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Chapter 4

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.

The sound of static reminded Iria of someone crinkling an empty candy wrapper into a ball right before they tossed it in a nearby garbage can. The noise awakened her from the half-dream state she had drifted off to, one she could not remembered entering. It took a moment for the return of full cognizance, and the understanding that the crackling sound was that of a transmission over the intercom. She sat upright in the pilot's seat, her hand darting over to the communications panel of the 'Creeper V' and hitting the transmit button. "What was that?" All she had caught was something about coming over to the 'Lovely Angel.'

Complete static was all that met her in response. Deeply concerned, she rose out of her seat and went to the corridor that now connected the two ships and made her way over to the much larger 3WA transport. Once in the corridor, she paused to watch the stars flash by, each trailing a long streamer of light as the ships bypassed the more conventional laws of the universe by traveling through hyperspace. For a moment, Iria was struck by a sensation similar to vertigo, but the feeling passed by quickly and the universe returned to normal for her.

"Weird," she murmured as she punched the code in the control pad that opened the Lovely Angel's airlock and proceeded to enter the ship. A momentary whim caused her to make a quick stop by Kei's quarters. There was nothing there, save an enormous mess that reminded Iria that no matter now much Kei grew up, there were still some things that never changed.

Deciding it would be best to discover the reason for the strange transmission and the lack of communication afterwards, Iria made her way directly to the cockpit of the ship. Nothing appeared out of the ordinary on her way there. The door opened with its expected hiss, and from where Iria stood in the doorway, she could see from behind that both pilot and co-pilot seats were occupied, the mass of black and red hair each respective women possessed sticking up over the tops of the headrests.

"Why did you want me to come over to the ship?" She proceeded forward, preferring to talk face-to-face. Upon moving next to the chairs, Iria noted that would prove to be a difficult task, considering that there was nothing but a mangled mess of blood, bone and gore where their faces had been but hours before.

Curiously, Iria's only reaction was a feeling of detached revulsion rather than the outright loss of all bodily functions, horror, and complete psychological breakdown that she would have predicted upon something like this happening.

Almost casually, Iria backed away from the lifeless bodies. A sound from behind caught her attention, and she turned in its direction.

He emerged from the shadows that gathered towards the rear of the bridge. The darkness seemed to move away from the figure as much as he moved from it. The inky blackness retreated first from his feet, then worked its way up over his white and black outfit until his face stood revealed at last.

"Gren, what happened?" Iria asked, not as comforted by her brother's presence as she thought she should have been.

Gren shrugged, his fingers brushing back one of his bounty hunter braids: a trademark habit of his. "They seem to have died when I ripped their faces off."

And with that declaration, his face shifted, warping and inverting until it became an albino, red-eyed, pupilless horror with needle sharp fangs and a cry of hunger that came from the empty void where there should have been a soul. Iria remained where she was, motionless as the face emerged from the rest of the brim of the head on a long band of red muscle and sinew. It drew close enough to exhale a breath across her face, the fetid exhalation not affecting Iria in the least as she watched, motionless.

The jaws opened impossibly wide, easily large enough to clamp themselves over Iria's head, as its moist tongue danced softly across her face, trailing a thin line of saliva a moment before the face moved forward, the maw encompassing Iria's entire head before starting to close. The dagger-like teeth touched against her chin and forehead at the same time, pressing against the skin with enough pressure to break it and…

    …Iria woke up screaming as she twisted away from the horror, falling out of her pilot's chair only to bounce her head off the cold metal of the cockpit floor.

"Iria! Wake up!"

Stunned, Iria instinctively fought to regain a vertical position and defend herself from the remnants of her dream assailant. It took a moment to shake clear the last vestiges of the nightmare before remembering where she was: on the bridge of the Creeper V, enroute to Asteroid K12.

She pressed a surprisingly cold hand to her forehead to try to relieve the throbbing force that threatened to split her skull wide open from the inside. "What happened?"

"You drifted off to sleep," Bob's disembodied voice informed her.

Iria looked around the bridge curiously, trying to make sense of what had just happened to her and what impact it would have. "I shouldn't have done that. We only have two hours until we get to K12. I had to get ready. You should have awakened me the instant you saw I was asleep."

"You've been awake for close to seventy-two hours straight and were in a major firefight. You needed the rest." There was disapproval in Bob's synthesized voice.

"I need to get ready to confront Zeiram!" Iria shot back.

Bob remained silent, refusing to engage in a verbal debate with his partner. Once it became obvious he had nothing further to say, Iria ended things with a snort of disgust. Seeing they still had approximately forty minutes before arriving at their destination, she began pulling off her armor and went to grab a quick shower before making final preparations for the fight with Zeiram.

Somewhere in the electronic vastness of the ship's primary computer, Bob released what for him now passed as a sigh. That little confrontation had been mostly his fault. He had been concerned about Iria going into battle against Zeiram with as little sleep as she had. Though the bounty hunter herself would never admit it, she stopped operating at peak efficiency after forty-eight hours straight, and there was a sharp drop off in her abilities for every hour after that. The whole Zeiram issue had her so agitated she hadn't come close to getting any rest. So when they had returned to the Creeper V and set their course for K12, Bob suggested to Iria that she catch what sleep she could. When she refused, he decided to take matters into his own 'hands' by slowly cutting the percentage of oxygen in the room until Iria, for all practical purposes, passed out. Once satisfied she was asleep, he restored the air to its normal ratio and planned to awaken Iria a half-hour before their arrival.

It was much to his distress that she had awakened on her own, obviously from the throes of a vicious nightmare. And now she was getting snappy towards him, her little bit of rest not seeming to have helped her at all. Bob just hoped she'd be back up to fighting form once they arrived at the asteroid. There was no telling what they'd meet once they arrived.

"There it is," Yuri said, gazing out of the cockpit of the Lovely Angel.

"That sure doesn't look good," Kei murmured.

Iria, who had boarded their vessel after re-outfitting herself, said nothing as she joined hem in staring at the scene before them.

The mining outpost on Asteroid K12 had been one of the more economical versions of such an operation, as was so often the case when the minerals that were being mined were useful, but not particularly valuable. The small base was almost completely subterranean, buried within the largest asteroid that would afford them the most protection from the occasional collisions that they suffered from the other asteroids within the belt they were mining.

The only obvious point of entry to the operation was the ship's docking bay. It was nestled within a depression of the three kilometer diameter piece of rock where the workers' mining ships, as well as supply vessels, would emerge and land as they brought in their cargoes. A force field and emergency titanium door effectively protected the bay from the possible collisions with some of the smaller asteroids and possible decompression.

But now the docking bay hung wide open, the shape of the depression making the scene vaguely resemble a giant maw carved out of the brown-colored stone face of the asteroid. A steady stream of objects slowly drifted from the opening, as though the giant rock had grown tired of its occupants and was disgorging them and their belongings, casting them off into the void. Machine parts, equipment, and even a handful of bodies were spread out amongst the debris.

Kei focused her attention on the bay. "I don't see any lights at all in there. It's pitchblack."

"I think the power's completely down. I'm not getting even a distress beacon from the place," Yuri noted.

"Think Zeiram was here?" Kei asked.

"It's definitely his sort of handiwork," Iria confirmed. "We're going to have to go out and take an up close and personal look."

That gave Yuri a reason to sigh. Though she was excellent at it, going extravehicular was not one of her favorite pastimes.

Kei picked up on her partner's expression, and why she was making a face. "Hey, Yuri, why don't you let me and Iria handle going outside and you watch our backs from here?"

Yuri had to admit, her distaste not withstanding, that Kei's idea was sound. They still didn't know everything that was involved in the case, and having backup in the form of the major firepower the Lovely Angel packed was a good idea. Besides, the base itself was very small, housing no more than sixty personnel in very cramped quarters. It would take very little time to do a complete search of the facility. "You sure you two can handle it?"

"No problem." Kei assured her with a wink. She turned to Iria. "I'm not going to be able to use my Smart Gun. With the kick it has, I fire it for even five seconds and I'll go flying into deep space, jetpack or not. Think I can borrow that particle beam cartridge rifle I saw hanging in your armory?"

"Be my guest," Iria said, feeling in a better mood thanks to her shower and getting a chance to be around Kei. Despite the serious nature of the mission, the bounty hunter had always wanted a chance to see what the two of them could do together as a team.

"I'll suit up too, when… I mean, if you need me to go outside and help you out." Yuri shot a mischievous smile at Kei, who scowled at the deliberate implication that she would need her partner to bail her out of a jam.

Twenty minutes later, two figures emerged from the Creeper V's small airlock. They were dressed in medium-sized spacesuits, the kind that afforded decent protection while allowing a maximum range of motion. The pair proceeded to use the directional thrusters attached to the suits' backs to maneuver towards the open bay.

Avoiding the floating debris was easy with the years of space-walking experience the duo had. Both held their rifles at the ready, halfway expecting Zeiram to suddenly be expelled from the maw and charge at them, guns blazing away.

But nothing happened (much to their disappointment) as they drew closer to the docking bay, and eventually made their way to the opening itself. As both had anticipated, the interior was nearly jet-black, no lights within and only the distant stars providing any source of illumination for the large chamber.

The lights on their suits were effective, but small, and were mostly used for close range work. That didn't sit well with Kei, not when there was an alternative. "We could use some light in here, Yuri," Kei said over the communicator built into her helmet.

Positioning the Lovely Angel as near as was safe, Yuri activated the exterior lights of the ship to illuminate the interior as best she could. Kei noted that beyond the bay itself she and Iria's own spacesuit lights were going to have to be used anyway, but for the moment, the current lighting would suffice.

Kei examined Iria's face through the huge, almost marble-shaped, clear helmets that protected their heads. It was true that the clear plastics were not as durable as the stronger helmets that were made of metal alloys, but the tiny faceplates on those limited vision so greatly that Kei considered it worth the additional 'risk' of a more fragile clear shield. Besides, the metal helmets weren't powerful enough to stop a laser round, making the first shot in a fight the most critical. Under those conditions, a wide range of view far outweighed potential protection.

Kei, who was somewhat surprised at still being able to read Iria's emotions so easily despite their years apart, picked up on the subtle signs of agitation that the bounty hunter had displayed since boarding the Lovely Angel right before they dropped out of hyperspace. "Something wrong?"

Iria shook her head. "It's nothing."

Kei noted the "It's nothing" as being of the "It's something, all right, but I don't feel like telling you right now, so shove off," variety. Kei would respect her mentor's wishes, both on general principle and the fact that now was definitely not the time to try to get someone to open up. But if things didn't change soon afterwards, they'd have a little discussion. Iria might have been all but a mother for her, but Kei was now a woman in her own right and not a mere child. Their footing, while perhaps not exactly equal, was close enough that they could have a discussion like two adults should the need arise.

Kei smiled at the 'adults' reference. "Yuri would have something asinine to say about that."

"What was that?" Iria asked, having only heard something about Yuri over their link.

"Nothing," Kei quickly replied as she returned her full concentration to examining the bay again. There was one bad thing about Iria's return: it was serving as a major distraction. Not a bad one; just inappropriate given the circumstances.

Aside from garbage floating in the zero gravity of the hanger, there was no visible movement. From the make up of the various items that composed the debris, Kei figured that whatever happened hadn't given the occupants enough time to react. Many of the objects were very valuable and easy to secure, even in a crisis situation.

"This really doesn't look good," Kei admitted out loud, moving past the body of a dead dog, one that appeared to have been blown up from the inside.

"Maybe there's something further in the station." Iria moved ahead to one of the mechanical doors that linked the bay to the interior of the facility. The door was sealed and of the type that could withstand the rigors of space. She briefly considered moving to one that was already open, but felt oddly drawn to the entrance in front of her. Before Kei could react, Iria went to the manual release for the door, pulled open the safety cover, and placed her hand on override handle.

"Wait, Iria! There might be atmosphere on the other side," Kei protested as she began to glide over.

Iria either did not hear or did not care; as she pulled back on the handle, the restraining bolts that locked the door into place exploded inaudibly in the vacuum and released the seal all at once. The door flew open, a slight bit of atmosphere escaping in the first few seconds, then nothing. That indicated the amount of air that had been remained in that part of the facility had been next to nothing, and was certainly not enough for a person to survive on.

Not waiting for Kei, Iria immediately moved into the doorway and started to float inside the corridor. It took only a moment for her to realize it was pitch black inside, so she switched on her spacesuit's external lights.

The lights flashed on immediately to reveal the face of a person not more than three feet away, floating towards Iria. His eyes were wide open, and he was without a spacesuit, a look of intensity on his handsome features.

The cry of "GREN!" was ripped out of Iria's throat as she recoiled in horror at the apparition before her. She reflexively hit the maximum reverse power switch on her suit's directional thrusters to escape from the figure. They ignited, the force making the bounty hunter recoil as quickly as if she had been hit by a truck and was hurled backward. The uncontrolled flight took her right into Kei's path, who was caught completely unaware by Iria's unexpected reaction. The bounty hunter struck Kei head on and hard. Both were driven back into the bulkhead of the docking bay.

Years of training overrode Iria's panic. She regained control of her suit and cut the power, which also had the effect of not continuing to mash Kei into the metal of the wall. Spinning in the zero gravity, she reoriented herself, and then looked again in the direction she had seen Gren.

Now that the initial shock was over, Iria had a chance to calm down enough to more properly assess the situation. Part of her mind clamped down on her fear and forced her to think things through. The idea that Gren had been floating before her was impossible; he had been dead for decades and his body consumed. And even if there was some part of him that was still alive, it would have continued to be a part of Zeiram, not separated as a normal human being, or even one severed in half.

Taking a closer and more analytical look at the figure that had been shot forward by the decompression, and subsequently into the better lighting cast by the Lovely Angel, Iria noted that the upper torso positively did not belong to Gren. It was much more slender and the face was wrong, only bearing a slight resemblance to her long dead brother. Only the nightmare that had put her on edge, combined with the lack of sleep, had made her panic like a green rookie on her first mission.

Kei was hardly idle either, as she regained her breath and came up with a rifle in hand. Seeing which direction Iria had come from, she gasped out, "What is it? What happened? Did you see Zeiram?"

A gamut of emotions played across Iria's features in the span of a heartbeat. Kei only caught the briefest glimpse of them before the bounty hunter turned away and sped off in the direction of the ship almost as fast as when she had jetted away from the corpse.

Before Kei could ask Iria what was troubling her, the older woman announced in non-debatable tones, "This place is a tomb. We're out of here."

Kei was left blustering alone, more confused than ever as she followed Iria back to the ship, more out of habit than conscious thought.

On the bridge, Yuri also was bewildered by what had just happened. She was tempted to race to the airlock in order to beat them back and perhaps restart the search, but she opted to stay on the bridge and wait for the pair, or more specifically Iria, to return. Yuri's wait was not long as Iria returned to the bridge in under five minutes, not even taking the time out to remove her spacesuit.

Iria only started to peel herself out of her spacesuit once she began giving Yuri orders. "Send a distress signal to Delabar. Tell them there's been an incident. That'll bring the authorities here to take care of the mess. And make sure you send it anonymously. It wouldn't do to have us stuck here answering questions about what we know of what's been going on."

"But we haven't searched the base thoroughly enough," Yuri protested as she saw Kei finally make her own way up to the bridge still dressed in a spacesuit as well.

Iria stared out the front spaceport as she said, "Zeiram's not here. He would have attacked us by now if he was. We're too late again."

"Then we should be searching for clues to his next location," Yuri protested.

"We should be finding him before he hits another outpost and massacres all of the inhabitants there like he did here!"

"How are we supposed to find him if we don't have any clues as to where he'll strike next?" Yuri's own voice rose in conjunction with Iria's own increasingly argumentative tone.

"Listen to me. There are no clues to find. It's going to be like the last place. We have to either figure out a pattern from his strikes to get to his next objective before him, or get him while he's in the process of attacking somewhere else." Iria's tone was one a person would use when talking to the village idiot, and Yuri appreciated the action as most people would.

"We don't know there aren't any clues here unless we look for some. And for your information, we did find some at the last place he hit!" Yuri moved closer to Iria, fists balled. Iria responded in kind.

"Everyone, back off!" Kei forced herself between partner and mentor before the inevitable fight broke out.

She turned to Iria first. "I realize something down there got you spooked. Bob told me on the way back you've been operating without any rest for a while, so you're tired as well as stressed out, which is perfectly normal with what we've been through. We're your friends, and the last thing in the universe we need right now is to bicker with one another while Zeiram's still out there. We can do it after we've taken care of him, though personally I'd rather have a drink to celebrate."

Now it was Yuri's turn. Kei looked to her and said, "I think Iria's right. This place is a whole lot smaller than the space station, and it'd be a lot easier for Zeiram to cover his tracks. After the lengths someone went to clean up that mess at the space station, I doubt if they'd leave a map that's marked 'here's where Zeiram's going strike next and good luck getting him' lying around. And I'll let you know I think this whole situation has the feel that it happened a while ago. Why don't we head to the nearest outpost and see if Iria's strategy is on the mark and we can figure out where he'll strike next, and head him off before he gets to his next target? If we stick around here too long wasting our time, we might not get there in time"

"And if he isn't there? What if that's what proves to be a waste of time and there is a clue in this debris?" Yuri asked, unwilling to completely back down, though much to her surprise Kei's words were having a cooling effect on her own now hot temper; a complete role reversal between the two.

"Do you think the odds are better that we'll catch up to him, or that we'll actually find a clue in that mess"? Kei asked.

After considering the question for a moment, Yuri reluctantly nodded. When her partner put it that way, it did make sense, amazingly enough. Sometimes matters of life and death came down to playing the odds, proving that life really was nothing more than an elaborate high-stakes crapshoot. "Fine. Let's do it."

Despite agreeing with the plan, Yuri silently vowed the matter wasn't over. So far, Iria had gotten her way every time something came up, even when Yuri disagreed with her and they ended up with nothing to show for it. The troubleshooter would play along for a while longer, but if things didn't turn around soon, she'd start calling the shots. No matter what Iria's feelings on the matter were. Yuri was a veteran troubleshooter with years of experience, after all. She had just as much a right to run things as the older woman did.

Iria was in the linking tube and had almost made it back to her ship when she heard Kei call out her name. For a moment, she considered continuing anyway, but then her shoulders slumped slightly and she waited for Kei to draw near.

"What's going on?" the redhead asked, concern evident in her voice.

"Zeiram's running loose killing everything in his path and you ask me what's wrong?!" Iria snapped.

"I meant what went down outside," Kei clarified, though she had a feeling that Iria knew exactly what she had meant and was only playing dumb.

"I was surprised, that was all." The reply was curt. Too curt.

Kei decided that was enough. "Why did you call out Gren's name?"

"I didn't. You misheard me."

Kei scowled now. She knew damn well what she had heard. "I don't think so."

"Then you need to think again." Iria terminated the conversation by turning away and moving more quickly than before to her ship.

For a moment, Kei contemplated pursuing, then reconsidered. Iria was too much like her and hated being confronted. A showdown now, especially when it was obvious Iria was emotionally and physically exhausted, would get nothing accomplished. Instead, more subtle tactics were needed to get the bounty hunter to open up. A smile blossomed on Kei's face, as she knew exactly what to do. Past experience let her know it was perfect. She'd have Iria eating out of her hand before the next few days were out, and then everything could go back to normal. Or whatever passed for normal concerning the three of them.

The Ship dropped out of hyperspace less than five minutes after the Creeper V and Lovely Angel had departed the system by entering it. The Ship was jet black, an obsidian shade projected against the eternal night of deep space. The surface absorbed even the faint starlight that traveled the distance to the asteroid belt.

The Ship was large; almost half again the size of the Lovely Angel, but it flowed through the eternal silence like a breeze flowing through the air. The Ship's shape was similar to an oblong discus, but with a number or projections along its surface and a pointed shape that marked that part as the front.

The Ship maneuvered through the asteroid field with a grace that belied its form, stopping at last before a rock that had no purpose to its existence other than to float through the void of space. It had no name of its own, but other things had designated it as K12.

The Ship floated there for several moments as waves of various energies bombarded the holed out section of the floating rock. The energies did nothing to the rock itself, other than to react to its existence and send those reactions to the ship.

After observing those specific reactions, a series of cylinders emerged from one of the surface projections and fanned out, forming a pattern that was vaguely reminiscent of a flight of migratory birds traveling to milder climes. Upon entering the open docking bay, they separated, each taking its own course as they traveled to every corner of the small outpost, sending back the results of their own observations, even as the various energies had done earlier. The results were the same, and the cylinders returned to the docking bay and reformed their ranks, returning to The Ship and entering the same way they had exited. The Ship then began to reverse its course, leaving in precisely the same manner as it had entered, save that it was now moving in reverse.

After gaining some distance from the asteroid, two cylinders that were shaped differently and were much larger than the others, emerged from two of the projections that pointed outward from the front of The Ship. Once clear of their carrier, fires emerged from the rears of the cylinders, spurring them onward and into the docking bay of the outpost.

A moment later, the missiles detonated, temporarily lighting the void with a flash of brightness that tapered off to dull flames until eventually even those went on to become nothing as the atomic fires that caused the explosions were consumed, and space reclaimed its once-shattered peace.

Where before there had been the ruined remains of an outpost, there was now only a huge gaping hole of blackened jagged mineral that dotted the surface of the asteroid. The Ship observed its handiwork, reacting to it only by spinning on its axis and leaving the asteroid field more quickly than it had entered. It eventually headed into hyperspace, once it was able to do so safely and without the obstruction caused by other asteroids in the field.

And the piece of rock, which others had given a name that meant nothing to it, continued to float without purpose as it had before, drifting forever in the silent night.

Yuri looked over the dinner settings before her, Iria, and Mughi in the mess area of the Lovely Angel. She felt uneasy. That really wasn't surprising, considering the circumstances that brought the three of them together.

After fifteen years of partnership, one would have thought there could be no more surprises between the two women. Blood, sweat, joy, and even tears had been shared between them. Closer than family in many ways, continuously leaving one's life in the other's hands, the two were separate parts that made a greater whole when combined. By now there should have been no new barriers to break, no unknown boundaries to cross, but as was happening all too often of late, what was believed and what actually was were two different things.

For instance, the root of this particular 'surprise' was Kei making dinner for Yuri.

In truth it was being made for everyone, but in all of their years together, not once had Kei sat down and made a meal for both of them. Certainly, they had shared meals on stakeouts, usually burnt MREs or something else equally unappetizing. Once they had even shared a raw Fruntlumper Kei had shot when they were stranded on Balktus 4, devouring the creature, which tasted amazingly like century-old shoe leather left in a sulfur spring, as though it were a steak of the rarest cut; but never had they sat down to a home cooked meal by Kei.

Yuri was suddenly overcome with a feeling that raw Fruntlumper might be a better choice than whatever concoction Kei had prepared.

It wasn't as though Yuri had a lack of faith in her partner's culinary abilities… Actually, that was precisely it. Yuri knew damn well Kei rarely made food for herself, usually opting to eat out or buy instant varieties of food that needed all of twenty seconds of microwave radiation to prepare. There had to be a reason for that, and Yuri's detective skills informed her that it probably wasn't a good one. That the redheaded troubleshooter would suddenly feel some need to prepare a formal meal for everyone was cause for alarm. No; for borderline panic.

If only they would receive an alarm that Zeiram was attacking a colony somewhere. That would definitely save the day. But there was no angry cry of emergency klaxons; at least, not yet.

Looking across the table and seeing Iria appear as completely mystified as her, Yuri felt herself become uneasier. Perhaps this was Kei's way of bringing them closer together. True, there had been some tension between Yuri and Iria in the last couple of days since the visit to K12. Yuri had even caught Kei moping around a bit at the perceived friction. But there wasn't much to do. Iria didn't seem interested in clearing the air, and without at least a little show of encouragement, Yuri did not feel a need to make the effort either. It wasn't the sort of tension that would lead to a fight, but it could conceivably affect them in the middle of tight situation. On an intellectual level, Yuri knew she should try something to ease the tension, but she just couldn't seem to motivate herself to make the first gesture. So perhaps Kei had decided to do it.

Kei the Peacemaker: an oxymoron if ever there was one.

The redheaded troubleshooter was certainly up to something. Yuri noted that Kei had made them stop by a remote world for a couple of hours and went down to the surface in a shuttle on a private errand. Having no leads on Zeiram, there was no reason not to do it. After Kei had returned, Yuri noticed that among the items she had picked up there was some kind of squiggly pet that reminded the raven-haired troubleshooter of the 'Many Limbed Tentacle Monsters of Phallus Five'. Now there had been an “adventure”, to be certain. Yuri hadn't been able to sit down for a week after encountering one of the more 'mighty' members of that particular species…

"Oh, dear god, tell me she didn't buy it for that," Yuri murmured.

"What was that?" Iria asked.

"Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Ha, ha," Yuri blurted out with forced laughter. She knew Kei had been feeling lonely, but surely she wasn't THAT lonely.

The answer to her unspoken question was delivered as Kei emerged from the kitchen. She was decked out in a chef's hat with a white apron. Plastered across the apron in black lettering were the words, 'Mess with the chef and die like the rest'. In her hands she bore a covered hot dish that was still steaming. A faint scent that would be more correctly classified as an odor drifted from it and towards the others.

"Oh, no. She wouldn't," Iria whispered under her breath in the same manner as Yuri had done earlier.

"What was that?" Yuri asked, the dreadful feeling in the pit of her stomach tripling.

"Nothing," Iria blurted out in the exact same manner as Yuri had before.

"I'm not hungry and I'm trying to lose weight since my gut is getting so big so I'd better not eat bye-bye." The words emerged from Yuri's mouth with machine-gun-like speed, but she moved nowhere near as quickly. Even as she rose out of her chair to leave, Kei lashed out with a foot and kicked the chair back under Yuri, the edge of it hitting the dark-haired troubleshooter in the back of the legs and forcing her to sit her butt back down on the seat.

The dangerous glare Kei shot Yuri let it be known that further attempts to escape would be dealt with even more harshly. Yuri considered leaving anyway, but then decided to give Kei the benefit of the doubt. Besides, they had a full complement of stomach medicines, that could take care of any indigestion problems brought on by whatever concoction Kei had prepared for them.

Seeing what had happened, and having some definite suspicions as to what was lying underneath the silver lid, Iria considered making a run for it, too. But then she remembered how enthusiastic Kei was about cooking. And more importantly, that Kei was a better shot than her, as well as being damn quick on the draw.

Yuri did not feel any more reassured when she saw Iria's shoulders slump forward in an outward sign of obvious defeat.

Mughi, resigned to the inevitable, just pinched his nose shut.

Seemingly unaware, or at least unconcerned, with the reactions of the dinner guests, Kei placed the covered dish in the center of the table. She stood up straight, appearing very formal despite her garb, cleared her throat, then began speaking. "As a gesture of goodwill in our new partnership, and in the hopes of running into Zeiram and punching his ticket real soon, I have decided to celebrate our future success by preparing for everyone a culinary masterpiece of delectable delight. Iria knows firsthand what I'm talking about, as I used to make it for her all the time."

"Oh, Kei. You shouldn't have," Iria said, sounding on the verge of tears." You really, really shouldn't have."

"Times like this, I'm glad I don't have a stomach anymore," Bob said from the unit on her wrist.

Yuri heard the exchange and cringed. This was going to be bad.

Kei continued on, helplessly lost in the depths of her previously thought out 'Tension Breaking Speech'. "I confess, I haven't made this since I left home and set out to carve myself a place in the universe. But once I got started, I knew I hadn't lost my touch. Don't be surprised to see this pop up again in the near future."

And without any further pomp and circumstance, Kei lifted the lid and allowed the others to bask in the sight of the culinary masterpiece before them.

It rested in a bed of deep green lettuce, surrounded by a variety of longer, stringy steamed vegetables that touched upon every color of the spectrum. Several turnip shaped spheres surrounded the main dish in the center, obviously intricately cut and made to be ascetically pleasing as well as functional. A creamy white liquid with tiny fuchsia colored berries rested in a small bowl along the edge, obviously meant to be used as a sauce for the dish.

And in the center was the main course: a multi-tentacled octopus-like creature. It bore at least a dozen eyes surrounding the body, which looked in all directions at once. There was also a set of huge, misshapen tongues that emerged from two mouths located on different parts of the lump in the middle. Pustules dotted along irregular intervals along its length, and everywhere a series of sickly-looking veins covered the entire body of the puss-green colored, lifelike creature. For a moment Yuri thought she could see them throb as though the creature was still alive.

"I knew it: boiled Klatuu Beast." Iria grimaced.

"What's a Klatuu Beast?" Yuri nearly whimpered as the full scent of it hit her, causing her to recoil.

Kei was delighted to answer as she cooed over her triumph. "A rare dish created by an alien race called the Zyngmotoivich. It's a delicacy of theirs."

That didn't bode well. It was Yuri's understanding that the Zyngmotoivich possessed one of the dullest senses of taste in the universe and their digestive system was tough enough to consume any form of organic matter without a problem.

Kei continued. "It's said it takes most master chefs a decade to perfect creating it. I learned it when I was a kid growing up with Iria. One of Iria's Zyngmotoivich friends, a bounty hunter named Archibald Tinkle, taught it to me. He was astounded at how quickly I learned to make it. He said I was a natural." Kei's eyes took on a glow as she recalled the past through the eyes of a nine-year-old. "I remember the first time I made it for Iria. It was the first time I ever tried cooking anything major, and I was really afraid I'd screw it up. I was almost in tears when I served her it. You don't know how relieved I was when she told me she absolutely loved it. She had two full servings, and we had the rest for dinner the next night."

Iria remembered it well, through the eyes of a much more realistic twenty-three-year-old. At the time, she forced herself to stomach it and lied about how it tasted so she wouldn't hurt Kei, who had obviously poured her heart and soul into preparing the dish for her. It turned out to be one of the worst mistakes of Iria's life, as Kei would then insist on making it during any special occasion the two of them shared. It was one of the handfuls of things Iria had not missed when her young ward left home for good.

"Archibald hated me, by the way," Iria added casually as the true horror of Klatuu Beast assailed her senses for the first time in nearly two decades.

Yuri wrinkled her nose in disgust. "It smells like decomposing flesh."

"It's supposed to smell that way," Kei assured her.

"Bullshit. You screwed it up," Yuri said acidly.

"Oh, no, she prepared it perfectly," Iria assured her. It was just that properly boiled Klatuu Beast normally smelled (and tasted) like shit: two facts that had apparently been lost on Kei.

The redhead cut off several portions and served them to the others. Iria, somewhat used to it, simply sighed and resigned herself to a night of suffering for when the Klatuu Beast would begin to dance in her stomach and her body began the inevitable war that occurred when trying to digest it.

Yuri wasn't able to deal with her fate quite as optimistically, and gave a moan full of despair. Since Kei was looking at her expectedly, hope filled on her features, Yuri sucked up her courage and poked at a long, revolting tentacle with a fork.

The limb moved.

"It's still alive!" Yuri blurted out in panic, backing her chair away from the table and going for her sidearm.

Kei pushed her back to the table. "It's just a reflex. Klatuu Beasts have funky nervous systems. Sometimes they twitch even after they've been chewed up, so if it feels like something is trying to climb out of your throat after you've eaten it; so don't worry, that's perfectly normal."

Yuri felt like hitting her head on the table. Kei couldn't make her eat if she was unconscious.

Mughi took one look at the thing on his plate, and then viciously attacked it. He knocked the serving of Klatuu Beast off the table with a swipe of his claws, then jumped to the floor and began batting it around as though it were a giant rodent. It almost appeared as though the Beast was fighting back, as its tentacles waved in the air, with each swipe of Mughi’s paws only adding to the effect.

"Damn it, Mughi! Quit playing with your food!" Kei rose angrily and put the food back on the plate, forcing a reluctant Mughi to sit down once again at the dinner table.

Satisfied everyone had finally relaxed enough to sit down and eat, Kei dug in heartily, cutting a large piece for her serving and eating it down with the gusto that was normally reserved for when she hadn't eaten in several days.

Yuri, now quite beyond frightened and settling into something akin to battlefield shellshock, looked in twisted fascination as Kei sucked down a huge portion of tentacle, the ropy appendage waving back in forth in the air as though it were trying to get out of Kei's mouth before it was too late.

In a deeper state of shock, Yuri looked across the table at Iria, no longer irritated in the least by the bounty hunter's previous behavior. It appeared that Kei's attempt at them resolving their issues peacefully had worked, though not in the way the redhead had expected. What truly drew Iria and Yuri closer together was not that they were breaking bread, but that they were being forced to suffer through a mutual horrible experience together.

But at least it got the job done.

Two servings (and one upset stomach that felt like it had been thrown into the middle of a solar storm) later, Iria excused herself from the dinner table and headed back to the safety of her ship. A variety of stomach remedies awaited her there. She had forgotten just how unsettling even a half-serving of Klatuu beast could be, and she had been forced to consume two.

Iria noted that it was odd how even when she had visited the home world of the Zyngmotoivich, she had not seen this so-called 'delicacy' being eaten by any of the inhabitants. Now that she thought about it, she couldn't recall seeing it offered on any of the menus in their restaurants either. It made one wonder if perhaps it was all a big joke the Zyngmotoivich played on other alien races in order to get them to consume a thoroughly disgusting food that they themselves would not really touch, using the term 'planetary delicacy' to trick them into eating it.

She had almost made it to her ship when Kei's voice called out behind her. Iria swore if Kei tried sticking her with a doggie bag of that toxic substance, she'd put a round between the redhead's eyes, near daughter or not.

Kei paused before Iria, "So how was the meal?"

This was it. Iria's big chance to tell Kei what she really thought of boiled Klatuu beast. It might break her ward's heart, but with the massive discomfort Iria's stomach felt, her resolve would never be more firm.

Taking a deep breath, she said, "It was just like you always made it." The words that emerged from Iria's own mouth made her shudder. The loud grumbling of her stomach punctuated the sentiment.

"Great," Kei said, glowing at the perceived compliment. Her emotions quickly switched from happy to serious. "There was another reason I wanted to talk to you. It's about what happened the other day, on the outpost."

Given the tumultuous state of her stomach, pride gave way to the necessity of talking and getting the stomach remedies. "What did you need to know?"

"What was wrong? Why were you so afraid?"

The anxiety Iria had felt before about revealing her feelings had faded with the passage of time. Now there was almost a need to tell someone besides Bob about her fears. "I'd been having dreams about Gren."


"About him being trapped in Zeiram," Iria clarified.

"Oh," Kei said, this time understanding. "But Gren's dead. He died with Zeiram. You said that yourself."

"I know, I know," Iria reluctantly admitted. "The last of him died with Zeiram out there in the desert. And I know logically there's no way that even if this is the original Zeiram, Gren would still be in there. By now his consciousness would have been consumed. But still, there's that fear. A small part of me wonders 'what if,' even though I know it's unreasonable and sure to slow me down or hesitate like back on Daowajon, when Gren overrode Zeiram enough to give me a chance to kill him. What if that same thing happens again, now?"

Kei placed a comforting hand on Iria's shoulder. "You're worrying about nothing. Like you said, Gren's not in there. And even if he was, it would have to be like last time. He'd want you to put him to rest rather than living that hellish existence in that killing machine. You managed to force yourself to kill him in the end."

"And I'd do it again." This time Iria spoke with more confidence. Hearing someone else tell her without being prompted what she already knew in her heart, helped clear her conscience.

"Besides, it's a moot point. I'm going to bag Zeiram this time." Kei swaggered

"Hah! You'll have to shoot through me first," Iria retorted.

"Let's make a deal," Kei said. "Whoever bags Zeiram first has the loser make them dinner."

"Buy them dinner!" Iria corrected. Having the threat of Kei making another Klatuu Beast was enough to make Iria want to throw the fight.

The two shook on it. As Kei went back to her ship, Iria looked on in an almost parental satisfaction. Truly her ward had grown into a fine, if somewhat violent, woman. Somehow she had gotten the normally reserved Iria to open up and confess her feelings, though either Kei had learned how to be subtle or had just gotten lucky in figuring out how to do it. In either case, it had worked out perfectly. There was no doubt within Iria that she would do what she had to without hesitation, or more importantly, without fear of hesitating and costing someone beside herself their life. Iria felt a lot better than she had in a while.

Her stomach shifted in her abdomen. Emotionally better, anyway. It was time to get the stomach medicine, and fast.

Yuri finished typing out the last page of her report. For two days since the dinner they had still heard nothing and found no clues concerning Zeiram. They were overdue back at 3WA headquarters and had already been sent a request for their present location. If they didn't report back in the next couple of days, they were going to be in trouble, unless they informed headquarters that they had run into an emergency and couldn't check in. Of course, the problem with that would be why they hadn't sent a report on the Zeiram incident already. Holding back information about a rampaging monster would be certain to raise a few of the bushy eyebrows of her superiors, and any time that happened it was a “bad thing”. Mentioning that they were afraid communications with headquarters was compromised would only work for so long before even that would no longer be useable as an excuse, especially since they had no proof of the compromise to date.

So Yuri had begun writing a detailed report on the entire matter, making sure that Kei knew nothing about it. Had her partner discovered that she was planning to send in a report, Kei would erase the document and start an argument about the value of proper procedure versus improvising in the field, a discussion the two had vehemently carried on over the years.

Yuri had dragged her feet as long as she could, but now the report was complete. All that remained was to send it to headquarters and let her superiors decide their next course of action. It would be out of their hands, and it was quite conceivable they would be pulled off the case entirely. That was another reason the raven-haired troubleshooter was reluctant to send the report. Given how resolutely Kei felt about dealing with Zeiram personally, Yuri would not put it past her to turn in her badge if it meant tracking down the monster with Iria. And Yuri knew damn well she'd end up tagging along; the two had been together too long for there to be any other option. Even though Yuri didn't feel the least bit like becoming a bounty hunter.

Her finger hung poised above the send button in indecision when a flashing light from the communications panel caught her attention. Immediately she hit the audio button to listen to the message.

"Iria, incoming call from Yuri."

Bob's gentle voice pried Iria out of her deep sleep instantly; a sleep without dreams of Gren for the first time in days. In an instant, she shot to her feet and went over to her own communications equipment abroad the Creeper V. Blinking the last vestiges of sleep from her eyes, Iria opened up communication. "Yes?"

"We've got something." Yuri's voice sounded excited. "I just got an APB over the law enforcement waveband in this sector. Apparently a small communications outpost on a moon in Sector A45 was destroyed. Authorities are already on the scene covering the aftermath, but from what the report says, there is no chance of survivors and the destruction appears total."

"Crap!" Iria slammed her fist into the control panel. That had to be Zeiram's handiwork. "He's still one step ahead of us. And if the authorities are already there, that means we can't investigate either without tipping our hand."

Bob interrupted the tirade. "Let me look over the information about the post. Maybe there's something there."

Iria just threw her hands up in disgust. Maybe it was time to break out a couple of bottles of alcohol and split them with Kei. With the way their luck was going, they could drink all the liquor on both ships, recover from their hangovers, and still Zeiram would elude their grasp.

Iria had just fished a bottle of Brandy from under the mess in the bottom of a storage locker when Bob said, "I think I might have something."

"What?" Iria said, momentarily forgetting she had the bottle in hand.

"There's a report in an adjacent system about a destroyed spaceship."

"So what?" Iria asked.

"Judging by the vector of where the last suspected assault took place and where the ship's debris was discovered, they're in a direct line of probable travel."

Iria's heart began to race. "Any inhabited planets in that system?"

"No. But there is a terraforming operation on one of the moons in the middle of the system. Normal shake-and-bake future colony, according to the records."

"Plot a course and download the coordinates to the Lovely Angel. We go now." There was no time to send a message to the colony and wait for a response. By the time they received it, they would already be on the scene. They could do it once in the system, and pray they had gotten there in time for once.

"No response from the operation," Kei informed the others.

Iria looked quizzically at Yuri. In reply, the dark haired woman shook her head doubtfully. "They've had plenty of time to respond."

"Damn," Iria said under her breath, as they drew nearer to the moon which had officially been dubbed, "Yanki's Beautiful Haven.' A typical, unimaginative title some corporate executive in charge of the terraforming operation had no doubt named after himself. There were plenty of worlds like that. 'Gorney's Relaxing Spot.' 'Mica's Rich Ore Planetoid.' 'Disneysystem.' All of them stupid.

"How many?" Iria asked.

Yuri knew what the bounty hunter was inquiring about. "According to operation records, two hundred and thirty-three people."

"Shit!" Kei hissed.

That killed further conversation. Wordlessly, Kei increased the speed of the Lovely Angel. It took them only minutes to arrive at the moon's recently created upper atmosphere. From above, it still looked like a dead rock, but such terraforming operations could take upwards to a decade to create, depending on the equipment, planet, and techniques that were used.

The base of the operation was clear from their orbital position. The ships began their decent through the atmosphere and to the planet below. Once they were within a half-mile of the sizable base, its fate was at last revealed.

The control tower used to guide ships down was a ruin. Several other buildings were in a similar state, holed all the way down to their foundations in several cases. Smoke poured from a variety of vehicles and ships that had been smashed beyond recognition, eliminating any means of escape. The devastation appeared total.

"This was recent," Iria declared, as they hovered over the main landing field.

"Fires are still going near that condenser unit over there," Kei pointed out. "Those things won't burn for more than an hour, tops."

Yuri adjusted some of their sensors. "I can't get a clear life form reading. The main atmospheric processor is active and its regulators must be off-line. It's kicking up too much interference to get a fix on anything."

"Then we'll have to take a closer look." Kei picked up her Sharter Smart Gun and hooked it up to her belt and harness. Yuri went with the more reserved Suboronic High-Intensity Laser Rifle while Iria went with her ever-reliable Boreset Long Rifle.

Landing went without a problem, and the trio deployed from the landing ramp cautiously as they spread out and made certain the landing area was secure.

"This place is pretty big," Iria commented as she surveyed the scene of carnage. "Let's separate like we did on the station. If you guys get even the faintest hint of Zeiram, call out on the communicator so I can come running."

"Make sure you do the same thing," Kei said.

"I have absolutely no intention of dealing with Zeiram one-on-one," the bounty hunter assured her.

"We'll check out the atmospheric processing plant." Yuri pointed to the largest standing building that seemed to have suffered less damage than the adjacent structures.

"Watch where you fire if he's in there," Iria warned. "I can see the primary shield array is toast, which means that sucker's the only thing that's maintaining the atmosphere. If it goes, it'll be a race to see if we freeze solid, or suffocate without breathable air."

"Aw, come on. Have some faith in us," Kei complained.

"We are professionals," Yuri reminded her. "We know what we're doing."

"Fine." Iria refrained on commenting that many referred to the duo as being 'Professional Avatars of Destruction' with all of the damage they caused throughout the universe. But now was not the time or the place for such a “discussion”, which would change nothing when all was finished. Judging by the rampant destruction and lack of anyone present, it appeared there was no one left alive on the planet, so it was not likely there were any innocent bystanders to worry about. Just three professional warriors, and one killing machine, in a large gladiatorial arena that was once a terraforming operation; an almost ideal battleground.

Without further discussion, the trio separated into two teams and began searching the ruins of the base.

"Worried?" Yuri asked.

"About us? No. About Iria? Maybe a little," Kei admitted. "I'd rather find big-and-ugly first, and take care of him ourselves."

"Think we have enough firepower?" Yuri suddenly felt uneasy with only a laser rifle and sidearm for protection. Perhaps she should have grabbed a grenade launcher on the way out.

Kei pivoted her weapon on the belt rig in Yuri's general direction. "Trust me, we have enough firepower. Just don't be in front of me when I cut loose."

"Just remember what Iria said about watching where you fire that thing. It wouldn't…" Yuri's warning drifted off as she heard a load groan come from the wall to their left. Both of the Dirty Pair turned in the direction of the sound.

"Sound like the building settling to you?" Kei kept her gun trained on the wall.

Yuri did likewise. "Somehow, I doubt it. This operation's been going for two years. I'd say all of its settling has been done for a while."

Another sound came from the wall. Kei set her feet firmly to brace for the recoil of eight rotating barrels spitting out two thousand rounds per minute. Fifteen seconds passed with no further noise, and then there was a louder groan, sounding as though it were coming from nearer still.

"Hey, Yuri?" There was an edge to Kei's voice.


"Do you remember that time we fought that metal robot killer on Alphus Base in Tarmagne?"

"The one that had the spiked treads and looked like a small tank?"

"Yeah, that's him."

"What about it?"

"Remember how he threw us off by making it sound like he was coming from behind a wall real close to us when in fact it was a trick and he popped through the opposite wall behind us and nearly punched both our tickets?"

"Shit!" Yuri hissed as she spun and pointed her rifle at the wall behind them.

Kei started to do likewise as the wall they originally had their weapons pointed towards burst open with an explosion of shattered plastic and tearing metal as Zeiram ripped its way through the wall as though it had been made of tinfoil. The weight of Kei's bulky weapon slowed her down, and she was knocked off her feet by a piece of flying debris. A large sheet of the metal fell across her, further keeping her from rising. Yuri's luck was better as she threw herself out of the way of the collapsing wall and out of the immediately line of fire of the monster.

It took Zeiram a moment to reorient itself, the monster producing an even larger impromptu doorway as it forced its way through the shattered remains and fully into the passageway. A squat-looking rifle with a blue tip rested in its hands as it pointed the weapon to its left and searched for targets.

Seeing Zeiram start to look in the helpless Kei's direction, Yuri shouted out, "Over here!" Just as she hoped, Zeiram turned at the sound of the declaration, bringing the weapon up in her direction.

The dark-haired troubleshooter was unable to identify the type of firearm Zeiram held in its hands. She hoped it wouldn't matter as she intended to shoot the monster before it had a chance to shoot her.

Being lighter and quicker, and being able to see her target first, Yuri's plan worked as she sent several high intensity laser bolts into Zeiram's greenish hide. A low growl of what sounded like a grumble of discomfort issued forth for the creature's lower mouth, the upper one in the white head on the brim remaining silent.

Whatever pain it felt was not enough to stop the monster from bringing its own firearm up track Yuri. Snapping off two more rounds that hit Zeiram high, she ducked to the right as a series of small bluish bolts no larger than a couple of centimeters sped towards her. There was a fizzing sound as the shots went just over her head, causing a hissing as they struck the wall behind Yuri and dissolved the metal, leaving a lingering smell of ozone behind.

Marking being hit by acid as considerably more damaging than by a needler, Yuri concentrated more on dodging again instead of returning fire. She evaded a second shot, and was mentally plotting out where to dodge a third blast, when it suddenly occurred to her that she had just run out of room to maneuver.

However, there was no third blast as the tremendous sound of a repeating firearm filled the corridor, deafening Yuri. Zeiram fell forward hard from the hundred or so rounds that Kei had unexpectedly fired into his back.

Yuri was about to cheer Kei on when she saw Zeiram start to rise to its feet, seemingly unaffected by the gunfire. Worse, Yuri also noted that the monstrosity was between her and Kei, and that a rapidly repeating Smart Gun with a cyclic rate of two thousand rounds per minute was not a precision weapon.

Survival being the matter at hand, Yuri did the unexpected by running directly towards Zeiram and jumping on top of its head and over the creature as it continued rising to its feet. As she had hoped, the monster reacted too late to do anything, being surprised by her maneuver. It spent an extra second trying to figure out what had just happened, which gave Yuri the necessary time to get out of Kei's line of fire.

"Do it!" Yuri shouted.

In acknowledgment, Kei planted her feet firmly in the ground again. Zeiram was just turning toward her, face front and drawing its arm back as if to throw something, when Kei depressed the trigger.

The spinning barrels were a blur as Kei fired continuously at her target. Rather than each projectile flashing from a barrel, it looked more like a continuous stream of light emitting from the huge firearm.

The incredible volume of firepower took its toll on the huge figure. Kei and Yuri watched as at first the rounds seemed to do nothing more than drive Zeiram back, the monster now prepared for the onslaught that had made it lose its footing the first time. A huge number of sparks signified where the rounds were impacting, but there was no other obvious damage. But then the sparks died down as Kei and Yuri saw pieces of Zeiram's chest begin to go flying in all directions. Then the spattering of a green substance joined the pieces as the liquid sailed through the air.

"You're doing it, Kei! You're doing it!" Yuri's shouts could not be heard over the din of battle, but Kei could somehow feel the approval her partner was generating and dug in more firmly. It took a minute for Kei's entire frame to grow weary from supporting her weapon, despite the rig it was set up on. The recoil, as absorbed as it was by the design of the huge gun, continued to be murderous and forced Kei to dig down deep for the reserves of energy needed to keep it up.

A cry of pain rose from Zeiram, one that overshadowed the noise from the Smart Gun. Kei gritted her teeth in approval as the monster was driven further back even more quickly than before.

Despite knowing she couldn't be heard over the gunfire, Kei cried out at the top of her lungs, "Die you monster! Die—"

Kei's battle cry was cut short as she nearly fell forward on her face, the Smart Gun ceasing fire. The redhead looked at the ammunition count on the digital display on the top of the gun. It read zero.

"Shit!" Kei cried out. If only she had carried an extra ammo backpack; it would have doubled the number of rounds she had.

Still snarling in anger at being denied additional firepower, Kei looked up to survey the damage she had in inflicted on her opponent. A low sound of pain issued from Zeiram, but it was still standing, despite the syrupy goo that trickled down its chest from the numerous open wounds it sported.

Again Kei shouted a curse as she hit the release button that caused her Smart Gun and rig to fall to the ground.

She started to draw her sidearm when Yuri placed a hand on her shoulder and said, "My turn." She firmly pushed Kei to the side and brought her laser rifle up. It might not have had anywhere near the damage capacity her partner's weapon had, but it still had a kick to it, and more importantly, ammunition.

Yuri lined up her sights on Zeiram's bleeding chest, waiting for it to move the arms that covered the wounds up out of the way. Injured as the beast was, she would have no better opportunity inflict some payback on it and hopefully finish it off for everyone's sake.

"Shoot him!" Kei insisted upon seeing Yuri hesitate.

"I want a clear shot," Yuri insisted, despite Zeiram protecting his vitals and Yuri knowing damn well shooting him in the arms would do little good given what happened the last time she fired upon him.

She was just about to fire anyway, in the hopes it would get Zeiram to move its arms, when they did so of their own accord. The monster held its arms up high, shouting out in what sounded like an even higher pitched cry of pain. Yuri hesitated a moment at the unexpected action, the waited another moment as she saw a ripple start at the center of Zeiram's chest and move outward.

"What's happening?" Yuri asked her partner, who had far more dealings with Zeiram than her.

"Haven't the faintest idea," Kei replied.

The answer took the form of a brief spray of blood erupting from Zeiram's chest followed by what appeared to the duo to be a huge chunk of rounded metal forcing its way from inside its body. Then the round piece of metal began glowing with a white luminescence, and the answer then became clear.

"Kei, tell me that's not a plasma ejector barrel pointing out of his chest."

"It's not."

"Thank goodness," Yuri moaned.

"It's a duon particle beam cannon. It's got about five times the kick of a plasma ejector."

The two looked at each other, and then came to an unspoken, immediate, and mutual decision.

"Strategic withdrawal!" They cried as one as they ran for it.

Iria was examining the remains of what might have been a person when she heard the sound of a particle beam cannon come from the atmospheric processing plant. She looked up just in time to see half the side of the base of the building explode in a fury of metal and plastic. Reflexively she covered her face with her arm as the force wave of the explosion passed by, carrying with it the smell of fuel and burned metal.

Iria lowered her arms and looked at the scene before her in eye-widening horror. Reacting quickly, she ran as quickly as she could to cover the two hundred meter distance between her and the building. She had barely made it a quarter of the way when she saw two figures emerge from the dusty debris filled cloud that had been kicked up by the blast.

The two women were just inside the huge hole that had been where an outer wall had been just moments before. They were every bit as soot-covered as when the Ben Dover Library had met its fiery end. Kei was helping Yuri along, one of the raven-haired woman's arms draped over her partner's shoulders for support while the other arm held onto her laser rifle. The two were coughing hard as they tried to get out of the remains of the building.

Iria stopped and waved at the pair. Her wave died with its second motion as she saw a third figure emerge from the cloud as well, obviously towering over the girls despite being several meters behind them.

"Run for it!" Iria shouted as she activated the telescopic sight on her rifle for a long distance shot. She had to buy the pair time to get to cover before Zeiram opened up again.

Even as she brought her laser rangefinder and crosshairs almost lined up on Zeiram, she could see a white glow emanate from its chest. She watched Kei and Yuri spin in surprise, apparently only having become aware of the creature stalking them at that moment, leaving them no time to do anything other than die.

Without waiting to steady her aim, Iria snapped off a quick shot that hit Zeiram in the chest, causing the monster to shout and turn to the left, making the discharge from its chest arc to the side. It narrowly missed Kei and Yuri as the beam went first into the ground, and then to the left, slicing through even more of the walls of the processing plant.

Iria allowed herself a breath of relief at the close save. The comfort was short-lived as the sound of straining metal reached her ears. She watched in abject helplessness as the side of the twenty ton structure directly above all three beings began to buckle from the incredible strain it was under, from all of the weight resting on, essentially, less than half of the walls needed to maintain structural integrity. Slowly, inexorably, the building bent low and reached for the ground.

Silently, Iria watched in mute impotence as Kei looked up in open fear while Yuri seemed to panic by opening fire into the ground. Then the bounty hunter's view of the pair was blocked from view as part of building's frame fell to the ground directly in front of them. The rest of the building above followed suit less than a second later, collapsing inward. The loud sound reverberated off the nearby hills. It was powerful enough that Iria could feel the vibrations through her armor.

"No," Iria silently whispered as the rest of the structure collapsed. A plume of white energy shot upward through the debris and skyward as the main power plant exploded and vented its remaining energy.

The echoes eventually stopped. The only noise came from the sound of a handful of remaining pieces of building falling further downward and to the ground. Iria remained motionless. Time lost meaning for her, though not for the rest of the planet. Eventually, the temperature began to drop and the air became noticeably pungent, carrying the tang of increasingly greater amounts of nitrogen in it. But all Iria could do was stand, transfixed by the scene before her.

Repeatedly her mind tried denying the evidence before her eyes. It could not be. Not after all they had been through. There was no way the infamous 'Dirty Pair' could have been brought low by a mere building collapsing on top of them. It was too simple. Too easy. They had to have survived. No other outcome was possible.

As if in answer to her denial, a large section of the debris began bulging upward in defiance of the rest of the wreckage. A cry of hope on her lips, Iria rushed forward as the piece continued upward. The bounty hunter had made it only a dozen or so steps before the debris fell away and the being underneath was fully revealed.

Zeiram stood before her in all of its unholy glory.

Iria looked at the rest of the wreckage, expecting another piece to rise or shatter from an explosion, and for several shots to ring out and drive Zeiram back. But there was nothing as Zeiram shrugged the remaining rubble from his legs and moved forward, heading directly toward Iria.

That familiar motion, one she had lived through, and seen countless times in dreams of the past, snapped her out of her reverie. For the first time in over twenty years she laid her naked eye upon the most baleful, despised creature in her existence. The pain of Kei's loss was temporarily overwhelmed by the hatred Iria felt for the abomination before her.

"DIE!" Iria shouted at the top of her lungs as she began running forward, firing wildly as she drew nearer her goal.

Some of the shots went wide, but others struck home as Zeiram flinched under the furious firestorm of energy bolts directed towards it. Some even struck the rapidly healing chest, causing the beast to roar out in pain again. It had no chance to fire back until Iria's power pack gave out.

In the ensuing span of seconds, Zeiram responded by giving off a cry of agony as it removed an object merged underneath the fleshy surface of its back. It took only a moment for Zeiram to remove the long object and wield its hands.

Iria was still in the process of reloading as she saw the one-shot missile launcher leveled in her direction. There was a hiss as a jet of smoke shot from the rear of the missile, as it left its launcher and sped in her direction. Iria did all that she could possibly hope for, with a weapon of that sort aimed at her from under fifty meters, by hitting the ground, reducing her target profile and hoping that such a relatively small missile either didn't have an auto-guiding system or that Zeiram hadn't taken the time to lock it onto her.

Iria's hopes were realized as the missile sped over her, missing her completely. Further hopes were dashed as she discovered Zeiram's aim had proven painfully accurate and the missile detonated in the ground from only several meters away. The explosion was so close that Iria felt herself lifted bodily from the ground and hurled through the air. Reflexes took over as she went limp and allowed the shockwave to travel through her body rather than fighting it.

After what felt like kilometers, but was actually less than five meters, Iria landed hard. The wind was driven from her body. Every pore and bone ached. She felt the back of her neck cry out in raw pain from what had to be at least second-degree burns. It had to have been a shockheat missile to cause that. Her left leg was numb, and every breath was agony through what she knew to be a broken rib or two. A part of her mind hoped it was along old breaks instead of new ones. Healing would be quicker that way.

She rolled onto her back only vaguely aware of her surroundings. It felt increasingly cold, despite the fiery nature of the explosion, and it was getting significantly harder to breathe. Whether it was from injuries or the air, Iria was uncertain, but she did know that it was only her armor that had allowed her to survive the near fatal detonation. Though with the way every part of her body ached, she didn't know if it was a blessing or curse.

Her senses were only just starting to come back when she saw the red sun blotted out by a huge green form standing above her. With a cry of pain as her muscles bellowed out in protest, she went for a holster at her belt and drew a pistol.

It felt like forever to Iria as the sidearm cleared its holster and rose into her line of sight. She had just brought the pistol around to Zeiram when its foot lashed out and caught her in the wrist of her gun hand. It drove her hand into the ground, the heel of its foot coming down cleanly on the arm. The pistol fell to the side from numb fingers while pain shot through the bounty hunter's entire limb, threatening to drive her into unconsciousness. The sound of something breaking came to her ears. Whether it was her armor or the bones of her wrist, she couldn't say, as the suffering was too much to make the distinction.

That last bit of pain was too much for her to take. Her body refused to obey further commands as darkness crawled into the corners of her eyes. Her tongue played over lips that she could barely feel. There was the awareness of the bitter tang of blood in her mouth, a good bit of it, and she thought she felt something solid resting against the inside of her cheek. A tooth, perhaps, or maybe a part of her face.

Defending herself was impossible; that Zeiram would show mercy, equally so. This was it. After the merry chase she had led for over four decades and through countless star systems, Death had run her to ground at last. There was a deep-seated bitterness in the bounty hunter that she had only felt once before in her life. It was from as much the fact that Kei had died before her as Iria's own life that was about to end on a moon in the middle of nowhere, an infinity away from her home and those that were important to her. So many things accomplished, so many left to do. It wasn't fair to her, or to Kei, or even Yuri.

And perhaps the worst thing about it all, in some weird way, was that Death had to take the form of the one thing she despised the most in the universe.

Defiant to the end, she spat out an oath consecrated with saliva and blood. "I swear I'll see you in Hell, then we'll really finish this once and for all."

Zeiram reacted as it had with every other creature it had ever encountered: it said nothing. Without a hint of wasted motion, it moved until it was directly above Iria. It then bent over, looking directly into her eyes with both the red horizontal slit in its trunk and the glowing red embers that rested in its white face. The white facade hissed and emerged from the brim of the 'hat' reaching forward until it was poised above Iria's face.

And then, lighting fast, the face descended.


To be continued.

Author's notes: Definitely a good place to end this one.

Current Body Count: Several hundred residents on a DX-11000 space station, plus an unknown number of intruders that boarded the station afterwards. Five in the Ben Dover Library.  Approximately six people on Asteroid K12.  A communications outpost in Sector A45.  One spaceship.  Two hundred and thirty-three people at the Yanki's Beautiful Haven terraforming operation.

Possibly two 3WA Troubleshooters.  ^_-

Chapter 5
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