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Chapter 8

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.

Foreword: A special nod to Mike Baron for the joke in one of the later parts. People that read "Badger" will know what I mean.

Kei felt like ramming her face into the flight console as her ship hung motionless in space, a miniature star to those a hundred kilometers away and invisible to any beyond that. It wasn't her fault her ship was so insignificant. The independent, single person spacecraft that had been issued to the Lovely Angel was embarrassing, and would never have been used, save the company that manufactured them gave the 3WA such a good deal on selling them in bulk.

The rounded vehicle resembled a silvery beach ball and had earned the ignominious nickname "Bouncer" since it looked like it could bounce off anything it crashed into. Kei could testify firsthand that was not the case, and their metal would buckle under a direct impact the same way any other vehicle would. She hated the damn things, from their uncomfortable seats to comical look to their lack of decent weaponry. All it had was a lousy single-barreled laser ball turret mounted on the bottom. It could barely be called a weapon. Opening the cockpit and using her sidearm would be almost as effective. All right, the vehicle wasn't intended for combat, just light travel, but they could have placed something with more kick on board.

Kei wouldn't have been so frustrated if those idiots at 3WA Headquarters had agreed to her request and requisitioned her one of those new single-seater Mustangs. Now there was a true one person spacecraft. Some technician had used a throwback design reminiscent of the early Earth propeller driven aircraft of the same name innumerable centuries ago. They were armed with six forward laser cannons mounted in the wings, a pair of plasma cannons in the nose, and still had room for missiles! It was the perfect single pilot fighter craft as far as Kei was concerned. So what if the Lovely Angel's bay didn't have enough room to launch one? They could have modified it or something. How much could retrofitting it really cost?

While Kei waited, she idly stared off in the distance at the refueling station suspended above one of the moons circling Karpathia, the single gas giant planet at the edge of the system Myce was located in. While the Bouncer's fuel capacity wasn't the greatest, she still had enough that she could have flown straight through and refueled planetside while she was on her mission, but the rates were cheaper in orbit and headquarters had been getting on everyone's cases about needless expenses with fuel.

So, being the responsible agent she was, Kei waited among the numerous space vehicles that surrounded the ten mile long pylons that spun around each other like a giant mobile above a child's crib. Each of the pylons had a number of spacecraft attached to them, pumping them full of whatever type of fuel they needed. Further off in the distance, she could just make out large containers, each miles long and linked umbilically together, that contained the rest of the fuel. Once the pylon stations emptied their stores, they would bring up one of the containers and refuel from there. It was a sound and simple operation, but the station could only handle so much traffic at one time. Currently Kei was being forced to wait for two hours, going on three, to get a position at one of the "pumps". It was infuriating.

The anger made Kei more irritable. She hated this. Why the hell did Iria feel compelled to send her to Myce and force her to personally ask this super hacker (who would be some pimply-faced loser kid, like all computer geeks were), when Yuri could have done the job? Or better yet, simply send him the information over subspace channels, like any normal person would? Iria was just being paranoid about their information being compromised, even if it felt like someone was one step ahead of them in the race to kill Zeiram.

To make things worse, Kei just knew that in her absence Yuri was going to slut her way into Killgore's bed. It wasn't fair! Kei wanted to do it first. Though with more style than Yuri would, of course. She was a lot classier than her partner was. Yuri might have put on the airs of a discriminating connoisseur, but was in reality little better than a common streetwalker when it came to men. Kei was much more discerning, though it felt like forever since she had been with a guy, and the whole birthday thing had taken its toll on her feminine pride. Killgore would have been the perfect cure for that, aside from being Iria's ex-husband and everything. But really, that was a minor sticking point. Just because it didn't work out for those two didn't mean it would be the same for Kei and Killgore. Anything was possible.

No, it wasn't possible at the moment, since she was stuck in the middle of nowhere, destined to rendezvous with a cyber-geek whose acquaintance with the female gender was through pixels rather than actual flesh. Her life was really sickening. It was enough to give her a mid-life crisis at the age of thirty-four.

Kei looked impatiently at her chronometer. Saving money wasn't worth the wait. If those service station idiots didn't call her ship in the next five minutes, she would head toward Myce. Besides, what difference did saving a few credit chips mean when the Lovely Angel was going to need a complete overhaul anyway?

Just as she charged up her engine, a movement from the rear caught her eye. Someone behind her was moving toward the station. That was odd. Given his position, he would have dropped out of hyperspace after her, and had a longer wait than she did. At least he better have. If he had some connection that enabled him to cut in front and get refueled before her, she'd close the whole operation down for illegal business practices. No one line-jumped Kei and got away with it. No one.

As the ship drew nearer, Kei drew a visual on it and her jaw nearly dropped. It was one of those Mustangs she had just been fantasizing about. She practically drooled at the sight of elegant death as it made a direct line toward her. Seeing it in real life made the promotional sale holos of it pale in comparison. Once the mission was completed and she returned to headquarters, it didn't matter who she had to kiss up to; she was having one of those beauties permanently assigned to her.

It was as she genuflected in the spacecraft's presence that something about the way it neared tickled at her conscience. Its approach vector was off. If she didn't know any better, she would have sworn it was heading toward her rather than the refueling station. And the way it was swooping in, it was identical to an attack run she would use if her Bouncer was the target.

Reflexes took over as Kei fired up her already primed engines. The ship lurched forward the instant she hit the button. One thing the Bouncer had going for it was an ultra-fast reaction time.

Kei's one concession toward her vehicle's prowess proved to be the difference between life and death as a sextet of ruby colored lances of energy filled the space her vehicle had occupied a moment earlier. The Mustang, traveling at such a high rate of speed toward what had been a stationary object, swooped past before it could fire a second volley.

The whine of the Bouncer's engines filled the cockpit as they reached their maximum output. Kei tried following the Mustang in order to turn from hunted to hunter. Much to her annoyance the pilot's skills were more than capable as he banked his craft and quickly returned to his "kill" position on Kei's tail. She had no choice but to run in the hopes he would provide an opening for her.

Numerous bolts of energy flew past Kei's vehicle, crimson streaks sailing off into the distance only to disappear into the darkness of space. Her vehicle was small, made a pitiful target profile, and was as nimble as a grasshopper trapped on a hotplate. She evaded the hail of fire using her own considerable skills picked up from years of dealing with people trying to kill her.

The bolts drew closer as the enemy pilot began to take her maneuverability into account. Worse, Kei knew that if she remained in open space, and if her foe had a halfway decent targeting system, it would eventually lock onto her and all of the dodging in the universe wouldn't do her a bit of good. She used her own defenses to pivot her ball turret around so she could retaliate while fleeing. Unfortunately, the enemy fighter easily dodged her pitiful return fire, his wings continuing to spit red death at her. The action would only buy her a few extra seconds. She needed to come up with an alternate solution. While she couldn't negate the pilot's skills, she could deal with the targeting system.

The Bouncer rumbled as Kei made a power dive and headed toward the pylons that hung in space above the moon. More lances of energy peppered space around her. With their change of position, instead of disappearing into the void, they continued onward until they struck one of the rotating pylons in space, melting the hull and causing the exterior to bubble where they hit.

So much for hoping this guy had a code against firing among civilians. Kei would have preferred to not fly among the station and numerous ships surrounding it like flies around carrion, but it was her only hope. If the enemy pilot had her in open space for more than a minute, she was dead. It was his fault for pulling the trigger. The only thing she was guilty of was trying to survive.

Within seconds Kei found herself among the thickest part of the ships and station. Some of the pilots of the ships, upon discovering someone was opening fire in their area, chose to pull away from the station. Not bothering to clear their flight paths, they immediately began colliding with one another, causing more damage amongst their number than the lasers could have done in twice the time.

Kei was in the middle of the veritable flotilla, continuing to duck and weave both enemy fire and the increasing number of ships that were trying to flee. With that kind of chaos, there was no way the targeting system could lock down on her. The enemy pilot would have to blow her out of the sky using only hand eye coordination, and do it while weaving among the ships himself.

Unfortunately, her opponent remained on her tail despite her evasive maneuvering. The best she could manage was increasing the distance between them slightly. And the laser fire drew closer, despite the range, though every stray shot seemed to hit something. More ships blew up, and the refueling station suffered more damage as chunks of it floated off into space. Kei upped the assessment of her opponent from pretty good to experienced combat flying. It was a good thing she had a lot as well, or she would have been atomized by now.

She followed up the side of each pylon, hugging the surface in order to avoid a target lock. She jumped from one to the next in the hopes of shaking her pursuer loose and turning the tables on him. Still he persisted, following her while maintaining his high rate of fire. There was no way even a normal Mustang could blast away like that without depleting its energy banks. It had to have been modified for heavy combat, indicating whoever had come after her had money as well as top notch training. It would narrow down the list of potential suspects once she got rid of her pursuer, because whoever had sicced this bastard on her was going to pay.

After finishing with the latest pylon, Kei suddenly found herself clear of the station's structure. She was unable to circle back around due to several crashes that had occurred in space since the dog fight began. The obstructions forced her away from the protection of the station and the cover it provided. The Mustang remained hot on her tail as she emerged from the ensuing conflagration.

Aware there was no hope of outrunning him, Kei gritted her teeth as she tried the old but effective trick of speeding up, then slowing down in the hopes her foe would pass her by and she could find herself dogging him from behind. She increased her velocity, hoping to trick him into thinking she was going to hit her afterburners, then used the retro-jets to arrest her speed. Instead of shooting past, her foe reacted as though he had expected the move and cut his speed almost as quickly. Kei found the distance between them cut by two thirds, and worsening by the second.

Suddenly her foe began to drop back. Kei smiled as she figured he must have hit the limit on his engines, perhaps overheating them, or foolishly draining them of too much energy if he had rigged his engine and guns to the same power supply. That was the way most people rewired things in order to increase their firepower.

The joy at what appeared to be an advantage disappeared as she saw two previously unnoticed cylinders detach themselves from the fighter and speed forward, orange plumes of fire spitting from their rears. It only took her a moment to realize the distancing was intentional. He had wanted enough room for the missiles' independent targeting systems to lock on her before sending them into her oversized ball.

This was bad. They had to have been seekers of some kind, and given the quality of the equipment used against her so far, probably damn good ones. She didn't have any type of countermeasures in the Bouncer, other than "move quickly back and forth and make them miss".

Or scraping them off something, as she saw the giant metal containers coming up in front of her. It was about time she had a bit of good luck. She had shot away from the station at just the right angle to be heading in the direction of the fuel reserves.

The missiles bore down on her, correcting their course as fast as their sensors could react to her movements and closing fast. The only thing truly going in her favor was that her opponent had stopped firing for fear of shooting down his own missiles. She juked and wove, making them pass her by once before they arced and returned to their former trajectory. Their arcs seemed to be a touch wide. Perhaps they were using Falvaian Systems. Those always had wide arcs when course correcting. That could only help her plan.

The container became increasingly larger in the front viewport, until it took up nearly the whole thing. She was almost there. She wanted the timing to be just right. She had to be right on top of it…

At the last second, Kei veered to the left, practically losing her paint job as she came incredibly close to striking the container. But she pulled out in time, Bouncer groaning in protest at her rough treatment of it. The missiles followed, one after another.

There was a tremendous explosion as the contents of the container exploded, taking both missiles with it. Kei gave a cheer at her ingenuity in losing the persistent buggers. She had escaped death once again with a smile on her face and a cheer on her lips. She was going to get seriously drunk when this was over with.

Lights of red cut across her path. Kei darted out of the way, but a couple glanced off the side of the Bouncer. They only inflicted the barest of superficial damage, but it was enough to make Kei curse at her jubilation and forgetting that the craft that had fired the missiles was still trying to kill her. The error had almost cost Kei her life, and might yet if she couldn't figure out how to down him before he did the same to her.

Again she tried outmaneuvering her foe, realizing it was only a matter of time before he got lucky again and hit something more vital on her ship. There had to be some way to lose him. There had to be.

An explosion lit the darkness of space. Kei thought at first it was the refueling station, the damage from the dogfight taking its toll. Instead she saw that it came from the direction of the exploding container. That made no sense. There had only been two missiles, and both had hit the same target. Even if there had been a third, it would have detonated long ago.

She spared a glance and noted it was the container next to the one that had already exploded. That was odd, since the distances involved should have prevented "birthing", a term used when volley of missiles was fired at an opponent and the detonation of one would cause those next to it to explode, which in turn caused others to explode, and so on until none were left.

Then there was a third explosion from the container next to the one that had gone up. It took Kei a second to figure out what was causing the rash of detonations: the umbilical connecting them to one another. The fires must have been traveling through the connecting cable and causing them to blow up in order. They should have had automatic safety features to cut the cables loose when one of the containers exploded, and manual overrides on the station failing that. Of course, something might have gone wrong at the station, and the safeties were out of commission. Not at all impossible considering how shot up the Mustang had left them. And there were all of the ship collisions would only have worsened things.

The fourth in the line went up. It was then the plan occurred to Kei. The containers had proven useful once before. They would do so again in their death knells. She mentally calculated the timing between explosions, which was even. Yes, that might do it. If only the enemy pilot was concentrating solely on her rather than his surroundings.

Kei changed direction again and headed to the line of containers. The Mustang followed close, continuing to spit fire at her. She could still evade that, though not by much. She had to lure him in just the right spot. The only way to do that was to give him the perfect target. Her window of opportunity would be brief, and if the safeties activated and cut loose the umbilicals, it was all over for her. But it was a chance she had to take. Her only one.

She saw the next one in line explode just when she thought it would. Her timing was on. She took a deep breath and spun under the next container, coming up high on the other side and heading off in a straight line. Just as she hoped, the Mustang pilot followed in her exact path rather than trying to anticipate where she was going and taking a different way. Now all she had to do was pray he didn't hit her before the final part of her plan came into effect.

He didn't as the container the Mustang flew under detonated and the fighter disappeared into the red and yellow cloud of fiery death. Kei gave a whooping war cry at the success of her plan. Only an expert like her could have timed it right while dodging heavy enemy fire that she was unable to return. She was really going to rub Yuri's face in it when she returned to the Lovely Angel. And maybe her expertise would catch Killgore's attention and they could go out or something.

Suddenly Kei's ship was rocked by a laser blast. More crimson bolts shot past, barely missing her Bouncer. Kei once again took evasive action trying to look behind her to see who was firing.

It was the Mustang. Somehow it had survived the explosion, but just barely. It was scorched black, and she could see a good portion of its exterior was melted. One of the wings was half the size it had been before, and fires spurted from its fuselage in various places. It was a miracle it could still fly, and looked like it would blow up or disintegrate at any minute. Only one laser was still functional, but its pilot seemed determined to carry out his assignment and end Kei's life no matter what.

"I've had enough of this!" Kei snarled, changing her flight path so she was heading directly at the Mustang. She pivoted her ball turret to the front and returned fire, now that they were on even ground. She was going to take this persistent jerk down no matter what.

Both ships flew unerringly at one another, firing repeatedly but missing since each anticipating the other would veer off in another direction. Kei grit her teeth. Now it was game of chicken, the first one to turn away would probably end up dead. Well it wouldn't be her. She had never lost a game of chicken with anyone. The opposition always turned away since they lacked Kei's nerves. She'd stay true and wait for her opponent to turn and reveal some vital part of his ship. She just had to anticipate which way it was and nail him.

Only he didn't change course, he kept heading straight for her as well. A small line of sweat decorated Kei's brow. Most pilots would have turned away at this point, both ships speeding toward one another, poised on the brink of mutual annihilation. This guy had nerves, to be sure.

They were almost at the point of no return. Kei concentrated. She would only get one shot before he flashed past her. She had to make it count. She held herself steady. Waiting for it. The moment was coming up.

And then it was past. Kei's eyes goggled as she spun the ship to the right. It turned just enough to strike the edge of the nearly broken wing. That it was in such bad shape and barely hanging on was the only reason her Bouncer wasn't destroyed on contact, and instead only lost 90% of its maneuvering jets and all of its communications gear.

The Mustang fared worse, the collision proving too much for its battered form to hold together. Its wing tore off, causing an explosion to rip through the side of the spacecraft. The rest went up in a ball of red and white smoke and pieces of debris were hurled off into deep space.

Kei took note of it in the back of her mind. Her ship's condition was almost as bad. The breaking jets were a pale joke of what they were supposed to be, and she was moving at top speed. Systems were crashing, and she didn't like the way the fuel converter on her ship was acting up. It displayed bright red warning signs that it could explode at any time.

Under ordinary circumstances, she would have bailed out, but the Bouncer was too small to afford an escape pod. Her communications were down, so there was no way to send an SOS, and waiting to get picked up was too risky. Besides, she thought there were going to be plenty of SOSs to go around as she caught sight of the refueling station breaking up from all the damage it had taken. There weren't enough rescue ships in the entire system to take care of that mess.

There was only one chance left; land on the only habitable planet in the system: Myce. At least it was her intended destination in the first place. Now all she had to do was find somewhere flat and hope her ship rolled better than it bounced.

Kei felt her stomach lurch in conjunction with the movement. She turned a deeper shade of green and felt the metallic taste of bile rise to her throat. She mentally noted that this form of travel was the worst, and prayed to all the gods that she never had to have such torture inflicted upon her again.

The taxi driver looked over his shoulder to the passenger in the back and said, "Hey, lady, don't even think of hurling on the backseat. Bad enough you did it all over the outside of the door. I don't need to reupholster the interior as well."

"I'll be fine," Kei shot back, popping her fifth antigastric capsule since the ride started. The urge to vomit passed, though she still felt queasy. Rolling for fifteen kilometers on the inside of a giant ball, like a redheaded hamster stuck in a plastic bubble, tended to make even the most cast iron of stomachs a little shaky. At least the Almoth Plain had lived up to its reputation as being "The Flattest Place in all of Myce." It was the only thing that had saved her when she made planetfall. She had slowed her speed enough to keep from burning up on reentry, but there was no way she could slow down enough to land safely. Had the Bouncer been anything other than round, she probably would have ended up a smear decorating the landscape. As it was, she only left the contents of her stomach, as well as the broken remnants of the ruined Bouncer, behind. It was turning out to be… well, a normal day for Kei's life as a Lovely Angel. No matter where she went, trouble, and a body count, followed.

And the day wasn't over yet.

She had some measure of good luck. Someone had flown out to the desert to see what had plummeted through the atmosphere and picked her up. After leaving her outside Myce (her old hometown, and capital of the planet bearing the same name), she picked up a taxi and headed for her meeting with the hacker, Mikael.

As Kei headed to the city, and dealt with her upset stomach, she considered current events, like who was trying to kill her this time. There was no shortage of people who wanted her dead: criminals, terrorists, overthrown dictators, religious zealots, evil masterminds, angry wives and girlfriends of some of the guys she dated, even her superiors now and then. But this felt different in a way she couldn't describe. Years of being a troubleshooter made her listen to her instincts, and she was willing to go with them rather than logic. Sometimes it got her into trouble, as Yuri would enthusiastically point out, but sometimes it saved her life.

How did the pilot know she was heading toward Myce? While it could have been coincidence, perhaps someone hired to put a hit on her and he happened to come across her, she doubted it. Only Yuri, Iria, Bob, and Killgore should have known her destination. She would have trusted the first three with her life, so that left the last one suspect. But that didn't make sense. Why would Killgore save Iria and want to join forces, just to kill them?

Perhaps there was some leak on the Zeiram end. The guy in charge of him was a genius, and he was working for the Tormand Confederation. Had they somehow anticipated her destination, or tracked her? Had she been chosen for elimination since she was on her own and theoretically easy prey? There were too many questions and no way to get any of the answers. It served to upset her temper as well as her stomach.

As the scenery passed by, Kei concentrated on it and quickly found the warmth of her homecoming dampened. Originally, she had been excited at the prospect of returning to Myce for the first time in over fifteen years. It was the first place in her life she had truly called home, with Iria as her de facto mother and Bob her sage (and bodiless) uncle. Many years were spent learning fun things, like firearms, explosives, unarmed combat, and how to drive at excessive speeds. It was a blissful childhood, and she couldn't have asked for more, even if she went on to outgrow the place in the end.

Unfortunately, the reality of what passed by the window failed to match the memories of Kei's youth. Myce had changed in her absence and not for the better. When Kei had first arrived on the planet as a penniless street orphan that had only lived on the backwater world of Taowajan, she had been awed by the magnificence and splendor of a megalopolis that had exceeded her wildest dreams. Everything had been bright and fantastic, all full of vibrancy and hope. The city had been like a living, thriving organism, and the people residing in it symbiotes that only fed its power.

Now the gild from the crown jewel of her youth had worn away. Tedan Tippedai had been the major business that had supplied the off-world money responsible for the majority of the city's wealth. When they eventually went belly-up from the Zeiram debacle, no other major off-world corporation had been interested in using Myce as their headquarters, Zeiram having made the planet a business pariah. The loss of Tedan Tippedai hadn't been apparent when Kei departed her home for good, but now a decade later, its effect could be seen wherever one looked.

The buildings looked dirty and remnants of garbage could be seen in once spotless streets. People wore sedate clothing that matched their dark and dour moods. Hunched over bodies seemed to bear the weight of the heavens on their shoulders, and their gaits held not a wisp of pride. Even the air felt flat and stale.

There were some places that seemed to hold onto a lingering sense of hope, sporadic oases in the middle of a desert of depression, but even they showed signs of having been worn down with age. While the city wouldn't die, its indigenous population had enough resources to see to that, it had suffered a wound that made the whole become jaundiced and weakened. It was painful to see.

Kei cut off that line of thought. She was here on business, not vacation reminiscing about the old homestead. There was a rendezvous to keep with that hacker Iria wanted her to feel out. It was supposed to be at a bar called the Olgarion, named after some mythical figure from the days when Myce was a dead hunk of rock being transformed into a proper colony. It had something to do about a man saving a town from a flood by building a dam with only a sledgehammer or something. Kei had paid little attention to such tall tales, preferring to make people talk about her own actions. Well, they did, just not in the way she had envisioned growing up.

"How much farther?" she grilled the driver.

"Another ten minutes," he said just a touch too fast.

Kei didn't like the way he gave his estimate. There was something off about it. It was too thought out. Even after more than a decade, she was familiar enough with the city to have a general idea of where the bar was located. This road was not the quickest way to it in her day. "We are taking the most direct route, aren't we?" she prodded.

"Of course," the driver assured her.

Kei fished her ID out of her belt pocket with one hand and her pistol from its holster with the other. She waved the ID against the clear safety shield between her and the driver. "This identifies me as an official troubleshooter with the 3WA. This," she tapped the barrel of the gun against the safety shield. "Gives me the power to shoot trouble. Giving me the runaround is a sure way to cause trouble."

"Silly me. I think I know a more direct route," the driver said with a touch of panic in his voice as he made a U-turn in the middle of the road, hopping lanes. The abrupt action made several hover cars in the other lane to hit their breaks, causing a pile up in the middle of the busy highway.

"Not my fault," Kei muttered from the back seat, deciding tacitly to not look out the rear window. It only proved her theory that on any planet, taxi drivers were all crooked and nuts.

Within minutes they pulled up to a building with the bright neon lights surrounding the name "Olgarion." She opened the door and exited the vehicle. She started to go for her money card when the driver gave a panicked, "Never mind, glad to be of service, officer." And pulled away, kicking up a cloud of putrefied air from his ill-maintained exhaust system. Kei was left coughing in the pus-green cloud for a minute.

"Idiot," she grumbled once she was over the coughing fit. At least she didn't have to pay for the ride.

Now that Kei had arrived at the rendezvous point, she gave it a closer look. The bright red neon lights surrounding the doorway leading to the interior were blinding. She had to squint past them to see the crumbling edifice of the two-story structure that housed the bar. It was as run down as the rest of the neighborhood, but at least they went to the effort of masking the fact with the lighting.

Cries of grinding metal and blowtorches came from within. Kei recognized the sounds of the construction agony as belonging to the latest music fad to pass through this arm of the galaxy: "Death Metal" in the most literal sense of the word. The noise (which was all it was) was people destroying metal in a variety of ways. Oh, its supposed "higher meaning" was the representation of the destruction of modern society on the basis it was a bloated mass of dying flesh that needed to be put out of its misery, but it was literally composed of "musicians" hammering, ripping apart, and otherwise destroying pieces of metal. To Kei, it was the surest sign there were no more worthy musical art forms left to be discovered in the universe.

As Kei approached, she passed by a couple rows of hovercycles lined up outside of the bar. They were massive vehicles, all customized with additions to promote speed and power. Each bore an identical insignia on them: a blue star hovering around a brown and white planet. Something about that tickled at Kei's memory. Where had she seen it before? It probably belonged to some local gang she had seen growing up, and that was why it had registered as being familiar.

Dismissing the unusual symbol from her mind, Kei entered the bar. As she passed through the entryway, she moved between by a pair of seated bouncers, one human, the other a robot, standing within easy striking distance of the door. Both had inhumanly built physiques, one sculpted by weight and chemical enhancement, the other by fusion cutters and machined parts.

Posted by the door was a sign that indicated there was a cover charge. Kei started to go for her money card again when the human saw what she was doing and said, "It's ladies night. You can get in for free."

"Wednesday is Ladies Night," the robot corrected.

"For girls as attractive as this, it's always ladies night." He gave her a leer.

Whatever pleasant thoughts Kei had regarding the hulk were stomped out by the smile of purely golden teeth. She hated gaudy features like that, and teeth that really did gleam always made her feel creepy. They were too artificial.

She thanked him politely and made her way to the bar, passing by several tables full of raucous men clinking bottles filled with some alcoholic beverage together as they toasted to some "bitch named Haruka." As Kei strolled past, she noticed the rough-looking men all wore jackets with insignias identical to the ones on the bikes. She also noticed the dance floor, such as it was, filled with numerous others with similar decals or tattoos. It appeared it was Biker Night as well as Ladies' Night.

Since she was in a place that offered drinks, Kei drifted toward the bar to knock back a few. It was a tradition, one she had no intention of breaking. She went up to the bar, saw what condition the seats were in, and decided she'd remain standing while she drank. With any luck, her contact wouldn't show up until the eighth drink or so.

The bartender finished serving a couple at the opposite end of the bar, then walked over to Kei. "What'll it be?"

Kei considered that. She looked at some of the bottles that lined the wall behind the bar. One in a solid container caught her eye, and she pointed to it. "That one called Paint Thinner sounds interesting. I'll have some of that."

A curious expression passed over the bartender's face. He turned in the direction Kei was pointing. "Oops, that really is a bottle of paint thinner." He removed it and placed it out of sight under the bar.

"How about some Johnny Walker Fuchsia?" That flavor of whiskey was one of Kei's favorites. Actually, all three hundred and ten flavors were favorites of hers. It was hard to believe at one time there had only been Red, Black, Gold and Blue labels. Time and technology had come up with other forms of it since then, each more potent than the last. Fuchsia, the latest and strongest one, was the best yet in Kei's estimation.

The bartender considered that. "You might be better off with the paint thinner."

"I can handle it. Hit me," she insisted.

A hand fell on her shoulder, spun her around, and a fist connected solidly with her jaw.

Kei went sailing to the ground, her body colliding with a couple of the stools and sending them careening away as she crashed into the alcohol sodden floor. She had rolled reflexively with the blow, but enough force had still gotten through to cross her eyes and make the room lurch.

As she rolled over onto her back, she realized her assailant hadn't moved in for the kill. When her foes did that, it tended to mean they were either very stupid (but strong), something had interrupted their attack (but they were still strong) or they were going to shoot their mouth off and brag (usually about how strong they were).

Kei recovered enough of her wits to see the largest of the bikers looking down at her in contempt. The smug look on his face told her he was in the latter category. That was good. Braggarts tended to be the first choice as well.

Kei decided to help him along, as well as buy herself time and find out why he had attacked her. The last was mostly just to satisfy her curiosity. The reason didn't matter. She was going to kick his ass no matter what. "What was that for?"

"Revenge, of course!" the man snarled.

Kei looked him over more closely. He was tall. He was bald. He was ugly. He had tattoos. He had bulging muscles that looked like they could produce Death Metal music without any tools. And his breath was just awful. "You used to date my partner, dumped her when you fell for me, and I turned you down?" she guessed. He was the sort of guy Yuri's taste ran towards: pure loser.

"Of course not! I'm Nick 'Big Man' Kincaid."

Kei shrugged helplessly. "Big Man is a nickname used by half the bad guys in the galaxy. Give me something more to work with."

"How dare you not remember me!" The man slammed his fist down on the bar, cracking the top.

"I've arrested a lot of people over the years. It's hard to keep track of them all," Kei explained as she rose to her feet.

The man was on the verge of apoplexy. "You arrested me five years ago outside of Valencia for smuggling!"

Kei scratched her head. She had busted lots of smugglers over the years. Valencia? She remembered that planet. Nothing bad and highly destructive had happened there when she and Yuri busted up the smuggling ring. It was rare that a job didn't besmirch her good name. Now the symbol had clicked. The gang had been using it back then. She remembered this overly large moron. Barely.

"Okay, you were the ringleader, liked working with your fists," Kei supplied.

"That's right," Kincaid said, placing his hands on his hips and boasted, "I'm the best fighter in this arm of the galaxy. And I've only improved over the years, waiting for my shot at revenge and beating to death the bitch who threw me in prison to rot."

Kei shook her head. "The only thing I remember about your fighting abilities is that you had a hole in your defense, and I took you down like this!" Kei lashed out with her foot, planting it between his legs.

Kincaid looked down at his crotch as Kei withdrew her foot. Then he began laughing.

Kei was left staring in open-mouthed wonder.

He bellowed even harder. "Stupid girl. The joke's on you. I had my gonads removed."

"You had your gonads removed and you think the joke's on me?"

Kincaid's laughter died abruptly, as though he suddenly realized something. Something bad, that he couldn't undo. His rage doubled and he took on a far more dangerous stance. "Time to bleed to death, bitch."

"I hope you had your internal organs removed too, because they're the only thing that can protect you from this." She went for the weapon in her holster. She had just pulled the sidearm free when the hand of one of the other bikers flanking her lashed out. Something blurred in front of Kei, and the front half of the gun inexplicably fell to the floor, leaving her holding a now useless hunk of metal.

"Laser wire," the intercessor bragged. "It can go through anything."

A confused look crossed his eyes as he tilted to one side, then inexplicably fell to the floor. Kei stared at him curiously, then saw the reason for his fall: his leg had been severed at the shin, the wound neatly cauterized by the laser wire.

"I told him he needed more than a couple of weeks practice with that," Kincaid said tiredly, while the man writhed on the floor in pain, screaming about his leg.

Kei frowned. That had been her only weapon. Now she would have to do it the hard way, hand-to-hand. This guy might have thought he was hot stuff, but Kei had been in more fights than she could count where she only had her body to rely on.

Kincaid held out his hands. Two of his cohorts handed up a pair of black pieces of metal, each a foot long. Touching a stud at the base, bands of electricity arced between the tips.

"I thought you said you were practicing using your hand-to-hand skills in order to beat me to death," Kei protested.

"I've expanded my repertoire." He banged the sticks together, producing a larger spark.

Kei grimaced. If it was this moron alone, she could handle him. Probably. She hadn't seen how good he was yet. But he had at least twenty thugs with him, not counting the one that had dismembered himself (well, technically Kincaid had dismembered himself too, but it wouldn't impair his fighting ability). Her best bet would be to get the weapons away from him and use them on his lackeys, unless the sticks were keyed to his vital signs or something. Then they'd only be in the way. Too bad she hadn't had that drink. She sure could have used one now. Maybe even a half dozen. It was looking like it would be a long night.

Just as Kei prepared herself for the onslaught, a loud roar came from the entrance. The roar grew louder, making the bottles behind the bar rattle as a hovercycle burst through the aperture, its passage knocking over the pair of bouncers who had been making certain they saw nothing of the fight about to take place inside the club.

The hovercycle charged in like it was on a race track, bowling over tables and bikers alike. Kincaid barely leapt over the bar in time to avoid being mown down by three hundred pounds of metal traveling at a high rate of speed.

The cycle, which Kei identified as a B-1300, came to a stop not more than a half meter from her. The air kicked up from its hover jets brushed across her boots. It was either a sign of daredevil skill or blind luck he hadn't wiped out entering or run Kei down.

The driver held out a hand. "Hop on!" he shouted over the roaring jets.

Now that he was no more than a meter away, Kei got a good look at the driver. He was young, probably about twenty, a touch slender, but not too skinny, and appeared on the tall side, though it was difficult to be certain since he was sitting astride the hover cycle. What really drew her eyes was his face. He was a very good-looking man, with a sort of roguish charm and a killer smile that reminded her of Killgore's. Despite the gravity of the situation and the potential injuries he could have suffered had he an ounce less of piloting skill, he appeared he was having fun. In many ways it mirrored how Kei would have been had their positions been reversed.

Kei accepted the hand and hopped on. It wasn't every day a damsel in distress was rescued by a handsome knight on his faithful mount, even if the knight was dressed in leather and his noble steed was manufactured by a company whose primary specialty was household appliances. She'd settle for the handsome part, which was the thing that interested her the most.

In a feat of skill that made even Kei gasp, her knight didn't bother turning the hovercycle around, he simply reversed directions, though he did consent to peering over his shoulder to make certain he didn't crush them both against the walls framing the doorway.

They cleared the opening with casual ease. This guy must have been conceived as well as born on a bike. That was the only explanation for how he could be so good.

"You're a hell of a driver!" Kei shouted over the roar of the engine, all the while securing a grip on her rescuer with only one hand high, and the other a good bit lower, though she was careful not to squeeze.

Rather than reacting surprised at her grip, he looked over his shoulder, smiling at Kei. "It's one of my three passions."

Kei couldn't resist the invitation. "What are the other two?"

"They're a secret, but I think they might be of interest to you. Maybe you'll find out."

Kei's smile broadened. Young or not, he knew just how to make himself interesting while not being too cocky. Either he was a hell of a player, or being sincere. She vowed to herself to find out which it was before she returned to the Lovely Angel.

She was about to say more when their path was cut off by a number of bikers speeding in front of them from a side street. Her rescuer reacted by darting to another side street that was little more than a narrow alleyway. She caught a glimpse of the starburst insignias on the hovercycles in front of them as they sped away.

"Crap! How'd they get in front of us?" Kei cursed.

"Late arrivals to the party. They were probably radioed by the others back at the bar." He cut down the alleyway and veered to the left.

Kei heard the sound of other cycles behind her. She looked over the shoulder to see the bikers had followed them down the alley. She had hoped they would take a longer route rather than risk scraping themselves against the wall, but it appeared they had a measure of driving skill as well. Though she noted not as much, as there was now some additional space between them and their pursuers.

"Think we can lose them?" Kei asked.

"Not on speed alone. I might not think much of the slobs, but Kincaid's boys have pretty good machines. I'll bet my skill against theirs any day, though. We'll ditch them."

A laser bolt shot past, well to the left. It hit the front of a building, shattering the glass.

"That'll make things more difficult," the youth worried.

Kei was about to go for her sidearm to return fire, when she remembered it was still lying on the floor of the bar. "You don't happen to have a gun?"

"Not on me. I'd blow my own foot off if I tried to use one. Riding bikes I know. Shooting firearms is a good way to get me killed."

"Shit!" Kei hissed. More laser blasts joined the original as they exited the alley and hit the open street, giving them some cover for a moment. Luckily, trying to fire from a hovercycle at another hovercycle, while both were moving at high speed, made for poor marksmanship. Still, Kei worried the thugs might get lucky and a stray shot might either hit one of them or damage the bike.

"There's a gun stowed on the bike to the left of the seat, though. It's got a concealed catch next to the main strut supporting the seat to the body. I assume it still works. I haven't had it out since it was put there."

Kei found the catch in question, her fingers deftly flipping it open and finding the handle of the gun. She extracted it from its concealment and examined it. An L-18. Designed for sleekness and accuracy rather than power or quantity. It was still a reliable piece that did what it was intended to do. It was a dependable, and expensive, choice.

"You can't use a gun but you have one?" Kei asked.

"What can I say? I have an overprotective mother," he quipped, despite the situation.

More lasers flashed past, one nearly singeing the hair on Kei's head. She twisted in her seat, keeping one hand firmly across her rescuer's chest while firing behind them. Her first three shots missed, but the fourth one struck home, hitting the lead biker right in the head and sending his body flying. The hovercycle continued forward, stopping only when it slammed into a building and blew up against a wall.

The rest of the pack, numbering seven, continued firing. Kei noticed that half of them had fixed weapon mounts in the front of their cycles. Horrible for accuracy, but they could fire at will without worrying about steering with only one hand, and they had hellish firing capacities.

With one of their number fallen, the others dodged faster and fired more. Shots went wild, hitting nearly everything in the street save the people they were aiming at.

Then a stray shot hit the rear of the hovercycle. Immediately smoke began trailing from the tail and the youth cursed. "That was an engine. We're going to lose speed."

"Shit!" Kei cursed. Better the bike then her, but the odds for the gang coming out on top suddenly improved.

She snapped off another trio of shots, conserving her ammunition. Another biker clutched at his wounded shoulder, causing his bike to veer of course and into a parked car. Both ended up decorating a good portion of the pavement.

"I have an idea," the youth shouted over his shoulder. "Think you can do that again?"

Kei looked at her magazine. "Yeah, I should have enough shots left."

He nodded. "Wait until the next turn. Once they turn the corner, all you have to do is hit one of them in the lead."

Kei was uncertain of what her rescuer was up to, but put her trust in him. They made it around the next corner. She kept her attention riveted to what was behind her. Once the gang made the corner, she opened up on the leader of the pack. More shots closed in on her as they found their range, but Kei's marksmanship won out, and she nailed the lead biker.

"What now?" she asked.

"Now this!" the man made a sharp turn, nearly causing Kei to go flying off the cycle. She watched as the riderless hovercycle continued onward, crashing into some sort of fuel station.

There was a tremendous explosion as the vehicle ignited the fuel. A fireball billowed outward. Kei felt heat wash over, and saw the remainder of the bikers, following too closely to adjust their course, consumed in the conflagration.

The youth pulled to a stop, surveying their handiwork. "Nice job," he complimented.

"You're the one that was driving." Kei swatted him affectionately on his shoulder.

A hissing sound reached Kei's ears. She looked up the road they were on just in time to see something black and with a vapor trail heading right toward them. "Move!" she shouted, tackling her comrade hard enough to take them both a good distance from the bike.

A second later the missile hit. They were caught at the edge of the explosion, but were fortunate in avoiding the shrapnel. The detonation continued what inertia started and the pair was blown clear of the fiery wreck.

Once he was able to sit up, Kei's rescuer moaned, "Aw, I liked that bike."

"And I like your ass, now move it or you'll lose it!" Kei hauled him to his feet, trying to spot where the missile had originated. A sinking feeling hit her stomach as she saw exactly where it had come from. Kincaid and the rest of his gang had located them. He was in the lead, a missile side car attached to his hovercycle, and there were plenty of missiles left in its carriage.

Kei assessed the situation and the best way out of it. "This way!" The tables were turned as she became the savior, shooting open a door to a nearby building and kicking it in. It was some sort of clothing store. She half dragged her companion to a counter, all but throwing him behind it as she leaped over it after him.

Another explosion came from directly outside the building, throwing glass, metal, and mortar inside. Luckily, the counter shielded them from the debris, just like Kei had planned.

Kei poked her head over the counter and checked her remaining ammunition. She had expended much of it nailing the last biker, and any reloads had been scrapped along with the bike. A pity they hadn't ducked into a firearm emporium. Then "Castrated" Kincaid and his pack of smelly tattooed freaks would be so much scorched flesh.

Kei's companion grabbed her by the arm. "I think I know a way out."

Having no better ideas, Kei followed. They went toward the back, the younger man leading the way. Roars could be heard from the front as the gang moved in to confirm the kill. Within seconds Kei's rescuer found what he was looking for: a back exit.

"Even if we get out of here they'll just run us down," Kei said. At least in the narrower confines of the store the gang couldn't use the superior maneuverability of the hovercycles. Of course they could just bring the building down around Kei's ears and render the whole thing moot. It was not one of her better days.

"I know where we are. There's a way out, but we'll have to cross an open street," he told her.

Kei sighed. She'd rather die trying to do something than allowing herself to get backed into a corner. She held the gun up for cover. "Lead the way."

He did so, bolting down the back alleyway and out to the adjoining street. He hesitated for a moment before spotting what he was looking for. He ran down the street toward a building.

Kei's fears were realized as a single hovercycle made a turn around the corner and spotted them. Immediately he opened up with a mounted laser in the front while shouting into his radio that he had spotted them.

Kei stopped running and took careful aim. A single shot from her pistol took him in the head. She doubted she'd get so lucky a second time. Already she heard the roar of vehicles coming from more than one direction. They were flanking her, which is what she would have done had their positions been reversed.

Kei caught up to her rescuer, who had stopped in front of what appeared to be a hardware store that was closed for the evening. The situation hadn't seemed any different to her from the one they had left, but they didn't have any real options now, since they were in open without any hope of cover.

She brought her pistol up and was about to shoot out the lock when her companion said, "Wait!" He pulled a cyberlink from his jacket and hooked it up to the back of his neck. Now Kei caught a glimpse of the cybernetic headjack implanted at the base of his skull. It looked fairly high grade from what she could see. Curious, she hadn't thought someone like him would bother with an implant. He was proving himself full of surprises.

The door popped open. He immediately shut it behind them, then led her hurriedly inside. He seemed to know where he was going, making a beeline for the rear of the store.

"How did you do that?" she asked as she found herself being led deeper into the building.

"I set up the security to this place."

"It doesn't seem all that secure if you can just walk in," Kei pointed out.

"Every security designer that knows his stuff always puts in a backdoor in case they need to come in unannounced to beef up security."

"Uh huh," Kei said unconvincingly.

As they walked, he began to explain. "This building is owned by Artus Millious, one of the largest indigenous businessmen in the city. He has, how shall we say, some very powerful connections to powerful people, not all of them legitimate. They're the kind that could eliminate a pesky biker gang with the same effort it takes to rub their noses. Most people know that. It would be annoying to Artus if someone were to attack his establishment. Annoying in the way that makes him want to rub his nose. "

There was the sound of an explosion from outside.

"And if said biker gang decides to take their chances and storm the place?" Kei asked as she brought her gun up.

He kept dragging her along. "Actually there's a secret about this place. You see, of all of Artus's holdings, this is the only one that loses money."

"And this has a bearing on our situation how?"

He led Kei to a back office, obviously where the man in charge ran things. The youth went to a back wall and began feeling around a tasteless light fixture that made even Kei recoil. "The reason he keeps this place is for one simple reason: location."

"Because it's on top of a secret armory?" Kei asked hopefully.

There was a click and a section of the wall slid away. "It has a secret passage that leads to his favorite bordello. It's the only way he can get around without his wife finding out. She's from Lyrnya."

"Oh." Kei now understood the need for secrecy. Lyrnya was a wealthy planet, and nearly anyone that married off-world came from money. Culturally they took marriage vows seriously. Infidelity was a capital offense, and they were quite happy to apply their laws to other planets. Death was usually preceded by the removal of certain organs that tended to be responsible for getting the marriage-breaker into trouble in the first place. Not many people married Lyrnyans.

Kei was led into the secret passageway. The door sealed itself automatically behind them. Lights flickered on, revealing a staircase carved from stone leading downward. A foul odor wafted up from deeper within.

"It smells like something died down here." Kei pinched her nose shut.

"As an additional security precaution, the passageway leads to the sewers rather than directly to the bordello. Mr. Millious really didn't want to take any chances."

"Ugh!" Kei spat out as she forced herself to move forward. It wouldn't be the first time she had to sneak through a sewer to get around. Of course, she hated it every time she had to use one.

Three hundred meters later, they came upon the secret doorway leading to the bordello. Three hundred meters of filth and grime that would have made even a pig recoil in disgust. It was just Kei's luck that the sewer had fallen victim to poor drainage and there had recently been a storm. It made the water level three times higher than what it should have been and submerged the ledge that led to the bordello. After slogging her way through waist deep refuse, her savior tapped a few stones and a secret passageway opened up. Kei emerged from the foul substance with an aroma that made her want to toss up her cookies. Every single one she had eaten in her lifetime.

It was as she was cursing her foul luck when she remembered exactly why she was here.

"Aw, crap."

"Don't worry about it. I waded through some too. It'll wash off, probably," he reassured her.

Kei shook her head. "It's not that. In all the confusion, I almost forgot why I was sent here."

He stopped walking. "Oh?"

Reluctantly, Kei said, "As soon as we're out of this, I'm going to have to go. I was supposed to meet some nerdy hacker and give him some material to look over for me and my friends, which is the last thing I want to do. Believe me, I'd rather not spend time with some geek who's surgically attached to his keyboard. But business is business, and it has to take precedence. His name is Mikael or something."

Her companion smiled. "Maybe I could help. It just so happens my second great passion is computers."

"Oh, is that so? And what's your third great passion?"

"Maybe you'll get the chance to find out."

That forced Kei to smile. Not that she had any intention of giving him the packet. Handsome he might be; someone that could be trusted with vital information, probably not. "We'll see," Kei said noncommittally.

They arrived at a doorway at the end of the stairwell. Her companion moved aside another hidden recess that revealed a concealed keypad. He thought for a moment, then hit a ten number sequence. The panel chimed and retreated back into the recess. A second later, the door slid open.

"You set up security here?" Kei asked.

"I've been here from time to time," he answered as he entered the brightly lit chamber beyond…

…And found a beautiful woman in a business suit pointing a gun at his face.

"Looks like you made quite an impression," Kei said as she surreptitiously went for her own pistol.

"Hey ya', Mari," her rescuer said affably to the woman pointing the gun at him.

"Mikael! You should have let us know you were dropping by." She smiled warmly, and more importantly, holstered the gun. Despite her affectionate tone she refrained from embracing him. She then peered over her shoulder and spotted Kei. "Who's your friend?"

Mikael introduced them. "Kei, this is Mari, head of security here. Mari, Kei."

Mari nodded, though she didn't smile. "Well, Mikael, this is a first. A man who brings a date to a bordello."

He laughed easily. "Could you get Madame Fortuna and let her know I'm here? She always insists I stop by to greet her first thing, otherwise she gets cross with me, and you know what she's like when she's cross."

"That I do. I'll see if I can't get something set up for you. And your friend," she added, giving Kei a frosty look that bordered on a glare.

Kei shot her back in equally disdainful look as the woman exited the room. Once she was gone and she and her companion were alone, Kei turned to him. "Mikael?"

"The nerdy geek." He held his hands out helplessly.

Kei laughed, her anger at not being informed of his identity offset by her unwittingly shooting off her mouth and insulting a guy she wanted to impress. "You're not what I thought you'd be like." It would have helped a whole lot if Iria had shown her a picture of the handsome guy. Kei would have been a whole lot more eager to meet him. Maybe Iria was getting old if she hadn't noticed his looks. Now Kei was left in an awkward position. She tried lightening the mood and hoped he'd forgive her remarks. "I guess it explains your timely arrival."

"I like making a good first impression," he said easily, letting her know everything was all right.

Kei relaxed. "Why didn't you identify yourself right away?"

"I was sort of busy," he reminded her. "And if you think you had it bad, Bob didn't even give me the benefit of a name. All he told me was the place, the time, and said, 'Look for a hot redhead. Don't worry, she'll be easy to find. She'll be in the middle of trouble.'"

Kei frowned, mostly because Bob's less than savory description had turned out to be accurate. She'd have words for him as well when they she got back. "Yeah, thanks for the help. I mean, I could have gotten out of things on my own, but you made it a lot easier."

"And you saved me a couple of times back there too, so I'd say we're even."

Sensing things were turning out pretty good, despite the rocky start, Kei began asking questions of a more personal nature. "You seem to be a well known guy around here."

This time Mikael blushed faintly. "I practically grew up here. The girls treat me like a favored son, since most of them don't have any of their own."

"So it's completely innocent?" Kei asked, doubt in her voice.

"Well, I'm lots of things, but I don't know as 'innocent' is one of them."

Kei considered that. It wasn't like she was what would be termed "innocent" either, and that rakish smile was fit for someone naughty rather than nice. And it wasn't as though Kei was uptight, like Yuri was.

Kei was still thinking things over when a woman entered the room. She was older, at least in her fifties, with graying hair tied into a bun. She wore a tasteful dress that spoke of money and class, accentuating her femininity and sexuality, despite her age. Every one of her movements was poise and elegance personified. Kei actually felt a pang of jealousy upon seeing her. It was the first time she had ever felt jealous of an older woman.

"Miki," the woman cooed, strolling up to him and pecking him lightly on the cheek, one of the few spots of his body not covered in grime. "It's been a long time."

"Madame Fortuna," he said, returning the kiss on her cheek.

She retaliated by pinching his. "How many times have I told you, it's Nadia, Miki, my sweet?"

"Ow, ow, all right, Nadia. Nadia."

Fortuna released her grip and patted his cheek affectionately.

Kei smiled at the exchange. Mari might have regarded Mikael with something more than motherly affection, but this Fortuna saw him in that sort of light.

As if picking up Kei's thoughts, Fortuna turned to her. "And you are?""

"Kei." She suddenly felt uneasy under the woman's piercing gaze. It was obvious she was being evaluated. She didn't like being evaluated, even by her superiors, and that was their job. There was something about this "Madame" (no doubt in every sense of the word, since she was in charge of a bordello) that reeked of a sense of superiority. A feeling that came from within rather than being bestowed upon her by others.

After looking her over with a critical eye, Fortuna smiled. Kei was uncertain if it held approval or something else. In either case, the older woman turned back to Mikael. "So, what brings you here?"

Mikael told her all of the events that had happened that night, leaving out only the specifics of what he and Kei were supposed to discuss.

"Rest assured, you'll be safe here." Fortuna waved at the room around her. "This is the one place where all men of power, both of legitimate and other questionable means, agree that they need and want, and therefore falls under their protection. My home is probably the most secure place in all of Myce. You'll both be safe here, no matter who is after you."

Fortuna wrinkled her nose in the pair's direction. "Now, you'd both best get cleaned up. I'd say you should use," she looked Kei over carefully again. "The Blue Room. I think that would be appropriate. Leave your clothing outside the room and I'll have someone clean them for you."

"Thank you," Mikael said sincerely.

"You're always welcome here. My doors are open for you, and I think most of the other girls' are as well, and not for a fee." She gave him a knowing wink.

Kei felt a bit of temper flare at the comment. None of "the other girls" had better try putting the moves on Mikael while she was around, or they'd find out what it meant to interfere in a 3WA agent's mission. And Mikael was part of the mission now, since he was her contact. That meant he was hers and hers alone until she was finished with him. And she wasn't in any hurry.

Mikael thanked Fortuna again and led the way, apparently not needing directions to the Blue Room. As they reached the doorway leading into the building proper, Fortuna said, "By the way, have you seen Fujikuro lately?"

Mikael turned. "Yeah, he's in good shape and as busy as ever. You know what he says. 'Old bounty hunters don't die, they just get meaner'."

"He's never been mean with me," she said, amusement in her voice. "In any case, the next time you see him, do tell him to drop by. I've missed him terribly, and I'd wager he's missed me too, unless I've lost my touch. And I most definitely haven't done that."

"I will," Mikael promised, then led Kei from the room.

As they made their way through what was obviously servants' quarters, Kei asked, "Fujikuro? That old fart? He's still alive?"

Mikael turned to her in surprise. "He sure is. Do you know him?"

Kei nodded. "I grew up on Myce, actually. I'd see him every now and then. He was like a hard-around-the-edges-uncle. He tried to pretend he didn't care, but he'd look out for me when I got into trouble."

"That's him," Mikael confirmed. "He hasn't changed much over the years. I don't think he's ever changed. He and Madame… I mean Nadia, have had a thing going for almost as long as I can remember. I mean, it's not official, but it's obvious they got eyes for only one another. I think she'd like to marry him, if he'd offer, and get out of the business completely. I think he just can't grasp the concept of settling down. But I'm pretty sure he loves her enough for it. It's hard to say. I don't try to stick my nose in too far. Fujikuro is the type to bite it off if he thinks it's sticking too far into his business."

"Huh." Kei had problems seeing Fujikuro as the type to marry. He didn't seem the type to date. He was just so ornery and contrary, even if he had helped every now and then when she or Iria had a problem.

As they went past the kitchens, Kei noticed several attractive women that were dressed in risqué clothing milling about. They smiled in recognition of Mikael and greeted him with sultry purrs. To Kei they shot suspicious or downright hostile glares.

Once they were out of earshot of the girls, Kei said, "You sure are popular here. It's like everyone knows you." There was more than a hint of acid in her voice.

Mikael shrugged. "Well, it does sort of tie in with my third, and favorite, passion."

When it was obvious he wouldn't continue, Kei prodded him. "Which is?"

"Women." He paused in front of a door that was, appropriate enough, blue. He opened it and bowed, allowing Kei to enter first.

Kei wasn't sure of what to make of that. It was rare to find a guy that would openly admit to a female companion that he liked women. Of course, with the way Kei's life had been going lately, a passionate guy could be what she needed, even if he was a bit younger than her. He didn't act younger. He was confident, but not in an obnoxious way. She was reluctant to admit it, but she could understand why he was held in favor by so many of the girls here. He was charming, and Kei would have bet everything it was sincere, rather than an act to seduce women. His composure under fire and risking his neck to help a stranger were clear indications of that. Good looking and suave, but ultimately a nice guy. Obviously he had some brains too if he was a hacker. And that killer smile was something else.

The only thing that was a negative in Kei's book was that he was on the slender side. As a rule, she preferred her men beefy, but there was nothing wrong with being wiry. As long as he wasn't skin in bones, but his grip and handling of his bike seemed to dismiss that idea. No, he was in good shape. Not bad at all.

He moved into the room, shutting the door behind him. Kei saw that this "Blue Room" was clearly set up for entertainment of a visceral kind. It was sedate, almost like a honeymoon suite, and there was definitely a romantic air about the place. Nearly everything was fringed in a sky blue, but tasteful. It was certainly a mood setter, and Kei wondered if Fortuna had set them up by letting them use it.

Kei became defensive at the idea. She was no hooker. If she slept with a guy, it was on her terms, and she certainly didn't need approval or encouragement from some aging madam. Just to prove it, she wouldn't sleep with Mikael. They'd just clean up, get changed, and get to the business of slicing that information and getting it back to Iria. Besides, it had been a long day, two attempts had been made on her life, and that was after a long trip through several systems in a cramped vessel. It would be best to grab some shut eye when she could. There was no telling what would be coming after her next.

"I'm going to grab a shower first," Mikael announced. He opened the door to the bathroom (also colored in blue tile) and pulled it behind him. It didn't quite close all the way, and there was an opening of about a half-dozen centimeters between the frame and the door.

Kei's eyes were drawn to the crack. She could just make out clothing being shed and the color of flesh moving back and forth from her vantage point. Was that a tattoo she saw decorating the back of his shoulder? She couldn't be certain. And was that his ass? If it was, it was definitely firm. She could see sinking her fingers into it just to test its firmness.

The movement disappeared, and she heard the sound of water running. Kei sat on the bed, rubbing her legs nervously together. A million thoughts ran through her mind as to why she should maintain her resolve, but there was one thought that stood well in front of the others.

"It has been way too long since I've had a good man." She unsnapped her top, allowing her breasts to swing free. Her bottoms followed suit and boots followed. One thing about her troubleshooter outfit; removing it was easy and quick; a fact she had appreciated on more than one occasion.

Kei sauntered over to the shower and accepted the invitation that the open door represented. She announced her presence by saying, "Want some help washing some of those hard to reach places?"

That was met with a response of, "I should warn, you, I have this back problem that makes washing anything below my waist difficult."

"Oh, I'm an expert at washing there," Kei assured him as she joined him in the shower.

Kei lounged about nude on the bed, purring in contentment like a cat that had made a meal out of a flock of canaries. This was some of the best sex she had ever had. Not only was Mikael handsome, caring, and pretty well-endowed, but he could play a woman's body like a musician with a finely tuned instrument. No doubt it had come from his time spent with the professionals here, but since Kei was benefiting from his training, she had no complaints.

And the number of times he could get it up. He was like a horny teenager. He was making her feel like one too, and she suppressed the urge to giggle inanely. She must have been insane trying to talk herself out of sleeping with him. Knowing what she had almost missed because of false pride nearly sent a chill down her spine.

The sound of his humming to himself in the shower filled the air. Kei had already taken a shower, the smell of the herbal body lotions rubbed into her skin making her feel revitalized. It had been an energetic night, followed by an energetic day, followed by one more energetic night. Now it was the next morning, and she was mostly tapped out. Mostly. Though she could be up for one more round, if Mikael's flesh was willing. But she'd let him approach her, in case he didn't feel up to it. She didn't want to be too demanding and seem like a bitch. She'd give him a whole twenty-four hours to recharge before going at it again. That would leave them enough time to do what she had come to Myce for, and start on compiling the information they needed.

There was a knock on the door, most likely heralding breakfast. Madame Fortuna had been a wonderful hostess, and ordered the staff to cater to all of their needs. No doubt it was more for Mikael's sake rather than Kei's, but she could live with that. Anything they needed, they had received. Though all they had really needed was clean clothing (which had stayed on them for all of five minutes before being discarded again.) food to keep them going, and some more… esoteric items. Mikael was certainly inventive, and it had served to inspire Kei toward some more innovative maneuvering as well.

"Enter," Kei said. Her hunger died when she saw who was at the door. She quickly covered herself up and tried to act casual. "Oh, hi, Iria. What are you doing here?"

Iria stared upon Kei in open disapproval, letting her former protégé know she was an open book and there was no sense in denying anything. "Things happened pretty quick after you left. Zeiram hit another station and sneaked away before we could kill him. We think we might have a new lead on him, and I wanted to swing by and pick you up and see what information you managed to dig up."

"Oh, that." Kei tried playing it off, but her laugh was strained in a way that only Iria's steady gaze could make. "Well, you see, I got attacked before I reached the planet."

"I know. We found the remains of your ship in the middle of the desert. I was concerned until I discovered your signal in the city." She held up a tracking device.

Kei's hand went reflexively to her earring communicator. "Yeah."

"And now I find you in a bordello?" Iria cocked a quizzical eyebrow.

Kei's laugh was even more uneasy. "Well, you see, I sort of got attacked once I got the city too."

"That would explain the destruction I saw on the way here. People are still talking about it, you know."

"Exactly," Kei said. "And I had to lay low here."

"Did you manage to find Mikael before you hit town and leveled half of it?"

Kei's fear disappeared and she became positively giddy. "Oh, you could say that. And we hit it off really well."

It was just at that moment that Mikael emerged from the bathroom, towel tied around his slender waist. He was still looking down, securing it, as he asked, "Is breakfast here? I'm starving." He trailed off as he saw who was in the room. He shifted nervously, and immediately went for a robe.

Kei wondered curiously at the strange reaction, and turned her attention back to Iria. The bounty hunter's look of concern that had been directed at Kei had changed to a glare of suspicion and hostility, surprising the troubleshooter.

Iria crossed her arms under her bosom and said in a warning tone, "Kei, I hope for your sake that your intentions with my son are strictly honorable."


Author's notes: I think this would be a good place to end it.

DB Sommer

Chapter 9
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