(The Battle for the Third Age)
by Bat Morda
1998 Jun 10
Copyright © 1998
All rights reserved

I've been pushed, I've been pulled, I've been put out and trod on

- Ann Wilson

Chapter 2

Learning the Software

"Hey, Xero. Wake up," The hand shaking her shoulder was not a gentle one. Xero blinked once and gazed, perplexed for a moment into the face of the waitress, Ska Mayhem.

"What is it?" she croaked and looked down at the body curled up at her side. Rielle slept soundly, one arm wrapped around Xero's waist, head nestled against the hacker's breast, drooling a little on the biker jacket. Xero smiled--the jacket was no big deal.

"Your girlfriend," Ska replied, breaking into the hacker's thoughts. "You left her tag numbers with Addict. Sure enough someone's tapped into Archive nodes and is asking about the car. She's being tracked."

"Right." Xero nodded and the waitress left them alone. Without disturbing the red head at her side, Xero fished into a jacket pocket and pulled out a couple of pills. Alcohol Dehydrogenase, cheap and reliable, would neutralize any drink remaining in her system. She downed them with the last of her beer and woke her companion.

"Rielle, wake up." Without moving her arm wrapped around the syscop's shoulders, she brought her other hand to the young woman's face and gently brushed away some stray strands of hair.

"You've got a gentle touch for a thug," Rielle commented as she blinked her eyes open.

"I make my living with my hands," Xero replied defensively.

"Yeah, right." Rielle withdrew her arm from around the hacker's waist and sat up. "So what's going on?" she asked.

"Looks like you're coming with me," Xero announced, sounding none too happy about it. "Unless you want your wife to find you here. She's put out a search on your car. Calling your buddies at Archive, I think."

"Shit," Rielle replied. "Paula's got a nasty temper. Where are you going? You can't go back to your place, and we can't go to mine."

Xero eased out of the booth and stretched, her t-shirt riding up to reveal a muscled abdomen. "I've got stuff to do. I want to get to the bottom of this so I'm going to a place where I can, up in North California. You can come with, if you want."

Rielle shrugged indifferently even though she had no intention of letting the hacker out of her sight. "Might as well, I'm still on vacation."

The two made their way to the bar, stepping over unconscious bodies littered about the floor and slumped over in seats. Rielle was surprised to see several men still in the bar. Three men were tied up in a corner dressed only in their underwear, unconscious. After a second look, Rielle realized that one of them worked in her department at Archive. "Careless syscops?" she inquired dryly.

Xero nodded. "Yeah, we can spot 'em before they even get in the front door. Bandit tags 'em as they step through. We find out what they want, and if they're here for arrests we drug 'em and they wake up naked in West Hollywood."

"That sounds dangerous," Rielle replied.

"I've never seen a syscop back after that," Xero agreed.

"You do the same thing to female syscops?" she asked.

"No," Xero shot back with a grin. "The women are fun to corrupt." Rielle knew she wasn't joking and decided to let the issue drop. "Any news?" the hacker inquired of the woman behind the bar who was trying to maneuver around the large iguana to put shot glasses on a tray. The lizard kept flicking his tail, knocking glasses onto the floor where they spilled what remained of their contents before rolling under tables.

"Phopas and I.Q. had net duty. So far we've heard that three more members of Congress have been unsubbed and we know for a fact that eight hackers were done in as well. That part naturally hasn't hit the news nets."

Argo knocked over a couple more glasses when Ska approached. "No, Tess. You've got to move the blasted lizard, you can't work around him."

Tess frowned at the other waitress. "Argo belonged to Bat, therefore I assumed he bites."

"Don't be silly," Ska admonished, "Bat couldn't possibly train her iguana to...ow!" she yelped. With a groan, she pried the lizard's mouth open and extracted her finger which now sported a bright red welt.

"Here, let me help," Wordee urged, approaching the other two. Glad to be rid of the foul tempered reptile, Ska passed Argo to Wordee. "You've got to know their special spot... watch." Then, cradling the large iguana like a baby, the hacker gently rubbed soothing circles on the reptile's abdomen. Argo struggled at first then was absolutely still.

"What'd ya do?" Ska asked, amazed. "Is it dead?"

"No, I just put him to sleep. Bat showed me how. Just rub their bellies and lizards go out like a light."

"One of my old boyfriends was the same way," Lani remarked.

"Like she can remember back that far, dating men," Ska shot back rolling her eyes. "So what are you going to do with Argo now?"

"Look," Xero offered, "we'll take Argo with us." She picked up the sleeping iguana and put it on her shoulder. The large lizard woke up and tried to bite her ear but ended up chewing on the collar of her biker jacket instead. "I just need the bike."

Ska nodded and pushed it out from behind the bar. Rielle held the front door open as the two women maneuvered the large motorcycle onto the street out front. "I'll be in touch," she said as the waitress closed the Saddlehorn Pub & Grill's front door.

"You know how to ride one of these?" Rielle inquired dubiously as she accepted the helmet that Xero offered her.

Xero frowned depositing Argo into his carrying compartment before donning her own helmet. "Yes, I know how to ride one of these." Gracefully, she threw her leg over the seat and positioned herself. Somewhat hesitantly, Rielle mounted the bike behind her. "You can hold here, here, or here."

Rielle heard Xero's voice through the speaker in her helmet as she pointed to a hand grip at the bottom of Rielle's seat, hand grips to the side of Rielle's seat and her own waist. Without hesitation the syscop wrapped her arms around the hacker's waist, banging her helmet into the helmet in front of her as she moved forward. "And don't knock heads," Xero growled.

"No head-knocking," Rielle repeated shifting her position slightly. "Got it."

Xero checked her watch before revving up the bike's engine--3:00am. "We've got plenty of dark left to get most of the way there. We won't have to ride much in full sunlight."

"Just where is it we're going?" Rielle asked, speaking normally into the helmet microphone.

"Like I said," the hacker replied as she punched information into the GPS unit mounted onto the motorcycle's instrumentation panel. "North California. We're going to pay a visit to Bat's ex-husband. Hopefully he's still got the equipment they used when they were in the business."

"She worked for Ronin, right?" Rielle asked as the bike's engine growled to life and they made their way towards the Pacific Coast Highway.

"Yeah," Xero agreed, "They were both systems managers for Ronin. Henry quit before Bat did. Corporate thugs never went after him because he went strictly low tech. Started farming vegetables and studying low tech medicine, shit like that."

"Bat didn't quit at the same time?"

"No. Henry dumped her. Broke their marriage contract and ate the penalties because he'd had enough. Bat decided she'd had enough too, moved down to South California, and started hacking. The goons were onto her in no time. That was when I met her and she started working for me."

"Sixty-eight jobs in five years is a heavy work load." Rielle commented, remembering the hostile looks the other hackers had given her.

"I suppose," Xero admitted. "Bat didn't have to work for me though; she could have quit and found work with anyone."

"So why did she work for you?" Rielle pressed.

"Because I'm better than anyone else," the hacker stated simply.

"For the sake of us all, I hope to gods your right," Rielle murmured into her back.

Rielle thoroughly enjoyed the drive up the coast. While the hacker was not the most fluent conversationalist, she wasn't mute either. Before long they both discovered they shared a love of old movies. She considered asking the hacker about the groupie who had left the bar in tears, then thought better of it. Now that Xero was finally behaving like a decent human being she didn't want to spoil it with questions she knew would only incite the woman.

"Did you know Scrooged was based on a novel by Charles Dickens?" Xero asked breaking into Rielle's thoughts. "A Christmas Carol."

The syscop smiled. "As a matter of fact I did know that. But only because I did a paper on all the adaptations of that story in college--87 different ones, in fact. I'm surprised you know it though. Most people don't."

Xero just shrugged, smiling to herself.

They rode in silence for a time. Once through the Gaviota Pass, Xero pulled off to the side of the road.

"Is there a problem?" Rielle asked.

Xero shook her helmeted head. "No, I just wanted to stretch my legs and check the GPS unit. You hungry?" Rielle watched as the hacker took off her heavy leather jacket and prepared to stuff it into the saddle bag with the rest of her gear, extracting a nutrient bar and handing it to the syscop.

She accepted the snack and looked longingly at the jacket. "Mind if I wear it?" Rielle asked. "It'd be warmer than my jacket and I'm still kinda cold."

Xero looked up in surprise. "If you were cold then why didn't you say so?" Rielle shrugged. She didn't have an answer she was willing to share. Xero waited while the syscop slipped out of her thin jacket then helped her into the one she'd just removed. It was too big for her but still carried the warmth of the hacker's body and scent of her skin.

Rielle sighed in contentment. "How much further?" she asked.

Standing next to the bike, Xero pointed to the monitor just above the iguana carrier. "We're here," she said pointing to the pass. "We're going up here into the Vetana wilderness in North California. Bat and Henry had a house there. I'm sure he stayed put. It was a nice chunk of dirt." Xero lifted her eyes to the horizon and looked critically and the diminishing darkness. "Sun's about to come up, but we've still got some darkness and pre-dawn."

The hacker hadn't lied. As she guessed, they reached the middle of the Big Sur coast by 9:00am. Rielle fully enjoyed the ride. Pressed against the hacker's body wrapped in her jacket she simply held on and enjoyed the sunrise. They'd shared a laugh as they passed the state line at Ragged Point. Leaving South California: The Happiest State On Earth had been crossed out and Armageddon Country: Fires, Riots, Mudslides & Earthquakes had been spray painted in its place. It was no secret that the Disney owned and ran South California the same way Ronin ran the northern neighbor.

When the state split in two, a media battle had been waged between Disney and Newhall Land & Farming over the location of the new state capital. The Mouse had proved mightier than the tractor and Burbank was named the capital over Valencia. That mission accomplished, South California quickly became the most media savvy state in the union-- even if their public transportation system sucked.

In North California, the Ronin Corporation kept a much lower profile. Specializing in computer technologies for government and domestic uses, the company relied less on individual dollars to fuel its franchise. Truth be told, they weren't nearly as powerful as Disney... yet. While the two states still battled bitterly over the rebuilt Los Angeles Aqueduct and water rights, South California was still the big bully in the west.

Once past the John Little Reserve, Xero left Highway One and headed onto several smaller roads. Taking direction solely from the GPS unit, she followed the instructions beamed by satellite until she found the residence she sought.

The house was a two-story structure deep in what was left of the Los Padres National Forest. A simple dwelling perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean in front, surrounded by redwood trees in the back.

Xero waited for Rielle to get off the bike then followed suit. She shuddered visibly and Rielle wondered if it was because she was cold. Moments later she suspected it was because the hacker found the out of doors disconcerting. Rielle wondered at how little time the hacker must have spent out of the city as a youth. After checking the front entrance and walking slowly around the house, Xero walked up with a grin on her face. "We're in luck. Henry isn't home. Probably in Carmel or somewhere getting supplies."

"Why is that good news?" Rielle asked.

"Because I don't want him to know we're here. I'll hide the bike in the trees. We'll sneak into the downstairs workroom. Bat said he lives upstairs, never goes down there. If we're quiet, we can do our thing and get out before he knows." Xero continued to look around nervously as she talked. It was clear she wanted to get indoors as quickly as possible.

The two women walked behind the building and Rielle let out a surprised gasp. "Gods, it's beautiful."

"What?" Xero asked looking around the clearing. "It's just a pond."

The hacker referred to the large body of water back behind the house. A man made lake of sorts, it was half again the size of a large swimming pool, ringed with large boulders. Several species of fish could be seen darting beneath crystal clear waters. A short distance from the pond was a large garden, a variety of vegetables growing in the nearly coastal climate.

"The pond, the garden, everything," Rielle beamed, looking around.

"Whatever," Xero grumbled and headed for the nearest window. She pulled a tiny flashlight from her pocket and using the thin beam explored the structure's interior. She examined the window several times, at first seeming frustrated then finally laughing out loud. "The bastard doesn't even have an alarm system," she announced, taking the knife from her boot. She selected a spot a couple of inches below the windowsill and jabbed her knife point into the molding. The window smoothly slid open.

"Impressive," Rielle observed, watching the hacker gracefully ease her body through the opening.

"See if you can cover up our tracks, and those of the bike," Xero asked from inside the house. "I'll open the back door."

When Rielle got inside the house, she took a few moments to let her eyes adjust to the darkness. Shielded by the mountains, the early rays of sunlight wouldn't hit the east windows for some time. Looking around, it was clear that the downstairs portion of the house was indeed uninhabited. Thin mylar sheets covered most of the furniture. There was a bedroom, a bathroom, a small library and a large workroom. It took a few seconds for Rielle to spot Xero in the workroom. She was on her back, her legs sticking out from underneath a computer console like a mechanic working on a truck.

"Do you want some light?" Rielle asked as she deposited Argo onto a table and moved to where her companion was working. "The controls are over here."

"No, I don't want to risk Henry seeing it if he gets back soon."

"I take it he doesn't like you?"

Xero paused in her work, considering her response. "Like Ska said, spouses hate me. Get down here and hold the flashlight for me, will ya?"

Rielle complied and in moments was on her back next to the hacker, holding a small flashlight while Xero checked, and adjusted a series of wires emerging from the bottom of the unit.

"I've only met Henry twice. The first time he threatened to turn me in, and the second time he threatened to kill me."

"Well you certainly make an impression on people," Rielle remarked, keeping the light steady. She could feel Xero shrug her shoulders.

"I didn't force Bat into anything she wasn't up for. Henry came down south when he first heard Bat started hacking, although she wasn't 'Bat' then. No way was she going back with him at that point. She was finally doing something interesting. The second time he came by was after her accident, when she lost her eye. I think he was more pissed at the mechanical implant than the fact that she'd lost an eye hacking.

"There, that should do it," Xero said as she let go of the last wire. Standing back up she looked around the room. Deciding on a location, she moved the large monitor behind a bookcase, shielding it from the windows.

"It's quite a system," Rielle said as she emerged from beneath the unit, surveying the banks of hardware filling the immediate area.

"It's older stuff but still with a lot of guts. When Henry and Bat worked for Ronin, they managed the systems from this very room. With the tweaking I just did, I'd put this system up against anyone's."

"But what about closed loop safeties?" Rielle asked as the familiar tone of spinning drives added itself to the ambient noise of the room. "You're not going to try to get this thing on the nets are you? You're dead, remember?"

"I'm just going to engage the start up routines, do some diagnostics. I'll be fine. Head upstairs and see if you can dig up something to eat. If you hear Henry drive up, just come back down here."

A little annoyed that she'd just been dismissed, Rielle frowned at the hacker. "Aren't you worried he'll suspect something?"

"He'll go up the front stairs and enter the house that way. Besides, he won't come down here--Bat told me that he hates being around computers since he quit, but they're worth too much to destroy. Come on, I'm hungry. Get me something to eat. Please."

"Well, if you put it like that," Rielle allowed as she headed for the stairs.

"Women," Xero muttered with a chuckle. Positioning herself on the floor, sitting cross-legged, the hacker positioned the input board across her lap. She had easy access to the keyboard where chords of keyed commands would send hundreds of commands through the computer system. The tracksystem at her left guided her through streams of data and icons that began to clutter the screen.

In no time she had familiarized herself with the system, taking note of the software, how it was organized and which protocols were used. Satisfied with the diagnostic results, she settled in and decided to do some work. Taking a generic system identity, she added the command codes needed to get where she needed to go, then opened the channels that would fling her creation onto the nets. Keeping a low profile, she guided her icon through a series of safe channels, absorbing information and keeping track of how quickly that information was processed.

Before long a smirk eased across the hacker's face. Like moving from a hang glider to a jet, the Ronin computer followed her commands with blazing speed. With the ability to track a number of channels at once, Xero was filled with the confidence to move closer to home. If answers were to be found on the nets, she'd need to hack into her own files to get them.

Rielle moved quietly from the stairwell to the den. The air carried the faint fragrance of incense and herbs. Instantly she felt enveloped by comforting warmth. The decor of the house upstairs was markedly different from the shrouded environment downstairs. Most striking was the abundance of wood and other natural fibers that were everywhere. The throw rug looked like wool, or a similar hand spun yarn. The couch was leather, with several hand woven and embroidered pillows. Everything screamed low tech. It took Rielle only a moment to realize that not a single piece of high tech equipment could be spotted anywhere. No comm units or old fashioned phones, no monitors or computer equipment could be seen anywhere in what was clearly the living room. There were plenty of bound books though, as well as potted plants and a variety of sculptures. Most impressive was a near life sized figure near the couch made of wood with a series of black dots burned into it's surface. Rielle wondered what it could possibly represent as she made her way to the kitchen.

Like the rest of the upstairs living space, the kitchen was low tech. An old fashioned electric stove and oven immediately caught the syscop's attention. While Rielle prided herself on her talent for food preparation, it was clear that the owner of this kitchen was a master. Pots and pans hung on a copper rack above the stove, dust free from frequent use. The tile counters held a variety of glass bottles and containers filled with different plants and liquids.

Grabbing a couple of drinking glasses from a cupboard, Rielle filled one with water from the tap. After taking an experimental sniff, she tasted it and smiled. The water was clean, wonderfully clean. She filled the other glass, then proceeded to the refrigerator.

Xero shifted position to relieve the tension that was building in her neck. Already she'd utilized an impressive number of files from her own vaults and had nearly finished in establishing independent net accounts. All that remained was copying over the necessary pass codes to give her full access. Already she'd ducked out of sight before several net cops and one or two colleagues had the opportunity to spot her.

Carefully moving around the program triggers she'd constructed, Xero entered the core of her data files. Everything seemed as it should, when the lines of data streaming across the screen suddenly blurred. Xero blinked. It didn't help. An odd sense of vertigo hit as her mind filled with images.

A man stood before her dressed in black. His head was shaved, and displayed an ornate tattoo. His black jackboots and mirrored sunglasses completed the skinhead image. He also wore the most bizarre beard the hacker had ever seen. He was hideous. "Hello Xena," he announced with a wide grin.

Xero realized she was still sitting on the floor, though the floor of what she could no longer discern. She decided to stand. "Look, you've got the wrong-"

Her words were cut off as the man spun, the heel of his boot connecting squarely with her face. The impact of the kick sent her flying and she landed in a heap, blood flowing freely from her nose and lip. "You'll get up when I tell you to get up, Xena," he growled.

Had that been the first time Xero had ever been kicked in the face she may have been paralyzed with fear and shock. But it wasn't and it only served to make her mad. Letting blood pool into her cupped hand she threw it at the skinhead when he moved close. The fact that he didn't flinch startled Xero. For decades, the sight of blood-the threat of lethal contamination--got a person's attention like nothing else.

"You're hardly a golden hind, Xena--you think your blood scares me?" he said as he twisted for another kick.

Xero was ready this time and caught his booted foot as it sped for her head. With a twist that should have dislocated his ankle, he only continued the spin and hit her in the side of the head with his other boot.

"Who the fuck are you?" Xero asked as she tried to stand.

"Something wrong with your memory, Xena?" he asked, circling. "You don't remember your old buddy Ares? You don't seem to stay dead very well. Who was that bitch pretending to be you?"

With eyes blazing in fury, Xero struck out with a blow that should have connected solidly with her attacker's throat, possibly collapsing the trachea. As it was he caught her fist and dislocated her shoulder as he spun her away. As her torn muscles screamed in protest, Xero tucked her limp hand into the waistband of her jeans to keep the limb from swinging. At the moment it was useless for anything else.

"This is too fucking easy, Xena," Ares taunted as he drew his sword and made a few experimental swings with it around his body.

Deciding that escape might be her only chance for survival, Xero looked around. The workroom at Henry's house was gone. Instead, she was standing on an endless plain of whiteness. There was no horizon, no sun. Only the slightly green glow of artificial lighting and even then no light source was evident. Xero had no idea where she was. Just then Ares lunged with an arcing strike. Dodging on instinct alone, Xero missed most of the blow, the blade only landing a grazing swipe across her back.

"Come on, Xena," Ares demanded. "You were supposed to be unbeatable when in your own body. I made it clear the last time we met that I'd kill you. Don't tell me I've waited all this time for this! Gabrielle would be more of a challenge at this point."

"I'm trying to tell you," Xero panted after dodging another blow, "I'm not Xena."

It was hard for Xero not to slip. Blood was beginning to pool on the floor at her feet, flowing freely from her face as well as wounds on her back, arms and legs. Each glancing blow with the sword left a mark of some sort, some deeper than others, but so far she'd not lost any limbs.

"Oh no?" Ares asked amused. "Then explain this." He shifted so Xero could see him from the side. It was unmistakable. His black pants strained under the bulge of his erection. "Happens every time we're together, Xena," he explained. "But you've had this effect on men for some time. Since Cortese if I'm not mistaken. Care to take care of me the way you took care of him?" Ares asked with a laugh.

Getting an idea, Xero lunged and hit the floor in a tight roll. She rose to her knees right in front of Ares and landed a powerful punch with both fists on the bulge at his crotch. With a howl of rage, the fist that held his sword connected solidly with her jaw, shattering the bone and sending her skidding across the floor.

With hatred in his eyes Ares raised his sword above his head with both hands and threw down a crushing blow just as Xero's body vanished.

"NO!!!!!!!!" he screamed in frustration as his sword imbedded itself into the gleaming, white, non-existent floor.

Rielle frowned into the 'fridge. It was hard to tell what any of the food stuffs were. There wasn't a packaged meal in sight. Her attention was diverted when an odd feeling of danger took hold. She listened carefully, things were silent, no sound of approaching cars. With a start she realized that the sound she was missing was the faint clicking of someone working on a computer. Things were too quiet downstairs. Hurrying, she headed back and froze at the sight of the hacker, convulsing on the floor in front of the monitor. Blood ran freely from her nose and mouth, and she shook violently.

"Shit!" Rielle gasped and hurried to Xero's side, careful to no more than glance at the screen which swirled with indecipherable patterns. "Xero, snap out of it!" She yelled and tried shaking the hacker, her fingers burning from the contact with overheated skin. When the power switch to the monitor failed and pulling the power cord only activated internal batteries, she ran back upstairs taking the steps two at a time until she was in Henry's living room once more. Grabbing the nearest artifact that could be used as a club, she headed downstairs and beat the living shit out of the four million dollar computer.

Xero's convulsions stilled when the motherboard and redundant back up systems were pounded to fragments of plastic and metal. With a groan the hacker's eyes fluttered closed. Panic surged through Rielle's small frame as the color drained from her companions' face. She searched frantically for a pulse and after several attempts found a weak one.

"Stay with me, Xero," she demanded as she poured cold water over the hacker's face and head. "You're not fucking running away from this. I need you, God damnit." Xero didn't respond which added to the syscop's anxiety. "Who told you to go on the fucking nets anyway?" Rielle shouted as she loosened the hacker's clothing. "You were just supposed to see if the system was online. Run a diagnostic. Damnnit, Xero, your friends are dropping like flies but you...!"

"What's going on down here?" a male voice demanded, silencing Rielle's ranting.

"She's been hurt, I need help. Call a medic," Rielle shot back, taking a wallet from her back pocket and flashing her badge. "I'm a System Officer with Archive Corporation Get her some help." Rielle spared the man only the briefest glance. He was Xero's height, with short dirty blond hair and the muscular build of a swimmer. His eyes were blue, almost as vibrant as the hacker's ,and his clean shaven face was uncommonly tan.

He hurried to Xero's side, a frown creasing his features when he instantly recognized the face. "Breaking and entering isn't common practice for a syscop," he commented as he checked Xero's pulse.

"It's a long story I'd be happy to bore you with when she's out of danger," Rielle replied, forcing a professional calm she didn't feel.

"Xero tire of Renée already? You her fresh meat?"

Instantly, Rielle's face changed. No longer panicked or worried, cold fury settled on her features. "Renée Palmer is dead. That's why Xero and I are here, you moron. If you can help her," she said evenly, "then help her. If not, call for someone who can or so help me I'll rip your balls off and give them to you as earrings."

"Charming image," the man shot back. He seemed undecided for only an instant before sliding his hands under the hacker's shoulders. "Help me get her to the pond outside."

"Do you know what you're doing?" Rielle asked as she hoisted Xero's legs.

"As a matter of fact, I do," he replied calmly, setting Xero's body down at the edge of the pond. He eased his body in and motioned for Rielle to shove the hacker's body into the water with him. "Whoever tried to zap her was doing a damn good job of it. You're lucky you broke the connection when you did."

Rielle joined him in the pond as they moved to deeper water. Tendrils of stem rose from the water's surface, a testament to the hacker's elevated skin temperature. Henry checked her pulse once more, then pressed two fingers along several points on her arms and legs.

He shook his head sadly. "She's really messed up. I'll need to go back to the house and get some stuff together to help her." He fished in his pocket and extracted a pocket knife. "Stay with her, see if you can get her clothes off. Keep as much of her submerged as you can for the next half hour."

"Can't we get her to a doctor?" Rielle asked hopefully, accepting the knife.

"This isn't South California. Hackers don't own doctors up here. You take her into a clinic with these symptoms and they'd be happy to see her go on principal alone. Besides, I think the move would do her in. I'm sorry, but I'm it."

Rielle wasn't sure why, but she trusted this man. There was something about him that assured her that he would do everything in his power to keep Xero alive, in spite of the fact that he hated her. When he climbed out of the pool, she returned her attention to her friend and began cutting the clothes from the hacker's submerged body as gently as she could.

"Is she dead?" a nervous voice inquired.

Janice looked over her shoulder and grinned back at Mel. "I don't think so. I think if she were dead, we'd know about it." Xero groaned and tried to open her eyes, but they weren't cooperating. Janice put a restraining hand on her shoulder and kept her still. "Easy hacker," Janice admonished. "You just played Russian Roulette and lost."

"What?" Xero croaked, finding the simple task of talking to be supremely difficult.

"You got your clock cleaned by Ares," Janice explained. "Fortunately, that friend of yours came in and saved you before you managed to throw everything away."

"That's enough, Janice," Mel warned. "She isn't in any shape for this. Just let her rest."

Xero's eyes fluttered open as she watched Janice stand and walk back to her companion. Framed by the blue cloudless sky, she decided that although an unusual couple, they were indeed suited to each other.

"Mel, honey. I'd like nothing better than to let her rest. I know she isn't up for this, but what are we gonna do? We can't take on Ares for her. And she can't take him on with any prayer of winning until she knows who she is-"

"I'm fine," Xero cut in, forcing herself to sit up. Once in a vertical position, she promptly leaned over and retched.

"Forgive me for saying so," Mel gently noted, "but you don't look fine."

"Do you know what happened?" the hacker asked weakly.

"You did something that put you in the same realm as Ares. Once he spotted you, he didn't waste any time in acting on it," Janice supplied, returning to Xero and kneeling down to look the hacker in the eye.

"Okay," Xero agreed her head spinning. "I logged onto the nets and something happened. I fought with this weird skinhead--I guess that was Ares-and now I take it I'm not doing so well," she searched for the right word, "over there."

"If you mean 'awake'," Janice replied, "no, you're not doing so good. You've got a nasty fever and that guy who's helping your friend has been muttering about organs shutting down."

Xero closed her eyes, marveling at the lucidity of her hallucinations. It was easy to see why she'd avoided dreaming all those years. Dreams were a nuisance. "So until I wake up," she ventured, opening her eyes once more, "we just sit here and wait?"

Mel and Janice exchanged glances at the comment. Mel diverted her gaze first, relenting to Janice's will and trusting her companion's judgment.

"Not exactly," the archeologist explained. "We've still got work to do. If you're up for it, of course."

Xero snorted. "I can take whatever this Warrior Princess of yours can dish out." she said with a smirk. While it made her point, the bravado was costly and she needed the support of Janice and Mel in order to stand. Together, the three women walked through the gate of Amphipolis to the command compound of Cortese.

Mel held the tent flap open as Xero and Janice preceded her into the tent. The hacker leaned heavily on the archeologist, having some difficulty moving. It took some managing but both women maneuvered Xero to a table that she could lean on for support. Cortese sat in an ornate high-backed chair at one end of the tent. Resplendent in blue robes he looked like a warlord who very much wanted to be a prince or king. There was a commotion outside and several people were brought into the tent, flanked by well armed guards.

"Is this all that's left of the Amphipolitan army that would defy me?" Cortese asked, his voice lofty and light. Xero hated him on sight.

"They were running things, your lordship. The others have been rounded up and put in the pens." The guard bowed low when he finished his explanation; Xero rolled her eyes.

"So who among you seven is in charge?" Cortese asked looking over the assembled captives. When no one spoke up, Cortese nodded to a guard. "Termin, kill the one on the end."

Before the guard could move, a lone figure rose gracefully to her feet. "No need for that, Cortese--I'm in charge."

The warlord chuckled. "Nice try, my dear, but I'm in no mood for games." With a nod from Cortese, Termin slit the throat of the villager, shoving the body forward where it landed at Xena's feet.

"Hector," Xena whispered, fighting back tears. With a coldness that impressed Xero, but made Janice and Mel flinch, Xena faced Cortese once more. "My name is Xena. My brother Lyceus and I planned the resistance. We traded for a map of the coastal corridor, and have been watching your movements the last two months. Every village along the coast that you've hit you've handled in the same way. Archers, then brute force at the front gate, followed by men on horseback from behind. If we'd gotten the support promised us from Rhea and Thithis, you would not have been successful this time."

"I see," Cortese allowed. "Perhaps poor Hector died in vain. You do sound like you know what you're talking about. Unfortunately for you that Rhea and Thithis couldn't sell out Amphipolis fast enough. But you should have known better. Rhea and Thithis aren't known for their charitable contributions. Lucky me, you didn't have a persuasive diplomat on your hands. Lucky you, you're in charge. I have better uses for women then prolonged public executions."

"It wasn't her, it was me," Maphias said as he tried to rise to his feet. A guard shoved him down.

"You?" Cortese mocked. "I'm less likely to believe it was you than her. It takes a woman standing up for you to find your voice? You're pathetic." As he spoke, Cortese never took his eyes off of Xena. He watched her watching him, brave and defiant. As far as he was concerned, they were the only two people there. Stroking his beard thoughtfully, he came to a decision.

"I have a choice for you, Xena," he purred, shifting slightly in his chair. "I'll give you the opportunity to convince me to spare your life."

"Or?" Xena asked when a second choice wasn't voiced.

"Or nothing. You may pleasure me, Xena." He laughed. "If you do a good enough job, maybe you'll live." Maphias struggled against the guard restraining him. "Do I sense some sweetheart jealousy here?" Cortese asked looking at the young man. "Tell me, is she any good?"

"You might as well kill me now, Cortese," Xena said calmly. "Because I'm not doing that."

With an absent hand rubbing up and down his thigh, the warlord smiled at Xena's defiance. It wasn't too hard to guess her age, fifteen maybe. Skilled as a warrior but painfully innocent in other respects. A feral grin spread across his face. He was going to enjoy educating her.

"First thing you need to learn about loosing battles, young Xena," he said smoothly. "Is that you tend to have rather limited choices afterwards." After a nod, Termin moved to kill another villager.

"No!" Xena sobbed as another body was thrown at her feet. Next the guard moved to stand next to Maphias.

"Now, let's try this again," Cortese went on smoothly. "I've got all day you know, and if you run out of bodies in here to slaughter, then we've got slave pens full of your neighbors as well as those we've been collecting on our way down the coast. Please, Xena take your time. Wouldn't want you to rush into anything now..."

"I'll do it," Xena whispered, defeated. "Just don't hurt anyone else."

Cortese laughed out loud. "Mistake number two. You're not in a position to make demands of any sort. But since you're willing to be a sport, we'll let your boyfriend live a little longer." He made a hand gesture and all the prisoners save Maphias were escorted from the tent. In moments, the ten guards returned to join the other four, watching Xena and Cortese with interest.

"Don't worry about them," the warlord urged as he undid the sash on his robe. "You'll be getting rather acquainted with them next." A guard moved behind and Xena was shoved to her knees.

"Bite him!" Xero urged leaping up from the table. Instantly unsteady on her feet she fell to the dirt floor of the tent along side Xena. She tried punching Cortese but growled in frustration as her hands passed through him.

"Untie her," Cortese ordered. "Don't get any bright ideas, my dear. You hurt me and you'll be guest of honor at the execution of each and every Amphipolitan in my slave pens."

"Come on Covington, do something," Xero demanded as Termin cut the ropes that bound her hands.

"The hacker knows my name, I'm flattered," Janice said as she moved to Xero's side. "I'm sorry, Xero but this has already happened. Nothing's going to
change. You have to remember it, that's all."

"No!" Xero growled back, "this did not happen to me." Two strong hands were placed on Xero's shoulders and she realized that Mel Pappas had moved to stand behind her.

"It's going to be okay, Xero," she quietly urged. "A lot of things made Xena who she was, most of them unpleasant."

"I don't have a problem with her giving a blow job to some faggot in a bathrobe," she spat defensively.

"Of course you don't," Janice sarcastically agreed. "I'm sure you'll find the crucifixion a piece of cake, too."

"Don't be stupid," Cortese warned a final time as he finished undoing the trousers under his robe. "Get to it, Xena," he said with a grin. "Open wide." Cortese smiled, shoving his hips forward as she opened her mouth.

Face to face with a foul smelling erection, Xena of Amphipolis did as she was told. She refused to close her eyes, and with each thrust of his erect member into her mouth, her eyes got a little colder and a little more distant. Cortese could have cared less. He didn't realize he was being watched, studied. From his point of view, a young girl who seemed timid and frightened of the task at hand warmed to it with surprising speed. In moment,s he was groaning with delight, taken to surprising heights by his prisoner.

Xero watched in silence. Xena was learning a lesson that the hacker had learned a long time ago. Sex was a weapon. The hacker only hoped that Xena would learn to wield it.

"Like you?" Janice asked softly, cutting into her thoughts.

"More responsibly, perhaps," the hacker replied quietly. Her thoughts drifted back to her most recent encounter in the bathroom at the pub. As the warlord got off, she couldn't help but see herself, sitting on the sink in the bathroom, doing a naive groupie.

"It's not quite the same," Mel supplied gently. "You used her, but you didn't threaten her."

"Yeah," the hacker spat, "I'm a real hero." Her attention was brought back to the tent as Cortese groaned loudly, grabbing Xena's head and thrusting his hips forward powerfully.

"Amazing," he breathed as he pulled his now flaccid member from Xena's lips. She didn't say a word but continued to stare at the warlord. "Termin, take her to the pen with the others. You'll get your turns later. For now, I'd like to see if her boyfriend can top that." Cortese didn't take his eyes from Xena as she stood which was ultimately a mistake. Before the guard could grab her, she spat, splattering his face with sticky ejaculate.

Cortese roared in fury, hitting Xena with a solid backhand. "Get her out of here," he screamed. "Fuck her to death for all I care, just get her out!" With a rough jerk, Termin pulled Xena from the tent. "Now, Maphias, old boy," he continued in a calmer voice as he wiped his face on his sleeve, touching himself. "Where were we?"

Xero followed as Xena was hauled from the tent. "Tell you what," Termin suggested, "you do me first and I'll have the boys go easy on you."

"Why not?" Xena said with an indifferent shrug. As soon as he loosened his grip, however, her hand was at the dagger at his belt. With a quick spin, she turned him around and drew the dagger across his throat. His screams nothing more than air making bubbles in the blood , Termin slumped over, his life gushing down his body and covering the hands of his killer. Xena's body shook with revulsion as she lowered the still mass to the ground. Unable to stop herself, she retched, adding vomit to the blood on Termin's clothes. Quickly shaking it off, she dragged the inert body to a cluster of trees near the tent. When Xena looked up, Xero started in surprise at a face that now began to resemble her own.

Xena didn't waste any time. Moving quickly and silently she used Termin's dagger to cut the ropes that tethered the horses. She slit the throats of two guards that stood between her and the slave pens. After finding her companions, she roughed out a plan which they spread to the rest of the captives.

Xero watched in amazement as the fifteen-year-old calmly went about orchestrating the rescue of nearly two hundred people. Like the wind, she couldn't be seen, but the evidence of her passing was everywhere. Horses began to mill about, untethered, but not charging. Saddle straps and bowstrings were cut, the random guard murdered. All told, the young girl from Amphipolis took five lives before finding the body of her murdered brother. Discarded in a pile of the dead, she drug him from view.

With a mighty yell, she charged through the camp as the slaves burst from their pens. Cortese's men were taken completely by surprise as chaos broke out in camp. Charging directly into Cortese's tent, she continued on as it collapsed and several figures were trapped underneath. Had she known which one was Cortese, she'd surely have trampled him but it was impossible to tell. When Maphias finally emerged in the folds of fabric, Xena grabbed him and hoisted him on to her horse. Lyceus' body strapped in front, Maphias in back.

It didn't take long for the sacking of Amphipolis to turn into the rout of Cortese. Joined by slaves from conquered villages, the freed men and women didn't hesitate to brutally attack their captors. Without the dismissed armies of Rhea and Thithis, Cortese's men wasted no time in calling for a retreat.

While the cost had been dear, the warlord had been turned back. By nightfall Xena stood in the square of Amphipolis surrounded by those she'd freed. Void of any sign of nervousness or fear, she spoke clearly, her voice carrying to the back of the throng. Her words were simple. Those that had been captured from neighboring villages were free to go home. Those who wanted to turn to the hills to join their families were free to do that as well. Cortese was gone for now, but unless steps were taken, there was no guarantee he wouldn't be back.

"What steps are those?" one man called out from the front row.

"Amphipolis has a score to settle with Rhea and Thithis. It's going to cost a lot to rebuild our village; they should pay the price," Xena replied with smooth confidence. "I plan to extract payment. For any who wish to join m,e we leave at first light. As long as I live, I'll see to it that this never happens to our home and our families again."

Everyone cheered the sentiment although not everyone joined her.

Xero, Janice and Mel watched as Maphias said his good byes sitting astride a war horse with Lyceus' still body strapped to another. "I'm sorry, Xena," he said. "I just can't do this. I just want to put this behind me."

Xena nodded, her expression either indifferent or understanding, Xero couldn't tell which. "It's alright, Maphias," she replied. "I don't think this has turned out the way any of us thought it would. Take Lyceus to mother and tell her..." she paused a moment then sighed sadly. "It doesn't matter what you tell her. My saying I won't make the same mistakes again isn't going to make her feel any better. Tell Toris to take care of mother, I'll come back when I know Amphipolis is safe."

Maphias rode off as Xena turned her back. Janice, Mel and Xero followed as the warrior returned to her army.

It's no secret that a conscience can sometimes be a pest
It's no secret ambition bites the nails of success
Every artist is a cannibal, every poet is a thief
All kill their inspiration, and sing about the grief

- Bono

Chapter 3


Xero's eyes fluttered open and she groaned weakly. Her senses were filled with a pleasant aroma, but every fiber of her being ached. As if her skin had been peeled from her body and sewn back haphazardly, there wasn't a part of her body she didn't want to run and hide from. After some absent consideration, she decided that the pain radiating from the center of her brain surpassed the anguish reported by the rest of her.

"I thought those herbs might wake you," a male voice said quietly at her side. "Welcome back."

"Rielle," Xero croaked, to discover that her mouth was painfully dry. Henry moved into the hacker's field of vision, holding a small ice chip. She opened her mouth and let the water melt on her tongue. She couldn't remember ever tasting anything as sweet.

"Relax, Xero. She's over there," Henry replied, nodding to the space next to her. "But don't wake her up. She's been up for over fifty hours taking care of you. I only convinced her to get some shut eye when it seemed you were out of the woods."

Xero turned her head, grimacing at the pain and dizziness it induced, to find she was lying on a soft bed, a cushion that had been set up on the floor of the work room. Rielle MacGab lay a couple of feet away on a similar cushion, her head pillowed on crossed arms, sleeping soundly.

Returning her attention to Henry, the hacker accepted another ice chip. "I'm not sure what happened," she admitted.

Henry chuckled quietly. "Let's see, you broke into my house, hacked into a Ronin work station, and got fried on the nets. Rielle said you were convulsing and she couldn't shut the system down. She finally beat it into submission with a rain stick. I got home about then. You were burning up."

"I feel like I've been drawn and quartered," Xero mumbled.

"A fate you most certainly deserve," Henry agreed. Xero glared at him and he shrugged. "I won't lie to you. Your meridians are still a mess and I don't know if you suffered any brain damage or not. I was ready to let you unsub, but your friend is very persuasive."

"Don't tell me she told you her 'past life' theory," the hacker groaned.

"Oh yeah. We've had a couple of days to talk. She spent a lot of time with you out in the pond, trying to get your temperature down. That water is snow runoff so it's pretty cold. I think she needed to talk to take her mind off the fact that her lips were turning blue." He paused for a moment then continued solemnly. "She told me about Renée," he added at last.

Xero closed her eyes briefly forcing the image of Bat's charred corpse from her mind. "I'm sorry about that, Henry," she said simply.

"Not as sorry as I am," he whispered. "I've been using acupuncture to try to straighten out your meridians. Why don't you get some rest and we'll try again later?"

Xero watched him go, wondering why the hell she didn't just thank the man.

The mobil communications unit buzzed loudly waking Jasper Helms from a sound sleep. He groped for the device, tipping over a glass of water on the nightstand in the process. "What is it?" he demanded, picking up the glass.

"Xena may still be alive," Ares' metallic voice growled through the speaker.

Confused, the senator shook his head trying to clear it. "I thought you eliminated the hacker yourself."

"Mistaken identity. Xena entered the net not long ago, but managed to escape. I want your people to find her. She's using the ID Xero. Find her, capture her, and get her on the net."

"Wouldn't it be simpler to just take care of her myself? Jasper asked, uncertain why his sponsor had such a fixation.

"No!" Ares barked. "Xena is mine. And don't for a second underestimate her importance here. If she isn't neutralized, I can guarantee that you won't get what you want. She lives for disrupting the plans of the wicked."

"Wicked?" Jasper gasped in offense. "I'd hardly call saving the country 'wicked'."

"Jasper, shut up," Ares replied. "You're a self-serving, lying charlatan and we both know it. If you want to mask it in sound bites like 'family values' and 'moral compass', I couldn't be less interested. My point is this: someone else is going to be looking for this hacker. If she finds Xero before you or I do, you very well may see all of your plans ruined."

"I'll contact my source. I think I've heard of Xero--she's a big time, wanted hacker so she shouldn't be too hard to spot."

"Whatever," Ares replied dismissively. "But you'd better move quickly. Get your supporters online now. Xena is down but she isn't out. You have Pipeline ready to go tomorrow and it won't matter if Gabrielle finds her."

"Mr. Ares, I've explained to you that we need more time. Even pressuring everyone involved the soonest we could get test software would be a week."

"Tell your people to have it ready in four days," Ares replied, his voice cold and hard. "And I want Xero found."

"Maybe I could bring her to you personally and--" the line went dead. In his frustration Helms threw the mobie unit down on the nightstand, knocking the now empty glass of water over once again.

When next Xero woke it was to the sound of voices. She kept still, her breathing even. It took several moments of searching her memory to remember where she was and what had happened. The agonizing headache had been replaced by a feeling of numbness and utter exhaustion.

As Xero listened to the movements around her, she determined that Henry was seated on her left, Rielle on her right. She heard the sound of a match, then smelled the faint floral scent of the burning herbs. Lacking the energy and desire to announce herself awake, she decided to simply feign sleep until she slipped into unconsciousness once more.

"Why are you heating the needles?" Rielle asked, watching Henry carefully.

"The meridians are almost completely blocked. Even at this rate it's going to take some time before she gets any feeling back in her lower legs, if she recovers at all."

Rielle tried to ignore the dismal assessment. Xero would recover because she had to. Too much depended on her. "You said you spoke to her," she said, trying to redirect the conversation a little. "Does she sound okay? You were worried about brain damage."

Xero could almost hear Henry shrug. "She's already 'brain damaged' if you ask me. If she's more damaged than before, I don't know yet." The hacker could hear him putting something down then he continued. "Did you have any luck with the computer?"

"I got one drive running, but there's chance of sending or receiving messages. It's just a dumb retrieval program, a safe one I hope."

"That was quick work," Henry allowed. "You know your way around hardware."

"I started off in hardware when I was younger," Rielle replied. "I took a lot of systems management and software classes in school. Online law enforcement seemed the natural progression. If I hadn't gone that route, I'm sure my curiosity would have led me to hacking."

"And here you are with a hacker anyway," Henry replied. "How ironic. It isn't too late for you, Rielle, you can still turn her in."

"Why do you hate her so much?" Rielle asked hotly, feeling very protective of the unconscious outlaw. "What she does for a living is wrong, and I know she isn't the nicest person, but this goes way beyond that."

When Henry spoke his voice was tight, the fight to keep his emotions in check evident. "You saw for yourself what she did to my wife--"

"The way I hear it, you backed out of your marriage contract early and threw your wife out of the house."

"Xero tell you that?" he asked, surprised and defensive.

Rielle nodded. "She said you visited twice after that. When she first started hacking and when she was injured. What I want to know, is who took care of your ex-wife after her eye replacement surgery? Those are high maintenance procedures. They have to be treated every few hours or the body rejects the implant."

Neither spoke for long moments, Rielle's words hanging heavily in the air. When Henry finally broke the silence his tone was sad, defeated.

"Hackers do take care of their own. Rielle, my marriage fell apart for a lot of reasons. I would have gone insane had I stayed for the entire contract and Renée would have, too. Once I quit the business, it became too much of a strain for us to be together with her still on the inside." He shook his head, dismissing her. "I guess unless you're married yourself, it's impossible to understand."

Rielle laughed bitterly. "Oh, I'm married alright, almost the same boat as you. I'm three years into a five year contract. And I want out." Henry looked at her waiting for her to continue. The syscop looked back down at their patient, smoothing a strand of hair away from her face. "Her name is Paula," she continued. "It's funny almost--she always seemed so close to everything I was looking for, but there was always something missing. I finally decided to stop looking and just get married. The first couple of years were fine, pretty good in fact. But then when I started dreaming about Xena and Gabrielle and began to remember who I am..." She trailed off.

"So what is it you're looking for?" Henry asked as he readied another needle.

"Her." Rielle replied softly.

Xero winced at the comment just as a needle was pierced into her leg. "Ow," she croaked, her eyes fluttering open.

"Don't be such a baby," Henry snapped, clearly annoyed. He looked sadly at Rielle for a moment longer than began to remove the needles from the hacker's body. "Why don't you take her to the pond. Let her soak for a half hour. The fever is still hanging around, so it couldn't hurt."

Rielle nodded and stood, moving to the head of the soft pallet. "Pond?" the hacker asked dubiously.

"You've been unconscious the other times," Henry supplied. "You get to float with the fish a few times a day."

"I'm not getting in that water," Xero insisted.

"I'm afraid you don't have much say in the matter," Rielle replied with a grin. With a fluid movement, she picked up the edge of Xero's cot and began to drag the travois towards the door. When she tried to struggle, Xero realized she couldn't feel her feet.

"You're paralyzed from just above your knees down." Henry explained. "Your lower spine got zapped pretty bad. Do yourself a favor and do what Rielle says. You're recovering in spite of yourself, so don't screw it up now." He stood, and with a disappointed sigh directed at Rielle, went upstairs.

"Let me guess, he's jealous," Xero quipped, trying to mask her uncertainty as Rielle dragged the cot outside.

The sun was still out, hanging heavily over the expanse of ocean, blocked by the house. It was light and the day's warmth clung to the grass and rocks ringing the pond. "Jealous?" Rielle wondered aloud. "I don't think so. He hates your profession more than you personally I think. Although he pretty much hates you personally too," she added after a moment's reflection.

Carefully, Rielle set the cot down near the edge of the pond and extracted several large towels from a compartment underneath, then began to undress.

"A cold bath and a show?" Xero quipped dryly, not trying to hide her appreciative gaze from the syscop. "Do you want me turned on or off?"

"Quit being such an ass will you?" Rielle shot back. "The water is fucking cold. It's even colder when your clothes are soaked. Trust me, I know. Now, if you'd be so good as to roll into the water..." She left her words hanging and began to get annoyed when it became clear that the hacker wasn't going to comply.

"I can't swim," Xero announced at last through clenched teeth.

"Who said anything about swimming?" Rielle asked, taking off her sweat pants. "You just have to float. You've been doing it for two days now. One more and you'll get that merit badge."

"I was unconscious at the time," Xero reminded the syscop, looking with disapproval at the pond when she noticed other things already inhabiting the water.

"I could knock you out," Rielle offered. "But I suspect you'll be pretty pissed when you come to. Trust me, just roll into the water, I'll catch you."


"Have it your way then."

Before she could protest, Rielle had grabbed the side of the cot and gave it a swift turn. Xero was rolled on her side and dumped straight into the water, Rielle sliding into the pond an instant later.

"Xero, stop thrashing!" the smaller woman shouted as the hacker struggled against the sheet still wrapped around her body. Something about the syscop's tone brought a momentary pause to her struggling. Instantly, she felt strong arms wrap around her middle, one arm supporting her weight in the water, the other untangling her from the sheet. "There you go, you're fine. I've got you." Rielle's voice was assured, confident, and in moments Xero's arms were free so she could hold on to the rocks that ringed the pond.

"You fucking bitch," Xero growled, shivering more from fear than from the cold water.

"It's the company I keep," Rielle shot back smoothly. Xero tried briefly to hoist her body out of the water, only to discover that she simply didn't have the strength needed. "You don't have it in you to do much but float," Rielle commented after watching the hacker struggle for a moment.

"This is fucked," she finally grumbled, giving up on getting out of the pond and easing back into the cold water. She held onto the rocks by the edge of the pool, and refused to look at her companion.

"I could teach you how to swim, you know," Rielle offered after a moment's silence.

"I'd better not be in the water long enough to need it," the hacker grumbled. Then, trying to get her mind off her predicament, she asked, "When did you learn how?"

"When I went to summer camp," Rielle answered. To prove her point, she moved through the water with practiced ease, alternating between a variety of strokes. Xero watched, trying to think of anything but the fear twisting in her already aching body like a knife. After a couple of moments, Rielle smoothly glided back to Xero's side, easily treading water next to the hacker.

"I don't suppose you ever went to summer camp?" she asked. Xero didn't answer, only shook her head. "Then let me show you what it's like," Rielle coaxed. She eased her arms around the hacker's middle, tugging gently. "Just let go," she whispered near Xero's left ear. "I've got you."

The body pressed against her back was so warm, Xero could feel her arms stretch as she tried to stay in contact with it as Rielle moved away from the edge of the pool. One hand came free before she realized what was happening. With a frantic grasp, her fingers attached themselves to the rock once again. Rielle smiled, she'd had more progress than she expected.

Easing around in front of the hacker's body, Rielle ducked under the surface. She came up for air between the hacker and the rock wall, wrapping her hands around the muscular biceps that framed her head. Xero's strong hands clung to the rocks like limpets. "This isn't so bad now, is it?" Rielle asked, looking into blue eyes clouded with fear and anger.

Xero readied a sarcastic come back when she was struck by just how inviting the body in front of her appeared. "It could be worse," she whispered as she leaned in to claim the soft lips that had captivated her attention.

Rielle melted into the warm, confident kiss, every fiber of her being screaming in recognition. Memories of Gabrielle experiencing Xena's kiss for the first time surged through her mind as her lips moved against the hacker's. It felt so much like the heated warlordly Xena, fresh from battle. While it wasn't the Xena Gabrielle knew the best, it was something Gabrielle, and Rielle for that matter couldn't help but respond to.

Xero deepened the kiss, sighing in contentment as the syscop welcomed the exploration of her lips and tongue. She began to lose herself in the sensations as she pressed firmly into the soft pliant flesh in front of her, pinning Rielle to the rock wall behind.

With a startled gasp, Rielle jumped as she felt her body pinned. Xero ignored her, seeking her lips out once again, this time even more hungry and aggressive.

"Xero, stop it!" Rielle demanded, when she could no longer move.

"What?" the hacker murmured near her ear. "You don't like it rough? I bet you do."

Rielle shuddered as Xero let go of the rock ledge with one hand, letting it drop into the water and explore her body. There was too much familiarity in the touch. Too many liberties taken without permission. Even though she could feel her body respond, she could feel her heart shy away from the touch. In spite of what her memory told her, this wasn't Xena. Not the Xena that loved her at any rate.

"Come back here," Xero growled and claimed the syscop's lips once more. Even in her weakened state, the hacker was still strong. The mass of her body alone was enough to trap the smaller woman. Rielle found that the harder she struggled, the more intense the hacker's kisses became, devastating her senses like a hurricane. Not knowing what else to do that wouldn't seriously hurt the larger woman, Rielle waited until the hacker's tongue forced inside her mouth once more, then bit down. The bite wasn't hard, but it was enough to startle the hacker and let her slip out of the larger woman's crushing embrace. Ducking under the water once more, Rielle surfaced several feet away from the hacker well out of grabbing distance.

"What's the matter, baby?" Xero murmured in a taunting voice. "Wasn't it good for you?"

"What part of 'no' don't you understand?" Rielle demanded.

"The part where you're throwing yourself at me."

Rielle thought about it for a minute and blushed. "You're right, I did. I'm sorry, it was a mistake. I thought it'd...ah...be different."

"Next time we play for keeps, kiddo," Xero replied, seemingly unaffected by the exchange.

"I'm sorry I bit you," Rielle finally added, determined to get it out in the open.

"Not a problem," the hacker purred with a smile. "I like it."

Blushing to the roots of her hair, Rielle took a sudden interest in her feet treading water. "I...um...guess you would," she finally mumbled, not knowing what else to say. "With the...er...rings and all."

Xero laughed, a genuinely amused laugh that had Rielle looking at her shocked. "So I take it Mrs. Syscop doesn't have pierced nipples?" Rielle shook her head, interested in her feet once again. "I guess Xena didn't either?"

"I...I don't know," Rielle admitted. "I don't think so."

"Too bad," the hacker allowed. "So, where did you meet Mrs. Syscop anyway?"

Rielle frowned, then decided to ignore the sarcasm. "Paula and I met at the '36 Belfast Olympics. I was part of the system security detail for the Online Pavilion; she was competing. I bumped into her at the International Federation of Fencing booth."

"Lemme guess," Xero said with a grin, "You found out she 'sword fought' and your knees went weak."

"Something like that," Rielle blushed, embarrassed that her attraction to the warrior type was so apparent. "Actually, Paula's a pentathelete-running, swimming, riding, and shooting, too."

"Sounds like I have stiff competition," the hacker suggested with a smirk.

"Get over yourself, Xero. Until you learn some manners, you aren't even in the running." Rielle spoke with more confidence than she felt. Even now, treading water six feet away from the hacker, she couldn't deny the effect the outlaw had on her. She struggled to stay focused on the other woman's face, but frequently her eyes dipped down to note the muscular form static in the cold water. Rielle knew it was too much to hope that Xero had somehow missed her visual indiscretions. It all seemed like a game to the hacker. She shifted, moving her body and watched the syscop try not to notice. Rielle failed every time.

"You want it both ways, Rielle," Xero observed, shifting her hold on the rock ledge once again. "You want a warlord, but you want to be on top as well. It don't work that way. If what you want is someone to come crawling on her knees, begging to fuck you, then don't chase me. It ain't gonna happen. Go back to your wife for that."

Rielle glanced away. The words stung because she knew they were true, and that it was exactly what she wanted.

"So, any more visits from our buddy, Ares?" Xero asked, finally ready to change the subject.

Rielle nodded. "Yeah, two more members of Congress unsubbed. Their bodies were found in their offices yesterday. I have to think that some more hackers got fried too, but that hasn't been in any of the news searches. Any idea how Ares found you?"

Xero shook her head. "With the program I was using, it would have been like looking for a book mark hidden in a library. Whoever Ares is, he's got major firepower."

An alarm sounded on Rielle's watch and she smiled. "Time to get you out of the water. Henry wants you to nap for a bit to get your strength back, and then we'll try to get some food in you."

Xero opened her eyes as a shiver ran up her spine. It was night and the evening chill was cold against her bare feet. "Is there some reason I have to freeze my fucking feet off in these God damned dreams," she shouted to no one in particular.

"I find it odd myself," Janice replied calmly from behind her. "But I don't make the rules here." The archeologist had been leaning against a tree, dressed in her usual attire. Mel stood next to her wearing a short skirt and matching jacket.

"Well, who does make the rules then? I wanna talk to them," the hacker demanded bitterly.

"Why are you in such a foul mood?" Janice asked. "Having 'girl trouble'?"

"You seem to be up on my every thought, so why don't you tell me?" Xero shot back. The frown on the hacker's face deepened as she watched Janice and Mel exchange glances. "What?" she demanded.

"We didn't expect things to be quite so rocky," Mel explained gently.

The hacker wasn't mollified. "Tell that to the syscop. Half the time she's a walking come on, and the other half she acts like I've got the plague."

"She can't really help it," Janice soothed. "On the one hand, she's got two millennia's of memories making her crazy about you. Then you open your mouth and she can't remember what it was she saw in you in the first place."

The hacker took a menacing step toward the archeologist who held her ground. Mel stepped in between the women, doing her best to diffuse the eminent battle. "What Janice is trying to say is that so much of you is like Xena for her, but there's still an unknown, alien quality too. She's afraid that you mean much more to her than she'll ever mean to you."

Xero rolled her eyes. "What's the big deal? We're just talking a little sex here."

Janice took a step forward, her hand going to her bullwhip. "It's a lot more than that to her, hacker, and until you feel it too just keep your hands to yourself."

If Janice planned to say any more, she didn't get the chance. A guttural groan from nearby drew the attention of the three women. Xero walked the short distance to the trees, whistling approvingly when she found the source of the noise.

"Interesting technique," she commented. "Who's the bob?"

"Janice!" Mel sputtered, her cheeks flushed crimson. "What are we doing here?"

"It's Xena's seventeenth birthday. I guess we're celebrating," Janice replied.

Xena was nude, save for a bracelet, and positioned astride the hips of her companion who wore only his boots and pants, the latter of which were pulled down past his hips. Moving rhythmically together, it was soon evident where most of the noise was coming from.

"His name is Petracles," Janice explained. "Xena met him about a year ago. A wanna-be warlord, he's got the charisma, but isn't overly bright."

"He seems to have other assets," Xero commented with a grin, watching the muscular form of the man writhe in pleasure beneath Xena. He spoke in fractured phrases, little of it making sense except that he highly approved of what Xena was doing and didn't want her to stop any time soon. Xero watched the way Xena moved, the way she touched her breasts and ground her hips into her partner's. Her smile was sexy, her expression wanton. "She's using him," the hacker observed.

Janice shook her head sadly. "I'm afraid she's not. She thought she was, but he's only next in a long line of people who are going to fall short of her expectations."

"Oh my!" Mel gasped as Petracles groaned Xena's name with a final, furious thrust, then lay still.

"By the gods, Xena, you are magnificent," Petracles panted as he struggled for air. "How I look forward to spending endless nights with you in the circle of my arms."

Xena smiled warmly and leaned forward to kiss her lover. "That will be soon enough, my love," she murmured. "I've heard Poteidaia is small, weak. You should get supplies there before we move the army out."

The warrior laughed. "Always thinking of work, aren't you Xena. You take the hunting party and get some game, and I'll meet you with the rest of the army. Tell me, have I ever not taken a suggestion of yours? We'll get supplies at Poteidaia before moving on."

"You take my suggestions because I'm always right," Xena purred as she shifted position. "And come to think of it, I have another suggestion for you."

"Doesn't look to me like Xena is particularly let down," Xero observed. Petracles had shifted position, rolling Xena onto her back. She moaned contentedly as his lips and hands began to explore her body.

"You'll see," Janice said cryptically and began to walk away from the scene.

"Oh, come on!" Xero protested, "it was just getting good!"

"The last thing we need is you waking up in that kind of mood," Mel insisted as the tree women made their way back through the trees. When they emerged, it was dawn and a small group of men were clustered around Xena, waiting.

"So what's up?" Xero asked.

Janice shrugged. "Cortese's raid on Amphipolis was almost two years ago. We're at another crossroads for Xena. Rhea and Thithis were only the first of many villages to be raided by her army. They got it the worst, of course. A number of villagers fled and Xena trailed them to whichever villages gave them refuge. For a time, that was how she picked her targets."

"What about Amphipolis?" Xero asked.

Mel shook her head sadly. "They were quite accepting of Xena's spoils until the town was rebuilt. Once repairs were completed, the council of elders had a change of heart and now she's an outlaw in her own village."

Before she could say any more, one of the men with Xena pointed to a dust cloud on the horizon, barely visible in the early dawn. "Someone's coming!"

As the dust cloud got closer, the thunder of hoofbeats could be heard. At the sound, Xena frowned. "Where in Hades are the rest of them?" she muttered. A dozen men on horseback came to a halt at the edge of the trees where Xena and her men waited. The largest man quickly dismounted and hurried over. "Where are the others, Darnelle? Where's Petracles?" she demanded.

The man lowered his head respectfully before speaking. "There are no others, Xena. Petracles took your army and is headed south."

"What?" Xena thundered.

Darnelle looked around cautiously before answering. "He tricked you. He never intended to attack Poteidaia. He said it wasn't worth the effort. Once we separated from you, we headed east. As soon as we got to Bascilla, he started making preparations to attack."

"And no one said anything?" Xena asked, barely keeping her rage in check.

"Of course we said something. That was when he gave us the option to leave. Any men loyal enough to you to forego the spoils of Bascilla were welcome to leave. That's what the twelve of us are doing here."

Xena fought to control her emotions as she considered her options. "Why did you come back?" she asked, biding her time while she thought of what to do.

Darnelle grinned. "Marcus and I aren't stupid," he said. "Neither are the others. Petracles may have a decent sized army, but we know who did the tactical planning for our raids. Besides, I'm willing to back anyone that could turn me from a blacksmith into a gladiator."

Xena smiled briefly, an action that had Xero puzzled.

"What's she smiling about?" the hacker wondered aloud. "This whole thing sucks. I mean, I guess she shouldn't be too upset about the broken betrothal thing, it looks like she got a good fuck out of it. But taking her army... I hope she rips his balls off when she catches up to him."

"Actually," Mel countered gently, "Xena is more upset about the loss of Petracles than of her army at the moment. She isn't a monster yet. She's a young woman who has just had her heart broken for the first time. She's smiling so she won't start crying in front of what's left of her men."

"I admit this is a harsh way for her to spend her seventeenth birthday. But you know getting into Xena's bed was easy," Janice continued, "but getting into her heart was another matter. Kinda like someone else I know."

"Fuck you," Xero muttered.

Once her men had been debriefed, Xena moved off to a fire by herself, and Xero followed. She was a fair distance away from everyone else, the chatter behind her barely registering in her ears. It was then that Xero could see the tears fall freely. The hacker smiled, seeing that the tears were more from anger than sadness. "Good for you," she said quietly, even though she knew the warrior couldn't hear her. "The guy was an asshole. You're better off without him."

"I believed you," Xena muttered to the fire as her eye caught the glint off her betrothal bracelet. Furiously, she tore the jewelry from her wrist and threw it into the flames. "Someday you're going to regret this," she whispered. She wasn't sure why, but Xero felt a shiver run up and down her spine at the words. For a seventeen-year-old, Xena of Amphipolis had mastered rage.

After wiping the tears from her cheeks, she stood and returned to her men. "Marcus, you're with me. We're going to do some scouting."

"Where to, Xena?" Darnelle asked.

"Poteidaia is near by," Xena explained. "Marcus and I will check it out. It might be worth a visit after all." The men cheered as Marcus went to get their horses."

"Don't tell me we're riding horses?" Xero asked as the trio followed Xena and Marcus to their mounts.

"Well, you want to see what happens, don't you?" Janice asked as she handed the reins of another horse to Mel.

"This will never do," the Southerner muttered, looking down at her outfit. She walked around to the side of the horse to mount. When she did, Xero was surprised to see her neatly dressed in tan jodphurs, a crisp white shirt, and a trim-riding jacket.

"It's a dream, remember?" Janice quipped, mounting her own horse. "I don't suppose you ride?"

"Are you kidding?" Xero shot back. "Until today I've never even seen a real horse."

"Then ride with me," Janice offered, extending her arm. After a moment's hesitation, her curiosity got the better of her and Xero accepted the offered hand. She settled herself behind the archeologist, smiling slightly at just how well the smaller woman's body fit against her own.

Marcus and Xena rode through the morning. The pace was easy and it didn't take too long before Xero felt moderately comfortable on horse back. Around noon they crested the hill overlooking the quiet village of Poteidaia.

"What do you think?" Janice asked when she reined her horse to a stop.

Xero looked at the scattered buildings some distance away. It was quiet, peaceful, and most likely prosperous. "Looks good," she answered, "like a farming community. I don't think Xena should have much trouble with it."

"Wrong again," Janice replied with a laugh. "Xena is about to be defeated by an army of one. Let's go."

Janice, Mel, and Xero dismounted and followed Marcus and Xena to a wooded area near a stream by the village. Xena's keen hearing picked up voices and she signaled Marcus for silence. At her gesture, he stayed put as she moved in.

A group of women approached the stream carrying baskets of laundry. Children accompanied the women, very young boys and girls ranging from toddlers through adolescents. One girl in particular caught Xero's eye and she looked over at Janice. "Another crossroads, right?" she asked.

"Hacker's catching on," Janice replied with a smile.

The women chatted animatedly as they worked, washing the clothes in the swiftly moving stream. There was a nervous, agitated quality to the women's banter.

"I hear they raided Calsica not two months ago," one woman said to her companion. "That witch has tracked down every victim of Thithis and killed them. I tell you Hecuba, it's only a matter of time before she descends on Poteidaia."

"I pray to the gods Xena of Amphipolis never steps foot in Poteidaia," Hecuba replied solemnly. "Gabrielle, please hand me your father's clothes--over there. Lila, help your sister."

Xero watched the two go after the large basket. She would have known Gabrielle anywhere. While the hair was much lighter, almost blond, her features were unmistakable. She looked about nine years old, the dark-haired sister about six. Awkwardly, the girls brought the basket of laundry and set to work at the chores assigned--Gabrielle helped with scrubbing, Lila with rinsing.

"I think Xena should come here," Gabrielle said suddenly.

The circled elders looked at the child critically. "Don't say such things, Gabrielle," Heccuba scolded.

"The story teller that came through town said her home was destroyed by someone else," Gabrielle continued, undaunted. "He said the people of Thithis helped. I think she's chasing them because she's hurting. If she came here, and we let her have a home, maybe she wouldn't hurt anymore. Then she wouldn't hurt anyone else."

"Gabrielle is stupid," Lila remarked.

"I'd rather share my room with Xena the warlord than you," she shot back.

"Girls, that's enough," Hecuba scolded. "Gabrielle, while that's a nice sentiment, I think it would take more than a home for Xena to stop hurting people."

"No, it wouldn't."

Xero looked over at Xena in surprise at the words the warrior had whispered, almost silently, to herself. Vibrant blue eyes were riveted on the nine-year-old.

"Let me guess," the hacker commented as the foursome made their way back to Marcus and the horses. "Xena decided to leave Poteidaia alone?"

Janice grinned. "More than that. She left land altogether. It made sense, really. If a little town like Poteidaia knew about her, chances are the other inland villages would have to. She decided to take to the sea. She still focused on the merchant fleets of cities that failed to support Amphipolis. It was also something she could do with a small crew. A pretty brilliant move, actually."

"So, when she met Gabrielle later, did she remember who she was?" Xero asked.

This time it was Mel who grinned. "It was no accident that Xena headed home by way of Poteidaia years later when she finally left the warlord trade. She thought about Gabrielle often in the early days."

Xero chuckled. "Big bad warrior," she muttered.

"Big dumb hacker," Janice added, her own voice amused.

Part 3

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