Xena and the Flight of the Phoenix
by Michael Dobler
Xena and all characters associated are the property of Davis/Anderson Merchandizing Corp. No financial profit will result in the telling of this story.
The ship in this adventure could be considered a slightly larger version of the Kubli-Kahn skiff that the bounty hunter Toombs owned in the movie: Chronicles of Riddick. Both that ship and the Cryo-Sleep technology were taken from that film.
The characters of Tyrion Darquefyre, Silas Moore, Nicolla Sheil, Mavon, Felix Malone and Karl Zynda on the sci-fi side, as well as the character Alsydius all belong to me.
This is my first attempt at Xena fiction. This is not a typical Xena adventure, since there are "otherworldly" influences that not even the Gods of Greece could have anticipated. I sincerely hope you enjoy the story. Any comments or criticisms will be most welcome.
SPOILERS: None that I can think of. This is a bridge story and takes place between the season one finale "Is there a Doctor in the House" and season two's opener, "Orphan of War."
Six days to track down the owner, another two in negotiation, at least one more just to get the title and confirmation of ownership, three days in refit and repair with numerous necessary upgrades, ten percent tax to the Dockers' Guild, another tax for the appropriation of military surplus, namely the medical equipment and upgrades, and then three more days personally cleaning and detailing the interior and exterior. Tyrion Darquefyre sat in the cockpit of the Phoenix Fire, staring through the flight deck canopy at Tantarus Drift.
Tantarus Drift was a station orbiting a blue giant, somewhere between Solis and Andromosia. It was a massive, three mile long conglomeration of prefabricated interlocking units built around a massive domed dish. The central dome housed the main hydroponics center, used in the creation of air and the growing of vegetables for the drifts seven hundred permanent residents. At the top of the dome was the flight control center. A single shaft plunged straight down from the large disk shaped center, right to the center of the gardens.
Around the perimeter of the dome were three rings of structures. The innermost ring held the housing units for the residents. Many of those units had windows facing out into the garden and the false UV sunlight used to stimulate their growth.
The next ring out served as the main business concourse. Here were the shops, restaurants, housing for travelers, business offices and managerial offices for the station. Anything that any traveler might need legal, (or illegal in some cases), could be found here, for the right price.
The final outermost ring of units was the docking and maintenance areas. These housed the heavy industry section, dry dock repair and refit facilities and flight dispatch offices for numerous private and government shipping contractors.
From various points in the outer ring, long metallic docking assemblies extended like metallic arms out into space. It was against one of these that Tyrion Darquefyre's new skiff, The Phoenix Fire, was nestled. Inside, the ship was as spotless as he could get it. His personal preferences had been programmed into the computer displays, and the upgrades and refits were finally complete.
The Phoenix Fire was a simple ship, as they go. An old model military drop ship, capable of being handled easily by one person, while still large enough to accommodate up to twenty passengers in its seating configuration. It was angular in appearance, dark gray in color and designed for both the vacuum of space and atmospheric flight.
Tyrion had opted to change the configuration. The ship could now handle twenty-four passengers in its seating configuration, or be switched over for medical evacuation with ten beds and room for a staff of four med-techs. It had all the necessary equipment of a functional field trauma center, plus some added options that the Dockers Guild knew nothing about. The idea was to drop the ship into an area, assist in stabilizing and rescuing victims and, if necessary, aid in the rapid transit of critically wounded individuals or groups. In the past, this duty had fallen on military or government departments for fulfillment, but as mankind had expanded further and further from the colonized worlds, the need for capable pilots and equipment became apparent. Many governments turned to former military pilots or private entrepreneurs to fill that void. They were trained and given supplies in exchange for patrolling various areas and responding to emergency calls.
Tyrion Darquefyre was such a pilot. His former military training had left him experienced in dropping quickly into what were considered "hot zones". He had supplemented his combat history with flight and field medical training in order to qualify for the service. Now he and his new ship had all the components and skills for him to do his job properly.
He did a quick walk down the central compartment, stowing loose supplies and checking that the collapsible seats had been properly installed. After that, a quick inventory of his equipment and he signed off on the manifest.
Everything looked correctly installed. Standing up, he lifted his cap from his head and sighed.
"Finally," he said, and he moved up to the control pit.
Tyrion slipped into the oversized flight couch and put one booted foot against the brace rail. He drew out and lit a cigarette, puffing contentedly for a few minutes as two or three last minute dock workers loaded some final provisions. He ran the numbers through his head and smiled.
"Sixty three thousand, two hundred and forty nine credits," he sighed. "And I didn't have to borrow squat."
His finger jabbed the coms switch.
"Hey, Karl!" he called out. "You awake up there?"
A few moments later, a round red face appeared on one of his monitors.
"Haven't you left yet?" Karl asked with a grin. "Or do you want me to shine the landing gear for you?"
Tyrion smiled and took a drag on his cigarette. "Oh, would you," he said sarcastically. "And can I get a set of those nifty raised white letter tires too?"
Karl laughed, and his pudgy cheeks made room for his grin.
"You finally got that bird outfitted the way you want her?" he asked.
"I am ship shape," said Tyrion. "And flat broke." He finished with a grin.
"Well," said Karl. "That's no good. What are you gonna do for supplies?"
"I'm fully stocked," said Tyrion. "There's enough on board to last a good month, if I don't go into cryo-sleep. There should be something by then."
Where the controller was round in the face, Tyrion was more defined. Is strong jaw, long brown hair, and just a hint of scruff gave him a piratical appearance. Yet those who knew him often said they saw a thoughtful look in his deep dark eyes. He was taller than most, especially on a drift where people seemed to be around five and a half feet in height. He stood well over six, and was proportionately built, lean and muscular.
"Say," Tyrion added quickly. "Did the chief mechanics get my thank you gift?"
"That crate of Tolan whiskey that I know nothing about?" Karl replied. "It found its way past station security and into his hands. He sends his regards."
"Good." Tyrion leaned back again and finished his smoke with relish.
One of the dock workers stepped quickly into the ship.
"Captain," he said politely. "You're all buttoned up and ready to go."
"Thanks," Tyrion called back. He handed the signed paperwork to the man and shook his hand.
"Have a safe flight, sir," The dock man finished, and he was gone.
Tyrion hit the hatch control, and the thick door slid down and out into place with a hiss of hydraulic gasses.
The engines powered up smoothly to a low whine. Tyrion ran through his preflight checks, disconnected the umbilical hookups from the station and switched to his internal power.
Everything snapped to life. He smiled and watched as his power reserves built to full capacity.
"Okay, partner," Tyrion said. "I am blocked, locked, and ready to rock. Permission to depart?"
He glanced up at the cherubic face on his monitor.
"Safe flight Tyr," Karl said. "Catch you in a few weeks." There was a subtle thud as the docking clamps released. "You are free and clear to maneuver. Head out on vector one, seven, nine, at one quarter and switch to beacon four nine. Godspeed Phoenix."
Tyrion saluted Karl and disconnected the circuit. The screen reverted to a coms log display, showing the contact between the ships computer and the traffic near him.
He eased the ship around and flipped another switch. The protective shutters that covered the sides of his clear observation canopy retracted, and he watched the scene move under his control.
Looking out past the bow he saw the massive glittering dome of the drift, shimmering in the night. He turned the ship about and drifted slowly past the Celestial Standard, a large Aldeboran liner. The massive luxury ship was still in the process of taking on passengers, and many faces could be seen gazing out the transparent viewports at the universe beyond.
As his new ship coasted past, he caught several people waving to him. He waved back, and then lazily turned a barrel roll.
He reached his departure point, switched his beacon to the desired frequency, and then turned his ship out towards a distant nebula.
As the Phoenix entered the boundary of the gaseous cloud, Tyrion began to really fly her, putting the ship through various turns and twists, testing its response and maneuverability. His grin widened as he played with his new toy, now flying above a blue/green gas cloud, then ducking below it, or watching the heavier elements slide off the trailing edges of the sleek ship like water vapor.
After nearly an hour of this, he settled himself in for a long, meandering voyage to no particular place. He inserted an audio disc into the slot next to the arm of the pilots couch and pressed the PLAY button. Instantly the long, tremulous sounds of an operatic aria filled the cabin. He set the auto pilot and went towards the back, an old book in his hand.
He fixed a drink from the condenser station and reclined in one of the medical beds, reading thoughtfully. The title on the deep red cover was Concepts and Philosophies of War and Peace.
After several hours of this, Tyrion Darquefyre decided that it was time to sleep. Not the usual eight hours and then back to it kind of sleep, but the deep, forgetful world of cryo-sleep.
He closed down all the non-essentials systems, dimmed out the lights in the passenger cabin. Preset the temperature regulator to a lower setting, closed down some of his CO2 scrubbers, and set his Nav-Comp for a circuit of the localized shipping lanes.
Once his parameters were entered, he settled back into the pilots couch and pivoted the seat to face the starboard side.
A large, clear cuff was secured over his left arm, and he felt the prick as the needles were inserted. One entered his ascending artery, the other in his descending vein.
He closed the shutters on the canopy, sealing himself in the dim compartment and tipped his cap down over his eyes, waiting.
The coolness of the Cryonix started at the back of his left wrist and slowly began to creep through his arm, moving up to the shoulder. He could feel the tingle that said he would sleep soon. The Cryonix was a synthetic oxygenating preservative that saturated the body and cooled the organs down, preserving the individual during lengthy journeys.
It essentially replaced the blood in the traveler, storing the blood in a refrigerated vat beneath the seat.
Tyrion's eyes glazed over as the coolness cycled through his entire body. He looked down at the cuff on his wrist, watching as the fluid in the pump went from a rich, healthy red of his blood, to the ice blue of oblivion, then he knew no more.
A mist flowed into his vision, and the world of the Phoenix Fire faded to blackness, then a light slowly rose to meet him. He passed through it and found himself standing in the entrance arch of an ancient city. The iron bound gates lay to the side, splintered and burned.
The smaller buildings were formed from bricks made of the mud and clay earth under his feet, while the more ornate and larger buildings were constructed of rough sandstone blocks, polished smooth over time All around him were shops, homes, and at the rear of the square, the entrance to a large palace, or temple. Smoke billowed from fires all about him, and the acrid smell stung the back of his nostrils. Bodies lay in the street, some pierced by arrows, others blackened or burning in the center of fires. There was no noise except the crackle of the flames, no sounds of life, no movement.
He moved slowly through the carnage, gazing about him with the detachment of a seasoned soldier. He had seen death before in many forms, watched as the lives of others were brutally snuffed out, some by him. Yet, amidst the wreckage of this ancient place there was something that awoke a horror in him which he had not experienced since the first time he had been forced to take a life.
The rational side of his mind knew that dreams like this were frequent in cryo-sleep, but the human part of him still wondered at the horror of it all.
As he moved through the ruined streets, he entered a smaller courtyard. The water of the shallow circular fountain was red with mingled blood.
A figure sat on her knees with its back to him, looking out down a long avenue strewn with dead and dying.
"I can't save them," a tired female voice murmured.
"Who are you?" Tyrion asked, coming to stand at the woman's side.
She began to turn to face him, and he caught a glimpse of pale skin beyond her mane of dark hair. A whine began to sound in the back of his mind, growing steadily to a deafening howl. He covered his ears and felt the world withdraw from him.
The fire of his own blood being re-injected into his body was the first indication of consciousness. Then he felt the jolt!
The ship lurched beneath him, drawn out by the haze of coming out of his cryo-sleep. He could not will himself to move fast enough as the machine slowly pumped life back into his heavy limbs.
He slid around and hit the canopy controls. On the console the words NAV-COM ERROR flashed in red on the center screen.
Alarms screamed in his ears. Ahead of him was the mass of a planet.
"Of course!" Tyrion shouted at the landmasses now filling his view. He cancelled out the alerts and disengaged his auto pilot, all while cursing elaborately in every language he could recall.
The planet was too close. The angle of deflection was bad, yet there was no choice but to enter into the atmosphere. He arced his approach in sync with the rotation of the planet as close as he could estimate and began an abrupt decent. The atmosphere slammed into the bottom of the Phoenix, and he fought the controls as the new resistance of gravity clawed at him with deadly earnest. The canopy slid back into place, sealing him against the fires of reentry, and his monitor flashed to a graphic of his approach. The red lines showed his current path, while a green line showed where he should be to guarantee that he wouldn't burn to a crisp.
"Oh, sure!" Tyrion yelled again. "New ship, first flight, and I have to land and repair you!" He wrestled the ship into the proper flight path. Once he had achieved the correct approach, the canopy slid back down again, revealing the thin clouds of the upper atmosphere. He watched as the leading edges of his wings and nose cooled from the brilliant orange of being heated during re-entry. They left behind dark blackened streaks from the blistering heat. "And the thing that sucks is that no one is even shooting at me!" he finished with a bellow.
He got the ship under control, feeling it move into a glide path as it went from fighting the atmosphere to embracing it. His flight engines fired when he switched over and the ship leveled out, high above a brilliant stretch of crystal blue ocean. He felt the constant sinking in the pit of his stomach as the ship slowed.
"That's it, baby," he said, calmer now. "Just pace yourself out. We got time."
He watched the endless rippling waves beneath him as the ship descended into the thicker air. Switching his central console to HUD mode, he noted a continental land mass, off to his starboard, several hundred nautical miles away. The ship banked gracefully in that direction.
He ran a scan for the usual, radio chatter, Nav beacons or any signs of technology and came up with nothing positive.
"Oh swell," he muttered. "Low tech world. Look out for the little green men!" He mocked. He gauged his speed, just over mach two and slowing.
As he neared the land mass, he spied several small specks that indicated settlements, or small villages.
A life scan indicated massive life readings, though the tech rating still read zero.
He rocketed over these settlements with a sonic crash that brought many people running into the daylight, their eyes trained at the sky. Fortunately, he was long gone before they even heard the noise.
The coastal terrain was mountainous and rocky, like a rich green carpet, pressed against the wall of the ocean. He skimmed over the tops of the higher peaks, watching the mass rush beneath him. He was now under mach one and could feel the large ship respond more smoothly to his input.
"Where in the Teluriyd Moons am I?" he asked out loud. No NAV-COM, no way to know? He sighed and turned the ship further inland towards a group of rolling foothills which marked the edge of the mountains. He knew better than to land in the middle of a large flat, where anyone could blunder by and find him, but he needed a flat area to land that would also conceal his ship while he worked. Low tech worlds had this nasty habit of killing those things that they failed to understand, or worse yet, worshiping them as god forms. The last thing that he needed was to be greeted as the missing God out of some primitive legend.
As he crossed the terminator line into night, he found a low flat ridge that would work for what he needed. It was like a gash in the skin of the planet, surrounded on all sides by thick forest. It was high above the sea level and not a structure in sight. Smiling, he adjusted his course to come at the feature from the long end and began his descent. The reverse thrust screamed to life and he hit his hovering engines.
Xena huddled over Gabrielle, shielding her from the cool night air as well as tending the wound she had received during their stay in Thesalonia.
Gabrielle lay in a fever; the closed wound she had received outside the temple of Isclipius was now surrounded by what looked like a darker sickly brown and yellowish bruise.
Her skin was pale, almost pallid, and she shivered in a cold that did not exist.
Gabrielle had said nothing as they traveled that day, maintaining that the discomfort had been manageable. She had lost a lot of blood in the exchange just prior to the end of the Minoin and Thesselian conflict. As they had traveled, Gabrielle had progressively gotten slower and paler in complexion. That night, Xena had heard her breathing and noted the growing wheezing in her breath. It was a sound that she had heard before.
Xena felt the panic rising in her again. Her mind flashed back to the temple, her best friend lying on the altar, convulsing wildly. Then, in one last shuddering gasp of breath she had lay still, dead. A sudden fear had seized Xena in a way that it should not have. Her emotional attachment to this one person had surprised her.
Now she was slipping away again and Xena, the mighty warrior, could do nothing about it.
"How's that," she asked as she bathed the wound in warm water.
Gabrielle smiled and nodded, her face almost colorless, her eyes ringed in dark circles. "It's all right, Xena," she whispered. "You did all you can. I guess Ephinny will get my Right of Caste, after all."
"Shut up," Xena said fiercely. "You tried this once. I didn't let you do it then, and I won't let you die now."
Gabrielle smiled and nodded. "I'm tired." She murmured.
"No!" Xena barked. "You stay awake," Her voice was shaking. "You stay with me!"
"Xena," Gabrielle said in a voice so low that she could barely hear it. "I love you." And her eyes closed.
The tears began to well up in her eyes, and she felt the rising panic again. It was as though all her defenses were made of paper and swept aside by a hurricane. A part of her was slipping away and she could do nothing to cling to it.
As she felt the weight of her grief bowing her down against the neck of her friend a huge boom exploded in the sky above her.
Her senses momentarily sharpened in response to a threat, she glanced skyward, half expecting a thunderbolt to hurtle down upon them both. Immediately she thought that Ares might be taunting her.
"Already gloating!" she shouted in rage. Her eyes were a blaze of tears and anger. "Can't get enough of me, can you!" she shook her fists at the starry sky. The noise was faint, but steadily growing behind her and she turned to see an object dropping from the heavens. It was large and dark, angular like a giant arrowhead.
The whine from it increased, as well as a louder drone. The object dropped sharply and then leveled out over the tops of the trees opposite the clearing.
Three protuberances with wheels attached, dropped from somewhere within the thing's underside and it reared up on its tail before touching down in a blast of hot wind. Wincing from the pain of the droning scream it made, Xena drew her sword and stood over the body of her friend. Whatever this carrion creature was, it wouldn't take them without a fight!
It wasn't for several moments until she realized that thing before her was actually some kind of vehicle. She could make out a head and shoulders within the thing, looking down at her as the dust and hot wind blew up in her face.
She stood her ground, proudly defying it. Glancing down, she saw Gabrielle; her eyes open wide and filled with fear.
"What is it?" she croaked.
"I don't know," Xena replied in a growl.
The whine died down to an eerie silence, punctuated by a subtle hissing noise.
Tyrion looked down at the shapes just in front of his leading air foil. He hit a switch, and the forward landing lights flooded the area in blinding yellow light. The shape that was standing covered her eyes with one hand. She was tall, with dark hair and clad in dark leather armor, trimmed in gold or maybe bronze. She stood proudly, strong, extremely beautiful, and familiar to him in some way. A shiver crept up his spine as he looked at her. Something was clawing at the walls of his mind, screaming for acknowledgement. His eyes fell, reluctantly to the second form, lying in a roll of blankets and looking more like a corpse than a living person. She was smaller, with pale reddish blonde hair and clear green eyes.
"Of all the places-," he muttered. "Try and find a secluded place to land, and now this!" He paused as his eyes drifted to the prone figure wrapped in a thick blanket. Her color and pallor suggested illness of some kind. Again, something clicked inside his mind, and he stared at her for a long moment. In that instant, his actions were clear to him. That individual was either injured or ill, or both!
Tyrion reached behind him and grabbed his weapon belt. He jumped out of the chair and strapped the belt on, sliding his gauss gun in its holster.
"Tyrion, Tyrion," he chided himself. "What are you about to get yourself into?"
He moved quickly to the hatch and hit the release. The panel slid in and then up with a hiss.
He popped his head out the hatch, hand on the grip of his weapon.
"Hey!" he called out. "You okay?"
"Who's there!" a strong female voice challenged. That same voice from - what? A dream somewhere in his past?
Tyrion stepped down onto the soft earth, feeling the grass settle under his boots.
He moved forward and away from the ship, one hand out in a staying gesture.
"It's alright," he called. "I won't hurt you!"
The woman stepped into view, her sword in one hand and her other on a circular object hanging at her right hip. "That didn't answer the question." She growled. Whoever she was, she was tense for a fight and the rage in her eyes left little in the way of reason. At the first indication of trouble, she would attack. Instantly, Tyrion froze, keeping his right hand out, he gently lowered his field medic kit to the ground. He backed away two paces, moving as slowly as he could
"Easy, now," Tyrion said in a slow gentle voice. "My name's Tyrion and you are?"
"Xena," The woman replied. Tyrion saw the tear streaks on her cheeks in the light from the ship.
"Nice to meet you," Tyrion said calmly. "And your friend?"
"Gabrielle," Xena answered.
"Forgive me for saying so," Tyrion leaned over a little so he could see the other woman lying in the blanket. "But your friend doesn't look so good?"
"She was wounded in a battle a few days ago," Xena said cautiously.
"I see. It's just that," Tyrion said slowly. "I have medical equipment in that bag." He indicated the field kit lying in the grass. "I might be able to help?"
"Why would you?" Xena asked again, her eyes suddenly fierce but with a hint of hope shining in them.
"You take some convincing, don't you," Tyrion said. He tried to smile warmly, but every muscle in his body was tensing in case this woman attacked him. "Look, Xena, this is what I do for a living." He looked around the clearing. "Just, not on this planet."
She frowned at that statement.
"Listen," he continued quietly. "I am armed. I'm taking my weapon out, slowly," he did so with two fingers. "And I'm laying it here." He set the weapon on the ground at his feet and took two steps forward. "Let me take a look at your friend? If anything, you can kill me later, right?"
Xena looked down at the small item on the ground. It didn't look like any weapon she had ever seen before, but in her many battles she had beheld stranger and more threatening weapons of war.
Tyrion was looking at her sword. "What do you say?" he asked.
Another quick glance at her companion settled it and she lowered her sword.
Gabrielle was fading fast again. Her eyes were glazed and her breathing shallow.
"If you harm her," Xena said, lowering her weapon.
"I can imagine," Tyrion replied. He retrieved his bag and moved to Gabrielle's side.
She looked up at him with a mixture of wonder and hope fading into shadow.
"Hi there," Tyrion said as he pulled the blanket away. "I understand you had a tough time a while back?"
"Wanna tell me about it?" Tyrion asked. He pulled a sterilizer from the pack and began to probe the wound gently. The greenish yellow hue began to fade quickly as the micro laser irradiated the infection.
Gabrielle nodded again.
"Then I'll make a deal with you," Tyrion continued, smiling. "You promise to stay awake for as long as I say, and I'll listen to your whole story later, deal?" He doused a piece of white gauze in iodinic solution and set it gently against the wound. The sting of the antiseptic brought Gabrielle briefly back to consciousness.
Gabrielle closed her eyes for a long moment wincing in pain, and then she looked back up at him again and nodded. "Didn't feel a thing."
"Okay," Tyrion said as he pulled the gauze back and noted the flow of clean blood starting from the wound. Whatever had made it had been broad and sharp. The wound was deep, and as he felt behind her shoulder, discovered that it went clean through.
"That must have hurt?" he surmised aloud.
Gabrielle nodded weakly, her eyes drifting closed.
"Ah, ah," Tyrion said sharply. "No cheating."
Again Gabrielle smiled weakly, and forced her eyes to remain open.
"I want you to listen to every word that I say." Tyrion continued. "There will be a quiz later. Understand?"
"Okay," Gabrielle whispered dreamily.
"Right," Tyrion reached one arm under her knees, and the second gently around her back. He lifted her effortlessly from the earth.
"We're going into my ship, and you get onto a more comfortable bed." He kept speaking.
"What?" Xena said sharply, her hand going for the weapon at her back.
"My trauma equipment is inside my ship." Tyrion said matter-of-factly. "My field kit here won't do her any good. She needs a lot more than a bandage and few stitches." He locked eyes with the warrior and saw the understanding in her face.
"And I think you know that!" He finished.
Tyrion stood, holding Gabrielle in his arms, her head against his chest. As he moved back to the hatch, Xena stepped in front of him.
"I still don't trust you," she said with an air of menace.
"Then you go first or get out of my way!" Tyrion shot back. "You're friend is dying!"
Tyrion's gaze was so fierce and so protective that Xena actually took a step back in surprise.
"What can I do?" she thought to herself. She moved out of his way and sheathed her weapon.
"Come with me," Tyrion said and he moved quickly to the ship.
Once inside, he stepped over to the first pair of seats in the passenger compartment and kicked a small pedal on the floor under the innermost seat.
The aisle chair back folded down and turned to face towards the door, while the outer seat turned to mate with it and leaned back, forming an examination bed.
Tyrion lay Gabrielle down quickly and gently. She was unconscious, and her breathing was shallow.
Quickly he cut away the clothing over her wound and exposed it completely.
"Damn," Tyrion muttered and he hit two more switches on the wall behind the bed.
Instantly a brilliant light came on and several components lowered from the ceiling.
Tyrion grasped a clear hose and settled to nubs on the hose under Gabrielle's nostrils, then he turned a handle and a light hissing could be heard.
"Just keep breathing, baby," he said to her. Then he pulled a thick clear cuff and set it around the woman's left arm, just above the wrist. There was a soft click and then a gentle hiss and Xena saw two needles penetrate Gabrielle's flesh.
"Wait just a minute!" she cried, stepping forward.
"I'm feeding medication directly into your friends' body. That's where it will do the most good." Tyrion said. He pulled another flat sided instrument from the ceiling, positioning it centrally over her injury.
"Okay," he said. "Let's see what that blade did inside."
He stepped to a small flat monitor and keyed in a command on a keyboard.
Xena saw the screen illuminate, but she didn't understand all of what was happening around her.
"Come here," Tyrion said.
Xena complied and when she finally saw the image on the screen, she was amazed.
It was the bones of her friends shoulder, and the veins and arteries that surrounded it. She could see inside her friends' body.
Tyrion manipulated the instrument, spinning the image to another angle.
"The blade entered from the front," he said. "Punctured the top of her lung and penetrated the shoulder blade back there." He looked at Xena in wonder. "She wasn't complaining about that? It should have hurt like hell!"
"She's very strong." Xena said, her eyes watering.
"Well," Tyrion continued. "Whoever closed the wound did a decent job, but she was still bleeding on the inside, and her travelling with you only made things worse." He sighed. "This explains her complexion and why the bleeding is so light on the surface."
He looked at Xena hard.
"Will you trust me?" he asked.
Xena looked into those dark eyes for a long time and then nodded.
"We don't have much time." He hit the pedal on the next pair of seats and the same transformation occurred.
"Have a seat there, if you please." He ordered.
He moved quickly to Xena's side. "I need you to lie back down and relax."
"What are you doing?" Xena asked, her suspicion flaring up again.
"I need some blood from you, to put in your friend?"
Tyrion moved back over to Gabrielle's side, attaching a line to the cuff on her wrist.
"You're friend needs blood to survive, yes?" Tyrion explained quickly.
"Okay?" Xena answered.
"You're bodies each have a capacity of about five pints of blood," he explained. "You can survive with less, but it makes you feel weak, right?"
"Right," Xena agreed.
"Right now," Tyrion explained. "Gabrielle is running real low. She has blood in her system, but every time her heart pumps, a little more ends up in her lung and it is slowly drowning her. I want to use some of your blood to help stabilize her, and then I'll go in and fix the hemorrhage."
"You mean that you can take blood from one person and put it into another to save a life?" Xena asked, remembering the incident with one of the dead victims in the temple.
The man had been stabbed, and bled out on the table. He had lost too much blood to survive.
"Yes and no," said Tyrion as Xena allowed him to situate her on the couch. "There's also the question of blood types. If the types aren't compatible, the patient dies. Fortunately, my equipment negates that factor. Time for lessons later." He removed the bracer over Xena's left arm and secured the cuff in similar fashion to Gabrielle's.
"You'll feel a slight sting as the needle goes into place. Just relax."
The pain came and settled, and then she saw the blood from her body travel down the clear line, across the gap between her and her friend, and enter her friend's body.
Xena was suddenly aware of a deeper connection between her and Gabrielle. They were more like sisters than friends.
Xena was giving life, her life, to her best friend. A part of her was entering Gabrielle and making a difference.
In a matter of minutes she could see the color slowly returning to Gabrielle's face. Her breathing slowed to something more normal, and she stirred slightly, her eyes fluttering open, clearer than they had been these several days past.
She looked over at Xena weakly, saw the connection of blood between them, and reached over to grasp Xena's hand.
Xena was aware of tears streaming down her cheeks as she held tight to Gabrielle.
"Don't you leave me," she mouthed.
Gabrielle smiled and shook her head.
"Okay you two," Tyrion smiled. "None of that 'doom and gloom' stuff."
He reached over and adjusted several other switches
"Gabrielle," he said. "I know you're tired. I want you to go ahead and sleep. It's safe for you to sleep now, alright?"
"Good," Tyrion smiled. He turned the knob a bit further and began to hum softly. His voice was deep, rich and smooth. He hummed a lullaby from some long lost childhood memory. He held Gabrielle's other hand and waited, humming as Gabrielle slipped into deep unconsciousness.
"That's right," he said softly. "Sleep now. When you wake up, everything will be all right."
He rested his other hand on her brow and watched her until the anesthetic had taken hold.
"That's it," Tyrion said, and he took down another instrument. "You'll be fine."
He looked over at Xena, and if there had been doubt in her eyes before, it was gone now.
"You okay?" Tyrion asked.
"Don't worry about me," A teary eyed Xena replied, looking between him and Gabrielle. "Do what you need to do."
Tyrion nodded and smiled, then he bent over Gabrielle's wound and there was a whine, and Xena smelled the burning of flesh as the instrument cut.
Tyrion worked quickly and efficiently, finding the damage within Gabrielle's body and repairing it. He inserted a small tube into the wound, and Xena watched as dark fluid slowly traveled up into it and down into another opening in the wall.
"That's all the crap in her lung," Tyrion explained. "A lot more than I was expecting."
"Where did you learn to do all this?" Xena asked suddenly.
"The military." Tyrion said. "We're each cross trained in combat and first aid when we enlist. Then I went back to school after my tour of duty."
Midway through the procedure, a quiet alarm went off, and Tyrion stepped quickly over to Xena and cancelled the flow of her blood into Gabrielle's body.
"No," Xena said, a little weakly. "Don't stop. She's getting better."
"You've done your part," Tyrion said. "Now, relax and let me finish doing mine?" He went back to work on his patient. He worked with a steady grace that Xena found fascinating to watch. Nothing was wasted, not movement of his fingers, instruments, or even his eyes.
Tyrion first repaired the split bone in the girls shoulder and then sealed the wound in her back. After that, he went to work deep inside the front of the wound, repairing the damage to the upper lung and muscle tissue, which took a bit longer.
"Damn," Tyrion shook his head. "She really got tore up."
He finished the deeper repairs, working outwards towards the surface, cleaning, disinfecting and repairing until he reached the outer layers of flesh. Once that was done, he closed up the wound and sterilized all the infected tissue. The entire operation took over an hour to complete.
Once finished, Xena was already sitting upright on her bed, adjusting her bracer back on her arm.
"It was a javelin," Xena said soberly. "At close range. It passed right through her." She stared at the motionless girl on the table. "She risked her life to save a small child in the middle of a war zone."
"Damn," Tyrion said. "A wound like this, with as much blood loss, she should have been dead."
All that remained was to fuse the open skin together. He pulled a small device out of a slot in the wall and began drawing it along the opening. There was a quiet hissing sound, and the edges of skin began to draw together at the end where Tyrion worked. A slight smell of ozone wafted through the room.
"She was," Xena replied quietly. "She came back to me."
Tyrion smiled in admiration. "She seems like one tough kid."
"In many ways," Xena admitted.
Xena sat down next to Gabrielle and took her hand, looking down at her still face. She breathed easier now, deep in sleep.
Xena smiled at her sleeping face, and felt a tear roll down her cheek.
Tyrion's hand came down on her shoulder.
"In many ways," she confessed. "Gabrielle's my conscience. If I'm not sure what's right or wrong, I usually ask her. She has this gift for knowing what's best for people. She's traveled with me for over a year now, and I've never seen her take a life. Not even when this happened to her. They brought the soldier that did this in with her." Xena laughed suddenly. "An inch either way and she could have killed him, but she didn't. Not even to save her own life."
Tyrion switched off the laser scalpel and slid it into its slot on the wall. He turned and disengaged the anesthetic and then moved to the storage compartment. Tyrion procured a small container and a cup, pouring the orange liquid in and handing it to Xena.
There was a look in his eyes that showed he understood, better than most, what Xena was saying.
"Drink up and relax. You'll feel weak for a bit." He smiled. "You're conscience is safe with me. Gabrielle will wake up in a little while, but she'll need to stay in bed for slightly longer. I'm afraid any travelling you had planned will have to wait."
Xena wiped the tears from her eyes and sniffed. "How long?"
Tyrion rubbed the stubble on his cheek in thought. "Between the wound and the infection that developed, along with the loss of blood?"
He stepped over to the monitor above Gabrielle's bed. On it were various lines bouncing in different rhythms. He nodded.
"Her pulse and heartbeat are getting stronger. Respiration is good." He sighed. "She'll be stiff and weak for a few days at the least." He shook his head.
"No," he concluded. "I fear that you're both stuck with me for at least a week. Sorry."
"No," Xena said. She rose and extended a hand to Tyrion. "I'm sorry. I should have trusted you at the first. It almost cost Gabrielle her life…again."
"You'd have been an idiot to trust a stranger in a strange vessel who just happened to drop right onto your campsite." Tyrion smiled. He grasped her hand and shook it. "You did what you needed to do."
"I'll have to leave Gabrielle here with you." Xena explained. "I need to get to Cyerna. They're about to end up as target practice for Alsydius."
"And who is Alsydius?"
"A warlord and former ally of mine." Said Xena coldly. "He's been slowly expanding his lands over the last few years."
"When should he reach Cyerna?" Tyrion asked, smiling.
"He'll be there in three days." Xena stated. "It's a day's journey from here. I need every minute I have."
Tyrion stood there, mulling over his thoughts for a moment.
"I made a bargain with you out there," He said. "Now I'll make another one with you. Give me one day to get the information I need to fix my ship, and I'll have you at the outskirts of Cyerna in an hour."
Xena stared at him, incredulous. "One hour? How?"
"Your sitting in it," Tyrion smiled. "I just need a day or so to get some basic repairs done."
"Like what?" Xena asked. "Maybe I can help?" "Sure," Tyrion grinned. "Tell me, what do you know about the internal workings and circuitry of a Mark six Nav-Com system with FTL tachyon feeds?"
Xena just stared at him for a moment, and then she shrugged. "Then again, maybe not."
Tyrion laughed at the confused look on Xena's face. "Actually you can help me, in a while, after you've rested." Tyrion moved to the hatch.
"First let me grab my weapon from outside, and then I have a few adjustments," he paused and smiled again. "And a call to make."
He returned a few moments later, his weapon back in its sling at his hip. After checking on Gabrielle and grabbing a small bottle of something to drink, he faced Xena.
"Okay," he said out loud, rubbing his hands together. "Let's see what we can do."
He started forward, and then stopped, looking over at Xena and then at Gabrielle.
"Can you two read and write?" he asked.
"Of course," Xena answered. "Though Gabrielle is more a writer than I am."
Nodding, Tyrion pointed at a CIRCUITRY ACCESS panel on the wall.
"Can you read these?" he asked.
Xena stared at the symbols and shook her head.
"That's what I thought," Tyrion nodded. "Okay. If you're going to help you'll need to be able to verify readouts on the screens." He glanced around the room. Then he looked back at Xena.
"Do you have anything with writing on it?" he asked.
"Yes," Xena answered quickly. "Here's the scroll sent to me from Cyerna."
"Perfect," Tyrion said. "Let me see it, please."
Xena reached into her pouch and removed the folded parchment.
The lines were short and crudely written.
"This will work," Tyrion said. "As a start. Then we'll have to fill in the blanks." He motioned her to follow him up to the cockpit and had her slide into the engineer's seat.
Then he slid a lighted wand across the parchment. Instantly the symbols were duplicated on one of the blank monitors.
"Now," Tyrion said. "Tell me each syllable of each word, and I'll feed the comparison into the computer. By the time we finish, this ship will speak your language."
They went through the summons first, then Tyrion had Xena write out the entire alphabet in her language and they spent some time going over the different sounds and syllables of other base words until the screen lit up - BASE LINE ESTABLISHED - .
"And now," Tyrion said triumphantly. "Mistress Xena, please meet the Phoenix Fire."
He keyed in a line of commands and suddenly, all the active readout screens changed slightly. The original symbols were present, but smaller and now there was a sub-text beneath in Xena's own language.
"Ha ha!" laughed Tyrion. "Now we can begin!"
"Xena?" a weak voice called behind them. Xena ran to Gabrielle's side and grabbed her hand.
"Hi there," she said softly.
"Or not," Tyrion commented.
Gabrielle looked weary, and in pain, but the color was in her cheeks again and the glaze in her eyes, though still there to a small degree, was only the result of residual medication, not death.
"Hi," she said thickly. "What did I miss?"
Xena laughed and fresh tears ran down her cheeks. She kissed Gabrielle's forehead. "Not a thing," she said. "It's been real quiet."
When Gabrielle saw the cuff on her left arm, and the needles protruding from her flesh, she reflexively reached for it, fear clearing the haze in her eyes.
"Easy!" Xena said softly, blocking her hand. "It's all right." She looked up at the monitor and saw the familiar symbols. She could read the screen now.
"This thing is telling me that your heart is beating stronger. You're breathing better, and you're awake." She grinned. "I think."
"And that you're healing is progressing at a faster than normal rate," finished another voice.
Gabrielle looked back and saw Tyrion leaning against the bulkhead that led to the flight deck. He had a gentle smile on is face as well. "Welcome back to the land of the conscious."
Gabrielle started to remove the nose clip, but Tyrion raised a staying hand. "That air is purer than what you breathe outside. Please leave it on for awhile, okay?"
"You're gonna be fine, Gabrielle," Xena said. "Thanks to Tyrion."
"I heard," Gabrielle croaked. "I heard someone singing. It put me to sleep."
Tyrion shrugged. "Sometimes people hear things when they're going under." He said. "Not to worry." Then he turned back toward the flight deck and began humming the same song he had used when she was slipping into quiet sleep before the operation.
Xena stayed at Gabrielle's side, occasionally looking up at the monitors and trying to decipher what they all really meant. One thing that she did notice was that when the individual lines reached a certain rhythm and stayed there, it turned green. After a few hours, all but the one that read - RED CELL COUNT - was green, the latter staying a dark yellow.
The two of them heard Tyrion speaking. It was as if he were calling someone. He repeated the same phrase four times before cursing elaborately. Then he appeared in the doorway.
"I can't get a signal through to Tantarus Drift." Something like realization crossed his face and he sighed, shaking his head. He cursed again. "I need that uplink so I can communicate with the people who built this ship, and help find the problem with my navigation system."
He moved toward the hatch and stepped outside.
Xena watched him standing outside the doorway, staring up into the moonlit sky. He seemed to be contemplating something. In his haste, he had actually followed standard procedure and attempted to contact his base from the ground. He had forgotten the status of the world he was standing on. A call from a downed ship on a Low-Tech world would invariably result in legal action, since the charter he flew under prohibited it.
"That was stupid," he chided himself. "Almost cost you your ship, you idiot!" After a few moments in thought he returned and stared at the two of them intently.
"Fancy a little trip?" he asked.
"Where?" Xena asked, not quite comfortable with the look in Tyrion's eyes.
Tyrion pointed up. "Orbit, of course. I should be able to get a signal from there. Less interference."
Gabrielle and Xena looked at each other and then back at Tyrion, both doubtful and excited at the same time.
"I thought you said this ship needed to be repaired first?" Xena asked.
"Oh, it does." Tyrion answered. "If I ever want to get home again. But getting into orbit is easy. It's right there." He looked at them expectantly.
Xena and Gabrielle exchanged another glance. Gabrielle finally nodded.
"He helped us," she said. "The least we can do is returning the favor."
Xena looked up at Tyrion. "Okay," she said. "What do you need us to do?"
Tyrion smiled. "Nothing. You don't have to come." Then he looked at Gabrielle. "Though you, at least, should stay hooked up to the system for a little longer."
Xena crossed her arms. "Where Gabrielle goes, I go," she said firmly.
"Okay," Tyrion's grin was broadening by the second. "Let's go."
A few minutes later, Xena led a weak and wobbly Gabrielle to the flight deck and helped her settle into the engineering station, above and to the right of the pilot's seat. Her left arm was in a sling, pressed against her chest. Tyrion ran a few extension leads from the wall to the cuff still on her left arm. Then he maneuvered the harness around her injury, making sure she was comfortable.
When he was finished with her, he helped Xena strap in at the navigation station.
Once the two women were situated, Tyrion did a quick walk around the ship and then came back and strapped himself in.
Gabrielle had a small box in her good hand and was sipping some juice through a straw while Xena fidgeted nervously with her restraints.
"Relax," Tyrion said. "You want to be belted in, just in case the escape is a little choppy. You can take them off for a while when we get up there."
Xena and Gabrielle looked at one another again. "Choppy?"
Tyrion flipped a couple of switches, and some monitors glowed to life. He checked the readings, going over a list of items on a small pad attached to his left leg. Then he went through a quick series of knobs and switches, watching as various smaller instruments came to life under his touch. He was humming to himself as he worked.
The ship vibrated slightly and the whine of the engines grew to a long familiar cry.
Tyrion began talking out loud to himself as the power levels came back up.
"Reserve power good, engine rpm's good. Booster on line." He checked a few other things and then looked back at his passengers. "Here we go." He grinned.
The engine whine increased in pitch and the ship lifted off the earth, floating on a cushion of air.
Both Gabrielle and Xena grabbed onto the armrests of their seats and held on.
The Phoenix began coasting slowly forward, rising steadily from the ground. It passed the tops of the trees at the edge of the clearing and followed the line of the valley as it picked up speed.
"How are you two back there?" Tyrion called behind him.
"Fine," Xena said in a strained voice. "We're just fine."
Gabrielle was looking out, past Tyrion's head, and at the land sweeping beneath them.
"Xena," she said breathlessly. "We're flying!" She gave a soft laugh, filled with wonder. "We're actually flying!"
Tyrion heard that, and a smile crept across his lips.
"Ladies," he said. "You ain't seen nothing yet."
He glanced back at them quickly.
"How you doing?" he asked.
Gabrielle, though still visibly weak, was lost in the wonder of it all. She had a childish smile on her face, almost an enraptured expression.
Tyrion looked back at her for a long moment, and then blinked.
"Okay," he said, snapping himself back to reality.
"Coming up on the coast," he explained. He hit a few buttons and the console in front of Gabrielle and a monitor came to life. A few more commands and several illuminated bars appeared with words beneath them and numbers to their right.
"Now," he said. "Once I'm far enough away from the land mass, I'll put us into a steep climb, right out of the atmosphere. I could do it now, but I don't want any of the locals to see us."
"Why not?" Xena asked as the ship bounced beneath her.
"Because I'm not even supposed to be here!" Tyrion replied.
"What can we do?" she offered tightly. Her knuckles were white from holding the arms of her chair in a death grip.
Tyrion saw this and smiled. "I think you're doing all you can at the moment."
He settled back into the seat and set a small ornament against his ear. A thin wire protruded from the side of the ornament and extended to a point next to his mouth.
When Xena looked up at Gabrielle, she saw that her friend had one of those on as well.
Xena looked about her, and spied another of those things in a small pocket next to her seat. Quickly, she grasped it, and set it against her ear like she had seen Tyrion do, and then her hands clamped back down on the seat again.
"I don't think you're friend likes flying," she heard Tyrion say, and she heard Gabrielle laugh as she looked over.
Xena simply held on and shook her head, when Gabrielle locked eyes on her.
"No, "Gabrielle said, and Xena heard the voice in her own ear. "She doesn't."
"So what?" Xena protested. "If I was meant to fly, the gods would have given me wings!"
"Well," Tyrion said. "This ship has wings," he looked back at the nervous warrior.
"That's not what I meant!" Xena protested. She looked over at Gabrielle. "You know how you don't like being on the ocean?"
Gabrielle nodded, smiling wider.
"Yes!" Xena hissed. "I know how you feel on a ship, now!" There was a touch of injured pride in her voice. "What about it?"
"Suddenly," Gabrielle said, smiling. "I'm feeling so much better."
Xena gave her an icy look.
"Okay," said Tyrion. "Then we'll get out of the air as soon as possible." He hit a switch and his screen changed, showing layers of wavy lines and small clusters of illuminated areas.
"We'll need to follow this canyon out to the sea, so we don't scare the locals, and then we'll start our climb. I might have to weave a little here, so hold on." He glanced back at Xena again and grinned. "Never mind."
The ship slipped left and right, following the course of the canyon, moving smoothly but at sometimes extreme angles. By the time they cleared the canyon, Xena looked positively green.
"How you holding up back there?" Tyrion asked.
"I'm okay," Gabrielle said, and Tyrion could hear the joy in her voice.
"Fine," Xena croaked.
Tyrion brought the ship down low above the water and looked back.
"Please don't puke on my new floor," he asked Xena. Again Xena looked at him as fiercely as she could, but the nausea in her eyes canceled out most of the threat. Quickly, Xena released the chair and jabbed two fingers into her wrist. Instantly her eyes cleared, and her complexion began to improve.
Tyrion's eyebrows rose in curiosity, then he smiled again. "Thank you."
Tyrion moved the levers forward. "Throttling up." He called. "Gabrielle, Xena, this is the fun part!"
"Uh," Gabrielle grunted as she watched the water vanishing beneath them.
"Speed is at eighty percent!" Tyrion said. "A G field is at one hundred."
"A.G.?" Gabrielle asked.
"Mean's artificial gravity!" Tyrion answered. "Get ready!"
Gabrielle's eyes bounced between the screen and the water shooting beneath them, watching as the number for their speed increased.
"Speed at eighty-five percent……Ninety….Ninety-five! One hundred! Here we go!" Tyrion called back, and he hauled back on his stick.
The Phoenix Fire stood up on its tail and rocketed skyward.
Behind Tyrion, his two passengers screamed. One of them with thrilled exhilaration, the other with fright.
As the Phoenix passed the various layers of the atmosphere, she vibrated and bounced consistently.
"Is that normal?" Xena shouted.
"Oh yeah!" Tyrion replied. "Almost there! Stand by for final stage boosters!" He reached over and hit another control, and then he rested his finger on a small button on his control yoke. "Booster in three, two, one, mark!" His finger pressed the switch.
A sound like thunder echoed beneath them and they were all pinned into their seats as the Phoenix made the final plunge upward.
The deep purplish hue of the night sky faded slowly to the pitch black of space and the stars brightened. Then, as if they had hit one more bump in the road, everything but the engines went silent and smooth. Tyrion pulled back on the throttles and the engines dropped to a low, throbbing hum.
"Mistress Gabrielle, Mistress Xena," Tyrion announced. "I would like to congratulate you both on being the first individuals on your entire world, to leave it."
He nosed the Phoenix over onto her back and coasted along in orbit.
Xena and Gabrielle were both struck breathless by the sight of their home world passing beneath them.
"It's so beautiful," Gabrielle whispered.
Tyrion looked behind him at Xena. She sat perfectly still, her eyes wide in wonder and her mouth agape.
She looked down at Tyrion in amazement, and then back out at the beauty of the land and water far beneath them.
Tyrion nodded and turned back to his readouts, keying in commands, then he spoke aloud.
"Phoenix Fire, calling Tantarus Drift Control." He said. "Can you read me? Over."
Nothing but a low hiss was the response. Tyrion nosed the ship back over and angled them away from the planet. He hit another series of switches and then repeated.
"Phoenix Fire, calling Tantarus Drift Control. Do you read? Over?"
He hit two more switches and then removed his ear piece.
"Come on, Karl," he muttered. "Wake you fat ass up and answer me."
He looked behind at his passengers.
"You can release the harnesses now," he said. "I'll set that call to auto-repeat. It'll keep going until they answer. We'll move closer to the moon with each orbit. Hopefully we'll get an answer before we have to actually land."
He slid out of the seat and began moving towards the passenger compartment. "In the meantime," he said casually. "Who's hungry?"
The two girls released their restraints and followed their host back in the main body of the ship.
Tyrion had Gabrielle sit down on the bed and hook her medical cuff back into the main computer. Then he passed several instruments over her upper body and looked at the monitor.
"Good," he said. He checked the bandage, and then removed it, revealing soft pink skin beneath. Only a faint line showed where the injury had been. "Yes," he continued. "Very good. The nanites are working faster than I anticipated. You just need to rest until you're blood level is back to normal." He removed the cuff and lifted her arm up to her shoulder watching intently.
"It's a little stiff," Gabrielle winced. "But much better than before."
"You should have told me," Xena said, standing behind Tyrion.
"You couldn't have done anything," Gabrielle countered. "Tyrion's arrival was the only thing that actually saved me. And if I had told you, do you think we would have been in that clearing when he arrived?"
Xena was about to reply when there came a soft beeping from one of the monitors.
"Yes!" Tyrion hissed. He reached over and hit a button. Instantly Karl's fat face appeared in a fine veil of static.
"Karl!" Tyrion gave a sigh of relief. "It's about damn time!"
"Hey, Tyrion," Karl replied in a static filled voice. "You've got a weak signal. Where the hell are you?"
"That's what I'm calling about," Tyrion said. "You tell Mike not to touch that whiskey! My NAVCOM blew out right after I left! I want that crate back!"
"What?" Karl said.
"I'm lost Karl," Tyrion said. "NAVCOM is out. I'll need Mikey and his whiz kids to go through the schematics and trace the trouble for me." He hit a few more switches. "I'm downloading the computer log from since I left the drift. Have them go over it and call me back!"
Karl was watching something other than the face of Tyrion on his end.
"Okay," he said. "We got it. I'll get the tech crew to work. You gonna be okay for a while?"
"Yeah," Tyrion nodded. "I'm in orbit over a planet. It's a low tech world, so I can't land, legally." He shrugged and his eyes glanced quickly to his two passengers. "But if it comes to that, then I can set down somewhere secluded enough to where I won't attract attention."
"Well," Karl said sternly. "Don't do that unless it's a last resort. Low tech means that we'd have to come in and get you covertly if you couldn't take off again. You know how much the adjudicants love that." He looked elsewhere for a moment and then turned back. "I have your beam coming out of sector thirty-seven. That's forbidden territory, Tyr. Not overly far away, but expensive if you get caught."
"Well," Tyrion replied. "Send the bill to Mike and his crew if I they catch me! They're the ones that screwed me over in the first place."
The signal faded and then came back.
"We're losing the signal here," Karl said. "Looks like we're gonna have intermittent coms for a while. There's a delta wave storm in sector fourteen that's playing havoc with all communications on this side of the system. It'll make communications spotty for the next six hours at least?"
"Understood," Tyrion lied.
"All right," Karl said. "Just sit tight for now. I'll call you when the tech boys finish their review. Good luck. Tantarus Drift, out."
Tyrion disconnected the circuit and let out a deep breath.
"What did he mean," Gabrielle asked. "Don't land?"
"The Confederated Systems have laws prohibiting interaction with low-tech worlds." Tyrion explained. "Part of a non-interference charter to avoid influencing the development of less advanced civilizations."
"You weren't supposed to help us," Xena said. "Were you?"
"Nope," Tyrion said simply. "Legally, what I should have done when I saw you, was take off again and get the hell out of there."
"Why didn't you?" Xena asked.
"And leave someone to die?" Tyrion snapped. "Just because some beaurotician decided that we shouldn't get involved?" He sat down on one of the seats and crossed his arms.
"It's not the same as what the charter was meant to prevent."
"What do you mean?" Gabrielle asked.
"That's what you meant when you said you shouldn't be here," Xena nodded.
"It's referred to as the Keckopan Incident," Tyrion explained. "About sixty years ago, an evac ship made an emergency landing on the planet Keckopa - Mechanical damage from a hot extract. Anyway, the crew set up a relief center for the wounded and began repairs. They encountered some of the native inhabitants, and traded services for local herbs to maintain medical supplies." "Sounds reasonable," Gabrielle said, but Tyrion saw the knowing look in Xena's eyes.
"Eventually, the natives began assisting the crew with the wounded, and helped them acquire some of the alloys needed for repairs to the ship.
There were only four people in the crew, and the repairs were a big job, so they showed the inhabitants some basic technical skills, and had them help with the repairs." Tyrion shrugged. "The Keckopians were an intelligent and clever people. The details are sketchy, but in the end, the ship was repaired, and the crew got the injured to the evac station in Dravos. Five years later, a survey ship passing Keckopa noticed something wrong and moved in to do a scan."
"They destroyed themselves," Xena said. "Didn't they?"
"Oh no," Tyrion's voice was filled with regret. "They had destroyed their entire world! They learned how to develop weapons faster than they learned the wisdom to control or use them. They turned their whole world into a giant chemical bath, and wiped themselves from the universe."
"Since then, any captain that lands his ship on a low tech world is in serious legal trouble."
"But you didn't have a choice!" Gabrielle protested. "And you haven't given us any advanced knowledge?"
"No?" Tyrion's eyebrows rose. "You knew that you could fly? And if you flew high enough and fast enough, you could leave your world and come out here?" he sighed. "Or did you think that the stars were only pin holes in the curtain of night? I could have waited until you had recovered, but Xena said she was pressed for time, so here we are."
"You have changed things," Xena said, and there was disapproval in her tone.
Tyrion said nothing.
"Could you have made that call," Xena pointed to the monitor. "From the ground?"
Tyrion paused for along moment, a guilty look on his face and then he nodded his head. "Technically, yes. But the computer on Tantarus drift would have registered the transmission as originating from the surface. I would have lost the Phoenix, my livelihood, and all because some idiot didn't wire the ship right! How is that my fault?"
He stared back and forth from one to the other.
"Besides," he said. "You trusted me to help. I think I can trust you two to keep a secret?"
His eyes fell on Gabrielle again, and this time, she also saw something in his eyes that Xena had spied earlier.
"What else is it?" Gabrielle asked. "There's something more, isn't there?"
The pain in Tyrion's eyes suddenly darkened them like pits of sorrowful dreams. Then just as quickly, it was gone again.
"Yes," he admitted. "There is, but that's my business." He opened one of the compartments and drew out several thin trays, placing them in a food condenser.
After a few moments, he removed a steaming tray of food.
"Let's eat." He said, setting the tray on the table and seating himself before the repast.
"Tyrion," Xena said slowly. "What else is going on?"
"Nothing," Tyrion replied, and then he looked at Gabrielle. "You need to eat. Come on."
Xena wasn't going to stop now. "You broke the rules, just for one person you didn't know. Why?"
"Because it was the right thing to do, okay!" he said sharply. "Would you have rather me just taken off again and left her to die?"
"No," Gabrielle said gratefully. "But there's more to it than that, and we need to know the whole story before this goes any further. If there's a problem, perhaps we can help with it. Maybe speak on your behalf if it comes to that…"
"No you don't!" Tyrion shot back. "You wouldn't last five minutes in my universe! They wouldn't let you if you tried! Besides, my personal life is none of yours, or anybody else's, damn business! I did the right thing, for the right reason, and if some over stuffed idiot sitting in a fancy office has a problem with it, they can kiss my ass!"
"Tyrion," Gabrielle said softly.
"Dammit Lynette!" Tyrion snapped. "Give it a rest, will ya!" He caught himself, staring at Gabrielle, and the pain in his eyes became suddenly palpable to everyone in the room.
Tyrion's mouth opened and closed a few times, as if words were trying to form, then he simply strode back to the cockpit, the hatch hissing behind him.
Xena and Gabrielle watched him leave, and then looked at one another.
"Lynnette?" Xena asked.
Gabrielle stared at the closed hatch for a long time. "I know why," she finally said. "I know why he did it."
The hatch hissed open and Gabrielle stepped into the flight deck. She smelled a rich tobacco smell in the air, sweet and pungent.
Smoke rose in a thin line from in front of Tyrion's head. He was sitting with one leg up on the brace rail, motionless.
"Tyrion?" Gabrielle asked. She moved around the seat and saw Tyrion staring down at an image. It was of Tyrion and a young woman with blonde hair and blue eyes. His arm was around her, and the two of them were smiling. They were both dressed in dark blue uniforms, and standing next to the hatch of a ship.
Gabrielle knelt down next to Tyrion and laid a hand gently on his shoulder.
Tyrion looked up, his eyes shining, and smiled bitterly. He lifted the frame up to Gabrielle.
"Her name was Lynette," he said, and then he inhaled on his cigarette. "She was about your age."
"Who was she?" Gabrielle asked softly.
"My daughter," Tyrion said. Then he shrugged. "She was fiery, and funny. She was gentle too. I swear she healed some people just with her presence. She was the kind of person that would give up the clothes on her back if it would help someone. It didn't matter who. She did it because it was the right thing to do. And if you didn't agree, she could be so damn stubborn."
He looked up at her. "You're a lot like her. You even look alike in some ways. Same height, same build, same ideals," he paused. "Same wide eyed fascination with the universe." His voice caught. "Even the same laugh. I think you two would have been friends if you had met her."
"What happened to her?" Gabrielle asked.
Tyrion shrugged. "She died during the evacuation of Onjeez."
"Onjeez?" Gabrielle asked.
"A small mining planet," Tyrion explained. "There had been some kind of internal problems and the government split. It wasn't big enough to call it a civil war, but it was bloody.
Our detachment was sent in to evacuate the wounded and civilians. It was the first time Lynette had ever been in a hot zone before, but she handled it like a pro." Tyrion smiled with pride. "Well, we had our load of casualties on board and were about to lift off, when Lynette saw two more civilians running for the ship. She called me, and I aborted the takeoff, then she ran out and began leading them back."
He shook his head. "On her way back, one of them stepped on an energy mine." His voice was tightening, like he was fighting back a rage buried deep within his soul.
"We must have walked past it a dozen times during that evac and no one ever saw it!" he growled. "She just vaporized, right before my eyes. There wasn't anything left of her, or the two she was escorting." His hand rose and opened, miming smoke. "Poof and she was gone."
Gabrielle's eyes were shining, and her hand squeezed Tyrion's shoulder, trying to comfort him.
Tyrion looked back up at her and smiled. "Anyway, that was five years ago. I promised myself that I would never leave someone in trouble, just like she wouldn't. Then I saw you and Xena out there when I landed, and -" He shrugged again. "So I catch some grief for breaking the law. Show me one honest pilot, privateer, or freebooter who hasn't stretched the rules for personal gain?"
Gabrielle smiled. "I haven't known many. You're the first."
Tyrion chuckled bitterly. "Well, you really did start at the bottom of the barrel, didn't you?"
Gabrielle's smile faded a bit, and her gaze became softer but more serious.
"I don't think so," she said, and she gave his shoulder another squeeze, and left him alone.
Twelve hours and two small meals later, Xena was pacing restlessly, her fingers tapping against each other in nervous anticipation.
"Alsydius is still moving and I'm cooped up in this, this - "she gestured to the wall.
"I need to get back down there!"
"We've got time," Gabrielle reassured her. She was feeling much stronger now, and the sling was gone. "Tyrion said he'll have us there in plenty of time." She was moving her arm experimentally, feeling the tightness in her muscles working loose again. The arm and chest were still sore, but compared to before, she was in heaven. "I can't believe how well he healed me." She said. "It's like I was never hurt."
Xena stopped and looked hard at Gabrielle. "I want you to stay with Tyrion. I don't want you in Cyerna when Alsydius gets there."
"Xena," Gabrielle said. "We've been in these situations before."
"Not like this," Xena replied. "Alsydius is an animal, and his troops are just like him. If they overrun the city, no one will be left alive. No one."
"So we just make sure they don't overrun the city," Gabrielle answered evenly.
Xena smiled, but shook her head. "Not this time."
"Are you afraid history might repeat itself?" Gabrielle asked.
"That's exactly what I'm afraid of," Xena answered.
Gabrielle was about to protest, but Xena held up a hand.
"I mean it." She said firmly. "Besides, I think Tyrion could use your help a little more than I can right now."
Gabrielle was about to continue her protest when a chime sounded.
"That must be Karl," Gabrielle said. The two of them moved toward the flight deck.
As they entered, Tyrion subtly motioned them to stay out of sight of the view screen.
"You mean that's it?" he asked.
"Yeah," Karl's voice answered. "You'll have to set down to repair it. Seems your nav sensor pack is not calibrated correctly. You probably shorted out a beacon receiver. Without that, you just kept going in the last direction the ship pointed."
"They installed the new transceivers and they didn't recalibrate the array?" Tyrion was more than a bit annoyed. "Karl, can I kill him?"
"No," Karl said flatly.
"Maim him then?" Tyrion seethed. "Just a little limp?"
"According to the download," Karl answered, ignoring the question. "There weren't any other faults detected in your diagnostic. You'll need to remove the external lateral sensor pack and replace the signal augmentation circuit, and then calibrate it to the nav com central receiver system. Once that's done, you should be ready to roll and according to your manifest you should have the necessary parts on board."
"Yeah, parts won't be a problem," Tyrion growled. "Who did the install?"
"I think it was Gizmo," Karl answered.
"Well," Tyrion said darkly. "Pass my love on to that little whelp, will you? And tell him that we're going to have a long conversation when I get back."
"No sweat," Karl replied. From the tone of his voice, he was less than pleased as well. "Good luck. And Tyrion," Karl's voice dropped a few notches. "I know nothing. You do what you have to do."
"Thanks, Karl." Tyrion nodded. "I'll call later. Phoenix out."
He disconnected the circuit.
"Well," he said. "I need to take us back down. I can't do the fix up here."
He motioned the two ladies to their seats. "If you please," he said. "We have an appointment in Cyerna."
Once everyone was settled in, Tyrion fired the maneuvering engines and began a gradual decent back towards the planet. As the Phoenix edged closer, Tyrion looked back quickly.
"A word of warning," he said. "Reentry is always a bit rough. Especially for first time flyers." He looked at Xena and grinned. "Better hang on."
If looks could have killed, Tyrion might have died several times in that feral gaze. He only smiled wider and turned back to the controls.
A soft female voice came over the speaker.
"Entry angle, good." It said. "Speed, good."
"Who was that?" Gabrielle asked, looking about for another person.
"The ship," Tyrion said matter of factly. He attached his ear piece and motioned for the others to do the same.
"Okay, ladies," he said. "Here's where it gets interesting."
He hit a switch and the canopy shutters slid up and obscured the planet. He grinned wide. "We're on an express elevator to Hell! Going down!"
Tyrion switched his forward monitor to a different display and grasped the controls.
"Insertion point reached, vectors looking good," Tyrion said aloud out of habit more so than the benefit of his passengers. "Thermosphere coming up. Ten seconds!"
"How can you see where you're going?" Xena called out. There was a touch of panic in her voice.
Tyrion hit two more switches, and on the monitor in front of her, Xena could see the world outside.
The ship jolted violently.
"Wham!" Tyrion shouted. "She's got us now!" He pulled back on the throttle and let the gravity of the world drag them down.
"Is it just me," Gabrielle called out, "Or is it getting warmer?"
"It's getting real hot, actually." Tyrion replied. "I'll explain the principle of friction later."
The Phoenix was lurching and bouncing harshly now, and with each bump, Xena let out a groan.
"Is it always this rough?" she called out.
"Usually," said Tyrion. "Some planets are rougher than others. Yours is a rough one."
They felt the shift in the pits of their stomachs, and Xena almost lost it at that point.
"Almost done!" Tyrion said tightly. " Thermosphere cleared! Just a few more minutes."
The ship trounced again.
The canopy shutters descended and they saw flames beyond the clear material.
"We're on fire!" Xena shouted.
"Yeah, we're cooking now!" Tyrion laughed. He pulled back more on the stick, keeping the ship level as they plummeted through the air. Then he brought the engines back up and the ship began to move forward again.
The flames about the ship vanished and they coasted high above the ground.
"Now," Tyrion said. "Let's find Cyerna."
The Phoenix banked and retraced its original path.
Tyrion called up the location of his previous landing.
"Which way to Cyerna from your camp?" he asked.
"North, and a little East," Xena managed to say.
"Right," Tyrion flipped the Phoenix onto its back and dove for the surface.
Once they leveled off, Xena, fighting to breathe hissed.
"Tyrion, don't do that again."
The Phoenix slowed to a halt, hovering miles above the terrain.
Tyrion set some controls and got out of the seat. He went over by Xena, and leaned over her to get at the monitor in front of her.
"Let's just see what we have," he saw muttering.
The screen resolved itself into an aerial view of the landscape far below. A flashing red dot appeared in the center of the map.
"That's where I landed last night," Tyrion explained. "Now, where is Cyerna from there?"
Xena managed to pry her fingers off the arm rest and trace a line down a small river that led to a cleared area north east of the camp.
"About day's march from there," she said considering the landscape. Her finger traced a narrow river and stopped. "About there, I think."
"Right," Tyrion said, and he took a small instrument and placed it at the far corner, drawing it diagonally past the point Xena had indicated.
Instantly the map shifted and zoomed in closer. Xena could see the tops of the main city, the fort, and the surrounding farms outside the walls. As she watched, she saw movement in between the rooftops. She realized with a start that she was watching the people far below.
"Looks like business as usual," said Tyrion. Then he stroked his whiskers thoughtfully. The buildings were a deep reddish brown color. It was roughly squared off, with a wall surrounding the central district. He felt a pit of cold begin to form in his chest. It was a vague recognition of something that he couldn't place. Quickly he forced the eerie feeling down.
He examined the surrounding landscape. A small river ran along the south wall of the city, with culverts along the southern wall to allow water in and out. On the opposite shore he saw several farm fields and orchards.
On the Eastern and Western sides, more homesteads, some devoted to farming, others were obviously for cattle and other animals.
"Nice," Tyrion said to himself. "Central fortress for protection, with all the other stuff close to the walls. Granaries central in the fortress to avoid starving to death if under siege, and access to the waterway to keep fresh water available." He was learning the layout of Cyerna. "Very nice."
Three ways in, North, East and West with docks on the downstream side of the southern wall. Each gate flanked by short towers. And walls thick enough for three to stand shoulder to shoulder. No extensive forestation in the area around the city, so an army couldn't approach without being detected long enough in advance for the residents to take refuge within. The southern side was a different story, however. Only a couple of small farms and then thick forest rising up into a series of steep hills.
"Which direction are Alsydius' forces approaching from?"
"The North," Xena said quickly.
"You're professional opinion," Tyrion asked. "If you were gonna take this place, what would you do?"
Xena studied the screen for a long minute, her eyes narrowing.
"I'd need to seal off the southern bank of the river first, destroy the docks, and then cover the other three sides. Otherwise I run the risk of escapees down the river."
Tyrion nodded. "Exactly."
He hit several switches and zoomed in on the thick woods south of the city.
The screen turned a deep blue with spots of paler blue and orange interspersed through the foliage. Within the moving orange amorphous shapes, He and Xena could make out the outlines of ballista and catapult emplacements already set.
"He's already sealed off the river!" Xena said. "Those men could have been there for days."
"Just waiting for the order," Tyrion said. "Anyone seen leaving will trigger an attack." He cursed.
Tyrion manipulated the map so that Cyerna was near the bottom center.
At the northern border of the map, he caught movement entering the outskirts of a large forest.
"And what do we have here?" he asked aloud, moving the image and zooming in. Once the screen resolved, both he and Xena stared at the screen and felt a cold knot begin to form in the middle of their bellies.
In the clearing beyond, column upon column of figures moved in unison across the landscape.
"Son of a bitch," Tyrion muttered. "Is that your friend?"
Xena's eyes were cold as glaciers, watching the movement of the troops.
"Yes," was all she finally said.
"Now that's an army," Tyrion said in awe. "He must have at least three thousand foot soldiers."
He moved the image closer and saw the rank and file of Alsydius's army. Behind the ranks of foot soldiers he saw hundreds of cavalry horses. Following them was the machinery of war. More horses drew dozens of catapults, ballista, and supplies on wagons.
Off to the left, mid way down the formation sat a cluster of several horses.
"Well, well," Tyrion murmured, and he zoomed in even further until they were looking into the face of the man on the central horse.
Xena's eyes narrowed.
"That's him," she said.
He was tall, covered in tarnished armor and leather, with long dark hair, streaked with gray. A scar ran along the left side of his face, over his eye.
He sat watching as his army moved by, a smile that was more of a sneer than anything which conveyed pride.
"Now that's the kind of guy you'd want to introduce to your mom," Tyrion said. He pulled the image back and gauged the movement of the army for a minute.
"At the latest, I think he'll be in position to attack Cyerna by daybreak tomorrow. They must have double timed it through the night. Let me get you down there."
Tyrion lowered himself back into the pilot's seat again and then took the Phoenix down.
"If he hits that city with those forces, he'll overrun it in a matter of hours. I don't care what strength they have in Cyerna."
"They don't have that much to begin with," Xena replied. "It's a farming outpost, not a full military stronghold. The fortress is from some previous era. It's been there for centuries."
"What are we going to do?" Gabrielle asked.
Tyrion looked back at Xena, and they both knew the answer.
"We're going to take out the southern emplacements and evacuate the city," Tyrion said grimly.
The Phoenix dropped into a small clearing about two miles from the city.
Before Xena disembarked, Tyrion caught her arm.
"Take this," he said, handing one of the ear pieces to her. "It'll work away from the ship. I'll be close if you need anything." He indicated a small button on the outer side of the device. "Press this to talk to us."
Xena took the com unit and nodded. "Don't go too far away."
Tyrion smiled and gave her a wink, and then Xena jumped out of the hatch.
"Stay with Tyrion," she said to Gabrielle. "I'll catch up with you later." Then she ran off through the woods at full speed.
Tyrion and Gabrielle watched as she vanished from sight. Then Tyrion looked down at Gabrielle.
"Right," he said. "Let's get started. Follow me, please?"
Gabrielle sat in the pilot's station, staring down at several monitors, all showing different bits of information.
Behind her, at the Navigator station, Tyrion was hunched under the console, his arms in up to the elbow, fiddling with various components.
"Now?" he called out.
Gabrielle looked up at the central monitor and saw no change.
"Not yet." She answered.
Tyrion came back up from beneath the console and shook his head. "Damn," he said. "That should have done it." He stood up and moved towards the hatch.
"Let me check the sensor array again." He said. "Back in a second."
A few minutes later, the lines on the monitor jumped and then returned.
"Tyrion!" Gabrielle called out. "It just did something!" She got up and darted outside.
When she found him, he was climbing down from the top of the ship, a small bundle of equipment tucked under his arm.
"It moved!" Gabrielle said.
"Well," Tyrion sighed. "Then that means everything is right on the inside." He held up the charred package and sighed. "This, however, is not." He strode past her and into the ship, setting the package on the work bench.
"I need to rewire this whole thing." He groaned.
He opened the outer skin and revealed a series of delicate components.
"Nothing looks too beat up," he said. "I should be able to fix this pretty quick."
He took out several tools and began to gently dismantle the components.
As he worked, he glanced up at Gabrielle, looking down at the stuff, curious and amazed at the same time.
"Okay," he finally said. "You want to know?"
"Fine," he replied. "I'm in this deep, why not."
With that, he began a long introduction to the technologies and principles of his ship, the universe at large, and the components in front of him.
Two hours later, Gabrielle set the micro welder to the side and surveyed her work.
Tyrion looked over her shoulder with a smile of approval.
"You catch on quick," he said. "Looks like you have a knack for this?"
Gabrielle smiled. "It's pretty simple when you look at it. At least the physical side of it. I still don't understand the principles, though."
"You'd need a bit of schooling to understand the science," Tyrion said. "And it's difficult to explain it in terms that you would understand."
The sensor pack was nearly completed. Tyrion and Gabrielle fit the pieces together, and then hooked two test leads to it.
Instantly the object hummed to life.
"Very nice," said Tyrion. He disconnected the unit and tucked it under his arm. At the hatch, he paused and looked back. "You're not looking for a job, are you?" he asked with a grin.
"Sorry," Gabrielle shrugged.
Tyrion nodded and disappeared.
His voice came over her earpiece a few minutes later.
"Okay Gabrielle," he said. "Check the relay again."
Gabrielle moved to the flight deck and slid into the pilot seat, looking down at the monitor. A childish sense of awe suddenly overcame her as she looked down at the control yoke between her legs. She reached out and grasped it, her left hand finding the throttle levers. She simply sat there, her fingers on the controls, staring out at the forest ahead of them. She felt a smile tugging at her lips. What must this feel like when he's actually flying this ship? A part of her wanted to know, but the rational side of her, tormented as it was, knew that she dare not try. A quiet beep snapped her out a momentary reverie and she glanced down.
The signal represented on the monitor was stronger and now a constant pattern.
"It's working, I think," she called back.
"Does the pattern on the top line match the one on the bottom?" Tyrion asked.
"Not yet." Gabrielle called back.
"Let me know when they do," Tyrion instructed.
Gabrielle watched the lines for a few moments as they wiggled and waved, then she began taking in the other controls and monitors around her.
A childish part of her began to dominate her again and she wanted to know what everything did. She read the various labels and lines that were in her own language, trying to ascertain their meanings.
She pressed one button and watched as a display changed.
"Anything?" Tyrion's voice startled her. She looked back down at the monitor.
"Closer," Gabrielle said. "A little more."
She looked back up at a side display. It showed a scrolling list of titles. The names and dates held no meaning for her, but she could recognize a title when she saw one.
"Stories," she whispered.
"What's that?" Tyrion asked.
"Nothing!" Gabrielle caught herself and looked at the monitor a third time. The lines were the same. "Wait! That's it!"
"Okay," Tyrion said. "I'll close it up and be right there."
Gabrielle looked at the list again and touched the screen. The title beneath her finger lit up. She watched as the titles lit up underneath her finger as she moved it down the list. When she reached the bottom of the screen, more titles began scrolling up past her eyes.
She pulled her finger away and the words stopped moving.
Smiling like a child who has found a new and wondrous toy, Gabrielle reached up again and touched a title.
A small green square appeared with the word "PLAY" underneath it. She bit her lip nervously, considering for a moment, and then touched it.
A voice wailed from within the ship, rising and falling in pitch and rhythm. A man, singing at the top of his lungs. It reverberated through the walls, and rang in her head.
In desperation she jabbed her finger at the screen, trying to make the noise stop.
Another hand came down and hit a red square on the screen, and she looked up to see Tyrion's amused smile. The noise ceased instantly.
"Um, hi?" Gabrielle said sheepishly.
"Hi," Tyrion smiled. He motioned her to exit the seat, and then he slid in and made a few adjustments. After a couple of entries, the words "CALIBRATION IN PROGRESS" flashed on the monitor.
"What was that?" Gabrielle asked, looking down at the monitor that had betrayed her stealthy quest for knowledge.
"Opera," said Tyrion. "Surely you have music here?"
"Yes," Gabrielle said. "But nothing like that. Or as loud."
"That's because you had the volume all the way up." Tyrion grinned. "You must have hit it when you were exploring. It's a good thing I don't have a self-destruct package on this thing."
He motioned her to follow him back into the crew compartment, then opened a panel and removed two large trunks. Opening one, he pressed a bundle of olive colored clothing, a belt with a holster, and a pair of black boots into Gabrielle's hands.
"These were Lynette's," he said somberly. "They should fit you. If we're going to be sneaking through the forest, you might as well blend."
Then he opened the second trunk and removed more clothing of similar design. Underneath was a long silver case.
He removed that and popped the two latches. Inside were several black metallic components.
"Hello sweetheart," he said to them. "It's been a while."
Gabrielle went forward to the flight deck to change.
Tyrion quickly changed into his clothing and then assembled he components in the case. When he was done, he had a long rifle in his hands. He checked the plasma charge, and then stopped. The memories flooded back in a wave. All the fire, destruction and death rolled over him in a crashing wave of emotion. He forced himself to breathe and tried to relax away the tightening in his chest. His heart thundered in his ears. He squeezed his eyes shut and forced the images of flames and faces back into the void. As the cacophony died away, the last image he saw was Lynette, wreathed in flame as she vaporized, then she and the images were replaced by blessed darkness. He was aware of a voice in the distance somewhere beneath the thundering of his heart.
He opened his eyes and saw Gabrielle's green ones staring at him, concern etched in her face.
"Tyrion?" she asked. "Are you alright?"
Gabrielle stood in front of him, dressed in her uniform, mostly. She had opted to keep her own sturdy boots, and she still held the belt in her hand.
Tyrion smiled, and his eyes fell on the nametag above the left breast pocket.
"Perfect fit," he said, and then he blinked again. "I'm okay," he said with a sigh.
He wrapped the belt about her waist and then hooked a holster to it. Next he fastened a small square box to it.
"You'll need these," he said.
He handed her a pair of binoculars, and then a gauss gun.
"What are these?" Gabrielle asked, eyeing the gun uncomfortably.
Tyrion showed her the binoculars first.
"These will help you see far distances," he explained. "There are several different settings. You select them here," He indicated a sliding switch between the two cylinders. Then he held up the gun. He hit two switches and there was a quiet rising whine that faded to nothing. A small green line grew on the top of the weapon.
"If you need to," he explained. "Point this at a person, aim between the waist and his head, and squeeze here," he pointed at the trigger.
Gabrielle took the weapon uneasily, then handed it back.
"I don't think so," she said sincerely. "I'll stick with my staff."
"Sweetie," Tyrion said. "If someone gets close enough for you to use that oversized toothpick, we're finished."
"I won't take a life," Gabrielle said sternly. "I can't."
"Then shoot them in the knee," Tyrion retorted, and he slid the weapon into the holster. "I'll feel better knowing you have this to fall back on, okay?"
Gabrielle was not happy about it, but she nodded.
"Thank you," Tyrion sighed. Then he removed a backpack from the closet, stepped over to another panel and touched several digits on a keypad.
The panel slid sideways revealing a hidden storage compartment.
Tyrion began to load various items from the locker into the backpack. As he did, Gabrielle noticed the light in his eyes slowly dimming, as if something was sucking the mirth out of his spirit. He finished his preparations and set the pack back down on the table. Then he removed two more items from the closet. The first was a thick vest of the same color as the clothing, and the second was a large cylindrical tube with two smaller legs tucked underneath it.
He donned the vest, then strapped on the backpack.
"Body armor," Tyrion explained as Gabrielle looked at him questioningly. "Just in case."
Tyrion was a large man to begin with. Now, with the equipment strapped to his body, he looked positively massive.
He finished his preparations by attaching a second gauss gun to the holster on his right hip, and loading several pockets of the vest with small cartridges.
He slung his rifle over his shoulder and took up the other object.
"What is that?" Gabrielle asked.
"Remote concussion mortar," Tyrion said. "Makes things explode."
He turned and headed for the hatch.
Touching the side of his earpiece, Gabrielle heard him say, "Xena, we're on our way to take out the southern placements. How is it on your end?"
Xena's voice was quiet, as if she were speaking in a corner.
"Most of the garrison here is prepping to defend the city. Messengers have been sent out to the outlying farms, warning people to clear out. Anyone left after that will have to hole up in here and evacuate when you give the word."
"I'll call you when we're ready," Tyrion said. "Later."
Gabrielle caught up to him and smiled. "You have some very interesting toys."
Tyrion smiled grimly. "That's one way to put it." He pointed up along a ridge. Then he removed a small tablet from his thigh pocket. A copy of the image Xena had seen in the ship appeared. Tyrion traced their path. "We'll head up that way, and come back down behind their lines. We should be able to make out their positions from that point." He indicated a small shelf above the enemy camp.
The two of them set off through the woods at a quick jog.
They forded the river downstream from the enemy camp, and moved along the bank, silent as shadows. Tyrion stopped next to a large river boulder, and set the mortar at the base of the stone, covering it with reeds and brush.
He turned to head back and noticed Gabrielle breathing heavily.
"How you holding up?" he asked.
"I'm not used to running so far and fast." Gabrielle confessed. "And I still feel a little weak."
Tyrion smiled grimly. "Try it with eighty pounds of explosives strapped to your back."
He moved out down the river and turned right into the trees a mile or so later.
They moved through the woods as quietly as possible, always heading upwards into the thicker trees.
When they stopped, they were in a thicket atop a small shelf above the enemy position. Tyrion and Gabrielle crawled to the edge and perched behind a fallen tree.
"Now you can use those glasses I gave you," Tyrion said quietly.
He propped his rifle up on the tree, and peered through the scope.
Gabrielle looked through the glasses and began scanning the area.
Through his scope, Tyrion panned across the entire encampment.
He tapped his earpiece.
"Xena, can you hear me?"
"What?" Xena whispered back.
"We're in position," Tyrion reported. "Looks like the southern contingent is abut two hundred men, four ballista, and six catapults." Tyrion glanced sidelong at Gabrielle. "I think I can take out the majority of them by morning. What's your situation?"
Xena's voice sounded tight. "The garrison only has five hundred regulars, and maybe another three hundred can be drafted from the rest of the population. The majority of the outlying residents were able to get away, but we have about three hundred women and children still in here."
"I don't like those odds, boss," Tyrion whispered.
"I don't like it either," Xena replied. "We need to get the people out of this area fast. Alsydius's army is ten leagues away and moving up. All but one of our scouts has come back, and they've all said the same thing. Alsydius's army has set up ambushes on all the other major routes out of here."
"What about the missing scout?" Tyrion asked.
"No one's heard from him," Xena replied. "He's either fled or dead."
"Or captured," Tyrion added. "Either way, we have to assume that Alsydius knows that we know he's coming. I'm gonna get to work on this end. Have the women and kids at the east gate docks before first light. We can sneak them out before dawn."
Gabrielle couldn't keep silent any longer. "How are you going to take out two hundred men and that equipment?" she asked. "Not even Hercules could do that."
"She's got a point," Xena added. "There's no way anyone could handle that many on their own."
"You two need to stop thinking like warriors, and start thinking like poets," Tyrion said.
Gabrielle looked at him with such astonished confusion that he smiled. He was sure that Xena had a similar expression on her face.
"Xena," Tyrion said. "Just have those people ready to move before dawn. I'll handle the rest out here." He tapped his earpiece and disconnected the circuit.
Tyrion looked up into the fading light of early evening and sighed.
"Almost game time." He said. He turned a dial on his rifle scope, and then did the same on Gabriele's binoculars.
"Thermal imaging," he explained as he handed them back to her. "When it gets dark, you'll be able to see them by the heat of their body."
They waited for dark, and then Tyrion looked back out over the dark forest beneath them. He and Gabrielle scanned the trees. The first time Gabrielle saw one of the enemy soldiers in her binoculars, she was startled at how clearly she could see them, even though the shapes were orange and red montages in human form.
"Wow," she whispered.
"Keep an eye on the outer sentries," Tyrion said. "I'll be back in a few hours."
With that, he crawled out of sight.
A while later, as Gabrielle scanned the troops below; she caught a flash of orange off in the distance. As she watched, the orange image of a person slowly crawled out of the river and began snaking its way through the tall grasses. Gabrielle watched as Tyrion moved with maddening deliberation closer and closer to the camp.
She tapped her earpiece. "Tyrion!" she hissed. "What in Tartarus are you doing?"
Instantly Tyrion's form froze. Then his hand moved up by his head.
"Gab," his voice whispered. "Watch now, talk later." And he broke the connection.
Gabrielle bit her lip as she watched Tyrion edge closer and closer to the enemy camp.
Tyrion's rifle slowly extended from beneath him. She followed the direction it was pointed and found the outer most sentry, standing looking out at the field and the river beyond. He was looking directly over Tyrion, lying concealed in the grass.
Gabrielle panned back to Tyrion and then again to the sentry. There was a quiet thump and a blinding white flash in her lens, and the sentry fell over without a sound. Tyrion's voice whispered over the air.
"Target is down."
Gabrielle felt a lump of cold horror in her throat. The kill had been fast, brutal, and horribly efficient. A part of her knew that Xena would have looked on this with approval. She shuddered.
Tyrion rose to a low crouch and moved quickly to the corpse. He dragged it further into the brush off to one side and concealed it. Then he moved past the abandoned post and into the camp.
Gabrielle's heart was pounding as she watched him slide to the first catapult and crawl underneath it. He was out of sight for a matter of seconds then he moved on to the next one.
Tyrion was working on the fourth catapult when Gabrielle noticed two guards walking towards him.
She hesitated for a moment or two before tapping her earpiece.
"Tyrion!" she whispered. "Tyrion! There are two guards moving towards you!"
She watched as Tyrion's booted feet slid slowly into concealment beneath the catapult.
As luck would have it, the two men stopped in front of the machine.
It was several minutes when the air finally burst from her lungs. She had forgotten to breathe as she watched the scene. Her heart was pounding in anticipation of the disaster before her. All the two men would have to do is look down underneath the machine and they would discover him. A bead of sweat trickled down her cheek as she pressed the lenses of her binoculars into her eye sockets so hard they hurt.
The two men finished their little exchange, turned and resumed their march.
"Okay," she whispered raggedly. "They're moving away." She was suddenly aware that her throat was very dry.
As she looked, Tyrion's hand slid out from beneath the catapult, and his fingers formed the universal OK sign. Then she watched as he crawled on his belly to the remainder of the weapons and completed his tasks.
Gabrielle let the binoculars fall from her fingers and put her head down on the bark of the tree. She breathed deeply the woody scent and sighed "He's gonna be the death of me," she whispered.
A familiar voice called to her. "I thought that was my job."
Gabrielle smiled. She had forgotten to turn off the earpiece. "Xena. What's happening?"
"Nothing," Xena said quietly. "It sounds like you two are having all the fun."
Xena stood at a window in the southeastern tower, overlooking the river and the field beyond. She could guess about where the enemy camp was, but she wasn't sure. And she had seen nothing of Tyrion the entire time. As she strained to see out into the gloom, a quiet splash sounded below. Xena leaned out the window and gazed down at the water ripping beneath her.
A single figure was swimming quickly and quietly across to the southern bank.
"Gabrielle," Xena whispered. "Can you see the south edge of the river from where you are?"
Gabrielle looked out through the binoculars and saw the shape of Xena standing in a window of the tower.
"I can see you," she said, smiling.
"Look down by the edge of the river," Xena said.
Gabrielle did as instructed, and saw a single figure pull itself out of the water and run across the field toward the enemy camp.
"It would appear that we have a mole," Tyrion's voice said. Gabrielle started. She panned back around and found him lying undetected in the field just north of the camp.
The figure passed Tyrion, missing him by no more than a few feet.
"Tyrion?" Xena called.
"Let him go," Tyrion replied. "I've got bigger fish to fry."
Gabrielle kept her eyes on the mysterious runner. She watched him approach the camp, enter and speak with one of the men. They spoke for several minutes and then the runner turned and fled back toward the river.
"Tyrion," Gabrielle called. "He's on his way back."
"That's fine," Tyrion replied. "I want to see where he came from."
"Don't move," a voice growled behind Gabrielle. She turned her head and saw one of the soldiers standing above her, a crossbow aimed at her back.
Tyrion stopped setting his energy mine at the faint sound of the new voice. Quickly he turned and raised his rifle, peering through the scope at the small shelf where Gabrielle was stationed. He could see the top of her head just above the blue shadow that was the fallen tree trunk.
"Just relax, Gabrielle," he whispered. "I can see you. Do whatever the nice man says, just get him to come forward a few paces."
In the tower, Xena fought the sudden urge to leap from the tower and swim across in a vain effort to save her friend. Her best friends' life was in Tyrion's good keeping.
"Do what he says Gabrielle," she whispered.
Gabrielle looked up at the face of the soldier. He was a young man, with fierce dark eyes and a thin shadow of stubble on his face. He held the crossbow calmly, the arrow pointed at her chest.
"Alright, alright," Gabrielle said in surrender.
"Get up," the man commanded. Gabrielle slowly got to her feet, feigning a stumble to her right. She sat down on the tree and rubbed her leg.
"My leg is numb," she lied.
The man took several steps forward, right into Tyrion's sights.
"I have him," Tyrion said.
"You don't have to do this," Gabrielle said neutrally. "Just turn around and walk away."
"Shut up and get to your feet!" The soldier barked.
"Goodbye," Tyrion said.
"Goodbye," Gabrielle repeated, and then the man's head seemed to explode from the eyebrows up. The spray covered the foliage behind him. He stood there for a moment, then his eyes rolled up in the back of his head and he collapsed in a quivering heap.
"Target is down," she heard Tyrion say simply.
Xena breathed a deep sigh of relief. "Gabrielle, get out of there!"
There was no response.
"Gabrielle?" Xena called again.
Gabrielle stared at the corpse in front of her. She felt her heart thudding in he ears. The adrenaline surge was coursing through her veins.
"Gabrielle," Tyrion's voice sounded calmly in her ears. "I know that you've got a hundred things running through your mind right now. You need to focus."
"He's dead," Gabrielle's voice was dry.
"Yes," Tyrion said easily. "Now, I need you to listen to me. I want you to head back to the rock next to the river, understand?"
Gabrielle didn't answer. Her eyes were locked on the face of the dead soldier, no more than a boy really. About her age, his dark eyes were dull and half rolled up into the back of his head. He still twitched slightly as his nervous system searched for input from a brain that was no longer there.
"He's dead," Gabrielle repeated. There was something like panic in her voice.
"Gabrielle," Xena's voice called sharply. "You have to focus."
Gabrielle blinked and tore her gaze away from the body.
"Right," she said. "The rock by the river."
"Get going," Tyrion said. "If one was up there, others might be nearby. Stay low."
Tyrion turned back and found the messenger. He was at the river, slipping quietly in and swimming across to the culvert on the southern wall of the fort.
Tyrion watched as the figure bobbed once and then vanished beneath the water.
"Xena," he called. "Our rat is using the water system to get in and out."
"Right," Xena growled. "I'll handle him. Can you handle the messenger that will be sent to Alsydius?"
"Done," Tyrion said, and he began moving towards the river.
A few minutes later, he was concealed on a small rise, watching the enemy camp. The movement was normal, Watches changed about three hours before sunrise. Only then did they notice the missing sentry. There was some commotion, though Tyrion could not hear what was said. Then a single figure left the camp, moving north toward the river.
"That's it," Tyrion thought. He tapped his earpiece.
"Xena," he reported. "Our messenger is heading to the river on the west side of the castle. I have him in my sights."
"We can't let him report to Alsydius," Xena replied.
"He won't," Tyrion answered. "I'll call you back."
Tyrion watched as the figure moved to the river and began to swim across to the opposite bank. He sighted the head, bobbing up and down in the water, held his breath and squeezed the trigger.
The form thrashed once and then ceased moving.
"Target is down," he said again.
Xena looked up and down the bank, eyes straining in the dark to see where Tyrion was, and where the errant messenger was. Finally, she caught sight of a figure floating along the current under the walls.
As she watched, the body stopped, and was suddenly hauled up into the concealing grass.
"I'm impressed," Xena said.
Tyrion did not respond, but Xena saw a shape move off from the hill, covered in grass and slinking along just below the edge of the bank. It paused, and Xena saw Tyrion give a quick salute before he vanished into the shadows.
"I'm glad you're on our side," Xena smiled.
"Think you're glad now," Tyrion whispered back. "Just wait until morning."
Gabrielle was sitting with her back to the cold stone, her knees hugging up to her chest. The image of that dying man was still in her eyes. Yes, she had seen death before. She had seen Xena kill out of necessity, and she understood it. But to see someone struck down before they even knew they were in danger. To have no warning at all, it was a horror that she had trouble grasping.
Suddenly, the form of Tyrion loomed above her.
"Hi there," he whispered.
She almost squealed in fright.
Tyrion crouched down and removed the thick coat of grass covered canvas. He flattened it out and rolled it quickly into a small bundle and set it back in his, now empty backpack.
Then he motioned Gabrielle.
"Hand me that mortar," he said.
Gabrielle didn't move at once. She stared at Tyrion with a frightened and confused expression on her face.
"What is it?" Tyrion asked gently.
"How do you live with it?" Gabrielle asked.
Tyrion sat down and looked at her for a long time.
"You've done this sort of thing before," Gabrielle said evenly. "You've done it a lot, too. It doesn't take a genius to realize that."
Tyrion nodded and looked out towards the mound by the river.
"You look at them through your scope, and you don't think about who they are, where they're from, or any of that stuff." He said grimly. "You look at them and see only one thing - a target, a mark, nothing more. Then you squeeze that trigger and hit that mark."
"Does it ever get any easier?" Gabrielle asked.
"No," He said. "I will tell you one thing that made killing that man easier?"
"What?" Gabrielle asked.
"You are my friend, and I didn't know him." Tyrion said simply.
Gabrielle seemed to digest that for a moment, and then a hint of a grim smile played on her lips. She nodded and peeked out across the clearing.
"What's next?" she asked.
Tyrion also looked over towards the camp.
"In a couple of hours," he said. "I will attempt to kill two hundred men."
He looked back at Gabrielle. "Two hundred lives lost," he explained. "To save seven hundred innocent lives. You have to choose the greater good."
"That's what Xena always says," Gabrielle nodded.
"She's right," Tyrion nodded. "Men like this Alsydius need to be stopped. Somehow, in some way, they need to be stopped."
"Xena used to be like Alsydius," Gabrielle said suddenly.
"Key words there are 'used to be', kiddo" Tyrion said. "A person like Alsydius would not have stood in front of a fallen comrade when facing certain death. They would have run off and found a new friend. It's that simple." He smiled.
"Don't worry if you never get used to it." He said. "Worry if you do." He reached out his hand. "Now, hand me that mortar."
Gabrielle handed the weapon over and watched as Tyrion set it up to fire over on the other side of the river.
Then he slid a large rectangular cartridge into a gap at the rear of the cylinder, flipped a switch and sat back.
Tyrion drew a long thin black box from his vest and tapped a button on the top. Instantly four green buttons lit up.
"Okay," he said and he was smiling. "Looks like we're set." He tapped his earpiece.
"Xena, the southern bank is ready to go. Get those people ready to move."
Xena left her place at the tower and ran down to the main square of the town. Two guards held the messenger between them.
"You," she said as she approached. The man was dressed in a soaked shirt and breaches with short dark hair. "Who did you report to and what did you tell them?"
The man looked defiantly into her eyes.
Xena jabbed quickly with two fingers into the man's throat. He fell to his knees and went rigid.
Xena knelt down in front of him, a cold cruel light in her eyes.
"I've just cut off the flow of blood to your brain. You'll be dead in thirty seconds if you don't answer my question." She cooed.
The man fought the effects for a few seconds, and then gasped. "Everything! I told them about you're arrival and the bolstering of the defenses. By morning, Alsydius will know you're here! I sent word to his army last night!"
Xena jabbed the man a second time, and he went completely limp. The guards pulled him to his feet.
"Lock him in a cell," she ordered. Then she leaned in close to him. "You're friends on the southern bank are in for a surprise, and the message to Alsydius never got there! I made sure of that!"
She stepped over to another trio of soldiers. One of them was dressed in ornate silver armor with long red plumes in his helmet.
"Commander Darius," Xena said. "We need to get the women and children out of here. Have everyone ready to move out the east gate. They'll need to get out and cross to the southern edge of the river. Tell them to head down stream as fast as they can."
"You're certain of this?" Darius asked. "If they get seen on the river, they'll be slaughtered."
"My friend out there says he has everything in hand," Xena countered. "I've come to trust him." She looked out the gate at the paling sky. Then she tapped her earpiece.
"Tyrion," she said. "They're almost ready."
"Understood" Tyrion replied. "Make sure they understand. No one, and I mean no one, should stay on your side of the river."
Xena forwarded that information and then settled in to wait.
She climbed the Eastern wall and paced back to the south east corner, looking out at the field beyond the water.
Smooth level ground. An army could cross that in a matter of a minute. She signaled to one of the guards.
"I need a contingent of archers covering the civilians escape." She ordered. "See to it."
"Yes ma'am," the centurion replied. Five minutes later, twenty archers stood poised on the battlements, waiting.
Tyrion looked up at the wall and smiled.
"That's right," he said. "Don't take my word for it. Tip our hand." He lifted his little black box and looked out towards the woods. His rifle lay on the small berm next to him.
His eyes bounced back and forth between the wall and the forest.
"Come on, come on," he said impatiently.
Gabrielle looked up at the battlements and then at the forest. Then she looked at Tyrion.
"You knew Xena wouldn't take any chances," she said knowingly "You knew that she would come up with her own way to protect those people."
"And by doing so," Tyrion said, peering through the scope of his rifle. "Tip our hand to the enemy."
Gabrielle saw him focusing on a target and scooped up her glasses. Through the binoculars, she spied two enemy soldiers watching the mass of troops on the battlements. Then one of them vanished into the trees.
"They'll charge across the field after them!" Gabrielle said.
"Which is precisely what we want," Tyrion replied.
As they watched, the catapults were brought out to the edge of the forest and readied for use. In the shadowed gloom of the trees, they were all but invisible to the archers on the wall. Tyrion drew out his little black box and pressed the top switch. The row of green lights turned red.
"And now," he said to himself. He looked over his shoulder at the east gates and watched as they opened and a flood of people began exiting. Most of them crossed immediately to the southern bank, closest to the enemy forces.
"Looks like they're fleeing the approaching Northern army." Tyrion chuckled. His smile faded when he noticed another group of refugees running along the northern bank.
"No," he said, and he dove for the mortar. "No, no, no," he was cursing to himself. He tapped his earpiece.
"Xena!" he hissed. "Get those people onto the southern side of the river!"
"I can't!" Xena replied. She was about to say more when she was cut off by a cry behind them.
The army of Alsydius, on the north had arrived and was attacking the castle from three sides. At the same time a cry erupted on the southern bank. The two hundred soldiers there began running after the civilians, weapons swinging.
"Here we go!" Tyrion said and he raised his rifle. He found the commanding officer in the ranks and took him down with one shot, and then he grabbed the black box.
He hit the first switch. The ground mid way across the open field exploded in a line of deadly chaos. Shrapnel tore through the forward ranks of the attacker, decimating them in one monstrous hail of death. Those not killed or wounded stopped dead in their tracks, only to be showered by a small hail of arrows from the wall. In a panic they turned and fled back towards the camp.
The catapults flung their payloads towards the wall, several shots hit the top, scattering the archers that Xena had placed there, and then the catapults and ballista themselves each exploded into flames, scattering or killing the men working them.
The men running back to the camp stopped, their fear rapidly becoming a wave of panic. They screamed in surprise and horror, and then Tyrion hit the third switch.
Another line of fire ripped through the remainder of them, blasting the earth into an explosive cloud of crimson death.
Gabrielle's eyes were wide in horror and her mouth hung open at the utter devastation of it all. In only a few seconds, nearly two hundred men lay dead or maimed in the field before them. The smell of ozone and burnt flesh settled over the scene and the fires from the wrecked catapults glowed blood red in the smoky haze.
She could hear the wounded and dying screaming for aid.
She covered her ears and huddled down behind the shelter of the grass.
Tyrion dove for the mortar and hit the fire control.
The contingent of the main army attacking the eastern gate was bombarded by six rapid explosions that sent them scattering. The line faltered only for a moment, and then the attack resumed.
Tyrion loaded a second cartridge of shells in the mortar and set them off again. Still the charge came on. The soldiers at the eastern gate were struck down before they could get the gate secured, and the enemy began pouring into the castle.
"Xena!" Tyrion shouted. "East gate has been breached! Get the hell out of there!"
"Too late!" Came Xena's reply. "We don't have enough to hold them off! We're retreating to the main keep!"
"We're on our way!" Gabrielle called, snapping out of the horror she had seen.
"No!" Xena called back, and then there was the sound of a fierce fight. "Get out of here!"
"Xena!" Gabrielle cried out.
A catapult shot from the northern field slammed into the interior somewhere. There was a crash and a fiery explosion. They heard a brief cry and a grunt from Xena, then a long moment of dreadful silence.
"I can't save these people," Xena's voice suddenly was subdued. "Tyrion, get Gabrielle out of here."
Tyrion froze at those words. The memory of his dream in cyro-sleep snapping back into crystal clear focus. He glanced at the scene quickly and saw two more catapult shots impact the interior of the keep. There was the crash of shattered masonry, and then another plume of orange smoke.
"Xena," Tyrion said evenly. "If they'll accept prisoners, let them take you." His voice was grim. "Hide the com, and surrender. I will come and get you out when everything calms down!"
There was no reply.
"Xena?" Gabrielle tapped her ear. "Xena? Can you hear me?" The look in her eyes broke Tyrion's heart.
"Xena!" She cried out in despair. She jumped to her feet and would have run towards the battle had Tyrion not tackled her.
"No!" he shouted. "No! Gabrielle!"
The young woman struggled desperately to free herself, but Tyrion held her in an iron grip.
"She's alive!" he shouted. The thunder of his voice shocked her to stillness.
"She's alive," Tyrion said more calmly. "Now, we have to get out of here and figure out a way to help her. You run into that fracas and you're as good as dead." He pulled her back into cover.
"Come with me," he said. "I know where to get help, and it will take just long enough for Alsydius to settle into his new coffin." The fierce light in his eyes actually scared Gabrielle. She knew that Tyrion was planning for blood. He took her wrist and led her away from the chaos.
Xena looked up through the smoke and debris. She felt a pain in her side. Reaching back, she yanked a large wooden fragment out the small of her back and struggled to her knees.
Her ears were ringing and her sight was blurred from the concussion of the blast.
"Greek Fire," she muttered.
All around her was destruction. The enemy had the North gate open now and the soldiers swarmed in like angry ants. There was no hope of victory, no hope of escape.
"Well, well, well," a gravelly voice said behind her She turned, still disoriented and looked up through the haze in her sight at the figure of a burly man with long salt and pepper hair. A scar ran from the corner of one dark eye, down the side of his nose and stopped just below the edge of the sneering mouth.
He held a sword pointed at her throat.
"Been a long time, Xena," Alsydius said.
Gabrielle was pacing furiously in the Phoenix as Tyrion worked frantically with some of the instruments. They were hovering far above the battlefield.
"Hey!" Tyrion called out. "Hey! I found her!"
Gabrielle practically bowled Tyrion over to see the screen.
Below, amidst the smoking ruins of a small courtyard, they could see dozens of bodies sprawled in the crimson earth. Xena was on her knees in a small courtyard, looking up the blade of a sword at Alsydius. He was surrounded by a contingent of a dozen men, all with weapons drawn.
Alsydius raised his weapon to deliver the killing blow. Xena closed her eyes and smiled.
"No!" Gabrielle cried out, tears running down her cheeks.
At the last instant, Alsydius smashed the hilt of his weapon against Xena's forehead. The warrior woman collapsed in a heap.
Gabrielle watched in horror as the men stripped Xena of her weapons and armor. Tyrion wrapped his arms around her and held her as they dragged Xena into the keep.
His own gaze was filled with dark fury. He looked down into Gabrielle's eyes.
"We know she's alive," he said. "And we know where they're keeping her." He brushed a tear from her cheek. "We'll get her back."
A chime sounded from the board, and Tyrion checked the readings. The words -SURVEY COMPLETE- flashed on the screen.
"Strap in," he said. "We're going to get some help."
"Where are we going?" Gabrielle asked.
Tyrion slammed the throttles all the way forward and the Phoenix rocketed towards the heavens.
"Tantarus Drift." He said.
"What?" Gabrielle shouted.
The Phoenix Fire settled into a flight path taking her away from Gabrielle's home world. Tyrion made a few adjustments and hit his com switch.
"Tantarus Drift, come in."
A moment later, the cherubic face of Karl appeared on the monitor.
"Hey Tyr," he said with a relieved smile on his face. His expression changed when he saw the second figure seated behind Tyrion. "What in the-"
"I need to plot a speed course home," Tyrion said quickly. "Fastest possible route. Give me the vectors."
Karl blinked and swallowed. "Uh," he fumbled. "Set for two seven, seven, by nine, five, nine. Max burn should get you here in about nine hours, if you've got the fuel?"
Tyrion checked his gauges.
"I should just make it," he said. "I'll need a dry dock bay when I hit home."
"Right," Karl's face was reddening by the moment, and a trickle of sweat ran down the side of his face. "Bring her direct to bay eight."
"Copy," Tyrion replied. "Bay eight in nine hours."
"Tyrion," Karl started. "You reali-"
"Not now, Karl," Tyrion cut him off again. "I'll get back to you on that, understood?" His eyebrow rose in what could only have been considered a threatening manner. He cut the connection, set his controls and slid out of the seat.
The engines thrumming increase as the ship hurtled towards the blackness beyond.
Tyrion operated a console next to the navigator's station and moved towards the hatch.
"Wait a minute," Gabrielle started, but Tyrion spun on her, a finger inches from her nose.
"No!" he barked. "You wait a minute! I just met you two and already I'm in a world of trouble, just for helping you out! Now I'm about to take 'illegal' to a whole new universe, so play along or pop the airlock!" He stepped through into the main compartment.
Gabrielle stewed for a few minutes, her eyes still tearing as much from rage as from the helplessness she was feeling. Something inside her was boiling up in her blood like greek fire. She popped the harness and followed Tyrion.
"We need to get down there and-!" She started to scream, but she stopped when she saw Tyrion removing several large pieces of parchment from a slot at his work station. He was spreading them out and studying them, making notes on a small gray tablet.
"What in Tartarus are you doing?" she blurted. "My friend is down there! I need to get her out!"
"Could you do it?" he asked her, not taking his eyes off of his task. He noted something on his tablet, and then his eyes flashed on her. "Alone, I mean? Could you storm a place like that, take out all the soldiers there, rescue your friend, and get out alive again?"
Gabrielle stopped short. The look in his eyes had not changed, except perhaps to become more intense, more focused.
"Could you?" Tyrion barked.
Gabrielle stared at him for a long moment, her face streaked with tears, breath coming in shaky gasps. Finally she shook her head.
"Well, I can!" Tyrion's voice was so determined, so filled with a dark confidence that Gabrielle had never seen the likes of it before, not even in Xena.
"But-" She started.
"How long for you to raise an army big enough to take out that place?" he asked suddenly. "Could you even do it?"
Gabrielle finally shook her head helplessly.
"No," she said finally. "Not in time."
"Right," Tyrion nodded. "My way: Nine hours there, twelve on the drift to load out whom and what we need, nine hours back. We're there and ready in less than two days.
Tell me any warlord who would be expecting a counterattack that fast?"
Gabrielle just looked at him, a cold chill creeping up her spine.
"Why?" she asked. "You only just met Xena and me. Why are you so eager to help us?"
Tyrion set down the tablet and sighed. "Because, I met you, and I immediately liked you both. But more importantly, there are not enough people out in the universe willing to fight the good fight. You two are a reminder of what it means to be noble - at least for people like me - and for me to turn my back on that?" He shook his head. "I'd rather have my tonsils taken out through my ears." He was silent for a long moment, and then looked back down at the maps on his table.
He resumed his notations, his mouth moving as he thought. He moved his writing implement back and forth across the largest image, as if experimenting with different angles, then noted something else, and repeated the action.
"When we get back there, sister," Tyrion growled. "We'll have enough firepower to rescue Xena, wipe out Alsydius, his entire army, and blow that castle into oblivion!"
"It's not that I don't appreciate what you're doing," Gabrielle finally said. "But you said you were doing something illegal. This could cost you a lot more than you're letting on, can't it?"
Tyrion looked back down at his information and made a few more notes.
"It's the right thing to do," he said quietly. He never looked up as he worked.
"It's what Lynette would have done. Help those who cannot help themselves." He stopped and heaved a deep sigh. "Somewhere along the way, our job became 'kill the enemy', whoever he may be. I guess I'm trying to make up for it."
"For killing the enemy?" Gabrielle asked.
"For killing the wrong people," Tyrion replied. "Some religious preacher stands in front of people and delivers a message which conflicts with your own, then his wife and he die when their home explodes. A dictator kills thousands in a coup that's inconvenient, so you take out his son in order to bring him to the bargaining table." He stopped.
"You were like Xena," Gabrielle said breathlessly. "Like she used to be, I mean."
"And Lynette was like you," Tyrion said finally. "Xena said that you were her conscience. I lost mine years ago."
"Did she ever know?" Gabrielle asked.
Tyrion focused back on his work. "No," he said finally. "Now, if you'll excuse me, I have a lot of planning to do."
The force of the blow caused white pain to shoot through her body as she hung chained to the ceiling. Xena tasted blood in her mouth as she looked up through swollen lids at her torturer. He was a large, stocky man with thick tangled black hair and green eyes like a reptile. Behind him, she saw the dim figure of Alsydius, seated in a chair, drinking wine as he watched the show. The room was dark and airless, with smooth brick walls and a solid door leading out into a larger underground chamber. She was deep within the bowels of the castle, in a chamber that was more an abattoir than a cell. She saw the thin trickles of blood running across the floor and vanishing into a small drain at the center.
Another blow into her abdomen sent the air shooting out of her lungs in a painful gasp. She felt and heard the audible crack of her rib breaking. As she struggled to get air back in a third blow caused her stomach to wretch. She hung, gasping and choking at the same time. The taste of bile mixed with blood.
Alsydius laughed. "The mighty Warrior Princess," he mocked. He rose and stepped over in front of her, looking into her eyes with a hungry light. "You don't look so indestructible now, you little - "his hand slapped across her face. She looked back up at him with as much defiance as she could muster.
"I hope you enjoy this," she whispered. "Because I'm gonna pay it back a hundred fold when I get free."
Alsydius's eyebrows rose in amusement. He held her chin in one hand and looked into the blue eyes of his prisoner. "Are you now?" he asked. He smiled, and then struck her again. "It looks to me like you won't be doing much of anything in the future," he said as he stepped over to a table and picked up a long whip. Then he moved behind her. "Except screaming." The whip lashed out.
It burned through Xena's back and side. She fought down the pain and held her breath.
Another lash, and another, and still another.
"Come on, Xena," Alsydius said. "You know how I love to hear you scream." He swung the whip again, and again, tearing the flesh off Xena's body until she let out a final wail so full of despair and anguish that she collapsed into unconsciousness.
Alsydius coiled his whip with a satisfied smile on his face. "That's my girl," he said with a growl.
He set the bloody whip on the table and turned to the guard.
"Let me know when she comes around again," he said. "Then we'll resume."
"At this pace, My Lord," the soldier said. "It'll kill her."
"Really?" Alsydius asked in mock surprise. His backhand slammed into the guards face, knocking him to the ground. He grabbed the collar of the man's uniform and pulled him up. "That's exactly what I want, you cur." He let the man fall back to the mucky earth. "Let me know when she's awake." He strode out of the dungeon.
Gabrielle awoke to the sound of a soft alarm.
Tyrion set the papers down again and moved towards the flight deck.
"Looks like we're almost there," he said as he went past her.
She got up and followed Tyrion forward.
As she settled into her seat, she gazed out at the wall of night before her. Clouds of multi colored gasses swirled somewhere in the distance, and a large pale blue planet hung before them. Orbiting that moon was a sight that Gabrielle could never have imagined.
The center of the thing was ablaze with light, and ships of many different sizes and shapes floated to and away from it. Within the glass dome at the center, she could see the green of plants. Light blazed from small points in the sides and top from countless windows.
"Tantarus Control," Tyrion was saying, "This is Phoenix Fire, on approach to bay eight. Please confirm?"
"Phoenix Fire," Karl's voice replied. "You are confirmed for bay eight. Approach vector six, switch to control beacon five, five."
"Confirmed, beacon five, five," Tyrion replied. "Phoenix out."
He banked the ship to the left and brought them level with the outer ring of units. A large double door slid open in one block and green lights above and below it began to flash.
"Coming in," Tyrion called.
The Phoenix Fire slid into the docking bay and touched down in the center of an enormous chamber. The double doors slid closed behind her.
Tyrion collected his flight papers and rolled them into a small hollow tube, and then he slid the tablet into the thigh pocket of his pants.
"When we leave here, stay at my side, no matter what, okay?" he said.
The hatch opened, and Gabrielle followed Tyrion out into the hanger. She had to pause for a moment when her feet hit the deck plates.
"This is another world," she gasped. The air smelled funny, or perhaps it was because it had no smell. She looked around at the white steel walls, and up into the brilliant white lights hanging from the ceiling. The floor was a uniform gray, and smooth. Here and there were splotches of other colors, stains from liquids that had spilled or leaked from previous ships. What those fluids had been, she couldn't guess. On the opposite wall from the doors, a massive black number eight was painted in bold relief, and a single double width door seemed to be the only exit.
"Gabrielle!" Tyrion barked. He was moving towards that hatch at the far end of the room. "Let's go!"
Gabrielle moved to follow him, but her eyes kept drifting to take in the details of the world around her, like a child exploring a wondrous new world that only dreams could create.
She followed Tyrion into the ready room, still breathless in amazement. Small vehicles rested within, parked between painted yellow lines. Some of them were hooked to trailers, round or rectangular, worn and battered. Their original color may have been a deep blue, but the paint had flaked or been chipped off in many places. A large conveyor belt came out of the ceiling at the opposite end of this room, descended to the floor and stopped next to the trailers. Across the room were several tables and benches. Strange tools were hanging in racks upon the wall. It was a workshop of some kind, and across several of the benches were the remains of different objects, all in some state of repair.
Tyrion was all business as he moved across this second chamber. He glanced over to a side office and spied a single person looking through the window at him. He was short and thin with a close cut mop of blondish brown hair and thick glasses on the end of his stubby nose.
"Gizmo!" he bellowed. "You broke it! You fix it! I want my ship ready to go in eight hours! You check everything, double check it, and then do it all again, you got that?"
"No problem, Big D," the voice wheedled back. "Hey! Who's your friend?"
Tyrion stopped at a second hatch and fixed the young man with a deadly stare. He held up both hands, showing four fingers each. "Eight hours!" he repeated. "Or I take it out of your ass!" And they were gone.
They stopped at another office and Tyrion smiled when he bent close to the window.
"Hello Mama Hen," he said sweetly. A large middle aged woman swung around and looked at him sternly.
"Where have you been, young man?" she asked in a motherly voice filled with disapproval. "You take off without even saying goodbye, miss my birthday and you're twenty two hours overdue! " She stopped short when she saw Gabrielle. Her voice took on a critical edge. "Tyrion Darquefyre," she scolded him. "What have you been up too?"
"Nothing," Tyrion replied with a shocked expression. He handed her the small roll of paperwork. "This is my friend, Gabrielle," he turned and introduced her.
"Gabrielle," he said pleasantly. "This is Miss Tanya Marish. The sweetest, wisest woman in the stars."
"Oh, can the sweet talk, you big lug," Tanya said sharply. Then she took Gabrielle's hand and nodded agreeably. Her mood switched from critical to cordial in a series of quick blinks "Listen, dear," she said in motherly fashion. "If he gives you any trouble, you let me know. I know how to deal with lunk heads like him."
Her disapproving eyes locked on Tyrion again. "Now then," she instantly returned to the critical woman of a moment before. "What can I do for you?"
Tyrion handed her the chip from the top of his pad with an annoyed grin. "Just a re-supply run, mother," he said sarcastically.
"Don't you mother me, young man," she replied sharply. She took the chip and plugged it into her computer console. A few seconds later she handed the chip back. "I'll have stores send it over with the refueler."
"You are the brightest star in my sky, sweetie," Tyrion said. He took back the chip and slid it into the pad again.
"Yeah, sure," Tanya replied, and then she did that instant switch again and shook Gabrielle's hand a second time. "It was a pleasure to meet you, dear," she said. "Nice to see that more than just riff raff comes through here."
"You know," Tyrion said smiling. "This poor attitude of yours is why your husband works the night shift."
"You watch your mouth!" Tanya scolded as the two of them exited the office. Then she smiled after them.
"Who was that?" Gabrielle asked, still a bit taken back by their strange encounter.
"Tanya?" Tyrion said. "Oh she's the mother of every one of us evac runners. Mother Hen is what we call her. Whenever there's an emergency call, it gets routed to her, and she dispatches us to the scene, gives us the information on it, all that stuff."
Gabrielle smiled in spite of herself. "Now, where to?"
Tyrion smiled. "I need a drink and to talk some business. We need weapons, and there's only one man I know for that. We're going to Industry."
"Industry?" Gabrielle repeated.
They passed through several small "districts" into a larger marketplace area. Had Gabrielle not been in such a hurry, she could have marveled at the various objects and trinkets that were offered within. Articles beyond description or imagination were offered at small booths, or more permanent actual shops. Each vendor had arranged their wares and lighting to make their particular place stand out, lending a garish eclectic look to the entire area. People milled about between the shops, haggling or purchasing countless items. The noise was a constant thrum of many different voices and languages.
As they passed deeper into the station, she noted that the lighting became more subdued. It was like early evening instead of the brilliant light from earlier. A sound began reverberating through the deck plates, and in the pit of her stomach. It was a deep, rhythmic booming that seemed to emanate from somewhere up ahead. They turned right into a narrow alley and came to an open hatch. The words -INDUSTRY CLUB- were written in glowing blue letters. From the blackness beyond, Gabrielle caught flashes of multicolored lights that strobed to the rhythm of the booming noise.
Outside the hatch was a single man, medium build, but obviously in good shape. He had close cut dark hair and sharp dark eyes. He wore baggy gray pants and black boots. His short sleeved shirt fit his body so snug that the outline of his chest muscles were defined as if he wore no shirt at all. He smiled and stepped forward, clasping hands with Tyrion.
"Hoo Ha, Master Chief," he said as he pumped Tyrion's hand. "What brings you down here?"
"Hey there, Felix," Tyrion said. "Need to talk to Silas."
"Well, go on in," Felix replied with a smile, and then he smiled even broader at Gabrielle. "You with him?" he asked. Then he froze as if he recognized something. For only the briefest moment, there was confusion in his eyes, but he recovered quickly.
"Yes, Felix," Tyrion said. "She's with me."
"Damn," Felix said, but he waived them in anyway.
The two of them passed into a world of eternal night. Music, rich and rhythmic, reverberated through the air. People could be seen swaying and dancing in abandon. Others sat at small illuminated tables or up at a long bar on the opposite side of the room.
Deep red light shone like blood on the walls, and pale blue glowed from table tops.
"What is this place?" Gabrielle shouted over the noise.
"It's called a night club!" Tyrion replied.
"And who are we meeting here?" Gabrielle shouted again.
Tyrion looked over at the bar and pointed. Gabrielle followed where he indicated, and her mouth fell open.
Behind the bar was a dark skinned, bald man of massive proportions. He was a full head taller than Xena or Tyrion, with arms like tree trunks and a powerful chest. His whole body was knotted with masses of muscle, except for the protruding of a belly just beneath the powerful pectorals.
He was serving drinks with large meaty hands. And his laugh boomed out over the din around them.
"He's a nice guy, as long as you don't piss him off." Tyrion finished.
Gabrielle swallowed and nodded. "Then let's not make him mad, okay?"
Tyrion smiled and edged through the crowd up to the bar. Gabrielle took a seat next to him.
"Hey Boom Boom!" Tyrion shouted. The big man turned and when he saw Tyrion his grin grew.
"Well, hey there, Master Chief!" he shouted, and he reached across the bar and hauled Tyrion into a hug that would have crushed lesser men.
Gabrielle laughed until the embrace was over and the big man fixed his dark eyes on her.
"And who is this?" he started, then he saw the name on Gabrielle's jacket and his expression changed. It was suddenly more ominous, like a massive bear, eyeing a meal. He looked back up at Tyrion.
"What's going on, Master Chief?" he asked in a voice that was like a growl.
"We need to talk," Tyrion replied. "In private."
Silas looked back at Gabrielle who could not meet the man's stern gaze, then back at Tyrion. "Business?" he asked.
Tyrion nodded. Silas reached behind him and grabbed a bottle from the shelf.
"Little Nicky!" he bellowed. "Watch the bar!" Then he motioned the two of them.
"Follow me," he said.
Silas led them to a small office behind the bar. He settled into an oversized chair behind a large ornate white desk. Shelves behind him held several books, nick knacks, and a series of pieces of memorabilia from military service, including a picture of four figures standing in front of a formidable looking vehicle.
"All right," Silas said as he sat down. One massive leg rose and his foot fell on the surface of the desk with a thud. He reached into a small wooden box and removed a thick brown roll and lit it on a small hand torch. The aroma of tobacco filled the small office.
"What's the deal?" he finished.
"Before we start," Tyrion replied. "I need Felix and Mavon in here as well."
Silas's eyebrow rose inquisitively, then he picked up a small com unit.
"Felix," he said. "Have Tony cover the door and find Mavon. I need you two in my office."
He set the com down and puffed on his cigar.
"While we wait," he continued in a rumbling voice. His eyes fixed on Gabrielle with the same disconcerting intensity. "Maybe you can explain why the hell this one is wearing Little D's stuff?"
Gabrielle looked over at Tyrion and then back again. A feeling that she had been caught suddenly threatened to overwhelm her. She opened her mouth to say something, but no words came out. Instead, noises that might have been words emanated from her as she felt the fear of a cornered beast under those intense dark eyes. Through the smoke rising from his cigar, his face seemed demonic. She gestured instead of speaking, pointing up at Tyrion and then back with hands out towards Silas, getting more and more nervous by the second. When she looked over at Tyrion again, he had a wry smile on his face.
"She's a Low Tech," he said simply.
Gabrielle, still completely at a loss for words, and squirming under Silas's dark gaze, simply and shrugged and nodded nervously. She tried a friendly smile, but that didn't work.
Silas momentarily forgot his cigar, and his foot fell from the desk. His intense gaze went from dark to almost pitch black. Now it was his turn to look from Tyrion to Gabrielle and back a few times.
"Low-Tech?" He managed to stammer. He rose like standing wall behind his desk. His massive hands planted on the smooth surface so that he loomed over the young lady. "You smuggled a Low-Tech onto this station? Into my club? You Lowjackin son of a bitch! What the hell are you doing spinning in sector thirty-seven?"
"Stand down, Sergeant!" Tyrion barked suddenly in a commanding tone.
Instantly, Silas ceased his recriminations and stood up straight.
"She's with me because there was nowhere else for her to go!" Tyrion continued in the same voice. "Her friend is in trouble and I need Old Number Seven to get her out."
Tyrion set the pad down in front of Silas. "And I need this too." He finished.
Silas took the pad with his eyes on Tyrion, "Yeah, and I need this like I need another hole in my damn head." He muttered as he began to look over the list. As he read, a cynical smile began to spread across his dark face, and his chuckle rumbled across the room. "Five MP9's, two AS2's, a crate of M67's, five P7's - "he stopped and his mouth dropped open. "And you want a TD?" His laugh set the glass shelves vibrating. Gabrielle winced at the ferocity of that sound.
He tossed the pad down with a clatter and set his cigar in his teeth. "Is there anything else I can do for you?" he chuckled and settled back into his oversized chair. "Perhaps a Virellian Battle Cruiser?" His hands extended in an open gesture. Gabrielle, for the first time, appreciated the size of the man before her. His arms were easily as big around as her thigh.
"If he wanted," she thought nervously. "He could take the two of us apart. He might even be a match for Hercules." She shuddered.
Tyrion smiled, "No, just that," he pointed at the pad. "And-"
"Oh, this should be good," Silas continued, chuckling.
"I need an Ident set up for my friend, here."
Silas stopped laughing. "An Ident? Now?"
"No time like the present?" Tyrion countered. "Unless you can't do it?"
"And just what in the hell am I supposed to use as a back ground?" Silas said. "Or should I just snap my fingers?"
"Use Lynette's background," Tyrion said quietly.
Silas paused as if the mention of her name hurt him. Again his mistrustful gaze fixed on Gabrielle. "You want me to bring Little D back to life?"
Silas looked back at Tyrion for a long time. Then he studied Gabrielle in such a way that she became acutely aware of someone peeling layers of her soul aside. She suddenly felt naked in that gaze. Just as she felt that she would burst, he finished and pressed a button on his desk. A screen rose out of its smooth surface and a keyboard illuminated beneath the shiny top layer which Gabrielle suddenly realized was transparent. A line of code appeared on the thin clear screen and he entered a few commands. Then he fixed Gabrielle with another stern stare.
"You mess up Little Bits' name, and I'll find out," he said in a growl. Then he made a few more entries. "What's your name?"
"Gabrielle," she replied nervously.
"Last name?" he continued.
Silas looked up at her. "No last name?" He sighed. "Oh yeah, Low-Tech alright."
"Easy Silas," Tyrion said steadily.
Silas sighed like a rolling thunderstorm. "Where were you born?"
"The village of Poditia," Gabrielle answered nervously.
"Whoa, that's a mouthful." He thought for a moment and keyed in some more information, then he motioned Gabrielle to approach. He indicated a small black rectangle on the surface. "Put your hand here," he said.
Gabrielle did so. Immediately the dark area lit up with a green glow. Then a red line rose and fell across her palm several times. Despite the red fire, Gabrielle felt no discomfort. When it was done, she removed her hand and inspected it. It was unscathed.
Silas reached under his desk and removed a small clear plastic card. He handed it to her reluctantly. "Congratulations, Gabrielle Podia," he said. "On this drift, you now exist."
She stared down at the small card. Her picture was also on the face in a small black and white square.
"How?" she stammered.
"Mess with Little Bit's life and I'll make you regret you ever came here," Silas said again. "I mean it."
"I wouldn't have asked you if I thought she would, Silas." Tyrion replied evenly. "Now about the list."
Silas swiveled his chair around and rubbed his chin thoughtfully.
"Man, this is gonna take some time." Silas objected. "The small arms aren't a problem, I got those in stock, but the bigger stuff will be tough." He puffed for a moment. "It'll take a couple of days."
"Ten hours," Tyrion countered. "We leave in ten hours."
"Ten-" Silas coughed. "No way can I do that for you in ten hours."
"No way?" Tyrion raised an eyebrow. "Silas, I know that each of us put together a little care package that we could take with us in a pinch. Now, I already burned through my stash, and I know how much you like explosions, so don't tell me you can't do it."
Silas squirmed a bit, and then he stabbed his cigar out in a large ashtray. "Man, you're gonna cut into my personal stash now?"
"Silas, what is a weapon unused?" Tyrion asked.
"I know, I know. A useless weapon." Silas sighed again. "I'd rather try and get you the battle cruiser."
His com beeped and he answered it. There was a quiet conversation and then he looked back at his guests.
"Mavon and Felix are on the way." He said. "So, you explain to me why you're doing this for her and her friend. If I'm putting my can on the line, I need to know it's for a damn good reason. Right now, I'm not convinced."
"What do you want us to do?" Gabrielle blurted out.
Silas reached for a second cigar and lit it. "You got to convince me, little girl. You got to convince me." He sat back and waited expectantly.
Gabrielle looked over at Tyrion who merely shrugged and gestured towards the big black man.
"Well," he said. "Convince him."
By the time the Felix and Mavon arrived, Silas was still very skeptical. Despite his obvious reservations, he placed one call on his com and then set it down as the remaining members seated themselves.
Both newcomers were surprised at Gabrielle, and the clothing she wore, but they said nothing.
Mavon reclined comfortably on a couch, like he was expecting some kind of therapy. He moved with a feline grace that seemed like he was always prowling.
Gabrielle had an image of a house cat playing with a cornered mouse.
"Hey M.C.," he said with a wave. "Nice time for a reunion."
"It's not a reunion," said Tyrion. "It's an Op."
At those words, Mavon grinned and Felix's eyes lit up with an eager light.
"Oh?" Mavon said. He rubbed a finger along his hawkish nose. "What kind of Op?"
He had a smooth baritone voice that was almost hypnotic.
Tyrion stood up. "A standard Snatch and Grab with a twist."
"Does this have anything to do with her?" Felix said knowingly. Felix had a boyish grin tugging at the corners of his mouth. Of the four men in the room, he was the most youthful, or at least the youngest looking one. Gabrielle tried to figure out his age, but was stumped. In appearance, she didn't think he was much older than she, but in his eyes were many more years than his face showed.
"Yup," Tyrion said.
"What's the twist?" Mavon asked with a somewhat maniacal smile that set the hairs on Gabrielle's neck standing. He was a thin man with pale blonde hair and eyes that almost seemed too blue to look human. He was dressed entirely in loose fitting black cloth which made him seem more wraithlike than anything.
"The secondary objective is to remove some very mean hombres." Tyrion smiled.
Quickly he outlined the events of the past twenty four hours and summarized his plan.
"One thing," he finished. "It is imperative that we keep a zero visibility profile. We go in and out, unsuspected and undetected. When we're finished, it'll look like a freak natural disaster."
"Ah," Mavon crooned. "My favorite kind of Op." He fingered the sleeve of his shirt. "Black." He rubbed his hawkish nose again and smiled.
"That's if we can get the equipment we need?" Tyrion looked over at Silas, who was speaking on his com unit again. He set it down and puffed a couple of times on his cigar.
"Four hours," Silas said. He had a reluctant smirk on his face. "They'll load it when they resupply and refuel your ship."
"Four hours!" Gabrielle blurted. The building frustration and being overwhelmed by all that she had seen in so short a time were beginning to peak. Xena was captured, probably being tortured, maybe already dead. "You went from a couple of days to four hours?"
Silas shrugged. "I'm good, what can I say?"
"This is all a game to you, isn't it?" Gabrielle snarled. "My best friend is stuck in some dungeon while you go from a couple of days to four hours!"
The smile melted from Silas's face and his countenance became more severe.
"You better watch that mouth of yours, missy," he growled.
"Or what!" Gabrielle shot back. All the pent up emotion was rushing out and there was no way for her to stop it. "After everything I told you! You sit here playing these games while they're doing, I don't know what, to my friend! You think I care what you'll do to me?" Tears were welling up in her eyes and she shook her head, fists clenching. Then she turned and bolted from the room.
Silas's eyebrows rose and he looked up at Tyrion.
"Remind you of anyone?" Tyrion said sharply. He turned and followed Gabrielle.
He found her pacing outside the office, tears of anger streaming down her cheeks.
When she saw him, her eyes blazed afresh. She fixed him with a bitter smile.
"I just realized," she said in a venomous tone. "I can't go anywhere! I can't do anything! I'm stuck here in this place because you brought me here!" Her voice broke as the sobs burst out of her. She slammed her fist against the metal support beam and then turned her back to it, sliding to the ground.
Tyrion regarded her for along minute, and then knelt down in front of her.
"Just take me back," she was pleading. "Just take me back, please!"
Tyrion put a hand on her shoulder and she collapsed into his arms, sobbing. He held her close, stroking her long blonde hair.
He let the emotion wind its course through her, until the sobs had subsided to soft stuttering breaths.
"Come on," he said gently. He helped her to her feet and led her back into Silas's office.
When they entered, Felix, Mavon, and Silas all stood up, their hands behind their backs, feet planted apart.
Gabrielle looked at each of them, her eyes red and tearstains on her cheeks. She sniffled and wiped some of the tears away.
"What?" she asked.
Mavon looked at Tyrion, his entire demeanor had changed. He was less aloof and more focused. His blue eyes were keen and bright.
"You got all the Intel, M.C.?" He asked.
"Everything is on the Phoenix. We'll have the full briefing en route." He looked about the room. "So, you guys in, or out?"
Silas gave a nod in Gabrielle's direction. "I'm in." he said evenly.
Mavon only smiled broader. "Me too." was all he said.
"Felix?" Tyrion turned to the remaining member.
Felix looked up at him with an expectant gleam in his eyes.
"Hoo Ha, Master Chief," he said. "Looks like Old Number Seven is rolling again."
"In that case," Silas said, and he set five glasses on his desk and cracked open the bottle he had brought with them to his office. The black label on the glass read Old No. 7.
He filled the glasses half full with an amber colored liquid and passed them to each person.
Gabrielle sniffed it cautiously. "Why?" She asked the big man.
Silas smiled, and he went from being a ferocious beast to a giant gentle giant of a man.
"Because you convinced me, Sweets," he said. He extended a huge hand. "We're with you."
Gabrielle put her small hand in his, and the massive fingers wrapped gently around it, obscuring hers. Then Silas raised his glass expectantly.
Gabrielle looked at the strange liquid and gave it a cautious sniff
"Don't do that," Silas said. "This ain't brandy."
"A toast," Tyrion raised his glass, smiling fiercely. "To Old Number Seven. We walk where angels don't dare tread!"
And then they all said loudly. "Everyone else ends up dead! Hoo Ha!" And the four men slammed down their drinks.
Tyrion looked at Gabrielle, who still held her glass, uncertain.
"Well?" Tyrion asked.
Gabrielle looked at the expectant faces, then down at the drink in her hands. She swallowed and then raised her glass meekly.
"Hoo Ha," she said nervously, and she tossed her drink down. Instantly the fire burned through her throat and snatched away her breath. She felt it spread through her every pore, and she broke out in a sweat.
Gabrielle caught herself on the edge of Silas's desk, and coughed trying to force the cooler air into her lungs. Her head was swimming.
A massive hand touched her shoulder, and Silas placed a glass of water against her fingers.
"It always smacks you hardest the first time," he said as the others laughed. He himself was grinning. "Welcome to Old Number Seven."
Gabrielle found a chair and sat down; sipping the water while the other members of Old Number Seven discussed the broader details of the mission.
When they had finished going over the plan, Felix excused himself.
"Hey, Felix," Tyrion asked suddenly. "Can you take Gabrielle with you for a minute; I need to talk with Silas and Mavon." He looked at Gabrielle. "Grab a drink at the bar. I'll be out in a second."
Gabrielle looked unsure, but nodded and followed Felix out of the office.
Once she was gone, Tyrion turned to Mavon and Silas.
"There is one more thing I need," Tyrion said, and he looked over at Mavon, once again reclining on the sofa.
"Ahhh," Mavon cooed. "I was wondering when you would get to this?"
Felix led Gabrielle back out to the club and found her a stool at the end of the bar.
He waved down a small, petite red headed girl at the opposite end serving drinks.
"Just kick back and relax for a bit," Felix said agreeably. "The Master Chief will be back in a second."
"What do you mean when you call him Master Chief?" Gabrielle asked.
"That's what he is," Felix said, and he leaned further over the bar. He caught the attention of the young bartender and she sauntered over.
"This is Gabrielle," he introduced. "She came in with Tyrion. Silas says to give her whatever she wants, on the house." Then he gestured to the red head. "Gabrielle this is Nicolla."
Gabrielle smiled. "Little Nicky?" she asked.
"That's me," Nicolla replied. She was a perky young lady, with dazzling green eyes and delicate features. "What can I get you?"
"Something other than the stuff Silas just had me drink," Gabrielle said, shuddering at the memory.
"Ah," Nicolla smiled. "Welcome aboard." She fished under the bar and poured a mixture of several different colored liquids into a short clear glass. As she mixed her drink, she saw Mavon standing just beyond the doorway to Silas's office. Mavon looked at Nicolla intently and nodded. Nicolla added a few more ingredients, tossed some ice into it and set it in front of her.
"I promise this is much better than that stuff." She winked. Then she looked past Gabrielle towards Silas's office and returned the nod with a subtle one of her own.
"So," she said conversationally. "What's it like?"
Gabrielle stopped before taking her first cautious sip. "What's what like?"
"Being with Tyrion?" Nicolla asked unabashedly. "Is he any good?" She had an eager, almost envious look in her eyes which Gabrielle read immediately.
"Oh, no," she said, her cheeks blushing with embarrassment. "It's nothing like that."
"No?" Nicolla looked sad. "Why not?"
Gabrielle stopped again. "I've already got some one special."
Nicolla nodded understandingly, and then a smile spread across her face. "Good," she said. "Then I still have a chance." There was twinkle in her eye that was so openly desirous, Gabrielle had to smile.
"You really want him that badly?" she asked.
"Wouldn't you?" Nicolla replied. "He's gorgeous!"
One of the patrons further down the bar signaled for another drink. When he got no response he slapped his hand on the bar with a whack.
"What?" Nicolla turned and shouted back.
The man, heavy set with a thick beard waved his empty glass.
"Relax!" Nicolla shot back. "We got girl stuff happening here!"
Gabrielle smiled and finally took a sip from the glass. It was surprisingly good, with a taste like mixed fruits that she could not identify. She took a larger drink and felt the mild burn of alcohol mixed in the drink.
Several of the patrons were now becoming quite boisterous, so Nicolla left Gabrielle to her drink and quickly served the remaining customers. Then she returned.
Gabrielle was staring around the room in wonder at the different lights, and listening intently to the music as it thumped through her body.
"Never have been here before, have you?" Nicolla asked candidly.
Gabrielle shook her head. "No, this is definitely a new experience for me." She finished her drink easily and Nicolla quickly fixed her a second one.
"So where'd you find Tyrion?" she continued conversationally.
"He sort of found me," Gabriele replied. She was starting to feel guarded around Nicolla. In spite of her open friendliness, Gabrielle got the sensation that she was fishing for information beyond a personal interest in her benefactor.
Another wave of patrons pulled Nicolla away from her again. Gabrielle breathed a sigh of relief without really knowing why. She suddenly felt incredibly heavy.
As she pondered the strange feeling, a hand settled on her shoulder. Tyrion looked down at her.
"Come on back in," he said, but his voice sounded far away. The room seemed to be shifting as she moved, like being on a ship at sea, a feeling that she did not enjoy. She went to stand, and her legs seemed not to know what to do. Tyrion caught her as she stumbled forward, and led her back into another small chamber behind the bar. Silas and Mavon were there as well, watching intently.
"You sure about this, M.C.?" Silas asked, and his voice seemed to reverberate like gentle thunder between Gabrielle's ears.
"Yes," She heard Tyrion say, and then she settled into a warm fuzzy feeling as they laid her out on a table. She recalled some equipment lying nearby.
"What's that for?" she managed to say, but her words sounded low and unintelligible.
Silas nodded, and Mavon stepped quickly out of the room.
What seemed like a small eternity later, Nicolla came walking in. She circled the table and stood at the head, looking down in Gabrielle's eyes. There was an expression of compassionate concern on her face.
"Hey Gabrielle," she said softly. "How do you feel?"
"Fine," Gabrielle said drowsily.
"That's good," Nicolla said. "I need you to relax for me, alright?"
Gabrielle didn't care what was about to happen, she smiled drunkenly and nodded.
"Okay, Little Nicky," she mumbled. She had a strange inebriated grin on her face.
Nicolla smiled and kissed her forehead. Then she looked up at Tyrion and Silas.
Gabrielle's eyes rolled back and darkness folded gently over her.
"..I mean, he's just so damn," Nicolla finished and gave a dramatic sigh and then gave a feline purr that could only indicate one thing.
Gabrielle sat up straight and blinked. She looked down at the empty glass in her hand.
"Ready for another one?" Nicolla asked cheerily. Gabrielle nodded, and Nicolla set to work.
"I'm surprised you don't find him attractive," she was saying.
"I didn't say that?" Gabrielle said suddenly, and then she frowned. "Did I?"
"Well, you didn't say he wasn't," Nicolla teased.
"I like him just fine," Gabrielle said, flushing. "He's just not my type."
Nicolla leaned on her elbows. "Well, he's definitely mine." Then she smiled. "For one night, anyways." She finished, and the two women laughed.
"This is a strange place you have here," Gabrielle said. "But I think I like it."
"You should stick around for a while, I could show you - " She suddenly stood up straight and grabbed Gabrielle's half empty glass, adding some more ice to it.
"Tyrion," she said breathlessly. "Hi. I was just talking to your friend here about some of the - uh - sights."
Gabrielle concealed a smile. Then she watched as Nicolla expertly changed her demeanor from one of startled excitement to smooth seduction. She did it so fluidly, that Gabrielle failed to notice the change until the end.
"So," she said more slowly, stepping back from the bar with the glass in her hand. One finger tracing the rim. "Are you staying long, this time?"
"Not really," Tyrion answered easily. Then he looked down at Gabrielle. "Sorry I kept you waiting so long. Ready to go?"
"Yeah, sure," Gabrielle said.
Tyrion looked up at Nicolla.
"I'll see you later, Nicky," he said warmly.
Nicolla simply nodded and smiled sheepishly. Then Tyrion began edging his way towards the door.
"It was nice meeting you," Gabrielle said, extending her hand. Nicolla grasped her hand in uncommon fashion and shook it.
"Pleasure's all mine," she said sincerely. "Hey. Do me a favor?"
"What?" Gabrielle asked.
"I think one of us owes to ourselves to have fun with him," Nicola's eyebrows bounced mischievously. "And report back to the other."
Gabrielle flushed and smiled. "Well, then you'll have to wait till he gets back, then you can tell me all about it."
She joined Tyrion outside the club.
"What was all that about?" Tyrion asked.
"Hm?" Gabrielle looked up at him. "Oh, nothing," she finished. She moved down the corridor. "This way to the ship, right?"
Tyrion smiled and followed after the blushing young woman.
Back aboard the Phoenix, the supplies began to arrive on small tractor pulled dollies. Gabrielle and Tyrion quickly began moving the crates into the main hold of the ship.
Everything was progressing as expected until Tyrion watched a tall man in long dark blue robes enter the bay.
"Nuts," he cursed as he stepped into the ship. And quickly kicked a small section at the base of the far wall. Three panels on the floor popped open.
"Gab!" he hissed. "All the gear, in here. Quick!"
"What is it?" Gabrielle asked as they loaded the cargo in the hidden compartments.
"Adjudicant," Tyrion said angrily.
They stowed the weapons and secured the hatches.
The Adjudicant entered the ship followed by two uniformed men wearing weapons. Gabrielle finished packing medical supplies in one locker as they saw her. She looked up and nodded in greeting.
Tyrion came walking back from the flight deck.
"Can I help you?" he asked easily.
"Captain Tyrion Darquefyre?" he asked in a crisp accented voice.
"My name is Adjudicant Tavis. I have been authorized to search your vessel for contraband," he said.
"I see," Tyrion replied with a nod of his head. "No."
"I beg your pardon?" Tavis said in surprise.
"What is the reason for this search?" Tyrion asked evenly. "You cannot simply search a vessel without evidence of something illegal. Not unless you want to pay a hefty settlement to the wronged party?"
"I have my instructions," Tavis said sternly.
"And I have my rights," Tyrion countered. "If there are allegations serious enough to warrant a search of my ship, then I have a right to know what they are. You should have a warrant, listing those issues. Do you have that warrant?"
"You can't come barging in her without good reason," Gabrielle said suddenly.
"And who might you be?" Tavis asked, turning his granite gaze on her.
"Gabrielle," she answered, suddenly uncomfortable, and mentally kicking herself for speaking out.
"Your Ident card, if you will," Tavis said, holding out his hand.
Gabrielle bit her lip and removed the new card from her pocket, handing it to the man. He stared at it critically, and then looked down at her.
"I thought you had only one person listed on board?" the Adjudicant asked. "Just yourself?"
"Normally, I do," Tyrion replied. "I'm not working this week."
"Yet you're stocking up on supplies for the work which the Confederation pays you?" Tavis replied.
"You've never planned ahead before?" Tyrion asked.
The Adjudicant smirked. "I don't believe you," he said.
"Still not reason enough to violate my rights," Tyrion replied coolly. "Or harass my passengers."
The Adjudicant was about to reply when a loud voice boomed through the hanger.
"Old Number Seven, ready to roll!" It was Silas.
Behind him came Felix, Mavon and, to Gabrielle's relief and surprise, Nicolla. Each of them carried a bag on their shoulder. Silas had a huge crate on one massive shoulder.
"Ho, ho, M.C.!" he shouted. "Let's get this party started!"
He threw a large green knapsack into the hold, almost knocking over the two guards in the process, and then he shifted the crate so that it came in first. His arm muscles bulged under the strain, yet he still had a relaxed smile on is face as he pressed the crate in through the hatch and set it on the floor atop the hidden compartments.
He smiled broadly. "Alright!" he said. "I got the beer! Let's fly!"
"Can't yet," Tyrion said. "This guy thinks we're smuggling."
"What?" Silas towered over the Adjudicant. Then he indicated the crate he had just brought in. He kicked the lid, and it flipped off revealing the tops of small silver containers.
"No offense intended, man," he growled. "But this trip ain't about smuggling. It's about consumption."
"Excuse us," Another voice called from below. The two guards stepped aside as best they could and allowed Felix, Mavon and Nicolla to enter the ship, each one moving to stow their personal gear.
"Hey Gabby," Nicolla said brightly, and she grabbed hold of her and hugged her enthusiastically. "Just go with it," she whispered quickly in her ear.
Gabrielle actually didn't have to play along that much. She was happy to see Little Nicky. They had been having a pleasant conversation just before Tyrion and Gabrielle had returned to load out the ship. Now it appeared that she was coming along to help.
No, not hard to play along at all. She laughed with relief.
"So," Nicolla said suddenly. "Are you the chaperones?" she held one arm around Gabrielle's shoulder and looked seductively at the Adjudicant and his men.
"No," Tavis replied dryly. "But these intoxicants are obviously acquired illegally, since it is not permitted for someone to buy it in bulk, like this."
"Um, excuse me," Silas said. He removed a wallet from his back pocket and handed a card to the Adjudicant. "It's legal when you own the business that buys it, sir."
The Adjudicant was becoming more and more flustered by the second as he read the Ident card for Silas, which listed him as the proprietor of the Industry Night Club. His two guards, which had been a security blanket for him was now woefully inadequate to handle the ship of apparent party goers. He grumbled something inaudible, cleared his throat a couple of times, and handed Silas and Gabrielle their cards back.
"Sorry to keep you," he said, and they disembarked.
Tyrion was grinning widely as he slapped the hatch control and watched it slide shut with a clunk. Then everyone let out a collective gasp of relief.
"Okay, stow your gear and get ready for lift off." Tyrion ordered. Everyone, including Gabrielle went into a form of automatic pilot, checking and securing stations. Gabrielle checked readouts and secured hold downs, suddenly realizing that she understood what she was doing, but she didn't know how. She watched her hands move as if someone else were moving her. Then Felix, Gabrielle, and Tyrion moved up to the flight deck, while Silas, Nicolla and Mavon finished stowing the last of the gear from the false beer crate.
The false can tops lifted to reveal a back pack sized satchel, surrounded by real beer cans.
"You didn't think I would let you guys down, did you?" Silas asked, and he handed a beer to Nicolla and Mavon.
"Let's hear it?" Tyrion asked.
Felix was tapping controls on his monitor at the navigation station.
"Flight course and speed locked into the computer, preflight diagnostic complete, Nav com is online and ready to fly." "Very well," Tyrion answered. "Engineering?"
Gabrielle's fingers also flew across the boards, like they belonged in that environment. She read the displays mechanically and understood it all.
"Artificial grav field is at one hundred percent. Secondary and backup battery systems fully charged, engines running at idle, no alarms. Hatches secure. Whenever you're ready?" Then she stopped, a haunted expression filling her face.
"How did I know how to do that?" she asked. "How did I understand all that?"
"Did you?" Felix asked. "Did you understand it all?"
"Yes!" Gabrielle said, frightened. Then a look of dawning crossed her face and she began to smile. "Yes, I did understand it!" Her grin became broader as she manipulated the controls on her board, looking over the various readouts and feeling the information processed in her mind like she had done it for years. It was natural, comfortable and automatic. She giggled like a giddy school girl. "This is amazing." She laughed. "Even more amazing because now I understand it all! How do I understand all this?" Her fingers kept working.
"Well," Tyrion said. "Since you understand all this, how about calling Karl and getting us launch clearance?"
Gabrielle hit a few more switches.
"Tantarus Control," she said confidently. "This is the Phoenix Fire, requesting clearance to launch."
Tyrion smiled as he settled behind the flight controls. It was not a smile of joy. It was a grim smile of recollection. He sighed.
Karl's face appeared on Gabrielle's monitor. "Where's Tyrion?" he asked.
"Can we leave or not?" Tyrion shouted over his shoulder.
"Oh," Karl said. "Never mind. Phoenix, you are cleared for launch, stand by for depressurization."
There was a whooshing noise beyond the ship, and then the doors slid open revealing the blackness of space.
"Phoenix, turn to starboard on heading one, nine, seven, and switch to beacon Delta one. Have a safe flight."
Felix sat back in his seat and gestured for Gabrielle to continue.
Gabrielle hit another control and the navigation system came up on her console. She entered the information and smiled.
"Understood," she giggled. "Heading one, nine, seven, beacon Delta one. Thank you."
Tyrion took the ship out and away from the drift.
Once the ship was on auto pilot Tyrion, Gabrielle and Felix joined the others in the main hold.
As they entered, Silas tossed each one of them a can of beer.
"Okay, M.C.," he said. "Let's see the Intel."
Tyrion smiled as he popped the top. "Alright people," he said, motioning them to the table. "Gather round.'
The six figures crowded around the small table, covered with papers, and maps.
"That's the outpost," Gabrielle said when she looked more closely at the largest image.
"And the surrounding area," Tyrion added. "Okay people, here's what I want to do."
The plan was simple. The ship would land one mile east of the castle in a small gap within the forest. From there, Nicolla and Gabrielle would set up an observation post on the southeast ridge, while Tyrion, Mavon, Silas, and Felix would infiltrate the keep via the culvert used by the spy. Once inside, they would secure the lower levels, find Xena and any other prisoners, set the T.D. and the team would extract through the culvert again, bringing as many prisoners as possible. At that point, Nicolla would cover them in case they were spotted.
Five minutes after being set, the T.D. would neutralize the entire complex.
"Just one question?" Gabrielle asked. "What is a T.D.?"
"Thermal Detonator," Mavon said evenly. When Gabrielle frowned in confusion. Mavon sighed. "A bomb. A very small, but very powerful explosive device."
"You're going to blow up the outpost?" Gabrielle asked in shock. "The whole outpost?"
"And part of the surrounding area," Tyrion nodded. "Most of Alsydius's army will be caught in the storm, the rest will be too demoralized to fight and will probably surrender to the first legitimate force that comes along."
"Boom," Silas murmured quietly. He had a smile on his face as he looked at the map, estimating the radius of the damage.
Gabrielle nodded, feeling that dreadful shiver creep up her spine again.
Tyrion handed small pads out to each member of the team. It showed the same map in smaller relief and fit in the thigh pocket of their uniform pants.
"Okay people," Tyrion said. "Let's suit up. Weapons prep in fifteen. Put on your game faces, we got a job to do."
Nicolla and Gabrielle went forward to the flight deck to change, while the men stayed in the main cabin.
Once inside the flight deck, Gabrielle turned to Nicolla.
"I didn't know they were going to blow up the entire outpost," she said in horror.
"From the way things sound," Nicolla replied. "This Alsydius is a pretty nasty customer. If only he dies, one of his men will take over and the trouble will start all over again. The only way for this to work is to take out the entire command structure. That means the leader and all his lieutenants. The collateral damage to his forces will break the rest of his army up."
"You've done this before as well," Gabrielle said evenly.
"Sweets," Nicolla said pleasantly. "We all have."
She finished getting changed and the two of them went back to the others.
The fire team of Tyrion, Felix, Silas, and Mavon were expertly slapping their weapons together and doing final checks. Each man had used dark colored green and black paint to paint over their faces, matching the patterns of their uniforms. They looked primitive and intimidating in their uniforms, and Gabrielle suppressed a shudder. Three of the four men were doing final inspections on a small and wicked looking rifle.
The MP 9 was compact and light static discharge weapon that worked equally well in all environments. With the addition of a muffled flash suppressor, the plasma bolts it fired were practically silent. It had a pistol style grip and collapsible stock. A small target scope was mounted on top to allow for better accuracy at distance, and it had three settings. It would fire single shots, three round bursts, or constantly until the power pack was exhausted, depending on preference.
The AS 2 heavy rifle was a large caliber static weapon, with better velocity and faster fire rate. It served as heavy back up in fire fights, and it was no surprise when Silas claimed that weapon. It's mass matched the proportions of the owner.
"Hi, baby," he said lovingly to the weapon. "It's been a while, hasn't it?"
He attached the shoulder strap to his uniform, and then took the weapon through a few practice swings before loading the twin energy clip and fixing the sights to his liking.
The second AS 2 was given to Nicolla, who slapped it together as efficiently as any of the men, though she did not strap it to her petite body. Instead, her version came with a two leg stand attached to the end of the barrel and a large target scope, like the one on Tyrion's sniper rifle. Nicolla set this weapon to fire singly. One round per squeeze of the trigger. She then lifted the weapon into a waiting rack and secured it.
All the extra weapons and ammunition were quickly divided among the four soldiers and loaded into their equipment vests.
Silas took charge of the T.D. He grinned.
Gabrielle looked at the device, no bigger than her shoulder bag back home. It was hard to comprehend that something that small was about to destroy and entire stone building.
"That's it?" she asked.
Silas nodded and a dreamy look came into his dark eyes. "Boom," he sighed.
Tyrion checked the timer on his left wrist.
"Five minutes to reentry, people. Final check and strap in."
Xena didn't know how many hours had passed. It could have been years for all she knew. She went from the dull waking of hell back into dark dreams of her memories until it was all a blur of pain and misery. Alsydius was methodically destroying her mind, body and soul. Her eyes were clotted closed by dried blood, and her body burned with the dull throb of pain that had numbed the rest of her senses. If Alsydius had been trying to get information from her, she would have told him anything at this point. She had endured torture before, in the slow methodical way that broke down a persons will over days or weeks. Alsydius was different. He didn't break the mind; he decimated the body, knowing that the mind would follow quickly as the person sought an end to the brutality.
Even Xena, strong as she was, could not fight that brutality. The first time she had waked, the guard immediately sent for Alsydius, and he resumed his methodical torture. She had been taken down from the chains, though still bound, and laid on a bed of salt. The wounds in her flesh awoke with a new and different fire as the salt worked deeper and deeper inside, forced by her body weight. After that, the pokers had scorched the flesh beneath her skin. Her blood had flowed in rivers to the floor of her cell. When she passed out the second time, a bucket of icy water mixed with the salt had been thrown upon her, and the pain in her body continued, even as the coolness of the water revived her.
She knew her fingers were all broken, at least a couple of her ribs as well, and she had bled out a great deal. She was sure there was more, but she had become incapable of feeling it, only noting the effects. She could no longer feel her legs. Her arms were useless. She couldn't even feel cold or warmth.
"I'm in shock," she thought. There was something about that which encouraged her. "It'll be over soon." A faint smile appeared on her split lips as she hung there.
"Gabrielle," she thought. "At least you're safe."
A noise seemed to draw her out of the darkness. It was a deep rumbling, like thunder, yet the moonlight shone clear through the tiny window high above. Still, she felt and heard the skipping rumble of something overhead. It grew in volume, boomed once over the castle, and then faded into the distance.
"Tyrion," she thought.
Another boom, louder and staccato split the air a few minutes later, and then the world fell back into deep shadows and violent nightmares.
Alsydius sat at table, his grin was carved in his face. He looked out the window of what had been the garrison commanders' office and smiled. His meat had better flavor after battle, the wine more potent in his glory. He let out a sigh and gauged the time in the night sky.
"Almost time for another round with the Warrior Princess," he thought sarcastically. "I wonder if she'll survive this one?"
He sat back and took another long drink of wine, savoring it.
"You seem pretty proud of yourself," a voice said calmly behind him. Alsydius turned slowly and looked over his shoulder to see a figure, dressed in black leather, leaning casually against the wall.
He grinned. "Ares," he growled. "To what do I owe this honor?"
"I just wanted to come by and tell you how much I admire your work," Ares replied easily. The whiskers around his lips moving as his characteristic smirk asserted itself.
"You've done quite well," he added.
"Better than your little bitch," Alsydius retorted. He turned back to his meal. "What do you want?"
"Down to business," Ares said. "I can do that. I want you to release Xena."
The cistern room was a small, dank chamber at the base of a main staircase. Two guards stood post at the entrance, standing facing one another in the doorway.
A faint splash echoed from the massive rectangular tank. They looked across the smooth floor to the dark water which rippled as if some creature had disturbed the surface. One of them, his brows furrowed in curiosity, took a couple of slow steps toward the wavy water, his hand grasping the hilt of his sword. Perhaps a fish strayed into the tank. If so, it might be good enough to eat.
Suddenly a group of figures rose like apparitions from the dark water, standing before them in a shower of droplets. There were several flashes, and both guards dropped where they stood. No sound echoed up the steps into the dungeons.
Mavon kept his weapon pointed at the stairs, while his free hand motioned the rest of the team to come up out of the water. He was grinning like a savage.
"Watch point," he whispered into his com. "Insertion complete."
Felix was the next one to rise silently from the depths, and the two of them covered the door as Tyrion and Silas emerged next.
They all gathered on either side of the doorway. A quick check above showed no movement coming from the shadows. The air was completely still and silent.
Tyrion nodded, and pointed with two fingers up the stairs.
Felix and Mavon led the ascent. From that moment on, the fire team never ceased moving. They went up, checking each doorway they found, splitting easily into two, paired teams and killing any they found.
Guards dropped at their posts. Off duty men died in their sleep, or awoke just in time to feel the fire burn through their bodies or brains as they perished.
"What?" Alsydius thundered. "You want me to release her?"
"Yes," Ares replied. "In return I'll guarantee that your army is successful for the duration of your conquest." He smiled. "There won't be a force to stop you."
"All for a useless bitch?" Alsydius countered. "She may have been your best at one time, Ares, but she's worthless and half dead now. You may as well start grooming another to take her place."
Ares smirk faded for an instant, and his gaze darkened, though his voice lost none of its characteristic charm.
"Granted, Xena can be a pain in the ass. And the little conscience travelling with her really irritates me," he said. "But I have a vested interest in her, and I don't like wasting good material"
He stepped up and took a cup from the tray, filling it with wine and drinking deliberately.
"Think about it, Alsydius," he said. "I can make you the top dog, if you do this one little thing for me?"
A few paces from the top of the steps, Felix and Mavon halted, weapons up. Each fired one muffled shot and the two guards at the door to the main dungeon fell dead. The team moved past the door to the foot of another set of steps that led up into the castle proper. Mavon covered the steps, with Felix behind him, while Silas covered the stairs returning down to the cistern room.
Slowly, Tyrion edged up to the tiny square opening near the top of the door and peeked in. He crouched back and signaled the others. He held up three fingers, the pointed two fingers at his eyes, and then passed his hand across his throat.
Translation: "Three guards visible in the room, take them down."
The team moved closer to the door, blood pumping in anticipation.
Alsydius considered for a moment and then shook his head.
"Sorry, god of war," he said with just a hint of sarcasm. "After everything that bitch put me through in her army, I think I'm entitled to my revenge. You want another plaything, why not try Callisto, I hear she's pretty impressive."
Ares gaze was filled with dark fury for a moment, and then suddenly he smiled a smile that would have sent a chill up the spine of any other mortal. He shrugged.
"Callisto is good, don't get me wrong, but," he said. "She's too unreliable. Still, have it your way. Just remember what you might have had."
There was a flash and a puff of smoke, and he was gone.
She felt a quick series of dull vibrating thumps in the pit of her stomach, more than heard them, but she knew the unmistakable sound of several bodies hitting the stone floor. Then she heard voices, distant but distinct.
"Clear…….Clear……Clear…..Silas, Felix, check the stairs, Mavon, get the door…..Watch post, we are in, collecting the package…….M.C.! Got it…Time one minute fifty-five…damn we're good."
The creaking of her cell door and then the shuffling of feet, then silence.
"Holy God," she heard a choked voice say. Then a cloth was wiping on her face. It was warm and soothing, and she felt it pull her back out of the darkness.
"Hey beautiful," a familiar voice was whispering quickly. The dampness passed over her swollen eyelid, and she felt debris flaking off under the gentle touch. Her eyes slowly opened as much as they could. She saw the shape of a man, his hand outstretched at the side of her face. Then she saw Alsydius, reaching towards her once again.
"No more," she said, now falling back into despair. "Please."
"Xena?" The voice continued. "Come on. It's time to leave."
Then it focused away from her.
"Silas!" it hissed. "I need you!"
"What-" a deep rumbling voice said, and then it choked back.
It couldn't be that bad, could it? She thought.
"Help me with her," Tyrion's voice continued.
At last Xena could see him, more or less, standing before her like some majestic monument. He poured water from a container and wiped a little more of the grime from her face. Tears began pouring down her cheeks.
"Tyrion?" She choked. "Tyrion?"
There was a quick flash and the smell of something burnt, and her left arm was free. Tyrion caught her gently as she sagged down. Another flash and a sizzle and her right arm fell useless. She stayed there, wrapped in Tyrion's protective arms. She gasped weakly, each breath bringing shocks of pain to her body.
"Come on, baby," Tyrion said softly. "It's all over." She looked up at him.
"Are there any more prisoners?" Tyrion continued.
She shook her head. "He executed them." She croaked. "He executed all of them."
Tyrion nodded grimly. "Then let's get out of here." He held her in one arm and tapped his earpiece.
"Watch post," he said quietly. "We have her. Moving to extract."
He tapped it again and looked at Silas.
Xena also managed to look, and saw an enormous, powerfully built black man standing by the door, shaking with rage.
"I should have brought a bigger bomb," The man rumbled.
"Set it," Tyrion ordered.
The huge man nodded and moved out of the cell.
Tyrion helped the wounded woman out into the antechamber. On a table, he found an old blanket, and beneath that, he discovered Xena's armor and weapons.
"Felix," he hissed, wrapping the blanket around Xena's naked form.
"Load up that stuff, we're moving out."
Alsydius sat at his table, now stewing over Ares request. His last words of that conversation echoing in his mind. Suddenly his meal had lost any appeal it might have had.
"Just remember what you might have had."
Alsydius stewed over those words for several minutes, his hand clenching and unclenching on the table before him. A rage began to boil in his blood. Ares was notoriously clever. Somehow, he would always get what he wanted. His cunning was well known, and he never said precisely what he meant.
His fist clenched again, trembled, and then swept the entire table clean in one furious motion. The platters clatter on the stone floor, the wine splattered, and the food fell with a sickening plop. He rose so fast that the chair toppled behind him.
"That bastard!" he bellowed, and he made for the dungeons.
Ares always got what he wanted! And he wanted Xena! He would take her right out of his clutches!
He grabbed his sword on the way out the door. No more games, no more fun! He would run the bitch through as soon as he entered the room! Ares would not deny him his revenge! By the Gods, he would not!
Silas was in the corner, working with his little package. He finished his task and looked up expectantly.
Felix took Xena's clothing, sword and the chakram, and stuffed them into his backpack.
"Mavon," Tyrion whispered. "Set a few surprises on the stairs for those sons of bitches."
Mavon looked at Xena and nodded, and then he disappeared up the steps. The rest moved out of the hellish place and back to the stairs down to the cistern. Silas waited at the bomb. At a signal from Tyrion he pressed a button on the device and a button on his wrist timer simultaneously. There was an ominous beep.
"Five minutes," Silas growled. "No countermand."
Mavon came back down the steps.
"They won't like that stuff," he grinned. He jerked a thumb up the steps to his booby traps "We going?"
"Move out," Tyrion ordered.
For Xena, every movement was another level of suffering. The dirty blanket was stuck to the ripped flesh of her back and sides, and she felt the dampness of her own blood oozing into the cloth. The man carrying her moved with quick, massive strides as they descended back towards the lowest level of the castle. Every now and then, she caught glimpses of shapes lying in the shadows. They were all bodies.
"Gab-" Xena gasped.
"Shh," Tyrion hushed her, and then he tapped his ear. "Gabrielle," he whispered. "Someone wants to have a word." He removed the com and pressed it into Xena's ear.
"Gabr-" Xena gasped.
A familiar voice set a fresh stream of tears running down her cheeks.
Gabrielle pressed the com harder into her ear as she spoke, as if that would somehow bring her closer to her friend.
"Xena?" she gasped. "Are you okay?"
"Better now," Xena managed to gasp. "Talk later, okay."
Her voice was so strained and hoarse from the pain that Gabrielle felt compassionate tears well up in her eyes. For Xena to sound so desolate was something she could never remember hearing. It was completely void of the strength that she always conveyed. It was the voice of the dead.
Tyrion's voice came back over the com.
"We're at the cistern," He said. "Going under."
Tyrion pulled a small device from inside one pocket and held it against Xena's lips.
"Hold this in your mouth," he instructed. "It will let you breathe under the water. Okay?"
Xena nodded weakly.
Felix submerged smoothly first without as much as a ripple on the surface of the standing water. Next went Mavon. He slung his rifle over his shoulder and reached up to receive Xena.
As gently as he could, Tyrion lowered the limp form of Xena to him.
"Gently, now," Mavon whispered. "Nice and easy."
Behind him, Silas whispered. "Three minutes, thirty seconds!"
The cool water washed over Xena, and seemed to flush away the darkness around her. Then her wounds went under and the pain flashed behind her eyes in a long wave. Slowly it died away, and she began to feel the cool water caressing her injuries. She went down, led by this new person.
The other one was there as well, Felix. Each took one of her arms and led her, floating through the water, as gently as they could.
Behind her, the massive bulk of Silas sank into the water behind her, followed lastly by Tyrion. They moved through the long slime covered tunnel to a broken grate beneath the surface of the river.
One by one they slipped through into the open current. The water was cooler and cleaner there, and Xena felt it wash over her, as if it would clean away the pain. Her eyes closed and she knew no more.
Alsydius bowled through two guards as he descended the steps at a fast walk.
"Out of my way, dogs!" he bellowed. His mouth belched forth unintelligible sounds of fury.
He hit the first landing leading down to the dungeon. The guards he assigned to the door were gone.
Another bellow as he stomped down the steps. His foot hit something on the step. He heard a soft click. Looking down, he had just enough time to see the tiny red illumination under his heel. At the foot of the stairs, he saw Ares leaning against the stone, his arms crossed and that cursed smirk on his face. He waved goodbye to Alsydius and vanished. Alsydius frowned, and then the wall of fiery death rushed up to engulf him with a roar. What was left of his body blew back up the stairs with a crash.
"Just remember what you might have had."
Gabrielle felt as if her heart was about to burst from her chest it was pumping so fast. She kept her eyes glued to the binoculars, and watched the culvert intently.
"Where are they?" She asked over and over. "Where are they?"
"Relax," Nicolla said calmly. Her one eye was jammed into the large scope on the top of her AS2. She constantly panned along the walls, watching the guards moving about the castle. "They're coming. They have more than three minutes left on the timer."
Gabrielle watched for nearly a minute and a paranoid fear began to claw at her mind.
"Something's wrong," she muttered as the adrenalin began pumping through her veins. "They should be out by now!"
"Gab, baby," Nicolla said. "You really need to calm down. You're getting all flustered over nothing. Tyrion knows what he's doing."
Suddenly, a head popped out of the water by the culvert, then two more, and finally two more.
"I see her," Gabrielle said. She had to force herself to remain where she was.
"Good," Nicolla said easily. "Now stop fussing and check the guys on the south wall."
Gabrielle gave the young woman an icy sidelong glance, and then watched the guards on the wall, standing in the shadows.
"How can you be so calm?" she muttered.
Nicolla panned the rifle to the guards directly over the fire team. "Because I know what they're doing. And so do they."
The team had just about made it to the corner of the wall when a dull concussion resonated from within. Men began scurrying along the walls, searching inside the castle. Cries erupted from somewhere below.
"What the hell was that," Nicolla said, and she watched the sentries more closely.
As the party bobbed along the northern bank away from the castle, she saw one of the sentries on the western wall freeze, leaning out to try and see something moving in the water below.
"Lead," Nicolla said over the com. "I think one of them has made you. Permission to fire?"
Tyrion's voice sounded clear.
"Go!" he ordered.
Nicolla squeezed the trigger and the sentry flew back into the courtyard with a cry.
"Target is down," Nicolla reported. "Better get moving, boys. The cat seems to be out of the bag."
"We're rolling," Tyrion replied. "Cover us."
Nicolla sighted the wall as the team moved further down river. Several guards now stood at the wall, looking down into the water, watching for any movement. One of them pointed towards Tyrion's team. Nicolla took him down, but it was too late. The alarm was raised and the gates at the western wall began to open.
"Break and run, baby," Nicolla called. "They're coming!"
The fire team was two hundred yards away. Tyrion looked back and saw the soldiers streaming out of the keep.
"Up and out!" He ordered. "Fall back by positions!"
The team moved up onto dry ground. Silas took a position near some shrubs with Tyrion a few yards behind him. He checked his chrono quickly.
"Two minutes, fifteen seconds!"
As the sortie moved closer, Tyrion counted the seconds and finally yelled.
Silas opened up with his AS2, spraying death among the charging ranks.
At the same time, Nicolla switched her weapon to automatic and opened up on the troops from the flank.
Bodies fell, rank and file in the onslaught before Silas had to draw back. He passed Tyrion, tapping him on the shoulder. Immediately, Tyrion rose and opened up on the approaching horde. More men fell under his gun, though not as many as the heavy gun that Silas was reloading.
Tyrion emptied his charge and turned and fled, right past Mavon who in turn opened up on the approaching ranks. Once his charge was spent, he turned and fled. Silas waited until Mavon was past and then he stood up from behind the bank of the river, with a thunderous roar he released his next onslaught. His weapon sprayed tracers of red death into the enemy. Bodies fell or were thrown back under the fiery assault. Others tripped over the bloody remains of their comrades, only to fall themselves a few paces further.
"Bring it to me you sons of bitches!" he roared.
Nicolla cursed and popped the energy clip from her weapon, slapping a fresh one in. She resumed her fire on the enemy.
Gabrielle was so intent of the troops across the river that she didn't see the contingent on their side of the bank.
"Nicolla!" she blurted.
Nicolla looked up and saw about one hundred soldiers sweeping towards them.
"Oh, that's it," she said. She closed down her weapon and the two girls fled deeper into the hills.
"Lead," Nicolla reported. "We've been made! Retreating into the hills!"
Tyrion swore. He crouched on one knee waiting until Silas passed him again, and then he once more opened up on the approaching mass of soldiers.
He let out a bellow that shook the ground as his weapon delivered death by the bushel among the enemy.
As he was about to empty his second energy clip the pursuing forces abandoned the chase and fled back towards the safety of the fortress.
"We're clear!" Silas called to the others. He checked his wrist timer. "Hoof it people! We're one minute away from Boom Time!"
Mavon and Felix carried the semi conscious Xena between them, making as fast as they could for the Phoenix Fire. Behind them, Tyrion and Silas followed, keeping an eye out for any pursuit.
"Nicky," Tyrion called. "We're clear, what's your status?"
Nicolla looked behind them and saw the movement of the forces pursuing them.
"We're still moving," she said. "And we have a lot of company.
"Head northwest towards the river. Back up will meet you there," Tyrion ordered. "Crank it up, girls! Fifty seconds!"
Nicolla acknowledged the signal, and then she and Gabrielle turned towards the river at a brisk run. The sounds of footfalls and cries followed them, closing on them with relentless assurance. Finally, Nicolla stopped and pulled two egg shaped items from her vest. She removed the small silver pins from the top and waited until she saw the first soldier come over a small rise.
With a cry of rage she threw the two objects. A few seconds later, several pursuers went flying through the air in two large fiery explosions.
Nicolla raised her weapon and fired, sending the pursuing soldiers fleeing in panic.
"Run!" Nicolla ordered. Gabrielle turned and fled. The reports of Nicolla's weapon echoed through the trees and then fell silent.
Gabrielle stopped, ducking behind a large tree. She looked back through the forest as a thin layer of smoke flowed from the ruined earth beyond. A single figure emerged from the haze.
"Nicky?" Gabrielle exclaimed in relief.
Nicolla looked grim but satisfied. She tapped her earpiece.
"Cancel that backup, M.C.," she said. "We lost them. Will R.T.B. from here. Out."
She tapped it again and grinned like a cat.
"We don't need no men," she said.
Gabrielle smiled and the two of them continued on their way.
"You'd fit right in with some other women I know," she said.
Nicolla and Gabrielle had doubled back, following a meandering path through dense forest, leading down to their rendezvous at the river, one klik east of the landing zone.
"We're clear," she said. "Moving to meet with you."
"Tyrion," Gabrielle asked suddenly. "How's Xena?"
"Not good," Tyrion replied evenly. "But she'll live."
"How close are you two?" Silas's voice boomed in her ear. "We're almost ready to blow."
"We're clear," Nicolla confirmed. "Rendezvous in -"
The two of them emerged from the wood across from the rest of the party.
"Ten seconds!" Silas called. "Everyone get down!"
They all sprawled onto the river bank. Silas counted down the remaining seconds, looking back up river expectantly.
There was a brilliant orange glow, followed by a tremendous roar of an explosion. Chunks of debris shot skyward, only to come crashing down in a thunderous rain all over the area. A hot wind blasted through the trees before everything settled down to a dull tremor in the earth.
Silas had an almost ecstatic smile on his face.
"Beautiful," he whispered in childlike awe. Then he chuckled in appreciation.
Tyrion got them all back to the ship after that. They lay Xena on the bed and began looking over her injuries. They were severe, but not life threatening to the technology Tyrion had available. They had her hooked in and under anesthesia in short order, lying on her stomach while Mavon went to work repairing the mass of rips in the flesh of her back.
Gabrielle sat next to Xena, holding her hand while tears streamed down her face. Xena was a battered, her eyes swollen shut, lips cracked, and in spite of the coolness of the water, she still bled openly in places. Gabrielle had never seen a person so tormented as this, and she gently caressed the blackened bruises on Xena's cheeks.
"Is she going to live?" She asked in a frightened voice.
Tyrion looked up from assisting Mavon, his eyes locked on Gabrielle's for a moment, and then he nodded soberly.
He finished up with his tasks, and left Mavon in charge of the patient before he stepped out into the pale light of morning.
A figure stood, leaning against the stabilizer wing at the front of his ship. Tall, dark skinned, with a thin goatee and long dark wavy hair.
His clothing was simple, but finely made. Vest, pants, boots, all in black, all oiled and gleaming. His blue eyes stared at Tyrion with a mixture of curiosity and wonder.
"I must say," he said cordially. "You do magnificent work. Just four of you to take on Alsydius and kill him. Now that's impressive."
Tyrion's hand drifted to his gauss gun, but the man raised a hand.
"I'm not here for you," he said.
Tyrion nodded, and a smile crossed his face.
"Ares," he said knowingly. "Gabrielle told me all about you."
"Well," Ares shrugged. "Don't take her too seriously. She's more of a nuisance than anything."
"Oh," Tyrion smile grew, though the casual insults to Gabrielle had awakened the protective fire in him again. "I've found her to be quite competent. What do you want?"
Ares looked at him for a moment, and then an amused smile appeared.
"You're not afraid of me," he acknowledged. "That's new. Disciplined, well trained, and not easily frightened. Oh, I like this."
"You forgot one," Tyrion retorted. "Not for sale."
"You haven't heard my offer," Ares persisted.
"You're right," Tyrion said. Then he turned to reenter the ship. "Good bye."
"Now wait just a minute!" Ares said harshly.
Tyrion turned and was nose to nose with Ares in a single stride. His speed, ferocity and lack of fear regarding him, put Ares off, and the god stepped back in surprise. He regained his composure quickly.
"Watch it," he growled. "You'll wind up in over your head."
"I doubt it," Tyrion replied. "I know all about who and what you are. I've even surmised a few things on my own, based on what Gabrielle told me. I might even know where you're from?" Tyrion's eyebrows rose.
Ares looked in Tyrion's eyes and saw an understanding that he was unfamiliar with. For the first time in a long time, Ares, god of war, felt something he couldn't describe. It was fear. Not a fear of harm, for Tyrion couldn't really harm him. It was a fear that some dark deep secret might be revealed and jeopardize everything he was working for.
"Yeah," he said softly. "Maybe so. But who on this world would believe you? And you can't really broadcast that you were here, can you?"
"Try me," Tyrion growled.
"Exactly what I had in mind," Ares said. "I think you would make a nice addition to my plans. You're smart, well organized, and pack a punch for being such a small group. Think what you could do if I managed to create an army, just like you?"
"Keckopa," Tyrion replied. "No thanks."
"Ke-what?" Ares asked.
"You don't want us here," Tyrion said evenly. "We'd cramp your style."
"Not if you worked for me," Ares said, that smile on his lips.
"If we worked together?" he sighed. "Think of it!"
"I am," Tyrion said. "No thanks."
"You know something?" Ares asked suddenly, his annoyance growing. Tyrion's impudence had amused him because it was genuine. Now he was losing his temper.
"I think this disease called compassion must be contagious. Everyone that meets that irritating blonde ends up thinking just like her!"
Tyrion's gun was in his hand and pointed at Ares head before he could blink.
"You leave them be," he said fiercely. "If I hear that you've done anything, ANYTHING to them, I'll report what I know and damn the consequences."
"Really?" Ares asked.
"Yeah." Tyrion moved back towards the ship. "Take a hike, War God. Store's closed."
Ares stared long and dark at Tyrion. "Alright, Darquefyre. If that's the way you want it? Fine with me. We'll see each other again. Maybe then, you'll be more receptive."
"Look forward to it," Tyrion replied.
Ares vanished in a flash.
Tyrion went back into the ship. Xena was stabilizing and she was completely under anesthesia. The work on her back was progressing well, and the signals from the nanites repairing her internal damage were also strong.
Gabrielle still sat at Xena's side. Still clutched her friend's hand.
Tyrion looked across at her and nodded to Nicolla.
"Nicky?" he said. "It's time."
Nicolla nodded soberly and moved to the head of Xena's table. Then she looked at Gabrielle.
"Hey, Sweets," she said.
Gabrielle looked up at her.
Nicolla sighed. "The naked fox danced across the glass of water."
Instantly, Gabrielle's expression went blank. Her eyes stared forward at nothing. She sat motionless, an empty shell.
Tyrion bowed his head, while Mavon, Felix and Silas looked from Tyrion, to Nicolla, to Gabrielle and back again.
"What did you do?" Felix asked in shock.
"I can't leave them here with the knowledge they have, and I can't bring them back with us." Tyrion said.
Silas looked back at Nicolla and nodded. She on the other hand, her eyes welling up, simply stared down at the floor.
"Wait a second," Felix said with a dawning look on his face. "She's a Teller?"
"Yup," Silas said evenly. "Level Nine Read/Write."
Felix was suddenly very uncomfortable. He looked over at Silas. "You mean you've had a Teller working for you the entire time?"
"How do you think Gabrielle was able to operate the Engineering station on the flight back?" Silas said harshly. "Something wrong with that?"
"Nothing," Felix answered quickly, his hands out in surrender. "Nothing, boss."
Silas looked over at Nicolla.
"You need to finish this," he said to her gently. "There's no other way."
"It's like saying goodbye to her all over again!" Nicolla suddenly said. "She's so much like Lynette!"
"And she still will be when you're done." Silas said. He put a hand on Nicolla's shoulder. "And through her, a part of Little D' is still alive. That's what's important." He gestured to the two motionless women. "It's got to be this way."
Silas looked down at the two women. Xena, now stretched out on her back, was healing fast enough to see the improvement. The swelling around her cheeks and nose were gone, as was the bruising on her sides. There was no trace of the scarring from Alsydius's whip, thanks to Mavon's handiwork.
Nicolla moved Gabrielle and laid her on the bed next to Xena, and then she looked at the others.
"When I do this, I can subvert any memories you want," she said. "I can't erase them, you understand. I can only bury them. And there's no guarantee that they won't remember some of it in the future? The mind is an interesting thing at best?"
Tyrion nodded. "I understand."
"How far back do you want me to go?" Nicolla asked.
"To the day I arrived." Tyrion replied soberly. "Make it like they never knew us or anything before I landed. Keep them unconscious until we get them back to the camp I found them at."
Nicolla nodded. "Okay," she said. "I need you guys to leave while I do this. Too many distractions."
Tyrion nodded, and the team filed out except for Mavon, who lingered behind the others.
"Can you do something else?" he asked smoothly.
She gave him a curious look.
The four of them waited outside, each working through their own thoughts. While Felix, Silas, and Mavon had not gotten to know Xena, they had gotten to know Gabrielle on the flight back. In that short a time, the young woman had made quite an impression on them. In fact, they had all agreed that in some twisted way, Gabrielle could be Lynette's reincarnation. Even Mavon, who was the most pragmatic of them all and in no way religious, seemed to agree. Gabrielle had been like Lynette in voice, manner and appearance. Each of them was feeling the loss their own way.
Tyrion sat against the forward landing skid, his cigarette smoldering, forgotten between his fingers. Mavon leaned against the hatch, staring up at the sky, saying nothing, while Felix, still surprised at Nicolla's secret abilities bounced between humorous surprise and grim resignation.
Silas was leaning against the forward air foil, his back to the others so they could not see the silent tears rolling down his cheeks. Of the four of them, Silas had been the next thing to a second father for Tyrion's daughter. He was Uncle Silas to Lynette, and she had always been his Little Bit. He had mourned her once, and now felt like he was mourning her again through knowing Gabrielle.
A few hours later, Nicolla emerged from the Phoenix Fire looking haggard and worn out. She looked at them all, finishing at Mavon, and she nodded.
"It's done." She said. "They won't wake up until I broadcast a telepathic signal to them."
The five of them reentered the main cabin. Gabrielle and Xena lay, now clothed in their regular garments. The nanites had nearly finished their work and Xena looked almost as good as new. Her skin was smooth and unblemished again. The swelling in her face was gone, with only a hint for discoloration beneath her right eye. No one said a word. They just stood silently, staring down at the two women for a long time. It was Tyrion who finally broke the silence.
"We need to get moving, people" He said quietly. "Flight stations, please."
The Phoenix Fire lifted from the ground a short time later and sped off into the morning sky.
They landed in a remote area, nearly two miles from the original plateau that the two women had camped at nearly five days before.
The four men carried the two sleeping women on stretchers up to the plateau, and easily found the remains of their camp; along with the various supplies they had left in their hurry to aid the injured Gabrielle.
Mavon and Felix set their stretcher down and gently lifted Xena onto her own blanket, covering her with it. They lay her sword next to her, but Mavon surreptitiously hid her chakram in his shirt as they worked. Felix noticed this, but a quick gesture from Mavon silenced any protest.
Tyrion and Silas laid Gabrielle down in her own blankets, and left her staff at her side. She lay peacefully unaware of their presence.
Silas stood over her for a while, as if he was at a funeral, and then he sighed.
Tyrion covered Gabrielle with her blanket and put a hand on her cheek. Then he knelt and kissed her forehead gently. No one said a word. Nicolla hovered some distance away, watching furtively as the team quickly set everything as close to right as they could. Then they folded up their stretchers and jogged off. Once in some foliage, Tyrion looked over at Nicolla, nodded, and Nicolla focused on the campsite, with its small fire burning in the pale light.
Xena stirred in her sleep, rolling over, while Gabrielle's head tossed slightly.
"To them," Nicolla said regretfully. "They've slept through one night. They won't remember anything after making camp here."
"Time to go, people," Tyrion sighed. One by one, each of them turned away and vanished into the trees. As Tyrion turned to leave, he saw the massive form of Silas, still staring out at the camp.
"Not thinking of going bush on me, are you big guy?" Tyrion asked
He asked quietly. "Didn't we?" he looked over at Tyrion.
"I don't know," Tyrion admitted. "If this was right," he gestured to the two sleeping forms. Then he put his hand on the big man's shoulder. "But we did fight for the greater good. That's always the right thing to do."
Silas took one long last look and sighed again.
Gabrielle sat up, looking about her.
"Let's go, big guy," Tyrion whispered. Silas backed away until the view of the two women vanished behind the drop of the hill, and then he lumbered off after the others.
Once they got back to the Phoenix, Nicolla was sitting in the open hatch, while Felix did a quick walk around inspection of the ship. Tyrion ducked his head inside, and then back out again. He looked over at Felix.
"Where's Mavon?" he asked.
Felix only shrugged and looked away.
"Ah damn," Silas grumbled.
Nicolla opened her mouth to say something, but quickly shut it again. When the two men turned to stare down at her she met their gaze evenly.
"He said he had something to take care of," she finally offered. "He'll be back tomorrow afternoon."
"What is he taking care of?" Tyrion asked darkly.
Nicolla matched his tone. "He didn't say."
They had been arguing all morning long as they walked.
Xena was absolutely furious. She asked the same question again.
"I don't know what you did with it!" Gabrielle shot back. Her own patience was close to being at an end. "That chakram is never more than a foot away from you, unless it's sailing across a field to knock someone senseless!"
"Then where is it?" Xena asked angrily. "I'm telling you, someone was in our camp last night!"
"You, sleep through someone rifling through all our things?" Gabriele said. "Like that would ever happen! Besides, why just take that? We still have your sword and all of our money? A thief would have taken everything. And a bounty hunter would have killed us first."
"I think Autolocis is in the area," Xena hissed suspiciously. "He might have the guts to pull a stunt like this, just to prove a point."
"And not stick around to gloat?" Gabrielle countered. "I doubt it."
"Come one Gabrielle," Xena said. "Think about it. We wake up in the morning, the fire's barely burned down, and all of our things aren't where we put them, or just plain missing!" She sighed loudly. "If not Autolocis, then who?"
"I don't know!" Gabrielle finally shouted.
Xena stopped. "I know it's not your fault," she said, trying to calm down. "I've had that chakram for so long. I just feel naked without it."
"I understand," Gabrielle agreed. "And it is strange." Then her eyes widened. "Maybe we were sleepwalking?" she said excitedly. "And somewhere in there we got into a fight? That would explain your chakram missing. It might not have been anywhere near the camp!" She paused when she realized Xena was no longer beside her.
"Do you have another theory?" Gabrielle turned back to face Xena, expecting a condescending look to be on the warrior's face. Instead, Xena was staring up at the sky, just above the line of trees that marked the forest border of Cyerna.
When she turned around, she saw what had captured Xena's attention.
Across the river and a little ways down, they both saw smoke rising in the distance. Lots of smoke.
"What is that?" Gabrielle asked, feeling a knot form in the pit of her stomach.
"Cyerna," Xena said grimly. "The attack must already be underway!" She leapt onto Argo. "I'll ride ahead and see what I can do! Catch up when you can!"
"Right," Gabrielle said. "Be careful!"
Xena galloped off down the river.
Gabrielle looked out at the rising smoke and frowned. There was something about this that felt all wrong. She couldn't place the feeling, but it began to gnaw at her. She jogged after Xena.
When she reached the edge of the clearing that led to Cyerna, she stopped short, horrorstruck. Xena stood nearby, next to Argo and looking out at what remained of Cyerna.
Gabrielle walked slowly over to stand beside her, overwhelmed at the sight.
The main castle which had served as the garrison for the forces stationed there was nothing more than a large crater surrounded by smoking piles of shattered stone, with bodies and rubble strewn hundreds of yards in all directions. The field on the western side was a slaughterhouse. Dozens upon dozens of corpses covered the entire area, some of them piled atop one another, struck down in the midst of a charge. Their blood seeped into the earth, tinting it crimson, or pooled in shallow depressions like oily marsh beds. The entire area stank of death, and insects buzzed incessantly over the bodies.
On the southern side of the river, another smaller area of field was rent from one end to the other, and bodies also littered the area there, some of them not quite whole. The tall river grasses were burnt and the earth was blackened. Near the edge of the woods, the ruins of catapults and other equipment of war could be seen, still smoldering in the sunlight. At a guess, nearly two hundred lay dead on that field. Two rows of torn earth stretched the entire length of the clearing, like some force had ripped out of the earth from beneath.
A breeze blew the stench over them, and Gabrielle instantly put a hand to her mouth and turned away, choking on the bile that suddenly rose up. Xena looked down at her with pity and then back at the carnage before her. It was more terrible than anything she could have ever imagined in her worst times. She forced herself to remain detached as she surveyed the scene, and a frown creased the skin of her forehead.
"Gabrielle," She said quietly. "Look at this."
"I don't think so," Gabrielle choked. "Not just now, Xena."
Xena smiled kindly at her friend. She knew what it was to see the remains of a battle. It took getting used to before you could gaze on that much death without it affecting you. In truth, Xena felt the same revulsion as Gabrielle. The scope of the destruction was beyond anything she had ever witnessed.
Finally, Gabrielle rose, keeping her back to the dreadful scene. "Gods," she breathed, taking a small drink of water. "What happened here? Alsydius's army destroyed this place!"
"No," Xena looked at Gabrielle, and then back out at the field. "This was Alsydius's army."
The two of them moved slowly along the southern bank, past the western field. As they passed the central part of where the wall once had been, Gabrielle tripped over something. She looked down and saw the foot of a body. She followed the dead limb up past the chest and shoulder and found the face of a man. The right side of his head had a small hole just above his ear. She first though that some impact had buried the left side of his face in the torn earth, then she realized that most of it was missing. She jumped back with a squeal of fright.
Xena knelt before the corpse and looked at it carefully.
"What could do that to a man?" she asked timidly.
"I don't know," Xena replied. There was a cold knot tightening in her belly.
She rose and led Gabrielle towards the ruins of the docks on the eastern end of the field.
"The soldiers back there," she said, indicating the western side of the battle. "They were killed while running away from the outpost, not towards it." She looked back. They reached the eastern edge of the field and looked across at what was left of the east wall. In many places, there were craters in the earth, surrounded by more bodies, and smoke still rose from several of the shallow pits.
"This makes no sense," Xena was saying helplessly.
They forded the river and moved into the remains of the city, picking their way through the piles of rubble and smoldering earth. Within the walls, they found many of the defenders, lying dead, mingled in with hundreds more of their attackers. The main keep was a shattered skeleton of its former self. Jagged sections of the once proud walls rose like cracked and rotting teeth in the light. The stones were blackened and scorched.
Here and there, people were going through the wreckage, salvaging what they could. Many of them stopped short when they saw Xena, and they each come over to her and thanked her for defeating Alsydius. She was taken aback.
"I'm sorry," she told one middle aged woman. "I don't know what you're talking about? We've only just arrived."
"No," she had replied. "It was you that ordered us to evacuate the city. You knew this would happen and you saved hundreds of us by staying and fighting. We all thought that you had died along with the rest of our soldiers."
Xena and Gabrielle looked at one another, more confused than ever.
They listened to several more accounts of her bravery before they found a quiet place to sit and think.
Xena's eyes gazed around the ruins of a small courtyard, an eerie feeling of recognition tickling the back of her mind. Something bad happened here beyond the carnage she could see. Something wicked in a way that touched her heart like the point of an icy dagger. She knew it in the marrow of her bones, and she knew it had happened to her. She just didn't know what and that left a nagging doubt in her mind.
"Mistress Xena?" a voice cooed behind them.
Turning, they saw a thin man in a plain, tan hooded cloak. He held a long walking stick that looked like he might have found it lying in the forest. Under his other arm he carried a small bundle of cloth.
"Yes?" Xena asked.
The stranger nodded cordially and fixed his pale blue eyes on Gabrielle.
"And you must be, Mistress Gabrielle," he continued in a hypnotic baritone voice.
"Yes?" Gabrielle answered, looking up at Xena. The warrior merely shrugged.
"Good," the man said and he strode forward. "I must congratulate you on a splendid campaign," he continued. "This victory is quiet impressive."
"Look," Xena said. She was weary of the accolades for something that she knew she had not done. "I don't know who caused this mess, but I can tell you it wasn't me!"
The man's smile took on a mischievous look and a twinkle in his pale blue eyes startled Gabrielle. There was something about this man that she recognized, but she couldn't think from where. She was certain she had never seen him before in her life and yet that feeling of familiarity crept like an icicle up her spine.
"Well," he said simply. "I can tell you what the citizens of Cyerna are saying?"
"I really don't want to know," Xena said, putting her head in her hands and massaging a headache that had suddenly appeared.
When she looked up, the man was holding out a bundle of cloth to her.
"What's this?" Xena asked.
"A gift," the man replied evenly. "From friends you don't know you have."
Then he extended a small wooden box towards Gabrielle.
"And for you," he continued. "Inside is something that you may find useful, someday."
"What is it?" Gabrielle asked, looking again at Xena for any understanding.
"Something that should only be used in your most desperate hour," the man answered cryptically. "Do not open this unless you have the utmost need. Can you accept that responsibility and truly honor it?"
The look in the man's eyes was hopeful, almost pleading.
Gabrielle stared at the box. It was a simple, small wooden container, rectangular in shape, and about the size of a spice box that she carried with her cooking supplies.
In the center of the decorated lid, which was sealed by a coat of candle wax, was an ornate letter L.
"What does the L stand for?" she asked.
"Life, mistress," the man replied. "Life."
Gabrielle thought for a moment longer, and then tentatively took the box from the man's fingers. As she raised it to inspect it, she heard several things rattle within.
"Well," the man sighed. "My task is done, here. I bid you safe journey, wherever you may fare." He bowed and turned to leave.
"Wait!" Gabrielle called suddenly. "Who are you?"
The man turned, and smiled at them again. His finger stroked his hawkish nose, as if he were considering answering the question. Then he smiled even wider and nodded, as if concluding some internal debate.
"I am called Brother Mavon," he said. "I am a member of the Order of the Phoenix. Farewell" He raised a hand in gesture of departing and bowed again. Then he withdrew disappearing behind a large broken stone.
Xena watched him depart, and then unfolded the cloth in her hands. Her eyes went wide with surprise and wonder.
"My chakram!" she gasped. She looked up after Mavon, and then ran to the stone. The robed man had vanished. She looked down at her weapon, feeling like she had just been reunited with an old friend.
"A gift, from friends you don't know you have."
"Friends," she thought out loud. She smiled. She looked out over the ruins of the city, hoping to catch a glimpse of the man at least once before he was gone, but somehow, she knew that wouldn't happen.
"Where the hell have you been?" Tyrion barked angrily as Mavon strolled casually up to the ship. "We've been waiting her all damned day!"
"Had a loose end to tie up," Mavon said simply. He tossed an old bundle of cloth onto the ground and stepped up into the ship.
"We going?" he asked.
Felix snickered, and Silas began to smile. Nicolla simply looked up at Tyrion, rolled her eyes, and shrugged.
"Tell me again," Tyrion asked angrily. "Why is murder illegal?"
Felix laughed out loud, and Silas's grin grew even wider. The Phoenix lifted off and turned south, away from Cyerna. It drifted above the trees for a while, and then climbed steeply into the sky until it vanished into the clouds. A boom echoed through the still air and then there was silence.
The night wrapped about them like a blanket, as Gabrielle stared into the flames of their tiny fire. In her hands was the box Brother Mavon had presented her. She was turning it thoughtfully in her fingers, but her eyes were focused inwards.
Xena was using her whetstone, sharpening some unexplained nicks in the blade of her sword. She ran the stone down the blade a few more times, and then inspected her work. Satisfied, she slid the blade back into its sheath and looked over at her friend.
"You didn't eat," she said, noting the forgotten plate of food next to Gabrielle's feet.
"Hm?" Gabrielle blinked, coming back from her thoughts.
"Food?" Xena said, smiling.
Gabrielle looked down at the plate and then grimaced. "After what we saw this morning," she said. "I guess I'm not hungry."
"I can understand that," Xena agreed.
Gabrielle stared back into the flame for a while longer, sinking down into self reflection. After a while, her eyes drifted down to the box in her fingers.
"A part of me really wants to know what's in here," she admitted. "And another part is afraid that we might have to find out someday."
Xena set her back against a tree stump. "We might," she said. "Our life isn't exactly boring."
She looked at Gabrielle and smiled. "In the mean time, until that day comes, remember what happened to Pandora when she got too curious."
Gabrielle smiled and lay down on her blanket.
The moon shone silver against the dark backdrop of night, and the stars twinkled in the sky. A sudden feeling in her chest seemed to try and pull her off the ground. It was like a part of her wanted to fly and knew, somehow that she could.
She looked back down at the box, and then up into the veil of night, a smile on her face.
"I wonder," she said out loud.
"Wonder about what?" Xena asked, settling down for the night.
"I wonder what its like," Gabrielle said thoughtfully. "Up there, in the sky. I wonder what it would be like to fly."
"I don't know," Xena replied, smiling. She looked up at the canopy above them and shrugged. "It'd be fun to find out though." She smiled and lay down to sleep.
"Good night, Gabrielle."
"Good night, Xena, "Gabrielle replied. Then she looked up into the blackness and without really knowing why, she smiled. A single shining red streak of light turned an unfamiliar arc across the sky and vanished.
Gabrielle watched it vanish and smiled, though she didn't know quite why.
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