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Chapter 13

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.

General Miguel Fuentes grunted in annoyance as he stood outside the door of what any casual observer would call a palatial mansion. As befitting a mansion, it stood on a sprawling estate whose size was more suitable for farming enough food to feed hundreds rather than for personal use. Technically it wasn't his. It was owned by the Danube planetary government, and was to be used only by the Supreme Commander of System Defense, which was an elaborate way of saying 'the guy in charge of maintaining the planet's orbital defenses'. It was a rank Miguel had held for the last fifteen years, and would be until the day he died, which was hopefully many decades away.

The elaborate and expensive 'perks' accompanying the rank hadn't always been like this. Forty years ago, when Miguel first entered the officers' corps, the SCSD had a slightly larger than standard military house and a permanent staff of three. But that was before the Great Expansion. Before YSC decided to make their primary headquarters on Danube. Since then the entire planet's economy had expanded some one thousand times, and was continuing to grow as YSC did. Danube had gone from an unknown backwater world that no one knew existed to one of the most important centers of commerce in the galaxy, and it was all thanks to YSC.

The same thing that happened to the economy happened to the military. It had grown exponentially, swelling in size and allowing young up and comers like Miguel to shoot through the newly expanded ranks like a Sarram Missile streaking through the atmosphere. His rise to power ended when he became the SCSD upon the previous one's retirement.

Now Miguel led a life of, while not idle wealth, one of impressive resources at his fingertips. One of his favorites was the expanded staff that came with the position of SCSD, including twenty people assigned to the mansion's grounds. They took care of all his everyday needs. There wasn't a thing he had to do, other than chew his food.

That staff was also the source of Miguel's irritation as he waited impatiently on the doorstep. Someone was supposed to have opened the door for him when he approached, like they always did. There was always a guard stationed at the inside of the door to screen guests and admit Miguel when he returned from whatever drew him away from his home. Instead, for the first time since attaining his position, no one was there to admit him. Sgt. Hooper should still have been on door duty tonight, if he recalled correctly. She was really going to be reprimanded for her lax attitude regarding one of the few duties assigned to her. Discipline had to be maintained, after all.

It was especially odd since Hooper had been there to usher the general out when the emergency meeting had been called. The meeting had not taken long, only two hours, and most of it was just YSC claiming there was a possibility Zeiram might strike at one of the orbital platforms. Let him. With the over three hundred highly trained military personnel on board, they would make short work of him, assuming he wasn't blown out of space on his approach. But Miguel had to go through the motions of considering the entity a serious threat, if for no other reason than to make YSC happy. Only a complete idiot dealt casually with the source of money for the people who signed his paychecks. Ignoring YSC's concerns might result in them ignoring their donations to the military, and that wouldn't do at all.

After placing a few calls to the commander of the platform, Miguel was satisfied the matter of Zeiram was well in hand and returned to his home for a night of relaxation, only to be left waiting on his doorstep. Now thoroughly agitated, he deigned to open the door himself and walked inside, intent on tracking down Sgt. Hooper and tearing her a new asshole before her demotion to private second class. She'd spend the rest of her career cleaning latrines. That was one thing the military had kept as a holdover to the old days: plenty of latrines to clean as punishment for dereliction of duty.

There was a noise from further up the hallway, emanating from the open archway that led to the mansion's living room. Perhaps that was where Hooper was hiding. Maybe with one of the male members of the staff. She was a striking woman, and Miguel paid little enough attention to the relationships the house staff had with one another. Were that the case, there would be two demotions forthcoming.

"Sgt. Hooper, is that yo-" Miguel's authoritative voice was suddenly silenced as he turned the corner and entered the room. Sgt. Hooper was not present, nor was she having a tryst with the chef. Instead there was a man seated in Miguel's favorite chair, sipping what appeared to be brandy from the general's private stock. The ebony face was instantly familiar to Miguel, having seen holograms of it less than an hour ago: Anton Scorphious.

By all rights that should have been enough to consume all of Miguel's attention, but there was something else in the room that made Anton as irrelevant as gum on the bottom of the SCSD's boot. No hologram did Zeiram justice. The huge monstrosity stood at Anton's right, like a giant butler waiting for instructions, though odds were they would be of dismembering guests, rather than hanging up their jackets.

Anton opened his mouth, but Miguel didn't wait for whatever declaration the madman intended to give. While Miguel had a sidearm and knew how to use it, Zeiram was close enough to move between any shots and Anton, and the general had no delusions about being able to injure the monster with such an insignificant weapon. Flight was the only option.

Miguel turned and ran down the hall, hoping to make it outside. God willing, his driver, Sgt. Donatello, hadn't returned the vehicle to the garage. If he could make it to the car he could flee and call upon a thousand ground troops to crush Zeiram once and for all.

As the door came into sight, Miguel saw the back of a familiar form next to it. Sgt. Hooper had finally put in an appearance. His anger at her forgotten, the SDSC called out, "Open the door and run, Sergeant! There's-"

For the second time in the evening, Miguel found his command die off. Sgt. Hooper had turned at the sound of his voice, or at least the thing that was in the sergeant's uniform. While it was humanoid in shape, and approximately the same height and weight as Hooper, it was hardly human. Green mottled flesh, three yellowed eyes, and an 'O' shaped mouth that seemed to lack a discernable jaw, though it was ringed with sharp teeth, dominated its face. Its sudden appearance brought Miguel to a complete stop, despite the urgency of the situation.

Reigning in his panic, Miguel turned to run for the nearest staircase, hoping to make it out a window so he could drop to the ground and flee. Even that was denied him as a number of other creatures, also dressed in military garb, moved into the hallway from every direction, cutting off any avenue of escape. There was no point in opening fire. He didn't have enough ammunition to kill half of them.

"Sorry about this," a voice from behind Miguel explained. "Your staff proved most rude to unexpected guests. I'm afraid they needed to be converted into Zeiramoids. Rush job, though. They won't last more than a day. But that shall be long enough to accomplish my goal."

Miguel turned to see Anton standing a safe distance behind him, Zeiram at his side like an obedient puppy, one waiting for the 'Kill' command.

"Your goal?" Miguel managed to get out.

Anton smiled. "Yes, you see. I need a little item from one of your orbital platforms. And I'd like you to help me get it. In return, I guarantee your continued survival."

"Why should I believe you?" Miguel asked.

Anton shrugged. "I could just have Zeiram convert you into one of those." He pointed at a Zeiramoid. "And get the information that way, but it's not expedient. As an individual, you are so meaningless to me that you literally aren't worth the time it would take to kill you. So why not use a much better option for both of us?"

Miguel wasn't certain he believed the man, but it didn't matter. The thing that had been Sgt. Hooper had moved closer to him. The general could see every repugnant component of its inhumanity, yet could still make out the elements of the former sergeant. He would do anything to avoid that fate, even if it meant selling out every person on the planet.

"What do you want me to do?" he asked.

The guard at the gatepost looked up at the approaching vehicle. It was a heavily armored troop carrier, an unusual sight at the time of night. He activated his logpad to see if there was an arrival that he had missed on his first read through of it at the start of his shift.

He had just punched up the data display when the gatehouse computer chimed. The guard displayed it, reading the top priority message that had just come from headquarters. The general of the SCSD himself had authorized additional troops to be transported to one of the orbital platforms. The approaching vehicle had already sent its authorization code to the gatehouse, confirming it was the expected arrival.

The guard opened the gates and saluted crisply at the vehicle, just catching a glimpse of the general himself in the passenger's side. Once the vehicle was out of sight, he returned to his duties, wishing in envy he was the general of SCSD. Now there was a cushy job that required nothing more than sitting on one's thumbs and rubber stamping anything that came across a desk. It sure as hell was better than sitting in a guardhouse in the dead of night with nothing to do other than watch the stars twinkle.

"Damn it, Bob! Can't you go faster?" Kei complained.

"I can go a little faster for a few minutes, burn out our primary engines, and then take six days to finish the trip," he shot back.

Kei cursed and slammed her fist on the control panel.

"Take it easy," Mikael soothed, placing a hand on her shoulder. "She's my mom, you know. I'm worried about her too. But she can take care of herself."

"Killgore's going to kill her, though. I just know it!" Kei spat.

"She can handle herself against anyone," Mikael said, though now his voice carried a hint of concern.

"Speaking of Killgore, that does raise a good question concerning you, Mikael," Yuri said. "We'll try to keep it from happening, but plans tend to go to hell once the shooting starts. If push comes to shove, are you willing to kill your father to protect your mother?"

Kei stared at Yuri, horrified "You idiot! He wasn't' supposed to know that!"

"Oh, crap," Yuri slapped her hand to her forehead.

"There wasn't a problem until just now." Even Bob's digital voice was acerbic.

Mikael appeared unmoved by the conversation. "What are you talking about?"

Kei laughed nervously. "I don't know how to break this to you, but I'm afraid the guy Iria is with right now is her ex-husband, and, it turns out he's-"

"-My father," Mikael completed for her. "Now I get it. Actually, I completely forgot Mom was trying to keep him secret from me. As though she could keep a secret from me, one of the greatest slicers to ever live." He snickered in open self-satisfaction at his abilities.

"You mean you knew who your father is?" Bob asked, while both Kei and Yuri stared at him in surprise.

Mikael shrugged. "Yeah, I got curious and back-checked hospital records. It wasn't hard to put together a timeline and figure out who my father was. I tracked him down and went to visit him a couple of years ago."

"Oh?" Bob asked.

"When you and Mom were on a mission," Mikael explained. "It was pretty convenient since it turned out he was nearby because of some job. I met him in a bar and told him I was his son. His first words to me were along the lines of 'Look, kid, I've fathered lots of bastards in my time, and don't owe them anything. I regard bringing you into this world as payment in full, so you aren't getting a cent out of me. And I don't have the time or inclination to take care of you. You're old enough to get by on your own, so leave me alone' and he went back to drinking."

"Wow, that's cold," Yuri said while Kei shot him a sympathetic look.

Mikael shrugged. "Let's just say I understand why Mom wanted to keep his identity from me. Honestly, though, I wasn't all the depressed about it. I only wanted to see what he was like out of curiosity, not because there was some vacuum of male authority figures in my life. Well, he answered my curiosity. He's just a person like any other I only met once and didn't like. So no, I have no problem with killing him if it means protecting Mom. Not that I'm worried that it'll come to that. It's not like I have the ability to do it anyway. He looked like he could drop me ten different ways without even blinking."

"Probably closer to twenty," Kei corrected. "In any case, rescuing Iria is our primary concern. Avoiding Killgore altogether would suit me just fine."

"And Zeiram as well," Yuri muttered under her breath.

"You know, if you keep pacing like that, you're going to wear a hole through the deck plating, and then our air will get sucked out and we'll implode," Killgore said.

"It's a tempting thought if it means taking you with me," Iria snapped back, halting her pacing for a moment, then starting it again. "Why the hell did they send us to this stupid orbital platform anyway?"

"Because they think Zeiram might show up here, which is what you want anyway, so quit complaining. At least the accommodations are nice." And they were. Despite the fact the orbital platform was a military facility, they occasionally had visiting dignitaries. Subsequently the guest room for visitors was surprisingly plush, with a decided non-military feel to it.

Iria scoffed at the suggestion. "They're just ditching you and are using that as a pretence since they don't want to be open about it. Frankly, I don't blame them."

Killgore stood up from the couch he had been lounging on. He approached Iria, standing deliberately in the path of her pacing and forcing her to stop.

"You're in my way." Iria's growl was closer to something that might slip past an animal's mouth instead of a human.

Killgore remained where he was. "This is the first time we've had any privacy since our paths crossed again."

"Yes, and you'd think by now you'd have picked up on the hint that I didn't *want* to be alone with you, since I've avoided placing myself in such a situation."

The rebuff was ignored. "We need to talk."

"There's nothing to discuss!" Iria snapped back.

Killgore moved closer until he was easily violating her personal space. Iria tensed up, as though he might strike her.

"I want us to get back together," Killgore said.

Anger was replaced by bewilderment. "What?"

"I'm not bullshitting you," Killgore insisted in what was obviously sincere tones. "All my life, breaking up with you was the only thing I've ever really regretted."

"And getting together with you was the only thing I've ever really regretted," she said testily.

"I'm being serious," Killgore said, all but pleading with her. "I'll admit, I was young and made a lot of mistakes. I was stupid and didn't appreciate what we had. I'll be perfectly honest, I wasn't even that bothered by the break up at the time. I thought it would be just like every other relationship I had and move on. But it was never the same. Not with any woman I've been with ever since. Not the women like you. Not the ones that were the complete opposite of you, and everything in-between. I never felt anything for them like I did for you.

"Every time I look back on when we were together, I realize it was the best relationship I ever had. And you were the best partner I ever had, in every sense of the word. There hasn't been anyone I've trusted to have at my back the way I did you. And now that I'm with you again, I know you're the only one I really want. Let's get back together, like in the old days. Hell, I want to marry you again. I'll resign from the company. I'll leave my crew. We can go out as a two person team again. I'll give it all up for you. What do you say?"

Much to his astonishment, Iria reached up, hooked her hands around the back of his neck, lowered his head down while she stood on her toes, and kissed him. It took a Killgore a moment to react, and then began returning the kiss. It was just like the old days, when they were newlyweds and couldn't keep their hands off one another.

And then Iria broke off the kiss, backed away, and struck him hard in the face with a right hook.

The force of the blow nearly knocked Killgore off his feet. He could feel his jaw starting to swell instantly.

Iria shook her hand back and forth, having hurt it in the blow. She had a cold look of iron in her eyes. "My only regret was never giving you a proper kiss goodbye. Now I have. You keep talking about everything you want from me, but I got news for you, Eugene: there's nothing you have that I want. At least, not after that kiss. That part of my life ended a long time ago, and I moved on. I did love you once, I couldn't hate you so much if I hadn't, but I don't love you anymore. Some things can't be forgiven, and the things you did to me are like that. So forget about it."

"I see." Killgore turned to leave the room, proud but resigned in defeat. He opened the door, and hit the button to slide it shut behind him. He needed to walk and think things through.

Killgore hadn't made it more than ten meters down one of the passageways when a private communication from the Destiny was forwarded to him. For a moment he considered saving it and reading it later, lord knew he wasn't in the mood to do anything but brood, but Cross wouldn't call him unless it was something important. Resigned to his duty, he read the message. Within five lines it had his full attention. He grimaced as the final line of the message scrolled past. And he had thought things were complicated before.

Killgore thought about the new twists the situation had taken. Maybe it was for the best Iria had turned him down. By now the Dirty Pair were dead, and Kei's death would have made reuniting with Iria impossible. He knew how much his ex-wife had doted on the girl, even if she had left like a thief in the night a year before Killgore came into the picture. Perhaps the two of them working together, like in the old days, had been nothing more than an idle dream. But dreams were nice, and he had meant every word he had said to her. Iria had made her choice, and now he made his.

He opened a line to the commander of the orbital platform. Luckily, Springer had the foresight to designate Killgore an official 'advisor' from YSC, which gave him nearly as much pull as the commander himself. "This is Killgore. The woman that has been traveling with me has become a threat to the ship. I need one… no, two squads of your best men to go down to the guest suite and eliminate her with extreme prejudice. Regard her as a Class 1 threat. Get confirmation on the kill, meaning I want a body that can be ID'd. Outside of that, do whatever it takes to get the job done. YSC will cover any losses. Killgore out."

The mercenary shut down the communicator and continued down the hallway. He didn't want to be present when Iria was finally dealt out of his life forever. It looked like he owed Cross an apology. Killgore had allowed sentimentality to cloud his judgment. He should have just let Foulcard kill Iria in the beginning, but he couldn't resist one last shot at trying to make things right between the two of them. He had owed her that much. But like she had said, there was nothing between them now.

It was time to get back to business.

The halls leading to the closed door of the platform's guest chamber were surprisingly quiet, despite the sixteen commandos that flooded into the area. They approached in two tight formations of eight mean each, one group in the lead while the other followed hot on their heels.

The man at the forefront of the lead group waved a hand, signaling everyone to halt. Carefully he peered around the corner just enough to catch sight of the closed door. Satisfied by what he saw, he signaled to the man at the head of the second group to approach.

The second man was at his side. "How we playing this, Deke?"

Deke said, "Same as always, Tosh, by the book. We'll go in the hall and up to the door with you giving us back up. We'll put two at angles, two flush against the wall, and two to pop it open with you guys up the hall using the corners for cover as backup."

Tosh rolled his eyes. "This is such a waste. All of this manpower for one chick that doesn't even know we're coming, even if she his armed."

"And with any luck, will already be unconscious by the time we hit the room."

"You're having Control pump it full of somna gas?"

"I prefer unconscious targets to conscious ones that can shoot at me, and since the whole station is rigged to fill with the stuff in case we're taken over, I want to take advantage of the terrain. So make sure your guys have their masks on."

"Copy. And this chick better not be the reason we were placed on alert. I'm going to be seriously let down if it is." Tosh saluted once and returned to the side of his teammates to give them their instructions while Deke did the same to his squad.

Once the two groups were prepared, they moved with the precision of a finely tuned machine. Deke's group took the point, falling into their prearranged positions along the wall and door.

Deke tapped his comlink once, the signal to the people in the control room to flood the room with gas. Deke waited the appropriate five seconds for the fast acting gas to take effect. He then signaled to the trooper next to the door to insert the override command to open it. Four other men were prepared to shoot anything that moved once the door slid open.

The trooper entered the code, a crack forming down the middle of the door as the sides began to slide back into their housing. They had opened no more than six centimeters when a blur skittered across the ground through the opening and out the hall.

Deke saw it was no more than five centimeters across and round, like a puck. He recognized the device instantly, having used them himself on occasion. "Bomb!"

He was too late as it rolled to the area where the second squad lay in wait. They were just starting to pull back when it detonated, creating a spectacular explosion that tore all the men in that area to shreds, include Tosh, who just a minute earlier had been complaining about the overkill on the military's part for sending so many men to deal with one person.

Deke recovered quickly. There would be time to mourn later. He turned to his men, "Prepare-"

The rest was cut off as a second detonation took place right in front of the door. Unlike the first bomb, which was explosive in nature, this one was incendiary, and the billowing fireball reached far beyond the edges of the door, consuming everything in an eight meter radius, including Deke and his men.

Iria stopped crawling through the tight confines of the ventilation shaft as she heard the first explosion, followed by the second one a moment later, behind her. Even with the distance she had put between herself and the room, she could still feel heat from the fireball consume the room that lay several minutes of crawling behind her.

Having already stopped, Iria peered at the rectangular yellow object she held in her hand. It was slender but twice as long as her palm, with a small video screen in the middle. "And you wonder why I still don't trust you." It was a lucky thing she had put the bug on her ex-husband's uniform when she kissed him. That wasn't the only reason she had done it, she really had wanted to give him a kiss goodbye, but the listening device had saved her life. Apparently his ability to deal with rejection had become even worse than hers had over the years. She wondered for a moment what would have happened if she could still stomach him and had accepted his offer.

But she couldn't and she hadn't, and was glad she made the choice she had. Now all that was left was to give him a proper send off. She affectionately fondled the butt of one of her holstered pistols. Or maybe she should use one of her handful of remaining explosives. Or maybe a blade. So many choices, and she could only kill him once. It was almost criminal.

Iria looked at the blinking red light on the screen of the bug's control unit. Not only could it eavesdrop, but it could track someone up to a kilometer's distance as well, and the platform was only three quarters of a kilometer long. There was literally nowhere her ex-husband could hide. All he had was several hundred troops to place between him and her, and she would kill every last one of them if she had to if it meant finishing Killgore for good.

Iria began crawling through the shaft once again.

"Delta-One, this is Flight Control. You're right on target. Proceed through the hanger and to the designated landing pad. Flight Control over and out." Sergeant Milgrew cut the comlink and watched both his instruments and visually through the transparent Plexiglas that separated the control room from the landing bay as the ship settled gracefully into its proper berth.

The only other person in the room, Sergeant Kwon, moved away from his console and observed the proceedings. "So that's the SCSD?"

"The one and only," Milgrew confirmed. "I'm not surprised he decided to drop in. I heard YSC is the one who called the alert. I figured it was only a matter of time before he came up to oversee things." Milgrew watched as the ship performed a perfect link up with the magnetic floor clamps. They locked into place, securing the ship.

Kwon breathed a sigh of relief. "Glad I don't work on the bridge. I sure wouldn't want him looking over my shoulder, ready to jump on me for fucking up."

Milgrew closed the hanger doors and began flooding the hanger with oxygen. He turned from the gauges and began talking directly to his companion. "I hear he's not that bad. Not like General Ransom or Admiral Mawbango. Those are some serious ball busters."

Kwon laughed "I heard 'The Maw' eats at least one cadet per graduating class just to keep them on their toes."

"Sacrifices must be made," Milgrew quipped at one of the more infamous phrases the Admiral had made during the course of her career.

Kwon pointed through the viewport. "Hey, are they getting out already?"

Milgrew turned to follow Kwon's gaze. Sure enough, the shuttle's landing ramp had deployed and the door to the ship was opening. "Shit! We haven't had the time to properly roll out the red carpet for him. He's exiting way too soon for proper protocol. He should have waited for us to give him the go ahead."

"I'll contact the brass band and tell them to get out there." Kwon went to his console, then stopped short. "What the hell is that?"

Milgrew stared in stunned shock at the nine-foot, green-skinned bipedal mushroom that had emerged from the ship's door.

Then Zeiram raised the missile launcher in his hand, aimed it at the control room, and pulled the trigger.

"My, we're off to an explosive start." Anton Scorphious clapped his hands in approval as he walked down the landing ramp and into the hanger bay. He imagined the smell of battle filled the air, though it would have to remain imagined since the helmet connected to his spacesuit's seals were intact. He resisted the urge to remove the helmet and see what the smell of carnage was like. He needed his own supply of air, at least for a little while longer.

The Zeiramoids, both the ones consisting of the late general's staff, in addition to the crews of both the transport and shuttle, followed right behind Anton, as anxious as their creator to spread chaos and destruction to anything and anyone they came into contact with. But they would have to wait until Anton cleared the path for them.

It took only a second to locate a computer terminal in the hanger bay, which was devoid of people now that the control room was destroyed. Anton had to move quickly, before the privacy he needed was compromised. The bridge would figure out something was amiss when the control room failed to report in, and might consider shutting down the hanger's computer system as a precaution. Then things would become a great deal more difficult. Time was of the essence.

Moving swiftly, Anton plugged in his mini-computer, one of only five prototypes YSC had created. Anton had forced his brother to assign the unit to him right before he faked his death. It was a wonderful device, one that could hook itself up to an unprecedented ninety-five percent of the computer terminals in the civilized galaxy. The project's sales division anticipated it would be ready for mass market consumption by the end of the year.

It would never be shipped out, nor would any other item, at least no farther than a single planet. Not once Anton acquired the final item on his list. Every sales department that existed would be eradicated once he taught the galaxy the lesson it needed to learn. Both the amoral corporations and their enabler consumers would be brought to task. The first of Anton's demands would be issued by the end of the day, once he unleashed Argus and had demonstrated to the galaxy what he was capable of by annihilating his brother, YSC headquarters, and every one of those sell outs that made up the population of Danube. A show of force was always necessary for one to be taken seriously, and the truth was Anton would enjoy slaughtering them.

The mini-computer found the proper setting and jacked into the system. With the late SCSD's pass codes, it was a simple matter to bypass the security settings and seize control of the system. While the bridge crew would eventually be able to force Anton out by manually reformatting the command system, that would take a minimum of an hour. More than enough time for Anton to finish things and be long gone from the orbital platform.

The premade programs Anton created for this situation began running. One of the first seized control of the somna gas system and flooded the entire station with it. That would take out most of the soldiers on the ship. Since the platform was stationed above the atmosphere, some of the men would be in spacesuits at all times and could don their rebreathers or helmets, remaining unaffected, but Anton estimated it would be no greater than two people out of ten. A far more manageable number than the full company of hundreds. And since Anton controlled their communication systems, the disparate soldiers would be unable to mount any organized resistance until it was too late. No, the situation was well in hand.

Turning away from his handiwork, Anton had Zeiram order the Zeiramoids to go ahead and add to the mass confusion already plaguing the ship. They would be little more than a distraction, but an effective one and they would break down the remaining resistance further.

Anton returned to the ship and retrieved the one item (besides Argus) that he had brought with him. With the flip of a switch and a turn of the dial, Anton activated a hoversled that carried the first of the Argus Projectiles onboard. It was amazing how a gallon of liquid and a silver orb no more than two meters wide could destroy an entire planet, but Anton wasn't about to complain since it made his job of galactic enlightenment so much easier. He had made certain the hoversled was large enough to carry the mass driver back to the ship, but that would only be after Anton used it to ensure that everything worked properly. That was the one hole in the plan. Everything was theoretical up to this point, since Argus had never been given a proper field test. Everything had been relegated to a laboratory environment. But Anton was certain it would succeed. YSC might be a godless, faceless entity, but it was effective. Zeiram's resurrection and their success was proof of that. Anton had righteousness on his side in this crusade. His cause was just. How could he not succeed?

As Anton exited the vehicle, controlling the large sled with a portable command unit, he noticed Zeiram removing one of the large guns that had been affixed to the underside of a snub fighter that was stored in the hanger. Anton recognized it as a Chilsean 400, an anti-fighter weapon that was even larger than Zeiram, not that its size stopped him from wielding it as though it was an oversized rifle. While the weapon had its own internal ammunition supply and was designed to be easily moved from fighters to land vehicles, they weren't designed to be handheld. Nothing human could hope to handle such a thing. The recoil would shatter their bones instantly. But since Zeiram fell under the category of 'nothing human' it could no doubt wield the weapon effortlessly.

The cannon could easily blow through any resistance Zeiram might meet on the platform. It would also easily blow a hole through any wall, including an exterior one that held back the vacuum of outer space. Anton would have to make sure their course didn't take them near any. Being blown out into space would put a crimp into all his plans, especially the one concerning continued survival.

"Let's go," Anton ordered, allowing Zeiram to walk a good distance in front of him, his handheld canon leading the way.

Iria's breath filled her ears as the rebreather covered her face. She had donned it just in time as the now familiar hiss of somna gas filled the ventilation shaft she was crawling through.. She had to admit, it was an odd tactic the military had employed, trying to use the same trick twice. Perhaps it meant there was an idiot in charge. In Iria's experience, contrary to popular belief, most members high up in the military echelon tended to be smart, since dumb leaders tended to die before they moved very high up in the chain of command, either through personal stupidity or their army being crushed by a not dumb foe. But occasionally one rose to prominence due to connections or luck, and to the best of Iria's knowledge, the Danube military had never been involved in any actual combat. Their inexperience could be showing.

That they pumped gas into her shaft meant they knew her location. Since fighting in the tight confines of a ventilation system was not her idea of a good time, she would have to emerge into the platform proper. She'd have to move quickly, before her foes learned their trick hadn't worked and they tried something a little more fatal, like sending a thousand pounds of an automated shaft cleaning unit down her tunnel to flatten her.

Since Iria didn't have anything that could see heat signatures through the walls, she was forced to pull out a listening device, affixed it to the metal beneath her hands, and held the other end up to her ear. She closed her eyes, trying to detect any noise that might indicate there were soldiers beneath her. After three minutes of silence, Iria decided she could no longer remain where she was, and that if they knew she was directly overhead, they would have fired through the shaft at her stationary form. She pulled out a portable cutting torch, no longer than a penlight, and turned it to its highest setting. It was an expensive, but powerful, device and much more quiet than using a shaped charge. Within seconds she had burned a hole through the shaft wide enough to allow her to pass.

Iria leapt through the hole, landing on her feet in the middle of a corridor with a pistol in hand, prepared to shoot anything that moved. She discovered that her earlier assumption regarding no one being in the corridor was wrong. There was a quartet of soldiers present. Despite that, the bounty hunter held her fire. Unconscious people rarely presented much of a problem.

Iria remained where she was, noting that the fallen men's chests continued moving up and down steadily. Most likely they had been laid low by the somna gas, but that made no sense. Why wouldn't their commander warn them they were going to pump gas into the ventilation system? Something was wrong.

Her thoughts were interrupted as the sound of at least two people talking animatedly to one another came from around a bend in the corridor. The voices grew louder, indicating the speakers were approaching. There were two, judging by the voices. Iria raised her pistol and aimed in their direction, moving toward the noise. If they had been ordered to check out a disturbance where she had emerged, it would be better for her to meet them before they arrived at the area, hopefully catching them unaware.

The instant a pair of figures entered her field of vision, Iria snapped off four shots, hitting each man twice in the chest and dropping them in their tracks before they could react. One advantage to being surrounded by nothing but enemies was that she could fire at anything that moved while her opponents had to pause long enough to identify their targets to keep from shooting an ally. It was about the only advantage she had.

After looking around the bend to ascertain there was no one backing up the pair, Iria took a closer look at the men she had just shot. Their uniforms identified them as soldiers. There was nothing unusual about their appearance, save for the rebreathers attached to their faces. They were as unremarkable as the hundreds of faceless soldiers she had encountered on dozens of different worlds over the course of her career. She briefly considered taking one of the rifles to upgrade her firepower. While she had never fired a Laveran 24, it was reputed to be a reliable short range rifle. After a moment's consideration, she decided against it. Better to stick to her personal arsenal than relying on an unfamiliar weapon.

A noise came from the corridor behind her. This time it wasn't voices, but rather the sound of something moving toward her position. Iria reversed her course, repeating her actions just as she had before with her pistol aimed at chest level and finger poised on a hair-trigger. As she moved closer, the approaching sound grew louder and more distinct. Unless she was mistaken, it was only one person, and they weren't even trying to hide their presence.

Two more steps brought the figure into view. Again Iria didn't hesitate as she snapped off a single shot at the figure before her mind processed what she was seeing, giving her body a chance to react. What she saw froze her in place, right down to her trigger finger. While the source of the noise was shaped like a human, that was where the similarities ended. It was a true monstrosity, with lumpy pustules, like exterior tumors, running the length of its pink skin. Its head was worse, a rounded dome with four yellow pupiless eyes that weren't even remotely symmetrical. On the ends of its hands were long claws that were shaped like miniature tusks, thick enough to gore their way through five centimeters of steel. Looking at the abomination made her want to vomit. Nature couldn't have created this beast. There was only one thing in the universe that could give birth to something that was so hideously wrong.

Despite Iria's shot hitting the creature in its chest, it seemed largely unaffected. It surged forward on stumpy legs that ended in taloned feet, leaping at Iria as froth spilled from its muzzle.

Hesitation cost Iria. She didn't have time to aim at any vital points on the creature before it would land upon her. Rather than trying to stand her ground and end up knocked over by the creature's greater mass and velocity, Iria fell backward on her own, bringing her legs up in-between her and the creature. It impacted solidly with her legs, nearly driving her knees into her chest, but she managed to keep it from actually landing on her using sheer leg muscle alone. Braced against her legs and no longer charging, Iria brought her gun up and emptied the remainder of the magazine into the creature's face before it could rend her with its claws. It gurgled once with the initial shot, then was silenced as the rest of its head disintegrated into a hundred bloody fragments.

Some of the gore splattered on Iria's armor, decorating it in pink and green vital fluids and producing a foul odor that only made her want to retch more. Iria shut out both the smell and the mess. It was nothing compared to a job she had out on the agricultural world of Fledyon. At one point she was forced to hide out in a fertilizer silo, meaning she was buried up to her neck in animal dung for two days. It marked the last time she accepted a job involving farmers of any kind.

Kicking the body to the side, Iria reloaded her pistol. The presence of the creature changed the situation drastically. Eradicating Zeiram took precedence over everything else, including hunting down Killgore. Her ex-husband would just have to live with being second on her 'to kill' list.

Iria reinventoried her weapons. Tracking down Zeiram wouldn't be difficult. All she had to do was follow the trail of destruction he'd leave behind. It would eventually lead to the monster, and their final confrontation would finally begin. And this time only one of them would be walking away.

"I understand. Over and out." Springer shut down her wrist comlink and turned to Slapatcha. "We've lost contact with the platform."

The president of YSC remained sitting behind his desk, paling despite his dark skin. Against Springer's advice, he remained in his office at YSC headquarters, trying to conduct business as usual. Slapatcha hadn't really believed his brother would be stupid enough to come to Danube. Even if he did, the president had been confident his brother and pet monster would be killed long before they could touch down on the platform. And on the offhand chance they made it that far, the troops would shoot them into pieces before they made it five steps toward the mass driver.

Now it seemed as though all of his assumptions were being proven horribly wrong. With all his beliefs shattered, Slapatcha said nothing. He remained at his desk, hands trembling.

Springer forced the issue. "We have to assume worst case scenario. I took the liberty of having your emergency shuttle prepped for this possibility. We'll go off planet until this matter sorts itself out."

Surprisingly, Slapatcha shook his head. It was a faint gesture, lacking his usual command confidence, one that came from giving orders that affected billions of lives every day. "No, we'll be staying."

"That's foolish." For a reprimand, it lacked any feeling of reproach behind it. It was a simple statement, along the lines of something like 'water is wet.'

"Not really," Slapatcha contended. "This is my headquarters. The throne of my power. Everything of importance is right here, including the center of our satellite intelligence gathering and control. There are a thousand different projects that are so sensitive, we didn't dare host them anywhere else. There is nowhere in the galaxy, not even our number two headquarters in Remont, that we could relocate to that wouldn't take years to reconstruct what we have here. And even if we could, Anton would just blow that planet out from under us as well. There's no point in running."

Springer noted his voice was taken on a panicked edge, but she said nothing.

Slapatcha continued. "And then there's the slicer with our information. Without our satellites to suppress it, he'll go to the 3WA, and once they're involved, it's all over. And even if I somehow manage to beat the charges, YSC will be ruined. I'm too old to start over again. No, here is where I'll make my stand. If Danube falls, so do I."

A brief shrug was Springer's response. "Fine. Going down with the ship is a decision many captains have done over the centuries. It's laudable in many ways. But I have no intention of remaining here. This is your life's work, not mine."

The muscles on Slapatcha's face twitched in anger. "You're the one that was supposed to prevent this from happening. It's your responsibility that events have made it this far."

Springer's voice was neutral. "I told you from the start there were no guarantees where your brother and Zeiram were involved, and that you should have destroyed the Argus materials before Anton stole them from you. Had you done what I recommended, we would not be in this predicament. But now we are, and retreating is the best option available."

"There will be no retreat!" Slapatcha shouted, punctuating each word with a fist on the table. "We will stay here to the bitter end! You forget, I'm in charge here! You work for me, and you'll do what I say!"

Springer squared her shoulders, facing Slapatcha in open defiance. "Hardly. I have never worked for you. I have always worked for myself. It just turned out that our goals intersected with one another. Now they don't. I will be leaving now."

"No, you won't." Slapatcha's hand moved to a button located at the edge of his desk and pushed it. Instantly, he was surrounded by a shimmering energy shield. A second later, from below and above his desk, a translucent plasti-armor slammed into place, sealing him off in every direction. From the edge of his desk, the one pointing toward the door, a number of energy weapon barrels popped into view. All of them pivoted to aim directly at the woman between the desk and the door.

There was no indication of panic in Springer's posture. No reaction whatsoever from the appearance of the weapons, and that they were all pointed at her. Instead her emotionless brown eyes locked on to Slapatcha's own. "I wouldn't do that if I were you." Her voice was steady, and the recommendation as casual as a waiter offering a particular wine with a meal.

"But you're not me." Slapatcha pointed out, then hit the button again. The flash from the energy weapons was so bright, he reflexively closed his eyes as flashes of crimson and azure filled the air.

When his eyes opened again, Springer was no longer standing. Even being seated at the desk, her body could be seen lying on the floor, melted in half by the weapons. A different button was pushed, and the weapons retracted into their concealed housing. A moment later, the two types of shields disappeared.

He rose from his desk, walking around the edge to stand next to the body. Emotionless eyes looked down at the melted form.

"Actually, I am, now," he said in a flat voice. "Congratulations on discovering why I'm called Springer."

Moving away from the body that once housed her mind, Springer went back to the desk and used its comlink to order the emergency shuttle to prepare for departure. Losing the old body was inconvenient. She had rather liked it, and it was female, but using Slapatcha's would have its advantages, at least in the near future. And he had brown eyes. It was always annoying when Springer took over a body that didn't have brown eyes to start with, since they always changed to that color when she took over. That was the only side-effect of the body jumping, and one that could not be circumvented. But it was ultimately a minor detail. And Springer had no intention of keeping Slapatcha's body for long. It was too close to the end of its natural lifespan for Springer's taste. Her personal preference was for something in early to mid-twenties, brown-eyed, and definitely female.

Being one of Slapatcha's key aides meant knowing where many of his emergency funds were stashed. It would be a simple matter to move the funds into accounts only Springer knew about, before the inevitable fall of YSC became reality. Also she would be able to go anywhere Slapatcha could, and could use his authority to set up a base of power for the next identity Springer would assume.

It was too bad Slapatcha lacked the sensibility to listen to Springer's advice regarding the Zeiram matter. She had become excited this time around. YSC had been in a position that made taking down the 3WA, and its damned Central Computer, a realistic possibility. But no, the man had been a fool in the end, and another opportunity had been lost as his corporation was about to come apart at the seams.

Still, Springer could afford to be patient. After all, she had all the time in the world.

Anton doubted he'd ever become used to the tremendous thunder produced every time the Chilsean 400 belched out another round. It wasn't as though he could cover his ears with a helmet on, and the sound muffling equipment was being taxed to its fullest. Standing a handful of meters away from the blasts only added to the reverberations pounding on his skull. Zeiram seemed unaffected by the noise as he pumped off another round at some target out of Anton's sight. Truly the creature was meant to be a divine sword of retribution. Nothing could sway it from Anton's course either.

Resistance was unexpectedly stiff. Five times now they had encountered troops that were organized and heavily armed. Zeiram had blown past all of them, of course, but even his durable body had been damaged in each encounter. Luckily he could regenerate from any wound, and he wiped out each group with his superior firepower before they could injure him badly enough to make him stop before they reached their destination.

Such resistance was far more than Anton had anticipated. Either the troops were trained to be the best (unlikely since orbital platforms were not the sort of place where much action took place) or Anton's arrival had been expected. He found it difficult to believe his brother would have anticipated his attack, the man was efficient but unimaginative, meaning someone close to him had successfully guessed where he would strike next. Anton hoped they hadn't the foresight to do anything to the mass driver. Destroying it was unlikely, since it wouldn't be cost efficient. However they might have moved it if they had enough time.

A quick look at the schematics of the platform indicated they were directly outside the chamber that housed the mass driver. That might explain why Zeiram was using so many shots to wipe out the defenders here. This was the last line of defense.

More anxious than before, Anton waited impatiently. There was no longer any return fire in Zeiram's direction, hopefully a sign that the last of the defenders had been finished off. Looking his pawn over, Anton saw that Zeiram had suffered more wounds here than from any of the earlier engagements. He bled from his chest in several areas and a great deal of fluid poured from one of its legs. Even the brim of his head had been nicked by a shot, causing the white face to howl in pain. Now it was silent as both sets of eyes surveyed the scene before them. Satisfied by what it saw, Zeiram moved forward.

Anton breathed a sigh of relief. He went around the corner to see the typical destruction Zeiram left in its wake. It was difficult to judge how many men had been here, since many of the bodies had been reduced to little more than mists of red. More telling injuries had been dealt to the platform itself. Giant gaping wounds had been left in the wall and flooring, forcing Anton to walk carefully to avoid ripping his suit on debris or falling through to the other level.

"Get rid of that gun. It's too powerful, and I don't want to risk damaging the mass driver with a stray shot," Anton ordered.

Zeiram discarded the huge weapon, damaging the floor further. He walked over to a tripod mounted repeating laser that had fallen over in the ensuing chaos, but had miraculously escaped undamaged. Zeiram checked it over, then cradled it in his arm like a normal person would a rifle.

The pair approached a metal door large enough to admit a small tank. Unless someone had changed the schematics, beyond it was the chamber that housed the mass driver. The military had the foresight to have the weapon positioned and primed to hurl explosive projectiles into any enemy that might dare approach, sort of like a primitive cannon. It could only hope to strike the bulkiest and slowest of targets, but it had a large supply of cheap ammunition that, when used in conjunction with a standard load of missiles, could overwhelm an enemy's defense systems. That readiness for action would become useful, though not for the Danube military. Instead, it would spell their downfall.

But first the doors. Zeiram stood with the repeating laser at the ready while Anton went to the door's command pad. When Anton initially overrode the platform's computer system, one of the first set of commands sealed off the chamber the mass driver was housed in to prevent any attempts of sabotage. The pad's memory gave no indication it had been tampered with. Unless someone had been stationed inside the chamber, everything should be as anticipated.

The doors opened with a hiss. Anton remained flush with the wall and out of the line of fire of anyone that might be lurking inside, though by all rights any person who saw Zeiram standing in the doorway, gun at the ready, would fire at him first. Still, there was no sense in taking unnecessary chances.

No gunfire came from within. Zeiram walked into the chamber, waving his weapon back and forth, scanning the room for enemies. After several seconds of Zeiram not shooting at anything, or anything shooting at him, Anton entered with his hoversled in tow.

The chamber appeared exactly as it did on the schematics, right down to the position of the mass driver, which was already affixed to its turret. For all of Anton's confidence, there had been a niggling doubt that the mass driver would be here and that this had all been a trap. But no. Even if his brother had figured out Anton's destination, he hadn't time to do anything about it, other than alert the local troops. That hadn't been anywhere near enough to outwit Anton's genius. Not even close.

Anton ordered Zeiram to load the Argus Projectile while he hurried to the console and examined the readout on the driver. All the readings indicated everything was normal. He fed preprogrammed coordinates into the weapon, causing it to swivel toward the planet of Danube itself.

To be on the safe side, Anton double checked the coordinates and ran another diagnostic on the mass driver while the projectile loaded. Once more everything indicated it was in readiness. To delay the firing further was pointless. The future was about to begin.

Anton pressed the button. Even behind several inches of metal alloy, he heard the rush of air from the mass driver's tube as oxygen was hurled into space along with the projectile. Hands trembling in trepidation and delight, Anton's eyes remained fixed to the weapon's readout as it tracked the projectile's course through the short distance in space between the platform and the atmosphere. Nothing impeded the projectile's progress as it entered the atmosphere, gaining speed from gravity in addition to the velocity that it had started with courtesy of the mass driver. Even Anton was slightly astonished at how quickly the projectile cut through the atmosphere and into the planet's surface below, shattering tons of rock as it was forced deep into the earth. A quick glance at the readout transmitted from the Argus Projectile indicated it reached far beyond its minimum depth for effectiveness before the bedrock of the planet finally forced the sphere to stop. The instant it stopped moving downward, it released its liquid payload into the rock. And just like that, a planet died.

It was almost anti-climatic.

"Success!" Anton cried. Given the planet's mass, it had a little under an hour's time before the core became unstable and made a rather spectacular explosion that would tear the celestial body apart. The detonation would destroy the orbital platform as well when chunks of the planet were hurled about. A part of Anton wondered if all of the planet would be hurled into deep space, or if some would remain where it was, forming an asteroid belt that would circle endlessly in the path Danube used to occupy.

It mattered little. The first step to galactic revolution and the salvation of humanity's collective soul had been taken. Now all that was left was to steal the mass driver, fly away from the platform, and deliver his ultimatum to the galaxy. He had no doubt there would be resistance at first, but once it became evident he would annihilate anyone that dared to continue embracing those soulless corporate entities, they would change their minds soon enough. And once their eyes were opened and they understood what freedom from those amoral alliances would bring, they would embrace the deliverance Anton would bestow upon them. Truth was obvious to those who were smart enough to realize it.

Anton walked down to where Zeiram waited patiently. He smiled in satisfaction as he stood next to the towering giant. "You'll have to help move the mass driver to the hoversled. We're only going to be taking the main unit and leaving the barrel behind. It'll be easy enough to replace later on. It's the magnetic-gravity balancer and the precision components in the main unit that are damn near impossible to come by."

A sound from the open doorway alerted Anton to the presence of another. He turned and saw a woman dressed in a black body suit and covered in white armor standing in the aperture. A long double-barreled pistol was in her grip, and some sort of brightly colored substance was smeared on her chest.

It took Anton a second to place her face. "Oh yes. I vaguely remember you from the files we received when we first obtained the Zeiram cell samples. You got lucky and actually managed to disable him, with the Myce military helping you. What was your name again?"

"IR…I…A," Zeiram's voice boomed, dragging out the final vowel like a long sigh.

Anton looked at Zeiram in confusion. While it was known the creature understood languages, and been theoretically capable of speech, it had never spoken before, nor shown any desire to. Anton assumed it simply had nothing to say.

Anton shrugged off the odd behavior. He turned to Iria. "I don't care if you're functioning as some corporate stooge or are here for personal reasons, you're in the way of progress, and are about to be run over by it. If you're so eager to die, far be it from me to deny you your wishes. Kill her," he ordered Zeiram.

Zeiram remained motionless.

"I said kill her," Anton said more forcefully this time.

Zeiram's head turned, tilting downward, bringing the brim with the white face lower. Both the cyclopean red eye in Zeiram's trunk-like head and the white face embedded in the edge of his 'hat' pierced Anton with their mutual stare.

It was then a moment of epiphany struck Anton, something he had never realized until this moment. Something that chilled him to the core, making him forget even his galactic campaign.

Zeiram wasn't under his control.

Zeiram had never been under his control.

Zeiram had just been playing along, most likely because Anton had been helping Zeiram kill many others humans, just like a Zeiramoid would, save that Anton had far more intelligence and was subsequently more useful. He was content to allow Anton the illusion of control so long as it meant he could kill massive numbers of humans. But now, Zeiram had obtained a device capable of eradicating entire planets, and had proof it worked. He would not be content to allow Anton to choose worlds that would disable YSC or its fellow corporations. He would want to destroy planets with the largest populations because, well, because it was what Zeiram did.

The moment of understanding flashed in an instant, just as quickly as the white head left its housing, lashing out and burying its teeth into Anton's unprotected neck. It ripped out his jugular and a healthy amount of flesh around it. Pain that even his genius intellect had never guessed existed shot through Anton. His hand went reflexively to the wound as the white head retreated back into its housing. Anton fell to the ground, blood pouring through his fingers like a hole in a dam. Awareness left his body.

His life followed seconds later.

Iria watched the death of Anton Scorphious without blinking. She would have killed the mass-murdering madman herself, but there was a sort of perverse justice in allowing Zeiram to do it. She hoped the monster enjoyed the indulgence she had allowed him. It was the last life he would ever claim.

"We could take a moment to jaw about the good old days, but they were never really that good between us," Iria said, body tensed.

"IR…I…A," Zeiram repeated.

"That's what I thought you'd say." Deciding that to allow Zeiram one more second on this place of existence was a thousand times more generous that it was entitled to, Iria brought the pistol in her hand up at the same time Zeiram brought the repeating laser in its arms to bear.

Iria shot first as the double barreled mini-missile fired its twin payload, spewing first one, then the other, a second later.

Zeiram leaped over the first shot, displaying stunning agility for a creature its size. Iria had counted on him evading the first missile, and had aimed the second two meters above the first. Zeiram's leap took him right into the shot. The miniature missile detonated, the explosive power blowing a hole through its armored hide. Despite its injury, Zeiram brought the laser up and snapped off thirty crimson shots in the span of a second.

At the same moment Zeiram raised its weapon, Iria tossed the empty missile pistol aside as she launched a second attack, throwing an exploding bolo at Zeiram's weapon as she dodged to the side to evade his fire. It wrapped itself around the barrel even as he began shooting. When the twin weights at the end of the wire impacted with one another, they exploded, destroying the weapon and sending shrapnel into Zeiram.

Iria was quick to follow up as she regained her footing and brought twin pistols to bear. She was about to empty them into Zeiram's body when she heard the sound of movement behind her. Being in a hostile environment, she instinctively ducked behind the mass driver's console for cover as several blue lasers hit where she had been standing a moment before.

Iria risked peering around the edge. She managed a glance at three soldiers, all heavily armed, firing at her position. She was forced to duck behind the console again as they hit the spot where her face had been a second before.

"Keep pouring it on!" she heard one of them cry. These were no run of the mill troops. These men were good shots and had enough sense to keep her pinned down. One of them was most likely trying to flank her while the other two continued firing away.

There was a scream of pain that could be heard over the din of fire. It was an inhuman thing that stopped as soon as it started. The fools. They had been so concerned about her they had missed the fact Zeiram was in the room, or assumed he had been killed in the explosion of his weapon. They had dropped their guard and one of them had paid the price.

Not surprisingly, the gunfire stopped for a moment. Then it restarted in another direction. Iria cautiously poked her head around the corner in time to see the remaining two soldiers collapse from laser beams striking them in the chest. Iria turned to see that Zeiram had grabbed one of the soldiers, ripped him in half, then appropriated the man's laser rifle for his own personal use.

Iria took advantage of the distraction the soldiers had provided by firing both pistols at Zeiram. Small chunks of flesh flew off the monster's body as each shell slammed home. Iria was glad she had chosen piercing rounds rather than standards or explosives, given the damage they were inflicting.

Zeiram's reaction was to roar in pain, then pick up the torso of the man he had ripped in half. She thought he was going to use the corpse for a shield, but then learned otherwise as Zeiram activated one of the grenades on the soldier's belt and threw the torso at her. Iria had just enough time to curse and hurl herself as flat before the explosives went off around her.

The air was filled with smoke from the grenades. Zeiram paused, lacking anything to shoot at for the moment. Then came a small flurry of miniature propellers that burst forth from the cloud and flew toward Zeiram. Unable to dodge them all, he brought his arms together in front of his neck and white face. The propellers he couldn't dodge struck him, detonating on impact. Green ichor flowed from new wounds on his chest, arms, and legs, taxing his regeneration to its upper limit.

The smoke at the far side of the room cleared. Iria stood there as proud and defiant as a statue. Blood flowed from a dozen cuts from her unprotected portions. Luckily for her, the soldier's grenades were low yield stunners and shrapnel rather than high explosives. Powerful explosives rarely worked out well on spaceborne vehicles, for both the person being thrown at and the one doing the throwing. The shrapnel had bit into nearly every inch of her body, but none had hit a vital area thanks to her armor.

Rage and anger pumped adrenaline through Iria's veins, allowing her to ignore the pain that was coming in from every part of her body. She drew a glove from one of her pouches. She hit a button on it, stiffening the material, revealing it to have a metallic hide that was as hard as the armor she wore. A number of knuckle spikes lined the exterior as she donned the gauntlet. She then pulled her whip sword out with her other hand, flicking it so it went from its flexible whip state to become a rigid sharp-edged weapon.

"Let's take this up close and personal, shall we? Just like old times."

Zeiram issued a low growl. He reached overhead, behind his back. Iria waited as he pulled out from his body an object that appeared to be sword, one that was the length of his torso. It was organic-looking, and had a number of wicked edges and curves along its surface. If any of the curves dug in, Zeiram's superior strength could probably gut Iria with only a flick of the wrist.

"Even your bones can be used to kill, huh?" Iria asked.

The monster merely repeated her name, as it had done before.

"Let's do it." Iria beckoned him with her finger.

Zeiram charged forward, sword raised behind it so it could deliver a blow powerful enough to cut her in half with a single swing.

Iria drew back her sword with one hand, then formed a fist with her gauntlet as she aimed it in Zeiram's direction. The knuckle spikes shot out, all four of them impacting Zeiram in his unprotected torso. He paused in his run, looking down at the tiny pieces of metal that stuck out of his chest. While they had penetrated his skin, they had done little more than cosmetic damage. Then he noticed the tiny wires attached to each of the spikes. Wires that led to Iria's gauntlet. He roared out in anger.

"Sucker." Iria touched a stud on a box like device attached to her belt.

The device was connected to her gauntlet by a wire so slender it was nearly invisible to the naked eye, just like the wires protruding from the knuckles spikes. Five hundred thousand amps shot through the box and into Zeiram, causing it to scream in inhuman pain. The power pack's charge was instantly used up, but it did its job as Zeiram's weapon fell from its limp fingers and it fell to his knees on the ground, motionless from the damage caused to most of its internal organs.

Iria discarded the now useless powerpack and gauntlet. She kept hold of her sword, though, and brought in back in similar manner to how Zeiram had done with his seconds before. "Now you're dead!" she screamed as she charged toward the beast, intent on running her blade through both his faces.

The bounty hunter had covered only half the distance between herself and the monster when she felt something sting the back of her neck. She paused in her charge and brought her hand behind her neck, coming away with a small dart. Since she was facing Zeiram, it was impossible for the shot to have come from it. Iria turned around even as a wave of dizziness overcame her and she fell to her knees.

Iria spotted the shooter as she collapsed on her stomach. "You bastard," she slurred out, feeling as though she had emptied several bottles of Johnny Walker Fuchsia in the span of ten minutes.

"I guess I am," Killgore agreed as he came out of hiding. He discarded the dart gun and pulled his plasma canon from his shoulder, holding it at the ready. Slowly he walked forward, taking his time as he kept the gun aimed at Iria. "I have to hand it to you, frying him from the inside was a good way to take him down."

Iria limply lay on her stomach, having just enough control over her muscles to stare as evilly at her ex-husband as she ever had at Zeiram. Couldn't he at least have had the decency to let her destroy the monster before killing her?

Killgore stood over her, muzzle pointed at her face. "Don't feel embarrassed, Sunshine. It's not like it's the first time you've been lying on your stomach for me. As I recall, it was one of the more kinky positions you used to fancy."

"Go to hell," she slurred, wishing with all her might she could move just enough to kill him. Why hadn't she the sense to rig some kind of pulse detonator, so that if she died, she could have taken her killer with her?

"Someday, probably, but not today." The gun swiveled away from Iria and pointed at Zeiram. Before her muddled mind could process what was going on, it flashed three times. Iria watched in confusion as a trio of large holes formed in Zeiram's chest, knocking him flat and causing him to bellow out in further pain.

"Had to make sure he's disabled. I'd rather not put my faith in just a bit of electricity," Killgore offered in explanation as he stepped over Iria's fallen form and approached the fallen creature.

Words wouldn't come to Iria. Not from the drug coursing through her body, but because of Killgore's actions. Why drug her if he was going to kill Zeiram anyway? It made no sense. He bore no personal grudge against the creature. He should have been content to let her kill the monster, then kill her himself and claim he had dispatched Zeiram and claim the reward. No one would have been able to refute his story.

"Don't die on me yet," Killgore said enigmatically to the monster. He slung his cannon over his shoulder and pulled out a cylindrical object that resembled a high-tech syringe with a computer display on the side to monitor the contents. It was then Iria understood what was happening.

Killgore bent down, attached the syringe to the open wound, and waited a second. He then pulled back, looking at the computer display at the side. "Good." He put the item back in his belt, pulled the cannon from his shoulder once again, then pulled the trigger three times right into the trunk where Zeiram's cyclopean red eye was located. The shots blew the trunk completely apart, severing the mushroom-shaped top from the rest of the body.

"That takes care of that." Killgore turned from the remains and walked over to Iria once more. He patted the syringe at his side. "As you might have guessed, this was the little bonus me and the late Dane were talking about. Zeiram's cells are going to make me wealthier than even I dreamed possible."

"He can't be controlled," Iria insisted.

Killgore shrugged. "It isn't going to stop people from believing they can, though, and as long as they are willing to pay through the nose for it, who am I to complain?"

"You've never changed," Iria growled. As she did so, she became aware of the fact her thoughts were less hazy and her muscles slowly seemed to be coming around. If she could keep Killgore distracted long enough she might have a chance to turn the tables on him. All she needed was time.

All traces of humor left Killgore suddenly as looked sadly down upon his ex-wife. "You know, this is the hardest thing I've ever done. I don't want to kill you, Iria. I really don't. But I can't see any other way around it."

"I could reconsider your earlier offer," Iria suggested.

Killgore shook his head. "Nice try, but you meant what you said, and I don't blame you. I guess I didn't do much to earn your trust. I was serious, though. If you had accepted, I would have worked around all these problems. Hell, I probably would have turned my back on getting the Zeiram cells."

"Spoken like a true romantic," Iria slurred deliberately. Much of her muscle control had returned, and the rate of it was increasing. Another minute, and she might be able to take him. If his guard was down.

"It is for me. I know I can't lie about this anymore. You can see I'm telling the truth, can't you?"

"Yes," Iria admitted. The fact he was stalling on pulling the trigger was proof enough of that. For just a moment, she wondered what life would have been like had he proved a more honest person, and she a little less hot headed, at least when it came to him. That was the problem when passion mixed with betrayal. Some things could never be forgiven, and even lying to oneself was an impossibility.

Killgore suddenly became less pensive and hefted the gun up. He aimed right at Iria's face. "The drug should be wearing off any second now. I know you've been faking how much it's affecting you. You're too good to expect anything less. I've been trying to figure some way out for both of us, but nothing's coming to mind."

"Can I say one last thing?" she asked.

The gun never wavered. "Go ahead."

Iria looked upon him with fondness, the first since their meeting each other once again. "I really did love you once. That's why I hope you'll believe me when I say your life depends upon this: look out behind you."

Killgore turned, trying to bring his gun up to fire, but the now flying disc that had been attached to the top of Zeiram's head was too close. All Killgore could do was keep his rifle between it and the dozens of tentacles that had sprouted from the underside of the discus shaped part of the monster.

"God, you're hard to kill!" Killgore shouted as he kept the tentacles at bay. He could see them squeezing around the cannon, but they lacked the strength to crumple the metal. Obviously this remaining part of Zeiram wasn't anywhere near as powerful as the main body. It would be easy to kill, if he could get the barrel of his weapon aimed in the right spot.

Killgore continued fending off the tentacles, trying to formulate a plan. If he could keep it back with one arm, he could free his sidearm and fire into its underside. Surely that was weaker than the exterior part. Or maybe stuff a grenade in it. Or he could—

A blade emerged from his chest, piercing his heart as it drove through his body, killing him instantly.

"You're right. There is no way out for both of us." Iria said, saddened by the necessity of the action. She didn't let her sorrow slow her down as she pulled the blade out and brought it back to impale Zeiram the same way she had her ex-husband.

Zeiram flew out of the sword's range, abandoning its grip on the weapon and flying backward. Iria was quick to pick up the abandoned plasma cannon and tried lifting it. The weapon was terribly heavy, and she was still weakened by the drug. She aimed it as best as she could and fired.

The first shot nearly took Zeiram in its underbelly. The beast changed its pattern, flying on its side and presenting the smallest target profile it could in Iria's direction. Despite its evasive maneuvers and her inability to aim the heavy weapon accurately, she managed to crease its top on a near miss. The white head roared out in pain as the plasma burned away its skin, leaving a trail of blood to fall through the air as it darted around.

Iria growled in triumph at beating the odds and wounding her foe. Her delight was short-lived as Zeiram came in low on its side, parallel to her. She fired again, but the shot missed, and the edge of its disc hit her squarely in the body, sending her flying away from the cannon.

The bounty hunter regained her footing, only to be struck from behind in the back of the knees, nearly breaking her legs as she was thrown in the air and landed hard on her back. This time she was prevented from rising as the underside of Zeiram's top came at her, stopping above her as its tentacles emerged and started to wrap themselves around her body. The white head came out of its protective housing, snarling at her. She barely raised her arm up in time to prevent it from sinking its teeth into her throat. It bit hard into the armor, piercing the metal without breaking a single tooth. It continued trying to exert enough pressure to break through and devour her flesh. As it did so, Iria could feel the rest of it trying to pull her into its remaining body, intent on absorbing her as it did Gren so many years ago.

The action momentarily confused Iria. This was the exact same tactic it had tried during their climatic battle in the Stardust Desert, an attack she had overcome. Worse for it, it had let its head out to attack her, leaving it vulnerable. She had already proved she could concentrate enough to ignore the euphoric effect of the absorption attack, so why was it intent on trying it again?

And then the answer occurred to her. When YSC had secured the Zeiram cells, they had been salvaged from the fight on Myce, not in the desert where the body had been burned to ashes. This Zeiram was unaware that she had defeated him in this manner before.

For the first time since learning of Zeiram's resurrection, Iria truly felt she had the upper hand. By now the tentacles had wrapped themselves around everything below her breasts, but there was one weapon left at her disposal, the exact same one that had administered Zeiram's deathblow before. She reached back in her hair for her concealed bead knife…

…And discovered it wasn't there. She felt through her hair for it, but it was gone, probably falling out somewhere during her many battles on the platform. Now panic overwhelmed her. The cannon was out of reach, she couldn't force her way past the tentacles to get any of her belt weapons, and she could feel the wrist the monster had clamped in its teeth threatening to break under its pressure.

Iria tried punching the white head with her free hand, but her blows were ineffectual. Then she was in too much pain to think as her wrist finally snapped. The creature released its grip, allowing Iria to bring the injured limb out of the fray. But now the head was rearing back, and even if she managed to get her uninjured hand between it and her throat, it would only be a matter of time before it broke that one, then she'd be finished.

The head coiled upward like a snake, preparing to descend again, even as Iria felt more of her body drawn further into Zeiram. Now it was a race against time, either death by absorption or by having her throat ripped out. She wagered the head would win, though she'd go down fighting to the very last instant, like Gren had.

Then Iria saw a flash of movement from behind the white head as something came into view from over the top of Zeiram. A feminine battle cry reached the bounty hunter's ears as the point of a blade suddenly appeared through the mouth of the white head of Zeiram. It couldn't cry out, and instead just writhed in agony as the blade traveled down the length of the neck, all the way down into the creature's brim. All but severed in two, Zeiram gurgled one last death rattle, then fell limply to the ground. Almost instantly the skin withered like a weed pulled from the ground and left under the sun for a day. Iria recognized the sign immediately, having administered such a blow once before.

Zeiram was really and truly dead. This time for good.

Breathing a sigh of relief at the destruction of her foe, and that she would live to see another sunrise, Iria looked up into the face of her savior.

"Jeez, I leave you alone for a day, and look at the trouble you get into," Kei jokingly reproached.

"I had to shoot my way through a whole battle station before fighting Zeiram, you know," Iria quipped, despite the pain in her wrist, in her entire body. It was good to see Kei, and not just because she had saved Iria's life.

Kei brandished the weapon she had used to finish off Zeiram. A bead knife. The one a young Kei had lifted off Iria on Daojawan during what felt like a million years ago. The troubleshooter waved it teasingly before Iria. "Now aren't you glad you let me keep this?"

"You could have shot him," Iria contended as Kei helped lift her out from under Zeiram's remains.

"The shot might have gone through and hit you. Hand-to-hand was the only way to make sure you didn't get hurt. Besides, I know that's the way you took him out last time. I thought it would be cool if I did it the same way."

They hefted the disc of the monster off Iria at last. As the bounty hunter's body came into view, Kei managed a better look at her injuries. She winced in sympathetic pain. "Does it hurt?"

"Now that you mention it, yes. Yes it hurts a lot." Iria paused a moment to look at Zeiram's remains. "But it was worth it. It was definitely worth it."

From her position at the door, guarding them from any sneak attacks, Yuri called out, "I hate to break up the mutual admiration society meeting, but Mikael informs me that the planet below us is undergoing a bout of intense volcanic activity, which is a sure sign Argus was delivered before we got here. If we don't get off the platform now, we're going to go up along with the planet, which will be any minute now."

"Shit!" Kei cursed. "I can't believe of all the stupid luck."

"What is it?" Iria asked. " Do you have friends down there?"

""No, that's not it," Yuri said.

"We're going to get blamed for another planet getting destroyed!" Kei completed her partner's line of thinking, one they had engaged in far too often for their liking.

Bob's computerized image suddenly appeared on Iria's wrist communicator. "Unless you want to blow up with the planet, I suggest you get a move on. It's getting really bad down there."

"Let's move it!" Kei cried out as the trio of women headed for the nearest exit as fast as they could.

It was only ten minutes later that the Kreeper V flew out of the orbital platform's docking bay, the one it had shot its way into. By the time it cleared the bay, the destruction of Danube could be seen easily from orbit. Bright red lines indicated where the planet was coming apart at its tectonic plates. Sensing the imminent destruction, Bob hit the Kreeper V's afterburners, more intent on removing themselves from immediate orbit and risking overheating the ship's primary engines rather than playing it safe and being blown up.

The group was in such a hurry, they failed to notice the one-person snub fighter that left the docking bay just as they began heading into deep space. The fighter ignited its own afterburners, fleeing the platform just as quickly as they did.

Two minutes later, the planet Danube exploded. A sizable section of one of the plates, about half the size of one of its five continents, struck the platform, destroying it instantly.

"I told you we were going to burn out the primary engines," Yuri said in a singsong voice.

"Better than getting vaped with the planet," Kei countered.

"But we're going to be stuck in deep space for at least five days before we make it back to Xyphos 13."

"We have enough food," Iria assured them as Mikael tended her wounds.

"YV-Rations." Mikael made a face at the prospect of eating the only food stored on the ship.

"I like them," Kei insisted.

"They look like bugs," Yuri said, her face matching Mikael's.

"But they taste like good bugs," Kei countered.

"The first time I met Kei, she ate my entire stock of them," Iria said, able to laugh without discomfort thanks to the painkillers her son had loaded her with.

Kei shrugged. "Hey, I was a street orphan. Sifting through a restaurant's garbage was my idea of fine dining."

"So that's where your awful taste in food comes from," Yuri said.

"I got a perfectly fine taste in food."

"I doubt if you can taste much of anything considering how drunk you usually get at any meal."

"You're just jealous because I have a tolerance, unlike you, Miss 'Three Cooler Yuri' ."

"Three Cooler?" Mikael asked.

"It's a nickname she picked up at some of the office parties. It's because she gets drunk on just three wine coolers," Kei teased.

"Better than being known as 'Kei the Kegger'," Yuri teased back.

"I did outdo myself that time," Kei said proudly.

"Sounds like we'll have a lot of stories to share on the long trip back," Mikael said.

Iria considered that. "Speaking of which, since we are going to be in here several days, and this ship is designed for no more than two people, we're going to have to do things in shifts, including using the sleeping compartment."

Kei and Mikael looked at each other. As one they said, "We'll be on the same shift."

Iria shot them a level look. "I think not."

Mikael said, "Oh, so you think I'd be better off sleeping with Yuri?"

"I have no objections," Yuri smiled warmly at him.

"Well I do," Kei said frostily.

Iria looked at everyone reproachfully. "The choice is obvious. The best way to keep problems from arising is if Mikael sleeps at the same time I do."

Mikael rolled his eyes. "No way!"

Iria looked hurt. "You used to sleep in bed with me all the time."

"When I was three!"

"I really don't mind sleeping with Mikael," Kei insisted.

"Which is the problem," Yuri pointed out. "Everyone will have to use the sheets and it's not like they can be washed."

"Who said we'd need the bed for that?" Kei whispered under her breath.

Iria crossed her arms defiantly. "There is no way you two are sleeping in the same bed under my roof at this time."

Mikael sounded as exasperated as a child can be with their parent as he contended, "You know, Kei and I are mature enough to have a platonic relationship."

"Yeah," Kei said in agreement.

"Kei?" Yuri asked.


"Do you know what platonic means?"

"Ah, no."

"I knew it," Yuri said defiantly.

Iria gave her son speculative glare, "Just because you can say the word doesn't mean you can actually have anything to do with it."

The argument continued on for several hours.

Corporal Adelpha Christophe looked out the canopy of the fighter she was currently flying. She had barely escaped the destruction of her homeworld, which she had witnessed as it exploded mere minutes behind. It was only a combination of luck, speed and skill that enabled her to dart behind Danube's largest moon to evade the shockwave that had traveled through space, destroying everything in its path. Once it had passed, and she ascertained the planet was truly destroyed, she took the only option left for her. There was a small military base stationed on the planet Sevios. It was more an outpost than anything else, but it was the nearest in-system port for her, and they had communication systems that could reach the nearest habitable planet and get a relief force to save them.

Adelpha had no immediate family on Danube, they had emigrated to Neophon last year, luckily. She had lost her friends, but none of them were too close to her. Everyone could sense she wasn't cut out for military service, and resented being in it. That made her standoffish toward her comrades, and barely stomached by any of them. She had been counting the days until her tour of duty was up.

Then came the general alarm and the today's business on the platform. She had been one of the few lucky enough to get her rebreather on in time before the somna gas had knocked out everyone. She had been wandering the corridors, trying to figure out what was going on, when she stumbled on the carnage in mass driver room. She had overheard the tall, handsome man talking to the woman. Then she saw the ensuing fight between them and that weird flying disc with the face on it. She was just about to retreat (it wasn't like it was her fight) when she heard the sound of people coming up behind her. She played dead as the two 3WA agents ran past her and helped kill the weird monster. And she had overheard them talking about the planet about to be destroyed.

Adelpha knew she wasn't capable of saving a planet. It was going to take everything she had to save her skin. She waited until the others left, and was about to head to the docking bay, when she recalled something the big man had said. Taking a chance, she raced into the room, found what she had been looking for, and ran out again, getting to the fighter and taking off just in time.

Leaving the fighter on auto-pilot, Adelpha removed the object from her pocket and looked it over. The small cylinder with these 'Zeiram cells' was the key to making Adelpha rich. It was only a matter of finding someone interested in them and selling them, then she'd be set for life.

It seemed every cloud really did have a silver lining.


Author's notes: Wow! It's finished. Who would have thought it would take, oh, what was it? Five years or so to finish this story. Sorry it took me so long, but I kept at it until what you have here is the end. Thanks to all those who stuck with it to the end. I really appreciate it.

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