few open spaces on his desk and plopped himself down in his chair with an audible thump. The cubicle was cramped with barely enough room for him to work, but at least he could partially stretch out his legs if he pushed the back of the wheeled chair flush with the desktop next to his computer. And he could definitely, one hundred percent plop. He had enough room for that, and when all was said and done, wasn't that all a workingman needed to make him happy?

At least the day wasn't turning out as bad as Alan had feared it would. He had managed to avoid detection by his supervisor (an important man; his cubicle was four inches wider and *Gasp* six inches longer than any of the other worker ants under his command), despite being fifteen minutes late. 'Tardiness Breeds Inefficiency' or so it was stated on one of the other memos that had been sent to him at some point.

A head popped up from around the corner of his cubical. "You're late," the man announced.

Alan gave a sad shake in the newcomer's direction. "My dear Conroy, how many times must I explain it to you? It's like cheating. If they don't catch you, then you weren't late."

"Only because I punched in on time for you," Conroy waved the extra card before Alan's face. "One of these days this little scheme of yours is going to fail when they see you're punched in but not actually present."

Alan smiled. "In the two years we've been doing this have we ever been caught?"

Conroy seemed to relent a little. "No."

"And I've covered for your lard ass too, I might add."

"Okay, okay," Conroy finally relaxed. "Just be careful and don't cut it so close next time."

Shrugging, Alan said, "Couldn't be helped. I managed to pick up a, shall we say, companion that elected to spend the night with me. She was very reluctant to let me go when she awoke this morning." He unleashed a wolfish grin.

Conroy made no effort to hide his jealousy. "I don't know how you manage to pick up so many women. Good looking ones too."

Alan ran a hand through tousled hair. "I'm more slick than you can possibly imagine. I've got moves that have to be seen to be believed."

"Thank god I'm not a woman and have to put up with that crap," Conroy chuckled. "Just don't be late again." He went back to his cubicle, allowing Alan a chance to begin his workday.

"System on," Alan said as sound bafflers activated to deaden the noise coming from his cubicle, (a possible distraction to other workers, as was stated in a memo…) and his computer turned on. He picked up a wire that was connected to the back of the computer and inserted the plug on the end of it into the headjack implanted in the back of his neck. With a direct hookup from his technologically altered brain to the computer, work would be more efficient. That he had a headjack was one of the primary reasons he had been hired at Megashorne and Valoxy in the first place.

"You have mail," the seductive female voice of his computer whispered in his mind. He had programmed it himself. They hadn't regulated the computers' audio systems. Not yet, though it was probably only a matter of time. Some day it too would undoubtedly meet the same fate every other sign of individuality had thus far.

"Show me," he said aloud, though it was unnecessary since he was broadcasting directly from his mind to the interface of the computer.

There was no return address on the message; just an anonymous letter with an attached datafile with it. Alan wasn't stupid enough to open a strange file directly into his mind. Instead, he mentally opened the letter as he prepped his mail program to delete the datafile.

The letter was simple, containing only one sentence.

"It's time for the chimneysweep to dust."

The reaction was instantaneous, almost mechanical in nature. He downloaded the datafile into his mind. As he did so, he opened his briefcase and brought out another data plug. He removed his own, processing the information downloaded in his mind while at the same time inserting the other dataplug and activating the independent program attached to it. All traces of the mail were completely erased from the system. He removed the dataplug and closed his briefcase. Getting out of his chair, he turned off his system and exited the cubical.

Conroy caught sight of Alan as he passed by the cubicle. As quickly as possible without doing himself damage, he removed his own headjack and stuck his head out of the entryway. "Where are you going?" Conroy said as loud as he stared at Alan's rapidly disappearing form.

"I'm sick. Places to go," Alan said without bothering to look over his shoulder at his best friend.

There was no one in the halls as Alan made his way to the elevator. Within moments a car came up, devoid of any occupants. That was good. He had no desire to explain to anyone else why he was leaving work early.

The elevator sped downward, and Alan resisted the urge to tap his foot in impatience. There wasn't much time. The library was only two blocks away, and with the majority of the morning rush traffic gone, it would take him only several minutes to make his way there. After that, he would have to move even more quickly. They could only be stalled for so long before losing patience and trying a different building. Tracking them would be next to impossible then since he would be out of contact with the local master computer.

During the time spent plummeting groundward, Alan began mentally planning the stages of his impromptu assignment, going over all of the information that had been dumped into his mind. Schematics of the library and its defenses were provided. Intelligence on the targets was sorted through. Two 3WA agents and an outer rim bounty hunter; difficult prey under the best of conditions and these were some of the worst. The only thing Alan had going for him was perhaps the most critical factor of all: surprise. That would have to be enough.

As the car came to rest at the bottom he emerged quickly, moving as fast as he could without attracting undue attention. Once outside, he flagged down a taxi, making certain it was driven by a robot instead of a human. Alan was going to have to prepare himself in the cab, and a person would ask too many questions.

The robot gave a pleasant, generic greeting that Alan ignored and asked him for his destination. Giving it in a rough voice, he sat in the backseat and took off his trench coat as the car left the curb and pulled out into the thick, but moving, flow of traffic.

It was time to prepare for the mission. The business suit was discarded, leaving a skintight, slick-surfaced bodysuit with several holsters and a belt of various pouches on his frame. From his suitcase he pushed aside a secret compartment (undetectable to even advanced sensors) and pulled out the handful of weapons placed within. A laser pistol with two extra magazines found its way to the holster strapped under his arm. Strapped to his wrist was a necro-lash and its spring loaded housing. A stiletto, just a simple piece of metal unlike the rest of the equipment, went into a sheath concealed in the calf of the body suit. A multi-optics headband that would enable him to see anything from vast distances to scanning in the infrared or ultraviolet was tucked into the inside pocket of his trench coat, the device would attract too much attention if he wore it outside now.

Then came the more exotic equipment he had requisitioned the last time he had been with the people that were really paying his salary. Several very special circuit boards that could adapt to any standardized computer system were placed within a small pouch on the waist. Those would potentially prove very useful in his plan. And last was a very special surprise, a weapon of last resort should the need arise. It was an experimental unit that his superiors had been reluctant to allow him to possess, but he had convinced them of the need and assured them that it would be best if they allowed the device to be field tested under real combat conditions before it was mass-produced. Hopefully the situation wouldn't come to that, and he would take care of the women with either his initial or primary back-up plan. But, as his instructors had hammered painfully into his mind and body, you could never have too many failsafes, just too few.

By the time the cab pulled up to the library another three and a half minutes had passed. Alan emerged dressed in his trench coat. It was pulled tight across his frame and stopped short of his ankles. As tight as it was it would make him suspicious, but he had no real choice. He had to be ready for combat in an instant, and his orders were clear that everything else, including blowing his cover, was secondary to eliminating the three primary targets. He had no restrictions when it came to succeeding in the mission.

Alan entered the building. According to the library's database there would be a receptionist and security guard in the entryway. A laser pass system would allow access to the library proper. Alan already had an automatic pass under an assumed name from visiting the library on a couple of occasions when he was first assigned to the local branch of Megashorne and Valoxy. It hadn't been the only one. He had visited every building in a three-block radius in order to get a layout of the area and formulate possible avenues of escape. It was what he had been trained to do.

Instead he found a note where the security guard should have been, the pass system damaged, and the receptionist with her head lying on top of the desk. She didn't even look at him as she simply ushered him forward with a wave. A bizarre situation that put him on edge, but things were going his way. He had been prepared to kill the receptionist and guard, then seal the front doors to the building should the need arise. This made things easier. He prayed it would remain that way.

Through row upon row of shelves he passed by, noting how few patrons were here at this time of day as he began searching for something in particular. According to his internal chronometer it had been seventeen minutes and twenty-three seconds since the trio of women first logged onto the system. They would be getting impatient by now, but should still be in the same location. If they could not be detained for a full half hour before abandoning the building, then computer ops were not doing their job and it would not be Alan's fault if he failed in his mission. Besides, he needed to gain additional support. He would not underestimate his opposition. They had to be eliminated.

Within another twenty seconds Alan spotted what he was looking for. He approached the security guard with a questioning gaze, making certain to give a friendly smile. A smile always put others at ease.

"Can I help you sir?" The guard beat Alan to his own question.

"Certainly," Alan said with a relieved look on his face. He made certain his back was between the nearest security camera and the guard. Alan moved close, then placed his hand under his jacket and whipped out his gun, using a subtle motion that should not have drawn attention to anyone, even if they were staring right at the monitor of the camera.

Quickly, Alan spoke before the guard could start babbling or try to take control of the situation. Alan needed to keep him quiet and off-guard. He spoke in a low, menacing voice that was little more than a whisper, yet allowed every word he said to be heard perfectly. "Listen to me carefully. Ask me no questions or I'll kill you right now. If you obey my every command without hesitation I'll let you live. Defy me in any way and you die. Now nod your head if you understand me."

Naked terror in his face, the guard barley managed to do so.

"Good. First relax. No harm will come to you unless you bring it on yourself, and you don't look like the self-destructive type." Alan employed a soothing tone to ease the guard's nerves somewhat. Once the guard seemed to relax slightly, Alan placed the gun in his pocket, obviously keeping it trained on the guard. "Next you will lead me to the control center located on the ground floor. I know where it is so do not try to take anything other than a direct course to there. Once we arrive you will gain me entry and enter the room ahead of me. If someone asks who I am, tell them I am your cousin from Latiyon and you are showing me where you work. Any attempts to betray or delay me in any way and I'll kill you and everyone in this building. Now we go."

The guard started to open his mouth, and was met with a, "Ask me a question and I'll kill you. Now go, and walk as quickly as you can without running. That was your only warning."

The guard, trying his best to keep from screaming out in terror and making a dash for freedom that would only get him killed, led the way to the control center. They left the main interior of the building and went down a long 'Authorized Personnel Only' area of the library. They encountered no other people as they walked down the yellow corridor, eventually arriving outside a centimeters thick metal door that was labeled 'Control Room.' There was a slot for a pass card located next to it, embedded in the wall.

"You will enter first. I will be right behind you," Alan softly intoned, trying not to look at the security camera outside the door and wonder if the guards inside were watching.

Hands shaking, the security guard barely managed to pull out his pass card and enter it in the slot. There was an audible double beep that reminded Alan of the sound his computer made when it first came on. A green light flashed on the unit and the door slid soundlessly to the side. The guard entered the room, Alan moving right behind him.

The two guards inside, each with a cup of some black liquid substance in their hands, looked up in surprise at their visitors. The older of the two spoke, "Hey, Eb'an. What are you-"

No further words left her mouth as Alan, who had remained directly behind Eb'an so the others in the room wouldn't see him clearly, moved to the side, gun out of the pocket and raised in their direction. In the span of less than two heartbeats crimson bolts flashed and sped true, hitting both of the sitting guards in the head. The older one bent forward and slumped to the table top with an audible thump, while the other guard fell sideways and crashed to the floor. His cup broke, the sound producing a muffled *tink* as the ceramic shattered on the metal floor.

Eb'an gave a gasp as he spun in horror, confronting Alan. His eyes widened even more as he saw the barrel of the laser pistol pointed at his face. "But you said you wouldn't kill me," he blabbered, even as he lost control of his bladder and a wet spot formed in the crotch of his mahogany pants.

A half-dozen responses formed in Alan's mind to Eb'an's statement. Rather than saying any of them, he fired. The shot caught Eb'an squarely in the temple, sending his body falling backward. His instructors had been quite thorough in their training about that. If you intend to kill a man, kill him quickly. There was nothing to be gained in toying or speaking to them unnecessarily. Hesitation of any kind only gave the target or one of their allies the opportunity to save themselves or delay you in some way so that you failed in your mission. That was unacceptable.

Alan put another shot in each of the guards' heads before closing the door behind him and moving to the primary computer in the room. His information had been specific about the capabilities of the system and the passwords involved in accessing it. With wasting time, he simply shot off the metal plate to the interior of the machine and pulled out several of the circuit boards, replacing them with the ones he carried. He turned on the system, disabled all of the internal alarms and exterior communications, save at the computers that the women were using. He then went to the robot command protocols and typed in a new set of instructions. That was where his new circuit boards would be most useful, disabling all of the failsafe devices in the robots' design and instantly allowing them to operate with the new set of commands Alan entered. He slaved the robots to a small keypad he carried with him. Typing a brief command in the keypad, he found his order accepted. All was in readiness.

He looked at the security cameras on the fifth floor of the building. All three of his targets were still present and in the exact same position he had expected them to be in. Satisfied that the second step of his plan was now in place, and that he still had time to get to his targets, he exited the room, closing the door behind him and blasting the control pad. It was suspicious, but not as condemning as someone finding three dead bodies in the room.

Moving with the fluid grace of an animal stalking its prey, Alan went to a back set of stairs that lay well out of sight of his targets and rushed up to their floor. The entire layout of the level still resided in the datafile in his mind and the quickest path that would afford him the most concealment was plotted. Pulling out the multi-optics band from its pocket, he placed it on the top of his head and then removed his trench coat and proceeded to stuff it in an open place high on one of the shelves. Leaving it on would be a risk, the long garment possibly catching on something and slowing him down for an instant at the worst possible moment. An instant was the unit of time where life and death resided.

Alan was still in the processes of tucking the garment out of sight when an elderly woman rounded the far end of the shelves about ten feet away. A soft gasp escaped her lips as her eyes fell upon the gun in Alan's holster.

The reaction was instantaneous. Alan brought his arm up and hit a button on the side of the housing unit attached to his wrist. There was a soft, whirring sound as the necro-lash ripped through the air, little more than a white blur. It was not energized as it wrapped itself around the woman's throat and bit deep, preventing her from managing even the soft whisper of a gasp. Had it been powered up, it would have lopped the woman's head off as easily as a molecular blade, but there would have been an accompanying crack and the distinctive odor of ozone had Alan employed that function. Instead, with the metal cord around the unfortunate stranger's throat, he jerked hard, snapping her neck before she could do more than bring her hands up in to her throat in a half-completed, futile gesture of trying to remove the lash from her neck.

Leaving the cord around her neck, he dragged the body towards him and as out of sight as possible between the rows of shelves. A quick look into the main aisle showed no one present to have witnessed the killing.

Now it was more a matter of time than ever. Even as deserted as the library was at this time of day and as far to the back as Alan was on this floor, someone would stumble upon the dead woman soon enough and alert the remaining staff. He had to move fast.

Silently, he maneuvered between the long rows of shelves, moving as quickly as he dared as he drew nearer to the targets. Luck was with him as he encountered no one else and drew into position several meters away from the women, hidden behind another, smaller row of shelves that were common in this section, interlaced between the handful of computer banks present. All three had their backs to him. He identified each in turn: Iria, the bounty hunter was sitting at the computer itself, the troubleshooters, Kei and Yuri, standing to the side in obvious agitation. Their attention was completely riveted to the computer screen, just as Alan had hoped. There had been a few distractions along the way, but overall the plan had held together. Within minutes his job would be completed and he would depart, hopefully without further incident. Then he could hear about his handiwork on the evening news as he waited to receive his bonus for the successful completion of his mission.

The laser pistol cleared its holster as Alan placed his finger on the trigger and brought the gun up in a firing position.

"This is completely ridiculous!" The stress in Bob's usually sedate voice was clear to anyone within ten meters.

"I can't believe how long it's taking either," Yuri muttered under her breath.

Kei no longer felt like complaining, instead her eyes become half-lidded as she considered trying to catch a nap while Bob continued trying to download information. The same information he had tried to get at for the last twenty-five minutes or so. Iria just sat there, irritated and wanting to kick the screen in.

Iria noticed the state Kei was in. "Wake up!" The command was sharp, much sharper than Iria had intended. Rather then apologize, she allowed her irritation to get the better of her and continued. "You can't be that tired. It hasn't even been a half hour."

Kei, awake, said, "You always said you get sleep where you can find it, since you never know when you might not get it later."

"I never said that," Iria replied crisply.

"Um, well, someone did." Kei scratched her head as she tried to remember who it was that always used to tell her that.

Iria went back to staring at the screen.

It had started out easily enough. Bob immediately logged onto the computer and accessed planetary sources to discover any information on the registry of Zeiram's transport spaceship, as well as any updates on Zeiram, the space station, or anything else that seemed peculiar or unusual in this section of space. For the first several minutes, things had gone well with Bob getting no useful information from the planetary resources. It was when he had tried to communicate off-planet that things had slowed to a standstill. At first, it was nearly impossible to get an off-planet link. When they eventually got one, it had given information at an incredibly slow rate. And just as it seemed they might get some possible news on the ship's registry, they had lost their link. It had taken over ten minutes to reestablish it.

"What's keeping it this time?" Iria muttered to Bob.

"Now they're saying sunspot activity is preventing a decent off-planet transmission," Bob said. "But I've never had one slow down things to this degree. If they were decades-old systems, that might be one thing, but this stuff is current hardware. There's no way it should be taking this long."

Just as Iria was about to add a comment the screen flashed blue and text began scrolling at a rate too fast for the naked eye to follow. "It's about time," Iria muttered as she waited for Bob to stop the screen for their benefit should he come across anything useful.

Even Kei sat up and took notice. "Let's see. There we go. That's Intergal's ships systems. Now let's execute a search for the number and, HEY!"

A collective moan went up from the three women and Bob as the screen went dead black once again. There was nothing at all upon it, not even a cursor.

"Now what's the problem?" Iria asked.

"Lost the link again. And not just the off-planet one, but the link to the planetary network as well. I've never had anything like this happen before. Maybe a system crashed somewhere or they're suffering from some sort of virus," he explained, as much anger evident in his voice as the others.

"I say we give it one more shot, then go to another terminal elsewhere," Yuri said. "If that doesn't work we'll go elsewhere on the planet and see if we can have better luck with an uplink there."

"Good idea," Kei agreed, though she would have been happy to leave now and never set foot in the stupid building ever again. And she sure as hell wasn't going to check out any books.

Iria's eyes bored into the screen as she scowled at it in anger. This was one of the reasons she preferred allowing Bob to deal with computer. She couldn't threaten, cajole, or convince the blasted things to work, unlike people. Machines either did what they were supposed to do or they didn't, and unless you really understood the systems, there wasn't much a person could do about it.

She remained staring at the black screen, trying to will it to work. She was concentrating so much at it that, with the way the lights overhead shone off the plastic, she could see everything that was reflected in it. Herself, Kei to the right, Yuri to the left, the man directly behind them, coming from around the shelves and leveling a gun at them.

Decades of battle-honed reflexes took over as Iria lunged out of her chair and to the left, tackling Kei while at the same time lashing out with her right foot lash out and kicking Yuri squarely to the right, the blow hurling the dark-haired agent to the side and behind a nearby computer desk. The momentum built up in the tackle hurled both Kei and Iria towards a row of shelves, one that they would not reach even with the force Iria had hit her companion with. There was the sound of a computer screen shattering, even as the two went backwards and Iria twisted in mid-grasp, placing her body between Kei and the gunman. The sounds of laser blasts filled the air. There was a loud whine next to Iria and she felt the armor above her elbow heat up slightly.

Upon hitting the ground, a blast of air surged from Kei's lungs. Between Iria's tackle and the unexpectedly hard landing, the redhead was left gasping for breath. Without a moment to catch it, let alone try to resist, Kei found Iria's arms go from merely tackling her to wrapping themselves around her waist. Iria forced the two of them to spin across the hard floor, 'steamrollering' as several more laser blasts impacted with the floor where they had just been. The black and white tiles buckled from the blasts, giving off a shattering echo as small pieces flew all around. One hurled sliver of metal caught Kei across the cheek, the nick drawing a tiny trickle of blood as the sliver continued through and lodged in the spine of one of the nearby books.

And then the duo was behind the shelves, temporarily out of the line of fire from the shooter. Iria had given the shelves a cursory evaluation before and judged them to be composed of a sturdy metal and hoped that it and the books that sat on them were powerful enough to stop whatever pistol the gunman was using.

In less than a heartbeat Iria drew a pistol from her belt holster, opting to leave her other hand free rather than drawing a second weapon. There were no immediate following shots, so Iria spared a glance at where she had felt her armor heat up. There was the telltale scoring of where a laser blast had hit it. Judging by the mark, the armor had partially deflected and absorbed the shot that would otherwise have made a deep, painful gash in her left arm, probably knocking it out of action. She'd need to repair the damage later.

A hand fell on Iria's shoulder as Kei sat up and tired gasping out a query. The bounty hunter guessed what the question was. Iria afforded a glance over her shoulder to see that Yuri had already gone into a squatting position behind the computer desk with laser pistol drawn, not yet daring to poke her head from around the side.

Shouting out loudly so Yuri could hear, Iria said, "Gunner in our six! Laser pistol and I couldn't tell its make. Don't know if he has anything else!"

Behind the shelves, Alan mentally threw in a curse as he tried to come up with a new plan of attack. The bounty hunter had not only somehow perceived his attack from behind, but had managed to shove both of the other targets to safety. The sneak attack had yielded him nothing, save perhaps one of the shots hitting the rolling women. And even then he doubted it was debilitating. Even worse, the targets were now separated, making it that much easier to flank him. His situation had gone from ideal to horrendous within less than five seconds. Outmaneuvering them for the kill was going to be difficult.

Outmaneuvering! Of course. He had nearly forgotten his back up plan. He pulled out the mini-computer from its pouch. His fingers moved deftly across the tiny keypad, doing it by touch as he kept his ears and eyes peeled for the sounds of the opposition. In the first several moments he heard the gasping sounds of someone trying to catch their breath. The gasping disappeared as he finished entering the last command. Reinforcements were on their way, but it might take them time to move into position. He had to move now before the women caught him in a crossfire.

Not daring to look around the corner, he gazed at the opposite end of the shelves from which he had attacked. There was another row across the aisle and slightly forward of where he was that would completely hide him from their line of vision, and would afford him a better angle of attack, and perhaps a bit of surprise if they didn't see him change his position.

Taking a chance that even if the women were looking they would not react fast enough, Alan ran on the balls of his feet as fast as he could and leaped across the distance between the rows. He only chanced one look in mid-air in the direction of the women undercover as he hung in high in the air, completely vulnerable to attack. No shots arced towards him, nor were there cries of alarm. As his body went behind the shelves and out of sight, he tucked into a ball, rolled across the ground and came up into a crouch, gun ready. A self-appreciative smile formed on his face. That had been perfectly executed, just as his instructors had taught him during his extensive training several years ago. He hadn't seen any of the women looking around the corner, and the soft padding in his suit had muffled the run and landing so that there was a good chance they were unaware of his change of position. It wouldn't last long, if he was guessing correctly, but it should last long enough.

Deciding to gain even more ground, he darted across a second aisle away from the others. Again he was convinced he hadn't been seen. Going to the far end of the shelves he was now located behind, Alan glanced around the corner, gun brought up to bear. What he saw made him smile.

    The trio of women kept their heads low as they tried to organize themselves and come up with a plan. In spite of what Alan had believed, both Yuri and Iria had heard the sounds of him running, but neither was able to identify what the sound exactly was and just knew that he was 'up to something'. By the time they dared catch a quick glance, Alan was already out of sight in his new position.

Now that Iria had a chance to think, she came to the same conclusion Alan had. The advantage was now on her side. Given that no one else had fired on them since the appearance of the gunman, Iria surmised he was most likely alone. If she was correct, he was outnumbered, most likely outgunned, and was about to be outflanked. The only thing she thought they had to be cautious about was that he didn't manage to take one of them out with some form of suicide attack or from just plain luck.

Not wanting to risk being overheard, Iria made a series of hand signals indicating what she had planned. It was simple, and took only moment for the troubleshooters to understand.

"Let me go," Kei whispered. She loathed the idea of being left behind to give cover fire with Yuri while Iria risked her life by running forward to get a better firing position on the shooter, hoping to either kill him or force him from his cover so that either she or Yuri would get him.

Iria whispered back, "I present a smaller profile and my armor will protect me from any glancing shots."

"I still think I should go," Kei insisted.

"You're also a better shot than me. I trust you to keep his head down while I'm out in the open."

"Well, there is that," Kei reluctantly admitted. Not that Iria was a bad shot, unless her marksmanship had slipped over the last few years, but Kei was still one of the most accurate shooters the 3WA had.

Iria patted Kei's shoulder affectionately. "Then it's settled. Keep his head down and get ready to pop him when I flush him out."

Reluctantly, Kei assented. Yuri nodded to let them know she was ready. Kei went to the far end of the shelves and around them, partially abandoning her cover so that she would have a slightly better angle at hitting their mysterious assailant. Kei would cover the section closest to Iria; the most likely place that the gunman would fire from. There was an increased risk involved for Kei to even partially reveal herself, but there was no way she would allow this creep to come close to injuring her mentor. She'd sooner let herself be shot than allow that to happen.

Yuri popped up from behind her the computer desk and pointed her gun at the shelves. Iria had her own pistol out and tensed up, ready to run. Taking a deep breath to calm herself, Iria nodded once and started to run.

    What unbelievable luck. From Alan's position, he could not make out either the bounty hunter or the dark-haired 3WA troubleshooter, but the redhead was plain for him to see. She had moved dangerously far from her cover to aim in the direction of his former position. Just as he had thought, his maneuver had been successful. With his target concentrating so intently on where she was aiming she didn't even cast a look in his direction. It was going to be too easy.

Alan was about to shoot when Kei opened fire first. For a moment he panicked, thinking she had spotted him, but one look showed she wasn't firing anywhere near his current position. Wanting to get a clear shot and leaving no doubt that he would take out one of the targets this time, he left nearly his entire cover, similar to what Kei had just done. From this new position he was much more, though not completely, in the open, but now Kei had no cover she could get to before he fired, even if she spotted him at that exact moment.

He lined the redhead up in his sights as his finger tightened on the trigger.

Just as Alan was about to squeeze of a shot, a second target came into his line of sight from a slight distance beyond Kei. Identification was instantaneous: it was a security guard, weapon drawn and looking in surprise in Alan's general direction as he tried to assess the situation. Reflexes took over as Alan switched targets and aimed for the guard's center mass. Twice he fired, both blasts catching the guard fully in the chest. They were obviously fatal wounds as the man reeled backward from the hits. Alan pushed the guard out of his mind as reacquired his first target, who was only just now reacting to what had happened. There was still no time for Kei to move as the sights were lined up on her once again.

    As much concentration as Iria was pouring into the row of shelves before her, watching for the gunman should he choose to reveal himself and try to shoot her while she was out in the open, she still caught the sight of the crimson laser blasts originating somewhere to her right; a location that should have been clear of any fire from both friends and foes. She looked fully in that direction, more concerned about the possible unknown threat than the known one. It took only a second for her to see all that she had to. It was the same gunman, his laser pistol pointed in a direction that only one person lay.

"NOOO!" Iria shouted at the top of her lungs as she felt a fear that might have been more powerful than anything else in her life. There wasn't time to properly aim, so instead she settled for shooting in the man's direction and snapped off several quick shots, praying they would be enough to throw his aim off.

The first blast struck the shelves about a foot above the Alan's head. Sparks were thrown up from the laser impacting against the metal, and fell on some of the books. A second caught the middle of the laser pistol, hitting right above the trigger. The rest went wild, not coming close to the man.

Finding himself unexpectedly under fire, Alan darted back under cover rather than risk a shot at Kei. Hoping the move would buy him a few moments, he examined the condition of his gun. Melted metal and open wiring told him all he needed to. With a snarl he tossed the useless weapon aside and activated his necro-lash, this time charging it up. He considered employing the experimental weapon, but quickly pushed it from his mind as he found himself reluctant to 'test' it in the field now. It would be better to rely upon something he was familiar with than to risk it all with something he was uncertain would even work.

    Yuri was confused. For some odd reason Iria had broken off her run and fired several shots in another direction, unmindful of the fact her true target was supposed to be in front of her. She began to wonder if there really was a second opponent when one of the AR-10 robots rolled up the aisle and stopped right next to where she was crouched behind the desk.

"Go away!" Yuri hissed. "We're in the middle of a firefight! I'll check a book out later." She returned her attention to Iria and tried figuring out exactly what was going on.

The robot remained where it was and stated in clipped tones. "You have a book that is three years overdue. The late fee for that is death."

The words registered with Yuri just in time as she saw a blur come from out of the corner of her vision. She ducked and the robot's shock arm, a device used to eliminate rodents and other vermin, struck the back of the desk right where Yuri's head had been. Judging by the small shower of sparks kicked up by the contact and the sharp smell of ozone, the dark-haired woman judged the shock arm to be somewhere near its maximum power, perfectly able to crispy-fry her. Ordinarily, civilian production model robots were programmed to be incapable of harming a human being, even the glitchy AR-10's, but it would still be Yuri's luck to find the one that was programmed to believe books were more important than people's lives.

Yuri stopped wondering what was wrong with the robot as a second arm shot forward from its concealed housing inside the main body. Yuri forcefully threw herself on her back as a whirring, cutting blade arced to where her face had been but a moment before. Now prone on her back, Yuri was finally able to bring her gun up as she fired five times at point blank range into the AR-10. The first three hit it in the main body, blasting through the metal and melting both circuits and wiring within. The remaining two hit its inverted bowl-shaped head, destroying half of the rounded top.

"Geez, Yuri. What did you say to that one?" Kei called out from her position behind the shelves once more. Iria had saved her life, but was now out of her sight. Kei was worried about her and would have charged forth if it hadn't been for the robot's unexpected attack on her partner.

"I didn't say anything! It thought I had an overdue book and tried to kill me!" Yuri shouted at the top of her lungs.

"Wow. I guess they take their literature pretty seriously around here." Kei whistled, impressed. Maybe she should get a library card for here after all.

Yuri again shouted, "What I want to know is if this is the only one or KEI, LOOK OUT!"

Kei threw herself to the side as a shock arm hit the shelves, nearly striking her. Again sparks flew up, this time catching onto several books that were resting right below the impact point and causing the pages to start burning. Kei reacted instantly as she gave a hard kick to the top of the robot. Its balancers unable to compensate for the sudden force, the robot fell backward, bearing a strong resemblance to a kicked over trashcan. The imagery was reinforced as Kei pumped multiple blasts into its body, the insides of the robot spilling out onto the floor from the huge chunks of its exterior that the redhead blasted out of it.

"This is why I hate robots," Kei spat.

"I think we can now safely assume it's not a glitch and that someone's reprogrammed them." Yuri saw two more of the machines dart from a position farther down the aisle and wheel their way towards her and Kei's position.

Another one came at them from the side and forced Kei to open fire. She was beginning to get worried. Not so much for herself, but for Iria, who was now on her own. True, the bounty hunter had done all right operating alone for years, but that did nothing to assuage Kei's fears. If anything happened to Iria while she was dealing with a pack of rolling garbage cans, she was never going to forgive herself.

    Making herself flat against yet another row of shelves, Iria took her eyes off where she thought the gunman had darted to see what Kei and Yuri were shooting at. It took only a moment to figure out what was going on as she saw another robot reduced to expensive debris under the women's concentrated fire. Returning her attention to her former opponent, Iria made a mental note to shoot any of the AR-10's that tried to get close to her.

The gunman was the one behind the robots sudden spree; of that Iria was certain. Hopefully, killing him would end their rampage. If not, then the repair bill for the library was going to be even more substantial than it already was. But there were more important thing to be concerned about than money, like her continued health.

Slowly, Iria began to creep closer to where she thought the man had disappeared. She was no more than a couple of meters to the adjacent aisle when she detected the scent of ozone in the air. There was a soft whirring noise that sounded familiar, but that Iria was unable to identify. It was right on the tip of her tongue, but still it wouldn't come to her. That was annoying, she hated it when a memory was tantalizingly out of reach. The noise did have the effect of causing her adrenaline to rush. Instinctively, she ducked just as a white blur surrounded by a luminescent azure glow whipped over her head and through the shelves she was behind as easily as cutting through water. Six centimeters lower and it would have done the same to the top of her head. And then it came to her.

"I've got it: a necro-lash."

Iria was greatly relieved that she had finally managed to remember what the weapon accompanying the sound was.

She was not so relieved when the severed portion of the shelves landed on top of her.

Alan was quick to take the advantage. He kept the lash back, prepared to use it again as he ran forward to see the results of his handiwork. He was rewarded by the sight of Iria lying there, prone on her back with the shelves pinning her down, covering a third of her body. Her gun was lying next to her, just within reach.

Iria spotted and recovered the sidearm just in time to see the necro-lash descend towards her. She fired upward, luck as much as skill playing a role as she hit the lash in mid-swing, deflecting it wide so that it spun backward and made a diagonal slash across another section of shelves and caused it to fall to the ground.

Unable to bring his own weapon into play for a moment, Alan found the pistol suddenly aimed in his direction. Rather than retreating, he did the unexpected and went on the attack. Narrowly avoiding a shot that nearly parted his hair on top, he jumped in the air and landed upon the section of shelves on top of Iria. Her armor partially absorbed the impact, jarring her rather than winding her but making a second crimson bolt go wide. She didn't get a third shot as Alan kicked the gun out of her hand, sending it flying several meters away. However the kick, administered from the top of an uneven surface that was balanced on top of another uneven, and moving surface, caused Alan to pinwheel his arms in an effort to stay upright, the lash curling dangerously about through the air. It was a futile gesture, as he went tumbling from the top of the shelves and to the floor, nearly severing his own arm with the necro-lash.

Unable to extricate herself from the shelving, Iria wasted no further time as she went to her belt and tried pulling out the nearest weapon she had which could combat the necro-lash. She was rewarded when hands fell on the handle. But when she tried to pull it out, she felt resistance and discovered it too was partially pinned by the shelves. From where she lay she could see her opponent recovering his balance and turning towards her. He leaped back several feet so that he could get the distance necessary to utilize his necro-lash properly. Using all of her strength, Iria managed to pull the weapon out just as her opponent's weapon descended towards her unprotected head.

There was a play of light as the necro-lash met a long, whip-like coil of metal spikes, the two weapons becoming entangled with one another. Alan tried to draw back his weapon but they were lashed together too well. Unwilling to abandon his next to last offensive weapon, he maximized the retraction on the housing unit and drew back with all of his strength, determined to rip Iria's bizarre weapon out of her grasp if nothing else. The strain caused Iria to grimace as her arm was pulled taunt by the force used against her. For a moment it appeared the handle would slip out of her grasp, but instead she held on until, rather than her weapon coming free, she did as Alan's strength succeeded where hers alone had not and he pulled her out from under the shelves.

A tactical error, he realized. Luckily, by hitting the extension on the necro-lash he had the slack to disentangle his weapon. Still lying on her back, Iria reacted by grabbing a tiny rod, barely twice the size of a coffee stirrer, attached to her shoulder armor and throwing it at her opponent. Just as it left her hand two smaller pieces sprung out from the top and formed a tiny propeller, spinning around and stabilizing its flight as it headed toward its intended target.

Alan recognized the particularly nasty device as a 'Boom Cutter.' Its specially treated propellers would burrow into an object, working its way to the insides a moment before exploding. He barely got his head out of the way in time as it whizzed past, the wake from its passage tickling the tiny hairs along his ear. The sound of the propellers digging into the ceiling tile lasted only a moment before an explosion detonated the ceiling nearly above him, pelting him with debris and forcing him to cover his head.

The pieces were still falling when Iria used her free hand to dig a small oval device from her belt, an open flame lit on the top. Alan's eyes widened as he recognized the fire grenade. There was no time to dodge, so instead he swung at it with his necro-lash, catching it in midair and severing it in half.

Flames burst forth in a balloon-like explosion. The premature detonation halved the strength of the blast, forcing both warriors to cover their faces as they allowed the force of the explosion to blow them backward and take them out of the miniature firestorm rather than be consumed by it.

Stunned for but a moment, Alan lay on his back, out of Iria's sight, and assessed the damage from the blast. He had been closer and taken the worst of it, at least bruising some ribs if not breaking them outright. Moreover he lacked the armor Iria wore, meaning she was almost certainly in better shape than him, as well as obviously being better armed. There had been no mention in the woman's dossier of being a walking arsenal.

The sound of something crackling at his wrist caught his attention. His guts knotted deep as he looked down to see that the housing unit for the necro-lash had been cracked open, either from explosion of landing. A quick check showed the weapon useless. Cursing in silence he hit the manual release of the weapon and let it fall to the ground. He was down to only one offensive weapon left, just a standard stiletto.

Now he had a choice. There was a chance he could escape. Then he could report what had happened and hope to be left in the field despite his failure. It was possible; his employers despised wasting any resource. And even if he were demoted it would only mean a pay cut and no chance of ever advancing again unless he fell into favor with a superior who would elevate him to a field operative once again.

But no. Pride prohibited him from accepting failure as an option. Win or lose, he would gamble with his life and hope his skills were enough to pull him through. Either that or get extremely lucky, though he had always been of the opinion luck was one of his many skills. It was time to put that theory to the ultimate test.

Smoke filled the air and the room became hotter as the incendiary device had done its work too well despite being muted. All too combustible books had caught on fire around and the flames were spreading, creating a miniature inferno. The configuration of the battlefield had changed, more in his favor than Iria's. It might be enough to allow him to complete his mission. It had to be.

It was time to risk using the prototype. In theory, activating it should be no problem for it had worked in the testing facilities. But that had been under ideal conditions, and one of the suspected drawbacks of the device was that it wasn't very durable. After being hammered in the explosion and with all of the other combat it had seen in the last couple of minutes (an eternity, to Alan's perceptions), it would take a minor miracle for the device to still be operational.

It took Alan a moment to come to the realization that all of his fears were pointless. Either the device would work or it wouldn't. Hesitation forgotten, he retrieved the circular object from its pouch on his belt and placed it on the ground. Satisfied it was stable, he activated it.

Complete darkness sprang into being in a thirty-foot radius.

It had worked! The darkness field would absorb all visible light both within and without its field of effect. Artificial or natural, nothing would be seen as long as the field was active. However the same did not apply to the non-visible spectrums.

Alan dropped his multi-optics headband over his eyes. Instead of being rewarded with a view of a red-tinted world, there was nothing but blackness. This time a curse did escape his lips. How stupid he was to not have checked the optics headband out before activating the unit. It had probably been damaged in the explosion as well. Now he was blind. He was as helpless as his opponents.

At least, until he remembered to switch the headband on.

The world came into focus as he switched the band to infrared. That was a bad sign. He was starting to forget his training and panic. A deep calming breath relaxed him. Now he had to move quickly. The 'blackout' would last only a couple of minutes at most due to the small size of the portable unit and the tremendous amount of power it used. A pity once turned on there wasn't enough charge left to turn it off and back on. Another drawback to the unit, but it was up to the weapons development division to work through the limitations of the item. All Alan had to do was use the toys they made.

Silently, he pulled his stiletto from his boot and crept forward, fighting back the hiss of pain his ribs urged him to make. He saw Iria instantly. She was just turning away as she gave her back to him, and then remained motionless in the dark, the long whip with the sharp metal pieces along its length still in her hand. Alan thought perhaps she was trying to locate him by sound, but it wouldn't work. There was the crackling of fires from all around, debris still raining down from the earlier explosion, and even the sounds of lasers being shot and robots exploding coming from where Kei and Yuri were. Iria had no hope of hearing him until the stiletto buried itself in her.

Alan's mind turned to the other targets as he drew closer. He had a suspicion they were still outside the blackout field, judging by the sounds of robots being reduced to spare parts. After dispatching Iria, he would have to pat her down and see if she had another decent weapon. If nothing else, he thought he knew where her sidearm had fallen. He was confident he could recover it before the field collapsed. Then he could use his optics to sight in Yuri and Kei and shoot them from the safety of the darkness. Both of the troublesome troubleshooters would be dead before they knew what had happened.

Mentally he planned his attack. The armor was far from all-encompassing. It would be a simple matter to drive the knife through Iria's unprotected neck from behind. All he had to do was remain quiet and it would be over in a matter of seconds.

He approached within an arm's length of the target and drew back his arm. He was surprised that he felt a pang of remorse about killing Iria from behind instead of in a frontal assault. His training was supposed to have driven such useless concepts as honor from his conscience. Dreams of his bonus and a promotion quickly dispelled the remorse, and he would kill her quick. That would assuage his conscience. It would all be over in one strike

It took Alan a moment to understand just how true that statement was as Iria snapped her wrist. The whip with the metal pieces straightened out and locked together, instantly becoming a seamless sword of metal that she raised as she pivoted on her heel and brought it unerringly up to Alan's neck. His eyes widened in shock for one brief moment as he saw Iria's face, suddenly remembering one very important, and fatal, fact he had forgotten in the heat of the moment.

The goggles that had been resting on Iria's head, the ones with the infrared lenses of their own, were now strapped across her face.

The sword sliced through Alan's neck as easily as it had through air. His head went flying as his body went limp and fell to the ground, the knife falling from his lifeless grasp.

Iria released her held in breath. It was over, just as she had planned. When everything went dark her first instinct had been to drop her goggles over her eyes. Instantly she was able to see everything, including the gunman holding the stiletto in his hand. Iria decided to save some trouble and pretended not to see him, allowing him to become overconfident and draw close so that she could kill him in one stroke.

Iria looked down contemptuously at the body. Her voice was as cold as a vacuum as she spat, "That's for trying to kill Kei, you bastard."

They were the first words spoken since the fight began and the last. Iria turned from the blood pooling beneath the corpse and ran back to where she heard her comrades continued fire. Through her own infrared vision she saw Kei and Yuri had maneuvered back to back and were blasting away at the remaining robots. Actually, it appeared to be more of a mopping-up operation as there were only three left. The poor rolling hunks of metal couldn't even get close to their targets due to the number of their fellow robots that were already piled up in front of the Dirty Pair.

Iria waited until the last of the robots had fallen before shouting out, "Don't shoot! It's me coming out of this dark stuff!"

The duo kept their pistols pointed in the voice's direction until they saw Iria walk out from the field of darkness, which disappeared several seconds after she emerged from it.

"The shooter?" Kei asked.

"Dead," Iria confirmed

"Too bad you didn't take him alive," Yuri said. "It would have been useful interrogating him so we might have some idea of what just happened here."

Iria grimaced slightly. Yuri was correct. Capturing him alive should have been a priority and she could have done it if the gunman had been reduced to using a knife to try and stab her. She had let her emotions get away from her in decapitating the man, but she had trouble feeling guilty about it. If Iria had been even a second later Kei would have most likely been dead. The bounty hunter was surprised at the rage she still felt, even with their assailant dead.

"Like a mother bear defending its cub," Iria mused.

"What was that?" Yuri asked.

"Nothing," Iria quickly said as she moved closer to Kei. Masking it as best she could, she looked Kei over for any injuries, knowing well enough that showing too much concern about her health would only serve to embarrass the redhead.

"They must have bought these things wholesale." Kei kicked one of the fallen robots hard. She turned to Yuri. "I nailed eighteen of them."

"I got sixteen," Yuri sighed.

"That means I win. You owe me dinner" Kei gave Yuri a 'V for victory' sign that was only matched by the wide grin that accompanied it.

"I never agreed to that!" Yuri shouted back.

"Um, guys," Iria interrupted.

"What?" Kei asked as she shot Yuri a glare that promised the discussion was not over.

"This entire floor seems to be on fire." Iria pointed in the direction that she had come from. The whole area was covered in flames that were not only spreading across the floor, but moved up through the hole in the ceiling that Iria had created with her Boom Cutter, and were now setting the above level on fire as well. Perhaps using an incendiary grenade had not been an ideal choice of weapon after all.

"Why hasn't the fire prevention system kicked on yet?" Kei asked.

Yuri pointed at the robots. "I think they were the fire prevention system. I saw extinguishing foam kick up from a couple I blasted."

"That's just great!," Kei snapped as she gazed upon her handiwork with less admiration that before. Their extensive firefight with the robots had ended up setting everything behind them on fire as well. "I think we've learned all we can from here." Kei quickly mentioned

"I agree," Iria said, feeling the temperature rise to uncomfortable levels.

"The stairs we came up were from back there, right?" Kei asked as she pointed at a living wall of flames.

"Afraid so," Yuri said. "And the nearest ones to those were a good way in that direction." She pointed at the section that Iria had just come from, which was also engulfed in flames, a pyromaniac's delight.

"Told you we should have brought jet backpacks," Kei said.

"How was I to know we'd end up trapped in a burning building?!" Yuri waved her hands in the air emphatically. No way was she letting Kei stick her with this one.

Oddly, Kei did not seem that concerned. "Well, we can still make our way to the open area in the middle of the floor." She pointed in one of the few directions where there were only a handful of growing fires.

"We're five floors up!" Yuri protested. "What are we going to use to break our fall, your boobs?"

"Don't get snappy at me just because I have the nicer chest," Kei shot back. "And anyway, it's Iria that's going to save us."

Yuri looked at Iria. "I don't see how. Her chest is smaller than mine."

"Hey!" the bounty hunter snapped. She might have been quite satisfied with the way she was built, but was as defensive as the next woman when it came to her appearance being insulted.

Kei sighed. "She has a cable climber with her. She never goes anywhere without it. She'll just lower us down herself."

"That'll work." Iria nodded in agreement to the plan. The trio raced through the ever-increasing veil of smoke, coughing hard, as they made their way to the edge of the railing and looked over the side.

"All clear." Iria shot her miniature cable climber into the ceiling as she had before and prepared to jump over the railing. "Who goes first?"

Yuri looked back at the flames that were drawing closer. It was amazing how easily books seemed to catch on fire. Another good reason to convert everything to datafiles. "I don't know that there's going to be enough time to go up and down twice."

"Yeah," Kei agreed as she began coughing. "Just take us down together. We don't weigh that much."

"Riiight," Iria slowly said as the girls grasped onto her. Tensing up, Iria pushed the cable climber's pull to maximum as the trio jumped over the edge of the railing and to the ground below.

The descent went without incident and they gently sat down on the ground floor. Kei and Yuri detached themselves from Iria. The bounty hunter remained were she was, arm still raised high in the air.

"What's wrong?" Kei asked, concern in her voice.

"Just trying to get my arm back in its socket." Iria grimaced as the duo shot her a pair of dirty looks. "Relax. It's a joke." Not much of one though. Kei and Yuri were definitely heavier than they looked, not that Iria would breathe a word of that with the evil stares she was getting. As skilled as she was, there was such a thing as tempting fate.

Kei's gaze softened first as she was unable to retain her anger. "Do you think they're going to be able to save the building?"

"Surely at least the lower floors," Yuri said, filled with hope, though she was no expert in fire prevention. Causing them yes, stopping them, not quite. "Fire likes burning upward, right? So there's a chance it won't all burn down. As long as the main floor stays intact."

"Umm, Yuri?" Kei said.


"Did that first robot we ran into say how many of them ran this joint?"

"It said somewhere over a hundred, as I recall. Why do you…" Yuri trailed off as the question was answered for her.

A series of AR-10s, at least fifty, began emerging from the shelves all around, mechanical arms at the ready. Within moments the women found themselves completely surrounded.

"Oh, hell." Yuri just gave up as Iria handed both her and Kei incendiary grenades.

"I don't think they're going to give us a library card now, no matter how nice we ask."

"Shut up, Kei," Yuri said, fretting over yet another mark that would be set against them as she stood outside and watched the fire consume the remnants of the Benjamin Dover Library, which would only be a modern wonder of Delabar if they had a fascination with overly-large piles of kindling.

"At least that number-crunching bitch is out a job," Kei said with a smile. Curiously, that fact made Yuri feel better too. It served the girl right for having their salaries cut.

"We'd better leave before the authorities get here and start asking questions we don't want to answer," Iria said. After fighting off another wave of robots (and incidentally making certain the building was history by starting a huge fire on the first floor) they had searched until they were sure no one else was left in the building. It hadn't taken long as it might have, considering everyone had cleared out when the first firefight broke out. Imagine that.

Firefighting units had been the first ones on the scene and made certain the fire didn't spread to any other buildings. Or to be more specific any buildings other than the two next to the library that were now also burning. Apparently Zanibat needed to improve their building codes if that was all it took to set their downtown district ablaze, Yuri noted.

The sounds of sirens indicated law enforcement officials were about to arrive, and Iria had no desire to stay with them the next several days for questioning. Zeiram still had to be located and killed, and thus far the trip to Delabar had only wasted time and raised more questions.

"I don't feel like explaining to headquarters yet what we're doing out here, either," Yuri and Kei agreed as the three soot-covered women attempted to surreptitiously leave the area.

Once satisfied they had avoided any casual identification, the trio relaxed. Yuri was the first to speak up. "Who do you think it was that attacked us?"

"No one I recognized," Iria admitted. She had been the only one to get a decent look at their opponent.

"We've got a lot of people out for our hide." Kei kicked at a soft drink can someone had discarded on the street.

"But how did he find us?" Yuri asked. "It's not like anyone knew we were heading here. There's no way he came from off planet. Even if he found out who we were the instant we landed, there wasn't enough time."

"Definitely a professional too," Iria commented. There weren't that many people that could put up a fight with her like he had.

"Too many professional killers have been popping up lately," Kei said in frustration, recalling the ambush she had fallen for during her first visit on the space station. "Only one to take us on. Not the best odds in the world, especially with our reputations. Makes you wonder if he was working alone or if he was the only guy around good enough to try to kill us. Also makes you wonder if this is connected to Zeiram or not." Kei looked in the direction of Iria's wrist. "Got any ideas, Bob?"

"Maybe," Bob admitted. "I think I have an idea, but I need to access planetary information."

"I don't know," Yuri said slowly. "Remember what happened the last time we tried that."

"I do. This time I'm going to be more careful. It doesn't need to be anything sophisticated. Just get me to a downlink to a current information site."

Having no better ideas, the trio agreed. They entered a nearby store that offered current local information services, paid a small fee, and inserted Bob into the system. Within a moment he stated in a voice that told them his suspicions were confirmed, "I just checked the current weather reports. There is no noticeable sunspot activity today."

"So what?" Kei asked, confused at first, but then recalling what Bob had been saying right before the ambush. "Oh, I get it. Someone managed to control the information we were getting at the library."

A pallor cast over Yuri's features. "That isn't good. That means not only was this guy not working alone, but something big is maneuvering things. That was a public facility. The ability to interfere with its access as quickly as they did is next to impossible."

"Don't forget, there's also how they were able to locate and sic that thug on us so quickly," Iria pointed out.

"I may have been partially to blame for that." Bob admitted reluctantly. "I did a widespread search for anything relating to Zeiram, the DX-11000 space station, attacks on any local planets, and that mysterious ship's registry. Anyone monitoring for any of those keywords would have located our position in a heartbeat. I should have been more cautious."

"It could have happened to anyone," Kei said in an attempt to assuage his wounded pride. "And since this is the nearest inhabited world to the station, they could have been keeping a real close eye for any potential survivors or witnesses and had everything in place to silence them. Hey! What if they're tracking us again?" Kei looked at Bob again.

If Bob had a head, he would have shaken it. "Give me some credit. I do learn from my mistakes. I made sure to be subtle this time, using a fake electronic ID and just asking for a general download. There shouldn't be any way for them to track us right now. And next time I'll be on guard for any potential interference and see if I can backtrack it down to its source. If they try to stop us a second time they'll be in for a rude surprise. I'll probably get more conclusive information from them instead of the search."

Iria shook her head at the implications. "But still, it means whoever it is we're dealing with has considerable resources on this planet if they tracked us, electronically prevented us from getting the information we needed, and had at least one person stationed here waiting to silence us before we could tell anyone what's happened."

Yuri was grateful for the help. Usually she was the one who had to think things out like that. "Now we have a choice. Do we stick around and see if we can uncover what's going on or keep trying to find Zeiram? And do we tell our superiors about what's really happening out here, or do we still keep a tight lid on it? I'm leaning towards sticking around and letting the 3WA in on this, but I'm going to leave it up to you guys."

"If we bring in the 3WA, it might cause whoever's behind this to go to ground. We might never find out what's going on," Kei pointed out.

"Or it might them to get real desperate," Iria added. "They had one guy willing to destroy a building to get to us and kill whoever else got in his way. If we up the ante, they might as well. As long as we keep this small, they might feel the same way too."

"Oh, that never happens," Kei assured her. Lord knew she had enough experience in such situations. Escalating conflict was practically her and Yuri's middle names.

Iria shrugged. "At the very least, I agree with Yuri about staying here and looking for clues. We'll have to be extra cautious since poking our noses around is probably going to alert the opposition. But we don't have much choice. It's not like we have anywhere else to go."

A loud beeping came from Kei and Yuri's communicators. The two looked at each other in confusion, and then answered the signal.

Their tiny view screens popped on to show a picture of Mughi in the cockpit of the Lovely Angel. He was waving his paws in the air emphatically as he gave a low series of growls and hisses.

"Damn it, Kei!" Yuri hissed. "I told you to clean out his litter box before we left. If he crapped on my bed again, I'm going to kill you myself and save our friends some trouble."

"But I did," Kei insisted. She turned and addressed the view screen. "This isn't about your litter box, is it, Mughi?"

Mughi shook his head and pushed several buttons on the communications console. A moment later, an audio signal was sent to the communicators as a light, female voice began singing:

%~ Fly me to the moon ~% %~ and let me play among the stars ~% %~ Let me see what spring is like on Jupiter and Mars ~%

Kei and Yuri looked at each other, then back at the tiny screen. Yuri said, "Well, the song is nice, Mughi, but I really don't think we have time to listen to something as overplayed as that."

"Besides, I have at least eight different versions of it on 'The Best of Ayanami' soundtrack I own. All you have to do if you want to hear it is ask," Kei said.

Mughi shook his head furiously and fiddled with the controls. The music abruptly stopped as a much more authoritative voice said. "-telling you we can't seem to get any response from the mining operation on Asteroid K12. Patrol 54, do a swing by there when you do your rounds. It's probably just a communications breakdown again, but we agreed to help keep an eye out on them."

"Do you want us to head straight out there or complete our rounds by sector 81?" a different voice asked.

The first voice replied, "Complete your rounds first. One missed check in is not an emergency. Besides, there's been reports of smugglers going through sec 81. The chief wants to make sure it is just a rumor. He's been taking some heat from the world council over them. And if you encounter any, make sure you call for back up. I don't want any hotshots trying to bite off more than they can chew. Especially from you two."

"But, sir. We can handle a group of penny-ante smugglers-" came a protest that went unfinished as Mughi turned the tape he had recorded off.

"You've been monitoring the inter-planetary police bands. Good boy, Mughi. Extra chow for you when we get back to the ship," Kei promised. She'd even make certain to clean his litter box out this time, which she would have done in the first place if they had had more time.

"It might be just a communications breakdown," Yuri said. She was trying to keep the others from putting too much hope into the potential lead, even knowing all the while that she would fail.

Iria settled things as she broke out into a quick run. "Let's go! We have to get moving if we want to get there before Zeiram leaves."

Yuri sighed as Kei shouted, "Wait for me," and tried to catch up to Iria without giving the raven-haired troubleshooter so much as a backward glance. Between what had happened with the space station and the library, there could no longer be any doubts. It had spelled out things beyond a shadow of a doubt.

It had turned into another one of 'those' missions again.

"I'm almost getting too old for this," Yuri sighed as she shouted at Kei to wait up because of her bad leg.


To be continued.

Author's notes: Yep, this is turning out to be a little longer than I originally thought. Still, hope you stick around for the ride.

Chapter 4
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