Any number of terms could be used to describe the Pinnacle's lobby; gilded, glittering, extravagant, elaborate, fancy, or formal- but to Gene Starwind, there was only one word that truly conveyed his current surroundings: swank.

            It was a study in decadence, built exclusively out of precious materials from a dozen worlds. In a simple sweep of the room, the Outlaw identified tile carved from volcanic marble, antique furniture crafted from genuine terran mahogany, diamond-studded light fixtures, a massive golden statue of some nude goddess with shards of dragonite for eyes, and even an ashtray that looked suspiciously like it was forged in platinum. Every possible surface was polished, reflecting the soft sunlight that beamed in through crystal windows. No speck or spot dared to mar any of these surfaces- there weren't even any stains from spilled drinks at the bar. Then again, considering the fact that most of the bottles behind said bar were older than most of the patrons, it wasn't surprising that people took care not to spill their drinks.

            All and all, the Pinnacle looked just as its reputation made it out to be- the most impressive (and subsequently most expensive) luxury hotel to be found within light years.

            All and all, it was the last place anyone would expect to find a self-styled scoundrel such as Gene Starwind. And yet, there the Outlaw was- albeit in disguise. A patch of synthetic skin stretched over the telltale scars on his cheek, concealing them from prying eyes. Gene fought down the impulse to itch at the bit of makeup for the umpteenth time since he had donned the disguise- having a gooey bit of plastic poured into an old scar wasn't exactly the most pleasant of experiences.

            Of course, the patch of material over his face was a minor irritation when compared to the rest of his disguise. The grey suit was supposed to be tailor-fit, supposed to be sewn from the wool of some alien critter known for its own softness, supposed to be worth an exorbitant amount of money that could be (in the Outlaw's humble opinion) better spent on booze and spaceship parts. It felt strange on Gene's lean frame, none the less, too loose in some places, and far too tight in others. The necktie was particularly annoying, reminding the pirate of no more than a silk noose.

            Looking down to the raven-haired woman on his left arm, however, dispelled his thoughts of minor annoyances in his wardrobe. Much like the lobby they stood in, she was striking. A navy blue dress wrapped about her body, accentuating her figure in a way entirely not unpleasant to the eye. The glint of gold reflected off of her neck from the links of a delicate necklace. Her hair was done up in what was supposed to be the current fashion, heaped up in elegant coils and the like. Her brown eyes were open wide as they took in the marvelous sight of the Pinnacle. It didn't surprise Gene at all. Melfina often marveled at some of the simpler things of life; it was a wonder the utter extravagance of it all hadn't yet sent her into a dumbfounded shock.

            Gene gently tugged Melfina along towards the silver-gilded reception desk, drawing an ornate envelope from his jacket. The action reminded Gene of yet another factor that made him feel out of place within the walls of the luxury hotel- the distinct lack of personal weaponry. There was no reassuring weight of a holstered pistol, or even a knife tugging down at Gene's frame. In particular, the scoundrel missed the caster he usually carried by his side. A certain feeling, a certain sort of confidence came with the knowledge that one's packing one of the most powerful sorts of weapons in the galaxy. The entire situation was like that of some poor toddler who had lost his safety blanket.

            Of course, in this case, the 'saftey blanket' could punch through two feet of concrete, but Gene missed it, none the less.

            The outlaw handed the envelope over to the receptionist (who was naturally attired in an immaculate white uniform) and reflected over just how he had gotten himself into this situation.

            Money, of course (or, more accurately, the lack thereof) was the heart of it all. Despite the galaxy-spanning adventures of the Outlaw Star and her ragtag crew, any large amounts of cash that they happened to come by slipped through their fingers. They were never in danger of starvation- Fred Low was far too willing to lend money (at a considerable interest rate, that is) when needed.

            A simple (though large) debt set up Gene's side of the equation, but the situation was hardly that simple. Among Fred Low's other business ventures was the recent acquisition of a large share of stock in the Pinnacle hotel. Being the business savvy individual he was, the arms dealer had made it a point to sniff through the luxury hotel's financial records. Naturally, exorbitant sums of money went into and out of the Pinnacle in order to keep it running. However, Fred had found that a considerable amount of money went into the Pinnacle's basement- not in cash form, of course, but in the form of raw materials. Every day, shipments of raw metal and chemical components were shipped into the hotel, where they promptly went to the basement.

            A brief glance at just what these materials was all Fred needed to identify what they could be building down there; guns. Lots of guns.

            Of course, he had no knowledge of just what kind of guns they were making- or more importantly, why. So that's where Gene and his merry company came in. A simple mission, really; find out what's going on in the basement, then tell Fred. Just for that, the debt's called off, not to mention the once in the lifetime chance to stay at a hotel where a single night's fee was enough to buy and equip a small starship. Easy money.

            Gene shifted his weight from foot to foot before the receptionist's desk as the knowledge that this mission wouldn't be the cakewalk he expected it to be dawned over him. Sure, he wasn't being shot at, but pretending to be a member of the higher classes was just as unnerving, especially given his own lack of firepower. Gene looked down to Melfina once more, comforted by her presence. If she was nervous about the situation, she didn't show it. Only genuine amazement could be read across her lovely face.

            The receptionist flashed a toothy grin at the two out of place scoundrels, sliding another envelope across the polished countertop. "Room two six five three, sir. Your bags have already been delivered. Welcome to the Pinnacle." Gene nodded wordlessly, reaching out for the envelope. A quick glance inside identified the keys inside- a pair of plastic cards, each with the number '2653' embossed in gold. "Thanks." Gene muttered in tone that he hoped sounded educated. Without further ado, Gene and Melfina made their way into an empty elevator, where Gene quickly pushed the 'door close' button. As soon as the polished panels slid together, shutting the elevator off from the rest of the world, Gene slumped against the wall of the spacious elevator, a tired sigh escaping his lips.

            "What's wrong, Gene?" Melfina's worried voice asked, concern evident in her tone. "You're not sick, are you?"

            "I'm fine." Gene gave the bio-android a smile. "Just feeling a little . . . out of place, that's all. Don't think I'm really cut out for the high life. Besides-" He rotated his shoulders, again shifting his weight about. "I'm not used to these fancy threads- they don't feel right."

            Melfina giggled, a devilish glint creeping into her brown eyes. "Well then, I suppose we'll just have to get you out of them as soon as possible then, won't we?"

            "Mel . . . I'm getting to be a bad influence on you, you know that?"

            "Yes you are. But I don't mind." For just a brief moment, Gene saw a reflection of his own roguish smirk in the coy look Melfina gave him.

            The receptionist didn't tell them their suite was attached to another by a small hallway.

            The receptionist didn't tell them that said suite was currently occupied.

            Most importantly, the receptionist didn't tell them that said occupants of the adjoining suite had already found a way into the other room, where they waited patiently.

            As a result of this, the sight of a scruffy teenager, an elegant-looking samurai woman, and a widely grinning C'tarl C'tarl came as an absolute surprise to the two lovers as they opened the door. Melfina remained silent in wide-eyed surprise while Gene fell back to the old psychological reaction he (among countless other adventurers) developed over the years. He swore.

            "Dammit, what the hell are YOU guys doing here?"

            "You didn't think that we'd let you two run off on an all-expenses paid trip to the Pinnacle all by yourselves now, did you?" said the C'tarl C'tarl woman, the tips of her pointed ears twitching with each variation in her tone. "Besides, it's probably for the best- knowing you two, you wouldn't get anything done." Aisha winked.

            Gene continued to boggle at the other members of his crew, ignoring the innuendo for the time being. "But…how the hell did you get in here?"

            "Oh, that?" The scruffy teenager looked up from the small computer in his lap. "Through the door, of course." He jerked a thumb towards the open door that lead to the adjoining suite.

            Gene scowled, not appreciating the joke. "That's not what I meant Jim, and you know it. This kinda place doesn't really accept our kind of people as patrons."

            "What, Outlaws?"

            "No- Poor ones."

            Jim shrugged, turning the computer in his lap about to face Gene. "Well, for all the cash they spend on fancy carpeting and crap, the folks who run this place really don't pay enough attention to digital security- it wasn't that hard to tweak some names and numbers so that the Grand C'tarl C'tarl baroness-magistrate Maise Ackt Ackt had such a conveniently-placed room" Aisha grinned wide at the mention of her alias, showing a set of pointed teeth. "Along with her bodyguard, of course." Jim nodded back at the kimono-clad swordswoman sipping tea in the far corner of the room.

            "Then what are you supposed to be, her concubine?" The verbal barb struck its mark, causing Jim's expression to twist into a model of indignation.

            "More like technical advisor, pervert." He snorted.

            "Awww, be nice to little Jimmy." Said a still-smirking Aisha as she ruffled the boy's hair. "-Or else he won't let you see the surprise he planned for you."

            "Surprise?" Gene quirked a brow, intrigued.

            "Just thought you might appreciate a few…party favors, that's all." Jim reached under the bed that dominated the center of the room, pulling out a sleek black briefcase. Jim opened the case towards Gene, revealing its contents to the red-haired Outlaw. Gene took one look at its contents, then returned his gaze to Jim with a sort of awed respect. "I thought they didn't allow weapons in here?"

            "They don't."

            "So how'd you-"

            "Diplomatic immunity." Jim shrugged, peering over the rim of the briefcase to its high-caliber contents. "I figured you'd at least want that caster of yours- the pistols are just backup, really. And I threw your light-shields in for good measure." With that, Jim snapped the case shut. "Let's just hope you don't have to use them, alright? We're supposed to be subtle, after all. Real cloak and dagger stuff."

            "Shame I left both of those back on the ship."

            Jim gave Gene a wary look, then ran a hand through his tousled hair. "Just try not to blow anything up, alright?"

            "Funny, I was gonna tell you the same thing."

            "If the lot of you are done-" the quiet voice of Twilight Suzuka lilted from her corner, the first words she had spoken all evening. "There's going to be some sort of party on the roof of this place in less than an hour- Someone by the name of Kao's throwing it- probably some business thing. It should keep most of the hotel staff busy enough so you can slip down into the basement undetected."

            Gene noddded "That was the plan…though I thought this'd just be a solo job. What're the rest of you going to do?"

            "Simple." Said Aisha as she produced a dark green uniform, bedecked with dozens of jangling medals and other decorations. "We run interference." She grinned, showing pointed teeth. "I hear they're gonna have an open buffet."

            They did.

The catering staff was faced with a task of near-epic proportions in keeping the assorted food trays of the buffet stocked as Aisha gorged herself in a most unladylike manner. Every time the caterers managed to refill each selection in the considerable array of foods available, the C'tarl C'tarl would swoop in like an opportunistic bird of prey, absconding with as much edible material as she could carry. (Which, considering the massive strength of the C'tarl C'tarl as a species, was a lot).

            From a corner table of the rooftop extravaganza, Jim Hawking merely watched the display with an expression equal parts embarrassment and awe spread over his features. Suzuka, as always, remained expressionless, watching the goings on with a stoic look on her face. Her bokken, wrapped tightly in cloth to conceal its true nature, rested out of sight to conceal its true nature.

            Aside from Aisha's shameless display of gluttony, the rest of the party proceeded just as any other properly aristocratic one would- people bedecked in extravagant evening wear made polite conversation over properly dull topics while white-clad waiters scurried about like worker ants. Jim smirked as his glass was refilled once again with a dark red liquid. "Y'know, I really could get used to this." He mused, swirling his drink about in his glass.

            "Jim, don't you think you're a little young for that?" asked Suzuka, her tone still neutral.

            "Nah, you'd be surprised at the kind of tolerance you build up after living with Gene so long. Heck, there was this one time we got paid in a crate of Candorian whiskey . . . And, well- I don't really remember the rest." Jim chuckled, his words slurring together slightly "Except for the part the next morning, where Gene woke on a park bench with a traffic cone perched on his chest."

            "Interesting." Suzuka drawled, her voice still deadpan.

            "What do you mean you're out of shrimp? It's all you can eat, isn't it? And I. Can. Eat. More!" Aisha's screeching voice cut through the air of the rooftop party, drowning out all thoughts of subtlety.

            The samurai woman sighed; it was going to be a long night.

            Meanwhile, Gene and Melfina crept into an empty elevator, discreetly closing the doors before anyone else chanced to slip in. Gene smirked once he felt the elevator shift into motion. Melfina glanced up at the Outlaw, noting the look across his features.

            "Now?" She asked, voice eager and nervous all at the same time.

            Gene nodded, pushing the 'stop' button on the control console, bringing the Elevator to a grinding halt inbetween two floors. No further words passed between the two young lovers as they set about slipping out of the fancified evening wear that served as their disguises.

            The two disrobed in a matter of moments, changing into more appropriate attire for the situation. In this particular case, 'appropriate' consisted of Gene's standard adventuring gear, complete with caster holstered at his hip. Melfina donned a matte black jumpsuit, adorned with a wide array of pockets, each filled with some useful item.

            It was a simple matter to push up a ceiling panel of the elevator and climb through, granting the two access to the massive elevator shaft. Standing atop the halted transport, Gene carefully peered over the edge into the blackness below.


            Melfina nodded, remaining silent.

            "Good." Gene smirked, wrapped his arms about the dark-haired woman, and stepped into the abyss, plunging downwards.

            The grav-chute opened flawlessly, as an umbrella-sized web of repulsor fibers opened up behind gene, slowing the normally deadly fall to more manageable speeds. Neither Gene nor Melfina knew how far, nor how long they fell- even with the grav-chute to slow their fall, floors whizzed by at an alarming rate. With a final 'WHUMP', the two impacted onto the hard concrete floor of the bottom of the shaft, collapsing into a heap of tangled limbs and black clothing. The grav-chute had done its job- neither Gene nor Melfina had been reduced to a red splatter by the fall, even though their landing was far from 'gentle.'

            "You alright?" Gene pulled himself up off the floor, helping the bio android to her feet as he did so.

            "Just a little rattled, that's all." Melfina's voice quaked.

            "Good. Now-" Gene rubbed his gloved hands together "Time to find out what the Pinnacle's dirty secret is…"

            "What about guards?"

            "There aren't supposed to be any- too conspicuous."

            "But what if there are guards anyways?"

            "Don't worry, I can take care of 'em." Gene offered Melfina a grin before reaching forward, tracing patterns on the wall with his fingertips.

            The door was there as it was supposed to be- an extra door, not mentioned in the 'official' blueprints- it'd taken a sub-orbital scan to discover the secret passage and chamber that stood behind it. Gene gestured for Melfina to stand back, eased an automatic pistol from its holster, and opened the door, rushing through to point the barrel of his weapon at anything that moved.

            Gene squinted in the dim lighting of the room, scanning for any indication of a guard- finding none. Spying a light panel by the door, Gene flicked it, illuminating the entire chamber.

            Upon seeing just what the chamber held, Gene couldn't help but laugh aloud. Melfina blinked, then peered around the scarred Outlaw to see just what was so amusing.

            Guns. Lots and lots of Guns. The chamber was a veritable arsenal, with firearms of every size, shape, and caliber racked along the walls, laid out on tables, and even hanging from the ceiling. A workbench dominated one wall of the room, parts and components to a dozen assault rifles spread out in varying states of assembly. The room wasn't completely filled with firearms, of course- there was also an abundance of tools, ammunition, and even a bank of video screens, each showing a different camera angle from one of the Pinnacle's many security cameras. "They've got a practical factory down here…" Gene mused, stepping forward to eye a particularly sleek (and illegal) submachine gun.

            "Gene? It doesn't…feel right here." Melfina's voice snapped the Outlaw from his firepower-induced reverie.

            "What're you talking about?"

            "I don't know…it just feels…strange. Like there's something…off, here."

            "You're just imagining things, Mel." Gene offered in a lame attempt to be comforting. "Prolly still shook up from that fall, now-" he paused again as a glint of polished brass caught his eye. Turning, Gene swept a cloth off of the workbench with one gloved hand, peering at the objects revealed. Gingerly taking one such object between two fingers, the redheaded gunman carefully peered at it, identifying notable traits; the same brass casing, the same blunt bullet tip, the same glyphs- a caster shell.

            Problem was, this wasn't just any caster shell. The spell-round was clean, untarnished, the paint vibrant, the brass factory-fresh. Gene's eyes slipped back to the workbench, noting other objects spread about- empty brass casings, vials of paint, a dozen measuring tools, and a series of what looked to be alchemaic components for sorcery. It took Gene only a moment to realize just what was going on in the underground arsenal; They were making caster shells.

            "Mel, remind me to listen to your hunches more often."

            If asked, Jim Hawking would be the first to admit that he knew nothing of proper party etiquette; his natural talents remained in the mechanical arena rather than the social. Despite this, Jim was certain that holding one's guests at gunpoint hardly fell into the realm of 'good manners.'

            It had all started when one Mr. Kao- host to the rooftop gathering –stepped up for a speech. Mildly intoxicated and very uninterested, Jim hadn't paid attention to the vaguely Asian-looking man's words. That is, until certain key words started cropping up. It was a mention of "Ancient Magic" that transformed Jim into a far more attentive audience member. It was also at this point that the previously ignored catering staff produced a variety of automatic weapons, giving weightier meaning to the term 'captive audience'. Jim saw Suzuka tense, but remain still once she assessed the number of guns pointed in her general direction. Mr. Kao ignored these proceedings, continuing with his speech. More hot words followed: "Power", "New Army", "Military domination the known galaxy". All and all, Mr. Kao outlined a standard 'villainous plot'.

            "Now, by this time, I'm sure that the lot of you are wondering just why I'm droning on to you about my plans." Said Mr. Kao from his podium.

            "Actually, I don't care." Aisha strutted towards the podium, baring wickedly pointed teeth in a savage grin. "You wouldn't believe how many times I've heard some pompus terran ass blather on for ages about how brilliant they are. Now, whatever your plan is, you forgot to take into consideration the nature of the Immortal C'tarl C'tarl. You see, my species is far more durable than you fragile terrans, so your goons won't be able to hurt me. Not only that, but I just took in enough calories at your buffet to transform into my unstoppable war form, which I'll use to bite your head off."

            Mr. Kao paused in his speech, regarding Aisha, whose muscles grew and shifted even as all those on the rooftop looked on. The businessman shrugged and reached beneath his podium, pulling forth a strange-looking, long-barreled rifle, a drum-shaped magazine poking out from its underside. Mr. Kao raised the weapon to his shoulder and took aim in a matter of seconds, a high-pitched whine coming from the inner workings of the weapon. A red beam of light shot out from the barrel of the weapon only a moment later, slamming into Aisha in mid-transformation. All present could only marvel at the spectacle unfolding before them, but very few could identify that a spell-shell had just been fired.

            Even yet, the C'tarl C'tarl still stood. Her body shrank down, snapped out of its transformative processes by the red bolt of magic. "Nice one." She hissed, storming forward towards the podium. Mr. Kao raised an eyebrow, cycled the slide-action of his caster rifle, and shot Aisha again. And again. And again.

            "No!" Jim cried out, lunging forward, only to be stopped by the firm grip of an assassin at his shoulder. Bolt after bolt slammed into the felinoid woman, pushing her across the rooftop. The final blast deposited Aisha in a charred, twitching heap near the edge of the roof. She groaned, relieving Jim and Suzuka with the knowledge that she was still alive- if barely.

            Mr. Kao merely flicked a switch on his impressive weapon, dropping a rain of empty shells to the floor. He methodically set about pushing new caster shells into the cylinder as he looked back to the audience as if nothing had happened. "Now, as I was saying . . ."

            "Gene, I think you'd better take a look at this." Melfina stood before the bank of video monitors, watching. Her attention was centered on one screen in particular- one that showed the violent happenings on the Pinnacle's roof. Gene looked over to the screen in question just in time to see Mr. Kao's last caster spell send Aisha reeling across the roof.

            "This can't be good."

            "That's all you have to say? He just shot Aisha!"

            "She'll live. As long as she didn't get hit in the face, Aisha'll be able to recover once you put a few steaks in her. Remember the time somebody dropped a bulldozer on her?"

            "Oh yeah."

            "Now, it looks like we've got a party to crash," Gene turned his attention to the arsenal laid out across the room. "Just a matter of deciding which party favors to bring."

            The plan went on without a hitch, Mr. Kao mused. It was a simple matter to gather a collection of the best magic scholars combined with a less than modest amount of arms dealers with a few well-placed invitations. All did was gather them all in one place, hold them at gunpoint, give them the simple message of 'join or die', and his place in the scheme of things was suddenly far more powerful. The new casters his gunsmiths made were equally impressive- far superior in range, accuracy, and ammunition capacity than the handful of old relics floating around the market. Granted, the C'tarl C'tarl was unexpected, but the demonstration was an added bonus. All he had to do was get his 'dinner guests' to sign the appropriate contracts, and the game would be complete. At least, the first phase- mass production came next, along with the political chaos that would come with it as the powers of the galaxy clashed against each other with caster-carrying armies. Chaos meant opportunity, and Mr. Kao considered himself quite the opportunist.

            It was as he was pondering serving himself a celebratory glass of champagne when the elevator chimed. Mr. Kao furrowed his brow- there shouldn't have been any 'late arrivals' to the party- a guard posted outside the elevator doors on each floor made sure to that. And yet, here someone was, undoubtedly to cause trouble. A wave of his hand set his men on guard, several cocking their rifles and taking aim at the elevator.

            Sensing the tension, the hostages turned their attention to the elevator as well, waiting to see just what would come out. Some of the wiser hostages slunk lower in their chairs, preparing to dive beneath their tables if nessescary.

            Slowly, the elevator doors glided open, revealing nothing. The guards relaxed, some even chuckling aloud. "Must've been a glitch." One mused.

            They were wrong.

            A small cylinder dropped down from the ceiling of the elevator, clattering across the polished floor. The sound drew all eyes in the room to it- which is just what it was intended to do.

            The small device exploded in a burst of intense light, blinding all those luckless enough to look on at it. As the guards rubbed furiously at their eyes, a single figure dropped down from a panel in the elevator's ceiling, a pair of dark sunglasses protecting his eyes from the flashbang's glare.

            Seizing the latent opportunity, the figure spurred himself to motion, whipping his hands, each bearing a sizeable pistol, up. The twin handguns barked, sending well-placed bullets into the nearest armed guards.

            Naturally, all hell broke loose.

            Senses still reeling from the flashbang, the gunmen opened fire on their new assailant, opting to blaze away with their automatic weapons. Bullets stitched across the ballroom, tearing pockmarked trails of destruction across the floor. Either through some strange stroke of luck or the blatant inaccuracy of Mr. Kao's men, the dark-clad gunman made it through the barrage unharmed, ducking behind an upturned table for protection.

            The pistol-packing newcomer wasn't the only individual to spring to action. As soon as the gunfire started, Twilight Suzuka's trained reflexes kicked in. She took up her sword, and, in one swift motion, cut down the two gunmen closest to her table. "Stay down, Jim!" This said, the assassin bounded further into the fray, alighting from table to table as she made her way towards Mr. Kao, dispatching armed guards as necessary. As any sensible person would, Mr. Kao ran from the sword-swinging assassin, allowing his men to soak up the brunt of her assault.

            Suzuka pressed on, searching for her target amidst the rapidly unfolding melee. She spied Mr. Kao almost a moment too late as he popped up from his hiding place, caster raised to his shoulder. The assassin barely had time enough to whip her sword up in a defensive technique to deflect the spell blast. The parry did its job well enough- Suzuka kept herself from getting incinerated by the blast. Even still, her sword absorbed a great deal of the impact, sending her flying backwards. The samurai felt a shot of pain shoot up her side upon impact with the cold stone floor, along with the far-too-familiar 'crunch' that came with the breaking of her own bones. Suzuka coughed, tasting blood. A minor setback- she'd be able to rejoin the fight…momentarily.

            Unnoticed by most (though not all) of the combatants, a second figure slipped down from the ceiling of the elevator, similarly clad and heavily armed like the first. Unlike the first figure, however, the intruder didn't come out shooting.

            Jim, one of the few (if not the only) people to notice this newcomer, blinked at the sudden entrance. Keeping his head low, he peered around the edge of an upturned table to get a better look. For caution's sake, he flicked off the safety of the machine pistol he had taken off of one of the guards that Suzuka had dispatched at the beginning of the melee. This momentary delay gave the black-clad figure more than enough time to dive over the edge of Jim's table, landing atop the young Outlaw. Hard.

            Panicking, Jim thrust the barrel of his gun in the general direction of his assailant, scrambling furiously to pull himself out from under the tangle of black-suited limbs.


            The less-than-pleasant sensation of a gun barrel pressing into Jim's ribs stopped him cold. Thankfully, Jim found that he wasn't completely powerless- the muzzle of his own gun was pressed firmly into his assailant's shoulder. The figure shifted, finally showing her (Jim ascertained his assailant's gender once she landed on him) face. Tousled, raven-black hair framed a delicate face, which was in turn taken up by a pair of large brown eyes. This combination of traits added up to only one individual that Jim knew- a woman Jim knew rather well.

            "Melfina?" Jim immediately made it a point to point his gun elsewhere.

            The bio-android nodded, rolling off of the young Outlaw. "Sorry about jumping on you." She said in her usually meek tone. The voice, though familiar, struck Jim as entirely out of place on a woman decked out in what appeared to be full combat gear.

            "Waitaminute, if you're here, that means that the other guy…" Jim peeked around the edge of the shielding table once more.

            The first gunman- whose red shock of hair was now visible, laid on his back on a dessert cart and slid across the length of the rooftop battleground, hammering away at a cluster of gunmen with a fully automatic assault shotgun. The cart crashed into Jim & Melfina's chosen barricade, prompting the dark-clad figure to abandon his now-empty weapon and dive for safety.

            "Gene, what the hell are you doing?" Jim exclaimed more out of habit than anything else.

            "Saving your collective asses, it looks like. Where's Aisha?"

            "Mr. Kao pounded her with a caster. She's out for the count"

            "Damn. What about Suzuka?"

            "The same."


            "So Gene, what's the plan?"

            "Err…this is it."

            "What, storm up here and cause massive property damage?"


            Jim ran a hand through his hair, sighing. "Figures. All we really need to do is get the hell out of here with Suzuka and Aisha…"

            "Ho there!" Mr. Kao's voice again carried across the battlefield, showing no discomfort, despite the stressful situation. "I have to admit, you just did quite a number on my men- but as you no doubt know, I have more guards- they're on the way as we speak. And I also admit you'll undoubtedly dispose of quite a few of them, as well. But your luck- not to mention your supply of ammunition, won't hold out for forever, you know. However- I have use for resourceful individuals such as yourselves. I assure you, the salary's nothing to balk at- not to mention certain fringe benefits…"

            Gene quirked a brow, "What kind of benefits?"

            "Dammit Gene, this guy's trying to take over the galaxy!" Jim huffed.


            "Yep. Standard villainous stuff that we make it a point to stop, remember? Besides, we're already on the job."

            "Alright, alright, so we won't get hired. Now what?" As if to punctuate the need for a plan, a crimson bolt of caster energy punched through the table, coming precariously close to cindering Gene.

            "Hey, is that any way to treat prospective employees?"

            "I heard your conversation."

            "Oh. Damn."

            "What we really need," whispered Jim, "is some sort of distraction."

            "I've got one of those." Melfina chimed in, producing a small remote from one of the many pockets across her jumpsuit.

            "Is that what I think it is?" Gene asked, eyes wide.

            Melfina only nodded, that coy smile again playing at the corners of her lips.

            "I really am a bad influence on you."

            "And I wouldn't have it any other way." Melfina giggled, then leaned over to give her 'bad role model' a peck on the lips- which soon progressed (or, depending on your point of view, regressed) into something quite a bit more.

            "Dammit you two, this isn't the time for this!" Jim exclaimed, ducking his head low to avoid another caster bolt as it pierced their meager barricade.

            "Oh, right. Gunfight." Gene murmured, pulling himself out of the impromptu embrace. He pulled his caster from its standard hip-holster and cycled the action, closing the bolt on a fresh shell. "Ready, Mel?" She nodded, then simply pushed down on a button on her remote. A near-deafening rumble shook the Pinnacle, along with everyone inside of it. Taking the opportunity, Gene sprung out from behind the barricade and fired his caster, kicking up a massive explosion. Jim followed suit, blindly spraying bullets into the cloud of smoke and dust where Mr. Kao once stood.

            The rumbling from underfoot finally ceased, and a gentle wind swept through, blowing the stone dust and smoke away from the area where Mr. Kao and his men took refuge. Surprisingly enough, Gene's caster shell blew a massive chunk out of the rooftop, leaving no more than an appropriately massive crater where Mr. Kao once stood.

            "Well, there's one way to take care of that problem." Suzuka quipped as she limped forward, leaning heavily on her bokken for support. "Might I suggest we get out of here before the proper authorities come to investigate?"

            "Tell me Gene…when did it strike you as a good idea to blow up the most expensive hotel in the galaxy?" Fred Low peered at Gene over his thin, steepled fingers.

            "We didn't blow it up! Just…shook up the foundation a little."

            "I'd hardly think that three tons of ordinance going up in flames could ever be considered as a 'little' event."

            "Hey, it was self defense! Besides, we had to- else that Mr. Kao guy was gonna take over the galaxy, after all."

            "Unfortunately, you've got a point there. I wouldn't put it past him." Fred sighed. "And you did carry out your mission as per the contract, so I suppose I'm just going to have to pay you the specified amount after all."

            Gene grinned, savoring the victory. Fred held up a finger "However," immediately, the redheaded Outlaw's expression faded. 'However's never came before anything good. The arms dealer continued. "I have to make just one suggestion."


            "Settle down, spend more time with Melfina. She's a good influence on you, you know. Probably something about family instinct."

            "Since when do you care so much about my personal life?"

            "I don't care about your personal life- it's just that once, just once, I'd like to be able to hire you for a job that doesn't conclude in massive property damage."

            Gene chuckled, standing to head out. "I'll take that into consideration." With that, he stepped out of Fred's office. Melfina fell into step beside him from where she waited outside the door. "So what did he say?"

            "That you're getting to be a good influence on me." Gene chuckled.

            "You didn't tell him that I was the one who rigged the underground arsenal to blow?"

            "Nope. Didn't think Fred would believe it."

            "Good point." Melfina giggled in her standard demure manner and reached out, wrapping one slender arm around Gene's waist as she leaned into him. As she did so, the Outlaw couldn't help but feel her outfit's newest accessory; a small pistol she had taken from Mr. Kao's arsenal. A souvenir, she called it.

            Gene smirked to himself, hugging Melfina closer. That certainly would be a night to remember after all.