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Chapter 2

A Dirty Pair/ Iria: Zeiram fusion
by DB Sommer

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

Disclaimer: Dirty Pair created by Hideki Sonoda and Haruka Takachiho. Iria: Zeiram belongs to Crowd, Bandai Visual, Mitsubishi Corp, Banpresto and US Manga Corps.

Wisps of steam curled lazily in the air, drifting their way up to face level before mixing with the air and disappearing for good. Kei fondled the source of the column of steam before her, handling the ceramic cup filled with coffee that Iria had made for her since they had met once again at long last. The coffee was a gift from her old mentor, a common enough blend from one of the moons outside Seti-Zatta, one of the largest growers of coffee in this part of the galaxy. There was a hint of cinnamon in the taste, something that subtly altered the drink, making it taste more exotic than its origin would indicate.

Kei's eyes went from examining the steam doing a circuit of the Lovely Angel's galley, where they were currently sitting down After a moment of avoiding the inevitable. The redhead's gaze once again settled on the far side of the table towards the woman seated directly across from her. Iria was drinking her coffee just as slowly as Kei, making a barely audible slurping noise as she did so. Without realizing it, a smile creased the troubleshooter's features. That sound brought back memories; it was the exact same one Kei had heard most mornings growing up under Iria's tutelage. Every morning they had a chance (when Iria wasn't on the job and away from civilization) they would drink coffee in the morning for breakfast. At first Kei only did it in imitation of her mentor, but later she had grown to enjoy the taste of the beverage as well. Sometime after she had left her home for good, she had dropped the habit. But now Kei felt she would be taking it up again. Iria took another identical sip, and Kei found that subtle character nuance to be reassuring. It was nice to know that even after so many years her mentor still remained the same, at least in some ways.

Kei opened her mouth to say something, then shut it just as quickly. It was the fourth time she had repeated the exact same movement. Every time she thought she had something to say, she'd think about it, then judge it as too stupid a way to start a conversation. Her actions had been mirrored at least twice across the table as Iria would look at her, move her own lips slightly, then return to her apparent contemplation.. Kei wasn't sure if that was a good thing. The look of seriousness was uncharacteristic to Iria, and the redhead was halfway convinced it might be that the Iria was trying to figure out how to reprimand her for her actions over the years rather than it just being a bit of tension at how to start a conversation with someone she hadn't seen in so long. Iria had yet to give any indication that she was angry with Kei, but she knew from past experience that yelling and screaming were rarely the tools her mentor employed when expressing her displeasure. Sometimes a glance was all it took to let Kei know she had angered the bounty hunter somehow. And after over a decade, just about anything she might have done could have disappointed the older woman. Kei had led an… active life, and Iria had a tendency to be more straight-laced than the 3WA agent.

One minute became a half dozen as the two remained exactly the way they were, sipping their coffee slowly, acting as though they were about to speak, then going back to drinking or just staring at the other woman across from them.

"This is ridiculous," a deep male voice from a small, watch-shaped computer strapped to Iria's wrist complained. A tiny hologram of two yellow floating cones with a red sphere floating between them activate from the computer. "Another ten years are going to pass before you two really begin talking. Why don't I start things off?"

Kei let out a sigh of relief, and swore she heard one escape from Iria as well. Leave it to good old Bob to help move things along. When Iria had first returned, and after they broke off their mutual embrace and exchanged pleasantries, Bob was quick to greet Kei as well from the computer strapped to Iria's wrist. Kei herself was relieved to learn Bob was still, well alive wasn't quite the right term, but perhaps functioning would do. Not that she failed to think of him in terms other than that of her co-guardian when growing up, but she had been ashamed to realize that all of her attention had been riveted upon Iria from the moment she had sent the deep space communication and that she had not spared a thought about Bob in all of that time.

Sometimes Kei wondered what it would have been like to have met Bob in person, before Zeiram had killed him. Iria had shown her pictures of the bald man who had been her and Gren's primary employer before the Karma incident, an event that had changed all of their lives dramatically. However, the two dimensional photographs failed to convey the true character of the man that had given her so much advice and assistance over the years. But the universe was not made of 'What Ifs'. Bob had been mortally wounded shortly before Iria had crash-landed on Daowajon and she had met Kei for the first time. Tedan-Tippendai, the corporation that had hired Bob, Iria, and her brother Gren to rescue the crew of the space-liner Karma (while failing to mention that Zeiram was on board which was the reason a rescue was necessary) had taken his brain patterns and secretly downloaded them to an individualized 'Brain Bank,' for their own private use. Bob had circumvented their security programs and contacted Iria, who rescued him from the fate of being nothing more than an eternal tool for the megacorporation. Bob had adjusted to the change in form easily and always considered himself lucky to even be a computerized brain, but it was still another potential future that Zeiram was guilty of stealing. Bob's and thousands of others.

Bob 'cleared' his throat by buzzing static for the others' benefit. "I must say Kei, you've blossomed into a radiant flower of beauty."

"Oh stop," Kei squirmed girlishly and felt herself blushing at the compliment. Coming from him, the flattery felt like it was delivered from a favored uncle rather than a possible romantic interest, Bob's lack of body notwithstanding. But it was nice to hear someone say that she was still good-looking. Of course she WAS still good-looking, but it never hurt to hear it said out loud.

Iria gave the small wrist computer a flat stare. "You never say that sort of thing about me."

"That's because you told me never to lie to you."

The wrist computer met the plastic tabletop several times before Iria let up.

Bob mock protested at first, but the complaint degenerated into a laugh that was joined a moment later by the girls. The laughter went on for over a minute before Bob managed to give what passed for a sincere comment about Iria's own attractive features. All present felt the tension that had cast a pall over the reunion dissolve with the sound of the laughter, and the trio eased into an almost long-forgotten camaraderie.

"You do look well, Kei," Iria confirmed. "I'm glad to see you're looking healthy too. Given our lines of work, that's not always a given."

Kei nodded in agreement. Despite the numerous fights, explosions, and crashes she had been involved in throughout her life, she had never taken an injury that modern science could fail to erase as though it had never been. "I've been through a few rough spots over time, but I've never had anything permanent done to me."

"I'll say you've been through some rough spots," Iria said, her voice taking on a small note of disapproval that Kei picked up on instantly. It was amazing how one could suddenly find themselves remembering every subtle detail of what a person was like, even after over a decade and a half of separation.

Kei giggled, a nervous thing that only made her more uneasy. Iria's level stare became even more flat. Before she could add further commentary, Bob chose to interject himself once again.

"Iria's been following your exploits every chance she gets. Which was a lot easier than you might think given how often you turn up in the news."

"Bob," Iria's voice held a warning tone in it.

The implied threat was disregarded without a second digital thought. "She's always been worried about you, even if she acts a little uncaring right now. You should have stayed in touch."

"Bob! Knock it off." Iria placed her other hand next to the button that would shut down his ability to use her wrist computer as a terminal.

"Fine," Bob's voice held the petulant tone of a child that was no longer allowed to do something fun and wholly mischievous.

For Kei, it felt as though a tremendous weight had been lifted off her shoulders. Iria had still cared enough about her to follow her career as best as she could. Part of Kei, a small but a very real part, had been fearful that once she had left Iria's sight, she had been quickly forgotten. Originally it had been the fears of a young woman mostly alone, fearful that not only would she fail to make her mark on the universe, but that she had also failed to have an effect on the others whose lives she had already touched. Later, with the onset of maturity (an idea Yuri would have scoffed at when it applied to Kei) it was more of a fear that it was a way for Iria to get back at Kei for leaving her care with only a short note left behind. Eventually, the worries had been pushed to the back of Kei's mind, newer, more urgent concerns, from how much money she had saved up to who was trying to kill her today, taking precedent over the concerns of the past. But once Kei had made her call to Iria, the old fears had clawed their way back to the present and made their presence known, showing that they had grown in the dark recesses of her mind rather than fading away like a memory over the passage of years.

But now Bob's words assured her that had not been the case. That the opposite was actually the truth. The knowledge that she had been thought about, cared about, by someone that was still important to her (and seeing her again made Kei quickly accept that Iria still meant the world to her) made the troubleshooter feel better than she had in months, if not years.

It was Kei's turn to speak. "I'm sorry I didn't keep in touch," she admitted shamefacedly. "I was afraid of how you'd react when I decided to strike out on my own. I didn't think you'd approve, so I sort of-"

"—Left in the middle of the night at the age of sixteen, leaving a note on your bed saying you had to find your own course in life and that you needed to do it alone." Iria shot her a disapproving glare, the same kind a mother would give any child of theirs.

Kei found herself reflexively flinch at the reprimand. That was something she never did with anyone, save with Yuri on those few occasions when the raven-haired member of the duo was right and the mess they were in really was Kei's fault. "Uh, yeah. I didn't know how else to do it. I was afraid you'd try to talk me out of it. And," It took her a moment to admit this, mostly to herself, "I was more afraid you'd succeed. It was the only way I could see me successfully getting out of there, even if it wasn't exactly the best way I could have left."

Iria's disapproving glare remained where it was, making Kei wonder if her reasons had sounded just as lame to her now that they had been verbalized
(despite being the complete and honest truth). Then the glare disappeared, becoming softer. Iria's whole form seemed to become more relaxed as she tilted her chair back and placed her hands behind her head.

The bounty hunter began speaking. "Believe it or not, I understand. I saw the way you'd been acting the last few months before you left. It was hard not to notice with the constant arguments we had over trivial things and the frustration you were showing at life in general. Bob said I was a little like that when I was your age, though I seemed to deal with it better. It took me a while, but I eventually realized that you needed to search for something that you couldn't find at home. It took a little longer, but I was almost ready to accept you having to leave me to find it as well." There was a pause before Iria's voice held a bit more emotion in it. Not painful, but more of the vague hint of lingering distress over something done so long ago. "But you still should have let me know. I had faith in you. If you were able to survive on your own as an orphan on Daowajon, then after almost ten years of me teaching you about life and showing you the ropes, I'd have helped you do whatever it was you had to do. I wouldn't have been happy about it, I don't think it would be possible for me to be happy about you leaving, but I would have accepted that that was the way things had to be and done it."

"Oh." Kei felt a cloud of depression start to hover over her. The confession, combined with her own emotions after seeing Iria for the first time in so long, was becoming a bit overwhelming. All of her life Kei had convinced herself that part of the reason she had to leave like a thief in the night was that Iria would have tried to stop her. But to learn that wasn't the case, and that she had made things so much more difficult for herself and her mentor by running away, wasn't sitting well with her. Kei could have handled things so much better and her unfounded fears wouldn't have caused them to be separated for so many years.

With Iria before her, a host of feelings Kei had thought long gone and forgotten returned. A feeling of belonging, of family that Yuri's presence couldn't provide since she fell under the (also very important) category of friend rather than family, was the one that was strongest. All of that angst, especially in the earlier years, but having recently returned with the onset of the feeling of old age, could have been avoided if Kei had been open with her feelings at the time. Everything would have been all right, or at least better.

Iria noticed the depression and thought quickly. She leaned forward so that all four feet of her chair again touched the ground and brought one of her hands forward, holding Kei's with her own. "Don't let it get you down. Things turned out all right. You got on your feet right away, and I managed to keep a close enough eye on you early on through contacts to know that you were taking care of yourself. I've been pretty busy with my own life as well. You wouldn't believe some of the things I've done over the last fifteen years. I was on one of side of the galaxy to the other. Hunting along the outer rim is hard work, as you know. Sometimes I haven't' been home for months, so we probably wouldn't have had that many chances to get together. Not with how busy you and I have been."

"That's true," Kei had to agree.

"So we agree not to let the past bother us?"

Kei nodded and was surprised at how quickly Iria's words of encouragement served to dispel the pall of depression that had begun to set in. Iria was right. It was all in the past, and Kei had tried doing what she thought was necessary with the information she had at the time. She wasn't real big on angst anyway, always thinking of herself as more of a free spirit and not letting the problems in life bog her down for too long. It felt good to get this out in the open and put to rest.

Iria released Kei's hand. "I can tell you've been really, really busy doing— how does the press usually put it?— 'Cutting a swathe of death and destruction through the galaxy'?"

Kei felt her face grow red. "Well, me and Yuri's relationship with the press has never exactly been the best, you know what I mean?"

"Your relationship with the majority of planets you visit usually isn't the best either," Iria replied flatly.

Kei held her hands up defensively. Never had she felt so ashamed of her case record, and many, many people had tried. Thousands over the years, to be accurate. "Well, it's not my fault, really. And I'm not just saying that. The 3WA computer always clears me and Yuri of any charges of wrongdoing. All of the accidents are totally unavoidable, and usually the cases I'm assigned are so hard that, since I'm pretty much the best agent the 3WA's got, the chances of succeeding in solving them are next to impossible to begin with. Why, if it wasn't for me, there'd be a lot more devastation and havoc in the universe."

"Given the trail of devastation and havoc that you leave behind, that's pretty hard to believe," Iria said.

"It's true," Kei insisted. She leaned forward, looking around the room, then gave Iria a conspiratorial look. Iria's curiosity was piqued and she leaned forward in her chair as well, her face no more than a couple of inches away from Kei's. The next words Kei said were virtually inaudible, and Iria had to strain to hear them. "I don't like to say this out loud, with Yuri being my partner and all, but the truth is, she's really a loose cannon."

Iria's eyebrows shot up. "Really?"

"Oh yes," Kei assured her in smooth, louder tones. "She's a wild, one woman wrecking crew. Now don't get me wrong, she's nice person most of the time, and a heck of an agent. I wouldn't want anyone else for my partner, and she has cleared all of the charges too. But the main reason things get blown up around us is because she's recklessness personified. I can't begin to imagine the untold damage she'd cause if I wasn't there to help keep her under control."

Iria cocked an eyebrow at this so-called 'confession'. "That's interesting, considering you were always the one that was pretty hard to restrain growing up, at least as I recall."

"Meaning the two of you are so alike it's scary," Bob added. He received a thump into the tabletop for his expert testimony.

Outside the room, a portable listening device's component parts shattered into a dozen pieces as a certain 3WA agent's grip tightened reflexively upon it. A loose cannon, was she? And after she had been thoughtful and caring enough to plant a bug in the room beforehand and eavesdrop on the conversation to make sure everything went smoothly with Kei and her old friend (And she hadn't done it just to be nosy). And what does that backstabbing little witch do? She tries to make Yuri into the big scapegoat when it was actually Kei that was responsible for nearly every bad move the pair had ever made. Yuri made a mental note to have a discussion with Kei about taking responsibility for her actions at a later time, probably in the middle of a hand-to-hand combat training session. That way Yuri knew she'd have Kei's proper amount of attention. Oh, yes. Yuri would see to it she received plenty of attention from her partner. Almost more than the redhead would be able to handle.

"How much longer until we get there?" Kei asked Iria as the pair headed towards the bounty hunter's attached ship, 'Creeper V'. It was named in honor of her original spacecraft, the four before the current version all meeting similar, violent fates. Both felt elated at their long conversation. Once started, the two had bantered back and forth, catching up on old times and barely scratching the surface of all they had done over the years. They would have continued on through the night until they collapsed it had not been for Bob mentioning that they would be dropping out of hyperspace and arriving at the station in an hour, and that they had best make ready to deal with Zeiram. Reluctantly, the duo ended their talk and called Yuri to meet them at the airlock where the two ships were still slaved together.

Yuri was waiting at the airlock as the two came up the passageway, the last vestiges of laughter at some inane joke ending as they arrived and stood next to the girl waiting for them. A disapproving glare was shot at Kei, a glare that the redhead caught onto immediately, and then a professional one was presented for the outer rim bounty hunter.

"What are we doing here anyway?" Yuri asked, leaving Kei to wonder idly what she had done to upset Yuri so much.

"Kei informs me the two of you need an upgrade in weapons. Since we don't have time to stop off anywhere, I thought I'd give you your pick from my own armory." Iria touched the pad controlling the airlock. The door between the ships opened with a snake-like hiss as the air caught in the connection tunnel between the two ships escaped into the Lovely Angel. "I've picked up a few pieces of impressive hardware over the years. I think you'll find something useful."

"Most planetary governments could find something useful in there," Bob confirmed, his mechanically simulated voice somehow conveying an intangible smirk.

The trio of women stepped into the well-lit passageway connecting the ships. It was a sterile white, reminiscent of the color within most medical facilities on any planet in the galaxy, no matter how vastly different cultures might be. The five-centimeter thick walls of the connection tube were all that stood between them and being lost in hyperspace forever. None of the women thought about this as they made their way between the two vessels. Iria used her personal code to allow their entry into her ship.

Using the several second interval while the Creeper V processed the code, Yuri began asking some of the questions on her mind. "What exactly is this Zeiram creature? Kei didn't really have the time to give me proper information on it since it was trying to kill us at the time. Since then," she drifted off and pointed at the white bandage around her upper leg.

Iria nodded her head in understanding. All traces of her previous enjoyment with Kei disappeared as she took on a more serious demeanor. "Zeiram is an alien of unknown origin. He appeared in this arm of the Milky Way Galaxy slightly over two decades ago, wiping out a number of remote colonies, and a couple of thousand people on several planets before being caught and neutralized. Originally, it was held for study on the last planet he had tried to destroy, but somehow a huge conglomerate called Tedan-Tippendai got its hands on Zeiram. As near as Bob and I were able to piece together, they were trying to come up with some way of controlling him and using him as a weapon. But he escaped from them. Bob, my brother Gren, and myself were secretly hired to take him out. We failed, he killed Bob's body, and ended up absorbing my brother somehow, using his memories and skills to help try to hatch some scheme to bring others of his race to this part of the galaxy, or so we surmised at the time.

"As to Zeiram himself, in the simplest of terms, he's a walking killing machine. He doesn't show mercy, murdering anything and everything that's around him. He doesn't talk, doesn't bargain, doesn't hesitate, doesn't sleep, and doesn’t stop. He is incredibly powerful. He can integrate just about any weapon system into his body and use it with expert skill. He's incredibly resilient, able to bounce back from almost any injury or just plain ignore them. He can create various repulsive monsters through the white face on his head. It devours organic matter, then produces an egg that can be hatched almost instantly, creating a monster that is one hundred percent loyal to Zeiram. They are just as vicious and homicidal as him, but nowhere near as powerful, thankfully."

"Monster, huh? Sounds like the thing I killed on the ship." Yuri shuddered at the memory, as she and the others boarded the Creeper V.

"That's probably exactly what it was," Iria speculated. "I only managed to kill Zeiram by taking him on and wearing him down with lots of weapons, destroying the white head, and then leaving his corpse to fry in a desert on a barren planet. There's no way he survived. I just know it."

"Maybe it's a different member of the same race?" Yuri offered.

Immediately, Kei shook her head. "I don't think so. I just got this… I don't know, vibe off him. I ran into him several times when I was younger, and there's something about him that makes me know this is the same Zeiram I ran into before, as impossible as it seems."

"I believe you, Kei." Iria was relieved to see the tension in Kei ease with her agreement. It made sense. If she had come to Kei with the same story, the idea that it was a mistake or hallucination would have seemed more likely then the real Zeiram having reappeared again.

"Maybe it's a clone?" Yuri offered.

Iria shrugged. "I don't know. As many times as I ran into it, I didn't really understand how the blasted thing worked. What I do know is that Tedan-Tippendai isn't behind things this time. Their corporation went belly-up within two years after the truth about Zeiram finally became public knowledge."

"What we need to do is kill the thing first, then ask questions later." Now that she was onboard, Kei saw that the design of the Creeper V wasn't very different from either of the previous two incarnations Kei had seen, save that it was almost twice the size of the other two. Despite its size the ship was still only one quarter the size of the Lovely Angel. For Iria, it probably didn't need to be any bigger since she usually traveled alone, save for Bob, and he didn't exactly take up much space. Kei would have found it confining if she had to stay on board for any long stretch of time, but Iria had always been different in that respect. Cramped spaces, from ships to apartments, never seemed to bother her. They didn't really bother Kei either, but she preferred having more room to operate when given a choice. It was another difference between the two women.

The brief tour of the ship ended as Iria made her way to the rear of the ship and pushed a button next to a doorway located near the portside engines. The door slid open to reveal an armory that took up nearly a fifth of the vessel. Weapons of all shapes and sizes were jammed in it, giving the room a cluttered appearance despite the fact the weapons had some sort of organization to them.

Kei let out a low whistle. "Looks like you've been busy since the last time I saw you. This thing must have grown almost five times…Hey! Is that a smart-gun rig?"

A surge of parental pride swelled in Iria's bosom as she watched Kei act like a child let loose in a toy store. The redhead began darting around the room and examining the new 'playthings' she was being given a chance to frolic around with.

Yuri stepped into the armory and mirrored Kei's sentiments in a more restrained way. "This is a heck of a set up you have here."

Iria shrugged as she paid close attention to the 'loose cannon' her young protégé had been teamed up with for over a decade. "You never know what kind of problems you're going to run into when looking for a bounty head. And since I usually operate alone, you only have yourself to rely on. If you don't come equipped with what you need, you probably won't be getting it anytime soon."

"Sounds kind of lonely," Yuri said.

"Well, I have Bob with me all the time. And every now and then I team up with another hunter, like that old bastard Fujikawa, or some of the newer jocks, like Slayback or Effer Effern Efferheart the Third, Esq. They aren't bad to work with for a couple jobs, though I could never team up with any of them for the long term."

Kei's tore her gaze from the Guazees sub-particle beam rifle she had been drooling over. "You mean Fujikawa's still alive?"

"Due in no small part to me," Iria said proudly. "Would you believe he's actually mellowed out a little over the years?"

"Now that I have to see."

Iria smiled at the implication. "After we take care of Zeiram, I'd be happy to take you back home. Things have changed a bit since you were last on Myce, but not so much that you wouldn't recognize it. The planet still has the same feel, which can't be said for a lot of the other worlds that have expanded in the last decade around there.

Kei could almost feel the tears coming to her eyes as a wave of memories of a wonderful childhood assailed her. "I'd like that. A lot."

"Ahem," Yuri cleared her throat loudly. She hated breaking up the scene, but there were other, more urgent matters at hand.

"Right," Iria agreed, getting back to business. "Take your pick. Anything you want to use, grab."

Yuri bowed in appreciation and began looking the racks of various weapons over. There was at least a token appearance by just about every type of handheld weapon that had been manufactured in the galaxy. Slug throwers, incinerators, lasers, particle beams, needlers (Blech!), and ion blasters. There was even a high-tech slingshot towards the back with a wide variety of multi-colored spherical pellets next to it. Yuri passed it over and examined the variety of hand held weapons. There were vibro-swords, laser lances, even some normal-looking ancient type items, like a mace and a set of bolos. The array of weapons was impressive, especially considering how cramped the ship was to begin with.

Yuri drew closer to a familiar type of rifle. "Hey. This is a Pogtaltion 776. These were outlawed by the Uni-Gal Conventions Guidelines at the same time the Barneyblast 'Love Me' Firearms were. Only agents of an inner world military force, or special troubleshooters of the 3WA can use them. And even then we have to fill out a GGIL form in triplicate for each round we use, which is why no 3WA agent has used them in the last five years, since the 'Good God It's Long' forms take at least a two hour minimum to fill out and that's if you're a speed writer."

Kei went up to her partner and grabbed her by the ear, hard. "Yuri, how many times do I have to tell you that if some nice person is going to loan us really cool weapons that are going to save our ass from some bad guy, we turn a blind eye to any illegal weapons charges we might be able to bring them up on? Besides, this is the woman who raised me. If I still had a mother, I'd sooner turn her in than Iria."

"Of course I wouldn't say anything," Yuri pulled her ear out of Kei's grasp and turned partially away, giving Kei a defiant look over her shoulder. "I'm just saying that we should be mindful of the rules we bend just in case it comes back to bite us in the ass. After all, I've certainly covered for you and stuck my neck on the line when you play fast and loose with the rules, which has happened on more than one occasion."

"And like I don't keep my lips shut about some of the crap you've pulled," Kei shot back.

Yuri spun on her heel and confronted Kei, clearly offended. "Excuse me. I am nothing like you. I always stay strictly within the guidelines of the 3WA. I never do anything that would get me in trouble."

Kei raised an eyebrow at that. "Oh, really? What about that little incident between you and Chief Gilhooey at the Christmas party?"

Instantly, Yuri's skin took on the pallor of an anemic ghost. "Buh… buh… but that was five years ago and we were really drunk and that was when he was having marital problems at the time and I had been just dumped by George and I had more to drink than even you that night and nothing came about it anyway and we both felt really, really, really bad about that one time mistake and promised never to breathe a word of any of it to anyone so it doesn't really count and no one would hold that against me."

The glance Kei gave her would have spoken volumes of innocence had it been on anyone else. On the redhead, it was as believable as a talking mime. "Oh? Well, since you think no one would hold that against you, I'll mention it to Mrs. Gilhooey, then."

"NO!" Yuri screamed and fell to her knees, grabbing Kei's legs as she began pleading with her. "You can't do it! In the name of all that's good and holy, you mustn't!"

Kei caught the look of confusion on Iria and began to explain. "Chief Gilhooey was only Agent Gilhooey, when he met the future Mrs. Gilhooey while he was on assignment. He was guarding her when she was a participant at the Intergal Olympiad. You know, the one to prove who the best people in some individual sport in the galaxy are? She was registered in two events: Long Range Target Shooting and Unlimited Class Fighting. She won the gold medal in both."

"I once saw her dot the 'i' of a 'No Parking' sign at one hundred meters with a handgun. She did it on a quick draw," Yuri babbled.

"Mrs. Gilhooey tends to be a wee bit jealous," Kei continued.

"I saw her drag an illegally parked armored limo out of her husband's parking spot. You should have heard the sounds the metal made while it was pulled across the ground. It sounded like little children being ground into powder."

"There was this one female agent that gave the Chief an innocent peck on the cheek after he gave her a cushy assignment, and Mrs. Gilhooey happened to see it."

"She could kill small animals with her breath alone."

"Thanks to the miracles of modern medical science, they were able to reattach her lips without a problem."

"I'd sooner tattoo, 'I'm a member of the Dirty Pair' across my forehead than mess with her," Yuri loudly proclaimed as visions of an enraged Mrs. Gilhooey filled her mind.

"Think we can let Iria slide on this one?" Kei asked sardonically.

"I'll help her knock over a bank if it means you keeping your mouth shut," Yuri said.

Iria and Bob shared a chuckle at the exchange. They both knew how hard Kei could be to get along with after watching her grow up. What time they had spent reunited with her, despite how brief it had been, indicated that she was still very much the same type of girl that had left them. Mischievous, headstrong, lived mostly in the short-term, a bit violent, but a basically good person that always tried to do the right thing.

It was good to see that somehow she had obviously found the perfect partner for herself.

"This feels somewhat familiar," Yuri commented as she walked down the landing ramp of the Lovely Angel into the same landing bay they had been in before, hefting her new weapon and trying to become used to the weight. What a Suboronic High Intensity Laser Rifle lost in range, it more than made up for in power. At five more times more kick than the standard laser rifle, it could burn a hole through just about anything, hopefully including wandering Zeirams. She also had brought along the spike from the needler that the oversized mushroom had shot into her, hanging it on her belt. She just hoped she would get the opportunity to show him what getting stabbed with one of those things was like.

She cast a sidelong glance at her partner. "Kei, don't you think you might be overdoing it a bit?"

Kei scowled. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"Just look at yourself."

Kei did as Yuri requested. "What?"

An exasperated sigh escaped Yuri's lips. Kei would never learn. "You're carrying a Sharter Smart Gun that's nearly as long as you are tall and is so heavy you have to have it hooked up to a harness and belt mechanism so you can carry it without breaking your back."

Kei gave a beatific smile. "I know. Eight rotating barrels and a two thousand rounds per minute rate of fire. It's great, isn't it? For the first time since we ran into Zeiram I feel really secure."

"That's my Kei," Iria said approvingly as Yuri held her hand to her head in mock pain. She just hoped Kei was smart enough not to use armor-piercing or exploding rounds, especially near one of the outer walls of the station. With the gun's rate of fire, even those would probably punch a hole through the two-foot thick metal and then there would be trouble. Maybe there was still time for Yuri to grab a space helmet.

Her gaze went to Iria as the dark-haired troubleshooter examined her more closely. "Umm. I hate to say this, but aren't you going to carry something with a little more kick than a Boreset Long Rifle? Not that I mean to insult your weapon or anything."

"I'm not insulted," Iria assured her. "It's just that I used this the last time I needed to kill Zeiram, and it's the weapon I'm used to. Besides, I loaded it up with high velocity explosive tip rounds. They can punch a hole in just about anything. I just have to make sure we're not standing near a wall that leads directly to space, just in case I miss."

That made Yuri feel all the more reassured. Someone else was thinking ahead too. For a while there she had thought it just going to be her and the computer guy that were going to have to keep an eye on everything and prevent the other women from getting them killed

As Yuri watched Iria move around, and steadily got to know her during their voyage, (mostly when the bounty hunter and Kei were together) she began to see in her mind's eye the connection between her and Kei. The redhead was definitely a good bit wilder than the bounty hunter, but it was easy to see how her usual manic, gun-happy behavior could have been encouraged in her formative years with someone like Iria as her mentor. It made Yuri appreciate her own upbringing in a much more stable and ordinary environment. She had turned out perfectly normal, especially when compared to her red-haired partner.

The trio crossed the landing bay and looked cautiously out in the corridor before moving into it. The passageway branched off in two directions, both leading deeper into the station.

"We went left the first time we were here," Kei informed Iria.

Iria looked in the direction Kei indicated, then turned to the other way. "I think we'll split up here. I want to make sure we locate Zeiram quickly."

"If this guy is as powerful as you say, is splitting up a good idea?" Yuri asked as she double-checked her weapon.

Without realizing it, Iria bit her lip. It was an old habit she had thought gone for years. She only did it when she was especially nervous. "I'm not sure, but the instant I set foot on this station, I just got this bad feeling. I don't know how else to describe it other than hunter's instinct, but it's definitely there. Something is very out-of-sorts here."

"Everyone on the station is dead," Yuri pointed out. The station did feel like a giant, expensive mausoleum to her. Hell, that was basically what it was now.

Iria shook her head. "No. I mean besides that."

"That's good enough for me," Kei said before Yuri could complain about the vagaries of following something as intuitive as 'hunter's instinct.' It was a clear vote of two to one that ended the debate.

Kei moved closer to Iria, saying something too soft for Yuri to hear. The darker-haired troubleshooter knew what would come next; Kei would want to wander off with her mentor while leaving Yuri to fend for herself, despite the nagging injury to her leg. True, it was not as though Yuri was a green rookie that couldn't identify her ass from a space shuttle, and she had operated in the field solo plenty of times, but there was a vague sensation of being hurt since, despite years of being partnered together, Kei would abandon her (admittedly only for a little while) because a familiar face from her past had turned up.

Just as the raven-haired agent was about to turn down the corridor and head toward the command center on her own, Kei gave Iria a hug that was full of affection and said, "Stay safe." Much to Yuri's surprise, Kei left the embrace, then moved to her side.

Kei saw the look of astonishment on her companion's face. "Come on. We're partners. Iria can take care of herself. Besides, someone has to keep you out of trouble."

"Me out of trouble?" Yuri said with a mask of disbelief that hid the smile within. "Who had to launch a volley of missiles at the freight train that nearly ran her over at Palmado?"

"A fluke," Kei shot back. "What about the time I had to break you out of that hotel room when the Jusky Planetary Security Forces were about to inject you with sulfuric acid."

"I was only in trouble because you gave me a bad tip!"

"Irrelevant. Besides, I specifically told you not to try to go it alone and wait for me to meet up with you in case the tip was bad. How quickly we forget little details, like the truth."

"Oh ho! You want to talk about revisionist history? How about the time we went out with those twins…"

Iria gave a soft smile at the duo before heading off on her own, allowing their voices to drift off to a dull clamor until there was nothing left but the gentle hum of the inner mechanisms of the station to listen to. It was times like these Iria regretted not having a partner. A physical one, in any case. She had tried to find one, but it never seemed to work out. Occasionally, when going after bigger bounties, she would work with someone else, but during those times she also discovered that a partner tended to cramp her style, especially if there was no real chemistry between the two. Chemistry was important to a partnership. Even in a semi-permanent alliance, the members involved had to add to one another's abilities, not detract from them. The sum of the parts becoming greater than the whole, to use the age-old expression. The few fellow bounty hunters that she had teamed up with, where that saying proved to be true, had never lasted long. Usually it was a conflict in philosophies, such as which bounties to go after and how far they would go in obtaining the target. Other times it was a conflict in personality, even if they were professional enough to work together during the length of the mission. Over time Iria had quickly learned that both individuals needed to want to be in the other's presence in order to make anything that lasted more than a couple of missions work out. She had yet to find someone like that.

There was that one time in her life where she did have a partner in what she had hoped would be a permanent union, but that had turned into a real bust, perhaps the biggest of her life. It made her wish her brother, Gren, had still been alive. That had been the perfect partnership, and she thought he had felt that way too. Combined, they had been far more than the mere sum of their parts. And they had gotten along better than even most normal families did. There was never any doubt they would have always been there to back each other up. A brother and sister team, taking every vow they could, save 'till death do they part.' Iria had had dreams of that when she was younger and on the verge of obtaining her own license. But it was never meant to be. Her lifelong dream had died aboard the Karma, the same way so many had died here on this station.

The monster she was hunting now was the one that had taken Gren away. A cold rage settled in the pit of her stomach. That abomination had forced her to kill all that remained of her brother by her own hand. That was a crime for which Zeiram could never be forgiven. Killing him once should have been enough, his festering corpse left to melt under the bright sun of the Stardust Desert. Putting Gren's spirit to rest and nearly dying at Zeiram's hands in the middle of that barren wasteland had been enough to purge that rage once. That and the knowledge that she had find a way to go on and take care of Kei had helped her bury that past. But now it had come back with a nasty vengeance, like the bile that came up when one had the dry heaves. It was taking a great deal of Iria's self-control not to shout towards the heavens at how unfair it all was that Zeiram had the opportunity to come back and her brother did not.

Rage was clouding her judgment, and Iria knew it. She took a moment to turn her mind towards more pleasant thoughts, things that were more important than mere vengeance (which she would still achieve, to be certain). Kei. It was all about her. It was amazing how much her young ward had grown, both physically and emotionally. Certainly, the fiery redhead still seemed a bit immature in some ways, but Iria figured at least part of it was an act for her benefit. Or maybe Kei really was still that irresponsible, but still the bounty hunter felt the satisfaction that could only be experienced when a parent felt moved by their child's accomplishments. That Kei was not of Iria's blood made no difference to the older woman. Whether it was in the role of sister, mother, or friend, she had always been proud of Kei and felt a profound sense of accomplishment in helping the young girl change from a rowdy, thieving orphan to become an upstanding, honest young woman.

True, Kei had departed at the age of sixteen to start living a life of her own making, and there had been an emptiness within Iria that had plagued her for nearly a year afterwards, leading her to make some awful mistakes with her life. But with time she learned to deal with the feelings that were related to matters that had been outside of her ability to change or even control. With time, she accepted the way things had turned out. As depressed as Iria had been at Kei's absence, there had always been the relief that her ward was still alive and well. That loss was nothing compared to what had happened to Gren. Dealing with her brother's death had helped her deal with the lesser 'loss' of Kei. It was ironic that even in death, it was Gren that had helped her deal with one of the more troubling times in her life.

And now, years later, confronted with a not so young woman that was a mature (physically, anyway) adult, Iria knew she had done the right thing in not pursuing Kei and trying to drag her back. It had been better to allow the young girl to leave the nest and learn to fly on her own. The lack of contact over the years might have cost both of them some time they could have spent together, helping one another as only they could, but the end result had made the absence worthwhile. It was all in the past, and they were now left with only the present and future to live in. Hopefully, there would be plenty of both to deal with.

In a much-improved mood, Iria decided she had done enough internalizing of her emotions. It was time to turn her full attention to the matter at hand. It wouldn't do to become so wrapped up in thinking about Kei that Zeiram got the drop on her, possibly absorbing her like he had Gren. That kind of symmetry to life Iria could live without.

The delicate sound of lightly armored feet played softly across the metal deck of the station as Iria covered the distance to the central quarters for the civilian section. According to the debriefing that she had received from the duo, this was a part that Kei and Yuri had not searched during their last time on board. There was no telling what sort of unpleasant surprises might be lying in wait for her in this uncharted territory, so Iria moved quietly, listening to anything and everything that might indicate an ambush or where Zeiram was currently located.

The first twenty minutes of the search turned up nothing in the way of clues, frustrating Iria. Her most fervent wish was to locate Zeiram and kill him right away. His continued existence was beginning to wear away at her now that she was moving about in his new lair, for lack of a better term. The matter should have been resolved years ago, but now it had all come back and she wanted done with it forever this time.

Iria was about to make her way to another section of the station when her hunter's instinct made her turn towards another direction. There was something there, she was certain of it. More cautiously than ever, she moved into a long metal corridor that would lead to the air processing plant. As she stalked through the passageway, she spotted an unmoving, amorphous blob lying in the middle of the corridor. After observing it for several moments, and determining it wasn't moving in the slightest, she walked forward. Cautiously, she approached the lump, rifle ready to pump a few explosive rounds at anything that tried to rush her. The situation was the classic misdirection trap, the blob meaning to attract her complete attention. She made certain there was nothing hiding in a cubbyhole or vent nearby that might try to attack. There appeared to be nothing as she drew near the thing in the corridor, getting close enough to clearly make out its form. When it had been alive, the thing certainly could have been one of the monstrosities produced by Zeiram. It appeared to have once been humanoid, but just barely, with long ropy tentacle where arms should have been and black skin the color of deep space. There was luminescent ooze that was slowly dripping from its mouth, a pool of the substance already congealing underneath it.

The creature was dead, of that there could be no doubt. More green ooze had spilled to the floor from different wounds, forming a puddle underneath the body. The creature itself was riddled with holes and had what appeared to be telltale laser burns on its legs.

Iria sniffed the air once. A frown creased her forehead. The implications of the scene made Iria even more anxious than before. After a moment's consideration, she flipped on her communicator.

"Kei, Yuri. Do you read me, over?"

Kei was the first to answer. "Loud and clear. What's up?"

"Last time you were here, did the two of you make it to the residential quarters or the corridor between that and the air processing plant?"

"No. Not even close," Yuri answered.

"And when did you leave the station?"

Kei responded first this time. "We already told you. Three days ago. Why?"

"I'll explain later. Break off the search and head directly towards the command bridge. I think the answers we need are going to be there." At least Iria hoped they would be there.

"What's going on?" There was an edge to Kei' voice. This wasn't part of the plan to find Zeiram.

"This station has had guests since you left."

"What do you mean 'the station's had guests'?" Kei asked as she and Yuri linked up with Iria shortly before arriving at the bridge.

Iria explained things as she moved at a slow trot. "I found a dead creature in one of the corridors. There was still the lingering scent of ozone in the air from an energy weapon discharge."

"So it was killed in the last few hours." Yuri completed the thought for the others.

"Maybe Zeiram killed it?" Kei offered, though her voice lacked true conviction.

Iria shook her head. "You remember what it was like fighting those monsters. Every one of those creatures was fanatically loyal. They'd never turn on him. Also I can't see him going through all the hassle of creating them just to kill them. No. I'm almost certain something else took out the one I saw."

"Survivors?" Yuri asked.

This time it was Kei's turn to ruin her partner's theory. "Not on this station. Not with Zeiram moving around for three days. Of that I'm positive."

"Yeah," Yuri admitted. The idea was far-fetched. So who did that leave? Not the authorities; they would still be here conducting an investigation. The question continued plaguing Yuri until the trio arrived at the command center. They entered cautiously, finding a good portion of the chamber damaged from the earlier firefight that had ensued within its confines.

"That where you exited the room?" Iria pointed to the rubble filled far side of the command center.

Kei nodded her head, examining what was left of the interior. No Zeiram. That was too bad, but she hadn't believed for a moment that he had died in the explosion. As to the computers, that was a different story. Nearly all of them near where she had tossed her overloaded laser rifle had been completely destroyed; all that was left was twisted metal and exposed wires. Another quarter appeared to have been damaged by shrapnel and assorted debris. That left only the master computers near the commander's portion of the room intact. They were located on a raised portion of the room, toward the back where the commander could see everyone in the room at once. Also the computers up there had additional plating, since they were the most important.

Iria made her way over to them. Turning one of the machines on, she was immediately asked a password for entry into the system. "Okay, Bob. It's showtime." She pulled a data plug from her wrist computer and inserted it into the command terminal.

"How long do you think it'll take for him to get into the system?" Yuri asked.

"With all of the numerous and expensive encryption and protection programs they have in this multi-trillion credit corporate juggernaut that took nearly three years to build?"

The soothing tones of a feminine voice came from the computer and said, "Password accepted, Mr. Cool Guy Bob."

"About ten seconds," Iria finished.

"You're losing your touch," Kei chided to the devise on Iria's wrist.

"Hey, now. Some of those protection programs were state of the art," Bob defended.

"Kei's just jealous because she can't get past the protection programs on her own computer," Yuri said with a delighted smile on her face.

"That only happened once when I was drunk and forgot my password!" Kei shouted back.

Yuri continued snickering and took the commander's chair next to the console. The snickering stopped as she examined the screen, taking in everything upon it. Her course of action decided, her fingers initiated an elaborate dance across the keyboard. She could have used the voice activation program, but there was something reassuring about using her hands to go through the programs and systems. It might have had something to do with feeling more in control. Or maybe it was just that feminine voice the computer used grated on her nerves.

Within seconds, Yuri came to a disturbing conclusion. "Most of these files have been erased."

Iria and Kei looked at each other, the same answers to the unspoken question in their faces. Iria answered, "Zeiram wouldn't bother erasing a computer. Even if he knew how, there wouldn't be any point to it. That's not the sort of thing he cares about."

"Maybe this thing really isn't Zeiram?" Yuri offered.

"It was him," Kei assured her.

Yuri spoke while scrolling through the various programs "Well, someone erased most of this system, and I doubt if it was the personnel on the station. I can't imagine what reason they had, and it would take them days to restore the information. We can… oh, shit!" Yuri hissed out.

"What? What is it?" Kei asked.

"'Oh, shit', is right," Bob said in almost the exact same tones Yuri had used, despite his voice being the result of a voice synthesizer.

Yuri double-checked the readout on the computer. It still showed the same thing. That was it then. There was only one thing left to do.

She jumped out of the seat and ran at full speed towards the ripped off doors to the command center, her injured leg not bothering her in the slightest. "The station's reactors have been set to overload and are going to hit critical mass in about ten minutes."

It took a moment for the words to sink in for Iria and Kei. That was sufficient time for Yuri to disappear through the doorway to the center. The duo looked at one another, and in stereo, said, "Oh, shit."

Both women turned and headed for the doorway. They had almost left the raised portion of the room when Iria turned around and headed back to the computer.

Kei stopped in as much disbelief as concern. "What are you doing? We have to get out of here!"

"One second!" Iria snapped as she reinserted the Bob's data plug back into the terminal and removed the majority of the device from her wrist. To the remaining piece still attached to her arm, she said, "Can you download everything to your main bank on the Creeper?"

There was a pause, followed by, "No, but I can get a lot of it. Just leave this access port for me here, and I'll transfer as much as I can."

"Right!" Iria left the device behind as Kei urged her onward. There was a bit of reluctance at leaving even something as small as Bob's access port behind; it felt too much like abandoning a comrade. Mentally, she had to remind herself that this wasn't really Bob at all, just an outlet for the real him stored on the main computer on the Creeper. He wouldn't be in any danger when this link was destroyed. But the action still bothered her.

"Come on!" Kei insisted as Iria rejoined her and the two headed towards the docking bay their ships currently resided in as fast as they could.

"Bad Troubleshooter. No more donuts for you. They'll only slow you down even more."

"I was only late because I had to wait for Iria to catch up!"

"Then why was she a good thirty seconds ahead of you when you two finally reached the docking bay?"

"Because she's shorter than me."

"That means her stride is shorter. You can cover more distance with each step."

"It also means she's lighter than me, since she's shorter, which means she could move faster. Now if we were the same height, then I'd be lighter than her, of course."

"She's wearing armor, Kei. You're wearing a bikini."

"Hey now! This stuff is made out of Tyra-armor cloth. It weighs more than your average normal fabric."

"Next you'll be telling me your tan helped weigh you down too."

"Just be quiet."

"I mean, come on, Kei. She's nearly two decades older than you, and she wasn't anywhere near as out of breath as you were."

"Shut up, Yuri!"

"You sounded like a dog in heat with all of that panting and wheezing. Poor Mughi probably thought you were going to jump him."

That caught Mughi's attention. He looked suspiciously at both women, who were manning the flight controls, then slowly backed out of the cockpit of the Lovely Angel. He really didn't like the direction the conversation had suddenly taken. Best to let something else distract them so the discussion turned away from him. He liked his partners well enough, but they really scared the hell out of him with how weird they would get every now and then.

Kei looked out the front viewport of the cockpit of the Lovely Angel. The space station was continuing to shrink into the distance as their ship and Iria's pulled away as fast as they could. Already they were at a safe distance from the station, but neither wanted to take any chances. "So when is that sucker supposed to explode?"

Yuri read the chronometer on the control panel. "In three… two… one."

Both looked at the space station again. There was a small blossom of red near the top of the central spire of the station, then nothing.

Kei smirked at her partner. "Gee, Yuri. I was expecting something a little more spectacular."

Yuri looked at the space station with a mixture of surprise and disgust. "It was supposed to blow up."

"Yeah, right."

"I'm serious," Yuri insisted. "Those reactors were set to overload and explode. I saw the countdown."

"You probably stumbled on the program to somebody's toaster oven, Little Miss Computer Expert."

"I did not! I know what it said!"

"Or maybe it was all a hoax just to get me to run for my life so you could make jokes about my running speed."

It was in the middle of Yuri's next protest that a line of red spread out from the middle of the space station, running the complete length up and down. Once the vertical line finished its course, the station split into two equal halves, perfectly symmetrical in shape. The two drifted apart until they were a half kilometer away, then the left half glowed red while the second half was covered in a nimbus of white. Then two massive, soundless explosions occurred, turning that area of space into a miniature star with its light for one brief moment. The ensuing explosions each vaporized nearly half of the remains of the station, with the rest of the debris shooting outward and into the vastness of deep space.

"Ohhh. Pretty." Kei clapped her hands in approval. "Looks like I owe you an apology, partner." She gave Yuri a hard slap on the back.

There was a note of resignation in Yuri's voice. "There goes another space station up in smoke. You know they're going to blame us for it. Now we get a whole new round of 'Oh, my God! It's the Dirty Pair. Don't clear them to land or they'll destroy us too,' at the next place we visit. That always happens after something blows up around us. Always."

"Which is why there's no point in fretting about it," Kei said in an effort to cheer her partner up. "Let's hook up with Iria and see what we can get out of the information Bob managed to snag before everything went to shit."

"I guess we ought to." Yuri's eyes were drawn to where the DX-11000 station had been a moment before. Complete eradication. It would take a miracle to find any evidence in that debris. If it hadn't been for her and Kei happening on the station when they did, and escaping with their lives, no one would ever have known what had really happened there.

It made one wonder what was really going on.

"Most of the information on the mainframe was completely erased. Whoever did it was a professional, too. What they got to was totally wiped out without any chance of recovery."

"I sense a 'but' in there," Iria said.

Iria had returned to the Lovely Angel again, the trio gathering in the conference room on board. The Creeper V was too small for them to talk easily, and Bob was able to interact with the Lovely Angel's systems with ease. It had taken the man-turned-computer about an hour to thoroughly go through the information he had scraped together from the download from the station. In the interim, the women compared notes on the criminals they had captured over the course of their careers, each side being impressed by some of the noteworthy felons they had caught. There had even been several that both sides had grabbed at one time or another. "Small universe," Iria remarked at the coincidences.

The small talk ended once Bob presented what information he had obtained. "It's clearly a rush job. They didn't manage to personally erase everything. They set a program in there to delete the remaining information, except for reactor systems. But the program didn't run as fast as they thought it would. There was still a little bit of material left when I downloaded it."

Yuri thought about that. "They probably erased all of the important information, then set the reactor to overload and figured that would take out everything else before anyone got there to look for any clues."

"Could be," Kei agreed. She certainly couldn't come up with anything better.

"Something else as well," Bob said. "The reactor information was untouched so nothing would interfere with it overloading. All of that information was intact. Whoever set the thing to overload didn't hack into the system. They had the codes necessary to get in there and reprogram it themselves."

Three sets of eyes met, the same thought running through them. Iria was the first to give voice to the suspicion. "An inside job of some kind then."

"No way Zeiram was behind it," Kei confirmed.

Yuri's mind processed all of the evidence they had. "Zeiram somehow comes into being, pops up on that station, wipes out every human being on board, except for deranged highly trained military expert that is completely out of place there, then, once we escape from the creepy monster, someone who has inside information comes by, kills at least one of Zeiram's little nasties and then sets the station to explode, presumably without Zeiram on it."

"He definitely was not there," Bob piped in.

All of the women stared at him. "How do you know?" Iria asked.

"I processed all of the data I could. Most of it was garbage, but there was at least one gem. This is some footage I managed to salvage from one of the docking bay security cameras. The picture is absolutely miserable, but here's what I recovered. It's the best I could do."

A hologram projector built into the center of the table activated and showed the footage Bob had managed to recover. In the beginning seconds, nothing but static filled the screen. Then there was a change as the picture cleared just enough to make out the unmistakable form of Zeiram getting on board a ship. Several moments later, the ship took off, and the bay became as quiet as the tomb it had become.

"Damn!" The sound of Kei's fist hitting the metal tabletop filled the room.

"What?" Yuri asked at the outburst.

She pointed at the static filled image hanging above the table. "That cargo hauler he's getting on. It's one that was in the bay when we landed the first time. I didn't even realize it was missing when we came back until I saw him get on it there."

Bob spoke again. "I can confirm that that is the same bay which we entered. Regrettably, the port log was completely erased, so I don't know when that ship originally came on board, where it was from, or what its cargo was."

"What about what direction it left in?" Yuri asked.

"That time frame for the automated scanners was intact. They took a 20275 heading away from here. But they could have easily changed their course after they were out of sensor range."

"How about when they left? There is a time log on when it departed, right? I thought I saw it on the picture," Kei said.

"Yes. Thirty-four hours and seventeen minutes before we arrived."

The others looked at Bob in confusion. "That's way too long in between when they left and when the reactors blew up."

"Information indicates the reactors were originally programmed to explode an hour and a half before we arrived," Bob informed them.

"Plenty of time for someone to get off the station while leaving a cushion in case they had to delay the explosion," Iria estimated.

"But not if they left thirty-six hours ago," Yuri said quietly to herself.

"You think someone else came on board after Zeiram left and set the station to explode?" Kei asked, hoping anyone would be able to answer.

"I'm not sure, although it does seem make sense," Iria admitted. Yuri nodded her head in agreement. Bob remained silent, unwilling to come to any conclusions without more information.

No one spoke for the next few moments, each left in the privacy of their own thoughts as they considered their situation. Bob was the first to break the silence. "So what do we do now? Alert the 3WA?"

"No." Iria's answer was quick, almost like a gunshot. It had much the same effect as one since everyone paid attention solely to her. "We still don't know what's going on, other than it appears there might be a third party involved. I want more information before we announce that we know what's happened here and that Zeiram still exists. I don't want to wonder if the people I'm spilling my guts to are somehow involved in all of this. No sense in putting a bull's eye on our backs if we can help it. Besides, Zeiram's mine and Kei's personal demon. We should be the ones to kill him. At this point other people would just get in the way."

She watched Kei and Yuri nod in agreement. Apparently they were content to defer to her, at least for the moment. Iria accepted that they might try to take charge after some time had passed, given the fact they were legal representatives of the most powerful law enforcement agency in the galaxy and quite capable of handling themselves. She made certain return the favor by keeping her mind open to any proposals they might have in the future.

"So what do you think we should do?" Yuri asked.

"Bob, did you pull an exterior registry number from the ship that took off with Zeiram?" Iria asked.

"It's a bit fuzzy to make out, and one of the numbers is either a one or a seven, but the others are within an eighty-nine to ninety-eight percent certainty. I won't be able to run a check on them until we get to a planet-side information network I can hook up to. From there I can get to some sort of vehicle registration list and try tracking down ownership of the vehicle."

"That's a pretty weak lead," Yuri mentioned.

"Right now it's the only clue we've got." Iria closed her eyes for a moment, then announced, "We're going to head to Delabar."

"Any particular reason why?" Kei asked.

"It's the nearest major inhabited planet to here," Iria said. "It's also the last known direction Zeiram headed towards. Given his propensity for killing, and if he had any idea of where he was going, that makes it his most likely destination."

"And he has a thirty-six hour head start on us," Kei said, letting the implication of what damage Zeiram could to a population in over a day go unspoken, though with the butchery all three women had seen, it didn't take much imagination.

They just hoped there would be a population left to save once they arrived.


To be continued.

Author's notes: Not sure if the mix I have of the initial emotional material at the beginning and the new information to the plot provided in the second half was a balanced mix. The Iria-Kei relationship needed to be explored, and will continue to deepen as the chapters progress, but at the same time I didn't want to bog the reader down with a lot of mostly emotional passages to take up the majority of the fic. Hopefully it worked.

Sorry this took so long to do. No apologies really other than I felt the need to do several other fics first and that I've been exceptionally busy. The next one shouldn't take as long, since I've gotten most of the other fics out of my system.

D.B. Sommer

Chapter 3
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