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Chapter 5

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.

And then the head snapped back just as lightning quick, restored in its original position in the brim of Zeiram's head. Inexplicably, the giant green creature turned and strode away just as purposefully as it had when it approached Iria's prone form.

Disbelief, not relief, was the prevailing emotion Iria felt. What had just happened defied any process of logic. Zeiram never demonstrated mercy, almost as though the very concept eluded it. Moreover, Iria had attacked it, all but begging to be its next target. So why, when it would have taken it the same amount of effort to rip out her throat that most people took to chew a candy bar, had it stopped, and walked away as though its work was already done?

The high-pitched drone of engines filled the sky directly above Iria, distracting her. Lacking the strength to do anything more than raise her head, she gazed upward to see a boxy freighter swoop low and angle towards an open area a hundred meters away from her, right in the path of Zeiram.

Was the pilot insane? Didn't he understand the danger he would be in if he landed? She wanted to cry out and warn the foolish pilot away before he got himself and anyone else on board killed, but then the memory of a static-filled screen rose to the surface of her thoughts. Once remembered, it was a simple matter to place where she had seen the fat ship before.

So, Zeiram was still employing the same freighter that was on the space station as his means of getting around. Even if it felt that it had killed everyone else on the planet, why leave her alive? And the way Zeiram had just stopped and turned away, it made no sense!

The ship touched the ground and a ramp lowered from its midsection. Zeiram maintained the same steady pace it had before the craft landed. Had it called the freighter down, or was there some other factor involved? There were too many questions that she had no answers to.

"Not… get away," Iria managed to get out under her breath. She watched through a veil of pain as Zeiram approached the ramp. The bounty hunter knew she could survive, would survive, to avenge Kei and Yuri, though it was Kei she was really thinking of. Zeiram had now taken everything from her except her life, which it seemed to regard as not being worth snuffing out like it had everyone else. It would pay for its mistake. Perhaps not now, but soon. Very soon. She would not let herself die on this planet with the second chance Zeiram had given her. However, she needed time to recover before she could make good on her vow. If Zeiram flew off-planet, he would escape again. But there was a way to track him.

Pain massaged every part of her body, making her vision grow dark around the edges. Hate fueled her awareness. Locked in a life and death struggle with consciousness, she refused to black out until her mission was accomplished. With her good arm, she brought out a pistol and pushed a selector switch. Unable to feel the fingers on the wrist Zeiram had stepped on, she placed the gun on the ground and went to her belt for the device. Her fingers fumbled around through the pouches as she tried to locate it. She knew she had a mobile transmitter head in her belt. She knew it! She just had to find the right pouch it was in.

Zeiram was less than twenty meters from the ship, whose engines were still running. She had to hurry, or else it would be too late. The monster was only ten meters away when her fingers finally closed on the desired piece. It was the only item with a smooth flat head. She brought it out and inserted the long prong at the end of it into the barrel of the sidearm lying on the ground. It was difficult arming the weapon one-handed, but her skills were up to the task as she managed with wavering fingers to jam it up the barrel, hearing the reassuring 'click' that let her know it was primed to be fired. Brushing a finger across the flat portion of the transmitter, it responded by activating its adhesive head. Zeiram's skin was armor hard, and hopefully just as sensitive, or else it was unlikely her impromptu plan would work.

Picking up the gun, Iria saw she was out of time. Zeiram was about to walk up the ramp. She moved quickly, her eyes tearing as the quick movement caused a new wave of pain to shoot through her. She tried lining up the sights, but the tears made her vision watery and her hand was wavering. She would never make the difficult shot.

And then, for one brief moment, the world came into perfect focus. She could see it all so clearly. Everything ceased to exist between her and the target. Taking one extra fraction of a second to hold her breath, she fired.

The large tiny projectile shot through the air in a straight line in the direction of the ship, impacting into the hardened earth right under where Zeiram's foot had been but a moment before.

The gun fell from unfeeling fingers and hit the ground with a dull thud. She had jerked pulling the trigger! It was a beginner's mistake, one she hadn't made since Gren was still alive. The mistake had cost her everything. If she had even shot a split second before, it would have hit Zeiram's heel at least. But she hadn't, and it didn't.

As she watched in mute despair, unable to summon the energy to even rise to her feet, the ramp folded up behind Zeiram, sealing the ship for space travel. The instant the ramp was in place the freighter took off at top speed, heading straight up through the atmosphere and beyond. It was little more than another twinkling light in the sky in less than fifteen seconds.

Iria's eyes remained focused on the light until it disappeared completely from sight. It was over. There was no more strength left in her to fight any longer. She had failed everyone, from herself to the people of Yanki's Beautiful Haven, though it was Kei that was foremost on her mind, Kei that meant the most of them all. The most by far.

"I'm sorry." The apology barely escaped Iria's lips. Already her breath was beginning to mist from the cold air, the planet unable to contain enough heat necessary for survival now that atmospheric processor was destroyed. And the air was getting harder to breathe. That was the thicker atmosphere slowly leaking away, being replaced by the lighter one that originally encircled the planet; one filled with only trace amounts of oxygen. Darkness beckoned while its brother, Pain, pushed her forward into its black embrace. Lacking the strength, and more importantly, the heart to fight it, she allowed herself to fall into a dreamless void.

It sensed the departure of its progenitor and could feel the air around it become steadily colder. It felt neither angry nor frightened at being abandoned. It did not care in the slightest; it was too simple for such complex feelings. It was an elementary creature, an almost random mix of DNA that was somehow able to function as a living being. It was slightly over one and a half meters long, possessing a snake-like body with a huge head full of dagger-sharp teeth. Its flesh was jet-black, the teeth and eyes pure white standing in stark contrast to its shiny obsidian surface.

It was motivated by an uncomplicated drive that involved little more than absolute obedience to its progenitor, and killing everything not like it and its siblings. There were no other siblings present any longer, nor could it find things not like it to kill. They were all already dead and it had eaten its fill to continue doing what it knew it must. But still, it would be certain there was nothing else to kill by searching again.

The change in the elemental composition of the air mattered little to it. It could breathe just about anything. It could even travel through deep space if it had to, entering a state of semi-hibernation until arriving at whatever destination it was called to. But it received no summons to follow the progenitor, so instead it moved around and sought more things to kill.

It slithered through shattered buildings and long conduits of pipes until it found another not-like-it thing. The other rested on the open ground, but it could feel the thing that was not-like-it still radiating heat and breathing. It would solve that problem quickly.

It sped across the ground, mindful of the other possibly rising up and trying to destroy it. Other things not-like-it had tried to do that, but they had all failed and been killed. It could conceive of when things not-like-it tried to prevent it from carrying out its tasks, and it would avoid those attacks so it could kill the others instead. Being attacked didn't make the creature angry; it wasn't able to care about that either.

It watched the thing not-like-it carefully as the creature slithered ever closer. The creature paused a moment before the prey laying on the ground, considering the best way to kill it, since it was just lying there and allowing the creature to figure out the way to carry out its genetic imperatives with the least amount of effort. It was able to sense the armor covering most of the body, as well as the throat that was not protected by the armor. That would be the easiest vulnerable point. Course decided, it drew back its head and prepared to rip out the throat and feast on the other's flesh, unknowingly mirroring what its progenitor had done several minutes before, though this time having no intention of stopping at the last moment.

It coiled and lunged forward, but was intercepted halfway to its target by a boot. It forced the creature down to the surface, pinning it on the ground by the portion of its body located right beneath the head. Unable to move from a force that was much stronger than it, it hissed in protest and writhed around, trying to gain purchase and launch a counterattack.

It heard the words, "Bad zeonoid! Now play dead!"

A white-hot bolt of energy lanced through its head, disintegrating over half of its brain in less then a microsecond. The last thing it heard was, "Good boy."

And then there was nothing.

Sounds drifted in the white haze that she floated in. The white was nice, but she felt naked and bare when it retreated and made her aware of something other than the white.

There were only sounds at first, but eventually the sounds seemed to form patterns. It took a while for her brain to establish that the patterns were recognizable. Words. The sounds were words. Now all that remained was to decipher them.

"-am telling you that I'm still cold. We would definitely have frozen to death before suffocating."

"And I'm telling you that it was getting too hard to breathe quicker. We'd have suffocated first."

"All right, I'll grant you we'd have passed out before hypothermia set in, but we would definitely have frozen to death before our bodies suffocated. Remember, you don't need as much oxygen when you're asleep."

"No, no, no. You're all wrong. I… Oh, look, Iria's starting to move."

That name triggered the return of memory. She was Iria. She was a bounty hunter. She needed to protect Kei and kill Zeiram. But Kei had died alongside Yuri when the building collapsed upon them. Feeling her heart break anew, Iria opened her eyes to see both members of the Lovely Angels standing next to her. Yuri watched her intently while Kei all but hovered directly above her fallen mentor.

"I'm dead too?" Iria's voice cracked with strain, as though she hadn't spoken for a week.

Yuri folded her arms and snorted in disgust. "Excuse me, but I am offended at the very idea that I would end up in the same place in the afterlife as Kei."

The particular outburst-cum-insult caused Kei to scowl at her partner. Giving Yuri a bland stare, the redhead said one word. "Clydesdales."

For a moment, it looked to Iria as though Yuri would fall over dead, given the ashen pallor her entire body took on in the span of a heartbeat. In total shock, the raven-haired troubleshooter babbled out, "I thought your memory of that whole day was erased!"

"Yuri, there are some things that are so disturbing they can never truly be erased from anyone's mind." Kei seemed highly amused now.

Yuri blurted out in a panicked stream, "I'll do whatever you want whenever you want, just don't ever mention that word to me again."

"What word?" Kei asked, now happy at having the upper hand.

"Right," Yuri said, relaxing somewhat.

Iria found herself convinced that she must be alive, as it was categorically impossible she would end up in the same place in the afterlife with either of her current companions. "So what's going on? How did you two survive?"

With some semblance of order returned, the duo began relating events as to exactly what had happened.

Kei starting things off, pointing to Yuri. "Actually, she's the one that saved our butts."

A measure of pride returned to Yuri as she preened slightly. "Just as the building was coming down on top of us, I noticed we were standing on the section of floor right above the coolant tanks for the atmospheric generator. So I emptied my gun into the floor, which gave way, and allowed us to splash down into the twenty thousand gallon tanks they have down there. Luckily, the rest of the flooring held and the building didn't come crashing down on top of us, at least not most of it. After things settled, it was only a matter of minutes for us to swim our way out, pick you up, and get off-planet."

"And the radioactive elements in the coolant were really low and it didn't permanently affect us or anything," Kei added, happy that she wasn't glowing in the dark.

"I see," Iria said, relieved at Kei's continued health while angry at herself for letting Zeiram get away. Again. She looked around trying to figure out where she was. "Why are we on my ship?"

"We didn't want you getting any blood in our beds," Yuri said casually, eliciting a quick elbow to the ribs from Kei. The raven-haired 3WA agent shot her partner a nasty look. "Excuse me, but as I recall, the first words out of your lips were, 'she's not bleeding on my sheets'."

Giving a sad shake of her head, Iria tried to rise from the bed and into a sitting position, but a wave of dizziness swept over her, and she found herself unable to get more than a handful of inches up before having to settle back down again. "What's wrong with me?"

Kei heard the edge in Iria's voice. Speaking quickly to calm her mentor, she said, "Not much, really. Just a sprained wrist, two broken ribs, numerous contusions, second degree burns along the back of your neck and scalp, and a minor concussion. Sort of like what happens when you slip on a bar of soap in the bathroom while carrying a grenade with the pin pulled out."

"Why is it so hard to think?" Iria muttered through the haze of white that was still affecting her.

"That would be from the triple dose of Effarx painkillers we loaded you up with," Yuri explained.

Iria shook her head. "No. Painkillers will keep my head fuzzy and won't heal me up fast enough. Get me some Acenon Bandages."

That made Kei recoil. "No way! Those things will screw you up." Everyone knew that while the bandages did accelerate healing to incredible levels, they also increased the level of pain due to the augmentation in healing. Also, as time passed, it was proven that in some cases it would permanently lower or even ruin altogether the ability to heal from injuries, even from something as insignificant as a paper cut. Worse, it was completely random. Someone could use the bandages several times with no ill effects, and then suddenly end up dying from a minor gash. The number of people affected was a low percentage, which was why Acenon was still manufactured and utilized, but it did happen.

"I use them all the time," Iria slurred dismissively.

"You've used them five times in ten years, under heavy protest from me each time," Bob's voice was identical to that of a mother reminding her child that jumping into a raging blast furnace was probably a bad idea.

Kei placed a hand firmly on Iria's shoulders, making her lay back down. "That settles it. You kick back and enjoy your drug-induced dreams. Let me and Yuri take care of things for a while now. You've earned a break."

Kei felt Iria slump in defeat, the bounty hunter resting her head on her pillow as her eyes became heavy lidded. "Okay, but wake me up if you find Zeiram." Iria's voice drifted off, with the word "Zeiram" taking three times longer to finish than it normally would.

Seeing Iria give up and drift off, a smile rose to Kei's lips as she considered the remarkable turn of events that led her to be the one taking care of the older woman for a change. The lack of an argument from the bounty hunter was an obvious indication of just how badly she had been hurt. Once satisfied Iria was going to sleep, Kei wordlessly left the bedside and returned to the Lovely Angel with Yuri in tow.

They were gone for no more than a couple of minutes when Iria's eyes fluttered open. Sensing the Lovely Angels would not be returning anytime soon, the bounty hunter focused with every ounce of remaining concentration she possessed. It seemed to take forever for her to summon enough strength to roll out of bed and onto the floor, her fall only being interrupted by the deck plates underneath. It took a few more seconds to regain enough strength to start a slow, arduous crawl towards the back of the ship.

"I could call Kei and have her strap you to the bed," Bob offered. He didn't need his sensors to tell him that Iria was trying to get to the first aid kit stored in a nearby locker where some Acenon Bandages were stored. However, the glare Iria shot informed him that if such an event occurred, he would be reduced to running the waste management programs for the rest of his electronic existence. The loud sigh he gave to Iria announced he was washing his hands clean of the matter. Putting his free time to good use, he returned to processing the most recent information he had gleaned from Yanki's Beautiful Haven. There was something there, some important detail that could be added to the rest of the information he had uncovered and produce a clearer picture. Bob was sure he could figure out if he had just a little more time.

It was time.

After leaving the Creeper V, Kei announced she needed to grab some food from the mess and asked Yuri if she wanted some. Declining, the raven-haired troubleshooter gave some vague answer about finishing some work she had started and headed directly to the bridge.

There was a little twinge from Yuri's conscience, just a tiny thing that protested what she was considering, but realistically there was no question that it had to be done. They had failed to bring in Zeiram again, had nearly died in the attempt, which meant it was time to call in reinforcements.

Bob would probably be okay with her decision, he seemed to be the reasonable sort, but Iria and Kei would raise hell about it. It wasn't Iria's reaction Yuri was so much concerned about, but rather Kei's. They were partners after all, and she loved Kei like a sister. The redhead's feelings nearly always meant something to Yuri, but with this mission, Kei had gone too far. She had allowed her own personal feelings to get in the way of professionalism and they were suffering for it. Oh, sure, Kei and others had made that accusation about Yuri in the past, but they were full of crap. Just because a few planets had blown up on missions she'd been assigned to was no indication of allowing her performance level to curve down due to personal problems; she was a professional to the bone.

Course at last finalized, Yuri went to the communications console and punched up the data on the memory banks. Not finding her report in the primary memory, she checked the backup in case that had somehow been set up as the default program for storing the message. Again, there was nothing, not even the automatic backup that should have been generated when she initially saved the report.

Yuri was still trying to figure out what had happened when Kei entered the bridge with a steaming cup of coffee in hand. Continuing to scowl at the console, the raven-haired woman spoke without looking at her partner. "Did you fool around with the computer systems at all?"

"Nah. I didn't mess up anything." Kei took a sip of the coffee. "I deliberately erased your report. You can't really call that 'fooling around', now can you?"

Head jerking at the casual way Kei had delivered the statement, Yuri spun on her with a mix of anger at what her partner had done and surprise at her secretive actions being mentioned in such an offhand manner. "You had no business doing that!"

Kei met the accusation with a scowl of her own. "I told you, this is our case. We can handle it without any outside interference."

"The hell we can!" Yuri slammed her hand down on the console. It was the wiser course of action, preferable to going with her initial urge and hitting Kei, but it felt nowhere near as satisfying. "People are dying left and right, and we haven't come close to stopping any of it. We've been lucky to survive ourselves. We need to call headquarters and get somebody else on this case."

Kei snarled back in anger, "This is bigger than just Zeiram, and you know it! Did you forget what happened on Delabar? We go public with this and the bad guys are either going to go into hiding or really unload on everything around."

"Bullshit!" Yuri's own anger increased in direct proportion to Kei's. How dare she get angry when it was Yuri that had been so terribly wronged. "We don't know anything of the kind. You've completely lost any objectivity. This is personal for you and Iria, Kei. It's been that way from the beginning. You two just have to settle this personal vendetta and screw everyone else who might get hurt in the process, just so long as its you two who take out Zeiram in the end!"

"We're the best suited for the job!"

"But you're not the only ones suited for it," Yuri said with iron in her voice. "I'm informing headquarters of everything we know."

Yuri reached out for the transmitter, but Kei's hand shot forward and grasped it halfway there.

"Don't make me stop you, Yuri."

The soft tone of seriousness in Kei's voice made Yuri recoil. Kei was loud and boisterous when delivering threats, not quiet and solemn, that was more along Yuri's lines. "You're threatening me?"

Kei didn't back off in the slightest. "I'm telling you not to do this."

Yuri ripped her hand out of Kei's, furious beyond measure. Never had Kei pushed her like this, not over this sort of matter. "I'm your partner, not your subordinate. You ask me things. You don't order me around."

"Then I'm asking you to let it go," Kei might have been pleading, but it carried the same hint of iron Yuri's had, and told her Kei would not be backing down in the slightest.

Under different circumstances, Yuri might have gone along with it given Kei's obvious feelings on the matter, but with the way her partner had been all but gushing since Iria had shown up and been doing everything short of groveling to please her, coupled with the irrational Captain Ahab-like vengeance Kei had demonstrated pursuing Zeiram, all it succeeded in doing was making Yuri angry instead. "Not a chance." Her voice was heavy with finality.

"Don't make me do something we'll both regret," Kei said, begging without sounding like it in the least as her hands formed fists.

More incensed than ever, Yuri backed up and mirrored her partner's aggressive stance. How dare Kei do this to her! "Partners for over fifteen years and you're going to piss it all away because of some oversized walking mushroom and your stupid obsessed mother figure."

The punch was so fast Yuri didn't realize she was falling until her head struck the corner of the console hard. Her body continued onward, crashing “pleasantly” to the metal of the floor, bouncing only once before settling down on the cool surface.

"Don't call Iria that! Don't you dare call her anything like that ever again, Yuri!" Kei shouted through her tears. The redhead could feel her heart breaking, torn in two directions because of Yuri. Why couldn't she just back off and see reason? Why did she have to choose now to be intractable and insulting? And she had no business calling Iria names. Not Yuri. Not her own partner. Of all the people in Kei's life, Yuri should have been the last one in the entire universe to insult someone so important to her. It was almost as though her partner was trying to force Kei to choose between her and Iria. There was no choice to be made, and even if there was, it was impossible to choose between the two. No one could ever make such a choice.

Kei watched Yuri try to get up, and then fall onto her back, eyes almost rolling into the back of her head. Her anger became mixed with concern. No matter how pig-headed and offensive Yuri was behaving, they were still partners, and it did look like she had hit her head hard against the console. Add to that Kei's own tremendous strength and it was lucky Yuri's jaw was still attached at all.

Kei kneeled down on the floor and bent over the prone woman. "Hey, Yuri. I didn't hit you too hard, did I? You are okay, right?"

"Better than you are," Yuri managed to get out.

A rabbit punch connected with Kei's solar plexus, the unexpected blow knocking the wind clean out of her. Kei fell onto her back, sounding like a set of bellows as she tried to recover her breath. "Going… to… get… you… for… that," she got out between gasps.

"No way, blubberguts." Yuri tried picking herself up using the chair for support, only to seemingly have the chair move itself from out of her grasp and cause her collapse to the floor again. "Computer, make the room stop spinning," she ordered.

"We don't have an… audio response system… chunky." Kei managed to get to her feet first, looking for something to hit Yuri with. Fists were nice, but there was something infinitely more satisfying about pummeling someone with a large metal object.

Yuri at last regained her own footing, somewhat shakily, and confronted Kei once again. The two squared off more cautiously than before.

Kei moved first, lunging at Yuri and determined to use her slight strength advantage to overpower her in a clench. Yuri countered by twisting in the direction she had already been swooning towards. Caught off-balance by the last second evasion, Kei tripped and met the floor hard instead. Although at the last second Kei had lashed out with her hand and caught Yuri by the top of her outfit, dragging the dark-haired woman down to the floor as well and slowing her fall with Yuri's resistance. Kei released her hold on the top and tried grappling her opponent, while Yuri tried to do the same. The duo rolled around on the deck, each trying to gain an advantage over the other.

Yuri had a death grip on Kei's hair, while Kei had one of Yuri's arms bent behind her back, when a male voice, smooth as ice, purred "Oh yeah. Keep at it, girls! I'm getting all of this on video. We're going to make millions with this hot catfight."

Both opponents froze, only their heads turning in the direction from where the voice had come from, their console.

Kei managed to speak first, "Bob, what the hell are you talking about?"

Bob continued using the Lovely Angel's bridge console to talk smoothly to them. "I think we'll dub it, 'The Dirty Pair Get Down and Nasty'. Send a little preview through the galactic net, and I see preorders stretching into the billions."

The pair, suddenly realizing the position they were in, shot to their feet and stood a full meter away from one another. Embarrassment at what they had done, or more importantly, what they had been caught doing, temporarily eradicating their anger.

"Yuri, breasts," Kei hissed.

Yuri looked down at her top, seeing that one of her breasts had popped free when Kei had grabbed her by it. She gave a yelp and promptly covered it up once again.

"So much for the free show," Bob sighed.

"Look you," Yuri warned, her anger at Kei gone in light of the potential embarrassment from Bob's threat. And it was only a threat. She would make damn sure of that. "What are you doing in our ship anyway?"

"I needed to get some information and your transmitter was more powerful. Since I was here, I decided to let you know what I discovered." Not that he was pleased at the duo duking it out for some reason. His time dealing with women, Iria in particular, made him realize that embarrassing them was a far more effective way of breaking up the fight instead of demanding they stop. Women never reacted well to being ordered around. Being subtle always gained far better results, even when one was composed of data and electricity instead of flesh.

"What information was that?" Yuri asked, relaxing somewhat from the distraction and mystery, though irritated that Bob had used the link between the ships to get into their system. She was going to have to improve the defenses on their system.

"Several things, mostly ownership records. I think I've found a pattern in Zeiram's targets. One that might enable us to head him off for a change."

"That's great!" Kei said, also putting what had just happened in the back of her mind as she found another target for her aggression. "Where?"

"Let's get back together with Iria first. I don't want to have to explain things twice." And maybe Kei could persuade her to not use the Acenon Bandages, though he held no real hopes for that. Even Kei had only so much pull with Iria, and two voices of reason were as likely to be ignored as one in this case.

The duo shot uncertain glances at one another, then seemed to come to an unspoken truce. Getting Zeiram would take precedence over their 'discussion,' but they would return to it when time allowed. There were way too many issues to be settled, and not all of them were related to sending word to headquarters. However, there was one other small detail to take care of before anything else. Even more important that hunting down Zeiram.

"Ah, Bob, you didn't videotape that, did you?" Kei asked hesitantly.

"Now Kei, would I do something like that?"

"You're avoiding answering the question," Yuri informed him.

"I would never sell a videotape of you two in a compromising position."

"Well, that's better-" Kei began.

"At least not without digitally fogging your faces first."

"BOB!" The two yelled in one voice.

"No, I didn't. Give me some credit," Bob said in genuine irritation. Even if taping it and keeping a private copy would have been sort of neat. He had become something of a voyeur over the years, though being reduced to his current state had a lot to do with that.

After several more inquiries, and being satisfied that Bob had definitely not taped them, the duo headed off the bridge. The fight itself was left behind, but some tension still existed between them.

Despite the barrier, or perhaps because of it, Yuri remarked teasingly to her partner, "Going for my breasts, Kei? I always thought you looked at me a bit funny. I hate to break it to you, but I don't go that way."

"I am not that way!" Kei shot back.

"What about Senchiro Sykes?"

"For your information, he was a hermaphrodite. Hermaphrodites don't count. And it wasn't like I knew he was one until we…"

Bob tuned everything out after that. There were some things no man, even one reduced to being a computer intelligence, wanted to know.

"You're a complete idiot!"

"A complete idiot? Good. I hate doing things halfway."

"Tell her she's bring a complete idiot, Bob!"

"I can't. She'll cut me off from cyber-porn sites, and then I really will go insane."

"You tell her, Yuri."

"What Kei said." Yuri stood resting her back against the bulkhead of the Creeper V, well away from the other two. Actually Kei probably was correct, since Iria was sitting up in her bed, doing a damn poor job of hiding just how much suffering she was in. The pain was coming from the Acenon Bandages she had wrapped around her torso and neck. Painkillers wouldn't work any more once the bandages were in place. Something about the Acenon negated the effect of any drug. It was the price one paid for ultra-quick healing. Still, even Yuri could tell the red marks from the burns were already fading and that the ribs would most likely heal within the next seven hours, a testament to just how effective the augmenting property of the bandages was.

Upon their return to the ship, and seeing the state Iria was in, Kei nearly shot across the chamber and ripped the bandages off herself. Only the knowledge that any potential damage would already have occurred staved off that action, though not by much. Instead, Kei had gone into a tongue-lashing that even Iria would have winced at, had she not been already wincing from her wounds and bandages. "Complete idiot" was probably the most pleasant appellation Kei had made so far. There had been plenty of others that would have made a Progtalian smuggler blush. As far as Yuri was concerned, she agreed with Kei, but figured it wasn't her place to take a side. It was Iria's life, and she had the right to take it into her own hands. And that wasn't considering the bounty hunter was not exactly Yuri's favorite person in the galaxy at the moment.

"Can we get on with this?" Iria finally said through deeply bloodshot eyes, another side effect of Acenon.

Kei continued sitting next to Iria, going between fussing and cursing at least twice in each sentence. Sensing Kei had no intention of stopping anytime this week, Yuri added, "I want to know what you've uncovered too, Bob."

With the vote three to one, Bob began his explanation. "I've been running over every fact we've come across since encountering Zeiram at the space station, trying to make some sort of sense out of all of this mess. Up until now, I simply didn't have enough to make even a half-decent guess about anything. But with this latest attack, I think I've finally figured out the common denominator with nearly all of the targets he's hit thus far: they all belong to Yurenex-Solvar Corporation."

That perked all three women up, even the pain-shrouded Iria.

"All of them?" Kei asked.

There was hesitation in Bob's voice. "Well, all but the mining operation. That was owned by Sarvgon, a small geology corporation that operates in this arm of the galaxy. But all of the others were owned by YSC. And there's something else. Once I made the YSC connection, I did some additional digging; that's why I borrowed your pass codes to get the information from the 3WA Information net."

"And?" Yuri asked.

"Well, this is a bit of a jump in logic, but when Tedan-Tippendai went belly up after the Zeiram fiasco, they were bought out by a company called the Tormend Confederation."

That made Iria react. "TC is competing fiercely with Yurenex-Solvar in several areas, including trying to muscle in on YSC's near death lock on the space vehicles industry."

"And all of the targets hit, except for the mining colony, were the closest Yurenex-Solvar owned businesses in this sector of space," Bob said, satisfied that the others understood the full importance of the knowledge he had uncovered.

"Where's the next closest YSC-owned operation?" Iria asked, her pain pushed to the background for the time being as the scent of the hunt filled her senses once again.

"Now there we have something of a problem," Bob admitted. "According to my database, there are two YSC business almost equal distance from here. One is located in the Baltron system, the other in Omicron 4. Baltron is closer, but smaller, a series of banks on the one populated planet in the system. However, the one on Omicron 4 is a biggie. It’s the management center for this part of the sector. If Zeiram is trying to hurt these guys, that would almost definitely be his target."

The others processed all of the surprising information. At last some pieces were falling into place, although there were still some important ones missing.

Kei mentioned that first. "Going after specific targets, like businesses owned by a corporation, is definitely not the method of operation Zeiram used last time. He definitely went with something more along the lines of a 'see it, kill it,' philosophy."

"Maybe he's got a grudge against Yurenex-Solvar?" Yuri offered.

"He's not the kind of guy to carry those sorts of grudges," Kei assured her.

"There's another possibility," Iria said, continuing to ignore the pain that was wracking her body. "Zeiram didn't kill me, despite having the opportunity to finish me off with just the clamping of his jaws. Just when it looked like he was about to, he stopped and walked away. A moment later that freighter he used on the space station landed and gave him a ride off-planet. I wasn't in any shape to consider what had happened up until now, but the more I think about it, the more I believe that he didn't summon that ship anymore than he flew it off the space station like we first assumed. I think someone else landed it and picked him up. I think Zeiram has himself a partner."

"A zeonoid?" Yuri asked.

Kei shook her head. "None of them are anywhere near bright enough to pilot a spaceship of any kind."

"And that still doesn't explain why he didn't kill me when he had the chance," Iria pointed out. Talking was becoming easier as the pain seemed to subside somewhat.

"Gren?" Kei asked hesitantly.

Iria grimaced, though no one, not even Iria herself, could tell if it was from a sudden shard of pain, or from the memory, not even Iria herself. "No. Even when he was in Zeiram, and I don't think he is any longer, the best he could do was make Zeiram vulnerable for only a handful of seconds. Whatever it was that made tall dark and ugly leave, it wasn't Gren."

No one was foolish enough to imply Zeiram's reaction came from a sudden conversion to pacifism. That seemed to leave only one reasonable option. Yuri was the one to give voice to it. "Someone's controlling Zeiram?"

None of the others were able to discount that one, no matter how much they wanted to, not with what it implied. Zeiram was bad enough with the regular “hunt-kill” intelligence it had possessed before. It was smart, but fell into certain predictable patterns. But if an outside force were controlling it, things would become significantly more difficult. But that new fact would do nothing to dissuade the women. If anything, it simply served to prove the necessity of stopping Zeiram quickly.

The sentiment was clearly stated when Iria announced, "Then it's off to Omicron 4 we go."

Kei was all for it, which was exactly what Yuri had mentally predicted was going to happen when she saw the direction the conversation was taking. Naturally with their obsessions they would overlook a significant detail. It was up to Yuri to force the issue, by making them confront the potential problem even if the other two did not want to hear it.

"What if we're wrong, and he hits Baltron?" Yuri asked Iria, but shot a glare to Kei. It was returned just as fiercely by the redhead.

Despite the pain, Iria was mentally clear enough to consider those words of caution. Splitting up was out of the question; it was going to take all three of them to get the mission accomplished. But if Zeiram did indeed hit Baltron while they were searching Omicron 4, any ensuing deaths that resulted from the planet not being warned would be their responsibility. Still, to warn them would mean letting information about Zeiram out and possibly having him and his associates go into hiding, if their guesses were right. If they were and that happened, Zeiram might not surface again for years, if ever.

"We'll send a warning about the freighter. Say there's a Class-1 Biological Hazard on board, and that the ship is not to land under any circumstances, even if it means shooting it down. That should do it." Iria didn't like tipping their hand about suspecting where Zeiram would strike, but since they had to admit there was a realistic possibility he would attack there, they had to do something to protect the people.

Kei looked at Yuri, who seemed to accept the decision reluctantly. Technically Zeiram could be rated as a Class-1 Biological Hazard. And it would serve to put the planet on alert for him. That concession made it a victory of sorts for Yuri, though a small one. Still, it seemed the first she had since running into Iria and Zeiram. Since it was her idea, Yuri headed off to make the warning.

The communications relay satellite Optima 4 hung in planetary orbit above Baltron. It was the planet's primary means of receiving deep space communications, a new device put up just three years before and proving itself more than capable of handling the entire information load that had been distributed among the aging, expensive to maintain, and far less effective series of Kintups 5 satellites that had previously handled all deep space communications. Once the planetary government was certain the new device was capable of doing all of the services it was supposed to, all but one of the Kintups were abandoned and left to break down or burn up on reentry to the atmosphere. The remaining Kintups served as a backup in case something did happen to Optima 4, allowing it to be pressed into service once again until another of the Optima series could be put up to replace the old one. But since nothing ever happened to the state-of-the-art relay system, no one ever bothered to man the communications console for the old Kintups, allowing the satellite to log all of the messages it received on automatic.

Had anyone bothered to examine the logs on the remaining Kintups, they would have discovered an anomaly; a warning about a freighter with a Class 1 Biological Hazard that had not been relayed by Optima 4 to planetary control. However, no one ever did examine it, so no one ever discovered the omission.

But Optima 4 had indeed received the transmission. It failed to transmit the message to planetary control due to a number of hidden backdoors programmed into it, and that someone had recently given it a set of orders that superseded the commands that had been inserted by the Baltron Planetary Government. Instead, the message was relayed somewhere else, a place where others had been keeping their “ears” open for such bits of information. A place where decisions were made.

"Transmit orders to Group Beta. They'll know what to do."

And so it was done.

"Surprisingly easy and simple, isn't it?"

"Yes, very," Iria agreed. Her ribs didn't hurt anymore, at least not as much as when they had been broken. All that was left was a lingering throbbing sensation from the center of her chest. Everything else was perfect. A seven-hour space flight was more than enough time for the Acenon to work its miraculous magic.

However, the condition of her mentor's health was not what Kei was commenting on, but rather the ease with which they had seemed to locate Zeiram. Upon arriving in Omicron 4's atmosphere, they picked up current broadcasts that told them Yurenex-Solvar's headquarters' was under attack by some unknown force. Law enforcement units were reportedly already at the scene and controlling the situation. Using their authority as 3WA troubleshooters, the Dirty Pair were given preferential treatment and escorted immediately to the site, bringing Iria along under the auspices of an “observer”. Upon arriving at the scene, the trio acknowledged that “controlling the situation” might have been a bit of an exaggeration. It was more along the lines of, “we're getting our asses kicked all over the place like a giant soccer ball.”

The police's position nearly three-quarters of a kilometer away from the headquarters allowed the trio to view the almost total carnage before them. YSC had purchased the land all around their main building, making it a variety of parking lots and areas of green lawn that would have been very pleasing to the eye had it not been for the over half dozen smoking vehicles that were lying in complete ruin around the site. Well over twenty bodies could be seen sprawled out over the grounds, none of them even close to the structure (which could only be dubbed “surrounded” using the loosest form of the term) by the remaining members of the local authorities, who were cowering behind their vehicles, well beyond the nearest flaming ruin. No one seemed the least bit eager to approach the headquarters again.

The trio asked around, trying to locate the commander of the forces there. As they went from person to person, Iria noticed that Kei and Yuri no longer walked as near to one another as before, each seeming intent on putting Iria between them. Now that she was out of the haze of pain, the bounty hunter observed that there was a noticeable tension between them. Hopefully, it wouldn't affect the mission. She would grill Kei about what had happened later, after they had taken care of Zeiram for the final time.

Once informed of who the commander was, they located him in short order. He was the a rotund man squatting behind a police hover vehicle, surrounded by a small pile of used cigarettes at his feet and holding a sidearm in one hand and a radio in the other. He was yelling at the radio through another dangling cigarette in his mouth.

"-get me some goddamn support, you military screwjobs! No, I don't care if you don't have jurisdiction, and it'll cause an incident! No, I don't care if your coming here does trigger a civil war with the city authorities; we've already got a war right here, you blue-coated weaselshafts! WHAT?! You'll send an observer to determine if the situation requires your assistance?! Observe this, you warmongering whore!" The man brought his gun up and shot the transmitter, nearly taking his hand off in the process.

"You sure showed him," Yuri commented dryly as they drew near enough to the commander to be heard over the din of panicked confusion his men were in, noting that the name tag on his badge said, “Renaldo Simms”. All the rest of his men had succeeded in doing so far was keeping the civilian population back and away from the site, although maybe it was the people's survival instincts that accomplished that feat.

Simms took in the trio before him. He didn't seem to know what to make of Iria, but upon looking Kei and Yuri over, he said. "I've got no time for hookers, girls. See me after this shit's all over, though knowing my luck, I'll get tagged in the balls and have to get one of those X-L J. Holmes prosthetics."

"We're 3WA troubleshooters, you asshole!" Kei snapped with a vicious glint in her eye. Yuri appeared just as eager to draw her gun and correct the officer the hard way, namely by pistol-whipping him.

Simms scrutinized them a second time. "Don't you think you guys are a bit old to be going around in two piece outfits like that? You aren't doing anyone any favors by showing the effect gravity has on a body, you know."

Iria was barely able to restrain the two from making the man as dead as Zeiram would have. Deciding she had the most level head of the people present, she took charge of the situation, allowing the man to assume she was a troubleshooter as well. "If I were you, I'd watch my mouth. It seems to me you don't have all that many options, since it's obvious no one is coming to help bail your ass out. And you've been doing so well on your own, too." Iria pointed at the wasteland of law enforcement debris before her.

The commander considered that and nodded in apology. "Sorry. Your sag is barely noticeable."

Iria had the Dirty Pair calmed down enough to start talking coherently in under five minutes.

Once peace was achieved, Simms began explaining the situation. "We received a silent alarm from YSC's headquarters here at 13:40 local time. Two units were sent out to investigate. When they didn't report in, and we received a call saying there was an explosion around here, we came out in full force. That was a mistake. It turned out to be an ambush."

"Let me guess. It was a huge nine-foot-tall monster that looks like a giant mushroom on steroids and is able to use any kind of firearm like a highly trained mercenary," Kei said smugly.

"Wow! That's amazing…" the officer said in awe.

Kei smirked. "Thanks. I know I-"

"… That anyone could be so far off on the description of a perp," the officer finished.

Kei's eyebrow twitched. "What?"

Iria was just as concerned. "Do you mean to tell me that isn't what attacked you? Are you sure?"

Simms placed his hand to his chin in thought. "Well, now that you mention it, I suppose I could have mistaken several guys wearing black special-forces type jumpsuits and carrying sophisticated state-of-the-art armament while moving with a military precision that managed to blow up half of the police force in the city in just over a minute as not being a giant walking mushroom. Sorry about that. I guess it was your perp."

Kei looked the commander's forces over. "We could have done it in under a minute."

That raised Simms's ire. He stood up, bowing and gesturing to the YSC building. "By all means, help yourselves. Hope you don't choke on a missile barrage."

For the first time since leaving the ship, Kei and Yuri smiled at one another. "Sounds like he's giving us jurisdiction, wouldn't you say?" Yuri asked.

"Sounded like it to me," Kei agreed.

"That is not what I meant," Simms started to argue, but it was far, far too late.

Yuri smiled, all the while knowing his protests would do him no good. "But that's what you said, and unlike most people, our word alone is admissible in intergalactic court and not treated as hearsay. So you're going to yield control of the situation to us and render what assistance you can."

Simms blustered in anger at being tricked into the helping them. "In case you didn't notice, there isn't a whole lot of help I can give you. We're completely wasted."

"Oh, relax," Yuri said soothingly, which only served to make Simms more nervous. "We'll take care of things ourselves. None of your men will be placed at additional risk. Not intentionally, anyway."

Simms blood pressure nearly doubled. "I don't see what you can do. That whole place is a kill zone. It's all open area, and those guys have an unrestricted view of everything and the firepower to bring down an armored spaceship. You try getting to that building, and you'll just get yourselves wasted."

"We've cracked tougher nuts than this," Kei bragged. It was at that point Simms gave up. The only consolation he had was that since there were three of them, they weren't the Dirty Pair. If they had been, he'd have probably jumped off-planet in a heartbeat, wife and family be damned.

Satisfied they now had the situation under control, the three women formed a huddle and began a quiet discussion so that the commander couldn't hear them.

Iria spoke first. "As incompetent as this guy is, I think he's right. This doesn't sound like Zeiram."

"But from the description the foul-mouthed jerk gave, I'd say the attackers do bear a strong resemblance to that guy that tried to kill us in the library," Yuri mentioned.

Kei nodded in agreement. "And they're hitting a YCS operation. Sounds like a probable connection to me. And it's our duty to help out the people of this planet out, as well as saving anyone left alive inside."

"You're just looking for an excuse to shoot something," Iria smirked while ruffling Kei's hair.

"Cut it out, you're embarrassing me," Kei protested.

Yuri gave a loud "Ahem!" to catch their attention. Really, did they have to act so unprofessional? "Let's figure out how we can get in there."

The three discussed the plan for all of thirty seconds before coming to an agreement. Yuri acted as spokesperson for the trio. She went up to the commander and began listing her demands. "We aren't going to need much to get into that place. Just one of your larger vehicles, three full-body, reinforced firefighting outfits, as big a smokescreen as you can manage, a hundred twenty-gallon drums of paint thinner and kerosene, a powerful laser cutting torch, and last but not least, a cinderblock."

All Simms could manage was a twitch of the jaw.

Rene Foulcard looked out from his position on the third story of the north side of Yurenex-Solvar's Regional Third Branch Headquarters. There were only twenty-four members in his unit, but a few people in key positions, armed appropriately, could hold off a force ten times its size from the building's location. Setting up the defense had been easy for him. He was a master of strategy. Chess was his favorite game, and he was almost a rated grandmaster at it. And like all of his strategies, this one had turned out perfectly.

According to the other members of the unit, their tasks were nearly completed and they could depart through the upper atmosphere once the signal for their escort cover was sent. The job had been a messy business, but that was what Rene was paid to do. What he had been trained to do. What he lived for.

One of the members of his unit drew close. "Captain."

"No ranks!" Rene hissed. Ranks denoted training and were a clue others might be able to follow up on should a person overhear, not that there was anyone left alive in the facility outside of his own people. Still, only the careless took chances, and the careless always died in the end. Always. Out in the field they were numbers, not names. Number 8, Kira Ohara, knew better than that. He would discipline her once they were back at the nearest safe house they were delivered to. And it wasn't the sort of discipline Ohara would like, even with her unusual tastes.

'Number 8' took the admonishment in stride, appearing truly repentant. Either that, or she was demonstrating loyalty so she wouldn't receive a bad report and not get her bonus.

"Number 22!" Ohara said urgently.

Rene had thought it particularly brilliant designating himself as Number 22. It made him sound less important to those outside the unit that were ignorant of the truth. Likewise, it made him a less valuable target for snipers, which would no doubt make whoever was Number 1 the primary target, believing him to be the commander. This mission it had been Stroski, who had managed to get on Rene's bad side a few weeks back by picking up a woman in a bar that Rene had wanted to get to know better. Maybe it would be Stroski next mission too. The woman had been painfully attractive, after all.

Good-looking women were hard to come by for Rene. He would be the first to admit he was not particularly handsome, balding so much that by the age of twenty-five he shaved off all of his hair, considering it a lost cause anyway. He was slender and possessed a wiry strength, and though not unattractive, neither was he remarkable in any way save the eyes. Most people that dared voice their opinion about them claimed they were slightly crazed. Rene knew the truth though, they were just jealous of his superiority. And besides, everyone knew the eyes were the mirror to the soul, and his soul was remarkable. His eyes were just a reflection of that.

The thought ran through Rene's mind in an instant, as he understood that Ohara was pointing over his shoulder. He looked out the window, and saw a canister hit the ground and begin emitting some kind of gas. It was the fifth so far, and more could be seen on the way through the rapidly thickening cloud of gray.

"Morons," Rene cursed. This was insulting. As though they could be gassed out. Over his communicator, he ordered. "All personnel, gas attack." Rene fit his own mask over his face, the transparent plastic not restricting his view in the slightest as it affixed to the hood of his suit and formed an airtight seal. It was so clear it was as though it wasn't there, and it would keep out every kind of gas there was.

"Motor running," Number 8 noted.

Rene had to admit, the woman's hearing was even more acute than his own. Perhaps her punishment would not be so severe after all. Rene had certainly done his share of bloodletting today, and his more savage baser instincts were satisfied, at least for a while.

Switching the mask over to heat detection, he could easily make out the truck that was barreling toward the building, hidden from normal sight by the huge gas cloud. "They are even bigger fools than I first believed. They deserve to die." He picked up the portable missile launcher that sat next to his post at the window and lined the laser tracking-computer on the target, waiting until the manual sight he had attached to the weapon was lined up with the approaching vehicle. He never liked relying too much on technology. It had a bad tendency to give out on you when you could least afford to lose it. Personal prowess could always be counted on, even when things turned to shit.

"So long." Rene triggered the weapon and felt the kick from the launcher as the missile shot out towards the target. His heat imaging easily allowed him to track the missile's flight until it impacted with the oncoming vehicle a moment later.

A titanic fireball blossomed from the truck, the force of the explosion shattering even the durable windows at a distance of a hundred meters. The sudden flash of heat blinded both Rene and Ohara, and caused them to shut their eyes.

Once the initial surprised passed, Number 8 said, "Holy shit, Number 22. What sort of explosive did you use? Nalpa? I didn't think even that could make a fireball that big."

"That's because it can't, you worthless twit!" Rene snarled as his vision slowly started to return. It was a good thing he had been blinking just as the explosion occurred; otherwise there was no telling how long it would have taken to recover his eyesight.

Still, he knew Number 8 was right. That was an impressive explosion. Too impressive. The truck had gone up like a fuel tanker, which made no sense. Why would they send a fuel tanker at…

"SHIT!" he cursed at the top of his lungs and looked out at the scene in front of the building. Flames covered the ground, starting smaller fires everywhere on the lawn, and the air was still superheated from the explosion. Rene could barely make out anything. It was all a yellow blur on heat imaging. Switching to regular vision proved no better, light amplification was worthless, and they possessed no portable radar units. It took only a moment to figure out what had happened, and what it meant for his men.

Speaking into his com-link, Rene gave his commands. "All personnel, intruders have breached the perimeter. Orders are to shoot on sight, and shoot to kill."

"Brilliant work, Kei."

"I have to admit, Iria, that the idea of paint thinner and kerosene was the perfect choice of liquids to use."

"And the cinderblock to keep the empty vehicle moving was simple in design, though effective, Kei. Congratulations to you."

"A good thing you thought about the firefighting suits to use to walk through the flames, Yuri. I hate to think what would have happened if we had forgotten about that little detail."

"Definitely an all-around good plan." Although Kei thought that infiltrating the place by hiding in a giant wooden badger would have worked just as well. The others shouldn't have made fun of her idea like that. It was a good plan, too.

The trio ran through the masking wall of smoke and flames and made their way next to a featureless section of the wall on the east side of the building, peeling out of their bulky fireproof suits once they got there. The opposition was probably just as well-trained as the people they had fought on the station and the library, which meant they would anticipate conventional tactics. The next thing an opponent would have done in order to enter the building would have been to approach through one of the doors or windows and enter through one of those egresses, hoping they weren't well covered or else blasting their way in. However, unconventional thought meant ignoring the building's openings and making one of their own.

Which was where the laser cutting torch came in. In under a minute, Kei cut their way through wall and into the building proper. All three had their weapons drawn, laser pistols all. Heavy, bulky weapons tended to be a detriment in close quarters, when dealing with quick and nimble opponents that were nearly the complete opposite of Zeiram.

"Spread out," Yuri said. It would be the quickest way to sweep the building clear of all the intruders and try to save any workers that might have been kept as hostages.

Separating, any illusions of that were quickly dispelled when each of the women came across the various bodies left laying about the complex, all of them apparently having been shot right where they were found. Headshots ensured there were no survivors among those that had been fired upon.

Suddenly the desire to take some of the men alive was quelled in the women. Thinking along the same lines, each came up with the idea that one was all they needed, and even then the survivor didn't need to have all his limbs in order to talk about all he knew.

Shots blazed toward the corner Kei had started to walk around. Still, the quick glance she managed to get showed three people, dressed in the same black uniform as the man Kei had killed on the space station and armed with light assault weapons, were approaching cautiously up the corridor in a loose formation. Taking them all at once would be impossible, with how spread out they were. She had to lure them closer together.

And then she saw the small black ball roll up the corridor from the enemy's position further up the hall. It paused at the intersection, and then rolled into her hallway. A small light at the top began to blink, getting progressively faster with each flash of the green colored light.

"Shit," Kei hissed.

And then the world went white from an explosion.

Alexei Farkus, Number 12 for the current mission, waited until the smoke settled before waving his comrades onward. "I love these remote control grenades."

"I could have taken her solo. It was only one chick," Alfonse Hunter, Number 88, assured him.

A woman known to the others as simply as Ginger, AKA Number 23, remained silent, attention completely focused on the corridor before them.

Pausing at the intersection, pressed close against the wall, Number 12 waved Number 23 forward. She moved quickly into the corridor, prepared to shoot anything that moved. Numbers 12 and 88 provided cover.

Nothing moved in the smoking remains of the upper section of the corridor. The closest room's door was blown off its hinges; the force of the explosion had been that powerful.

"Any sign of remains?" Number 12 whispered. It was possible the body had been destroyed if the grenade had detonated right on top of their opponent. He had seen it happen before. Maybe they could find some teeth.

Number 88 was about to enter the room with the door blown off when Number 12 whispered, "Got something."

The others paused and watched as she picked up a standard blue halter type top in good shape from the middle of the debris. Number 12 nodded his head. "Looks like the top she was wearing when she poked herself around the corner."

"Yeah. She had nice hooters," Number 88 confirmed.

"Pigs," Ginger snapped. It figured they would notice a woman's chest first, even while they were shooting at her. All except Ginger's chest. They never checked it or her out. They all just cringed, and all because she was the unit's top interrogator. Was it her fault she was good at her work and enjoyed it so much? A quiet country girl like her might have thought the others were afraid of her or something.

"That takes care of that," Number 12 started to say, and then looked more closely at the top that Number 23 was tossing contemptuously away. "Hey, wait a minute. If she was blown up so badly, why is the top still in one piece?"

"Because I tossed it out there to distract you," Kei said as she sprung from out of the nearby room and shot the nearest man, Number 88, before moving on to Numbers 12 and 23, neither getting a chance to do more than bring their guns up and reflexively fire into the floor as they died. Kei waited a full minute to see if any backup appeared, then finally went into the hall and recovered her top. As she put it back on, she angrily said, "It figures the one guy that thinks I got a nice rack I had to kill. I just don't have any luck."

The redhead continued her search, looking for more compliments as well as people to kill.

Yuri ran, trying to catch her breath as the whine of pulse lasers could be heard behind her. It figured she would stumble on a trio of the mysterious raiders and kill them, only to have another trio run into her and open fire. It was pure luck that they had only tagged her laser pistol. Of course, since she hadn't thought to pack another sidearm, she was now forced to run scared. She did have another backup weapon, of course, but with the state of caution her attackers were in, it was unlikely she could manage even two of them. And once she used it, she was out of options.

There was a throbbing of pain from Yuri's injured leg. It had been holding up well and was on its way to being fully healed, but the sudden spate of hard running made it ache, and she realized she was slowing down. She needed a moment to catch her breath. She hit a corner, than ran down another longer one. Gauging the speed of her pursuers, and that she was running even slower than before, she knew they would reach the hall before she got to the adjoining corridor. Acting in desperation, she ducked into a side room with its door partially open.

A quick look over the chamber showed no one, either alive or dead, in the room. It took only a moment to realize what its purpose was: a recreation area. No weapons to be found there either, since it appeared the folks didn't like playing “Grenade Golf” or “Russian Roulette” during their downtime.

But then Yuri's eyes spotted what was lying on one of the tables. An idea began to form. A very risky idea, but the only chance she saw herself having.

'In one of the side rooms,' Number 18 signaled. Taki Omori knew damn well the intruder they were pursuing couldn't have made it to the next corridor before they had arrived in the hall. Not with the way she was limping. She might have been wounded, though he hadn't seen an injury or any telltale blood on the ground. He was becoming fairly certain she didn't have any additional weapons either, since she had not returned fire at them since the start of the chase. Still, he would rather err on the side of caution when it came to potentially being shot at.

The troopers were cautious and orderly, searching each room one at a time in order, always keeping one eye on the hall should she be further down and try making a break for it. Their caution paid off as, during a search of the third room, Yuri ran out of hers and made for the adjoining corridor.

Number 18 saw her and shouted a warning to the others. Just as he lined her up in his rifle's sights, she flung something white behind her and in his direction. Reflexively triggering a quick shot that missed, he ducked back into the room with the others.

When nothing happened for several moments, two of the men looked back out in the corridor. Number 18 was confused until he spotted the white thing lying midway in the corridor. It was rectangular, and very thin. He had a bad idea of what it was as he signaled his men to follow him. The others kept their eyes focused ahead as Number 18 bent down and picked the object up: the queen of spades from a standard deck of cards.

"Move!" The others did as they were instructed, trying to catch up to Yuri. Taki was pissed as hell. No one made a fool of him and got away with it. No one.

They were surprised to catch up with her in the very next corridor, just as she was about to duck into another adjoining one. Just as they rounded it, she threw another white thing at them. Training took over as they all ducked back again, only to poke their heads around the corner to see that it was indeed another playing card she had thrown, the object not making it three feet from where she had tossed it.

"You're dead, bitch!" Number 18 shouted. Running hard for the next corridor, forcing his men to catch up. Again they rounded the corner, just in time to see Yuri about to throw yet another card at them.

"Last time you make a fool of me!" Number 18 shouted as he aimed at her even as she let the card fly and hit the ground. Taki's first shot hit where she had been standing a moment before, melting part of the wall behind her. He didn't get a second shot as the “Bloody Card” sliced through his neck, severing an artery. Before his first spray of blood hit the floor, he heard two more cries of pain from behind. The gun fell to the ground as Number 18 went down to his knees and clutched at his neck, blood pouring from between his fingers as though his hands weren't even there.

Yuri walked up to him and grabbed his rifle for herself. "You're right. That was the last time I'll make a fool of you."

She tossed the remaining fifty cards at his body as it slumped to the floor, his lifeblood joining him in a growing pool of crimson at his side.

"Number 55? Number 18? Number 12? Someone report in!" Rene shouted into his communication's headset. Everything had gone to hell in under fifteen minutes. How could this have happened? He had the best-trained soldiers money could buy, all of them dedicated and loyal. No one would have abandoned their post, and no stupid handful of policemen could have outmaneuvered them. Something else had to have happened, but what?

Now with Numbers 8 and 9 in tow, he headed to the main computer banks, the primary objective of their mission. Killing everyone else in the complex had been secondary. Less than five minutes before, Rene had received confirmation that the team assigned to the room had almost completed destroying the information, but now there was nothing. Not even static. The whole situation cried out that something had happened down there, and Rene wanted to personally make sure that their mission had been accomplished. Retribution from his employers for failure would be… harsh; the mission was that important to them. Cautiously, ever aware of the danger around them, he and his companions made their way to the main computer banks.

Just as Rene was about to give up hope, a call came in from the computer team. "Re… Number 22, we've been attacked. One woman killed 15 and 26, and I think she took out Argus's team as well. But I can confirm with one hundred percent certainty the purge was a success." His voice was quiet, full of a fear Rene had never heard from him before. Okari had always been a good, strong man. "I think she's a troubleshooter. I'm exchanging fire with her, but I donARGH!"

And then there was nothing.

Rene reigned in his emotions. If it was a 3WA troubleshooter, that was bad. However, if it was one, or someone with those same philosophies, he might have a chance. A plan began to form in his mind; the strategy coming together just like it would when playing chess. But he had to act fast. They were on the same floor as the computer center, probably no more than a couple halls away. They had to get there before the troubleshooter left. He ducked into a room where he had personally killed two of the scientists running the testing area. Sure enough, the bodies were just where he had left them. The one nearest to him would do.

Rene waved Numbers 8 and 9 closer. "Here's what we're going to do. You two go on ahead and try to get around the intruder using the front corridor to the main computer lab. I'll take the back way. One way or another she'll be flanked, then we'll catch her in a crossfire."

"How are we going to time it so we'll attack at the same time?" Number 8 asked.

Rene scowled at the question. "Wait thirty seconds. I'll be in position by then. I guarantee it. We'll nail that bitch for sure." He placed his hands on their shoulders, the first show of affection he had ever given either of them. "I'm counting on you. Of all the people in the unit, you're the two best. That's why I had you two stay so close to me."

The pair looked at each other and practically beamed at the approval. Their commander was sparse with praise, though they did agree with his observations. Number 8 said, "No problem, Number 22."

"She's as good as dead," Number 9 agreed.

"Then get moving," Rene said, watching the two depart. Once certain they had gone, he initiated the second part of his plan.

Iria surveyed the scene of destruction before her, one she had created. That made another three-man team she had taken out. Killing both sets had been no easy task, the men showing an impressive amount of training. Not as much as her, of course. She had learned how to fight using the old-school standards, by ending up in real life and death struggles. However, from the way the men had fought, she felt confident they had received such training in similar fashion.

The last team had behaved very oddly. Rather than trying to combat her, two of them had sought to keep her out of the main computer room while their compatriot had done something inside. Unfortunately, by the time she had killed the two guards and entered the room, the man inside had completed whatever it was he was doing and tried to ambush her. He came close to taking her head off with his initial shot, but all that mattered was that he had failed and now his dead soul would join that of his comrades.

Iria was about to leave the room when she heard some sort of rustling come from one of the entrances at the far side of the room. Silently, she crept behind an upturned table for cover, and then kept her pistol aimed near the door.

Almost at the very moment she ducked behind her cover two people, dressed in the same outfits as the others, shot out from the doorway and opened fire on her. She snapped off a laser bolt that struck high over the first man, but before she could shoot a second time two crimson bolts of energy lashed out from where they had sprung from. Both shots took them in the back as they fell limply to the ground. Neither body moved as unblinking eyes looked out from both of her fallen foes.

That was a very nice job. Iria looked up, expecting to see Kei or Yuri emerge from the passageway. Instead, a man in his early thirties, completely bald and wearing a white lab coat drenched in blood, staggered into the room, gun in hand. His face was a matching mask of blood, though through it Iria noted that there was an odd glint to his eyes. Sighing, he slumped against a wall, the arm that didn't have a gun hanging limply at his side as though it were broken.

Slowly, almost inaudibly, he got out, "They…killed everyone else. I hid, until I found a gun on a dead body and… Are they dead?"

"As dead as a ten-day-old Gravisteds," Iria said. A look of relief seemed to pass over the man's features, and he slumped to the ground, back still braced against the wall. He seemed to be staring off into space. Iria rushed over to the man's side in order to check him out. Given the amount of blood that drenched his clothes, it was a miracle he could have walked at all, let alone shot the two killers in the back.

Iria placed her gun on the ground and went to open his lab jacket. It was then she noticed that, in spite of the blood adorning the garment, there was no corresponding wound inside.

The barrel of a gun was jammed under her chin. The uncomprehending eyes of the “scientist” were now fully aware and shining at her. It was then she remembered that the other two teams had three members in them as well.

Rene smiled at his own genius. The stupid fool, allowing her compassion to override common sense and caution. However, it was ungracious of him to criticize her; she had been outmatched from the beginning. It was a pity he had to shoot two of his own people in the back to lower the woman's guard, but he was a master of chess, and knew the necessity of sacrificing pawns in order to win the game.

"Checkmate," Rene bragged as he tightened his grip on the trigger.

Unwilling to be intimidated, Iria stared right into the man's eyes without the slightest bit of fear. Maybe it was the end, but she was damned if she would give him the satisfaction of being afraid of him. The bounty hunter saw the twinkle in his eyes as she felt him tighten his grip on the gun.

And then his head exploded like a melon hit with a sledgehammer.

Blood splattered over Iria's armor as the gun fell away from her chin. She stood up, looking in the direction that the shot had come from. Once again she owed her life to Kei, or maybe it was Yuri this time. It was as she rose to her full height that she saw exactly who her savior truly was.


Kei heard Iria's scream from the room up ahead, unable to determine if it was from surprise, rage, or pain. She ran as fast as she could, unmindful of the potential danger as she charged into the room, ready to defend Iria to the death. The scene before the redhead, however, left her a bit confused.

Inside, Kei bore witness to what was possibly the fiercest look of rage she had ever seen on Iria. The bounty hunter was pointing her gun in the direction of a man standing across from her, about four meters away. He was tall, standing head and shoulders over the much smaller woman. His frame was muscular and the style of his clothing made it readily apparent that he was in excellent physical condition, despite obviously being at least forty. His black hair held a touch of gray at the temples and was tied back in a ponytail that traveled down just below his neck. It touched the back of the very stylish white top and blue vest he was wearing. Kei noted that the pair of matching white pants molded to his posterior perfectly. The outfit was finished off with a pair of mid-thigh black boots that were so immaculate that the room's light reflected off their mirror-like finish. Slung across his back was a heavy laser rifle that looked like it weighed at least fifty pounds, though he was bearing it as though it was no heavier than a cloak. His hands were raised, almost as though Iria was holding him up. Though he might have appeared helpless, there was no look of fear in his eyes, just an amusement that was mirrored in his smile. Kei thought that his appearance, combined with that whiplash grin, made him easily one of the most handsome men she had ever laid eyes upon.

"What's going on here?" Kei tried maintaining an awareness of her surroundings to prevent anyone from sneaking up on them, but it was difficult with someone so handsome standing before her, even if it did seem as though Iria was on the verge of blowing him away.

Iria kept her gun trained on the man, not allowing it to waver in the slightest. Through gritted teeth, she was barely able to spit out, "Kei, I want to introduce you to the biggest waste of flesh that has ever existed. The one creature in the galaxy that ranks only behind Zeiram as the lowest form of organism around, and he's a real close second. This pustule that stands before you is named Eugene Lance Killgore."

Killgore appeared offended at the comparison, though the smile never left his features. "Hey there, Sunshine, is that any way to properly introduce your husband?"


To be continued.

Author's notes: No one said “Clydesdales” is a reference to horses. Of course, no one said it's not, either. :-P

"If you start off by listing all the reasons you should fall in love with someone, you don't love them. If you start off by listing all the reasons you shouldn't fall in love with them, then you already have."
—Alexander Dupres

Chapter 6
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