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

Lab mouse slaughterhouse, medicine won't cure my ills
Tongue tied genocide, words may hurt but silence kills
St. Johnny wants to be in pictures, no one left to quote the scriptures now
Joy stick politics, kills another sacred cow

- Barbara K

Chapter 4


Rielle scooped some warm water into a cup and carefully poured it over the hacker's long ebony hair. The water trickled down, falling into a large bucket under the cot where the outlaw slept. A sensuous smile eased across her face as she ran her fingers through the wet, silky tresses. Movements almost as practiced as a warrior sharpening her sword.

Henry watched silently for a moment, frowning slightly. "Even sleeping tigers are cute, I suppose."

Rielle's smile broadened. "I don't think she's as bad as all that. Besides, people struggled to save tigers from extinction for a reason, right?"

Taking a seat on the coffee table next to her, he shook his head. "I like you, Rielle, I really do. You've got your shit together. But you've got no business being mixed up with this kind of animal."

Putting down the water cup, Rielle spent a few moments massaging the unconscious woman's scalp and neck. When she spoke, there was a regretfulness in her voice that surprised the healer. "I'm not the sweetness and light you think I am, Henry. I've done plenty in my past that I need to atone for. If part of that is putting up with a disagreeable hacker, then so be it."

The healer smiled sadly, another piece of the puzzle that was Rielle MacGab snapping into place. "Who's past, Rielle?" he asked gently. "Yours or Gabrielle's?"

She didn't look at him when she whispered, "They're one and the same."

"Rielle, if you think I'm trying to scare you, you're right. I don't care what you or Gabrielle have done, but I'm certain that messing with this monster is more atonement than is required." His tone was gentle, but Rielle bristled at the comment anyway. He continued before she could speak. "Take a look at her neck."

Rielle stared at him a moment before moving the hacker's hair to the side and examining her neck. "Two scars," she murmured to herself. "At the base of her skull."

"Xero's twisted, bent. She's a product of the system," he explained as Rielle just stared at him, clearly not comprehending. "I grew up in an orphanage too," he explained. "I was lucky. It was a good place, and I didn't get moved around. But we heard stories. Those scars are from point blank taser burns. It was home-made ECT in the kid farms. Kids that got moved around a lot, had problems adjusting... sometimes getting zapped would fix 'em. Make 'em mellow. Other times it just fucked them up. Usually those kids went straight from one institution to another, either prison or psyche farm."

"You don't think people can change?" she asked quietly.

"Sure, some people, but not all. The younger you start, the better chance you have of fixing 'em. At some point you have to accept that they're too far gone and just try to stay out of their way. Besides, it isn't like Xero's ever done a single thing in her life to repair the damage that's been done. You won't see people like her in therapy.

"Rielle, listen to me. Xero is a hacker for a very good reason. It's risky and demanding as hell. She can't be effective and let emotional thoughts intrude. She works so she won't have to feel. She eats and sleeps so she can work some more. Most hacker's take uppers to keep from dreaming. Renée did, and I bet she does too." He shrugged. "This isn't the kind of person who sends out Christmas cards. She doesn't go to a movie on a Friday night with a bunch of friends. She doesn't take someone out to dinner because it's their birthday. If you let her, she will hurt you. And I don't want that to happen." He gently touched her cheek with one hand, then headed up the stairs, leaving Rielle alone with the Xero and her thoughts.

"I'm sorry I didn't find you earlier," she whispered to the unconscious woman as she poured some shampoo into her hands. "Your lives are never easy, are they?"

The grinning form of the archeologist faded from view as Xero's awareness shifted. The hacker focused on a persistent tugging at her hair. The sensation wasn't unpleasant, rather, it felt exquisite. After a few moments of careful consideration, and the soft sounds of splashing water, the hacker realized that her hair was being washed. "Who do I have to kill to get some undisturbed sleep around here?" she grumbled sleepily.

"It's about time you woke up," Rielle replied in a cheerful voice. "Your little naps have been anywhere from eight to twelve hours. Henry said your fever has broken and you need to start getting your strength back."

"Right," the hacker mumbled then tried to move. "Don't listen to everything Henry says. He hates me, remember." Xero was surprised to find herself naked, wrapped only in a thin sheet. "What day is it?"

"You came on to me in the pond yesterday if that helps," Rielle answered. Noting the hacker's confusion about her nakedness she continued, "Your clothes have been off since we dumped you in the pond four days ago after Ares nearly unsubbed you. Made sense to leave 'em off, less effort. Henry has been giving you regular acupuncture treatments and it's easier to wash you that way."

"You've been bathing me?" Xero asked, her eyebrow arching.

Rielle didn't flinch. "Is that a problem?"

"Oh no," the hacker replied with a smirk. "I'm just sorry I slept through it."

Rielle wasn't shaken by the hacker's flirtatiousness. "If you'd been awake, you could have bathed yourself. If you can stop thinking with your crotch for just a moment, things are getting a little more dire in the real world. Now would be a good time to come up with a plan."

Xero laughed bitterly. "Not me, sister. Sure, I want to know who unsubbed Bat, but I'm not going to find out by joining her. I think I've done enough. Why don't you go back to your wife and we'll file this little adventure to memory?" Rielle listened to Xero's ranting for a moment as she dried her hair. When she finished she picked up a comb and began to untangle the dark locks. "Well?" the hacker finally asked when she received no response.

"I'm just waiting for you to get over yourself, that's all," Rielle replied pleasantly. "You're shaken up now, and I don't blame you. You've gone through a terrifying experience that has already killed quite a few people. You're a lot of things, Xero, but quitter isn't one of them. Fact is, the nets aren't safe for you or any of your buddies until Ares is dealt with. You'll come around. You're just not cut out for a low tech existence."

"Someone else'll solve it," the hacker grumbled. "Hackers won't put up with that kind of shit for long."

"I'm afraid you're wrong. Xena is the only one that ever been able to get the better of Ares. If you don't take him out, your secret little hacker society is going to crumble along with our government," Rielle said forcefully as she focused on a stubborn tangle.

"Democracy falls. Isn't that a little melodramatic?" the hacker asked with a wince.

"Sorry," the syscop apologized, easing up. "You think I'm kidding? I'm not. Two more cabinet members have died as well as six more members of Congress. A lot of people are too scared to log on. They're having their underlings do it."

"And you think someone else is buying off the underlings?" Xero asked, struggling to sit up when Rielle had finished with her hair. She managed with some difficulty. Her body felt almost foreign to her. Her muscles had begun to atrophy and her skin was sickly pale; thankfully, there were no mirrors in the room. Slowly, the gravity of her situation sank in. She'd come close to a fate many others had already experienced. While the thought scared her to her very core, it also made her quite angry, and anger was something Xero was good at.

"I think it's possible," Rielle answered. "Administrative assistants are being forced to do more of the real work online because their bosses are too scared to do it themselves. They'd be easy enough to buy. They don't make the same kind of money, political loyalty is expensive. Why wouldn't they sell out? Here, drink this-Henry left instructions to take it." Efficiently, she settled the mug between the hacker's hands, making sure she had a good grip.

"Where did he go?"

"To Carmel for a few supplies. Don't worry, he isn't going to turn you in." Rielle watched her companion with interest as she dubiously sniffed the broth. "It's miso soup. Don't worry it won't bite. You haven't had any solid food for days, so we need to take it easy on your system."

"How can you be so sure, about Henry I mean?" the hacker asked, taking a tentative sip. The soup wasn't half bad, she realized. A little salty, it was smooth none the less and didn't have the unpleasant tang of rough water.

Rielle shrugged. "He's not protecting you as much as himself. He doesn't want corporate systems descending on his little haven here any more than you want them crashing the hackers. Come on, as long as you're conscious, you might as well look at what I've found."

Xero rolled her eyes. The syscop was nothing if not persistent. Shifting to a more comfortable position, she adjusted the sheet wrapped around her body. Rielle headed upstairs, returning with a soft pair of grey sweats. Without comment, she helped the hacker dress.

"I can't feel my feet," Xero announced flatly as Rielle helped her with a pair of running shoes and socks. The hacker managed to sit up on the low cot. With her legs extended in front of her, she looked even more lanky and awkward than she was.

"Can you feel this?" Rielle asked, firmly grasping the base of Xero's calf with her hands. The hacker shook her head and Rielle moved her hands up to mid calf. "What about this?" Again, the response was negative. "Here?" Rielle asked, moving her hands to Xero's knee. Her brow furrowed in concern when the hacker answered 'no' once more.

"That doesn't make sense," she muttered to herself. Slowly, she moved her hands up the hacker's thigh, her fingers trailing over the material of the sweat pants. She only stopped when a sharp indrawn breath caught her attention. With a frown, she glared at Xero. "You're faking it, aren't you?" she demanded

Xero grinned back down at her. "I just wanted to see how far you'd go. Seriously though, I don't have any feeling below mid thigh."

The syscop quickly removed her hands from the hacker's leg, blushing furiously at being taken. She realized then just how accustomed she'd become to touching Xero's body, but was a much different experience with the outlaw awake. Briefly, she wondered which would wear off first--her attraction or Xero's amnesia. She hoped it was the latter and was embarrassed for thinking so. It would be much easier to deal with the difficult woman if her own emotions didn't constantly cloud her own thoughts and actions. Easier, but apparently not possible.

It took some doing, but Rielle managed to maneuver Xero into a chair. Seated at a large table in the work room the hacker looked around, realizing that several days had indeed passed. Gone were the dust coverings over the furniture and equipment. At the work table, an assortment of hard copy printouts were stacked, waiting for her perusal.

With a resigned grumble, Xero read through the documents. The sensation of reading print on paper was strange, foreign, and she found the concentration it required taxing. As if on cue, Rielle appeared at her elbow, holding a steaming cup of tea.

"Why don't you take a break?" the syscop suggested. "Tell me what you think."

Xero accepted the offered cup of tea. It smelled like mint. After an experimental sip, she nodded approvingly. "Well, this is fine for only having half the picture. Did you log on to get these?"

"No," Rielle replied emphatically. "The system is set up for dumb retrieval only. No interactivity, it can search news nodes but that's it."

"Fine," Xero muttered, picking up a pen that was laying on the table. "Go to this site," she instructed as she wrote down the complicated address in the margin of one of the printed sheets. "When you get there, reconfigure the monitor setting for inverse. Once you're looking at the negative image print the third story for each day we've been out of town."

Rielle accepted the paper and sat down to work, keying in the address and search parameters. "Xero, this is a collection of wrestling statistics," she complained when the requested articles had been retrieved.

"So that's who's using the address now?" the hacker snorted. "It's been so long since I've used the site, I forgot who had it."

"Okay," Rielle continued, "I've inverted the monitor and now I've got garbage."

"Print out the garbage and hand it over," Xero replied with a grin.

When the requested pages had been handed to her, she carefully folded the first sheet in half. When she finished she held it up to the light, looking at it thoughtfully.

"What is it?" Rielle asked.

Xero handed the folded paper and proceeded to fold the next. "Messages from The 'Horn. We piggyback info on the third story of whatever's on that site. The Saddlehorn Gazette. It's a way to keep in touch if you're underground and can't risk logging on to the main node. MaryD maintains the encryption. She really whipped it into shape when she came on board. She and Shadow monitor most of the node traffic. According to this, fifty-six hackers have been mysteriously unsubbed. There have been wakes at the 'Horn every night. Hacking rates are going up due to the danger. Damn, some people are going to get rich off this. Someone seems to be in a hurry to make people panic."

"If they live that long," Rielle added. "Do you know any of the unsubbed?"

The hacker nodded. "I knew all of them." She read for a few moments more then looked over at her companion. "Hand me some of that blank paper."

The hours passed quickly. Xero occupied herself with reading the encrypted messages and checking the information against the articles printed by the syscop. Rielle watched the hacker carefully, looking for signs of fatigue. As impressed as she was by her companion's endurance, she didn't want let her overextend herself on her first real day conscious. She was just about to call a halt to the other woman's work, when Xero pushed the stack of papers away.

"I think I know what's going on," she announced.

"Care to share it?" Rielle prompted.

"There doesn't seem to be much of a pattern determining just who is unsubbed and who isn't. Reformists have been left alone because no one takes them seriously."

"So Ares isn't worried about Reformists," Rielle said as she nodded.

"Right. Or whoever Ares is doing this for isn't worried about them. We've got a Democrat in power and they seem to be the big target. But it isn't just Democrats. There are a number of Republicans that have been offed as well. Ones that were interested in working with the President to resolve a number of issues. The Republicans unsubbed also apposed the more rabid fringe of their party."

"The Conservatives?" Rielle clarified.

The hacker nodded. "The 'Horn routinely tracks the amount of time logged on the nets by various politicians, among others. I've been looking at it to see who is more frightened by what's going on. If a group isn't worried about online time, there may be a reason. There has been absolutely no drop off in Senator Helms' net time from before this started until now. And almost no drop off from his key people."

"I didn't think he logged on at all?" Rielle wondered. "He's made his disdain for this kind of technology quite clear."

"I know. Supposedly, he's hardly on at all. For someone that hesitant about technology, don't you think an event like this would scare him from the nets altogether? There's more. The President has had to cancel all sorts of overseas stuff to deal with this problem at home. She's averaging one funeral a day. Not good for someone who is supposed to be running a country."

Her words were cut short by the sound of footfalls descending the steps. Henry had returned.

"Nice to see you conscious, and Rielle still clothed," he commented in greeting.

"You're just jealous," Xero shot back, her voice devoid of humor.

Henry shrugged. "Of you maybe, but not her. I pity the woman that catches your eye."

"We've made some headway," Rielle announced, getting up from her chair and discreetly moving in between healer and patient. "Xero thinks Senator Helms might be involved in what's happening."

"Leave it to a Southie to blame us," he muttered.

"Hey, you people elected him," Xero shot back acidly.

Rielle shook her head in exasperation. "It isn't like California has been two states for all that long--give it a rest." Turning her attention to Henry, she gently chided, "You've got to admit, the man is an asshole."

Henry shrugged. "Why not tell him that yourself? He's supposed to be having dinner tonight at Deetjen's. I stopped by there for lunch on my way back from Carmel; they're griping about the security scans."

"Why would he go there?" Xero wondered.

"What is Deetjens?" Rielle echoed.

"It's a historical inn just up highway one," Henry explained with a smile at Rielle. "Rather eclectic. My guess is Helms is heading down south for some reason and is meeting with someone on the way. Deetjens has the best food on the coast, it's small, secluded and he can afford it."

"If he's this far down from Sacramento," Xero mused as her eyes lit up. "I'll bet he's going to South California. I'd love to know why."

Rielle looked at the hacker critically. "Oh, no you don't. You can't walk-- remember? I think beating the Senator to a pulp would be out of the question."

Xero smiled. It was a lazy, sensual smile that made the syscop swallow reflexively. "Who said anything about violence? I think a simple bug would be much more illuminating, don't you?"

"You're crazy," Henry interrupted. "You're not going to get within 50 feet of him."

"Me, no," the hacker allowed. "But the gorgeous blond over here shouldn't have any problem."

Rielle blinked. Blinked again. "Xero thinks I'm gorgeous?'" she thought. Coming to her senses with some effort, she shrugged indifferently. "No biggie, what are you proposing?"

"You can't be serious," Henry protested.

The hacker laughed. "Leave her alone. This is her 'I'm a big tough butch' act. She uses it in bars to pick up women."

"If you're the result, then you should agree that this is a dumb idea." Henry replied without missing a beat.

"If you two can stop talking about me like I'm not here!" the syscop protested. "If you want a bug planted, then start talking, Xero, otherwise shut up."

"Okay, okay," Xero allowed, deflecting Rielle's anger with a hand gesture. "It's simple. We reprogram the mike on a mobie unit. Give it an extra power source, like from one of the dead computers, to boost its range. His security will be carrying mobies anyway. Just try to snag it on one of the guards. Even if we can't pick up on Helms' conversation, we should manage to pull in whatever's going on in their head sets, or maybe they'll be talking about him."

"Can you rig a mike like that?" Rielle asked, clearly impressed.

"Sure, I've got the tools on the bike. Henry, you got an extra mobie unit?"

The healer looked resigned as he nodded his head. "Yeah, I've also got some of Renée's clothes upstairs. I'm sure she can find something suitable to wear."

Bat's clothes. Xero looked around and frowned, realizing that she was missing her dead friend's baseball cap. "For a divorced guy, Henry," she observed, vowing to find the cap later, "you sure have a hard time letting go." He shrugged and ran a hand through his short blond hair. Handsome enough, it was still hard for her to picture her deceased associate with the holistic throwback.

"For a heartless thug, you seem to be having trouble acting like one."

Xero was too tired to come up with a suitable comeback. A look at her watch told her it was already late afternoon. She didn't have much time.

When Henry excused himself to return upstairs and fix dinner, Rielle left to get the tools from the motorcycle, leaving the hacker alone with her thoughts. She was concerned about the killings, the people she knew that she'd never see again, but for some reason she didn't dwell on them. The reason was Rielle. The syscop intruded on her thoughts the way rock formations intruded on a still horizon. Xero had no trouble admitting an attraction, and absently wondered if forcing herself on the smaller woman would get her where she wanted to go. Puzzled, she reviewed the incident in the pond. The syscop responded all right, her body screaming an invitation. But she slipped from the hacker's arms at the first opportunity.

Xero shook her head. That certainly didn't keep the syscop from touching her. The hair-washing thing was a sensual assault in its own right. Frustrated by an equation that had no solution, the hacker forced her thoughts elsewhere.

Those strange dreams. The only thing more frustrating than the 'come here, go away' syscop was her infuriating twin, the archeologist. Absently, she made a mental note to ask the archeologist how she died. Xero hoped that perhaps her dark haired companion offed her in a fit of frustration, similar to what she was feeling right now. Her thoughts then shifted to Xena.

'I can't be her,' Xero reasoned to herself, unsure of why she felt compelled to deny it. 'She's a warlord, I'm a common criminal. It isn't the same thing.' Forced to play devil's advocate, she acknowledged that they were both at the top of their respective professions. 'So why don't I remember any of it?' So far she hadn't seen anything in the ancient Greek woman's life that would warrant the kind of memory block Janice and Mel were convinced she had.

"Oh, great. Now I'm treating them like real people," Xero groaned to herself. She looked up, relieved when Rielle returned with the tools.

As Xero tweaked and fine-tuned the mobie unit to peak performance, Rielle did the same for her own appearance. Shedding the baggy functional sweats she'd lived in during Xero's convalescence, Rielle returned in a formal dress of Bat's. Simple black, clingy and sleeveless it showed off the best attributes of Rielle's fit form. An elegant jacket went with it, black with subtle zebra stripes in silver thread. Xero didn't pretend not to be impressed by the syscop's appearance; she couldn't have hidden her jaw dropping if she'd tried.

Scrambling to cover, she kidded the younger woman appropriately on her appearance, trying to mask her own sense of awe. Henry wasn't fooled and said as much. That brought the hacker as close to genuine embarrassment as she'd been in years.

Still grinning, the healer handed over the keys to his car. "Just take the highway up about five miles. I had my friend make you a reservation. You'll have no trouble getting in, and with the way you look I'm sure you'll get close to Helms. Right Xero?"

The hacker frowned at Henry, then with a flick of her blue eyes, dismissed him. "No heroics here, be careful. Snag a security guy with the mic have a nice dinner and then get back here."

"Got it," Rielle confirmed as she picked up her purse and headed out the door.

Hacker and healer waited impatiently for Rielle to return. Henry's concern seemed to be of the brotherly type. It was clear that the two of them had formed a bond over the last several days. Xero guessed it was due in part, to Henry's desire to save Rielle from a fate worse than death-- life with Xero.

The two made a concentrated effort that evening to stay out of each other's way which was made difficult by Rielle's insistence that Henry keep an eye on his patient. Somewhat awkwardly he sat down in a chair off to the side of the work table and tried to be as unobtrusive as possible while Xero fidgeted with one stack of printed papers than another. The hours droned on and Henry was certain he'd go crazy in the edgy silence.

"I'm sure she's fine," he finally said, his voice snapping the quiet like the breaking of a dry twig.

"She can take care of herself," Xero agreed doing her best to sound indifferent. She tried to tell herself she could care less what happened to Rielle but knew she didn't. It was more than a desire to get laid. She reasoned that if she were that desperate, she could probably seduce Henry for that. No, something was up--something she couldn't put her finger on--but she decided she didn't care when she heard the sound of Henry's car returning to the house. Relief gave permission for her exhaustion to surface and Rielle had barely made it downstairs when the hacker's eyes began to flutter closed.

"Hi guys, mission accomplished," Rielle announced cheerfully. "Bagged Helms himself, and the eggplant was wonderful."

"Tell me in the morning," Xero muttered and slumped over, sound asleep at the work table.

"This isn't funny," Xero shouted as she gripped the ship's railing, wishing she had something substantial in her stomach to discharge. She hated dry heaves.

"Seasickness sucks, doesn't it?" Janice commented.

Xero turned around, her eyes glaring into those of the archeologist. "I've been meaning to ask you, how did you die? Please tell me your girlfriend got fed up and did you in with a chain saw."

"You've been watching too many old movies," Mel said soothingly from her position at Janice's side. Both women were leaning against the ships railing to Xero's left, seemingly unaffected by the rocking of the ancient Greek war ship.

"Mel and I were killed in a car accident. I was in my eighties, Mel was ninety-two." Janice supplied with a smile.

"Driver of a truck fell asleep at the wheel and ran into the car taking us home from one of Janice's archaeology conferences," Mel said, looking at her companion lovingly. Her face beamed with pride.

Janice smile bashfully. "We were, how do you put it? Unsubbed instantly. But at least we went together."

Both women exchanged a look that had Xero over the railing with dry heaves once more.

"Where are we going?" the hacker asked when she was able to stand.

"To a sea side village called Neopolitis," Janice replied, moving to a barrel of fresh water and filling a mug for the seasick woman.

Xero accepted the mug gratefully, downing its contents and wiping her mouth on her sleeve. To her surprise, she was wearing a green and black checked flannel shirt over her white t-shirt. She'd never seen the shirt before, but felt comfortable in it none the less.

"The folks of Neopolitis made a big mistake," Janice continued, adjusting the hat she wore. "They sided with Vanilis in a dispute with Amphhipolis. Not a smart thing to do with Xena around."

As if on cue, a figure emerged from below decks. Xena was dressed more colorfully than her crew, in bright blue billowing pants and armor decorated in gold coin.

"Interesting wardrobe choice," Xero muttered. "Did she miss the cut for 'I Dream Of Jeannie'?"

"You're one to talk, 'Lumber Jill'," the archeologist shot back with a grin, looking pointedly at the flannel shirt.

Xena shrugged out of her robes and waited for the archer to take his position across the deck from her. At her nod, he drew an arrow from his quiver, knocked it to the string, took aim, and fired. Xena lunged out of the way, catching the shaft before it imbedded itself in the cabin door behind her.

"Nice catch," Xero said approvingly.

"She's still pretty rough," Mel amended. "In time, she won't have to lunge out of the way. She's only catching about ninety percent of the arrows now, but she'll catch on."

"Mel, you're such a perfectionist," Janice scolded. The archaeologist fished into her pocket and extracted a small cigar, offering it to Xero who declined. After striking a match on the metal band of the water barrel, she lit the cigar and puffed thoughtfully as they watched the Xena go through her workout. By the time she finished, the doomed village of Neopolitis was clearly in view.

The raid didn't last long. Storage buildings were hit with flaming arrows before the ship even docked. Like a tide, the men from the war ship surged onto land, swords gleaming, frightening the villagers into submission. Before long, the villagers were on their knees in the town square as the treasury was brought to Xena. A heavy trunk loaded with dinars and precious jewels was dumped at her feet, carried by the village elders. She gave a short speech, explaining just why the night had come crashing down on them with vengeance. She didn't hide her pride that the enemies of Amphhipolis always paid, either with their gold or with their lives.

The crew made its way back to the warship, a prisoner in tow. "Who's the bob in the leather skirt?" Xero asked with interest, looking to Janice.

The archeologist just smiled and before long the man announced his identity with some pride, not cowed by Xena's threatening presence. Xero's jaw dropped.

"That's Caesar?" she stammered. "I thought he'd be taller."

Janice, Mel, and Xero followed the others back onboard as they set sail, and again, time shifted. Activity on deck exploded in the morning light as a stowaway was discovered. Xero whistled approvingly at the fight that ensued, clearly impressed by the small womanís proficiency. Janice grinned, overhearing hacker mutter ìnice piece of work.î

The three women followed Xena below decks where she began her study of pressure points, anxious to learn all she could from the diminutive fighter who'd nearly bested her crew. Janice and Mel noticed Xero watching with interest, casually touching spots on her own neck as they were explained. Warlord and slave worked together for several hours, developing a form of communication based on sign language and the slave's limited understanding of Greek. When Xena called a halt to her lessons, she casually mentioned plans to see Caesar later. At the sound of the Roman's name, the slave's demeanor changed. Xena seemed slightly puzzled by the behavior, but appeared unconcerned.

"What's she doing?" Xero demanded when Xena headed up the stairs from the cargo hold. "The pressure point chick is practically throwing herself at her!"

"Xena's not... um... in tune with that just yet," Janice explained feebly.

"You've gotta be kidding," Xero wondered, looking after the warrior. "You'd think betrayal by Petracles would have taught her something."

"Taught her what, Xero?" Janice challenged. "Surely you of all people aren't saying women are more trustworthy then men?" The archeologist shook her head sadly. "A woman can betray you as readily as a man."

Mel moved to stand next to her lover and draped a comforting arm around the smaller woman's shoulders. "Janice, honey, we've gone over this a hundred times. You know Gabrielle had her reasons for what she did."

ìWhat are you talking about?î Xero interrupted.

"Gabrielle betrayed Xena is what I'm talking about," Janice replied bitterly.

The hacker's eyes went wide as she put the pieces together. "When all this shit started you said I am Xena. Rielle's insisting that she is Gabrielle. Now you're telling me that Gabrielle betrayed Xena. So what you're really asking me to do is help the syscop who betrayed me in another life?"

"Don't get indignant about this," Janice warned. "You don't know the whole story and are in absolutely no position to offer any opinion on this whatsoever."

"That's a bit strong, Janice," Mel countered. Turning to the hacker, she smiled kindly. "What my love seems to forget is that the 'unfortunate incident' came at a very difficult time in Gabrielle's life. She was someone who revered life above everything else and saw herself as a peacemaker."

"Terrific," Xero muttered.

"Anyway," the Southerner continued with a disapproving look, "Xena dragged them both off to Britannia to settle an old grudge, and Gabrielle was forced to kill someone in self defense. She was devastated, struggling to..." Mel paused, at a loss for words to convey the depths of the bard's anguish.

"She wandered amid the ruins of her decimated psyche. To use an archeological metaphor," Janice supplied, a touch sarcastically.

"Janice, be nice," Mel warned. "It didn't help matters any when that fire god Dayhok went and got her in a family way and she had to give birth to a demon on top of everything." Xero's jaw dropped and she sat down heavily on a nearby crate. "As I was saying," Mel continued more gently, "to make matters worse, just after all that, Xena had to pay an old debt that she owed to her mentor and didn't take the time to explain the whole situation to Gabrielle."

"Mel, you and I both know that talking wasn't Xena's strong suit," Janice countered. "Hell, even Gabrielle knew it."

"Look, the last thing I'm going to do is break up a fight between you two," Xero warned, head still reeling. "So I suggest you drop it. Mel, if you'd just tell me what happened..."

The Southerner nodded and continued. "Xena travelled to C'hin, or China as we know it, to make good on her promise. Gabrielle betrayed her and warned the man Xena was supposed to kill, the Emperor himself. She trusted the Emperor who was a lying bast...a, um, not a very nice man," Mel corrected herself, nervously adjusting her glasses. "When she realized the mistake she'd made, she was devastated. Ultimately, she worked it out with Xena, and if Xena didn't hold a grudge against Gabrielle, I don't see why anyone else should." The last was said with a pointed glare at the archeologist.

"I'm not holding grudges," Janice said defensively. "I was simply pointing out to our charge here that women are not by virtue of their ovaries any more trustworthy then men, particularly seeing as how some of them can later lie to you about throwing Demon Baby off the cliff and then..."

"Janice," Mel drawled sweetly and with very little warmth. "I think that when it was over and all the smoke cleared, both of them were very hurt, both forgave each other, both had lost children..."

"Children?" Xero mumbled, still holding her head.

"Yes, but certain children had more to do with..." the archaeologist was replying, not even bothering to disguise her mounting irritation.

"Okay, okay," Xero broke in hastily. "So we can all agree that Xena had trouble with lovers all around? Is that it?" Janice and Mel looked guiltily at each other. Clearly, they wanted to object to the statement, but couldn't. "Fine, you two stay down here and work out your issues, I'm going back up deck and hurl some more."

Xero's perception of time shifted. While it didn't feel like much time had passed at all, inwardly she knew it had been weeks. Caesar was traded for ransom and the slave girl freed from her bonds. She and Xena spent many hours above deck sparring. Time was spent below deck as well, but that time was reserved for a more detailed study of pressure points. Xena learned a few words of Gaelic and the slave learned the meaning of many of the warrior's words, although she couldn't put them together for herself. The hacker watched with obvious frustration as the Egyptian made overtures to the Greek woman, failing with each attempt.

"You didn't tell me that Xena was the densest woman alive," she muttered at one point within Janice Covington's earshot.

"Funny," the archeologist shot back. "I thought Rielle said that about you."

With a frown, the hacker turned her attention along with Xena to the man in the crow's nest, alerting those on deck to an approaching ship bearing Caesar's standard. The slave did her best to warn Xena of the danger, but the warrior was adamant.

"It'll be alright," Xena assured the slave. "He's my friend."

"What kind of euphemism is that?" Xero demanded of the warrior that could not hear her.

"For all her complexities, Xena is at times frighteningly simple," Janice explained. "She had a number of friends through her life, some more intimate than others, but she was fiercely loyal to all of them."

"To be honest," Mel countered with an apologetic smile, "if she introduced someone as a 'friend', you could bet she was sleeping with them."

With barely controlled rage, Xero watched Caesar betray of Xena and her crew. Those that weren't killed on sight were taken to the beach where they were crucified. "I don't see Darnelle," the hacker remarked, looking at the faces of those dying on crosses.

Janice shook her head. "He couldn't stand the sea. He and Xena parted ways after Poteidaia, spent his time as a first class gladiator. It wasn't until years later that he was reacquainted with her. Marcus left then too. She stopped by to visit him from time to time, being a 'friend' and all. She worked a few jobs with him, then had him in her army for a time after her 'rebirth'."

"Rebirth?" Xero asked the trio neared the last cross.

Her expression pained and static, the hacker watched as the last cross was raised. She closed her eyes briefly at the agony inflicted when the main beam slammed home. With each swing of large sledge hammers, the warrior winced. Xero winced with her as if she felt the searing pain as well.

"Crucifixion is such a messy way to die," Janice explained, holding Mel's hand as the Southerner turned away. "It's designed to kill you slowly, by asphyxiation. Your upper body can't support the weight of your lower body and it strangles you. The whole leg breaking routine was a Roman idea of mercy. It usually speeded up the dying process. I think the apostle Paul was nuts for requesting the procedure upside down."

Xero didn't hear the archaeologist's words. Her whole being was focused on the blue eyes that glared down at Caesar in defiance. Inwardly, she knew better. Watching Xena's face she could see things that the Roman couldn't--the building fear, the agony, the rage at his betrayal. Xena was a rope slowly snapping, each strand that frayed separating her a little further from herself, closer to a black void.

The hacker heard as well as felt the crack of shinbones and the tearing of muscles as the heavy hammer slammed into the warrior's legs. Only one strand remained, one small thread that kept Xena connected to the child who grew up in Amphipolis. Xero sank to her knees and cried in pain and anguish as she realized the inevitable.

It was only a matter of time before the last thread was severed, a thread named M'lila.

And it's alright though we worry and fuss
we can't get over the hump can't get over us
It seems easier to push than to let go and trust
But it's alright

- Emily Sailers

Chapter 5

System Crashes

"Take it easy," Rielle's voice soothed. "You're okay, it's just a dream."

Xero blinked, then realized she was shaking. Her eyes quickly adjusting to the darkness, she realized she was back in her cot, dressed in her sweats, covered by a thin blanket. "I'm fine," she replied with an assurance she didn't feel. She was curled almost in a ball, her head and shoulders resting in the syscop's lap. While the hacker wasn't completely happy about the body language of the arrangement, she wasn't anxious for the smaller woman to release her any time soon.

"I know you're fine," Rielle echoed gently. "You've had a shock, that's all." The syscop was gently stroking the hacker's head, the tender touch keeping the larger woman still and quiet. "I found some pills in your toolbox," she continued. "How long have you had the habit?"

Xero chuckled. "They're mild uppers, Rielle, nothing major. I'm sure your marketing executive, Paula, uses the same stuff."

"It's not that you use them, Xero. It's why." Rielle tightened her hold on the other woman slightly to keep her from bolting. "I'm not stupid. You didn't have to work night and day. You made damn good money on the jobs you did, and you had help. You took the pills to keep from dreaming, didn't you?"

"What of it?" Xero replied in a small voice. "I'm dreaming now, aren't I?"

"Yes, yes you are," Rielle affirmed gently. The pride in her voice was evident. Xero would have groaned out loud if she'd had the energy. Instead she lay there, letting the smaller woman comfort her. The syscop didn't ask what the dream had been about and Xero wondered if she knew. Deciding not to offer the details unless pressed, the hacker remained motionless, absorbing the kindness offered. In time she drifted close enough to unconsciousness that Rielle moved her head from her lap to a more comfortable position on the cot. She took a moment to adjust the outlaw's arms and legs, careful to keep healthy blood circulation in the limbs. When she finished, she positioned herself next to Xero, sitting upright, leaning against the wall. Gently, her hand continued to stroke the hacker's dark hair.

"You don't have to be this nice," Xero mumbled sleepily.

Rielle smiled, "I know," she replied, and continued with her tender ministrations.

"I'll never... get to sleep this way," Xero muttered, rolling on to her side and moving a bit closer to the syscop. She draped one arm over the syscop's right thigh as if the smaller woman's leg was a teddy bear.

"Maybe not," Rielle allowed, beaming. "But I'll take my chances," she finished, echoed by the soft snoring of her sleeping companion.

"Rise and shine sleepyhead, rise and shine." The words assaulted Xero's mind like the din of a radio alarm clock set to a language she didn't understand.

"I'll rise," she groaned, "but shining is out of the question." The words sounded familiar to the hacker's own ears but she felt a little odd saying them. Fortunately, an intense pain emanating from her lower legs distracted her. "What the fuck is wrong with my shins," she demanded, throwing back the blanket.

Rielle was instantly at her side, pulling up one leg of the sweatpants to the hacker's knee. Unable to see anything visibly wrong with the leg she squeezed Xero's arm reassuringly. "I'm sure it's nothing, but I'll go get Henry just in case."

She headed up the stairs and returned shortly thereafter with a groggy Henry in tow. He was dressed in t-shirt and boxers, clearly having just been thoroughly and relentlessly woken up. "What are you whining about?" he grumbled sleepily.

Like an animal that you should have killed with the first shot, Xero's eyes narrowed as Henry kneeled before her and examined her legs. "Those needles you've been sticking me with, I think they did something to my legs. They're killing me."

He made a few careful prods, extracting a pained wince from Xero with each touch. Finally, he sat back on his haunches and looked the hacker squarely in the eye. "Xero, you're actually right for a change. The needles did their work. I'm happy to report that you've got the feeling back in your lower legs."

"Feeling?!" Xero demanded. "Try excruciating pain."

"It'll pass," the healer assured her. "Go for a swim-it'll help the circulation and keep your mind off the pain." Xero glared at him and he silenced her with a wave of his hand. "Before you argue, for no good reason other than you're argumentative by nature, let me explain something. When a dam breaks, the water doesn't flow out at a nice leisurely pace. It rushes out destroying anything still in its path. Why do people end up in therapy? They shut down parts of themselves, for whatever reason, and then, in time, they lose it and see a shrink to control the flood. Same thing is happening to your legs."

"My legs need a shrink?" Xero demanded sarcastically.

"Your legs among other things," the healer grinned back. "Let's just say they're feeling again, and I hope to God I'm not around should the rest of you decide to follow suit. As long as you work the muscles, the pain will lessen and you'll get your coordination back."

"Well, I'm not getting back in that freezing pond," the hacker maintained.

Henry shrugged. "Fine. I don't care whether you legs mend or not." Rielle glared at him sharply and his manner softened somewhat. "Look, why don't you start with walking? I've got some braces to help you get started. The more you use your legs, the quicker the pain will subside. If you don't, you can seriously fuck yourself up."

When the healer headed back upstairs, Xero hoped it was for good. To her dismay, he returned with two aluminum leg braces and a pair of crutches. He stayed long enough to get the braces attached and crutches properly fitted before excusing himself under the pretense of getting food.

With a sense of resignation, Xero looked across the sunny expanse of land behind Henry's house. The afternoon sun glinted off the still waters of the pond. The air was comfortable and crisp. By all accounts, it had to be classified a beautiful day. Putting such thoughts aside, the hacker grabbed the crutches and prepared for battle. Attached to her forearms, the aluminum crutches had padded grip to clutch while balancing her body. Supporting her weight with her arms and upper body, she could feel just how withered she'd become over the last few days.

"So how did things go last night?" she asked after taking her first tentative step into the springy soil.

"With Helms?" Rielle clarified, keeping a wary eye on her companion's progress. She resisted the urge to assist the hacker and watched as the taller woman struggled to move one leg in front of the other. Keeping her voice light, she tried to distract the outlaw from the pain she was obviously feeling. "Went off without a hitch. I got up from my seat just as he passed my table and bumped into him. Deetjun's has a very cozy dining room. Henry and I stayed up and listened to the broadcast. Oh, and we recorded it for you since you kinda passed out."

Xero expelled a controlled breath of air. Frustrated at the exertion required for three steps, she nodded and shifted her leg for step number four. "Did he say anything interesting?"

"Well, he joked with his security about which mistress he'd spend the night with."

Xero snorted. "Let me guess, was it Buffy or Walter?"

The syscop smiled. "Actually the bets were running Microsoft, with Fox and Telleride tying for second. I get the impression that Helms is too busy deal making to worry about more carnal pleasures."

Pausing thoughtfully, Xero considered the options. "A computer company trying to make it back to the big-time, the number one network, and an arms manufacturer. Interesting bedmates. So I take it he was heading up north?"

Rielle nodded. "No, south. Apparently he's going to meet with Microsoft at a Santa Barbara ranch. When he got into the car, he made some crack about having a BBQ in the President's back yard."

"President Taborn has a house in Santa Barbara. I wouldn't be surprised if she didn't spend a few days there, between funerals." The hacker's breathing grew labored, taxed by the effort of willing her pained legs into motion. Rielle sympathized, but didn't comment. She doubted the hacker would have appreciated any effort to help.

"The President made a statement yesterday on the news. Clearly she's a bit broken up; some of her good friends, not to mention political allies, are dropping like flies. She's cautioning everyone to stay away from their computers unless absolutely necessary. A special task force is being assembled to look into the problem. Taborn suggested several computer gurus and got some flack for trying to include some Hollywood people. Congress wanted to add committee members representing everything from the dairy council to the committee on foreign affairs."

The hacker stopped abruptly, her eyebrows furrowed in thought. Slowly, a look of comprehension eased across her sculpted features and she smiled knowingly.

"What is it?" Rielle prompted.

"Come on," Xero replied, heading for the house once more. Back at the desk she began rifling through the stack of papers. "President Taborn isn't stupid," the hacker said in a rush as she looked through her notes. "Now, what is it we know for sure? Something in the network is unsubbing people, and we know there's a pattern to who's been unsubbed. Now we hear that she isn't turning to just government goons to fix this. If Taborn's looking for outsiders-like Hollywood-then she must suspect some government agency has a hand in this."

"The military?" Rielle asked. "They have the most powerful computers. And Helms is a big supporter."

"Maybe," the hacker allowed with a smile. "And what could fight that? What industry is bigger than the military, with more money... and more powerful computers?"

Rielle thought a moment before her eyes snapped up in understanding. "Entertainment," she whispered.

Xero grinned broadly. "The President is suspicious of her own people and wants to bring in the celluloid thugs to help clean house. She can't turn to Congress because he's got a foothold there. Congress hates Hollywood already either for destroying modern civilization, or pointing out that our civilization needs some work. Who better to trust to do some effective troubleshooting?"

"It still doesn't make sense though," Rielle insisted. "While the Entertainment giants might have the biggest guns in terms of computing capability, they don't have any love for the government. Why would they help?"

"They won't," Xero agreed. "And it's a shame because Helms has said he's running for office and he hates Hollywood. But it isn't just because they're greedy pigs and want to sit back while everything falls apart around them. Hollywood isn't designed to do anything quickly, unless it's to cash in on something tragic, even then it takes a ton of people to do it."

"So why are you smiling?" Rielle finally asked, completely confused. "Taborn will go to them for help but they won't be able to..."

"Because if you add hackers into the mix of Hollywood computing firepower, suddenly you've got a force that can do very big things, very quickly," Xero said with a smirk. Rielle sat there silent, staring at the familiar gleam that had suddenly come to a pair of sparkling blue eyes.

The black limousine headed south down highway one, its lone occupant in the back seat, oblivious to the breathtaking stretch of ocean outside the passenger window. Hitting a button on his remote to activate the intercom, Jasper Helms addressed the driver.

"When do we reach Santa Barbara?"

"In three hours, forty-eight minutes, Senator Helms," the driver replied politely.

Absently, Helms nodded and touched another button on his remote to activate the monitor set into the command console of the car and watched the news with only half his attention. The grisly images of charred remains in story after story no longer gave him the sense of a job well done. While they were still political enemies and hackers for the most part, and therefore deserving of such a fate, he'd seen too much death in the past few days to have it really mean anything anymore. In a world populated by short attention spans, Jasper Helms was a walking attention deficit.

Restless and edgy, he looked for some distraction on the long ride to his next meeting. That was all his life was of late-meetings and conquests and watching charred bodies on the news.

Punching a seldom used number into his mobie unit, he waited impatiently for an answer.

"Yes?" a female voice answered.

"Any sign of Xero?" Helms didn't bother to announce himself. The hacker knew damn well who he was and it was only due to his foresight she'd not met the same fate as many of her colleagues.

"No, Senator," she replied, sounding as edgy as he felt. "I heard she left just after Bat's wake. No one knows where she went. I've got my sources looking into it. I'm sure I can find her, I just need more time."

"Time, my dear, is one thing you've got precious little of. Why don't you go have a look 'round Xero's place. See if you can dig up anything there."

"Okay," the voice answered a bit dubiously. "I'll need some time to make my way there unobserved. There's been a lot of action at The 'Horn and activity around Xero's place. It'll have to look natural."

"Take a day or two if you need it, but do something to get me that hacker!" Annoyed he cut the connection to the call, filling the limo with silence once again. It was possible that his contact had begun to fear for her own safety. Nervous traitors weren't very good allies. Still not satisfied, he placed another call.

"Yes, Senator," a gravely male voice intoned from the private line to his office.

"I have some sanitation work for you, Douglas. A young woman will be heading toward the missing hacker's apartment. She should show in the next couple of days."

"I'll take care of it," the voice replied.

Helms clicked off his mobie unit, gazing out the car window. The morning was looking up after all.

Hours later, both women were sitting on the floor of Henry's workroom, the gutted computer remains strewn around them. "You really did a number on the system," the hacker commented dismally as she inspected several cracked circuit boards for useable parts.

"You'd rather I let you fry?" Rielle inquired as she removed the dented casing from a brain box. "I told you, the system's a loss. It's just as well. Logging on will kill you at this point."

"We need to find some way to hook into the 'horn node," Xero explained. "We need database access if we're going to get a comprehensive list of the unsubbed. I should also give them a heads up to start working on getting a message to the President."

"Don't even tell me hackers have that kind of access," Rielle demanded.

Xero only winked. "Afraid you'll be out of a job? Relax. Under ordinary circumstances we'd be shot on sight. But if President Taborn wants to talk to Entertainment, the chances are she might want to talk to us. But we can't get the word out unless we can get to the 'Horn node." With a frustrated grunt, she tossed another brain box aside. "Shit, none of this stuff is any good."

Rielle let out a frustrated sigh and glanced at her watch. They'd been at it for some time. She'd noticed her companion shift uncomfortably on the floor more than once and could only imagine the pain the hacker was hiding.

"Come on, Xero," she offered casually. "Let's go for a swim."

Xero lifted only her eyes from the hardware she was holding. "I told you already, I don't swim."

"And I told you I could teach you. Besides, it isn't like we're making any progress. The walk might do us both some good." Rielle kept her voice casual but studied her companion carefully. Unpredictable and volatile... She wasn't sure what the hacker's reaction would be.

Xero's eyes narrowed slightly and she looked past Rielle to the pond beyond the house. "It's fifty feet from here to the pond. What kind of 'walk' is that?" As an afterthought, she looked at the sky. Noting that it was fast approaching dusk, she relaxed visibly.

"There's another spot Henry told me about, only a short hike away. It'd probably be good for your legs to stretch them." With a wicked grin she added, "Unless you're afraid, of course. Come on, I dare you". Arms crossed at her chest, Rielle MacGab was the picture of confidence and challenge. Her grin didn't even falter as the hacker's eyebrow raised dangerously. Oh yeah, she'd hit a nerve.

"Fine," Xero growled. "We swim."

The syscop headed upstairs with a smile and returned a few moments later, carrying a small backpack slung over one shoulder.

Xero nodded toward the glass door as she stood, settling herself onto the crutches. "Lead on."

"Look at the bright side. Henry said the water isn't freezing--it's part of a hot spring," Rielle commented as they made their way along.

Xero rolled her eyes. "Great, now I get to collect parasites as well as drown." Relying on her crutches for support, she followed the syscop down the narrow trail that extended from the back of the healer's property. Rielle stopped at several points to take in the spectacular views of the ocean and rock formations below. As the sun sank below the expanse of water, the horizon took on an eerie blood red glow. From the corner of her eye, Rielle watch Xero lick her lips nervously. The hacker was as awed by the sight as she was. After several failed attempts at conversation, she sighed in frustration at her limited success. It was hard for her to determine if Xero was quiet because she was miserable or really that antisocial. Just like Xena.

"How are the legs feeling?" she tried one more time as they left the trail at the landmark Henry had described.

"Like I'm wading knee deep in razor blades," Xero replied, her voice neutral.

Rielle was genuinely worried. "I'm really sorry, Xero. Henry was certain you'd start to feel immediate improvement once you started using them."

"Rielle," the hacker assured her with a smile. "It is an improvement."

With a relieved sigh, the syscop led Xero onto a rock outcrop that jutted over a long narrow expanse of water. "Here we are, just where Henry said it would be." The hacker grunted noncommittally and sat down, so far the only indication that the half mile hike had been taxing. Rielle continued to explore and filling the silence with the details she'd learned. "Henry said that this pool was formed in the Great Quake of '17 when all the geothermal activity thrust up closer to the surface."

"Oh goodie," the hacker grumbled.

Rielle smiled and extracted a few things from her pack. She tossed Xero a towel and a flashlight to strap to her wrist. She also picked up a small bottle and carefully removed the top. "These drops will take care of those parasites you're worried about, if there even are any." Demonstrating, she tilted her head back, put a drop in each eye, nostril, and ear. Finally, she squeezed the bottle and several drops landed on her extended tongue.

"Why are you so into water?" Xero asked with a baffled expression. "It seems like a lot of work for nothing."

"Oh come on, don't tell me you didn't enjoy hot baths as a kid?" Rielle replied handing her the bottle.

The hacker's expression didn't change. "I've never had a bath. Orphanages have spray showers."

Embarrassed, Rielle looked away, letting her gaze drift over steaming pool of water. "I'm sorry, Xero. I forgot. What house did you grow up in?"

The hacker tilted her head back and let a droplet fall into her left eye. "Shit, that stings," she grumbled. After a shrug, she concentrated on the right. "I did time in seven different houses. I left the houses all together when I was thirteen."

Rielle's jaw dropped as Henry's dismal assessment of the hacker resurfaced in her memory. "You've been on your own that long?"

Xero shrugged again. "Call it my version of summer camp."

"So how did you fall into hacking?" the syscop asked gently.

Her dark companion handed the bottle back with a suspicious glare. "What does it matter?"

"I'm just trying to make small talk, give me a break," Rielle replied. "You'd think you'd never had a civil conversation before." After strapping the small flashlight to her own wrist, she knelt in front of the hacker. "Can I help you get these braces off? Or are you going to snap at me if I try?"

"You can help," Xero answered quietly. "Thank you."

"See, I knew you had manners," the syscop chuckled.

"Don't push it, Rielle."

Once braces and clothes had been discarded, Rielle helped Xero maneuver over the smooth rocks to the steaming pool. It was narrower but longer than the pond in Henry's back yard. Sloping down gently, the water only reached the hacker's waist by the middle of the pool.

"Ohhh, this is wonderful," Rielle purred as she immediately submerged herself and shoved off into a backstroke.

"Yeah, nice," her companion grumbled uncomfortably.

With the air temperature dropping, Xero was faced with the fact that being in the water was considerably more comfortable than being out of it. And the pain in her legs eased up a little as the water supported her weight. Aside from the fact that it was water, it wasn't half bad.

Rielle returned to Xero's side and stood. Wading carefully, she pointed out where the steep drops were. "As long as we stay around here, you can put your feet down any time you'd like and you'll be standing."

Xero looked dubiously at the water. "Anything else in here but us?"

Flicking on the flashlight, Rielle scanned the pool. "There might be some fish. Henry says he swims here all the time. He tests the water regularly and it's clean. He's even seen animals on the banks from time to time."

"More shades of summer camp?" the hacker asked, using her own flashlight to illuminate her immediate surroundings.

"Is that so bad?" Rielle challenged gently, returning to the hacker's side once more.

Xero shrugged. "No. Not bad, just different."

"If it's any consolation, I taught swimming when I worked there. Didn't lose a single camper in the three years I did it." The hacker nodded but didn't comment. "The most important thing you have to do is relax. Try not to tense up. You float much better when you're relaxed. Get tense and you'll sink like a rock."

"That's comforting."

Rielle laughed at Xero's gruffness and moved behind her. "Ease yourself into the water, let me hold you up. We're just going to have you float on your back. I'll have your shoulders and you'll be able to breathe. Got it?"

The hacker began to comply and Rielle eased her hands onto strong shoulders. Muscles taut as bowstrings were her first indication at how nervous her companion truly was. "So why don't you tell me when you started hacking? Or are you afraid I'll find you that you haven't been at it as long as your rap sheet states."

Xero's body tensed once more as her feet left the bottom of the pool. Focusing on Rielle's voice, drifting to her ears from somewhere above her head. "My record is pretty accurate. You know a better way for a thirteen year old to make a living?"

"A thirteen year old shouldn't have to earn a living," Rielle replied emphatically.

"Truly spoken by someone who hasn't done any time in the 'houses'." Unbidden memories surfaced, a collage of voices and images flickering through her mind, then vanishing. Reprimand, embarrassment, and conflict all jostled for primary attention. By force of will and habit, Xero closed the door and continued with her narrative. "I considered dealing black market plague drugs, but I was ten at the time and it's hard to make those types of connections. I started running parts for some local hackers instead. Three years of that and I was ready to work on my own."

"I'm sure you could have gone to college?" Rielle challenged as she supported the hacker's body in the warm water.

"A half million in debt just for starters? I don't think so. Besides...there were a few people I needed to settle a score with. Hacking let me do it." With a satisfied grin she remembered the look on the headmaster's face as he was taken to prison, a broken man. "I suppose you went to college?" the hacker asked trying desperately not to think about the water.

Rielle cleared her throat before answering. "Yeah, I did," she answered tightly. Xero opened her eyes to the pained expression gazing down at her from above.

"I thought college was a good thing," Xero remarked mildly.

"My dad was a scientist. He worked for a bio-corp. His company paid for my education when he died." Rielle's words were flat, numb, as if she were prepared for any reaction and didn't care what it was.

Xero's feet shot to the bottom of the pool and she stood in the shallow water, looking down in surprise at her companion. "Your dad was a Plague-Bearer? He did rainforest work?"

The syscop nodded. "Yeah. He was looking for medical cures and was part of the team that brought the Red Death home to America. That's why I got the education, the house, the cushy job. Archive Corp. is covering their tracks."

Xero shrugged, easing back into the water once more. "Don't be so hard on yourself. They should pay. That doesn't mean your skills aren't top notch anyways. Hell, you tapped me online after all."

Rielle stared at her, dumbfounded. "How can you say that? My father is responsible for the death of millions of people. Maybe even your parents!"

"Considering I'm a criminal, I have a hard time being too concerned about any one else's track record. Sure, I think what the bio-companies did was stupid. Stupid and arrogant. But that isn't your fault. Explains why you're such a do-gooder though," she added with a wink.

"Aside from trying to bring you in, I can't say I've done much do-gooding. Yeah, I've caught a fair share of hackers, but I've done plenty I'm not proud of too." As the syscop spoke, she slowly moved away from the hacker's shoulders, letting the larger woman float on her own.

"Speaking of mistakes, why did you marry Paula?" Xero teased as she struggled to keep the panic out of her voice. After taking a couple of deep breaths, she again relaxed in the water.

"What makes you think I was talking about Paula?"

Xero shrugged, then struggled a moment to regain her balance. Giving up she stood and looked down at the syscop, water streaming off of her body. "Because I can tell you're not in love with her. I doubt you ever were. She isn't what you're looking for."

Rielle turned away, the words hitting too close to home. "Maybe so," she said tightly. "But people make choices. Sometimes they choose to make do when what they want eludes them...or when they don't even know what it is they want." With a sad shake of her head she smiled. "This isn't the first time it's happened to me. Gabrielle herself married the wrong guy. She didn't have to live with the mistake of marriage for long though since Callisto killed him the next day. Instead she had to live with the guilt of his death for the rest of her life."

"From the looks of it, I'd say that guilt lasted longer than one lifetime."

Rielle couldn't help but smile. "Stop being so nice or I won't recognize you. Get back in the water and let's teach you to swim. I'm going to do this, even if it kills you."

Xero was an apt, if stubborn student. She showed promise though, and in time she mastered the rudimentary skills of swimming. While she lacked the graceful glide of Rielle moving through the water. She could manage getting from one length of the swimming hole to the other, and that was a victory.

When the moon was directly overhead, they decided to head back. Rielle was aware of Xero's eyes on her body as she toweled off. Grateful for the darkness that surrounded them, she was relieved the blush on her cheeks couldn't be seen. "So did they hurt?" she asked, handing the hacker her sweatshirt.

"What? These?" Xero asked glancing down at her breasts. "Sure. But hey, lots of things hurt."

"Got anything else pierced?" the syscop asked, her curiosity getting the better of her.

"Wanna find out?" Xero asked with a steady gaze.

"I just asked," Rielle shot back defensively.

"As did I," the hacker replied.

As they made their way up the trail to Henry's house, Rielle decided to change the subject. "Have you thought that boosting the power and range of your mobie might let you get a crude message to the 'horn node?"

"Sure, I've thought of it," Xero allowed. "But we don't have the parts I'd need for that kind of converter."

"It's no big deal. I can take Henry's car when we get back to the house, head up to Carmel. A couple of scramblers, a power cel, and adaptor can't be that hard to find."

Xero grinned broadly. "So the syscop knows how to make a beacon. Nicely done. I suppose you know a vendor as well?"

"No," Rielle allowed. "But I'm sure Henry would tell me where to go at this time of night. Trust me, he wants us to figure this out and get the hell out of his house."

"Good. Then I'll head out when we get back."

"You'll do nothing of the kind," Rielle shot back fiercely. "Your credit isn't any good, you're dead-- remember? That kind of cash transaction raises suspicion and we can't risk it. Let me get the parts, and you can rig up the beacon when I get back."

"Fine, have it your way," the hacker chuckled as she followed her companion up the dark trail.

It was near dawn when Henry descended the stairs to the work room. Xero was still up. She appeared to be working, but he knew better. He watched a moment as she shuffled papers, read a few lines, then shuffled them again. She was waiting up for Rielle. With a resigned sigh, he coughed and made his presence known. The look on his face brought Xero instantly to her feet.

"What happened?" she demanded.

"I got a call from a friend in Carmel," he explained. "There was an...incident at the place where Rielle went to get parts. She's been picked up."

"What the fuck do you mean 'picked up'!" Instantly, she was charging towards the stairs. Fortunately for Henry, she was only able to charge at approximately half speed. The healer quickly backed up, putting his arms out to keep the enraged hacker at a distance.

"I don't know, okay? Some woman showed up with a medical carrier and four orderlies."

"What woman?" Xero demanded, enraged.

"Mike said she was tall, dark hair. I guess she'd been tracking Rielle. Since she brought medics, she probably took her to a medical facility."

"That bitch," Xero growled as she lunged for her mobie. Heedless of the dangers of traced calls, she punched in a private code. "Shadow? This is Xero. I don't have time to explain. I need everything you've got on some chick named Paula. She works for Archive Corporation in Marketing. She was on the American fencing team in '36. Yeah, it's related. Listen, I just need to find her. Call me on the mobie when you've got her. I'm on my way back."

Tossing the hand held unit aside, she was about to turn but froze. Henry had jabbed her in the neck, squarely hitting a nerve. She felt her knees go weak as he eased her to the sleeping mat once more.

"You're not leaving right now, Xero," he explained. "Rielle would have my head. Rest first, have some food in the morning, and then I'll let you go. You can't do anything for her tonight anyway."

"You bastard," she seethed as her vision began to swim.

"Hey, remember that scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Luke insists on ignoring Yoda and ruins everything? Well, pretend I'm Yoda. Trust me, Xero, it'll all work out. I promise." His voice was gentle and his eyes knowing. The hacker felt her stomach sink.

"Wh...who does Rielle say y...you were?" she mumbled, fighting to keep her eyes open.

"Lyceus," he answered with a chuckle.

A cold chill swept across the steppes, whipping Xero's long black hair about her face and shoulders. She shoved her hands into the pockets of her leather jacket, noting once again she was wearing a checked flannel shirt. She noted with some relief that she had her boots this time. Looking around for either Janice or Mel, she caught a glimpse of the archeologist walking along the plains, distracted.

"I don't have time for this," the hacker announced by way of greeting. "Something's happened to Rielle, I've gotta wake up."

Janice Covington drew her eyes from the windswept plains to gaze up at the hacker. Eyes shining with unshed tears, she simply shrugged and returned her gaze to the plains. "So go," she said quietly.

Xero stared at her in surprise. "What's gotten into you?" she demanded. "I can't just 'go', if that worked you think I'd still be here?"

"Then stay," Janice supplied absently.

Worried, Xero shook Janice's shoulder gently. "What's the matter?"

Janice turned away to wipe her eyes on the sleeve of her brown leather jacket. "Nothing. I was just thinking about someone I miss, that's all. She would have really loved these plains, ya know."

"Mel?" Xero asked, puzzled.

With a nod, the archeologist pulled herself together. "Mel. Right. Follow me. She's not far from here."

Xero was going to press further, to see what memory had moved the gruff scientist to tears, but was distracted by the field of bodies that littered the plains. "What the hell happened here?"

Janice studied the carnage for a moment before answering. "Two raiding parties descended on a caravan. Notice any difference in how these men were killed?"

Xero looked at the corpses her companion indicated. One warrior was stabbed through the chest, another had his head almost severed from his body. Attached by only a small strand of skin and muscle, the bones of the neck had been completely severed. "I'd say whoever killed this one is bad news. Takes a certain passion and rage to make this much of a mess."

"You're right," Janice agreed. "Xena killed him."

"She's changed, hasn't she?" Xero asked apprehensively.

Janice nodded sadly. "You know she has. When M'lila died in her arms something snapped. Everything since the battle for Amphipolis and Caesar's betrayal came to a head and she completely lost it. She made her way down the mountain to the home of a fisherman named Walsum and persuaded him to take her to Chin, trying to get away from the humiliation of what Caesar did."

"How'd she persuade him?" Xero asked as the two walked through the littered remains of the caravan.

Janice shrugged. "She killed his family. Granted, he didn't know she did it. She came in, took advantage of the situation and before you know it, he's on a one way trip to asassinhood."

"So this was as bad as she got?" the hacker asked, trying to keep the hopeful edge from her voice.

"Oh no," Janice replied, "it gets worse."

Xero caught the scent of horses and looked up to see two small groups of raiders facing each other. One broke off from each group and rode toward each other, stopping a short distance away from Janice and Xero. "I must know," the first raider said with a Slavic accent. "Who are you? I've never seen anyone fight the way you do." Xena removed her head covering, shaking her dark hair loose. "My God," Borias gasped.

"My name is Xena," she replied smoothly. "And I have a simple proposition. Join me and we will share the spoils from the caravan or you can fight me and I will kill you and all of your men."

It was clear from her expression and tone that she wasn't bluffing and Borias knew it. Given a free shot at life, he nodded graciously. "My name is Borias," he said. "And I would be honored to join forces with you."

Xena smiled and Borias shifted uncomfortably on his horse. "You're a smart man, Borias. I have need of smart men." After licking her lips dangerously, she kicked her horse into a trot and rejoined the group.

Borias watched her go, shaking his head. "Who would expect a demon of Tartarus to be so beautiful."

As they began to walk, Xero noticed a slight change in the landscape around her, the seasons shifting before her very eyes. Shortly they were again approaching a small group of mounted raiders.

"You said Xena was crippled, but she seems pretty comfortable on horseback," Xero observed, her curiosity getting the better of her as she (and the other raiders assembled) watched an intimate exchange between the warrior and Borias. "Never seen anyone get a quick fuck on horseback before."

Janice smiled, appreciating the hacker's directness and relieved that Mel wasn't around to wince and roll her eyes. "Horseback is the only place she's as capable as everyone else. Not that she does it exclusively on horseback, mind you, but I think she's trying to prove that she's as desirable as anyone. Evil people can be insecure too."

Xero looked around. "I don't see any other women here. It ain't like she's got competition." The hacker's observations were cut short as a messenger delivered word to Borias.

"Let him wait!" Xena demanded, pulling Borias close.

"Come on, Xena. We can do this anytime."

"Don't be so sure," she shot back.

With a laugh, he shoved Xena from his horse and tossed a crutch down to her. "I don't want you messing things up."

Xena watched him ride off. With a frustrated growl she climbed to her feet and hobbled back to her own horse. "Run to your master-puppy," she muttered.

Janice and Xero followed, and arrived back at camp just as a figure emerged from a litter. Introductions already underway, and both Xena and Xero studied Lao Ma intently.

"Please forgive my husband for sending his insignificant wife to handle such difficult affairs of state," Lao Ma said softly. "He's very ill."

"She's some piece of work," the hacker commented.

"Yes, she is," a new voice agreed, stepping clear of the yurt. Mel headed over to join the other two, draping her arm affectionately around Janice's shoulders. "Forgive me for not joining you on the battlefield but..."

"It's okay," the hacker replied absently, eyes still fixed on Lao's wife. She was distracted by Xena's snicker at a comment Lao Ma made about Borias. With a slight turn, the tall woman of C'hin was facing Xena. Xero couldn't help but feel caught in her gaze as well.

"You must be Xena," she said simply.

The warrior's eyebrows rose slightly. "Oh, you've heard of me," she said without surprise.

Xero turned to glare at Xena, muttering "asshole" under her breath. When she looked back she was certain Lao Ma was looking directly at her.

"Oh yes," she said with respect. "They say you're a dangerous woman."

"Well, they're right," Xena replied without missing a beat.

"Can she see me?" Xero asked Janice who watched the exchange with interest.

"Nah, this is the past. How can you be seen? You're already here as Xena and Xero isn't born yet," Janice replied honestly. "Still, I've read in Gabrielle's scrolls that Lao Ma was supposed to possess some unusual powers. If anyone out here could see you, I guess it'd be her. Either way, it doesn't matter-you are dangerous."

"Janice, don't encourage her," Mel scolded as she led the trio into the yurt.

The three women watched for a time as Borias and Lao discussed the ins and outs of negotiations. Xena immersed herself in opium, rarely taking her eyes of the enigmatic Chinese woman. Blue eyes narrowed dangerously when she sensed that Borias was as captivated as she was. With blinding speed, a knife flew from the warrior's hand and impaled itself into a serving platter near Lao Ma's fingers. "That's my piece of meat you're reaching for," she growled dangerously.

Without hesitation Lao Ma's eyes captured Xena's. "You're wrong. I don't eat meat."

The warrior's eyes widened at the implication then narrowed dangerously. "Well now," Xero chuckled. "Xena finally catches on." The hacker looked down at the archeologist standing at her side. "Please tell me she makes up for lost time tonight."

"Why don't you step outside and see for yourself," Mel suggested coldly, a stern frown on her face.

With a shrug, the hacker complied and stepped outside the yurt to see Lao Ma kneeling over Xena's prone body.

Borias ran up, looking at Xena suspiciously. "What happened?" he and Xero asked in unison.

"I'm sorry, Borias," Lao Ma replied. "I'll be leaving immediately. I don't think an alliance is appropriate, now." Swiftly, the Chinese woman bent over to whisper something to Xena, then gathered herself to go.

Xero was stunned. "I don't get it," she protested. "All because Xena got friendly?"

"Xena tried to kill her," Janice supplied. "Ended up getting her ass kicked. Lao Ma's got some pretty interesting moves."

"I don't doubt it," Xero replied with a smirk. "So what did she say?"

"Can you remember?" Mel asked gently.

Xero looked at Mel. Something about the woman unsettled her. Like looking into a mirror and seeing a kinder reflection looking back, Xero could see in those gentle blue eyes everything she would never be. Mel understood it too and smiled sadly.

"I'm not who you think I am," the hacker whispered. Gazing down at Xena, her heart went out to the prone woman. "I don't have her drive."

"Fill yourself with desire and see only illusion. Empty yourself of desire and understand the great mystery of things," Mel whispered softly.

Xero returned her attention to the Southerner. "That has got to be the lamest advice I've ever heard."

"It's over, Xena." Borias said with a growl. "You have until sunrise to get out of this camp. After that- I'll kill you on sight."

Xena was gone within the hour. A few possessions packed onto her horse, she trotted from the campsite. After a nod from Borias, Chuang followed.

The warrior woman camped several miles from camp near a large rock formation. She ate a meal of dried rations and sent her follower ahead to scout. After warming herself by her fire, she returned to her horse. She mounted with some difficulty, relaxing visibly when she was seated.

"Where's she going?" Xero asked, perplexed.

Janice shook her head. "Nowhere. She sleeps on horseback out in the open like this. She'd be too slow to defend herself were she caught on the ground."

Xero sat down by the fire that didn't warm her and looked thoughtfully up at the soul that was supposed to have been hers. "Does this sort of shit happen to Rielle?" she asked.

"What do you mean?" Mel asked, taking the seat next to her.

"Has she gone on the tour of Gabrielle's childhood? Stuff like that?"

Janice shrugged taking a seat next to Mel. "If she has, someone else must be leading the way."

"Lucky her," the hacker quipped.

"I'll have you know I was quite popular in my day. Did my fair share of speaking engagements. Besides, since when do you care what Rielle is dreaming about?" Janice teased gently. Apprehensive that she might be pushing the hacker too fast, she was reassured by the slight approving smile that creased Mel's lips.

Xero rolled her eyes. "Don't read anything into it, Covington. I just wondered. That's all."

"Then why are you so anxious to wake up?" This time it was Mel who teased, leaning into the hacker in an affectionate manner.

Xero bristled. "Because I'm not going to let some bitch from Archive think she can kidnap someone from under my nose, that's why."

"Be honest, Xero," Janice suggested. "If it isn't about Rielle, then it's about someone who thinks she's better for Rielle than you are."

"That's not true!" Xero insisted. "I know I'm no good for Rielle, so drop it."

Xero said nothing more all night. While she knew time was passing at a different rate in her dream, she was still desperate for a way to wake up. Finding no solution at hand, she tried to distract herself by listening to the casual conversation exchanged by Mel and Janice. So strange, she thought, to hear two people talk to each other with such affection and mutual respect. From time to time her eyes were drawn away from the lovers to the warrior woman, bundled in furs gazing at the firelight. After all she'd seen, when Xero seriously tried to picture herself as Xena, no matter how she looked at it, she didn't measure up to the twisted hateful woman on the horse.

"Argo would have loved this," Janice said to Mel, drawing Xero from her study of Xena. "The open grasslands."

Xero watched as Mel put an affectionate arm around the archeologist. "I miss her too, love," the Southerner offered gently.

"It was so long ago, but I still remember that dog..." Janice choked up and turned her head, refusing to cry in front of the hacker.

"I remember our last morning together," Mel offered quietly. "You brought me breakfast in bed, with a rose. Said something about me being as beautiful as the day you met me."

"I was telling the truth," Janice confirmed.

"Janice," Mel smiled. "I was ninety-two years old."

"Yeah, but I was in my eighties, my eyesight was kinda shot."

Xero grinned in spite of herself, genuinely happy for the two women who seemed to love each other as passionately in death as they did in life. After a moment's reprieve however, events swirled around her again and she watched Xena's life as it unfolded around her, sometimes sparking unwanted memories of her own. The kidnapping of Ming T'ien reminded her of the time she'd locked Ellen in the closet at the orphanage. At ten years old, Xero was a very real threat not only to her peers, but older children as well.

She wasn't surprised when Xena was sold-out by C'huang and Borias, and she looked forward to both men paying for it. There was no doubt in her mind that Xena would attend to that betrayal. Unimpressed by Ming T'su, she noticed a new fire in young Ming T'ien's eyes. Like the tears already dried when Ellen was released, Ming T'ien was a colder child upon his rescue. "How many monsters have I created?" she wondered absently.

Certain Xena would meet her demise in the woods, she waited uneasily as the hunting dogs gained. She was as surprised as Xena to see Lao Ma's appearance.

"Come with me if you wish your freedom," the enigmatic woman said, catching both Xero and Xena in her gaze.

"Why are you doing this?" both women asked in unison.

Her voice was calm and controlled as she answered, but the urgency was clear. "I have been blessed, or cursed, with the ability to see into the souls of others. You don't know it yet, Xena, but you're a remarkable woman- capable of greatness. Come quick. We'll take refuge in my home.

Something about the word home struck a chord with Xero. She looked at Janice and Mel intently.

"Please," she said. "Help me find Rielle."

Part 4

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