Xena: Warrior Princess, Gabrielle, Argo, Janice Covington, Melinda Pappas, and all the other characters who have appeared in the syndicated series Xena: Warrior Princess, together with the names, titles and backstory are the sole copyright property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No copyright infringement was intended in the writing of this fan fiction. All other characters, the story idea, and the story itself are the sole property of the author. This story cannot be sold or used for profit in any way. Copies of this story may be made for private use only and must include all disclaimers and copyright notices.
This story depicts a love/sexual relationship between two consenting adult women. If you are under 18 years of age or if this type of story is illegal in the state or country in which you live, please do not read it. There are also a couple of instances of non-consensual sex that occur in this story, so be forewarned. If depictions of this nature disturb you, you may wish to read something other than this story.
GROSS FACTOR/STRONG LANGUAGE DISCLAIMER:
If you've got a weak stomach and can't handle entrails, blood or dead bodies you might not want to read this story. While I don't think it's going to be too terribly violent there are a few places where the "ick factor" might take center stage. The God of War is kind of a pissy guy, ya know. There is also a lot of swearing in this tale. I don't know why- I'm not quite that foul mouthed personally, it just happened that way. I simply writes what the characters tells me to write, and these characters have colorful imaginations with limited vocabularies.
JUST IN CASE I MISSED ANYTHING DISCLAIMER:
Do NOT open back panel; no user serviceable parts inside. Use in a well ventilated area. Pencils, scrap paper, and batteries not included. Cannot be read by magnetic strip readers. If surface dulls, dust with a damp cloth and allow to dry; do NOT use abrasive cleaners. If nausea persists blame it on Pestilence and consult your doctor or contact your local poison control center. Some assembly required. No dolphins were injured in the creation of this document and the contents are 100% biodegradable. Reader of this document assumes all property/personal damage inflicted upon themselves and/or other individuals/objects in the past/present/future. Please move completely across each row, filling in each and every available seat to make room for everyone. Do not look directly at the sun, as this may cause permanent retinal damage. FCC compliance is required before operating this unit, please consult the User's Manual for further instructions. Complies with TM-071074, and 18D-PMTRE-DR. The moving platform is traveling at the same speed as your vehicle. No smoking please...please stand clear of the doors...The Audience Is Listening...THX. Life shouldn't be taken too seriously- you're not getting out alive.
This story takes place one hundred years after the story THE SEARCH FOR AMPHIPOLIS which took place six months after the story IS THERE A DOCTOR ON THE DIG which took place three weeks after the X:WP episode THE XENA SCROLLS.
This story is dedicated, with love, to my online buddies, and to my editors PyrateSka and Lisa Stevens. Thanks guys, I'm glad to have you in my corner :)
FAN FICTION COVER:
The graphic below is a fan fiction cover for this story created by Barron Chugg. To view a larger version of the cover or read 'Barron's Comments' about this story, please click on the graphic.
If you were to kill me now right here
I would still look you in the eye
- Suzanne Vega
The Year 2042
Xero smiled as her fingers moved across the sensory input pad. Arctic blue eyes watched lines of data scrolling across the top and bottom of her screen--a new security protocol created by Hybrid Systems Inc. Running an absent hand through her long black hair, she studied the data carefully. Xero was at work. Paid to compromise and steal intellectual property, Xero was one of the best in the business. At twenty eight, she had fifteen years experience as a professional hacker, nettie, cyber thief, and virtual thug. Watching the two data streams simultaneously, she keyed the sequence to launch one of her own encryption programs. It would take a few moments to merge with the data stream, so Xero reached for her bottle of water and took a long decadent sip.
There was nothing quite like the taste of natural water, and Xero sighed as the cool liquid spilled down her throat. Sadly, she noticed her bottle was almost empty. It had been a gift from her roommate and business partner after a tricky job well done. Never taking her eyes from the screen, she saw the green flash as her program launched into operation. Xero proceeded to the next phase of her theft. After defining her search parameters, she let the retrieval program go, checking its progress with her watch, as well as the on screen chronometer.
As the seconds ticked down, something at the top of the screen caught her eye. There had been a slight, almost imperceptible, lag in the data reading across the security field. Keeping her input strokes on the sensory pad consistent, Xero keyed the sequence to her personal trace-counterseek program. It was doubtful she'd been tapped by a syscop. It'd never happened before. But Xero knew all too well that there was a first time for everything.
There it was again; someone was definitely observing on her channel. She continued her work carefully. Since she hadn't downloaded any data, she could only be hit with snooping charges. She kept her keystrokes steady her hands relaxed. If it was local security, they just might think she was with an MIS company, or an overworked employee doing routine maintenance. Her cyber-retriever flashed orange; it had the data. She could set it aside to download later, or continue with her theft. She was spared the decision when the watching entity made its presence known.
Nice work, Xero, the greeting flashed on her screen, gold text on a black background. Automatically Xero keyed the sequence to launch a tracer program.
Who are you? she replied, stalling for time.
An admirer, possibly an employer, came the immediate response.
Xero blinked in surprise. The tracer error message was unmistakable. Whoever was at the other end of the data line had heavy-duty encryption. She read a few lines into the error subroutine and froze. The encryption had syscop data nodes. She'd been spotted by a netcop.
As you've no doubt discovered by now, I've got syscop access, the message flashed. But I'm not interested in arresting you. Xero, I need your help. My keyword is Amphipolis. I'll meet you at--
Xero launched her scrambler and cut the connection, cutting off the data stream mid-flow. Letting out a controlled breath, she launched her sanitation program and shut down the system. It was possible that if she'd been tapped she may have been given a worm. Virtual tapeworms were an effective tool cybercops used to identify hardware used in net heists and the compromise of intellectual property. A tiny data code impossible to find unless you knew what to look for, but when activated it could shut down entire systems, as well as forward transcripts of all net activity to the authorities.
"Hey, Xero. I'm back," Bat called from the doorway. Xero could hear the distinctive sound of groceries being put away as various cupboards were opened and closed.
"Bat, get in here," she called, "I've got a job for you."
"What's the problem?" Bat asked, navigating the various cables and link lines that littered the floor of the tiny living room.
"I just got tapped by a syscop. I need your eye to check out the system," Xero said with a glance to the woman who had taken a seat next to her.
The most unusual thing about Bat was a black eye patch worn over her left eye. After a botched lens implant job, she'd decided on practicality over vanity. She'd gone to a gray market surgeon for a mechanical eye. Revolting to look at, it gave her an edge in hacking. In a business where every edge counted, this was a decided advantage.
"A syscop?" Bat echoed, impressed. "No shit. Must've been a good one."
"Not that good, I spotted them," Xero replied. "I hope you didn't have any plans tonight. I need you to go through my system, check for tapeworms. I still need to get this job done, cop or no cop."
Bat nodded, understanding. She had no illusions about her role under Xero's roof. She worked for the enigmatic woman, simple as that. Until her debt was paid off, Xero, for all intents and purposes, owned her. "No problem. Like I've ever got a date," she muttered. "Why don't you give me some space. If I'm going to disassemble the system, you'll only be in the way. Go down to the 'Horn. Get something to eat, relax, get laid."
Xero watched as Bat pulled her long brown hair into a ponytail, pulling it through the back of her baseball cap. Already she could see the shorter woman planning which backup systems to use, what tools she'd need. "I thought that was what you were for?" she shot back good-naturedly.
Bat frowned. "What? I don't kick you out of my bed the two or three times you end up there drunk, and now I'm a dyke? Spare me."
"You didn't have any complaints at the time..." Xero stopped herself. She knew exactly why the other woman hadn't complained. Bat was afraid of her. As one of the few former corporate systems managers turned hacker, Bat had a price on her head. People who worked corporate and then switched sides didn't have long life expectancies. That was how they'd met.
On a rainy night, with two corporate security thugs at her heels, Bat had wandered into the Saddlehorn Pub & Grill. Desperate for a cover, she'd foolishly made a play for Xero and ended up in an entirely new line of work. Since then, she'd enjoyed the protection of Xero's association, but also responded to the taller woman's demands unflinchingly.
"Sorry," Xero mumbled, thinking she may have pushed the other woman too far.
"Shit, don't worry about it," Bat replied with a grin. "You know our deal. I worry about your hardware; you take care of your own software, so for chrissakes, go get some, will ya? You've been edgy as hell all week." Xero grinned at that. The other woman got up and began to set up some diagnostic equipment. "Xero," she continued as she worked, "I'd consider you a friend if I thought for a millisecond that you had any. This thing has obviously gotten you spooked. So take the night off and chill. Say 'hi' to everyone at the 'Horn for me and by the time you get back, this rig will be running in top form." Xero nodded, grabbing her leather jacket from the couch.
"Here," Bat said, picking up a small mobile communications unit. "Take the mobie." From a compartment on the bottom she extracted two tiny earpieces. "Wear the wire, and if I've got any questions, I'll let you know."
"Sure," Xero agreed, slipping the tiny receiver into her ear.
"Oh, and do me a favor, will ya?" Bat finished as Xero headed for the door. "If you see some good looking bobs tonight, for godsake get their number. It's been so long since I've had a guy, I'm forgetting what being straight is all about."
"I'll see what I can do," Xero replied with a grin, pocketing the mobie unit and clipping the tiny phone to her jacket.
The Saddlehorn was unique even though it was only one of several hangouts frequented by hackers. Versus was a well-known hacker bar, as were Fire Circle, The Chat House, and Whipsters, but they didn't have the mystique of the 'Horn. The Saddlehorn Pub & Grill was exclusive. The word was out that only the invited and initiated could congregate there, and those who ignored the warning usually found corrupted net accounts soon after an unwelcome visit. The clientele was also exclusively female. Not that it was a lesbian hacker bar per se, although at first blush that was what most people assumed. In addition to the usual crowd of hackers, the clientele also included those buyers who would procure their services. Only the most serious and determined buyers ended up at the 'Horn. Simply put, it was the place adopted by the best of the best. Even the managers of other bars spent time at the 'Horn. If you were female and good on the nets, you had to be there.
It wasn't an easy place to find, but Xero knew the route by heart. The 'Horn was more of a home for her than her apartment. Nodding to the bouncer, Bandit, she stepped through the door. The security light glowed green. She wasn't packing any weapons. Several unfortunate incidents with flamethrowers had made the precautions necessary, but Bandit did her job with unobtrusive efficiency. Quickly, her eyes adjusted to the dim light. The ancient battered saddle that hung over the bar was bathed in soft blue light today, reflecting the mood of the patrons gathered. It was a little on the early side, only nine thirty. The lights would be changed to red when the prowlers were out. A place to relax, make business deals, have a decent meal and cruise--the 'Horn was something different to everyone.
Xero made her way to a table in the back. Delirium and Addict, the bartenders nodded, and sent over the waitress to take her order. "A little early for you isn't it, Xero?" Ska Mayhem asked conversationally.
Xero glanced up favoring the waitress with a small smile. Fifteen years old and tough as nails, Ska Mayhem was a recent escapee from the local "kid farm" and hung out with the hackers for protection. Too young to be legally working in a bar, she'd made her own IDs and impressed the owners enough to get the job. Now the rough denizens of The 'Horn were the closest thing to family she had. Even Xero, who made it a point not to get close to anyone, was not immune to the slim brunette's charm.
"I'll have a beer, make it a Buckner. Maybe dinner later, ask me then," Xero replied as she looked around. The small dance floor was vacant. Several women played darts at one end of the room. Credit codes exchanged hands after a decisive throw won the game. At a corner booth, Wordee, the resident film buff, sat with several other women. She recognized MaryD, but the other two she couldn't place.
"Where's your sidekick?" Ska asked, putting a dark bottle down in front of Xero.
"Working," Xero answered as she keyed in her payment and a generous tip. "Who's the newbies?"
"Just that, newbies. Both after Wordee. The one on the right is a potential employer, the one on the left is a suitor." After a moment's reflection she continued, "I guess it's your fault."
"How d'ya figure?" Xero asked, taking a sip of the smooth beer. Her eyes wandered over to the dart game as LN threw another bullseye to a chorus of cheers and groans. Returning her attention to Ska, she eyed the woman specutively.
"You nailed Bat, one of the few straight women who hang out here. That makes it hard on the rest of 'em. Not that I'm going to cry them any rivers anytime soon."
"I heard that," Lani remarked from a table behind Xero's. "Ska's picking on the straight chicks again," she continued, only louder this time.
"Oh, look who's talking," the waitress shot back sarcastically. Ska was convinced Lani was gay. Lani thought it none of her business, and the two bickered about it endlessly.
All eyes turned to a table in the center of the room. Blue, the Arbitrator had been trying to enjoy a peaceful dinner with Jenbob and Robin, suddenly found herself the center of attention. "So make her buy the straight chicks a drink," she decided. Sentence passed, everyone returned to their individual business.
"There go my tips for tonight," Ska muttered wandering off.
Xero enjoyed her beer. Left alone to observe the interactions around her, she felt herself finally unwind. The big winners at darts, LN and Trillbaby, bought the next round for the house. Halfway through her second beer, the receiver in her ear clicked on.
"I've got something for you, can you talk?" Bat's disembodied voice asked softly in her ear.
"Yeah, what d'ya have?" Xero asked after another sip.
"I'm off the nets, running a closed loop system checking out your files. You've got a tapeworm all right, but it isn't a tracker."
"What d'ya mean?"
"I mean she sent over a shit load of files, but nothing to track you. It's all stuff so you can get in touch with her. She may be a psycho."
"How do you know it's a she?" Xero wondered.
"That's what I'm telling you. She sent over personnel files, all kinds of shit. Her name is Rielle MacGab, I've got a picture, she's cute... I mean if you're interested in women, that sort of thing."
"I get your point, Bat, go on," Xero pressed.
"According to this, she's a syscop for the Archives Corp. But she's on an L.O.A. She had a medical leave a couple of months ago, now she's just taking vacation." Xero could picture Bat as she went through the files. Shoes off, curled up on the couch, fidgiting with a pen in one hand. Her speech was rapid which told Xero she was scanning files as she spoke, struggling to keep up with her mechanical eye.
"So why do you think she's a psycho?" Xero asked.
"All this other stuff she sent you. Xero, buddy, she must have been waiting for you to log into that data stream. She was watching you the whole time. She's downloaded a book, The Adventure of a Lifetime, a Memoir by Melinda Pappas. Provided links to a television database for an old '90's show, a bunch of episodes of that show, her own records and the message that you tried to cut off. Be careful, Xero, she's planning to meet you at the 'Horn."
"You unlocked all this with the keyword Amphipolis?" Xero asked, scanning the inhabitants of the club once again.
"Yeah, just like her greeting said. I'm running on top of a buffer system, so I'm not worried about getting zapped. But it was just a simple keyword. No traps or homing beacons. If this picture is an accurate one, you're looking for a twenty-six year-old red head with green eyes and," she paused to read further, "according to her psych files, a sunny disposition." Xero didn't answer right away and Bat laughed. "Yeah, I know. Just your type. Still, why not have a go? The 'Horn regulars are too intimidated to actually sleep with you. Did I mention you being annoyingly tense all week?"
"If that's all the news you've got," Xero cut her off, "why don't you reassemble the system and get it back onto the nets. Put all this new stuff on an isolated drive and I'll look at it later."
"Okay, will do," Bat assured the hacker. "Logging off now."
The 'Horn was beginning to fill up as more women came in after their mid-day shifts. Few of the women who frequented the place had regular jobs, but there were a number of hackers who kept regular hours too, especially the women who worked for hacking companies. They had shifts and benefits the same as legitimate workers. Xero considered ordering dinner when a tense hush settled over the club. A couple of men, or 'bobs' as they were known at the 'Horn, had stepped through the security markers and were making their way to the bar. Both were tall, about Xero's height and good looking. Their sun bleached hair and bronzed skin screamed 'surfer'.
Xero noticed Delirium step away from Addict, who was pouring drinks for the bobs. Retrieving the mobie unit from her pocket, she keyed in the secured frequency and turned on her communications device.
"...obs at the 'Horn, Shadow. See what you can do." Delirium said quietly.
"They been here before?" Xero asked.
"Xero, that you?" Delirium asked as she looked over. Seeing the dark haired woman's affirming nod, she continued. "No, they're newbies, not trolls. They just told Addict that they're in construction and retrofit and they're here on vacation. Too tan to be hackers."
"I'm in their net accounts now," Shadow offered.
"Then take it easy on them, Shad," Xero asked. "When you screw with their files, don't mess 'em up too bad."
"Bat send you out to find her dates?" Shadow asked with a wry laugh.
"Yeah, so give 'em her locator file. Then they'll know who to contact to clean up the mess."
"Okay, will do," Shadow agreed. "They should be out of there as soon as they try to pay."
As if on cue, one of the men looked alarmed as he swiped his account card through the reader a second time. The other man tried his card, but with the same lack of success. Both men left abruptly. All that remained of their accounts was garbled text instead of account information. Once they were out the door and down the block, their drinks were raffled off, the two winners raising their glasses in silent toast to their now absent benefactors.
Bat carefully adjusted her baseball cap before connecting the final system wire to the net brainbox. If a trap or any other aggressive program had slipped past her careful examination, this was often enough to trigger it. She held her breath for a couple seconds, and when nothing happened she readjusted her hat and relaxed. No matter how many years went by, every system connection took her back to the day five years ago when she'd earned the name Bat and lost an eye in the process. She should have seen the trap but didn't. As a result, her client's brain box blew up in her face, damaging the lens of her left eye beyond repair. Convinced she'd be blind, her friends started calling her 'Bat.' Her vision was restored with the aid of a mechanical replacement, but the name stuck anyway.
System initialized, she keyed in Xero's general use account. If someone was after her boss, logging into the system as herself would serve little purpose. She started with routine housekeeping. Xero's preferences were pretty straightforward, and Bat knew the subroutines as if they were her own. She logged in the day's messages and took note of the net account balances. Everything was in order there as well.
Satisfied that the system was operating as it should, she launched the program that would fling her onto the nets. Cruising Xero's regular haunts, she noticed a few familiar faces identified by their screen icons, as well as several new ones. Things were slow, but Bat noted that it was still early. She was about to make her way to the node for the 'Horn when she was stopped by a greeting.
We meet again, Xero, the message said.
"Holy shit," Bat gasped, her good eye widening in surprise as she sat staring at the screen.
Or should I say, Xena? the message continued.
"It's her psycho," Bat whispered as she touched the control of her mobie unit. "Xero, you there?" she asked, worried. There was no response. Either Xero was on another channel, or the mobile communications system had been jammed. Bat glanced back at the screen. The message was waiting for a response. "What would Xero say?" she wondered. She'd been spotted and tagged, it was no good to try to pretend otherwise. Finally she keyed in her response. Who the fuck is Xena?
Could it be that you don't know yet? This gets better all the time, the message flashed, red letters on black. I'm going to enjoy killing you, Xena, I only hope it's as good for you as it will be for me.
Bat hit the code sequence to dump her off the nets to the safety of her own computer. Nothing happened. She tried a different command, one that would simply cut all power to the system. Again, nothing. Reaching over, she hit the emergency crash switch on the main drive. It would corrupt active data but was an escape of last resort. When that failed she keyed her response.
Who are you? Bat asked, trying to fight her growing fear, and losing.
I'm sorry, it's been such a long time. Xena, my dear, my name is Ares.
Xero decided it was time to leave. There wouldn't be anything happening here for her tonight. She pushed away from her table and began to stand as a third Buckner was put down in front of her. The hacker looked up into the loveliest green eyes she'd ever seen. "Mind if I buy you a drink?" a soft voice asked.
Keeping eye contact, the hacker stood and smiled. Xero towered over the shorter woman, whom she figured could only be the syscop Bat had warned her about--strawberry blond, petite, beautiful. Her one-eyed associate did have a gift for understatement. Xero wrapped her long fingers around the neck of the beer bottle. "You don't mind if I take it with me?" she asked. Beautiful as this woman was, she was still a syscop.
A smaller hand wrapped around her own, holding the bottle onto the table. "As a matter of fact, I do," the young woman said evenly. "When I buy a beautiful woman a drink, I expect her to finish it in my company."
Xero flashed her a grin, displaying a mouthful of perfect white teeth. There might be something here worth the risk after all, she decided. "That's rather butch of you," she commented, sitting down again. The other woman took the seat opposite her and let go of her hand but didn't say anything. "Use that line a lot do you?" Xero asked, after taking a sip of the beer.
"On occasion," the other woman replied with false bravado. Xero laughed and the syscop frowned. "I say something funny?"
"You don't lie very well," the hacker replied. "No, I'd bet a bottle of spring water that I'm the first woman you've hit on in a bar. Isn't that so, Rielle?"
Her companion looked at the table as her cheeks flushed crimson before making eye contact again. "I'm glad you took the time to look at my files at least," she finally said, changing the subject. "Xero, I need to talk to you."
"Too bad, I don't talk to syscops," the older woman replied flatly.
"Can I buy you dinner? Give me that much time at least?" Rielle asked.
"Fine," Xero replied with an artful shrug. She nodded to the waitress who came over to take her order. "Kitchen have fresh produce?" she asked.
Ska blinked. Naturally grown fruits and vegetables were very expensive delicacies. "Yeah, some," she replied. "We've got fresh soy stuff too."
"I'll have a salad with the works," Xero requested. "Hold the tofu."
"For two," Rielle added, handing over her account card.
When the waitress was gone, she turned to her companion once again. "Xero, I'm going to tell you a story. You're going to think it's fantastic, but I want you to hear me out anyway."
"Until I'm done eating, I'm all yours," she replied.
Feeling warm, Xena? The message on the screen taunted.
Bat tried again in vain to break eye contact with the data code that scrolled past her eyes at blinding speed. If she'd had two natural eyes, all she would have seen was a mesmerizing blur. Unfortunately, with her mechanical eye she could make out some of what she was reading. The repetitive, hypnotic code was sending signals to her body. Her brain, unable to filter out the harmful instructions, could only wait and experience the body's self-destruction. Like subliminal advertising on steroids, Bat was helpless against the onslaught of information. Sweating and dizzy, she guessed her fever must be well over 103 degrees by now.
I'm not Xena, she finally managed to send.
Sure you are, the message came back. You just don't remember yet. I really didn't know the battle for the third age would be this easy. Even Melinda Pappas was more of a challenge than you. So, wanna race?
Bat's heart started beating faster, her heated blood pulsing through her system. In rapid succession, blisters formed on her lungs, burst, and slowly began to fill the organs with fluid. Bat began to drown as she tried desperately not to panic. If she was going to die, as now seemed likely, she wanted someone to know why and how. Eyes still riveted on the scrolling text, in the periphery of her vision she could see the isolated drive sitting on top of the brainbox. Unable to move her head, she managed to yank a wire from an unused diagnostic unit and then plug the drive in as she keyed in a record sequence. Just then her lungs were released. As she violently coughed up hot fluid, scorching the delicate membranes of her windpipe, her pulse sped up. Whatever was killing her intended to do it slowly.
You don't know how long I've waited for this, Xena. I've had thousands of years to plot your destruction. I never doubted that as long as I got to you before that irritating blond did, I'd have you. I hope you're able to fully appreciate what you could have had all those millennia ago, when a simple 'yes' from you would have given you immortality.
Feeling something wet on her leg, the hacker noted that her hands had broken out in blisters that were popping soon after forming. Clear plasma ran down her fingers onto the input pad and finally and dripping on her thigh. Her eminent death looking messy, Bat took the battered baseball cap off her head and tossed it aside. A remembrance of her mother who had died in the Plague, she wasn't about to let her own demise ruin Mickey Mouse.
Her lungs filled with fluid and she waited for the end. Something slimy hit her monitor and she absently noticed it was her natural eye, popped from its socket from intercranial pressure. Were it not for her implant, she'd be blissfully blind.
Well, Xena, it's been fun. Give my regards to Callisto, Velasca, and Hades when you see them.
She could smell charring flesh now and would have screamed had she been able to get the air, to do so. Instead she winced as she felt her aorta finally explode in her chest cavity. After that everything slowed down until life itself mercifully ended.
"Let me get this straight," Xero said dubiously. "You're saying this bar was originally funded by the Pappas Foundation and that saddle hanging over there bought at the big auction the Smithsonian had when their funding was cut?" Rielle nodded and let the other woman continue. "And this Melinda Pappas fought the battle of the second age." Rielle nodded again. "And I'm related to her, how?" Xero asked.
"In a way, you're her ancestor," Rielle explained. "Melinda Pappas was related to Xena and Janice Covington was related to Gabrielle. You and I are the reincarnated souls of Xena and Gabrielle."
"That's right," Xero amended, not believing a word of it. "Which one am I again?"
"You're Xena," Rielle said loosing her patience.
"Of course, the 'X's, I should have known. Okay, I'm Xena and I'm going to fight the Battle of the Third Age. Against who?"
"Against Ares," the syscop continued clearly annoyed. "And believe me, if you don't start taking this a bit more seriously, you're going to lose."
"Well, I wouldn't want that," Xero shot back with a smirk.
"Didn't you read any of the material I sent over?" Rielle asked. "I was hoping it'd jog your memory."
"You've said that Xena and Gabrielle were lovers," Xero offered. "Don't you think that would jog my memory?"
An unreadable look crossed the younger woman's face. "I'm willing to try anything," she said quietly.
"Well, don't make it sound like such a chore," Xero shot back miffed.
"It's not that, Xero, it's just that obviously I can remember things at this point that you can't." She shook her head sadly. "It'd be a lot different for me than for you, I suspect."
Xero was tempted to tell the young woman to forget the whole thing and just leave. Still, there was something about her company she found intriguing and wasn't ready to part ways just yet. If nothing else, she could take the woman home and let the terrified newbie off the hook then. "Fine then," Xero said as she stood. "Let's go."
All eyes in the Saddlehorn Pub & Grill watched the newbie leave with Xero. It wasn't unusual to see the hacker leave with attractive women. But it was puzzling to see the evening's victor not appear pleased at the conquest.
"So when did you first realize that you were the reincarnated essence of an ancient Amphipolitan bard?" Xero asked as they stepped off the lift at her floor.
"Poteidaia, Gabrielle was from Poteidaia," Rielle corrected her.
"I started having vivid dreams a few months ago. Unusual at first, but they wouldn't go away. Then I started to do some research. The more I learned, the more things fit into place," the syscop explained as they walked down the hall to the older woman's apartment.
"I still don't see how it's possible to be reincarnated from a television show," Xero insisted.
"Not from a show, you big dumb hacker," she snapped. "The show was based on a collection of scrolls Janice Covington discovered in 1942, then later in 1961. The '42 Scrolls were hidden away until the '90's when they were used for the show."
Xero nodded as she ran her thumb over the door's ID patch. It unlocked and upon opening her senses were immediately assaulted by the acrid smell of burnt hair and flesh. "What the fuck!" she gasped and ran inside.
Bat, or rather her charred remains, sat rigidly on the couch. Small tendrils of smoke still drifted off of the body. A flaming sword could clearly be seen rotating on the screen in front of her with the words Goodbye Xena below them. A green light was blinking on the portable drive indicating that it had just been backed up.
"That's Ares' symbol," Rielle said, pointing to the screen.
"What happened to her?" Xero whispered, realizing her roommate was beyond dead. "She's grounded," the hacker said noting the ground wire trailing from band wrapped around the dead woman's wrist. "How could she have been zapped?" For a moment Xero couldn't help but stare at the grotesque corpse. When her gaze landed on Bat's mechanical eye, still functioning from its back up battery, she shut her eyes and turned away.
"That is what I'm trying to explain," Rielle said softly. "Ares must have thought she was you, or he's just practicing. Xero, this is a god we're talking about. He's powerful."
Xero turned to her companion, her blue eyes flashing in sorrow and anger. "So now you're a Fundie?" she demanded. "Did you orchestrate this?" she growled as she advancing on the smaller woman. Wisely, Rielle backed up. "Rig the equipment? A syscop who works for Archive Corporation, maybe, is that it?" Backed against the wall, Rielle looked up into the face of her aggressor. She was much shorter than the hacker, her head only reaching just past the taller woman's shoulder. Craning her neck back, she tried to remain calm as cold blue eyes bore into her. "I'll ask one more time, 'cop. Are you or are you not a bounty hunter?"
"Xero, you know I'm not," she said carefully. "You can see for yourself she's still smoking. She's only been dead a matter of minutes. I was with you. Do you honestly think I could construct a remote program that your friend couldn't disable?"
"She wasn't my friend," Xero muttered turning away.
Rielle looked again from the charred body to the woman who once was Xena. "What was she then?" she asked quietly.
"A good acquaintance." Xero shrugged.
Walking over to the taller woman, she put a comforting hand on her arm. "Even so, it isn't safe for you to stay here. Even if you don't believe what I've told you about Ares, surely a corpse in your apartment isn't something a hacker would care to explain, now is it?" Rielle continued seriously. "Why don't you come to my place. You can crash there tonight. Maybe in the morning you'll listen to some of what I have to say."
Xero nodded absently. The syscop was right. Bat's body would have to be tended to, and there were too many unanswered questions for her to remain. She'd probably be implicated in the murder, although the authorities wouldn't worry too much about a dead hacker. She would find whoever it was who did this, syscop or no syscop. Shaking her head, Xero grabbed a small bag and began throwing in her things.
She picked up her portable system, and disconnected the isolated drive that had been blinking. Grabbing a second pair of jeans, a shirt and some loose credit slips, she added her wallet and some mini discs, and was ready to go. "I should take Argo," she said as an afterthought.
"Argo?" Rielle asked, eyes wide.
"Yeah, Bat's iguana."
The syscop looked at the dead woman with growing unease. Could she have been mistaken and contacted the wrong one? "This woman has a pet named Argo? Where did she get the name?"
"I don't know," Xero replied with a shrug, heading for the bedroom that led off from the main living room. "I think she said she heard me mumble it in my sleep." She returned several minutes later, a large bright green reptile perched on her shoulder. Rielle guessed the animal's body to be about forty centimeters long not counting the tail. "I don't know why, but Bat had a soft spot for lost causes," Xero explained, putting a container of food into her pocket.
"Is that why she lived with you?" Rielle asked.
Xero glared at her. "She lived with me because she worked for me. She put in long hours keeping my rig in shape. Besides, here she had some measure of protection against corporate thugs." Xero looked once again at the dead woman's body. "Apparently it wasn't enough." Making her way towards the door, she paused at the couch. Picking up Bat's antique baseball hat, she put it on and smiled sadly. "I'm going to find the thugs that did this," she whispered. "And when I do, they won't end up looking half as good as you." Cold blue eyes taking a final sweep around the small apartment, Xero realized that there was nothing else she needed, nothing else she could take with her. "Let's go," she muttered tightly to her companion.
"Here we are." Rielle pushed open the heavy front door to her apartment. Xero, already impressed by the prime location of the building, stood speechless at the spaciousness of the dwelling.
"How many people live here?" she asked, putting her heavy bag down on the overstuffed couch.
"I live alone," Rielle answered.
"I didn't know syscops did so well," Xero quipped, trying to mask her amazement. No one lived alone save the extremely wealthy. The fact that she only lived with one person spoke volumes about how well she did as a hacker.
"Yeah, well, it belonged to my parents," Rielle explained, answering Xero's unasked question. "They both died a few years ago. The flat was already paid for."
Xero nodded and looked around. The place even had windows. Unable to resist, she strolled over and looked outside. At night the city lights sparkled brightly, making the South California skyline pulsate with glowing beauty. "Would you like something to drink?" Rielle called from the kitchen.
"Sure," Xero called back. "Whatever you've got." After moments spent in rapt fascination at the window, she was joined by the syscop.
"You mentioned spring water earlier, so I thought this would be okay." Rielle handed her a glass of iced water.
Xero took a sip. "You seem to have everything here."
Rielle looked uncomfortable "I guess. But I stand to lose it all--everyone stands to lose everything if you don't get your memory back and battle Ares."
"Are we on that again?" Xero asked, exasperated. "Look, kid. If this is a clever line you're using to get me in the sack, trust me, you're trying way too hard."
"Is that what you think this is about? Fucking you?" Rielle stormed away from the window. "Xena must have looked long and hard to find the densest, dumbest...most clueless body she could. Your friend is sitting burned to a crisp on your couch and you think I'm making a pass at you?"
"I'd be careful if I were you," Xero growled. "I'm in no mood to be taunted by some spoiled syscop who thinks she's bringing in the catch of the day. You don't play this game very well do you, Rielle? You pick me up in a dyke bar, give me this bullshit about past lives, throw in New Age Fundie crap with the god Ares and tell me I'm going to suddenly remember being a reformed warlord from Amphipolis!" As she turned she winced. Argo, losing his balance from her shoulder, grabbed with a foreclaw, sharp nails digging into her exposed skin above the collar of the leather jacket.
"Here," Rielle offered moving to take the lizard from the taller woman's shoulder. "Why don't we put Argo down." Gently as she could, she put the big reptile down on the floor. The animal was heavier than he looked.
"Thanks," Xero muttered.
Rielle softened. "I'm sorry, why don't you take some time. I'm sure there's someone you should notify about your fri... associate's death. I wish you'd trust me, but I realize that you think you can't. Still, I have to tell you that I've no intention of arresting you or turning you in. You're welcome to stay, the couch is yours. Make yourself at home. We can talk more about Xena and the other stuff in the morning." She turned away and walked toward the bedroom. "If you were serious about what you said earlier," she added, turning back around, "About needing to jog your memory, I'll be in here."
No matter, Xero decided, watching her go--she wasn't in the mood anyway. She wandered into the kitchen, opening up cupboards until she found a small bowl. She poured some of the spring water from her glass into the bowl and put it on the floor near the lizard. Pulling out her mobie unit, she keyed in the satellite codes for maximum encryption and called the 'Horn.
Wandering back to the window, she waited for the connection to link up. "Yeah, Shadow, it's Xero. Look, I've got bad news. Bat is dead. She was fried about an hour ago. I found her when I went home... No, I'm not there now. I'm...elsewhere. If she's got any family or anything, you need to let them know. I'm uploading the codes to my place. Security would just dump the body, but she deserves better than that.... Thanks, Shadow, I appreciate it. Keep my place secure if you can. I'm going to track down whoever did this and I might need to go back and get some things... Okay, I will. Thanks again."
Feeling numb, she broke the connection and put the mobie away. She looked around the stylishly decorated apartment and decided to stay. If the syscop was set on taking her in, Xero decided it was one way to see how good the young woman really was. She took off her boots, casually tossing them under a low table near the couch. Removing her jacket, she pulled out the small container of food pellets and put a few down on the floor for the iguana. She then extracted her small hand held flame thrower from a concealed pocket and put it on the table. Finally, she took off her hat. She gazed at the faded picture of a cartoon mouse for long minutes, reverently tracing its outline with her finger. Shaking off the pensive reflection, she put the hat on the table as well. She laid down, stretching her long legs, the concealed flame thrower in her right hand. With that, and easy access to two concealed knives, Xero decided she was as safe as she could be under the circumstances. When she closed her eyes, sleep was almost instantly.
Xero looked around disoriented. She was standing in a corporate board room dressed in her jeans and t-shirt, uncharacteristically barefoot.
"So glad you could make it," said a firm voice in greeting.
Looking up, Xero was startled to see two women sitting behind a polished black table. Both were dressed in old-fashioned tuxedos. One of them looked a lot like her and the other looked like Rielle, the syscop.
"I must be dreaming," Xero said, trying to make sense of her surroundings.
"The hacker catches on fast," the strawberry-blond continued. "We decided on formal wear for our first meeting, I hope that's okay with you. I'm Janice Covington, and the ravishing creature next to me is Melinda Pappas."
"It's nice to meet you, Xero." Melinda said surprising the hacker with her Southern accent.
"I never dream," Xero stated bluntly, wondering why she wasn't simply waking up.
"Believe me, that's been a major problem for us," Janice replied. "Fact is, this isn't going to be fun. The stuff Rielle is telling you is true. If you can stop thinking with your libido and refrain from bullying her, you might learn something. Why don't you try listening for a change."
"I don't have to take this crap from you," Xero growled, deciding she liked the syscop's look alike even less than the syscop.
"Actually , Xero you do." Janice grinned.
"What she means," Mel interjected, "is that you have to sleep. Now that we've reached you, we're going to keep at it."
"Look kid," Janice continued, "Ares is on the move. He offed that friend of yours. With our help, you're going to see to it that his sorry ass is blown to kingdom-come."
"Janice!" Mel implored, referring to her companion's harsh language.
"Relax, Mel!" Janice soothed. "I'm just trying to get through to the Warrior Princess over here. Xena, we need you to remember. We're going to do whatever it takes to see that you do remember. We didn't risk life and limb to have you forfeit the Battle of the Third Age."
"Battle of the Third Age?" Xero mumbled.
"Gods, she's slow," Janice groaned in frustration.
"Janice, please! She's been through a lot. It was hard getting through to Gabrielle too if you remember. Give her some time to get her bearings, get to know Rielle. At least let her say goodbye to her friend."
"I don't have any friends," Xero replied automatically.
"I never thought I'd meet someone who made Xena look well adjusted," Janice quipped. After getting an icy glare from Mel, she continued, "Alright, you've been through a lot. We won't get started right now. Rest up some, but start thinking. Search your feelings. You are more than you imagine. Get in touch with what's beyond you. We can't help you if you don't help us."
"Whaaa..." Xero looked around the room. The lights had dimmed automatically with her inactivity. Something felt odd, but she couldn't quite describe it. Not needing to check her watch, she knew she'd been asleep for three hours. Mildly surprised that the syscop had not in fact tried to arrest her, she sat up and stretched. Absently, she considered the young woman may have been telling the truth after all, far fetched as it sounded. Putting her weapons on the coffee table with the baseball hat, she silently walked over to the bedroom door.
Rielle was sleeping on her side, facing the door on the far side of the bed. "Staying as far away as possible from me, no doubt," Xero considered. When she crossed the room and picked up the bed covers, the other woman's eyes flew open with a start.
"What is it?" Rielle asked, frightened.
"Relax, Rielle. I'm not after your virtue. I think the couch is uncomfortable, it made me have a weird dream. I'm sleeping here." The hacker slid under the covers.
"Weird dream you say?" A small smile tugged at Rielle's lips.
"Yeah," Xero muttered. "These two women in tuxedos. It's nothing. Lemme sleep."
Rielle's smile broadened as she watched her companion slip into slumber. Realizing that things might just work out after all, the smile remained as she too drifted off to sleep.
There's only one way to rock.
- Sammy Hagar
Reinitializing the Program
Xero awoke, groggy and confused in an unfamiliar bedroom. This in and of itself was not unusual. Alone in the large bed, dressed in only her tank top and underwear, she surveyed her surroundings. The soft, expensive sheets were a chaotic mess. In the dim light, the sparsely furnished bedroom had an airy warmth to it. The outline of a closet panel was visible on one side of the room; simple shelves dominated the wall on the other. A number of computer minidrives were stacked neatly on the polished metal surface. Xero noticed several rows of bound paper books as well. She looked around for a monitor and was surprised the room didn't have one. The closest thing was the mirror above the dresser opposite the foot of the bed. Xero studied her reflection as the memories of the previous night resurfaced. Running her fingers through her hair she got up and decided to look for her host, the syscop.
As she opened the bedroom door, her nose was assaulted by the delicious scent of fresh food. Padding silently into the kitchen, she watched as Rielle divided the contents of a steaming bowl onto two plates. The syscop turned around, and was visibly startled by Xero's presence, almost dropping one of the plates. Xero grabbed the unbalanced plate with one hand, and supported Rielle's elbow with the other.
"Thanks," the syscop said shyly. "I didn't know you were up."
"So you were going to eat this all yourself?" The hacker looked pointedly at both plates.
Rielle swallowed nervously. Her eyes traveled up from the floor, taking in her guest's long legs and muscular body. "Well, um, I was going to wake you when I got the food on the table."
"Were you now?" the tall woman challenged gently, noting with satisfaction the color heightening the syscop's cheeks. "You weren't going to serve me in bed? You offered to last night."
"Yes, yes I did," Rielle said evenly, looking directly into Xero's piercing blue eyes. "For a very specific reason, and you declined my offer. Now if you can stop thinking about sex for ten minutes maybe we can come up with some other idea for restoring your memory."
"I don't know. Ten minutes is an awfully long time." Xero grinned as the shorter woman pushed past her and headed to a small dining table.
Xero let her eyes wander around the room as she took her seat. The early morning sun filtered through the thick marine layer illuminating the living space with an eerie grayness. From this vantage point high up in the Malibu Hills, the Pacific Ocean could be seen in the distance, reflecting the morning's light. Xero noted the thin outline of a security panel and two discrete wires that disappeared into the wall next to the window. The hacker's gaze casually surveyed the living room, taking note that her things on the coffee table were just as she'd left them. Argo was perched on the back of the couch and regarded her with indifference. Up near the ceiling, Xero noticed two small motion detectors and a signal array of some sort.
"You're casing my home," Rielle said, cutting off the hacker's thoughts. "Knock it off."
Xero shrugged unapologetically. "Professional habit."
"You're into burglary as well as online larceny?" the syscop inquired putting the plate down in front of her guest.
"Sometimes you have to go to the mainframe to hack," she explained, digging into her food. "It isn't all done from the comfort of our living rooms."
When Rielle took her seat, a panel slid aside in the wall across from the table, revealing a large monitor. Rielle reached for a control to turn it off but Xero stopped her with a wave of her hand. "It's alright," the hacker said, eyes fixed on the screen. "I like to watch the news while I eat breakfast too."
Rielle nodded and returned her attention to her plate. She glanced occasionally at her companion and wondered just how she was going to deal with the pugnacious hacker. It was well into the lead story that her attention finally shifted to the news broadcast.
"...to the surprise of many, Senator Jasper Helms, the Republican of North California has declared his candidacy for President in the 2046 election. President Taborn was unavailable for comment.
"The President has been in closed meetings since the mysterious death last night of two of her closest advisors. Chief of Staff Elizabeth Book and Mark Sands of the Ronin Corporation were both found dead in their homes, the apparent victims of online murder. Each victim was running a system using the latest in state of the art safeguards. Many, including the President are concerned. Word from the White House is that every effort is being expended on and offline to track down the responsible parties and bring them to justice..."
"I can't believe Helms is running," Rielle remarked. "Last I'd heard, the oaf was out of money. He lost a lot of steam endorsing the Throwback Bill last term."
Xero nodded. "He was out of money all right. I saw his accounts last quarter. He was up to his ears in debt with Values America..." Xero's voice trailed off at the look of shock that crossed her companion's face.
"You hacked your way into congressional files? Who on earth hired you for that?" An arched eyebrow in her direction was all the answer Rielle got. "Of course. Client-hacker confidentiality," she muttered.
Xero leaned back and smiled, sipping her coffee. It was real, not the soy coffee product she usually drank. Rielle impressed her at every turn. For a syscop, she was finding the young woman across from her rather disarming, as well as attractive. "It was no big job, really," the hacker said, taking another sip from her mug. "My client was looking to withdraw support for Helms on two fronts. They didn't appreciate his attempt to repeal the Personal Freedom legislation of '15 and they didn't support his ban on cerebral enhancement research. They simply wanted to know if he could finance a smear campaign before they walked away. He couldn't, not by a long shot."
Suddenly Xero's attention was riveted on the monitor screen. The news story had shifted to the deaths of the President's advisors. The center of the screen was dominated by the live report from the scene of one of the murders. The unfortunate housekeeper who had discovered the body joined the announcer on camera.
"It was just awful," the tearful woman moaned. "I found him here, in his study. Obviously he'd been zapped, his body was still smoking."
"What is it?" Rielle asked starring at Xero.
The hacker pointed to the screen. Rielle followed the line of her finger to a blurry monitor in the background of the live action shot. A simple logo was illuminated on the screen, the same one she'd seen hours earlier in Xero's apartment. "Shit," she whispered. "Ares."
"At this point I'm inclined to believe you," Xero muttered, staring at the screen.
"You are?" Rielle gasped, shocked.
"Not that shit about gods and all, but maybe it's a code name for a corporate muscle or something. Maybe a virus. Whatever it is, I intend to find out..."
"Hold it right there," Rielle demanded, keeping Xero's eyes captive with her own. "I don't think it's a good idea for you to go on the nets. Especially not as yourself. Remember, Ares thinks you're dead. You show up anywhere as Xero and he's going to know he fried the wrong person. Your friend's death may have given you an advantage. Is that something you're going to throw away?"
Xero didn't say anything as she studied her companion. What the syscop said had merit, even if it wasn't what she wanted to hear. At the very least, it wouldn't hurt to hear the younger woman out. "Why do I sense you've another proposition for me?" she said, disinterested. "I'll have you know I'm already disappointed your last proposition didn't pan out."
Rielle smiled, flattered in spite of herself. The part of her that held Gabrielle's memories ached at the sight of her soul mate, and the part of her that was Rielle was attracted to the beautiful woman anyway. "You've made it clear you want to look into what happened to your friend--sorry, associate. Why don't you give me an hour or two to check on my own sources to see if I can dig anything up? If I do, you can take the information and go on from there."
"Why would you do that?" Xero asked suspiciously.
"You just don't get it do you," Rielle answered sadly. "Like it or not, you're my business now. I have to keep you alive long enough for you to remember what's at stake here. You may think I'm some deranged wacko, fine. But I intend to do whatever it takes," she paused as her companions eyebrow arched, "yes, including that. Look, why don't you take a shower, maybe a cold one? I'll scan the nets and see what I can find."
Rielle waited, watching as Xero considered her options. The hacker's face gave nothing away as she calmly regarded the syscop sitting across from her. "Fine," she agreed. "I'll get cleaned up and you see what's out there." In one fluid movement she rose from the table and walked toward the bathroom.
"Two millennia later and she still won't tell me what she's thinking," Rielle grumbled after the hacker had departed.
Xero leaned into the cool water of the shower. The syscop was right. The cold water was just what she needed to refocus her thoughts and get her bearings. She shivered as she leaned her head back, letting the water soak into her long black hair. With a grimace she reached for the old fashioned bar soap. What was she going to do about the syscop? Briefly she considered that her reaction to the strawberry blond was just hormonal. It had been a while, after all. Still, she knew in her gut there was more to it than that. She didn't know just how much more, and wasn't sure she wanted to find out. Absently she lathered the clear glycerine soap between her hands, enjoying the fresh herbal fragrance and silky lather. The young syscop was indeed a throwback. Bar soap, cotton towels, bound books--the apartment was filled with things that spoke of the past. A time when things were in some ways simpler than they were now.
Xero washed her hair, then rinsed her body once again. Briefly she tasted the water streaming down her face. She was surprised at its purity. Either Rielle MacGab had her own private water reserves, or she owned a state of the art filtration system. The pieces just didn't fit. Syscops made money, but not the kind of credit that would enable this lifestyle. It was possible her parents were of means and left her the apartment. They probably died in the plague like everyone else's parents. But the upkeep and taxes on an apartment this size were still expensive.
There was something else that didn't fit. Rielle seemed far too open and honest to be trusted. First she was trying to bluff the hacker into believing she picked up women on a regular basis, and the next morning she seemed scared to death to be eating breakfast with an infamous criminal. If Rielle was playing a game, Xero decided, she was either not playing it very well or she was playing it better than anyone else.
After drying her body and towel drying her hair, Xero dressed and headed back into the living room. Rielle was where she'd left her, sitting at the table, breakfast dishes pushed to the side, eyes intent on the large monitor. She had an input pad in front of her, and the hacker noted with approval that the syscop's eyes never left the screen as she worked the controls. It seemed more believable to her now that this was indeed the woman who had tapped her online the night before.
Hard to believe it was only last night. With a sigh Xero sat down on the overstuffed couch and proceeded to don her socks and boots. She still had deadlines to meet, jobs to complete. Only now she'd have to do the tedious prep work herself. "Still," she considered, "if there's a wake tonight at the 'Horn for Bat, maybe I can pass off some of the grunt work then." Just then Rielle spoke up, and Xero wondered if the younger woman had just read her thoughts.
"I hope you didn't have big plans for today," the syscop said. "Because I've got some pretty bad news."
"What is it?" Xero asked, walking back to the dining room table.
"Well, according to this," Rielle explained, "you're dead."
Xero looked at the file her companion was indicating. It was an Archive Corporation roster of known and wanted hackers. She recognized all of the names, knew most of them by face, but oddly enough, she wasn't among those listed.
Rielle keyed a sequence into her input panel and a new list appeared, one of recently captured or deceased hackers. Xero found her screen name listed at number three. "While your friend The Bat," Rielle checked the first file again, "make that Renée Palmer, is still wanted by Archive and any number of other corporate entities, you're not wanted by anyone. They all think you're dead." Rielle looked over her shoulder seriously at the woman standing behind her. "I'm impressed that none of them know your real name."
Xero flashed Rielle a grin. She didn't have the heart to tell her that 'Xero' had in fact been her name since she was two. Uncoordinated at dodgeball, a kid who couldn't spell had named her thus on the orphanage playground. The name stuck, and by the time she was five, Xero had forgotten what her given name actually was. "Funny, I feel pretty good for a dead thing," Xero quipped, still smiling. "I suppose my net accounts have been frozen?"
"Oh yeah," Rielle affirmed. "If you can hack your way into your own systems, fine. Still I think you're better off letting this play out. Ares is going to find out sooner or later you're not dead. Chances are some other hacker will tip him off. As you can see by the list, he visited two other hackers last night after your friend."
"How can you be so sure it's him, or it, or whoever?" Xero asked.
"Well," Rielle said with a shrug, "it isn't any secret that TufGuy and 2Shy hacked for the government. I'm guessing Ares found what he was looking for from them then went after the Ronin brass Mark Sands and then President Taborn's Chief of Staff. Did TufGuy or 2Shy have any connection to Bat?" she asked as she keyed the sequence to save the files.
"I think she knew TufGuy from when she worked at Ronin. As for 2Shy, I don't know," the hacker admitted. Already Xero's mind was thinking ahead. If whatever it was that killed her partner had downloaded her files, a lot of people could be at risk. She quickly inventoried the disks she'd brought with her. The most sensitive data she'd accumulated in her criminal career was safe for the moment. While her files were encoded, she still had cause for concern. Bat's files had been encoded too.
"I've got some stuff to do," Xero announced walking back to the living room to gather her belongings.
"If you're planning to clean out your place, be careful," Rielle cautioned. Xero just looked at her. Of course that had been her intention, but the fact that syscop surmised as much and seemed to take that knowledge in stride bothered her. "Well it's what I'd do if I were you," she slyly added, looking up into frowning blue eyes.
"Right," Xero said flatly, unable to tear her eyes away from the younger woman.
"You might as well leave the Iguana here," Rielle offered. "Pick it up later, Argo isn't any bother." Rielle offered, shy and uncertain once more.
"I'll pick him up later." Xero agreed knowing full well that Rielle was looking for an excuse to see her again. "If you find out anything else, you can let me know then."
Jasper Helms pushed back from his desk with a satisfied grunt. Resting his loafer-clad feet on an open drawer, he disengaged the mute button on his remote and watched the monitor screen set into the wall across from him. He tried several news channels in quick succession, a satisfied smile on his face. A flashing light, indicating an incoming call on his private line, interrupted his thoughts. Hitting the corresponding button on his remote, he addressed the unknown caller.
"Helms, go ahead," he announced, muting the news.
"I take it you've seen the news?" The voice was metallic yet had a smooth, soothing quality that the senator found unsettling.
"Yes," Helms admitted, his pudgy fingers fiddling with his remote. "And I take it you were successful?"
"Yes. Xena is dead. Your hacker served you well. I trust you don't need her for anything else?" The implication in the disembodied voice was clear. This was Helms' loose end.
"I'll have her taken care of with the rest of the house cleaning," Helms assured the voice. "It's time for things to move forward, old boy. A few more strategic moves and the presidency is mine. Finally, I'll be able to get this country back on track. I can't thank you enough Mr. Ares."
The voice dripped boredom. "Whatever. You follow the agenda I've laid out and the oval office is yours. As long as you don't disappoint me, I'll be willing to help."
Helms took umbrage at the superior tone, but was in no position to argue. Brashly, he decided to try again. He always felt better after having looked allies in the eye--unseen electronic voices were unknown quantities and therefore dangerous.
"Perhaps we should arrange a meeting and go over--" The line clicked, then dead silence filled the air. Helms had his answer and Mr. Ares was still an unknown. Fingering his remote, he returned to the newscasts.
Xero made her way down Old Topanga Canyon Road from the Mulholland Metro-Link station. She'd had to walk since Rielle had driven them to her apartment in Malibu the night before. While the distance wasn't far, it was during daylight--a dangerous time to be outside. She was grateful for the baseball cap and sunglasses which shielded her sensitive blue eyes from the sun's destructive radiation. Regardless, Xero hurried to her destination.
The apartment complex where she lived was unusually small. Hackers as a rule hated crowds, not to mention company. With only twenty units, it was the most isolated accommodation she could find. She forced herself to stay calm as she passed the open entrance of the building, and continued on her way to the garage. The van out front marked "Biohazard Division of Public Safety" stood out like a beacon. The cops were here all right, city police as well as corporate. There was no way she'd get into her apartment now, not if the cops had it. She slipped into the shadows of the garage, hoping Bat had kept a healthy stash of goods down there.
After allowing a moment for her eyes to adjust, she took off her sunglasses and walked further into the coolness of the concrete enclosure. Out of habit, she walked toward her convertible MG. A relic from the past, it had been souped up and revamped more times than she could count. Absently she touched the British racing green hood. She'd bought the car at an estate sale. While the government maintained that the plague was over, the sheer number of estate sales on any given day hinted otherwise. Recycling had become a way of life. Possessions left by the dead were consumed by the living, just as the dead themselves were consumed by the fires of mandatory cremation.
With a resigned shrug, she turned away from her car and looked at Bat's motorcycle. It was new, only two months old and was a state of the art hybrid. Energy cells charged by solar packing systems and powered by methane cartridges provided the muscle behind the sleek looking machine. The latest from the MRM, Mother Russia Motorworks, it was appropriately enough called the Alpha Prowler. Xero maneuvered the heavy reptile from her arm to the enclosure at the front of the bike that had been added for the animal. Argo took the change of location in stride and continued to regard the world around him with detached indifference.
Turning to the storage compartment set into the wall above the bike, Xero keyed in a code sequence, relieved that her former roommate hadn't bothered to change the code recently. She didn't bother to try her own storage unit. If she was assumed dead, all of her net accounts as well as everything else requiring electronic access would be frozen. For the time being, she would have to scrounge what she could from her dead associate.
A variety of emergency supplies as well as a some spare helmets were neatly stacked on the storage compartment shelves. Xero picked the one that appeared the most 'lived in.' As she'd hoped, a spare set of keys were tucked behind the helmet's microphone. She pocketed the keys and grabbed a few items from the shelf. The contents of her backpack filled one of the large saddlebags attached to the back of the bike. In the other she packed a small tent, a insulite blanket, some food, a flashlight, the sun lotion and the pile of loose credit slips from a jar on one of the shelves. When Xero was certain she'd packed as much as she could, she reverently put the battered baseball cap in the saddlebag and secured the latch. She hooked the extra helmet to the back of the bike, figuring she could use the electronic parts as spares. Once she'd made sure the tool kit was where it belonged under the seat, and that her power cells were charged on full, she was ready to go.
"Stop right there," a voice called as she readied to gun the bike's engine.
Xero looked up to see a pair of security guards approaching. Not nearly as dangerous as real cops, they did a lot of the legwork for the more heavily armed and volatile officers. Still, security carried tasers or flamethrowers and were still dangerous. This duo was a man and a woman, and they'd entered the garage the same way she had, from the outside. "Yes?" Xero asked, keeping her expression neutral and unthreatining.
"Are you Renée Palmer?" the female guard asked, noting the numbered tag on the back of the bike.
"No," Xero answered, shaking her head. "She's in Santa Monica; I'm taking her the bike."
"I'm afraid we need to impound that bike," the man replied, walking forward carefully. "Please step away from it."
"Sure," the hacker replied, straddling the bike, and putting her weight on her right leg. She'd lifted her left leg as far as the motor and cursed under her breath. "Shit," she muttered, "the chain on my boot is stuck on the throttle valve--hold on." She held her foot aloft, close to the motorcycles's engine. She'd get one shot at this and was determined to make it count.
The female guard's hand instinctively went to her gun as her partner approached the hacker. In a lightning move, Xero's left heel came down on the outside of the guard's knee, a knife instantly in her hand and at the guard's neck. "Turn around!" she growled to the female guard as she pricked her partner's neck with the knife point for emphasis. The woman complied, raising her gun above her head. "Now, toss your gun over there, under that car." Her hostage hissed in pain as she jabbed him again with the knife point, relieving him of his gun in the process. She tossed the gun under the car as well after the woman complied with her request. With a powerful shove, she pushed her hostage away from the bike and slammed on the ignition. With a squeal of tires, she peeled out of the garage as the guards signaled for backup.
Xero knew she only had mere minutes to avoid capture. Fortunately, she'd had her helmet on when the guards approached, so they hadn't gotten a very good look at her. She knew the back roads of Topanga well, and chose well-hidden routes to the Saddlehorn Pub & Grill. The front door was locked as it was too early for business, but she keyed in her code and pushed the motorcycle inside.
"A little early for you isn't it, Xero?" Delirium asked from her position behind the counter where she was totaling up the previous night's receipts.
"Just had an incident with a couple of SGs at the apartment. It's a goner. Did Shadow manage to get Bat's body out of there?" the hacker asked as she took off her helmet.
"She arranged for it. We got her Personal Trust out of the safe. Jenbob is looking it over. She'll report back on it at the wake tonight. Trill and Wordee are making those arrangements now," Delirium said, making a note on a data pad. "You're lucky hackers found Bat's body and not some bounty hunter."
"Why is that?" Xero asked moving the motorcycle behind the bar.
"Because they were able to verify that Bat wasn't offed by a flame thrower," the bar's owner answered.
"You mean they're convinced I didn't kill her." Delirium nodded. "I've never killed a hacker," Xero stated coldly. "Hackers don't kill other hackers-- regardless of how much we'd like to."
"That's true," Delirium allowed. "But you're on everyone's list of hackers who might."
"What am I getting out of this then?" Xero demanded. "According to system files, I'm the one who's dead anyway."
"I know that too. That's the other reason we know you didn't do it." Delirium closed the strong box of loose credit slips and slid it back into a panel behind the bar. "It's an identity mix-up, that's obvious. But it won't last long. NoJoke is hinting that he was involved. It was all over the nets this morning."
"That humorless asshole?" Xero groaned. "I'm surprised he had the balls. Talk like that'll attract Ronin bounty hunters for sure."
"I never said NoJoke was bright. He's not thinking very far ahead. He's still pissed at Bat and Blue for that incident with the tray of flaming drinks over at Club 41 last year. Getting them banned from the club just wasn't enough for him. Maybe he's trying to make Blue nervous. Not that the scrawney, pasty-assed weesle could really make anyone nervous."
"I'm with you there," Xero agreed. "I've never met the guy, but I've seen him around. Sounds like he's been sucking Helium. It won't work on Blue, she's too stable to be spooked by a wanna-be like him. Besides she and Bat paid for the damage, and only a half dozen tables caught on fire after all. NoJoke is just being stupid. Dead hackers aren't good for anyone's business. He might learn the truth of that for himself, very soon." Looking pointedly at the motorcycle, Xero changed the subject. "I need new tags for Bat's bike, and a new helmet. I'm going to find out who offed her. Think you can get 'em by tonight?"
Delirium shrugged. She didn't like the fact that Xero treated everyone like they worked for her. Still the lanky hacker made a much better ally than adversary. "I'll see what I can do," she replied.
"Thanks," Xero offered, removing one of the saddlebags from the bike. "I'll see you later."
"Take your time," Delirium muttered when Xero was out of earshot.
Hours later Xero was ushered to a quiet booth at the Santa Monica Pier Net Cafe. She rolled her head, her neck tense from the insanity of South California's public transportation system. She briefly considered taking a muscle relaxant, then decided against it in favor of keeping her wits sharp and senses alert. Without being asked the waitress brought her a steaming cup of coffee.
Xero glanced at her watch. In an instant she knew the time, day, date, ambient temperature and the UV radiation index. The message symbol was flashing. It was most likely clients distraught that their hired gun was apparently dead. For the moment Xero intended to play the part so she cleared all messages, unread. It was still too early to stop by the gym, but she had every intention of stopping by later to pay a visit on NoJoke.
She took a sip of coffee, grimacing at the inferior flavor compared to what she'd had at the syscop's flat. Deciding to kill some time before heading by the gym, she set up her portable net unit into a read only configuration, hooked it up to the restaurant's monitor, then plugged in the isolated drive Bat had backed up the previous night. Xero spent several hours poring through the files. Her muscles tensed anew as she read the playback of her roommate's final moments, the intruder's commands scrolling at a slow enough rate that she could see what had happened. She finally ordered a drink to take the edge off the rage she felt for the Ares entity. It was insidious and smug, and she wanted it destroyed. Still, there was a place for anger, and this wasn't it.
Next she read through the files of Rielle MacGab. Not feeling like she'd learned anything particularly new or insightful about the syscop, she closed the file and moved to the next on the drive. After opening the memoir of Melinda Pappas, Xero sat transfixed as she read about the woman's adventures a century before. Scans of old photos were included in the file and the hacker was not surprised that they matched the faces of her dream.
Stationing herself at an unoccupied pull-up bar on the far side of the gym, Xero let her ears wander, trying to locate NoJoke as she began her repetitions. . The sounds of equipment moving, people sparring, and crack of raquetballs hitting the wall could not mask the sound she associated with self righteous indignation.
As the muscles of her arms smoothly contracted, pulling her body up with precise movements, Xero's eyes searched the area. Several people were watching her admiringly; the hacker could feel eyes on her. She didn't mind. The only things required for gym membership were payment per usage and clear blood scans. No one knew who she was, only that she was virus and infection free.
By her fifth repetition, a familiar, annoying voice got her attention. "She got what was coming to her if you ask me." The nasal male voice was distinctive in the auditory clutter of the gym. It was NoJoke alright. Pleased that he was proving predictable-a deadly flaw for a hacker-Xero was genuinely surprised to find him so easily. It was rather early for most people in her profession to be up. It was also unusual to see hackers in a gym; few recognized the correlation between a healthy body and quick fingers or they enhanced the performance of their bodies with chemicals-- not exercise.
Muscles alert with a pleasant burn, Xero dropped lightly to the mat, then headed for the weight room, a wicked smile on her face.
She found him lying on his back, doing bench presses in quick succession with little weight. NoJoke continued to talk as the spotter performed his duties with bored efficiency. "Already The Bat's clients are starting to come to me," he bragged to the uninterested trainer as he shifted his hands slightly. Heavy straps wrapped his hands around the bar and held his wrists in proper alignment. "I've even been approached by Senator Helms' election committee."
From behind, Xero walked up to the spotter and motioned with her head for him to take a walk. He was about to protest when something in her eyes made him change his mind. "I'm ready for my next set, move the angle back some," NoJoke called over to the unseen trainer as he gripped the weight bar. Xero smiled as she complied with his wishes. She hit the control to move the bar back, so the hacker would be lowering the weight bar behind his head to focus on his tricep muscles. She also tripled the weight and activated the machine without warning.
"Aghhh!!" NoJoke screamed as the bar slammed down, driving his hands behind his head and tearing his left shoulder from its socket. Several heads turned in his direction but no one came to his aid as they watched a lean female figure arch a leg over his body and sit on his stomach. "Get the fuck off me, you bitch," NoJoke wailed as he struggled with the bindings on his wrists. He gasped again as any movement to his left arm jarred his tortured shoulder.
"I'm not going anywhere, NoJoke, until we've had a nice little chat," Xero purred.
"Who are you?" he demanded, his voice strained as he looked up at her.
"Let's just say I'm a friend of Bat's. You know, the hacker you're telling everyone you unsubbed? Didn't you get the memo? People in your line of work aren't supposed to kill each other. That job is reserved for bounty hunters." Xero leaned back as she spoke, shifting more of her weight to the struggling man's groin.
"I never said I offed her," he gasped. "I only said that I spoke to someone who said they did it."
"Really?" Xero asked. She teased her fingers through the expanse of chest hairs uncovered by his loose tank top. Grabbing several, she yanked, making the man twitch and scream as his arm was jarred again. "Mind telling me who?"
"Some newbie. Never seen him on the nets before. He was looking for information on Xero, the dyke that owns Bat."
"So what'd you tell him?" Xero asked, eyes narrowing.
"What do you care?" the pained hacker wailed.
"I'm asking the questions," Xero growled. She picked up her foot and rested it on the man's right shoulder. While the joint hadn't been dislocated like the other, it had been painfully torn and the pressure made him sputter, panic-stricken.
"I told him that if you find Bat you find Xero, simple as that. He thanked me and recommended me for some work for Senator Helms. I swear that's all."
"Funny, I still haven't heard a name," Xero observed.
"There wasn't a name," the panic stricken hacker shrieked. "Just an icon. It was a sword. A sword icon, that's all!"
"You've been most helpful," Xero said calmly as she stood and stepped over NoJoke's prone body.
"Who are you?" he pleaded, trying to make sense of what had happened to him.
"Just a dyke," Xero said with a satisfied smirk.
Instantly, the man's expression changed from fear to terror. Before he could open his mouth to beg, Xero had drawn her foot back and kicked him soundly in his dislocated shoulder, further decimating the joint. His cries of agony echoed through the now silent gym as she turned and walked to the locker room.
Behind the doors of the empty changing room, Xero quickly opened her locker and extracted the motorcycle's saddle bag. Not bothering to change, she hurried from the gym. As she'd hoped, no one tried to stop or follow her.
Back on public transportation once more, she considered her options. It was time to get ready to head back to the 'Horn. She wanted to get cleaned up before heading back, and at present her options for a shower were limited. With a thin smile, she changed trains and headed for Malibu.
Rielle pushed away from her console with a pained sigh. She'd been at it all morning and had steadily come up with more questions than answers. Even more infuriating was that she knew what to look for. She'd had a difficult enough time locating Xero online and couldn't fathom how Ares did it. Somehow she doubted he'd been putting in the time, learning the computer craft the way she had in order to be able to track the elusive hacker. Clearly though, it had been Ares at work. While she could get glimpses of Ares in action, she didn't have the head for military strategy necessary to uncover his ultimate aim. She'd need Xena's mind for that and unfortunately Xena's mind was buried somewhere deep within that annoying hacker.
The syscop shook her head. Xero was without a doubt the most enigmatic, puzzling woman she'd ever met. She was well aware of the hacker's rap sheet and reputation. Rielle MacGab had studied Xero the criminal in anticipation of one day bringing her to justice. That was before the syscop realized that she was Gabrielle of Poteidaia. Still, her old memories haunted her. She knew that Xero was unpredictable and dangerous. The fact that this was Xena wouldn't save her unless Xero was aware of, and acknowledged, the fact.
"Rielle?" A voice called from the front door. "You'd better not be here, or you're in deep shit."
Eyes wide in surprise, Rielle looked at her watch. It was Monday the 13th. Paula was home and she was supposed to have picked her up at the airport. "Oh no," she thought to herself, "this is gonna be ugly."
"In here," she called out loud. No sense in denying the inevitable.
"This had better be good," Paula said walking into the dining area noting with a frown that Rielle was still dressed in her bathrobe. Rielle looked up into cold blue eyes, noting with a start just how much her lover resembled the one whose company she'd kept the previous evening. "Oh my god!" she exclaimed, when she moved to where she could get a look at the monitor. "You're still on this?"
"Paula, let me explain," Rielle tried to interject.
"Explain what? All that medical leave was to get this deranged fantasy out of your system. You told me two weeks ago when I went on this business trip you were going to catch up with your workload, that you were fine. Now I see that you're not at work, not picking me up at the airport, and still playing this little dissociative game of yours. I suppose the fruit trees at my apartment didn't get watered either?" Paula spun away from the woman seated at the table and headed for the kitchen. With a familiarity that bothered Rielle she heard the older woman rummage through her fridge. "And you're out of fucking spring water as well," Paula complained from the other room.
"Yeah, well, fucking springs are hard to come by," Rielle muttered under her breath.
"What was that?" Paula asked, when she returned to the dining area.
"Nothing... just nothing," Rielle said quietly.
"What the hell is that?" the taller woman exclaimed noticing the large Iguana on the dining room table, contentedly chewing on a piece of lettuce.
"I'm watching him for someone..." Rielle began then just gave up. When Paula was working up a rant, explanations only made things worse.
Paula smiled sadly and sat down next to the syscop, staying well away from the reptile. Her partners' sudden silences bothered her and knowing it was in response to her own temper made her feel all the worse. It was something they agreed to work on, and neither party had been very successful at it. "I'm sorry," she said gently. "The spring water thing was out of line." She tossed her head, flipping a long mane of black hair behind her back. With an inward groan Rielle realized that Paula had been an adequate substitute for Xena. That was, before she'd met the real thing. "I just wish you could see how worried I am about you," Paula continued, drawing Rielle from her thoughts. "I've been more patient than most, Rielle, but I have needs too. You wanted a short-term contract, I gave it to you. You wanted to keep separate residences, I gave you that as well-- even though it's a stupid waste of rent. But this whole past life thing-- you can't expect me to calmly sit back and watch you rave like a lunatic. You need help, Rielle."
"No, I don't," Rielle protested, only to be interrupted by the chime at the front door. Both women stood to answer it. "This is my house," Rielle said, a hint of warning in her voice.
"True," Paula allowed. "But at least I'm fully dressed." She quickly crossed the room to the front door, with Rielle not far behind. As the front door slid away, Paula blinked at the sight that greeted her. Almost as if looking into a shabbily dressed mirror, Rielle's lover stood face to face with a woman of similar in height and build.
"Can I help you?" Paula asked the other woman, wishing she were looking down instead of straight at her.
Xero regarded her with a bored expression, then glanced behind her to where Rielle stood wrapped in her bathrobe. "I was wondering if Rielle could come out and play," she replied dryly.
"Xero, come in," Rielle said from behind Paula.
"Xero?" Paula asked, glaring at the newcomer.
With a quick glance, the hacker's eyes flicked up and down, taking in the stranger and instantly dismissing her. Paula was tall and dressed in a sporty traveling suit. The latest in easy care fabrics, it looked like it had been designed to highlight every physical asset of the attractive woman. She stood, severely as possible, with arms crossed against her chest. Long black hair was combed and neat with crisp black bangs drawing attention to her light blue eyes.
One glance at those narrow eyes and pursed lips and Xero knew all too well what this woman thought of her. The looks were common enough. A social gulf existed between children raised in orphanages and those raised in old-fashioned families. Xero and others like her wore their rough dysfunctionality like badges of honor, while Paula and her ilk found them stubborn, ungrateful delinquents. Xero hated her instantly. When the hacker turned her eyes to Rielle, they dropped their coldness and danced with amusement. "I was wondering if I could borrow your shower? I've got that little soiree tonight and..."
"And you need to pick up Argo. Of course, of course," Rielle said as she hurried Xero toward the bathroom. "Here let me get you some towels. Be right back, Paula," she added as she lead the hacker out of sight.
"So the cat wants to play when the girlfriend is outta town?" Xero whispered from behind the syscop.
"That isn't my girlfriend," Rielle corrected her. "That's my wife. We're three years into a five year contract and it isn't working. Mind if we change the subject?" Rielle didn't look at her as she withdrew fresh towels from the cabinet.
"Ah, sure," Xero offered gently as she accepted the towels. "Thanks for the shower, I... ah... had to leave the gym in a hurry. So, does Paula work for Archive too? Let me guess, Marketing? That or Technology Development."
Rielle frowned. "Marketing. And she's a really nice person so leave her alone. The thing at the gym, you didn't kill anyone did you?"
"No," Xero said shaking her head. "He's not dead, yet."
"Am I still invited to the wake?" Rielle asked hopefully, trying to avoid another conversation she thought best not be explored.
Xero shrugged. "Sure, it's just a wake. Hell, even bobs are allowed in the 'Horn for that. But I think your Xero clone in the other room might not approve," the hacker added with a wink and a grin.
"I knew Paula before I even met you, and she doesn't really have any say in this anyway."
"Maybe so," Xero allowed. "But she doesn't seem to be what you want. Do you have any idea what it is you want Rielle? Or who?" The hacker's voice was soft, but firm and Rielle blushed in response.
"Get cleaned up and I'll get dressed. I'll be ready to go when you are," she said, turning away from the hacker. Xero nodded and retreated into the bathroom, wishing she could be a fly on the wall for the battle that was surely about to ensue.
To Xero's disappointment, Rielle's wife was absent when she reemerged from the bathroom. The syscop was checking the charge levels on her mobie unit, absently running her free hand through her long hair. Xero grinned in appreciation of the attractive woman. The syscop was dressed smartly; a black silk shirt tucked into tight blue jeans and black western boots. She picked up a leather jacket of a more professional cut than Xero's biker jacket when she heard the hacker enter the room. Xero was dressed in a clean t-shirt that she'd stolen from the gym, her jeans and biker boots, the chains of which rattled softly as she walked. On her head, she wore the Mickey Mouse baseball hat she'd picked up the previous evening. "Where did Mrs. Syscop go?" Xero asked as she lifted the jacket from Rielle's hand and held it out for the smaller woman.
"She left," Rielle replied, her voice tight as she slipped her arm through a sleeve.
"I can see that," Xero observed, gently pulling the syscop's hair over the jacket's collar. "I take it she has a problem with you chasing other women?" The hacker's blue eyes danced with amusement.
Rielle frowned, as she turned to glare up at the hacker. "I'm trying to thwart the designs of Ares, not chase you. I realize you're having a hard time getting that through your thick head. The only one of us doing the chasing, hacker, is you."
"Lemme see," the taller woman countered good naturedly, "you buy me a drink, dinner, invite me to your place, ask me to spend the night, and I'm the one chasing you?"
"Yes, you're just being more subtle about it," Rielle said, finally laughing at the absurdity of her comment. Xero rolled her eyes.
"You're a fucking lunatic," the hacker muttered as she followed the syscop out of the apartment.
They rode in companionable silence along the coast. Argo, perched on the dashboard, looked from syscop to hacker favoring them with glares of equal displeasure. Rielle stole occasional glances at her companion who gazed at the Pacific Ocean, her expression unreadable. "I'm not crazy, you know," she said finally, breaking the silence.
Xero turned to look at her, noting flutter of the syscop's eyelashes as she watched the road. "You're acting pretty crazy to me," she replied. "Is this all some mid-life crisis?"
"Christ, Xero, I'm not old enough to have a mid-life crisis!" Rielle groaned. "I know it sounds insane but the facts are simple. My life didn't make much sense, had odd inconsistencies to it. I met Paula four years ago, and things were good but something still didn't seem to fit. When I started to get the rest of my memory back, things made sense. Now that I know all of who I am-- I finally feel sane, but everyone else thinks I'm nuts."
"And you think I'm going to go along for the ride. How can you be so sure I'm who you think I am?" Xero asked, still baffled by the syscop's assertions.
"Before I knew I was Gabrielle, I studied you. Bringing online felons to justice is what syscops do. I've read about your exploits. When Gabrielle's memories began to surface, it became clear how much of Xena is in you. So much so, that I'm convinced you are... well you." Rielle sighed and turned off of the PCH onto the back roads of Topanga. "That was when I started having problems with Paula. She's convinced that my 'obsession' as she calls it, stems from the fact that I couldn't bring you in as a syscop."
"You don't think there is any merit to that?" Xero asked wryly.
Rielle grinned. "Oh, but I could bring you in, Xero. And nearly retire on the bounty Archive has offered for you alone."
"Yeah, right," the hacker muttered dismissively.
"Don't belittle my abilities," Rielle shot back hotly. "Remember it was me who tapped you while you were in the middle of a heist. Fact of the matter is, Xero, that I was sloppy on purpose. I wanted you to notice that I was watching you. I've watched your last three jobs. If I'd wanted to bring you in I could have tapped you on fixing the farming contract, the medical insurance swindle, or tweaking the bank records of your client in Mexico City."
Xero's eyes narrowed dangerously.
"You don't see me nervous about wandering into a hacker stronghold either do you?" Rielle pressed. "Don't think I don't know syscops aren't spotted from time to time and dealt the hacker brand of justice. Believe it or don't Xero, but I tapped you because I'm better than anyone else. I could have done it any time, I've been watching you."
A memory surfaced. Xero could feel the oppressiveness of the orphanage, and the humiliation of discovering that the mirror on the dresser across from her bed was really one way glass into the headmaster's living room. "I don't like to be watched," she said quietly, danger threading her voice.
"I'm sorry," Rielle replied. "But I had to make sure of who you were before I approached you. There is no doubt in my mind Xero. You've a cunning mind and a rare genius for strategy. Tell me, if you wanted to change the way the world was, recreate it according to your design, how would you go about it?"
"Right now?" Xero asked gamely. When Rielle nodded she paused to think. "I'd trash the communications system. Do something to compromise everyone else's trust in it." Xero smiled as she watched the syscop consider her words. "Then I'd make leading hackers on a felony," she finished with a grin.
Rielle started to nod, then glared at her companion sharply. "You just don't think this is serious, do you?"
"Fuck yes, I think it's serious," Xero shot back. "I'm the one who's dead on the nets, remember? I just think you're a few fries short of a happy meal, that's all."
"Did you find out anything about your friend?" Rielle asked, changing the subject as she pulled into a secured parking structure several blocks from the Saddlehorn Pub & Grill.
The hacker's tone turned somber. "Yeah. I know what killed her. Wait 'till we get to the 'Horn. I'll explain then." Absently she reached back into the sportscar and picked up the iguana. Positioning the reptile across her shoulders, she let it's long tail drape around her arm and headed down the street. Enjoying the coolness of full night, the two walked in silence to the 'Horn. Once inside, Xero deposited the reptile on the long bar who scampered over to his usual perch near the warm lights. Grabbing a cocktail napkin she wrote down the make, model and identification tag numbers of Rielle's car, then handed it to Addict, the bartender.
"What was that about?" Rielle asked as she ordered a drink.
"If someone comes looking for you, an enraged spouse perhaps tossing out descriptions, I'd like to know about it," Xero replied picking up her beer.
"So you've got people scanning the nets for everyone in the club?" Rielle wondered.
"Always," Addict replied, overhearing the question. She handed Rielle her beer and added with a smile, "it's for your protection. Spouses are always after Xero."
Xero ignored the remark and led the syscop deeper into the club. Although it was early, roughly nine, it was already quite crowded. A band was busy on one side of the large room setting instruments and sound equipment up on a well-worn stage. Several groups of people were milling about, and as Xero had mentioned earlier, a few men could be spotted in the crowd.
Catching sight of Xero, several people excused themselves from their conversations and headed over to intercept her. Wordlessly one of the women led the small group to a private room in the back of the bar. "Who's she?" the woman asked when Xero stepped aside to let Rielle enter the room ahead of her.
"She's with me," the tall hacker replied.
"She left with Xero last night, Delirium," Ska added, joining the group.
"Rielle." The syscop introduced herself, extending her hand to the bar's owner.
"Okay," Delirium replied firmly returning the handshake. She didn't offer to make introductions.
"We're sorry to hear about Bat," another woman said looking at Xero. She was muscular, with blue eyes and steel gray hair and wore a loose fitting tank top. There was something vaguely familiar about her and Rielle thought furiously to put a name with the face. In fact, several of the women standing around the room looked familiar. While she suspected they'd all been at the bar last night, her attention had been so fully occupied by Xero that she'd failed to notice anyone else.
"Yeah, Blue," Xero replied. "I'm sorry, too. This is bad news for all of us."
Rielle fought to keep recognition from her face. With that one name the syscop suddenly recognized most of the assembled group. They were all prominently featured on the Most Wanted Lists circulated by corporate security teams.
Blue's continued to look at Xero, her eyes narrowing in anger. "I mean that I'm sorry Bat's gone because she was a friend. Not because she's one less slave for you or it represents a new danger to our profession."
Xero looked at the shorter woman. "You have your reasons, I have mine," she said calmly."
"Do we know yet what killed her?" a gentle voice asked, making a desperate attempt to diffuse the mounting tension in the room.
"Yeah, Wordee, we know some," Delirium replied. "Shadow arranged for a team to get Bat's remains. There wasn't any family to notify..."
"What about her ex-husband, Henry?" Wordee asked, her tone a marked contrast between the tension arcing between Blue and Xero. Wordee radiated a charm and kindness that put the syscop at ease. Her face had the faint lines of one who laughed and smiled often. Still, like the rest of the hackers, she wasn't exactly welcoming of the newcomer either.
"She's only seen him twice since she started working for me. After the last visit she made it clear she didn't want to speak to him again-- ever." Xero supplied. "What about LN, Amazon Julie, Robin and the others? They should be hearing this."
"Robin isn't coming by tonight because Bat hated her," Delirium explained. "The others will be by later--jobs I expect. We'll fill them in."
Xero nodded, "Fine."
The bar owner nodded and continued. "It was an inside job all right. She was fried. No traces of tasers of flamethrowers. We all know Bat wasn't sloppy. She was grounded, and since she lost her eye, she'd gotten better than anyone else at spotting booby traps. Whatever it was that did her in has to be new-tech."
Xero pulled a small mini drive from the pocket of her biker jacket and set it down in the middle of the table. "I've pulled stuff from Bat's last back up and put it on this mini-drive. There's a 35 gigabyte file--her last minutes alive. It's new-tech all right, stuff I've never seen before. Visual coding that transmits to the brain at an amazing rate. I couldn't read much of it, maybe a med-tech could. Still, I think it was sending visual command that made Bat's internal systems break down."
"That sounds like the government's Pipeline Project," a woman leaning against the far wall observed. She nodded to the woman standing next to her. "I thought it was canceled."
Xero looked at Jenbob, then Deb. She nodded. "It was, too volatile this close to an election. Still, I don't think this is government. Theoretically, the opposition in Congress shouldn't have access to that type of system firepower without tipping off those in charge. Until we get to the bottom of this, pass the word--if anyone is on the nets and gets tapped or called by any entity named Ares, drop from the system. The thing uses a sword icon. Don't wait to back up or cover your tracks, just get out."
"Might as well send this to Shadow," Delirium suggested, picking up the mini drive. "See what she can find out."
"I'll drop it off," Trillbaby offered. "I've got a job out that way tonight anyway."
"Speaking of clients," Wordee said, putting another mini drive on the table. "Trill and I picked this up out of Bat's vault today. She left the usual job notes. She copped to a total of 68 completed jobs."
Suddenly all eyes snapped back to Xero, and the expressions weren't friendly. Rielle realized the implication of the admission. Xero had been quite the taskmaster for her associate to have worked so much in such a short span of time.
"Is news of Bat's death spreading beyond the hacker nets?" Rielle asked quietly, diverting the hostile looks from the tall woman at her side.
Blue blinked, surprised to hear Rielle speak and not knowing quite what to make of her. "We're were monitoring the general news nets," she replied for the benefit of everyone. "Xero's 'death' is news in some circles but that's about all."
"Latest is, NoJoke was killed at the gym," Deb commented.
"No shit?" Xero replied, ignoring the look Rielle was giving her.
"Don't worry, not that you would," Deb said with a grin. "You didn't kill him, although at least two people spotted you at the gym today. They checked for chemicals and he was clean. They found him in a comm booth. Online to Senator Helms' camp, dead as a doornail-- same as the others, fried extra crispy."
"So what do we do?" Jenbob wondered aloud.
"We have Bat's wake," Wordee replied.
"Eventually we need to get to the bottom of this..." Jenbob persisted.
"I have every intention of getting to the bottom of this," Xero said evenly, cutting into the smaller woman's assertion. Smoothly, she turned her attention to the bar owner once again. "You've been able to get new tags for the bike?"
Delirium nodded. "Yeah, for all the good that's going to do you. It isn't like you can use the nets you know."
"Maybe the mighty Xero is thinking of holing up somewhere," Blue voiced the question they'd all been thinking.
Xero turned her attention back to the muscular woman and looked down at her coldly. "You'll just have to wait and find out, won't you?" she replied softly.
"That's enough you two," Wordee admonished, stepping between them. "We've got a wake to start. Leave Bat her closing credits."
Rielle followed Xero from the private room back into the main bar area. Her head was swimming. She was walking through a virtual crowd of 'who's who' in the world of online outlaws. "There's a fortune in online bounties in here," she murmured to herself. "I could retire on the collars in the back room alone."
Xero stopped abruptly and turned around, her eyes dancing, yet still dangerous. "Now you're casing my home," she whispered, leaning close to the syscop's ear. "I don't recommend it."
"Sorry," Rielle murmured back. "Professional habit."
The hacker chuckled as a genuine grin spread across her face. "I guess I deserved that."
Before Xero could say anything more, the whine of an old fashioned microphone silenced the club. A woman tapped the microphone making sure it was on. "Uh, hi. Bat left explicit instructions as to the outdated, deranged music she wanted played at her wake..." a muffled groan could be heard throughout the club. "I know, I know. But it's what she wanted. Before we get to that though, ah... does anyone want to say anything?"
"Yeah, Trill. I've got something to say," Ska Mayhem called out, handing her tray of drinks to Lani.
"Sorry Ska," Trillbaby replied looking down at her notes. "It says in her will that she heard quite enough from you when she was alive." The room erupted in laughter, which Ska finally joined, toasting her friend who it seemed had finally managed the last word. When the laughter died down Trillbaby picked up an electric guitar and looked inquiringly at Xero. With a slight nod, she withdrew her arm from Rielle's shoulder and headed for the stage.
The room was quiet, and expectantly tense as the patrons waited to see what the notorious hacker would do. She slung the guitar strap over her shoulder and shifted the instrument into a comfortable position. Briefly, she wondered what her dead associate might like to hear. The fact that a room full of people were watching didn't matter. This was a private moment between her and Bat. The others were incidental.
She didn't say a word as she began to play. The tune was simple, and instantly recognizable as "Amazing Grace." Just the sort of musical send-off the Bat would have appreciated. The first time through, Xero embellished little, keeping true to the simple notes of the venerable melody. The next refrain her fingers danced across the strings as she bent wailing blues riffs out of the age old tune. Finally she began again, this time the blistering sounds of vintage heavy metal erupted from the club speaker system. She held the last wailing note, the keening cry from tortured strings as the drummer tapped a four count with her sticks. For one final rendition, the band joined in for an "Amazing Grace" that could bring a tear to the eye of any elderly head-banger.
When they finished the club erupted into applause louder than the din of the music. Xero handed the guitar back to one of the musicians and without a word she left the stage. "Who's the band?" the hacker asked as she joined Rielle and several others at a booth a short distance from the dance floor.
"Box Of Hammers," Ska supplied taking Xero's credit slips in exchange for another beer.
"Catchy name," Rielle offered.
Ska shrugged. "They change it all the time. Last week they were The Oozing Juicers, before that, Riding Topless. But Bat liked 'em, so we asked 'em to play. By the way, Xero-- Delirium says to go pick up your cycle tags and feed the lizard."
With a nod, the lanky hacker eased out of the booth and headed to the back of the bar.
Music started up and couples began to dance. The song was slow and tortured but the dancers didn't seem to mind.
"I should get combat pay for an evening of enduring Bat's music," Ska grumbled wandering off to take more drink orders.
Jenbob chuckled. "This is the tame stuff. U2's "You're So Cruel" isn't nearly as difficult to dance to as the theme song from Underdog."
"Oh god, you don't think they'll go that far?" Wordee asked, clearly worried. "I suppose show tunes are too much to hope for."
"Care to dance?" a new voice inquired.
Rielle had been looking down at the table but felt the words directed at her. She looked up into the smiling face of a tall, handsome man. "No way," Blue answered before Rielle got a chance to speak. "She's here with Xero."
"You think Xero's going to ask me to dance?" Rielle wondered out loud, not at all pleased the others saw her as the hacker's property.
"Well, no," Jenbob said, shrugging her shoulders. "Xero doesn't dance."
"Then it would be silly to wait for her," Rielle decided. She stood and taking the man's offered arm, walked with him to the dance floor.
"Another public brawl," Wordee groaned. "Oh goodie."
"I bet ten Euros that she lands a solid punch on Xero before Xero decks the big guy." Blue put a credit slip on the table as other heads turned in interest and began to place bets.
Rielle realized absently that for making a point, she couldn't have found a more obvious partner. Not only did her dance partner tower over her, they were one of the few opposite sex couples on the dance floor. Still, he was a good dancer, and Rielle still felt more comfortable in observing the other hackers from a distance.
"What's your name?" she heard him ask.
"Rielle," she answered. "And you?"
He smiled down at her as he guided her across the dance floor. "Barron," he answered. "I'm not a technically a hacker, if you're wondering why you haven't heard of me. I just work for 'em."
Rielle smiled back. "I'm not a hacker either," she assured her dance partner.
His eyes widened in surprise. "Unusual for Xero to date someone not in the business. I guess you haven't been seeing her for long."
"We just met--" Rielle answered as she saw her companion approach.
"Mind if I cut in?" Xero asked pleasantly, looking Barron in the eye.
"No problem," he replied with a grin stepping aside and opening his arms to the hacker. Xero grinned, but moved past him to take Rielle into her arms.
"It was worth a try," he muttered as he walked back to the bar.
"I thought you didn't dance?" Rielle asked as she followed the movements of the hacker's body.
"I'm unpredictable," Xero replied with a smirk.
"Yeah, unpredictable," the syscop said as she turned her head to hide her grin. The sense of completeness she found in the hacker's arms was almost overpowering. Without even the slightest thought, their movements had synchronized and they toured the dance floor as one. It was in marked contrast to the music coming from the stage.
"Kind of an odd song to be dancing to." Rielle commented as she leaned in a little closer to the hacker.
"'You're So Cruel?'" Xero asked. "I don't think so. As love songs go, it's honest."
"I have a feeling your hacker buddies wouldn't consider you an authority on love." Rielle teased gently. More certain than ever that she held the soul of her lover in her arms, she let her hand drift under the biker jacket to brush against the hacker's t-shirt clad back. If the hacker noticed she didn't show it.
Xero glanced down at her dance partner, acutely aware of the hand that rested softly against her back. With an inward groan, she remembered why she'd been at the 'Horn the previous night. Rielle's gentle touch did nothing to quell the lust that was thrumming through her veins. "They'd be right," Xero agreed gamely. "I don't believe in love."
"You think it's a trick nature plays on us to reproduce?" Rielle asked, having an odd suspicion that she'd heard the phrase somewhere before.
"Who says you need love for that?" the hacker replied, shifting her steps to let Rielle take the lead. "A simple trip to the gen lab for whatever you're lacking does the job."
"It's so ironic," Rielle mused. "Before The Plague there's a voluntary moratorium on births from the overcrowding and now... the government can't do enough to help in the process."
"Yeah," the hacker muttered, noncommittal. She tried to follow the conversation but it was useless. She was in worse shape than she'd realized and considered her options to remedy the situation. She'd already decided not to seduce the syscop...yet. The sudden appearance of The Angry Spouse had made her cautious. She could always take matters into her own hands, so to speak, but that option lacked appeal as well. What she wanted was release with someone else. Her clear blue eyes quickly scanned past a knot of groupies standing near the bathroom. Stopping herself, she took a second look and made eye contact with an attractive young woman with reddish blond hair. Almost the color of Rielle's, she decided. Mind made up, she returned her attention to her dance partner as the singer sang the final haunting refrain.
"To stay with you I'd be a fool. Oh, sweetheart, you're so cruel." As the singer's voice silenced, the dancers slowly drifted to a stop. The singer picked up a different guitar and the band launched into a faster song as Xero led Rielle from the dance floor. Vada and Verda, the notorious hacking twins, had joined Blue at the booth. Verda made room for Rielle who sat down looking at her dance partner expectantly.
"I've got something to take care of," Xero mumbled to Rielle, not quite meeting her eyes. "I'll be back later." Rielle watched, confused as the hacker headed back out across the dance floor toward the bathrooms.
"I don't believe it," Blue muttered in a disgusted tone as Xero conversed briefly with a groupie and the two headed into the bathroom.
"What?" Rielle asked.
"It's nothing," Vada replied, shooting a silencing glance to Blue. "Let's have another round and play some darts.
Lacking other options and unwilling to strike out on her own in the unfamiliar club, Rielle joined the hackers for darts. She glanced back toward the bathroom shortly after Xero entered to see a number of women leaving in a hurry. She drank her beer and played several rounds of darts before her curiosity got the better of her. She was about to head for the bathroom herself, when Blue's restraining hand stopped her.
"Trust me, you don't want to do that," the muscular hacker warned in a tone that it wasn't a suggestion.
"It's not worth it," Verda added.
"And besides, it's your turn," Trillbaby concluded passing the syscop the darts. "Someone's got to beat LN tonight."
Rielle couldn't help but laugh at how hard the hackers were trying to keep her mind off of Xero. Before long they began to talk to each other about jobs they were working on, and about the reason they were at the 'Horn that night.
It was a new perspective for the syscop. She knew that hackers were people just like everyone else, but this was the first time she'd ever interacted with them socially. Assuming that she was a hacker too, they asked for her opinion when arguments erupted about equipment. Jenbob discussed the finer points of antiquated hardware and Wordee quoted lines from movies. Rielle joined in and in no time was joking and teasing as if she'd known them for years.
It was several beers later when they all finally collapsed back in the booth before Xero emerged from the bathroom. The groupie had emerge first, crying, and had left the bar at a dead run with several of her friends in tow. The dark-haired hacker had emerged later, stopping by the bar to get another beer before heading back to the booth.
Since most of their group had dispersed, Rielle sat alone on one side of the table across from Blue and Jenbob. Xero slid into the space next to her, casually draping an arm around her shoulders. Her hand was cold and slightly damp. Rielle also noticed that her hair was wet near her forehead and temples, her baseball hat having been tucked into a back pocket, as if she'd just washed her hands and face.
"What happened to her?" Blue asked nodding in the direction of the recently departed groupie.
"She misunderstood the nature of our relationship," Xero offered, taking a deep draught from her beer.
Blue glanced at Rielle briefly before looking coldly at the hacker once more. "You're a real asshole Xero, you know that," she said sliding out of the seat. Xero only shrugged, denying nothing.
"Rielle, you've got class. You could do a lot better than Xero," Jenbob added as she followed suit and left the couple alone at the booth.
"You've got quite a way with people," Rielle observed taking a sip from her bottled water.
"So why aren't you listening to them and heading for the hills?" the hacker asked as she leaned back and closed her eyes.
"Because you being a complete asshole doesn't convince me you aren't Xena." Rielle didn't feel terribly angry at the hacker's behavior and thought about it. She was jealous on one level, and angry at whatever the hacker might have said to make the young woman leave the pub in tears, but other than that, she didn't feel that she had much room to comment. Idly, she wondered if Xero had in some way tried to protect her. Perhaps if knowing about her contract with Paula had forced attentions on the groupie that she'd seemed all too willing to share with the her the previous night. The penalties for adultery were quite stiff. Idly, she couldn't help but wonder about what she'd just missed.
Rielle's thoughts were interrupted as Xero shifted her body slightly, leaning against the smaller woman for some support. In moments her breathing evened out and she was fast asleep. The syscop shook her head with a small smile, noting the protective and possessive arm draped around her shoulders. With a resigned sigh she leaned into the biker jacket and dozed off, the scent of leather filling her senses. Just like she remembered.
Xero blinked, startled at the crisp air filling her lungs. She squinted her eyes at the bright sun, wondering what the hell she was doing outside during the day. A new sensation registered and she looked down at her feet. Once again she was barefoot, this time standing on damp grass. Looking around, she was amazed at how green the vegetation was. She continued to stare, unable to decide which color was more intense, the piercing blue of the sky or the vibrant green of the grass.
"Beautiful, isn't it?" a gentle Southern voice said approaching from behind.
Xero spun around to face Melinda Pappas as she walked across the field. No longer dressed in a tuxedo, she wore a maroon skirt, cream blouse and tailored jacket. Her simple sophistication made the hacker nervous. "Where are we?" Xero asked. "Or should I ask where I'm dreaming we are."
"This is Amphipolis," Mel replied not specifying which question she was answering.
"So where's the loudmouth?" Xero wondered as she looked around for Mel's companion.
The Southerner frowned which quickly softened into a smile. "I asked Janice to let me spend some time alone with you. I'm afraid we don't have the time for you two to butt heads." She nodded toward a collection of simple houses. "Why don't you come with me, take a look at the city?"
Xero shrugged and followed the woman. "I read your book this afternoon," she offered absently. Mel arched her eyebrows in silent question. "It was all right, I guess. Things were pretty primitive a hundred years ago. All that digging around..."
"It was hard work," Mel agreed, her smile was genuine and wistful. "But we loved it so much. I remember watching Janice as she'd spend hours trying to remove a single pottery shard, or glancing up to see her watching me as I worked on a translation."
"There is something I don't quite understand," Xero ventured and waited until she had Mel's attention before continuing. "If I'm supposed to be you--"
"Not me, Xena," Mel corrected gently.
Xero nodded. "Right, Xena. If I'm supposed to be Xena, what was that bit with Janice performing some sort of Amazon rite?"
Mel began to blush a little. "Well...ah... I was vague on purpose in my memoirs. What Janice actually did was use dynamite to blow up the bones of Xena and Gabrielle."
"No shit?" Xero said, impressed.
"I swear your language is as bad as Janice's," Mel muttered, then shook it off. "It should have been done as soon as Gabrielle died," she continued. "But Velasca was watching too closely. Your physical remains were like an anchor keeping you tied in place," Mel said as they walked between two rows of buildings, slowly winding their way deeper into the city.
"So if that hadn't happened... what?" Xero asked.
"I guess you'd be like a ghost or apparition. Trying to fight the battle with Ares through others-- as you did through me a hundred years ago. While it worked then, I think you'd be at a definite disadvantage now." Mel stopped at a building. While things had been quiet as they spoke she gradually heard sounds increase and realized that the street had slowly become populated, the activity outside this building quite significant.
"What are we doing here?" the hacker asked, looking in an open window. It was obviously a pub of some sort.
"You're going to get reacquainted with yourself." Mel explained.
Xero turned and looked at the Southerner sharply. "I'm sorry to Scully you, but if this is like a scene out of Scrooged you're going to be disappointed."
Mel frowned, her bright blue eyes smoldering a little. "Your generation should really open a book once in awhile. Scrooged was based on A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens, and no this isn't like that. There's no way to undo the events that have happened. I'm not going to show you some shadowy possibility of a future for you to undo. What you're going to see can't be changed and I can't show you any potential future. I believe you're familiar with the phrase to know who you are, it's important to know who've you've been?"
Xero smiled in spite of herself. "Yeah, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine the episode was "Facets." We used to watch that at the orphanage when we could sneak the access codes. But you know that because you're in my head, right?"
Mel shook her head in exasperation, pointing to an empty area just beyond the tavern. "Just watch, okay?"
Xero did as she was asked and in moments three small children came running across the lot from the copse of trees beyond, two boys and a girl. The oldest couldn't have been more then ten years old, the youngest about six.
"Toris, give it back!" the small blond boy shouted at the larger dark haired lad in front.
"If you're such a great warrior Lyceus, then take it," Toris taunted holding a wooden sword high over his head well out of reach of the other boy.
Xero wasn't sure how she knew it but there was no question that the girl, seven years old at this time, was Xena. Stunned she stared at her younger self, watching events that were so foreign yet felt familiar just the same.
"Toris," Xena said evenly. "Give Lyceus his sword back-- now!"
"You can't fight all his battles for him, Xena," Toris admonished. He kicked at a pile of fresh cow dung in the blond boy's direction, sending chunks of the moist excrement flying. Several hit young Lyceus squarely in the face and he began to cry, howling at the horror of it. At the sound Xena sprang into action, taking a running dive at Toris. She tucked into a tight somersault and rolled into her older brother's legs, knocking him down, face first into the cow patty.
Unscratched, Xena stood and picked up her younger brother's wooden sword, leaving Toris where he lay. She turned her back on him and walked over to where Lyceus fought to get his tears under control.
"It's not that bad Ly," she said softly, gently wiping the excrement off her brother's face. "Trust me, you look fine." She smiled at her brother. For such a young boy he was overly concerned about his looks. Aside from their mock sword fights, he hated to do anything that involved excessive dirt. As she handed him his sword, his eyes grew wide in alarm. Xena winked, then spun out of range just as a handful of manure came sailing towards where she'd been. Harmlessly, it sailed over Lyceus' shoulder.
"Nice try," Xena taunted her brother who, with manure matted into his dark hair, roared in fury. In moments the two children were rolling back and forth on the dirt yelling obscenities at the tops of their young lungs.
Xero chuckled as she observed the fight, wondering who was going to win.
"Remember this?" Mel asked, a concerned expression on her face.
"Not at all," Xero replied with a grin. "But I'll take Xena for ten credits."
The ruckus on the lot roused the patrons of the tavern. Men scrambled outside to investigate the noise and came to an abrupt halt when they discovered it was Xena and Toris... again.
"I'll take Xena this time for three dinars," one farmer muttered, digging into his pouch. Lyceus hurried over and accepted the man's money with a smile.
"Naw," another man countered. "Xena's been lucky the last three times. Toris is bound to win this time for sure. I'll cover your bet."
Suddenly the gamblers were making almost as much noise as the combatants as they placed bets. Humiliation forgotten, Lyceus hurried among the men collecting their money and noting their bets. Everyone agreed that the young lad had an uncanny memory.
"What is the meaning of this?" a female voice boomed, silencing all but the two fighting children. "Tucker, will you please separate the children," she said with a frown looking pointedly at the huge blacksmith who had just placed his bet. With a sheepish grin, he headed toward the struggling children. Pulling them apart and picking up a child in each arm he marched over to the horse troughs and unceremoniously dumped each child into one. Fights were so frequent between Toris and Xena that a second trough had been added for that very purpose.
Sputtering and furious, children gasped for air, pulling wet hair out of their eyes. Toris was clearly worse for wear. He sported a blackening eye and bleeding lip. Xena had a scuffed shoulder and scraped knees, but recovered from the battle more quickly. Beaming proudly, Lyceus passed out the winnings to the men who chosen his sister. Once again, they'd beaten their older brother.
Cyrene looked sternly at both children. "I'm ashamed of both of you," she admonished. The assembled farmers hung their heads, knowing they'd not be able to sneak back to their drinks until the matter was settled. "I'm sorry to say that the world is not yet a place where you can afford the hatred of a sibling. When will you two learn that someday the three of you are going to have to depend on each other."
Xero frowned at the scene and pushed past several farmers to get into the inn. They unconsciously moved out of the way, as if they knew she was there but weren't really paying any attention. "What was that all about?" Mel asked when the hacker had taken a seat at a table far from the sounds of motherly lecturing.
"I just didn't feel like listening to her get yelled at, okay?"
Mel shrugged. "It's okay," she offered gently. "Mind telling me why?"
Xero's blue eyes flashed over to Mel's. "No," she answered simply, leaving no room for comment. Moments later the farmers shuffled in and in short order carried on as if there'd been no disturbance. "Can we go now?" Xero asked.
"Not quite," Mel answered, staring at a doorway that lead to a back room.
"Closing time!" an older Xena said as she carried an empty tray to the closest table. She appeared to be fifteen years old, strong and confident in her bearing. She picked up the empty, and mostly empty mugs depositing them on the tray with practiced efficiency. With a minimum of grumbling the patrons of the tavern filed out until Mel and Xero were the only ones who remained.
"I take it she can't see me?" Xero asked.
"No. What would be the point?" Mel replied.
Xero nodded and continued to watch the adolescent Xena go about the tasks of closing up the tavern.
A handsome young man burst through the door, grinning from ear to ear. "I've got it, Xe!" he shouted, proudly waving a rolled scroll in one hand.
"Great work Lyceus," Xena beamed after giving him a quick hug. "Did you have any trouble?"
"Naw," he replied with a wink. "You were right, Maphias was being too cautious. The guards were only too happy to part with a useless map considering the other spoils they had to worry about. Xena grinned, helping her brother unroll the weathered hide. "Along here, this corridor," Lyceus explained pointing to a series of dots, "are the villages that Cortese has already sacked. He's gotten overconfident, taking each one in turn like that. If we can get the villages of Rhea and Thithis to join us, we shouldn't have any problem turning the thug back."
Xena looked critically at the map, nodding at her brother's words. "He isn't going to expect us to fight," she agreed. "He knows most of the men left two years ago to join the Athenian army. With the army of Amphipolis fighting Philip of Macedon, he thinks we're defenseless."
"And that will be his undoing," Lyceus agreed emphatically. "I bet we could take him ourselves, even if we didn't have..."
"No, Lyceus!" Xena cut in hotly. She took a breath and began more gently. "Lyceus, we need the help of Rhea and Thithis. If we take on Cortese on our own, the best we can hope for is to give him a bloody nose..."
"Sorry I'm late," a lanky young man said as he opened the door to the tavern.
"Glad you made it, Maphias," Lyceus said shaking the man's arm warmly. "Did you get any word from Rhea or Thithis?"
He nodded, beaming at Xena. "They've promised to join us. All we need to do is send them the signal and they'll send in reinforcements. They're in the same situation as us and can't spare much, but they'll help." Xena smiled at the good news and continued to study the map. "We'll be married before you know it, Xena," he finished softly.
Xena glanced at him nervously and returned her attention to the map. "Let's deal with one thing at a time Maphias," she said quietly.
Two more people entered the now closed tavern, this time from the back store rooms. Cyrene and Toris were discussing dwindling supplies when they stopped abruptly.
"I got it, Toris," Lyceus blurted happily. "I know you said it couldn't be done but I've got the map of Cortese' campaign. "He's headed for Amphipolis, just like Xena said. Maphias talked to the Elders at Rhea and Thithis they're going to join us..."
"This is madness," Toris sputtered, furious. "I don't care what Rhea or Thithis told you, they're worse off then us. They don't have anyone to send."
"They have people our age," Xena countered.
"Which is too young to be fighting warlords," Toris insisted.
"Toris is right," Cyrene agreed. "Xena, I don't have to explain why I don't want you to fight. You know the reasons."
"But mother," Lyceus pleaded. "Xena is a natural. She can think on her feet better than any of us. Even if she doesn't touch a sword, we still need her to assess the situation when the fighting starts. Amphipolis doesn't deserve to be ground under Cortese' boot heel because of an Amazon Prophecy..."
"Lyceus, that's enough!" Cyrene said sharply. "Toris and some of the others who don't want to throw their lives away have moved supplies into the hills. I don't want to lose any of my children in a futile battle. If Cortese' army comes through Amphipolis, please promise me you'll go to safety." Neither Lyceus nor Xena spoke. Maphias kept quiet as well although it was clear his silence was out of nothing more than allegiance to his future wife. "Xena?" Cyrene insisted.
Xena raised her head and looked with sorrow into her mother's eyes. "Mother, some things are worth dying for. Freedom is one of them."
Cyrene blinked back tears. "If you ever have children, Xena, I hope you never have to hear such words fall from their lips."
"Cortese may be a slaver, but that isn't what he wants from Amphipolis," Toris continued glaring at his sister. "He need us to feed his army. He wants our supplies, not our people."
"Keep telling yourself that, Toris," Lyceus challenged.
The day Cortese invaded was crisp with the first breath of winter. Xena walked purposely through the streets of her home one more time, checking the young and elderly that were determined to fight. Once the fighting began, it would be hard to move forces from one end of town to the other. Xero followed her younger self silently, Mel Pappas keeping pace at her side.
"You're not going to make me watch the whole battle are you?" Xero asked dryly.
Mel's voice was filled with infinite sadness when she replied, "I'm sorry to say it doesn't last that long." Before she could reply the sounds of shouting had begun. The army of Cortese was at the front gates of Amphipolis.
Xero watched in frustrated silence as the battle commenced. The forces of Amphipolis were seriously outnumbered as well as out classed. Seasoned forces fought against adolescents and the elderly and the outcome was predictable. Still Xena's forces put up more of a fight than Xero expected and more than once the hacker had the brief hope that the tide of the battle might turn. Then with a grim sense of the present she realized that she was not in a virtual arcade but watching the past, supposedly her past.
"Where is Hades are the forces from Rhea and Thithis?" Lyceus yelled as he and his sister fought back to back at the front of the battle. Wielding swords, they dodged arrows and fought back the first of Cortese's forces that came over the wall. Neither sibling willing to kill, they did their best to disable their opponents, tiring quickly from the added effort.
Something caught Xena's eye and her heart sank. "Over there!" she called to her brother. An archer dressed in the colors of Rhea climbed over the wall, assisted by a man dressed as infantry from Thithis. The reinforcements had arrived, only they were fighting on the wrong side.
"Damn, it!" Lyceus cursed, taking his eyes off the far wall for a fatal moment. Xero and Xena both turned at the distinctive thwap of a bowstring. As if in slow motion both women saw the arrow buzzing straight for Lyceus' chest. Xena screamed. Lyceus turned to look, not realizing the danger until the impact of the arrow made him wince in pain. He stared at his chest in mild surprise as he sank to the ground in Xena's arms, watching his life spill onto the Amphipolitan dirt.
Xero looked around in confusion as the battle continued to rage around her. Cortese's army was making quick work of the resistance. Those who weren't killed were rounded up, the injured members of the conquering army taken to safely beyond the battle.
Xena wept, trying to desperately struggle against the tears she couldn't stop. Not wanting her brother to worry she tried to hide her anguish. "Easy, Ly. You're going to be all right."
"'Fraid not, Xe," he croaked, spitting up a little blood, which Xena wiped from his lips. "You fought well, sister. But we didn't kill anybody...guess we don't have this war thing down quite yet."
"You did fine," Xena said choking back a sob. "I'm proud of you, brother. Hang in there..."
"I love you too, Xena," he said, his eyes fluttering closed.
"I love you," Xena whispered fiercely. Her brother's lips broke into a grin and he was still. Xero watched the scene dumbfounded, as paralyzed as Xena.
"Come on," Mel urged, from next to Xero.
"What happens to her now?" Xero asked, strangely moved by the heartbreak she'd just witnessed.
Mel wiped a tear from each eye, also moved by the scene and looked sadly at her companion. "The rest of her life."
The two women backed away just as members of Cortese's army came upon the scene. Lyceus was dragged from Xena's arms and tossed aside as her limbs were tied behind her back.
"If only she'd been able to catch that arrow," Xero whispered as the scene slowly faded.
"That's just what Xena said," Mel agreed.
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