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Chapter 11

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.

"Got your toothbrush packed?" Cross asked.

"Yeah, Mom. I packed clean underwear too," Killgore said around the pen in his mouth as he finished inventorying the items that he would take with him to YSC headquarters on Danube. The list was short, since it was only a system away from their current position orbiting above the pleasure moon of Xyphos 13. The moon was the nearest inhabited planetoid to Danube, without actually being in the system of the same name.

Cross's expression went from lighthearted to serious. "How long do you think you'll be?"

Killgore shrugged. "It's hard to say. I want to see Springer personally, and given the circumstances, I wouldn't be surprised if she's near the president himself, which means it might take a while to get in touch with her. Depends on how long her leash is."

Cross nodded his head almost imperceptibly. "Yes, with the Holcomb fiasco over with, Scorphius only needs one more thing before he becomes a real threat."

"Which gives me a strong bargaining posture, eh?" Killgore winked conspiratorially at his personal assassin.

"Yes, be a dear and bring us an additional incentive bonus, would you?" Cross placed a hand to his chin in thought. "There was something else I was going to mention to you, but I can't seem to remember it."

"There you are, godammit!"

"Ah, yes, that would be what I forgot," Cross said whimsically.

Killgore looked over Cross' shoulder and shot a concealed frown at his ex-wife as she stormed over to him. "When did she get on board?" he whispered low enough so that the woman wouldn't hear.

"A little while ago. I tried talking her out of it, but she was insistent… insistent to the point that we would have had to shoot her down in order to keep her off. I was tempted."

Before Killgore could respond, Iria was standing in front of him, hands on her hips in open anger. "I was looking all over for you. The morons on this ship don't have a clue on how to give directions."

"The ship isn't that big," Killgore pointed out. "Anyway, why are you here, Sunshine?"

She glared at the appellation. "Well, Lance, I heard you were going to YSC headquarters. I want you to take me along."

Killgore clapped his hands together with enthusiastic glee. "It'll be like a second honeymoon."

Iria refused to rise to the bait. "I'm dead serious. I just want to talk to someone in charge and get some answers. That's all."

"Hmm. I remember you regaling me with tales of the last time you went to some company's headquarters and demanded answers. I hate to break this to you, but YSC is not some penny-ante operation like Tedan Tippendai. You can't just barge in, shoot a handful of guards, and threaten to drop the VP out a sixty floor window."

"I did drop him out the window. I just didn't let him hit the ground," Iria corrected.

"The point is, you try to come on with the thug tactics, and you'll end up dead before you get one floor up. It's the most secure facility they have. It makes Holcomb look like a mom-and-pop liquor store when it comes to protecting the place."

"I'll behave," Iria promised.

"No way. I'm in a hurry, so I'm going alone," Killgore said it in a manner that let her know he considered the discussion over.

Much to his surprise, Iria shrugged. "Okay, I'll just have Kei and Yuri take me there. And since they'll be there, and they are 3WA troubleshooters, they'll probably ask much more intrusive questions than I would. And they'll expect answers since they have the authority to do so, and I'm sure they'll mention how your actions in particular made them suspicious. So which do you think your employers would prefer: me asking the questions or them?"

"Good point," Killgore admitted grudgingly. "Okay, you can go along if you're willing to leave immediately."

"Right now would be fine."

With the matter resolved, Killgore unleashed his most charming smile at her. "It'll take a couple of hours to get to Danube. Since we don't have anything to do while we're flying, why don't we entertain ourselves the way we used to on those long space voyages back when we were married?"

Iria casually pulled a knife from her belt and began cleaning her nails with it.

"Idle chatter it is." The smile disappeared, but it took much longer for the knife to do the same. Killgore anticipated a long trip in store for him.

Night had fallen on Myce. The weather was a touch on the sultry side, but the skies were clear and wind nonexistent. It was the sort of night that was made for lazing about outdoors while drinking one's favorite beverage.

But for the young slicer named Mikael, it could have been raining hard enough to drown a fish and he wouldn't have noticed. He was busying himself with completing the final test run on his computers. All the hardware and software passed their final check, and he heaved a sigh of relief. While he was tense with what was about to come, excitement ruled his heart.

His mother and Kei had given him an interesting challenge. Slicing into YSC's system to see if he could dig up any information on Zeiram and discover their true goal concerning the monstrosity was something only the greatest of slicers would even consider attempting. Everyone knew the intersystem megacorps had the most difficult systems to crack given the security measures placed on their networks. Luckily, the job wasn't impossible. Far from it, actually. The system itself was easy to connect to. Like most corporations its size, YSC had to maintain contact with all of its numerous holdings in one way or another through the vast intersystem computer networks in order to make sure operations were being handled efficiently. That need to survey accurate information readily meant sacrificing the security of sealed standalone systems, thereby making their information net easy to access.

Of course, YSC was painfully aware of this vulnerability, and had developed security features so complex that while accessing the system was easy, penetrating it was nearly impossible. But their system was like any complicated structure, and had weak points. Only an expert slicer of Mikael's caliber could possibly discern where those weaknesses were located and enter the soft insides of the system. Though even accomplishing that was not enough, since there were many other security features inside the system as well as out. But once inside, Mikael could dig in deep and discover their secrets, hopefully before he was discovered by the internal security programs.

Given the importance of the request from his mother and Kei, Mikael invested all of his time and energy into that goal. That meant digging up specific information from the underground slicer community and from others that attempted to break into YSC. Much to Mikael's concern, he discovered that a number of slicers, most of them talented (though not as good as him. he told himself), ended up having their brains fried when they were caught inside the system. Technically, no one using intersystem networks was supposed to have aggressive attack programs that would lobotomize slicers, but they still existed. It was part of the chances one took when trying to go where they didn't belong, and the element of risk tended to excite slicers, who were breaking the rules themselves.

Mikael's investigation turned up several potentially good possibilities for initial penetration into the system. A slicer by the handle of Lemon Drop had discovered a permanent access port into the system through a backdoor some YSC programmer had made. It wasn't a large scale operation, just some low-level fertilizer business on a world that was in the later stages of colonizing, but if the backdoor was as good as she claimed, he had a reliable way in that would save him days of trying to find one of his own. It had taken a good bit of wheedling, money, and sharing of very valuable information Mikael had dug up on his own before she gave him access to the backdoor, since there was a reasonable chance YSC would discover his information raid and would permanently seal it.

With the door opened, Mikael had turned to the hardware matter. He brought everything he owned into play, anticipating this to be the biggest score of his life. Most of his money went into hardware, but state of the art was necessary for one of his skill. His mother never skimped on weaponry when it came to her line of work. He was talented enough to make plenty of money, and had a setup that most slicers would envy.

There were still reservations. When he had originally looked over his equipment, Mikael worried that it might not be enough for something this big. The only way to increase his own 'firepower' at that point was to combine forces with another slicer. Mikael called in a few markers from a local talent named 'Smoothie' (including a promise to hook him up with a girl from the 'Touch of Heaven' bordello) before his compatriot agreed to link their systems together. With their combined systems, Mikael would be able to really speed or power through YSC's network in a way he had never been able to before.

Since all of the systems checked out, Mikael went to a monitor and activated its viewscreen. The picture flared to life. Mikael winced as it showed a very large close up of Smoothie's face. Seeing his temporary partner, Mikael was reminded of when Kei had jokingly confessed she had expected Mikael to be an out-of-shape, geeky nerd who would become panicky when confronted with someone as attractive as her. It wasn't the first time Mikael had heard such, and it always irritated him that women would automatically assume he was like that when hearing his profession before actually meeting him. Regrettably, Mikael had to admit there was some validity in the stereotype when looking at the ill-named Smoothie. He was near morbidly obese, rumpled, unkempt, laughed far too hard at his own jokes, and looked like he considered bathing an option rather than a necessity. It was slicers like him that gave ones like Mikael an unwarranted reputation.

Seeing Smoothie in such a state prodded Mikael into action. "Remember, you promised me you'd clean yourself up before going out with Michelle." Getting the attractive prostitute to agree to go out with the slicer (without being paid for it) hadn't been easy. It had taken a lot of cajoling (and an agreement for Mikael to go out with her on a real date as well) to make her acquiesce. And upon seeing a picture of Smoothie, she had forced Mikael to make the other slicer agree to certain terms.

The rotund man rolled his eyes. "Okay, I'll go to that stylist you mentioned."

"And you won't pick your nose like you're doing now," Mikael said.

Smoothie's eyes widened and he retracted the digit. "Sorry. Nervous habit. You really think she'll have sex with me? It's been a long while. Way too long."

"As long as you make yourself presentable. She has a thing against sloppiness. It doesn't matter how handsome you are if you aren't tidy." On the upside, Michelle was the type that really enjoyed her work, and upon getting her to agree to go out on a date with Smoothie, it was assumed sex was part of the package. As long as his partner could keep his act together, the slicer would have the fun night he wanted.

With the assurance of 'payment' being secured, Mikael switched to the more urgent matter. "Everything up and running on your end?" It seemed to be according to Mikael's connections, but it never hurt to have someone onsite double-check.

Smoothie flashed him a thumbs up. "It's all under your control. I won't be heading in with you, but I can keep an eye open on the outside. Oh yeah, also, if an emergency comes up and we need more computing power, I have some local backdoors open and can access the city's network. I can seize control for about five minutes or so if we need the boost, so I can only do it in an emergency."

"You're a true talent." And it wasn't far from the truth. According to Smoothie, he had made it a goal to have ways to slice into every single public system in the city, and had succeeded. He joked that he could have every politician and policeman start working for the sanitation department for a week before they'd figure out something was wrong. If he said he could tap into the city's system and use it to boost their own, it was the truth.

Mikael took a deep breath. It was pointless to waste any more time. There was nothing further he could do to ensure his safety, and others were waiting for him to come through. It took only minutes for him to hook up the input switches to the cybernetic headjack in the back of his neck. That would link his brain up to his computer system and allow his mind to travel the electronic highways that had been created by an interlinked galaxy.

There was one last thing to do before allowing his mind to enter the system and begin its mission to slice away the information he needed. Mikael picked up an injector filled with a greenish fluid. Pheryl Gel was an invention that had been created under questionable circumstances. Despite its notorious history (supposedly involving nearly five hundred deaths in its experimental stages) the gel worked, enabling the user's mind to process the huge amounts of information that could be gained while hooked up to the cyberealm. It was like an ambrosia to slicers everywhere, giving them the ability to improve their abilities by a factor of three. Of course, as with most things, there was a major drawback. While not addictive (most users experienced migraines after the effects wore off) its increase in mental information capacity meant a decrease in one's motor systems. It cut down sensitivity to the point of where it felt like the user was wearing a thick rubber suit. While being hooked up to a computer, one's awareness of their body was limited, but losing control of their physical form was still an unpleasant feeling. That was one of the reasons Mikael used the gel sparingly.

But it was needed this time. Speed was of the essence, perhaps more than even stealth. No matter how quietly he moved through YSC's system, eventually he would trip some sort of security system, the law of averages dictated it. That meant he had to get the information fast and get out before they nailed him and deep fried his brain.

As the drug made its way through his body, Mikael opened his mind up fully to his hardware and seized control of it, allowing a portion of his consciousness to 'go' elsewhere.

Diving into a computer mentally was an impossible thing to describe. It wasn't anything the physical senses could understand because none of them came into play. The human mind was incapable of defining what an electronic environment was like, at least in words. It was more like a combination of imagination and sensations, which the brain could process at subconscious levels and give to the conscious mind the ability to act and react as it meshed itself into flows of data. Only fully electronic entities, like Bob, could function in it and interpret things better. Of course, the price for that was an inability to have physical form in the real world.

Now suitably calm, Mikael allowed his mind to follow the path already laid out before him. As fast as the information could arrive, Mikael found himself at the backdoor Lemon Drop had pointed out to him. There was only one way to see if she was telling the truth, or if he'd be kicked out immediately, and that was to access it and let his mind 'wander' inside. So he did.

And just like that he was in. It was definitely YSC's system, and he was inside, their strongest barrier breached without effort. But that was the easy part. Now that he was inside, he would have to track down the information he was looking for, and it could be literally be anywhere in the thousands of systems that made up YSC's network. Worse, there would be plenty of countermeasures along every step of the way. Still, that was what slicing was all about: sifting through systems to dig up information before you were caught. YSC represented the largest playground Mikael had ever had the opportunity to frolic in.

The slicer felt a thrill run down his spine as he used all the resources at his disposal into search.

"He has the last component to Argus! You told me he wouldn't get it!"

The woman known only as Springer, even to her employer —who happened to be the man who was speaking to her— turned away from the wall she had been staring at and shot him her standard, cold stare. "I told you it was wiser to destroy the samples and guarantee your brother couldn't get his hands on it. You could have manufactured more later, once Anton was taken care of."

Slapatcha Scorphius, president of Yurenex-Solvar Corporation, shifted uncomfortably in his chair. The lavish chambers of his office (which was the size of a small home) in the large complex that formed the headquarters of the interstellar company, made him seem small and feel alone, despite the fact he was surrounded by nearly ten thousand people that would obey his every wish. "That would have been extremely expensive. The raw material for the process alone would be astronomical."

"It would be cheaper than what he's going to do to your company once he gets his hands on a mass driver," Springer said. Still her voice lacked any emotion. All she did was state inescapable facts.

Slapatcha pounded his fist on his handmade Shimikas Wood desk. It was one of only four known to exist, given the rarity of the wood since the destruction of the tree's home planet nearly a thousand years earlier. "You said those mercenaries you hired would take care of the matter."

"I said they were the best money could buy," Springer corrected. "I did not guarantee success. Against an unknown variable like Zeiram, combined with the inside knowledge, genius, and insanity of your brother, there are no guarantees. Their combination of skills makes them very deadly and almost as unpredictable. If they were easy to kill, they'd already be dead."

Slapatcha repeated the fist thumping. "How can he evade us? We have resources no one else in the universe has! He should have been eliminated an hour after we learned he was still alive!"

"Your brother had been planning this betrayal for years without anyone else's knowledge. He is proactive, while you are reactive. He is fast, and powerful, if only on a small scale, while YSC is ultimately large and clumsy. It is an inevitability given your tremendous size. Since he worked for you, he knows your inadequacies, vulnerabilities, and how to best exploit them. Eventually we will catch up to him. He cannot avoid us forever. The only question is how much damage he can inflict in the interim."

"A damn lot now that he found out about Argus!" Slapatcha ran his hands over his short, curly hair.

"Yes, how unfortunate he found the plans on that liner of yours he hit. Before he was just a nuisance taking out small operations. Now he's a major threat."

Slapatcha's shoulders slumped in hopelessness. "All he needs is a mass driver now. They might not be common, but there are still way too many of them for us to cover all of them in the galaxy. He's won."

Springer stopped pacing. "No. On the contrary, given his mental state and pathological hatred of your company, we can be certain that Anton will only use a mass driver that is owned by YSC."

Hope gleamed in Slapatcha eyes. "You're certain?"

"Yes," Springer confirmed.

Slapatcha spoke into a voice unit that sat on the edge of his desk. "Give me the exact number of mass drivers currently owned by YSC."

A second later, holographic projectors moved from their concealed positions around the room and displayed the information in large blue characters that hung in the air. A voice repeated the information for those not interested in the effort to read it. "Currently YSC owns four. These are their current locations." A map of the galaxy hung off to the side, breaking down into four separate maps and pinpointing the exact location of each.

Slapatcha considered the matter. "Good, they're all isolated mining operations. It'll be a logistics nightmare, but I'm convinced we can get major firepower around all of them. He'll probably go for the closest, since he'll be in a hurry, so we'll prioritize reinforcing that one, followed by the rest in order."

Springer observed the display, then held up a warning finger. "Something is not right. Have the computer list all the mass drivers that have ever been built by YSC."

The request made Slapatcha stare at her curiously. "I don't think we actually make them. We just commission their construction through someone else. The market isn't that large for them." He requested the information, and the computer returned his predicted results.

Springer continued staring at the projection. "List all the mass drivers YSC has ever owned."

The company's president did so. Three of them were listed as having broken down and been scrapped, another had been destroyed in a mining accident, and there was one other.

Springer nodded at the last one. "That's it. That's the one he'll go after. The one you donated to this planet's government. There's no way he'll pass up the opportunity to use the mass driver poised above your very own head to destroy you. It would be ironic justice in his eyes."

For a moment, Slapatcha said nothing. Then a soft chuckle escaped his lips. The chuckle became a chortle. Eventually it devolved into full blown laughter. Springer remained where she was, waiting patiently until the laughter died down.

Through his giggles, the president of YSC finally got out, "We can only pray he does. That mass driver is on one of the military's orbital platforms. It's designed to repel a planetary invasion. It has enough firepower to blow a half dozen battleships apart and still have guns to spare. Even if he could get past the exterior defenses, there are three hundred men on board. Not the rank and file security people or bumbling mercenaries you've been hiring, but highly trained military personnel. They'll tear him to pieces in minutes. And, since Danube's government needs us to keep their world from becoming the backwater flyspeck it was before we came here, we can warn them about what to expect in Zeiram. They'll keep their mouths shut, since what's bad for us is fatal for them. If Anton is stupid enough to come here, it'll all be over for him, not us."

"I hope you're right." While Springer's voice carried no emotion, the doubt in the statement was obvious.

Slapatcha's amusement died. "I'm not so convinced he'll strike here. He's not suicidal. I'll alert the military's overlord that Zeiram will be arriving, but then I'm going ahead and moving our own forces into position to prevent him from grabbing one of the other mass drivers."

That met with a nod from Springer, who placed a hand to her chin. "Killgore will be arriving soon. I'll reroute him to the orbital platform."

Slapatcha shook his head sadly. "What do you think he can do that all of those military personnel can't?"

"Think on his own," Springer said flatly.

Before Slapatcha could respond to that, a beeping emanated from a communicator similar to Iria’s, which was attached to Springer's wrist. She brought it up to her face and said, "Report."

"We have a trace on someone that sliced into the system. This guy's a real talent. Backtracking shows he slipped right in and plowed through everything we had. We were actually lucky that we spotted him when we did, he's that good. He got in deep. Real deep. He looked into a lot of places he shouldn't have, so we're going to have to take measures immediately. I just need to know if you want to recruit or neutralize. I recommend recruitment. It would behoove us to make his talents our own."

"Download the info to me." A smaller holographic projector sprang to life from the wrist unit. Springer pored over the data as it was sent to her, processing it at what should have been inhuman speeds. Suddenly, she snapped, "Wait! Go back fifty lines." She reread the information, then turned away. She spoke mostly to herself as she said, "Myce? That was where Zeiram hit during his previous incursion. Tedan Tippendai was headquartered there, and… and that damned 3WA agent was just there!"

The curse caught Slapatcha's attention. Springer was showing emotion. She never showed emotion. And it seemed to have centered on Myce. No, it was when she recalled the 3WA agent's presence there. That was what had triggered the outburst. How very… interesting. Springer was one of the few things in Scorphius' life that was an enigma. Despite all the power at his command, he knew nothing about her, other than she was the absolute best there was at her job and always accomplished her goals. This Zeiram matter was the one time she had, if not failed, at least been delayed in resolving things. And in her defense, it was Anton who she was dealing with. Insane or not, he was a Scorphius, and they were a breed apart. And then there was Zeiram, which was nearly an irresistible force. She could be afforded some slack in this matter. At least for now.

While Slapatcha considered things, Springer continued giving orders. "Listen to me. Don't brain-fry him. Let him keep roaming around. I want him stationary. I need confirmation on his death. Bring in every agent we have on Myce. Send them all the intel and give the code phrase, 'It's time for the chimney sweep to dust'."

"Understood." The communicator went silent.

Slapatcha looked at her curiously. "Chimney Sweep?"

Springer turned to him. "It means the agents are to eliminate the target with extreme prejudice and at any cost. They can sacrifice their cover and any amount of collateral damage is acceptable."

"I see." That was fine with Slapatcha. Myce had been unimportant since the fall of Tedan Tippendai. They could afford to sacrifice whatever positions their people had attained there. It would be no great loss, and they could be relocated at minimal cost.

Satisfied things were well in hand for the first time in months, Slapatcha Scorphius leaned back in his chair and relaxed.

It was deep in the heart of night, closer to an approaching dawn than anything else, in a rundown section of the capital city of Myce that two people met for the first time in their lives. One was a woman, ordinary in appearance in every way. The other was a man, slightly older, with a touch of gray at his temples. Aside from that he appeared every bit as commonplace as the woman. They met in front of an apartment building, identical in shape and form to the others on either side of it, save for the touches of graffiti decorating its edifice. The collage of artwork from the many artists that regarded the buildings as their personal canvases gave personality to the soulless, pragmatic design.

The woman spoke first. "Chimney Sweep?"

The man nodded. "Call me Ishmael."

"That's cliché."

"I figured it best we don't know each other's everyday names. Plausible deniability is always a necessity in our line of work."

The woman shot him a tired look. "Fine. It's Bianca, then. Seniority designates you quarterback. Where are the others?"

"There are only two that are stationed around this section of the planet. Luckily Perez, whose normal base of operations is in Luchon, happened to have been sent to Myce on company business and is on his way via car. Unfortunately Vyory, who's normally stationed here, was out on some kind of isolated community thing his corporation saw fit to send its employees to. Supposedly the isolation is to promote teamwork."

Bianca's lip curled. "I had to go on one of those once. Being forced into the middle of nowhere surrounded by annoying coworkers promoted my desire to kill them all."

Ishmael nodded in sympathy. "In any case, it'll take him a while to find transportation out here, so he cannot be relied upon. Perez is coming, but we're in a hurry."

"This is the target's building?"

Ishmael nodded. "Upon arriving, I scouted out the location. I tapped into the power feed and followed the flows. There's only one apartment that's drawing enough juice to be operating a computer system capable of penetrating our employer's defenses. It's located on this side, third floor, two windows from the left."

Bianca looked up and mentally marked the dull orange glow that peeked through the room's single window. "Escape routes?"

"Door on the front, one on the East side of the building, and a rear exit. However, from his door there's only one way of going down, and we'll be going up those stairs. He'll be trapped with no means of escape."

"I'm not wild about hitting him with only the two of us," Bianca admitted.

Ishmael appeared unconcerned. "I looked around the interior. Even if he was a front man for someone, they don't have any resources here. We'll hit it together, though it shouldn't matter one way or another. It's probably just some small time slicer that sneaked into the wrong place at the wrong time. I doubt there'll be much in the—"

It was at that moment a quintet of young toughs came from further up the street and approached the couple. The group had the same predatory smell that all such people, who wandered about in packs in similar lower class areas on every planet in the galaxy, emanated.

One of them, the leader of the pack, acted as spokesman and moved forward. The other members of the group responded by encircling the pair, cutting off any avenues of escape. "Well, well, well. It looks like you aren't from around here. Did you get los—"

The rest of the question went unasked as the man and woman drew energy pistols from their jacket pockets and without hesitation, fired upon the gang. The spokesman was hit first, a hole left in his chest right where his heart was. More flashes filled the air with quick, deadly precision. Only one of the men had time to realize what was happening and draw back before he died with the rest of his comrades.

Ishmael kept his gun in hand, placing it behind his body so it wasn't openly displayed. "As I was saying, I doubt there'll be much in the way of problems. I think command just wants to make sure the information wasn't forwarded to someone else. I'm a fair slicer myself, so I should be able to determine if it was leaked, and if so, backtrack it to the source and eliminate that as well."

The woman nodded. "Good. Let's get going."

The pair stepped over the spokesman's body as casually as if it were a large crack in the sidewalk and entered the apartment building, heading straight for their destination.

Mikael could scarcely accept what his senses were telling him as he continued to sift through the information, recording everything he was coming across. It was impossible, yet according to YSC's network, it was real. Of course, it was all just computer information, and could be falsified, but he knew it wasn't. YSC would never create such a widespread fabrication in their own system. Not when it was verified from so many different sources. If it was some sort of high level scam, perhaps, but it had taken all of his abilities to get in this far. No, Mikael had stumbled on what might be one of the best kept secrets of the century.

While his mother and Kei had asked him to retrieve information on Zeiram from YSC's database, there was no way they could have guessed his path would lead him to this. Worse, they couldn't possibly know what they had gotten into. They would have warned him, or more likely, gone for help from just about anyone if they had learned the truth.

What was almost as amazing as the actual information was that he had never heard the vaguest hint of it anywhere, and this was the sort of thing that if anyone knew about it, rumors would have spread everywhere. YSC must have gone to unbelievable lengths to keep it quiet, though the secret itself would have helped in tracking down those that had knowledge of it.

And now Mikael knew.

He had to warn his mother and Kei. Due to the nature of the problem, sending the information directly to them was impossible. They would never receive it, and it could be used to track Mikael's location. He would have to deliver it to them personally. It was the only way to make them understand what they had really gotten themselves into.

Then an idea occurred to him. While Mikael needed to get out of the system before his presence was discovered (and he would be brain-fried beyond any doubt), he could use YSC against itself by tapping into their information network and seeing if he could find anything recent on his mother and Kei. Even a little inside information might make the difference between life and death when playing with these sort of stakes involved.

By now tapping into the communications logs and slicing into their own search programs to find any relevant information was simple. Nothing came up that he didn't already know, so he widened the search in case they were using codenames instead of the actual names. He began searching for any information on the regions of space they had been. YSC wouldn't codename those. At least Mikael didn't think they would.

His concerns were groundless as this time the search turned up results. He began looking over the list of hits, his eyes settling on one in particular pertaining to Myce. It had been prioritized and sent out…

…Since he had hacked into the system.

They were on to him. Mikael was sure of it, and they had contacted people on Myce to eliminate him. He didn't know why they hadn't fried his head instead, but he wasn't about to give them the opportunity to change their minds. He forcefully extracted his consciousness from the system before they realized he knew they had spotted him. It was painful to instantly cut himself off from the massive amount of information pouring into his expanded awareness. It was the mental equivalent of grabbing an eyeball and yanking it out of its socket, but the pain was transitory since it was virtual, and infinitely better than having one's brain lobotomized.

Mikael hit the emergency extraction and screamed in pain at the violent shutdown of his awareness. Apparently Pheryl didn't do anything for forms of mental trauma. He simply lay back in his seat, counting the seconds and waiting for the pain to diminish so he could think clearly once again.

Smoothie's face appeared in the monitor. "Heyyo, what happened? If they lobotomized you, I'm grabbing all of your stuff."

Mikael's voice was surprisingly hoarse. "I'm not lobotomized. I did an emergency extract."

Smoothie winced. "I had to do that once. I'd rather pull a tooth out of my mouth than my brain out of a computer."

"It's starting to fade." Just a little, but it was beginning to. Mikael kept telling himself it was all in his head. Of course, everything was in the head since that was where the brain was located, and it was what interpreted information. If it thought there was pain, then you felt the pain, whether it physically existed or not.

It appeared Smoothie was about to say something else when he turned, as though something in the room had caught his attention. "Hold on."

"I'm not going anywhere." Mikael thought the pain was going away. It was hard to tell when there was so much of it. He concentrated, hoping to cut through the haze. There was a measure of success as the slicer remembered exactly why he had pulled out so quickly. "Smoothie, wait. There's something I need to tell you."

Then he heard it. Growing up with a professional bounty hunter as one's mother meant becoming familiar with all sorts of weaponry, including the telltale signature of an energy pistol being fired at close range.

"Shit!" Mikael cut the connections to Smoothie's equipment. He swore again. He should have fried Smoothie's system before cutting the link. If the person on the other side was the least bit computer literate, they could read Smoothie's logs and track Mikael down.

His situation was compromised. Sparing a thought for poor Smoothie and the date he was never going to have, Mikael tried getting up and nearly fell on the floor. He began using every curse his mother had ever uttered. He had forgotten the effects the Pheryl had on his body. He forced himself to rise to his feet, feeling like the air was as thick as molasses.

At least his mind wasn't similarly impeded. There was not time to delay. The faceless killers would be coming for him next, once they realized Smoothie hadn't been the one slicing their system. Mikael pulled the disks containing all the information he had copied from YSC and went to his emergency cache. It was a trick his mother had hammered into him that had become a habit by now. It was hidden inside an oversized surge protector that, if one looked closely, they would realize was totally redundant with what was already hooked up to the system. Of course, no one would look at it closely, which was why Mikael had chosen to hide it there. Opening the top revealed the hollowed out interior and a number of small items. He pulled out his emergency account card, a second one with a false name, several fake travel ID's, and a reclamation ticket to a small storage unit he had outside of town. It was unlikely he would need the last since his plan was to get off planet as soon as possible, but it was better to have it and not use it than to need it and not have it.

There was only one more thing to do. Mikael looked sadly at his computer equipment. He had planned for this possibility as well. It had taken him the better part of two years and a ton of money to set it up to his liking, but his base of operations had been compromised, and he wasn't taking any chances on the people that were after him getting their hands on possibly sensitive material. Most of his important programs were backed up elsewhere, but saying goodbye to the actual hardware was outright painful.

He thought of the women that needed this information. That was what was important. His mother had always said, "Items you value more than your life are traps," and while he liked his system, he could part with it a lot more easily than the people he cared about.

Course decided, he flipped open a panel on the side, hit a six digit code, pausing two seconds, then hit two last numbers. He then flipped the panel back down and headed out the door. He didn't want to be present as his system wiped out its memory. To be sure no information could be salvaged, the instant the program was finished, a magnetic charge set up next to the memory unit would go off, ensuring what was gone remained beyond any chance of being brought back from the dead.

Clumsily, Mikael began walking down the stairs as fast as he could, while trying to keep from slipping and breaking his legs before his flight had begun.

Ishmael went over to the still-active computer system as Bianca confirmed the kill. Not that he thought the overweight man was still alive. Energy blasts to his stomach and head had left holes in him that nothing human could survive, but every 'T' had to be crossed, and no one would accuse either of them of slacking off.

He sat down, and was delighted to see the system was active for use. He wouldn't even have to bother slicing in to find passwords.

Bianca walked over. "What do you have?"

Ishmael held up a warning finger. "Patience." He hooked his cyberjack from his neck and into the system and began to sift through the information. "Damn!"


"This was only a relay point. Someone else was the actual slicer."

Bianca paled. "What do we do?"

"I have his real location. And his face." Ishmael pulled out his communication pad and hit a button. His call was answered immediately. "Perez. What's your current location?"

"Grid Five, Section Nine, Road Seven. I'll be there in less than five minutes."

"Negative. New locale and target." He transmitted the address and Mikael's picture.

"Received and understood. Will commence dusting upon confirmation of the target. Out."

The communicator went dead. Ishmael left it on the desk where it would be easily accessible. Then he looked to Bianca. "Don't waste time here. Back up Perez. I'll quarterback from here and see if there's anything useful I can dig up. I'll forward everything I find to you."

Bianca nodded in agreement and headed out as fast as she could, leaving the door open as she raced away.

The minutes it took Mikael to leave his building and walk to his hovercycle had been the longest in his life. It took ten times as long as it should have, though he was pleased to note that the more he walked, the easier he seemed to move. By the time he reached his bike, he thought he was almost back to normal.

The cycle was his second favorite, his first having been blown apart by a rocket courtesy of 'Castrated Kincaid', though the bitterness of losing his favorite had been blunted by the enjoyable time spent with Kei. A grin spread across his features as he remembered their bedroom antics. In fact, she was lingering in his mind a great deal more than any normal weekend stand should have. While she might not have been a professional, like many of the girls he had grown used to, she was unquestionably talented. And talking with her had been nice as well. He found himself wanting a chance to get to know her better, even if his mother had pretty much raised her like she had Mikael. It wasn't as though that meant anything to him. Kei had left his mother's guardianship before he was born. It wasn't like they were related, except maybe in his mother's mind. He hoped Kei didn't feel the way his mother did, though. That would make things awkward. Mikael wasn't anybody's little brother, and had no intention of becoming such, especially not to a hot number like Kei. She might have been older, but that just meant she had been around long enough to know what she wanted. He found it appealing, actually. There were a lot of things appealing about her.

He would be meeting her again soon enough. Mikael figured it would take him a half hour to get to the spaceport, buy a ticket, and take off. He'd settle for the nearest destination, then hop on a different ship, losing any pursuers. He might change a third time, just to be safe. Before long he would rendezvous with the women, then they could decide on their next course of action.

Mikael started the hovercycle. It didn't explode, which was a good sign. He really should have thought to check beforehand in case they had already located him and wanted his death to look like an accident. But they hadn't, and now he was leaving town before YSC's goons caught up.

Mikael started down the streets, taking the shortest way to the spaceport he could think of. He traveled slowly, not wanting to draw attention to himself. Even at this time of night, people traveled the streets of Myce, especially in the part of town he lived in. There was a great deal of nocturnal traffic, many of the denizens preferring to conduct their business when there were fewer people around. He wouldn't stand out in that respect. As far as anyone knew, he was a simply passing through, like so many others.

The journey strained Mikael's senses as paranoia gripped him. Every shadow contained a menace and every movement that caught his eye held death. His eyes were riveted to every person that he came across, no matter how inconspicuous they might appear. Twice he passed by other hovercyclists, giving them a wary eye, his attention making them do the same in return.

It was that tension that saved his life. A car turned a corner from ahead and on to his street. It was traveling fast, not that uncommon a sight. Despite that, Mikael was watching it intently when the vehicle suddenly accelerated and shifted slightly, bearing right toward him.

Mikael barely had time to react. He hit the drive selector, pushing the ventral thrusters to their maximum, and kicking the cycle up in the air. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough time to clear the roof of the car. The collision caved in part of the roof and shattered the front window, sending sharp slivers of glass toward the driver.

The edge of the car's roof caught the back end of the cycle, flipping it forward and driving the front end into the trunk lid. The impact smashed the prow, severing power couplings and transforming the cycle into a thousand pounds of dead weight, flipping end over end in a lazy forward somersault. Mikael kicked off, trying to get clear before it smashed him into the pavement. Despite his actions, the rear end of the spinning cycle nearly clipped him in the head before he sailed clear. It landed hard on its side, bits and pieces of the chassis buckling under the impact.

The cycle wasn't the only thing to hit the ground hard. Mikael, not being very athletic, landed poorly and one of his legs twisted back underneath him. A cry of pain slipped out, the agony driving away the last vestiges of the Pheryl.

The car suffered a similar, if less dramatic, fate. The impact, combined with the driver trying to shield his face from flying bits of jagged glass, sent the vehicle out of control. Its tires spun noisily as it screeched across the pavement, over the sidewalk, and rammed head-on into a wall, crumpling the vehicle. The impact jerked the driver forward, his head ramming into the steering wheel and nearly knocking him unconscious.

Slowly Mikael stood up, wincing as agony shot up through his knee. His pain threshold had never been high, and with the Pheryl purged from his system, he felt the entirety of the pain in all of its wondrous glory. It was a sprain, which was better than a broken knee, though not by much. A glance at the remains of his cycle showed yet another one of his favored toys would have to be put to rest as well. And that it wouldn't be providing him a means of escape.

The slicer turned to the wreckage of the car, hoping the driver had ended up as broken as the cycle. Again Mikael noted his luck was proving exceptionally bad tonight as he watched the driver starting to climb out of the shattered remnants of the window on his side. As his assailant pulled himself from the wreckage, Mikael noted that once the man was halfway out of the vehicle, exposed and physically unable to defend himself, it would have been an ideal time to shoot him. At least for someone who actually had a gun and could aim straight. Since Mikael was neither of those things, he was forced to flee and hope the driver's legs were in as bad a shape as his own.

Perez saw the young man limp out of sight down an alleyway sandwiched between two buildings. He went for his pistol, only to discover it had fallen out of his shoulder holster in the crash. As he pulled out his communicator, the motion igniting a fire in his chest and making him pause for a moment. Each breath felt like someone was sticking a knife into his lungs, but he ignored the pain as best as he could and stuck his head back in the car, trying to locate the firearm. For just a moment, his vision swam and he could barely remain upright. He knew he shouldn't have skimped on his car's safety features, but given his line of work, a car crash was the last way he thought he would die.

"Yes?" Ishmael's voice cut through the haze, rousing Perez from his grogginess.

Shaking his head clear, Perez said, "He's here on," he looked around until he spotted the nearest street marker. "Exeter between Fourth and Fifth. I am in pursuit, but am having problems." That was something of an understatement as his vision swam in and out again.

"What sort of problems?"

"I was in pursuit and collided with his cycle. I think I have a concussion, and my chest feels like an ape has been jumping up and down on it. And I lost my…" he trailed off as he spotted the sidearm lying on the floor, near the seat. "Never mind. I have relocated my primary weapon. He's injured too. Limping badly, so he can't get far fast."

"Activate your field transmitter so Bianca can locate you."

Reluctantly, Perez did so. He didn't like giving off a signal that enabled anyone with a tracker adjusted to the right frequency could use to pinpoint his location. It was a touch irrational, since no one around there knew who he was or wanted him dead, but the need to maintain a low profile was deeply ingrained into his character thanks to his training.

For a moment, everything cleared, and Perez raced down the alleyway to catch up to the target. With any luck, he could waste the slicer and receive medical attention in the next hour.

Perez stopped in front of the alleyway and was surprised to spot his target at the far end. The alley wasn't that long. The slicer's injury must have been bad for him not to have already run the length of the alley. Slowly Perez raised his arm up and drew a bead on the youth. Mikael had been looking over his shoulder though, and seeing the gun leveled at him, ducked behind a dumpster just as a shot went sailing past where he had been a moment ago.

The dumpster was one of the heavy-duty kind, built to have the trash superheated into ashes when the garbage people came up, Perez noted with distaste. It could withstand anything short of an explosive. He would have to close with the target, and that meant traveling up the length of the alleyway with no form of cover between him and the target. Of course, if the slicer was armed, he should have been returning fire by now.

The chance had to be taken. Risks were an integral part to Perez's line of work. He began walking down the alleyway, keeping the dumpster in his line of sight and his gun aimed at it as he offered to the slicer, "If you come out, I won't shoot you. You have information we need." A lie, of course. They wanted the information to die with him. Ishmael could discover if any had been leaked out, and they'd clean up any other messes this slicer might have left behind.

Perez's vision swam again. He staggered against the alley wall, muttering a curse under his breath.

It was at that moment Mikael chanced to poke his head around the corner and saw the man slumped against the wall, in obvious bad shape. For a moment, he considered charging the injured assassin, but then thought better of it. Distance, not confrontation, was what he wanted at this point. Hoping it wasn't an act to draw him out, Mikael left the cover of the dumpster and ran.

Perez saw the fleeing youth through the world that danced around him. He was able to orient himself enough to bring the gun up and snap off several shots, but none came close to hitting the slicer. Staggering like a drunkard, Perez made his way to the end of the alley, hoping the youth hadn't ducked out of sight. If he had, the odds of finding him again were slim.

As the assassin exited the alley, he spotted Mikael heading toward a large public building, long and flat with no other building near it. A train station! That was bad. If he got on one of those, he could go anywhere in the city, or if he took a direct express to another city, go to ground. It could take years to dig him up, and Perez's employers were not the patient sort.

A car pulled up next to him. Behind the wheel, he saw a woman he didn't recognize. Even with his head swimming, she was close enough to shoot, so he raised his gun. He was about to pull the trigger when she said, "It looks like it was hard to dust your chimney."

Perez holstered the gun. Then on a whim he activated his tracker and saw it beep in the direction of the woman. Confirming her identity, he informed her, "The target ran into the train station. We have to get him fast. I'm pretty beat, so it's probably going to be on your shoulders."

The woman cursed and activated her own communicator and informed Ishamael of the situation.

Ishmael said, "Wait a minute. I think I found something of interest here." There was a pause. "Yes, this guy sliced into most of the public service systems, including trains at that station. I don't have visuals, but I can track any purchases the target makes and where his destination will be."

"That'll have to do." She parked the car where it was and exited the vehicle, indicating Perez should follow as best as he could.

The pair headed for the train terminal, killing on their minds.

Mikael's mind was a blur as he tried thinking his way out of his predicament. The train terminal was crowded, as he thought it would be. In this area of town, many of the destitute and homeless tended to hang out in the environmentally-controlled public place. Technically it was illegal and the authorities were supposed to chase away any loiterers, but the actual enforcement of the law was in the more upscale places in the city. As long as they didn't cause problems or mess the place up too badly, they were unofficially allowed to stay.

They weren't the only ones present. The terminal was near a number of bars, and some patrons chose to sleep off the effects of their drink before heading home. Others really were travelers, taking the inexpensive late trains, while others still were arriving in the city for the same reasons.

Mikael considered the situation. He could contact the management personnel and inform them that a killer was on his way. They would contact the authorities and hopefully they would arrive in time. Doing that meant Mikael would have to explain everything, and the law didn't respond well to self-admitted slicers. Worse, since Smoothie's death was involved, it would keep Mikael under police supervision for weeks, and he needed to get his information to his mother and Kei immediately.

Mikael considered simply taking an express and getting the hell out of town, but he had problems with that. They had found him in the first place through Smoothie's computer, and Mikael knew he had sliced his way into the train system. Smoothie had once bragged that on a whim, he had randomized the ticket purchases of all the commuters so that they would get on the wrong train and end up anywhere but their destination. He had caused such chaos it had even made the evening news. Mikael could probably buy a ticket using one of his fake identities, but if they figured out where he was going anyway and got on the same train he did, he'd be cornered with no hope of escape.

He was still trying to decide the best course of action when a tall, somewhat attractive woman in a sedate dress, walked up to him. "Mikael, what a surprise to see you down here!"

The slicer recognized her immediately. Yoshiko Kumagara worked for Madame Fortuna as a 'talent scout', meaning she spent time hanging around bus and train terminals, keeping an eye open for young, attractive girls arriving from the more rural regions of Myce that were looking to move into the big city. Primarily she looked for runaways who had no idea of what they were doing and only arrived with the clothes on their backs. When Yoshiko spotted one, she would offer to help them before other less savory types got their hooks into them.

If they accepted, she would help them get a temporary roof over their head and access to basic necessities— all the while covertly evaluating them. If they met the Madame's criteria, Fortuna would offer them a potential job working for her. Even if they turned her down or didn't work out, she still saw to it they had a chance to get on their feet with a basic job and somewhere they could afford to stay. She had enough influence to secure them such things, and the girls that ended up settling in the city almost always felt indebted to her for helping them in their time of need, and they would go out of their way to help her if they could. It made her one of the most connected people in the city.

Mikael also didn't want to get her involved. Yoshiko might have been able to fend off the small fry that hung out in this section of town, but she wasn't up to dealing with a professional killer, injured or not. "You'd better leave me be," he warned.

Yoshiko examined him with a critical eye. "You're in trouble. I'd better contact the Madame. She'd have my tits if anything happened to you."

Mikael shook his head, keeping a close eye out for the man chasing him. "I don't want to get her involved. This isn't some small time street gang or pissed off boyfriend. I've got professionals on my tail, and they'll do anything to kill me."

"I'm going to help," Yoshiko said firmly.

Having lived the majority of his life around women, many of them strong-willed, had taught Mikael a rare talent most men didn't have: recognizing when they dug their heels and wouldn't back off. She wasn't going to leave him be, so that meant putting her in a situation of minimal risk. And as much as he hated to admit it, he could use her help.

It was then the first vestiges of a plan formed in his mind.

Perez and Bianca entered the terminal at the same time, eyes scanning every occupant in the place.

Bianca said, "You've seen him up close. You'll probably spot him before me."

Their communicators beeped. Bianca answered it while Perez kept looking around.

"He just bought a ticket for the express to Markotta," Ishmael informed them. "It leaves in three minutes. I'm buying tickets for you right now. Pick them up at the gate and hurry before he escapes."

Bianca grabbed Perez's arm and all but pulled him toward the gate. As they picked up their tickets, staying alert and looking around, Ishmael called again.

"The train's computer records his ticket as being punched and an occupant having boarded."

They both turned and looked around until they spotted the train in question. Bianca said, "It's in our line of sight. It's a smaller train with only one door to get on or off. There's no chance he can double back on us.

"But there is a chance it'll take off without us. One minute," Perez warned.

They pair picked up their tickets and ran to the express train, Perez nearly passing out on the way. Trying to keep him aware, Bianca said, "There are only four cars. We'll locate and corner him quickly. We'll escort him off the train in Markotta, then find some out of the way place to kill him."

Perez could only grunt a response as tears welled in his eyes from the pain in his chest.

The pair made it just in time as the doors hissed shut behind them, locking them in for the ride. They boarded the train and moved to the passenger compartments. They were open seats, making it easy to see all of the occupants from one vantage point.

Seeing no sign of him, they moved through the first two cars almost at a run. It was easy to do since there were less than a dozen passengers per car. At the third car they paused, checked the lavatories, which were empty, and continued to the rear.

"He's not here!" Perez said as the train began to pull out of the terminal.

"Is there anywhere besides the lavatories he could have hidden?"

"I don't think so."

They heard a woman three seats in front of them snort, then cough. For just a moment, Perez thought she was laughing at them, then pushed the thought from his mind. They had to find the target.

"Shit!" Bianca cursed.

Perez looked at her, then realized she was looking out the rear window of the train as it left the station. Perez did the same as, impossibly, their target waved mockingly at them from the terminal.

Mikael knew he shouldn't do it, but he couldn't help himself. There really wasn't any risk involved. The express was automated, and once started wouldn't stop for anything other than obstructions or damage to the tracks. Any emergencies, and the passenger would just have to wait until they arrived at their destination. The waiver was right on the ticket about riding at one's own risk. He hoped their bosses at YSC were waiting to execute them when they arrived. Hell, another train was already arriving. Myce Central always bragged about their trains arriving on time, and it was that punctuality that had enabled him and Yoshiko to get him out of his situation.

They couldn't even blow out the windows given how fortified they were, unless they had explosives with them. And judging by how enraged the pair were, they knew they were finished, too. Mikael watched in amusement as one of them pulled out a communicator and began talking quickly in it. The woman babbled into it, and just as the pair reached the edge of his vision, their anger disappeared and they waved back. Happily.

That was odd. It could have been a gesture of respect, but he doubted it, especially given how angry they were moments before. He hoped they hadn't discovered Yoshiko's presence and were planning to use her as leverage against him. He hadn't been enthusiastic about including her in his plans, but he needed someone to physically board the train in order for his trick to work. There was no way they could figure out it was her on their own, and she was too smart to shoot her mouth off.

Mikael was still wondering what was going on when a voice directly behind him caught his attention. It was a man having a conversation, though the slicer could only hear one side of it. He turned to see the man was speaking into a communicator, obviously having just gotten off the recently arrived train. The conversation had caught Mikael's attention for some reason, but he couldn't quite put a finger on why.

Finally the man said, "Yes, he's standing right in front of me. You want to talk to him?" The response was apparently an affirmative, since the man handed Mikael the communicator.

Despite the sinking feeling in his gut, Mikael accepted it. "Yes?"

It was a woman's voice, "It's your friends who you just ditched on the train. Very clever."

Mikael knew he should hang up and run for it, but instinct told him it was too late for that. He really shouldn't have stuck around to taunt them that way.

She continued. "It was almost clever enough, but you must have the worst timing of anyone I have ever met. The gentleman behind you is named Vyory, though it's not his real name. He was the last member of the team assigned to kill you, but wasn't able to rendezvous with us since he was out of town… until now. It really sucks to be you. I know you can't see us, so I'll let you know we're waving good bye to you as well." The communicator went dead.

Mikael turned to see Vyory was standing several feet behind him, out of easy reach, but not so far that the slicer could somehow escape. A hand was in his pocket, and there seemed to be a pointed object in it, aimed right at Mikael.

The slicer's eyes darted around, trying to find some means of escape. He was about to give up hope when potential salvation entered the terminal. A couple of policemen were walking around, apparently on routine patrol, given their relaxed state.

Vyory spotted them at the same time. Unlike Mikael, he appeared unconcerned about their presence. "I wouldn't do that if I were you. Calling out to them might inconvenience me, but it won't do you any good. I promise you'll be the first one I shoot if you cry out. Now why don't we leave the terminal and find a nice quiet out of the way place where we can talk?"

"You mean shoot me without anyone interfering," Mikael said bitterly.

"Maybe. But it'll keep you alive that much longer if we have to walk outside instead of me shooting you here and now. You're a smart boy. Maybe you'll be able to figure a way out of your predicament between here and there. I won't even make you walk fast. What do you say?"

The way the gun in the man's pocket shifted slightly meant he was preparing to shoot Mikael. There was no choice. He was more concerned with having a chance to save his own skin rather than taking this man down with him. The slicer headed toward the exit to the terminal, the man followed keeping a minimum safe distance between them, while not allowing anything to draw near enough to cut off the line of fire. Mikael took his time, hoping someone, anyone, might notice the suspicious nature of the man and interject themselves. But nothing happened, and they exited the terminal without incident.

"To the left," Vyory ordered, pulling the gun out and waving it in the direction of the closest side street. Apparently he wasn't going to waste any time, Mikael noted. Death was coming soon, and he couldn't think of a way out of it.

Mikael began to panic. He wasn't used to life and death situations like this. He was slicer with a love of fast cycles and women, not someone who could win a fight or dodge a laser pointed right at him. He was useless in situations like this.

They stopped halfway down the alley. The assassin made Mikael turn to face him, signaling this was the end of their journey.

Mikael made one last desperate pleas. "I have valuable things I can give you in exchange for my life."

The man shook his head. "Forget it, kid. I'm not a mercenary. I'm a professional."

There was a zip through the air, and the sound of an impact of a solid object striking something soft. Mikael was stunned to see a gout of blood shoot out from Vyory's throat, nearly splashing on him. In the blink of an eye, a hole appeared in Vyory's forehead as well. The man fell face-first to the ground, unmoving.

Mikael was still trying to figure out what had happened when a shadowy figure moved up from the mouth of the alleyway. A rough male voice said, "Sorry about the wait. I had to angle my shots so the wads didn't punch through him and hit you."

The figure stepped out of the shadows and into the dull light. He was old, probably in his late fifties, with a number of scars and more gray than black in his hair and triangular beard. His clothing was plain, though well worn. It was rumpled, as though he didn't care about his appearance, though the catlike grace with which he moved said he took much greater care of the shape his body was in. In his hand he wielded a long barreled pistol, which Mikael recognized as a darter, an accurate weapon that was preferred for silent, messy kills.

The man ran a hand through his hair, the hunter's beads braided in them clicking together. "Jeez, kid, you're as bad as your Mom about getting into trouble. And here I thought you had better sense than her."

"Fujikuro!" Mikael could have kissed the man, and would have, except that would have earned him a couple of wads in the head and throat as well.

The bounty hunter remained wary. "Any more of them around?"

"Two on an express train heading for Markotta. I think there's another one at Smoothie's place. I can give you directions."

The bounty hunter bent down and began rifling through the dead man's pockets. "This one was a pro. How'd you get mixed up with so many of them?"

"A favor for Mom."

Fujikuro looked at him incredulously. "She knows better than to put you in any real danger."

"It turned out it was way bigger than even she guessed," Mikael explained, which was the truth. Whenever Iria had Mikael help, it was always under the assumption he was never at risk. Had she known what she was really getting into, she'd have probably ordered him to go to ground and not surface until the matter had been put to rest. She would feel guilty enough once she found out how close he had come to being killed.

Fujikuro pulled out a small blinking cylinder. After examining it for a moment, he pulled out a small boxlike device from one of his own pockets. He turned a dial on it, adjusting it several times, then smiled. "Great! They're wearing transmitters. It'll be easier to run them down with this. There's only one more in the area."

Once Mikael had a chance to calm down, he was able to think rationally. There were a few unexplained questions concerning Fujikuro. "How did you know I was in trouble?"

"A little bird told me. Jeez, this guy had no cash on him. Wonder if I should try raiding his credit cards?" Fujikuro said mostly to himself.

It took Mikael a moment to figure out what had probably happened. Yoshiko had called Madame Fortuna, who had called Fujikuro in to help. "I bet you didn't charge the little bird for your services."

The bounty hunter scowled at him. "Yeah, I probably ought to bill you."

Since Madame Fortuna had gone out of her way to save his life, Mikael decided to return the favor. "You know, you ought to think about marrying her. She's definitely ready, and you're not getting any youn—" Mikael found having a pistol pointed at oneself was a definite conversation killer.

"I could always say I arrived too late," Fujikuro warned.

Mikael laughed nervously. Not that he thought the ornery bounty hunter would kill him. Wound maybe, but not kill.

Fujikuro finished inspecting the body and stood up, prepared to head toward the end of the alley. "I'd better take you to the 'Touch of Heaven' so you can hide. Then I'll finish off the rest of these guys."

Mikael shook his head. "Take me to the nearest spaceport."

"You really are as bad as your mother. I ain't a taxi service."

"Mom's in trouble. I have to get this information to her."

Fujikuro's shoulders slumped in defeat. Mikael noted that despite appearances, he must be getting soft. A couple of years ago, he would have feigned not caring about Iria's fate.

"You going to need me to go along?" the bounty hunter asked.

"No. Once I get there, Kei can inform the 3WA and put the matter in their hands."

That caused Fujikuro to tense up. "Kei? 'Little redhead just as reckless as Iria who grew up into one of the Dirty Pair,' Kei?"

The description of Kei irked Mikael. "Kei, the girl my mom knew, yeah. That one."

"If those two are back together, I doubt much will be left at ground zero wherever they go," Fujikuro mumbled under his breath. "Fine, I'll get you to the spaceport. I'd tell you to keep them out of trouble, but I ain't the type to wish for the moon. Just try to keep them alive."

"Deal. Now let's get going."

Mikael and Fujikuro headed for the nearest spaceport, Mikael counting the seconds. This time he would travel under an assumed name in order to get close enough to personally deliver the message to the women, and then…

…then there'd be hell to pay.

To be continued.

Special thanks to:

  • Aondehafka
  • David McMillan
Chapter 12
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