Disclaimer: “XENA: Warrior Princess” and all characters are property of Studios USA, Renaissance Pictures, and/or Universal Studios. The following story is strictly non-profit fan-fiction, and absolutely no copyright infringement is intended.

Disclaimer #2: The following story contains adult language.

"In a time of modern technology, politicians, and terrorists, a world on the brink of nuclear Armageddon cried out for a hero. She was Gina Ryan, United States Marine Corps..." Brought together with Gabriella Duncan, United States Navy, by mysterious and compelling forces behind a shared and recurring dream of the days of ancient Greece, they find themselves embroiled in a mission of utmost urgency—the prevention of all-out nuclear war. Their only weapons are their own hearts and souls...and a supersonic stealth helicopter code-named Ares.

“The New Adventures of XENA: Warrior Princess”

“A New Day”

By Ernie Whiting

mailto:bloodyvisigoths@charter.net

          She could hear the screams of horror and agony that came from the group of terrified villagers. The sun was blazing hot that day, and dry, choking clouds of dust caught in the back of her throat as the sting of sweat burned hellishly in her eyes. The clashing of steel against steel rang loud in her ears, and the solid feel of the wooden staff in her hands was as reassuring as the weight of the sai in her boots. And then there was the thundering of the hooves of a war horse, and its owner’s voice shouting out, “C’mon, Argo! Yeah!” and the sudden, high-pitched ululating war cry of the statuesque brunette with the piercing blue eyes and the dark-brown leather battle gear and bronze breast plate. Her heart leapt in sudden joy as the raven-haired savior arrived, leaping the golden palomino over a flaming barricade and throwing her razor-edged steel ring, for she knew now that the tide of the battle had just turned in favor of the villagers. She saw her drawing her sword from the scabbard slung across her back, and heard her familiar voice as she screamed out her partner’s name in warning—

          Her bedside alarm clock buzzed insistently, demanding attention. With a sigh and a groan, she rolled onto her other side and smacked the snooze button with one palm, knocking over an empty water glass and sweeping a box of tissues and a Dean Koontz paperback novel to the floor in the process. She opened one bleary, jade-green eye and gazed coldly at the soft green digital readout as the last tattered remnant of her dream faded away. Five-thirty AM. Slowly, she rolled onto her back once more and groaned again. Who was that remarkable woman with the palomino and the sword? A friend? A sister? Whenever she thought of the woman in this recurring dream, she always felt so safe and warm and peaceful, like sitting comfortably in front of a warm and crackling fire on a cold winter’s night. This figment of her imagination felt like...Home.

          Dreams, she thought, smiling to herself and wishing that she could slip back into its warm embrace. Why do they have to be so weird?

          The automatic coffee machine had already switched itself on, and was gurgling gently as boiling water began to drip and stream through the rich, dark, French vanilla grounds. It wasn’t long before the entire studio apartment was filled with the invigorating aroma of freshly brewed coffee.

          She rose up on her elbows and yawned with a long, mild squeak in her voice, switched on the fluorescent bedside lamp, then peeled back the covers and swung her bare legs out of bed. Dressed in khaki boxer shorts and a matching tank top, she sat on the edge of the bed for a moment with her head in her hands, her sleep-tousled blonde hair hanging about her face and shoulders, and her US Navy dog tags hanging from a beaded chain around her neck. Slowly, she rose from the full-sized platform bed and made her way across the apartment and over to the stereo. She punched on the receiver, the compact disk player, and dropped in a cd. The machine whirred softly for a moment as the carousel spun to position it, then she hit “shuffle” and turned up the volume. A moment later, John Mellencamp came nearly blasting from the high-quality bookshelf speakers as he began singing “Small Town.”

          After going into the bathroom to brush her teeth and tie her hair into a pony tail, she went to the coffee machine and filled the black ceramic “X-Files” mug, took a sip (strong, black, no sugar; when she wanted coffee, by God, she wanted coffee!), then carried it over to the weight machine. She took one more sip before setting the cup on the floor next to her, and then lay on the black, padded bench. Grasping the handles, she took a couple of deep breaths, and then rapidly began pressing a hundred pounds worth of flat, steel weights. She was just beginning to work up a good sweat when the phone rang.

          She eased the weights down with a clank! and turned down the volume on the stereo with the remote control, and rose to answer the phone. She picked up the cordless receiver. “Yeah?”

          “Rise and shine, Tex!” said the cheery voice on the other end. “And how are we this morning?”

          No one had a right to be this cheery in the morning, she believed. No one. “I’ll rise,” drawled Lieutenant Commander Gabriella Duncan, of Dallas, Texas, “but I refuse to shine.” Normally, she had the kind of light and lilting southern accent that was as mild as a warm summer breeze, and made people want to pause and listen for a moment and let themselves be engulfed by its warm embrace; but then there were other times when it came on like a dire warning, or as a roaring and ravaging Texas-sized tornado that could send you running for cover. She also took great pride in her expansive vocabulary of imaginative and colorful Navy expletives. “I haven’t had my workout or my mornin’ coffee yet.”

          She could hear the uncaring smile in his voice as he replied, “Just reminding you of the bet you lost last night, and that you get to take over my morning rounds.”

          “I didn’t forget, Brad,” she replied. Unlike some idiots I know, she added silently. “I’ll be there, don’t worry. I just need a shower and a quick stop at the bank. Oh, hey, listen. Maybe you can answer a question for me.”

          “Fire away.”

          “Why is it that people hate like hell to get up so early in the mornin’ to go to work, but are happier’n hell to get up even earlier to go play golf?”

          “It’s the only way to be first in line to tee-off.”

          She scowled in bewilderment at the phone. His logic, at its best, was impaired. Much like the rest of what he calls his personality, she thought. “And on the DMV license renewal test, when they ask when’s the proper time to turn on your headlights, do you also answer ‘When everyone else does’?”

          Not being able to come up with a good response, he dodged the question. “You have a nice day.” The receiver clicked.

          “Shmuck,” she muttered to the silent phone. She went back to finish her workout.

***

          He regarded the prisoner with a look and a snort of cold distaste. “Americans,” he said. “It seems that just about anyone can be a soldier in the American army these days. It must be a sign of their ‘political correctness.’ Our leader Saddam Hussein would never allow such utter nonsense.”

          Dressed in desert camouflage fatigue pants and a matching tank top, the prisoner hung from manacled chains that were looped over a large steel hook, which had been screwed into a wooden beam that ran across the ceiling. The prisoner’s bare feet hung maybe a foot from the floor.

          The jailer approached the prisoner. “What do you have to say for yourself, you American pig?” he asked in a low, contemptuous voice.

          The prisoner’s head rose slightly, and piercing, deadly blue eyes gazed at him from beneath sweat-matted black bangs. “I am not... a ‘soldier’... you dumb fucking smeg-head piece of dog shit,” she growled as she bared her even, white teeth in a defiant snarl. “I’m a Marine.”

Flashback:

          Captain Tom Cooper had been observing the maintenance that the helicopter’s pilot was performing on the weapons system while Melissa Etheridge’s “All American Girl” blasted throughout the aircraft hanger. Cooper was a good chopper mechanic, but he believed there was always something new to learn—and he wanted to learn from the best. Who, at the moment, happened to be inside the government’s latest secret prototype combat helicopter. Its code-name was Ares. Resembling a cross between a Black Hawk combat helicopter and an F-117 Stealth fighter jet, it was long and sleek and black, and one of the deadliest air machines ever created. Exuding a sinister elegance that inspired absolute awe in its allies and blood-chilling terror in its enemies, it was easy to understand why this hybrid predator of the skies had been named after the ancient Greek God of War.

          Tucking a ratchet and a screwdriver into one of numerous pockets, the pilot addressed the keyboard in the engineer’s seat and gazed at it with piercing blue eyes. “Okay,” she said as she settled comfortably into the seat. Cooper crouched in the open hatch, watching over her shoulder. “Let’s see if we did this right.” If she were killed or incapacitated, there would be little she could do to stop someone from commandeering this machine; the controls were too similar to those of any other helicopter. But locking out the weapons system, and therefore minimizing the damage that this machine could cause, was another matter. She could deny weapons’ access to anyone who managed to seize Ares. She had been spending the last two hours doing precisely that by redesigning and rebuilding the electronics behind the weapons, and re-programming the onboard computer.

          She ran her hands through her hair to brush it behind her ears—it was collar-length in back, and perhaps mid-ear length on the sides—and quickly typed in her personal password, then hit “enter.” Something on the console responded with five quick beeps, and on the black screen that was set into the console the words “Weapons Systems Activated” blinked in angry red letters. Using the directional arrow keys on the right side of the keyboard, she ran a green light-bar up and down the on-screen list of weapons that had suddenly appeared beneath a computer-generated icon.

          She grinned like a black wolf. “Cool,” she growled softly.

          “What is this thing, anyway?” Cooper asked. He was running his hand over an odd-looking painting that decorated the pilot’s hatch, standing out in stark contrast against the blackness of the aircraft’s metallic skin.

          “That, amico mio,” Major Gina Ryan replied, exhibiting her Italian and Kiwi-American roots, “is a chakram.”

          “A what?”

          “It’s an ancient weapon that dates back a couple thousand years,” Ryan replied. “At least, I seem to recall it does...” Her voice trailed off into thought.

          “Oh, yeah?” Coop asked. “I didn’t know you were into ancient weaponry.”

          “It’s just another one of my hobbies,” Ryan said. “Philosophy, mythology, ancient weapons; they’ve always held a special interest for me. The weird thing, though, is that in all the research I’ve done, I’ve never come across it in any books or museums.”

          “So how do you know what it is?”

          “I don’t know,” she replied distantly. She had seen it, many times. But only in a recurring dream of...

          She shrugged it off. “I guess it’s just a product of my own li’l imagination.” Then she smiled a dazzling smile. “Looks cool, though, doesn’t it?”

          She didn’t care to go into the part of that dream about the woman who was constantly with her; the high-spirited young blonde who always made her feel so warm and comforted, and so loved. She felt like...Home. Nor did she mention anything about the ringing and echoing clash of steel on steel, the flying and choking dust, and the dire warning of “Gabrielle! Look out!!” that always jolted her out of her sleep, drenched in cold sweat and with a frantically pounding heart. On the one hand, she wanted to push the dream out of her mind so she could concentrate on her job; on the other, she wanted very much to remember the warm and comforting feelings that always seemed to be associated with her—whoever this imaginary person might be. If she could just sleep in a little later, she thought, she might remember her, and perhaps even conquer those dark and threatening forces that always seemed to endanger them, and which always jolted her awake.

          Returning her attention to the job at hand, she wiped the sweat from her brow with one sleeve of her coveralls, brushing aside black bangs that flopped back into place.

          “You believe in dreams?” Cooper asked. “I mean, that they really mean something other than the subconscious being at play while the body is catching some z’s?”

          “I don’t know,” Ryan replied with a sigh as she deactivated the weapons systems and began to tuck the wiring back in before closing up the circuit boards and screwing the small panels shut. “It’s not like I’ve ever done any deep research in dream analysis or REM states, or anything like that. It’s just that... Sometimes I just get a feeling...” Her voice trailed off as she was momentarily lost in thought. “Someone once told me, a long time ago, that we only use about twenty percent of our brain potential. So who knows what that other eighty percent might be capable of—precognition? Clairvoyance? Maybe even the retention of past-life memories?” Not that the Church would ever even dare to consider that, she added wryly and silently.

          Coop had smiled skeptically. “Past-life memories? Yeah, right...” he had said. She had smiled along with him, and had gone back to work.

          Most people thought of her as a hardcore skeptic. She, on the other hand, thought of herself as an open-minded skeptic, which meant she was willing to accept an idea as long as there was legitimate evidence or logical reasoning behind it. On the flip side, she had also grown up in a family that was devoutly Roman Catholic, so she frequently found herself in that delicate position where, on the one hand, she insisted on irrefutable, concrete evidence to back up any principle or belief; yet on the other hand, when she had no answers or explanations for her own beliefs, she (however reluctantly) relied on faith. The universe was a mighty big place, she had concluded a long time ago, and while she preferred to rely on her own gut instinct, her own abilities and her own spirit, she also had to admit that anything was possible.

          She couldn’t remember how long ago that was. It was difficult to remember anything right now. But she did remember that Coop was dead now, shot point-blank in the back of the head by the enemy. He hadn’t been able to make it back to Ares with her, not with his shattered ankle, and she had sworn that she wouldn’t leave him behind—no matter how much he had pleaded with her to get to the helicopter and get the hell out of here. Their mission had been completed; it was up to her to get back to base with the intel that they had gathered.

          “No way,” she had told him. “No fuckin’ way I’m leaving you behind.”

          That was when the second squad of Saddam Hussein’s “elite guards” had come up on them from the south and found them hiding from the first squad behind the sand dune. Cooper had been unable to march back to the bunker, and none of the Iraqis was willing to help him...so they had shot him instead.

          And it’s my fault, she thought. The original plan had been to perform high-altitude surveillance; snap some pictures and then go home. Tom wanted to do a high-altitude surveillance, but no—I had to bring us down here and go in on foot for a closer look.

          But the intelligence they had gathered... It was the only way they could have obtained it, and now that she knew what the enemy was building she had to escape. It was the only way she could prevent World War III, and quite possibly save the world from nuclear Armageddon.

          She couldn’t help thinking right now that she was a long, long way from her home town of Cheyenne, Wyoming. She was battered and bruised, and on the brink of complete exhaustion. And hanging here in these chains didn’t help matters any. She sighed and groaned, and tilted her head back to ease the strain on the back of her neck. When I get out of this, she thought as her guard returned to his chair once more, someone is going to pay big time!

***

          Attired in dazzling, non-dress Navy whites, Lt. Cmdr. Duncan stood in line at the bank, tapping one foot in mild impatience as she glanced at her black sports watch again. There were a lot of military personnel here; the naval air station was nearby, and it provided a vast number of customers.

          “Nobody move!” someone suddenly shouted. “This is a holdup!”

          What!? Duncan thought, more in disbelief than in dismay, as she turned toward the source of the voice. You’ve got to be kidding me! I don’t have time for this crap!

          Suddenly there were the sounds of a scuffle, and then a gunshot rang out. Civilians screamed everywhere; some of them dropped to the floor to avoid being shot while others panicked like a flock of pigeons, running pell-mell without a thought as to where they ought to be going. The military people kept their heads and raised their hands, and wished they’d had their weapons; they would have made short work of this brainless thief.

          A second shot rang out as Duncan pinpointed the origin of the scuffle. A Marine Corps gunnery sergeant, dressed in jungle camouflage fatigues, had been grappling with the would-be robber. The robber was now down on the floor with half of his head blown away by his own gun while the Marine was falling to join him with a bullet in his abdomen.

          Sailors and fellow Marines swarmed in to see if they could help him.

          “Out of my way!” Duncan yelled as she pushed her way through the gathering crowd. “Get out of my way! Medical personnel coming through here!” They parted like a sea of white, khaki and forest camouflage, granting her access, and she dropped to her knees to quickly assess his injury. One round, probably a .38 or a 9mm, most likely in his spleen. She couldn’t tell without an x-ray. Damn, she thought as she pressed her handkerchief against his wound in an effort to slow, if not stop, the bleeding. The handkerchief was already soaked.

          “What’s his status?” asked a Naval officer who was suddenly crouching next to them.

          Duncan took note of the four golden stripes of a captain on each black shoulder board. “Gunshot wound, upper belly. He’s bleeding heavily.” She glanced around the gathering crowd. “Anybody got a bandanna?”

          A dozen or so suddenly appeared from the surrounding contingent of sailors and Marines. She took several, and without removing her handkerchief she pressed them, one at a time as needed, against the wound. The coagulating blood that soaked into several layers of cotton material helped to slow the bleeding, but it still did not stop.

          The captain turned to one of the men next to him. “Get to a phone and call 911, petty officer.”

          “Belay that last!” Duncan ordered, with her attention still focused on her patient. “We don’t have time to wait for an ambulance!” Ignoring the senior officer’s sudden disapproving frown, she then turned her eyes to the enlisted man who was crouching next to him. “You his driver?” She indicated the captain with a sideways motion of her head.

          “Yes ma’am.”

          “Good. Bring his car up to the front door; we need immediate transport!”

          The captain scowled at her, but she didn’t care. “You—” She turned to a young ensign who stood next to her, and with hands that were already drenched in gore she fished out her cellular telephone from the small holster on her belt. Bright streaks and ugly blotches of stark red smeared against the white material. “Call the base and tell them to fire up an OR, we’ve got a critically wounded man on the way!”

          “Yes ma’am!” Immediately, he flipped it open and dialed rapidly.

          The captain’s scowl deepened. He didn’t like the way this mere woman—this youngster who didn’t look a day over twenty-seven—was taking control of the situation. After all, he was the captain here; it was his job, his privilege. He hadn’t spent all these years in the Navy to have his command seized from him by some female officer who looked like a mere kid. Nor did he want blood all over his seats. After all, he had meetings to attend once this was all over and done with. “Now wait just a damn minute,” he said. His hand clamped around the petty officer’s arm as the enlisted man prepared to dash off. “Hang on there.” He turned on Duncan. “Who the hell are you to—”

          “Gabriella Duncan,” she replied, her cold eyes matching the captain’s. “Doctor Gabriella Duncan.” She turned back on the driver. “Are you still here? Get that car, sailor! Now!

          “Belay that order!” the captain shouted. Addressing Duncan once more, he said, “I don’t know who the hell you think you are, commander,” he added emphatically, reminding her of his superior rank, “commandeering my car and taking charge of my personnel... The admiral is definitely going to hear about this!”

          She narrowed her eyes dangerously. “Five-five-five, twenty-three twenty-seven,” she said, her east Texas accent rising with her ire. “That’s his home number. He should be settlin’ down to breakfast right about now; I’m sure he’ll appreciate hearin’ from you.”

          The captain glared angrily at her, but he did shut up. How did she have access to the admiral’s home phone? Who the hell was she?

          “All due respect, captain, but this is a medical emergency,” she said. “So y’all can either lend a hand, or get the FUCK outta my way!!” She turned back to the surrounding sailors and marines. “Where’s that fuckin’ car?!” she roared.

          “On the way, ma’am!” a marine corporal replied. Even as he spoke, there was the screeching of tires right outside the door.

          “All right, Marines!” she said. “Let’s move ‘im out!” Keeping direct pressure on his wound, she looked into the eyes of the wounded sergeant as his brothers carefully lifted him and carried him toward the door. “You just hang in there, Gunny,” she said, her voice pleading softly yet her green eyes determined. “You hear me? That’s a goddamn order. You hang in there!”

***

          With her blonde hair tied back in a sensible French braid, and dressed in loose-fitting surgical blues and a white smock that bore her name tag, rank and medical insignia, and with a stethoscope draped around her neck and a clipboard full of medical records under one arm, Dr. Gabriella Duncan stepped out of the elevator and into the crowded hospital corridor to a round of enthusiastic applause. Visibly taken aback, she froze for a moment, and then smiled shyly as the crimson color rose in her face. News of the shooting and the emergency care and surgery she had provided for the fallen Marine had traveled quickly, and so had the good news that the man was out of danger.

          “All right, people,” she said modestly as she proceeded toward one of the private rooms. “This is a hospital, not a football stadium. Let’s settle down now.”

          “Hey, Doc!” a nearby voice called out. “When are you gonna transfer out of that wimpy Navy and join the Corps? Word has it you’re a natural-born Marine!” A number of other voices responded with a resounding “Oo-rah!” of agreement.

          With a finger to her lips, she motioned for silence. “I’ll transfer to the Corps just as soon as all you crazy Devil Dogs realize you’re not bullet-proof,” Gabriella replied with a soft voice and a charming summer smile that warmed both the heart and the soul. She pushed open the door with her shoulder and stepped into the quiet private room. She was loathe to awaken her patient, but she did need to check on him.

          “Hey, Gunny,” she whispered softly with an encouraging smile as she approached him. “How’re you feelin’?”

          Gunnery Sergeant William Boone cracked open his eyes, and then smiled when the fog cleared. “Hey, Doc,” he said, his voice dry and soft. “Thirsty... really thirsty...”

          Duncan poured a glass of water from the plastic pitcher, then positioned the straw and held the glass so the sergeant could take a sip. “Not too much,” she  gently warned him. Putting the glass back on the small movable table, she finally settled down on the edge of the bed and began checking the dressing around the thin rubber Penrose drain that protruded from the wounded man’s abdomen.

          “Admiral on the deck,” he tried to say, but the doctor gently shushed him. Then she glanced over her shoulder.

          “Admiral Hastings,” she said, once again smiling that Gabriella Duncan smile. “Good afternoon, sir.” Rather than rising quickly and snapping to attention with a salute, as was customary when a superior officer arrived, she continued to see to her patient. Not that she meant any disrespect; it’s just that she was a doctor first and a Naval officer second. Perhaps that was why Admiral Hastings admired and respected her so much; he knew that his people were in the best of medical care when Dr. Gabriella Duncan was on watch. He knew when to pull rank on her, and when not to. Conversely, she was perfectly willing to follow military protocol; she fully understood the necessity of the chain of command. But when it came to the care of her patients—especially in an emergency situation—there was absolutely no questioning the fact that she was in command, and military rank be damned.

          “Good afternoon, Doctor,” he said as he watched her work. “I heard you had some excitement this morning. Something about hijacking a captain’s car outside of a bank?”

          Her smile changed to an apologetic one. “I meant to get back to you about that, sir,” she said as she continued to tend to her patient, “it’s just that I’ve been—”

          “No explanation necessary, Commander, I’ve already been briefed by a number of witnesses,” Admiral Hastings said as his gaze took in the number of patient records on her clipboard. Then he settled down on the other side of the bed as he regarded the young Marine. “How’re you feeling, son?” he asked Gunnery Sergeant Boone.

          “Ready and itching to get back to work, sir,” the young Marine replied weakly.

          “Hey, not this week, Marine,” Gabriella told him with a smile. “You just rest up some more, and keep on healing. You’re doing fine.” She made a notation in the patient’s record, then rose to her feet.

          So did the admiral. “I can see you’ve already got a full plate in front of you. Which makes me feel a little guilty about adding one more item.”

          “Captain Blair?” she asked with mild uneasiness. Blair was the captain from the bank this morning, and evidently he had wasted little time in reporting the incident to the admiral. There was no telling what kind of shit she was going to catch on account of him.

          “Captain Blair is currently cooling his heels on board a C-130 cargo plane headed for Antarctica,” the admiral told her at last, as they exited the patient’s room and stepped out into the corridor once more. “No, I’m afraid it’s something completely different. I’ll need to see you in my office once you’ve finished with your rounds.”

          “Of course, sir.” She checked her watch. “I should be finished by sixteen-thirty.”

          The admiral nodded once. “Very good, Commander, sixteen-thirty. Carry on.”

          This time, she did snap to attention. Not out of respect for his uniform or even for his rank, but rather out of respect for the man himself. Squaring her shoulders and gazing straight ahead, she said, “Aye aye, sir.”

          He turned and headed down the corridor toward the elevators, and then paused for one more glance over his shoulder as she continued in the other direction to proceed with her rounds. I’ll never understand how she can do it all, he thought. Doctor, naval officer...spy...

***

          “Are you familiar with Ares?

          They were seated in the admiral’s wood-paneled office. Brilliant sunlight streamed in through the picture window behind the admiral’s chair, which revealed blue skies, a few swirls of white, marble-like clouds, and an excellent view of the Pacific Ocean.

          Dressed once more in casual Navy whites, and with one leg draped over the other, Duncan shifted slightly in the expensive brown, leather-padded chair. “Ancient Greek god of war,” she replied. “He was the son of Zeus and Hera; nephew of Hades, the lord of the underworld; the brother of Aphrodite, the goddess of love; and half-brother of Hercules...and a general pain in the posterior to most of his acquaintances.”

          “There’s nothing wrong with your Greek mythology,” the admiral said, “but what I have in mind is a different Ares. In brief, it’s a hybrid of the AH 64A Apache attack helicopter, an RAH 66 Comanche armed reconnaissance chopper, and a UH 60 Black Hawk combat helicopter. It also seems to be missing.”

          Duncan arched one eyebrow. “Missing, sir?”

          “It was on an undercover recon flight, gathering routine intel. For reasons unknown, its crew decided to land and go in on foot. Evidently, they’ve been taken prisoner. Naval Intelligence and CIA say they’ve pinpointed their location; the State Department is hoping you can negotiate a release. Perhaps trade some new medical technology in exchange for Ares’s crew.”

          “What about Ares itself?”

          Hastings sighed. “Unknown. The self-destruct may or may not have been activated. The only way to find out is by asking the pilot. If it hasn’t been, we need to get it back. We’ve been monitoring as well as we can via surveillance satellites, and so far we haven’t picked up any explosions, so we’re assuming Ares is still intact. And if the Iraqis want to find it, it’s crew also needs to be intact so they’ll have someone to question.

          “You’re to meet with Sallah Muhammad; he’s the local State Department field officer. His orders are to negotiate a meeting between you and the Iraqi government.”

          Duncan nodded once. “When do I leave, sir?”

          “Right now.”

***

          Saddam Hussein himself, huh? was her first, unimpressed thought when her eyes fell on him. Dressed in Navy khakis—a shipboard working uniform, as opposed to the casual whites or the more formal Navy blues—she regarded him with mild puzzlement. Somehow, I thought he’d be a little taller than that, she told herself. And a little younger. And maybe thinner. He looks like an overfed black poodle with an ulcer and a bad tooth.

          “So,” the Iraqi dictator said with a diabolically charming smile, “what is it that we can do for you?”

          “I’ve heard you have some American prisoners,” Duncan replied. She knew that there was no chance of being allowed to meet with them, but she had to see them first, and then form a plan to get them. “Look. I’ve been sent here on a goodwill mission. If you would be willing to release the prisoners, I could stay behind and help your medical people get caught up with the 21st century.”

          Saddam’s face fell just slightly. “Excuse me?”

          “Everyone knows your medical technology is...geez, how can I put this delicately?” She thought for a moment. “The pits,” she finished at last.

          Saddam’s smile vanished completely. “The...pits?” He wasn’t quite familiar with the vernacular.

          “Bottom of the barrel,” Duncan said. “Backward. Ancient. I mean, for the love of God, man, your medical people are about as bright as...oh, Jesus, words fail me.” She raised a questioning, golden eyebrow. “Have any of your doctors heard of penicillin yet? Are your people still treating patients with leeches and exorcism? I mean, hel-lo! Earth to Saddam! When the hell are you guys gonna wake up and join the 21st century?”

          Now he was scowling in rage.

          “Oh, don’t go looking all like that,” Duncan said placatingly. “I’m here to help! I’ll tell you what: You let the prisoners go, and I’ll introduce your doctors to antibiotics and antiseptics. What do you say?” She glanced around the circle of scowling, angry, and red-faced Iraqis, and smiled her sweetest and most innocent smile. “Yeah?” she asked brightly.

***

          “Was it something I said?” Duncan called out as the door to the dungeon clanged shut, its metallic sounds reverberating throughout the chamber. Hanging from her chains, she tilted her head back to stare at the ceiling and groaned. “Aw, man...one little mistake...” She had expected to be imprisoned. That had been part of the overall plan; to meet the prisoners, evaluate their medical condition, and then formulate an escape. But she hadn’t planned on the chains. She seemed to remember doing something similar, once; something about black wolves now stuck in her mind. After a bit more reflection, she decided that it must have been in a dream, or perhaps something she had seen on television.

          “Be assured that you will not have to wait long to pay for it,” the lone guard said as he settled down in his chair. He tilted it back against the cement wall and put his feet up on the wooden table. He opened a magazine on his lap and began to read, his lips moving visibly.

          “Terrific,” she muttered.

          “So they got you, too, huh?” asked the tall, black-haired woman who hung near her. She had already recognized the uniform.

          She turned as well as she could to face her, throwing her entire body into the movements that turned her only slightly. “Yeah,” she said, attempting to smile pleasantly. “I’m Gabriella Duncan.”

          The other woman nodded once, sullenly. “Gina Ryan. Glad to meet you.”

          “Same here,” Duncan said. “I’d shake your hand, but...” Here her smile became apologetic, and she shrugged as well as she could. “...I’m a little tied up.”

          Ryan stared coldly at her.

          Gabriella’s smile faltered, and then disappeared. There was something about that cold, silencing look that struck her with an odd sense of familiarity. She watched the woman as she thought about it for a brief moment, and then dismissed the idea.

          Slowly, Ryan turned her face away from her as a tiny, reluctant smile tugged at one corner of her mouth. “Yeah,” she growled, “I know the feeling.”

          Duncan glanced around as well as she could, and noticed that, except for the guard, they were alone. “So where’s the rest of your crew?” she asked, her voice soft.

          “Dead.”

          Duncan grimaced sympathetically. “I’m sorry.”

          “Yeah, so am I... So what’re you doing here?”

          Duncan dropped her voice to a whisper. “Actually,” she replied, “I’m here to rescue you.”

          “Are you?” she asked, with a curious, silken tone that also contained a hint of sarcasm. She was about to tell her that she’d blown it big-time, but...but all of a sudden, she was reluctant to shatter this young blonde’s spirit. For a fleeting moment, Ryan had the impression that she might have met this kid somewhere before, but she couldn’t quite pinpoint the face or the place.

          She shook the thought off. “Yeah, right,” she said at last. “And who’s gonna rescue you, junior?” Suddenly, she smiled scornfully. It was a beautiful and breathtaking smile—but also a dangerous one. “Don’t tell me, let me guess: You’re SEAL Team Six. Right?”

          The guard looked up from his magazine. The short, irritating blonde was a SEAL?

          “Hey!” Gabriella hissed sharply. “I coulda been a SEAL!”

          The guard leaned forward to listen more closely, wondering if he might pick up some valuable information.

          “Oh, yeah? Don’t they have a minimum height requirement or something?” the six-foot-tall Marine asked.

          “Hey listen, ‘Stretch,’” Duncan snarled back with rising wrath. “If you’re such a badass Marine, what the hell are you doin’ here? Huh? What, were y’all lookin’ for Iwo Jima and get lost or somethin’ without the Navy around to point you in the right fuckin’ direction?”

          “Hey!” she snapped, suddenly glaring dangerously at her. “You watch your mouth, blondie, or I’m gonna kick your little Navy-squid ass from here to fuckin’ Hell and back!”

          They weren’t SEALs after all, the guard concluded. Just a couple of jabbering, bickering, American women. He returned to his magazine.

          “Oh, you’re gonna kick my ass? You and what army? Oh, no, wait—I forgot.” Suddenly, her voice became a mocking sneer. “You’re a Marine, aren’t you? Big, bad, big-ass Marine!

          Ryan tried to lunge at her, but the chains held her securely in place. “You just wait til I’m out of here, you little snot rag!” she roared. “I’m gonna rip you a new asshole, right between those two zits you call breasts!”

          Duncan lunged back at her, with equal success. “Oh, yeah?” the cantankerous doctor roared back, thrashing uselessly in her own chains. “Y’all want a piece of me? Well, come on, sister! Come an’ get some, y’fuckin’ jarhead!

          “You fuckin’ little squid! I’m gonna deep-fry your fuckin’ calamari little ass and feed it to my fuckin’ cat!

          The guard was growing weary of their bickering. “That’s enough from the both of you. Be quiet!”

          In unison, they turned toward him and yelled, “Fuck off!”

          The guard leapt to his feet as he suddenly tossed away his magazine. “Foul-mouthed American pig-dogs!” he shouted. “You will be silent!

          “Bacia mi culo!” Ryan snapped at him. “Kiss my ass, you worthless maggot! We’re having a private discussion here!”

          “Yeah!” the young blonde agreed. “Why don’t y’all go stick your head up your drippy, hemorrhoidal ass and breathe deep? Y’little fuckwad!”

          He approached them quickly, with a side-handled baton in one hand as his boot heels echoed solidly throughout the underground chamber. “You do not speak to me in such a manner, you impudent American infidels!” Approaching Gabriella, he threateningly tapped the wooden baton against his hand.

          “Hey, dickless!” Ryan yelled. “What’s the matter? You gonna go beat on blondie ‘cause you’re scared of me? You fucking coward! I bet you got balls like a squirrel, don’t you?”

          He turned toward her with rage in his eyes. Gabriella turned toward her, too, with disbelief and shock in hers. A moment ago, the tall Marine was talking about ripping her apart; now she was trying to save her from a savage beating.

          “I will be most happy to beat on you instead, infidel,” he said with a sneer as he stepped forward. He raised the baton high—

          —and with astonishing speed, Ryan suddenly brought up both feet, and with the force of a battering ram she slammed her heels into the middle of his chest.

          He dropped the baton with a clatter of wood on cement, and went flying backward to slam against the concrete wall. He hit the wall so hard, he actually bounced from it like a pinball, and staggered toward her. He raised a fist weakly, and when he was within striking range, Ryan brought her feet up again and slammed them into his chest a second time, sending him flying backward once more. Again, he slammed against the wall, bounced from it, and staggered forward, even more weakly this time, with his arms flopping uselessly. Once more, Ryan hoisted herself up by her chain and slammed her feet into his chest a third time. This time, however, instead of bouncing and staggering forward, the back of his head smacked solidly against the cement wall with an ugly cracking sound. He slumped to the floor and remained in an unmoving pile of limbs, head and torso.

          Duncan watched in amazement, which quickly became open admiration. “Whoa! Nice move!” she said. “But what do we do when he wakes up?”

          “He’s not gonna wake up,” Ryan said, her voice suddenly straining as she brought up her knees and tilted backward. “The first thing I had to do was to get him close enough to take him out. And believe me—” Here, her voice tightened even more as she pulled her legs up and draped them over the wooden beam from which she was hanging. “—I don’t think I could have done it without you.” Her breath exploded from her lungs in a heavy sigh as she lifted her chain from the hook.

          Gabriella brightened visibly, and smiled. “Really?”

          “Yeah,” she said, now hanging upside down with a groan of relief as she finally gave her arms a chance to rest. “I knew you’d be able to draw him closer because you’re an irritating little blonde squid.” Hanging by her knees, she took hold of the hook in both hands, then slipped her legs from the cross beam and dropped lightly to the cement floor. Duncan watched her with a stung expression in her eyes that quickly turned into a dark scowl (I am not irritating! she thought) as the tall Marine went to the unconscious guard and took his keys, and uncuffed herself. Next, she took a handful of his hair and yanked his head back, and then took his bayonet and slit the man’s throat. That’s for killing Coop, you son of a bitch. Burn in Hell, she silently told him as Duncan paled at the cold-blooded act.

          She went back, and wrapped her arms around Duncan’s hips. “So where’s your backup?” she asked as she lifted her so that the young blonde could slip her own chain from its hook.

          She was a little reluctant to answer. Finally, she said, “Umm...there is no backup.”

          She eased her down and looked with surprise into her eyes. “What?! No backup? What the fuck kind of TARFU rescue is this?” She clenched her teeth and shook her head. “Jesus Bloody-H. Christ...” she muttered with just a trace of her father’s Kiwi accent as she started to unlock her cuffs...and then she slowed and stopped as she looked into her eyes. Those eyes...she could have sworn she knew those lively and expressive green eyes, with the little flecks of gold in them. She felt as though she was on the verge of remembering something that was staying just out of her reach.

          “Hey, sorry,” Duncan muttered sarcastically as she watched the Marine’s hands slow and then stop. “Maybe I shoulda stayed home...” She looked up, and noticed the odd look in the statuesque brunette’s cool blue eyes. “What?” she asked warily.

          She continued to watch the young blonde guardedly for a long moment...and then shook her head and dismissed the thought as she resumed unlocking the handcuffs. She went to the dead guard and crouched over him, and relieved him of the rest of his weapons—his Makarov pistol and his AK-47.

          “Well, I did tell you so,” Duncan said, following close behind her as she massaged her aching wrists.

          Ryan glanced over her shoulder to regard her with mild annoyance in her eyes. “Tell me so, what?”

          The blonde smiled smugly. “That I came to rescue you.”

          Ryan watched her for another long moment with a steely gaze...and then turned away because she didn’t want her to see the reluctant little smile that was pulling insistently at one corner of her mouth. She rose and handed her the Makarov, and again she thought that she had to have known this high-spirited young blonde somewhere before, but...damn it, she just couldn’t remember where or when. God, it was driving her nuts! Finally, instead of trying to figure it all out, she decided to just go with the flow. “Yeah, you did,” she said as she smacked the weapon into her hand. “Did those Navy squids teach you how to use one of these?”

          Recalling the shooting lessons her father had taught her and her sisters back home in Texas, she removed its clip to check its ammunition status. Satisfied that it was full, she slipped it back into the weapon’s butt and racked the slide back to chamber a round. “Yeah,” she replied with mild sarcasm. “They teach us shootin’ in medical school—between gross anatomy, pharmacology, and tank-drivin’. And all without some goddamn jarhead gettin’ in the way.” She let the slide snap back into place, and expertly eased the hammer down with her thumb and a gentle squeeze of her trigger finger. “We got to spend our summers shootin’ at cadavers and havin’ a grand ol’ time,” she finished as she then slipped the weapon into her belt at the small of her back.

          Ryan stared at her for a quick and cautious second or two. “You musta gone to one mean med school,” she finally said under her breath as she slipped the bayonet into her belt. Then she took the Kalashnakov’s magazine from its well, checked its status, then rammed it back into place and racked the bolt back, chambering a round.

          Duncan watched the Marine as she prepared for combat. It wasn’t the rifle that she held in one hand, but rather the bayonet at her hip that once again made her look so uncannily and infuriatingly familiar. “So,” she said, eyeing the weapons, “...you have a cat?”

***

          “I keep getting this incredible sense of deja vu,” Gabriella whispered softly as they slowly crept forward, keeping low and close to the wall. Out in the cool evening air, they were stealthily making their way toward an open jeep. There were three soldiers standing next to it; a fourth one sat in the driver’s seat with the engine running.

          Gina glanced at her over her shoulder. “Y’know, I was about to say the same thing. Are you sure we haven’t met somewhere before?”

          The blonde looked thoughtful. “Ever been to Dallas?” she asked, her voice cautiously low.

          Ryan also looked thoughtful as she continued to watch the enemy soldiers. “Nope,” she whispered. “You ever been to Cheyenne? Belgrade? Mogadishu?”

          “Nope. What about Singapore? Anchorage? Ever been to Venice? What about Athens?” Gabriella suddenly asked. “Ever been there?”

          Ryan stopped and considered that last one; it was going to need a little more thought.

          Then she returned her attention to more pressing matters. “I’d like to continue playing ‘Twenty Questions’ to pass the time, but that’s our ride,” she said softly as she indicated with the muzzle of the AK. “All we have to do is get rid of the excess baggage. Get ready to—”

          A soldier suddenly stepped from around the corner some thirty feet behind them, surprising them as much as their presence surprised him. “Alarm!” he shouted, reaching for his weapon, with Duncan standing between him and Ryan.

          “Gabriella!” Ryan shouted as she pushed her out of the way. “Look out!” Before the soldier could ready his weapon, she raised hers in one hand and shot him square in the face.

          The crew by the jeep turned and spotted the two escaping prisoners.

          Ryan spun and dropped the weapon into her other hand, and braced the metal stock against her shoulder. Rapidly sighting down the barrel, with her feet spread and her shoulders squared in a professional shooter’s stance, she quickly fired off one round per target, hitting each in the head as Duncan sat, fallen on her butt, in stunned shock. The driver was the first to go down; next was the soldier behind him, and next was the one to his left. Three shots, three kills, all in just over one second. The last remaining soldier was unslinging and raising his own rifle, but he never had the chance to fire it; one more high-powered .308 bullet shattered his head like a discarded Halloween jack o’ lantern.

          She grabbed Duncan by the front of her blouse and hauled her to her feet, eliciting a yelp from the young blonde, and then they were off and running even as the last man fell. When they reached the jeep, Ryan’s eyes went wide. “Whoa!” And then she grinned that dazzling grin again, beaming like a kid on Christmas morning, when she identified the contents of the cardboard boxes that surrounded a belt-fed machine gun, which stood on a tripod in the rear of the jeep’s cargo bay. “Hot damn!”

          “What is it?” Gabriella asked.

          “Explosives!” Gina declared merrily. “Holy shit, have we got explosives!”

          “Good! I’ll drive—”

          “—and I’ll give you directions to Ares while I keep those little peckers honest with these bright and shiny toys.”

          Working together as though they had been a team for years, they dragged the driver’s body out of the seat, then Gabriella put the jeep in gear, and they took off as wailing sirens suddenly went off behind them. Four more jeeps quickly fell into pursuit behind them.

          With her ice-blue eyes narrowed dangerously, Ryan braced herself in the back of the jeep and racked back the bolt on the machine gun, and with a wild yell she opened fire. Bright red muzzle flashes illuminated her in the darkness as a continuing burst of fire erupted from the barrel. Return fire from the pursuing soldiers forced Duncan to swerve the jeep in a zig-zag course in order to avoid being hit; unfortunately, it was also throwing Ryan’s aim off. She did, however, manage to take out the first jeep. It burst into flames, and veered off to one side.

          Ryan tore open one of the boxes and took out a fragmentation grenade, and yanked its pin. “Eat this, you motherfuckers!” she shouted as she threw it.

          The pursuing jeep that had taken the lead veered off and the grenade missed. It exploded off to one side, throwing sand and rocks everywhere.

          Gabriella’s eyes were riveted forward, and they widened in terror when she saw the motorized chain link gate rolling across their escape route.

          Reaching for another grenade, Gina saw it, too. Her sapphire eyes widened in horror. “Veer off!” she shouted. “We’re not gonna make it!”

          Duncan crushed the gas pedal to the floor, and steered straight for the gate. “We’ll make it! We’ll make it!” she shouted back. In an instinctive effort to make herself smaller so that she might squeeze through the narrowing aperture, she hunched over the steering wheel.

          “Break it off! Break it off!” Ryan shouted again. “It’s too close—we’ll never make it!”

          “Yes we will!” Gabriella shouted back. “Shut up and keep firing!”

          Gina glared angrily at her only for a moment before returning her attention to their pursuers. She picked up another grenade, pulled its pin, and threw it at the lead jeep. It veered out of the way, and the grenade missed it; fortunately, though, it landed directly in the lap of the next jeep’s driver. When he realized what it was, he lunged madly for it in an attempt to toss it out just as it went off, blowing off his face and hands.

          The chain link fence was looming before them, with the gap shrinking rapidly as the gate slid shut. We’re not gonna make it, Ryan thought once more as they rapidly approached. She didn’t have the heart to tell the young blonde, though; it wouldn’t do any good to say anything anyway. She admired her determination, though, and she thought that it was better to die while trying to escape. After all, no one lived forever...

          And then they were through, with only scant centimeters to spare.

          Never taking her eyes from the road, Gabriella whooped in delight. “I told you we’d make it!” she shouted over the gunfire and the screaming engine.

          Behind Duncan’s back, Ryan grinned at her in open admiration. I’ll be damned, she thought, she did it! Just like in— She stopped. Just like in what?

          The last two jeeps, unable to stop in time, slammed into the electrified gate and exploded into massive showers of sparks and flames.

          Ryan settled into the passenger seat and breathed a deep sigh of relief. “Kill your headlights!” she told the driver, shouting over the scream of the engine and the roar of the wind.

          “Isn’t it a little dark for that?” she shouted back.

          “I don’t want those guys to see us! Besides, I can see well enough without them! We need to pick up Ares!

          Duncan nodded in agreement. “It’ll be nice to get out of here and go home!”

          “We can’t leave yet!”

          Gabriella looked at her, her incredulous eyes wide as her heart fell into her stomach. “An’ just why the hell not?

          “Y’know that dungeon we were held in?”

          “What about it?”

          “It’s a breeder reactor!”

          Gabriella’s green eyes went even wider as the expression in them shifted from incredulity to shock. “Oh God, no.” Her suddenly soft voice quavered with terror.

          Gina saw the look in her eyes, and nodded grimly.

          Oh, dear God, Duncan thought, her eyes back on the landscape before them. Oh God, oh God...the bastards are building nukes! She glanced back at Ryan. “Gina, we gotta stop ‘em!”

          “I agree! That’s why we need Ares!

          Duncan glanced to her right, and didn’t like what she saw. “Then we’d better haul ass!” she shouted with grim determination.

          Ryan saw them, too. Less than half a mile to their right were three more pairs of headlights headed toward them. One of the jeeps was sweeping the area with a powerful spotlight. It flashed in Ryan’s eyes, swept past her, and then swept back to freeze on her. “Shit! They’ve made us!”

          “How much farther to Ares?

          She strained her eyes in the darkness. Suddenly, her arm shot forward with one finger pointing. “There! Eleven o’clock!”

          Duncan glanced slightly to her left and spotted the chopper. It looked like a long, sleek tiger shark—armed with rockets, air-to-air missiles and machine guns—that had suddenly emerged from the murky depths of the ocean. Some of its stealth-configured angles gleamed faintly in the dim starlight, while the rest of the fuselage was obscured by inky blackness.

          They pulled up alongside the helicopter just as the three pursuing jeeps opened fire on them. Bullets punched holes in their jeep and glanced off Ares’s armor plating, and snapped at their heels as the two women ran for it. Ryan turned with another wild yell to face their pursuers as Duncan rushed for the hatch, flicked the AK’s selector switch from semi automatic to full, and fired a long burst, sweeping the barrel back and forth and taking down three more bad guys, and exhausting the magazine as return fire spat up sand around her feet. Tossing the now useless weapon away, and with a sudden yelp of pain, she pushed Duncan through the hatch and followed closely, and scrambled to pull the hatch shut again.

          As soon as Gabriella settled into the flight engineer’s seat, small, bright, and multi-colored lights came to life on the console and on every panel and bulkhead around her; she felt as though she were sitting inside a decorated Christmas tree. The only thing missing was the fresh scent of firs and pines. This is pretty neat, she thought as she pulled on her helmet.

          In the pilot’s seat, Gina was rapidly switching on the batteries and activating the helicopters’s rotors as the three jeeps continued to approach. As she pulled on her own helmet, the turbines came to life with a winding scream and in a moment desert sand was being blown about in an opaque cloud.

          With its rotor blades thudding against the air and its engines roaring, Ares rose only a few feet from the ground before the landing gear retracted into its belly, and swung ominously toward the Iraqi soldiers. Impervious to the small arms fire that sparked and ricocheted harmlessly against its armor-plated skin, and with the nose tipped downward slightly, it slowly approached the jeeps. But instead of opening fire on them, the incredibly powerful down blast of its rotors blew sand and rocks into their faces, and tipped the jeeps over to send them rolling down the sand dune. With a deafening roar, the helicopter lifted its nose once more and rose gracefully into the night sky, and headed east.

          “Wow,” Duncan said softly as she looked around the inside of the well-insulated cabin; she could barely hear the roar of the turbines or the thudding of the rotor above them. “This is pretty neat. What is all this stuff?”

          “Radios, scanners, radar, turbo boosters...” Ryan replied, her own voice soft in the nearly absolute silence. “Don’t worry, you’ll get a chance to use them.” She took a deep breath and let it out. “Okay. Chances are we’ve left at least one survivor behind, and we have to assume that they have a functioning radio—which means they’ve probably warned their buddies that we’re on our way. So that means we gotta hit ‘em low, hit ‘em hard, and hit ‘em fast. You see those rotor and turbine readouts on your right side?”

          Gabriella glanced around for a moment. “Got ‘em.”

          “On my five count, I need you to disengage the main rotor, and then bring the primary afterburners on line. You ready?”

          Gabriella nodded. With one hand on the rotor disengage switches and the other on the turbos, she said, “Standing by.”

          “Mark! Five...four...”

          She flicked off the short row of toggle switches to disengage the massive rotor that was spinning over their heads. As the RPM readout dropped to zero, and even though the forward momentum of high-speed flight was keeping them moving ahead, she could feel Ares begin to slowly dip as it was suddenly deprived of lift.

          “...three...two...”

          She squeezed the twin handles of the afterburner ignitor in one nervous, sweating hand as a sudden adrenalin rush surged through her bloodstream. Trying to slow her pounding heart, she took a deep breath.

          “...one...light ‘em up!”

          She slammed the handles forward. “Turbos!

          Gina squeezed the red trigger on the stick.

          Ares’s twin jet engines suddenly exploded into life and shot them forward, as though they had been suddenly fired from a rifle. A giant, invisible hand shoved Gabriella into the thickly padded seat, nearly crushing the air from her lungs, and the young blonde thought, Jesus! as her eyes frantically searched for, and then found, the airspeed indicator. A moment later, they widened even more in astonishment. Oh, my GOD! she thought as she watched their air speed shoot skyward. “Helicopters can’t do mach one!” she softly whispered to herself.

          “This one can,” Ryan replied, her voice electronically altered by the built-in microphone near her lips and the small built-in speaker next to Gabriella’s ear. “The best I’ve done so far is mach one-point-four. To be honest, I’ve been a little scared to take it any faster than that.”

          “Yeah, I heard this was a hybrid helicopter. Part Black Hawk, part Apache tank-killer, and part...what was it, Comanche armed recon?”

          “And the turbojets of an F-14 Tomcat fighter tacked on just for fun,” Ryan informed her. “And with the exterior stealth configuration, we’re not only fast; we’re invisible.”

          She stared at the back of Ryan’s helmet for a moment in mild surprise, and then a sly little smile crept across her lips. “Hoo-ya!” she said, her voice both soft and impressed, as half of her smile expanded into a wry grin. And then she noticed the altimeter, and the grin vanished. “Gina, we’re only flying at thirty feet.”

          “Yeah, I know,” she replied calmly as she guided Ares through the wide valleys between the sand dunes, banking it left and right with the practiced ease of over a thousand hours of intensive training. It was almost pitch-black outside, but with the night-vision built into the visors of their helmets the desert was bathed in a soft, green glow. “We gotta stay low. We may be invisible to radar, but not to human observers.”

          Nervously surveying the lay of the land ahead of them, Gabriella said, “Just don’t slam us into any sand dunes, okay?”

          Gina suddenly smiled a mischievous little smile. She pulled the stick straight back, just slightly, to quickly yet gently bring the chopper’s nose up; easing it forward again, the nose dipped similarly; and then, smoothly returning the stick to its original position, the aircraft stabilized again. It was like guiding a speeding Ferrari up and over a gentle slope without quite becoming airborne...or like jumping a war horse over an enemy’s flaming barrier. “You mean like that one?” she asked, her blue eyes sparkling playfully.

          “Cut that out, godamnit!” With the night-vision built into her own visor, Duncan, too, had noticed the lay of the land. And she did not in the least bit like having her heart rise into her throat and then plunge into her stomach.

          Gina’s smile broadened into a dazzling grin. “What’s the matter, Brie?” she asked as she brought Ares out of mach speed. “Don’t you like roller coasters?”

          “I HATE roller coasters!”

          “Aw, man...you’re no fun...”

          “You wanna see fun?” the young blonde asked, her voice threatening, as she re-engaged the main rotor. “You wanna see fun? By God, I’ll show you fun! How ‘bout I fuckin’ upchuck down the back of your god damn neck??

          Gina laughed.

          “And don’t you ever call me ‘Brie’ again, either, godamnit,” she grumbled as she returned her green eyes to the console. “I hate ‘Brie.’ ‘Brie’ is a cheese. My sisters call me ‘Baby Brie,’ my parents call me ‘Baby Brie,’ my cousins call me—”

          “Aw, c’mon,” Gina said, still grinning. Only now, the grin was one of fondness instead of amusement. It had taken a little while, but she had finally warmed up to this high-spirited young blonde. “What’s the matter with ‘Brie’? It’s short and sweet.” She turned her head back as far as her helmet and the seat’s headrest would allow in an attempt to observe her reaction. “Just like you.”

          She raised her eyes from her console, and regarded her coldly. “Bite me.”

          Gina faced forward once more, and shook with silent laughter at the young doctor’s absolute refusal to be mollified.

          Still simmering with anger, she returned to monitoring her numerous screens. “Uh oh,” she said, her displeasure vanishing to be replaced with disquiet. “I’m getting something on our forward scanner. More jeeps, machine gun bunkers, missile launchers loaded with Scuds and heat-seekers, half a dozen tanks...and an incoming round!”

          Ryan was checking her own screen. “Yeah, I see it. Looks like they’ve been warned.” She gently pushed the stick to the left, and a few moments later an explosive round went off to their right, rocking the aircraft. “Bring the weapons on line.”

          She hit the switch, and was rewarded with the message “access denied.” “It won’t let me in!”

          “Key in my password: Alpha, Romeo, Georgia, Ocean one.”

          She began typing. Then she looked up from the screen. “Alpha, Romeo, what?” she asked.

          Ryan growled in exasperation. “First letter of each word, Gab—” Another explosion went off near them, drowning her out. “That way there’s no mistaking what letter I’m calling for! ‘A’ as in Alpha! ‘R’ as in Romeo!”

          “I’m a doctor, godamnit, not a fuckin’ flight engineer!” she replied defensively as she erased her entry and began to key in the proper code. “...Georgia, Ocean, one...” she repeated to herself, hitting each letter. “Well, why the hell didn’t y’all just say ‘ARGO one’ in the first pl—” She stopped abruptly. She looked up at her with bewildered green eyes. “Argo?”

          There was a soft, rapid beeping sound that quickly recaptured her attention, and then those three angry red words appeared on the black inset screen once more: “Weapons Systems Activated.” A moment later, they were replaced once more by that computer-generated icon that slowly rotated on a ninety-degree axis and nearly filled the entire screen. “What the—?” she began to ask herself, when suddenly she recognized the icon. It was a flat, silvery steel ring that sparkled against the blackness of the screen, with squared, golden teeth painted on one side, and angular, razor-like blades painted on the other. A small, round stone of virtual amethyst was inset in the middle of each tooth and blade.

          “A chakram?” she softly asked herself, her eyes and voice puzzled.

          A list of weapons—fifty caliber chain guns, Sidewinder missiles, Hellfires, Mavericks, nuclear-tipped Shrikes, and half a dozen more—suddenly appeared under it. And as it did, she gasped as she was suddenly reminded of the dream that her alarm clock had shattered. The flying dust, the thundering hooves of the golden palomino, it’s owner shouting out “C’mon, Argo! Yeah!” and the swinging of a fighting staff...and the shouted words from the dark-haired and leather-clad warrior woman that echoed through her mind as she screamed out her name in warning— “Gabrielle! Look out!”—as the weapon on her screen had gone flying and ricocheting from the warlord’s helmet.

          “Holy shit,” she said, her voice a soft whisper, “that’s a chakram!” A cold chill washed over her as she stared at the familiar icon...and then sudden realization struck her like a hard, sharp, slap across the face as the final piece of the puzzle fell into place. Her eyes went wide, and her voice quavered. “Sweet mother of Zeus!” she said in a soft exclamation and with a racing heart as she raised her stunned eyes to stare at the back of the pilot’s helmet.

          In the pilot’s seat, the Marine’s eyes also went wide in sudden surprise. How the hell did she know what it is? she thought—

          —and then she, too, was suddenly flooded by the memories of that same recurring dream; the one about the spirited young blonde dressed in a two-tone green bodice, a rust-colored skirt and the brown leather boots, swinging her fighting staff and cracking the heads and shins of a band of ruffians...and then later, with short blonde hair and a red combat outfit, and the pair of sai that she had always carried in her boots...

          “Oh, my God!!” she said, her heart suddenly pounding within her chest and her astonished voice no more than a soft breath of a whisper. Once again, she struggled to look behind her. “Gabrielle??” she said, her voice choking and uncertain, yet daring to hope. “Is that you back there?”

          The young blonde’s dazzling green eyes suddenly welled with tears. After all of these years of thinking the statuesque, blue-eyed brunette in the leather battle garments was nothing more than a dream, a fantasy, merely a figment of a hopeful and overactive imagination. Could it actually be... “XENA??”

          The modern-day warrior suddenly felt those same tears brimming in her own eyes. With a pounding heart, there was nothing more she wanted right now than to leap into the flight engineer’s seat, throw her arms around her in a tight embrace, and bury her face against her; to inhale the familiar scent of her hair and skin deeply into her lungs, to feel the firmness and the warmth of her body in her arms, and to savor once more the feel of her heart beating in unison with her own... Instead, she had to settle for reaching awkwardly back with her left hand, seeking her long-lost soul mate.

          The young Navy doctor shot a hand forward to lace her fingers with the Marine’s, and suddenly there was a blinding explosion of memories that flashed before their eyes and through their minds; memories of ancient warlords and kings, and of giants and gods and goddesses; of Bacchae and centaurs, and of massages and hot tubs and parchment kites, and of sunsets in Jappa...and of a smiling Gabrielle, dressed in peasant garb of blue and brown as a grinning Xena, dressed in dark brown leather battle gear, reached down with a helping hand to pull her up behind her onto Argo’s back...

          They squeezed tightly, desperately, wanting never to let go now that they had finally found each other again.

          “Gabrielle,” Xena said at last, “I’m afraid I’m going to need that hand back; we’re in the middle of a fight!”

          She fervently squeezed her soul mate’s hand once more before releasing it.

          “What do you say we kick some?” Xena asked with that familiar Warrior Princess grin. “You ready to rock and roll?”

          Despite the tears, the feisty young blonde suddenly grinned that sweet and spirited Gabrielle grin that Xena had loved and missed so much. “Hoo-ya!” the Bard of Poteidaia and Amazon Queen replied.

          “Oo-rah!” the Warrior Princess reaffirmed, her own joyously tearful grin as wry and as dazzling as Gabrielle remembered.

          The magic was back. And this time, they had a whole bunch of brand new toys to play with.

          “Gimme rockets and chain guns!”

          “Rockets and chain guns, aye!” Gabrielle repeated, confirming the order as she quickly ran the light bar down, highlighted the desired weapons, and punched them up.

          Half a dozen .50 caliber machine guns, fully loaded with armor-piercing and explosive-tipped ammunition, suddenly sprouted from each side of Ares, and the rocket launchers just below them came on-line. With dangerous and determined blue eyes, the pilot took a deep breath and suddenly let loose with that familiar and high-pitched, ululating war-cry, which was drowned out a moment later by the thundering roar of automatic weapons fire.

          Three jeeps were literally shredded into metal confetti by machine gun fire, and two batteries of Scud missile launchers exploded into flames when they were blown away by a multitude of rapid-fire rockets. The front of a half-track went next, spewing flaming fuel and bodies as the rounds exploded on contact, and a moment later one of the tanks erupted in flames. Ares roared past them and swung around in a fast, tight arc, flashing the bladed chakram that was painted on its belly, and came up on the remaining tanks from behind. More machine gun fire shredded enemy soldiers who were attempting to launch what was left of the missiles, and then a dozen rapid-fire rockets blew the rest of the tanks apart, sending their turrets and molten shrapnel flying everywhere. Another pair of Maverick missiles took out the rest of the missile launchers...and by the time the shooting was over, there was nothing left but black, oily smoke and bright orange flames that illuminated the night-shrouded, desert sky.

          Hovering almost motionlessly above the smoking remains, rippling in the waves of heat and black smoke, and with its turbines roaring and its rotors thundering against the air, Ares reigned supreme over complete and utter destruction.

          From the flight engineer’s station, Gabrielle gazed in horror at the carnage. “By the gods,” she whispered in stunned awe.

          “Yeah,” Xena said softly, her expression stony. “You ready to take out that breeder reactor?”

          She nodded. “Let’s get it over with so we can get out of all this madness.”

          “Oo-rah,” Xena agreed softly.

***

          The reactor squatted like a hulking concrete monstrosity, surrounded by an electrified fence. Machine guns were set up in the thirty-foot-high guard towers, and armed guards patrolled the grounds outside of the fence. Missile launchers, tanks and cannons were in place and standing in red-alert mode, having been warned by the pursuit party that had gone after the fleeing Americans. They were ready and waiting for the helicopter, and itching for action. A lone helicopter wouldn’t last a minute against Saddam Hussein’s elite guards.

***

          “So are we going to go in there with guns blazing to take those bastards out?” Gabrielle asked.

          Xena was a little surprised by her sudden thirst for action. “I hadn’t really planned on it,” she replied. “I don’t know about you, but I don’t wanna get shot at anymore; I thought I’d keep things simple.” She shifted in her seat and winced sharply. With the reactor lying ten miles dead ahead of them, she said, “Bring up a Hellfire.”

          She ran the light bar down the list, found the Hellfire missiles, and punched one up. “Why do they call it a ‘Hellfire’?” she asked. “Is it a nuke?”

          Xena shook her head. “Not quite.” With Ares ten miles out from the target and a missile armed, she squeezed the trigger. The missile took off, and they watched as its tail flames gradually shrank and disappeared in the darkness.

          “Better drop your visor,” Xena warned, and Gabrielle reached up to tug the smokey-gray plasticine down before her eyes.

          It looked as though someone had kicked open the gates of Hell from the inside. The flash of light wasn’t white, as with a nuclear detonation; it was bright orange, and it illuminated the two occupants of the helicopter and reflected from the dark visors of their helmets even from ten miles out. Roiling flames and oily black smoke half a mile wide erupted volcano-like from the reactor, and the explosion sounded like the violent death of a planet.

          “Mother of God,” Gabrielle whispered in stunned awe.

          “Yeah,” Xena agreed. She pulled at the stick and swung Ares around. “We’d better get out of here before that shock-wave hits.” She squeezed the red trigger once more, igniting the turbo boosters, and they were off like a shot.

***

          Admiral Hastings read the report with a heavy heart. There had been a massive explosion in Iraq, and he couldn’t help believing that Lieutenant Commander Duncan had been involved with it. There was no sign of Ares, either. He sighed heavily, finished the paper work, and filed the forms to pronounce Dr. Gabriella Duncan, Major Gina Ryan and her crew, and Ares all missing in action, presumed killed.

          I hate this job, sometimes, he told himself.

***

          Dodging radar and search planes, they crossed the Greek border at 0417 local time. Xena skillfully and gently brought the massive and roaring combat helicopter down in a small clearing between the edge of a forest and the side of a mountain, well away from any major or even mid-sized cities. After shutting down all systems, they removed their helmets, pushed open the hatches, and stepped outside. It was good to stretch their legs after so many hours of flight.

          With tearful eyes and a soft cry, Xena caught Gabrielle in a fierce embrace, and then gently took her face in her hands and kissed her. In return, Gabrielle’s arms slipped around her waist, and with a gentle sob she melded into her as she prolonged the kiss. When they finally broke off, Xena smiled as she gazed into those familiar green eyes. Brushing blonde hair back behind her partner’s ears and gently stroking her face, she softly said, “Hi, sweetheart...”

          “Hi...” Gabrielle replied, her arms around her waist and gazing warmly at her soul mate, and smiling through her own tears. “Is it really you?” She ran her hands over her shoulders and squeezed her arms, choking back a sob and half-afraid that she might disappear in a puff of smoke, or vanish like she did with the setting of the sun in Jappa...

          “Yeah, it’s me,” she replied, her voice tight, as she caressed her face and gazed into those damp, red-rimed, and unbelievably beautiful green eyes. “We’re really together again.”

          “But how is this possible? I—”

          “I don’t know,” Xena replied. The universe was, indeed, a mighty big place, she remembered once telling herself; and anything was possible... She quickly yet gently pulled her in close, and they hugged again, each savoring the feel of the other in her arms once more. “Gods, it’s so good to hold you again...”

          Words failed them for a moment or two; all they could do was just hold each other snugly and warmly.

          Gabrielle finally looked up into the warrior princess’s damp and breathtaking blue eyes. After a moment or two, she sniffled gently and then said with a grin, “So this time you got the haircut, huh?”

          Xena grinned back at her, still holding her close. “Yeah... It’s a Marine Corps thing.”

          Suddenly grinning impishly, Gabrielle vigorously and playfully ruffled Xena’s collar-length and disheveled brown/black hair with both hands; and with a smile of her own, Xena let her do it.

          Laughing softly, she moved to bury her face in the hollow of the warrior’s neck...but the warmth of the moment was suddenly shattered by the feel of cold, congealed blood. She glanced down at her side. “Oh, God, Xena, you’re bleeding!”

          She glanced down at the bullet wound in her side, and winced. “Yeah, I caught one back there when we were jumping into the chopper. Bleeding’s stopped; it’s just a flesh wound.”

          “‘Just a flesh wound,’ my ass,” Gabrielle said. “If this thing gets infected, it can kill you.” She wiped the tears from her eyes, and suddenly she was all business as she began to examine the wound. Jesus, she’s lost a lot of blood, she thought. “I need to get you into an OR and knock you out under a general anesthetic, and do a proper job of cleaning, debriding, and stitching. That bullet shoved a bunch of cotton fibers from your shirt in there, too, y’know. Cotton fibers, foreign material, bacteria...”

          “Oh, come on, Gabrielle,” Xena said mildly, trying to set her at ease as she again brushed blonde hair back behind one ear. To her, the wound was no big deal. “It hurts like hell, but I’m fine. What are you, my mother?”

          “No,” she replied, and there was no mistaking the sudden determination in her eyes and her voice. “No, from now on I’m your doctor—so zip it. You got an emergency medical kit inside?”

          “Yeah, there’s one under each seat.”

          “Good. You sit right here,” she said, easing her to the ground and leaning her back against one of Ares’s landing gear.

          Wincing in pain, and suddenly feeling the onset of shock as the adrenalin rush of battle finally began to wear off, she still tried to set Gabrielle at ease. She sighed heavily. “Gabrielle, it’s—”

          “Hey!” she said, softly yet sharply. She placed two fingers against Xena’s lips, motioning for silence. Gently yet definitively, she said, “I said zip it, darlin’.”

          Surprised into amused and uncharacteristically obedient silence—and loving the sound of that light and breezy east Texas accent—she watched her fondly as she went back into the chopper, found one of the kits, and brought it back outside. She’s still as fiery and as spirited as that day we first met, she thought as she remembered that day when Draco’s lieutenant, Hector, was trying to kidnap half of Poteidaia to be sold later as slaves. Good for her!

          With Xena lying on her side and holding her shirt up, Gabrielle cleaned the wounds—the bullet had passed clean through, just above her hip and not having struck any major organs—with cotton balls and hydrogen peroxide, then flushed the wound itself with more peroxide and betadine antiseptic solution. Jesus, what a mess, she thought with a worried heart. “You’re damned lucky that bullet didn’t nick a major blood vessel or hit a vital organ,” she muttered softly. “Damn, thick-headed Marines ...y’all think you’re bullet-proof...”

          Xena watched her with interest and affection, and only an occasional wince as the young blonde worked with gentle hands. “So you finally became a healer, huh?” she asked with a soft voice and a warm smile.

          Gabrielle grinned. “Yeah,” she replied. She looked into her eyes. “It feels good, y’know? Really good.”

          “I’m glad.”

          “And I see you’re still fighting the good fight,” she said as she gently applied thick, sterile gauze pads to the entrance and exit wounds. Taping them down with white bandage tape, she added, “Somehow, I’m not that surprised.” After rinsing the blood and antiseptics from her hands with water from one of the canteens, she gently placed a soft, warm hand against Xena’s forehead. “How’s your temp?” she asked softly. “You have a fever?”

          “Naw, I’m good. Just a little tired.”

          She poked around in the medical kit and found a plastic 3cc syringe, a small glass vial of injectable tetracycline, and a small bottle of 250mg tetracycline capsules. She gently smacked the plastic vial of antibiotics into her hand. “Here—take one of these every six hours. In the meantime,” she added as she peeled the thin metal cover from the glass vial, “show me your ass.”

          Xena regarded her with a wry grin. “Some things never change, do they?” She began to unbuckle her belt.

          She peeled open the short, narrow, cellophane-and-paper envelope and withdrew the orange-capped, 3cc syringe. Dropping the envelope back into the medical kit, she pulled the needle’s cap off with her teeth and prepared the injection.

          Xena’s grin disappeared when she noticed the needle and the way the faint starlight glinted from its tip. It was only a 22 gauge—they didn’t come much smaller than that—but it still looked awfully big. It hurt just to watch it plunge through the rubber stopper. The warrior could take a bullet through the side or an arrow in her shoulder, or even a gash across her arm or leg; and she could watch without concern as someone stitched the wounds shut. But for some reason, whenever it came to hypodermic needles, she suddenly had an urge to be somewhere else. The idea of getting a shot just seemed to be so deliberately and unnecessarily invasive.

          “Gabrielle, I’m fine—”

          She silenced her with The Look—that same dry and mildly warning Look that they had used on each other so many times over their years together that could be interpreted so many ways (“Don’t go there, Gabrielle,” or “Not one more word out of you, Warrior Princess,” or “Do you really expect me to believe...”).

          Filling the syringe, she spoke around the plastic cap that was still clenched in her teeth. “If you’d told me about this earlier, and I’d been able to treat you sooner, you might have avoided the shot.” With the syringe full, she removed the cap from her teeth and slipped it back over the needle. Then she soaked a cotton ball with some alcohol. “Come on,” she said with playful encouragement. “Let me see your ass, and I’ll give you a lollipop.”

          “Pervert,” Xena called her. “You sound like a child molester.” With a menacing scowl, she opened her fatigue pants and tugged them down to bare one hip as she gritted her teeth. Gabrielle swabbed the injection site. “You’re enjoying this, aren’t you?”

          Thinking about the helicopter ride and the imaginary sand dune, Gabrielle took hold of one firm, round cheek. “Not at all,” she said with a tiny smile of satisfaction, and plunged the needle in.

***

          After having spent a restful night and most of the next day in the helicopter, Gina slipped into Gabriella’s uniform blouse, leaving the blonde with her own tank-top. It was a tight fit, but it was better than the bloody undershirt, and it wouldn’t attract the wrong kind of attention. They had walked into town where Gina had made a phone call to a friend and called in a favor; within an hour, a thousand dollars had been wired to her, and they took themselves into a shop where they purchased new clothes. The owner of the shop had been in the process of closing for the night, but when he saw them through the wide front window, grinning and waving cash, he decided he could stay open a little longer.

          Gabriella had opted for brown leather riding boots, dark, rust-colored jeans, and a light green t-shirt over which she wore a short, dark green denim jacket. She was just settling the jacket on her shoulders when Gina rapped gently on the door of her fitting room. She poked her head inside. “You ready, Brie?”

          She couldn’t help smiling warmly at her partner’s use of that abbreviated version of her name. “All set.” She stepped outside, and her smile widened as she regarded the warrior. She was dressed in black leather riding boots, black jeans, a blue blouse of shimmering, clingy satin, and a dark brown, three-quarter length leather coat. “You always did have a fondness for dark leather,” she said.

          “I seem to recall you liked it pretty well, too,” Gina replied with a knowing little smile.

          Outside in the late-night darkness, Brie took a deep breath of fresh, clean air. “So where are we off to next?”

          “You’ll see.”

***

          “What the hell are we doing in Greece, anyway?” she asked. “Greece was a long, long time ago; are you feeling nostalgic or something?”

          “Remember the Hall of Ambrosia?” Gina asked as she shut the starboard hatch of Ares once more. She glanced off toward the east and noticed that the darkness of night was gradually retreating. The distance walked hadn’t been that great, but the time spent on the road had. They had taken their time because Brie was worried about Gina’s wound opening up and bleeding again.

          “The Hall of Ambrosia?” She thought for a moment. “You mean where you—” She stopped for a moment. That wasn’t right, so she corrected herself. “I mean, where I—” She stopped again, because that wasn’t quite right, either. “I mean, where we fought Velasca to try to stop her from getting the ambrosia and becoming a god?”

          Gina smiled knowingly.

          “But it was all destroyed when it fell into the fire pit... Wasn’t it?”

          “Maybe. As long as we’re in the neighborhood, would it hurt to stop in and take a look? And if memory serves... the Hall should be right...over...” She pointed to a spot no more than fifty yards away. “...there.”

          Brie looked to where she was pointing, then regarded her once more. “What are you, kiddin’ me? With your wound, you need to be in a hospital, not traipsin’ around the Greek countryside in the dark—” She stopped suddenly and glanced around to take in their surroundings again. “Oh, my God,” she said as her green eyes suddenly reflected stunned realization. “I know this place. I know this place!” She turned back to the warrior and regarded her uncertainly. “You’re not really thinking what I think you’re thinking...are you?”

          Gina’s smile widened into a grin.

          Brie regarded her critically. “You’re not suggesting...I mean, what right do we have to...” She stopped and thought for another moment. Finally, she sighed. “Look, the chances are there’s nothing there anyway.”

          “Then it wouldn’t really hurt to go look, would it? If there’s nothing there, I’ll fly us out of here to the nearest allied military base, and I’ll go under your knife. Then we can turn Ares back over to the Defense Department, and we can finish out our commissions in the military. Okay? Unfortunately, we’d have to finish them separately.”

          “Oh, I don’t know,” Brie said with false optimism. “Maybe they’ll court martial and jail us together! I mean, we committed an act of undeclared war on a sovereign nation by blowing up an Iraqi government building, so I imagine the Iraqis are pretty pissed off at us; and we stole a top-secret military helicopter and went AWOL with it, so the Pentagon’ll be royally pissed at us...” She sighed heavily. “Shit, darlin’,” she said at last, with an insane grin, “we might be together for a real long time!”

          “On the other hand,” Gina said, “we could...”

          Brie listened carefully to the rest of what Gina had to say, and she found herself nodding and grinning in agreement.

***

          They descended the stone steps with the bright beams of four-cell flashlights guiding their way. Cobwebs, heavy with the dust of centuries, hung tattered in corners and brushed against their faces with feathery touches. Gina wasn’t in the least bit disturbed by them as she casually brushed them aside with one bare hand, while Brie swatted angrily at them with a stick as she made small, angry noises. “I’ve never liked spiders,” she muttered. “Damned, eight-legged little creepy-crawlies...”

          Gina pointed ahead with her flashlight. “There,” she said, her voice echoing slightly in the stone chamber. Brie swept her beam over to join it.

          The flames were long extinguished, but the sooty blackness was still evident. Around the square pit were the upright stakes, although some of them had decayed and collapsed under the appetites of millions of termites over the years; others, though, were still erect and retaining sharp points. And there were vines still hanging from the ceiling. Some of them were short, some hung directly over the pit, and some reached to the floor.

          Down on one knee, Brie cast the beam of her flashlight into the fire pit. “Damn, it’s dark in there,” she muttered. “It doesn’t even look like there’s a bottom to it. I think we’re out of luck, Xena.”

          No answer.

          “Xena?” She looked up.

          The dark-haired warrior was examining the ceiling. In the center of it was the spiraling trap door that had remained open and untouched for all of these centuries. Even the Dagger of Helios, which Autolycus had stolen for them and had been used as a key to open the door, still remained in the door’s locking mechanism. No archaeologists, no tomb raiders, no scavengers, no one had been inside this chamber since that fateful day.

          She reached for one of the vines to test its strength. If it could support her weight... She gasped and winced sharply.

          “What the hell are you doing?” Gabrielle asked disapprovingly of her patient.

          “If there’s more, it’ll be up there. If I can just climb up there...”

          “You’re not climbing anywhere,” the doctor said. “I don’t want you bustin’ that wound open and bleedin’ all over the place again. I’ll climb. Besides,” she added, “if you’ll remember, I’ve done this before.” She grabbed a vine and tugged, and it snapped immediately. Dust and dried plant fiber floated downward into her eyes. She grabbed another and tugged, and it held. She grabbed it in both hands and pulled harder, and it still held. She glanced at Gina. “Wish me luck,” she said, a little nervously. The thing might still snap and send her plunging to her death.

          “You got it.”

          She climbed slowly, hand-over-hand, and remembered the last time she was here—possessed by Xena’s spirit, swinging back and forth, and kicking and lashing at Velasca in an effort to stop her from obtaining the only known supply of Ambrosia, the food of the gods.

          She had to grab onto another, shorter vine that would bring her closer to the trap door. From below, Gina watched with wide, worried eyes. “Careful,” she whispered as Brie continued to slowly ascend. She gasped through clenched teeth. “Careful!” In a few moments, her head was above the trap door. One arm quickly followed it. “Anything?” Gina called out, her voice echoing.

          “Hang on a sec...” She thrashed and swayed for another long, agonizing moment.

          Still watching from below, Gina said, “Stop wiggling around so much! The vine might snap!”

          “Will you please relax?” Brie shouted down to her. “You’re makin’ me nervous.” More wiggling, more thrashing...and then she was slowly climbing back down. She swung back to the longer vine and continued her descent.

          “Any luck?” Gina asked as she watched. “What did you find?”

          She dropped the last couple of feet, her boots echoing against the cold stone floor, and reached into one breast pocket of her jacket.

          It rested in the palm of her hand. About the size of a hen’s egg, it glowed pink and pulsated, and illuminated their faces in the darkness. “That’s all there was,” she said. She looked into Gina’s eyes, and Xena gazed back into hers. Slowly, she reached for the Ambrosia, took it in her fingertips, and pinched it in half.

          “You really think we ought to?” Gabrielle asked, uncertain yet hopeful.

          Xena shrugged. “It could be worse; someone else could get to it.”

          Gabrielle shrugged and nodded in thoughtful agreement. “Good point.”

          It was only one bite apiece.

          Xena winced slightly at the taste. Speaking around it, she said, “Tastes like stale marshmallows.”

          “Yeah,” Gabrielle agreed, her face twisted slightly in quiet dislike. “Maybe it’s spoiled. What’s the shelf-life of Ambrosia?”

          “Beats me.”

          Brie sighed. “Yeah, with our luck, we’ll probably die of ptomaine poisoning, and someone’ll find our bones here in another two thousand years...”

          “Hey, at least we won’t get court martialed,” Gina said with a soft laugh that was quickly joined by Gabriella’s.

          The young doctor dusted her hands off as they went back up the steps.

          It was good to get outside again, away from the stale air and dust and webs. With the sun just beginning to come up in the eastern sky, they approached Ares and began to off-load what they could. Gina thought seriously about activating its auto-destruct; Brie, on the other hand, thought that maybe they ought to keep it.

          “Yeah, I thought about that, too,” Gina said as she reached inside for a duffel bag. “Since no one’s been here for, what, about the last two millennia, give or take? Maybe we can just disable it and leave it here, and decide what to do with it later.”

          “Yeah,” Brie said, gazing at nothing in particular as she considered the idea. “Maybe we should keep it. Can you imagine what it would be like if the power of Ares were used for good?”

          Gina grinned. “Yeah,” she agreed. “We could do a lot of good with it... And think of how pissed off Ares would be if we were to use his namesake to help people.”

          “Hey, don’t say that too loudly,” Brie said, with a smile on her lips yet a mild warning in her voice. “He might be listening.” The doctor regarded her patient more seriously for a moment. “How’s your side? Any pain?” She remembered her pained reaction when she had reached for the vine.

          “Actually, it kinda itches.”

          She sighed heavily. “Damn. I’ll bet it’s infected. Lemme look.”

          With a sigh of mild exasperation, Gina raised her blouse and Gabriella peeled away the bloodstained gauze pad.

          Her wound was gone. There was a pink scar, but the wound itself was completely healed.

          Brie regarded it silently with wide eyes. “Oh, my God!” she finally whispered. “Jesus!”

          Gina gazed at it with equal stupefaction. “Wasn’t Jesus,” she said in quiet amazement, “I think it was the Ambrosia.”

          Brie reached into her bag and withdrew a dagger, and pressed its point against her palm.

          “The Dagger of Helios! How’d you—”

          “I figured as long as I was up there, I’d snag us a little souvenir.” She pressed the point harder against her palm until it drew blood. She winced slightly in pain, and watched as the blood welled from the cut. With Gina’s bandage, she wiped at it and watched in rapt fascination as the wound quickly closed and then disappeared.

          “By the gods!” the bard said with quiet awe. With her heart pounding excitedly, she looked hopefully into Xena’s clear blue eyes, and found the warrior to be gazing back at her with that same promising expression.

          Suddenly, she turned to slip the dagger into her bag. She rummaged around inside it for another moment, and then withdrew a pen and a notebook. She began to scribble furiously.

          “What?”

          “You aren’t gonna believe this,” Brie said, “but all this shit we’ve just been through has given me an idea for a story. I want to get it written down before I forget it.”

          Gina grinned. “Gettin’ ready to do the old ‘bard’ thing again, eh?”

          Brie grinned and nodded without looking up from the notebook as she continued to write. “Yeah, I thought I’d give it a shot,” she drawled.

          The warrior’s grin grew even wider. “I like that cute little Southern accent of yours,” she said. “Don’t lose it, okay?”

          They started off down the path, heading eastward. The sun was coming up fast as Brie slipped the book and pen back into her pack. “Lemme know what you think of this,” she said. Addressing the brightening sky, she continued: “‘I sing of Xena, the Warrior Princess of Amphipolis. The eternal nemesis of all tyrants, defender of the weak and the innocent...’” She paused for a moment, and then smiled at her partner as she added, “and my best friend.”

          Gina Ryan could feel herself growing misty-eyed. She slid her arms around Gabriella Duncan and pulled her close to savor the familiar scent of her hair and skin, the warmth that radiated from her firm body, and the beating of her heart in unison with her own. She kissed the top of her head. “And I sing of Gabrielle of Poteidaia. The Queen of the Amazons, the eternal bard and healer...” She gazed into her eyes. “...and my best friend.”

          It was so good to be Home again.

          With her arm around Xena’s waist and Xena’s arm around Gabrielle’s shoulders, they held each other close as they continued on down the path, talking softly and laughing together like old times, and heading into the early morning as their silhouettes were gradually swallowed by the sunrise of a new day.

The End


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