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Chapter 6
By D.B Sommer

 

At last. Enjoy:

Should Old Acquaintance Be Forgot
Chapter 6

A Dirty Pair, Iria: Zeiram the animation crossover.

Any and all C+C appreciated. You can contact me at:
sommer@3rdm.net

Standard Disclaimer:
I disclaim I own any of the Dirty Pair characters or the folks from Iria:
Zeiram, the Animation

All of my stuff is now stored at:


xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

"Husband?" The word was barely able to slip past Kei's lips.

In answer to the question, Killgore puffed up his chest. "That's right. I'm
Iria's-"

"EX-HUSBAND, YOU ASSHOLE!" The gun was now quivering in her hand. "We've
been divorced for over sixteen years!"

Killgore shrugged with an obvious lack of concern over Iria's distress.
"Technicalities, Sunshine."

Standing off to the side, Kei was still trying to process the information.
Having little luck with the effort, she turned to give Iria a wide-eyed
look. "You were married and you didn't tell me?"

That question helped the bounty hunter regain a better control over her
emotions. "It's not exactly something I'm proud of. Believe me, I try
everything I can to forget about it. Most of the time I'm pretty successful
too."

"But it's still a fact," Killgore assured her. "No matter what mistakes we
might have made, we were husband and wife, Sunshine."

"Stop calling me that!" Iria snapped as she lowered her gun.

Killgore appeared offended at the order. "But it's such a cute nickname. You
never used to complain about it. It just... suited you somehow, the way you
looked so radiant in the afterglow of our lovemaking. Just like a ray of
sunshine."

"Believe me, every day's a rainy day when you're around." Iria holstered her
weapon, but that seemed to be the only concession she made in allowing his
presence so near to her own. She continued making her feelings towards him
clear as her gaze practically bored holes through him. But then, suddenly
and inexplicably, she smiled. Both Kei and Killgore tensed up at the
unexpected, and unwarranted, change in attitude.

Grinning even more broadly, Iria asked in honeyed tones, "So, what are you
doing here, Lance?"

Kei picked up on how she emphasized the last word. Uncertain of what to make
of it, she remained silent as a pained expression grew on Killgore's
features.

"Hey now, Iria. There's no need to be like that," the man insisted.

"Like what?" Kei asked, missing whatever was now passing between the former
spouses.

"Yes. Like what, Lance?" Iria teased.

Killgore's composure finally broke, though only by a very slight degree.
"Damn it, woman! You know I hate that name."

That caused Kei to give Killgore a baffled look. "Why? Isn't that your
name?"

Seeming to fully notice Kei for the first time, Killgore turned and
unleashed a smile upon her that actually made her heart beat slightly
faster. It was the first time she reacted that way to a man's attention in
what felt like an eternity. "It is, but I prefer being called Eugene."

That shook Kei out of her stupor. "Why? Lance sounds much better than
Eugene." A lot better. She always pictured 'Eugene's as nerdy eggheads that
got high marks in school and ruined the grading curve for everyone else,
like her. Actually, almost everyone else tended to ruin the grading curve
for her. But those were the worst of the lot.

The opinion made Killgore shake his head vigorously. "No way. It makes me
sound like some pathetic holo action hero or something. I only let other
people call me Killgore for business reasons, since the name seems to work
well in attracting potential clients. Natural advertising, in a way, I
guess." He shrugged at the idea, seeming to consider it a necessary evil.

Their discussion of the merits of Killgore's name was interrupted as eight
men burst into the room from the same doorway the large man had entered.
They carried a diversity of powerful weapons that was matched only by the
variety of their outfits, ranging from neutral grays and browns, to a bright
yellow that looked more appropriate on a banana than a human being. As they
entered, they reacted with well-trained precision and aimed their weapons at
Kei and Iria. The redhead cursed her inattention and brought her gun up to
point at the newcomers. Iria did the same.

"Wait!" Killgore shouted at the men, who instantly responded to his command.
"These are allies. They've already infiltrated the target area and have
begun a mop up operation." He turned to Iria and Kei. "Do you have any other
comrades in the building?"

Deciding Iria's anger probably made her a poor representative for dealing
with all of these newcomers, Kei decided to act as spokeswoman. "Just one.
Her name's Yuri. She's a troubleshooter like me. She's about my height, has
black hair, and wears the same kind of outfit that I have." Kei then quickly
added. "She's not as attractive or in as good a shape as me though."

Killgore gave her a surprisingly charming smile as he looked her over, his
eyes lingering over certain areas for an extra moment. "Now that, I find
very easy to believe."

A low growl issued from Iria. Kei saw that the muscles in her face were
twitching madly and she was fingering the butt of her holstered pistol
again.

The growl was joined by a snort of derision from one of the newcomers. Of
all the men in the room, his outfit was easily the most fashionable, even
more tasteful then Killgore's. It was immaculate, mostly white with deep red
along the center of the torso and shoulders, traveling down the front of the
legs and reaching towards stylish black boots. The footwear was possibly the
same brand as Killgore's though a great deal smaller, as though the man had
very dainty feet. He was about even height with Kei and slender, with flaxen
brown hair that traveled down his back in a wave that made Kei react in
envy. The troubleshooter noted that he too was handsome, though in a very
different manner from Killgore. Where the big man was all mass and virility,
the newcomer was lean and trim, almost effeminate, though not in an
unattractive way.

Gracefully, he almost seemed to flow as he moved next to Killgore and gave
Kei a firm visual examination as well. Unlike Iria's ex-husband, he seemed
very unimpressed. The redhead decided that in spite of how attractive he
was, she didn't care much for him. Besides, bishonen guys were always a
turnoff for her. She wanted a real man with meat on his bones that knew how
to have a good time, not those frail pretty boys Yuri seemed to prefer.

"I'll notify the other men so they don't accidentally shoot the little
tart," the man said, sounding as though he couldn't care less if they did
empty a few blasts into her. "I trust you'll do the same?" he asked Kei.

Giving a growl that was almost as angry as Iria's had been earlier, Kei
reached up to her earring, the communications device that she shared with
Yuri. She gave her partner a quick summery of what had happened and what to
expect.

Once that was taken care of, Killgore gave his partner a disappointing look.
"See here, Cross. These are our friends. Don't go insulting them."

Cross gave Killgore an exasperated look that lasted all of a moment.
Turning, he bowed deeply before each woman. "I apologize for my behavior. I
reacted reflexively when I saw my commander in danger." His words might have
said one thing, but the manner in which he said them indicated another.

As he came up from his bow, Kei noticed something odd about him. In the
space below his right eye and next to his nose were what she thought at
first were moles, but upon closer inspection proved to be a trio of tiny
tattoos. Each one resembled a teardrop. The first was scarlet. The second
purple. And the third black.

"You're a Samisdat," Kei said softly as she reacted automatically to the
perception that her life was in danger. As a member of the 3WA she was
familiar with the Samisdat Assassins reputations, what little there was.
Details were sketchy, outside that they were reputed to be among the top
assassins in the galaxy, taking a minimum of two million credits for a hit,
and having no openly acknowledged failures to date. And that each member
bore a trio of teardrop tattoos under the right eye in the order of scarlet,
purple and black. No one knew where they were headquartered, how many there
were, how they were recruited, who led them, or any other meaningful
information. All that truly existed of them were a host of wild, vague
rumors, none of which were ever proven true.

Even hiring them was mysterious. Rumor had it if someone wanted to hire a
Samisdat, they needed to let word filter through the inter-galactic
underworld. The one making the request would be approached if the assassins
were interested in the contract. Kei knew of at least a dozen attempts by
the 3WA to lure one into a trap, but none of them had come close to
succeeding.

It was true that people with such tattoos had been incarcerated by law
enforcement agencies across the galaxy, none of them had ever been
successfully connected with the Samisdat, even upon those occasions where
the less scrupulous agencies used drugs, mind probes, or torture to gain a
confession. The few that 'confessed' were quickly proven as not being part
of the Samisdat, usually by the fact they held normal jobs or were far too
inexperienced and sloppy to be a professional assassin.

Cross laughed at the accusation. "Don't be silly. The Samisdat are a myth.
Like the Murder Cabal the Kai Pirates are reputed to possess. As a 3WA
troubleshooter, I would think you'd know better than to believe in tales of
bogeyman."

"How long have you had those tattoos?" Kei asked.

Cross fingered them, as though to remind himself they were there. "I got
them when I was young. I don't even remember exactly. I have several others
as well, though they're in places I'm afraid you'll never see, Dearie."

That confirmed it for Kei. Anyone not of the Samisdat getting the tattoo
most likely would have bragged about it, but this man dismissed it casually
in afterthought, as though it were a matter of no consequence. There was
also the way he carried himself, seeming at ease, yet giving out an aura of
that hinted at potential violence. Only Kei's trained eyes picked up on the
subtle signs that indicated he was ready for action, despite his seemingly
at ease posture.

"You're being paranoid," Killgore assured Kei, trying to defuse the
situation. "I could never afford to pay Cross a million credits for each
person he's killed. I'd have to own a major corporation instead of working
for one."

Iria looked at Killgore. "You were hired by YSC?"

"Surely you didn't think this was a recreational visit?" Killgore smiled
smoothly at his ex-wife the entire time.

The response seemed to stoke the flames of Iria's anger almost as high as
before. "No. You never did anything for recreation. It was always
professional to you."

Again Killgore seemed hurt by the accusation. "Aw, come on. You're being
unfair here. I always did fun things with you. I think you're having a bad
case of rewriting history."

"The hell I am, you sleazy, rotten, bucket of sh-"

"Ahem!" Cross interrupted, breaking up pleasant exchange of ideas between
the duo. Once he had their attention, he addressed Killgore. "As much as I'm
sure you'd like to reminisce about 'the good old days', we do have a mission
to accomplish first."

"Of course." Killgore snapped his fingers. In response, two members of the
squad, one of them bearing a portable computer, moved quickly forward and
began hooking it up to the main computer in the room.

"Wait a second!" Iria protested. "This is a crime scene that is under the
jurisdiction of the 3WA. You can't just barge in and take it over."

"Ah, she is right," Kei said, though reluctantly. She found herself not
wanting to do anything to upset the handsome fellow, even if he was Iria's
ex-husband.

"True, but since this is a privately owned YSC facility, and as duly
authorized agents of YSC, we are entitled to conduct our own investigation
concurrent with yours. Unless there is an outstanding reason as to why we
shouldn't be present."

"How about the fact your a backstabbing untrustworthy asshole?" Iria
offered.

"That's an opinion, and one you can't prove," Killgore countered. He turned
to Kei. "Of course we'll be more than happy to share all of our discoveries
with you. And it does look like we're better equipped to retrieve and
analyze the information than you are right now."

Kei saw Iria shake her head ferociously. Kei was about to say no when
Killgore unleashed that devastating smile again. "Sure, why not?"

Kei noticed Iria's scowl increase by a factor of five. That really wasn't
fair. How could Kei say no to such a handsome... or rather how could she
refuse a request by an official agent of YSC who was doing nothing to hamper
their investigation, and actually was helping it along quite nicely? It
would have been unprofessional, and Iria's perceptions were probably being
clouded by the relationship she had once had with Killgore. And there was
still the outstanding question as to how Iria had let such a handsome guy go
in the first place?

Kei was still deliberating that question when Yuri entered the room to
rendezvous with her companions, satisfied Killgore's men had the rest of the
mop up well in hand. "Hey, guys. Are you two all right? I had a close...
why, hello there." Yuri gave a saccharine sweet smile as her eyes fell upon
Killgore for the first time.

"Hello yourself," the tall man said. "I'm Eugene Killgore."

"My ex-husband," Iria chimed in before he claimed they were still married
again.

"How did you let this one get away"? Yuri almost cooed.

"I was thinking the same thing," Kei blurted out

"Once you get to know him, it's surprisingly easy," Iria assured Yuri while
shooting yet another disapproving glare towards Kei.

Suddenly feeling annoyed at her partner's behavior, and the fact Yuri was
not getting glared at, Kei spoke up. "Get a hold of yourself, Yuri. We are
in the middle of an investigation."

"But luckily we've been hired by YSC to conduct an investigation into this
matter as well and would be more than happy to give you any assistance,"
Killgore added, not taking his eyes off Yuri.

"But you can get rid of him for getting in our way," Iria reminded her.

"Oh, I think Mr. Killgore could be very useful in this investigation," the
dark-haired troubleshooter assured her.

The not so subtle hint in that statement made both Iria and Cross roll their
eyes. It made Kei irritated as well, largely in part because she hadn't
thought of it first. Yuri was rapidly becoming dangerous by being hitting so
brazenly on guys that she had just met, even if it was one as handsome as
Killgore.

Cross's head jerked slightly as he closed his eyes and seemed to allow his
attention to drift. A moment later, he said, "Ramses indicates the facility
is one hundred percent under our control again. The remaining six intruders
have been liquidated."

"No prisoners?" Kei asked, marking that Cross evidently had at least some
cybernetic additions to his person, and given his apparent choice of
careers, it would probably be safe to assume he had more than a transmitter
surgically implanted in his auditory canal. Though due to his slender form,
it was obvious none of the additions would be heavy weapons. Still,
professional assassins tended to be known for precision, not ungodly
firepower. Such an attitude was almost an anathema to Kei's sensibilities.
One could never have too much firepower.

"The report indicated they fought to the death. A pity. Having one to
interrogate would have proven useful," Cross informed them.

Kei noted that he sounded disappointed at the loss, though it seemed more at
the lack of survivors and not being able to handle an interrogation. She
also noted that Killgore's butt looked really nice as she moved around
slightly to get a better view of it.

One of the men checking the master computer announced, "It's been wiped
completely clean, Major."

"Major?" Iria asked. "Someone was stupid enough to let you in charge of
someone else?"

"My official rank given to me when I served with the Angorlon Armed Forces
during the Bolshen Revolution five years ago," Killgore explained with
pride.

"Heard that was nasty business," Kei whistled through her teeth. Official
death toll was placed at a billion, but investigations implied that it was
closer to five.

"It was," Killgore assured her. "Paid well though."

"Good pay was always a replacement for what few morals you might have
possessed," Iria said acidly.

As fascinating as Killgore was to Yuri, she returned her attention to the
business at hand. She walked over to the man using the computer. "Let me
check." She leaned well forward, allowing the man a good look at her bust.
Years of training had taught Yuri that there were ways other than bribes to
secure a man's cooperation with a minimum of fuss.

Despite the obvious interest he had in the sight before him, the man waited
until he received a nod from Killgore. He then turned the computer over to
Yuri. Her hands tapped across the keypad quickly. "Yep. It's a goner all
right. They used some powerful wipers too. No chance of retrieving
anything."

Iria looked to the miniature computer on her wrist. "Think it's worth a
try?"

"Unlikely," Bob admitted. "If both of them say it's gutted, I doubt there's
anything I can do. I do have limits, you know."

Bob's voice caught Killgore's attention. "So you're still functioning, eh
Chips?"

"Drop dead," Bob retorted.

Kei heard more anger in that voice than she could ever remember. Usually
with people that irritated him, Bob would make at least a joke or some
caustic remark about them. It was a surprise that he would be so blunt with
someone, even Iria's ex-husband.

"Chips?" Yuri asked.

"Short for Microchips," Killgore explained in a voice that held almost as
much affection for Bob as the computer intelligence carried for him. "As
useful as ole' Chips was, I'm surprised he hasn't been hit with a fatal
virus, given how outdated he is."

"I'll still be slicing through encryptions when the only crypt in our life
is the one you're rotting in," Bob swore.

For the first time since meeting him, Kei saw Killgore's temper start to
flare. Almost as quickly the moment passed and he became apologetic. "Let's
try to get along here. After all, we're working together."

"Not for one second longer than we have to," Iria assured him.

"So what do we have?" Kei finally asked.

At that point Cross spoke up, "From all appearances, these men were sent to
destroy this facility, kill all personnel, and purge the central database of
all its information. They have nothing on their person to imply they were
keeping the information for themselves, nor did they transmit anything as we
would have picked up it up while we were on our way down to the planet.
Evidence indicates they were professionally trained, quick, efficient, and
knew exactly what they wanted and where it was. My offhand guess is that
this was an S+D mission with detailed inside information, and that it was
accomplished. No bonus this time, Major."

"Damn!" Killgore swore. "Any way of knowing who they were?"

Cross considered that. "I'm sure our new 'partners' could try to backtrack
the weapons registration and identities of these assailants using their 3WA
resources. But my gut instinct tells me the weapons will have been
registered as being 'lost' from wherever they originated from, if they show
up at all, and that these people have no connection to one another or
whomever they work for, assuming they show up either. They smell like a
black ops outfit. I could be wrong, but..." he let the implication trail
off.

"Shit!" Iria suddenly cursed. She looked to Kei and Yuri. "If he didn't hit
here, like we thought he was going to, then he must have hit Baltron. We
have to get there right away!"

"We'll be too late," Yuri reminded her.

"But if there was an incident, the authorities should have been ready to
handle it with the warning we sent," Kei reminded the duo. "We might not be
too late."

"That's not a bad idea," Killgore admitted. "Why don't we join forces to
stop him?"

Iria shot him a contemptuous glance. "You don't even know what we're talking
about, you worthless piece of -"

"Zeiram," Killgore said, giving his ex-wife a flat stare.

In an instant, Iria's entire posture changed from that irritation someone
ready to engage in a fight to the death. "How do you know about Zeiram?"

"Come on, you're smarter than this. You don't think for one second that my
showing up here is a coincidence, do you Sunshine?"

Iria tensed up further. Kei placed a hand on her shoulder. The movement
caused Iria to nearly jump, unaware of just how tightly she had been wound.

"What do you know about Zeiram?" Cool professionalism had returned to Yuri.
What had been a simple investigation had not turned into an unexpected, and
potentially dangerous, situation.

The sudden change in the women's body language did not go unnoticed by the
other men, professional mercenaries all. They tensed up as the potential for
violence went from next to nothing to imminent. Everyone that was save for
Cross, who seemed as relaxed as ever.

Sensing the breakdown between the two groups, Killgore took it upon himself
to calm things down. "Why don't we make a deal? You show me yours, and I'll
show you mine." Though he was still speaking as amicably as before, the trio
of women could sense the firm resolve in his statement. The flirting was
over, at least for the moment.

"As 3WA agents, we could just arrest you for impending an investigation,"
Yuri informed him.

"And I could contend it was a guess on my part since I know Iria's history
with Zeiram and that was the only thing that could make her this agitated,"
Killgore countered. "And in the meantime, Zeiram, should my guess have been
correct, would be free to rampage about and cause even more destruction
across this part of the galaxy. No one wants that, now do we?"

"No," Kei admitted. They had worked with people on investigations before,
and Killgore and his crew seemed to know how to handle themselves, even if
they were still a largely unknown variable.

"Pooling our resources might not be a bad idea," Yuri seconded. They
desperately needed more information, and the additional firepower would not
hurt since, as it now stood, they could not get 3WA reinforcements. Still,
she would keep an eye on these unknowns. It was very likely there was more
to them that met the eye. All of her investigative instincts cried out that
one important fact.

It was Iria who expressed the only dissenting opinion. "Screw him. We don't
need whatever he thinks he's got. Let's get the hell out of here." Satisfied
at a decision having been made, Iria started to leave.

"Now hold on just a minute!" The words were authoritative and would accept
no arguments. Yuri had finally had enough of Iria trying to run things. The
benefits of an alliance were easy to see, and it wasn't as though they
currently had much information to trade. Killgore would learn next to
nothing that he probably did not already know if he really was working for
YSC. And it was not as though she and Kei were rookies that would fall into
a trap. Killgore might have been a hunk, but it took more than a handsome
face to get either one of them to drop their guard. She would be ready for
any betrayals.

Iria stopped as she could scarcely believe what she was hearing. "He's a
lying piece of shit. Even if he knows something, it's not worth risking this
bastard stabbing us in the back. We're better off without him. Now let's
go." Iria began to head out again

"No."

Iria stopped in her tracks. Had the order come from Yuri, she would have
spun in anger and restated her case. But the only feeling her ward's refusal
brought up was betrayal. "Kei?"

The look of disappointment Iria shot hurt Kei, but she firmed up her own
resolve. "Yuri's right. We can use his information, and given Zeiram's rate
of destruction, he has to be stopped quickly before he hits somewhere else.
You can't let personal feelings for Major Killgore get in the way of a sound
decision."

"I know him," Iria protested. "I'm telling you he can't be trusted."

"I just saved your life," Killgore reminded her.

"I didn't ask you to!"

"That settles it," Yuri announced. She had enough of Iria's irresponsible
attitude. It was painfully obvious the bounty hunter would never willingly
agree to work with Killgore, even if he held the cure for the intergalactic
plague. She had completely lost any objectivity in the matter. It would fall
to Yuri and Kei to hammer out the details of their alliance.

The raven-haired woman turned to the taller man. "We'll share our
information with you. If yours turns out to be useful, and we're convinced
you won't get in our way, we'll figure out some kind of compromise to work
together for at least a while."

"You're an idiot!" Iria shouted.

"She's right," Kei insisted to Iria, beating Yuri to the sharp-tongued
retort that was on her lips.

"And you're being an idiot too."

Seeing how events were unfolding, Bob finally decided to give his opinion.
"As much as I despise Lance, and am dubious about what he has to offer, we
should at least hear him out. Getting Zeiram should take precedence over
personal issues."

"You traitor!" Iria spat at her wrist computer. In many ways Bob's stance
was the worst of the lot. At least the bounty hunter could use their sixteen
year plus separation as a reason for Kei's disagreement, but Bob had been
with her the majority of her life, through the best and worst of times he
was always there. Especially during her marriage. He knew what Killgore had
done. He should have been the last one to take his side.

The bounty hunter looked away from Bob's terminal to see all eyes turned
towards her: the majority of Killgore's men regarding her like a rabid dog,
Cross with disdain, Killgore with a touch of sadness, Yuri with just a
slight hint of a smug grin, and Kei with one of expectation.

"To hell with all of you! I don't need you! I don't need anyone!" Burning
with rage, Iria tore the wrist computer from her arm, ripping the strap with
an audible tear as she hurled it to the ground. She stormed off, heading out
of the room and out of sight as quickly as she could.

All eyes followed Iria until she left. Kei was the first to react by
hurrying through the doorway after her. "I'll calm her down and make sure
she doesn't do anything rash." She rushed out in effort to catch up to her
one-time mentor.

"Make sure none of the men accidentally shoot her," Killgore told Cross as
the redhead left the room.

Cross gave him a quizzical glance. "Oh? Which 'one' are you referring to?"

Killgore's brows furrowed. "Actually, I meant both of them."

"Yes, so I assumed. But you had one in mind when you gave the order."

"Did I?" Killgore seemed to consider that. "Well now, why don't you and the
boys bet on it? Once our temporary agreement with the ladies is over, I'll
let you know who it was."

Obeying his orders, Cross gave off an exasperated sigh that held the tired
familiarity of having been delivered far too many times in the presence of
his commander.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

"Iria, wait up!" Kei shouted as she kept trying to close the distance.
Things were looking bad. Very bad. Iria had moved so quickly that she had
already made her way outside the building and was heading to an open area
surrounding the building. The local law enforcement personnel had finally
summoned enough courage, and enough armored vehicles, to approach the
building again. However, upon seeing Iria and Kei leave the structure they
went back into standby mode.

Shouting at the top of her lungs, Kei shouted to the men, "It's okay! The
building's clear of all the bad guys! We're done in there! You can go in
now!" And there hadn't even been any of the collateral damage she and Yuri
were usually responsible for. A very good mission, for a change. Except they
hadn't nailed their real target, Zeiram. And now Iria was angry as hell at
her. Kei was going to have to move quickly to patch up the damage done to
their rekindled relationship, or it might be another eighteen years until
she saw Iria again.

Finally, Iria stopped in the middle of the largest open space, looking at
the sky expectantly. It only took a moment for Kei to see why as the small
outline of a ship appeared from the direction of the spaceport.

Kei caught up to Iria. Rather than confronting her face-to-face, she
remained directly behind several feet back, choosing to speak to her the
back of her head and allowing the bounty hunter the option of turning to
talk to her, "Iria, you can't do this."

Refusing to meet her gaze, Iria stated flatly, "I've worked on my own for
close to fifteen years now. I'll do just fine without you."

Every word hurt Kei worse than the thousand of curses others had used
against her by others. "Zeiram's dangerous. You can't tackle him alone.
Hell, it's going to be tough enough for just the three of us to handle him
as is."

"I killed him on my own once before." There wasn't the slightest hint of
doubt in Iria's voice as to her what course she was going to take.

"And he nearly killed you the last time you fought him, and that was after
Yuri and me got our butts kicked." Kei was beginning to panic. The Creeper V
was drawing nearer, easily identifiable now. Once Iria got on board, it
would all be over.

"We cannot team up with that... man!" Iria spat.

Kei decided to try a different approach. "Look, I know he's your ex-husband
and you've got a lot of hard feelings about him."

"I wish he was dead!"

Kei blanched slightly at the viciousness Iria was displaying. This was even
worse than the hatred she usually reserved for Zeiram. "Well, it's normal
for there to be a lot of animosity in these situations. But take a step back
and look at what's going on. Our luck gunning for Zeiram is absolute zero.
Lots of people are dying. We aren't getting any closer to stopping him, and
it might already be too late to help the people at Baltron. We haven't been
able to cut it alone. I think we can trust him enough use his help to stop
Zeiram. Once that's done, you'll never have to see him again."

"You don't understand what sort of a person he is. He can't be trusted."

The ship was starting to land, the roar of the engines making it difficult
to hear much of anything. Kei had to shout to be heard. "What did he do,
cheat on you? Treat you like an object instead of his wife? Kill someone
close to you?"

"Yes!" Iria spat, the rage as great as anything she had seen on anyone in
her life.

That struck Kei speechless. The last had been an offhand comment. She hadn't
been serious. And yet, it seemed that the wound of whoever had died was
still raw and fresh with the bounty hunter, as though it had happened hours
before instead of over a decade ago.

"How did it happen?"

The question made Iria's face contort, her anger abating ever so slightly.
"The details aren't important."

Now Kei knew she was hiding something. There was little doubt Iria was
telling the truth about Killgore killing whoever it was she had been
referring to, at least from her perception, but the details were probably
very 'important.' She'd have to grill Bob about it later. From the earlier
exchange it was obvious there was little love lost between the mercenary and
the human-turned-computer intelligence as well, but it wasn't the out of
control anger Iria displayed. And Killgore didn't seem to hold the same
regard for his ex-wife that she felt for him, otherwise why would he have
saved her from certain death? There was a lot more information Kei needed,
but it would have to wait. Keeping Iria close by was more important. Both
for the mission and for Kei personally.

The engines died off as the ship set gently upon the ground. The landing
ramp began to deploy. There was no time left. Deciding to risk everything,
Kei said in an unwavering tone, "Me and Yuri are going to team up with
Killgore; it's the best course of action to take. But I would think that if
you really believe he's as untrustworthy as you say, you'd want to hang
around to watch our... my, back."

The landing ramp touched the ground softly, barely making a noise. Iria
didn't answer, didn't even cast a backward glance at Kei as she began
walking up the ramp, slowly but with a steady pace.

Kei could feel the tears behind her eyes, but she forced them to remain
where they were, unshed. Iria was a grown woman. She could take care of
herself and, despite her emotional state, might have known what was best for
her. Besides, maybe it was some form of justice that Iria should leave Kei
alone, similar to how Kei had abandoned her so many years ago.

"I won't let him take away someone important to me again." Finally Iria
turned around to look at Kei. More firmly, she stated, "I'll be waiting for
you up in orbit. I want to be there when he talks to you. I've gotten better
at telling when he's lying. And keep your guns handy. Be ready for anything.
Believe me, the moment he thinks you're a liability, he'll drop you faster
than you can blink."

Kei felt her mouth quivering, but still she refused to cry. She was
thirty-three years old. She was well beyond that sort of childish
blubbering. If she could withstand having her both lungs punctured without
crying, she could handle Iria's decision to remain with her.

'Thank you." It was all Kei could manage. It was all she needed to say.

Iria had had her fill of words as well as she boarded the ship alone and in
silence.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

"I can't believe there was no word of an attack on Baltron," Kei told her
partner as they moved through the linking tube and boarded Killgore's ship,
the 'Destiny'. It was a large spaceship, half again the size of the Lovely
Angel and very oval in shape. Two long tubes ran along the bottom, not quite
the length of the ship, attached by several pylons each. They were a couple
of additional engines that could increase the speed of the Destiny by three
times should the need arise, though Kei was fairly certain that would only
apply to deep space. She was certain they would break off in a planet's
gravity. Having to take transports down to the surface of the planet would
be a hassle, but sometimes that was the price one paid for additional speed.

The surface itself was quite smooth, with only a giant antenna array on the
top that broke the symmetry of the vehicle. That seemed a bit peculiar as it
was much larger than should have been needed on a mercenary ship that was
outfitted for combat. Perhaps on a deep space information vessel or a luxury
freighter that could accommodate a thousand passengers it would have been
appropriate, but on the Destiny it was completely out of place.

The armor of the ship didn't look that impressive, and Kei couldn't see much
more than a couple of external missile batteries and a handful of medium
range laser canons. She'd give the Lovely Angel the clear edge in one-on-one
space combat. Not that she thought that would ever happen, Iria's protests
not withstanding. Still, it always paid to evaluate a potential enemy's
firepower.

"Maybe we guessed wrong about his next target, or maybe whoever was
controlling him realized he was being obvious about where he was going to
strike next and went for somewhere else." Yuri had made a similar assessment
to Kei's about their tentative allies ship.

"Maybe he went crazy, destroyed the spaceship, and is floating out in the
middle of nowhere destined to harm no one ever again." Kei tried to sound
hopeful, but didn't believe they'd be so lucky for an instant. They were
heading for Baltron at the moment, the three ships linked physically to one
another with the Destiny heading the course. It made the most sense since it
was the largest and had the most people. And that was where the trio of
women had agreed to meet Killgore and his people.

"We're keeping an ear out for any trouble. Muhgi will let us know if he
hears anything." Yuri paused for a moment, then decided to go for broke. "Do
you think Iria's calmed down at all?" Kei had told her of the conversation
on the planet and Iria's final relenting to at least hear what Killgore had
to say. The bounty hunter had boarded Destiny first from the linking conduit
that connected Creeper V on the opposite side of the ship.

The airlock to the Destiny opened and Kei and Yuri found two 'escorts'
waiting for them.

"Still living people on the ship. I'd have to give that a big affirmative,"
Kei said with a smile.

"What?" The smaller of the escorts asked.

"Nevermind," Yuri said hastily as they boarded. The larger of the two men
was an above average looking fellow, and there was no mistaking the leering
look he gave Yuri, but he wasn't anywhere near as handsome as Killgore.

The raven-haired troubleshooter felt a smile spread across her face as she
thought of the suave mercenary. Definitely one handsome guy, and certainly
mature. A pity he might be a complete dirt bag if Iria was telling the
truth. Still, Yuri didn't care much for the bounty hunter when it came right
down to it, and Iria's judgment was certainly colored by the ruins of a
broken marriage. On the other hand, Killgore obviously carried no such
resentment, and had gone out of his way to save a woman that would have been
happy to place his life in jeopardy. Yuri wasn't sure what Killgore might
have seen in Iria that would have led him to marry her in the first place.
No, she was going to keep an eye open but reserve judgment on Killgore until
she got to know him better.

Kei held a mixture of the two feelings. Her head trusted Iria's judgment,
but her heart, or more properly her lust, made her want to think Killgore
wasn't all that bad. Certainly Iria was painting a worse picture than what
was really there, and at least over a decade had passed since the two were
married, Kei was sure of that for some reason. That was more than enough
time for any leopard to change its stripes, she told herself. And people
tended to learn from their past mistakes, so why couldn't Killgore have
learned from his?

What Kei really needed was a chance to speak to someone that was at least
more impartial than Iria. Right after meeting with Killgore, she would get
together with Bob and grill him on exactly what had transpired all those
years ago.

The two escorts explained that Killgore was already waiting for them in his
'War Room' and they would take the duo there directly. As they made their
way deeper into the ship, Yuri noted that Kei had dropped behind her
slightly and struck up a quiet conversation with the shorter of their
escort. Eavesdropping, she heard Kei asking subtle (for her) questions of
the escort about Killgore and his crew. The shorter one remained pleasantly
tight-lipped about things. Yuri attempted to do the same with her the man
that walked alongside her, but he was more rude in rebuffing her attempts at
seductive interrogation, all the while continuing to ogle her. After a few
questions, she decided his leer was too lascivious to be enjoyed, and became
silent. She hoped they would arrive at their destination soon.

They did, and both of the Dirty Pair were surprised at what they saw. As
they entered the room there were assailed with a number of sounds and images
that were more appropriate in the middle of a command center for an army. A
large array of computer banks, holographic projectors, and long range
transmitters were jammed into almost every space there was in the room. Most
of it was automated or could be controlled through the bridge of the ship,
but it still looked impressive.

The only real space in the room was towards the center. There was one larger
holographic projector in the middle and several rising levels of benches
that circled around it. There was also just the slightest bit of room for
someone to walk around the area to speak to others. The whole room gave the
effect that a horde of information was right at their fingertips. Very
impressive indeed.

Kei and Yuri seemed to be the last ones to arrive. Three of Killgore's men
and Cross were already seated in a tight cluster near Killgore. Iria sat by
herself to one side. After a moment's internal debate, Kei sat next to her.
Yuri followed without comment.

"Where did you get this?" Kei asked Killgore, indicating the room with a
sweeping gesture.

The mercenary beamed proudly around the room. "During the Farscots Police
Action, we were hired and sent out to 'neutralize' a prototype of a field
operations' center from the spacedock it was being completed at before it
could be sent into the field. Well, we neutralized it, just like we were
ordered to."

"You stole it," Iria stated flatly.

"We completed the mission within its parameters."

"And the Farscots were quite content to let you walk off with this valuable
piece of equipment which they no doubt could have used themselves?"

"We completed the mission that they sent us out for. Since they didn't
detail what they wanted done with the craft, I took it upon myself to
interpret those orders in a manner I saw fit."

"Like I said, you stole it," Iria said in disgust.

One of the men took exception to that. He stood up, all six feet and three
inches of him, and approached the seated five two women. "I don't like your
tone, bitch."

Iria remained where she was, looking up at him in distaste. "I'm surprised.
If you're stupid enough to follow his orders, I assumed my insults would go
right over you head."

In response, the man drew back his fist and aimed for Iria's unprotected
head. The bounty hunter remained sitting there impassively. Just as he was
about to strike, Iria brought her left arm up and deflected the blow upward
and well above her head. As she did that, with her free hand she brought out
a small metal cylinder that extended just beyond the grip of the fist it was
in. With a jerk of the wrist, the cylinder extended to become a one foot
piece of metal with a flat tip. She drove the flat end into the large man's
gut with an audible thud, winding him instantly and doubling him over. Iria
finished up by shoving him back in the direction he had come from with her
free hand, then shortening the cylinder and putting it back in its place on
her weapons belt. The man stumbled several feet before falling to his knees
in a wheezing heap.

During the entire exchange, Iria had not moved from her seat. Instead, she
returned to the exact same posture she had before being attacked and
continued to scowl at Killgore.

The exchange had made Kei and Yuri tense up as well. Not because of the
buffoon that had lunged at Iria, they knew she could handle him with minimal
fuss, it was the reaction of the others that concerned them. However,
surprisingly, no one had seemed to become excited over the treatment of
their comrade. They had all remained seated, watching the exchange but not
reacting to it.

"None of you are going to take offense to that?" Yuri asked.

Cross said, "Arty picked the fight. It's his problem, not ours." The others
nodded in agreement.

Arty was just returning to his feet, not looking eager to try to regain his
honor by attacking a second time. Pride was still locked in a struggle with
survival instincts when Killgore spoke up and decided things for him. "Arty,
I told you these were our guests and that you were to treat them with the
same respect I show them. If her words, which were directed at me, didn't
bother me, then they should not have bothered you. Now leave the room and
have Remmy come in and take your place. He'll be squad commander for the
rest of this mission since he displays a better sense of restraint, and
knows when he's hopelessly outclassed."

Rebuked, Arty shot Iria a nasty glance as he exited the room. It still paled
to the one that Iria shot continuously at her ex-husband, regardless of what
flattery he tossed her way.

"Let's get started," Killgore announced. He directed his attention toward
the three women that were seated on his left. "Since I was the one that came
up with the idea of this little alliance-"

"We've only decided to hear you out, not ally ourselves with you," Iria
reminded him in decidedly unaffectionate tones.

"Shh," Yuri held her finger to her lips in emphasis. Rather then being
chastised, Iria turned her irritated glare towards Yuri for a moment before
swinging it back to its former recipient.

"This information exchange," Killgore clarified, smiling at Iria as he
accepted to her rephrasing. "As you might have guessed, when it became
obvious YSC's operations were coming under attack by a hostile force of
outsiders, they hired us to take care of matters. To that end we've been
pursuing Zeiram since he hit Asteroid K12."

"Why didn't they just request the 3WA to help out?" Yuri asked.

The question made Killgore shift slightly in discomfort. "Let's just say YSC
would rather treat this as an internal matter."

"Their people are dying," Iria pointed out.

"YSC tends to think of their employees as resources rather than people. The
even goes for mercenaries like me," Killgore explained. "Once it was
determined that Zeiram was behind the attacks, we managed to uncover some
intelligence on the situation."

Nodding to one of the men that sat at a computer terminal, Killgore turned
and pointed to the holographic projector in the middle of the room. With a
flash an image appeared in the middle of the device. An exact replica of
Zeiram stood motionless in the center, though much smaller than the actual
being. The detail on the projection was impressive; even Iria would have
sworn it had been taken directly of the beast.

"We have evidence indicating that the Tormand Confederation is responsible
for resurrecting Zeiram and unleashing him on YSC properties. We're
uncertain exactly how they obtained him. Perhaps they somehow cloned him or
got their hands on the remains of the original and it regenerated on its
own, or if it's some kind of replica that just looks like the original. But
in any case, what we do know is that its power level appears identical to
the original monster that left a path of destruction in the Balphron Sector
of space."

"You got that right," Kei agreed.

Killgore continued. "In regards to its abilities, it remains the same as
before, with no known weaknesses. However there is little doubt that this
time out, Zieram is being controlled by someone. The selective nature of its
targets clearly indicates that."

"How is he being controlled?" Iria asked.

A shrug of the shoulders was the only answer Killgore gave to that question.
"What we do know is who is controlling him." Another signal by the tall
mercenary changed the image from that of Zeiram to a normal-looking human
dressed in a plain white laboratory jacket. He had ebony skin, and his hair
had retreated until only a fringe remained along the sides. He was obviously
older, perhaps in his middle forties, and of average height. A slight paunch
made him look out of shape, despite the loose fitting coat he wore. He was
neither handsome nor ugly. His face was unremarkable in every way and could
belong to any one of a thousand people an individual would meet on any given
day.

Killgore gave a sweeping gesture with his hand. "Ladies, this is the
mastermind behind the Zeiram Project. One of the greatest minds involved in
bio-engineering: Professor Anton Scorphius."

The name made Yuri crease her forehead in concentration. "Scorphius? Isn't
that the name of one of the founders of YSC?"

"Slapatcha Scorphius. Anton is his younger brother," Killgore admitted.
"That's one of the reasons YSC has wanted to keep a lid on this. It would
look very bad to let everyone know that one of your company's founders
turned on you like a rabid dog."

Kei stared in disbelief at the image. "Why in the name of the five galaxies
would he want to work for a rival company that's so much smaller than his?
Did Slapatcha cut him out of his inheritance or something?"

Killgore shook his head. "No. Anton was well provided for by his brother,
not to mention the fact he made multi-millions in salary and stock options
as the head researcher in bio-engineering for YSC. His is one of the most
brilliant minds in this century, and they let him do whatever he wanted and
gave him whatever resources he needed when he worked for YSC."

"So if he was so rich, influential, and brilliant, why would he help destroy
what made him wealthy?" Yuri asked,.

"We don't know," Killgore admitted. "But he was determined to do it. And in
secret too. You see, he didn't just quit YSC. He faked his death in a
shuttle explosion some four years ago. It was only recently someone with,
how shall we say, their eyes and ears open in TC passed on information that
made my employers aware of this fact a couple of months ago. They were still
in the process of deciding what to do with it when Zeiram began hitting
everything with a YSC symbol on it."

"Maybe he was kidnapped, then ended up being coerced or brainwashed while at
TC and is working for them against his will, " Yuri said. That seemed to
make the most sense to her.

"Intelligence indicates he is working of his own free will and quite
enthusiastically for them. And the data is reliable, so I have no reason to
believe otherwise. Now, here's Zeiram's current path of destruction"

The holographic image changed to show the star filled arm of the galaxy they
were in. Red lines appeared, circling several of the areas around the stars.
"These are the operations Zeiram has struck so far, from the first target,
each subsequent one was the closest YSC base of operations in the area."

The trio of women counted the number of circled areas. Yuri was the first to
notice the discrepancy. "Hey, there's an extra circle there before the
space station."

Killgore shifted somewhat uncomfortably. "There was a, how shall we say,
sensitive operation in that area, one that the general public didn't need to
be aware of. R and D of some kind going on there. I didn't bother with the
details of it. They didn't seem relevant since Zeiram marched on without
pause and attacked his next target. He needs to be taken down now."

"Right," Iria said slowly, obviously suspicious.

"Why did Zeiram hit that Sarvgon mining operation?" Kei asked.

That made Killgore wince slightly. "Since we're being completely open with
one another, I'll tell you. Actually Sarvgon is owned by a shell
corporation. It's real owners are YSC. For reasons they didn't get into, and
frankly I didn't care about, they didn't bother giving me full disclosure as
to why they set up a shell corporation instead of owning the operation above
the table."

Kei and Yuri looked at each other. Yuri said, "I think I'm beginning to see
why YSC didn't want the 3WA on the case."

A nod of agreement came from Kei. They had run into more than a handful of
corrupt companies that felt they were above the law and did all sorts of
illegal things in the name of expansion and continued profits. But Zeiram
was the focus of the problem now, and was quickly seeing to it YSC didn't
have any profits or continued expansion for quite a few years to come.

"Do you know all of their off the table operations?" Yuri asked.

"They gave me a list, which I'm not at liberty to share with you, you
understand. Unless the next nearest target is on the list, then I'll mention
it. I hope you're willing to trust me on this."

Yuri shrugged and backed off, not willing to press that point. They had more
important matters at hand. They could come back to dealing with YSC's
illegal holdings after Zeiram was taken care of.

Iria did not feel so inclined. She gave her ex-husband a suspicious glance.
"So Anton goes over to work for a rival company in order to develop Zeiram
so that he can destroy his brother's company and everyone that works for it?
Is that the story you're feeding us?"

The wary tone at last seemed to break through Killgore's patience regarding
his former spouse's attitude towards him. "It's the truth, Iria. I've seen
the evidence myself and it all makes sense. YSC wants Zeiram stopped even
worse than you do and for obvious reasons. Anton Scorphius is behind this
for reasons no one other than he knows yet. I was hired to take care of the
problem because they regard it as an internal matter and don't want the
authorities poking around in their playpen. Besides, me and my outfit really
are the best at bringing down small scale problems like this. We've been
hired to completely destroy him and all of his remains. I have all the
information I need to get this job done, and YSC isn't going to hold back
any information to get the job done, not with how they're suffering. I
wouldn't place my men in any unnecessary danger. Does that satisfy you?"

"It's bullshit, Lance," Iria stated flatly.

Ever so slightly Killgore's jaw seemed to twitch. Tension in the room
increased as his men began shifting uncomfortably. Only Cross seemed largely
unaffected, sending an irritated glare Iria's way and doing nothing else.

Then Killgore relaxed slightly. "Believe it or don't believe it, it's your
call. Now it's time to show me your goods."

The remark made Iria start to go for her gun when Kei placed a hand on top
of hers and reminded her mentor that he was referring about sharing their
information as part of the bargain. Reluctantly, Iria released her hold on
the butt of her pistol and left it in the holster. She did afford several
withering glares towards her ex-husband, making Kei very glad she had never
angered Iria anywhere near this badly. It was truly a disturbing thing to
bear witness to this level of anger from someone that had been so caring and
understanding towards her. Kei was certain she'd all but shrivel up if Iria
had ever looked at her that way.

That left Kei and Yuri to inform Killgore of what had happened. At the end
of the tale, he nodded in grim appraisal. "Pretty much what I had figured
out. Nice to hear the information seconded. Sounds like these commandos work
for TC and are covering Zeiram's tracks as best as they can."

"If so, it's been obvious they've been planning something like this for a
while," Yuri agreed.

"It doesn't explain why they attacked Omicron 4. Zeiram hadn't hit there,
yet," Kei pointed out.

"Or why they deleted all of the information from the computer," Iria added,
casting an even more suspicious glare Killgore's way.

Killgore shrugged. "Don't look at me. I don't pretend to know what TC's
actual plan is. Maybe it's just a trial run with Zeiram and they want to
show how effective he is. Maybe they really think they can cripple YSC with
just him and a few surgical strikes thrown into the mix to throw us off. Or
maybe Zeiram's gone into heat and is venting off how horny he is."

The last comment brought a chortle to one of his men.

The laugh seemed to lighten Killgore's mood. "What I do know is I'm going to
bring Zeiram down, and I'll confess I could use the help you guys could
provide. What say we work together and toast his ass for good? There's no
way he can stand up to all of us."

"Not a chance!" Iria snapped.

"Lot of good you've done on your own," Cross added in an amused tone.

"What he's offering does sound good," Kei admitted. She saw Yuri nod her
head in agreement as well.

Iria couldn't believe what she was hearing. "He's a lying through his
teeth!"

The attitude Iria was displaying continued to wear upon Yuri. "We don't know
that. So far everything he's said has checked out. Even the stuff that
overlapped our information, and remember, he gave his first. He couldn't
possibly have changed his story to match ours like that. He sounds
legitimate, and we could use the help. Since neither you nor my partner want
me to contact 3WA headquarters for reinforcements, this is the only way we
can get the added firepower we need to take Zeiram out. And Cross is right.
In case you hadn't noticed, we haven't been doing too good on our own."

"We're batting 0 for 2 so far, Iria." Kei hoped her mentor would see past
her anger. Kei was determined to have Killgore assist them, though she would
be keeping one eye open on him at all times. Well, she would do that anyway
since he was so damn handsome, but she would be watching for any shifty
things he might be up to while checking him out. He wouldn't be the first
pretty face that turned out to be rotten underneath.

Seeing the look of determination upon Yuri, and more importantly, Kei's,
face, Iria let off a snarl of, "This is a mistake," and stormed out of the
room.

Killgore gave a sad glance at her departing form and let out a wistful sigh,
but said nothing to try to prevent her from leaving.

"It's settled then." Yuri rose to her feet and drew near Killgore. "Our
ships will stay hooked up to yours via standard conduct beams. Not that we
don't trust you, but I think it would be in the best interest in all
involved if we didn't have direct link ups to our master computers."

"Definitely," Killgore agreed. He turned to his men in the room. "Listen up.
As of this moment we're partners with these three ladies for the duration of
this mission. They are to be treated with the same respect that you would
treat me. Should I hear someone addressing them with even a hint of
disrespect, even if they are not around, you'll have to deal with me, and we
all know taking Zeiram on in single combat would be preferable to that. We
will share any and all information with them, and you will help them in any
way so long as it does not jeopardize the mission or the unit. Do I make
myself clear?"

"Yes sir," all of the men said crisply.

Both of the women had to admit, they were rather well organized for a
mercenary company. Apart from the idiot who had taken a swipe at Iria, they
had been obedient and professional. Not quite to military standards, but
then very few mercenaries were. Many former military personnel switched to
mercenary outfits for the more lax standards that tended to be employed in
such units.

Working with Killgore and his company wouldn't be much of a problem, at
least on the surface. And certainly they had worked with mercenaries before
as the situation warranted, so that was nothing new to them. Still, the duo
were paying very close attention in case Iria was correct, and Killgore
couldn't be trusted. For the moment, they needed to ally themselves with
him. It seemed to be the only way they were going to make any headway on
this unofficial case that had fallen upon their shoulders.

Killgore continued giving orders. "We'll maintain our heading to Baltron. So
far there haven't been any signals that the YSC holdings have come under
attack, and if Zeiram took a straight course from his last objective, he
should have arrived there already. That means it's not too late. It's
conceivable he has ship problems and could still strike at any time. We have
to be prepared for the worst." He turned to his new allies. "My crew will
continue preparing. I recommend you two do the same."

Kei and Yuri nodded in agreement. Both exited the room and began a slow walk
back to their ship, discussing what future course to take with their new
partners.

They were halfway to their destination when Killgore approached them,
hurrying down the corridor from the direction they had just come from. He
came to a stop before them, not a hint of being out of breath from his run.
It showed an impressive endurance despite his mass. Both Yuri and Kei
reacted to his approach by smiling pleasantly, then shooting dangerous looks
similar to what one dog would do to another for trying to grab the same
bone.

"I wonder if you could take a moment so that we could talk. About...
personal matters." Killgore directed his question at Kei.

Yuri looked as crestfallen as Kei looked pleased at being the center of his
attention.

"It's about Iria."

That doused Kei's mood somewhat and served to make Yuri happier. "I'll meet
you back at the ship." Yuri left Kei to have her talk in private.

Despite the fact she wasn't the topic of the conversation, Kei maintained
her pleasant demeanor. The man was devilishly handsome and it wouldn't do to
appear to be a jealous shrew. "What did you want to know about Iria?"

Killgore shook his head. "Well, it's not exactly Iria I wanted to talk
about, at least not in the sense you mean."

That perked Kei's curiosity. "Oh?"

Again he unleashed his whiplash smile. "I don't know what Iria's told you
about me, but I just wanted to let you know what really happened between us.
I don't want you thinking I'm as bad as she's probably claiming, though I
fully admit to not being perfect either back when we were married."

For a moment, Kei considered informing him that Iria had said precious
little about their previous relationship, but reconsidered. Why not let him
spill his guts about what had happened? There were always two sides to a
story, though he would probably put as good a spin on it as Iria put bad.

Killgore shifted slightly in obvious discomfort. "I was pretty young when we
were married. Still a real hot shot that thought he was capable of taking on
the universe and coming out on top. When I met Iria, I thought she was the
woman of my dreams. Tough. Independent. Capable. A real wildcat in the
sack."

That made Kei squirm slightly. She didn't like thinking of her mentor in
those sorts of terms. There was also a tad hint of jealousy that the bounty
hunter had managed to get married to a real hunk of man while Kei had yet to
find anyone that came close to being Mr. Right. True, while it hadn't worked
out in the end, it was still more success than Kei had.

After a moment to think about the past, Killgore continued. "Anyway, I admit
that after we got married, things didn't turn out to be the perfect image we
had both built up in our minds. Now, I won't deny I made my share of
mistake, but she did too. She was never able to accept her own
responsibility for our marriage breaking up, like I did mine, eventually."

That made sense. Kei admitted to herself that Iria did have a tendency to be
stubborn, and Killgore was admitting he had been wrong. It was increasing
his standing in her eyes.

There was a bit of sadness in Killgore's eyes. "We were too young, and more
importantly, too inexperienced to deal with how our marriage was breaking
up. Towards the end we were hurting each other more than loving. In
hindsight, I think maybe it just wasn't meant to be. I'm not sorry we were
married, there were too many good times for that, I'm just sorry things
turned out the way they did. I don't know what Iria told you, but I think
what I just told you was closer to the truth.

"I've calmed down a lot over the years. I've had time to live with past
regrets and see some of the things I've done wrong. I feel bad about what I
did to Iria, and wouldn't mind making some measure of peace with her, or at
least have her believe that I'm sorry about the things I did to screw things
up between us. I really hope she'll at least believe I'm sincere when I say
I'm sorry. Really, I'm not the monster she seems to have built up in her
mind over the last fifteen years or so, no matter what she might claim."

It was an interesting story, and to Kei's trained ears carried the ring of
truth to them. She could see it all in her mind's eye as circumstances
beyond the two lovers' control tore them apart . But there was still one
question that nagged at her. "Iria said you murdered someone."

That made Killgore's brows furrow, and for a moment, he appeared angry at
the accusation. Releasing a pent up breath, he looked up at the gunmetal
gray ceiling of the ship, obviously trying to regain his composure. After
several seconds that seemed to stretch into an eternity, he began speaking
again. "Devon Nermani. I should have realized that's what's really bothering
her."

Kei listened to every change, from the inflection of his voice, to the way
he held himself gauging his reaction. "You did kill him, didn't you?"

A sort of intensity seemed to suddenly possess Killgore. He set his
shoulders, as though preparing himself for a long journey. "She didn't tell
you any specifics about the situation, did she?"

"She was real closed mouthed about it," Kei admitted.

For a moment it appeared Killgore would say nothing. But then he seemed to
come to some sort of decision. With obvious reluctance, he began the tale.
"Devon Nermani was a young kid that met Iria and me about a month into our
wedding. He was eighteen or so when he and Iria kind of latched on to one
another. He wanted to be a bounty hunter, and Iria decided to take him under
her wing so he could get his license. She always treated him like he was her
younger brother, or kid almost. It was sort of an odd thing, I always
thought. Just seemed weird, all things considered. Why would she want some
kid along when she was all but a newlywed?"

Kei mentally ticked off the years, Iria and Devon's respective ages at the
time, and realized why the bounty hunter might have been so eager to accept
someone new to train as a bounty hunter at that time. Suddenly, Kei felt a
wave of guilt unexpectedly wash over her, even if it was something she could
not have possibly anticipated. Still, it did little to assuage her feelings.
She pushed the thoughts from her mind as she focused once again on
Killgore's tale.

"I never cared much for the kid myself. Iria might have viewed him as a
younger brother, but he sure didn't look at her the same way, let me tell
you. She might not have realized it, but I sure did, and I let him know it.
Me and Devon never got along. Not from the first time we met, but Iria
didn't seem to mind that much. She just ignored my wishes and thought I was
being stupid for acting jealous. Since I wasn't about to help the little
Casanova, she ended up spending as much private time as she could training
him, which didn't help our young marriage. Not at all."

"He didn't have much talent. Even with the intensive personal training she
gave him, he was never in me and Iria's league. But she wouldn't hear of me
saying otherwise, and kept getting pissed over me telling her the way things
were. She's damn stubborn when she wants to be, believe you and me. Anyway,
he managed to squeak by with a license, and then he starts riding along with
us and getting more in the way than helping a lot of the time. Trying to act
like a hot shot and screwing up miserably. Between that and some other
stuff, our marriage really started to show signs of the strain. And then
the shit really hit the fan.

"We were on an assignment in Cassadra System looking for some bountyhead
with a big time price on his skull. Real dangerous mook. It turns out when
we run him down, he'd just acquired some nasty bio-virus that could wipe out
an entire city's population in less than twenty-four hours. And of course
Devon, that little numbnuts, got separated from us, got caught, and ended up
having his butt loaded up with the stuff. Bastard was going to release good
ole' Devvy into the city to use as a distraction while he got away in the
ensuing melee. I ran into Devon just when he was about to reach the city, I
guess the kid was trying to get to a hospital before he croaked, not that it
wasn't too late anyway. I couldn't let him enter it and wipe out the
millions of innocent people there, so I did what any responsible person
would have done.

"I put several rounds into him and burned the body at long range before he
could infect anyone else."

To someone less experienced than Kei, that reaction might have elicited
disgust or sorrow, but as Killgore had laid out the situation, he had taken
the only option available to him. In Kei's time with the 3WA she had
witnessed an entire planet consumed by a bio-virus, and it hadn't a pretty
sight. And it hadn't been her fault either. Someone other than her must have
blown the containment unit on the bio-virus that had somehow ended up
getting released when the main reactor to the place blew up during the
fight. They were just lucky they had made it off the planet alive.

At that point in the tale, Killgore seemed to soften a little.
"Unfortunately, what I didn't know at the time was that Iria had snagged the
cure for the bio-virus off the scientist guys that created it. But since my
communicator was busted, I didn't know. She got there just in time to watch
me toast the kid's body. She never forgave me for that. We got divorced
right afterwards and never saw each other again until today. And that pretty
much sums up everything."

Kei nodded her head in agreement. It did cast a whole new light on Iria's
reaction to seeing Killgore and the animosity she demonstrated towards him.
Assuming things were as simple as the tall man claimed. Though looking in
those deep brown eyes he possessed made Kei want to believe he was telling
the truth. It wouldn't be right for someone having eyes that sincere to be
lying to her.

There was one other question that was preying on Kei's mind. "Why tell me
all of this?" The redhead had her suspicions. It was probably to get her to
try to talk Iria into meeting him or something to try to work out their
problems. Knowing her luck, Kei would most likely end up a go-between. And
then Iria and Killgore would patch up their relationship and Kei would be on
the outside looking in again, just like always.

With his tale finished, Killgore moved closer to the redhead, giving her
that same smile that had taken her breath away the first time she had laid
eyes upon him. "I didn't want you to think unkindly of me."

"Oh?" That had caught her off-guard.

"Sure." The words seemed to flow as naturally from his mouth as breathing
and his stance somehow became more... suggestive, for lack of a better term.
"We are going to be working closely together. I wouldn't want some
misunderstanding to prevent the two of us from joining out mutually
impressive resources together, should the opportunity arise while we're
working with one another on this case."

Kei found herself responding in kind with her own form of body language
answering his own. "So you think I have impressive resources?"

"Absolutely." He assured her equally with his glance as much as his words.
"Much more impressive than your partner's, not that she's unimpressive
herself."

"Oh, my resources are much more impressive. Believe me, that's what everyone
always says," Kei quickly assured him. It was Yuri's own bad luck that she
couldn't be here to defend herself.

Further discussion was interrupted by Kei''s earring. "Are you getting back
on the ship or not?"

Had Yuri been present, Kei probably would have responded by snapping at her,
but she wasn't, and getting annoyed at the earring seemed inappropriate for
some reason. Instead, Kei looked at Killgore and considered the situation.
It might have been a bit egotistical for him to say it so bluntly, but his
resources definitely appeared impressive to her well-trained eye, and she
had appraised many men of their assets over the years. Certainly, Killgore
gave every indication of wanting to explore the possible potential a
personal alliance, even a temporary one, could make.

But no, it would be best to take her time concerning the delicate matter.
Just so long as Yuri didn't try a similar investigation upon Killgore. "I'll
be over in a minute." She hit a tiny button that automatically turned off
the communicator from any further transmissions. Had she not and Yuri
interrupted a second time, Kei would have been considerably less pleased
with the situation than she was at present.

Killgore appeared unfazed by Kei's declaration. "I look forward for the
opportunity to talk to you again and what see measures we might take to
further out cause." He bowed, then headed back towards the command center of
the ship once again.

Lingering behind for a moment, Kei made another careful visual examination
of their new partner. Definitely one of the nicest assets she had seen in
some time, with the emphasis on the 'ass'. She would have to investigate it
more thoroughly should an opportunity present itself later, as she hoped it
would.

With a wistful sigh, Kei headed back to her ship. The walk seemed to take
forever.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

"Still no word of problems coming from Baltron," Yuri announced as Kei
finally made her way to the bridge of the Lovely Angel.

That puzzled Kei, causing her to momentarily tear her thoughts away from
possible future 'partnerships.' "And we were so sure he would hit there to."

"Maybe tall, dark, and ugly is onto us?" Yuri said.

"Or Scorphius, you mean."

"Do you think Killgore's on the up and up? And I'm not referring to certain
parts of his anatomy," Yuri said pensively.

"I know what you meant." Or Kei thought she did. Did Yuri suspect Killgore
had hit on her? She wasn't sure, but her raven-haired partner was a superior
detective. Yuri might have picked up on the heat Killgore had been sending
Kei's way. It was difficult to say.

"So?"

"I think he's being mostly truthful with us." At least that was Kei
assessment, but she was prepared to admit her judgment might have been
affected somewhat by Killgore's attempt to pick her up.

"So you think he's holding back on us too?" Yuri tried to press her partner
for a straight answer.

"I'd be surprised if he wasn't, even if only to protect his employers. After
all, if they get crushed, he doesn't get paid." Kei did not want to admit
it, but that was the most likely scenario. Still, maybe their paranoia was
justified. It was a common fact that to have lasted as long in their
business as they had, paranoia was sometimes the only thing that kept a
woman alive.

Yuri found herself pleased in having her suspicions confirmed by her
partner, especially since things had been so strained between them of late.
Luckily, events were happening fast enough that their disagreement was
temporarily pushed to the side so they could function as a team. Especially
since Kei had taken Yuri's side against Iria for a change. "I thought so
too. But I think he is serious about nailing Zeiram. And he did save Iria's
life. I think he's reliable enough."

"And he's a total fox," Kei added.

"I didn't say that." Yuri's voice was full of righteous indignation.

"But you thought it."

"Hell, yeah." Yuri's voice was full of righteous indignation. "I noticed you
checking him out too."

"He's hard not to notice. And a gal's got needs that require fulfilling. I
think he could fulfill them quite nicely."

Yuri's voice dropped low, a conspiratorial whisper. "Even though he's Iria's
ex? He's practically your stepfather."

"He is not!" Kei blustered.

"Of course he isn't." Yuri went from incredulous to innocent in a heartbeat,
which made Kei feel all the more uncomfortable.

Groundwork laid for undermining Kei's desires to hit on Killgore, Yuri
announced she was leaving the bridge to take care of some things. With any
luck Kei would now hesitate about hitting on Killgore. Hopefully at least
long enough for Yuri to hit on him first. Actually, given how loose Kei
tended to be, the raven-haired troubleshooter was amazed she hadn't tried to
jump in the sack with Killgore already. Really, the woman almost never
showed restraint when some attractive guy caught her eye. Her idea of
'taking time and letting a relationship evolve' usually consisted of two
whole dates before hitting the sheets and engaging in a round of the
horizontal bop.

It was Yuri's turn for some action, and she had thought she caught Killgore
checking her out once or twice. Ordinarily, she would have exhibited more
restraint, but like Kei, her luck with the opposite sex had been absolutely
terrible for a while. A long while. Yuri would be happy to go for broke for
a change. She just hoped Killgore was being honest with them. She would hate
to sleep with the guy and then have to kill him. It had happened before, and
it depressed her to no end the last few times, but it was always a risk in
their line or work, and she loved the job too much to give it up for any
man. Sometimes you just had to take chances and hope they paid off.

A full minute passed before Kei was convinced Yuri had departed the bridge
for good. Once she was certain, her hands went to the links to their
communication system. They might not have been willing to allow a direct
linkup to 'The Destiny', but the one to Creeper V was still there. "Hey,
Bob."

It took only a moment for him to answer. "Yes, Kei?

His voice was cheerful, reassuring Kei she had caught him at a good time.
She could rely on him to give a straight answer. Or at least she hoped he
would. "Can you tell me what really happened between Iria and Eugene?"

"Got to you already, did he?"

How quickly things could change with a single question. Bob's voice had gone
flat, carrying the exact same disapproving tone he had used on Kei when she
had done something wrong growing up on Myce. It was disturbing how quickly
the redhead felt ashamed of herself. It was practically a reflex, and she
had not even done anything wrong... yet. "He has not."

"You called him Eugene."

Oops. "Well, he prefers to be called that." Even if it did sound rather
nerdish to Kei.

Bob paused for a moment. He wondered if he did tell the truth would Kei
bother listening, or would she do what she wanted like she usually did when
she had been growing up? That was the sort of character trait Bob thought
would never leave the girl; it was too ingrained into her personality.
Perhaps in the end it didn't matter. Kei was an adult now, having fully
blossomed into a woman some time ago, and had to deal with the valleys life
dealt her was well as the high points. "Do remember that even though I don't
bear as much malice toward him as Iria does, I still don't like him."

"Point taken." Kei was eager to hear things from Bob's point of view. She
hoped it didn't clash too much with the picture Killgore had painted of his
checkered past. If it did, she would deal with it when it came up. But until
then she was going to live with her hopes.

"I'm going to be perfectly blunt here, which means you might not like
hearing some of the things I'm going to tell you. Don't say I didn't warn
you."

That caught Kei slightly off-guard. It wasn't like Bob to be this cautious.
"Okay. I want to hear it."

Bob let out an audible sigh before summoning the resolve to begin. "As much
as Iria tries to tell you she was calm and understanding after you left, the
truth of the matter was, she was a basketcase. She worried about you
constantly and blamed herself for raising you too harshly and driving you
away. You might not have been her child by blood, but she thought of you as
such. She felt very betrayed."

"Oh." Now Kei suddenly understood what Bob had meant about not wanting to
hear the truth. Guilt affected Kei anew, almost as bad as the guilt she had
felt over not getting in touch with Iria for over a decade and a half.

"Don't get me wrong," Bob quickly clarified. "Now she's fine, and has been
so for years. But back then your sudden departure left an emotional void in
Iria, even if she'll never admit it to this day. It was also at that time
that Lance Eugene Killgore entered her life.

"He was a hotshot bounty hunter that crossed paths with Iria on a case about
three months after you left. I wasn't with her when they actually first met,
due to what she had to go through to follow her targets, but she confided
all but the most lurid of details with me. Basically, they brought in a
bunch of dangerous bountyheads together. During the course of the mission,
he saved her life first at great risk to his own, and she returned the
favor. Unfortunately, Iria let the heat of the moment, and Killgore's own
suave nature, seduce her.

"By the time she got back to me, she claimed she was deeply in love with the
guy, and him with her. I didn't like him from the first time we met, and I
could tell he felt the same way about me. I tried to get along with him,
really, but he reminded me way too much of a lot of other characters I'd
gotten to know in my previous life's line of work. They're all smooth talk
and good looks, but when push comes to shove, their egos won't let fidelity
stick around. There were other things that felt wrong about him as well, and
most of them proved to be right by the end.

"To Iria, he mostly did all right during the courtship phase of their
relationship, but after they were married, things started to go downhill,
and she quickly discovered marrying a man does not change his basic nature.
Within weeks he was hitting on other women the moment Iria was out of sight,
and the cases they went on he was always happy to use too much force to
bring the bounty in. Sometimes they deserved it, but mostly he was just
ruthless. He spent a lot more than they made and they ended up to their ears
in debt pretty quick. Fights started to break out, and truthfully, Lance
didn't make more than a token effort to patch things up. He'd just leave and
not come back for days on end. Iria was sort of a wreck at the time too, and
didn't exactly make working things through too easy. Still, Lance was the
one that was responsible for nearly all of the crap they went through, make
no mistake about that. "

"So when did Devon figure into things?" Kei asked.

The question caught Bob off-guard. "Iria told you about Devon?"

"Actually Killgore did."

"That's a surprise," Bob reluctantly admitted. "Though I'm sure he only told
you his version of events. Let me tell you the whole thing. Devon was a
young kid that wanted to be a bounty hunter. Iria took him under her wing.
No matter what Iria or Lance might tell you, the real reason she helped him
so much was that he was nearly a dead ringer of a younger version of Gren."

Kei let that information sink in. "Oh, geez. No wonder she tried to hard to
keep him around."

"Exactly. Unfortunately, outside of his appearance, the kid was no Gren. He
lacked hunter instincts and made lots of basic mistakes. He was completely
wrong for the job. It was obvious he'd get his butt killed within the first
year of being a hunter. That was the one thing Lance and I agreed on. We
both tried telling Iria, but she wouldn't hear of it. She had this whole
thing built up in her mind that this was her chance to do for Gren what he
did for her. And since you were out of the picture, Devon was her best shot
at doing that."

The admonishment made Kei feel worse than ever. "I didn't know it hit her
that hard."

"You would have if you had at least tried to stay in touch." There was
barely a hint of forgiveness in Bob's voice. Apparently that had been a sore
spot for him as well. "But since you didn't, you couldn't have known. And so
things turned out the way they did. Devon got his bounty hunter's license,
much to mine and Lance's irritation. His personality wasn't the least bit
like Gren's either. He was kind of an annoying snot. He was no Lance, but
still a pest. Worse, he had this huge crush on Iria, and knew her marriage
to Lance was on the rocks, so he took stupid risks in an attempt to impress
her. Two months after he first got his license, it finally happened.

"There was a case with an infamous terrorist that had this large mark on his
head. Well, Devon took it upon himself to strut his stuff by bringing this
guy in personally. It turned out the guy was dealing with a bio-virus.
Somehow that idiot kid got the bio-virus loaded into him and panicked by
heading to the nearest city for a cure, nevermind the fact all he would do
was end up killing everyone there. Iria and Lance tried to stop Devon and
save the city. Iria managed to get her hands on the cure for him, but it was
too late. Lance found him first and killed him. I hate to admit it, but
without Lance knowing Iria had the cure with her and she was on the way, he
did the right thing. Still, Iria never forgave him for that. She was almost
angry enough to kill him on the spot. She emptied her gun at his feet. God
knows why he didn't try to shoot back. I didn't think he had the ability to
show that much consideration for her, even if she was his wife. After that,
she got a divorce as quick as possible and that was the last they ever saw
of one another. Until today."

"Until today," Kei repeated, letting all of the information sink in. That
certainly painted a different picture from the one Killgore had told her.
She didn't want to believe it, but she found herself admitting it made sense
given the emotions the mercenary and the bounty hunter felt for one another.
And she had so wanted to believe him too. He was just so damn handsome. And
he knew how to talk to a woman. Even his body language radiated sensuality,
and she had met damn few men in her lifetime who could pull that one off.

"It's been a long time. Maybe he's changed?" Kei hoped it didn't sound like
she was grasping at something... anything.

"A Tallarien can't change the number of his appendages, Kei. He's still the
same bastard he was before. I could tell that from the moment I laid eyes on
him."

It was probably the truth. However, Kei was reluctant to back off. Damn it,
she wanted him bad. "Maybe you're right. I need to think about this." She
cut off the comm-link to Bob and began thinking about her situation and
trying to prevent her more base instincts from overriding her common sense.

It was proving a harder task than even she would have thought possible.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

Lance Eugene Killgore heard the voice of one of his subordinates from the
hallway outside his quarters drift through the closed door. It was a deep,
rumbling one that sounded like a ten ton tank rolling across a gravel
highway. Probably Phalanx, his heavy weapons man. He was a seven foot, four
hundred and fifty kilogram mass of drug enhanced muscle with a cybernetic
reinforced skeletal structure. The man was capable of handling three
quarters of a ton of firepower and had been called upon to do so on more
than one occasion. He made a darn good quiche as well.

Killgore could barely make out Phalanx's "Hey, those are the Major's
quarters. You can't go in there."

Ah, he was wondering when she would show up. Killgore rose to his feet and
moved toward the door in order to greet his visitor. He knew she would be
dropping by for a personal visit once she had the opportunity, and knew they
wouldn't be interrupted by one of the other women. Lesser men might have
professed to be confused by the opposite sex, but Killgore was not a lesser
man. He knew the female of the species almost as well as he knew himself.
Women were so predictable.

The sound of a seven foot and four hundred and fifty kilogram mass of drug
enhanced muscle with a cybernetic reinforced skeletal structure hitting the
metal of the deck came from outside the room.

His ex-wife was the most predictable of them all.

Knowing she would enter before he could make it to the door, Killgore chose
to wait in the center of the room. He placed his hands behind his back and
planted one of his patented whiplash grins on his face, the kind that had
caught Iria in the first place all those years ago. As angry as she was with
him, even with all they had gone through, she wouldn't be completely immune
to his charm. It was impossible.

The door opened and Iria stomped in. Killgore greeted her in the way he had
nearly every morning they had been married. "Hey there, Sunshi-"

The side of a pistol impacted solidly with the side of his face, the dull
thud of the metal meeting flesh sounding louder than Killgore's own
greeting. The force of the blow snapped his head back for a split second and
made his eyes open in shock. Perhaps she wasn't as predictable as he had
originally thought. In hindsight, Iria had been the woman that had managed
to give him the most surprises in his life. It had been one of her most
appealing traits, as well as one of the most annoying.

Bringing his head back around to its original position, he discovered the
cold metal of the barrel of the pistol delicately caress the bottom of his
jaw. Despite that gentleness in the move, the woman holding the firearm was
in anything but a delicate mood.

A threat that was voiced in a way that had more in common with a feral snarl
than words escaped from Iria's lips. "I swear to you, if you even look in
Kei's direction again I will blow your fucking head off!"

"Nice to see you too." The words were partially muted by the unrelenting
steel placed against his jaw.

This time Iria spoke clearly in an almost calm voice that was more cause
than ever for alarm. "I'm not kidding, Eugene. I won't let you hurt her one
tenth of the way you hurt me. I'll kill you, even if I have to shoot my way
through this pack of rats you have following at your heels. I'll kill every
one of them to get to you. Do you understand me?"

"I understand perfectly." Which was the truth, though whether he would cave
into her demands was something else altogether. Generally, Lance Eugene
Killgore reacted negatively to threats, even from former spouses. It was
evidently something Iria had forgotten over the intervening years.

The barrel remained where it was. "I know you're lying to us. I just don't
know how much you're holding back. Rest assured, if I find out it's too
much, you won't like the consequences."

Despite the pistol pressed against his jaw, Killgore was relaxed. He rolled
his eyes at the statement. "Really, Iria, this sort of heavy handed tactic
is beneath you."

"Using it on you, it's an indulgence."

Even Killgore was somewhat taken aback by the viciousness in her voice. He
hadn't thought she would remain this angry with him for so long. None of the
other women in his life ever had. Of course, he hadn't married any of them.
He decided he really didn't like the surprises Iria was capable of
unleashing on him.

Slowly, the bounty hunter withdrew the weapon, leaving a cautious eye on
Killgore in case he tried anything. "I meant what I said. Don't test me."

"Oh, I definitely believe you." And that was the complete truth. Her
attitude was something to definitely factor into every future equation that
came up during this alliance.

She was halfway to the door when she turned and said, "By the way, Cross is
gay and has the hots for you."

Killgore gave a haughty smile that made Iria's brows furrow in irritation.
"Of course he does. How else do you think I could keep a Samisdat assassin
on my payroll? Sometimes I even flirt back with him to keep him around. He's
really one of the best. Almost as good as me."

"Still a master of using the people around you," Iria spat with disdain as
she backed towards the door again.

Just as she was about to exit, Killgore rubbed his jaw and calmly stated,
"You know, if I didn't still care for you, you wouldn't be leaving this room
alive for what you just did."

A baleful glare met him in response to his statement. "And if you had done
anything in our time together that made me still care for you, I wouldn't
have come here at all."

Without another word she exited the room. Less than ten seconds later,
another person entered the compartment.

"I saw someone knocked out Phalanx out in the hall and decided to check on
you." Cross looked at the reddish swelling that had formed on the right side
of Killgore's face. It seemed to be growing larger by the second. He went up
and gently examined it with his fingertips. "That little tart did that to
you, eh? Shows you should exercise better judgment when you stick that piece
of yours in other people's business. Want me to kill her?"

"Don't be absurd," Killgore snorted. "We need her and the others. I can take
a little heat from my ex-wife. If push comes to shove, I'll be the one to
put her in her place."

Cross gave a high-pitched snort. "As usual, you underestimate what a woman
scorned can do to a man. I used to be the same way. One of these days I'll
show you the scars I got when I learned that painful lesson."

This was a day full of surprises. "You managed to get a woman angry at you?"

That made Cross chuckle. "Not that way, Major. And rest assured, you're far
better at that sort of thing than I'll ever be." Killgore's adjutant
suddenly turned serious. "Don't go out of your way to make her angry. She's
not completely rational when dealing with you, which makes her
unpredictable."

Killgore rubbed his sore face. "You've got that right."

xxxxxxxxxxxx

Iria returned to the bridge of her ship, letting loose a string of curses
that would have made Bob blush if he still had a face. Instead, he changed
the interior of the ship's lighting to red to match his mood. "I take it
your little talk with Lance didn't go along as well as planned? Should I get
ready to target his ship?" Bob was only half joking about the latter
question.

Iria picked up a box of ammunition and threw it against one of the sides of
the ship, barely missing a portable tracking unit that had been left lying
on a table. "That BASTARD!"

A quick quip came to Bob, but he refrained from voicing it. Now was not the
time for humor. "He's not going to back off?"

It took several moments for Iria to regain enough control over her temper to
speak coherently. "Who the hell can tell with him?! But I swear to god I
will kill him if he tries anything with her. I mean anything!"

This was bad, though Bob couldn't blame her. He didn't want untrustworthy
lech getting near Kei either. Back when the redhead had grilled him about
Killgore, Bob had considered lying to her about just how bad Iria's
ex-husband was, but he had never felt comfortable with lying, especially to
those he cared about. Besides, Killgore was plenty bad enough on his own
without Bob making things up. But sometimes those sorts of men drew certain
kinds of women to them like moths to a flame. It was difficult to say if Kei
was one of those danger seekers, but she had tried very hard to defend
Killgore from Bob's assessment of the man. That seemed to point the
direction that the redhead was leaning toward. Bob still hadn't told Iria
about that little detail, or their conversation at all. There was no telling
how she would react if she thought Kei was seriously interested in the
mercenary, but it would probably involve excessive amounts of bloodshed and
violence.

Her strength leaving her, Iria slumped down in the pilot's chair, desperate
to figure out what to do. They were in an alliance with Lance, thanks to his
smooth talking Kei and Yuri into believing he was trustworthy. They were
being stupid in not listening to Iria. She knew Killgore. He would betray
them when it became convent, but unfortunately she had no way to prove it.
They had to terminate the agreement, which she could not get the others to
do unless she could prove her ex-husband was holding out on them. If she had
a little evidence, then she might be able to convince the others to end this
ridiculous farce, and they could get down to the serious business of hunting
Zeiram down.

And then there was the whole issue concerning Kei. Unless Iria was terribly
mistaken, her former ward had been looking Killgore over. And she was
certain Yuri was. Regardless of the friction she and the raven-haired
troubleshooter were suffering from, there was no way Iria would wish
Killgore on any woman. Or man, for that matter. But Kei was the bounty
hunter's first concern. She had to get her former ward away from him. Iria
knew the redhead well enough that if she tired ordering her away from
Killgore, there was a good chance she would accuse Iria of meddling in her
affairs and fool around with him just to be defiant.

Certainly Lance was capable of seducing just about any woman if he put his
mind to it, Iria could personally attest to that. The years had been very
kind to the man, and he was just as suave and handsome as he was when they
had first met. She might have despised the very sight of him, but she could
admit on a purely ascetic level that he remained physically attractive. But
Kei didn't know the real him, and Iria would do whatever it took to prevent
her from finding out. But exactly what could she do to protect her former
ward without it being obvious that was what she was doing?

And then it came to her. Of course. That would be the perfect excuse to get
Kei out of harm's way, as well as obtaining evidence that would end their
partnership with her hated former lover. How could she have been so foolish
as to not come up with it before?

"Bob, I have an idea. We're going to send her back home to see Mikael and
have him slice some information for us. If there's dirt to dig up on
Killgore and prove he's full of shit, Mikael can find it."

Bob considered that. The plan sounded workable, and it made sense. Even if
Iria wasn't concerned for Kei's well-being, it was a good course of action
to take. "True. But do you think you can convince Kei to take a side-trip to
Myce for that?"

"She might not be happy about it," Iria admitted. "But it's a reasonable
request and it'll get her out of harm's way. Both her and Yuri know there's
no way in hell I'll let Lance out of my sight. And I'll just tell Kei I
trust her more than Yuri to get this important information we need. Besides,
you know Mikael."

Bob chuckled at that. "Too true. Put an attractive woman like Kei in front
of him, and he'll walk on water to charm them. Even if it wasn't you asking,
he'd do just about anything to impress someone like Kei."

That brought a smile to Iria's face. She had not considered that initially.
Ordinarily she would not approve of the way Bob was referring to Mikael, but
since this was Kei they were talking about, that changed everything. Yes,
Kei meeting Mikael might prove a very good thing indeed. It could
potentially solve three problems that had been plaguing Iria. Two recent
ones and another she had accepted a few months ago.

Yes. It was time for Kei to go back and visit the old homestead.

xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx

About time I got to finishing this up. Sorry for the delay, but with the
holidays and other projects grabbing my attention, I just haven't had the
time. Haven't even had the chance to play the new game I got for Christmas.
Hopefully will get to the next chapter much sooner, since I should be
getting a week off in late January that I intend to use on catching up on
some of my backlog of work.

Thanks for reading.

D.B. Sommer














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