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Chapter 12

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.

Cloudless skies allowed sunlight to shine down unimpeded upon scantily clad, oiled bodies that gleamed under the bright orb's rays. The scent of chlorinated water permeated everything, and the sound of local fauna, and in some cases flora, filled the air.

"This feels so good," Yuri cooed.

"Got that right," Kei said, not bothering to look over at her partner as she lay on her back, allowing the sun to bombard her flesh with untamed ultraviolet radiation, turning her skin an even darker shade. While UV treatment centers were considered more time efficient, there was no substitute for gaining a tan the natural way.

Even Mughi yawned in approval, curled up in a ball and enjoying the sun, despite being covered in nearly an inch of fur. The girls liked to call him a warm weather cat, and he would have been inclined to agree.

Lounging on her stomach, Yuri sighed in enjoyment. Waiting above the pleasure moon of Xyphos 13 turned out to have an upside after all. It was ridiculous for them to wait in the shot-up Lovely Angel when there was a resort complex with their name on it waiting on the surface. Best of all, they could have the 3WA pay for it since they were currently on a mission tracking down Zeiram.

Yuri congratulated herself for being the genius to come up with the idea of renting a room in one of the hotels and luxuriating in some of the vices the moon had to offer. In this case they rented a private pool area right off the hotel and were currently hard at work deepening their tans. Yuri was dressed in a tasteful yellow one piece, while Kei, displaying her usual lack of restraint, was decked out in a tiny two piece blue bikini. Or most of one, since she was currently topless as she soaked up the sun's rays.

Officially, that was why they had wanted a private pool, to afford them some measure of modesty for lounging about topless. In reality, Kei had insisted (and Yuri agreed) that some distance between them and Killgore's men was a good idea.

Within a half hour of their arrival, a trio of the mercenaries, including the Samisdat assassin, Cross, had followed them down to the surface. Supposedly, the men were due for some R+R of their own, though it was obvious that at least one of them was hovering near the pair at all times, trying to look inconspicuous. While they did a good job to the casual observer, it was obvious their real purpose was to stay close to the pair. While the private area Yuri and Kei had rented was surrounded by a high wall on all sides, it was only fifteen meters away from the hotel's public pool area, where Cross and his men frequently hung out. Even a rookie fresh out of the academy could divine the true purpose of the men. That put both of the Angels on edge, but especially Kei, who had grown as wary of the mercenaries as Iria since her return from Myce. While Yuri wasn't that paranoid, she didn't like having someone keep tabs on her either.

At least there wasn't any risk of the mercenaries being armed. Weapons were strictly prohibited on Xyphos 13. Extensive searches of every single item leaving a ship were performed by a number of people using some of the most expensive detection equipment in the galaxy. Anyone protesting the treatment to any degree had to leave the planet immediately. The search was so thorough Yuri was forced to leave her bloody card behind.

Yawning, Kei sat up, raising her arms above her head and stretching out like a cat. Instead of lying back down, she picked up the wristband comlink Iria had given her and spoke into it, "Hey, Bob, any change up there?"

"Nothing. Everything is still the same. No one has left the Destiny since Cross followed you down."

Yuri listened to the brief report. Some sort of interference had prevented Bob from transmitting his electronic presence over the distance between where his intelligence was stored on the Creeper V and Iria's location a system away. Forced to wait in silence above the moon, Kei asked him to keep them alerted to anything happening in orbit where the 'Destiny' was located. So far there had been no suspicious activity, not that Yuri thought there would be. It was unlikely Killgore would want there to be any major action undertaken without him being present. Still, being unnecessarily cautious was better than being unnecessarily dead.

Kei picked up her top and began tying it on. "I'm thirsty. Want anything from the bar?"

"No thanks. And try not to get too loaded," Yuri teased.

Kei turned around long enough to make sure Yuri saw her stick her tongue out before opening the door from their private area and beginning the trek to the bar next to the pool. As she entered the pool area, she noticed a couple of Killgore's mercenaries lounging about. Kei didn't know the name of the shorter, stockier of the pair, but Cross had become painfully familiar as a near permanent attachment to Killgore. He was dressed in a pair of skintight trunks that showed he had nothing to be ashamed of in the equipment department. He was a touch lean, but all muscle, not surprising given his profession. There was a healing patch taped to his side, helping with the deep wound he had sustained in their last battle with Zeiram and the chaos at Holcomb. He wore a pair of sunglasses, which hid his eyes completely. That made Kei wary. She was certain that, despite his face being pointed away from her, he was watching her intently.

There was nothing Kei could do about their presence, and in many ways it was better to have them nearby. If they were out in the open, she could see if they were planning to move against her and Yuri. The third member of the party hadn't been seen since shortly after they landed. That was the one that concerned Kei. If they were going for around-the-clock surveillance on her and Yuri, he might be resting in his room for a night stakeout. She would have given a lot to know where he was now and what he was up to.

Kei pushed the concern from her mind. There was no way she could go hunting for him. While the single tourist area of the verdant pleasure moon was entirely contained in a two-hundred kilometer radius, there were small outposts spread all over the moon where he might have traveled to. Kei was here to relax, trying to unwind before everything hit the fan, which would be soon, if her instincts were accurate. Iria was going to turn up something, she just knew it. It was only a matter of time.

Arriving at the nearly empty outdoor bar, Kei sat at a stool, enjoying the shade. Weather control meant the skies were cloudless during the day and while the sun was pleasurable, the heat was unrelenting. A little break to cool off, since she wasn't in the mood to swim (and her bikini was designed for displaying her wares rather than functionality), meant taking shelter from the sun.

As Kei considered what to order, her mind drifted back to the last time she had been in a bar, and the… vigorous events that had followed. It was hard keeping Mikael out of her mind. As hard as she tried to think of him as Iria's son and theoretically off limits, it didn't work in the slightest. Even if she did see Iria as something of a mother figure, the idea of Mikael being a brother just didn't work. Maybe if she had known of their pseudo-relationship going in it would have been different, but it was too late now. Mikael ended up defined as 'hot boyfriend material' in Kei's mind, and nothing could change it. Not that she had to. It wasn't like they were related, regardless of Yuri's constant 'incest' comments that she felt compelled to make every hour. Yuri was just jealous because she hadn't found a good man yet.

Kei was so fixated on Mikael that even the guy eyeing her at the end of the bar reminded her of him. It was probably because he had a similar build, was about the same age, and had… the exact same face?

Kei stared in amazement. It was Mikael! What in the hell was he doing here? If he had found any information, he should have transmitted it to them. Or maybe he hadn't found any and it was a social call. Perhaps he couldn't stand being apart from Kei and had become infatuated with her. That made sense. They could go back to Kei's room and talk about things, if that was the case. She made a mental note to tell Yuri not to come back to the room for the next five hours. That would give them plenty of time to reacquaint themselves.

Before Kei could say a word in greeting, Mikael unleashed that rakish smile of his and stood up, walking toward her in a way that told everyone he was man on a hunt for a woman, and had just found one. Kei looked at him coyly, remaining seated as he approached her.

"Hey there, sexy lady," Mikael said.

A bit crass, Kei thought, but it wasn't like he needed a decent pick up line with her. "Hello there, yourself," she purred seductively.

He bent forward slightly. "I know we've never met before, but I just have to say I can't help but feel we belong together."

"Huh?" Kei said, wondering what sort of game he was playing.

"I see I've rendered you speechless. That's all right. Deep conversation isn't what either of us wants." He bent down, placed one hand behind her head, and forced her forward into a kiss. As he rammed his tongue down her throat, he slid one hand into her bikini top and groped her breast.

The result was instantaneous as Kei shoved him backward, escaping his grasp. She shot to her feet. Nearly faster than the eye could follow, she slapped him hard enough to draw the attention of everyone in the pool area. "What do you think you're doing?!" she shouted.

His interest switched to disdain. "I should have known. Just a frigid little dicktease." He turned and walked away.

Kei was left in a near apoplexy. How could he have done that to her? And in front of everyone. And he called her a frigid bitch because she didn't care to be handled like a piece of meat in public? How could he have changed so much in so short a time? It made no sense.

Kei was debating whether to pursue him and beat an explanation out of him when she adjusted her bikini top so it was resting more comfortably against her chest. It was then she felt a cold piece of metal nestled between fabric and flesh.

It was at that moment that Yuri appeared, having changed her mind about the drink and witnessing everything that had transpired at a distance. She hurried to Kei's side. "Wasn't that—?"

Kei shouted, "I hate it when complete strangers come up and grope me like that! Do I have 'wanton slut' tattooed on my ass or something?!"

The diatribe killed the questions Yuri was going to ask. She was caught off-guard so badly that she ignored the perfect setup Kei had given her with the tattoo line. Apparently it hadn't been Mikael after all, just some guy that looked a lot like him. While Yuri had never met the guy, she could have sworn the hologram was identical to the man that had just made a pass at her partner.

"I need to freshen up." Kei snared Yuri by the wrist and hauled her in the direction of the hotel.

"Why do I have to go with you?" Yuri protested as she found Kei's grip bordering on discomfort.

Kei didn't pause in her walk. "Because I'm flustered and need you to help me compose myself."

"That would be a first," Yuri griped as she was dragged into the building.

Mikael walked away from the bar, satisfied with the way the things had turned out and that Kei understood what had happened. It had been risky, but it was the only way he could think of to make contact without arousing the suspicion of anyone watching him or them.

As he made his way through the hotel, wondering how to meet Kei a second time, an effeminate, but decidedly male voice, teased, "You know, you really shouldn't waste your time with loose women like that. It never leads to any good. You should try something different."

The slicer turned to see the speaker was a man that was just as tall as him, with an odd patch taped to his side. His head was tilted so that he could peer at Mikael from above his glasses. It was fairly obvious from his body posture and the tone of the statement what the guy was interested in. Mikael used a similar one when picking up women.

"Sorry, but I like collecting loose women. It's a hobby of mine." Mikael turned and doubled his speed as he walked away from the man.

Cross pouted in disapproval, his eyes following Mikael's bottom as the slicer all but ran out of sight. "Such a waste," he clucked.

Valen, his teammate that had been waiting with him at the pool, walked up, having overheard the conversation. "You got shot down."

Cross shrugged helplessly. "Happens to the best of us."

"I thought you had the hots for the boss," Valen pointed out.

"He's not here and I do need something to keep me entertained." Cross looked winsomely in the direction Mikael had left. "Such a loss. He had a cute smile. It reminded me of Killgore's." He shrugged helplessly again, then switched his attention to the direction the Dirty Pair had taken. "Follow them. See where they go and report any suspicious activity to me."

Valen did so, trying to appear as inconspicuous as possible as he headed in the direction of the women's restroom.

Cross was considering what to do next when the third member of his party, Vanderdecken, appeared, smiling broadly. "Yes?" Cross asked.

"I found that old friend of mine who set up his base of operations here. I called in a few favors and dropped a few credits in his lap, and he gave me the item." Vanderdecken patted a slight bulge tucked in the waistband of his shorts, one mostly hidden by the loose shirt he wore.

Cross was impressed. When Vanderdecken claimed he could get his hands on a gun, Cross had been doubtful. "How did he get it through customs?"

"He didn't. It's homemade," Vanderdecken explained. "He used to be an armorer. It did cost me a lot of money to get it. The boss will cover me for the expense, right?"

"Of course," Cross assured him. The gun really had been for the others' benefit. It wasn't like a Samisdat needed a weapon to kill someone. Of course, weapons tended to make things easier, and he had managed to smuggle one past customs. He hadn't needed to, but he rather liked the item, and it was a matter of pride that he could slip it past such cautious guards so easily. He had to keep his touch, after all.

Something was going to happen, twenty years of assassinations made him feel it down to his bones. And when things went down the way he suspected, and hoped, he would be prepared.

"What's this all about?" Yuri complained.

After Kei 'composed' herself, she made Yuri throw on a pair of shorts over her swimsuit, then dragged her to the hotel's public access computer systems. Inside there were at least a hundred terminals at various stations spread throughout the large room.

"Where are the stand-alone systems?" Kei asked.

"Over there," Yuri pointed to where a small number of terminals stood off on their own. Some people preferred strict privacy, and distrusted anything linked to an outside system. Supposedly the stand-alone machines would automatically wipe their memory clean after the hotel guest stopped using them to ensure that privacy. The real question was why Kei wanted one. She got along with computers about as well as she did with chastity.

Kei used her room card to activate the machine. Within seconds the screen flashed that it was ready for use.

"Well?" Yuri tapped her foot impatiently.

Reaching under her shirt, Kei withdrew the small datachip from its hiding place in her top. "A gift from a friend," she explained as she entered the chip into the proper slot.

Now Yuri understood what had happened. That had been Mikael down there and he had executed a drop on them. The only question was why he was being so secretive and hadn't simply transmitted the data to them from Myce. Yuri found she didn't care for the answer that immediately sprang to mind.

The pair looked at the screen as a question came up. "What weapon belonging to Gren did Zeiram steal from Mom's house?"

A password. Yuri looked at Kei, who typed in "Borobdin."

"Are you sure you spelled that right?" Yuri asked.

"Yes," Kei shot back, and entered the answer.

A directory appeared, one having a single file. Kei punched it up. Information automatically began flashing across the screen. Kei and Yuri began reading the text.

And then their eyes goggled. Neither could look away from the screen. It took them the better part of half an hour to understand the true depths of what Mikael had stumbled upon. It was everything Iria had suspected, and far, far more.

As with most successful lies, Killgore had told them enough truth to make the lies believable. The information about Zeiram was the easiest to understand. After the original Zeiram debacle on Myce, Tedan Tippedai secured organic samples of the original Zeiram that had been left over from his fight with Iria on top of the transmission tower. Their hope had been that eventually the bad press would blow over and they could reactivate the project again (as though they hadn't already been burned badly enough by Zeiram already). However, unable to deal with the fallout of their actions, the company went bankrupt.

While the Tormend Confederation were the ones that had bought out Tedan Tippedai and subsequently acquired the cell samples of Zeiram that had been kept in cold storage, the cells had gone missing within days of acquiring them. YSC knew this because they were the ones who had stolen the samples with the intention of controlling Zeiram and selling off duplicates as a powerful strategic weapon. Yuri had to admit, one Zeiram was bad enough, a small army of them would be impossible to stop with anything but large scale conventional weapons.

While Anton Scorphious had indeed been the head of the Zeiram project, he had been working for YSC at the time, not TC. His job was to create a control unit for Zeiram so that it could be properly utilized outside a laboratory environment. Officially the research was listed as being a miserable failure. In hindsight, it had become obvious that Anton had successfully found a way to control Zeiram and kept the truth from his brother by faking his death. When Anton decided he was ready, he returned, using the control unit to retrieve Zeiram and began utilizing him to destroy every holding of YSC's he could find.

YSC had tried to stop Anton surreptitiously. They were responsible for sending out the mercenary team (one of a dozen kept on retainer) that tried to kill Zeiram when he killed everybody aboard the space station that the Angels had stumbled upon. The team lacked the experience and firepower to deal with the monster, and were eradicated, save for the half-crazed member that Kei had been forced to kill. Later, YSC had sent the assassin that tried to kill them at the library when they had started investigating Zeiram, YSC's information net red-flagging their inquiries and ensuring the Angels were monitored closely from that moment on. They had sent a mercenary team to Omicron 4, where Zeiram had been reconstructed and experimented upon. YSC had been so desperate to keep the knowledge that they were responsible for Zeiram's reconstruction secret, they had all of their on site personnel killed by the mercenaries, rather than risk a leak occurring or any evidence remaining behind.

Killgore's team had been dispatched to clean up the failed strikes against Zeiram. They had set the space station to self destruct, making it look like an accident rather than an incident. They had blown up several of the isolated operations that had also been hit by Zeiram, like the one on Sarvgon, again making it look like it was something other than Zeiram that had destroyed them. They only stopped when Zeiram began outracing them, and they started working with the Angels and Iria in an effort to bring Zeiram down.

As if that wasn't bad enough, during a strike on a YSC liner, Anton stumbled upon plans for a super weapon, dubbed Argus, during one of his attacks. According to the reports, it was a liquid that was capable of disrupting the molten core of any planet, destabilizing it so badly that the core would expand outward violently, then explode, reducing the entire planet into giant asteroids. The only real limiting effect of the liquid was that it was ineffective on the surface. It would need to be detonated a minimum of seven kilometers below the surface before it would become active and begin merging with the planet itself. YSC overcame that problem with a special delivery system made of literium alloy spheres that were designed to be fired from mass drivers.

Mass drivers were originally designed as a cheap alternative to missiles when besieging a planet from orbit. They were intended to fire large chunks of debris at a high velocity to the planet's surface. While the projectiles wouldn't have evasion systems like missiles would, sheer numbers could overwhelm a planet's defenses, and the destruction would be incredible. Ideally, if an asteroid belt was located nearby, one would have an unlimited supply of ammunition to use.

But the idea never caught on in the military sectors, the weapon's ammunition being too easy to hit to be regarded as useful. An alternative use for the mass drivers was discovered in that they were ideal for moving large objects in a zero gravity environment long distances with a minimum of energy. Their most common application was shooting mineral-rich asteroids toward spaceborne mineral processors, or into a planet's orbit instead of using the more expensive option of towing all of them to a specific area.

However, the power of a mass driver was sufficient to fire Argus deep enough into a planet's crust to trigger the liquid's effect. Worse, mass drivers were compact enough that they could be fired from a small freighter, with a few modifications. They could even be fired from the upper atmosphere and enter the planet deep enough to make the liquid effective. Penetration, rather than wide scale damage, was what the projectiles were designed for. While the projectiles would be easy to shoot down, one had to be aware of their presence first. With the retrieval of the chemicals at Holcomb Complex, all that was needed now was a mass driver, and Anton would have a highly compact mobile weapon system capable of destroying an entire planet. True, he only had enough liquid to destroy nine planets, but that was still nine planets. Even the pair had only managed three, and Eden had a very small population. Not that any of the incidents were their fault in the first place. Given his hated of YSC, Anton would undoubtedly target the many headquarters the company had stationed on densely populated planets.

And that wasn't even the worst part.

During Mikael's journey into the heart of YSC's computer systems, he had probed deeper than anyone had before, and lived to tell about it. He had discovered YSC's deepest, darkest secret that had been kept so quiet, no one even had the faintest inkling it existed.

While YSC was so vast it had businesses in just about every field imaginable, from their earliest days to the present their primary product, which accounted for nearly a quarter of the company's profits, was in communication satellites. In every one of YSC's satellites there was eavesdropping software that allowed them to monitor every single bit of information that was sent through them. It was a magnificent piece of work, one that could only have been assembled by a collection of the most brilliant minds in the fields of communication and programming. No one had discovered the equipment yet because it was broken up into four different parts spread throughout the satellite. Individually none of the software or hardware appeared to be anything other than redundant systems to ensure the satellite functioned properly, and they did serve those purposes. Combined, there was nothing sent into the satellite that couldn't be duplicated and forwarded to one of the many secret relay points YSC had throughout the galaxy. Likewise the control over the information was so absolute they could prevent any messages from being forwarded to its proper source, or altered so that what was sent out was not the same things that were received.

That in itself was bad enough, but it was even worse than it sounded on the surface. YSC accounted for sixty-three percent of the communications satellites deployed throughout the galaxy. Two other major companies, Axion and McCord Heavy Industry, accounted for another fifteen and nine percent respectively, with the remainder produced by a number of smaller corporations, usually restricted to a small area of influence near their bases of operation.

For years YSC had secretly recruited and trained people extensively for the purpose of industrial espionage and assassination. While they hardly had a monopoly on such -every planet in the galaxy had people that chose either or both for a career-it was the numbers YSC dealt with that were truly astounding. They had trained and inserted over four thousand people in strategic companies and locations spread across the galaxy.

Even the agents themselves had no idea how many there were, or who they really reported to. They were trained in squads of about a dozen members, and were led to believe that only a handful of agents outside of themselves existed. They were never even told who received their information, only that they were paid well for it. YSC was so meticulous that the training personnel were never contracted to instruct more than a hundred people before they were informed that that was all the agents that needed training, and they were sent on their way. Less than two dozen people, including Slapatcha Scorphious and Springer, knew the full extent of their espionage resources.

Using those spies and moles, in combination with the information-gathering abilities of the satellites, allowed YSC to learn the dirty little secrets the heads of their rival companies never wanted the galaxy to know. YSC covertly blackmailed the heads of Axion and outright bought the loyalty of the president of MHI by including him in the information network. In the case of Axion, YSC was so secretive that each board member that was being blackmailed had no idea several of their compatriots were in similar situations, thereby isolating them and preventing them from working together to elude the snare they had fallen into. Moreover, each individual was only required to do small tasks. Separately they wouldn't even make sense to the individuals. It was only when all of the adjustments were taken as a whole that anyone would have noticed YSC had manipulated Axion into planting the same surveillance equipment in their satellites as there were in YSC's. And that the information was being sent to YSC as well.

Between that, and several of the smaller communication corporations that had fallen to the same tactics, YSC had total control of ninety-three percent of the interstellar communications network. They knew everything that happened anywhere and at any time. And they acted on it. According to the data Mikael had gathered, they had used the information to commit every crime there was from blackmail to murder. They had manipulated corporations and governments to do their bidding, even controlling entire economies, all to YSC's benefit. There were even plans to try to limit the effectiveness of the 3WA, if not eliminate it altogether.

It was by far the largest conspiracy the galaxy had ever seen.

"So that's how they prevented us from sending the information to headquarters, and why people and fighters kept coming out of the woodwork after us," Yuri said as they finished reading the information. "My god, I can't believe they've managed to do all of this."

"Information is a universal commodity. It's more reliable than any currency out there," Kei said in an unusually philosophical moment.

"You were right about Killgore, too," Yuri admitted. "Sorry for doubting you and Iria."

"Now we have to figure out what to do." Kei grabbed the data chip from the terminal and placed it back in her bikini top. "We have to get in touch with Iria somehow, and it'll have to be in person, since we can't trust communications. We try sending what we just found out to her, and YSC will know we know, and kill us before we can get off the planet."

"If we leave right now, Cross and company will get suspicious," Yuri pointed out. "Especially since I saw one of the guys spying on us while we were in here."

Kei considered that. "We'll keep playing tourist for a couple more hours, then claim we have to go back to the Lovely Angel and update the 3WA on what's been happening. They know our transmissions will never get there anyway, so it won't worry them."

"Sounds like a plan," Yuri said. "I'll go back out at poolside."

"And I'll wander around the hotel. Maybe hit the steam bath or something."

"See you later," Yuri said, acting casual while feeling the exact opposite. Once they made it back to the Lovely Angel, and didn't have to worry about people spying on them, they were going to have to figure a way to get Iria and themselves back to 3WA headquarters to report to them in person. This was way bigger than Zeiram. Possibly bigger than any case Yuri had been involved in. If only Iria hadn't already left, they could have cooked up some excuse to split up with Killgore and then gone on their own way. As it was, Yuri wasn't sure what they could do to rendezvous with Iria while giving Killgore and company the slip.

Valen returned to Cross' side.

"So?" Cross asked.

"They spent about a half hour on a computer reading over something, then left. The dark-haired one went back to their little private getaway, and the redhead started wandering around. Vanderdecken is watching her now."

"Curious." Cross made a mental note to see if the women had tried to communicate with anyone in some way. He didn't trust them, not one little bit. He'd have done away with them the first time they met if Killgore would have let him. They were too dangerous to keep around, especially that loose cannon bounty hunter. Killgore was playing with fire, and it was going to come back and burn them if they weren't careful. Cross was tempted to do away with them anyway, even if it meant raising Killgore's ire. But he seemed attached to his ex-wife in a way he never had with any other woman. It was frustrating. While Killgore could be emotional at times, he was always professional when it came to business. While his commander had valid reasons for keeping Iria and the Pair around, Cross couldn't help feeling there was more to it than that.

The assassin was wondering what to do next when his wrist communicator beeped. He saw it was an incoming message from the 'Destiny'. With any luck, it would be Killgore telling them to come to Danube. "Report."

"We just got an A-1 priority message from YSC headquarters. Since the boss ain't here, I'm supposed to forward it to you."

"Transmit." Cross activated the hologram on his communicator and began reading the information. It was a message regarding the elimination of a slicer that had purloined a great deal of highly classified information from YSC. A price tag of fifty million credits for his death made even Cross impressed. The slicer must have stolen something serious to have earned that kind of kill fee. That high a price was reserved for only the most difficult of hits, usually for interplanetary government or military officials. If it had been a public hit instead of a YSC 'in-house' one, half the Samisdat in the galaxy would be trying to hunt the slicer down.

Cross was imagining what he would do with that kind of money when he received the picture of the slicer.

"Shit!" he cursed. He stopped reading and reopened a line to the Destiny. "Listen to me. The target has made contact with the Dirty Pair, and the information has been compromised. You will immediately leave orbit. If anyone questions you, claim you have to send a deep space transmission to Killgore and planetary radiation is effecting our equipment. You will undergo reconfiguration and return from a different vector an hour later. If either I or the others do not contact you upon your return, destroy the Lovely Angel and the Creeper. Then use Neutron 2F weaponry to level this entire area. Leave a message claiming you're from the Naturists and this is a blow of floral freedom. They've wanted Xyphos 13 returned to its original condition and that all humans should be off planet. They've made threats about blowing things up here before. That should work. Afterward contact Killgore and tell him everything that happened."

The officer said, "If we hit the area with a 2F Neutron , it'll kill you."

"If we don't contact you, it'll mean we're already dead. Cross out." He looked to Valen. "You and Vanderdecken eliminate Kei. I'll take Yuri, then deal with the slicer."

"He's the one that's got the price tag," Valen pointed out.

"He's the least dangerous at this point. And this is a Tangerine Mission. Eliminate the target at all costs. I don't care who else you have to kill, just do it."

Valen shook his head sadly. "What a waste. Both of them are nice pieces of ass."

"They're a pestilence to the universe that have left an untold body count in their wake. Remember that when you're thinking of what you'd like to do to them."

"Good point," Valen admitted, his face tightening as he slipped into a more professional mood. He called Vanderdecken to get Kei's current location.

It took only minutes for Valen to arrive at Vanderdecken's position. He was lounging about around a corner, able to see around it courtesy of a full length mirror on a nearby wall. He was trying to appear casual as he flipped through an old-style newspaper, old because it actually used paper made from trees. While feigning interest in the local sports scene, Vanderdecken stole glances in the mirror, which reflected the entryway to the hotel's sauna.

"Status?" Valen asked, his earlier reluctance at killing the pair gone, replaced by a consummate professional.

Vanderdecken pointed at something in the paper. "She's in there. I was tempted to follow her and relax in the sauna too, you know. They're co-ed, and no clothing's allowed. Just towels."

"Be thankful you weren't." Valen informed him of what had happened.

"I can just shoot her when she comes out." Vanderdecken patted the slight bulge in his waistband.

"I'd prefer doing it quietly, and being able to make it look like an accident afterwards." He looked around the area. Neither staff nor guests were present, and there were no signs of security cameras around. "I can take her hand-to-hand. I'll walk up casually, saying there's a message we just got from the bounty hunter. That should make her drop her guard to let me get close enough for a quick kill. Maybe a broken neck. We'll roll her down some stairs afterwards. I doubt anyone will look too close."

"Good plan. I'll be backup." Vanderdecken pulled out his gun and hid it within the pages of the newspaper.

"Here she comes," Valen hissed as he moved around the corner and waved to Kei, attracting her attention.

Vanderdecken was riveted to what was happening in the mirror. He kept his finger poised on the trigger of his gun, ready to spin around the corner and shoot at a moment's notice. There wasn't a chance the 3WA agent would survive.

Mikael was trying to blend in with the rest of the tourists as he strolled randomly through the hotel. While the information drop to Kei had been executed to perfection, he was at something of a loss for what to do next. All of his planning had gone into the drop, not what happened afterwards. He should have thought to secure a hotel room and leave its number on the disc so Kei could pick him up.

Mikael was still wondering what to do when luck was with him. He saw Kei emerge from the sauna area, a skimpy red bathrobe draped around her. He was about to wave at her when a short, bulky man did the same. Mikael changed the wave to an itch at his nose and pretended to go down a side corridor. He stopped, peeking around the edge to see what was happening with Kei and wondering who the man approaching her was.

It was then Mikael spotted a second man hidden around the corner nearest to Kei, watching a mirror intently, despite having a newspaper in hand. It took Mikael a second to realize given the man's positioning he was probably eavesdropping on Kei and the stocky man. Suspicions aroused, Mikael watched the newspaper man closely. That was how he saw what was unmistakably the barrel of a small handgun poke out from the folds of newspaper the man was carrying.

Lacking a weapon of his own, Mikael grabbed the nearest thing he could use as one: a small end table that was decorated with a vase that held a number of brightly colored flowers poking out of the top. Moving as fast as he dared without making a noise, the slicer took the vase off and set it down on the floor. He picked up the end table, delighted at the lightweight metal it was composed of. While it was hard, it couldn't weigh more than five pounds. It was the best he could do, given the situation. Taking a deep breath, he darted around the corner.

Kei was calculating the time remaining before she and Yuri should try to return to the ship when one of Killgore's spies approached, waving his hand to get her attention. Having confirmation rather than mere suspicions that the mercenaries were up to no good, Kei appeared casual while readying for a fight. "Yes?"

The man continued approaching at a steady pace, neither too fast nor too cautious. "We just got a message from Iria, she said-"

Kei wasn't really paying so much attention to the man's words as his body language. While he sounded as casual as Kei outwardly appeared, there was too much tension to his walk. To Kei's trained eye, she quickly realized he was gauging the distance between them and approaching from a hostile angle rather than a conversational one.

With the distance between them closed, Kei took a chance and lashed out with an upraised palm strike, aiming for the man's jaw. His own pre-planned attack was just a fraction behind hers as he tried lashing out at her throat. Finding himself the one being attacked as well, and that Kei had beaten him to the punch, he switched from offense to defense and changed from throwing a punch into a wide arm sweep. He barely managed to deflect the blow. He was immediately put on the defensive as Kei continued lashing out with a number of fists and elbows. Valen proved himself a talented hand-to-hand combatant as he successfully protected his vitals and deflected or evaded her strikes, though he was unable to launch any counterstrikes.

Kei thought she saw an opening in his defense when a flash of movement from a nearby corner caught her eye. For just a moment, she saw another one of Killgore's men taking aim at her with a gun. Suddenly, an end table came in a hard swing, connecting with the man's head and sending him to the ground.

A loud cheer of "Ha! I finally won a fight!" reached Kei's ears.

Kei recognized Mikael's voice and hesitated. That was all her opponent needed as he slipped under her guard and grabbed her by the waist, tackling her hard to the ground and knocking some of the wind out of her.

He rose up on his knees, luckily inside Kei's legs rather than around her waist, where his weight would have pinned her down. His right hand rose high in the air and came flying down, aimed at Kei's head. She barely moved her head to the side in time to prevent him from punching her right in the face. Instead it hit the hard stone of the floor with the dull sound of flesh hitting an unmoving object.

"Don't worry, I'll help you!" came Mikael's voice.

Out of the corner of her eye, Kei spotted Mikael pick up the second attacker's gun and aim it at the man on top of her.

The first bolt hit the wall a good two meters away from either of them. Kei assumed it was a warning shot, but then a second hit the floor mere centimeters from her face. It was then his warning about his shooting skills came back to Kei.

"Quit trying to help me! You're more dangerous than the guy trying to kill me!" she shouted.

Mikael lowered the gun.

Despite missing, the bolts had made Valen flinch, keeping him from pressing his attack. When it became obvious Mikael was more likely to shoot himself than either of the fighters, he switched his full attention back to Kei and pressed his advantage once more.

Rather than let her continue moving her head, (causing the painful side effect of making Valen hit the unyielding floor hard enough to nearly break his hand) his other hand shot out and snared Kei by the neck. Preventing her from moving out of the way, he raised his arm up a second time, intent on caving in her skull.

As Valen drew back his fist, he rose up slightly so that he could get more force behind the blow. In doing so, he increased the distance between his body and Kei's. In an amazing display of contortion and flexibility, Kei managed to bring her legs up into her chest, then lashed out with them. Rather than kicking Valen in the face, she wrapped her legs around him, getting his neck between her knees and locking her ankles behind his head.

Valen realized the danger he was in as her powerful legs began squeezing. He released his hold on her neck, but Kei was quick to react by immobilizing the limb using both her hands on his wrist and locking it into place. Unable to do anything of consequence with his free arm, Valen tried rolling away, hoping to work his way free, but Kei's leg lock remained firm, the pressure increasing.

Valen thought he felt her body shift to the right, and started to move with it in the hopes he could use the momentum to free himself, when she switched directions and pulled the other way. With his body going one way and her legs the other, his vertebrae snapped with an audible crack.

Hearing the crack and seeing her foe's head twisted at an angle not conductive to life, Kei let out a loud gasp of air and allowed the body to fall limply to the floor. She released her legs and lay flat on back, gasping and heaving to catch her breath.

"You know, seeing a sight like that is almost worth dying for," Mikael said as he approached her.

Kei wondered what he was talking about until she realized that in the course of the struggle, the tie on her robe had loosened. When she wrapped her legs around Valen's neck, her robe had fallen free from her waist, leaving her nude save for her arms, which were still in the robe's sleeves.

Given her previous encounter with Mikael, rather than blushing and tightening the robe, she posed seductively for his benefit. "If we had more time, I'd show you what heaven's really like. I…" Kei suddenly paled. "Yuri!"

Mikael's easygoing attitude disappeared. "What about her?"

Kei rose to her feet, tightening the robe and taking the gun from Mikael's hands. "If these guys are trying to kill me, they'll be going after her as well."

"How many are left?" Mikael asked.

Kei checked the firearm's ammunition. "Only one, but he's the most dangerous of them all. A Samisdat. I'm not sure if I can take him down, which means Yuri doesn't have a chance alone. We have to hurry!"

The pair raced down the hallway as fast as they could, heading for the pool.

Yuri lay on her back once again, pretending to relax under the sun as she weighed her options carefully. Retrieving Iria first was really the only choice they had. You couldn't abandon a comrade in the field; it just wasn't done. That it was Kei's foster mother made it doubly so. Even if she and Kei took enough time to pass the hot potato Mikael had given them to the nearest 3WA outpost, it would still take too much time. With that decided, the only question that remained was how they were going to ditch Killgore and his crew and not have the mercenaries try to kill them in the process. It was obvious they weren't going to let them physically contact headquarters anymore than YSC had. What she and Kei had to come up with was an excuse to separate from the others, perhaps something about it being better to track down Zeiram.

A number of scenarios were racing through Yuri's mind when the door to their private area opened and Cross admitted himself inside. Yuri rose from her lounge chair, body tensed. Now that she knew the truth about Killgore and his crew, she wasn't dropping her guard for an instant. "What is it?"

Cross continued to approach, bringing up both hands to remove his sunglasses. "We just received a message from Iria. They found Zeiram and killed him."

Had Yuri been any less suspicious, the information would have dropped her guard and left her open for a second. Instead it made her even more wary. Adrenaline coursed through her system, making everything seem to move in slow motion as Cross removed his sunglasses…

…And the frames and lenses fell to the ground.

He was a fluid blur with no wasted motion. Yuri could see the arms of the sunglasses were in his hands, each one pointed and deadly. He lashed out with his right toward her chest, but Yuri was ready, and brought her arm up and batted the attacking limb aside.

The first blow was a feint as Cross brought the second one up, aiming directly for her eye. Yuri didn't have time to deflect the jab, and more out of reflex than design, brought her other hand up right in front of her face. She cried out in pain as she felt the sharpened point of the arm of the glasses go into the front of her hand and saw it emerge from the back, covered in blood.

Yuri lashed out with a kick. It was a weak blow, since she was off-balance and operating out of instinct. By all rights an assassin of Cross' caliber should have been able to shrug it off and continue his attack. But chance had the kick land directly in the wound on Cross's side. He hissed in pain and reflexively shifted his body weight to the side, flowing with the blow. The movement made him trip over the lounge chair Yuri had been using. He lost his grip on both of the concealed stilettos and slammed his head on the ground, dazing him.

Wounded and off-balance herself, and acknowledging Cross was probably the superior fighter, Yuri turned to flee. While there were no weapons permitted on the planet, there were security personnel that could come to her aid. And there was Kei. Between her and Kei they could take him down, even if Yuri was wounded.

Yuri had made it no more than three steps before she was hit by a flying tackle from behind. Momentum carried both her and Cross into the pool. The breath was knocked out of her by the initial impact, and she reflexively gasped a moment after she hit the water. Her head was submerged just as she inhaled, taking in water instead of air. In the process of drowning, she tried clawing to the surface like a wounded animal sensing imminent death.

Unlike Yuri, Cross had enough time to take a partial breath as he hit the water. Far more cognizant than his foe, the assassin's training took over as he released his hold from her waist. While maintaining his position behind her, he wrapped an arm around her throat, and locked it in position with his other hand. He would have preferred some sort of strike to her throat or eyes, but the water impeded his ability to deliver a blow, and she was flailing randomly and wildly, making her movements completely unpredictable as she slowly drowned. Strangulation was the most practical way to dispatch her, since he now lacked a weapon.

Yuri felt the arm wrap itself around her neck and lock into position. She had no air to begin with, and she was unable to rise to the surface by the weight on her back. Water filled her throat and lungs, and her vision started to go black from the loss of air. Her struggles doubled as she felt death hovering above her, waiting to claim her life after coming so close more times that she could count. She had to remove the weight on her back or it was over! She lacked leverage or the brute strength necessary to remove her foe, and she was weaponless. There was no way to free herself. She was going to die.

Then Yuri's hand curled reflexively into a fist, but was unable to since there was a blade still embedded in it.

Using the last of her consciousness, she pulled the blade from her hand and blindly stabbed behind her head.

Cross felt the blade effortlessly slide into the left side of his neck, and knew he was dead. His arms slipped from her neck and tried to staunch the flow, knowing he would fail. Despite the pain and the knowledge, there was no panic. One of the last tests in order to become a Samisdat involved purging fear of death from the psyche. However, it did nothing with anger, and Cross cursed his luck, both in Yuri striking him in his wound above the water, and managing to stab him fatally with the first attempt. Had she missed even once, he would have been aware of her acquiring the weapon and could have positioned his head below her back and suffered only several light wounds in non-vital areas. As his vision turned red, both due to the blood in the water and his brain starting to shut down, he thought of the ignominy of it all. The other Samisdat would have made fun of him for being killed by his own weapon.

Then there was nothing.

"There she is!" Kei cried out as Yuri broke the surface, three quarters drowned and coughing up half the pool she had swallowed. Kei panicked at the amount of blood in the water, wondering how Yuri could still be alive after losing so much, then she spotted Cross' body floating to the surface, and the steady stream of red flowing from the area of his neck.

Kei jumped in to help her struggling partner out of the water. Yuri resisted at first, then realized the identity of her savior and went limp, continuing to cough up water as she was dragged to the edge of the pool. Between Kei and Mikael, they hauled Yuri out of the water, laying her on the ground and letting her retch up the water she had swallowed. Once the coughing fit had passed and Yuri recovered enough to speak and listen, the pair exchanged stories of what had happened.

Yuri's voice was still hoarse from coughing up so much water. "We need to get to the ship and get out of here."

"How do we know they won't fire on us the instant we head up?" Kei wondered. "We'll be vulnerable in the shuttle. One shot and we're done, and we won't be able to shoot back."

"Maybe Bob can do something?" Mikael suggested.

"Good idea." Kei used the comlink to contact Bob. She quickly explained what had happened.

"I'm glad the three of you are all right." Relief was obvious in Bob's electronic voice. "Good news about the Destiny. It left orbit a little while ago."

Kei released her breath, not realizing how tense she was. "Cross must have been pretty cocky about being able to kill us if he sent his backup away."

"I don't know. He was pretty professional. I find it hard to believe he'd send away his backup on the assumption he and two of his buddies would be able to kill both of us. A lot of things could go wrong, even if he was a pro," Yuri replied.

Bob's voice cut in on the trio's ruminations. "Wait a minute. A ship just entered Xyphos space without waiting for instructions on what orbit it should take. Its profile is different, and its call signature isn't remotely like the one they've been transmitting, but I have a feeling that the Destiny's departure and this ship's arrival isn't a coincidence."

"We need to get up there now!" Kei swore as she shut down the comlink and began running in the direction of their shuttle's landing pad.

Lieutenant Armand Foillet, second-in-command of the Destiny with Cross's absence, peered dispassionately at the back of the communication's officer, D'Angelo manning his post. The transformation had happened without a hitch. It really was a remarkable piece of engineering the Farscots had managed. Not only was the Destiny a surveillance ship, but it had been designed to disguise its physical shape as well. The wings went from a forward to tilted-back position, the bridge could literally relocate itself from the very front of the ship to the middle, one of the engines could be concealed, and two dozen other smaller changes created a significantly different profile in the span of a mere ten minutes. Even its exterior coloration changed from white to black. While it was still the same volume and size, no one trying to find the Destiny would look twice at this outwardly different vehicle. The transformation had gotten them out of a couple of very bad situations, and had made a dozen others easier.

Exactly like this one.

"Any communications from Cross or the others?" Foillet asked.

"Negative, Sir. But it could be they've completed the hit and are too busy going to ground to communicate with us," D'Angelo suggested.

"No, if they had succeeded Cross would have left a message at a relay point for us to receive as soon as we returned. That he hasn't contacted us means he and the others are dead or incapacitated, and we have our orders." He turned the man operating the sensors and weapons console, Markham, and asked. "Are there any signs of activity from the Lovely Angel or the Creeper V?"

"Negative to both," Markham said eagerly.

Foillet mentally sighed. Markham was far too eager to use the Destiny's heavy weaponry. Were it up to Foillet, he would have had the man removed from the job, if not the unit altogether. But it wasn't up to him, and Markham knew what he was doing. "Target the Lovely Angel first and destroy it. Even as damaged as it is, it still has far more weapons than the Creeper. After you destroy the Creeper, arm the 2F Neutron warheads and target the inhabited area of the moon." He turned back to D'Angelo. "Send a message to Killgore, updating him on the situation."

Markham grinned at Foillet like a child that had been told he would be moving into a candy store. "Already targeted. Firing now."

Foillet waited patiently as ten missiles fired in two waves from the Destiny's launchers, all of them targeting the 3WA ship. Like the others, he had no great love of the 3WA and its tendency to stick its nose into what he thought was none of their business. Nothing hampered the missiles, and every one struck the target. Foillet felt an immense personal satisfaction from a job well done as the infamous ship belonging to the Dirty Pair was reduced to thousands of bits of scrap metal, none larger than five cubic meters in length.

"Targeting the Creeper," Markham said, grinning even more eagerly now.

Suddenly, there was a loud rumble from somewhere deeper inside the ship, and it caused the deck to heave under Foillet's feet. He barely managed to grab onto the back of the command chair to keep from ending up on the floor. More groaning could be heard from inside the ship, sounding dangerously close to the command room. "Status report!" he ordered.

One of the others shouted, "There have been a number of explosions within the ship itself! Main power relays and most of the systems just crashed!"

"Get them back up!" Foillet ordered.

"Sir!" Markham shouted.

"What?" Foillet's panicked doubled at the tone.

Markham's smile was gone now and he began speaking in a distant voice. "The Creeper has just launched a missile at us."

Foillet became pale. "Shields?"


"Here it comes!" Markham said, ducking under his console. Foillet didn't know why he bothered. Unprotected, and if the person shooting them knew how to program a guidance system, it was heading right for their fusion reactor. On a smaller ship like the Destiny, no shields meant they might as well be a helpless cargo freighter that had "Shoot Me" painted next to their fuel cells.

Foillet heard one huge explosion, then nothing.

"Morons," Bob said to himself as he 'watched' through the Creeper V's sensor system as what indisputably been the Destiny became a gigantic fireball. It made the explosions that took out the Lovely Angel look like someone had set a firecracker off in a tin can.

Bob had to admit, Iria's shifty mind truly worked miracles sometimes. He had been leery when she informed him of her plan to wander 'lost' around Killgore's ship, planting miniature explosives in vital areas, when she had gone over to the ship to inform her ex-husband that she would be traveling with him. Since she would be gone, she left the destruct codes with Bob, just in case. While Bob didn't trust any of the mercenaries for a moment, he didn't anticipate their betrayal would be so sudden and savage, especially without Killgore to guide them. In hindsight, it was clear Iria was a genius. At least that was what he would tell her, since her paranoia was the only reason he and the others were still alive.

Bob opened a channel to the women and Mikael on the surface of the moon. They'd have to rendezvous quickly, before the authorities started moving and detained them until they could explain what had happened. They couldn't waste a second. It was their turn to save Iria the way she had saved them, even if she hadn't been present at the time. It didn't take a genius to figure out that if Killgore's crew had betrayed them, it was only a matter of time before Killgore did the same thing to Iria.

It appeared Iria had been right the whole time, and should have shot Killgore before he tried to get her. Now it was a race against time to save her.

Or, Bob thought grimly, to avenge her.


To be continued.

Author's notes: My god, a chapter that turned out shorter than I thought it would. Will wonders never cease? In any case, barring something completely unpredictable happening, only one chapter to go. As you can tell, we're entering the climax of the story.

Chapter 13 (Finale)
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