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

Let the wayward children play,
Let the wicked have their day,
Let the chips fall where they may
I'm going to Disneyland.

- Pat MacDonald

Chapter 9

Virtual Realities

Easing back into a deep sleep, Xero floated for a time surrounded by warmth and security. Untroubled by vivid dreams and unaware of anything beyond her envelope of contentment, she sighed. Slowly, gradually, her brain began to take note of details. Something warm and soft made fleeting contact with her neck just above the collar bone. A moment later, the contact was repeated, slightly higher. Xero sighed again-it felt wonderful. The third kiss was accompanied by a gentle nip just above her jugular vein.

"Yessssss," the hacker groaned as she wrapped her arms around the slim body stretched out on top of her.

"Mmmmm," a muffled voice echoed in agreement, continuing to nuzzle the hacker.

Eyes still closed, Xero enjoyed the exquisite sensation as amorous nibbles continued up and down the length of her neck. The memory of the previous few hours came back in a rush as her heart began to beat steadily faster. The gentle assault continued against her burning skin and she could think of only one thing to quench that fire.

"What time is it?" Rielle murmured as her lips trailed across the hollow at the base of the hacker's neck, licking briefly then continuing her assault on the other side.

"Who the fuck cares," the hacker gasped in response as she arched into the body on top of her.

Chuckling, the syscop pulled back a little and eyed her lover warily. "Today's the day you save the planet--don't tell me you've forgotten."

Xero's eyes fluttered open, making Rielle's heart skip a beat. The intense blue of the hacker's eyes fairly radiated with desire. "I don't care about saving the universe, I'm not getting out of bed for a couple more hours," she growled seductively.

Rielle swallowed, momentarily forgetting what she was going to say. Reaching to her right, she picked up the hacker's watch from the bed stand. The surface illuminated at the sudden movement and the smaller woman smiled. "You're in luck," she said sweetly. "It is early, God awful early if you ask me. The park doesn't even open until ten."

The hacker chuckled. "Don't blame me, you're the one who woke me up. It's six fifteen and I'm not getting up until I've had breakfast in bed." With a smooth twist, she rolled Rielle over, tucking the smaller woman beneath her.

Rielle stared up, surprised. "How did you know what time it was?" she asked, impressed.

Still grinning, the hacker leaned down, focused on the syscop's lips. "Rielle, sometimes you talk too much," she whispered before claiming those lips in a ravenous kiss. Returning the kiss with equal hunger, the syscop had to admit the hacker was right.

It was clear to Rielle that this time she was very much on the hacker's home turf. Unlike before, when the earth-shattering sensations served as a display of power and domination, things were subtly different this time. Xero was every bit as heated and driven as she had been in the back room of the bar, but there was a connection present that Rielle could tell was new. In her own way, Xero had indeed let her in. There was no question in the syscop's mind that the hacker knew who she was with. Xero loved her with attentiveness fueled by more than just the desire to prove she was great in bed, a fact Rielle endorsed whole-heartedly.

The hours passed with heated lovemaking moving from the bed to the bathroom, to the shower, to the couch, back to the bed, and finally into the shower one more time. Glowing from more than squeaky clean skin, hacker and syscop dressed, frequently finding themselves pleasantly distracted by the other. Finally, after last minute adjustments to their clothing, both women headed across the hall to Xero's room.

"How late are we?" Rielle asked, pausing outside the door.

The hacker grinned. "Not very. They're probably still downstairs having breakfast. I'll call the restaurant and have 'em come up." Pulling the magnetic key from her back pocket, she swiped it smoothly into the reader, then pushed the door open.

Both women stopped abruptly at the sight that greeted them. The room was packed-and silent. All the women assembled were focused on the far wall where images were projected from Rielle's drive reader, left on the table from the night before.

"Wait, wait--" Ska whispered urgently as a warrior on a horse rode into the scene. "Here comes Xero...er, I mean Xena. See, that isn't her usual horse, Argo. It's a dark one."

"Yeah," another woman agreed. "Where's Argo?"

"Shhhh," Wordee admonished sharply, eyes glued to the projection.

Seconds later, a new figure strode into the shot; a loud groan followed his appearance. "Why didn't the Amazons kill him the second he entered their village?" Wordee wondered aloud.

"I thought we had to be quiet," Jenbob teased.

"Not when Joxer's talking."

"What the hell is going on in here?" Xero demanded loudly.

She was silenced by a chorus of shushing as the on-screen warrior strode towards the Amazon leader. Xero rolled her eyes and was about to say more when her mouth went suddenly dry. Joxer walked to the forefront, carrying Gabrielle. A sinking feeling slowly began to grip the hacker's stomach. Moments more and the assembled hackers were alternating between groaning, cheering, and catcalling as the warrior dragged the sheet-clad bard behind a stolen horse.

Paralyzed by the familiarity of the brutal images, Xero stared unblinking at the far wall. Finally the image cut out abruptly just as both women fell over a cliff.

Rielle stood by the wall, power cord to the drive reader dangling from one hand.

"Which one of you hacked into my drive?" she asked levelly.

Several pairs of eyes flicked in Ska's direction. "Oh no you don't," she countered. "I'm a waitress, not a hacker."

"We had to do something to drown out the noise coming, so to speak, from across the hall," Blue added evenly, casting a challenging glance at Xero.

Ignoring the crimson she knew was creeping up her cheeks, Rielle faced the muscular hacker. "Why, Blue, you sound positively jealous," she said demurely.

Blue smiled at the ensuing laughter and winked at the syscop. "You're catching on, Syscop."

Tension receding, Ska peered up at Xero. "Can you do the yell?" she asked hopefully.

"Yell?" Xero asked. Several dozen women mimicking the battle cry they'd just heard with varying degrees of success promptly assaulted her ears. "Sorry I asked," she muttered, wincing. "Look, if you guys are done messing around, we'd better head to the park."

"Hold on a minute," Demeter said, looking critically at Rielle. "We've had a couple of hours this morning to go through the syscop's drive. I, for one, am not impressed with what we found. According to her own journal entries, she thinks she's the reincarnated bard and you're the reincarnated warrior from a '90s television show? You expect us to try to take over Disneyland for that?"

Several women nodded their agreement. More fidgeted from foot to foot, quietly waiting for Xero's response.

The tall hacker studied the faces of the assembled women for a moment before answering: "So what? Regardless of what you want to call it, this Ares thing is on the nets and it's killing people. Not just hackers and syscops, but people in power and people who want to be in power. I think it's fairly obvious that Helms is in on this. I don't care how you look at it, but if he wins, it's trouble for us. Rielle's been helpful. She's got an unusual take on the situation, big deal. As long as the job gets done-- who cares?"

"That depends," Demeter pressed, not quite ready to give in. "A lot of us are going to be putting our asses on the line. If little Miss Spirituality is going to wait around for you to channel Xena, then we're all in deep shit."

"You've got a point, Demeter," Rielle agreed walking over to Xero's side. "I'm sure to some of you it sounds pretty weird. But haven't you ever met people you just knew you knew from somewhere? You can't explain it, but there it is. So maybe that's how I look at things. The fact remains that Xero is the best hacker there is, and that's what this thing is about--hacking into a secured net node and eliminating the source codes found there. If you want to think of those codes as a god or a virus, go ahead. Xero needs me to run the VR rig because I'll be able to anticipate what source material she's going to need. If that knowledge comes from knowing her better than she thinks I do, or perhaps just from being a very quick syscop, what's the difference?

"If you've hacked my drive as completely, as I assume you have," she continued, "I trust you've found no evidence that this is some sort of Archive plot to arrest hackers. I want the same thing you do--Ares off the nets. When that's accomplished, we can all go our separate ways."

"She talks a good game," Blue admitted, scanning the assembled faces. The women began to nod in agreement, then slowly began to break into smaller groups to go over each team's objectives.

Xero took the time to survey what was left of the breakfast serving dishes. She grabbed a nearby muffin and juice which Rielle promptly removed from her hands.

"Do you mind?" Xero protested. "I'm hungry."

"I know," Rielle agreed amiably as she began to munch on the food. "Unfortunately for you, you'll be in a VR tank later. Only water for you until the fight is over. You don't want something to go wrong and then have to breath the same oxy-gel you've crapped in."

"Ewwwww," Ska groaned. "Lovely image, thank you very much."

"Besides," the syscop added, "you get pissy when you're hungry and I want Ares to meet you as irritable as possible. I'll get you some vitamins before we head to the park."

"No one should have to save the world on an empty stomach," Xero groaned, then joined Ska and Blue at a table to go over their plans one more time.

Rielle adjusted her dark glasses and fell into step at Xero's side as a group of hackers made their way down Main Street. Facades of twentieth century buildings faced each other across an asphalt avenue. Well known for maintaining its antiquated charm, the Anaheim park was also adept at taking full advantage of modern advancements. Horse drawn trolleys walked their routes patiently in front of shops where people purchased souvenirs with nothing more than their thumbprints.

"I'm going to pop in here and grab something before we head to Tomorrow Land," Ska announced abruptly. Xero frowned at her, then at the bakery sign they were approaching. "Don't blame me if you can't eat," the waitress protested.

Rielle chuckled in spite of herself. "I'll wait with Xero by those trees at the end of the street. You can catch up with us there," she nodded at Blue and the others who were also tempted by the fresh smell of hot pastries.

Hacker and syscop continued on in silence. Leaning her tall frame against a tree when they reached the spot, Xero rolled her eyes. "I swear that kid is a pain in the ass."

Still smiling, Rielle simply moved into Xero's embrace, pinning the hacker against the tree and delighting in the sound of a now familiar heartbeat. "I won't argue with you there," Rielle murmured against Xero's chest. "She's turning out just like you and you know it." Pulling back, she grinned up at her lover. "Besides, is food all you can think about?" Even through her dark glasses, Rielle could see the hacker's eyes flare with a different kind of hunger.

"Are you suggesting some way to keep my mind off my empty stomach?" Xero asked, her voice a throaty whisper.

"Maybe..." was all Rielle could manage before forceful lips claimed hers, satisfying at least one appetite. When she was finally released, Rielle struggled a moment to think. Leaning in against the hacker's body, she focused on simply not falling down. With each kiss, Xero affected her more and more deeply. Once concerned with forming a connection with the moody hacker, Rielle now wondered if what she felt would prove an asset or distraction when the time came to do battle with Ares.

"Are you alright?" Xero's voice rumbled from beneath her cheek.

Awash with sensation, she searched for some way to respond. "Never better, Xero," she answered truthfully. "It's just that I can't help but think about...us, and it's a bit distracting. I'm going to have to keep my head clear if I'm going to be any help to you against Ares."

Behind dark sunglasses, Xero's eyes narrowed. This conversation was beginning to feel familiar and she didn't like that feeling one bit. The disturbing part was she was usually the one reciting that bit of dialogue. Stiffening a bit, she dropped her arms from where they held the syscop in a secure embrace. "I get it," she murmured. "Great fuck, but now I've got work to do? Fine, I'll..."

A firm hand at her throat, squeezing just enough to get her attention, cut off her words. "You are such an asshole," Rielle nearly growled. "Here I am, trying to spare you the 'you're the other half of my soul, you just don't know it yet' conversation and you're trying to go into 'one night stand mode'. Cut it out or so help me I'll..."

"Rielle," Xero murmured, "let go of my neck and kiss me."

The syscop did as she was asked and didn't stop doing it until she heard the loud conversation of approaching hackers. Wisely, the group had finished their snacks before approaching the now starving reincarnated former warlord. After a moment's consultation with the map provided by the park, the small group headed towards Tomorrow Land.

"This makes absolutely no sense," Ska complained as the group waited in line for the virtual balloon ride. "There isn't anything futuristic about this place."

"The 'tomorrow' they're talking about," Wordee explained, "is the view of the future from people like Jules Verne from the 1800s. The park is less apt to become out of date that way."

"Sounds lame if you ask me," Ska grumbled. "It's just a dumb balloon ride."

Upon exiting the ride, the waitress' attitude changed. No longer doubting the thrill of a ride called 'Island At The Top Of The World', she instead searched for a suitable place to puke. Emerging from the bathroom, still slightly shaken, she gamely agreed to try the submarine ride next. Hight wasn't a factor on that ride, after all.

With a nod of her head, Xero motioned Rielle to the farthest end of the submarine, The Argonaught, then motioned for Blue to join them. Completely automated, the ride was one of the few places in the park to freely engage in private conversation.

"The mobies won't be much good in the park," Xero explained, keeping a wary eye on the newcomers taking seats behind them. "Security will be scanning the channels. Use 'em only when necessary and then cycle through your channels. Have a couple of people tapped on each team as runners and we can exchange notes as we get into position to stay in close contact."

"That's a good idea," Wordee agreed loudly, taking note of an interested family eavesdropping. "The parade doesn't start until 9 tonight, but it's important to stake out a good viewing spot early."

"Hey, can we watch the fireworks as well as the parade?" Ska asked and was promptly kicked in the shin by Blue. "Ow!"

"Yeah," Xero agreed, picking up on Wordee's concern. "We want to be in position for fireworks before the parade starts."

The pre-recorded captain's voice chimed in, making private conversation possible again. Distracted by the automated spiel of the tour, Ska as well as the nearby family quickly lost interest in the women planning and simply enjoyed the ride instead. In moments though, incessant snickering filled the submarine as the captain's monologue became one long double entendre.

"All ahead full..." the voice said through the speaker. "Take her down easy."

Ska and several women chuckled quietly, causing the nearby family to glance over curiously.

"Aye, Aye captain," an equally disembodied officer replied, "going down, down_"

"Take her deeper," the captain cut in.

The snickers became louder punctuated by several chuckles.

"We're at twenty fathoms," the officer replied.

"You can take her deeper than that."

Moments later, irate families with small children began to shush the laughing hackers which only made the laughing much more infectious.

Halfway through the ride, both Blue and Xero leaned into their glass portholes, eyeing the artificial oceanscape with interest. Beyond the holographic projections of a myriad of sea life, the thin seam of a removable panel could clearly be seen.

"That's where the manual shut off to the redundant systems are housed. There's a waterway connecting the lake and this pond, so if something happens to the external VR projection system, they can move the units from here through the tunnel into the other part of the park. They made substantial improvements when they reinstalled the submarine lagoon. Took it out in the late '90s when the lagoon started leaking, causing the Matterhorn to sink."

"Fascinating history lesson," Xero deadpanned. "We'll leave this alone if we can. Trash it only if security moves in too close too quickly. I saw the laser cannon array up by the Rocket Racers. I'm assuming it's functional?"

"If it isn't already, we've brought a few components to make it so," Blue reassured the hacker with a grin.

Once the ride finished, the assembled hackers moved to a picture spot where Blue could point out the access hatch for the others. Like tourists impressed by artificial fish swimming merrily through an artificial lagoon, they posed for pictures until everyone had a clear view of the panel. Jenbob and Julie departed to pass word on to the next team as the rest made their way to the Matterhorn Bobsled.

"Well, I think this is a piece of cake," Ska commented as she unwrapped a frozen big stick. "So far, everything is going along without a hitch. And the line for Matterhorn isn't too bad either." Not thinking, the waitress began to casually lick the frozen pop, her eyes widening in surprise when her lip fused to the cold popsicle.

"'Ffit," she mumbled around the big stick.

"Christ," Xero muttered as she quickly jerked Ska's hand away from her mouth.

"Ow!" the waitress exclaimed. "Eyu ipped dy dip!" After dabbing carefully at her bleeding lip with a napkin, she repeated more carefully. "You ripped my lip."

Rolling her eyes, the hacker snorted. "I think you'll survive. You're here to work, remember, not stuff your face constantly."

"I'm just trying to blend in," Ska muttered quietly in defense. "And I've got a young metabolism."

"Are you thinking about heading to the VR room from the inside of the ride?" Rielle asked, taking the hacker's attention away from the waitress.

Xero nodded. "We'll check it out. When it's dark out here, that might be the easiest. It's that or try from the back lot of the park, from underneath--"

Her words were cut off by the approach of several more hackers, clearly winded by a sprint from across the park.

"Get out of line, now!" LN demanded, panting. "Security...after us."

"What the fuck?!" Blue exclaimed.

Several hackers Rielle didn't recognize accompanied LN. One of them looked over her shoulder cautiously. "Security started a sweep out by the Haunted Mansion. We're all that's left of the first two teams."

"Anne's right," LN confirmed. "They know what we look like!"

"FUCK!" Xero growled, ducking out of line.

The group started heading away from the Matterhorn, doing their best to hurry and blend in at the same time.

"Shit!" Rielle cursed in frustration. "We knew they knew we'd be here, but if they're systematically picking us off..."

"We've got a spy," Xero finished.

"Well, it isn't me!" Ska asserted.

"The bad guys should be so lucky," Blue retorted.

"How big is the security team?" Xero asked, looking at the group of newcomers.

"Carol said she counted forty," Anne said, nodding at another hacker Rielle didn't recognize. "Heather counted as well and got the same number," she said, nodding to the woman with long dark hair standing next to Carol.

"They're plain clothed," Heather added, "with jackets. They could be packing tasers."

"I don't doubt it," Xero commented with a grimace, then looked at Blue. "We need to split up. You go after the weapons hidden at the castle and see if you can get to them, maybe stash 'em on the island. If you find out who the rat is, feel free to cause some unsubbing. Rielle and I will push up our timetable..."

"That's nuts!" Blue protested. "They know we're here, and they know who we are."

"Xero is right," Rielle disagreed. "We're here, and we need to move now, not later."

"Whatever you guys want to do, do it now," Carol urged, looking over her shoulder. "Because we've got company."

The hackers followed Carol's line of sight to find a group of plain clothed security guards fan out, trying to blend in with the tourists and failing miserably. At once, the hackers took off at a dead run, Blue and her group heading in one direction while Xero, Rielle, and a few others headed in another. Without pause, the guards split up, one group trailing Blue towards the castle, the other running towards the far end of Fantasyland.

The hackers ran blindly, ducking in and out of tourists, trying to get away without leaving a trail of disgruntled pedestrians in their wake, then came to an abrupt stop at a dead end.

Toon Town.

Designed for safety, Toon Town had one entrance. Parents could sit on benches while their children played and explored a variety of brightly painted cartoon structures. There was no back exit, so kids ultimately worked their way back around to the only way in... or out.

"I don't believe this," Rielle gasped. "We ran straight into a dead end." She looked around in frustration. Standing in the middle of Toon Town, the hackers stood out head and shoulders above the children.

"Fuck!" Xero muttered in frustration.

A little boy standing next to her glared up at her. "Potty mouth!" he said scoldingly.

In the distance, the dark haired hacker could see the guards closing in. "Scatter, try to meet up with us near the VR room." With a pull at the syscop's wrist, she crouched low and headed for the nearest cartoon house as the other hackers followed suit, trying to blend in with the crowd of children.

Shoving past several kids in line, LN and Anne dove into the Ball Room, a huge chamber filled with plastic balls and romping children. Each hacker taking an unobtrusive corner, they buried themselves in the plastic and endured the stomping of small feet. Heather and Carol ran into a gift shop, Carol grabbing Heather forcibly when she paused to look at a Piglet sweatshirt. Ducking into the employee's break room, they wasted no time in relieving the two startled occupants of their uniforms, locking the pair in the bathroom.

Not knowing where she was going, Xero acted on instinct alone and ducked behind a large cartoon looking palm tree. A door marked "employees only" was concealed behind it. "Finally a break," she muttered quietly, ushering Ska and Rielle inside.

"This must be one of the places where they get ready for the parades," Rielle observed, looking around the backlot.

"Yeah, this would be perfect, but I bet this is for the end of the parade--the floats must be on the other side of the park," Ska added looking around.

No more than a staging area, the three hackers stood out in the open. There was ample room for a series of floats and other equipment, but none was present and there was no other means for them to move to another part of the park.

"We'll have to move quickly," Xero muttered. "The guards will look for us here since there isn't any other place to go. But to get back to the VR room, we've got to go through the park."

"How are we gonna do that and stay unobserved? Security is going to be scouring the place for us now," Ska lamented.

Rielle's eyes landed on a rack of character costumes. "I think I have an idea."

Minutes later, the three hackers stood admiring themselves in a large mirror. "Explain to me again why I have to be Eeyore?" Ska whined.

"Because you fit in the fucking costume," Tigger growled menacingly.

"Xero, behave," Rielle reprimanded from beneath the confines of her Winnie-The-Pooh outfit. "No swearing. Now lets get out of here before security comes by."

Xero nodded, Tigger's huge head swaying with the motion. "Try to act casual. If we see anyone we know..."

"Tell 'em to go to plan 'B'?" Ska asked hopefully.

"We don't have a plan 'B'." Xero reminded her flatly. "Tell them to cause problems on the far edges of the park. We want security stretched thin, especially around the Matterhorn area."

With an ease they certainly didn't feel, the three women headed back through the door and into Toon Town, where they were promptly surrounded by a throng of enthusiastic children.

"Tigger! Tigger!" one little boy called. Xero recognized him from earlier, and paused dutifully while the child's mother snapped a picture. It wouldn't be until the film was later developed that mom and dad would have to explain away Tigger's unusual hand gesture.

The trio made their way towards the entrance to Toon Town, casually passing a number of security guards who had fanned out and were looking for them. From the corner of her one way glass eyes, Xero noticed LN and Anne emerging from Goofy's Bounce House, making a commotion and leading several guards away towards Frontierland.

" Come on," Xero urged, leading Rielle and Ska back towards the Matterhorn mountain.

"You guys go on," Ska said hurriedly. "I'll catch up with Blue. I know just the distraction you need."

The tall hacker paused a moment, considering. "Fine," she said. "But be careful. You do your thing, then get behind a secure door and set up communications with the others."

Ska nodded, making Eeyore's head bob emphatically, then turned and waded out into a crowd of kids.

LN and Anne worked their way towards the Rivers of America. Catching a raft to Tom Sawyer's Island and ducking behind a large family, they slipped by several security guards who were looking in all directions for signs of the hackers. At a hand signal, two of the guards headed toward the canoe ride, several more heading towards the Mark Twain.

As soon as the raft pulled into the dock on the island, the hackers headed toward the trees. They'd gone a fair distance into the interior of the island when they were stopped by a harsh whisper.

"Psssttt," Blue called, concealed in the branches of an overhanging tree.

"Finally, a familiar face. How many of us are on the island?" LN asked, craning her neck, to look up.

"Just a few," Blue replied softly, lowering herself from the tree. "Let's go to the fort."

"Isn't that kind of obvious?" Anne asked, tagging along.

"It's got the best visibility," Blue reassured her.

Nearing the gate, they were joined by two more hackers, winded from running. "Slow down," Heather said with a gasp.

"Nice outfit," Anne quipped, noting the Toon Town uniforms.

"We've been trailing the guards who were trailing you guys," Carol explained, nodding to LN. "I think you lost 'em at the raft."

Blue led the women inside the fort. Climbing a ladder to an observation ledge, they sat, joining the other women behind the wall, looking apprehensive.

"This is a mess," Blue said, shaking her head dismally. "It's one thing for security to know we're here. It's another for them to know where we'll be and then pick us off before we know what's going on. Robin says that four of the other teams have already been picked up."

"Everything is going wrong," Robin echoed, taking a long drag from her cigarette.

"So what are we gonna do?" Carol asked, looking at Blue.

"We need some big distractions. Even if our traitor told the authorities about the stunt we pulled with the maintenance crews, I don't think they'd be able to reroute the message system to send word for the workers to come in. We've got that going for us at least, there are fewer people than usual-- including security--working behind the scenes. If we can just keep things off balance enough for Xero to do her thing, we still might come out ahead."

"Where were the weapons moved?" Robin asked curiously. "Maybe we could get to them and blow up a ride or two."

"The weapons are lost, most of them anyway. The ones hidden by the castle were picked up already. Fortunately, Ska, Xero, and I worked out an alternate dump. We were the only ones that knew about it."

"Maybe we could get to those?" Robin offered gamely.

"Ska was with Xero and Rielle," LN explained. "I'm sure Xero has sent her after them already."

"LN's right, we need to get moving. It won't take security long to figure out where we went. Get back to the mainland and see what you can do to cause a commotion." Briefly, Blue scanned the expanse of trees that surrounded the fort. For the umpteenth time since the trouble began, she considered that legitimate work did have its appeal. "Heather, you take Carol and Robin and make your way back towards Main Street. See if you can hook up with Wordee and MaryD and get an update on what's happening outside the park. Anne, you and LN see about tracking down Jenbob and that Amazon of hers. They should be somewhere near the backlot by Tomorrow Land. Let's just get into position and roll this thing now. Xero is gonna get her big fight, but it just won't be with the park closed."

Both teams took off heading to opposite sides of the island. Near the teeter-totter rock formations, LN stopped abruptly, causing Anne to run headlong into her back. "Hey!" the shorter hacker exclaimed.

"Sorry," Anne apologized. "But you're the one who stopped."

"I know, I was just thinking... Did anyone seem a bit odd back there at the fort?" LN asked

"Odd for a hacker?" Anne replied, unsure what the other woman was driving at. "Other than Robin's smoking, which is disgusting, not really."

"Exactly. Disgusting and illegal. We were all checked over on our way in. They were hard ass enough to take Carol's gum. How come they didn't take Robin's smokes?"

"Good point," Anne agreed.

"We've got to go back--I know who the traitor is."

The rope bridge was by far the most treacherous of the bridges crossing the crocodile lagoon. Six meters from the water's surface, one heavy rope was for walking with two higher ropes for handholds and balance. Below, there was a floating barrel bridge, a suspended plank bridge, and a solid plank bridge which provided three other options for lagoon crossing.

"Explain to me again why we're using the most difficult crossing?" Heather asked Carol who was in front of her as she forced herself not to look down at the water.

"Hey," Carol replied, "I'm just following Robin."

"So what gives?" Heather asked the hacker in front.

"Oh, me?" Robin said with a light laugh, "I'm leading the two of you into a trap."

Both hackers forced a laugh until they saw two armed security guards emerge from the foliage.

"You're the plant?!" Carol exclaimed, looking down at the water, then back the way they'd come.

Reaching the platform at the end of the bridge, Robin stopped and turned, drawing a taser. "Helms offered a better deal."

Trying to stay calm, Carol put one hand up making a soothing gesture. "Let's be reasonable, buddy. You shoot us and we'll fall, paralyzed and we won't be able to swim. You don't wanna kill a hacker..."

Pulling the cigarette from her lips, Robin laughed. A snort that sent grey smoke billowing from her mouth which she inhaled through her nose. "Actually, if I shoot, you'll be dead before you hit the water, chica. This puppy is set on kill. If you tell me where those other weapons are hidden, I might not kill you. I've managed to knock off eleven members of your team, no reason I can't make it an even dozen, but you're welcome to be persuasive."

"You know we don't know," Heather pleaded, knowing full well that the stun gun didn't have the range to hit a target in the water below, and also knowing she couldn't swim.

"Shoot all three of them," one of the security guards said to the other.

"What??" Robin shrieked, looking behind her.

Before anyone could move, a blast of light emitted from one of the guard's high-powered stunners, hitting Carol full in the chest. Lifeless, she toppled from the rope, hitting the water with a loud splash.

"Don't!" Robin screamed to the guards as Heather jumped from the ropes, following the limp body into the water. One of the guards tried to track her fall, missing with three shots. He never got the chance to fire off a fourth. From behind each guard, a hacker emerged, wrenching the rifles from their surprised grasps. In a fluid motion, Anne pulled a hand taser from the utility belt of the guard, zapping both men with it in quick succession. With a thud, both men dropped limply to the ground.

"Well, that could keep 'em out for awhile."

"You mean permanently," Robin shot back. "All the guards have their weapons set to kill, not stun."

Anne looked guiltily at the two lifeless bodies at her feet. "Well, that isn't regulation," she mumbled.

The movement of the traitor trying to make her way back across the rope bridge captured the hacker's attention. Robin was no more than halfway across when Anne fired off two quick shots, cleanly slicing through each end of the rope bridge. With a splash, the hacker landed in the lagoon.

LN was waiting at the water's edge as Robin choked and sputtered, clearing her lungs and nose of water. She wasn't on her feet long when LN's fist connected with her face, breaking her nose and knocking out a tooth in the process. "That's for Carol," the hacker growled as Robin's body lay prone in the water. Bringing back her booted foot, she kicked the woman squarely in the abdomen. "And that's for the other eleven."

"What do we do with her?" Anne asked, helping Heather from the lagoon. "And killing her isn't an option, LN. Those guards were an accident."

Heather glanced at the other two bodies, lying still at the base of the tree. "Let's tie her up with the other bodies," the shy hacker suggested. "And let everyone know who the traitor is."

"It could be hours before the bodies are discovered," Anne pondered out loud. "That'd be kind gross being tied up to a couple of corpses that long."

"Perfect," LN affirmed with a grin.

The task of tying the traitor, sandwiched in between two dead bodies, was nearly complete when a loud explosion captured the hackers' attention. Sprinting, they made their way to the island's edge in time to see a diminutive figure swinging from the ropes of the sailing ship Columbia. Smoke billowed from below deck, curling in grey puffs from the port holes. The swinging figure cackled gleefully as swarms of security boarded the now sinking ship.

"I don't believe it," LN muttered. "Ska sank the pirate ship,"

"Well, it makes an effective diversion," Anne commented, cocking her head to one side.

"And she seems to have a real flair for that rope swinging thing," Heather added.

With a final shout, Ska let go of the rope and sailed in mid air for a moment before cleanly sliding beneath the water's surface in a graceful dive. Prey out of their grasp, the security team tried to disembark the sailing ship as it began to sink further into the artificial river.

"Come on," LN urged. "Lets go. We swim for the other side and catch up with Ska. Security isn't going to get much thinner than this."

"Hold on a minute," Heather protested. "One of us can't swim."

Anne looked around, then headed up the bank a short distance. "Here," she said offering Heather a log. "Float on this."

Startled by it's light weight, Heather examined the log more closely. "Why this is some sort of moulded foam, it isn't even real."

"This is Disneyland," LN confirmed. "What did you expect?"

With a nod, the other two followed the hacker into the river.

Silently, Xero pulled the Tigger head from her shoulders. With a quick nod, she signaled Rielle to position herself on the far side of the doorway. Just inside the backlot at Fantasy Land, they were poised just outside the door that would take them to the underground hallways that led to the VR room under the Matterhorn. The syscop complied, watching as the tall hacker pulled the plastic cover off of a control panel and worked several wires loose.

"C'mon, c'mon," the hacker muttered as she re-connected a series of wires. In moments, the shrill whine of the fire alarm could be heard from inside the door. Quickly she replaced the plastic cover and donned the Tigger head once more. Stepping away from the door, they made a great pretense of checking their costumes, appearing not to notice the stream of employees emerging. Waiting several minutes for the employees to depart, the duo quickly slipped inside the door.

Removing a similar plastic panel covering from inside the door, Xero pulled several wires loose as Rielle removed her costume. There was a brief flash of light as the circuit overloaded, fusing the mechanism and effectively locking the door. Just as the hacker removed her Tigger head, a stray employee came running down the hall, to be stopped abruptly by a fiberglass tiger head.

"Don't get in Tigger's way," Rielle muttered, checking the pulse on the prone employee. "Unconscious, that's all," she confirmed.

"Good," Xero replied, looking down the wide white hallway.

Rielle looked up as Xero shrugged out of her costume. "The Matterhorn is ahead to our left," she said. "So these tunnels go everywhere under the park?"

"According to Missy's research, no," Xero replied as the two set off down the hallway. "There isn't one big web of interconnected tunnels but four different sets. This one is just for emergency technical crews. If the crews followed procedure, all the doors would be locked behind them. The only other way in is from inside the Matterhorn and a couple of other connected rides. We just need to find the VR room and we shouldn't have any surprises before we can lock ourselves inside."

"It'd be nice for something to go right."

"Hey, this was all your idea remember," Xero said with a chuckle, gazing down fondly at her companion.

The door to the VR room wasn't marked with anything other than a number--092365--printed in simple black on the utility panel next to the door. The hacker withdrew a small multi-tool from her back pocket and carefully cracked the seals holding the panel in place. She handed the panel to Rielle, then with great care began to flip a series of small switches underneath the panel.

"Touchy security system," Rielle commented softly, watching the taller woman work.

"This is first class stuff. But still, it's just a security system." With the final switch in place, she replaced the cover and punched in a code. With a hiss, the door slid open.

The VR room was empty. The cavernous space was dominated in the center by a large liquid filled tank. Circling the tank were a series of sleek work stations with a huge seamless monitor circling the room near the ceiling. The door slid closed behind them and Xero punched a code into the panel to lock it. Whistling in appreciation Rielle circled the room.

"Nice hardware. I'll bet it's running Zwolf."

Xero briefly glanced around the room, keeping her gaze well away from the ominous tank. The lighting was dim, sharpening the contrast on the individual work station monitors as well as the large circular screen. She could feel a cold calm creep into her veins as she studied the computer systems as one might review troops or a weapon.

"Apple made this stuff; they do most of the high end VR systems. It's probably running a modified version of Zwolf. That's good news, it's solid software." Picking one of the work stations, Xero seated herself, and activated the monitor. Suddenly all of the monitors circling the tank lit up with the greeting "Have a cool day." Eyes focused, Xero began to work. Rielle studied her lover for a moment, watching the calm professionalism of her movements, then took the opportunity to study the large tank in the middle, the soon to be battle ground.

Eerie didn't begin to describe the enormous tank. While it wasn't big enough to house a killer whale, if any still existed, it was big enough to hold several dolphins comfortably. Easily two stories high and oval in shape, the thick plexiglass slightly distorted the view inside. Lit from the bottom through a metal grate, the faintly aqua-blue liquid shimmered in the light. The oxygenated liquid was slightly denser and heavier than water but not nearly so as the "gel" it was misleadingly referred to as. The syscop could clearly see a series of jets on all sides of the tank. When triggered they could fire blasts or a stream of air to give the tank occupant the illusion of soaring, flying or being knocked from one end of the tank to the other.

"I'm rigging the support systems so you can control all of them from here," Xero said quietly, intruding into the syscop's thoughts. "You can handle all of this?"

It wasn't so much that Xero questioned Rielle's abilities, rather that she wanted to hear the confidence in the syscop's voice.

"It's going to be fine, Xero." Rielle assured her, stepping over to the console. "Ares won't know what hit him. Now why don't you get ready and let me get set up here. I saw a changing room over there. I'm sure there is a VR suit inside."

"VR suit. Right," Xero muttered unhappily as she looked over the door marked with the universal symbol for "toilet". She looked back warily at the huge tank, not needing to tell the syscop what she was thinking.

Rielle stood at her side and gently took her hand, intertwining their fingers. "Good thing I taught you how to swim, huh?"

Xero tried to laugh but it sounded thin and forced to her own ears. "Yeah, Rielle, good thing." With a halfhearted smirk, she headed to the changing room.

"You know, Xena," Rielle whispered, settling herself into the work station. "If you showed up right now, I wouldn't mind one bit."

She sat down at the console and took a good look at the workstation. The touch pad array was positioned comfortably in front of her. To her right was a mini drive reader and to her left several gauges that monitored the vital statistics of the tank's occupants. From here she'd be able to keep track of the other work stations as well as Xero while she orchestrated the elements of the virtual environment. Flexing her fingers once, she straightened her back and got to work.

Familiar with the Zwolf software, Rielle entered the system easily and breezed through the opening protocols. Once inside, she initiated the sequence to start up a virtual mainframe. She would have a few minutes to familiarize herself with the new settings before Xero would be ready to enter the tank.

Rielle hesitated for the briefest moment, deciding how best to utilize her time, then opened the system database. This 'toolbox' would have everything she could use to compose and modify the virtual reality she was in essence creating out of nothing. Being able to move quickly between the database and the active program would be vital in the battle ahead. With a few modifications, she configured the program countdown timer to work as a key counter. When Rielle started the program, significant lapses in command inputs would trigger a countdown. She then configured a second program to run when that counter expired. Engrossed in her work, she didn't even realize that the hacker had emerged from the changing room until she heard a shallow cough.

Turning in her chair, Rielle's eyes widened in amazement. Xero stood before her wearing a black skintight bodysuit covered by tiny faceted sensors, making her appear to shimmer as she moved.

"Whaddaya think?" the hacker asked, glancing at Rielle, then studying the sensors embedded in the palms of her black gloves.

"Black is definitely your color, Xero," Rielle said with a grin. "Kinda miss the hair though."

The hacker's long ebony locks were tucked into a hood attached to the body suit. A small box hung from hook at the front of the suit, and at her waist several touch pads were embedded into the skin tight material. Xero pulled one hand free of a glove and unhooked the box.

"Those must be the contacts," Rielle commented, watching Xero open the box.

"Yeah, I put these in and I'll be able to see what you're doing on the monitor." The hacker shrugged. "No sense in putting this off any longer. Ready to go?"

Rielle nodded reassuringly. "Yes, I've checked out the database," she pulled a small mini drive from her shirt pocket, "and with some slight modifications, I think we'll have everything we need. You've found all the controls?"

Xero nodded. "There's an independent override for the sensors, and one for the contacts. No other controls on the suit. I'll wait until I'm in the liquid before I activate the sensors. I've got no idea what they'll do if I'm still on dry land."

"Good point," Rielle agreed. Not only would the delicate sensors enable her lover to move freely in the dense liquid, but they would feed information back to the system to keep her in the virtual environment. Xero had nearly reached the entry hatch of the tank when Rielle stopped her with a soft tug at her arm. "Don't even think you're getting in there without a kiss for luck."

Xero turned and smiled a genuinely warm smile that made Rielle's breath catch in her throat. "I'll be in and out of there before you know it."

"And I want to kiss you anyway," the syscop affirmed, then gently put a palm on each side of the hacker's face, drawing her down.

Xero moved willingly letting herself melt into the kiss that was perfection personified. "You've got it bad, syscop," she rumbled teasingly.

"I'll neither confirm or deny that fact, hacker. Now go kick Ares' ass."

With a grin, the hacker nodded and opened the small box. Picking up a contact lens with one fingertip, she leaned back and let the soft disc fall into its proper place against her eye. Repeating the process with the second lens, she moved to the tank hatch, waiting.

"Can you see?" Rielle asked. Xero shook her head, trying to relax even though her eyes were wide open and still she saw only blackness. "That's because these lenses are hooked into the main monitor and I haven't let the line feed through the rest of the system yet. Once that's up, Ares will be able to interact with you and I want you to have as much time as possible first." Xero continued to wait, listening to Rielle open the tank hatch.

"When you drop into the tank, I'll give you a moment to get your bearings before I pressurize the chamber. When that happens, the liquid will fill to the top. It's the hardest part, but you'll have to breathe it in. You won't drown, so just try to keep relaxed and you'll be fine. When I see your stats as normal, I'll open the inner door and activate the feed. You'll be able to see then. You won't be able to speak to me because you'll have the gel in your throat. Try hand signals instead."

"You gonna be able to see what's happening?" Xero asked, facing Rielle even though she couldn't see her.

"Oh yeah, I'll be watching you on the system monitor and hopefully the projection monitor. I'll be right there with you, Xero. Even though I'll be able to talk to you through the speakers in your hood, I'll try and keep quiet. I don't want to distract you."

Xero nodded, absently touching the small speaker positioned near her ear. She felt one more soft kiss on her lips, then Rielle guiding her to the chamber opening. Taking a deep breath she stepped inside, landing with a splash in the warm liquid.

"Be careful, Xero," Rielle called as she began to close the hatch. "I love you."

Xero smiled and felt a strange stillness as the door closed with a thud. Suddenly the chamber felt very much like a tomb. Nervously, she licked her lips, tasting a bit of the gel that had splashed on her face. It didn't really taste like anything, she decided absently, just sort of oily. Her feet rested comfortably on the metal grate of the floor, the liquid reaching only to her breasts. Stretching her hands over her head she could feel the hatch lid with her finger tips. Touching the position of lock bolt, she could feel that while Rielle had closed the hatch, she hadn't locked it, giving the hacker every opportunity to change her mind. That only served to stiffen Xero's resolve that she wouldn't back out at any cost.

"What am I doing here?" she asked herself. But before the question was fully formed, she knew she had her answer. She was there because Rielle believed in her. The syscop made it clear that Xena or no Xena, she believed Xero could do what was necessary to save them all. Steeling herself for the inevitable, the hacker hoped she was right.

A slight hum emanated from somewhere below the tank and Xero could feel the fluid level rise in the chamber. Quickly it moved up her arms to cover her shoulders. In moments the hacker had to kick her legs and tread water to stay above the fluid. Moments more and she could feel her head bump gently on the hatch--out of room. Seeing nothing but pitch black, Xero felt the warm liquid move over her face and head.

She'd never felt more isolated in her life.

"I'm here, honey," a soft voice said in her ear. "Just go with it, let the fluid in. I promise you'll be okay. You breathed that stuff for nine months, remember--it'll be like riding a bike."

Rielle's words were soothing, reassuring, and she said them with such certainty that the hacker couldn't help but believe. Forcing her body to relax, she let the weight of her body suit and the density of the liquid pull her under. Overcoming the urge to panic by sheer force of will, she opened her mouth and inhaled.

Violently, the hacker's body convulsed. The instincts to flee and panic, to conserve at all cost what little oxygen remained in the lungs, warred with the realization that there was indeed 'breathable' oxygen in the liquid itself. After several panicked gasps, she was breathing liquid once again.

Touching a control at the side of her suit, Xero felt a slight tingle as the sensors activated. Moving her arm experimentally, she was pleased to discover that the activated sensors reacted with the gel, allowing her to move almost normally.

"Okay, Xero, here we go," Rielle said, activating the system. In that instant, the hacker could see. A hatch opened and beyond was a grassy hillside. Purposefully, she walked towards it, feeling the pattern of the metal grate below her feet even though it looked like grass. The scene was familiar and yet foreign. Bright blue skies, vibrant greens--this was the world she'd seen most recently while dreaming. Xero smiled and half-expected to see the annoying archeologist and Melinda Pappas stroll up from behind the tree off to her left. Looking right, she could see the ocean off in the distance, then after a short walk realized she was on the edge of a cliff. Glancing down, she discovered she was dressed in battle armor. Xena's battle armor. With a rueful grimace, she glanced skyward.

"I thought it might help," Rielle whispered in her ear.

"You're gonna need all the help you can get."

Xero spun at the sound and there, standing a short distance from the trees, was Ares. Dressed in his customary outfit, with long hair and bizarre beard once more, he fit much better with the rustic setting. Only the huge taser rifle he carried was sorely out of place. Without thinking, Xero reached behind her and drew the sword at her back.

"Tired of the skin head look?" the hacker asked dryly.

Ares laughed. "You're gonna fight me with that thing?" he mocked. "Honey, you're the one stuck in the dark ages."

Without warning, he fired. Moving more quickly than she thought she could, Xero ducked, still feeling the warmth of the passing energy burst. "I hope you know what you're doing, Rielle" she thought, wondering how she was going to defeat a taser with nothing more than a sword.

"That's it. Dance, bitch!" the god of war taunted, firing several more shots. Xero dodged all but the last, its energy grazing her thigh and leaving a deep smoking burn. The pain was intense, as if the tiny sensors had become instead voracious teeth, gnawing into her flesh. Ares grinned. "See how hopeless it is, Xena? I change the polarity on your sensors and you can't do a damn thing to stop me. Just like offing that friend of yours. Your body will do my bidding, and then you're gonna die."

He fired again, and Xero spun with the sword to intercept the blast. To her surprise, and to Ares', the energy burst bounced from the sword back toward the angry god. Lunging out of its way, he regained his balance and moved in on the hacker menacingly.

"Something tells me your little blasts will do a number on you too," Xero commented, smoothly hitting a few pressure points on her leg to alleviate the burning sensation.

Ares smiled, moving towards the cliff and leaving Xero less room to dodge blasts. "You'll just have to wonder about that," he offered smugly. Again, he fired then dodged with a leap and a roll to avoid the blast returned from Xero's sword. Smoothly, the hacker deflected most of the blast. Grazed over one shoulder, she pinched another nerve to alleviate the burning.

At the monitor station, Rielle's eyes widened in surprise. There was a slight jump in her lover's vital statistics. Now pushing slowly but steadily upward, something was definitely wrong. Finger flying over the input pads, she looked for an opportunity to stall for time. Watching the monitor, she saw Ares stand and dust himself off near the cliff face. Not seeing a better chance, she acted.

"How you feeling, Xena?" Ares asked.

"Just fine, Ares," she replied, unsure what the god was getting at. Almost absently, she noticed a slight muscle tremble in the middle of her back. The spasm didn't hurt, but was out of place in that she doubted she'd pulled anything.

A low rumble shook the bluff as part of the cliff began to break away. Ares looked down in surprise as a crack began to form between Xero and himself. Quickly he leapt up, tucking into a tight spin as the rest of the ground he'd been standing on gave way. He landed neatly on his feet behind Xero once again as he looked up at the sky.

"Nice try, Gabrielle," he called. "Too bad you couldn't do a little more with the time you had." Turning cold hard eyes to Xero, his demeanor radiated finality. "This is the end of the road, Xena. I'm through playing games with you. You've had more chances than my affection for you warranted and it's gonna end here and now." He continued in a low growl, "All the king's horses and the senator's men, strode into the room and kept the irritating blond from interrupting once and for all."

Xero's eyes shot skyward. "Rielle," she shouted. "What's happening?"

Ares laughed. "You can't talk to her, remember? I can hear you because I'm a part of you, Xena. But as for your little friend, let's just say she's kinda tied up at the moment. I requested a few of Helms' thugs, hid 'em in the VR room, and waited. It took long enough for you to arrive--we were starting to get bored."

"Sorry to keep you waiting," Xero growled and lunged. She watched her own hand in disbelief as her sword fell from her fingers, landing with a soft thud on the grassy ground. She collapsed as her body, wracked with pain, spasmed uncontrollably.

"And that, my dear Xena," Ares said, kicking her in the abdomen, rolling her over onto her back, "is the beauty of my plan. Your VR suit, remember? You hit a couple of sensors here and there doing those little pinches of yours. Sets up a nice feedback loop. Unlike your friends who've unsubbed, their own brains just telling them they were dying, this is real. This isn't in your head, Xena. This is your suit heating up. This is power surges entering your system, fucking you up. This is you dying, Xena."

Dimly aware of a rhythmic, shallow sound, Xero was dimly surprised to realize it was her own breathing. Things felt tight, tight and painful. With great effort, she opened her eyes, eyes that felt swollen and bloody. It took only a moment to realize where she was, how she was dying. She was on a cross.

"You always seem to end up here," Janice Covington commented from the ground. The archeologist was sitting on a large rock, peering up at the hacker from under the brim of her hat. Xero tried to speak, but her throat was painfully dry. "You're having one bad day, I'll grant you that."

"You could help me down," Xero croaked, her voice a barely audible rasp.

"If it were only that easy," Janice replied. "Believe me, I would." To make her point, she moved over to the cross and passed her hand through the hacker's broken legs. "See, I'm just passing through. I'd untie you if I could, but no can do."

"Rielle..." Xero gasped.

Janice nodded in understanding. "She's fine for the moment, my friend," she said, her low voice surprisingly kind and soft. "If she were dead, I think I'd know. Most likely just being held at gunpoint away from the computer systems." Sitting back down on the rock, the archeologist cocked her head curiously. "So, tell me, Xero, you ever remember feeling as bad as you do now? A time when things were this bleak?" She patiently waited for the hacker to answer, knowing she had the rest of Xero's life to get her answers, be that long or short.

The hacker was vaguely aware that the archeologist spoke--sounds dimly registering in her world of pain and anguish. Not paying much attention to what was said, she was grateful at least not to be dying alone. Her thoughts drifted back, memories of blood and battles to a time when she felt this empty, this lost.

It had almost been easier when her world was one of domination and conquest. It had order, it had focus, even though her days were spent sending souls to Hades for judgement. Focus and clarity left the day Borias died, his broken bloody body brought back to camp for funeral. Xena didn't cry. She didn't weep for the dead father of a child she no longer had. There were no admissions of love, of sorrow, of emptiness. Instead, Borias was laid out like a warrior, none of Xena's army pointing out that he'd tried to switch sides and leave the violence of the life he led. They sent him off as one of their own, a great warrior.

Somehow, somewhere, the drive left Xena. Absently, she was aware of her fame, that her name was feared far and wide, but she wasn't entirely certain how she'd gotten there. Her allegiance was pledged to Ares out of habit more than anything else. It was a routine she immersed herself in because it was comfortable, not because it gave her any of the things it had in the past. At the height of her career, Xena, The Warrior Princess, Destroyer of Nations, was a demon in decline.

From her cross, Xero watched the scenes play out. She understood the logic, experienced the feelings as Xena decided on her course of action. It was an undertaking so dangerous, so difficult--she'd either succeed, making sure no one stood in her way ever again, or she'd fail and be destroyed. Inwardly, she didn't care all that much which way it ended. When it was all over, either she or Hercules would be dead.

"Didn't quite happen that way did it?" Janice asked softly, pushing into Xero's thoughts.

"No," the hacker breathed, barely conscious. "Hercules touched me, treated me like a human being--not the animal I'd become. When it was all over, I felt more lost and despondent than before. He'd shown me a glimpse of something, something I knew even then I'd never find with him. Then I went off on my own to look for it."

"What'd you find?"

"For a long time, nothing. Burned out villages, people who feared me like Hades himself. My path was clear. I had to change, but I couldn't get away from who I was..."

"But you'd already made progress," Janice offered helpfully. "You saved that baby, walked away from your army, survived the gauntlet. It was a decent start."

Xero laughed ruefully, the movement tearing at her gut painfully. "S-some start. I was out of my head with emptiness and regret. I finally decided to give up. I buried my armor and weapons near a river and walked into the woods."

Janice Covington smiled warmly. "Yeah? Then what happened?"

Xero's eyes fluttered as she tried to put the pieces of memory together. "I saw her," she whispered.

"Her who?"

"The girl, from the river. But she wasn't a little girl anymore. She'd grown up and grown beautiful. The little one who said all I needed was a home, a place to belong and that would somehow make it right. If I'd listened back then, that would have made it right. But I'd gone too far, done too much to ever deserve a home. Still, she was there, in a group rounded up by the slavers. She was feisty, trying to protect her sister, willing to sacrifice herself for the greater good.

"Suddenly," Xero coughed, "it was so clear what had to be done. One good deed before my darkness consumed me. One last bit of violence, but this time fighting on the side of justice. One shot at turning darkness at itself."

"Ah," Janice agreed, "but it's funny how that 'one good deed' can turn into thousands."

"She was what I needed," the hacker continued, barely aware that she was still in the company of the archeologist. "She taught me how to believe in me. She accepted my good and helped it grow. She gave me the home I didn't deserve."

"Oh, you earned it, Xena. That's your problem. You still think you need to suffer, that there's atonement out there for you. It's thousands of years later, Xena. There is no atonement." Janice kept her words steady and clear, brooking no argument from the woman on the cross. "It's do or die time. You either have to forgive yourself or Ares will win. You're suffering because somehow you think you should. Xena, when was the last time Ares told you the truth?"

The hacker's eyes snapped open, ignoring the pain and swelling. Smoothly, a lifetime of practice evident in her movements, Janice pulled a cigar from her pocket and lit it, contentedly blowing several smoke rings.

"I mean, that business with getting crucified in the snow remember? They cut off Gabrielle's hair and put her up on a cross with you. I've read enough of the scrolls to know it didn't happen that way, so what gives?"

Xero's mind was swimming, in a haze of pain, feeling the weight of her body press down on her diaphragm, her lungs fighting for air. "Alti...Ares..." she choked.

"Wasn't it you who said you can recreate yourself every day of your life, Xena?" Janice demanded, a bit louder this time. "Christ woman, it's been lifetimes and you're still punishing yourself for people that you killed eons ago who'd already be dead right now from natural causes. Gabrielle is waiting for you on the other side. Don't even tell me you'd risk her life again because you're too much of a wimp to admit that it's okay to be happy. You've seen the crap you've done, Xena, you've lived it all over again. Own it and move on!"

"It can't be that easy," Xero thought to herself.

"Why not?" Janice demanded with a shrug. "You accept yourself and put down that chip on your shoulder you've been carrying for who knows how many lifetimes, and then what's Ares gonna do? Maybe someone else puts down their baggage, maybe lots of people start putting down their baggage. Each person owning their own life, giving someone else the space they need to own theirs. Don't you think that's gonna eat into his plans of world domination via hatred and aggression?

"Why are you here, Xena? How did Ares get you on that cross?" Janice stood on the rock where she'd been sitting, doing her best to look the hacker in the eye. "Xena, how can some virus named Ares, who's stuck in a computer destroy you, a flesh and blood human being, just because you're in a virtual reality tank? Xena, this is why I risked my ass for you fighting the battle of the second age. Ares can't touch you, he can only play these mind games with you. Beat him at his own damn game."

Xero closed her eyes once. When they opened, they were clear, vibrant and very, very, angry. She looked down at the archeologist and growled, "That fucker's gonna die."


- Little Richard

Chapter 10

Humans Being

Rielle watched in disbelief as the sword dropped from Xero's hand, gauges monitoring the hacker's vital statistics well in the red. Concerned and dismayed, she turned in her seat to watch Xero, still in the tank, crumple to the floor, twitching slightly. Ready to dive for the tank hatch and rescue the hacker, she was surprised by several plainclothes security guards bursting into the room from a side door. Weapons drawn, they didn't have to tell her to freeze--she could see the warning etched on their faces.

Keeping her hands in plain sight, Rielle slowly backed away from the console. There would be no way to help Xero if she were dead. Biding her time and keeping her options open seemed the best course of action.

"We've got the VR room secured, Senator," a guard spoke calmly. The last man to enter VR room, he was clearly in charge, a thin wire trailing from his ear piece to a mobie unit tucked into the side pocket of his crisp jacket.

"Get up and get away from the console," a tall blond woman ordered Rielle, holding her taser steadily. "Hands on the side of the tank. Move!"

Rielle complied, focusing her attention on Xero who lay still on floor of the VR tank.

"Do we go in for the hacker?" the leader asked, speaking into the mobie mike. He waited for a reply, then addressed his companions. "We stay put until the Senator says move. Turn the overhead monitors on. Let's see what Mr. Ares has to say."

Another guard complied with the order, activating the seamless screen that circled the room. All assembled could see the grassy cliff edge with Ares standing over the body of an unconscious Xero. While the others focused on the images on the monitor--the cliff, sea, and gloating god of war--Rielle's attention was focused on the woman who lay still and unmoving in a desolate tank of oxygenated fluid. If it were in her power, Rielle would gladly have traded places with her lover, whom she hoped against hope was still alive. A quick glance over her shoulder at the gauges confirmed that she was, but only barely. With her heart rate reaching dangerous levels, Xero was running the risk of meeting the fate that had claimed her roommate only days before.

One of the guards intruded on her thoughts with a panicked warning to their leader. "Sir, there's a feedback loop cycling through the system."

"And?" the head guard prompted, clearly not following.

"If it isn't stopped, the entire system will lock up," Rielle supplied calmly. "A simple screen freeze--but your Mr. Ares might not like it seeing that he's occupying the 'screen' at the moment." she added.

On the screen, those watching could clearly see Ares' head snapping up at attention, having heard the comment through the open microphone.

"What are you playing at, Gabrielle?" he snarled.

"Point is, I'm through playing, you slimy motherfucker," she shot back acidly. "Whatever it is you're doing to Xero, you're gonna get yourself, you bastard. You've got some sort of feedback loop cycling through Xero's suit. Did she damage a couple of sensors when she hit those pressure points, starting the energy build up? I've routed the signal through the whole tank. You might be a chunk of cyber crap, but you're cyber crap that's trapped in that VR tank. Xero dies, you get fried."

The female guard had taken a seat at the console and was trying to troubleshoot Rielle's system. "The syscop's right," she announced. "She's implanted a bug that's time activated. If she doesn't enter a code to reset the counter every so often, it counts down and starts the feedback."

"Then perhaps you'd like to give us the code," one of the men threatened. "Or would you rather die for your girlfriend?"

"Shut up!" Ares barked, cutting the man off. "She'd love to die in Xena's place. She's even tried a time or two, haven't you, Gabrielle?" Rielle ignored him, forcing herself to have faith in the course of action she'd taken. "Very well," Ares continued smoothly, "we wait. I really don't think you've the nerve to watch Xena die."

Rielle stared at the prone figure in the tank, searching for some sign. For what kind of sign though she had no idea. There was no doubt that Xena or even Xero for that matter would not want her to interfere. Ares, for the moment, was trapped. While Rielle didn't fool herself into thinking it would trap him for good, she wasn't going to let him know that. She had the nagging feeling that time was what she needed and she was willing to play out her hand for as long as she could.

"I've watched Xena die before, Ares," she said quietly. "And since you'll be dying with her, we both know it's what she'd want."

"You think this little trap is gonna hold me?" he retorted, looking around. "Come on, Gabrielle, even you aren't that naive."

"No?" the syscop pressed. "Then why don't you come and get me? Oh, that's right--Janice Covington saw to it that you can't. I believe you needed Valasca's help for that and one lone archeologist kicked her ass."

Ares glared at her in fury, fists clenching, teeth bared. Rielle's attention was diverted however by a loud crash through the ceiling air vents. Several women dropped to the floor, tasers firing. Without hesitation, Rielle spun on the guard nearest to her, using the distraction to her advantage. In an instant, she'd moved disarmed the startled man and trapped his arm behind him. Using his body as a shield, she called out to the other guards. "Don't move! I've a feeling these tasers aren't set on stun--anyone wanna find out?"

The guards froze. Rielle watched as they exchanged eye contact, clearly readying to overtake her. She fired several quick shots, narrowly missing two guards, forcing them to duck for cover and thus forcing the other two out of the way. Having given the hackers who'd fallen through the ceiling enough time to move, Rielle relaxed as they overpowered and disarmed the rest of the guards.

"You guys are a sight for sore eyes," she commented, shoving her guard towards the others to be tied up.

"We came through the Matterhorn. We could have gotten here sooner if someone hadn't taken the wrong vent," LN announced, looking at Ska pointedly. The waitress merely sulked.

"So what do we do with the thugs?" Blue asked, ripping the wires and mobie units from the guards' clothing.

"The changing room looks clean, so we can lock 'em in here for the time being," Jenbob answered. Julie opened the door then secured it once the guards had been ushered inside.

"Jenbob and I will keep an eye on the door," she added. "They might have friends."

"Is there anything you can do for Xero?" Blue asked, concerned.

Rielle shook her head, taking a seat back at the console. "I don't know, I'll have to watch the monitors and see. Why don't you and LN see if you can set up a link to the 'horn? It'd be nice to see what's going on outside."

The muscular woman nodded, moving with LN to another workstation. Anne and Heather had taken over a third station, cycling the screen between various video cameras set up throughout the park.

"It looks like a lot of activity is headed this way," Anne announced, pointing out various groups of guards that were moving towards the Matterhorn. "Some delay tactics would be really come in handy right about now."

Turning back to look at Xero, Rielle felt lost. They needed time, but there didn't seem to be a way to get it. Frustrated, the syscop turned back to her monitor to check the levels of Xero's vitals one more time. Seeing the levels slowly returning to normal, she felt heartened. Then something on the monitor caught Rielle's eye.

There hadn't been any change. The god of war still stood over the prone body of the warrior princess. Ares was just standing there, not doing anything.

"She's on the ground, helpless," Rielle thought to herself. "Why isn't he doing anything?" Then it dawned on her. If seeing was believing, maybe it worked both ways.

"Blue," Rielle called out, as her fingers flew over the input pads, scouring her database, "any info on Pipeline trials using blind subjects?"

The hacker stopped what she was doing and cocked her head. "Blindness isn't very common--why would a computer killer application be tested on blind folks."

"Maybe it can't work on blind folks," she countered. "Everyone unsubbed by Ares could see, at least partially, so if Pipeline is sight dependant, maybe special glasses could be enough to counter it. After all, Ares is standing right next to a potential victim and isn't doing anything about it."

"You don't know what you're talking about," Ares spat back over the open link. "Helms will be there with reinforcements any moment and you'll be..."

His words were cut off by the booted foot connecting squarely with his groin. "Miss me Ares?" Xero asked pleasantly, "cuz you never wrote." The god of war lifted his gun to fire but Xero had already leapt into the air, spinning neatly and landing behind him.

Rielle watched transfixed as her lover and the enraged god fought. Her face breaking into a warm smile, she realized she might have found the time she needed. "Anne, Heather--see if you can fire up the outside projectors. Let's get this show on the road."

"It's daylight," Anne objected. "It's not dark enough for a clear projection."

"But if we fire up the water screens on the river, we could get some resolution off of those. After all the river behind them is dark," Heather countered, configuring the controls to activate the system.

Rielle nodded. "It's worth a try guys. If it's kinda translucent, that might make people stop and watch, try and figure out what's going on."

"And cause general mayhem in the park," Ska added with a grin. "Good idea, syscop."

Turning back to her console, Rielle's fingers flew over the input keys, ready to test her theory.

Xero and Ares battled.

As the warrior moved too quickly for the god to fire his taser, his frustration grew. Gracefully standing from a tight roll past his legs, she let loose her chakram. It ricocheted off a nearby tree, a rock, and finally her own sword to speed toward the god's taser, knocking it out of his hands and sending both weapons over the cliff. With a smirk, the god paused, a sword materializing in his hands.

"I like cyberspace," Ares commented. The smile faded from his face however when a new chakram materialized at Xero's waist, held in place by its customary clip.

"So do I," the warrior replied with a grin, making a mental note to thank Rielle later.

Ares scowled and attacked the hacker with renewed vigor. Both combatants using swords, both clearly rusty with the weapon, they exchanged strikes and parries. Letting her body remember what she consciously could not, the warrior woman was convinced she was on the right track. While it seemed implausible that fighting the cyber projected visage of an ancient Greek god with a cyber projected sword would solve the crisis, it was clear to Xero that it was her only option at the moment.

"You can't win, Xero" Ares taunted. "I won't tire. You're still human under all of that. That sniveling descendant of your irritating blond did me a favor by vanquishing Valasca. I've got more firepower at my disposal now then ever before. Even in the old days I couldn't be everywhere at once."

"Some things don't change Ares," Xero replied coolly. "You're still all talk. When this is all over, I'll get to leave this cage, and live my life. Ares, you're stuck here."

Something about her words struck a chord with Xero. Live my life. LIVE MY LIFE. Shaking her head, she laughed out loud finding it funny she'd overlooked the obvious for so long.

As if to confirm her insight, a bloodied dagger materialized at her feet. It took a moment before the markings registered. It wasn't the dagger of Helios, nor was it the dagger Gabrielle had used in the inadvertent murder of Meridian. No, it was a dagger she knew well. The same one she'd used to destroy Callisto, once and for all.

Ares saw it too and made an immediate lunge for it. Before he reached it however, it disappeared and rematerialized closer to Xero. "You're cheating, Gabrielle, and you're going to fucking pay for it," Ares screamed.

Calmly, Xero picked up the dagger and lowered her sword. "It's over, Ares; you've lost. You've got no more power over me than what I give you. Same as always. I've decided that the best revenge is living a good life. It's true I'm flesh and blood, while you're a chunk of binary information. It's also true that I'm holding a dagger coated with hind's blood that's part of your world. You aren't a part of mine and you never were..."

"No," Ares retorted, cutting her off. "You felt the burn, you've seen the carnage. I can kill from here, all over the fucking world! Don't try to ignore what I can do. I've got minions everywhere. Helms is just one lap dog--there are hundreds. This is where it ends, Xero, where I kill you."

Xero calmly stood and waited. Inwardly, she gathered every ounce of strength she had. Every loving look given her by the bard was remembered and cherished like the gifts they were. Every kiss, every touch, every joyous moment, and every hardship that had ever tested her mettle. Finally, Xero accepted who she was. Gabrielle had loved her, for ages of lifetimes, and that alone had value. She didn't owe anyone anything. Releasing old hurts, she clung instead to the love she'd shared and the good she'd done. It's easier to hold when both hands are free. Within herself, Xero was home.

In a blinding flash of glare and metal, the god of war lunged, his sword running through the warrior's chest. The blade found no emptiness of spirit to cleave to.

"I can't feel it Ares, because it doesn't exist," the warrior calmly explained. "And neither do you." With a blinding flash of her own, Xero brought the dagger up, driving it hilt deep into Ares' gut. His eyes bulged, staring in disbelief at the lousy turn of events.

"And I never bought that 'father crap' either," she added as he sank slowly to the grassy turf.

The cheer that reverberated through the VR room was echoed by the cheer that carried across the Happiest Place On Earth. People who'd stopped to watch the translucent battle wondered if what they'd seen was a malfunction of the projection systems or a new attraction. Either way, it was prime entertainment.

Neither were the guards immune to the battle nor the results of it. The name of Mr. Ares was known to them--what had been kept hidden however was the fact that their Mr. Ares existed only in cyberspace, and now he had ceased to exist there as well. That left a majority of guards wondering why they were following the orders of someone who enlisted the help of now deceased mad man.

In a parked limo outside Disneyland, one Jasper Helms stared in silent horror at the monitor screen before him. "You can't die," he whispered. In confusion, he looked at his mobie unit. The phone didn't ring; no one called his service. He had ceased to matter and that wounded him as badly as anything. Abruptly the door to his limo opened and a woman entered, taking the seat across from the stunned senator.

"Rough day, Jasper?" the woman asked cheerfully.

"President Taborn, this is an unexpected...honor," Helms replied coldly after finding his voice.

"Well, you didn't think I'd miss the big party did you? Nice little ploy you tried there. Might have worked if I hadn't already known about Ares and taken steps to neutralize him. I have access to obscure net nodes too, you know. It's one of the perks to being President."

"I'm sorry, Ms. President," Helms replied formally. "I don't follow you."

The president smiled. It wasn't warm, but very knowing. It said that she'd endured too much to become President to be put off by his minor league antics. "I see," she replied. "If that's the way you want it. If you want to think you're still a player, be my guest. But know this--a number of my close friends were killed, and I hold you personally responsible. I backed my own horses in this race, and they won. Your days in the senate are numbered. The sooner you get out, the less messy it'll be."

Before Helms could respond, President Taborn had opened the limo door and gracefully stepped outside. "I assure you, Ms. President, I had no..."

Helms' words were cut off by the look on the president's face. As if watching a court jester who wasn't very funny, Kym Taborn looked more than unimpressed. "One more thing, senator," she said calmly. "Your role in the Pipeline project is about to surface. If you pack your bags now, you might make it as far as Honduras before Pipeline opposition catches up with you." With that, she turned and walked away.

A lifetime of careful grooming and training seemed to crumble all around the senator. His meticulous plans, his vision of a better society. It was all for nothing. To be defeated in the end by a lone hacker and a syscop was more than one egomaniac could bear.

"There has to be something," he muttered. Realizing it wasn't to be found in the parking lot of a theme park, he addressed his driver. "Scofield, let's get out of here. Call Reed and tell him I want everything there is on that hacker and syscop. Allies, enemies--the works." If he was out of the race, he wasn't about to let anyone else cross the finish line either.

Across town Paula James emerged from the psychiatric hospital, her lawyer in tow. The haze of a Los Angeles sunset painted the sky vibrant oranges and purples. Wrists still sore from the restraints and makeup stained from tears cried in frustration, Paula left the hospital with all the compassion of a wounded bull.

"Can you get me a line on Rielle?" she asked her lawyer who opened her door and waited for her to situate herself in the luxury car.

"I had a hunch you might ask that," her lawyer replied, taking her seat behind the wheel. "News is, she's involved in some trouble at Disneyland. I've heard of some disturbance there from a colleague. It's a place to start."

"Good enough for me," Paula replied. "Drop me off at Rielle's. I want to pick up a few things before she gets home."

The lawyer nodded, putting the car in drive and heading into the Southern California sunset.

Rielle couldn't get to the VR tank fast enough. With blinding speed, she threw back the latch and opened the hatch. Everyone waited in silence as the hacker climbed out of the tank and immediately started coughing up the oxygenated fluid. After several minutes, Rielle on her knees at Xero's side, the hacker sat up and removed the contact lenses from her eyes.

"See," she croaked. "Piece of cake." Then coughed some more.

"What happened in there?" Blue asked with a wary glance to the tank.

Xero grinned. "Either virus elimination or past life mumbo jumbo--take your pick. Ares is gone, and I don't think it matters how." Vibrant blue eyes settled on Rielle. Their gentleness was for the syscop alone, masked by the bravado of her words. "See the shit I clean up for you?"

Rielle smiled, her own green eyes returning the warm gaze. "If you weren't an ass, Xero, I'm sure I wouldn't know how to deal with you."

With a chuckle Xero stood up. "The least you can do is help me out of this fucking suit," she grumbled, heading toward the changing room.

"Um...the room is occupied," Jenbob supplied, with a glance to Julie who stood guard in front of the door.

The large amazon grinned devilishly. "I wouldn't worry about it, they're not conscious."

"Cool," the hacker muttered and headed into the room with Rielle.

As promised, the bodies of the security detail were heaped in a pile at the far side of the room. Out of habit, Rielle quickly checked the pulses, relieved to discover that the guards were alive. Once that task was accomplished, she launched herself at Xero, hugging her tightly, not caring that she was getting covered with a thin film of oily goo.

"You did alright, hacker," she said warmly, finding Xero's lips and kissing her soundly.

Xero returned the kiss, enjoying the contact for what it was--two bodies and souls getting reacquainted after a near death departure. There would have to be more of that in the near future. Oh yeah.

"That was a nice touch with the dagger," the hacker finally said when they broke for air. "How'd you know it would work?"

Rielle grinned up at her lover. "I didn't really. But I thought it would. When you were out, Ares just stood there, like he couldn't do much to you if you were awake--believing in what he was doing. It made sense then that he'd believe the bit about the hinds' blood."

Xero grinned. "Yeah, old habits are hard to break."

It didn't take long for the hacker to change back into her regular clothes. She'd suffered a number of deep bruises from the overload of the VR suit sensors, but other than that, and a deep feeling of exhaustion, she was fine. When they reemerged into the main control room, the other hackers were intently studying the monitors that surveyed the park.

"Looks like Helms and his henchmen have run for the hills," Blue announced. "Other than Disneyland security picking up our friend Robin and her dead buddies, we don't see any sign of Helms' security thugs."

"Just as well," Anne added. "You know, that whole thing with the guards was an accident."

"Relax, Anne," Ska assured her. "You don't see any of us ready to turn you in."

"Why don't we just go home?" Rielle suggested, sensing Xero's fatigue and feeling drained herself. "If there's any more to this, I'm sure it can wait until tomorrow."

"And I'm starving," Xero added, with a warning glare at Ska.

"To the 'horn then," Ska replied knowing better than to bait the exhausted and hungry reformed former warlord.

The exodus from the park was a strange one-anticlimactic. Hackers, realizing that the mission had been accomplished, slowly made their way to the exits. Most of the patrons in the Magic Kingdom hadn't even been aware of the battle that had taken place or how close their world had come to ending. Xero draped an arm around Rielle's shoulders.

"Getting soft?" Blue had teased, to which she received the standard "fuck you," reply.

Xero had a lot to work out. Many things that needed to be put into place. One was looking to see if there was indeed any place in her life for the woman who walked in step with her. It was mostly a rhetorical question and she knew it. There wouldn't be any way to keep Rielle out of her life and she didn't want to. Still, certain things she didn't want to give up. Couldn't give up. She wasn't going soft. Not now, not ever. The last thing she needed was someone moving in and filing down her edges, the things that kept her sharp--rough. She didn't exactly fear Rielle, but the challenge she presented was a formidable one.

As if to reassure her, completely unbidden, Rielle moved her arm around the hacker's waist. In spite of herself, Xero relaxed. She and the syscop would work things out, that much seemed inevitable.

They were halfway across the parking lot when a long black limousine pulled up, stopping abruptly in front of Xero and Rielle. Hacker and syscop stopped and looked warily at each other. With a nod to the rest of their group, Xero spoke. "You guys go ahead. Rielle and I will take care of this. We'll meet you back at the 'horn."

The other hackers stalled for a moment, unsure as to whether abandoning Xero and Rielle to a mysterious black limo was indeed a good plan. Ska's mind was changed however when a side door to the ominous car opened. She took off at a run.

For a moment, Xero watched the group leave, then returned her steely blue gaze to the car. Bending her tall frame, she ducked into the open door, climbing inside the vehicle. Rielle followed and both women found themselves seated across from a lone woman.

"President Taborn?" Rielle breathed, astonished.

"Why thank you, Ms. MacGab, but I don't think formal introductions are necessary." The President's kind eyes shifted over to Xero. "What's wrong, Ms. Covington? Virtual cat got your tongue?"

President Taborn was difficult to read. It had been a strength and a weakness in the press. She was often joking when people took her seriously and dead serious when people swore she was kidding. It made cabinet meetings difficult.

"Who are you calling Covington?" Xero said quietly, tension in her voice.

"Ironic, isn't it?" the President said with a smile. "While I don't know if you're really one of those Covingtons, that was definitely your mother's last name."

"How can you know that?" Xero asked, incredulous.

"I'm President, my dear. I have access to all sorts of information. It's right here in your orphanage records." With that she slipped a mini drive into the reader and a display illuminated, and along with it, Xero's past.

"Ziva?" Xero whispered, reading the name on the form. "Ziva Covington?"

"That's you alright," the President agreed with a smile.

Instinctively Rielle took the hacker's hand, intertwining their fingers. The gesture was as natural as if they'd been doing if for centuries.

"Why are you sharing this with us?" Rielle asked, looking at the President with wonder and apprehension.

Casually, President Taborn crossed her legs and extended her arm along the top of the empty seat next to her. "Consider it a peace offering or a 'thank you' for a job well done," she said. "We've got a unique situation on our hands. I knew Helms was up to something and I was even able to home in on it a bit by watching him. I got the messages from that bar where you kids hang out, and put the pieces together enough to schlep out here myself to see the demise of Ares. Frankly, I don't know which is better--Ares biting the dust or Helms in ruin. However, now I'm in the sticky position of owing a renegade syscop and a motley group of criminal hackers."

"Not good with an election coming up," Xero said quietly, a hint of suspicion in her voice.

"The election isn't until next year and voters have a very short memory. I'm not worried about that. My proposition is a simple one," the President continued, unruffled. "At the moment, you're both professionally ruined. Ms. MacGab isn't going back to Archive after her involvement here, and I don't think many hackers or clients will trust you, Xero, after cooperating with a syscop. I'd like to keep things that way. If you want to hack or enforce the law, do it for the greater good. Keep it legal.. Or at the very least, mostly legal. I'm not going to bring you in for past crimes, Xero, but I won't turn my back on any future hacking."

"I'm not gonna work for you," the hacker replied flatly.

Laughing, President Taborn smiled. "I don't expect you to. Just don't work against me."

"And the others?" Rielle asked. "The hackers picked up by Helm's thugs..."

"Already released. As I said, everyone gets a clean record as of today, but any future jobs will have to be answered for." The three occupants of the limo were silent for a moment.

Xero chuckled quietly to herself. "I hope no one gets in L. Graham's way when she runs to the door for amnesty. They might find themselves trampled. She's been looking for a way out of hacking for ages."

The president smiled, then continued. "Retirement will suite some, I doubt all. I'm not expecting either of you to answer now, my dears. I'm just letting you know your choices. Why don't I drop you two off somewhere? That bar maybe? Xero looks positively famished."

Seated at a small booth in the back of the Saddlehorn Pub & Grill, Xero studied the print out of her file. "Plague victims, weren't they?" Rielle asked softly, seated at Xero's side.

The hacker flipped over a page. "Desmond and Mollie Covington died 2015, when I was three. Desmond in January and Mollie in May. Grey Plague. Says here that Desmond was a musician and Mollie was a writer...interesting."

Rielle cast her eyes downward, "I'm so sorry," she whispered. Something in her tone caught the hacker's attention and Xero's eyes snapped over to her companion. Taking her hand, Xero squeezed it firmly.

"Rielle, if I've learned one thing in the last few days, it's about letting go of old stuff. This whole 'plague thing', let it go. I don't hold you responsible for it and neither should you. Some things it just isn't your job to make up for."

"Since when did you become such a philosopher?" Rielle mused with a grateful squeeze of her own. "I take it those dreams did have some impact on you after all."

"I don't know what you're talking about."

"Is this a private love fest or can anyone join in?" Blue asked, sliding into the booth across from hacker and syscop.

With a nod of her head, Xero signaled Ska who dutifully brought the muscular hacker a beer. She accepted Xero's payment for Blue's drink without comment, then moved off.

Blue eyed the bottle of Buckner suspiciously, then glanced up at Xero. "Since when did you start buying me drinks?" she asked.

Xero rolled her eyes. "You don't have to give me shit about it."

With a grin, Blue picked up the bottle then toasted her two companions. "Well then, my dear Xero, you're most welcome."

"See," Rielle teased. "I told you that it wouldn't hurt one bit."

"Yeah...well," the hacker mumbled darkly.

"Thank you's aside," Blue continued cheerfully. "Have you guys decided on anything? I've been talking it over with Jenbob, Wordee, and some others."

"Anyone going to take the President up on her offer?" Xero asked, mildly interested.

Blue nodded. "Oh yeah. I think Trillbaby wants out. She and Shadow have been talking about ranching of some sort. Jenbob and the Amazon have been talking about it, too. I think LN is in for the long haul though. Certainly there aren't as many of us as there were a few weeks ago, and that's scaring some, while others see it as more business for them."

Xero looked around the bar only half listening to what Blue was saying. Trillbaby was playing darts with LN and Deb, winning as usual. Wordee and MaryD were deep in discussion at a far table. Ska was delivering a new round of drinks to Quest, Toy, Heather, Anne and some others. Everyone in the bar had put everything on the line for her. Some had paid so much that they'd never set foot in the bar again. It made Xero feel profoundly responsible. She didn't like it.

Without a word to her companions, she pushed herself from the booth and with her beer in hand started making her way around the bar's denizens. A few words to one, a nod to another. Stopping to toast fallen comrades with another group. She made some kind of contact with everyone in the bar that night.

"What the hell is up with her?" Blue asked, baffled by Xero's behavior.

"Relax, Blue," Rielle reassured her. "She's just saying 'thank you', that's all."

"So the syscop civilized the hacker, is that it?"

Rielle shook her head, a smile playing about the corners of her mouth. "God, I hope not. I like Xero just the way she is."

"You're one sick woman then." Blue allowed with a laugh.

Eyes softening, Rielle looked at the hacker seriously. "So, do you think Xero will stop hacking?" she asked.

Still chuckling, Blue shook her head. "Until today I didn't know she could say 'thank you'. Who knows what she's capable of now?"

Rielle didn't have to wait too long for her answer. After making the rounds, buying drinks, and thanking everyone in her own...unique...way, Xero returned to the booth, sliding in next to Rielle, who delighted in the larger woman's warmth.

With a sly smile, Blue discreetly departed.

"What was that about?" The hacker asked.

"Oh, Blue just thinks I've housebroken you, that's all. I told her she was wrong." Xero nodded and passed the syscop her freshly opened beer. Rielle took a sip then continued. "So, you talked to everyone?"

Xero nodded. "Yeah. LN says that when you get tired of me, you should give her a call."

Rielle looked past her companion to the attractive hacker playing darts. "I'll keep that in mind. In the meantime, what do you want to do about our situation."

"We have a situation?" Xero asked in surprise. Rielle gave her an "or maybe we don't" look as her eyes narrowed, causing a huge grin to spread across the hacker's face. "I'd think between your syscoping skills and mine at hacking we can scratch out some sort of existence... Bounty hunting can turn a tidy profit."

The tone of her voice was sarcastic, but Rielle's eyes brightened up. "You may be on to something there. People like Helms need to be stopped, people like Robin. Who better to fight the scum, legal or otherwise?"

"Hold on," Xero said, raising a warning hand. "I'm not gonna turn into some sort of crime fighter. Until today I was officially a criminal, you know. I'm not convinced I can do anything else."

Rielle gave a warm, loving smile and leaned into her companion. "With me around I don't think there's anything you can't do. You defeated Ares, once and for all. I'm sure we'll manage somehow. But those decisions can wait until morning. Now that you've got a full belly and paid your respects, why don't we head to my place? We can figure out the rest after a long night in a warm bed."

It all had happened so fast, but at the same time it wasn't much of a surprise. Rielle was in her life. Now and forever. She wasn't going anywhere and to Xero it felt as if a missing limb had just been reattached. She felt whole. Still she smirked, whole or not, she wasn't going to let on to the syscop anytime soon.

After a few more goodbye's, the two women retreated from the pub into the night. Taking Bat's Russian motorcycle, they rode in silence through the Santa Monica night. Xero slowed the bike when she saw Rielle's building in the distance. A smoking ruin, it was surrounded by fire units who were in turn surrounded some distance away by spectators.

"Oh my God!" Rielle whispered at the sight of her now burned out building. Scorching black streaks were concentrated at her apartment, clearly where the fire had begun.

"This is no ordinary fire," Xero murmured looking over the responding units carefully. "There's a Haz-Mat team, two investigation units, cops, and SGs."

"Paula," Rielle murmured. "Who else would set fire to my place?"

"I guess she doesn't have one of those quiet and brooding tempers. She doesn't seem to care that she burned out some other folks just to get to you either," Xero added. Hard to believe that not so long ago she would have been capable of the same thing, were it a paying gig. Idly, she wondered if she was still capable of it now.

"I can't believe it," Rielle mumbled, in a state of approaching shock. "I'm homeless."

Xero shook her head. "I'm really sorry, Rielle. I'm sorry about your stuff..."

"That's not it," the syscop replied. "There wasn't much of consequence in that place. I can't believe she'd go this far. She's going to come after me, you know that don't you? She won't stop at this, I know her."

"Bring her on," Xero growled. "She thinks she's going to touch you, she's going to be in for some serious ass-kicking."

Rielle smiled weakly. "I'm glad to hear you're thinking of sticking around." Xero looked a little surprised. She was sticking around all right, she just hadn't intended to verbalize it, but that's what she'd done and she wasn't about to backtrack. "It's just a jolt, that's all," Rielle continued. "But I guess this isn't the first time we've been homeless."

The hacker looked down at her companion wryly, a feeling of deja vu creeping into her veins. In some subtle ways it was like old times. "You've got to go talk to the investigators, let 'em know you live here. There'll be insurance crap to sort through too."

Rielle took Xero's hand and held it, gaining strength from her companion. "We can both go talk to 'em. You've got a clean record now, Xero. Remember? Let's get this over with, together."

It felt strange, standing out in the open like that, exposed, officers from several branches of the law all milling about. But Xero stood next to Rielle, one arm draped protectively around the shorter woman while she answered the barrage of questions. At one point the hacker picked up a warm blanket from a Stress Team Medic and wrapped it around Rielle's shoulders. When it was all over, the two declined the opportunity to stay in a hastily designated shelter, opting instead to take Rielle's sports jeep to the coast.

The deep green car made its way along the curving roads to a picturesque spot that saw moonlight, surf, and sand blending as one. Walking along the shore arm in arm, the blanket draped over them both, they talked. Like friends who'd known each other for centuries and lovers who were just getting acquainted, there was an intensity and familiarity that lit that night brighter than the moon that clung to the sky overhead. Settling down next to a rock formation, they watched the surf thrust its way onto the shore only to lose its purchase and subside back into the sea. With a lifetime yet of deciding where to go and what to do, they instead chose an unspoken language, one constructed of touches and kisses that ultimately said much more than words. It wasn't long until both women drifted to sleep, warm in each other's embrace, blanketed by stars, as they had so many times before.

Xero strode confidently across the green grass, a light breeze blowing through her hair. She didn't mind that she was barefoot; the weather didn't seem so cold anymore. In fact, there was a lightness to her step, as if a very large weight had been put off her shoulders once and for all.

"Kinda surprised to see you again," Janice said in greeting. She peered up at the hacker from under the brim of her hat. Sitting on a picnic blanket with Mel, the two were enjoying a collection of wine and cheeses as well as delicate finger sandwiches. Perched on a grassy knoll overlooking the spot where Xena had battled Ares, they had a lovely view of the ocean.

"Well, you and I have some unfinished business," Xero replied, her face unreadable.

"You battled Ares and you won, darlin'", Mel said. "What's left?"

"Look, if this is still about that horse dragging thing..." Janice added, a touch defensively.

The hacker smiled a knowing smile. "I owe you, archeologist. As much of a pain in the ass as you've been, I owe you. I never would have been able to beat Ares if you hadn't shown me where I've been and where I can go. I don't leave my debts unpaid."

Janice grinned, then looked around thoughtfully. "That's decent of you, Xero, I take it you're still going by Xero, yes? But fact is, I'm dead. I'm here with Mel and I can't think of anything else I need."

The hacker nodded, then looked off into the distance the way she'd come. "But I can think of someone who needs you."

Then Janice heard cocked her head, listening. It was the kind of sound so simple and every day that you don't really even think about it...until it's gone, that is. Then you miss it so much it aches--the rolling thunder of big dog feet as they charge across an expanse of moist tender grass.

"Arg...Argo?!" Janice gasped in surprise. Instantly on her feet, she charged over the knoll towards the dog. Mel was on her feet too and cried at the sight of the reunion.

"I don't know how you did this, Xero, but this means more to Janice than you could ever know," the Southerner said quietly.

Xero just smiled and turned to watch as dog and archeologist met each other halfway. Argo leapt into the air, knocking Janice back with the force of her body. The archeologist didn't mind one bit, but laughed and cheered and rolled around on the ground with the dog in a most unreserved and undignified manner.

Wiping a tear from her eye with the corner of her napkin, Mel gripped Xero's forearm affectionately. "Honey, I know Janice loves me like there's no tomorrow, but even that can't touch what she feels for that dog."

Xero grinned, a little embarrassed. "Aw, I just figured she'd need someone else to annoy besides you if I'm not gonna to be dropping in every time I fall asleep."

Janice stood up and with Argo walking at her side returned to the grassy knoll to join the other two. Grabbing Xero in a rough and tight embrace, she hugged the larger woman, then kissed her soundly, a rough, hard, 'thank you from the bottom of my heart' type kiss.

When the archeologist let her go, Xero rolled her eyes and smiled. "I knew you liked me but geez..." she mumbled.

"You're the classiest, most stubborn, irritating ass I've ever met," Janice replied warmly. Then with serious affection added, "Thank you." Argo greeted Mel, and in an instant the dignified Southerner was on her knees at the dog's side, scratching her offered belly. "I don't know how you did this but..."

"The 'how' isn't important," Xero replied, almost gently.

"It's the 'why'," Mel added, standing up. She looked at her lover and at Xero, the modern guise of her ancient ancestor. Even in the afterlife, some moments were more perfect than others and this was one of them.

"Yeah, well, whatever," Xero said, trying to dismiss the compliment. "So what gives, are you going to hang around her for a bit or go off to Elysia where you three belong?"

"I don't know," Janice considered, scratching Argo absently behind the ears. "We enjoy hanging out, watching what the world is up to. We might keep at it for awhile. Besides, we kind of take Elysia wherever we go. What about you? You going to settle down or keep fighting for the greater good?"

Xero looked out over the ocean and the wide expanse of blue sea and sky. Anything seemed possible at the moment, including happiness. "It's one thing to fight because you don't know anything else. I've got a lot of learning to catch up on. Rielle and I will figure something out, I'm sure. Maybe spend some time with Henry, or hang out at the 'horn for a bit. Rielle's soon to be ex-wife will have to be dealt with. And who knows, we might just go on one big road trip, solving problems as we go."

Janice laughed. "If I know one thing, there's still too much of Xero in you to keep from causing as many problems as you solve. Try to keep your nose clean. You can visit from time to time, but I'm through saving your ass for now."

"Janice, please!" Mel admonished.

"Think about it," Janice continued with a loving smile at Mel and then Argo. "Having a family to belong to is worth the time and energy it takes to build one."

"I'll consider it," Xero agreed, getting ready to go. Unable to fend off one last hug from Janice, and more graciously accepting a kiss on the cheek from Mel, Xero turned and strode some distance away before looking back. Mel and Janice were still there, enjoying their picnic and each other as well as welcoming argo home. Walking back towards consciousness and the rest of her life, Xero realized, that when you think of the dead, they not only hear your thoughts--they tend to stick around for awhile.


Final Author's Note:

My humble thanks to all of you who hung with this story to read this far. I started it in August of '97. 17 months, one break up, falling in love and rediscovering myself may be interesting for me, but it's still too fucking long to wait for a story. For those of you who stuck it out with me, I appreciate it.

This story is for Mel, I started it for me, but I finished it for you. Thank you... for everything...

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