Part 2 of 3
By Phantom Bard
Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction, and is offered for non-profit entertainment only. It may not be sold, may be downloaded for personal use only, and must contain this statement. Some characters, concepts, and backstory from the TV series, Xena Warrior Princess, are the properties of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures/Studios USA, or whatever entity currently owns their rights. In particular, the clones from the 6th season episode "Send in the Clones" are involved. No malice is intended towards these characters or concepts. The contest version of Clonefic Part 1 was posted in the Clonefic Writing Contest at .com in Feb. 2003. This is the continuation, Part 2. Readers may notice "outtakes" from other films. Those characters, concepts, and backstory are the property of their creators and/or the holders of their copyrights.
Warnings: This story depicts Xena and Gabrielle's relationship as non-graphic alternate. Also included are violence, references to physical suffering, emotional trauma, and cultural displacement. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 are mentioned. It is recommended that the reader first complete "Clonefic Pt. 1 (Revised Version). This content includes spoilers.
On the TV show, Xena Warrior Princess, several episodes gave viewers a glimpse of the Destroyer of Nations. She was portrayed as a creation of Alti, and was assigned to a period of time after Xena had left Lao Ma's Chin and was roaming the northern steppes with Borias. She was perhaps a more extreme version of the Dark Xena who had existed since her crucifixion by Caesar. The Destroyer of Nations was the condensation of Xena's most violent and self-serving traits. But like much else, the TV series misrepresented those accounts of the Destroyer of Nations that actually appeared in Gabrielle's scrolls. In fact, hints of the Destroyer had existed within Xena since shortly after she'd first commanded her own army, for this "alter-ego" was a product of the increasing attentions of the God of War. He gifted her with a superior ability to focus her already formidable prowess. Xena's battle-mania, or katalepsis, became channeled to create an unrivaled killer of astonishing and deadly potential. After accepting Ares' patronage and becoming his Favorite, Xena allowed this full-blown aspect of herself free reign on the battlefield for many years, making her merciless and unbeatable, a terrifying celebrant of war. For years the Destroyer of Nations complimented the Dark Xena, who presented her with endless opportunities to revel in conquest and bloodshed. She was the most belligerent manifestation of Xena's personality, and she persisted throughout the Warrior Princess' lifetime. In fact, the Destroyer of Nations outlived the Dark, or "Evil" Xena. During later years, the Destroyer was mostly submersed by the will of the "Good" Xena, the Warrior Princess. Controlling her became much easier once Xena renounced her consuming ambition. Still, the Destroyer peeked out of her soul when rage consumed her, (as in the blood haze of vengeance following Solon's death), making brief guest appearances to exercise Xena's wrath. Such appearances grew increasingly rare as Xena discovered preoccupations other than violence and outgrew the desires of the self-serving warlord she had been. Perhaps the truest test of who the clones were lay in whether or not Xena still hosted the Destroyer of Nations within her soul. Had Alti succeeded with her cloning process and recreated that aspect of the warrior? In the 21st century it would require an overwhelming catalyst to set her free.
Everyday the swallows play in the clouds above
Make me wish that I had wings take me high above.
(Partial lyric from "Empty Sky", Bernie Taupin and Elton John, ©1969)May 1, 2001 - Airborne
The return flight from Auckland had remained uneventful during the hours crossing the Pacific. There'd been a brief stopover in Tokyo for refueling, and then the second leg of the trip to LAX. Predictably, Xena had barely been able to sit still. As soon as the "Fasten Seatbelts" sign had gone off, she'd been stalking the cabin and pestering the flight attendants for information. Cloned Gabrielle had chuckled when her soulmate had swallowed her pride and enlisted four children to help legitimize her request to see the cockpit. With a groan, a stewardess had relented and given them five minutes to look through the door. The warrior had loomed over the kids, asking questions and trying to memorize the positions of the controls.
"Since you seem to be so interested in flying, I'd recommend you try one of the flight simulator programs for computers," the copilot had commented after pointing out an array of indicators, "the newer ones are pretty good. Then, of course, if you have the money, you could always try flight school…start by getting an instrument license for single engine planes and work up from there."
"I'll let ya'll in on somethin'," the pilot had said with a smile. "In 'bout six minutes I'll be makin' an 'nnouncement. If ya have binoc'lars, look out the left side 'a the plane, an' be lookin' up. We'll be havin' the rare chance ta see somethin' ya'll may never see again. Now then, since we'll be landin' in 'bout sixteen minutes, ya'll 'a have to go back to your seats."
Xena had been a bit grumpy about being sent back to her seat, but the warning sign had come on, and she and her soulmate buckled themselves in. Grumbling, Xena had dug her field glasses out of her carry-on and waited for the pilot's cowboy drawl to come over the intercom. It was just past noon.
"Ladies an' gentlemen, this here's yer pilot. At this time, I'd like ta direct ya'lls attention to the view outta the left side cabin windows. If'n ya'll look due north, at 'bout 11 o'clock high, ya'll may be able ta see the space shuttle Endeavor an' its chase aircraft, returnin' from the International Space Station fer a landin' at Edwards Air Force Base. They'll be 'a comin' in fast, 'bout twenty miles off, but ya shouldn't be able ta miss 'em. Just be lookin' fer the con trail."
To most of the passengers, the shuttle had looked like a dot etching a billowing con trail across the heavens, moving in fast from the west and losing altitude rapidly. Over the sounds of their own plane's engines, the orbiter's sonic boom had been felt more than heard. From twenty miles away, the naked eye had reported only three silver glints, two flanking the shuttle and one trailing slightly above. Through her 8x50 Swarovski optics, for Xena the image had leapt into crystalline clarity and detail.
The warrior had watched in rapt fascination as the lumbering boxy shuttle glided, seemingly effortlessly, on its stubby wings. She'd barely believed it was possible that such an ungainly thing could fly, and yet the three sleek fighters chasing it had appeared to be struggling to keep abreast. Endeavor had dwarfed those jets, and though Xena loved airplanes, she'd virtually ignored them.
The minute ice crystals that formed the con, or condensation trail, had roiled from the craft's every edge, testifying to the disturbance it wrought cutting through the thickening air. Like the smoke in a wind tunnel, the trail had revealed the shuttle's speed, but Endeavor rode the tempest as steady as Gibraltar. Xena could only stare, awed by the mastery she witnessed. Whoever sat at the controls was sensing the ship and its surroundings as finely as she had ever sensed her own body during a flip. Black and white against the bright blue sky, massive as a house, the whalelike orbiter somehow seemed to engender a majestic dignity; somehow, it seemed graceful.
Their plane was heading to Los Angeles and they'd gradually peeled away to the south, while Endeavor was heading east, straight into the Mojave Desert. Before long the shuttle had been just a speck, even in her field glasses, and Xena had lowered them from her eyes. For long minutes she'd stared out the cabin window, into the distance where the massive bird had flown. And finally, she'd relaxed and exhaled the breath she'd held.
"I'm gonna find out more about this," she'd declared simply.
NASA mission STS-100 had concluded its flight at 12:11 pm, when the orbiter landed at Edwards Air Force Base. Xena and Gabrielle had debarked from their flight at 12:26 pm, at LAX. They'd had 50 minutes to wait for their flight to Columbia Metropolitan Airport. As Gabrielle wolfed down a roast beef sandwich in a coffee shop in the terminal, Xena had stared into a cup of Coke and replayed what she'd seen.
More than anything in the 21st century, the shuttle had inspired her. She had even been moved deeply enough to rekindle some of her belief in humanity's chances. Despite the sheer volume of madness and violence she'd witnessed, there were still those who moved with their dreams…those who questioned and yearned and aspired…those who shaped a destiny that wasn't frivolous or evil. For the first time since her recreation, cloned Xena had felt as though she wanted to do something to help humanity; not necessarily heroic acts of valor, but something of positive value, some personal contribution to society. The newborn impulse was fragile.
I'd better figure out what to do or get over it, she'd thought, before I see another dinosaur on the rampage.
June 1, 2001 - Columbia, South Carolina
The space had been just another storefront, but in the month since their return from New Zealand, the clones had done some renovating.* Eighty feet long by thirty wide, the open room under the twelve foot ceiling had been musty, dusty, and grudgingly lit by anemic sunlight struggling through dirty show windows flanking the front door. The breaker box had been gutted, the gas meter long gone and the pipe capped off. Electrical conduits and junction boxes had dangled haplessly from the ceiling, left behind when the lighting fixtures had been looted by a scavenger too lazy to claim the copper wiring. Along the back wall, water had dripped lazily from leaking pipes under a mop sink. Crumbling plasterboard, dingy with water stains and mildew, had sheathed the walls. The original wooden floor had lain rotting under cheap sheet linoleum, torn, scuffed, and filthy with dust and ancient spills. A padlocked steel door secured with welded link chain had opened onto the alley in back. On the outside it had been blocked by a dumpster.
(*Among the things that Janice Covington's attorney had helped the clones with, was the acquisition of the storefront. Xena had dragged her partner through town looking for empty buildings. She'd reasoned that, like abandoned land in Greece, any unoccupied space could be claimed if it could be defended. The attorney had convinced her that squatting was illegal in Columbia. Xena had then asked about other villages…maybe Charleston? He'd sarcastically asked her what "village" she'd been born in. She'd proudly responded, Amphipolis. Where's that, he'd asked? Due north of Athens, she'd replied. After that he'd thought she was from Georgia.) ~Editor
"It's been empty since the owner went off to war," the real estate agent had explained when the clones had first been shown the space. "He was a reservist." The previous owner had been in the US Army Reserves and had been called up for duty during Operation Desert Shield. He hadn't returned to Columbia, S.C., instead settling permanently in Arlington, Va. with full military honors.
"Reminds me of a war zone alright," Gabrielle had commented in agreement.
"Looks like the place musta' been looted when the Yankees withdrew," cloned Xena had guessed, "at least they didn't burn it down like Atlanta."
Gabrielle had nodded sadly in agreement, extrapolating from Janice's comments on the Civil War. The agent had looked at them, trying to control his surprise.
Now there were bright banks of overhead lights illuminating a smooth newly finished oak floor and freshly painted white walls. Floor to ceiling mirrors ran the length of one side wall. The second mirror from the front of the space was mounted on hidden piano hinges and double touch latches and concealed an 8-inch deep space. Along the opposite wall, below a large roof-mounted exhaust fan, stood a weapons rack. Staves, eastern and western spears, several kinds of swords, sais, bows, long and short axes, and chobos stood ready. A 60-lb. heavy bag hung from chains in one rear corner of the room, while a narrow 25-lb. bag on a spring pedestal stood in the corner opposite it. Behind the new rear wall was a small locker room with a bench, shower, sink, and toilet. Above the locker room was a low loft space, almost Japanese, with table and cabinets accessible at kneeling height. It held a phone, some office supplies, teaching materials, and a comprehensive first aid kit. Past the locker room was a new steel firedoor. At night the alley behind the row of buildings was lit by a harsh quartz floodlight in a bulletproof housing. Today was the first day the clones had left the front door unlocked.
For most of the morning, the clones simply worked out for their own benefit. Dressed in sports bras and gym shorts, they had none of the formality of a traditional school. They had neither uniforms nor colored belts. No picture of their system's founder hung on a wall. In the front window there were none of the trophies, tournament pictures, oriental decorations, or emblem displays so typical of martial arts schools. Over the front window, a sign proclaimed, "Columbia School of Martial Science". Fight training was only a part of what the clones were intending to offer. So far, there were no students.
After their stretching and warm ups, Xena had plucked a Chinese style saber from the rack and Gabrielle had retrieved her sais. They had sparred increasingly energetically, becoming completely focused on each other. The exchanges had come quicker and quicker, until soon they'd been moving at real combat speed. It looked nothing like the choreographed moves from the TV show. The steel rang as the weapons clashed in an almost constant succession of parries, thrusts, and cuts.
Xena's assaults were relentless, direct, and blindingly fast. She moved her blade in a continuous, fluid attack and defense, using the point, cutting edge, sides, and spine of her sword. Her techniques attempted to capitalize on her flexibility and greater reach. Gabrielle wielded the sais with contained and economical motions, turning away Xena's blade and forcing the warrior to parry her weapons, as she hooked, jabbed, and whipped the sais in improvised patterns, trying to force a mistake. She knew that if Xena were to ever touch her, she would have to move in close where the blonde would hold the advantage. At the long and middle distances, she could easily hold Xena at bay. By the same token, she was seldom able to move into close range to press an attack. They had been through this tactical standoff countless times and had never decisively resolved it. Unlike the representations from the TV series, they had long been evenly matched, both drawing on decades of practical combat experience.
After a quarter hour of sustained effort the two exchanged a glance, and by mutual agreement slacked off on their pace. Over the next two minutes they ramped down their speed, a cooling off period that finally ended in stillness. Almost simultaneously, the clones turned to face the pair of police officers who had been watching in amazement from the open door.
"Welcome, officers," Gabrielle said, greeting them with a smile. Neither of the women was really comfortable around the local militiamen yet, but the blonde had always been the more open of the two.
"That has got to be the most complex weapons form I have ever seen," the younger officer said in awe. His own smile and sharp honest eyes flashed brilliantly from skin as dark as ebony and eased the clones' uncertainties. Both could feel his genuine interest in what he'd watched. "I'm Officer Lewis," he said, venturing into the school a few steps and offering his hand to Xena, who was closer, "and this is my partner, Officer Williams." The older officer smiled at the clones as he too moved into the school to join them.
Xena shook Officer Lewis' hand, feeling the strength of his grip and noting the calluses on the knuckles at the bases of his index and middle fingers. "Pleased to meet'cha Officer Lewis. I'm Serena Pappas and this is my partner, Gabriella Covington. You study too, don'cha?"
"You're very perceptive," Officer Lewis replied with an appreciative smile. "I've studied Hung Gar for eight years. What's the system you teach called? Some of the movements seem familiar, but I really can't identify it."
"It's not really a formal system," Gabrielle offered, "it's based on techniques we've developed through practical experience. Most of my techniques are common to the sai no matter what system is teaching it. I guess some of the movements Serena uses with the Chin saber are common to all the Chinese systems that developed later." Gabrielle fell silent, realizing that her claim might have seemed suspicious.
"Actually, that was just free sparrin'. It wasn't a form," Xena said quickly. The two officers regarded her with surprise. "I started out learnin' some training exercises that could be the equivalent of forms in a modern system. The problem with forms is that you run the risk of internalizin' sequences of moves and becomin' predictable."
The two officers regarded her claim with doubt bordering on disbelief.
"I have never seen anyone do weapons sparring at combat speed without protective gear," Officer Williams declared, speaking for the first time. "Not in any school I've ever studied or taught in, and I've been studying various systems for over twenty-five years. I've only seen two-person forms demonstrated like that once, by monks from the Shaolin Temple."
"Gabriella and I've been sparrin' together for years," Xena calmly told them, "and I haven't worn armor in a long time. She never wore it," she continued, glancing quickly at Gabrielle, "and it's been a very long time since either of us was able to complete an attack successfully."
Officer Williams gave her a quizzical glance and raised an eyebrow at her choice of wording. Officer Lewis simply looked at the clones, amazed. Finally, he asked, "so when do your classes meet?"
"Well, at this point we're just opening, so we don't have a schedule set up yet," Gabrielle told them, "but I suspect most of the classes will be in the evenings or on weekends."
"We're willin' to be flexible with advanced students who have work schedules, if they're truly interested," Xena added, "we really aren't intending to teach classes for kids."
After the two officers had left, Xena turned to Gabrielle and quietly said, " I saw a website that showed the Shaolin Temple Officer Williams mentioned. It's in what's now called Hunan Province. A lot of it had changed, but I recognized parts of a couple buildings. It's at the bottom of Songshan…Mt. Song. You remember it, don'cha Gabrielle? It wasn't called the Shaolin Temple back then though, and it was deserted when ya first saw it."
"It was on the border of the Kingdom of Lao. We hid the refugees from the Green Dragon's black powder army in the caves under the foundation," the blonde remembered sadly, "so many died before they were defeated. It must have rained for two weeks straight and the humidity finally ruined the powder…theirs and ours. After that, it was a typical bloody battle for four days and nights. There were probably over thirty thousand killed. At least we finally captured Ming Tien."
"Captured him and turned him over to the Lao's for execution, though they had to have a trial first. Of course, there was never any doubt about the verdict. Lao T'zu was only slightly less of a tyrant that Ming T'su had been. At least he had Lao Ma to tame the worst of his savagery. Still, what passed for peace resumed in Chin…nice touch in your scroll, Gabrielle, referrin' to the reborn peace as the Phoenix."
Xena paused to remember the hapless Mings. The father she'd assassinated and the son she'd doomed. Both on behalf of the Laos, because she'd recognized them as being the lesser of two evils. Lao T'zu and Lao Ma had wanted to suppress the use of the black powder, while the Mings had wanted to embrace it and conquer. They were potentially more dangerous than the Persians. Sooner or later they'd have consolidated their power and marched west. Xena had feared that in a generation or two they'd have threatened Greece. Racism wasn't absent from her decision either. The Warrior Princess would accept the hated Romans as the overlords of her native land long before she'd even consider subjugation by Chin; at least the Romans were Occidentals and she could understand their games of power. And so she had destroyed the Ming's leaders. The Laos had finished the job, slaughtering ninety-one thousand helpless people and laying waste to an entire kingdom. Beneath their wisdom and philosophy they'd been the most cultured barbarians she'd ever met.
"Ya know, I can't blame Ming Tien for seekin' to avenge his father. I woulda' done the same thing. The whole business made me feel dirty…there were no good choices."
"I was so glad to leave, Xena. It's too bad you couldn't really have turned them all into stone like in that TV episode…the Mings and the Laos both."
"Don't I just wish," Xena agreed. But not even their gods could have done that.
June 5, 2001 - The Columbia School of Martial Science
The class had met twice, from 6:00 to 8:00 in the evening, after which those not headed home went to dinner at the South China Restaurant, just three doors down from the school. So far there were six students; Officers Marcus Lewis and Alexander Williams, Alex's wife, Karen Williams, a Columbia firefighter named Owen Chambers, who lived up the block, Ronnie Chu, a cousin of the South China's owners, and Debbie Ryan, a grad student in psych at USC. Alex Williams had the longest experience in martial arts, 27 years, and held degrees in Shotokan karate and Hung Gar. Debbie Ryan had the least; 4 years of kick boxing at the YWCA.
It made for a good advanced class and Xena and Gabrielle were impressed with their new students. The first thing Xena had asked was for everyone to come to class in gym clothes rather than their uniforms. The first thing Gabrielle had asked them to do was to try to kick her ass. The clones needed to know their students' abilities.
"Open sparring, light or moderate contact, no strikes to the throat or eyes," Xena had declared as Gabrielle had faced off against Debbie Ryan. "Maybe later…."
"Wait a second," Alex Williams had interrupted, ever the sensei, "what about protective equipment; head gear, mouthguards, gloves…?" He trailed off. Xena had been staring at him as if he were insane.
"Wear 'em if ya want," she'd replied dismissively, "I can't imagine really bein' able to move in that stuff."
Debbie had shrugged. Her experience didn't include a lot of sparring or competition. She faced the compact blonde in the center of the room while the rest of the class sat along the wall in front of the mirrors.
"Well? What're ya waitin' for?" Xena had asked, to prompt Debbie into motion. The woman gave her a quick glance of uncertainty. "Oh, alright," the warrior had said in exasperation, "begin."
The bout went on for three minutes. Debbie threw every kick she knew, in combinations or alone, and she never managed to contact the cloned bard. After a minute she was sweating and laboring for breath but she seemed to reach a second wind quickly and didn't tire out. It was a good measure of her conditioning that she could keep up the level of attack she did, and her kicks showed speed, power, and flexibility. She found it very frustrating. At the end of the bout, Xena called time.
"Two minute rest, then my partner will show ya how you can be defeated," Xena announced. The young woman just looked at her as she caught her breath. Gabrielle had never touched her either and hadn't gotten close enough to attack as far as she remembered.
When the two minutes were up, the women walked back out onto the floor and faced each other. This time when Xena commanded, begin, Debbie opened with a spinning back kick. She'd had a perfect bead on the blonde's head, but when she'd pivoted and extended there was no one there. By the time she registered the air movement below her it was too late. Gabrielle's foot lightly contacted her stomach. What Debbie hadn't seen was the blonde moving in and dropping to one knee as her student had started her turn, and then flicking a high roundhouse kick into her stomach from a kneeling position.
"Break", Xena commanded.
They parted and stood facing each other again.
"You've got good basic kicking skills," Gabrielle told her, "but you're telegraphing your intentions and I could see everything you were going to do before you did it. We'll teach you how to strike without warning. We'll also show you hand techniques to broaden your options."
"Next," Xena announced, looking at the rest of the students as she walked out to take the blonde's place in the center of the floor.
After a moment of collective indecision Marcus Lewis stood up, slipping a mouthguard onto his teeth, and joined her as Gabrielle and Debbie moved to the wall. When Marcus had taken a half-horse stance facing Xena, Gabrielle absentmindedly called, "begin," and sat down to analyze their second student.
Marcus was a strong, quick fighter, agile and flexible, both physically and mentally. He used unpredictable combinations of techniques with assurance, but the cloned warrior either parried them away or slipped aside. She wasn't attacking, but she wasn't expending much energy compared to her student. When the three minutes were up and Gabrielle called for the two-minute break, Marcus was panting but Xena's breathing was barely above its rate at rest.
"You've got a lot of options to choose from," the warrior told him, "all hard techniques, and I coulda' killed ya in seconds." Officer Lewis looked at her, not sure whether to believe her or not. He'd seen her masterfully sparring with the sword, but he was used to holding his own in full contact tournaments and on the street.
After the two minutes were up, Xena and Marcus moved to face each other again. Gabrielle gave the start command and they closed. This time, when the policeman opened with a combination straight punch and front kick, Xena sidestepped his attacks and struck a pair of nerves on the sides of his knee, then stayed close as he dropped to the floor with his supporting leg useless. Before he was down, the warrior snapped a fist upward towards a target at the bottom of Marcus' sternum, careful to make only light contact. Her movement was almost too fast to see. The policeman's face had shown surprise rather than pain, his concentration completely focused on his dysfunctional leg. Xena's attacked had rendered it numb; he simply couldn't use it.
"I've got more options," Xena told him as she knelt beside him, "and this technique is actually used for medical treatment, to remove pain. It's not originally taught as an attack, but it's still effective in combat as an incapacitating diversion. The killin' blow was directed at your xiphoid process. Ya didn't even see it."
She released the nerve pinch on Marcus' leg and helped him to his feet. He found that it tingled as if recovering from being asleep. "Where did you learn that?" he asked.
"A Celtish woman from Gallia…France…taught me a long time ago," she replied with a smile.
By the wall, Alexander Williams filed her comment away for later. No one in America referred to France as Gaul anymore, at least as a first choice, and no one had referred to Gaul as Gallia as a first choice for probably hundreds of years. Along with the references to "armor" and more "recent" Chinese systems, (all hundreds of years old), that had "developed later"; he was beginning to sense a mystery afoot. It wasn't initially the suspicious mind of a policeman at work. The need to solve puzzles was what had led him to become a cop years before.
When his turn came, he faced Gabrielle. For three minutes he honestly thought he'd fought her to a draw. After the two-minute rest, Xena commanded "begin", and they re-engaged. Before he could attack, the blonde immediately tapped him on the sides of the neck with her fingertips and withdrew. He was baffled by her technique and shocked at the speed she'd used. He gave Xena a questioning glance.
"Ya got about twenty seconds left, Alexander," the warrior informed him.
He'd checked the clock and it showed over two and a half minutes remaining. In twenty-seven years of studying the fighting arts, Alex Williams had never seen such a technique. He was intensely curious.
"I'm afraid I really don't understand that attack, Gabriella," he finally said, while checking his neck. "Please explain to me what you just did."
"If I'd applied that technique with force, it would have stopped the blood flow in the carotid arteries," she told him, "and a person will typically live about half a minute unless the nerve paralysis is released. It's almost immediately incapacitating."
"Okay," he doubtfully agreed, "in Shime waza techniques, those same arteries are constricted to cause unconsciousness, but it's not considered a nerve attack. I've never heard of it being done with a strike. Is it a kind of Dim Mak?"
"Shime waza are submission choke holds. This is a reversible but lethal attack based on a nerve pinch. The effects aren't that similar and the techniques have almost nothing in common. Umm…I guess you could say the Dim Mak derives from it."
"Someday, you must teach me this," Alex said, "it's been years since I've learned a new technique that I've never even heard of, or suspected was possible. I'm intrigued."
In their next class, the students had been introduced to a system of meditation. Xena had them sit cross-legged in the lotus position, in a circle on the floor.
"I want you to try for a state of emptines," Xena requested. "This may be familiar to some of ya who've studied meditation in the past. Usually you're asked to begin by concentrating on your breathin', while attemptin' to silence any internal dialog. It can take years to be able to achieve such a state at will. That's where most systems stop. For us, it's just the beginning."
They spent the first hour sitting on the floor, in silence, in the dark. All eight people had been focused on an imaginary spot several feet ahead, but the room was pitch black. Near the end of the hour, Gabrielle silently got to her feet and moved away to the weapons rack. No one else had moved. After a few moments, there was a soft sound of something stretching, then a twang, and a hiss that was abruptly arrested. She turned the lights on a moment later.
Near the door, Gabrielle was holding a bow. In the center of the group across the room, Xena was holding the arrow. Someone gasped. Her eyes were still closed. They flicked open, revealing sharply focused blue, and they were staring directly at Gabrielle.
"I want ya to continue to try for that state of emptiness every chance ya get," Xena softly told them. "Once you can achieve it at will, you'll be able to focus on any threat, any attack, any danger. You will sense it and react faster than all the physical training I can give ya, 'cause your own senses won't slow ya down. Your brain won't need to make decisions usin' information from your eyes or ears. Darkness won't matter. An enemy can't surprise you. How many of ya were surprised that I caught the arrow?"
All the students raised their hands.
"And how many of ya were surprised that Gabriella could aim it at me?"
No one moved. They were trying to imagine just what had been required to cross the room and aim at one of seven people in the dark. An error could have sent the shaft at any one of them, causing a tragedy. More likely still would have been for the shot to go off target, ending up in a wall somewhere. It implied not only an unbeatable defense, but also an unerring attack.
"Are you telling me that she got up, armed herself, crossed the room, and fired on a target while in a transcendental state?" Alexander Williams asked in disbelief.
"I'm tellin' ya that she exists in that state at will," Xena answered. "That's why we can spar with weapons at combat speed without danger. We could even do that in the dark."
People talking without speaking, people hearing without listening, people writing songs that voices never share, and no one dared, disturb the sound of silence.
(Partial lyric, "The Sounds of Silence", Simon and Garfunkel, ©1966)
"That'd drive ya crazy, and then you'd be ready to be in this TV show," cloned Xena commented. The soulmates were watching the first half of the series finale of Xena Warrior Princess. "If I ever tell ya somethin' like that, I hope you'll know I'm kiddin'."
"If you ever try to tell me to do something like that I'll kill you myself," the cloned bard laughingly told her, "and while I'm sure they meant it metaphorically, it's like one of those Ch'an koan things I've been reading about…a riddle with no answer."
"You and I both know that no conscious sense will reveal things like they're showing them. The only way is to enter a transcendental state. Then ya become receptive. Besides, no one can hide five armies in that little space. You'd have to be blind not to notice all the disturbed birds flyin' outta the trees. Then there's all the noise they'd make…the dust they'd raise. By Cupid's balls, ya'd probably even smell 'em comin' a league off."
Gabrielle changed the subject and asked, "Xena, what did you think of them putting out that fire in Higuchi? That's the scene we saw them filming in New Zealand."
"Looked like fun, but they didn't have anywhere near enough water."
They continued watching as the show played on.
"Well, this is the most twisted thing I've seen yet," Gabrielle commented during a commercial break. Xena and Harugata had just finished their chat on the battlements. "It's pretty obvious they're going to kill off your character, my love. It's the only way she'll be able to defeat the shade of Yodoshi."
The show resumed with the soulmates meeting in the meditation room in the castle.
"Will ya look at that costume," Xena exclaimed in amazement, "yup, she's out to get herself killed alright. Might as well just go out naked."
"Oh my gods, they left it until now for you to teach me the nerve pinch?" It was Gabrielle's turn to be amazed. "You taught me that when we fought Callisto, during the second year we traveled together." After a pause she continued, misty eyed. "I did like that line about, 'if I only had thirty seconds to live…', that was sweet."
"Sickeningly so," the cloned warrior mumbled, having always been less receptive to saccharine sentimentality in dramas, "not that I wouldn't have meant it in that situation." She winked at her partner. "Of course in that situation, I probably woulda killed Harugata and let him fight it out with Yodoshi."
August 5, 2001 - The Columbia School of Martial Science
After two months the students had made better than expected progress. Xena and Gabrielle were elated with their advances. At the end of July, Marcus Lewis had flown to Atlanta, Ga., to participate in a full contact, open tournament. He'd fought his way to first place in his weight division and then placed second overall. Along the way, he'd defeated fighters with higher rankings and twice his years of experience. The previous March, at a tournament in Miami, he'd placed third in his weight class, his best finish at that time. He was glowing when he returned.
"There was a time in my third contest when I felt something I'd never felt before," Marcus had told his teachers, "and I sensed my opponent's intentions before he moved. He advanced behind a straight punch, but I was already turning sideways into a horse stance and I caught him with a sun-fist punch to the sternum. I had moved before he did and he literally ran into the blow."
The clones had smiled, knowing that at least one of their students had absorbed a pivotal lesson.
"You found a state of perception based on the meditation techniques you've learned," Gabrielle told him, "and that's the most important technical skill we can teach you. I'll bet your opponent's forward movement doubled the power of your strike. A normal blow can become incapacitating, a focused strike deadly."
"If you're ever forced into mortal hand to hand combat," Xena added, "this skill will probably save your life, Marcus. Against multiple opponents, it's a necessity."
The advice was prophetic. In just over a month, it would save hundreds of lives.I'm leavin' on a jet plane, don't know if I'll be back again…
(Partial lyric from "Leaving On A Jet Plane", Peter, Paul, and Mary, ©1967)
September 6, 2001 - Columbia, South Carolina
"I'm flying up to Newark tomorrow to visit my cousin and her family for a long weekend," Marcus told Xena over the phone on Thursday night, "and on Tuesday I'll be flying to that big tournament in San Francisco. Wish me luck, Serena."
"Marcus, I'm sure you'll do great," Xena told her student, "you've made exceptional progress these last three months and ya had a breakthrough in your last tournament. I'm sure you'll do even better this time, but whatever ya do, we'll be proud of you. An old ally once told me that, 'To conquer others is to have power. To conquer yourself is to know the way'. Ya see, beyond winnin' there's livin'."
Sometime in the last few months it had become true again for the cloned warrior. Though she still felt a profound sense of displacement and doubted if she'd ever truly be comfortable in the 21st century, she realized that her faith in mankind had been renewed. This time and place were far removed from what her memories recalled that she'd grown up with. The modern world was a much different place than the world in which she'd fought and lived so long ago. And yet…
The hopes and dreams of people, for happiness and peace, and for the opportunity to work to make their dreams come true, were still familiar and common currency among mortals. Though evil had found new guises and new goals, still it was something that could be fought. Not only by heroes, but also by everyday people through each responsible act and each gesture of caring and kindness. She and her soulmate had been shown kindness by Ray and Lynn, Allen and Angie, and the aged Dr. Covington. She had been inspired by the aspirations realized in the airplanes and the space shuttle. Now, she was sharing her hard won knowledge with her students. And she realized that her wisdom was the result of things passed on to her over two millennia ago. It was a legacy of hope that transcended the passage of time and the changes of culture. Like her bond with Gabrielle, it transcended the mortal world and partook of a higher spirit.
September 11, 2001 - Newark International Airport
"Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please, United Airlines flight 93, departing at 8:40 am for San Francisco, is now ready for boarding. Please have your boarding passes and tickets ready. Thank you."
"That's my flight, coz."
"It's been wonderful seeing you, Marcus, try to get up north here more often."
"I've had a wonderful time these last few days, Alisha. Wish Anthony and little Terrance my best. I'm sorry I had to get you up so early, and I can't thank you enough for dropping me off here…I know how you hate airport traffic."
"Honey, I'm going right back to sleep as soon as I get home. Don't you worry. Now have a safe flight and knock 'em dead in San Francisco."
"I love you coz."
"Love you too, Marcus."
"Here's what we know as of right now. At 8:45 am, a hijacked American Airlines Boeing 767 struck 1 World Trade Center…that's the north tower. That plane has been identified as Flight 11 from Boston, bound for Los Angeles. Then, at 9:03 am, a second hijacked airplane, believed to be United Airlines Flight 175, also a Boeing 767 out of Boston, struck the south tower, 2 World Trade Center. Both towers are burning and plumes of smoke are trailing southeastwards as response teams, police, firefighters, and emergency medical crews, make a valiant effort to evacuate and aid the injured. Then, just 20 minutes ago, at 9:40 am, a third plane slammed into the Pentagon. The identity and origin of that plane is uncertain at this time, but unconfirmed reports claim that it was American Airlines Flight 77 from Dulles International Airport. If so, then there were 65 persons aboard and…what? (Oh, god, no…).
Ladies and gentlemen, we have just received a report stating that only moments ago, World Trade Center Tower #2, that's the south tower, the second tower struck, has collapsed. This is absolutely tragic. Let me repeat, the south tower of the World Trade Center has collapsed and…just a moment please, I have another report coming in….
(Another hijacked plane? Yes, I've got that). I have just gotten word that a fourth hijacked airplane has gone down. This plane has been tentatively identified as Untied Airlines Flight 93, a Boeing 757 out of Newark International Airport, bound for San Francisco with 45 aboard. It has been reported down in rural Stony Creek Township outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and…(What? You're kidding…). Ladies and gentlemen, it is believed that this plane was en route to a target in Washington, D.C., but was intentionally crashed when the passengers and crew fought the terrorists who had skyjacked their plane. This is unconfirmed at present, but is based on reports of cell phone communications with onboard passengers before the crash."
"Turn it off, Gabrielle. I've heard all I can take of this. Marcus was on that plane."
September 12, 2001 - The Columbia School of Martial Science
The ringing of blades resounded in an almost constant clash of steel against steel that went on and on and on. The blows were struck and met at a rate of more than one per second. For the first time in their reborn lives, the soulmates fought with the fury that they had once unleashed against their enemies two thousand years before. This was no sparring match. That they fought each other was the only reason that no piles of bodies lay at their feet, for in this time, no living warrior fought with such weapons at their level. No living warrior had vanquished the numbers of enemies they had, spilling their blood face to face. Now they held back nothing. Xena wielded a freshly forged broadsword patterned on the one she'd carried for decades in her war against Julius Caesar. With her left hand she parried with the Combined Chakram, a weapon now close to three thousand years old. Gabrielle met her fury with virgin blades patterned after those once carried by the Greek Amazons, bearing one in each hand as she had used them in battle so long ago. They were her trademark skeletonized short swords. Their unique whistling as they sliced through the air had once struck fear into the hearts of soldiers from Germania to Thrace. It was the only catharsis they knew.
The death of their student, Columbia Municipal Police Officer Marcus Lewis, was confirmed. His cousin Alisha had seen him board the plane at Newark International Airport, and there were no survivors. But beyond the loss of another friend was the impact of the monstrosity of the evil that had been unleashed. The best estimates of casualties were one thousand dead at the Pentagon in Virginia, and up to twenty thousand in New York's World Trade Center. Though later figures were, thankfully, much lower, still on that day, the deaths of so many had overwhelmed the clones with anger. It was equal to the number of dead at Teutoburg Forest, where two Roman legions had been slaughtered by Germanic clansmen. It was greater than the Roman losses to Hannibal at Trebbia, or at Lake Trasimeno. But these modern dead had been civilians not soldiers, and still it wasn't without precedent. It was a quarter of the immediate death toll at Hiroshima. And so they fought.
For ten minutes, Alexander Williams watched from the doorway, standing alone and unnoticed in his uniform; bereft of his partner and friend. The two women had been fighting full out since before he'd arrived, and they displayed no signs of fatigue or loss of concentration. They showed no intention of slowing down or stopping either. He knew better than to approach them or interrupt. Finally he walked away, returning to a patrol that he had no heart for.
In all his years he had never witnessed the relentless savagery and passionate mastery he'd just seen. He'd never even known it could exist. Even on that first day, when he and his partner Marcus Lewis had stumbled upon the newly opened school, the two women hadn't fought with this intensity. In all his years in the martial arts, this was the first time he'd seen the ancient weapons used in a way that communicated how utterly terrifying the battles of the distant past must have been. He realized that what was studied and taught in the modern schools was but a fading ghost; the pale imitation of the killing craft, as it had been practiced when life and death hung in the balance, and survival and victory rested on one's skill at arms. Along with certain words he'd heard and certain techniques he'd seen, he realized that his teachers weren't just some talented martial artists. They were warriors whose hearts, at the very least, were centuries out of place. Certainly they were the deadliest people he'd ever known. But they were more than the spirits of bloodthirsty ancient warriors, somehow living in the modern world, for they fought from their hearts. He'd seen the tears staining their cheeks, trailing down from grim eyes set in merciless faces that would freeze an enemy's blood. That was the core of what had inspired the terror in ancient warfare. The fighting became personal, and the killing was conducted face to face. It was a good thing that he had walked away when he did.
Eight feet from where the clones fought, a flash of blue light flared, bringing into their presence the person of the God of War. For a moment, Ares watched his ancient Favorite and her partner, dueling with an intensity that he'd missed since his liberation from the tomb. But it was only for a moment. The clones broke apart, and then Xena was charging him, her broadsword already moving to take off his head. Even with his divine speed, he was barely quick enough to catch her blade as it whipped towards his neck. For a moment they contested in strength, and then the warrior relaxed her pressure on the sword and Ares released it from his grip.
"Why?" Her one word question carried both condemnation and a demand for understanding. Behind her Gabrielle's eyes were drilling holes into him as her fists clenched the grips of her swords so hard that the blades trembled.
"Because mankind makes its own destiny now, and the souls of mortals hold the capacity to righteously embrace great evil. For the human heart, any truth is sacred when that heart can rationalize its desires as necessities, or act without compassion against those whom it considers less than human. It has always been so and you both, more than any others now living, know it to be true. I will concede that the attacks were surprisingly unforeseen. They were cleverly planned and executed, against valuable and undefended targets, to undermine morale. They were successful. In some ways these attacks would have appealed to the dispassionate aspects of warfare once presided over by my sister, Athena. Do you understand the roots of the discord that once existed between she and I?"
Ares looked them in the eyes one at a time. It was obvious that today he was not the mirthful God of War they had met in New Zealand. Today he was not reveling in the bloodshed; if anything, he was angered by it.
"Two thousand years ago I was the patron of soldiers and battle was my concern," Ares stated, "but what fed me was the glory, the mastery, and the heroism that war brought out in mortals. The struggle demanded the best of a warrior, and at times offered a taste of something higher than mortal existence could provide. Through courage and discipline, a fighter might transcend even death and live forever in the memories of his peers. War was the means to that end. What was done yesterday did not honor the Way of the Warrior or the Spirit of Battle. It was savagery without heroism, brutality without glory, and slaughter without victory. The attacks did not fall within my old domain. To me, it was not warfare. It was murder." He sighed, for a moment appearing to be tired of it all.
"Ya know, the longer I live in this time, the more I'm seein' that freedom of choice is wasted on mankind," Xena spat. "People have just taken it 'n used it to justify their insanity 'n hate. Evil has grown outta control, 'n with the weapons they've got now, things look pretty hopeless to me. They'd almost be better off with the Olympian gods still runnin' the show."
"I wouldn't go that far," Gabrielle commented, "but this world is much worse than the place we came from. In spite of all the modern advances of this time, I'd prefer fighting Caesar's Rome to fighting in this insane world. We don't belong here."
What had once fallen under the auspices of known gods had become the province of mortals, and they had no such domains or scruples, their acts too often ruled by desire and ambition alone. Unlike the gods, those mortals who now wielded power had too much to gain and lose; they were too invested, too close to the conflict. Worse, the range of modern options led to tragic unpredictability and catastrophic possibilities.
The God of War regarded them in silence for a few moments. He remembered the Athenians of King Theseus. In 1,247 BC, though terrified by the confederation of eastern armies and the mastery of the Scythians and Themiscyra Amazons, the Athenians had still defended his sister's city though their defeat seemed certain. They could have fled, but they had chosen to fight because they'd believed in the new form of government their polis had instituted…democracy. He remembered the defense at the narrows of Trachis, over 750 years later. There 300 Lakedaemonian's and their allies had held back an army of two million Persians, buying time with their blood…time for the naval victory at Salamis, and finally the land victory at Plataea that had allowed Greece to remain free. It had been centuries before Xena and Gabrielle's time, but some things did not change. A cause without courage to support it would die. Yet courage without a cause was wasted.
"It's ironic that I have to be the little ray of sunshine," Ares humorlessly said, "but heroism isn't completely dead. Your friend Marcus and the passengers on that plane chose to fight the hijackers rather than let them carry out their plan. They're heroes as much as any of the warriors from your time were, and anyway, you're stuck here. Sorry."
"Well, isn't that just our luck," Gabrielle replied.
"Look," the God of War resumed, "if anything, the good and evil of this time are more intense and more extreme than in your time. I mean, look around; everything's exaggerated here. But the battle is still on. What you're doing with this school is good, training warriors to fight, but they're all civilians. Marcus being on that plane was just a fluke. It's really up to you two, but this is like teaching boxing in the Temple of Ilithyia."
While the clones were still registering Ares' taunt, the blue lightening flashed again and the God of War disappeared. After he was gone, the warrior and bard regarded his words with a renewed and growing determination. They'd spent most of their original lives fighting and the battle was still on, two thousand years later. The Goddess of Childbirth had no use for boxers. The blonde sighed.
"Xena, I'm going to San Francisco," Gabrielle solemnly told her soulmate, "I'm going to honor Marcus' memory." Their student had deserved a chance to compete.
"Um hum." Xena absently responded. She was beginning to develop a plan of her own.
Forty-five minutes later, having showered and dressed in their street clothes, the soulmates sat in the Rosewood Dairy Bar. They were both still feeling morose, but the fighting had taken the edge off of their deadly rage and left them needing ice cream. Cloned Gabrielle was digging into a hot fudge cake with peach ice cream, butterscotch sauce, whipped cream, cherries, peanuts, and sprinkles. (The waitress had grimaced at the choice, but the brunette had glared at her, daring her to say anything).
"I think this is one of the few good things mankind has come up with since our time," the blonde declared. She moaned with pleasure as the cold ice cream and hot sticky sauce melded together on her tongue.
"You're probably right," Xena agreed, as she worked on demolishing a banana split. She was still distracted, but she'd noticed a girl who'd come in a few minutes before with what appeared to be her younger brother. The girl was staring at them over an ice cream cone. The warrior realized that it annoyed her more than the simple lack of consideration merited, but she'd been on edge since the news report the morning before. Finally she turned and stared back at the girl, catching her and pinning her with a steady glare. Her upper lip curled in what might have been a sneer.
"So do ya want somethin' or are ya just jealous 'cause ya gotta stick with that cone 'n yer 'lil brother?" Hearing her words, Gabrielle looked up from her feast, wondering what had set her partner off. She followed Xena's line of sight to the girl, who looked like she'd been frozen in mid-lick.
"S'rena," she whispered with her mouth half full, "she's probably only 10 and you're scaring her out of her wits. Now stop it." Xena slowly turned away from the girl to face her partner.
"Ya know I never liked bein' stared at while I'm eatin'," she said, though with a trace of self-consciousness. After taking another bite of banana, she added a more contrite, "she's been staring at us since she came in. It was gettin' on my nerves…and ya got whipped cream on your nose."
Gabrielle went cross-eyed trying to check for the whipped cream, bringing a chuckle from the cloned warrior. She reached over and gently wiped the bit of topping off the tip of her soulmate's nose and lasciviously licked it off of her finger while letting her eyes slip closed with a moan.
"Ewwwwwww!" The girl's shrill voice shrieked, "sooooooo gross!"
The clones both whipped around to face her. She was pointing at them, so absorbed in her reaction that she'd absentmindedly put her own ice cream cone down in her lap. She continued, "You licked that stuff off her nose! Icky!"
"Did not!" Xena indignantly replied. "I wiped it off her nose and licked my finger…big difference."
"It's soooo not," the girl reasoned, "and I watched your show every week. Oh yuck!"
The clones looked at each other for a moment as what the girl meant sunk in. Both of them groaned. They'd been wrongly unmasked as the Warrior Princess and the Battling Bard of TV fame. The girl wasn't through either.
"You're supposed to be my heroes, and…and I never believed you actually were, uhhhh, well, you know…." Her eyes had grown wide and round.
"Well, huh?" Gabrielle muttered as Xena shook her head and covered her face with a hand. "Were what?" She asked the girl.
"Lez-beans," her little brother supplied, his eight-year-old sagacity filling in the gap in the conversation as his sister sat staring at the women in fascinated horror.
"That's it!" Xena growled, "C'mon, we're outta here!" She'd leapt to her feet and threw her fork on the table as Gabrielle spooned up a last mouthful of her fudge cake and reluctantly stood. "Ya got ice cream in yer crotch," Xena spat back at the girl, eyeing the ice cream cone in her lap, "or are ya just sticky cause yer happy to see me?"
Moments later in the parking lot, Gabrielle had burst into a fit of laughter.
"What? Ya think that brat was funny?" The cloned warrior had asked in annoyance.
Between choked cackles, the cloned bard had managed to sputter, "Ya got ice cream in your crotch or are ya just sticky because you're happy to see me? (Heehee) Oh gods, Xena. Guess she's going to be a Buffy fan from now on, huh?"
"Jus' get in the car,"* Xena had grumped. The blonde had giggled intermittently all the way home while Xena had chirped the tires at every opportunity.
(*Where to begin…Xena and Gabrielle had received driver's licenses with the identity documents procured by Janice Covington, but that didn't mean they knew how to drive. They had taken the aged professor's advice and signed up for instruction at the Columbia Driving School. Gabrielle had adapted reasonably well to the controls, once she'd overcome her initial uneasiness about the concept of controlling a mindless machine. It wasn't at all the same as riding a horse. For one thing, she couldn't bribe it with an apple or the promise of a good rubdown. Xena had displayed both an inherent aptitude for driving, as well as a flagrant disregard for driving conventions. She'd terrified the kid who'd been assigned by the school as her instructor, guiding the car over curbs, speeding in reverse, crossing medians, misleading her "enemies" with her turn signals, and intimidating oncoming traffic whenever advantageous. Xena did these things with a maniacal glee, simply because she could. As always, her control was uncanny. She didn't take well to criticism either, rendering the kid petrified with a few glares and growls. He'd passed her just to get out of her presence as quickly as possible, but Xena had picked up enough to convincingly "fake it" while in traffic. Mostly her knowledge had come from observing the other drivers on the streets around her. In any case, neither clone would have to take a practical driving exam for some time). ~Editor
But later on, Xena was still disturbed about the incident. Feeling that she hadn't lived up to the heroic image that a TV show she didn't even like had created for her was conflicting at best. Stupid as it was, and ignorant as the girl's attitude had been, the idea of having failed as a hero didn't sit well with the cloned Warrior Princess. So while Gabrielle had been making her airplane reservations for the flight to San Francisco, Xena had wandered out into the back yard. For a while she simply stood under the deep green leaves of a star magnolia, thinking. Finally she nodded to herself, having made up her mind. She was still a god's mortal Chosen.
"Ares, God of War, show yourself," Xena called out. Her summons was answered by the familiar blue flash, and for the second time that day, the Patron of Warriors appeared.
"Thought I might be hearing from you sometime soon," he began, this time with a self-satisfied smile. Xena scowled, still hating to be predictable. Ares' smile graduated into a chuckle, which the Warrior Princess regarded with a raised eyebrow. "Is that ice cream in your crotch or are ya just sticky 'cause you're happy to see me?" He chortled.
Xena groaned and shook her head. "Ares," she began, "much as I hate to admit it, you were right earlier. If I'm gonna train warriors, they gotta be able to make a difference. So who'd ya say are the best of the best in this country?"
The God of War stood silent a moment, thinking seriously about her question. Despite all the mediocrity in the modern world, there had seldom been as many elite warriors who were as well trained and equipped as there were in the early 21st century. He realized that it really depended on what goals Xena hoped for.
"Well, you've got your SWAT teams in just about every major police department in the country. Then there are the elite military counter-terrorism units and special assault teams…like the Navy SEALS and the Delta Force. There's the Federal strike teams, FBI, DEA, BATF, even the spooks in the CIA. Some of the best, maybe the best, are the FBI's HRT…the Hostage Rescue Team." And then there was a group he'd sensed that even he wasn't about to name. He gave her an appraising glance. "Or maybe you could start your own outfit…do it your way." He trailed off when she gave him a sour look. "Ok, no personal army this time around…I got it."
"What's that Hostage Rescue Team about, and where do they operate from?" She remembered rescuing a few hostages in her time, including one in particular who had changed her whole life. It still seemed like a worthy cause to her.
The God of War greeted his Favorite's question with a smile.
September 13, 2001 - San Francisco, California
"Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the University of San Francisco, and the staff of the War Memorial Gymnasium, I would like to welcome you to the 23rd National Open Full Contact Martial Arts Championships. Qualifying rounds have been completed and the first elimination round will begin shortly. The organizers and sponsors would like to wish the best of luck to all the contestants, and we hope that those of you in the audience will enjoy this demonstration of the skills of the best martial artists in this country."
On the mat covered floor of the Gymnasium's basketball court, the contestants and referees, coaches and judges, contest production assistants and medical attendants, all listened to the opening address of welcome as it reverberated from the loudspeakers of the public address system. Then, at a call from the officials, they turned their attention to the head referee. Gabrielle joined them in receiving their final review of the rules.
"This is a full contact tournament. Each match will consist of three rounds of three minutes each. There will be a two-minute rest between rounds. You may win by knockout, by demonstrating clear superiority by forcing your opponent to capitulate, or by scoring points. One point will be awarded for each clear contact of aggression noted by the judges. The point total at the end of the third round will decide the match. As always, in each round, stepping outside the mat's boundaries will result in a first warning. A second warning carries the loss of a point. The third warning will result in disqualification and forfeiture of the match. Are there any questions?"
The sixty-four qualifying contestants had listened to the words of the head referee and not a single one spoke. All but one of them had been through this many times before. To the one who hadn't, the rules didn't make any difference.
The short blonde was a stranger to the organizers and the other contestants, and had appeared alone at the sign-in desk at the last moment. She'd paid the entrance fee with a handful of crumpled bills, presented a driver's license for identification, and then qualified with ease. The unknown fighter had defeated three opponents without having a point scored against her. Those matches had been short and decisive, each ending within the first round. Now Gabriella Covington was regarded as a dark horse, an enigmatic fighter, whose style, affiliations, and origins were largely a mystery. Her registration papers listed the Columbia School of Martial Science, an unaccredited dojo that no one had ever heard of. She'd named no teacher or style. She claimed no rank. She had never been a contestant in a regional or national tournament, and she held no membership in any martial arts association or federation. Even more unusual was the fact that she wore no protective gear of any kind. While waiting between matches, she was relaxed and courteous to those who spoke to her, but beneath the tranquil waters of her demeanor they could sense forged and tempered steel. She had quickly knocked out all three of the fighters who had tried to qualify against her.
After the head referee's instructions, the contestants were divided into four groups. Each followed their referees and judges to one of the four sections of mats that had been placed atop the polished wooden floor of the basketball court. The first three rounds of elimination would take place with four bouts running simultaneously. The quarter-, semi-, and final rounds would be held after a single set of mats had been moved to the center of the gymnasium.
It was a well-organized and smoothly run tournament. Within ten minutes of their arrival at the mat, the first pair of contestants was fighting the first round of their match.
Gabrielle watched from the sidelines with the other 13 fighters in her group. Though both of the women on the mat held black belts and had years of experience, they fought like mid-level students to her eyes. They seemed evenly matched and neither did anything her opponent wasn't familiar with. Scoring points was almost a matter of luck, the clone thought. After watching the first round, Gabrielle checked the action on the other mats, and then, having seen nothing of interest, let her mind wander.
You would have done great here, Marcus, she thought. I haven't seen a fighter yet who can sense their opponent's intentions. There's no inspiration here…just sweat and focused power. These contestants would have been blade fodder in my time. Plus, they separate the women and men and I'm used to fighting both indiscriminately. It's not really much of a challenge compared to what Xena and I knew. But I'm going to win this for you, though you'd have been fighting tomorrow in the men's division. You should have been here instead of me.
"Gabriella Covington…Carol Birch, you're up," the referee called.
Gabrielle realized that the first match had ended while she'd been immersed in her thoughts. She rose to her feet and glanced at her opponent. Carol Birch was a tall, fit brunette in a white gi, the obligatory black belt tied around her waist. Over her left breast, a patch with the words, "South Chicago - Shotokan", surrounding a stylized tiger in gold on black adorned her uniform. The karateka wore headgear and a pair of hand guards that left her palms bare. She adjusted her mouth guard, gave Gabrielle an appraising look, and then walked to the center of the mat where the referee tied a red sash through her belt. Gabrielle moved to take her place on a mark facing her.
The contestants bowed to the referee then bowed to each other. The referee took her place between them, checked the judges briefly and then chopped her hand down.
"Begin," she commanded, and quickly withdrew a short distance away.
Birch moved forward, intending to pressure Gabrielle by attacking immediately, hoping that her smaller opponent would hesitate, but it was futile. With the formality of the contest, no one could really launch a surprise attack. No one could, for example, leap into your campsite wielding a spear while you lay asleep in your bedroll, fire an arrow at you while you were eating supper, or attack with a sword while you were squatting in the bushes. Gabrielle read her opponent's intentions as the black belt shifted her weight forward to take her first step. There was no uncertainty in her response. The blonde slid her left foot forward to close the distance by widening her stance, and then she rotated her body from the hips, driving her right shoulder and arm forward in a straight punch. Maintaining the looseness in her shoulder gave the blow speed and snap, and Birch, still in mid-stride, practically impaled herself on Gabrielle's right fist. The impact knocked the wind out of her, and she keeled over, falling onto her side.
"Break," the referee commanded. Gabrielle relaxed and returned to her starting mark.
It was a textbook application of the most basic technique, but for it to work, there could be no hesitation. Executing it in a match required lightning speed and an uncanny sense of the opponent's intentions. In her memories, the cloned bard saw herself using the same technique against enemies lunging at her with swords, though often back then, she'd been driving the butt end of a sai into their bellies. The two judges raised their white flags.
"Point, white…reverse punch," the referee declared.
With a groan, Birch struggled to her feet taking several deep breaths. Gabrielle could understand the nausea and pain that accompanied a strong blow to the solar plexus. It was…distracting. Time to finish this, the cloned bard thought as the women took their ready positions, in a real battle she'd already be dead. The referee checked Birch's condition, received a nod in response to her questioning glance, and again commanded "begin".
This time Gabrielle was in motion even as the ref's hand finished it's descent. The blonde took one skip-step forward and then she was twisting as she launched her body into the air. The rotation was fast. Her head snapped around to verify the target, and as the revolution brought her torso around to face her opponent again, her leg lashed out, delivering an aerial spinning back kick to the side of Birch's head. The momentum of the follow through carried Gabrielle back to a landing in a perfect front stance, while the imparted force of the kick sent her opponent's body cartwheeling off her feet. She landed hard, two yards away near the margin of the mats, splayed out, face down, and dazed.
"Break," the referee commanded, insuring that Gabrielle would stay away and allow her opponent to recover. The judges held up their white flags. "Point, white…flying spinning back kick," the ref announced.
Birch was slowly shaking her head, but hadn't risen to her feet. The ref knelt by her side and asked her if she knew where she was. She didn't respond except with a delayed and stupefied look. Her gaze swept across the area, obviously disoriented. The ref stilled Birch's head by cupping her chin with a palm, and checked the condition of her eyes. Finally she nodded to herself as if satisfied with what she'd seen and stood back up, moving to take her position in the center of the mat. She nodded once to Gabrielle, who stood waiting at attention on her starting mark.
"I am stopping this match," the referee announced. "Red is unable to continue. White is the winner by technical knockout." Birch was just beginning to struggle to her feet, but crashed back down onto her hands and knees.
Gabrielle, the referee, and the judges traded bows, and then the cloned bard left the mat breathing an unconscious sigh of relief. In a combat situation, the blonde might have had to finish Birch off, and though she'd done it countless times, killing a dazed and helpless enemy had never felt good to her. Across the mat, two medical attendants and Carol Birch's coach had converged on the fallen fighter. They were preparing to slide her onto a stretcher, but she managed to stagger to her feet and lurch off towards the locker room while being supported by her coach. Without the headgear, she'd probably have been unconscious. Gabrielle sat watching from the sidelines. Eventually she'll be fine, the clone thought, allowing herself a second sigh of relief.
The next six matches of the first round were finished over the following hour, but Gabrielle had retired to the Gymnasium's entrance hallway. She'd intended to call her soulmate and report on her first modern tournament experience. After searching out a payphone, the blonde had fed her coins in and dialed an impressive string of numbers, but no one answered at their home. She'd called the school with the same lack of results.
Damn it, where is she, the cloned bard asked herself. She realized that it was already noon "back east", and Xena always got up early. With a sigh, she hung up the phone, dug her quarters out of the change return, and wandered over to a concession stand. She ended up settling for another of the sausages on a soft roll. After adding a dab of every available sauce, (which made the girl running the counter grimace), it tasted exactly like the ones she'd had in the Puddingstone State Recreation Area. She washed it down with a can of Pepsi. All the while, she was thinking.
The cloned warrior was up to something; Gabrielle could feel it in her bones. It was also the only real explanation for her not being right here in San Francisco with her now. Xena had begged off on the trip, and her excuse of needing to stay in Columbia to teach their Thursday night class was weak at best. We're getting an answering machine and some of those cellulite phones as soon as I get home, she swore.
As she made her way back toward the gymnasium, she happened to look out through the glass doors. The traffic on Golden Gate Ave. flowed by like a column of fire ants in the early afternoon sun. A yellow Mini Cooper zipped past, dancing and weaving like a boxer. The tiny car narrowly dodged a terrified pedestrian. The incident caught the bard's attention because the driver, a woman wearing a black battle dress uniform, had been clumsily struggling to reach an ice chest on the rear seat. She'd been paying absolutely no attention to the road. For a brief moment, Gabrielle had been able to see right into the passenger's side of the car. Why, that's a wolverine wearing a fedora, she'd thought in amazement. In the car's wake, an empty longneck Budweiser bottle had flipped out of a window and shattered on the road. Incredibly irresponsible behavior, the bard fumed. The car's license plates had read "Lizzie", and the blonde had half a mind to call in a complaint to the local militia.
September 13, 2001 - Quantico, Virginia
Xena had always been a morning person. Today the Warrior Princess had begun her mission at first light. She'd flown to Richmond from Owens Field, rented a late model white Jeep, and then headed north up I-95. Knowing that Gabrielle was fighting in San Francisco that morning; fighting in a "karate tournament", had left the cloned warrior with few worries about her soulmate's well being. The "combat situations" will be so artificially contrived that she really can't lose, Xena had told herself, and after all, I doubt if any of her opponents have spent 28 years fighting life and death struggles with the whole Roman Empire trying to kill them. Furthermore, Gabrielle would only be fighting one person at a time and only women. If they believed what they saw on TV, they'd have a grievously incorrect impression of her partner. Only during a few scenes in the series' last couple seasons had her bard's prowess been accurately portrayed. She was still chuckling every time she thought about it. In reality, the blonde would have beheaded that samurai without a second thought, probably before he'd gotten a single word out of his mouth. Xena had been much more worried about Gabrielle getting on the plane.
The cloned warrior turned her attention back to the blue Ford van moving steadily through traffic a couple of cars ahead of her. She'd picked it up just a few miles north of Richmond, near the I-95 Exit 89 to SR-802, and she'd stayed on its tail ever since. They'd been just where she'd been told they'd be.
"This is a freebie, Xena," Ares had said as he'd pointed out their quarry, "and you owe me nothing for it. If these bastards get the chance, they'll dump 10 lbs. of weaponized botulism toxin into the Washington, D.C. Metro's air circulation system during the evening rush, and they'll turn Metro Center will be a necropolis. In the chaos, they might actually kill someone important. I hate these terrorists. They're really nothing but damn self-righteous anarchists. I'd blast 'em myself, but the air quality would suffer."
He'd been grinding his teeth as he'd pointed to the blue van as it sped by in the northbound lane. Xena had hit the gas, surging out of the rest stop and pushing the Jeep into traffic behind it.
"Have fun," Ares had said as he'd vanished, his flames lightly scorching the upholstery.
Stopping the van would be almost too easy, the cloned Warrior Princess thought. She could have forced it off the road and taken out the three men inside in moments, but that wouldn't have accomplished her purpose. She needed to take them out, but only at the right time and place, because, important as it was to foil their plot, her objective was to initiate a contact with the elite Hostage Rescue Team. Now it was almost 10 am, and they'd passed Fredricksburg twenty minutes ago. Exit 148 was a mile ahead, and finally it was almost the right time to act.
The north and southbound lanes of I-95 parted, leaving a hundred feet of green median between them, while on the right a wooded area sped past. Xena pulled out of the slow lane and accelerated sharply to pass the last car between her Jeep and the van. Blowing by the beige Oldsmobile at 80 mph, she quickly drew abreast of the van and then passed it as well. There were now less than 100 yards before the exit.
With an evil grin, she set a cheap rotating emergency light on her dashboard, and then veered sharply into the right hand lane. Her Jeep had barely cleared the van's front bumper, and she heard the satisfying sound of its brakes screeching and its horn blaring. Xena decelerated, matched the van's speed, and kept edging into the right lane, forcing the van off onto the exit ramp of eastbound Russell Rd. Then she slipped the Jeep in behind the van and turned on the emergency light.
Within the 50 miles surrounding Washington, D.C., there are probably over 100 law enforcement organizations. Few places in the world have such a concentration of departments and bureaus. In the white Jeep, which could easily have been an unmarked police vehicle, the emergency light looked enough like a cop's rotating cherry to panic the van's driver.
The terrorists accelerated away down Russell Rd. with an inaccurate spray of pistol bullets directed out the windows. Xena wove across the lanes behind them, staying right on their tail. Figuring that they were looking at her in their mirrors and out the rear of the van, she held up a pack of Reese's Peanutbutter Cups, miming the actions of speaking into a mobile radio. It seemed to be working brilliantly, she thought, for the van sped up another 15 mph, careening right through Entrance Gate 4 at the southern end of the Quantico Marine Base, at almost 85 mph. At the roadside, a Marine sentry stared after them in amazement. She allowed herself a gleeful cackle, turned on her headlights, and began blinking her high beams at the van. The chase was on and she was loving it.
Russell Rd. began curving to the left. As Catlin Ave. flashed past, Xena noted a Military Police Humvee lurking at the roadside. It was an observation post, set up on the edge of the base, and she slowed down abruptly, coming to a stop alongside the road. The van continued at full speed, a few more pistol bullets spraying from the side windows. The MPs looked at her Jeep, noted the flashing light and the bullet holes in the front end, saw the van with guns hanging out the windows, and finally put two and two together. The Humvee's emergency lights and siren came on and it began to move in pursuit. The cloned warrior thought the MPs were still reacting too hesitantly as they passed her, so to help make up their minds, Xena stuck her arm out the window and frantically waved them after the speeding van. She noticed that the Humvee's interior was bristling with rifle barrels.
200 yards ahead on the left sat a McDonalds. The van shot past it, clipping the rear bumper of a 2 ½-ton truck that was just backing out of the parking lot. With a crash, a sizable piece of sheet metal comprising most of the van's left front fender spun off into a yard by the side of the road. The van gave a heave and a lurch, but with a squealing of tires, it straightened out and sped on. Xena watched the Military Police accelerate after the damaged van. She unwrapped the peanut butter cups and followed them at a more leisurely pace.
September 13, 2001 - San Francisco, California
Gabrielle had a bad feeling about her upcoming match. It was the semifinals. She'd defeated another three opponents with little difficulty, and so far her worst enemy had been her own hubris. It was getting hard to curb her disdain for the other competitors. Her quarterfinal match had been against a woman who had been introduced as Marine Corps 2nd Lt. Janine Bradshaw, a cocky member of the US Armed Forces Tae Kwon Do team. The tall stocky redhead had actually had the audacity to call the cloned bard "Shorty", as in, "I'm gonna kick your ass, Shorty". The blonde had staggered her with a hard side kick to the chest followed by a flying roundhouse kick to the temple. She'd noted the satisfying sensation of cracking ribs despite her opponent's chest guard. The medics had taken Lt. Bradshaw from the mats on a stretcher, still unconscious. The match had lasted a total of 12 seconds.
"I may be short, but I'm the one still standing," Gabrielle had muttered derisively in her fallen antagonist's direction, adding, "you empty braggart," for good measure.
She'd turned away after the referee's announcement of her 7th knockout to find two of Bradshaw's armed forces teammates glaring at her as she moved to take her seat by the edge of the mats. She'd glared back at them and tried out one of Xena's sneers.
Now the referee was calling her name again. "Gabriella Covington…SSgt. Hudson Lykos," she announced. The blonde stood up and looked over at her competition.
Gabrielle could only shake her head in amazement. This was beyond weird. The Air Force staff sergeant was a slender blonde a hand's width taller than the bard, with elfin features, and cold brown eyes that spoke of madness. The woman studied Gabrielle for a moment and a taunting smile curled her lips. She was all too familiar to the clone. Had it been 44 BC, the woman would have been a life long enemy; one who'd been born in the town of Cirra, in 90 BC. She was a dead ringer for the woman who had once broken her soulmate's back with the Chakram of Night during a fight in the Eternal City of Rome. She had caused their deaths. A growing antipathy began to take possession of Gabrielle's heart.
The blonde clone took a deep breath as she adjusted the jacket of her new uniform.* Now she moved to stand on her mark. This time, the referee tied the red sash through her belt, (the same black one that had been included with the costume.)
(*As a concession to the tournament rules, she'd had to purchase a proper outfit. At the school in Columbia, no one wore a uniform, and so, before leaving South Carolina, she'd gone to a martial arts shop and bought a ninja costume. She liked the hand coverings and the cut of the pants, loose, but snugged with ties at the calves and ankles. Xena had laughed at her choice, but the bard had thought the typical karate uniform fabrics too heavy and the cut too floppy. They left too much for an enemy to grab onto. Besides, she'd reasoned, her uniform came with the right colored belt and she could wear it to any upcoming Halloween parties. She'd actually been even happier when she saw that no other competitor was similarly dressed, though she'd had to forego the hood and face covering.) ~Editor
Opposite her waited SSgt. Hudson Lykos, with a mocking grin on her face. Gabrielle already half-suspected that she was either a descendant or a clone of the very dangerous Callisto. The staff sergeant winked at her in a familiar and flirtatious way. As if sensing something abnormal, the referee looked closely at the two contestants and shook her head before moving into position to start the match. Gabrielle was remembering.
In 71 BC, Callisto had led an army of outlaws in a reign of terror. Simple looting and pillage hadn't satisfied her bloodlust. She'd murdered villagers with glee, crucifying or impaling some, torturing others, and selling the rest into slavery. Even Xena hadn't made the mistake of underestimating her, though she'd been barely 19 at the time. The self-dubbed "Warrior Queen" had been slender and beautiful, but also dangerously insane. Her lithe frame had outstanding flexibility and for years she'd hardened her hands and feet, training with methods that the soulmates had only later seen in the Far East. When they'd first met her in battle, she'd broken Gabrielle's staff with an open handed blow and shattered the arms and legs of defending militiamen. Gabrielle had seen her kill a cavalryman's horse with a kick to the ribs. They'd never fought anyone quicker. In response, Xena had taught her partner the nerve pinch and other deadly techniques, just so she'd have a chance of defending herself. They'd fought Callisto for most of a year, finally dragging her from a pit of quicksand and then standing by until she was incarcerated on Shark Island. She'd already escaped justice once and had managed to kill Gabrielle's cousin, Perdicus. They'd taken no chances of her escaping a second time.
Even locked away for life in the island prison, she'd caused the soulmates trouble. Callisto had spent ten years training an ambitious and merciless warrior named Mavican. When Mavican had escaped Shark Island, (a dry run for Callisto's own escape years later), she'd stalked the soulmates and challenged them for her teacher's vengeance and to enhance her own reputation. That had been in 59 BC. Xena had been 37 at the time, Gabrielle 29. They'd both had young daughters to raise and no patience for the deadly upstart who called herself the "Warrior Queen's Successor". In a short bloody battle just outside the Amazon lands, Gabrielle had slammed a sai through the flesh above Mavican's hip, causing her to bleed to death from a punctured abdominal aorta. She'd lacked Callisto's maniacal intelligence and almost unnatural speed.
In 52 BC, Callisto had escaped from Shark Island Prison. The soulmates had been in the middle of their twelve-year war against Rome, trying to reclaim Xena's kidnapped daughter from Caesar. There'd been no time to hunt down their deadly adversary, and that lapse would become their doom. As if doing them a favor, Callisto had disappeared for eight years. Sometime in those intervening years Callisto had traveled to Asia Minor, located the Temple of the Chakram, and taken possession of the Chakram of Night.
Then in 44 BC it had all ended. A woman fitting Callisto's description had been killing in and around Rome itself. More chilling than the description of the killer had been her techniques. Bone breaking, aerial fighting, nerve point attacks, and mutilation of the victims. They had known her by her crimes more surely than by her appearance.
Xena was 53 now, Gabrielle 45, and they'd only rescued Eve from Caesar's clutches two years before. The aging Warrior Princess had sighed, but her eyes had hardened, and Gabrielle had known what was to come. They would go into the den of their enemies one more time; into Rome itself, though their decimation of 3 cohorts of Praetorian Guards during their rescue of Xena's daughter was still remembered as recent news. Xena was now 1st Enemy of the Imperium and the price on her head was 6 million denarii. An additional 3 million would be paid for the apprehension or death of the blonde bard. Kingdoms had been founded on smaller fortunes. Julius Caesar was obsessed and Callisto was insane. She'd kept the Chakram of Night hidden.
The soulmates had armed themselves and set out for the Eternal City, determined to finally settle with Callisto once and for all. They'd both felt responsibility for the situation. Callisto had begun her life of crime in retaliation for Xena's destruction of Cirra in 78 BC, and Gabrielle had convinced Xena to spare her life and take her to trial for a second time. There'd been enough guilt to go around. All the way to Rome, Xena had chaffed about not letting her enemy sink into the quicksand so many years before. Gabrielle had held her peace, worrying about the stiffness of her soulmate's arthritic hands. Callisto had been 46 and not getting any younger either. The years in prison had been hard on her. It was nearing her last chance for revenge.
The journey to Rome had begun in winter with snow still on the ground in the highlands. The trip had been miserable, the weather wet and cold the whole way. Unwilling to risk being recognized onboard a ship, they'd traveled overland from Thracia, passing with stealth through Macedonia, Illyricum, and the lands north of the Mare Adriaticum, before finally entering Italia. North of Ravenna, Gabrielle had fallen prey to a vicious pneumonia that had delayed them another week and a half. For days she'd been delirious, feverish, and nauseous. A barking cough had persisted and she'd still been short of breath when they'd finally reached Rome in early March. Neither of the soulmates had been at their best by then; Gabrielle still sick, Xena worried, tired, and past her prime. The trip had taken almost two moons and it had drained them.
March 12th, 44 BC. They'd caught up with Callisto and fought her in an alley behind the Temple of Mars Ultor. Though they'd expected a very difficult battle, the soulmates had expected to win. They'd outnumbered Callisto, four blades to two. Gabrielle had been armed with a pair of Amazon short swords, Xena with her broadsword and the Combined Chakram, while Callisto had wielded her broadsword and a parrying dagger almost three hands long. They were all bloodied within minutes, and then Callisto had lost her dagger. Seeing the opening, the soulmates had pressed their attack, driving her back near a wall. It had been a mistake. They should have cut and bled her until she'd weakened. Then Callisto had broken Gabrielle's left arm and cracked three of her ribs with a front kick. It had been the turning point in the battle and the cloned bard's anger grew.
After a furious exchange of sword blows, Xena had thrown her chakram from point blank range, and only Callisto's hypertrophied reflexes had saved her. She'd used a sacrifice maneuver, back flipping away from of the raging Warrior Princess. The Combined Chakram had flown a hairsbreadth above her head as she'd retreated, but Callisto had reached the place where she'd hidden the Chakram of Night before the fight. She'd thrown it against the nearest wall, where it ricocheted once and struck Xena in the back, breaking her spine before clattering to the ground fractured in two. Callisto had staggered forward and caught the Combined Chakram while slamming a palm blow into the injured bard's face, dazing her and knocking her to the ground. Then she'd collected her weapons and ululated the Warrior Princess' war cry. As she'd turned and smiled before walking away to collect the bounties, Gabrielle could already hear the tramping sandals of approaching legionnaires. Three days later, on the Ides of March, the soulmates had been crucified.
The referee called, "begin", and stepped away.
Her opponent asked, "so, was the cross comfortable? Did you enjoy your ten minutes of fame? I remember that you both looked so pathetic up there…especially Xena, already dead from the waist down." Staff Sergeant Hudson Lykos giggled.
Now there could be no doubt about her identity and Gabrielle's rage peaked. She didn't even question how it was possible that her ancient enemy was standing before her in the 21st century. There was no question in her mind that this was the Callisto she had known. She owed her blood. It was no longer September 13, 2001, and she was no longer in a tournament in San Francisco. She was back in that filthy alley in Rome, behind the Temple of Mars, it was March 12th, 44 BC, and this time, she was going to kill Callisto.
For the first time in the tournament a contestant fought her to a draw. Gabrielle attacked with combinations of techniques, displaying a viciousness she hadn't shown before. The Staff Sergeant retaliated with the same speed and flexibility that she'd had 21 centuries ago. The seconds of the first round ticked by without either woman scoring a point, and as they waited through the two-minute rest period, the bard noticed a growing crowd of other competitors gathering around their mat. Both had been undefeated, but Gabrielle had knocked out all of her previous opponents. Now she was being forced to fight head to head in what looked like an even match, and both fighters were demonstrating skills that were a league beyond anything that had been seen in the tournament earlier.
The cloned bard realized that she wouldn't beat Callisto the way she'd beaten her other opponents. As she'd been in Rome, Callisto was probably still the better fighter now. In the past, the soulmates had defeated her through teamwork, surprise, and chance. In the end, Callisto had used their teamwork against them, goading Xena by injuring Gabrielle, and she'd held the element of surprise. If the cloned bard were going to win today, she would only be able to do it through a surprise of her own. That meant through the use of an unexpected technique, since her tactical options in this artificial combat situation were sorely limited. She realized that both she and Callisto knew techniques that weren't common knowledge in the modern world. The problem was that using them would attract attention. So far, it had been to their mutual advantage to hide their knowledge during the fight. Neither would reveal anything that could arouse the suspicion of strangers without a compelling reason. For Gabrielle, there were few things she could think of that would be more compelling than removing the rediscovered threat of their ancient nemesis. By the gods, she thought, the mayhem she could unleash in the modern world was beyond comprehension, and now that Callisto knew Gabrielle lived, neither she nor her soulmate would ever again know peace. The "Warrior Queen" would stalk them for the rest of their lives. "Xena, I will never give up. I will never rest until you are both destroyed…." Gabrielle could still hear the oath that Callisto had screamed at them in 71 BC, and she'd already kept her promise once.
The referee had moved to her position in the center of the mat and was signaling the competitors to take their places for the second round. Gabrielle looked up to see SSgt. Lykos rising from her seat and meeting her gaze with a wiggle of her eyebrows and a suggestive leer. Gabrielle offered an icy glare in return and it provoked a giggle in response. They moved to their starting marks, and Callisto, ever the flirt, whispered, "you're such a cutie…even when you're alive." The ref glared at her for the comment and she bit a fingernail, whispered, "ooops," and fabricated a contrite expression while not even pretending to be sincere. The referee checked the judges once more, took a last look at the competitors, and then signaled for them to begin. She moved away, but was watching the two like a hawk, expecting infractions.
Again Gabrielle attacked with ferocity and inspiration, and again, Callisto neutralized her moves with the options her flexibility and speed conferred. They were both lulling each other into the belief that they were intending to fight the second round with the same strategy as the first, while each intended to set up their opponent for a surprise. They engaged each other again, fighting at the close range now, and trading hand techniques instead of flying kicks. Being so near provided an opportunity for the Staff Sergeant to taunt her cloned enemy.
"I'll bet you died wondering what I'd do after you were gone," she whispered, before lashing out with an elbow strike that the bard barely managed to parry with a palm. Behind the elbow strike, the "Warrior Queen" applied a pin point attack, aiming a fingertip blow at Gabrielle's radial nerve, just below her elbow. The referee and the judges couldn't see it, and it paralyzed the bard's lower arm and hand. Gabrielle had no choice but to back off and apply a counter strike to return the sensation to her extremity.
"You know, I remember having so much fun after I retired with Caesar's bounty," Callisto stated, while making a half-hearted attempt to gouge the clone's right eye with what looked like a palm strike aimed at her chin. The bard held her tormentor at bay with a series of Phoenix Eye punches directed at her sternum and solar plexus, then drove her further back with a combination of different height side kicks. "The Senate paid me every dinar and even proclaimed a holiday to honor lil 'ol me. I was pardoned by Rome…vindicated in the end." Madness was growing in her flashing brown eyes as she closed in again, reveling in the memories of her triumph. "I was the hero, while you and Xena died as the criminals you always were. I remember it as if I'd been there…just like you, my dear. Soon you'll be just as dead. And after you, there's Xena…again."
Gabrielle ground her teeth at the news. Not only had Callisto become a hero in ancient Rome, but modern history remembered only Caesar's death on the Ides of March in 44 BC. All the sacrifices her soulmate had made in three decades of heroism; all their years of fighting for the Greater Good had been forgotten by the world, until that TV show had misrepresented it all. A quick glance at the official time clock revealed only 15 seconds remaining in the second round.
Callisto moved towards her, offering a grin that promised further provocation. Gabrielle could see her set her feet for what would be a bone crushing front kick to open a series of attacks. When her weight shifted forward for the first kick, the clone made her move. She let the steely muscles in her legs uncoil, launching herself into an aerial roundoff so that she passed completely over Callisto's head. She was a fast moving blur of black uniform cloth, still twisting through the air when she attacked. She was barely quick enough, for Callisto was already recovering and turning to face her. Using the index fingers of both hands, she struck lightning fast blows on either side of her enemy's spine, crushing the lateral processes and the nerves arising from the 2nd thoracic vertebra.* Immediately upon landing, she swept Callisto's legs out from under her with her right leg and allowed her enemy's body to fall onto her left knee. Gabrielle hoped that her nerve attack had been too quick and unexpected for the referee or judges to notice. The resulting damage would be attributed to her opponent falling spine first onto her bent knee. Callisto had slammed down hard and lay still.
(*The nerves leading from the 1st to the 5th thoracic vertebrae join with those from the lowest three neck, or cervical, vertebrae, to form the nerve bundle, known as the cardiac plexus, which regulates the heart. The blow had shocked the entire plexus and caused Callisto's heart to go into a temporary arrhythmia that rendered her immobile.) ~Editor
Knowing there were only moments before the referee ordered her away, the cloned bard firmly crushed the sides of the 3rd cervical vertebra, affecting the nerves of the phrenic plexus that controlled her enemy's diaphragm. It was a death sentence, delayed by 1 to 3 hours.
The clock ran out, ending the second round, and the referee called, "break". Gabrielle slowly rose to her feet, allowing Callisto's unconscious body to roll off her knee and onto the mats. She retreated to her mark to await the referee's decision. The armed forces team coach and two medical technicians rushed onto the mat to examine Staff Sergeant Lykos. After two minutes she still hadn't regained consciousness and they prepared to move her to the locker room on a stretcher. The ref moved back to the center of the mats.
"SSgt. Hudson Lykos is unable to continue. The match goes Gabriella Covington by knockout." As Gabrielle moved back to the edge of the mat to await the final bouts of the tournament, every eye in the War Memorial Gymnasium followed her.
The TV show had made much of the ancient Gabrielle's tendency towards mercy, her righteousness, and her unwillingness to kill. For part of her first year with Xena, that impression had been mostly correct. Unfortunately, it was a simplistic and inaccurate appraisal of the bard. She had fought at the Warrior Princess' side for 28 bloody years. In their first 2 years together she had survived Callisto's predations, the Mitoan-Thessalian War, and her first conflict with Rome. In their third year together, they had gone to Chin to assassinate the despot, Ming Tsu, and insure the leadership of the House of Lao. Had Gabrielle been the woman portrayed in the TV show, Xena would have left her by the side of the road…for her own good as well as Gabrielle's. The brutal and terrifying battlefields of the ancient world were no place for a tender heart.
Within 4 years, Gabrielle had been proficient enough a fighter to defeat Alti, the "Blood Shamaness", and become an Amazon Warrior. This alone was remarkable, for the Amazons took up martial training at the age of six. Gabrielle had already learned the nerve pinch, and was highly skilled with the fighting staff, bow, and short sword. Within 7 years she had completed the same training in yoga and internal fighting methods that Xena had, when the two traveled to Indus. She was 8 years Xena's junior, healthy, tenacious, compact, and strong. Where Xena had a native instinct and awesome natural abilities, Gabrielle relied on unrelenting training, raw intelligence, and sheer determination. Though she had grown up as a peasant in a farming village and had never borne arms until she was 17, within 10 years she was Xena's equal as a warrior in almost all respects.
Still, the Warrior Princess would forever be the Favorite of the God of War; in her prime she had been an unparalleled strategist and tactician as well as an unbeatable fighter. Their main difference was that Xena had always reveled in the violence, though in later years, usually only when it was for a good cause. Her younger partner saw fighting as part of a moral duty and was willing to negotiate and avoid a fight…sometimes. With Callisto, there could be no negotiation; the blonde had already shown too much mercy. She still blamed herself for their enemy being alive to defeat them in Rome. She blamed herself for their deaths. On top of that, she was still a warrior of the Amazon Nation and avenging the deaths of kindred was ingrained in their culture.
Callisto, I don't know how you managed to be alive in this time and place, Gabrielle thought to herself as she sat watching the other semi-final match. But now you will die when your own body suffocates you. The nerve damage I inflicted will paralyze your diaphragm and you'll die for lack of air, as surely as we died, too exhausted to draw another breath, after hanging on Caesar's crosses on the Ides of March. Xena, my love, after 21 centuries, we are avenged, and I am glad. At last we have cleaned up our mess from Cirra, and that threat to the world is finally gone. If this cloned life offers me nothing more than your love and this chance, then it will have been enough.
She never thought to wonder how she'd been able to kill the deadly Callisto this time, one on one, in a situation that even Xena in her prime had been wary of.
September 13, 2001 - Quantico, Virginia
"Ladies and gentlemen, we have an update on the unfolding hostage situation at the Quantico branch of the 1st Virginia Tidewater Bank, in Quantico, Virginia. Though official statements have been sketchy, we now know that negotiators from the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team have been in communication with the three men currently holding 9 bank employees and customers inside the single story building. The hostage takers have claimed to be ready and willing to execute their hostages if their demands for a helicopter and pilot are not met before 4 pm this afternoon. Furthermore, the hostages claim to be in possession of 10 pounds of weaponized botulism toxin, which they have rigged to an explosive device that would spread the finely powdered toxin over a half-mile area. This area could increase greatly depending on prevailing winds. Presently the public and press are being kept outside of a five-mile cordon set up by the federal authorities. Local and Marine personnel have been evacuated and no one is being allowed in or out. The accompanying footage was shot from our TV 11 News helicopter before it was required to leave by authorities. We will bring you further updates as they become available."
By federal "request", there were no further reports that day. No official updates were made available, and the media was strongly advised not to speculate. (There was some quiet talk of licenses being revoked and future access being denied). The situation was "delicate" and appeals were made to patriotism. Following so quickly on the heels of the tragedies of September 11th, the press uncharacteristically cooperated, gagging itself.
Inside the bank, the three terrorists were growing nervous. The cloned warrior had been watching them closely since she'd arrived, pretending to be a customer. They'd been only too happy to have another hostage to bargain with. She'd ditched the Jeep in a nearby parking lot and wandered around to the bank's front entrance only a couple minutes after the building had been taken. They'd grabbed her and dragged her inside at gunpoint as soon as she'd opened the outer door. Excitable bastards, she'd thought, as her host had pressed the barrel of a .45 M1911A1 against her temple and twisted her left arm behind her back. The Military Police had been parked in front of the building, radioing for help and wondering what to do. That had been about 10:15 am. She'd been dragged over to join a group of hostages whose behavior ranged from terrified whimpering to stoic silence. Xena had been very pleased to see that there were no children, elderly, or people with obvious health problems among the prisoners. I lucked out with this group, she thought. It'll be one less worry when the time comes.
She glanced at the wall clock near where they were sitting on the floor in the bank's lobby, noting that the time was now 1:45 pm. It had been an hour and a quarter since the last communication with the hostage situation negotiators. At that time, their captors had demanded that no one approach the building. Shortly later a funny looking robot, more like a radio controlled toy, Xena'd thought, had delivered a large bag of sandwiches and bottles of water. The terrorists had scarfed the food down in minutes.
Most of the time, one man standing behind a table with an AR-15 watched the front parking lot. He seemed to be the leader in the same sense that Moe had been the leader of the Three Stooges. A second man, armed with the .45 ACP, was sitting in a chair guarding the hostages, while the third kept an eye on the rear parking lot through a cracked open back door. He was armed with both a sizable revolver and a pump action shotgun. No two of their weapons use the same ammo, the cloned warrior had observed. Looks like their armory was the Wal-Mart sporting goods department. Ares appeared in front of her, remaining invisible to everyone but his Favorite.
"Front man's toast," he pronounced, looking towards the front of the bank and shaking his head. "Someone's gonna plink him from a quarter mile out with a sniper rifle…this asshole too, since I can see the windows from here." He'd stepped over to the man guarding the hostages and lined his head up with the glass, squinting to be sure. "Yep," he nodded in satisfaction, "clean line of fire from the apartment building on the next block. Two snipers, two shots, two of three dead. At the same time they take them down, they'll dump a flash-bang onto the back doorstep and then crash the rear door. I see the 'device' is on the teller's counter, a dozen strides from the nearest of these bastards." He wandered over to it and pulled a wire loose, then returned to complete his lecture. "Watch the top floor apartments over there for a window opening…they won't show themselves on the roof. You'll have to act quick after that." He vanished. Xena waited. She gazed absently out the windows, the ghost of a grin on her face.
September 13, 2001 - San Francisco, California
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is the final match for the Women's Division of the 23rd National Open Full Contact Martial Arts Championships. The contestants are Naval Chief Warrant Officer 3 Danielle Lefferts of the US Armed Forces Tae Kwon Do team, and Gabriella Covington of the Columbia School of Martial Science."
The clone sat listening to the announcer introducing the match over the PA system. She took a glance at her opponent and saw a woman with close-cropped black hair, perhaps a decade older than herself, with an unremarkable physique and a calm, serious demeanor. The CWO3's face was an expressionless mask when she met Gabrielle's eyes. She displayed no hatred, no fear, no boastfulness, and no mania as she smoothly rose to her feet and moved to stand on her starting mark in the center of the mat. Gabrielle moved to join her, also serious. After all the matches I've fought today, the bard thought, I'm finally facing a warrior. Her opponent had won her 6 matches with 3 knockouts, 2 technical knockouts, and 1 decision on points.
The referee tied a red sash through Gabrielle's belt. She checked the judges, eyed both competitors closely, and then stepped back. The contestants bowed to the referee and then each other, both alert, respectful, and focused. The referee raised her hand and then chopped it down between them, commanding, "Begin".
Gabrielle and Danielle Lefferts moved towards each other warily, engaged in a flurry of blows and parries, and separated. After a few seconds they repeated the process. Neither scored a point. They were both probing, trying to learn each other's capabilities.
The cloned bard found that her opponent was quick, strong, and flexible, but not unnaturally so. By first impression, her range of techniques wasn't overly impressive either. Yet everything she did was the result of endless repetitions during years of diligent practice. Her arms and legs are like iron bars, Gabrielle thought, and I can feel each of her blocks. She doesn't waste a movement, embellishes nothing, and doesn't try any fancy "show off" combinations. Her defense and offense are equally strong. She uses her momentum, stance, and timing to multiply her force, reaping the maximum effect from the minimum effort. I like this fighter.
(The modern system of Tae Kwon Do had grown from over thirteen centuries of bloody fighting in the old Kingdom of Koryu, trapped on a peninsula of land between Chin and Nihon. That land could be scoured by both ocean storms and the bitter cold of mountain winters. It had bred a tough people. The warriors of that land had fewer resources than either of their traditional enemies, and so they had developed a fighting system that included hard techniques capable of breaking bones and smashing armor, high kicks which could dismount a cavalryman, and quick economical blocks suitable against multiple opponents.) ~Editor
CWO3 Danielle Lefferts, while lacking an intimidating appearance, overwhelming strength, or flamboyance, was a living exemplification of the system. Her application of the techniques she chose was flawless. She was never overextended, off balance, or under committed. She had spent 30 of her 36 years training and had actually been fighting longer than the original Bard of Potidaea. The difference was that Gabrielle's 28 years had been spent in life and death combat, both armed and unarmed. She had studied many systems in many parts of the ancient world, and she had studied under the preeminent warrior of her time.
The first round expired without a point being scored. The contestants returned to their corners, sweaty and winded. Both retained their focused calm, their expressions betraying nothing. The cloned bard had to ask herself some questions.
How badly do I want to win this tournament? How important is it really? If I continue to fight this warrior toe to toe I will never get anywhere, and though I may not lose, I certainly won't win decisively either. I can end this quickly if I want to, but to do that I'll have to reveal techniques that are unknown in this time. It's the same question I faced with Callisto, but I can't hide what I'll be doing this time. The attack will have to be obvious and visible to the judges for me to win. A second opponent collapsing and dying would be way too suspicious. And that's another thing. I have no intention of killing this opponent…she's not my enemy and I'm not at war with her. In this match, there's no ancient score to settle or modern threat to remove. In fact if it were possible, I'd like to someday consider her a friend. Still, I came here to win a tournament that Marcus should have competed in and won…or at least had a chance of winning. I've always hated to fail at a challenge. I've always hated to fail a friend even more. So all right, I'll reveal something no one here has seen before and take this match by technical knockout, and I'll do less damage than I would with a solid kick or punch.
The referee beckoned the competitors forward to begin the second round. Gabrielle and Danielle Lefferts moved to their starting marks, bowed, and awaited the referee's signal. The ref checked the judges, checked the fighters, and then chopped her hand down between them signaling the start of round two.
The clone and her opponent closed and exchanged a quick succession of blows. As the Chief Warrant Officer started to withdraw, Gabrielle followed her forward to close the distance, lunging in low. With her fingertips she struck the same nerves in Lefferts' knee that Xena had struck in her initial demonstration with Marcus Lewis. In shock and amazement, the CWO crashed onto her back, both hands clasped to her now numbed left leg. Gabrielle immediately backed off and waited. As a formality, the referee called, "break".
Immediately, the armed forces team coach charged onto the mats. She examined the fallen fighter's knee, and seeing nothing amiss, called for a medical technician. The tech hastened forward to join them, and when he too could find nothing wrong, shook his head, glanced at Gabrielle, and again asked Danielle what had happened.
"She used some kind of attack against the nerves in my leg," the CWO told him. "It's not painful, but it's completely numb. I can't feel a thing from mid-thigh down."
"Has the sensation changed?" The medical technician asked.
"Not at all," she replied, baffled.
"Can you continue?" The referee asked the fighter and her coach. When they both looked undecided, she added, "you've got another half-minute to decide."
Thirty seconds later, the referee stood in the center of the mat and announced, "CWO Lefferts is unable to continue the match. The final bout goes to Gabriella Covington on a technical knockout."
The crowd in the Gymnasium began cheering for the exciting dark horse fighter from the unknown school back east, who'd had the guts to show up and compete in that ninja costume. Down on the mats, rather than basking in the glory of her victory and giving the crowd a round of bows, Gabrielle was moving towards her fallen opponent.
The cloned bard approached Danielle Lefferts with a look of sincere concern on her face. When she got within a few feet of the fighter and her coach, she dropped to her knees, gave her a small smile, and asked her how she felt.
"Well, except for a numb leg, I'm fine," the Chief Warrant Officer replied, "can't remember ever losing a match and feeling better." She gave the blonde clone a wry smile of her own.
"It's numb but not painful, right?" Gabrielle asked her, "and the sensation hasn't changed since it started," she stated. The CWO nodded in agreement. "It'll wear off in a couple hours by itself, but I can remove it now if you'd prefer," the blonde offered.
After giving her a questioning glance, the fighter nodded 'yes' to the offer. Her coach looked nervous, while the medic looked on with clinical curiosity. Gabrielle reached out a gently straightened the warrant officer's leg, pushed her uniform up above her knee, and then quickly struck a nerve adjacent to the one she'd attacked. The effect was immediate. With a grunt of surprise, the CWO flexed her leg.
"How does it feel?" her worried coach asked.
"It feels like it's been asleep; pins and needles, but actually not as bad as if I'd slept on it wrong," Lefferts answered, while bending her knee, wiggling her toes, and rotating her ankle, "in fact, the sensation's diminishing already." She looked up at Gabrielle with a questioning glance. Gabrielle smiled back at her. "What did you do?" the warrant officer asked with intense curiosity. The method was completely foreign to her.
"It's part of a system of attacks based on nerve strikes…we actually originally learned them for relieving pain. It's part of the healer's art," the clone answered.
"You learned this at your school in Columbia?"
"It's part of what me and my partner teach at the Columbia School of Martial Science," Gabrielle said.
The CWO gave her a steady and serious gaze for a long moment, obviously thinking. Finally she spoke again with sincere intensity. "This is important and I've never seen anything like it. I'd like to learn about your school, Gabriella. Can we talk sometime before you leave?"
Gabrielle smiled. The warrior who had been her opponent minutes before was more interested in learning and enhancing her knowledge and skills than dwelling on having just lost a major tournament. And anyone who could ask for a "chat" under these circumstances was points ahead with her. The clone felt she'd soon come to like this woman very much. "Of course we can talk. I'd like that."
The blonde reached out a hand and helped the other warrior to her feet. When the CWO stood up steadily and smiled, her hand still linked with her opponent's, the crowd rose to their feet and cheered even louder. In the modern world, such a display of sportsmanship was considered part of the heart of the martial arts.
September 13, 2001 - Quantico, Virginia
Xena kept one eye on the windows in the distant apartment building that Ares had pointed out. She kept her other eye on the situation in the bank. The resulting eyestrain didn't keep her from noticing that as the afternoon wore on, the man watching the front windows paced his way back to check the captives and the man at the back door with increasing frequency. It seemed to be his answer to the yawning that had begun after lunch. He was countering his fatigue with nervous activity.
Getting a bit antsy waitin' are ya, she observed, before derisively thinking, ya got all the discipline of a 6-year old playin' militiaman. "Toast", as she'd dubbed him, wasn't the only terrorist who seemed to be having trouble maintaining his concentration. With a smirk, she'd noted the hostages' guard becoming glassy-eyed as he sat in his chair, and once, a few minutes ago, she'd seen him shake his head and wipe a trickle of drool from the corner of his mouth. Miss your naptime, "Asshole", she chuckled, adopting Ares' earlier reference to him as a nickname. You're gonna get a chance to sleep all ya want real soon.
From the rear of the bank, the third man was whining about needing to take a crap. Can't blame ya, Xena thought. Those sandwiches the Feds delivered had been thick with grilled meats and cheese, and slathered with mayo. It was little wonder that the terrorists were feeling drowsy. Food like that, dripping with grease and oils, would make anyone feel dopey and send their bowels running for the hills, the cloned warrior thought. Whoever was calling the shots for the FBI team was degrading their enemy's capabilities in any way they could. Xena liked the commander already. It was something she'd have done herself, though in the old days, (and here she smiled), she'd have simply introduced a rather nasty poison.
The eye that Xena had kept surveying the apartment building registered a movement in the windows of the top floor's center unit. A couple curtains had slid aside and the windows had been raised several inches. Her lips curled in a wider grin. The wall clock read 3 pm. It's show time, she thought.
"Toast" had been fidgeting almost constantly and had finally left his post to pace through the lobby again. After checking the hostages with a glance, he'd turned away towards the door leading behind the teller's windows. Six feet in front of where Xena sat with her back to a wall, "Asshole's" eyes were drooping and he finally began a wide yawn, leaning back in his chair.
The cloned warrior was sitting with her legs stretched straight out in front of her, hands in her lap, as the terrorists had demanded. To her right and left, the other 8 hostages were sitting in the same position, lined up against the wall as if they were too lazy to stand up for the firing squad. Her position was one from which rising to a standing position would be time consuming and awkward…and way too slow to take out even a sleepy guard holding a gun. Even so, the time to act was now.
(To those readers who have experience with gymnastics, specifically floor exercise, Xena's solution will be familiar. The cloned warrior arched her back to push herself away from the wall. Next she swung her left arm and leg violently upwards while planting her right hand flat on the well-waxed floor. As soon as she felt her hips rising, she arched her back and let her weight shift onto the heel of her right palm, using it as a pivot. At the same time, she bent her right knee to minimize the mass that was fighting her inertia, bringing the weight of her right leg closer to her center of gravity. The Valdez Maneuver brought her into a momentary one-armed handstand, and when her left foot touched the wall, she kicked off violently into a forward shoulder roll.) ~Editor
"Asshole" was just finishing his luxurious yawn when he sensed more than saw a rapid approaching movement. His reflexes began to respond, shifting his weight forward and raising his gun hand to chest level. At the same time, his adrenal glands dumped a wholesale bolus of adrenaline into his bloodstream, making him involuntarily tense.
Xena had completed her shoulder roll and was flat on her back right in front of his chair. She spun her legs at the hips, pinwheeling them in a two-legged sweep. Her left foot shattered the fibula and tibia in "Asshole's" left leg, and her following right foot smashed the front legs of his chair. He began falling forward in answer to gravity's demand to lower his center of balance, and tense with adrenaline, one hand full of pistol, he couldn't stop himself from falling neck first onto the hira-ken, (fore-knuckle fist), of the Warrior Princess' left hand. The terrorist's trachea made a wet crunch as its cartilaginous rings collapsed, while the gun was deftly twisted from his grasp by her right hand.
In her fight for freedom in the junkyard, Xena had emptied a handgun in Alti's general direction, but had finally managed to hit her by simply throwing the empty autopistol at her head. Reprising that tactic against "Toast", (who was just beginning to turn back to face the disturbance among the hostages), she whipped the 2½-lb. sidearm twenty-five feet across the lobby with a vicious sidearm cast. To save time, she did this while still lying flat on her back.
The spinning Colt .45 described a nearly flat trajectory, crossing the room in a blur, and impacting with an audible crack against the frontal bone of his skull. Dazed by the blow, and feeling blood beginning to flow from the resulting scalp wound, "Toast" reflexively raised both hands to his face. The barrel of his AR-15 was now pointing harmlessly at the ceiling.
He was really feeling like shit. The 1,100-gram handgun had slammed into his head hard enough to damage the frontal sinuses behind his brow ridge, and now blood was flooding out of his nose as well as into his eyes. Like a hard punch in the face, the blow itself had stunned him. At first he actually thought he'd been shot. In the next moment, Xena, grinning like a maniac and having rolled to her feet, had crossed the eight yards that separated them in something barely over three seconds. She slammed into him at full speed, knocking his cadaver flying. "Toast" didn't feel the landing. The clone had violently twisted his head with both hands on impact and snapped his neck.
"I really gotta go you guys," came the whine from the man at the rear door seconds later.
"Oh you'll be gone, doncha' worry," Xena's low velvety voice answered from just over his shoulder, sending a chill up his spine. It wasn't "Asshole" or "Toast"; he was pretty sure of that. He did Xena the favor of turning to face her.
The surprise had barely registered on his face when her fingers snapped out to strike the sides of his neck. It was like being crushed in a chokehold, but she wasn't even touching him. He slowly slipped to his side until he was lying on the floor. Xena casually reached down and wrenched the shotgun from his grasp, negligently pulling open the back door and tossing it out into the parking lot. Then she reached down and snatched the revolver from his waistband. She tossed it out the back door as well, leaving it wide open. In the next moment she was shoving him out the door too. Three staggering steps and then the asphalt leaped up at him and he was lying on his back. He couldn't breath and black spots were blossoming in his field of vision. His pulse was a pile driver pounding. It was impossible to decide whether the pressure compressing his skull was coming from inside or outside his head. He thought he should be choking, but found he couldn't even gasp. The black spots were sizzling and coalescing into a curtain of darkness that became increasingly opaque. Now all he could see was black. Night had squatted on him even as he lay flat in the parking lot staring blindly up at the afternoon sky. Finally the pounding relented when his pulse ground to a halt. His spirit fled out of his gaping mouth, whimpering one last time, "I really gotta go."
Xena reached for the phone on the bank manager's desk. She sat in his comfy swivel chair and put her feet up, and then dialed "O". When a real live human operator came on the line a moment later, she asked for the FBI.
"Do you want their public relations office, the recruitment agent, or do you know your party's extension?"
"Nawww. I'm in that bank in Quantico. Maybe ya saw it on the news? I wanna report that the terrorists here are indisposed. I got a deactivated bomb full of botulism toxins for 'em….yeah, I'll hold." She began drumming her fingers on the desk while absently disarranging the paperwork lying on the blotter.
"Like hell I'm gonna stick my head out the door and wave "all clear" to 'em," the cloned Warrior Princess muttered. "I'd have to be dumber than a bacchae tryin' to suck blood from a dryad to play hero like that in this world." She chuckled to herself, feeling very good.
September 13, 2001 - San Francisco, California
Gabrielle had showered and dressed in her street clothes; faded blue jeans and a white dress shirt from the Janice Covington collection. Her snakeskin cowboy boots clicked on the floor of the gymnasium's entrance hall. Before they'd hit the locker room after the awards presentation, Gabrielle and Danielle Lefferts had agreed to try a steakhouse down the block for an early dinner. The cloned bard was planning to catch a late flight back to South Carolina, and Lefferts was due at the Naval Base in San Diego the next afternoon. It would be just about their only chance to have their chat.
She stopped in the lobby, where the green tile floors reminded her of her character's costume top from the early seasons of the TV show. Just inside the main entrance doors, she stood glancing around and hoping to see the CWO. There was no sign of her, but the bard just chalked it up to her being slow in the shower. In the meantime, she decided to try calling her soulmate again. All day there'd been no answer, though it was only 4:30 pm on the East Coast. She wasn't really frantic yet, but she'd had a growing suspicion that Xena was hatching some sort of plot, probably out of boredom, while she was out of town. She fed the payphone a diet of quarters, dialed the cumbersome string of numerals, and listened as the phone rang at home without being picked up. Repeating the process with the school's number had the same result, just like it had all day. With a sigh, she hung up the receiver and fished for her change.
Suddenly the sounds of a disturbance filtered through the lobby. The clone turned back towards the locker room to see what the bustle of activity was about. A group of women had emerged with their bags and were hurrying towards her chattering seriously to each other. Among them, she recognized the US Armed Forces Team coach, the redheaded Marine Lieutenant, Janine Bradshaw, and a couple other fighters she'd seen. Trailing behind them was the Chief Warrant Officer. The coach and her team members passed Gabrielle without breaking stride, but Danielle Lefferts briefly stopped in front of her.
"Gabriella, our coach says SSgt. Lykos just died," Danielle Lefferts told her. "She was taken to Mt. Zion Medical Center when they couldn't wake her, but she never regained consciousness. She was Air Force, and I hadn't known her that long, but the team's headed back to our hotel for a meeting and I've really gotta go. I'll call you at your school in a few days. I'm sorry."
Gabrielle barely had time to nod "okay" before the CWO was gone, rushing off to catch up with the rest of her team as they pushed through the glass doors and hurried out onto Golden Gate Ave. She stared after them for a few long minutes, thinking about her news.
How had the mad warrior woman from Cirra possibly existed in this time and place? Gabrielle couldn't be sure. Was she a clone too, or could her evil really have persisted down through all the years since Caesar's Rome? And yet now, after the slow grinding passage of the millennia, Callisto was dead and she'd killed her. Maybe the Moirae had arranged for the soulmates to be cloned into the 21st century for just that reason. Had the Fates woven the pair's presence into the weft of the world's tapestry to meet an obligation unsatisfied from long ago? The Fates had never seemed to be on their side. She'd joked often enough about wanting to burn their loom, and her soulmate had despised the very idea of being at their whim. Like the Erinyes though, neither of the women had ever seen them. They were just the personification of some convenient concepts on which to blame ill fortune. Even wondering about them now was the reaction of a psyche far displaced in time and culture. Gabrielle realized that when it came to reflexive philosophical thought, she was still an ancient Greek at heart, not a modern woman.
She needed to talk with her soulmate, who had apparently gone AWOL in Columbia. Callisto of Cirra had forever reserved the heart of her hatred for Xena, but the excess had often spilled over onto Gabrielle. Today, the Warrior Princess had played no part in the "Warrior Queen's" demise. Their old score would have been more equitably balanced if Xena had killed Callisto instead, but it hadn't happened that way. If fate had demanded that she meet Callisto instead of Xena, then Gabrielle couldn't understand it. The blonde clone ended up eating dinner alone at the Jack in the Box on Geary Blvd., about a mile and a half from the Mt. Zion Med Center. This time, no dinosaurs disturbed her meal.
September 13, 2001 - FBI Compound - Quantico, Virginia
This room's as dismal as some of the small town dungeons I've enjoyed, the Warrior Princess thought as she surveyed her surroundings, though it doesn't reek of festering wounds, excrement, and mildew. The HRT had burst into the bank through the open rear door just minutes after she'd explained the situation over the phone. Prob'ly lurkin' outta sight in the side parking lot, she thought, and were they ever pissed that they'd missed out on the party. She chuckled to herself. Nothing irritated a warrior as much as being geared up and having no one to fight. She'd been there, done that.
The HRT team had been bristling with guns, but they'd secured the bank and arranged for the hostages to be evacuated. Regular FBI agents had taken her along with the others at first, while the assaulters of the HRT stayed behind until the bomb squad could arrive. Later, after interviewing the other hostages and hearing their accounts of her actions, the agents had snatched her and put her in this room to be "debriefed".
The room was clearly for interrogations. It contained a steel table, bolted to the floor, three chairs, (hers bolted to the floor as well), a couple of camera lenses embedded in the masonry near the ceiling, and what was obviously a one way mirror against the wall across from her. She'd spent some time staring into it and had finally been rewarded by seeing a slight shift in light levels as someone opened the door to the observation room on the other side. She'd waved and given them a big 'ol smile, then settled down to meditate. She knew the drill…let 'em stew. She'd done it often enough herself long years ago on those occasions when she'd actually had the patience for it. (When she admitted it to herself, it was really only because she'd wanted to see the particular subject squirm. The unfortunate prisoner was eventually confronted with her intimidating presence, accompanied by several cruel looking lieutenants, and then mercilessly browbeaten, threatened, or subjected to the "pinch". They usually cracked sooner rather than later). She grinned at the memories.
Somewhere on the other side of the bare cinderblock walls, several persons' footsteps approached the door to her room. Been about two hours, she calculated, these guys have little patience themselves. That was hardly long enough to even begin to have doubts, let alone develop a good head of fear. She yawned as the door opened, stretching her arms and back. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed a guard stationed in the hall outside.
Two men in dark suits entered the room, the taller one carrying a stack of folders, the other a portable tape recorder. They looked serious. Xena smiled at them.
"Good afternoon, Ms. Pappas," the taller agent began, setting his files on the table and selecting one. The shorter agent, (whose hair was a darker shade of nondescript brown, but cut short in an identical style), set the tape recorder on the table and pushed a button. They had both looked directly into her eyes and folded their hands on the table in front of them. The taller agent resumed speaking. "This is FBI Special Agent Albert Phillips with Special Agent Louis DeMarco. It is Thursday, September 13th, 2001, at 9:15 pm EDT. We are recording the testimony of the 1st Virginia Tidewater Bank hostage Serena Pappas. For the record, Ms. Pappas, could you state your name, age, and place of residence, please?"
"My name's Serena Pappas. I'm from Columbia, South Carolina, and I'm 26, but ya already know that," Xena stated, quickly glancing down at the file with her name on the tab, before asking, "wadda' ya really need, guys?"
With a groan, the taller agent referred to some notes in his folder. The shorter agent ground his teeth. Xena smiled a friendly smile at them. Negotiations were fun until she lost patience with them. Once upon a time it had seemed like they were the only times she practiced her "social graces". Finally SA Phillips, who appeared to be the lead agent of the two sighed and looked up from his notes.
"We want answers," he told her in a businesslike tone, "we've got a deadly hostage situation resolved by a civilian. We've got an explosive biological weapon deactivated in the most direct and effective manner. We've got three armed terrorists dead and no civilian casualties." He paused for a second and the cloned warrior interrupted him before he could resume.
"Pretty good for a day's work, huh? I just wanna thank ya for the help. Those greasy sandwiches really did the trick…slowed 'em down just enough so I could take 'em out easily. Ya shoulda' seen 'em all yawning, and that guy by the back door whinin' that he had to take a crap…priceless."
In spite of themselves, the agents couldn't help but smile.
"Umm, Ms. Pappas," SA DeMarco said, speaking for the first time, "the ME informed us that one terrorist had clean fractures of the bones in his lower leg and a crushed windpipe…"
"Yeah, he had a fortunate accident. Fell onto my fist, throat first." Xena related with a satisfied smile. "That was after I'd kicked him in the leg…I thought I felt both bones snap."
"And the legs of the chair?"
"Had to do somethin' so he'd fall forward, ya know?" She winked at him and he gulped.
"So anyway, the other terrorist in the lobby…." Again Xena cut him off.
"Ya mean 'Toast'? I smashed him in the face with 'Asshole's' .45 and then body slammed him while wrenching his neck."
"Toast? Asshole?" SA Phillips asked in confusion.
"The guy watchin' the front was toast. Ya woulda' blown his brains out any minute there from that apartment building…that asshole guardin' the hostages too, right?"
Both agents looked at her in silence, dumbfounded. Her statement implied her understanding of their covert tactics and assault plan. She'd already thanked them for the lunch, which had been the inspiration of an HRT assaulter who had worked in a McDonalds as a teen.
"Problem is that bullets fragment, skulls fragment, and windows fragment…hostages coulda' been hurt," she continued, more seriously.
Phillips was shaking his head and DeMarco looked embarrassed. Any rescue attempt was the result of weighing the odds of resolving a situation with minimal danger to innocents while refusing to indulge the hostage takers. Yes, there had been possible danger to the civilians, there always was, but the ones she'd mentioned had been minor compared to the possibility of the bio-bomb being detonated. The first objective of the operation had been nullifying that threat, a threat to a much greater population than the nine inside the bank. If push had come to shove, the people in the bank would have been regrettably considered expendable.
Finally it was Special Agent DeMarco who got back on track first.
"The man dumped out the back door…the ME could find no obvious cause of death."
Here, Xena displayed an evil grin, and her expression sent a chill down the spines of the two agents. Suddenly neither felt safe in that locked room. It was a visceral thing, an impression that wouldn't be available to a listener on the tape. It probably wouldn't even be readily apparent on the videotape of the interview.
"Dead before he had a chance to bruise," she told them with a satisfied smirk, "have the ME check the contents of the blood vessels in his brain and the condition of his carotid arteries."
The agents groaned in synch as if on cue, then turned to each other and nodded. Special Agent DeMarco stopped the tape recorder. He made a gesture to the cameras, directed at someone in the observation room on the other side of the mirror. Special Agent Phillips made some notes in his file and then looked gravely at Xena.
"It's usually a professional courtesy between departments for offices to notify each other during an operation when operatives from another agency are present," SA Phillips declared with annoyance, "and we were never informed of your presence. We had no idea you had been assigned to the situation today. We haven't found any information identifying your affiliations. In fact, much beyond a year ago, your existence itself is…sketchy. Obviously you're a deep cover operative. We would appreciate being told what agency you work for."
At first Xena's reaction was one of confusion. Then as the agents' assumptions became clear to her, a curled lip appeared, which graduated into a full grin. In short order, the cloned warrior found herself smiling and then laughing out loud. The situation was just too rich. They actually thought that she was an operative for another of the federal government's myriad covert shops…a fellow "secret agent". It took several minutes before she could maintain a straight face. She'd never thought of this possibility.
Wait 'till I tell Gabrielle, she thought, she'll choke laughing about this after she finishes bustin' my ass. It's almost as ridiculous as somethin' from that TV show.
Special Agent DeMarco silently mouthed the word, "stress", to Special Agent Phillips, who gave him a nod of agreement. They both believed that deep cover agents often became unstable when operating in character for extended periods of time. The 15 months that they suspected encompassed "Serena Pappas'" assignment could leave anyone close to cracking. They gave her time to recover her composure. She'd done good work today.
After wiping her eyes, the cloned Warrior Princess provided the agents with an expression of sincerity and leaned forward on the table, bringing herself closer to them, as if to share a secret. Unconsciously, they leaned forward to meet her.
"Ya see guys, it's like this," she began, "I'm just a violent girl who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Anyway, I did get to have some fun, and I solved a problem for ya, so I figure ya owe me. What I'd really like is to meet the Hostage Rescue Team."
Yep, SA Phillips thought…it's stress alright. She's a wacko. If her bosses find out, she'll get shit-canned real quick. Hell, she's a lunatic with lethal combat skills…sooner or later someone's going to get hurt. Xena was still grinning at them, waiting for an answer.
Definitely stress, SA DeMarco thought. She's a nutcase; a real Scully chick for sure. I can't wait to hear what the grapevine has to say about her. My guess is she'll be dismissed after her next performance review…or psych evaluation. Then she'll end up on Rosie, or maybe writing a novel about her adventures as a spook.
"So wadda' ya say, guys?" She gave them a conspiratorial wink. "Ordinary citizen gets to meet the elite HRT, or Friday's headlines read, 'Citizen Terrorizes Terrorists as FBI Looks On'?"
Both of the agents groaned. It was worse than they'd thought. She was a lunatic with lethal public relations skills. Well, at least this part of the conversation wasn't being recorded. It would probably be easiest to humor her until an opportunity to terminate her could be arranged, Agent DeMarco thought uncharitably.
Xena had been enjoying watching them sweat, but she knew that she couldn't let her personal feelings interfere with her mission. The comment about going to the press had actually made Phillips turn green. She decided to relent.
"Fact is, my partner and I teach martial arts. We've got our own school in Columbia with a few students, but they're civilians. After the disaster a couple days ago, we decided we wanted to do somethin' to help this country. I want to offer my services to the HRT as an unarmed combat instructor."
Special Agent Phillips was trying to think. Serena Pappas was feeding them her cover story, nothing more. She still wasn't willing to be forthcoming about her real affiliations. It implied a very high assignment priority, and her latest offer was only a degree less ridiculous than her original response. The HRT was as highly trained in all aspects of combat as any group in the world. As if reading his mind, though, Xena gave them one last thing to think about.
"Get the ME to find the COD on the third terrorist. If your guys can't duplicate the attack that caused it, give me a call. Ya got my number."
The agents nodded to each other and picked up their stuff. Out in the hall they had a quick conference.
"We really don't have any reason to hold her any longer."
"It's obvious that her real assignment is so deeply classified that she can't even share its nature with us. I just hope there won't be any jurisdictional conflicts. The paperwork…."
"If she's determined to maintain her cover as a small city karate teacher, then so be it. She's basically disavowed her involvement today as an assignment. At least she wasn't serious about making a media splash."
"To tell you the truth, she gives me the creeps."
"If we cut her loose, we'll probably never hear from her again. And she did help us out at the bank."
"Bottom line is, we've got a job to do and she has work of her own. Being involved this afternoon could even have jeopardized her cover."
"Sooner or later, that third terrorist's cause of death will be established, and if there's really anything unnatural about it, she'll be hearing from us within the hour."
They reentered the interrogation room and found Xena sitting just as they'd left her. She grinned that unnerving grin at them.
"Ms. Pappas, we want to thank you for your assistance today. The bureau is grateful for your participation in the resolution of a potentially disastrous situation. That's all the questions we have for now. I'll arrange to have someone drive you back to your vehicle."
"Well thanks, guys," Xena replied with a smile. "Lemme know whatcha' find out about that stiff."
She rose to her feet with the smoothness of a panther and followed them out the door and into the hallway. Damn, there's always something, she thought, mentally smacking herself in the forehead, my vehicle is full of bullet holes. How'm I gonna get home? Gabrielle'll kill me.
Later, when the bureau driver dropped her off in the parking lot next to the bank, Xena shuddered as she approached her Jeep. She'd been having the time of her life, chasing the van full of terrorists, and she hadn't really worried about the damage to the rented car at the time. Tactical oversight, she realized, I hate that. Funny though, as she got closer to the vehicle, she realized that she'd expected to see more damage. They couldn't have been that poor a bunch of shooters to have missed her completely. In fact, when she did a quick inspection, she couldn't see a single mark on the front end.
With a shrug, she unlocked the door and slid behind the wheel. On the dashboard she found a single red rose; in the cup holder in the console, an ice cold can of Classic Coke. The cloned Warrior Princess couldn't stop the smile that crossed her face.
"Ares", she whispered.
September 15, 2001 - Columbia, South Carolina
It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, the cloned Warrior Princess mused. She was lying on an air mattress, (one of her favorite modern inventions), in the backyard, staring up at the jets passing overhead every few minutes, and waiting for Gabrielle to join her. Next to her sat a small Igloo cooler filled with iced Coke and Pepsi. Clipped to her belt was a small leather case holding a brand new Nextel mobile phone. She'd returned home on a redeye flight and beaten Gabrielle through the door by two hours. The cloned bard had been a bit peeved with her.
"Where have you been all day, Xena?" she'd asked, giving the warrior the look that she used to make the tall brunette feel guilty.
"Uh, I was…"
"I'd been trying to call you all day and the phone just rang for it's own amusement. You weren't here or at the school either. There were some things that happened at the tournament that I really wanted to talk to you about, but you'd disappeared. Xena, I was really beginning to worry." The blonde had given her a piercing look, hands on her hips, one foot tapping. Unable to meet her eyes, Xena had stood looking down at the floor tiles, shuffling her feet. "Gods, Xena, you look so guilty. I knew you were up to something…now spill it."
It had been uncomfortable, though she could laugh about it now. In retrospect, she'd thought her own news had been pretty monumentous stuff. Foiling a terrorist plot single-handedly and meeting the FBI agents. That had been until she'd heard what Gabrielle had to report about her trip to San Francisco. Callisto had been alive! The words had sent a chill down her spine. The only thing that could have been worse to her would have been turning on the TV and finding that Julius Caesar had been elected president. Callisto had been within a hundred miles of her soulmate, and she hadn't been there to slam the psychotic bitch. The Warrior Princess ground her teeth. Her gastric contents acidified to a pH of 1.5. She'd really and truly thought that the martial arts tournament would be a pretty safe place for the bard. Xena couldn't even think of what she'd have done if Callisto had harmed Gabrielle again. Become a monster? Ha! They hadn't seen nothin' yet. She'd been absentmindedly gnawing on the inside of her cheek and she hadn't even realized it until she'd tasted blood.
How could Callisto of Cirra have been alive in 2001? Why had she crossed paths with Gabrielle? The odds that they'd ever have met up were infinitesimally small, even if they'd lived their whole lives in the same city. Xena realized that she didn't even really know her neighbors on the block where she lived. (Well, okay, the house next door was for sale and empty, but the others were occupied. She made a mental note to watch them). In the past, she'd known almost everyone in Amphipolis, and it hadn't been that small a place. Modern life was much more insulated than what she'd once known. Gabrielle's meeting with their deadly enemy was either the world's biggest coincidence, an act of fate, or the result of an underhanded plot. Of those three possibilities, she tended towards paranoia and favored an explanation that included human malice. It was so much easier for her to understand.
Xena had reviewed everything that Gabrielle could remember about her fight with Callisto, and one phrase stood out in her mind. "I remember it as if I'd been there…just like you, my dear." The Warrior Princess was almost sure that this Callisto, who remembered things that had happened after their deaths, was a person much the same as themselves. Her words also implied that she knew what they were. Either Alti hadn't been working alone, or she hadn't been the only scientist to succeed. The Callisto that Gabrielle had killed was almost certainly a clone, created and sent by someone to destroy them. She hadn't been an immortal and she certainly hadn't been a goddess like on the TV show. At least the bard had disposed of her successfully. So, Xena had to wonder, who would appear next? They had a long list of enemies to choose from.
After ranting and raving for an hour and cursing herself for her absence, Xena had quickly agreed to wear a cell phone. A new digital answering machine sat on the side table in the parlor, in response to another of the bard's demands. Gabrielle had been adamant about those concessions and Xena had readily agreed, partly to ease her own guilt and worry, and partly to reconcile with the blonde.
A smile crossed her face when she remembered how excited the bard had been at the store the day before, playing with every available model of mobile phone. At first Gabrielle had been puzzled when the calls kept cutting off. She'd been pressing the button marked "Talk" each time she'd wanted to speak. Next she'd tried pressing "Talk" whenever she expected someone else to speak. The salesman had looked askance at her before going over the basics of cell phone operation and pointing out all the options. It was the walkie-talkie feature that had finally sold her on the Nextel. Gabrielle had been calling her every half-hour since.
The cloned warrior squinted at the sun, reckoning half a candlemark had passed since she'd last heard from her soulmate. Sure enough, her cell phone rang, announcing the incoming call with line of dialog from the TV show character of the Warrior Princess.
"Stop staring at me before I take your eyes out!" She pressed "Talk".
"Hello, anybody home?"
"Hi, you've got company. Two guys from the FBI want to talk to you."
"Be right there…just stall 'em so I can hide all these bodies." Xena heard someone gasp in the background.
"You mean you didn't chop them up yet?" Gabrielle calmly ad-libbed. "What have you been doing out there all this time?"
"They were stringy and the axe ya gave me is dull…"
"If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself I guess," Gabrielle muttered with theatrical exasperation before speaking brightly, away from the phone to their guests, "she'll be right here, after she cleans up."
They hung up simultaneously.
A few moments later, Xena bounded into the parlor in her tank top and cargo pants. Special Agents Phillips and DeMarco looked her over carefully, seeing not a speck of blood anywhere. The taller agent breathed an unconscious sigh of relief.
"Hey guys," the cloned warrior greeted, "care for a drink? Ice water, lemonade, Coke, Pepsi? Whiskey?"
The two agents were standing awkwardly in the center of the room. Gabrielle was seated on the sofa, appearing to be preoccupied playing with her phone, but closely watching them out of the corner of her eye.
"Uh, no. I'm fine…" SA DeMarco replied, then traded a glance with his partner, "we're fine, thanks." Xena smiled at them, trying to put them at ease.
"I say, Kill 'Em All!" The line blasted out of Gabrielle's phone, followed by her giggle and then an apologetic grin. The startled agents were staring at her. She pushed "Talk".
"So, why don't we go into my study and have a chat?" Xena offered lightly, gesturing to a doorway and passing to their right. The agents moved to follow her. As they left, they overheard the beginning of Gabrielle's conversation.
"Hello? Danielle, great to hear from you…how are you? I'm fine, thanks. Nothing much. The FBI is here to talk to my partner...seems she foiled some bank job and the bad guys wound up dead…C'est la vie."*
(*Gabrielle had taken to learning small phrases in foreign languages from websites. Once she'd gotten several down, she'd call someone overseas out of the blue and "chat" with them until they hung up on her. It was a reoccurrence of her older habit of calling foreign countries just to prove to herself that the phone could actually do it. She'd always liked listening to different accents and languages anyway. This had started shortly after Janice Covington had explained telephones to her. Often, the people she'd called had sounded "excited"…at first she'd had no concept of time zones). ~Editor
Xena ushered her guests into Janice Covington's old dining room, which she'd converted into a homey study for herself and Gabrielle. She settled the agents into leather upholstered chairs and then took her own seat, facing them from behind her desk. For a moment, she wished she'd had the foresight to bolt their chairs to the floor.
The FBI agents' eyes were darting around the room. The walls were mostly lined with bookcases holding Janice and Mel's library, along with Gabrielle's more recent acquisitions. (The bard had joined every book club she could find, shortly after Janice's death, and the volumes were piling up). Xena sighed. A large piece of parachute fabric had been draped from the ceiling, trailing down the walls behind the bookcases to the floor, and giving the room the appearance of the interior of a campaign tent. The sections of free wall space between the bookcases were hung with several dozen edged weapons and several fragments of scrolls in display cases. A glass-sided curio cabinet filled with artifacts stood beside a window. Gabrielle's desk was piled high with books, tabloid newspapers, loose pages, diskettes, her computer, and finally topped with empty coffee cups and dishes. Next to it, Xena's matching desk was bare, save for a couple maps and a computer. She cleared her throat to regain the agents' attention.
"So what brings ya to beautiful Columbia, S.C. on this fine afternoon?" Xena asked conversationally. (As if she didn't have her suspicions). She offered them a smile.
"Ms. Pappas, the Medical Examiner has forwarded his findings to our office, regarding the third terrorist's cause of death," Agent Phillips began formally. Humor her, he thought, she's a psycho…just look at this place.
"And?" Xena raised an eyebrow. (The purpose of their visit was as she'd suspected).
"The deceased's intracranial blood vessels were ahemotic. Antemortem exsanguination of the cephalic tissues was complete. Bilaterally, the carotid arteries were completely constricted latero-medially for a length of forty-three millimeters at the level of the 5th and 6th cervicals, congenital malformation doubtful. Petechiae absent. Hyoid intact. No ligature marks discernable. No internal or external hemorrhaging was revealed. Blood chemistry nominal. Toxicosis and narcotic residues negative. Elevated bile production noted. Gastric contents…etc., etc., and etc." SA Phillips skipped down the page. "Technically, death was by idiopathic cerebral asphyxia," he recited, muttering to himself, "never heard that one before." After a pause he continued. "The cause of death is clear, but the mechanism for it remains undetermined." With a sigh, Agent Phillips capitulated, adding, "to be honest, both the ME and the HRT combat instructors are baffled. What happened?"
"I cut off the flow of blood to his brain. His large muscle groups were paralyzed almost immediately. He was dead in under 30 seconds," Xena declared in response to his last two words. The rest had all been double-talk and clinical mumbo-jumbo.
From the cell phone at her waist came Gabrielle's exclamation of, "Uh oh!"
The Warrior Princess gave the agents a sheepish grin and turned off the walkie-talkie feature on her Nextel.
"Oops," she muttered.
October 1, 2001 - The Columbia School of Martial Science
The man in the policeman's uniform placed a hand against the window glass, shielding his view to block the strong reflections from the bright morning sun. The space that he searched was deserted, as it had been every morning and evening since September 12th. Everything inside the school, all the equipment, the rack of weapons, even the half-full bottle of water sitting abandoned on the floor, was the same as it had been on that afternoon when he'd walked away. Serena and Gabriella had never come back.
What he'd seen that day had stayed with him. His teachers had been fighting, blade against blade, with fury born of heartache; consumed by a grief that could only be vented through such deadly activity…as though they could slaughter their pain with their warriors' prowess. Their enemy hadn't been the beloved fighter they'd faced beyond the slashing steel, but rather the monstrous acts and monumental losses suffered by both their own country and humanity as a whole. They had been fighting the chaos and the evil, waging a desperate struggle, on behalf of mankind and for their own sanity as well. Alexander Williams understood these things clearly now. On a gut level, he'd understood them as he'd stood in the school's doorway, watching in awe as they'd fought.
Over the last two and a half weeks, his memories of the fight hadn't diminished a bit. If anything, they became clearer each time he played them back in his mind's eye. The compact blonde bearing two skeletonized short swords; just dark blurs whistling in her hands. The tall brunette deftly meeting her with a long sword and a ring shaped blade of steel. And therein was the clue. The ring blade was best known from a popular TV show, only recently taken off the air. Officer Williams had applied the investigative compulsion that had originally prompted him to join the police force. He'd been confronted by a mystery. During the time since September 12th, he'd made some very disturbing discoveries.
The TV show had been called "Xena Warrior Princess". The lead characters had been two Greek warrior women whom he soon discovered had been based on real historic figures. Xena and Gabrielle had been contemporaries of Julius Caesar. On his home computer, he'd called up the historical research and found the notes detailing the archeological finds of a Dr. Janice Covington et al. He'd read the "Xena Scrolls", penned over 2,000 years before by the warrior's biographer, Gabrielle of Potidaea, and translated by Dr. Melinda Pappas. And then the coincidences had begun to pile up.
Drs. Janice Covington and Melinda Pappas had lived right here in Columbia, S.C. For decades they had taught at the university in the center of town. The Pappas family had owned land in the vicinity since the 1690s, and there was still a large house in the family name. A late-1940s newspaper photo of the pair revealed a tall brunette and a compact blonde who were dead ringers for the women who ran the school. The photo had accompanied an article reporting the pair's award of a Presidential Medal of Freedom, an award sometimes given to civilians for heroism in times of war. They had been involved in covert operations against the Nazis. There was more.
His teachers had only appeared a few months prior to the death of Dr. Covington, and they were her heirs, and therefore the heiresses of the Pappas estate. Beyond the house and the land it sat on, was a portfolio of invested interests that were little short of mindboggling. The two women currently lived in the old Pappas house. Their names also seemed significant to him. Serena and Gabriella…they were modern adaptations of Xena and Gabrielle. And they were also almost identical in appearance to the actresses who had played the roles of the warrior and the bard on TV. Alexander Williams had started to dig deeper.
It turned out that they were the long lost grandnieces of the two professors. They'd even shown up at the same time...possibly together. It was just too pat, too convenient to believe. He'd done a search of Serena and Gabriella's origins before coming to Columbia. Here, he had run into a blank wall. Neither one had any prior public records. No drivers' licenses, no property deeds, no loan or bank histories, no voting registrations, no medical histories, and no educational records. It wasn't that they'd been law abiding citizens with clean slates…it was as if they had no slates at all. They had no past before coming to Columbia in June of 2000. There was only one legitimate explanation he could conceive of; the Federal Witness Protection Program. There were many illegitimate explanations he could imagine. The situation made his flesh crawl.
There were ways he could check more deeply, but he didn't have the authority to pursue them on his own. Neither had any outstanding warrants; not even a traffic citation. He was at a dead end, and then, belatedly, he'd seen the newspapers. Quantico, Virginia, September 13th. The 1st Virginia Tidewater Bank had briefly been held by terrorists. Follow up reports noted that Serena Pappas had been one of the nine hostages, all of whom had escaped unscathed. The bank had been stormed by the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team. The news reports had seemed uncharacteristically vague about the "gory" details, almost as if the story was being suppressed. The incident should have been all over the media as the story broke. The three failed terrorists had been killed, and the report said that one had died of "cerebral complications and asphyxia". None had died of gunshot wounds. He remembered Gabriella's claims about a technique that she'd demonstrated on their first evening of class.
On that same day, Martial Times, the leading newspaper of the martial arts, had reported that the women's title at the 23rd National Open Full Contact Martial Arts Championships had been won by Gabriella Covington from the Columbia School of Martial Science. The article had praised her abilities, but noted that her semi-final opponent, Air Force SSgt. Hudson Lykos, had died of nerve damage resulting from an unfortunate accident to her spine during competition. Alex Williams had cross-referenced an obituary picture of the deceased staff sergeant with the TV character played by actress Hudson Leick. Their names were so similar. At first he thought there'd been a mistake. The staff sergeant and the beautiful actress could have been identical twins. It seemed as if Gabrielle had killed her old enemy Callisto.
And finally, there were the cryptic references he remembered hearing. "I guess some of the movements Serena uses with the Chin saber are common to all the Chinese systems that developed later." The systems Gabriella had referred to were at least hundreds of years old; for that matter, the name "Chin" was archaic as well. "I started out by learning some training exercises that could be the equivalent of forms in a modern system." The use of forms to learn an arts' movements was common to all martial arts and had been since the beginning of formal systems. "I haven't worn armor in a long time. She never wore it." "Armor", not padding or protective gear, which they'd disdained. When would either of them have had occasion to wear armor, or have needed to? "Gabriella and I've been sparrin' together for years, and it's been a very long time since either of us was able to complete an attack successfully." But what he'd seen that afternoon wasn't the result of a few years of practice. Such mastery would take a lifetime to attain, and the women were both in their mid-twenties. "A Celtish woman from Gallia…France…taught me a long time ago." Serena's slip had named the modern country of France with the provincial designation from the Roman Empire; he'd checked. "Celtish"? The Celts had been indigenous to the area during the Roman era, before the arrival of the Franks, a Germanic tribe who had unified Gaul around 500 AD. Nowadays, Celt was almost synonymous with Irish. "I guess you could say the Dim Mak derives from it." They practiced nerve point attacks that predated the Dim Mak? The "Deft Touch", along with the "Poison Hand" and the "Iron Hand" were the legendary culmination of the eastern fighting arts. They had been known since before the time of Christ. Serena had completely numbed Marcus' leg and then released the effect. Gabriella had implied that he himself would have died from her attack. He'd never even heard of such techniques, much less actually seen them used. No one he knew had. But they had been practiced by the characters on that TV show. "Are you telling me that she got up, armed herself, crossed the room, and fired on a target while in a transcendental state?" He remembered asking Serena. "I'm tellin' ya that she exists in that state at will." In his experience, no one could do such a thing. The very act of moving required that the psyche reintegrate with the body. It demanded the initiation of internal dialog and the loss of the transcendental state. It had been proven by neurologists using EEGs and MRI to scan for brain activity. To do what she had done while in a state of emptiness would have been supernatural. He still couldn't explain it and he couldn't accept Serena's explanation for it either. The human mind had its limits. It would have been a greater wonder than if Gabriella had performed those acts while sleepwalking.
Yes, they could have actually been the long lost grandnieces of Janice Covington and Melinda Pappas. They could have been aware of the ancient history that their elders had devoted their lives to studying. But they were simply too young to have attained the level of mastery they had displayed. Knowing a thing and practicing it were two different matters. He'd been studying martial arts for 27 years and Gabriella had enacted a fatal attack against him in less than 10 seconds. Serena could have killed Marcus and he never even would have known it. Serena had been present when a terrorist had died of "cerebral complications and asphyxia", and on the same day, Gabriella's opponent in a tournament had died of "accidental" nerve damage. It simply couldn't be coincidence.
The two women were anachronisms, their souls somehow displaced into the present. Though he couldn't fathom the mechanism for it, the impression he'd felt that day, of their being ancient warriors somehow transplanted into the modern world, still rang true with a gut certainty that he couldn't ignore. Alex Williams was a cop, and instinct had saved his ass more than once. He was curious as hell and he yearned for understanding.
As his evidence had mounted, Alexander Williams had kept an eye on the school. He checked it twice a day, towards the beginning and end of his patrol shift. He'd taken to driving by the Pappas house while going to and from work, though it was miles across town from his home. Of course, none of the other students had heard anything from their teachers either. For all practical purposes, the two women had disappeared as mysteriously as they'd appeared. After two and a half weeks, he doubted if he'd ever see them again.
The policeman lowered his hand and turned away from the school's window. He resumed his patrol, but his mind was far from the streets around him.
When you're weary, feeling small. When tears are in your eyes, I will dry them all;
I'm on your side. When times get rough, and friends just can't be found,
Like a bridge over troubled water, I will lay me down.
(Partial lyric, "Bridge Over troubled Water", Simon and Garfunkel, ©1970)
October 1, 2001 - Quantico, Virginia
In the days after meeting with FBI agents Phillips and DeMarco in her study in Columbia, many arrangements had rapidly been made. The soulmates were to temporarily join the FBI's CIRG, (the Critical Incident Response Group). Specifically, they would become a short-term component of the Operations Training Unit, which was responsible for the training and support of Hostage Rescue Team. The following day, Sunday, September 16th, the pair had been given temporary quarters in a dormitory style apartment building in the FBI compound on the grounds of the Quantico Marine Base. They had both immediately felt at home surrounded by the pervasive military atmosphere. The people they'd encountered were familiar types, from the unblooded recruits to the grizzled veteran commanders. They'd spent the day looking around.
If anything, they were both impressed by the level of conduct and organization the troops displayed. Xena was probably most shocked by the absence of a whipping ground. She'd always had to administer corporal punishment to maintain discipline and underscore her authority as commander. (The saying, "letting the cat out of the bag" referred to removing a cat 'o nine tails from the waxed leather sack at the mainmast in preparation for disciplining sailors aboard ship). In every army she'd ever seen, ambitious and insubordinate soldiers had been commonplace…she'd slit a few throats herself when a flogging wouldn't do. Since their arrival, she'd seen not a single incident. Though the younger troops could get rowdy, when confronted, their bearing was one of courtesy and pride in themselves and their outfit. Nowhere did she find the ubiquitous drunkenness and brawling that she knew was typical of soldiers. Initially she'd been astonished.
Gabrielle had found other facets of the modern Corps inspiring. For one thing, there didn't seem to be any of the pervasive pestilence she'd come to expect in military encampments. Syphilis and dysentery weren't rampant. The coughing of tubercular soldiers and the fevered delirium of malarial troops were missing. There were no yellow fever cases, no small pox, no typhus, and no gangrene; not even any lice or ringworm. She suspected that the sick were being aggressively quarantined. Curious, she'd looked everywhere for the hospice filled with death wards and found an efficient modern clinic instead. The soldiers were as healthy as the civilian population…probably even healthier.
Later, the bard had met both officers and enlisted soldiers whose purpose in being at Quantico had been to attend the military schools there. They were actually in organized classes, studying how to become better soldiers, more effective leaders, and more able administrators. She hadn't run across a single illiterate soldier yet…unbelievable, considering that she remembered Roman centurions who couldn't even sign their own names. Most incredibly, some of the troops were studying law. There were regulations and directives for almost everything, and the more serious infractions were handled by the military police and tried in military courts. It was a far cry from a warlord's enforcers, the leader's cruel and thuggish henchmen, who brutalized the men at arms for their own entertainment as well as at their commander's orders. This army had known standards of conduct, consistent procedures, and a legal mandate. It was the armed segment of a civilian government and it had to obey the country's laws and leaders, not the whims of each commander or the vacillating will of a single tyrant or king.
To say that they'd greeted each other's observations with amazement and disbelief would have been an understatement. That night when they'd traded reports, each had been sure that the other was trying to outdo her own revelations with even wilder fictions. (Xena had a difficult time believing, knowing Gabrielle's imagination as she did, while Gabrielle's disbelief had stemmed from knowing Xena's tendency to play pranks). Only slowly had they convinced each other that what they'd seen wasn't a fantasy or practical joke. The cloned warrior had briefly entertained the notion that everything they'd been allowed to see might have been a set up, but the motive for such an involved illusion escaped her. Finally she'd just sighed and accepted it all, though she kept her eyes peeled for inconsistencies throughout their stay.
The FBI had arranged for the soulmates to teach the HRT assaulters using an indoor gymnasium, with access to an outdoor field and track. They'd met the members of the team shortly after their arrival. There were 60 elite members of the HRT in Quantico. The other 30 members were "elsewhere". Of these 60, two dozen comprised sniper teams and the remaining three dozen, the assault teams. The classes the clones would teach were mandatory for the assaulters, optional for the snipers. All 60 members showed up.
They were the best students the soulmates had ever had. In some respects, they were the also best warriors they'd ever met. Each had already been a Special Agent of the FBI before applying for duty in the HRT. Each had been forced to pass through an arduous two-week trial and assessment period. After that, those who were accepted were given another 4 months of training. Considering that more than a few had arrived in the outfit by way of other elite groups, there were no unfit or uninspired members. They were all driven to perfect their skills, substituting competition with each other for the faceless enemy they would someday meet. A point of difficulty for the clones had been the fact that they were women, and they had addressed this issue on the first day.
"My name is Serena Pappas," Xena had begun formally. "My partner is Gabriella Covington. We have been allowed by the HRT's OTU to offer training in our methods of unarmed combat. I know all of you are already highly trained and capable operatives. You've been in combat and faced mortal jeopardy before. You may be wonderin' what we can teach you…what a couple women can teach you, about fightin' hand to hand. I don't blame ya a bit." Here, the cloned warrior displayed a small grin, a grin that was answered by several of their students. The rest regarded her with stony and doubtful expressions. She resumed, issuing a challenge she knew they could understand. "Each of ya is bigger and stronger than either of us. I'm gonna ask how many of ya think you could kick my ass?"
60 hands immediately shot up. Xena grinned a feral grin at that. She answered them, upping the challenge. "I doubt it. In fact, I doubt if ya could kick Gabriella's ass," she continued, gesturing to the cloned bard, "yeah, this sweet 'lil blonde here."
The blonde in question gave the students a guileless smile. Several of the men shook their heads and began laughing. "Whose first?" The Warrior Princess asked, producing a bill. "Here's $50 on Gabriella." For a second none of the men moved…they hadn't really expected that she was serious. Xena winked. "I'll give ya two to one odds."
Finally a tall wiry man at the rear of the group stood up, a smile on his face. He walked to the front of the area where Xena and Gabrielle were standing and introduced himself with a quip.
"I'm Dave Hartford, and I don't mind earning the beer money."
"Special Agent Hartford, you can start whenever you're ready," Xena told him, backing away as Gabrielle moved forward to face him. When they were both in ready stances but he still wasn't attacking, Xena asked, "do ya need me to say, begin?"
The agent moved forward with a few soft calls of encouragement from his buddies. He opened with three quick left jabs directed at the blonde's head. He was measuring and Gabrielle let him come. The first two jabs she turned aside with small movements of her right forearm, the third, she wove away from. Hartford began to throw what would be a hard lunge punch to her belly with his right hand, his strong hand. The cloned bard read his intent perfectly. As he shifted his weight forward, she turned to her left and swung her right arm in a fast windmill motion from the shoulder. Her fingertips struck the musculocutaneous nerve in his right biceps. The shock of the blow alone diverted the path of his punch, but instead of returning to prepare for another punch, the arm dropped limp to his side. He couldn't even close his fist. Continuing in a blur of movement, Gabrielle turned to the right, coming back to face him. Her left arm was pinwheeling just like her right had done before. This time her fist struck a hammer blow against the agent's suprasternal notch, where the manubrium meets the clavicles at the base of the neck. The strike was delivered at a downward angle with only moderate contact, but even so, it drove the tall agent to his knees. And then she stopped and stepped away.
To his credit, Agent Hartford didn't stay down long. His right arm still hung limp at his side and his breathing was labored. He rubbed his sore chest with his good left hand.
"Well, that was impressive," he muttered grumpily.
"Hartford's a girlie," several of the other agents taunted in chorus, though they were smiling. Someone asked, "did ya have to hit our baby boy so hard?"
"Fuck you very much," Hartford groused as he went to sit back down, "assholes."
"Put a cold pack on the arm and a hot pack on the chest," Xena advised, "and they'll both feel okay in an hour. By the way, ya owe me fifty bucks." After a pause, "anyway, you're lucky, she barely touched ya."
At this, 60 pairs of eyes widened.
"The nerve attack disabled Agent Hartford's right arm, but it was only a diversion," Xena explained, "The fatal attack was against the top of the sternum. If the blow had been struck full force, it would have separated the collarbones from the manubrium, broken the costal cartilages and shocked the heart causin' death. Gabriella…."
The blonde clone picked up a brand new brick and held it from one end with her thumb and two fingers, parallel to the floor. She held it at roughly the height of a man's chest. Xena stepped forward, and using the same fast windmill blow, shattered the brick with her left fist. Several of the agents held high enough ranks in various martial arts that they had trained to break bricks or other hard material. Those bricks, cinderblocks, and wooden boards were always supported at both ends, or more rarely simply laid flat on a surface and struck. What none of them had seen done before was the breaking of an unsupported object.
"This is what I call a 'true break'," Xena told them, "and unlike a supported break, it can only be done with an extremely fast strike. The force of the blow is transmitted almost instantly. The brick didn't have time to rebound away before the impact shattered it. If the blow is too slow, the brick recoils from the strike and the movement dissipates the force. In most breakin' techniques, ya shift your body weight behind the blow to attain the power. Remember, speed times mass equals force. It's true of bullets* and it's true of hand strikes too. With this technique, you whip the hand at the target using momentum. Ya saw the windmill movement I used? That long arc builds up a greater speed than the shorter path of a straight punch can."
(*Both Xena and Gabrielle had taken advantage of being in a FBI compound by taking weapons training and spending time on the ranges. Xena eventually decided that guns could be viable weapons in some situations. Long range shooting had captured her imagination after the bank incident. The idea of killing an unsuspecting enemy from greater than archery range intrigued her, and so the cloned warrior absorbed the skills of a sniper. Stealth and concealment were already second nature to her. Accuracy and consistency with the .308 rifle came quickly after she learned to adjust the telescope. She soon astonished the instructors by winning hands of sniper's poker at 100 and 200 yards. The cloned bard developed a preference for handguns and spent most of her time on the combat course, moving through obstacles and firing on unexpectedly appearing targets. She'd found it advantageous to use two autopistols simultaneously, so she practiced the staggered replacement of magazines while holding a second sidearm. It was the updated reflection of her use of paired swords in battle, and as with the swords, she functionally ambidextrous.) ~Editor
Gabrielle continued the lesson. "For a person my size, the straight punch I could have used against Agent Hartford wouldn't have been as effective. I was standing too close to him and needed to aim the strike upwards. The windmill blow and the choice of target would have made my attack devastating. I'll be distributing charts listing the preferred targets for this kind of blow. Take some time to study them and imagine their applications."
"Everybody on your feet," Xena ordered, "give yourselves some room. I want ya to swing your arms in circles at the shoulder like a windmill. First the right arm, and then the left. Swing them forward and then backward. Don't clench the shoulder joint. Do this exercise three times a day. It'll loosen your shoulders and maybe make up for the tightness ya get from carryin' too much muscle mass. Drawback of male physiology, ya know." She said it with a smile though. Gabrielle got out the first aid packs for Agent Hartford.
The soulmates had moved on to more esoteric techniques. On the fourth day they'd presented their introduction to nerve point attacks, demonstrating on willing volunteers. Gabrielle again passed out charts of targets, asking them to study the information carefully. Finally, Xena had shown the men that accuracy was only part of the skill necessary to gain the full potential of nerve attacks. She had brought in a can of Coke from the vending machine in the hall, and held it up between her thumb and the first two fingers of her right hand. Slowly, she'd applied pressure with her fingertips. The can had deformed, buckled, and finally burst, spraying soda all over. The cloned warrior drained what remained inside the can and then passed it around. On the side where her fingertips had been, they could easily see two spots dimpling the sheet metal.
"Ya don't train to harden your fingertips by strikin' with 'em. The Chinese believe it hurts the flow of the Qi in certain meridians of the body and can lead to blindness. What I want ya to do is what I just showed ya. Squeeze a full can until you can make the top pop. Do it with both hands, three times a day for ten minutes, squeezing and relaxing over and over again. You can also do fingertip push-ups."*
(*The fingertip push-ups are done in sets of 30, keeping the fingers slightly curled, not reflected back as is the natural tendency. Eventually, the number of weight bearing fingers is reduced. First the little fingers are withdrawn, then the ring fingers, until the push-ups are being done on the two largest fingers and the thumb. Alternatives include doing the fingertip push-ups in a handstand position, starting with sets of 10.) ~Editor
On the fifth day, the clones had overseen their students as they attempted to apply the nerve pinches on non-lethal targets. They'd broken the agents up into pairs of partners and had them face each other in lines. The idea was that they'd be able to quickly spot anyone who keeled over in trouble. So far it had been the most challenging class. It took most of the day, but by the end of the session, most of the agents had been consistently able to numb their partner's legs and arms. They would all be sporting bruises from the incorrectly aimed and overly violent application of the techniques. Gabrielle had reinforced their explaination about the finesse aspect and why they were training to harden their fingers.
"I should tell you that it really doesn't take much pressure to affect a nerve," the blonde said, wrapping an arm around Xena's waist and dropping her to the floor with a subtle pinch of her sciatic nerve, "if your aim is perfect. Deviate from the target by even 1/16 of an inch though, and you're relying on the pressure wave traveling through the tissue from the strike to affect the nerve. When these techniques were first developed, they were applied against armored enemies. Hardening the fingertips allowed a warrior to make a successful attack while breaking through wicker, leather, or lacquered bamboo armor. Nowadays it helps when you can't be completely sure of the target."
Xena had released Gabrielle's pinch to the nerve in her buttock and had regained the use of her leg. "You are in so much shit," she stage whispered to the blonde with a wolfish grin.
After two weeks, the clones had introduced the agents to breaking techniques, disabling nerve attacks, and a series of joint locks and dislocates more efficient than any the FBI trainers had seen. They'd also inspired their students with a demonstration of the state of emptiness. For this demonstration, Xena had caught a series of five arrows that Gabrielle had fired at her in rapid succession, with her ears plugged and her eyes blindfolded.
That night, lying under the star flecked canopy that they'd transplanted from their bed in South Carolina, the soulmates spoke of their precedents for teaching secret techniques.
"I think the students are doing great, Xena…they're certainly learning faster than Eve or Hope did. We've already shown them more than we showed anyone but our daughters."
"Yeah, that's for sure," the cloned warrior agreed, chewing thoughtfully on her lower lip. "They're learin' fast alright. Always helps when the student's are interested. I guess I don't mind teachin' these techniques now, because I don't expect to be fightin' these guys next season or next year. Even so, there'll be plenty of things we won't teach…like all of our weapons skills, plus tracking, stealth, and vanishing." After thinking a bit she reminisced. "Ya know, I remember when we rescued Eve in Rome. We'd almost made it out of the palace when that Praetorian leapt out of a doorway. I put the "pinch" on him, but then I had to drag Eve away. She was so fascinated, just standin' there watchin' him die like it was the greatest thing she'd ever seen."
"She was pretty obsessed with killing after her twelve years under Caesar's influence, and she had absolutely zero* compassion." The bard sighed. It had been so tiresome dealing with the violent and coldhearted Livia. The first few months, she'd thought she'd kill her, Xena's daughter or not.
(*Gabrielle enjoyed the Arabic concept of zero, not to mention the ideas of numerals and decimal places. Early on, she had gleefully performed calculations on large numbers, amazed at how orderly the system remained even when multiplying or dividing. Trigonometry and algebra, with the Greek or Roman counting systems, would have been unthinkably cumbersome to her. For a week she'd awakened Xena by muttering formulae in her sleep, until the Warrior Princess had put an end to it by buying her a calculator. Gabrielle had been ecstatic. Xena had received gratuitous sex.) ~Editor
"Ya nearly killed her a few times yourself," Xena chided, reading her thoughts.
"Gods, Xena, she was insufferable. I finally lost it when she tried to treat me like a servant...Hurry up with that food strawhead, Curry my horse, Bring me some wine…" Gabrielle had affected a spoiled and snotty persona to which Xena chuckled softly.
"Ya finally did slap her around a bit as I remember."
"Well, enough was enough. She really did act like the Bitch of Rome. Sour milk for Romulus and Remus. Honestly…Get over here and scour the mud off my boots you two-unciae peasant…I could have ripped out her liver and eaten it in front of her," the bard seethed at the memory, adding, "and anyway, I'm over three and a half cubits tall…."*
(*In Roman measures, an uncia was about 1½ feet, roughly equal to a cubit, though cubits varied by locality, being the distance from the point of the elbow to the tip of the middle finger…hence the expression, "givin' 'em the cubit". Of course, Livia's reference could also have meant a two-ounce peasant, a real lightweight, or the sixth part of an As, a Roman copper coin of low value, indicating a pauper. That Gabrielle automatically took it as a comment about her height is somewhat telling about her.) ~Editor
"Depends on whose cubit," Xena muttered under her breath, drawing a sharp glare and a smack across the belly from her soulmate. She grinned in the dark. "I'll admit, she was a handful for a while there, but havin' ya put the pinch on her and dump her in that lake was the start of straightenin' her out, hehe."
"Gods, Xena, I can't believe I did that," Gabrielle said. She sounded astonished and even still guilty because of her fit of temper over two thousand years before. "I put the pinch on her, kicked her over the bank, and just walked away. She was choking and sputtering in the water, and I was willing to let her drown."
"I was sittin' by the fire countin', ya know," Xena replied, "knew she'd been getting' under your skin for days, 'an I figured you two had to get stuff squared away. Sooner was better than later I guess. Eventually I pulled her out at around twenty-somethin'."
"She did treat me better after that," Gabrielle remembered with a satisfied smirk.*
(*This incident, in much altered form, may have appeared in the TV episode "Forgiven" in which Gabrielle finally batters Tara with her staff. Though the soulmates encountered a few youthful wannabe tag-alongs, anyone who'd acted as aggressively towards Gabrielle as Tara had would probably have wound up disabled or maimed by the Amazon Bard. "Forgiven" was an endearing morality play that both of the clones had found laughable. The "Urn of Apollo" was an archaic Thracian slang reference to habitual drunkenness during daylight hours, as in, "Look, Meleager's been tipping the Urn of Apollo, and he's passed out before the zenith." In the Pelopennese, the "Urn of Apollo" referred to the morning chamber pot.) ~Editor
"Seemed like it took forever to get her to drop that pissy attitude 'an carry her own weight on the road though," Xena remembered, "and I was really surprised she wasn't a better fighter. I mean she had all those tutors and coaches in Rome. She was a Legatus."
"I can understand it perfectly, Xena. No one wanted to get on her bad side. Everyone from Julius Caesar on down coddled her, and it wasn't because they loved her. Caesar knew what he was doing, creating an indulged psychopath. Then he gave her command of a legion and turned her loose. Spoiled brat. He'd basically created a legal warlord."
"Still wish I coulda seen him die!" Xena spat.
"Anyway, Eve turned out okay in the end, I guess," Gabrielle added, trying to calm her soulmate's mood. Anything to do with Caesar still set her off. "I mean, by the time we went back to Rome, she was pretty sane. You did have to spend a lot of time fixing her fighting skills and teaching her how to survive. Realizing that she hadn't been taught very well was part of what finally broke through her bitchiness."
"Yeah," Xena agreed with a grin, "nothin' like getting' your butt kicked three times in a row by a 'two-unciae peasant' to make a girl listen up." After hearing the low growl from Gabrielle, she added, "Compared to her, Hope was always such a sweetheart…such a fast learner too."
"As the proud birth mom, I'll agree to that," the placated bard happily proclaimed, "though she spent most of her time with the Amazons." After a few moments' pause, she continued. "They taught her everything she needed to know and gave her a home and a family when we couldn't." By the time she had finished, her eyes were damp.
Xena had looked over at her soulmate, hearing the tremor in her voice. She tightened her arms around her partner.
"Gabrielle, I'm just glad she had the Amazons to live with, and I give thanks that she wasn't recognized when Brutus' men came. Havin' Eve kidnapped was bad enough. I think I woulda died if they'd gotten Hope too." She closed her eyes and choked down the pain. At least one of their daughters had been spared the captivity and the madness that had been Caesar's Rome. At least one of their daughters had grown up surrounded by love, and Xena had loved Hope as if she'd been her own.
Gabrielle's daughter had enjoyed two mothers and an older sister during the first two years of her life. She'd passed her infancy in the Amazon village with Gabrielle, Xena, and Eve. Though the soulmates had made short trips away, as when they'd gone out to meet and kill Mavican in 59 BC, her life for the most part had been stable.
Then in 58 BC there'd been the endgame attack by Brutus. Acting on Caesar's orders, and dressed in the uniforms of their rival, Pompey the Magnus, Brutus had slain Queen Ephiny in combat and kidnapped 10 year old Eve. Over two hundred Amazon warriors had been killed in the battle, another three score captured.
With the queen dead and her named successor, Princess Marga, over forty leagues away, the soulmates took action, for they knew the Romans better than anyone else who'd been present. Gabrielle had made an impassioned plea to the warriors, but only twelve score and ten of the most traditional had joined her to free the prisoners and recover Ephiny's body. She would have led half the army, but Xena had spoken against her and most of the Amazons had forsaken her quest. Even so, Gabrielle had tracked the fleeing Brutus west, across nine leagues of countryside, finally catching him on wooded land with only two cohorts of legionnaires. Until the battle started, they'd thought that they'd been tracking Pompey.
In the forest the legionnaires hadn't been able to form up in ranks and files. The 250 Amazons had been in a blood frenzy and they'd opened their assault firing arrows.* At close range the heavy poisoned bronzeheads had punched through shields and armor with a resounding crack. The Roman pilum and gladius were of no use against an enemy that refused to close ranks with their lines. The Amazon warriors slew three times their number, losing only two score themselves. Most importantly, they'd liberated the prisoners and reclaimed Queen Ephiny's body, which the Romans had hoped to display in the Eternal City, among the Empire's vanquished. But the Amazons had failed in the other two objectives of their mission. They hadn't rescued Eve, and they hadn't avenged Ephiny's death by killing Brutus. For Gabrielle, returning and meeting her soulmate's eyes while empty handed had been harder than anything she'd ever done.
(*The Amazon arrows were usually dipped in one of two major kinds of chemical "enhancers". The first type used a concentrate derived primarily from mushrooms of the genera Inocybe and Clitocybe, in which the active toxin, muscarine, brought on cramps, dizziness, coma, seizure, and often death. The second type relied on the concentration of histamine and neurotoxins produced by dinoflagellates in rotting fish or shellfish. At times other toxins, among them snake venom, were employed, but these could only be obtained in small quantities. The warriors would have loved curare, but that was a South American toxin, a form of strychnine extracted from the Strychnos toxifera vine, whose native habitat, ironically is the Amazon Basin). ~Editor
"I couldn't find her, Xena," Gabrielle sobbed into the warrior's neck, "somehow he'd snuck her away with another cohort of his men, and there weren't enough of us to follow their trail too. We killed and killed until the Romans fled from us. I think they were only buying time to get Eve away. Our warriors were soaked with their blood, covered head to toe in gore, and they stank of the grave. Despite all the confusion I found him…I even fought him, Xena. I wounded him twice, but I couldn't get that one decisive strike in. Then his men surrounded him and finally drove us back before they fled. I had one last chance to kill the bastard. I picked up a gladius and threw it like a dagger, but I only hit one of his tribunes…split his spine…and Brutus got away."
Xena could only hold her soulmate and offer what comfort she could with her embrace. The Warrior Princess was numb; the only way she could survive reliving the heartbreak and horror of that day. She had been many leagues away when her soulmate had fought Brutus. Hatred had fanned the old embers of bloodlust into a conflagration in her heart. For the first time in years she had unleashed the Destroyer of Nations in response. Xena had led and fought magnificently, butchering all who stood against her, and she had come back literally bathed in the blood of her enemies. The warrior personally slew over a hundred that day, and she had been thoroughly used. She had failed to protect her daughter, failed to avenge her friend the queen, and she had performed a service for her greatest enemy. She had killed Pompey the Magnus, mortal rival of Julius Caesar. She had provided him with an unobstructed path to the throne of the Roman Empire.
On the heels of the accounts of the battle with Brutus, Amazon border patrols had reported Pompey's army to the north of the Amazon lands. Xena had been almost insane with fury, but she had still been the Favorite of the God of War. She had projected her charisma and played on the emotions of the grieving sisterhood. Over the years, Xena had been gifted by a god and trained to command by the force of her will. Her partner's reasoning hadn't stood a chance. For the first time in anyone's memory, a non-Amazon had commanded the nation's army in time of war. Ignoring Gabrielle's pleas, the main force of the Amazon Nation, almost twenty-one hundred warriors, had followed Xena into battle against the Magnus. They had slaughtered, crying out over the whizzing of arrows to Artemis the Huntress and Ares, Patron of Warriors, wielding labrys, bow, javelin, and sword. Defying an opposition that had outnumbered them by over six to one, they had nearly exterminated the two legions that Pompey had brought to fight Brutus. Scarcely a cohort had survived the slaughter unscathed.
Xena had faced Pompey, and his claims that he'd had nothing to do with either her daughter's kidnapping or the queen's death had fallen on deaf ears. His enemy was Brutus, not the Amazon Nation, though they would cross anyone's land to find him. By then she hadn't really been listening to anything except the surge of blood in her own veins. The Destroyer of Nations had never shown mercy. Xena had slain him like a dog, hamstringing him first, taunting him as he crawled, and finally beheading him like a common criminal. With the first Amazons to join her, she had hacked his body beyond recognition.
Tears of pain and guilt trickled down her cheeks and onto the clean case of her pillow. A convulsive sob escaped her lips and only Gabrielle's arms grounded her against the horror she so vividly remembered.
"I…we…oh gods, the blood…" she couldn't even form a sentence.
In the aftermath Ares had appeared on the battlefield to salute his Chosen, and while the victorious Amazons had cheered, Xena had felt like crawling down a hole into Tartarus. She had completely lost it. Her conduct had been every bit as bloodthirsty and merciless as it had ever been as a warlord. What little she could remember of some parts of the battle had seen her screaming, "Kill 'Em All", at the top of her lungs, while the Amazons unquestioningly followed her and swung at anything that moved. She had reveled in the feeling of hot slick blood coating her body from head to foot, loved the stickiness of it on the grip of her sword, and even found herself excited by the pulling sensations as it contracted while drying all over her skin. Her hair had been clotted to her scalp with sweat and gore. Ares had come to her and traced a finger thorough the spatter on her cheek, and then he'd quickly kissed her lips, licking his own to taste the blood offering before he'd vanished with a whispered, "magnificent". She'd been his again that day; his unstoppable Favorite. She had wanted to throw up, but she'd kept up appearances for the sake of the other warriors and brought back Pompey's head as a trophy for Queen Marga's coronation. It had decorated a spike in the village execution grounds…among the Nation's vanquished.
The horror of her memories abated just enough for her to feel Gabrielle's arms tighten around her. They had been the worst days of her life, and the mistakes she'd made had haunted her until her death on the Ides of March. If only she'd followed her soulmate, tracking Brutus instead of raging after the legions reported by the scouts. Maybe they could have tracked down the cohort that had taken Eve. Yet she'd been so sure that the two armies had actually been one and that they would rejoin each other for a combined secondary assault on the Amazon homelands.
"I argued against you before your own people and then went after Pompey," Xena choked out, "had to do it my way…and I couldn't resist the slaughter. We both won in battle but I lost the war. I lost my daughter and I lost the integrity of my soul to Ares' blood-mania, the katalepsis, that day. I could have lost you too. I lost the things that were really important."
"Yes, we both lost and won," Gabrielle softly agreed, "and maybe if we'd split the army by hekatontarchiae, by companies of 100, instead of by passions, maybe I could have recovered Eve…could have killed Brutus too. But Pompey's army had to be defeated, and if Brutus hadn't lived, then Caesar would have survived the Ides of March. Bad as it was, everything that happened could have been much worse, and we can change none of it now. So shed the fear and the loathing and the hate, my warrior."
Caesar had brilliantly out thought her that day. Athena would have been proud of him. He had used his enemy Pompey and he had used her by knowing her rage. It had been a bitter payback for the defeat he'd suffered at her hands outside of Amphipolis, on the summer solstice in 63 BC. The resulting feelings of inadequacy and failure threatened to crush her spirit, just as they had on that long ago day. A groan of anguish escaped from the depths of her soul. She had forgotten nothing.
"It's okay to cry, my love," her bard's soothing voice rumbled against her neck, "it's okay to give your heart's voice to the loss and the pain. But we got her back in the end. You were her mother and all of Rome couldn't give her the love you did. That's what brought her back. An entire empire couldn't replace your heart. We won that war." And the greatest warrior of her time cried for her stolen daughter and all the lost years.
After that day a kind of numbness had set in and Xena had gone to war as she never had before. The Warrior Princess had sworn a Sacramentum bellicus, an oath of war, against the greatest empire in the western world. She would take back her daughter and she would make them pay. The Greater Good had taken a backseat, for this was personal. Xena had already lost her son and she couldn't lose another child. For twelve long years she had fought them. The rift that had opened between the soulmates when they'd split the Amazon army had counted for nothing in the end; it had never diminished their love. Gabrielle had left her own daughter behind in the Amazon village for increasingly longer stretches of time and had joined Xena on the trail. She had traded in her sais for a matched pair of skeletonized short swords, custom forged for her by the Amazon blade smiths. Eve had been a daughter to her too.
From 58 to 47 BC the soulmates had tried to retake Eve from Caesar. Those were the Bloody Years. They had spied, and plotted, and fought. When they couldn't act to achieve their primary goal, they had acted to destabilize the empire, striking every blow as if it would be felt by Caesar himself. They had sabotaged naval vessels and ports, aided all of the empire's enemies, freed captives, assassinated Roman leaders, poisoned army encampments, and engaged in the wholesale slaughter of legionnaires as a matter of policy. They had caused avalanches, broken bridges, set fires, created floods, and spread plagues. Before they were through, they had destroyed the equivalent of ten legions; including auxiliaries and mercenaries, over 86,000 men. Xena had been named Primus Inimicus, 1st Enemy of the Imperium, Gabrielle along with her. The combined bounty on their heads stood at 9 million denarii, or 36 sestertium in silver. Even converted into gold, the weight would have broken a horse's back.
Perhaps a quarter-hour passed before Gabrielle spoke again. By then, her soulmate had settled from the emotional torment of her memories. The bard softly kissed her cheek.
"We finally won our war against Caesar, Xena. We took her back, body and soul."
"Body and soul…I read Janice's research," Xena whispered, her voice still shaky, "I read about her and Hope's lives after we died. They did good, both our girls did good."
"Yes they did…they made Janice and Melinda…and they made us."
Following the trail of the Xena Scrolls, the two archeologists had scoured the lands of Greece for clues about the two daughters mentioned in the texts. Their search had been a strange one, for they had known the beginning and the end of the story, yet they had been able to discover almost nothing of the chapters in between. They had always hoped to find proof to fill in the lineages of the Warrior Princess and the Amazon Bard. Between those heroines and themselves lay many generations of descendants. They had uncovered some information; tantalizing references to the soulmates' daughters, but nothing more. Eve and Hope; they had remained a mystery, shrouded by the passing of so many years.
"Your daughter became a hero, and she managed to avenge herself after 20 years."
"She did good alright," the cloned warrior repeated.
"Melinda transcribed the two stories they'd found that mentioned her, and one of them linked her to the death of Brutus. The original Roman historian's work was lost…known only from a later copy. She proved that the 7th century scribe had used the wrong ending on Eve's name; a masculine -us, Livius, instead of a feminine -a, Livia. She killed Brutus in 39 BC."
"Idiot scribe probably couldn't believe he'd been killed duelin' with a woman." A small smile of pride crossed Xena's lips; her first smile in almost a half-hour.
"And the other scroll recorded her pardon in 27 BC, by the new Emperor Augustus, so we know she lived at least that long," Gabrielle added happily.
"She woulda been 41, a mother by then" Xena mused thoughtfully. After a pause, she added, "What they found out about Hope was amazing." Here, she turned to smile at her partner and saw the quick flash of pride lighting the cloned bard's face.
"She lived all her known life with the Amazons, but we taught her every fighting trick we knew. She learned the pinch when she was fourteen…."
"She learned so much so fast, sweetheart, she literally drank in everything we showed her. And not just about fightin' either. Strategy, healin', huntin', history, leadership…."
"Hope was fifteen the last time we saw her, and she was already both a blooded warrior and an apprentice healer. She became a Master Warrior at eighteen."
"And the nation's War Queen at twenty, the youngest since Antiope almost 1,500 years before. Your daughter challenged and defeated Queen Varia in 40 BC."
"Actually, if you remember, I gave birth to Hope almost a moon past the autumnal equinox. If she really fought her challenge at the solstice festival she'd still have been nineteen. Either way, at least Hope stopped the nation's vendetta against Eve. As War Queen, she countermanded Varia's 'Oath of Blood' against Livia. I wonder how long she reigned?"
"I don't guess anyone knows now, but I'm sure she did a great job…just like you did on the TV show." Here Xena gave her soulmate a nudge and a teasing grin.
"Hahaha, Queen Gabrielle," the bard joked, "can you imagine? Especially considering the amount of traveling we did. Impossible. Still, it does have kind of a ring to it, don't you agree, Warrior Princess?"
"Of course, your Queenieness."
A low chuckle and a higher pitched giggle followed the Warrior Princess' comment, and finally, last thing before spooning together and falling asleep, they confirmed the decision they'd been deferring.
"So tomorrow we start teaching them the serious stuff, huh?"
"Yes, my Queen. We'll teach 'em to kill."
October 12, 2001 - Columbia, South Carolina
Alexander Williams had driven past the Pappas house on his way in to work, as he'd done every workday for the last three weeks. For the first time in three weeks there had been a light on in the kitchen, but their car still wasn't there. He hadn't stopped, but when his morning patrol took him past the school, he'd half-expected to see his teachers inside. Pressing his face against the window glass had become such of a habit that he knew the best point of view from which to search the interior. It was still deserted. He'd turned away from the windows, once again disappointed. When his afternoon patrol again took him past the school, he noticed a woman with short black hair just leaving. He hastened to catch up with her as she swiftly strode away down the sidewalk.
Danielle Lefferts sensed someone approaching her quickly from behind. The stride wasn't that of a jogger and the person was making way too much noise for stealth. She didn't sense danger and wouldn't react unless they closed to within two yards and made her feel threatened. A quick glance in the shop windows she was passing revealed the reflection of a policeman, hands on his duty belt, hustling towards her. She relaxed a bit; he was probably just answering a call from someplace up ahead in the same direction she was walking. That thought made her stop. She didn't have any desire to walk into a "situation" that required the police. She half turned, so she was standing sideways on the sidewalk with her back to the store windows. She waited for the policeman to approach, force of habit making her quickly catalog his description.
A Columbia foot-patrol officer, maybe 5'10" to 6'0", about 170 to 180 lbs., solid, no fat, African-American, medium complexion, clean-shaven, probably early 40s, got to be in decent shape because he's not puffing in spite of hustling along with all that equipment and those shoes. He's not breaking a sweat either and it's pretty warm this afternoon for October. He's looking at me with more than passing interest; I wonder what he wants.
The Chief Warrant Officer knew he'd stop in front of her before he actually came to a halt a respectful distance away. She noticed that he slowed and stood comfortably in front of her without needing to catch his breath. He was committing her appearance to memory with a rapid, observant glance. Black hair cropped short, pale complexion, blue-gray eyes, facial structure reminiscent of Enya, probably about 5'6-7" and 120 lbs., maybe 35, blue Levi's, US Navy sweatshirt, turquoise running shoes. Within 10 seconds, he'd absorbed enough to let an artist render a recognizable portrait, or give a dispatcher a clear description for circulation to other patrol officers. It was a practiced habit.
"Excuse me, ma'am, but I'd noticed you leaving the Columbia School of Martial Science," Officer Williams began, "and I was wondering if you're familiar with the place or the owners?" He was hoping he wasn't just chasing a curious passerby who'd tried the door and left after receiving no response.
"Officer…Williams," Danielle Lefferts responded after reading his name tag, "in fact, I met one of the teachers. Met her at a martial arts tournament in San Francisco last month. I'm house sitting for the owners. I was leaving the school after airing out the space." She was surprised by the wide smile that had spread across the policeman's face.
"So, do you know if Serena and Gabriella are coming back?" Alex Williams asked hopefully. The tournament she'd mentioned must have been the one in the Martial Times article. He briefly wondered if Gabriella had defeated this woman in competition.
"They should be home Sunday night," the CWO answered, realizing that the patrolman probably passed the school every day and knew Gabriella and her partner. She chanced a question. "Do you know them?"
"Yes, I'm one of their students," Alex told her, "I've been worried about them…none of us knew that they'd left or when they'd be back. They disappeared without leaving word. Do you know if they're okay?"
"I spoke with Gabriella last night after I got off my plane. She said they're fine," she assured him, then added, "I guess we'll be studying together, Officer Williams."
"Alex," he said, offering his hand with a smile.
"Danielle Lefferts, pleased to meet you, Alex." Her grip on his hand was firm.
He checked his watch quickly, knowing she'd notice the wedding band on his finger.
"Would you have the time to join me for a quick cup of coffee," he asked, indicating a diner just a couple doors down the street, "I've really been worried about those two and I'm curious about their absence."
Danielle had arrived the night before and knew no one in town. She had no appointments and no plans, and fate had delivered a fellow student to her, a student who was also a married police officer. She felt no cause to be nervous with him. Danielle had never met or spoken with Serena Pappas. Her contacts with Gabriella Covington amounted to their initial meeting at the tournament and a total of about 45 minutes on the phone. She had some questions of her own, and this opportunity was too good to pass up. Offering a smile, she said, "Yes, I've got time for a cup of coffee if the streets of Columbia can spare you. The truth is, I'm curious about them too."
Alex Williams gave the street a quick once-over glance, nodded, and gestured for Danielle to accompany him. "Streets will be here when I get back….they always are."
Five minutes later they were sitting in a booth in the "Congressional Diner", mantling steaming cups of coffee. The diner was a comfortable neighborhood establishment, in a style reflecting its origins in the 50s. Externally, it could have been the big brother of an Airstream trailer; the brushed stainless steel skin and rounded lines hinting at a temporal kinship with a DC-3. Inside, chrome trim edging white tiles surrounded booths and stools upholstered in fire engine red Naugahyde. The diner catered mostly to locals and students. There was nothing trendy about it beyond its antiquity. That antiquity played a part in the diner's present. Recently it had come under new management, but only the personnel had changed. The Mom and Pop owners had retired and the establishment had gone on without them, seemingly on inertia, having long ago acquired a life of its own. The menu probably hadn't changed since before the Beatles. Just what congress the diner's name had ever referred to was as unclear now as it had been in Eisenhower's time.
The waitress, a perky Britney Spears looking girl, had greeted "Officer Alex" with a genuine smile, then giggled, snatched his cap off the table and plunked it on her head, while memorizing their orders. She'd quickly filled two mugs from what Danielle thought was a 55-gallon coffee urn, added cream and sugar as requested, and returned, collecting another table's dessert choices without breaking her stride. So far, waitressing was about the only thing she'd discovered she had a talent for.
"Since you mentioned the tournament in San Francisco, I'm guessing the teacher you've met is Gabriella Covington," Alex Williams began. "Did you compete against her?"
"In fact, yes," Danielle answered with a wry grin, "competed and lost…as gracefully as I could while falling on my butt with a numbed leg. I don't know where she learned to fight. She was unbeatable out there though. Really impressive."
"Did she use a nerve pinch?" Alex was instantly reminded of Serena's demonstration on his late partner, Marcus Lewis.
"Yes, and I'd never seen anything like it before. It's part of the reason I wrangled a transfer so I could study with her. She paralyzed my leg. Later she unparalyzed it just as easily. So, how long have you studied with her?"
"Well, I was one of the school's first students, but that was only back in June."
"This year? The school only opened in June? But that's only 4 ½ months ago."
"And they've been gone since mid-September, so it's really only been 3 ½ months of classes. Still, I've seen things there…I studied Hung Gar and Shotokan mostly, for 27 years. I've dabbled in a half-dozen other styles, and I've never met teachers who are as proficient or as unique, and yes, I guess, as deadly."
Danielle Lefferts digested his words, sipping coffee to cover her silence. "…as deadly." Staff Sergeant Hudson Lykos had died after a match with Gabriella, and the doctors had agreed that it was probable that her injury had resulted from the accident; just bad luck. The team had learned that critical nerves had been irreparably damaged when two vertebrae had been crushed. However, the vertebrae weren't adjacent to each other, and they had been crushed laterally, from the sides. The direction of the force was not obviously consistent with a blow from behind. Yet everyone had seen SSgt. Lykos fall onto Gabriella's knee, and it had happened so fast. There hadn't been enough doubts to justify an investigation. SSgt, Lykos had been buried with military honors after no relatives had claimed her body. That had struck the CWO as very sad. Danielle shook her head to free herself from the memories.
"Speaking of deadly," Alex prompted, "I understand another of Gabriella's opponents died in an accident during a match. Did you see the incident?" This was the first point of curiosity he had. It was as if he'd read her mind.
"Yes, I did. SSgt. Hudson Lykos was a teammate of mine," she answered, then saw the shock in his eyes and reassured him, "she and I weren't close. I'm on the US Armed Forces Tae Kwon Do Team. It's large and we have regular turnover. Plus, we come from all the different branches of the service. Also, elements of the team may be competing in different tournaments at any given time." Alex Williams had let out a low whistle when she'd mentioned the armed forces team. He filed the rest of her words away, noting her preference for short sentences.
"The match was in its second round. SSgt. Lykos seemed to have been taunting Gabriella. It's regarded as poor sportsmanship. Still, it's not uncommon to try to psych out an opponent. Anyway, Gabriella flipped completely over Hudson. Then she swept her legs and Hudson fell onto Gabriella's knee. Broke her neck in two places. To her credit, I think Gabriella sensed something was wrong. She didn't strike anymore blows. She waited for the ref to call 'break' and then she backed off. It all happened so fast."
He'd seen her speed and he'd seen Serena's. It didn't sound like anything sinister had happened, but then again, like any good cop, Alexander Williams regarded eyewitness testimony with a grain of salt. People missed things and often saw what they wanted to.
"So when did you go up against her?"
"The very next match. SSgt. Lykos' match was semifinals. I met her in the finals."
"So you were runner-up in the women's division?"
"Yes. Like I told her afterwards. I'd never felt as good after losing a match. I didn't get a scratch or a bruise in that fight. She paralyzed my leg early in the second round."
The coffee was growing cold, but neither of them wanted to end the conversation.
"I've never met Gabriella's partner, Serena. What's she like?"
"Serena Pappas," Alex mused. How to describe the tall woman? "Probably 5'10" or 5'11", about 135 lbs., straight black hair falling past her shoulders, ice blue eyes, maybe 24 to 27. Carries herself with a tangible aura of confidence and at the same time seems out of place…they both do sometimes, like they'd be more at home on some ancient battlefield. I've seen them sparring with swords…real swords, at combat speed, with no protection, and their eyes alone would terrify you. They seem to be an even match, skill-wise, but somehow I sense Serena's the more dangerous of the two. That's not to say Gabriella wouldn't be deadly either. Does that make any sense?"
The description gave Danielle a thrill of excitement. Gabriella had been more than impressive. She used techniques the CWO had never encountered. She had been peerless at the tournament, and she was perhaps 5'4" and maybe 110 lbs. Her partner sounded like an Amazon and Alex claimed she was her equal in skill. Danielle knew that she was capable of killing, and Alexander Williams probably was too. They'd both studied long enough and hard enough to be deadly fighters, and yet neither had the coldness of a killer. Now the school's most senior student had described weapons sparring that sounded more like actual combat, and he'd said that their eyes alone were terrifying. He didn't seem like the kind of guy who would be easily scared. Danielle knew what he referred to. She'd seen it in a few soldiers. She couldn't wait to meet Serena Pappas.
"Yes, I think it makes perfect sense," CWO Lefferts replied slowly, uncharacteristically eloquent, "I've seen the difference between troops going to war with fear in their eyes, and those few who've thrived and found something on the battlefield that completes them. It's neither the coldness and brutality of a sociopath, nor the haunted relief of a survivor. It's more like they've found and accepted their craft…become comfortable with it because it's the only place where they can truly be their best. Somehow it elevates them, makes them stand apart, and sometimes it even makes them heroes."
"Exactly," Officer Williams agreed softly. He was thinking of Marcus Lewis, eldest of six children, and an honors student from a neighborhood where being smart meant not getting caught. He could have been the first in his family with a college education; the University of South Carolina had offered a scholarship. Instead he'd taken a lawman's job and worked the street because it challenged him. He'd studied martial arts for the same reasons; physically challenging himself to excel. It was what had prompted Alex's late partner to compete whenever he could. Competition had driven him to train and extend himself; it had inspired him to be his best. And somewhere in the skies over Pittsburgh, with a handful of other civilians, it had driven him to become a hero. Alex Williams needed to change the subject. "So do you know where Serena and Gabriella have been all this time?"
"Gabriella said they were in Virginia. Teaching at a big Marine base," Danielle reported. "It was just a temporary job…four weeks. Somehow I can't imagine them teaching recruits. I guess it would be like pearls before swine. Besides, the Marines have their own instructors. I'm surprised they didn't tell anyone where they were going or when they'd be back."
Alex Williams managed not to give away his shock at this bit of news. The big Marine base in Virginia was almost certainly Quantico, very near where Serena had been involved in the hostage situation only days before the women's disappearance. Had she attracted the attention of the Corps and wound up with an invitation to teach? Somehow it didn't ring true for him. The incident at the bank had ended with the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team storming the building, yet none of the terrorists had died of gunshot wounds. He knew that the FBI had an academy in Quantico, on the grounds of the Marine base. He had to wonder.
"Danielle, I don't suppose you've heard about this, but on the same day you met Gabriella in San Francisco, her partner was taken hostage by terrorists at a bank in Quantico, Virginia, practically on the Marine base…."
"That's horrible," the CWO cut in with a gasp, "she barely mentioned it."
"She and the others were freed by the Hostage Rescue Team," Alex continued, "an elite FBI assault unit. No civilians were injured. What's strange to me is that none of the three terrorists died of gunshot wounds. One of them died of brain damage and suffocation…at least that's what the papers said."
"Sounds like he was strangled or beaten to death. Oh my god! You think she…."
"I don't know," he said quickly, "the newspaper reports were oddly sketchy; not nearly the amount of detail I'd have expected, you know, considering…terrorists, a biological weapon, the proximity of a military target, and only two days after the Pentagon and the World Trade Center."
"You're right, it should have been national news. I've heard nothing about it in the media. Gabriella only referred to it as a 'bank job'. I'd thought, botched robbery attempt. Come to think of it, she didn't really say who her students were or how they ended up teaching them. I just assumed, Marine base, so…Marines."
"That's what I would have thought too. But now," he paused a moment thinking, then continued, "now I'm thinking that they somehow wound up teaching the FBI team."
"Teaching the Hostage Rescue Team? Okay. You said they're an elite assault unit. I ran across a team of SEALs before a mission several years ago. I'm a warrant officer, an encryption technician," Danielle explained. "I'd been doing upgrades on their COM link. The SEALs are the Navy's elite unit, exceptional covert assaulters. It's not only how to kill. It's how to kill quickly and silently and then move on to the next. It takes a special mindset; a warrior's mindset. I wouldn't call their unarmed fighting methods martial arts like we know it. I know Gabriella is an outstanding fighter, but if the Hostage Rescue Team is like the SEALS, they wouldn't spend their time learning a traditional art."
Alexander Williams would have agreed, but he'd seen the soulmates' faces as they'd fought. He had no doubts that they could match the killing efficiency or cold necessity of an elite unit. Given his suspicions, they'd been doing just that for a very long time. He wasn't ready to share those thoughts with anyone yet. Instead he simply said, "They're warriors with the mindset and abilities to match. If they're teaching the HRT, then I have no doubts that those FBI guys will learn a thing or two."
Danielle looked into her empty coffee mug while digesting his words. She recalled that he'd claimed they were deadly, both armed and unarmed, and that their eyes were terrifying. With a sigh, she realized that she had a lot to think about, and a lot to learn. It was becoming way more interesting than she'd anticipated when she'd decided to leave San Diego to learn some new fighting techniques. A glance at the diner's wall clock showed her that a half-hour had passed. Alex seemed to sense a breaking point in their conversation as well. He dug a couple bills out of his pocket and laid them on the table.
"Angie, time to give me back my hat unless you want me to arrest you for theft," he jokingly called out to the waitress. The girl popped out of the kitchen, knocking over a stack of canned soups. She giggled and bounced across the floor to him, where she carefully set his hat on his head, smoothed the front of his uniform shirt, and pecked a kiss on his cheek.
"So yeah," she said, "come on back soon, 'kay, Officer Alex? Say hi to Karen for me, and please be safe, oooo-kay?"
"Will do, sweetheart," Alex told her with a smile as he got up. Danielle followed him out of the booth, smiling at the friendly waitress as she passed her. "Say hi to Lynn for me, and let me know when she and Allan are playing again," he added, as he and Danielle pushed their way out of the door and back onto the sidewalk.
"Well, I guess I'll be seeing you in class, Alex," Danielle said when they were alone. "I'm sure Gabriella or Serena will call the students when they're ready to resume teaching."
"I'll be looking forward to that and I'm sure that you'll find it very interesting…very inspiring," he replied. "It's been a real treat meeting you and being able to chat like this. I think this conversation's given us both some things to think about." He drew a business card and a pen from a shirt pocket, scribbled an extra number under the station number, and handed it to her. "I know you're new here, so if you need anything, don't hesitate to call the police," he grinned. "The second number is our home number. My wife's name is Karen…she studies at the school too. I'll let her know we've got a new fellow student who might call."
Danielle accepted the card gladly, happy to have gotten such a warm welcome from a fellow student and local police officer. Being career military, she'd moved around a lot and always had to develop new friendships and contacts. She felt that she was off to a good start in Columbia.
"Thanks, Alex. I'll be looking forward to seeing you again and meeting your wife," she said, before echoing the waitress' sentiments, "you be careful out here, okay?"
"Always," he told her. They shook hands and then went their separate ways, the CWO heading back to the Pappas house, Officer Williams to continue his foot patrol.
When Danielle Lefferts returned to the Pappas house she went straight to the kitchen. There she poured herself a tall glass of lemonade from the antique glass pitcher that had once graced a room in Manhattan's Pennsylvania Hotel. The incorrigible Janice had taken a liking to it and had jammed it into her battered suitcase when Melinda had turned her back for a moment to fold a skirt into her wardrobe. Dr. Covington had wanted a souvenir of their visit to New York City; of the ground shaking paper they'd presented at the American Museum of Natural History, and a night of dancing, the music provided by Benny Goodman's Big Band. The pitcher had taken up permanent residence in a succession of refrigerators and Dora had kept it filled right up to the end. Gabrielle had been the one she'd recounted the story to, and the cloned Amazon Bard had continued the tradition. She even used Dora's recipe.
With her glass of lemonade sweating in her hand, the CWO made her way to the study. The room held the computers where she could check her email. It was definitely an odd room. She'd stood stock still the first time she'd seen it, visually exploring the space before setting foot inside. It looked to her like the inside of a campaign tent from some long bygone era, maybe Greek or Roman. In light of Alex Williams' comment about the teachers reminding him of ancient warriors, she decided that it seemed to be in character.
Now she looked at it again. The drapery of parachute cloth hiding the walls, the bookcases filled with a bizarre mismatch of scholarly tomes, detective novels, and romance pulp. Two desks sat side by side, one a disaster, the other military regulation neat. She'd looked at the artifacts in the display case on her first visit to the room, and then examined the scrolls in their glass-fronted cases. Ancient and probably authentic. No doubt about it. A few of the characters reminded her of the Greek used in math, (pi, alpha, delta, and theta), though she didn't know even the modern version of the language.
And then there were the weapons all over the walls. It was a collection that she'd have expected to find in the bedroom of an adolescent heavy metal fan, or maybe a white supremacist with fantasies of a Viking ancestry. She had looked at the blades carefully. There were no modern stainless steel copies or any of the cheap stuff from mail order catalogs. Like the scrolls, she didn't doubt their authenticity. These weapons showed their age, many bearing dings, pitting, and oxidation. Some of the grips were ragged or missing. None had felt the caress of a sharpening stone in a long, long time.
Walking around the desks to take a seat at the neater of the two, Danielle glanced at the three hard-shell cases sitting against the wall. She'd seen them the first time she'd sat down here, but hadn't touched them out of respect for her hostess' privacy. They looked like the type of cases a serious musician stored a treasured instrument in; heavy hardware, piano hinges running the full length of the seams, sturdy clasps and handles, no locks, though. The longest was perhaps just shy of four feet long, but only about eight inches wide and five inches thick. The smallest was about sixteen inches square and maybe three inches thick. The last was about two and a half feet long by fourteen inches wide and the same five inches thick as the largest one. They teased her curiosity. She looked them over again and shook her head, then sat down and turned on the computer.
It was a modern Dell, a Pentium 4 machine that appeared to be loaded. The shared peripherals were shelved on a side table behind the desks and had been cabled to both processors the women used. It was an integrated system and had probably cost a bundle. Danielle Lefferts booted up the machine she'd chosen and waited to access the ISP.
After Windows XP had loaded, a background screen appeared. The image was of Julius Caesar with a target superimposed over his face. Several bullet holes appeared marking various facial features. Accompanying the graphic was a sound file of a female voice.
"Shouldn't you be looking for a shallow grave somewhere?" It asked derisively.
That had startled her the first time she'd used the computer. Somehow it had also seemed a bit immature. What could they possibly have against Caesar? The guy had been dead for a couple millennia. Nowadays, his name had been appropriated for a pizza chain and a salad. Anyway, it was pretty loud this time, and the CWO reached to turn down the volume on the speakers.
Finally Danielle logged onto the armed services network, chose her branch of service, and typed in her Naval Service ID number and password. She saw that she had three new emails. The first was from her coach, just asking if she'd arrived safely and met her new teachers. She typed a quick response to let her know she'd reached Columbia without incident but hadn't met Gabriella or Serena yet.
The second email was from her teammate, Lt. Janine Bradshaw. The woman had been knocked out by Gabriella in the quarterfinals and still held a grudge a month later. Her email was little more than a blatant attempt to undermine the CWO's opinion of the small blonde and dig for juicy gossip about the school. She deleted it with a groan after reading it. Bradshaw was a windbag in her opinion, and they'd never really seen eye to eye. Besides that, she was Corps, and there was a "subtle" rivalry between the Navy and the Marines. It would only have been worse if Janine had been Army.
The last email was from her father. She'd recognized the header and saved it for last. Navy Captain Arnold Lefferts had passed his 30 in 1991, during the Desert Shield operations. At 61, he held a rank equivalent to an Army Colonel, and the position of Deputy Director, ONI-2, (the Directorate of Intelligence), within the Office of Naval Intelligence. From his office in Suitland, Maryland, he supervised the analysis of information supplied by the collection activities of ONI-6.
Capt. Lefferts' career in Naval Intelligence had begun at the age of 21, after Annapolis and before the Viet Nam conflict had really heated up, back in the days of the Defense Intelligence Agency. He'd survived the seemingly endless restructurings of the 60s, 70s, 80s, and 90s, and had dealt with the confusing redundancy and duplication of responsibilities that had proceeded the current organization. Trust the impetus of budget cuts to have streamlined the service in ways that operational necessities never could, he'd confided to her. After a forty-year career he had no plans to retire. He enjoyed his work and had developed a wide circle of friends and acquaintances in the intelligence community.
He'd married at 22, raised a family of two sons with a daughter in between, and now lived comfortably with his wife of 39 years, in Montgomery County, Maryland. He kept in touch with his offspring by computer, for advances in technology had always been a central point of interest to him, as well as a tool of his trade. Somehow in his busy day, he managed to write the most entertaining letters.
Danielle had been looking forward to them since she'd enlisted, directly following her graduation from high school. Joining the Navy had never been a question for her; at 36, somewhere deep inside her lived the little girl who still wanted to be just like her dad; just like her first hero. Now, as a Chief Warrant Officer 3, she worked with the esoteric equipment that encrypted naval communications, rendering the words of SEAL teams and warships unintelligible to hostile listeners. That same equipment allowed sensitive information to safely reach her father's analysts, from a network of human and electronic sources all over the world. Though more mundane in nature, less severe measures had allowed his words to reach her wherever she'd gone in the service of her country. She clicked the icon to open his email.
The captain offered his congratulations on her new posting and praised her willingness to learn from the woman she'd lost the tournament to. If you decide to hold a grudge, never let it show until the moment you act to redress its cause, he offered, by way of tactical advice. The continuation was astonishingly timely. Sounds like this Gabriella Covington is worth learning from, based on what you've told me. In fact, a blurb bearing her name crossed my desk recently. Do you remember Col. Ames, the Commander of Marine Corps Intelligence Activity, (MCIA)? Well, as you may know, his group functions to interface the data base here with the needs at Quantico. To make a long story short, your teachers have been ensconced in the FBI compound there for the last month, training the HRT. Apparently, they came to the Feebs' attention when Serena Pappas foiled a terrorist situation prior to an HRT assault. Came out of nowhere and really kicked their butts, (though the details are classified). Reminds me of that incident in the Keys a few years back. Hope you enjoy your experiences with these new teachers of yours…they sound…interesting. Just thought you'd like to know Dad's keeping an eye open for his best girl (wink).
A blurb had crossed his desk? Yeah, I'll bet, the CWO thought with a grin, after being requested and researched and a few favors called in. Dad's probably had his ears open ever since I mentioned losing that match and wanting to study with the winner. There's not much that happens in the military that he can't find out about nowadays, and it doesn't hurt to have him looking over my shoulder. Well, it seems like Alex Williams' hunches were right on target…smart guy. Yes, this will certainly be interesting.
She typed a thank you note to her father, and included a quick retelling of her meeting with Alex that afternoon. She included the policeman's speculations that he'd confirmed. On rereading the text before sending it, she noticed that her anticipation and excitement were pretty obvious. She'd used a few comparatives, a superlative, and longer sentences than usual. She clicked "Send" without revising. Her dad would know anyway.
Having finished with the emails, Danielle shut down the computer. This time she was prepared for the sound file of the same woman's voice.
"I said I am sick of you…now get lost!"
The screen went blank. The drives clicked and whirred and then fell silent. The CWO took a long drink from her lemonade. She thought about another of her father's comments.
The incident in the Florida Keys had been a media circus. A terrorist plot had resulted in the detonation of Soviet MIRV warhead on a deserted island, with the threat of a second blast in Miami. The plot had been dramatically foiled by a small team of covert government operatives. Like Serena Pappas, they had come out of nowhere. To this day, their identities, and the identity of their agency, had never been revealed. Even her father had been unable to find out.
When she turned around in the swivel chair, the first things her eyes fell upon were the three hard shell cases.
Her dad's report had pretty much confirmed the suspicions that her teachers were some kind of warriors. Maybe they kept firearms in their home, as well as a collection of ancient blades. While on active duty, she'd gotten at least a passing introduction to most of the modern weapons carried by the troops. She found herself curious about what kind of arms her teachers would favor. Her best guess was a Colt M-4 carbine, a Heckler & Koch MP5, and a pair of sidearms, probably Glock or Baretta. That could account for the lengths of the three cases. With a guilty chuckle, she knelt and laid the largest case flat on the floor. She flipped up the three clasps that secured the lid and lifted it open.
What she found inside was a broadsword, polished and oiled and honed. It was a cut and thrust type, with a double-edged leaf shaped blade about two and a half feet long. The overall length was close to three feet. The crossguard and large mushroom shaped butt cap were made of brass, while the grip was wrapped in leather thong. Lifting it from the velvet lined interior, she was initially surprised at the weight. She'd expected something over 4 lbs., but with its distal taper and central spine, the weapon weighed closer to 2¼ lbs. Accompanying it was a set of daggers, and behind a hinged divider were the matching sheaths. The CWO set it back in its case and closed the lid.
She went to the next smaller case, doubting now that it held a submachine gun. Sure enough, inside were a pair of short swords of a design similar to one of the ancient swords she'd seen on the wall. The wide blades were twenty inches, or about three hands long, oxided black, double-edged with straight sides, and they came to wicked points. The guards were angled forward and formed of steel. Like the larger broadsword, the grips were wrapped in leather thongs. Each butt cap was conical and also came to a point. But the most unusual feature was certainly the blades. Distally tapered, each had a series of three narrow windows cut out of the central spine. The two largest windows, closest to the handgrip on each sword, were truncated triangles, their apexes cut short, while the one furthest from the grip was a complete triangle. About ⅝ inch of steel had been left to bear the sharpened edges. Danielle lifted one and again she was amazed by the lightness. Probably about a pound and a half, she guessed. She carefully replaced the sword and closed the case.
Now she set out the third case, the square one that she'd originally thought would hold handguns. Without any preconceived expectations, she opened it. Inside she found a ring-shaped weapon that was wholly unfamiliar. About a foot in diameter, with a continuous sharpened edge at the rim, the weapon's central grip crossed the open space within the blade in a sinuous S-curve. The blade area was certainly steel, but the mirror polished metal displayed an odd bluish cast. Inside the sharpened ring was a backing ring that appeared to be forged from the same lightly textured bronze as the S-shaped handle. This was interesting. She got to her feet and laid the weapon on the desk so that she could look at it more closely under a lamp.
What she thought she saw was impossible, metallurgically speaking. The interface between the bronze and the steel wasn't sharply defined. In fact, it appeared to contain an area where the two metals met and blended. Though she wasn't 100% sure, Danielle believed that this was impossible. While bronze could be used to join ferrous metals, as when pieces of steel were brazed together, such a joint was always an overlay of bronze atop the steel. She knew of no alloy of iron, copper, and tin. Holding the ring by its central handle felt awkward too. She couldn't imagine how such a weapon was used. Another mystery. She returned it to its case and set it back on the floor.
Danielle drained her glass of lemonade and stood up to walk back out to the parlor. She thought she'd catch the evening news on the large screen TV set while waiting for her dinner to heat up. (Most likely several Spleen Cuisine entrees reluctantly dragged from the freezer). On her way to the door of the study, her eye fell on the ancient sword that resembled the pair in the case. An examination showed that it was definitely similar, though the workmanship was cruder and the blade wasn't ventilated. A small identification tag was affixed to the wall under the sword, stating the object's provenance, as it would have been done in a museum exhibit.
Greek Amazon Archer's Short Sword
c. 250 BC - 50 AD
(Recovered by Profs. J. Covington & M. Pappas, 18-9-1947)
Somehow, in a room made up to look like a campaign tent from the Roman Empire, seeing a sign attributing a relic sword to the mythical Amazon Nation didn't surprise her in the least. The updated versions she'd seen in the hard shall case, and the warrior attitudes of her new teachers all began to make a sad kind of sense to Danielle Lefferts. Maybe it was a complex shared delusion that the two women engaged in. Maybe it had to do with being the descendants of two famous antiquities professors; a kind of obsessive compensatory gesture to offset some perceived intellectual inadequacy or something of that ilk. What a creative solution to the stress of an identity crises, she mused. Danielle wished that she'd studied psychology. It would be…interesting.
Later that evening, after consuming the two uninspired Salisbury Steaks, with slushed potatoes, brownish gray-vee, and carrot offal, CWO Lefferts relaxed on the parlor sofa. It was Friday night. She pointed the remote control at the large screen TV and surfed channels simply because she could. (The cable box provided 348 channels, half of them unwatchable infomercials or laughably amateur porn). She finally clicked onto the Oxygen Channel and almost dropped her glass from the shock of what she saw.
It was Gabriella, in a revealing quasi barbarian babe outfit, fighting off leather clad soldiers inside a decrepit building. They were swinging at her with swords and she was defending with a pair of sai. Then there was the tall brunette in the rust colored sack dress. Danielle reviewed Alex Williams' description of Serena Pappas. Yup. It was her alright, and she expected that meeting her tomorrow would only confirm it. Serena was holding up a pair of ring bladed weapons, and then the special effects started. After a moment there was a flash and she was holding the very weapon Danielle had discovered in the square case. A ridiculous fight scene ensued. The CWO watched with rapt attention. Finally, the credits rolled. Xena Warrior Princess…"get your free Xena and Hercules 64-page collector's catalog…". She shut off the TV. It was 10 pm. She wondered about her chances of getting a late flight back to San Diego and pretending this had never happened. Her teachers were crazy, living out roles from a TV show.
October 14, 2001 - Columbia, South Carolina
"Home at last," the cloned warrior happily sighed as she guided their black 1969 Z-28 Camaro* into the driveway. With a grin, she chirped the wide rear tires crossing the sidewalk to announce their arrival. After parking under the honeysuckle-covered trellis along the side of the house, she shut off the throaty rumble of the 302 engine.
(*Though some aficionados favor the 1970½ model Z-28, which featured the debut of the 350 cid V-8, purists swear that the 67-69 Z-28s were finer cars. During those years, the vehicle featured a 302 cid engine, which could be ordered with dual 4-barrel Holley racing carburetors, 11 to 1 compression pistons, a Super Stock camshaft, and factory headers. The 302 was rated at a conservative 290 hp, but on a dynamometer, it would record closer to 390 hp. There was simply something magical about the internal geometry, the combination of bore and stroke, that made for an awesome combination. What the later 350 engine had in its favor was a stronger set of main caps to hold the crankshaft. The car Xena had acquired was a black 1969 Z-28, which had been modified with a roll cage, aluminum Edelbrock tunnel-ram manifold, Mallory magneto, ATI torque converter with Turbohydramatic transmission, and Crower Pro-Stock roller cam, among other things. In a legal drag race, the car could reach 145 mph in something just below 10 seconds, and do it from a standing start, within a quarter mile. It got 4 mpg around town, but the cloned warrior didn't really drive it very much or very far.) ~Editor
"Looks like your friend has settled in," she told the cloned bard, her powers of observation having revealed the open windows while staring around the hood scoop as they'd driven up. Xena scanned the empty house next door and gave their own house a more thorough examination from the driveway. "Hope she got to air out the school too."
"Danielle mentioned having done that yesterday, Xena," Gabrielle answered as she popped open her door, "and she ran into Alex on the street. Seems he was worried about us." She reached into the back seat for her bags.
"I guess I should have told them somethin'," Xena muttered guiltily, "I'm just not used to bein' responsible to people like that. We always used to travel and the folks who knew us didn't worry if we went off for a few weeks."
"Well, we just disappeared for a month, so I guess we're staying in character," the blonde joked, shouldering her bags.
She watched Xena smile in agreement before hauling out her duffel bag and the bucket of Kentucky fried chicken they'd picked up. The warrior set the bag with the side orders on top of the bucket and walked towards the kitchen door doing a balancing act with their dinner. "Can ya get the door?"
Before Gabrielle could retrieve her key, the door swung open and Danielle Lefferts stepped out. She tried to keep her eyes from bugging out. Having seen that TV show a couple nights before, now all she could think of when she saw her two hostesses were those characters. Gabriella was a dead ringer for the Gabrielle on TV. Serena looked like a clone of Xena in modern dress. It hadn't been an illusion. She gulped…they were crazy and living out their uber roles. She covered her shock by displaying a wide smile.
"Hiya, Danielle," Gabrielle greeted. "This is Serena Pappas," she continued, indicating her partner with a gesture of her eyebrows. She completed the informal introduction, saying, "Serena, meet Danielle Lefferts."
"Glad to finally meet you, Serena," the CWO said, "and it's good to see you again, Gabriella." She took in the situation and picked the bag of fries and rolls off the top of the bucket Xena was carrying, sneaking a peek inside.
Xena gave the stranger a quick appraisal; she seemed nervous but was hiding it respectably. Trying not to look unfriendly, she said, "pleased to meet ya, Danielle, hope ya like fried chicken."
"Extra crispy?" The shorthaired brunette asked hopefully. "I've gotten sick to death of those Mean Cuisine entrees."
"You've been eatin' those?" Both soulmates simultaneously asked in horror.
"Well yeah," Danielle responded, looking nervously back and forth between the two women, "they looked okay to me, at least as okay as they can get. I'll be glad to replace them if you want, once I find out where to shop around here."
The soulmates looked at each other and burst out laughing.
"What?" The CWO asked, unnerved by their behavior. After all, they were insane.
"Those Scream Cuisine things have been in there since before Janice passed away. Dora used to eat them when she thought no one was looking, hoping to regain her girlish figure, I guess. They've been around well over a year now, though it probably hasn't hurt them much," Gabrielle confessed with a look of distaste.
"Nothing short of naphtha incendiaries could hurt them," Xena quipped.
It was twilight, and from the street came the sound of a car horn honking, drawing their attention. The three women looked down the driveway. A light blue 4-door sedan had stopped in the pool of warm light from a street lamp, the beam's glow revealing the city dust hazing the finish. The driver's side window rolled down, and from inside a dark hand in a long sleeved shirt reached out to wave a greeting. The driver leaned his head out the window, smiling with relief.
"Good to see you back home safely, ladies," Alexander Williams called, "I've been worried about you."
"Alex," Gabrielle answered, waving back, "sorry to leave like that. We'll explain later." She grimaced at the words, knowing how much she'd hated hearing them herself. "Are you ready to resume classes on Tuesday night?"
"More than ready, Gabriella. We're all looking forward to it. I ran into Danielle while I was on patrol Friday and she let me know you were coming back. I mentioned it to the other students and they can't wait. We'll see you Tuesday…give my regards to the Colonel."
They exchanged another round of waves and then he drove off down the street. The women went into the kitchen to have their fried chicken dinner with Colonel Sanders.
"I hope you don't mind my mentioning to him that you were coming back today," Danielle said while gnawing on a chicken tibia, "he seemed so relieved to hear about you. Didn't know he be stalking you though; he seemed like a nice enough guy."
"He is, Danielle," Gabrielle said seriously, "but he lost his patrol partner, on September 11, and I guess he was really unsettled about having us disappear like that. We really should have said something to all of the students."
To Danielle's quizzical glance, Xena added, "Officer Marcus Lewis was his partner and another of our students. He was on the plane that went down outside Pittsburgh. In fact, he was on his way to the same tournament where you met Gabriella."
"I only went there to compete in his memory," Gabrielle said softly, "took the trophy to his mother the day after I got back and we had a good cry over it all. I wanted her to have it. I told her that he'd made outstanding progress and I thought he'd had a good chance of winning it himself if fate hadn't struck him down. Such a sweet lady…."
October 14, 2001 - 9th St. & Pennsylvania Ave., NW Washington, DC
"So, what can you tell me, Special Agent Phillips?"
"Well, sir, according to the OTU, the training program was extraordinary. The HRT operators are very excited by what they saw and learned. They've been spending hours in voluntary practice, trying to master the techniques those two demonstrated."
"What about additional background?"
"As reported before, we have personal histories back to late June of 2000, but no details prior to that. At that time, they appeared in Columbia, SC. Their contact was a Dr. Janice Covington, now deceased. We've found that the doctor and her associate, a Dr. Melinda Pappas, did classified work for the United States during the Second World War. We also know that Dr. Covington had contacts in organized crime. When we investigated Serena Pappas, following the "incident" in Quantico, we assumed that she was a deep-cover operative affiliated with an unidentified federal agency. At present, it's still our best guess, but we do have an alternate scenario. That she and her partner, Gabriella Covington, are living under assumed identities provided by criminal elements."
"Do you have any solid projections of the relative likelihood of those scenarios, Special Agent DeMarco?"
"Not at present, sir, no."
"I see. Well, I can't authorize a high priority for this matter, since all of these subjects' known actions have been of benefit to this country and fall within the law. Further, if your initial scenario is confirmed, then our attention could jeopardize their operations. Our official policy is to avoid interdepartmental conflict if possible. Keep me informed if anything turns up. I think that's all then, gentlemen."
"Yes, Deputy Director."
When the agents had left, the Deputy Director called in an older agent for his opinion. The man moved well though his brown hair was shot with gray and his face bore over six decades of wrinkles. The slight limp from an old bullet wound was barely noticeable unless he was tired. He wore an impeccable dark business suit like the hundreds of other government agents within the building. A visitor's badge identified him as a Justice Department employee.
"Well, Albert, you heard it. What do you think?"
"Aside from Phillips and DeMarco being mediocre and uninspired? Those women are definitely living under assumed identities. A call late last June to a Mr. Benito Fiori was traced back to Dr. Janice Covington. Fiori, remember him? The one that got away? He's retired now, living in Miami. Back in the 40s, 50s, and early 60s, "Benny Flowers" ran the Guissipi-Tito Family in New York and Catania. His son, Giovanni, runs things out of Atlanta now. Well, just five minutes after getting the call from Covington, Benny called his son. One of the family's rackets is forged documents; IDs, passports, social security cards, even phony stock and bond certificates, or so Treasury claims. First rate work too, according to the Secret Service. I think Covington got her old pal to legitimize her associates' documentation. Full package. Still doesn't tell us who they really are or what they're doing. After that report from the OTU, I think it's worth finding out."
"Any suspicions, Agent Gibson?"
"Deputy Director, do you remember the incident in the Florida Keys three years ago?"
"Of course. That incident has eaten at me ever since. I went to the Director…the Director of the FBI, damn it, and I asked him who had been assigned. Do you know what he told me? He said, 'I don't know, I don't want to know, and neither do you. I asked, and I was told to put it out of my mind or else.' The Old Man was actually scared."
"Exactly. This is a group that no one, not even the President, is willing to acknowledge. Their operatives are the best and they enjoy unlimited resources. They have complete deniability. They are invisible. I think their work's been attributed to every agency in existence. Now, just maybe, this incident at the Quantico bank has revealed a pair of their operatives. We should find out what we can. I don't think the window of opportunity will stay open for long."
"I can't leave this to any of my agents, Al. Will you look into it?"
"Deputy Director, I thought you'd never ask."
On his way out of the J. Edgar Hoover Building, Albert Gibson detached the Justice Dept. ID badge from his suit jacket and stashed it in a pocket. It was one of many he'd carried over the course of his career. He walked the two blocks to 10th St., between E St. and F, without a trace of a limp, and entered the Lincoln House Restaurant. The unpretentious sit-down was across the street from Ford's Theater, and just a few doors south of the house where the beloved President had died. Al didn't stop at the cashier's counter but moved quickly to the stairway leading to the downstairs dining area. After a quick search he found the booth near the back that held his two teammates. He slipped off his jacket and took a seat.
"Did you order me the roast chicken?" He asked the slender middle-eastern man seated next to him.
"I was going to, but Harry ordered you a salad instead," Faisil told him, suppressing a smile.
"You're an asshole," Albert half-heartedly accused the solidly built agent across the booth, "you know how much I love the chicken here, and Spencer's picking up the tab."
"A guy your age shouldn't be eating such greasy stuff, Gib" Harry Tasker told him with his Euro accent and a straight face. "The salad's good. I told them to hold the dressing."
"My age, shit," Al spat in indignation. "I'm going to the can."
He got back to his feet, thoroughly pissed off with his teammates, and headed for the men's restroom. On the way, he passed a waitress with three plates of roast chicken on her tray. Lucky bastards, he thought, wishing the office workers receiving the food a case of salmonella with their lunch.
In the men's room, Albert Gibson took a paper toilet seat protector from a dispenser in a stall and placed it over his head, settling it around his neck to protect his shirt. He then washed the makeup off his face, peeled away the thin layer of latex that had created the wrinkles, and wet combed the dry pigment out of his hair. The hot air hand dryer dried his scalp afterwards. In less than five minutes he shed over two decades.
"Salad, no dressing," he muttered in disgust as he shoved his way through the door and back into the dining area. He walked with purpose towards the booth. The same waitress he'd passed on his way to the men's room was just leaving with an empty tray. She gave him a smile that he returned out of habit. In the booth, Faisil and Harry were eating with gusto. A plate of roast chicken was waiting for him. "Assholes," he muttered as he sat down.
Later, after finishing the food, the three agents discussed Albert's morning meeting.
"Well, we got the approval," Al told them, laying the Justice Dept. ID badge on the table, "and the DepD still thinks I'm working for him. Having his blessing will keep the FBI off our backs. I left him with the same suspicions he's always had, so nothing's really changed."
"Very good," Harry told him, "we've met with the FBI, Justice, the DEA, the Secret Service, CIA, ONI, and the BATF. They each think they've got someone on the case while their rivals don't, so they won't be talking to each other either." He couldn't suppress a smile and his teammates shared it. Divide and conquer, he thought, as he added the other ID badges to the pile on the table. For a moment he looked worried as he eyed them. "How are we going to keep these IDs straight?"
"Simple is best," Al told him happily, "I've been working alphabetically. I met with the BATF using the CIA ID. When I went to the CIA, I used the DEA ID. So on and so on."
"Good thinking," Harry praised, rolling his eyes.
"So what do you think about our targets?" Faisil asked. He looked back and forth between the two more senior agents.
"Your show, Harry," Al deferred grumpily, sweeping the pile of badges into an attaché case, "I just run the van."
"We're the only ones who know for sure who they don't work for. The rest think they're someone else's agents and an outside presence could blow their cover, so they'll stay away. The few who don't believe that think we're looking into them on their behalf. I'd say that gives up free rein to follow our own program."
"So we're going to Columbia?"
"Helen and I are taking Dana and 'moving' into their neighborhood. You and Faisil are in the van doing surveillance and support." Harry Tasker stood up and slipped on his jacket, giving his teammates a smile. "Don't forget the receipt or Spencer won't approve the expense."
"Shit," Al griped, as Faisil sighed in resignation, "eighteen years and I'm still in the van."
"Sorry," Harry apologized softly as he left.
October 16, 2001 - Columbia, South Carolina
Being an early riser, Xena was already awake when the moving van had arrived at 7:30 am. She was seated in the kitchen, soaking up the last of an egg yolk with her buttered toast and listening to the weather report on the radio. Blatant hubris, she thought derisively, wondering what would possess people to believe the predictions, arrogantly presented as certainties, for four or five days ahead. It would serve them right to be struck down by a thunderbolt. She had noticed that her students seemed to regard the predictions with a cynical attitude, especially when they proved false. She herself had seldom tried to guess the weather more than a day or two ahead, and only then in the most general terms, based on past experience of the locality and the current signs…stuff that any farmer or sailor would have known. Xena had always secretly seen the whims of the weather as the most direct proof for the meddling of gods that she hadn't met. In the modern world, weather forecasting was obviously a profitable con game combined with soothsaying…in other words, science.
When the big truck pulled up, rattling the windows and sending the birds into flight, Danielle had been in the bathtub and Gabrielle had still been fast asleep. The cloned warrior had taken her glass of Coke and stepped out of the kitchen door to assess the situation. She also spared a quick glance around the yard for trespassers. She still didn't really know her neighbors.
The moving van had stopped in front of the empty house next door, and a crew of men in coveralls was climbing out. Slaves most likely, the warrior guessed. As she watched, they dragged a ramp out from under the back doors of the trailer and opened another pair of doors on the side. The interior of the truck was stacked to the roof with boxes and furniture. Xena eyed it with interest. Obviously someone's had a good run of plundering, she thought as she registered movement above her, what a lot of loot.
Cloned Xena turned to look back at her house and saw Danielle Lefferts leaning out of the bathroom window wearing a bathrobe, her hair still wet and spiky. She was staring at the moving van with rapidly diminishing interest. She looked down, saw Xena, and waved.
"Looks like you're finally getting next door neighbors," she called out, announcing the obvious.
"That or well-organized squatters," Xena yelled back, remembering her conversation with Janice's lawyer. Danielle seemed to think the comment funny, for she chortled as she withdrew back inside through the window.
A discordant series of crashes brought Xena's attention back to the truck. She narrowed her eyes in a critical glare. The slave gang was tossing several wheeled dollies and a steel hand truck onto the pavement, as if avenging their own early start by trying to wake the rest of the neighborhood. Their purposeful lack of consideration and their sullen bearing confirmed what she'd suspected earlier. They were definitely slaves; probably foreigners captured in the last war, since she'd learned that slavery among Americans had been abolished over a hundred years ago. Sure enough, she overheard them conversing, speaking in Russian. Xena slugged down the rest of her Coke and headed back inside, shaking her head. If she'd owned them in her old warlord days, their behavior would have earned them a few lashes.
Gabrielle had slept through the arrival of the moving van. She'd always had difficulty waking up*, and the soulmates had jokingly commented on that characteristic and her appetite as being the only truthful elements of the TV show. Both traits had become more pronounced in the 21st century, the results of soft mattresses and abundant victuals.
(*Gabrielle had in fact been a narcoleptic child. She'd actually fallen asleep while swimming, chopping vegetables, and even once while riding her pony, only awakening hours later, and only then because of a downpour. She'd been soaked to the skin, alone, lost, hungry, and certain that she'd be captured by slavers. The pony had taken the liberty of walking in circles after spending a couple candlemarks foraging on the outskirts of Potidaea. During all that time they had strayed scarcely a league. When the rain had begun, the pony had turned around and started slowly making its way home. All during her childhood, only the presence of a meal in front of her could reliably stave off her "symptoms". The narcolepsy had abated sometime in her early teens, probably due to hormonal changes in her system, though her parents had insisted that it was the work of the gods. As if in proof of this, Hypnos and Morpheus had continued to bless her with vivid dreams and an affinity for sleep. Initially, Xena had found it irritating. She'd always been fine on five to six hours of sleep, while Gabrielle had required nearly eight to function.) ~Editor
At about 9:30, Gabrielle had stretched, yawned, and slipped out of bed to begin her morning ablutions. It wasn't long before she became aware of the moving van, having spotted it from the bathroom window. In fact, she was the first to see the new neighbors. The Tasker family had pulled up in front of the truck in their vehicles at around 10:15 am; Dana in her mother's aging red Honda, Helen in a newer white Chrysler, and Harry on a large motorcycle. Sitting at the kitchen table, halfway through her breakfast, Gabrielle had looked up at the sound of the bike and spewed a mouthful of French Toast across her plate. Her eyes were as large as drachmas.
"S'reeeeeena!" Followed by a crash.
The cloned warrior had charged into the kitchen pell mell, with Danielle Lefferts on her heels. The cloned bard was petrified in shock, her overturned chair lying on the floor behind her. She was standing with an arm extended, pointing out the window as if she'd seen a harpy. Xena followed her outstretched finger. There at the curb was the large two-wheeled screamer the soulmates had encountered in the drainage canal in City of Industry, California, so shortly after escaping from the junkyard. They'd been forced to dive out of its way. Just dismounting from it was the same muscular leather clad man that they'd momentarily mistaken for Ares. He pulled the helmet off his head and set it on the handlebars.
Xena was out the kitchen door in a flash. She cleared the parked Camaro, vaulted the hedge at the property line, and charged towards him across the lawn.
Harry noticed rapid movement from the neighboring house and watched her come. She moves pretty fast, he thought, good conditioning. Helen and Dana noticed the direction of his gaze and turned to watch her too. Are they having an emergency next door, or is this the first of some obsessed welcoming committee, Helen wondered, perhaps southern hospitality run amok? She's looks pissed off…probably doesn't like Dad's bike, Dana thought, well, tough shit.
"I've seen you before," Xena accused, as she skidded to a halt in front of the family, "and ya nearly ran me and my partner down on that thing." She jabbed a finger towards the Harley. "Where in Tartarus did ya learn to drive anyway, and when did ya move here from California?"
"Good morning. No you haven't, no I didn't, in Austria, and I've never lived there," Harry said with distaste. He didn't care for California. "Anything else?"
That brought her tirade to a stop. He'd answered her the way she usually answered multiple queries and she had to think of her next question. To cover the lapse, she said, "Good morning. Your slaves have been kinda noisy."
"Sorry," Harry muttered, while Helen rolled her eyes and Dana giggled. Slaves? They're actually Russian immigrants. He asked, "Someone who looked like me tried to run you down in California?"
Xena gritted her teeth before responding. He was humoring her. She'd lost the initiative and now she was the one answering questions. She said, "Yeah, outside City of Industry last year. Ya sure ya weren't there? Looked just like you, chasing a kid and a truck down a drainage canal."
"Really? Never been there. Anyone get hurt?" She sounded like a nut job, but he'd been in similar situations himself so he suspended his reflexive disbelief. Besides, City of Industry was basically part of crazy Los Angeles…too much sun, drugs, glamour, and money. Even so, a chase down a drainage canal sounded like something out of a movie, or a covert op. Helen and Dana exchanged grins. Xena raked them with her eyes.
"Someone must have. There was an explosion…and I am not crazy!"
"I know how things get," Harry sympathized. "Explosions happen. It's part of the job." The last comment was an unsubtle bit of probing on his part.
"Ya got that right. So that really wasn't you, huh? Ya gotta twin brother or somethin'?"
"I'm an only child," he told her, then introduced himself, "I'm Harry Tasker."
"Dad just got the bike about a month ago," Dana interjected seriously, before adding, "and everyone looks like him."
Cloned Xena stared at her in disbelief.
"With the leathers and the helmet," the teen said, almost adding, duh.
"This is my daughter, Dana," Harry said, "and my wife, Helen."
"Uh, I'm Serena," she responded automatically, "pleased to meet you."
"Maybe we can chat more later after we get settled in," Helen offered, "and Harry'll talk to the slaves about the noise." To her credit, she said it with a straight face. Dana had to look away though.
"Okay, thanks," Xena said as the couple began looking towards the activity in front of their house where voices were rising. The warrior followed their gaze. The slaves were struggling to shove a refrigerator through the front door. The dolly slipped and the load shifted unexpectedly, banging against the doorframe. One of the men howled and cursed, and then went jumping around the lawn holding a hand against his chest.
Harry watched the incident and shook his head. He muttered, "Bye for now," and walked briskly over towards the injured mover.
"Sorry about your slave," Xena said sympathetically to a concerned looking Helen, as she turned back towards her house.
Back inside the kitchen, she met Gabrielle. The blonde was still standing and staring out the window at the slaves and the truck. The family had gone inside.
"Wasn't him," she told her soulmate. "Seems he just got the bike last month and he's never been to California. His daughter claims everyone looks like him when they dress up to ride." The cloned warrior chewed the inside of her cheek for a moment, thinking. The man who'd nearly run them down in California hadn't been wearing a helmet, and Harry's bike did look newer. "Somethin's funny about them though," she finally said slowly, "and he claimed that explosions are just part of his job."
October 29, 2001 - Columbia, South Carolina
The clones had resumed their life in Columbia. They'd seen their neighbors from time to time, and they appeared normal to the naked eye. Harry went off to work in the mornings, selling business computer systems, he'd said. Helen went off to work around noon, a part-time legal secretary, she'd claimed. Dana hung out with an increasing circle of neighborhood friends in the afternoon, a high school senior aka political prisoner, she'd complained. Beyond a few words and quick greetings, the family and the clones hadn't really interacted. The insulation of suburban living ensured their separation.
For the time being, Danielle Lefferts was still living in a guestroom at the Pappas house. She had adapted to the clones' routine, sometimes joining Gabrielle on her shopping trips, sometimes accompanying Xena to watch the airplanes at the nearby Columbia Owens Municipal Airport. In both instances she noticed the strange mixture of worldliness and naivete that Alex had mentioned. The two did seem out of place somehow. It showed up mostly in little details, like Gabrielle muttering about how she missed the fun of haggling over prices with the "cutpurse peddlers" to save a "drachma or an obol". Once, while in a testy mood, she'd confronted a checkout girl and offered her a lump sum for the contents of her cart. The girl had looked at her strangely. The blonde had finally shrugged and started placing items on the counter for scanning, shaking her head and muttering about how "all the fun was gone these days and shopping had become a chore." When the total was rung up it was a few dollars more than Gabrielle's offer. Exactly 10% more. Danielle realized that the small blonde had been keeping a running tally of her purchases.
The same displacement had showed up in Xena's comparisons of the planes' takeoff speed with that of a "warhorse at a full gallop flanking the lines". The tall woman's blue eyes would darken and grow misty, as if she were reliving memories of times and places long ago; of things seen and done that brought both wistful recollections and regrets. The moments didn't last for long, and at those times, Danielle held her silence, filing away her glimpsed impressions of the ghosts of her teacher's past. Xena would often look at her after such lapses, sometimes wearing an almost guilty grin, while at other times offering comments. "A warhorse might travel 25 mph with rider and gear over a short stretch. I remember a racehorse though, an Arabian, that could pass 7 lengths a heartbeat, almost 40 mph. Those planes are hittin' half again to twice that before takeoff."
At the school, two weeks of classes had passed, and the students had been overjoyed when their teachers reappeared. Danielle Lefferts had proven to be a quick learner and was very receptive to what the clones presented. Her expertise in Tae Kwon Do and her serious demeanor won her the respect of the other students. She'd often been paired off with Owen Chambers, the Columbia firefighter, during the two-person exercises. The hulking fireman towered over the CWO, but she held her own in sparring because of her precise applications of technique. The soulmates used their students' physical disparity to force the two to compensate and adapt to dissimilar opponents, and to illustrate a central truth about combat. Never judge an enemy solely by their appearance. Danielle was used to this and accepted the challenge without compliant. She also spent time socializing with Owen, and Alex and Karen Williams, after classes.
At first, Danielle had been relatively quiet around the house. The soulmates had begun to perceive her as being a bit of a stick in the mud. She read a lot, watched TV, spent hours practicing in the backyard, and studied Navy manuals to keep up with her field of encryption. It came as something of a surprise when she insisted on decorating the house and hosting a Halloween party for the other students. She bought and carved pumpkins, (from which Xena toasted seeds and Gabrielle eventually made pies), hung strings of Jack-O-Lantern lights, put up paper cut outs of black cats, witches, and ghosts, and draped fake spider webs over the hedges bordering the yard. The CWO was obviously enjoying herself.
The year before their tour guide to the 21st century, Dr. Janice Covington, had passed away before really explaining all about Halloween. Now neither Xena nor Gabrielle had more than a passing acquaintance with the holiday*, so this year because of Danielle, they got caught up in the novelty of it all.
(*On their first Halloween the year before, Xena had drenched trick-or-treaters with buckets of water when they'd come to the door. She hadn't really understood why so many oddly dressed children and appeared on her doorstep, begging. It reminded her uncomfortably of the aftermath of a battle, when the pitiful young survivors of some warlord's raid would cry to any passing stranger for food. At first she'd been annoyed, but soon she'd felt guilty. That was when she'd started waiting for them in the hallway window above the front door. The cloned warrior hated feeling guilty about her past life in this life. She'd drafted a reluctant Gabrielle to refill the buckets for her. Gabrielle had read a bit about Halloween the next day and had asked Xena if they wouldn't have been better off dispensing candy as was the custom. Xena had adamantly refused, certain that it would only encourage the beggars to stop by every night.) ~Editor
Entertaining as the celebration was, the background of All Hallow's Eve, or Samhain, was rather disturbing. This year Gabrielle's more comprehensive research had revealed that it was a night when ghosts freely walked the mortal world. Conceptually, the idea of the spirits of the dead populating the earth was somewhat upsetting. Both soulmates had dealt with shades, and like most people of the classical era, took them seriously. The clones had made a lot of enemies in their original lives and they were all dead now. There were a lot of potential grudges and debts. That was the bad news. The good news was that they were all dead now and therefore insubstantial. Troublesome as a haunting might become, ghosts were preferable to living enemies out for blood. Conversely, neither Hades, Persephone, nor any other god of the underworld they'd ever heard of would have considered allowing the dead a wholesale vacation from their realms. If anything, it reeked of the necromancy of Alti.
Danielle had reassured the clones that no one she'd ever known had actually seen a ghost. The CWO explained that celebrating Halloween was a family tradition that she and her brothers had inherited from their parents. The Halloween parties of their childhood had been a reliable way to promote friendships while the family had been traveling from one of her father's postings to another. The children in particular had constantly felt uprooted and helping them make new friends was a parental strategy. Their parents, of course, met the parents of the neighborhood kids that attended the parties. Captain Lefferts and his wife still got Christmas cards from friends they'd first met at their Halloween parties over three decades before. It gave Xena an idea, and so she'd gone along with the CWO's plan.
It was Monday, two days before Halloween. Xena and Gabrielle had been sparring in the back yard with their swords, while nearby Danielle Lefferts practiced the moves she'd learned in the last class. About 3:30 in the afternoon, out of the corner of her eye, the cloned warrior saw the red Honda pull up next door. With a subtle shift of her head, she signaled to Gabrielle, and the two moved their combat into the side yard, closer to the hedge. Their battle cries and the ringing of blades clashing drew attention as they "hammed it up" for their audience. It wasn't long before Dana and her three friends were watching them from across the Tasker's front yard.
Eventually the two young couples approached the fighters, watching them closely from across the hedge. They were talking among themselves.
"So yeah, they're my neighbors."
"Damn, Dana, I thought my parents got violent. Wow. Look at them go."
"Dude, they're the stars of that Xena Warrior Princess show. I recognize them."
"KeWl! U NeVeR sEd U hAd TV sTaRs LiViNg nExT dOoR, DaNa."
"Not like I know what they do for a living. Anyway, they were living here before us. So how come none of you knew about them?"
"Hey, I always thought it was some old lady who lived here. I remember seeing her when I was a kid."
"And so, what? You never noticed she wasn't here anymore?"
"I don't walk by here now that I have a car. I've driven past here a few times but I've never seen those two."
"Actually, I've never seen them doing anything like this before. They're really fast."
"ThIs rOx! CoUlD U lIkE, cAlL uS nExT tImE tHeY'rE oUt HeRe, DaNa? U nO, sO wE cAn HaNg oUt aNd wAtCh tHeM?"
"Yeah, I'd be over here in a second to see this. They're really good. I guess they don't actually hack each other up and stuff, huh?"
"Well like, duh! They've both got all their hands and feet." Dana rolled her eyes.
After overhearing their comments for a while, Xena and Gabrielle started talking to them while continuing their sparring, edging over until they were only a few feet away.
"Hey. Are ya enjoyin' the show?"
"Hi…and yeah, this is great. We've never seen anything like it."
Thank the gods that you haven't, the warrior thought grimly. At your age in my time, half of you would've already been enslaved or dead, and the other half woulda been fighters. After a moment, she decided that statement was a little extreme…someone had to do the farming and herding and practice trades. Instead she said, "Thanks. It's how us old folks get our exercise."
"You're not like, old…not like our parents anyway," Dana corrected herself. "Where'd you learn to fight with swords like that?"
"Uh, from video games mostly?" Gabrielle lied uncertainly. Xena gave her a sharp look. The bard added, "We picked up a few tips in Gallia and Germania too," then winced.
"ThIs iS sO kEwL. So LiKe, wErE U 2 iN tHaT TV sHoW aBoUt XeNa?"
Xena and Gabrielle slowed down to a stop and joined the group of teens, standing close by on their own side of the hedge. Xena answered with a denial.
"Nope, that wasn't us. I've seen it…I thought the fight scenes were kinda lame."
"Actually it's just that it's a TV show. What we do is real fighting, as it was done a couple thousand years ago. It's all historically accurate," the blonde elaborated.
"Wow. You two look just like the actresses. Didn't anyone ever tell you that before?"
The cloned warrior and the cloned bard exchanged looks. Both shook their heads.
"Nawww," Xena deadpanned, "she doesn't look a bit like that Warrior Princess on TV."
The clones talked with the teens for a while and finally told them that they were having a Halloween party and they were invited to come over if they had time…maybe after they got done begging. Dana gave them a funny look.
"Ya know, after ya get done dressin' up an' shakin' down the neighbors for candy an stuff," Xena clarified.
"Oh," Dana said dismissively, "that's for kids. Actually we mostly just hang out, but a party sounds cool for a change." She looked at her friends and they nodded in agreement. "What time's good?"
"After dark, I guess," Gabrielle told them, "actually Danielle's arranging everything."
They looked into the backyard where the CWO was still practicing. She'd suggested to the soulmates that they should handle the teens, since she might have turned them off by being "old". She was doing the move that let her kick the enemy she was facing twice, once with each foot as she did a back flip. It was a move that Callisto had used. From a distance Danielle didn't seem old at all.
None of them had noticed the white van parked on the street just down the block.
October 31, 2001 - Columbia, South Carolina
The boppy theme from the old TV show, "The Munsters", pounded from the four Klipschhorn speakers in the crowded parlor of the Pappas house. It was 9:00 pm and the Halloween party was in full swing. Dana and her friends had arrived shortly after dark. After a quick tour of the house with Gabrielle, Xena had drafted them for an hour of "sentry duty". She'd given them Super-Soaker water guns and stationed them in the upstairs hallway window. Since then, they'd gleefully drenched any costumed kids who approached the house, reveling in the mayhem and highly impressed with their hostesses' irreverent attitude.
"Your neighbors are awesome, Dana."
"Yeah, my parents would kill me if I did this at home."
"I can't wait to have my own place. I'd do this everyday. Did you see that last bunch?"
"I know, this is hysterical!"
"OMG, lookit, Dana…it's your folks! And they're in costume!"
"Damn, you're right! Okay guys, soak 'em on the count of three. One, two, three, GO!"
Downstairs, Gabrielle, (dressed in her ninja costume), heard a commotion outside and answered the door. She was confronted by her hulking next-door neighbor, dressed in his leather motorcycle jacket, but he had some serious battle wounds and a mechanical eye that glowed red. Both he and Helen, (who had worn a Flamenco dancer's outfit, complete with a red rose in her gritted teeth), were partially soaked. They didn't look too pleased with the welcome. Uh oh, the bard thought. The kids upstairs really outdid themselves this time.
"Hi folks, welcome to the party," she said, "what are you supposed to be, Harry?"
"I'm a Terminator," he recited, exaggerating his accent. "Cyberdyne Systems model-101."
"I see," Gabrielle said uncertainly. The movies had been before her time. "Why don't you two come with me and have a glass of cider? I'll introduce you to everyone and show you around." She noticed that Harry was clutching a lever-action sawed off shotgun. She failed to notice the tiny transceiver in his ear.
Gabrielle made the introductions in the parlor. Harry and Helen Tasker, holding glasses of mulled cider, were greeted by the students of the Columbia School of Martial Science and several significant others de jour. Owen Chambers, (costumed as a musketeer), Ronnie Chu, (dressed as Albert Einstein), and Debbie Ryan, (in a ballerina's costume), had brought dates. The two men's companions were already tipsy and chattering together, uncertain about what to think of their hostesses, while the beau accompanying Debbie, simply hung on her every word like a puppy. Alexander and Karen Williams, (dressed in the costumes of a Viking warrior and his maiden), were dancing in a flamboyant 70s disco style, but took a short break to meet their teachers' neighbors. Upstairs Dana and her friends could occasionally be faintly heard over the music, laughing and cheering each other on every time they soaked another group of trick-or-treaters. Xena had disappeared, leaving Gabrielle annoyed while she helped Danielle play hostess.
The house tour continued. Gabriella led the Taskers through the door and into the study, knowing from recent experience that this was the room that had most impressed their other guests. Helen and Harry's eyes flitted from detail to detail, taking in the stuffed bookshelves, the paired desks to their right, the display cabinet filled with artifacts, and the edged weapons and scrolls on the walls.
"Commander's tent, late Roman Republic or early Empire…maybe 50 BC," Harry muttered softly, "but the weapons span a couple hundred years on either side of the birth of Christ."
"Actually it's similar to the campaign tents of many armies in the area at that time," Gabrielle told him, surprised by his concise and accurate recognition of what he was looking at, "but you're right in general. Caesar and Pompey, among others, had used tents like this, and they set up their desks in this position, rather than directly opposite the entrance.* Most of the weapons are from the last two centuries BC, but there's a Maintz pattern gladius and a pilum from the Judean occupation under King Herod."
(*The tent was arranged like those that the soulmates had used for decades; the Roman commanders had adopted the desk placement after narrowly being missed by bolts fired through the doors by assassins. A commander was no more likely to sit facing a door than a warrior was to sit with their back to one. Caesar had probably recalled the arrangement from his time as Xena's captive.) ~Editor
Harry went to examine several of the weapons hanging on the walls, nodding appreciatively at the documentation. Finally though, he came to the same Amazon archer's short sword that Danielle Lefferts had noticed. His eyes lingered on the blade and the plaque below it, but he eventually moved away without comment. It was at about this point that a loud chorus of laughter and whoops sounded through the ceiling from the upstairs hallway. Both Helen and Harry's heads jerked up at the sounds.
"Dana!" Harry exclaimed, a bit loudly, "is that Dana?"
Helen was shaking her head in disapproval. Gabrielle winced. Harry was already moving towards the doorway, and the cloned bard was pretty sure that he remembered having passed the stairs on their way to the study.
"Oops," she muttered, eyeing Helen, who was rolling her eyes.
"He never likes being ambushed," Mrs. Tasker informed her hostess, "and they soaked him pretty good when we came to the door. He didn't have a clue."
They began moving towards the hallway and Gabrielle could already hear Harry's heavy boots taking the stairs two at a time. Wonder where Xena is, she thought to herself, she'd better have a good excuse for bailing out on this party. Upstairs, she heard Harry's voice raised in an angry, "Dana!", and a sudden rush of footsteps.
"Perhaps I could get you some more cider?" She innocently asked Helen.
A few minutes later, Harry marched his daughter and her friends past the parlor and the other guests, where Gabrielle had directed Helen. The teens looked chagrined and the Terminator looked mildly irritated. Gabrielle only caught part of their exchange on their way out the door.
"Are you crazy? You could have put someone's eye out!"
It seemed a bit incongruous, considering that his eye was already mechanical and glowing red, and the make up had depicted worse wounds than anything a Super-Soaker could deliver.
"But Daaaad…" The door clicked closed on the adolescent's protests.
A dark shadow silently observed their progress down the front walkway, where Harry separated Dana from her friends for a quick father-daughter conference. It seemed strange to the observer that their demeanor changed completely as soon as they were alone. The two whispered together rapidly and Dana passed something to her father, then went off to rejoin her friends. Harry put a finger to his ear and whispered something to himself, then walked quickly down the sidewalk in the opposite direction. Following his progress from the shadows, the watcher noted that he made a brief stop at a white van parked a couple houses down the block, then just as quickly returned to the party. The van had immediately started up and driven off.
There was definitely a mystery brewing with her neighbor, Xena thought, as she silently scaled the trellis outside the kitchen and slipped in through the bathroom window. She'd had the strangest impression of the man from that first day when his slaves had been so sullen and noisy while emptying the loot from their truck. The Warrior Princess still half suspected that he really had been in California and nearly run her and Gabrielle down on his motorcycle. She filed her thoughts away for later review and went to make an appearance at the party. Gabrielle isn't going to be happy about me deserting her, she thought. Well, I'll just have to suck it up and play social. A grin curled the corners of her lips as she settled the gun belt of her Lara Croft costume on her hips and adjusted the thigh straps.November 1, 2001 – Columbia, South CarolinaAs always, cloned Xena was up at dawn. She carefully rolled out of bed and padded silently to the bathroom. After removing the Super-Soakers from the tub and steaming the room up during a long shower, she searched for her hairbrush.
"Bacchae's breath," she cursed, "where's the miserable thing gone now?"
It was nowhere to be found. Deciding to borrow Gabrielle's, she quickly hunted for her partner's and found that one missing too. (Danielle wore her hair so short she just used a comb).
"By the gods, am I supposed to go around with Gorgon's hair all day?" Her expression darkened. "What is this, a trick left over from Halloween?" She thought about it for a few moments before a suspicion presented itself. "Gabrielle musta' really been pissed off at me for bailin' out on the party for the first hour, and now she's playin' trick or treat pranks…well, two can play this game."
She opened an access panel and turned off the hot water valve leading to the shower, then removed the valve knob with the tail end of a pair of tweezers.
"All's fair in love and war…" she muttered as she stashed the knob in her bathrobe pocket and wandered down to the kitchen to grab some fruit for breakfast before getting dressed.
An hour later, she heard a screech from the bathroom. It was Danielle.
"Oops," Xena muttered, and went back to her morning stretching routine.
The CWO came downstairs ten minutes later, still shivering, and poured herself a large mug of coffee. She looked out the window briefly at Xena, exercising out in the backyard, and gave her a baleful stare, then went back to preparing grapefruit, eggs, and toast.
Two hours later, a disheveled Gabrielle came downstairs and found Xena in the study, looking up websites showing other martial arts schools. She stood in her bathrobe with her hands on her hips until her partner looked up at her from the monitor.
"Good morning," the cloned bard began, "I want you to go upstairs right now and put the knob back on the hot water thing…and give me back my hairbrush. Halloween was yesterday and this isn't funny at all. I'm not going back to finger combing or bathing in lakes and streams in this lifetime, okay?" She didn't wait for an answer, but stomped into the kitchen to pour orange juice and coffee, and make eggs, pancakes, bacon, hash browns, and toast.
"Damn," the warrior hissed. Behind her a blue light flared up, delivering the God of War into the study. Xena looked over at him, curious as to what he could possibly want. He took in his surroundings, giving the weapons on the walls a cursory once over.
"Well, this is quite a change from the warlord business, but hey, it's not the same for me either these days," he offered conspiratorially, casting a meaningful glance towards the kitchen where the clatter of pans could be heard.
"You're right about that, Ares," the cloned warrior agreed before giving him a more pointedly questioning look.
"I thought I'd drop in to let you know that your precious hair brushes were stolen last night, but don't worry about that. You're going to have visitors tomorrow night."
The Warrior Princess cocked an eyebrow at him, digesting the news.
"You were right, Xena…all's fair in love and war," he continued, "and in battle there is no substitute for being prepared."
He gave her a grin before flashing out of the room, just as Danielle Lefferts wandered in. The CWO blinked and did a kind of double take, quickly looking to her right and left.
"Did you call a plumber?" The CWO asked. "You know, the hot water wasn't working this morning." She looked around the room again but saw no one there except Xena, still sitting at her desk. "I thought just I heard a man's voice." The cloned warrior had glanced up at her from her computer monitor and shook her head "no". With a shrug, Danielle walked back out.
November 1, 2001 – An Undisclosed Location in Washington, D.C.
The laboratory technician had never liked coming here to give his reports. In fact, after seven years of employment, he'd only been called here in person twice before. There was a vigilant atmosphere to the stark white corridors that led past a receptionist, (who kept one hand under her desk on an autopistol), to the large chamber filled with high tech communications and control equipment. Someone always accompanied him, though he'd never traded a single word with any of his escorts. They performed like robots. Along the way, he'd been ID'd by a retinal scan, a full palm print, and voice analysis. It made him feel more paranoid than when he reported his findings in Langley, at CIA headquarters. Today, four men and one woman were seated at the conference table.
"So what have you got for us?" The intense white haired man asked. He wore a black patch over his left eye and sat at the head of the table. As a field agent thirty-odd years before, Spencer Trilby had worked with the likes of Jim Philips, Napoleon Solo, and James Bond. Though he sounded pleasant enough, the focused stare from his remaining eye always made the lab technician squirm.
"Analysis of the recent hair samples from the brushes reveals DNA matching the samples from the FBI Compound in Quantico…it exhibits the same anomalies."
"The anomalies are present in both samplings from both individuals?"
"That is correct, sir. They're a match. No question about it."
"Please explain your findings then."
"Yes sir, Mr. Trilby. Uh…the examination of the control region of the mitochondrial DNA revealed a definite familial relationship between the samples. Furthermore, analysis has discerned a heritable gene specific spot mutation in the mtDNA's coding region…"
"In English please…" Trilby interrupted.
"Sir, the coding region governs the production of chemicals used in converting food into energy within the mitochondria of a cell. The control region regulates the mtDNA. Both areas are highly variable. Currently, we analyze a sequence of 610 base pairs for forensic identification purposes…"
"Young man, you're still speaking Greek to me. What does this actually mean?"
"Oh. What it means, sir, is that at some point in the family history of these two individuals, their lines shared parenting…my best guess would be about 5 to 8 generations ago, after which time the family lines separated again. The spot mutation is much more ancient…probably closer to 2,000 years old. It affects the creation of the molecules used in energy production in all the cells of these individuals' bodies. My colleagues and I have hazarded some guesses…that these individuals are able to metabolize at about 14% greater efficiency than an Olympic athlete, and perhaps 42% or more efficiently than an average person. They would be stronger, quicker, and heal faster."
"I see." Spencer Trilby looked away and sighed, as if he were actually tired. In fact the report energized him as nothing else had in weeks. After a moment he looked back and dismissed the technician. "Thank you, that will be all."
The younger man didn't move at first. What he'd seen in the lab had been more than earthshaking to him. He had one more fact to share.
"Sir, there's one other thing, something I've never seen before in a human sample and had to verify by retesting."
"Yes? Go ahead."
"In both samples, the gene carrying the spot mutation was marked. There was ladder banding every 1000 base pairs."
"Meaning what, exactly…and for the last time, in English, please?"
"Sorry, sir. I think they're clones."
None of the people at the table reacted. In fact, none of them had reacted to a thing he'd said the whole time. It was as if they hadn't heard a word of his report, but he knew better. They had certainly heard and recorded every sound he'd made. Hell, they were probably analyzing his heart rate and voice stress patterns. The technician realized that he had absolutely no idea what they thought about his information, or what they intended to do with it. They obviously didn't seem as impressed as he was with what he'd discovered. Maybe they didn't realize the importance of his data.
Yet it was important. The donors of the specimens he'd analyzed should be studied further, a paper written, and, like the genes that conferred immunity to HIV, Ebola, or cancer, perhaps tapped for cloneable research samples. The possibilities were incredible. Thoroughly captivated by the probability that existing beings had been engineered to be superhuman, he'd never comprehended that for a brief time he'd held in his hand the physical evidence of a divine inheritance.
"Sir, I'd really like to study these individuals further. I think they could offer great potential benefits to mankind. This is an opportunity…"
"Young man, the security of this nation rests on your ability to forget what you have seen," Spencer Trilby told him in a firm but reasonable tone. "The samples and all the data have already been collected, and you'll certainly disappear off the face of the earth if I can't be assured of your discretion."
The technician gulped.
Trilby offered him a friendly smile, almost as an afterthought, and then cued his personal assistant. "Francis, if you'd show this gentleman out, please?"
The African-American woman stood and gestured the technician into motion. She directed him out of the room at a brisk, businesslike pace. Not once did she speak to him. In fact, no one other than Spencer Trilby had said a word. As in the past, he found that he was very glad to be leaving.
After he'd been ushered out, the four remaining men sat around the table in silence for several moments. Finally it was Harry who broke the ice.
"We're getting closer, aren't we?"
"I believe we are," Trilby answered thoughtfully, "and now you have to be very careful. Find me their enemies, Harry. You have the files."November 2, 2001 – The Columbia School of Martial Science
The Friday night class had been in session for an hour. After the initial half-hour of warm up exercises and stretching, the students had begun practicing the moves their teachers had shown them in their previous class. During the second half-hour, Xena and Gabrielle had moved among their students, making corrections, demonstrating the finer points, and giving individual advice. There was no set progression of lessons because each student's level and experience was so different, and the soulmates weren't teaching a formal system. Each of the six students had been given a different focus, based on the needs that Serena and Gabriella had discerned. The value of having such a small class was that it functioned as a semi-private tutorial. Considering who the teachers were, it would have been a bargain at almost any price. It would have made the multitudes of students in the chain schools and black-belt factories green with envy.
"Keep working for another 15 minutes please," Gabriella requested, getting nods from the sweating group in response, "and leave us the front twenty feet."
Gabriella knelt and opened the hard-shell case containing her paired short swords. She hefted the black blades and spun them, enjoying their familiar weight and balance in her hands. Then the blonde moved to join the Warrior Princess, who stood waiting for her near the front of the space, calmly rotating the broadsword to loosen her right wrist. In her left hand she held the Combined Chakram. Both clones seemed relaxed to the naked eye, but underneath the calm surface lay a hidden tension; tonight the soulmates held an uneasy sense of expectation. They had received a cryptic warning about visitors from Ares. "In battle there is no substitute for being prepared".
Although the students continued with their lessons, their eyes couldn't help but stray to their teachers, who were obviously preparing to spar. So far, this was the first time they'd brought or used their personal weapons during a class. Only Alex Williams had seen them wielding their chosen arms and knew what to expect. Probably the most curious student was Danielle Lefferts, who had snuck a peek into the cases and was still very interested to see how the ring-bladed weapon was used. She watched as Gabriella approached Serena, expecting some sort of warm up or salutation, as would have been normal in a formal contest or a friendly sparring match. At least she figured there would be a face off and a bow. There was none.
The fighting began so abruptly and with such violence that everyone else in the room froze in shock. Gabriella simply attacked Serena at full speed, and with no warning of any sort. One moment she was in mid-stride, the next, she was slashing the paired blades at her partner so fast they could barely be seen. The whistling of her swords as they sliced through the air was eerie, distracting, and terrifying. Serena met her blow for blow, instantly meeting the offensive. The flashes that reflected off her polished broadsword, and the streaking trails of its movements from the overhead lights, were almost hypnotic. She wielded the Combined Chakram in a series of quick parrying movements, both from the arm and the wrist, attacking with it as well, using jabs and short cutting arcs. The clones didn't need to spend time exploring their opponents' abilities. Each knew the other's capabilities as well as their own. Nor did they engage, part, and reengage. The combat was continuous and would run until the clones stopped by mutual consent. The soulmates never repeated a sequence of moves either. This was free sparring, not a form demonstration.
Except for their breathing they were silent, but their blades rang with each clash of steel; the tempered metals shrieked as edge ground against edge. The weapons declaimed in the language of battle, narrating the contest in a chorus of violence. The blows dictated the rhythm, while the harmony lay in the hiss and whistle of swords slicing through air. It was the echo of armed conflicts from an ancient world; a revisited dream drawn into the waking present by the soulmates' combat. Long ago on campaign fields soaked with the blood of bellatoris, the crashing of steel and the squeal of bronze had been called the Hymn of Ares. In deference to the purity of that anthem these warriors voiced no battle cries or taunts, no boasts or threats. The soulmates had trained to kill in silence, to fight using stealth and surprise, and to focus their attention against any distraction. They had also learned that in battle, a cold, impersonal façade chilled their enemies to the core. While an enemy screamed to disguise his fear with pseudoandros, false courage, by their silence, these warriors acknowledged none. It was the ultimate show of confidence.
By far the most unnerving thing about the combat, Danielle realized as she watched spellbound, was how their teachers used their paired weapons. It was as if each of their hands was directed by a separate consciousness, yet in perfect synchronicity with its mate. Gabriella was using two identical blades, and her right and left hands could mirror each other's movements, showing no strong or weak side. Serena was using two dissimilar weapons, and each of her hands displayed a fluent mastery of those weapons' strengths and weaknesses. The actions of their hands were coordinated with the greater movements of their whole bodies. Serena and Gabriella's personal fighting styles were noticeably different as well, optimized to capitalize on their body types. The clones fought relentlessly, tenaciously, and mercilessly, and at the speeds they were moving, their sparring appeared almost inhuman.
Danielle had studied Tae Kwon Do for 30 years, and had long ago ceased to be concerned about her own rank or anyone else's. She was familiar with the traditional weapons of her art and the arts of the Far East, primarily Korea, Okinawa, and Japan. The bo, sai, tonfa, kama, katana, naginata, yari, and nunchaku…she had seen them all demonstrated by masters in her system and others. But never had she seen anything like this. With effort, she tore her eyes away from the combatants' hands and looked closely into their faces. What she saw made her aware of just how serious this sparring was, and nearly made her gasp.
Serena and Gabriella displayed no anger, mania, cruelty, or hatred. They weren't flailing or out of control. Just the opposite; they simply looked as if they were passionately focused and unshakably determined, and each was conducting her assault as if the outcome was preordained. Neither had a doubt in her mind that their enemy would die by their hands. The result was only a matter of time. Their certainty wasn't anything so crass as egotism, self-aggrandizement, or even bloodlust. It simply seemed that they had done this very thing, fighting an enemy to a fatal conclusion, a thousand times. It was as if they were each the hands of death herself…and knew it. She remembered Alexander Williams' words from the first day she'd met him, "They're warriors with the mindset and abilities to match." Now there was no doubt in her mind about those words either. Danielle understood what she was seeing on both the intellectual and visceral levels, and she had never imagined anything so terrifying. And perversely, it was impossible resist the nightmare of imagining herself facing them. She would have doubts, while the soulmates had none. She was fully convinced that to face either of her teachers in this kind of armed combat would be suicidal.
Silence snapped her back from her musings. Serena and Gabriella had stopped abruptly and were standing with intensely focused attention, facing the doorway. They held their weapons at the ready, and they were wary. An icy concentration rolled off of them in waves that chilled Danielle's blood. Beside her she heard Alex trying to take deep calming breaths and she detected the slightest shudder as he inhaled. She realized that she hadn't breathed since the sparring stopped.
Now there was movement in the darkness beyond the school's door; visitors in the night. Even she could see it. The flutter of fabric and the unheard rustle of long dark coats revealed the presence of strangers. They were sinister shadows on the opposite side of the glass, haunting the chilly Columbia night while camouflaged by reflections. From inside it was impossible to discern any details of who they were. Anticipation radiated through the school from the clones. Menace flowed from the two figures that stood for a moment on the threshold, before the door swung open.
Serena moved to stand three feet from Gabriella's left and a fraction of a pace forward. It was a long habituated gesture of protection. The cloned warrior had taken station on her beloved's traditional shield side, something done for the benefit of a comrade in battle in the days of the hoplite infantry of ancient Greece. In their first years together, Xena had guarded Gabrielle's weaker left side, and she had continued to do so even after the decades had rendered the necessity nil. The significance of their positions was lost on their modern students, but it was a familiar telltale to the two blonde women who had entered the school. The slimmer of the two cracked a smile of recognition and cocked her head in acknowledgment.
"But, you're dead…" Danielle whispered, unable to contain her shock. What her eyes were showing her couldn't possibly be true, for one of the women was her deceased teammate, Air Force Staff Sergeant Hudson Lykos. The other woman was a stranger to the CWO, but not to the clones. The soulmates had killed her in combat in 59 BC.
"I killed you," Gabrielle muttered, "I killed you both. By the gods, what madness is this?" Yet even as she spoke the words, she knew there could be only one explanation. Somewhere out there was a lab like the one in which she and Xena had been recreated.
Callisto gave a threatening little chuckle as she shed her overcoat. Underneath it, the "Warrior Queen" wore a form-fitting, segmented corslet and skirt, with matching bracers and greaves, all made of what looked like black silk. The hilt of a broadsword was visible over her right shoulder and the sheath of a large parrying dagger hung from her left hip. Callisto minced a few steps closer to the clones, using her trademark seductive slink. She stopped eight feet in front of them, while her student, Mavican, shed her coat revealing identical gear, with the addition of four throwing knives on her belt instead of a dagger. Their battle dress was a stark contrast to the soulmates in their gym shorts and t-shirts.
"I killed you…you killed me," Callisto teased, her sing-song voice pitched to parody intimacy, but projecting theatrically. She pretended to tally up the fatal incidents in her head before shrugging and happily dismissing the matter with, "but who's counting? Guess we all just keep turning up like bad denarii, eh, Xena? Ahhh, the wonders of modern science." She gave the soulmates a conspiratorial wink.
Alexander Williams softly gasped at the words. Callisto giggled.
"So, you and the Babbling Bard have been playing teacher, I see," she observed, giving the six students a chilling little smile. She lectured the group sarcastically. "Well, isn't that just like the Good Xena…always helping others," then she turned and stage whispered to the cloned warrior. "But I'd bet you've kept the secrets of your dark past to yourselves. Tell me, dear, have you confessed to the slaughters that you committed while you were the Evil Xena? Has your dear little Gabrielle told them the stories of your mass murders and other heinous crimes?"
Mavican had moved to stand beside her teacher, obvious hatred flashing from her eyes as she pinned them on the cloned bard. She was younger, more powerfully built, and more voluptuous than Callisto. Her tangible air of menace however, was eclipsed by the sheer venomous malice of her teacher's madness. Mavican was predictable and understandable in her brutality, while Callisto was the wild card of threat made flesh. Callisto swept the students with her glare, seeing their shock, amazement, confusion, and fear. She drank it in like a prized vintage from Bacchus' own chalice.
"It appears not," she remarked, answering her own question and taunting the Warrior Princess, before addressing the students again. "Your illustrious teacher was a vicious warlord, you see, and her sidekick helped her in the killing of over 86,000 soldiers. Before they met, Xena had already plundered half of our native land, slaying for sport, pillaging and burning and murdering innocent men, women, and children. She was the greatest terrorist that ever lived. She's personally responsible for the deaths of over 100,000 people."
"Ya forgot the 30,000 in Chin," Xena sneered at her, "but I'm sure ya haven't forgotten those paltry 399 at Cirra. That flea-bitten collection of hovels was in my way on the road to Corinth so I plowed it under. It wasn't even a battle…pathetic…the loot was barely worth the bother. Get over it, loser."
Even Gabrielle flinched. It was the voice of the Destroyer of Nations. Xena intended to slay Callisto. For a moment she had uncaged the killer within, the unstoppable warrior that Ares had loved. Only Julius Caesar could have ignited her wrath more intensely.
The words had their desired effect, acting as a goad more inflammatory than anything Xena had ever said to the Cirran. The Warrior Princess had belittled the singular event that had given Callisto's life its direction and purpose. She'd mocked the source of her pain and answered her taunts with derision. Xena had ridiculed the primal trauma that had defined her.
Callisto drew her blades in a blur and attacked with a speed so startling that the first blows were answered before any of the students could even move. Mavican had her sword in her hand a heartbeat later and opened her assault on Gabrielle with a whirlwind series of spinning slashes.
Even as she ducked below the arc of Mavican's sword, the cloned bard called out a warning to her students. "All of you, get back against the far wall…NOW!"
It fell to Alexander Williams to act. He was the first to lose his shocked paralysis and begin shoving the others towards the rear of the school. He snatched a Chinese sabre from the weapons rack on his way.
The fight was more vicious than anything the students could have imagined. Now it wasn't a sparring match between life partners. Unlike the concentrated and effortless mastery they had witnessed only a few minutes before, this was mortal combat, driven by a lifetime of hatred and the bitterest of debts. The fighters not only used their blades, but also their feet and hands, elbows and knees; every aspect of their potential arsenals that they could bring to bear against their enemy. Callisto was as quick as she had been in her prime. Mavican was as brutal and strong as she had ever been. But it was not 59 BC, nor was it 44 BC. This was not the small field just beyond the borders of the Amazon lands, nor was it a back alley in Rome.
When they had first met Mavican, Xena had been 37 and Gabrielle 29. The original Xena had been 11 years older then, Gabrielle was 5 years younger now. The blonde had still been armed with the sai and it had been only 6 months since she'd given birth to Hope. Still, Gabrielle had slammed one of her weapons into the flesh above Mavican's left hip. When she'd kicked her enemy's body off the spike blade it had released a pulsing fountain of blood. The bard had punctured Mavican's abdominal aorta, one of the largest blood vessels in the human body, and she had bled to death in less than three minutes.
The last time the soulmates had fought Callisto they had lost. In 44 BC, Xena had been 53, Gabrielle 45, and Callisto 46. The bard had been recovering from pneumonia. The trip from Thrace in late winter had left them both road weary. Callisto had defeated them and they had been crucified in Caesar's Rome. But now all four fighters were in their twenties, and as fit as they had ever been. It was closer to the earlier battles the partners had fought against Callisto in 71 BC, when they had defeated her twice and sent her to Shark Island. Yet today there were even greater differences. Callisto and Mavican had never fought together against the soulmates. Neither Callisto nor Mavican had fought both Xena and Gabrielle in their prime. By the time Gabrielle had been at her peak, Xena had been past hers. And they had been fighting the original Xena and Gabrielle.
What the technician in Washington, D.C. had reported but not recognized was also something that the soulmates couldn't know. In 1763, Marielle Covington, one of two sisters from Boston, had eloped with a debonair southern planter, Sherman Ezekiel Pappas. It had been love at first sight and the scandal of the season at the society teas in her hometown. Marielle had born three children, twin boys and a younger daughter. One son would carry forward the Pappas family name, inherit the plantation, and transfer a special gene from his father to the future generations of his family. The other twin would be trapped in his maternal grandparents' home when the War of Independence broke out in 1776. Functionally adopted by his spinster aunt, he would provide the same genetic heritage to the Covington clan, after taking their name to ameliorate the scandal of his mother's marriage. What had begun on a Thracian night, when presumably, a warrior had come home unexpectedly from battle to his waiting wife, had persisted through all the intervening years and created a legacy that would be tested in yet another generation. It had helped make Janice who she'd been, and it had already allowed Gabrielle to kill Callisto once.
Even in their first life, Gabrielle with her present abilities and weapons would have been superior to Mavican. This modern Xena was more than a match for this Callisto. At her best, Xena had been the premier warrior of her age; the unstoppable and unbeatable Favorite of the God of War. Tonight she was meeting her ancient enemy while at the height of her powers. She no longer needed to split her attention by guarding Gabrielle, and Callisto had no hidden Chakram of Night. Now, when the antagonists tried to drive the soulmates apart, a traded glance between them confirmed their agreement on a strategy, and the warrior and the bard moved to confront their enemies one on one.
Nearer the door, Gabrielle fought Mavican, while in the center of the school's floor, Callisto and Xena traded blows. The students watched in horrified fascination from the far rear wall, breathlessly watching the ferocity of ancient warfare reborn in the modern world. It was nothing like what any TV show or movie had depicted. No modern actor had the skill, the stamina, or the knowledge to accurately portray combat at this level. The modern world had transformed swordplay into either stylized martial art or sanitized sport. Mastery in kendo or fencing, even with rapier and dagger rather than the foil, epee, or sabre, would leave a combatant woefully ill prepared and highly vulnerable.
Callisto's fighting style was vicious and flamboyant. She depended on her reflexes and flexibility to recoup any misjudgments her raging passions led her into. Against any normal opponent it would have been more than sufficient. Against the Warrior Princess, the Cirran's tactical errors and less refined technique quickly resulted in a series of minor wounds. Xena had slashed her broadsword across Callisto's left biceps when she'd been a fraction of a second too slow in withdrawing from a parry with her dagger. The blonde hadn't lost her weapon, but the cut visibly angered her and Xena's smirk helped to degrade her concentration further.
A few moments later, the "Warrior Queen" had attempted a spinning roundhouse kick to Xena's exposed left wrist, hoping to disarm her. Instead of knocking the chakram from her grasp, the cloned Warrior Princess had shifted her body in a fluid dip that had brought the round blade up under the blonde warrior's calf, lacerating the gastrocnemius muscle and sundering the straps of her greave. As the shin guard fell to the floor, Callisto had shrieked in rage and withdrawn behind a recovery stroke from her sword. Xena had advanced on her immediately, pressuring her as she kicked the fallen lower leg armor to the side of the room. From low in her throat came an evil chuckle that sounded almost like a growl. Within the clone, the darkness of the Destroyer of Nations reared its head, sensing victory and craving the invigorating blood scent of combat.
Against Mavican, Gabrielle was discovering that her fight was easier than she'd anticipated. Callisto's would be successor wasn't even as fast as she remembered. The powerful woman fought with a single blade against her two, using a combination of easily evaded sweeping slices and even more easily anticipated thrusts. The cloned bard wove and dodged most of her attacks, allowing Mavican to tire, but more importantly, frustrating her. When they actually clashed, Gabrielle found that she could not only parry away her enemy's blow, but usually also apply an added counterstrike with her second sword that left her opponent scrambling backwards. She continued with this strategy as she noticed a trickle of sweat run down from Mavican's hairline. The cloned bard listened to her increasingly labored breathing. It wasn't long before she noted that Mavican's blows were no longer as forceful, and she wasn't attacking as aggressively. Inevitably, she was tiring. It would only be a matter of time before she lay dead at the bard's feet.
Gabrielle heard Callisto's shriek of rage and Xena's deadly mirth. It signaled something familiar to her from another lifetime long ago; the presence of the merciless and unceasing Destroyer of Nations. She sensed Xena anticipating the kill, and so she began to pressure Mavican, capitalizing on her significantly greater speed. She was striking almost two blows against Mavican's one, while closing to the near and middle distances inside her guard without difficulty. Her enemy found herself franticly trying to fend off the paired whistling blurs of the black bladed swords, as the small blonde wove cutting patterns and inflicted flesh wounds almost at will. The damage to Mavican's morale was as severe as to her body, and both classes of injuries degraded her battle capabilities.
Right biceps, left forearm, left oblique, right triceps, left deltoid; Gabrielle was working the sequence of wounds she used in training. Left biceps, right forearm, (almost made her drop her sword), right oblique, left triceps, right deltoid…first sequence complete. Mavican was bleeding from the upper extremities and her sides over her ribs where her body armor showed the slight gaps needed for adjustment. She was in pain, frustrated by her inability to cut the compact warrior, and now she realized her tactical error in facing the blonde with only a single sword. She was also tiring from the sustained effort and the cumulative blood loss. Her opponent's expression showed only a kind of detachment, a silent assurance that the fight's outcome had never been in doubt. Mavican felt the stomach-churning chill of fear. Gabrielle fully expected to kill her; her death, a foregone conclusion. A glance across the room revealed that her teacher was also bleeding, her right greave cut away, and Xena was stalking her, forcing her back with an unceasing onslaught. The glance cost her a slice across her left thigh, as Gabrielle began working the second training sequence, aimed at inflicting damage to the lower body.
A few yards away, Xena was driving Callisto. It was only a matter of time and she knew it. She'd already cut her ancient enemy and good as Callisto was, on this day the Warrior Princess could tell that she was not her equal. Xena was forcing her to withdraw closer and closer to the front of the studio, on the opposite side from where her soulmate was carving at Mavican. She'd kept an awareness of how Gabrielle was doing; it had become second nature to her over the years, and the results of her partner's combat made her feel a wave of pride. Gabrielle was in no significant danger, and so she allowed the Destroyer of Nations to come forward.
Now the speed of Xena's attacks shifted up a crucial but almost imperceptible degree. At the same time, her facial expression reflected her joyful intimidation of her enemy and her celebration of the promised bloodshed. She met Callisto's assaults with an almost negligent ease calculated to belittle her enemy's self respect. It belied the Destroyer of Nation's ability to read an opponent as if foreseeing their movements, and as she always had, she reacted without thought, using the most deadly response. One scene only on the TV show left a hint at what Ares' gift to his Favorite had conferred. In the episode The Ring, Xena had donned the enchanted Rheingold in desperation, and defeated the monster Grinhilda, slaughtered the attacking Valkyrie, and held Odin at bay. She had done it with vicious grace and inimitable skill. This was TV's single brief glimpse at the Destroyer of Nations who had once terrorized the ancient world.
Suddenly Xena shifted to her right and lashed out at Callisto with the Combined Chakram, catching her enemy's left wrist in a move so unexpected that the "Warrior Queen" didn't even see it coming. The ancient round blade bit through the bracer encasing Callisto's forearm and cut her wrist to the bone on the medial side, shearing the blood vessels and flexor tendons. It was a major wound. Now she could grip nothing with her left hand…she could no longer close her fist. Xena heard her enemy's quick hiss of pain as the dagger clattered from her grasp. She moved mercilessly to capitalize on the damage. The clone slashed a quick strike at Callisto's injured left wrist with her broadsword, and then scored a long deep cut across the back of her forearm, from the wrist halfway up to her elbow, with the Chakram. Her weapon shore through Callisto's left bracer, tearing it from her arm, and the blood flowed freely, running down in a rivulet from her fingers. Xena saw the physical shock on Callisto's face and the shadow of her fear, and the Destroyer relished it. She advanced to increase the pressure on her enemy.
Callisto fought back desperately, executing a blinding series of parries and thrusts with her sword, and then gave a piercing two-toned whistle. Across the room, Mavican swung at Gabrielle with every bit of strength she had left, breaking her rhythm. Then she turned and leapt into a somersault, crashing through the glass door. Callisto had taken three running strides and then launched herself through the plate glass window head first, sword still in hand. A trail of blood marked her path, from a recovery roll, back onto her feet, and down the sidewalk, following Mavican into the night.
Xena yearned for the killing blow; she yearned to see Callisto dead at her feet. The cloned warrior had already started towards the broken windows to follow in pursuit, but Gabrielle halted her. Their whole existence was in jeopardy. Not only had Callisto and Mavican revealed their identities to the students, but the school would almost certainly be investigated by the police. The cloned bard had read enough detective novels to be sure of that. If they were to have any chance at continuing their lives as Serena Pappas and Gabriella Covington, they had to forgo the chase and control the damage here and now.
"Xena, no! We have to let them go for now…we have to do something about all this." She gestured to the damage all around them. The school's front window and door were shattered. Glass shards littered the sidewalk, the entrance, and part of the interior. There were bloodstains, two long coats, and Callisto's body armor and dagger lying on the floor. Gabriella half-suspected that the weapon was traceable to previous crimes. And then there were the students. They were witnesses. Somewhere in the distance, she began to hear sirens.
"This isn't over," Xena grimly promised to the night through gritted teeth, "I'll find you…I'll find you both." With effort, the darkness of the Destroyer of Nations was caged by the will of the Warrior Princess. She took a deep breath.
She would see Callisto and Mavican dead once and for all, even if she had to kill them over and over until they were both convinced that it was to their advantage to stay dead. They had cheated her this night, the cowards. For the present, she knew her soulmate was right. They had to deal with the mess. She couldn't restrain a hiss of frustration. Things had been so much easier when they'd just been wandering warriors. Now that they were upstanding citizens and members of a community, they had appearances to maintain. The complications were more vexing to her that the fighting.
Gabrielle turned from another quick survey of the front of the school, the broken glass and the bloodstained floor, and she looked at her soulmate. The Warrior Princess seemed to have calmed herself and accepted the necessity of dealing with the situation at the school. The merciless rage and single-minded focus of the Destroyer of Nations was again submersed somewhere within her partner. Xena was already moving to collect her enemy's fallen weapon and armor. At least they didn't have any bodies to dispose of.
Gabrielle softly sighed with relief and walked towards the mirrors, trying to work out what to tell the students. Witnesses were inconvenient, but at least these witnesses weren't outright hostile. They weren't an enemy's sentries or scouts. It came to her that long ago, a darker Xena would have slain them without a second thought, chalking them onto the roster of collateral damage in a cold calculation of tactical advantage. She herself would have been saddened by the necessity as she applied her blades.
"Here they come," Harry whispered. The transceiver in his ear picked up and relayed his words to the men in the white van, parked down the street in the mouth of an alley.
"Got 'em. We're on it," Albert Gibson answered, turning away from the telescope and shifting to the driver's seat. Next to him, Faisil reacquired their fleeing targets with the night vision equipped digital video recorder.
"Looks like the thin one's bleeding pretty badly," the slender middle-eastern man commented, "I hope they can still lead us somewhere worthwhile."
"Yeah, it'd be a real shame if they died in a back alley, huh?" Harry asked. "Spencer would be very disappointed with us."
"Here we go. Like I said, we're on it," Gib repeated. He covered his headset microphone with one hand as he turned to Faisil and griped, "Eighteen years in this van and he's acting like a mother hen."
"Keep in touch, team," Harry reminded them, "and be careful, there are almost certainly more where they came from."
The van slipped quietly down the street, following the fleeing clones of Mavican and Callisto. Harry stayed where he was, in a second floor apartment across the street from the Columbia School of Martial Science, with his eye pressed to a night vision telescope.
Back inside the school, Xena and Gabrielle were examining the greave and bracer the Warrior Princess had cut from Callisto's body. The material looked like silk. It was light and highly flexible, seemingly providing no protection at all. Xena gave the bracer an experimental poke with her sword and found that she couldn't cut it. Gabrielle tried with one of her swords and had no better luck. Finally, Xena laid it on the floor and ran the Chakram across it. The material parted as if it had been real silk. The soulmates traded astonished glances.
Their preoccupation was broken by the sounds of shuffling from the back of the school. The students were standing in shock, barely moving, and staring at their teachers and the broken glass. Gabrielle groaned. In the distance, they could hear sirens getting louder, and they were definitely approaching. Xena just shook her head in irritation.
Finally the cloned bard addressed the students.
"Okay, folks," she began in a placating tone, "I know you've probably seen some unexpected things here tonight, and I'm sure we can explain everything…maybe tomorrow. Right now, it might be best if all of you gathered your things and went home to relax. Take a warm shower, have dinner, and watch some TV. I know that sometimes an experience can get blown out of proportion if you spend too much time thinking about it without knowing all the facts, so for now, just try to forget what you saw here tonight, and we'll see you in class on Monday, okay?" Gabrielle offered them an apologetic grin before adding, "It would really be a big help if you didn't mention this to anyone. You know how it is…we don't want to confuse our insurance claim adjuster."
She'd sounded so reasonable, and the students were so traumatized, that they just nodded their heads in agreement and began gathering their stuff. Debbie, Owen, and Ronnie seemed as though they couldn't leave fast enough. Alex and Karen gave the teachers a couple of questioning glances as they left, but Gabrielle dispensed smiles and reassuring pats on the shoulder as she herded them out. That left Danielle, who was living at the Pappas house and didn't know what to do. Gabrielle had already returned to a hasty conference with her soulmate. The sirens were already very close.
As the police cars screeched to a halt in front of the school, Xena happened to turn and notice the CWO still standing along the back wall. She'd picked up her gym bag, but hadn't really moved. Now it was too late to leave. Xena urgently gestured her into the dressing room, out of sight, and then turned to await the officers. Danielle noticed that her teachers had somehow hidden their weapons and the other evidence of the combat. They were standing over a pair of swords from the school's weapons rack.
Four officers burst into the school with their guns drawn. Their eyes were darting around the space, taking in the broken glass and the blood stains on the floor. Xena and Gabrielle stood looking at them. The police were momentarily indecisive.
"'Bout time ya got here," Xena began, "ya got some real loonies in this neighborhood."
"Look what they did to the window and the door," Gabrielle whined, her voice wavering emotionally, as she shuddered, "they must have been crazy. It was horrible. They came in here bleeding all over like they'd been fighting. They were dirty and threatening, and then they broke the glass and jumped through…they ran off when we met them with our swords." She gestured to the clean weapons lying at their feet and shivered.
"Yeah, they acted like they'd been smoking that PCB stuff," Xena added with certainty.
"I…I think I feel unsafe and upset," the blonde clone haltingly added, as if traumatized and disoriented. She seemed to have surprised herself with the declaration.
After glancing around the school and seeing no one else present, the cops called for a crime scene investigation team and detectives. They'd done a quick search, holstered their weapons, and finally came over to question the clones. By this time, Gabrielle had broken down in tears and was being held by Xena who was stroking her back and whispering soothing words.
"Wha…what if they come back?" Gabrielle tearfully asked a cop. "Sh…should we get a dog?"
"Maybe you'd better come down to the station with us," one of the officers finally offered sympathetically, "it might be easier to talk about all this away from the scene. At least we can get you a cup of coffee and a comfortable place to sit down."
"Sounds good to me," Xena agreed, "let's get out of here. I'll have to call the insurance company too."
They ended up getting into one squad car with two of the officers, while the other pair strung yellow crime scene tape across the front of the school and stood guard outside, waiting for the CSI and the detectives.
After it had been silent inside the school for a few minutes, Danielle Lefferts carefully peeked out of the locker she'd hidden in and made her escape out the back door. As she stood in the dark alley behind the building, she still couldn't believe what had happened. A glance at her watch revealed that class would have just been ending. It had been only 45 minutes since Gabriella had asked them to continue practicing while she and Serena sparred. She shook her head in amazement and started walking home just as a vehicle screeched to a halt out front. Tonight's events were something she'd have to discuss with her father.
Meanwhile, the police car made its way down the street and around the corner. It continued at a steady pace for another mile and a half to the precinct house, where the officers ushered the two women inside. One directed them to a room with a few vending machines and a coffeepot. The other made a preliminary report to the desk sergeant. Eventually, after Gabrielle had calmed down, the soulmates spent another two hours recounting their version of the night's events to a pair of detectives who had just returned from the scene. They were tight lipped and seemed to be slightly resentful about something, but it wasn't the soulmates who were the source of their ire. Believing that the women were the traumatized victims of peculiar but violent drug gang activity, they remained cordial. Xena called their insurance company from the police station, fully aware of the remaining detective listening to every word she said. Eventually they called a cab for a ride home.
After the clones of Callisto and Mavican had fled, Harry continued watching carefully as the police had arrived and escorted Xena and Gabrielle away. Gabrielle's performance as the emotionally distraught partner won his respect immediately; she was a natural-born deep cover operative. The clones were doing a masterful job of maintaining their pretense, and being familiar with police procedures, he knew that they had bought him the time he needed.
On a scanner, he monitored the CSI through the police dispatcher. Harry waited until he knew that the investigators were still engaged with their previous scene, and then he cued his team. The police detectives would arrive first, but he didn't need much time at the school to get what he wanted. A few minutes would do. He walked out the back of the building and stood in the alley. Shortly afterwards, a black van picked him up. It made a quick turn and accelerated onto the street just around the corner from the school, then sped around the corner and pulled up in front, screeching to a halt.
Harry, in his impeccable suit, and six HK MP5 toting operatives in black battle dress uniforms and balaclavas descended on the two policemen. Flashing a Drug Enforcement Agency ID, he commandeered the scene, entered the school, and went directly to the second mirror along the wall. While his men held the front of the building secure and the patrolmen waited in their cruiser, he slipped on latex gloves and deftly opened the hidden cache. The Omega Sector agent guessed he had perhaps two minutes, and so he opened the square hard-shell case and gazed at the Combined Chakram. He had read every word that Drs. Covington and Pappas had written and he'd read the files that had been complied about them, and he believed.
In his era of high tech threats, digital technology, and remote arms systems, the ancient weapon seemed almost quaint. It was an anachronism in a space-age world, yet he knew a few things about it. The Combined Chakram was over 3,000 years old, forged by a god no one now believed had existed, and in the right hands, it was deadlier than a handgun. It was also part of the history of human conflict; conflict that had persisted down through the ages to define his own time. The unending struggle between good and evil had begun before civilization, and it would follow mankind to the stars. Not even the gods had been immune to the partition of darkness and light. That dichotomy was the first principle of creation. Before him lay the proof; opposite forces combined and balanced. He reached down and snapped the ring into its two component halves, hefting the teardrop shaped blades in his hands. Harry Tasker was a modern warrior in the modern world's twilit wars. The ancient weapon impressed on him the philosophical continuity that he shared with the warriors of ages past.
Harry's unarmed combat training gave him an appreciation of the ring-bladed weapon, and he wished for the chance to try it out; to just once, cast it and see if it would strike multiple targets and return to his hand. Through his telescope, he'd seen it cleave what a sword could not. Harry's internal clock told him he was out of time. He quickly rejoined and replaced the Combined Chakram, then removed Callisto's bracer. He sealed it in an evidence bag, and reset the mirrored door. The DEA team left just as quickly as they had arrived, after Harry cordially thanked the Columbia policemen for their cooperation.
Two detectives pulled up at the scene as the black van drove away. The men felt that somehow they'd been had, after the patrolmen reported what had happened. It was a reflex, to resent Federal intrusions in their jurisdiction, but they knew there was nothing they could do about it. They went into the building when the CSI arrived, but, except for some bloodstains and broken glass on the floor, they found no further significant evidence. They were unsettled and in somewhat foul moods when they left to question the proprietresses of the school, back at the station.
When all was said and done, they had a fairly cut and dried case. They'd found no evidence that refuted the events the owners claimed had occurred. The same two people had come in and left injured without causing any further bodily harm to anyone else. There had been menacing and property damage, but there were no potential suspects. The blood would be typed, but unless it matched a local hospital patient admitted with serious lacerations, it was very unlikely that the case would ever be closed. The detectives doubted that anyone would ever be apprehended or prosecuted. Besides, there were much more serious crimes to concentrate on.
Danielle Lefferts walked home in a daze. Upon her arrival, the CWO unlocked the front door and wandered into the empty Pappas house. The soulmates were still at the police station giving their statement, and she had no idea of how long that would take or if they would be held. The whole situation had been nothing short of mind numbing. Danielle took a seat in the parlor but didn't turn on the lights. She desperately needed to think. Her hands were clammy and she was breathing quick and shallow. Sitting alone in the dark, the naval officer found it impossible to concentrate. She was beyond upset and rational thought was defeated by the extreme nature of what she'd witnessed. Her state of mind was one of shellshock, currently known by its the modern diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder. The CWO shook her head, but the images wouldn't go away. Hours of nightmares awaited her if she actually managed to fall asleep. Everything had been real. It had been all too real.
She'd known that Gabriella was an outstanding fighter; she'd seen that in the tournament and at the school. But what she'd seen tonight, first in the sparring and then in combat was leagues beyond anything she'd ever imagined. Gabriella and Serena didn't fight like any martial artists in this world. Neither did the two women who had attacked them. They fought as if all the centuries of firearms had never been; as if guns had been erased from the roster of military history while the blade and the hand that wielded it were still the preeminent weapons of war. It was also plainly obvious to her that her teachers were somehow intimately acquainted with the maniac couple that had invaded the school, and that the two women, Callisto and Mavican, knew her teachers just as well. The four had an extensive and bitter history standing between them from a long time ago. Too long ago, from the sound of it, to possibly make any kind of logical sense. Even more disturbing, if such a thing was possible, was the idea that her teachers answered to the names, Xena and Gabrielle. Gabriella had even called Serena, Xena, and she had all but confessed to having killed both SSgt. Hudson Lykos, (or Callisto…whatever), and Mavican. Xena hadn't even tried to deny being responsible for war crimes. Instead she had reveled in the accusations, taunting her enemy with added details.
The CWO desperately grasped for understanding of what she'd seen. Time travel was out of the question so long as she wanted to continue believing in her own sanity. She really had no framework to solve the dilemma on her own, but she'd grown up understanding that there were many things that were hidden from ordinary people. Danielle had grown up with a father who was career Naval Intelligence, and so to her, the whole situation was reminiscent of subterfuge and espionage. She couldn't even begin to think it through, but her father would know what to do. The CWO walked from the parlor into the study and took a seat at Serena's desk, and then she picked up the phone.
The conversation she had was strange. To Danielle, it seemed as if her dad already had some knowledge of the situation. He had seemed surprised that her teachers had been attacked so visibly and had defended themselves with such a high level of proficiency, but he also seemed to have thought it was all some sort of "drama".
Capt. Lefferts held the opinion that when dealing with covert operatives, one could only believe small portions of what was said, especially in public. They would have attempted to obscure their true histories and intentions when it became impossible to remain invisible. It was SOP, standard operating procedure. Nothing was to be taken at face value. At the levels he suspected these agents were working on, there would be layer upon layer of illusions. They would be involved in creating misinformation for their enemies, while at the same time, misdirecting anyone not involved. Their apparent references to past events probably pointed to mutual Ops the four had been entangled in, just like American and Soviet agents had been during the cold war. Her father assured her that most of what she'd heard was worthless if taken literally, and had caused the desired confusion, if her own response was any indication of how the other students were reacting. Finally, he left her with the knowledge that his people had someone who was secretly investigating the situation, and that she should try to avoid drawing attention to what had occurred. Honey, it would be for the best if our operative had unobstructed access to your teachers for the time being. Please refrain from bringing them under any added scrutiny. From what you've told me, they're both impressive fighters. Be the student and try to learn what you can. You never can tell when it might come in handy.
"This isn't over. I'll find you…I'll find you both."
(Cloned Xena, to Callisto and Mavican)November 3, 2001 – An Undisclosed Location in Washington, D.C.
"They fled six blocks and were picked up by a waiting car that drove them to the Owens Municipal Airport where they boarded a Gulfstream V. SkyEyes tracked them to a site 20 miles outside of Atlanta. On touchdown, Helo Team Eleven picked them up and trailed them to a compound 24 miles southeast of the city. Harry, it's a DOE blackbox installation." Albert Gibson's report was succinct over the COM link. It was 7 am.
"Listen up team," Harry responded from Omega Sector headquarters where he was seated at the conference table with Spencer Trilby, "we've got a report on their armor."
A different technician was ushered in and stood nervously beside the conference table. The early middle-aged woman worked for a covert equivalent of the Aberdeen Proving Grounds, in the Materials Analysis Division. She had never been to this headquarters before, so she'd been blindfolded the entire time she was being admitted, and was thoroughly discomfited now. The technician was present to render a report on a piece of bloodstained body armor that had been brought to her lab in the dead of night. Agents had rousted her from her home and escorted her post haste to her lab to perform the work, at 3am. They had stood by throughout the entire procedure, vigilant as owls, and then repossessed all the samples, data, and notes when she was done. One of them had "borrowed" the hard drive from her computer, though that had been returned to her earlier after being checked for anything related to the tests she'd just completed. She was possessively clutching it in her hands right now. No one she'd come into contact with had been uncivil, but every single agent had been impersonal and professional.
"Please proceed," Director Trilby invited the uncomfortable technician, while offering a welcoming smile of reassurance.
Like everyone else she'd seen here, he hadn't introduced himself, but he was sitting at the head of the table. She had a number of questions, several dozen in fact, but assumed that asking them would be a breach of these people's etiquette. With irritation born of fatigue, she recalled that when she reported to the CIA in Langley, they at least provided her with a chair and a cup of coffee. This bunch was so uptight that they didn't even have coffee for themselves. The table was bare and she had remained standing. Sensing no acceptable alternatives, the technician took a calming breath while summoning her professional demeanor, and began her recitation. The test results were…interesting.
"Ummm, the forearm body armor, also referred to as a bracer, was already damaged upon arrival. After the removal of a small sample and washing off the preexisting blood contamination, the sample was subjected to the standard selective materials assay battery. Qualitative analysis revealed that the material is organic in origin. Spectrographic and chromatographic analysis then determined the molecular constituents…"
"In English, please," Spencer cajoled, before encouraging her with, "I trust you to be thorough and to apply the appropriate testing protocols." He gave her another smile.
"Uh, yes, sir," the chagrined technician responded. Of course they didn't want a comprehensive report, she thought petulantly, they didn't even have time to drink coffee or let her sit down. "The material is spider silk."
"That would be quite a lot of spider silk, wouldn't you say?" Trilby asked.
"It's man-made spider silk."
"The process is rather clever. Goats are bio-engineered with arachnid genes so that they produce spider silk proteins in their milk,"* she recited. "The proteins are collected, then spun and woven into material. It is lightweight, five times stronger than steel, and highly flexible, uh, like…silk."
(*This technology is currently under development at Nexia Biotechnologies in Montreal. The goats look normal, and Jeff Turner, the head of the company, makes the point that a goat has 70,000 genes, of which only 1 need be added to produce spider silk proteins. The product will be called BioSteel, and one application could be to substitute spider silk ropes for rockets to lift satellites into orbit.) ~Editor, paraphrasing Nat'l Geog., Jan '03"How would it compare with synthetics?"
"You mean like Kevlar? Sir, a spider's web only appears fragile because of the extreme thinness of its strands. Compared to Kevlar, the material itself is stronger in tension and against impact, is more cut resistant, more flexible and stretchable, and it's lighter. On the body it is breathable, increasing wearer comfort. It's the perfect material for this application. This bracer…I couldn't remove the sample with a scalpel…I had to fray off several fibers from an already damaged area by repeatedly sectioning it with a microtome. I'd like to know what caused the original damage. The fibers were cleanly sheared, even when examined at 100X magnification. Spider-silk production has been in development for a decade; the cutting tool interests me more. Do you think I could witness the next test?"
Spencer Trilby sighed as if he was actually tired, before responding to the technician's request. In fact, the genetically engineered goat silk fell in line with technologies that were capable of cloning and arming artificially recreated warriors.
"I don't think that will be possible for the near future. Regrettably, the process is still highly classified. I appreciate the discomfort you've suffered, resulting from the required haste of this analysis, and I thank you for providing your results and insights." He gave her a friendly smile of dismissal before cueing his personal assistant. "Francis, would you please show the lady out? Take her by the cafeteria on the way if she's interested in breakfast, would you? The eggs benedict is quite satisfying and the coffee's superb."
In disbelief, the technician turned to the African-American woman who'd appeared beside her and was gesturing her forward with one hand. The personal assistant didn't speak a word as she escorted the technician out of the room and handed her a blindfold. Almost as soon as they were out of sight, Spencer picked up a report from the DNA lab.
"Blood analysis from the bracer," he declared, waving the sheaf of papers. "Another clone. Similar ladder banding marking the genes, every 1,000 base pairs again, but this time using different bases. More clones, different source?"
"Sounds like a reasonable assumption," Harry agreed, "supported by the differences in their equipment, motives, and conduct."
"Harry, you know I can't easily authorize a full tactical strike against a government installation. I'd need presidential authorization and the President needs to maintain credible deniability."
"It's probably just as well, sir. I believe that a small supported infiltration team would be more appropriate. Of course we want to stop this, but what's more important is to capture those responsible. I think I'll need to bring in outside assets this time."
"I'll trust your judgement. How long would it take you to be ready?"
While Harry was organizing his thoughts, Al Gibson's muffled griping could be heard over the COM link. "…gets eggs benedict and we have 7-11 pastries. …this coffee sucks. …years in this fucking van…" Spencer Trilby chuckled.
"We'll need thermal and satellite images of the target, operative recruitment, general surveillance and information gathering, target acquisition, asset and material prep, and a favorable lunar phase," Harry finally reported. "Four days."
"Proceed then…and Harry?" The director gave his agent a focused look. 18 years before, Harry Tasker had borne a different name. He'd been among the best covert rescue commandos the US Army had bankrolled during the cold war. Then there had been the "incident". Though his team was under the command of Maj. Gen. Philips, the mission had been under the control of his old comrade, CIA agent Dillon. In a nameless Latin American jungle, "Dutch" and his team had encountered a hostile xenomorph. Everyone else on the mission had died horribly. "Dutch" had only survived by applying extraordinary measures. He had improvised, gone beyond the scope of his training, and escaped with his life. He'd been hell to recruit, but Spencer Trilby had made him disappear, even to the CIA who had dogged him for months after his return. He'd begun a new life as a covert operative for Omega Sector, gotten married, and was raising a daughter. For the last 17 years he'd proved to be dedicated, reliable, and unfailingly capable. He had earned Director Trilby's respect. The old man wished him well. "Good luck."
Do you want to know a secret? Do you promise not to tell?
Closer…let me whisper in your ear…
(Partial lyric from, "Do You Want To Know A Secret", Beatles, ©1963)November 5, 2001 – Columbia, South Carolina
Danielle Lefferts heard the doorbell ring, and since she was closest, sitting in front of the TV in the parlor, she tore herself away from Days of Our Lives and got up to answered the door. It was their next door neighbor, Harry Tasker, standing on the porch. Because of his briefcase, she guessed that he was probably stopping by on his way home from work. He certainly looked different now from when she'd last seen him, in his Terminator costume on Halloween. This afternoon he was wearing a tasteful business suit and he gave her a warm smile in greeting.
"Hello, Danielle, I was wondering if Serena and Gabriella are in, I was hoping to speak with them both."
"Hi, Harry," Danielle said, sniffling slightly. "They're around here somewhere. I think they're in the study. Why don't you wait here for a moment and I'll go see?"
"Thanks." He noted that the woman's eyes had been red and a box of Kleenex sat on the sofa. The soap opera was still playing on the large screen TV.
Shortly later, Harry was seated in the study, facing the clones across their desks. He'd noticed that the three hard-shell cases were lined up against the wall behind them. The two women regarded him, Gabriella with curiosity over a heap of papers, Serena with calculated neutrality across her bare desk. Harry opted for openness and candor.
"This is supposed to be a secret, but I need to convince you of something…"
"Let me guess," Gabrielle replied, cutting him off. "You're a compulsive thief and you'll steal anything not nailed down unless Helen ties you up…that's probably why you swiped our hairbrushes. It's definitely why you took the bracer."
Harry could only stare at her in astonishment. The conversation wasn't going as well as he'd hoped, or at least it wasn't off to a very good start. They'd skipped over about three dozen topics.
"No. That's not it at all," he sputtered. Xena looked disappointed. "You have to swear that you won't tell anyone what I'm going to tell you. You see, I'm a spy."
"Of course you are, Harry," Gabrielle told him agreeably. "We know all about that. Actually, we thought there might be something amiss from the very beginning, though we weren't going to hold it against you unless you mentioned it. Well, everyone has their secrets. We figured it out eventually. At first though, I thought it might be a body chemistry thing, or maybe a brain tumor…I'm just glad you aren't really a Terminator."
"It's not a tumor," Harry muttered defensively.
The conversation had taken a turn towards the absurd. This wouldn't do. Harry needed to get things back on track. Candor, he reminded himself. He decided to present his appeal in a straightforward manner.
"I need your help," he told them, looking with a clear and unblinking gaze into their eyes, one after the other, trying to recapture a serious mood. "We have mutual enemies. They're the enemies of this country too, but more importantly, they are a threat to all the good people of the world. I know this sounds crazy, but you two may be the only ones who can help."
"Ya don't say?" Was Xena's first comment. She seemed to harbor doubts.
Gabrielle couldn't help but roll her eyes in reaction to her neighbor's somewhat bombastic appeal. It sounded melodramatic and apocalyptic…quite overdone, in fact. She assigned it all the gravity of one of Danielle's daytime dramas.
"Harry, I'd really like to believe you, but this sounds like something from a movie or maybe a TV show. In fact, I think I've read similar things in some of those books." The cloned bard waved a hand over her shoulder, vaguely indicating the book club offerings she'd collected during the last year. "Let me guess. There's a secret plot by a secret arm of the government to build a secret weapon and secretly take over the country, right?"
Harry looked at the blonde clone in dumbfounded silence. For a moment he wondered if Omega Sector really was still the last line of defense. Maybe now there was another even more covert agency…populated by cloned idiot savants. Xena chuckled. Gabrielle cocked an eyebrow and revised her statement.
"No? Okay, they want to secretly take over the world." She offered him a warm smile.
The little scamp's humoring me, Harry fumed to himself. She thinks I'm crazy!
"Actually, you're right about most of that, Gabriella. I have information proving that a secret Dept. of Energy installation is really a front for a lab that's creating evil clones. They may be trying to destabilize the United States. Maybe they're plotting to take over the world too. I don't know about that yet. The thing is, I need your help to stop them."
At the mention of evil clones, the soulmates became more serious. They began looking at Harry very closely, weighing just how much of a threat he might be to them. Their best bet was to ferret out more information…keep him talking. They could kill him later.
"We know all about the cloned tyrannosaurus, Harry. We even saw one attackin' San Diego a year and a half ago, while we were at the Jack in the Box," Xena related without much enthusiasm. "It was INGEN doin' the clonin'…it's a common knowledge type secret. So are ya goin' to Costa Rica to stop the dinosaurs?"
"INGEN? Dinosaurs? Costa Rica? No, no, no, that's not it at all. They were trying to build a theme park and they screwed it all up. That whole thing was a morality play about corporate greed, glory hungry John Hammond's hubris, and science playing god. This is different."
"Sure it is. This time it's about government greed, their power hungry leader's hubris, and science playin' god, right? We got that," Xena said, just to clarify the situation.
"Yes, no…well, maybe," Harry spluttered. He decided to forge ahead. "Someone is cloning sociopaths from the Hellenistic era, and I need your help to destroy them. So far I've seen Callisto and Mavican, and they looked just like they did on that TV show, Xena Warrior Princess. You two look just like Xena and Gabrielle, but more importantly, you can fight like them. I don't think anyone else stands a chance and there might be more of them that we haven't seen. That's why I need your help."
Xena groaned and Gabrielle sighed. Their next door neighbor really was a spy.
"So if we help ya, are we gonna end up in a theme park when this is all over?"
"Not unless Universal Studios buys out Renaissance Pictures," Harry reassured them. "I was hoping that you two might want to work with me from time to time. It's exciting, it pays well, and you'd be doing the right thing. You could be heroes. Trust me."
After reading the work of Drs. Covington and Pappas, he knew enough to frame his request as an appeal to the Greater Good. It was still important to the soulmates.
"Why don't you tell us what you know, Harry," Gabrielle asked, "and we'll tell you what we can. We do believe you. I've seen two Callistos, and I killed one of them in San Francisco in September. We killed Alti a year and a half ago. There could be more."
"Yeah, we were never lackin' for enemies," Xena added, "but ya can't tell anybody about us. Ya see, we're clones too…and it's a secret." She winked at him and displayed a feral grin. "We'd have to kill ya if it got around."
So, while Danielle sat in the parlor sobbing over the tribulations of the characters in General Hospital,Harry Tasker snapped open his briefcase and shared highly classified government information with a pair of cloned warriors from the ancient world. They spoke for a couple of hours, in the study decorated like a campaign tent from the Roman Empire, and it was as serious a strategy session as anything the soulmates had been involved with in their original lives. Harry was delighted to learn that they could handle firearms. They were delighted to learn that he had access to a private plane and they wouldn't have to walk to Georgia. (Their car burned too much gas). Cloned Xena was already plotting on how to wheedle a chance to work the controls. Cloned Gabrielle was trying to figure out how to change the mission specifics enough to be able to publish an account of the adventure as her first novel. They only ended the session when Danielle came in, offering to go for fried chicken if she could use the car. Xena had never trusted the CWO with her classic '69 Z-28 Camaro yet, and she enjoyed driving too much to pass up an opportunity to go out and contest with other drivers during rush hour.November 7, 2001 – In Flight Over Georgia
Harry Tasker was counting off the minutes until they reached the short, straight section of rural blacktop his ground team had secured. Their small black Piper Navajo carried a pilot, copilot, three passengers, (Harry, Xena, and Gabrielle), and a bomb. Gabrielle was pressing her face against the glass, desperately trying to see out of the window next to her seat. Outside, it was pitch black. The raid had been scheduled for a moonless night, favoring the dark just as the Amazons had. Xena was sitting in the rearmost seats, her back to the window, legs stretched across the aisle, sulking because the flight crew hadn't allowed her anywhere near the controls. She hadn't said a word since discovering that she couldn't intimidate the old pilot with her glare. The man had survived almost two years in a Viet Cong POW camp. A thirty-five year marriage and the subsequent divorce had been worse, and nothing much in the way of threats impressed him anymore. The copilot was his eldest son. Like the commercial copilot on the flight from New Zealand back in May, he'd started off by recommending a flight simulator program for her computer. Xena had actually growled at him before stalking back to the rear of the plane, thinking that it had been typical of her luck. She'd also been irritated because, unlike the big commercial jet, she hadn't even been able to stand fully upright in the Piper's cabin.* Her only bit of satisfaction had been kicking the torpedo-shaped metal thing, that had been sitting in the middle of the aisle over the trap doors, and watching Harry blanch.
(*Gabrielle had grinned at her and received a dark look, daring her to laugh. The blonde had refrained from exhibiting her mirth in the most obvious fashion, instead bouncing on her toes. Gabrielle wasn't without her own difficulties though. The bard was very uncomfortable at heights between 10 and 1,000 feet, especially if her own feet weren't on the ground. Horseback riding was acceptable; climbing a ship's rigging intolerable. Her own uneasiness encompassed boarding, takeoff, landing, and deplaning. The cruising altitudes of commercial jets simply didn't register as real and therefore didn't trigger her phobia as badly as staring down out the windows of a stationary jet at the runway 20 feet below. Once in the air, it was so dark on this flight that she was mostly disoriented and had no sense of height at all.) ~Editor
It was a mercifully short flight. The roughly 175 miles between Columbia, S.C. and the deserted road southeast of Atlanta, Ga. was about three-quarters of an hour's flying time in the small, twin engine, piston prop aircraft. The pilot practically hugged the treetops the whole way, the altitude allowing them to remain below commercial radar, comfortably inconspicuous.
The landing was the worst part. For a horrifying minute, Gabrielle suffered the sensations of both speed and height. Approaching a two-lane stretch of rural macadam lit only by the headlights of a pair of vans, the pilot nearly tagged one van's roof with the landing gear as he throttled down and applied the flaps, barely retaining enough lift to avert a nosedive. The landing gear touched down with a screech at 95 mph and the Piper taxied to a halt with the engine at idle. Immediately, the hatch popped open, and Harry, Xena, and an unsteady Gabrielle lurched out onto the road. The three were escorted into a black van by two men in black BDUs, while a waiting team turned the plane by literally lifting the tail and walking it around until the craft was pointing back the way it had come. The pilot revved up and took off back down the road, again clearing the van at the end of the strip by a foot as the landing gear retracted. The endangered van had immediately driven off in the opposite direction to get in position to create a diversion. Three minutes after they had landed, the road was deserted and the sound of the small plane's engine was rapidly fading in the distance.
The unendangered van sped through the night towards the DOE installation. Inside, under a dim red light that was not the Eye of Hephaestus, Harry and his teammates were going over their mission checklists. The clones sat in silence, (Xena checking her weapons, Gabrielle nervously pulling at a thread on her BDU pants), watching as night vision goggles and communications gear were tested, maps consulted, and information shared.
In the middle of the country road, Albert Gibson suddenly jerked the wheel hard to the right sending the van off the pavement and into open woods. Their vehicle had suddenly joined the other van on the endangered list. Its tortured suspension revolted, jarring and slamming the occupants into the steel side walls. Xena cursed under her breath. They were going off-road and the driving might have been fun, but Al was no more likely to share the wheel than their pilot had been.
"Are you crazy? What do you think you're doing?" An upset Harry Tasker yelled.
"I've got it. I've got it," Al claimed, before narrowly dodging a tree, "woah!"
The clones braced themselves with their shoulders and legs, expecting a crash. The van was bucking like a runaway dogcart headed down a steep hill on a rutted backroad in the Thracian uplands…with Aphrodite at the reins.
"Are you even looking where you're going?" The other agent asked, having barely secured his MP5SD submachine gun after the second lurch. He was a wiry man with straight brown hair, somewhat younger than Harry Tasker, and remarkably good looking.
"I said I've got it, geezus. It's called 'driving dark'…no headlights, no streetlights, and yup, no road." Agent Gibson brought the vehicle to an abrupt halt and triumphantly announced, "right on schedule at the insertion point."
Al was actually checking his watch as he set the parking brake. He looked over his seat back at the occupants in the rear and gave them a wide grin. Harry groaned. Xena gave him a chilling look, which the other agent noticed. He grinned at her.
"I'll shoot him myself after we get back," he offered gallantly, "then someone else can drive. We'll call it a friendly fire accident in the report, okay?" The agent suggested agreeably, before introducing himself. "Ethan Hunt, IMF, pleased to meet you."
"Xena," the cloned Warrior Princess responded, momentarily confusing him by clasping his forearm in a warrior's greeting. Being as they were all secret agent types now she figured that Ethan could keep a secret and she saw no reason not to give their real names. She nodded to her partner, "this is Gabrielle."
"Hey," the bard said, giving Ethan a warm smile, "have you been a spy very long?"
"Gabrielle…you can get his story later, if we survive," Xena told her as Harry popped open the van's rear doors and hopped out. "Time to go save the world," she muttered.
"That sounds so grandiose, Xena," the bard complained testily. She was curious, as usual, and felt miffed at losing an opportunity to do some background research on a new acquaintance. To Ethan she said, "I really do hope you live through this because I've got a few questions about what it's like to be a spy nowadays. Harry might want to employ us sometime and I want to get another opinion on the job. It'll help us get up to speed…see, it's been quite a while since the last time we saved the world."
Xena rolled her eyes, and then allowed herself to fall into warrior mode; acute senses sampling the surroundings, mind alert to her companions, and body poised for action. She followed Harry and Al around the front of the van in complete silence, startling the latter by being right behind him when he turned to gesture the others forward. Jumpy goat's gonna shoot himself in the foot, flinchin' like that, she thought with annoyance. Behind her she sensed the equally silent bard, and heard the soft breathing of agent Hunt.
Al and Harry led them stealthily through a scant fifty feet of woods, and then instructed them to crawl forward to the edge of the undergrowth. They moved on their bellies, silent as snakes in the grass, very mindful that the brightness they were approaching would cast harsh shadows whose movement would betray them. They'd be illuminated as if they were on an old Vaudeville stage, but they'd get no laughs from this audience…only bullets. Finally, Harry ordered them to stop.
Up ahead Xena saw a tall perimeter fence of chain link topped with razor wire, standing about eight feet from where they hid in the cover of underbrush. Beyond it she saw a no man's land, carpeted in short mown grass like the fairways on a golf course, that she estimated was twenty-five yards wide, and then an inner fence identical to the first. From within the inner fence, spotlights illuminated the area from the tops of steel poles about three stories high. Beyond these outer defenses lay a wider lawn, lacking only the headstones to make a cemetery. The warrior recognized that it provided clear lines of fire for the roaming patrols, which were made up of either paired men or a single man with an attack dog. They were US Army Military Police, and all of them carried assault rifles. Unwavering sodium vapor yellow lit the space. It was set up as a killing ground; as functional and deadly as any the Warrior Princess had ever seen. The clone shook her head. Their target was far more like a military base than a civilian government agency installation. That is unless one counted this agency's history of involvement with the US nuclear arsenal; atomic and hydrogen bomb development, testing, and production, which was done under the auspices of the DOE in it's former incarnation as the Atomic Energy Commission.
(The 1st and 3rd stated aims of the Department of Energy are: Defense Strategic Goal: To protect our national security by applying advanced science and nuclear technology to the Nation's defense. Science Strategic Goal: To protect our national and economic security by providing world-class scientific research capacity and advancing scientific knowledge. © US Government DOE. Needless to say, this mandate covers quite a range of projects that fall into the categories of advanced science and world-class research. Within the Dept. of Energy is the Office of Science, the Federal government's largest funder of research, whose manifest includes biological science and genomics.) ~Editor
Inside the guarded compound the team noted a series of low, nondescript buildings, each one of them identical to the next. The abundant and unsympathetic lighting rendered their unremarkable architecture dismal. The only details missing from a genuine Stalag 13 atmosphere were the guard towers and the crowds of starving prisoners.
"Gotta plan to get in there?" Xena asked Harry Tasker in a whisper as they stared through the fence. "In the old days, I woulda' had an artillery company create a diversion at the gate, add to the confusion with a secondary siege assault on a flanking wall, and then move in on foot with my best fighters from a third direction, closer to the objective."
"Well, we're the third team," Harry replied, squinting through a pair of binoculars at the buildings, "the flanking assault will come from the gate," he pulled the field glasses away from his eyes and checked his watch. "Cover your eyes," he advised everyone, "and the primary diversion is going to drop on them right about…now."
The team members had barely wrapped their arms over their heads when a blinding flash lit the compound. It was a brilliant blue-white, but the accompanying report was surprisingly muffled and didn't carry. They felt the concussion more as a thump in the ground than a bang in the air. The lights went dead.
"High energy electromagnetic pulse bomb from the plane we flew in on," Harry hastily explained. "It'll disable their electrical circuits…primary, backup, and even battery-powered emergency systems. Very comprehensive…very effective."
Xena gulped. She realized that earlier, on the plane, she'd kicked the bomb. She also realized just how closely timed their operation was. No wonder Al had driven like a lunatic to get to the insertion point on time. He'd had one eye on his watch with good reason. Everything was coordinated to a timetable.
By the time the five had reached the outer fence, they could hear a fusillade of small arms fire erupting in the distance from somewhere on their right. The second van, Xena realized; the diversion had started and the bomb had been their signal.
The response to it within the compound was almost immediate, if a bit confused. On the grounds inside the fences, the guards were shouting orders and running towards the disturbance. Even in the blackout, the clones could tell that the troop movements were chaotic. The soldiers couldn't communicate to coordinate their deployment now that the EMP bomb had knocked out their radios. The diversion was proving highly effective.
Harry and Al leapt to their feet. They set a black self-adhesive ribbon in an arc on the fence and then stepped back a couple paces. A fuse at one end of the ribbon disappeared into a striker pack. As Gabrielle, Xena, and Ethan watched, Al abruptly ripped the striker off the fuse, lighting it like a match. The fuse was fast burn. It hissed and spat sparks then quickly disappeared into the self-adhesive ribbon. They heard a soft crackling, saw the ribbon incandesce with a dull reddish glow that was accompanied by a metallic burning smell, and after half a minute, the section of chain link inside the ribbon fell out of the fence and onto the ground. Al kicked the sizzling mesh out of the way. It had left a neat arch shaped cutout in the fence that they could crawl in through. Harry took a second ribbon pack and crawled through the outer fence. When Xena and Gabrielle moved to follow him, he motioned for them to stay put.
"Wait until I breach the inner fence, then all of you move in quick," Harry instructed. He'd pulled on a pair of night vision goggles, and Xena raised an eyebrow, giving him a questioning glance. Understanding it he answered, "Our electronics are made differently. The circuits are hardened against EMP by using gallium arsinide instead of silicon. They're also a bit different in the way they're physically constructed. What's important is that the few things we need to have working will work. Trust me."
To the naked eye, he was soon swallowed up in the black shroud of the night. Beyond six yards it was too dark to even mark his passage by a rustle in the grass. Albert Gibson and Ethan Hunt followed Harry's progress with their own night vision goggles as he quickly wormed his way across the killing ground and silently burned an opening in the inner fence. The gunfire in the distance had escalated, joined by the whizzing rounds and belching rattle of a mini-gun. The installation's gate was under a heavy assault while the premises remained in total darkness. Finally Harry waved the team forward before moving a few yards inside the compound and off to the right, where he hunkered down and swung his HK53 in short arcs, searching for any threatening targets.
"Everybody move, now!" Al hissed to the others before leading the way.
Al, Gabrielle, and Xena crawled quickly through the fences, with Ethan bringing up the rear. Once inside the compound, they regrouped and raced towards the buildings in a running crouch. Ethan had sprinted to the nearest light pole and placed a charge a few feet above the ground on its side, before rejoining them along the wall of the first building.
The five infiltrators slipped along the side of the building with rapid stealth, their ears straining to hear any hostile parties nearby. It was so pitch black that they had to feel the wall at their sides. At the end of the wall, Harry carefully set a Sure-Fire Z-2 Light with a special beam filter for use as an infrared illuminator on the ground just past the wall. When it drew no attention, he slowly extended an inspection mirror around the building's corner. The Omega Sector agent observed the image for a few moments with his night vision goggles and then pulled back a few feet, having reclaimed his light. Facing his teammates, he first pointed to his chest with his thumb, pointed to his eye with a finger, held up three fingers, held his hands a foot apart, and then flashed ten fingers twice. Next, he drew his index finger across his throat and then held it vertically across his lips.
("I see three enemies around the corner twenty feet away. We need to kill them in silence.") ~Editor
Xena gave him a feral grin. As the others watched, she closed her eyes and unclipped the Combined Chakram, and for a moment she stood still in concentration. Then she moved, stepping away from the wall with one foot and launching the weapon out from the building and up over the lawn. The ring whistled slightly as it rose, reached the apex of its arc, and then dove back towards the building while gaining speed. It passed out of sight around the corner as a blur fifteen feet above the ground while splitting into halves. There was a muffled sequence of thuds and a ping as the halves rejoined. The Chakram reappeared in one piece, arcing upwards again over the lawn before slowing to a stop and finally reversing its course. Xena held out her hand as the deadly ring sliced down through the air to find her. As she clipped it back at her waist, Harry peeked around the corner and saw the three guards lying still on the ground. He motioned the team forward.
They came around the corner and hustled down the front of the building, bypassing the fallen guards. Gabrielle guessed that, as in the old days, the men's throats had been cut before they'd even known they were under attack. Not a one had raised a weapon or called out. With the targets out of sight around a corner, knocking them out instead of killing them would never be certain; it wasn't an option. For a brief moment the ghosts of Praetorians, slain outside Caesar's palace in Rome on a warm night in 46 BC, haunted the bard's vision, before she banished them and moved on. Some things in war didn't change.
The team gained the building entrance unobserved and Harry stopped them just out of sight beside the glass doors. The agent didn't trust the inspection mirror and IR illuminator when possible reflections off the glass could confuse him. He had no intention of showing even half his face at head height either, where it could be most expected, easily seen, and shot off by a guard waiting inside. This time Harry lay on the ground before peeking around the corner. When he pulled back and faced his teammates again, he just whispered, "all clear."
Albert Gibson immediately stepped around Harry, slipped the blades of a lock-picking gun into the door's keyhole, and pilled the trigger several times. With a satisfied grunt, he pulled open the door and knelt out of the way. The other four charged around him and entered, then spread out in the lobby, covering the inside approaches, doors, stairs, and hallways. Al pivoted himself through the door and pulled it shut behind him, making sure the lock clicked as it engaged. After a few seconds, they heard Ethan snap his fingers to get their attention. With their night vision goggles, Al and Harry saw his index finger trace an arc in the darkness, indicating the way to a stairwell leading down below ground. Al whispered to the soulmates and they followed him as the team converged.
Once in the stairwell, it was virtually pitch black. With no available light for amplification, Harry led the way using the IR illuminator as an invisible flashlight, and seeing their surroundings in ghostly green with his night vision goggles. Behind him, Xena and Gabrielle were completely blind, and relied on their hearing and their finely honed subtler senses to gauge their surroundings, direction, and the locations of their companions. Al and Ethan, both wearing goggles, brought up the rear. They were moving quickly but remained wary of any sounds that would signal hostile pursuit.
This is just like some cave or mineshaft, Gabrielle thought, but without the dampness and rough-hewn floor. She'd noted the hard echoes and dusty trace scent of concrete walls. It's as dark as a dungeon at midnight in here, but thankfully the smell is nowhere near as stomach turning. I guess it's really more like a tomb…without any fresh bodies.
Judging from the outside, I'm sure we've moved further than the length of the building, Xena decided after tallying up her strides, so this tunnel must connect more than one building. That explains why Harry could choose the end building instead of having to pick one in the middle of the compound. Sure made infiltratin' easier. It beats havin' to fight our way in. Wonder how far we have to go?
She'd no sooner wondered it than the group came to a T-shaped intersection. Again, Harry lay on the floor and checked around the corner. Seeing the passageway empty, he unhesitatingly led them down the left-hand branch. Above ground they would have been crossing a street. After sixty feet they came to a stainless steel door that sealed the tunnel from wall to wall. It was wholly smooth and featureless, without knob, lock, or handle. He began to examine the walls and door with the IR illuminator, searching for a passcard slot, call button, intercom panel, or any hidden switches that might activate the door. Finally, he placed his hands flat on the metal and pushed, straight in, and then as if to slide it in either direction. It didn't budge.
"So what now?" Xena asked in a soft whisper.
"There's nothing here to make it open," Harry answered, "so we blow the door."
He began by pulling some wrapped parcels out of a stuff sack on his back, stripping paper from one side of each and firmly pressing them onto the center of the door where they stuck fast. He made sure that the individual parcels overlapped each other, creating a single mass. Al and Ethan had backed off when he'd started working, and they'd led Xena and Gabrielle back to the intersection of the hallways. They took a position around the corner and waited.
"I miss the peace and quiet already. Ah well…earplugs, ladies?" In the glow of his Sure Fire light, Al held out a palmful of small rubber cones to the soulmates, and demonstrated by slipping a pair of them into his own ears. Xena and Gabrielle followed his example, then tried removing them and putting them back in several times before finally settling the plugs into their ears.
"Sure beats stuffin' in wax," Xena commented appreciatively, "easier to take out too."
"I always hated that," Gabrielle added, "it made my ears itch for days afterwards."
After a few minutes, Harry rejoined them and inserted a pair of earplugs of his own.
"Charges are set," he announced. He traded weapons with Ethan, took careful aim at the explosive mass with the MP5SD* and warned, "fire in the hold."
(*Heckler and Koch produces their world class submachine gun, the MP5, in a number of configurations. The designation SD stands for Sound Dampened, and the weapon is supplied with an HK factory sound suppressor. While the report is still clearly audible, it is significantly reduced in volume from an unsuppressed discharge. The MP5 fires 9mm x 19 pistol ammunition, while the HK53 uses 5.56mm x 45 rifle cartridges.) ~Editor
He depressed the trigger and there was a single abrupt thump from the weapon, then a minimal flash of light down the tunnel, and a strong concussion in the air. With the earplugs in place, the blast caused minimal ringing of the ears even in the enclosed space. Dust sifted to their nostrils and a burned smell filled the air. For a short span of heartbeats, silence was restored, and then there was a flurry of cursing, yelled orders, tromping footsteps, and heavy breathing. Whatever lay on the far side of the steel door, it was defended, and now they'd stirred up the den of snakes. Harry and Ethan exchanged weapons again.
"No more free ride," Albert Gibson muttered. "Stay behind me, and when we get to the door be sure to duck and cover," he warned. He switched off the safety on his HK53 before following Harry back around the corner and into the tunnel. Ethan was already moving forward as well.
"Time to go save the world, huh?" Gabrielle asked Xena.
"Let's just move out, shall we?" The Warrior Princess replied, focusing grimly. She had acquired a definite sense of foreboding. There was danger ahead; she felt it with every pulse of her finely honed senses and every tensing of her battle-sharpened instincts.
They were running flat out towards where the steel door had been, and where the enemy's voices were coming from now. Having lost the advantage of stealth, they had to capitalize on the advantage of surprise and attack immediately while their enemies were still in confusion. The cloned soulmates could hear a lot of voices up the passage. The advantage of superior force was almost certainly not in their favor. Still, the assault team had another tactic to aid in maximizing the element of surprise they did have. Harry, Al, and Ethan flipped their night vision goggles up, off of their eyes, and tossed flash-bang grenades ahead of them through the gaping hole in the door.
In the darkness, the magnesium bright bursts were blinding to the naked eyes. The concussions in the enclosed space were even worse. It was stunning. Despite their earplugs and partial shielding from the door, the soulmates' hearing was temporarily reduced to nothing and their heads rang. At least they'd followed Al's advice and covered their eyes. They'd felt the power of the blasts striking their bodies like strong blows. At close range beyond the door it would have been like a kick from a mad horse. For their enemies, searching the darkness with dilated pupils and straining their bare ears, the flash-bang grenades were completely incapacitating. The defenders were too debilitated to even begin screaming before a count of ten had passed. By then, the three agents had their goggles back on and were carefully assessing the remaining threat from the dozen troops writhing on the floor. The soulmates had followed the agents through the door and into the midst of the incapacitated defenders. The agents doubted that the fallen guards were even aware that their invaders were moving among them. It would be a long time before they recovered enough to be battle worthy.
In the dark, they heard the hiss of Xena's sword leaving its scabbard.
"I'll start finishin' 'em off while you check the perimeter," she offered to Harry. It was, after all his operation, and she was willing to defer to him and do the dirty work this time.
The agent shuddered, realizing just how little different a campaign would have been in her time. She would never have chosen to leave a living enemy at her back while inside an enemy stronghold. Years ago the rules had been the same for him on search and destroy missions, but these were American soldiers; regular enlisted men. They had only been assigned to this installation as guards. They were in no way responsible for what was going on here. With a groan, he turned to the Warrior Princess.
"No. We hold them hostage. Nowadays their lives are valuable. Besides, they're just stationed here on guard duty…they probably don't even know what's really going on." In the dark, he could see Xena shrug and sheath her weapon. She hadn't been bloodthirsty, just pragmatic. It was a relief.
They settled for collecting the soldiers' weapons while Gabrielle volunteered to restrain them with plastic wire ties. The others heard her giggling in the dark as she bound each of the guards' elbows behind their backs, and then their wrists to their opposite ankles as they knelt. In fact the blonde was good at it, even when operating only by feel. The Warrior Princess rolled her eyes in the dark. Her soulmate was getting artistic, having had a lot of practice binding captives during her original life. She'd taken out sentries and left them gagged and hanging in trees, like spiders in the dead of night, never betraying their presence to their enemies. It had been either that or slit their throats if there wasn't time. Creative restraint had been Gabrielle's solution to avoiding killing. Xena recalled that Gabrielle's penchant for bondage had surfaced early on in their adventures.
The blonde had "restrained" the misguided Melas during the opening days of their battles against Callisto. After foiling his clumsy attempt at an ambush on the road to Corinth, Xena had been set to disembowel him. Instead, Gabrielle had tied him to a tree. She'd rigged him with his wrists bound together between his legs, the rope passing up his back to loop around his neck, while his spread legs had been immobilized, knees bent, in a posture reminiscent of a frog grabbing its crotch. The bard had used the handle of his own dagger as his gag. Xena figured that her "talent" had probably originated with the roping of rams and pigs for castration on her father's farm. She shook her head. Her young sidekick had used up such yardage of thongs and cord. Now at least the cloned bard was happy for the time being.
Eventually Gabrielle had the prisoners all lined up in a double row blocking the doorway, as a sort of human barricade. They were positioned to take the brunt of the next assault if one materialized. Neither Gabrielle nor Xena had given it a second thought, but Harry was horrified when he realized what they'd done.
"You're using them as a living shield," he protested. "We don't do that."
"Why ever not?" the Warrior Princess asked him seriously, "ya said they'd be valuable as hostages. What else are we supposed to do with 'em?"
Harry stared at her through his goggles in the dark. "If more guards show up they'd be right in the line of fire," Harry told her.
The captives added their panicked agreement, their muffled voices gagged by their own rifle magazines firmly clenched in their mouths and held in place with wire ties passing from the magazines' ends around behind their heads.
"Better them than us," Gabrielle declared reasonably. It was tactically sound as far as she was concerned, at least it always had been in the past. She remembered many times when they'd rigged captives' bodies to swing down on anyone who'd forced open a door…much like the log-drop traps of the Amazons. They either bowled over the intruder or took a quick slash depending on the person's reaction time.
"Just put them against the wall," Harry ordered, pointing to one side of the room. War must have been a lot more brutal in their time, he decided.
Xena shrugged. It was Harry's operation. She helped her soulmate drag the bound captives out of the way. Maybe he intends to ransom them or sell them as slaves later on, she guessed. She recalled the slaves he'd had working on the day he'd moved in. Of course. He doesn't want to waste a potential resource. Xena found her respect for the agent rising. War's no more brutal now than it was in our time, she decided.
"Guess they've reported us by now, huh?" Xena asked Ethan with resignation as she moved from the captives to where he was experimentally jabbing at the buttons on a console. There was no response from the machines. All the readouts and displays remained dark.
"No," the agent answered with obvious satisfaction, "even down here, the EMP bomb disabled all electronics. All their radios are dead too. They couldn't report anything to anyone. We still have the element of surprise."
Harry and Al had been searching the area outside a broken window with their night vision goggles but had discovered no other hostile forces. It seemed that they were still safely alone. Harry hissed, "Clear," then added a muttered, "for now."
"I suppose we can have some light in here then," Ethan said to Xena, as Gabrielle joined them.
Ethan bent a handful of Cyalume sticks to break the capsules inside them, then shook them to mix the chemicals that would cause them to glow. He tossed the sticks around the room, allowing the clones to dimly see their surroundings. They were encircled by sophisticated equipment that the clones couldn't begin to identify, as well as more familiar looking computer terminals and monitors. It was a control room, adjacent to a much larger space. A wide glass window had originally separated the two areas, but it had been shattered by the flash-bang grenades, and now just a gaping frame looked out into the darkness. The space beyond was too dim to really make out any details clearly. Ethan bent another handful of light sticks and tossed them through the window frame. They lit up the nearest part of what was recognizable as a very large laboratory.
In the dim glow of the light sticks, the team could discern banks of equipment, rolling gurneys, large numbers of clear cylindrical tanks, and further away, barely revealed, partitioned stations set up like emergency room examination suites. The clones took it all in with a slow sweep of their eyes. Inside the nearest tanks, it was just possible to make out the silhouettes of human figures. Past the first row it was still too dark to discern much in detail, but there were more tanks looming up behind them; just ranks and files of shadowy shapes. The impression was of a sinister army of silent armored statues. Within their geometric bodies lay twisted creatures that would issue the commands to animate their threatening potential and trigger their latent hostility. Now they rested silent as Talos. It was a stillness that offered no comfort, for it was the silence of a battlefield before, rather than after the fighting.
"I've got a really bad feeling about this," Gabrielle whispered.
Next to her, Xena's skin was tingling and her hair-trigger reactions were primed for combat. Some aspects of this lab recalled the lab in which Alti had recreated them. Callisto and Mavican had been tracked here and must be lurking somewhere on the premises. The clones had no idea what stimulus would escalate the tension to violence.
A memory of confronting a forest in Germania in 55 BC came to the cloned Warrior Princess. Within that silent stretch of pines, the Legio XXIX Ulpia Victrix of Germania Inferior lay hidden. Half a mile behind them stood the course of the Rhenus River. Spread out in the hills behind her lay a force of 2,000 free Suevians, and 30 catapults. She had shown herself earlier, accompanied by the 2,000 filthy screaming barbarians, knowing this challenge would be reported to the Roman Legatus Legionis. Thinking that they outnumbered her four to one, they would offer battle the next morning. The original Warrior Princess had sat on a stump, as the sun was setting and the evening's peace settled on the valley and the forest. A league to the north, 2,000 Suevians were moving into position under Gabrielle's command. Near the third candlemark of the third watch the bombardment had begun. The Roman camp had been fired; legionnaires had been paralyzed in confusion, trying to muster as their centurions cursed, as horses panicked, and as tents burned. Guards had rushed to reinforce the porta praetoria, the gate facing the enemy. After the slaughter it had been almost the only remnant of the palisade left standing. The second wave had hit the castra, or camp, from the north, smashing through the porta principalis sinistra, the left side gate, while Xena's troops followed with an assault on the porta decumana, the proverbial "backdoor". When morning came, 4,600 Roman troops lay dead. The remainder had fled, only to be cut down in the forest or drown in the Rhenus River. The Suevians had spared none. And the signal for the catapult attack had been a cock crowing at midnight. What would it be today?
Now the silent darkness left the clones' imaginations to supply furtive movements among the shadows, seen only from the corner of the eye. Their minds provided the rumors of stealthy sounds, suggested at a level below the actual hearing of their ears. The situation bred Frankensteinian fantasies of monstrosities cobbled together by unethical creators who were compelled to play god. Forget the dinosaurs. It felt akin to the madness and hate that had created them. Daydreams of mythical creatures had awakened to populate this nightmare, as legendary horrors from their own time fleshed out the roles of modern threats they couldn't imagine.
"Gods, Xena, I'm expecting the Kaken, or maybe Medusa, to come slithering out of the shadows here any moment," Gabrielle whispered to her soulmate. "I can almost hear them breathing down my neck."
"Know what ya mean," Xena whispered back. "Usually darkness is our friend, but there could be anything hidin' in here." She'd drawn her sword and laid her left hand on the bard's shoulder, reassuring herself as much as the blonde with the contact. "Just hope it's something that can die…you know, somethin' with a body."
The confrontation with so much cryptic technology under such dangerous conditions ignited a visceral uneasiness in the agents and the clones, but for the clones, it was almost painfully intense. They were not 21st century souls, and they were still not wholly at ease in their relationship with technology. They would probably never take modern science for granted like those born into this time. This was still not their world, and the realization of that screamed in their blood. Here was science run amok, a cold and calculated threat to every living being, and the product of a heartless intelligence unwilling to set limits. Here was knowledge without wisdom, compulsively seeking what could be done, not what should be done. There was no restraint. The results inspired not awe, but condemnation.
"Time to take a look around," Harry said as he carefully opened the door between the control room and the lab, "defensive positions, compass points, no sound."
The team moved into the larger space with careful stealth. They spread out and passed quickly from cover to cover, trying to minimize their exposure. No more than two moved at a time. The agents and the clones kept to the deepest shadows despite the low light levels from the Cyalume sticks. They constantly checked their surroundings in all directions, their gun barrels following their eyes, careful not to sweep each other with their lines of fire. The surrounding darkness and silence was more menacing than facing a known and visible enemy. Once they'd created a perimeter, Ethan signaled Harry. From ten feet away, Xena could barely hear his whispered question.
"Want to light this place up now? I've got the sticky phosphor."
"Have to…we'll run out of time before we clear this space. It's too big, too dark, and there could be too many surprises." There could be a second entrance and more troops on the way. They raised their goggles and Harry signaled to Al to do the same.
The IMF agent produced a foot long tube about an inch and a half in diameter and held it pointing upwards, out over the space ahead. He and Harry shaded their eyes with their hands. The clones followed their example. There was a soft thump and a trail of sparks leaped from the tube. They heard a thud as the projectile struck the roof right before the flash of a bright white nova lit the lab. The light level dropped off slightly and then stabilized; a pocket of starlight on the ceiling that banished the shadows. The interior of the lab leapt into stark focus as the team members blinked. They had a view of Tartarus, and it was not a pretty sight either.
Like Alti, whoever ran this lab had kept their failures on display. The large cylindrical containers held adult and near adult monstrosities. The embryos, infants, and kids were in smaller jars and cylinders on benches along a wall. Next to Gabrielle was a botched Callisto with an extra leg stub…growing from her shoulder. Her face was misshapen by the aberrant skull beneath her flesh, and extra fingers graced a clenched hand. Past her stood a cylinder in which another Callisto floated, her legs twisted and froglike, her hands and feet webbed between the digits. A frill of bone had erupted from the back of her neck. Yet another teratoform showed parasite twinning; a diminutive torso with arms and legs was protruding from her abdomen where it was attached by the neck. The cloned bard wanted to throw up as she gazed at the manmade deformities. Here was her enemy who had once held the potential to be human. These Callistos were victims of an atrocity far more evil than Xena's sack of Cirra. They'd never even had a chance to taste the bitterness of life.
Cloned Gabrielle sadly gazed ahead. There were more cylinders and jars. It looked like the pitiful remnants of the bungled attempts to recreate Valesca. Where had they gotten the DNA? In 68 BC the Amazon renegade had been captured, subjected to a trial by fire, and then burned alive as the tribe's justice demanded for those convicted of regicide. Valesca had never been a goddess, but she had allied herself with Alti and poisoned Queen Melosa with hellbore root. She had been sent on her way with curses. Her ashes had even been mixed into a ball with urine, (then sewn into a dog's bladder), and thrown into the "bottomless" sinkhole at the far end of the Amazon lands. Everyone knew that hole led right past Tartarus and straight to limbo. A pebble dropped in never hit bottom. Valesca would never join her sisters in the Amazon's afterlife. Not a chance. Could she have been recreated in the 21st century? The blonde felt numb with shock.
Off to her left, Xena was examining a similar group of Mavicans. They were quite a collection, some with truncated supernumerary limbs, boviform breasts, distorted skulls, or anencephaly. She had just begun to move forward when Harry quickly intercepted her. He'd been scouting further ahead of the rest of the team, checking behind the drapes of an examination suite, and now he tried to steer the Warrior Princess away, guiding her towards Gabrielle with a hand at her elbow.
"What is it that you don't want me to see, Harry?" The cloned warrior asked, raising an eyebrow in her trademark expression. She was way to sharp to be fooled, and the Omega Sector agent didn't try to lie to her as she stared him down.
"You don't need to look, Xena. There's nothing to be gained by it. C'mon," Harry said as he tried again to lead her away. He couldn't have incited her interest more efficiently.
Xena shook herself free of his grasp and strode purposefully towards the exam suite. She was pulling back the curtain even as the agent started to ask her again not to. For another moment there was silence, and then the Warrior Princess screamed.
Across the room, Gabrielle's head whipped around at the sound. Xena's cry of anguish raised the hairs at the back of her neck and chilled her to the bone. The warrior could take an arrow with little more than a grunt and it required a lot of pain to make her scream. The blonde had only heard that level of heart rending pain from her soulmate once before. In 70 BC, mercenaries under the command of the warlord Krykus had attacked the Amazon village and slain Xena's son, Solon, during the fighting. It had broken Xena's heart and insured that twelve years later, she would bathe the Roman Empire in blood after Caesar kidnapped her second child, Eve.
Solon's death had unleashed the darkness. It had not been the Xena they knew who had raced the Amazons for Krykus' head. Two days after the killing, the Destroyer of Nations had entered the warlord's camp with the rising sun. The sentries and scouts already lay dead in the woods. The living faced, not a mortal warrior, but a Fury. She'd slaughtered over three dozen of the warlord's men, captured Krykus, and taken her time chopping him into little bloody pieces. It had already been mid-afternoon when the Destroyer of Nations had dumped the bag of his body parts in the village square so the Amazons could be assured that they had been avenged. Even Queen Melosa had cringed at the results of Xena's wrath. Gabrielle couldn't imagine what had wrung such a cry from her soulmate now, but she ached for her pain and dreaded what would follow.
The bard ran to where Xena stood with one hand still holding back the forgotten curtain, the other covering her mouth in a gesture of horrified shock. Her whole body shook with tremors. Tears had seeped from her eyes, but the cloned warrior didn't notice them or anything else. She was so focused that she didn't even notice Gabrielle's hand gently laid on the small of her back or the soft gasp that escaped the blonde as she looked past her shaking soulmate. There was a body lying on the gurney…a body that the bard had helped rescue in another life. Somehow, the monsters had cloned Eve.
A grim Harry Tasker slipped around the soulmates and into the examination suite. He moved with deliberation to the rack of equipment next to the gurney and with his gunstock, smashed a DVD-ROM deck to the floor. From the wreckage he extracted a silvery disc. "Livia 3.1" was carefully written in Sharpie marker on its face. He slipped it into a pocket of his BDU jacket and then slowly turned to face the clones.
"They were trying to recreate the Champion of Rome," he told them. "Maybe they were even programming her as the bomb went off. When their equipment died with the power it stopped the life support machines too. Xena, she's dead. She'll never be a threat." The agent sighed and looked at her. "There's nothing you can do."
Xena was silent and it was Gabrielle who answered in a small shaky voice.
"We saved her when she was the Bitch of Rome. We could have done it again."
The cloned Warrior Princess said nothing. She didn't visibly react to the words, but Harry's terse report had struck a blow against her heart. Wasn't it just typical for the inherent bitterness of the world to have arranged this? Now fate had served her up yet another dose of poison. She could practically taste it scorching her tongue. Surely she was cursed in this life, just as her original life had so often seemed to be. Their bomb had stopped the machines that had been keeping Eve alive. Their assault had caused her daughter's death. Accompanying the hurt came self-condemnation and guilt, harsh and unforgiving. It had always been her nature to take the blame, even when there was no possible way that she could have foreseen the consequences. It was the dark side of the impulse that had driven her all her life to be the best. Under stress she reverted to this simple belief. That in life as in war there was no substitute for being prepared.
Though it was irrational, all Xena's clone could feel of through her pain was that she'd missed seeing her daughter growing up again. Again she'd lost Eve to evil and found her corrupted by darkness. Again she'd failed at being a mother. The limp cadaver with the electrodes on its head wasn't just another clone; a stranger's body she'd not even known existed until seconds ago. In her rightful place and time, that body had once been a baby girl, warm and helpless, who'd grown within her own body…not a scrap of tissue nurtured in a jar. How could she possibly not have known, not have felt that she existed? It was her daughter lying dead on that gurney.
Once she'd had such hopes. On the day Eve was born the Warrior Princess had dared to dream that maybe there could be a degree of normalcy in her life; that something could exist for her beyond the fighting. She was 29 and had been at war for a dozen years. She'd tried to retire to her hometown to raise her second child, but Caesar and Pompey had followed. Even after the solstice battle of the best day, she'd nurtured her hope of raising her daughter. For a decade things had seemed as though they could work. Though it hadn't been easy, at least it had seemed possible. Xena, Gabrielle, and Eve. Next, Hope had been born and a new addition had joined the family they were creating among the Amazons. Life had been sweet; almost too good for the ex-warlord. Then Brutus had kidnapped her daughter and her life had been consumed by the Bloody Years. She'd lost her daughter and the quest to win her back had drawn the soulmates away from Hope too. Her family had been splintered and in her heart of hearts, Xena had come to believe that she'd never deserved anything better. For a dozen years of darkness the only bright thing in her life had been Gabrielle. Still she'd fought on. She didn't really know how to do anything else. If only she could take Eve back from Caesar, maybe there could be a second chance. She'd spent a dozen years trying and after she'd finally succeeded, she'd spent the last two years of her life trying to undo the damage of Rome. This time her daughter was dead, not a captive. Now she'd lost a chance that she hadn't even known she had, and it hurt. And behind the hurt came the black flames of rage. The dream of two millennia ago was dead. There would be no more chances. The tears stopped and the anguish disappeared from her face as a deeper part of herself took over.
"First my daughter will have a warrior's pyre," the cloned warrior stated in a deathly calm, "and then I will have my revenge. I will find them and I will kill them all."
Xena moved to the gurney and began peeling off the wires. She wrenched down a curtain and draped her daughter's body. With Gabrielle's help she bound the fabric with strips ripped from the curtain's end. Then she hoisted Eve's cadaver over her shoulder and paced back out to the lab. Harry and Gabrielle could only follow in silence.
Ethan and Al had overheard most of what had happened, but had kept their distance. They'd made a quick circuit of the space and discovered neither a second entrance nor any other occupants. They reported this to Harry in hushed tones as they watched Xena walking back to the control room with her daughter's shrouded body.
"She's going to walk out of here with Eve's body," the cloned bard informed the agents with grim certainty, "and may the gods have mercy on anyone who gets in her way. Everything is different now." She drew her twin swords and hastened to join her soulmate.
"Place the charges and prepare to withdraw," Harry ordered.
The cloned Warrior Princess was no longer concerned with the lab or the mission. That would wait. It had all been superseded by the fate of a doomed family. Her focus had completely shifted. In her mind's eye she was already in the backyard of her house in Columbia, stacking the wood for the funeral pyre; preparing to sing the requiem. And afterwards she would plan. She would return here one day soon with Ares' blessing, and when she left, not a single thing would still be standing. Not a single soul would still draw breath. They had crossed a line of blood. Alti had cloned the Warrior Princess, but they had recreated the Destroyer of Nations.
Phantom Bard, Brooklyn, N.Y.
December 19, 2003
Appendix 1 (Titles of TV episodes in Italics)
The Journey of SoulmatesXena and Gabrielle's Timeline
(As reported by the Clones)
100 BC Gaius Julius Caesar is born in Rome.
97 BC Xena is born in Amphipolis on the border of Thrace and Macedonia.
90 BC Callisto is born in Cirra, on the coast of the Gulf of Corinth, near Delphi, in Phocis.
89 BC Gabrielle is born in Potidaea, at the narrows of the neck of the western most peninsula of Chalcidice.
80 BC The warlord Cortese's army attacks Amphipolis. After their defeat, Xena is driven from her home, estranged from her mother, and blamed for the death of her brother.
78 BC Xena takes command of an outlaw army, having deposed the leader, and transforms them into a pirate force. She sacks Cirra and many other coastal towns on her way towards Corinth, where she is forced to withdraw after a protracted stalemate.
77-73 BC Xena encounters Caesar for the first time, holding him hostage during the sack of Thasos. The Roman navy rescues him and Xena rues the decision to stay her hand and not execute him when she had the chance. Caesar defeats Xena's pirates. They become enemies for life. With her forces in shambles, she accepts patronage from the God of War, becoming known as the Favorite of Ares. During this period, Xena is first called the Destroyer of Nations. She travels through the eastern steppes, as far as Chin, regrouping and forging a new army. For another three years, she leads her growing forces in mayhem, eventually becoming such a threat that she is finally defeated by an uneasy coalition of Athenians, Corinthians, and Greek and Roman mercenaries.
The Early Years (72-70 BC)
(These 3 years were Gabrielle's most active as a writer.)
"Sins of the Past" (72 BC) The meeting of soulmates, Xena is 25 and had already been a warrior for over 7 years, the last 5 as a warlord commander. It had been about a month since she'd left her defeated army when she rescued Gabrielle, who had barely turned 17. She was ignorant, idealistic, but also loyal, feisty, and most surprisingly, literate. Within a year, Xena teaches her the nerve pinch and basic staff techniques.
"Chariots of War"
"The Greater Good"
"Callisto's Predations" (71 BC) This scroll became two episodes, "Callisto" and "Return of Callisto". It should be noted that Perdicus was Gabrielle's cousin, NOT her husband, and that at Gabrielle's urging, Xena spared Callisto's life an unprecedented second time. Callisto was tried and imprisoned for 20 years on Shark Island.
"Is There A Physician in the Stockade?" This scroll was originally a manual of Xena's battlefield medical techniques, and was written during the Mitoan-Thessalian Conflict. Sections detail first aid, triage, surgery, bone setting, and herbology. In addition to giving rise to the episode, "Is There A Doctor In The House?", the scroll included an anecdotal story became the core of "In Sickness and In Hell".
"Hooves and Harlots" (70 BC) Note that the actual scroll was as much a history of the Amazon and Centaur cultures as a chronicle of a dispute with a neighboring warlord. It was during this dispute that Xena's son, Solon, (age 5), was actually killed. We are given a rare account of the rage of the Destroyer of Nations. Elements of this history appear as background in several TV episodes, including, "Hooves and Harlots", "Adventures in the Sin Trade 1 & 2", "Lifeblood", and "Orphan of War". For her defense of a wounded Princess Terreis, Gabrielle is made an honorary friend of the Amazons.
"When In Rome" This scroll tells of the origins of the struggle between Julius Caesar and the Warrior Princess. Julius Caesar's ransom and defeat of Xena's pirate army is included as background, while her revenge, achieved by freeing Vercinix and arranging the execution of Crassus, is presented as current. It gave rise to the episodes, "Destiny", "The Quest", and "When In Rome".
Xena and Gabrielle's first trip to Chin (70-69 BC)
(Over a year of travelling, the trip was, in part, a measure of expedience, putting the soulmates beyond the reach of Julius Caesar and the vengeful Romans.)
"The Kingdom of Lao" (70-69 BC) This scroll became the episodes, "The Debt 1 & 2". Xena assassinates Ming Tsu to honor an old alliance, securing the rule of the House of Lao. Gabrielle first uses the Sai in battle and they become one of her favorite weapons.
"Bad Rye" (69 BC) This scroll was greatly dramatized and became "The Furies". Xena and Gabrielle had been back in Greece for barely 2 moons, and Xena was still suffering debilitation from ergotism, when they were recalled to Chin. (Ergot poisoning, caused by a fungus growing on rye because of wet weather, was relatively common in their time).
Xena and Gabrielle's second trip to Chin (68 BC)
(Most of 1 year travelling)
"The Dragon and the Phoenix" (68 BC) This scroll gave rise to the episodes, "Purity", and "Back in the Bottle". Recalled to Chin, Xena captures Ming Tsu's son, Ming Tien, the "Green Dragon", (age 22), and turns him over to the Laos, who execute him for breaking the peace with his black powder army. The restored peace of Chin is the reborn "Phoenix".
"Giant Killer" (68 BC) Written on the road, this scroll begins with a short history of giants, during which Gabrielle recounts a legend that became the episode "Giant Killer", and continues with an adventure that became "A Day in the Life". It probably also inspired the anecdotal scene with Gabrielle and the blind giant that was inserted into "Sins of the Past".
The Birth of Eve (12th moon, 68 BC)
(Xena is 29 and Gabrielle is 21)
"The Blood Shamaness" (late 68 BC) Immediately follows the soulmates' return from Chin. This scroll tells of Alti's reappearance after 8 years, again threatening the Amazon nation. Still obsessed with forcing Xena to assist in her plans for destroying the Amazons, she attempted to steal Eve's soul during Xena's pregnancy. The episode, "Them Bones, Them Bones" was based on this scroll. It was left to Gabrielle to actually defeat Alti, after Queen Melosa was mortally poisoned by the renegade, Valesca. At this time, Gabrielle was named a full sister and Amazon Warrior, by the newly crowned Queen Terreis.
"The Dirty Half Dozen" (67 BC)
"In Sickness and In Hell" (66 BC) Gabrielle writes of the plagues and diseases the soulmates had encountered during their travels. Among these we can recognize malaria, yellow fever, small pox, dysentery, leprosy, influenza, bubonic plague, tin and lead poisoning, acromegaly, chrondistrophic dwarfism, Siamese and parasite twinning, tuberculosis, gonorrhea, typhus, cholera, and several types of food poisoning.
Xena and Gabrielle's trip to Indus (65-63 BC)
(Over 2 years, during which Carthage falls to a plague, probably Yersinia pestis)
"Paradise Found" (65 BC) Gabrielle and Xena learn yoga techniques and a new system of pressure point attacks from the Tibetan mystic and holy man, Ai-den.
"Karma" (64 BC) The events of this scroll, actually a travelogue of the journey to Indus and a record of the philosophies they encountered, became, after great embellishment, the episodes "Devi", and "Between the Lines". Xena and Gabrielle meet Eli and again defeat Alti, this time in spirit form.
"The Way" (64-63 BC) Xena is purified by her acceptance of the Way of the Warrior, under the guidance of a spiritual teacher in Indus. It is during their return to Greece that she is able to take possession of the Chakram of Light and combine it with the Chakram of Darkness. This material, much modified, is the basis for the episodes, "The Way", and "Chakram".
The Middle Years (63-58 BC)
(5 years of relative peace that begin in war end in tragedy)
"The Best Day" (Summer Solstice, 63 BC) This scroll includes the material that became both "A Good Day" and "Amphipolis Under Siege". Xena engineers the destruction of Caesar and Pompey's eastern armies outside of Amphipolis. The combined Roman casualties are estimated at over 40,000. Xena had returned home with Gabrielle and 4 year old Eve, hoping for a semi-retirement in which to raise her daughter.
"The Play's the Thing" A self-deprecatory piece by Gabrielle, telling of the fiasco arising from her attempt at theater production.
"Crusader" (61-60 BC ?) This scroll tells of the warrior Najara, seducer of the Roman Governor of Pergamum. She had so bewitched the weak willed governor with her ambition and delusions of supernatural invincibility, that he had begun the secession of Pergamum from the Roman Empire. Her crusade was to supplant the Roman pantheon through forced conversion, and create an empire dedicated to an ancient and bloodthirsty monotheistic faith, the worship of Ba'al. It was her use of captured Greek sailors, (fishermen and traders from Thracian coastal villages in particular), as human sacrifices, which prompted the soulmates to become involved. Staying ahead of soldiers dispatched by Pompey the Magnus to depose the governor, Xena and Gabrielle track down and battle Najara. After finally dealing Najara an incapacitating wound, the soulmates left her in local custody for the arriving legions. Charged with sedition, piracy, and heresy, Najara was executed for her crimes following her trial and conviction by a Roman court in early 59 BC.
The Birth of Hope (10th moon, 60 BC)
(Gabrielle is 29 and Hope was not the rape-spawn of a demon or evil god)
"Lifeblood" (60 BC) Xena and Gabrielle return to the Amazon Village for the birth and christening of Gabrielle's daughter, Hope, who receives her Right of Caste. They find that Queen Ephiny had succeeded Queen Terreis in 62 BC.
"Succession" (59 BC) Xena and Gabrielle confront and kill Mavican, Callisto's would-be successor, sparring partner, and disciple, who had escaped from Shark Island in 60 BC after studying there under the "Warrior Queen" for 10 years. It should be noted that for several years, Gabrielle had been as deadly a fighter as Xena, and inflicted Mavican's fatal wound with her sai.
Caesar's Kidnapping of Eve (58 BC)
(Xena is 38 and Gabrielle is 30)
"Endgame" (Vernal Equinox, 58 BC) This scroll tells of Caesar's revenge. On his orders, Brutus attacks the Amazons, knowing Pompey is nearby. Queen Ephiny is killed, and Eve, (age 10), is kidnapped. In the power gulf, Xena takes temporary command of the Amazon army, slaughters Pompey's legions, and personally beheads him, believing that he, not Caesar, was responsible for Eve's abduction. At the same time, Gabrielle leads a war party to recover Ephiny's body and rescue Amazons taken prisoner by Brutus. She was almost successful in killing Brutus as well, a lost opportunity the soulmates would be thankful for years later on the Ides of March. Only weeks later, Caesar sends a gloating message explaining how Brutus' troops had dressed in Pompey's uniforms for the kidnapping, and that Xena's rage had removed his greatest rival for power in Rome.
The Bloody Years (58-47 BC)
(Most of these 12 years were spent trying to free Eve from Caesar)
It is during this time that Gabrielle trades her sais for a pair of Amazon short swords, the blades of which she has lightened by "ventilation", removing windows of metal to leave the blades "skeletonized". The resulting whistle when slicing through the air becomes a fearsome trademark of the "Amazon Bard".
"One Against an Army" (58-47 BC) Xena declares war on the Roman Empire with the objective of recovering her daughter from Caesar. Although this scroll contains the story of Xena's defense of a high pass, that battle was only one of many, fought over a dozen years, against the Roman army, not the Persians. Over the years, Xena was credited with causing destruction equivalent to over five Roman legions in Greece, two in Italia, one in Gallia, and one in Germania; including auxiliaries and mercenaries, a total of over 86,000 soldiers. This includes the Roman casualties of "Endgame", but not those of "The Best Day". (The Battle of Thermopylae was fought in 480 BC, over 400 years before Xena's time).
"Queen Marga" (58 BC) Documents the short reign of the Amazon Queen Marga, and provided material that became "Coming Home" and "Dangerous Prey". Note that Prince Morloch was the leader of the hostile army, while Ares and the Erinyes never appear.
"Queen Varia" (57-54 BC and 46 BC) Documents the beginning of the reign of the hotheaded Amazon Queen Varia, and the 3-year war against Helicon. It provides material that became "To Helicon and Back", as well as relating Varia's later "Oath of Blood", the Amazon Nation's vendetta against Livia, that served as the background for "Path of Vengeance", which occurred after the rescue of Eve.
*Note 1: (52 BC) Callisto escapes from Shark Island Penal Colony and temporarily disappears. At some point after this time, it is suspected that Callisto made her way to Asia Minor and took possession of the Chakram of Night, which she used in her attack on Xena in Rome. This weapon turned up millennia later in Ares' tomb and was seen there by Janice Covington and Melinda Pappas. It was the rumor of Callisto in Rome that had brought Xena and Gabrielle out of semi-retirement for their last adventure).
"The Abyss" (48 BC) The events of this scroll were probably also dramatized to become "The Price" and "Daughter of Pomira", as well as the episode, "The Abyss".
The Rescue of Eve (46 BC)
(Xena is 51, Gabrielle is 43, and Eve is 22)
"The Eternal City" (46 BC) Regarded by scholars as the continuation and culmination of "One Against An Army", it contains the story of the rescue of Eve, now known as Livia. To free her, the soulmates infiltrated Caesar's Palace in Rome and arranged the destruction of three cohorts of Praetorians within the city. Xena and Gabrielle spent almost all of their remaining lives on the run, undoing Caesar's influence on Xena's daughter. By this time, Xena had been named First Enemy of the Imperium, with the price on her head growing to 6 million denarii.
"The Ides of March" (44 BC) Begun by Gabrielle in a Roman prison, and completed by an unknown author after the crucifixion. Xena was 53, Gabrielle was 45, Callisto was 46, and Caesar was 56, on the Ides of March, 44 BC. Xena and Gabrielle were executed on the same day as the assassination of their archenemy Gaius Julius Caesar. The unknown author attempts to claim that they all died within moments of each other, in different parts of the city of Rome. Only Callisto survived, and her fate is not recorded.
*Note 2: Eve and Hope both survived their mothers' deaths. Eve lived in Amphipolis while not on the road continuing Xena and Gabrielle's work. In 39 BC she was able to avenge herself by killing Brutus. She became a well-known warrior and hero, hunted by Rome, until she was granted amnesty and banished from Italia by Augustus Caesar, in 27 BC. In return, she foreswore carrying on her mother's war against the Empire. The agreement was one of mutual convenience, as she was 41 and had two children by that time, and Augustus was in the process of securing his rule. Unlike Xena, Eve lived to retire and raise her family at her grandmother's inn. Eve and Hope were never more than acquaintances, as Hope was only 2 when Eve was kidnapped, and 14 when she was freed. By that time, Livia/Eve was regarded as an enemy of the Amazon Nation. Hope exceeded Gabrielle's status as an Amazon Warrior, while living fulltime with her tribe. At the age of 18, she earned the grade of Master Warrior, upon achieving her 25th kill in battle. At the age of 19, Hope became War Queen of the Greek Amazons, following her challenge and defeat of Queen Varia on the summer solstice in 40 BC. Using that position to honor the relationship between her own mother and Eve's, she declined to prosecute Varia's "Oath of Blood", and the Nation's vendetta against Livia/Eve was laid to rest. Almost nothing further is known about her.
*Note 3: Deadly Xena and Gabrielle were both hunted by Rome, but because of the personal enmity between Xena and Caesar, it was always the Warrior Princess for whom the Empire reserved its greatest hatred. Over the years, (with Gabrielle's help), Xena was involved in the deaths of something in the neighborhood of 156,000 enemy troops, 40,000 in "The Best Day", 86,000 during "One Against an Army", and 30,000 in Chin, primarily in "The Dragon and the Phoenix". Figures on deaths during her years as a warlord are sketchy, however best estimates place the total at something in the neighborhood of 12,000 to 15,000. A conservative total would count 170,000 dead over the course of her career. For purposes of comparison, Hannibal Barca is credited with the destruction of about 85,000 legionnaires and allies in three major battles, (Trebbia River, Lake Trasimeno, and the Plain of Cannae), within three years. In the American Civil War, about 185,000 men were killed in action or died of wounds. Another 186,000 died of diseases associated with the war. Civilian casualties are unrecorded.
April 27, 2000 (AD) Cloned Xena and Gabrielle escape from the clandestine lab of Alexis Los Alamos, (Alti), in City of Industry, California.
September 21, 2000 (AD) Dr.Janice Covington, Ph.D., Professor Emeritus of Archeology at the University of S.C. passes away after a third stroke. Ray, her colleague and one-time graduate teaching assistant had introduced the soulmates to her on June 2. She had used her old contacts in the underworld to provide personal identities for the clones, who settle down with her in Columbia S.C., in the old Pappas family house. Janice makes Serena Pappas and Gabriella Covington her heirs, and the inheritors of the Pappas estate. The clones learn the truth of their origin.
April 30, 2001 (AD) The cloned soulmates travel to New Zealand and confront Lucy, Renee, and Rob on the set of the final episode of the TV show, Xena Warrior Princess. They learn the secret of how the show was conceived and confirm their suspicions that an old influence is again active in the modern world.
June 1, 2001 (AD) The clones open the Columbia School of Martial Science. Their first students are the Columbia, S.C. police officers, Marcus Lewis and Alexander Williams.
September 13, 2001 (AD) Gabrielle wins the Women's Division of the 23rd National Open Full Contact Martial Arts Championships, to honor the soulmates' fallen student, Marcus Lewis, who was killed in a hijacked plane on Sept. 11, in Stony Creek Township, Pennsylvania. On the same day, Xena foils a bio-terrorist hostage situation in Quantico, Va., which initiates the clones' contact with the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team.
September 16 to October 14, 2001 (AD) The soulmates serve as guest instructors in unarmed combat to the FBI's Hostage Rescue Team, at the FBI compound in the Quantico Marine Base, Quantico, Virginia. They have also drawn the interest of a covert government agency, the shadow organization, Omega Sector. A team led by agent Harry Tasker investigates them, while at the same time forestalling investigation by other government intelligence agencies.
November 2, 2001 (AD) The Columbia School of Martial science is attacked by clones of Callisto and her disciple, Mavican. They are defeated by Xena and Gabrielle and then tracked when they flee by agents of Omega Sector, who subsequently contact the soulmates about a covert mission.
November 7, 2001 (AD) The clones are recruited by Harry Tasker to join in a mission against a secret DOE cloning facility near Atlanta, Ga. and during that mission the Destroyer of Nations is reborn.
Author's Note: For the first time I'm posting a story that has not been completely finished before posting. "Clonefic Part 3", (the continuation and conclusion), is in progress. It will be posted after the revisions and editing are completed.