Part 3 Chapter 4

By Phantom Bard

For Disclaimer: See Part 3 Chapter 1


March 28, 2002 - An Undisclosed Location in Washington, D.C.

Three men sat around a conference table in a room that the outside world didn't suspect existed. The atmosphere held guarded optimism in the face of an impending disaster.

"The assets have been secured, sir, and the mass production facilities are nearly complete," Albert Gibson said, referring to the progress report on the table in front of him. He looked up and saw approval faintly etched on Spencer Trilby's face. The man had aged a decade in the last few months.

"What progress have you made on the second phase?" Trilby asked Harry Tasker.

"Sir, we are ready to begin. The hair sample has been assayed and the genetic material has been isolated and amplified," Harry reported. "Cloning can begin at once."

"Very good, gentlemen," Trilby said with a sigh of relief. "You're sure she doesn't suspect anything, Harry? This is our only chance to have any shred of control over this whole sick bloodfest. There can't be any screw-ups."

"Sir, the second phase is being carried out incommunicado. There is no way to trace what is happening there. Like the mirror site, the system is fully automated and there are no living personnel. I can't think of a more secure setup."

"Okay, Harry, good work. Now, about the first phase…"

"Mass cloning began last week with acceleration technology being applied from the start. We have the first eight embryos, the chiliarchoi, at a stage equivalent to two months normal gestation, with the remainder at the blastula stage. Everything is underway at both the primary installation and the mirror site. And we also have the two augmented embryos as per her specifications."

For a moment the conversation died. Their "client" had supplied material, technology, and a researcher that most of their own lab personnel considered dangerously insane. He had begun splicing and inserting DNA the first day after he'd arrived, and the two "specials" were thriving just like the other clones. They were virtually indistinguishable from the first eight, but they were a cause for the highest level of concern.

"Sir, Xena's already uncontrollable," Gib began, "we've all seen the films. The fights at the school were bad enough…no one fights like that except that clone she calls Elainis. But then there's the helicopter footage from the temple. Sir, we've analyzed that footage frame by frame. Her initial attack…there are no clear images of her, and the shutter speed was 1/250th of a second. It's all a blur. No one should be capable of moving that fast. Now we're making 'specials' with genes from snails?"

"They're actually using just seven genes from Conus striatus, a piscivorous cone shell from the Indo-Pacific shallows."

"Harry, they're snails…poisonous snails. She's breeding them to be poison spitters?"

"She's not after the poison, Gib. She's after their speed. A cone shell injects its prey with venom by harpooning it, and the harpoon moves at close to 150 feet per second. A good black belt can punch at 43 feet per second. That's what she wants."

"And in the temple footage she was a blur. Discount the helicopter's motion and she was still moving at least two or three inches in every frame, probably more. That's her whole body, not just her fist, moving at 50 feet per second minimum…it approaches the human neural threshold. The 'specials' will move well over twice as fast as she does."

"Actually, Gib, they'll not only move faster than Xena, they'll react faster than she can…much faster. You see, the 'specials' will mature with their long motor nerves based on molluscan physiognomy…with far fewer synapses than in a normal human. Transmission time for a nerve impulse will be a small fraction of that in humans. That's much more dangerous. She claims their reflex arcs will allow them to dodge bullets fired from some handguns if the attacker is over twenty-five feet away. But that's not the point. They'll be able to draw a sword and cut your head off before you can even react to their first hand movement."

"Harry," Al asked in exasperation, "doesn't this bother you just a little bit?"

"Do you think you'd have a ghost of a chance against Xena if she wanted to kill you, Gib?" The other agent shook his head "no". "Then does it really matter if she's breeding special clones that can move even faster than she does? There's no way any of us can 'control' Xena. That's why there's a second phase. None of us may live to see it, but it's all we can do."

Spencer Trilby closed his eyes and reflected that in the end, a lock of hair could save the world. But there were so many "ifs"; so many details that could go wrong. He'd never played such a dangerous game. He was involved in a frontless war more deadly than the Cold War with the eastern block had ever been. There was an invisible arms race afoot, but he was only privy to a part of one side's efforts. His ally scared him witless and her enemy was beyond comprehension. And here he was, trying to doublecross someone that shouldn't even exist, without weakening her capacity to defeat an enemy that she claimed was a goddess. He felt as though he were trying to cheat card sharks in a game he'd only learned that night, with everything he knew and loved wagered on a single hand.

"Are you alright, sir?" Gib asked, prompting Trilby to blink and return his attention to the conference.

"Not really," Spencer replied with atypical candor, "but if I were, then I'd be worried. Do we have any way of keeping tabs on Xena? Of knowing what she's up to on a day by day basis? We don't have any real idea of her overall strategy or of her timetable, other than that she's given us four years to build her an army."

"Sir, we don't even know where she is most of the time," Harry admitted. "She contacts us, and if we need to contact her, then we place a classified ad in the Washington Post."

Spencer Trilby could only groan. Omega Sector was at an outsider's beck and call, and that outsider was the most dangerous person he'd even met. So far, Spencer Trilby had met Xena, exactly once.

She had come to their headquarters in mid-November, just days after his agents' mission in Iskenderun. She'd been dressed down to avoid attention, in a sleeveless white blouse, worn Levi's, and scuffed low-heeled boots, carrying an old trench coat in one hand and a battered laptop in the other. The clone could have been an office worker or a low-level consultant, but never had the sector chief sensed such a concentrated aura of personal power. It encompassed cold determination, absolute self-confidence, an unshakable commitment, and steely prowess, all in measures far beyond anything he'd ever encountered in his lifetime. Without consciously disguising it, her authority would shine through a pauper's rags, and on that day, the recreated ancient warrior had purposefully confronted them as a commanding general.

She had walked into the conference room with them and immediately taken his seat at the head of the table. She had never stooped to challenging him with eye contact or a contest of wills. The question of who was in charge and who would follow orders simply never came up, as if the question itself were moot. It was obvious that Xena had been born and bred to command, and like those around him, Spencer Trilby had felt a visceral compulsion to obey.

Just as Harry had, aboard the Gulfstream V over Columbia, he'd recognized her ability to inspire and inflame those around her through the sheer strength of her will. It was a quality; innate in any charismatic leader, but present in a degree possessed by only a few in all of history. Without knowing what it was, he felt Xena's projection of the Favor of the God of War. People would follow her blindly, not because she used scapegoats or demagoguery, but because by association with her, they could become part of her vision. Xena offered grandeur beyond mortal ambitions and the closest thing to immortality that the living can achieve; participation in world-changing events that would become history, legend, and someday, myth. Trilby had found her as horrifying as she was compelling.

She'd had no hesitation about making demands or laying out specifics. Xena began the discussion by unsheathing a dagger and slicing a layer of skin from the inner surface of her left forearm. Her face had registered only mild interest and not even a trace of pain as her blood welled up through the raw flesh. Setting the sample on the tabletop, she'd told them, "from these cells you will clone me an army of 8,000 warriors." It was an imperative, not open for discussion.

There had been more. On the laptop, she'd displayed images of the Soldier Systems Center, a part of the US Army Soldier and Biological Chemical Command Center, in Natick, Ma. The footage had been shot at night during an infiltration op that appeared to have been a solo intrusion into a secured military R&D facility. It showed the existing technology for a future battle dress uniform, encompassing a first generation cyber-mimetic fabric, and an onionskin-thin, breathable membrane called Pyrotect, that was unaffected by flames.

"Since you have access to government assets, you will acquire and perfect these technologies," she had demanded. The agents had looked at her in shock. The specifics of Natick's research were heavily classified and access to the facility was closely restricted. And yet her voice and the strength of will it conveyed brooked no argument. "You shall create battle dress uniforms for my army, using the Chameleon Cloth as an outer shell over jumpsuits made of BioSteel sandwiched with Pyrotect. My army will be fireproof, bulletproof, cut proof, and able to disappear from sight."

To herself she derisively recalled the Natick facility's motto, Cum Scientia Defendimus, (we defend with science). Science could be used equally easily for defense or offense. It was blind, deaf, and dumb, and like Death, it answered to any master without conscience.

She had turned the laptop momentarily and tapped several keys before showing them the designs for the clones' multi-layered BDUs. The technical specifications and procedures from the Natick research were provided in decrypted files that had been downloaded from the Command Center's restricted database before a corrupting virus had been introduced to their mainframe. Keyed to activate by the system’s clock, it would remain dormant over a six-month period and then suddenly erase the allocation tables and lock the hard drives into a repetitive reformatting sequence while locking out all command inputs. The system administrators would have to physically cut off the power.

It was then that Spencer Trilby had really become aware of just how different this warrior was. As she'd spun the laptop back towards him, he'd noticed the inner surface of her forearm. Not only had the cut she'd inflicted stopped bleeding, but already, new pink skin had begun to seal the wound. Perhaps ten minutes had passed.

Again she had turned the laptop to access a file and then slid the computer around for a third time so the Omega agents could see it. The screen revealed the unremarkable face of a late middle-aged oriental man in a white lab jacket. They had gagged.

"I see you're familiar with Dr. Junichiro Kishihara," she had stated with the trace of a grin curling her lips. The agents were well aware that the researcher in question was wanted by Interpol and the governments of the United States, England, Germany, and Japan. He had done the seminal practical work on cloning for human enhancement, and he was regarded as both brilliant and insane. In hopes of creating a master race, the doctor had harvested countless human ovaries from kidnapped women. Usually he'd walked out of the operating room leaving the donor bleeding on the table while he hastened back to his lab with his prizes. "He's currently in my custody and will become a limited member of the cloning project."

Xena'd read the horrified disapproval on the agents' faces and stared them down. There was really no choice between ethics and practical necessity. War was no place for the weak hearted. She'd hardened her voice. "If we don't use him, someone else will. He'll create two special clones for me, an' that's all ya need to know."

Trilby knew that to have infiltrated Natick and taken Kishihara prisoner since returning from Turkey meant that Xena had been very busy and very successful. There had been no report of a security breach at the installation in Massachusetts. Kishihara had been wanted for six years. He had been profiled as a sociopath, utterly devoid of conscience or compassion, and yet he'd agreed to do her bidding. Trilby was more than impressed by what she'd accomplished in under a week.

Next they had discussed how the work would proceed, and again Xena had surprised them. She'd demanded that everything be done twice, at two facilities, with no contact between them, all according to her specifications. It was a dual-decoy tactic they all recognized. She anticipated and would accept a casualty rate of 50%. To assuage their concerns about the safety of their personnel, she'd agreed to the mirror site being a fully automated sacrifice. The meeting had ended shortly after that. She had left them with the laptop, the skin sample, and a parting statement that had chilled their blood.

"Failure is not an option in this war 'cause a goddess doesn't take prisoners and the lives of mortals mean nothin' to her. I'm prepared to die and you should be too. Perhaps if we're successful, there'll still be a world left that can heal itself, in a few hundred years. I'll be checking in with you from time to time, and Harry knows how to get hold of me if somethin' comes up. Be very careful. I'm counting on you and I don't like surprises."

The meeting had taken roughly an hour and she left without looking back. By then the shallow wound she'd inflicted on her forearm had completely healed, leaving only a pale telltale blemish where the new skin hadn't yet matched her tan.

In your eyes
Joy gives way to pain
Save your tears for the rain
Visions stop at the ceiling
Without each other
What would we be

In our minds
We have weapons and cures for disease
And a light year in the instant that it takes us to conceive
Without each other
Where will we go

(Partial Lyric from, "Strange Thing", Sophie B. Hawkins, ©2002)

March 28, 2002 - Gangplank Marina, SW Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C. - During a White House press conference today, Press Secretary Bill Thurston announced that President Bush will be appealing to Congress for passage of a resolution tomorrow condemning the Iraqi government of Saddam Hussein. Thurston noted that the dictator had recently expelled UN weapons inspectors, while intelligence sources report that Baghdad is preparing to test a nuclear device. The President's resolution includes the controversial Hayes Clause, which would allow the United States to unilaterally respond in kind to any threat that includes a weapon of mass destruction. As a precaution, a spokesman for the Navy Chief of Staff has revealed that the ballistic missile submarines USS Harvard, USS Biloxi, and USS Alamo are now stationed in the Persian Gulf. All three are capable of launching cruise missiles armed with 200-kiloton W-80 nuclear warheads. The deployment was termed a "discretionary deterrent". The deployment met with universal dismay by the foreign community, however British leader Tony Blair applauded the move, saying that, "in this case, an eye for an eye makes good sense."

Fredrick, Md. - In a special press bulletin, Colonel Marrion Welsh, Chief of the Pathogen and BioToxin Weapons Division of the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) in Ft. Detrick, Maryland, confirmed that US bioweapons had been deployed in consideration of passage of the Hayes Clause. While the nature of the weaponized biologicals was not revealed, it is assumed that they were expected to counter reports of the Iraqi's development of weapons based on anthrax and botulism. Col. Welsh was asked if other agents are currently in use by the United States. His response was that, "Anthrax spores and botulism toxins are difficult agents to weaponize, and to be honest, they're very crude and not highly lethal. Anything we'd consider current would be based on aerosolized live cultures that could include small pox, Ebola Zaire, pneumonic plague, and certain strains of influenza. Such agents are either more highly contagious, are incurable, or have a higher rapid kill ratio." He refused to comment on what forms the agents were deployed in, or specify the delivery systems involved. Dr. Janice Ward of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Georgia called the move, "…insane."

Redmond, Wa. - The Microsoft Corporation announced today that all future versions of the company's operating system software will include the "Federal Key", the court approved program upgrade that will allow open access by government agencies to all computers using the Windows operating system. The Key has also been engineered to be downloaded and installed automatically, and cannot be removed by the user. The Key is required by federal law, and failure to comply carries a penalty of one year in prison for each computer owned by a person or business. The Federal Key is part of the government's comprehensive initiative for national security in information technologies.

Scott County, Ky. - Vandals torched the facilities of a leading tobacco grower here sometime in the early morning hours. The blaze, which fire marshals have termed, "suspicious in origin", spread rapidly, destroying six buildings in under an hour. The act of arson appears to be part of a developing nationwide trend that has included: the lynching of a Los Angeles family in which the parents and two teenagers were all smokers, the bombing of a cigarette distributor's warehouse in Chicago, and charges of police brutality in Austin in which a motorist was dragged from her car and beaten after having been pulled over while smoking at the wheel. Readers may recall that just last week, the American Tobacco Co. appealed in Federal District court to overturn the Casey Law which would require all cigarette manufacturers to begin adding the chemical beta-6-abraxas to their products. The chemical has been approved as a safe chemical sterilizer in humans. The additive is part of the government's comprehensive initiative for national health, in accordance with the recent Supreme Court decision that allows the government to pass legislation enforcing approved aspects of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, as guaranteed by the Constitution. Conservative Justice Howard Reyes commented in the majority decision that, "…the government cannot be held accountable for guaranteeing life, liberty, or the pursuit of happiness if it cannot control those pursuits through legal statutes and penalties." A funding measure for the additive is under debate in the House, and would raise the cost of a pack of cigarettes to $9.00 in most localities.

Washington, D.C. - The Federal Communications Committee, in conjunction with the House Select Committee on un-American Activities has instituted new broadcasting guidelines requiring all FCC licensed media broadcasting companies to provide for one hour a day of patriotic themes. The audio and video programming will be provided by a new government production facility that is to be funded by the National Entertainment Tax. A 4% levee on all movies, television, radio, and "hard" media, (books, DVDs, CDs, etc), will take effect on May 1st of this year. Religious, governmental, and approved educational programming is exempt.

Sacramento, Ca. - The controversial McKenzie Act was passed today by the state legislature with a vote of 142 to 16. The new law rescinds all private gun permits and makes possession of a firearm within the state a crime punishable by not less than 2 years in a state penitentiary. The McKenzie Act is described by liberal legal scholars as being an abridgement of the Constitutional Right to Bear Firearms, however the Supreme Court refused to rule on an earlier appeal, citing the fluidity of the Constitution as, "a living document that must react to the will of the people for the sake of their better interests in the present time.". Conservative politicians applaud the bill as the opening of the disarmament of violent elements in society, and have vowed to remove firearms from the hands of all except active military and police before the end of the decade.

Detroit, Mi. - City Council members have proposed a bill that would allow the Social Services Administration to require beneficiaries of public assistance to register for participation in pharmaceutical testing programs approved by the city. The program would allow the economically depressed city to recoup some funding by providing volunteers to several manufacturers within the state on a predictable and regular basis. The measure, in conjunction with corporate tax abatements to pharmaceutical companies, is hoped to entice a new industrial base to the city. The attendant increases in employment, income tax volume, and crime reduction are promising benefits of the program. Children under 10, the elderly over 72, as well as some handicapped individuals can elect exemption, however they can expect some reductions in benefits.

New York City, N.Y. - Police Commissioner Fields announced that beginning in April, all police patrols will be issued one automatic weapon for each pair of officers. The weapons, mostly HK MP5 submachine guns, will be, "… a valuable deterrent and logical next step in our vigilance against terrorism". Previously, only members of the elite Special Services division were regularly issued automatic weapons. The Commissioner also proudly reported that for the sixth year in a row, statistics for violent crimes are down, implying a quieter and safer city. However, "there is no way to predict when or if another situation (like the September 11th attacks) may arise, and to that end, I think it benefits all citizens to have a police force that is prepared". The measure would have allowed the city to save on the costs of deploying National Guard troops on patrols during the last crises, the mayor claimed.

"Centralization of authority an' the constrainment of individual rights," an analytical voice whispered. "Society is transferring choice to the few actin' for the one who'll soon consolidate her power."

Pale blue eyes had scanned the stories in quick succession. In the comfortable cabin of a yacht docked in the Gangplank Marina at the foot of SW 6th St. in Washington D.C., the Destroyer of Nations sipped Classic Coke and waited for nightfall. Outside the 78-ft. Miss Artiphys, water slapped among hulls and voices rose from the fish markets on Maine Ave. Xena's new home afforded her both privacy and an unexpected locale. No one simply came to her door and the residents of the other houseboats and yachts had quickly learned that the tall woman had little interest in their company. She kept to herself, was often out of town, and showed not the slightest interest in their affairs. The marina employees she dealt with were discreet, being used to eccentrics, celebrities, and reclusive professionals. In fact Xena was barely considered remarkable, and though her boat was among the larger vessels docked in the marina’s "T" slips, her "neighbors" included the Odyssey and the Presidential Yacht, the USS Sequoia.

She tossed the paper onto the upholstered bench and looked out through the windows of the bridge. The city's lights were coming on as evening darkened the sky to the deep cobalt hue she remembered embellishing traceries on the bronze helms of Corinth. Across the District of Columbia, thousands of hands flipped thousands of switches and PEPCO's grid obediently responded, heating filaments to life. Past the berths of smaller vessels moored to the west, Xena could see the round floodlit dome of the Jefferson Memorial, glowing amidst the clouds of cherry blossoms that encircled the Tidal Basin. Further off, the winking red safety beacons atop the Washington Monument floated over the mall. Above it shone the planet Venus, bright ancient Phosphor, both the evening and morning star, cycling from one guise to the other five times each eight years. The clone mused that in five years time she would engulf the world in night. Morning might follow or it might not. Perhaps then only the evening star would still shine.

Slightly over four months had passed since she'd claimed the Chakram of Day. In that time, Serena Pappas had disappeared. She had passed without an obituary, funeral, or memorial; the identity merely a thing deemed to be past its usefulness, shed like a snake's outgrown skin. Now a woman named Kori Polemos used the Pappas fortune to bankroll a plethora of high tech projects through an endless maze of shell corporations, foreign third party investors, fictitious consortiums, and hired frontmen. It all amounted to a slight of hand circus so diversified that she herself wasn't always sure of what her money was funding. It didn't matter much to her either. She paid a rabid pack of financial managers to masturbate her money and amass profits while creating legitimate paperwork for her tax records. It was only for the purpose of obscuring and profiteering, to aggressively generate capitol for her projects and maintain the reality of a diversified business conglomerate. At the rate she was going, a single year's worth of manipulations would keep a team of IRS agents busy for life. That was just how she'd arranged it; a kettle of fish so vast and complex that the true aim was entombed within a midden pile of transactions that could never be unraveled in a hundred years. Using the arcana of business, finance, and law, she had veiled herself from the eyes of a goddess.

It had freed her to oversee the Omega Sector's cloning of her army. Sixteen thousand warriors, each a carbon copy of herself, were being created in two locations. The first was at a secure site halfway around the world, so far from civilization, and so well camouflaged, that it was virtually undetectable. Sometimes she was still amazed at what money could buy in the modern world, and how fast it could be built. The second locale was a mirror site, fully automated and hidden in the last place Athena would expect it. Of the two, the Destroyer of Nations assumed that one would almost certainly be found and destroyed by the Goddess of War. It would probably happen in about three years' time, and it would happen because of a human error. Some breach of security would give it away, some single small slip. It would cost the lives of all the clones being grown there. Contrary to what she'd led Omega Sector to believe, she would willingly sacrifice the primary site and all its personnel. It would rid her of three liabilities at once and insure the ultimate success of the mirror site a year later.

The Warrior Princess would have found it hard to justify the creation of 16,000 clones of herself for any cause. To coldly anticipate the destruction of 8,000 of them, when the death of only one copy of her daughter had ignited her rage, would have struck her as beyond ironic. In her years as the Warrior Princess, self-sacrifice had become easier for Xena to accept than the suffering of a loved one.

To the Destroyer of Nations, any loss, any tactic, any sacrifice, was justified if it conferred an advantage needed for victory. One clone or 8,000, it made no difference. They were assets to be utilized in an uncompromising focus on the goal of her campaign. As the Destroyer of Nations, she would sacrifice a million clones, a million humans, or a million gods. If she alone survived, even if only long enough to see her vengeance taken and her oath fulfilled, it would suffice, and in the service of that end, there was nothing she wouldn't justify. She had allied herself with a murderous sociopath for the benefits his knowledge could bring. If insuring her eventual victory meant cloning an army, so be it. If the survivability of that army demanded the destruction of a duplicate army and her human allies, so be it. Collateral damage was acceptable. And if insuring her victory meant laying waste to half a world, then it would surely go up in flames. Even the surviving army of clones was only valuable for the service it could render to her vision. The great truth of her existence was that the Destroyer of Nations no longer felt real responsibility or kinship to any living thing.

Perhaps the greatest irony was that the Hellenes' Bane had already sacrificed her capacity to value the things whose loss had driven her to become the Destroyer of Nations. She cared nothing for the innocent victims of terrorists. She had no friends. A daughter would have been yet another asset to be used, or a liability to be shed. Love wasn't even to be considered. Even Gabrielle, beyond the benefits she could have provided as a bedmate or lieutenant, would have been expendable. To fulfill her oath and avenge the deeds Xena had suffered, the Destroyer of Nations had first sacrificed the Warrior Princess. Focused on her hatred for her enemy, she couldn't have cared less. She had much to do before the first clones were ready to be trained.

Of the clones who would survive to take arms, the first eight would be her chiliarchoi, the commanders of a thousand. Below them would be their lieutenants, the eighty hecatontarches, commanders of a hundred whom the chiliarchoi would train. There were also her two "specials"; clones who could outperform her, blessed with inhuman reflexes and speed because the neural pathways in their bodies were made up of only a few dozen long nerve fibers, rather than the hundreds of much shorter fibers in a normal human. This was what she had revealed to Omega Sector.

The truth was that the mad doctor Kishihara had isolated the single mutated gene that differentiated Xena from all other humans. In doing so, he had studied it and discerned its mechanism. He had then applied what he’d learned to several other genes and created the ‘specials". They would be more than quicker, more than faster, born with metabolic efficiency and regenerative capacities double those of a human athlete. No beings save the gods themselves had ever been more formidable. Their brains, however, were indistinguishable from Xena’s own, and to control them, a special concept of self/other would be ingrained in their downloads.

The specials had very specific parts to play in her plans. They would act and react faster than any human warrior that had ever lived, certainly faster than any god would ever suspect, and just maybe, she hoped, also faster than a god.

But the clones were only one factor in the Destroyer of Nations' preparations for war. Within two weeks of her return from Iskenderun, she had obtained a sizeable interest in Mitsubishi Heavy Industries of Japan. Sixty years before, Mitsubishi had built the fighter planes called "Zeroes". Now they built, among other things, cars, transportation systems, machine tools, construction equipment, ships, energy systems, aircraft, missiles, and air conditioning. For their new major investor, they had reassigned a division of their Advanced Technology Research Center for next generation metallurgy and fabrication, to take on Xena's special projects. This miniature laboratory and clean-room factory would produce the eight thousand Combined Chakrams, the eight thousand long swords, and the eight thousand daggers that would arm her clones. Without understanding what they were building, they would produce other armaments and more besides.

Beyond these ongoing activities lay the search for emerging technologies. After making her arrangements with Omega Sector, she had quietly searched out the world's leading proponents of scramjet* research. As she'd expected, one hotbed of activity was the US government.

A consortium of NASA and several private contractors had already lab tested what they called the X-43A. It was almost certainly a program that Athena was anticipating results from. Unfortunately, their first air trial the previous summer had been aborted when the booster rocket had gone off course, forcing the prototype to be destroyed. While they rebuilt the prototype, their plans included testing a miniature version of the scramjet engine by firing it from a special cannon sometime in the coming months. $250 million had already flowed into the project, and in parallel with it, the Office of Naval Research and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency had lab tested prototypes with the intention of building hypersonic cruise missiles. They too would be testing an engine during the coming summer.

(* A scramjet, or Supersonic Combustion RAMJET engine operates without moving parts and carries no oxidizer like a chemical rocket. This allows a vehicle to be built with a fraction of the weight of a normal missile. Within the engine, all necessary oxygen to burn the fuel is scooped from the atmosphere, which travels through the engine at supersonic speeds. Such an engine can only operate at above about five times the speed of sound, 5 x 742 mph, or Mach 5, and usually relies on a normal rocket booster to achieve minimum speed. Its top speed may be far greater, depending on the materials, design, and management of the heat from air friction. Perhaps someday, such engines will help a reusable craft to achieve escape velocity from Earth.) ~Editor

While the US government developed the X-43A and the Mach 6 cruise missile with Athena's Blessing, another group on the other side of the world were laboring with a fraction of their funding. The HyShot team, at the University of Queensland in southern Australia, had spent fifteen years working to create a testable version of their design. They too were hoping for an air trial in the summer of 2002. The previous October, the rocket they'd hoped would boost their test engine up to speed had gone off course. The booster rocket problem seemed to be a consistent factor in Australia and America, and Xena wondered if it was really only a coincidence, or perhaps something more diabolical. Maybe something divinely diabolical, she mused.

Tonight she would make her way to Reagan International Airport where she would board a commercial jet. Sometime tomorrow evening she would settle into a hotel room in Adelaide. The following day she would travel to the University of Queensland, where Kori Polemos had arranged a meeting with Dr. Allan Paull, head of the HyShot program. Before she left, he too would do her bidding.

June 1, 2002 -Woomera, S. Australia

Predawn chill seeped around a trailer that sat amidst floodlights in the open desert. It hummed with electronic instruments and human anticipation. Three researchers sat on rolling desk chairs, moving between stations to complete a checklist of prelaunch details. Behind them stood a tall figure wrapped in a dark brown oilskin duster, her black hair constrained by a drover's hat. Pale blue eyes snapped from one console to another, raking across the technicians with an unnatural intensity. As always, she radiated an energy that practically crackled from an invisible aura that the other occupants of the trailer could feel like a fire's warmth at their backs. It was something that they still weren't completely used to. Like the research team, she had been awake since early the morning before, yet no trace of drowsiness diminished her concentration on the activity around her. Kori Polemos waited for dawn and the launch of the test vehicle that her money had funded. Its image glowed on a monitor, fed from a surveillance camera.

A quarter-mile away from the trailer stood a launching pad. Its triangular steel launch rail was inclined six degrees south from vertical, and clasped to it was a two-stage Terrier Orion Mk 70 sounding rocket. Under a conical breakaway shroud atop the booster nestled a four-foot prototype of a redesigned X-43A scramjet engine. It would be launched without publicity, and without outside oversight. Kori Polemos briefly recalled her meeting with Dr. Paull three months before.

"I have a proposal for you, professor," she had announced, wishing for a cold Coke after sipping from an abominable cup of coffee. "I know your research is hampered by financial concerns…I believe you have even referred to your project as a 'scrounge jet'." She'd allowed herself a grin in answer to his own. "I have been empowered to enlist your group in a secondary R&D program, made possible by extra-budgetary funding at NASA. The program I propose will benefit you by allowing your group to gain hands-on experience with the X43-A prototype, while allowing my associates to escape media scrutiny."

The professor had sat speechless for a moment. Xena could understand his shock and see his elated anticipation of getting his hands on the American engine design. She could even have pinpointed the moment when he began to consider the secondary factors attendant to her offer.

"Why would NASA need to come here for secret testing, when they can utilize US military facilities for that?" He'd asked suspiciously. "Much as I'd love to get a look at the design, I can't see them giving away the primacy they've achieved in this field."

"The US military, that is the ONR and the DARPA have their own program, as you probably know. They are annoyingly proprietary of their facilities and physical assets. I believe they see us as competitors for funding, media coverage, and congressional support. As it is, they try to undermine the NASA program at every opportunity. If they learn that we intend to test a small-scale engine, they'll feel threatened by a project that will overlap their cruise missile engine in scale and possible applications. We cannot compete with their existing mandate, so our program has had to seek outside facilities and funding." She'd sighed as if she found the infighting tiresome. "It's a simple case of bureaucratic rivalry, and science can't compete with defense for government support. We're already reeling from the last decade's budget cuts." She projected just the right mixture of enthusiasm, resentment, and hope. It was an Oscar-worthy performance.

Her argument had swayed the under funded Australian researcher. He could understand the situation perfectly, and he sensed a commonality in their situations. Dr. Paull couldn't help feeling sympathetic towards the beautiful American who had identified herself as a NASA project administrator. Financial resources were much more likely to be allocated for military usage than for research. He'd seen it often enough himself in Australia and her country was worse. Successive governments had gutted the agency that had once proudly sent men to the moon in response to a president's challenge. Allan Paull remembered sitting in his home as a child, watching in rapt amazement as the Untied States had launched first the Mercury, then the Gemini, and finally the Apollo spacecraft. It was the vision inherent in those achievements that had determined the course of his life and led to his present career. Now those same people were asking for his help.

"Ms. Polemos, I would be glad to hear the particulars of your agency's proposal."

The funding had come in as promised. Twenty days ago, a guarded shipment had arrived from the United States, containing a test vehicle that was a one-third scale duplicate of the $250 million X43-A. At 4 feet in length and 300lbs, it could be launched by the same rocket booster he'd been using for his HyShot program. Accompanying it had been the Terrier Orion booster.

The Terrier first stage had originally been created by the US Navy in 1951, to launch the W45 warhead, an atomic ordinance with a nominal yield of 1 kiloton. The Improved Orion second stage had been a reliable NASA booster by itself, and would help drive the payload to an altitude of 300 kilometers. Since 1994, the Terrier Orion two-stage composite had been a proven NASA satellite launcher. Dr. Paull had seen that the NASA logos on its sides had been overpainted with white for the sake of anonymity. Kori Polemos was serious about discouraging unwanted attention. It was consistent with her choice of Woomera.

Nowadays Woomera was almost deserted. The actual town hosted less than 200 full time inhabitants. Its name came from the aboriginal word for a spear-thrower, a notched stick that held the butt-end of a spear and extended the thrower's arm length to increase the power of the cast. The British had originally built the launch site as a test area, back in 1947. Up through the 60's and 70's, many groups had launched from the Woomera pads, but the British had cancelled out on their missile and space programs there. No new group had filled the gap with a sufficient volume of launches to keep the town alive. By the 90's the population had been below 1,000, and a third of those had been Americans, quietly manning a satellite tracking facility. Even then, the town had been dying. Before HyShot's failed launch in 2001, the last launch had been in 1995. In 2002, Woomera was a virtual ghost town, only sporadically visited by launch crews. Without a press release, almost no one would know or care that a rocket launch had occurred.

The test program had proceeded without a hitch despite the onsite prep time having been cut to the bone. The booster had been assembled, the support connections for remote telemetry and data acquisition made, and the prototype checked out. The booster with the X43-A attached had been mounted on the launch rail. Now all the preflight preparations had been completed. This morning the equipment appeared to be functioning perfectly. The telemetry feeds had begun supplying their information. The technicians had gone through the checklist a third time, and finally all systems were approved as good for the launch. In the trailer, Kori and Dr. Paull watched the monitor as the floodlights winked off and the morning sun lit Woomera in gold. Kori gave Dr. Paull a nod.

"Initiate the ignition sequence, mate," Dr. Paull told the nearest technician.

The man unscrewed a safety cap covering a red button and pressed it. Immediately a series of readouts came to life. Numbers shifted and lights flashed. A digital counter clicked off the seconds of a countdown in red. Everyone waited in silence, their eyes on their consoles. Compared to the televised shuttle launches, it seemed understated. There was no control room banter, no commentator, and the image of the rocket arose from a single camera. The solid fuel booster produced no trails of vapor, there was no gantry, and there were no crowds. The rocket simply sat, silent and still, until a sequence was completed and it ignited with a roaring hiss. The numerals on the counter began clicking off ascending seconds in green, counting the mission's elapsed time.

The monitor showed only an expanding cloud of smoke, billowing in all directions from the launch pad. The roiling beige mixture of rocket exhaust and ground dust completely obscured everything in front of the camera. Then as the camera began to tilt up, a bright vertical line became visible, though its shape was still indistinct. Xena took a few strides and pushed open the trailer's door. A shrieking roar met her ears, but it had already begun to diminish. She stood in the doorway at the top of a short set of stairs, looking towards the plume of smoke. A white exhaust trail from the combustion of the powdered aluminum and ammonium dichromate fuel was blasting down towards the ground, glowing incandescent within. Atop that pillar of fire rode the rocket, already accelerating hard, two hundred feet above the ground. As she watched, it continued to gain velocity, contesting against gravity as it burned its way into the sky. It moved far quicker than the larger launch vehicles she'd seen on TV and in a handful of seconds it was gone. Xena turned away and reentered the trailer, closing the door behind her on the suddenly silenced rocket's scream.

Now the research team was completely focused on their instruments. Their eyes flicked from one glowing readout to the next, while they practically held their breaths in nervous anticipation. The previous October, their own test rocket had gone off course during a booster malfunction, causing a disheartening failure.

"We have positive separation," a technician said.

"We're at Mach 3.4…3.5…3.6," a second technician reported.

"First stage burn lasted six seconds," Dr. Allan Paull softly confirmed to Kori, "and then the booster detached. There's a sixteen-second pause between burns while the jettisoned booster is still falling away. We lose a little speed here, but we need the time to make corrections and assure flight stability."

"Mach 3.5…3.4…3.3…"

"Trajectory stable," the first technician reported, "condition satisfactory for second stage burn."

"Four, three, two, one…and we have ignition of the Orion booster."

"Second stage burn has commenced," Dr. Paull affirmed with a glance at his screen.

"We're at 40km altitude, Mach 3.7."

Now the crew waited with even greater anxiety. Ten seconds passed, then twenty, as the Orion booster burned.

"We're at 49km altitude, Mach 5.3."

"Thirty seconds…eight, seven, six, five, four, three, two, one…and Orion burnout."

"We're at 58km altitude, Mach 7.7."

"Jettisoning Orion booster."

"We have confirmed payload detachment at 47 seconds."

"And now the prototype will continue to coast upward for another three and three-quarters minutes. We'll restabilize the trajectory after the second stage burn, while the payload reaches apogee at about 315km altitude," Dr. Paull commented.

"Telemetry on all channels is nominal."

"Beginning course stabilization at 81km altitude…adjusting pitch, 0.13 degrees, on my mark…three, two, one, mark."

While the technicians and Dr. Paull corrected the slight fluttering of the payload, Kori Polemos let a part of her mind wander. The prototype that was currently arcing up through the rapidly thinning atmosphere was not a completely accurate miniature of the X43-A. Her consulting engineers had authored a slight change in the exhaust nozzle that would cause a miniscule deviation in the scramjet's output. According to the flight plan, the experimental engine would slam into the ground after seven seconds of flight, striking the desert floor at over Mach 8. The hint of a grin curled her lips. She was out to prove more than the engine's ability to function in practice. One hundred and twenty miles off the coast of S. Australia, the Miss Artiphys lay in wait at station keeping, its heading, 172 degrees south from Woomera. Further away, at Mitsubishi in Yokohama, Japan, massive construction and other preparations had begun. A technician's voice pulled her back to the present.

"We have zero velocity…apogee at 313.75km. Shedding payload shroud."

Seconds passed as the crew held their breath. Far above the desert, the prototype was heeling over, its upward inertia spent. Slowly at first, it turned nose down, falling into the planetary gravity well and beginning its plunge back to earth.

"We have negative pitch," a technician announced breathlessly, "the payload has gone ballistic."

"The payload has started its descent, Kori," Dr. Paull said softly. "In about five minutes we'll know if your engine flies."

Seconds passed, measured by heartbeats and an atomic clock's readout. Somewhere far above them the scramjet's maw awaited its first breath of air. When the falling engine's speed was sufficient and the oxygen content high enough, an injector would release liquid hydrogen fuel, and the air, superheated by friction, would ignite it. When the resulting thrust increased the X43-A's speed, the crew would know that they'd succeeded.

"Negative pitch at 7 degrees, payload accelerating…and…we just went supersonic."

"Mach 1.2 at 266km altitude, pitch at minus 37 degrees."

The technicians continued to report their readings as the seconds passed. Despite their hyperawareness of the passing time, the trailer was submersed in a dissociating sensation of timelessness. Every thought was focused on the 300lb, alloy projectile, passing through the thickening atmosphere in servitude to gravity's laws governing the rate of a falling object. Galileo had proved that rate theoretically constant, regardless of mass, 500 years before. For each second the payload continued to fall, it would accelerate by a hair over 32 feet per second. In practice the actual acceleration of the scramjet during its descent was not constant, for the thickening atmosphere also played a part. Eventually it would actually slow the payload's speed and convert its energy into heat due to atmospheric friction.

"Maximum speed of Mach 7.9 at 81km altitude…no further acceleration."

"Velocity decreasing, external temperature rising."

"Mission elapsed time nine minutes thirty seconds."

"Mach 7.6 at 36km altitude," the technician reported at just shy of ten minutes.

"Inject the fuel," Xena ordered.

"Fuel valves open, hydrogen injector operational." The team members held their breath.

"We have positive acceleration! Mach 7.8…7.9…8.0."

"Congratulations, Kori! You have a working engine!" Dr. Paull and the technicians were jubilant as they tracked the data streaming into their flight recorders.

"Mach 8.2 at 18km altitude…wait…we have a course deviation!"

"I see it too! Pitch is increasing to negative 75 degrees, negative 68 degrees, negative 50 degrees...we are off course! Pitch deviation is increasing arithmetically! Now at negative 26 degrees at 6 km altitude, course is 172 degrees south!"

The slight deviation of the scramjet's outflow that the engineers had included in the prototype's design had caused it to bring its nose up and fly on a horizontal course.

"We have Mach 8.6 and accelerating! Pitch is level, repeat level, at 0 degrees." A pause and then, "Fuel is expended…speed decreasing…Mach 8.5…8.4."

Then from a great distance they heard the sonic booms…not the single boom of a jet fighter or the Concord passing overhead, but a rapid-fire series of booms that propagated by reflection and rolled like thunder across the empty Australian desert. It was the sound signature of a radiating body heated to 2,100 degrees F and traveling at over 6,200 mph. It was a sound never before heard by human ears.

"We lost telemetry during the booms, but it must be past the coastline already..."

"Run a projection of the course trajectory, mate!" Dr. Paull shouted ecstatically as he leapt to his feet. "Kori, your engine flew!"

But Xena was already gone.

July 7, 2002 - An Undisclosed Location in Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C. - Leaders of both houses of Congress have called on President Bush to dispense with the last round of negotiations with the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. In response to the documented use of nerve gas against Kurdish separatists north of Kirkirk yesterday, the Senate has voted to apply the Hayes Clause, which was passed last April. A similar vote in the House is expected this evening. The clause allows the United States to respond in kind to Iraqi uses of weapons of mass destruction. President Bush has been in a closed meeting with the Joint Chiefs of Staff for most of the morning. His options include the launch of Tomahawk cruise missiles from surface ships and submarines in the Persian Gulf, armed with a variety of nerve gasses and airborne toxins currently deployed from the United States' ABC arsenal. Though there have been no press releases from the White House, the State Department announced that it has recalled its special envoy from the United Nations in New York, and has refused to meet with the Syrian ambassador, Abdullah Al-Haziz, who has been regarded as a go-between during this crisis. World leaders have remained silent for the most part, unwilling to align themselves with the Iraqi dictator.

Los Angeles, Ca. - This has been the third day of rioting in the South-Central section of the city, following the telecast last Thursday of the July 4th beating death of Jerome Lexington, at the hands of LA police officers. Mr. Lexington was suspected of being in violation of the recently passed McKenzie Gun Control Act. The death of Mr. Lexington was videotaped by a bystander and broadcast on Fox News at 8pm. Within an hour, mobs had taken to the streets and the LA police deployed riot squads to restore order. In the subsequent violence, illegal firearms have claimed the lives of seven officers, while estimates of civilian casualties are in the dozens. Over the weekend, the situation turned ugly when survivalists from the state's north coast and interior towns drove into the city with large numbers of weapons. Running gun battles have stopped all activity in many areas, and reports of the rocket propelled grenade assault on the South-Central precinct station house have been confirmed. The governor has declined the mayor's request to deploy National Guard troops in the city, instead using them to safeguard the state capitol of Sacramento. A state of emergency has been declared for Los Angeles County and citizens are warned to remain indoors.

New York City - A spokeswoman for the Mayor's Office announced today that the controversial plan to relocate the homeless would go forward. The Bureau of Social Services has been ordered to provide records of all persons who have been housed in public housing or shelters during the last two years. These persons will then be questioned and their status evaluated. Those found to be without permanent addresses and/or living in publicly funded housing will be removed to a "residence camp" on Grenadier Island in upstate Jefferson County. The island is about a mile off the Lake Ontario shore and about 7 miles from the towns of Cape Vincent and Three Mile Bay on Rt. 12, in a prime vacation area about 250 miles northwest of the city. The guarded community will feature barracks style living accommodations and communal mess and lavatory facilities. A contract for administration of the community has been awarded to Boaz Schlitz, Inc., the holders of the contracts for administration of the penitentiaries in Elmira, Auburn, and Ossining (Sing Sing).

The chief of Omega Sector folded the newspaper and laid it on the conference table. The reports chilled Spencer Trilby's blood, and such stories had become the rule, not the exception. It seemed that each day brought a new conflict or the escalation of an old one. He had come of age during the Second World War and had watched as the post-war world divided itself into armed camps that dug in for the Cold War. Back then he'd helped fight the threat of communism both at home and abroad, in declared conflicts and in the twilight world of espionage. Decades ago he'd learned to read between the lines of current events. Nowadays what he saw filled him with foreboding. What Xena had told Omega Sector allowed him to see with a vision akin to that of a paranoid schizophrenic. In myriad details he sensed the overarching hand of the goddess that Xena fought. Everywhere there was the veiled drive toward concentrating the means of coercion, centralizing authority, and advancing scientific applications for warfare. There was a condescending attitude displayed by those in power, and a disregard for individual liberties and human rights, that was more blatant now than at any time he could remember.

He thought back across the decades to the MIS. The Military Intelligence Service had been almost naive compared to today's agencies, back when he'd first worked there as an intelligence agent. A major part of their work had been the decryption and interpretation of messages and documents in foreign languages. They'd had so little to work with, and yet they'd solved the challenges of their times. Now he could count on the fingers of one hand the survivors who could remember the old shop, before it had become the CIA.

In all that time he had never come across an affair so deeply rooted, so pervasive, or so threatening. He had never tried to match wits and assets with an immortal, and he had never prepared to wage war against his own country. All his working life he'd fought to safeguard the American way…. No, he thought, I'm too old and there's too little time left to lie to myself anymore. Honestly then, he'd sought to safeguard the empowered elite by protecting their political and military interests. The idea of fighting for America as a whole had been an empty slogan, for average Americans only benefited because what benefited their leaders trickled down through society's strata. Now, for the first time in his life, he was enlisted in a struggle that would benefit not only the American elite, but Americans in general and the human race as a whole. Altruism? If he was finally doing the right thing for the right reasons, then why didn't it make him feel better?

Perhaps it was his ally. The cloned warrior, Xena, was as dangerous a potential dictator as anyone he'd ever imagined. Perhaps it was because his agency was cloning an army for her with which she could dominate the post-war world. Perhaps it was because his scientists were being forced to work with a dangerous madman. Perhaps it was because he had only the vaguest information regarding Xena's plans.

For Spencer Trilby, being on the outside of the planning was uncomfortable and unfamiliar territory. His gut instinct was to be very suspicious. Long ago he'd learned that being on the outside meant that you were expendable. Maybe that was why he'd been so adamant about phase two.

Buried far beneath one of the oldest habitations of mankind, a duplicate facility of the unmanned mirror site that was cloning "The Xenas" was at capacity, creating Trilby's only hope of moderating the warrior's potential ambitions. It was the deepest and most desperate secret he'd ever known, and he'd seriously considered using hypnosis to remove that memory from everyone who had been involved. Instead, he'd approved the hypnosis for everyone except himself and Harry Tasker. Now, of the six billion odd souls on the planet Earth, only two knew of the second phase.

Trilby had guessed what Xena would do when she found out. She'd definitely kill us, he thought, but since he'd come to the conclusion that they would be killed sometime before the war started, he didn't think he was risking much additional danger. When his time came, he'd have at least one consolation…the knowledge that one last time he'd tricked his master and left a time bomb ticking. When that bomb went off, he'd be beyond Xena's wrath, and she'd be left with a decision to make, knowing he'd engineered it. She would know that in the end, he'd foreseen something she hadn't, and had had the ability to bring it to fruition despite her abilities. It would be a Phyrric victory at best, but it was a victory nonetheless. He'd lived long enough to know that sometimes you just had to take what you could get and reap your rewards where you found them.

September 11, 2002 - Gangplank Marina, SW Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C. - In an early morning press conference, the White House announced that at 9:00am Baghdad time, cruise missiles, Naval artillery, and tactical airstrikes began over four major cities in Iraq. The targets, Baghdad, Basra, Mosul, and Kirkuk, were pounded by a first wave of over 300 TLAM weapons, (Tomahawk cruise missiles). At the same time, air attacks launched from the carriers USS George Washington, USS Harry Truman, and USS Theodore Roosevelt, and airbases in Turkey and Qatar, destroyed radar installations, power plants, military bases, communications centers, and leadership bunkers. An unconfirmed report from CNN correspondent James Arden claimed that a lone F-117A stealth aircraft was seen over the Baghdad airport shortly before the facility was destroyed by what he termed, "a suspected limited nuclear strike". At the press conference, a spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff confirmed that munitions from the United States ABC arsenal had been used, but declined to specify what those ordinances were. Strategic weapons expert Mark Davis conjectures that the weapon could have been a Mark-28 thermonuclear bomb in B28RI, or B28FI configurations, or maybe even an antique Mark-5.

The White House - In a televised address from the Oval Office, President Bush announced that unilateral military action against Afghanistan had begun concurrent with the opening strikes against Iraq. While he wouldn't specify what those actions were, he said that they had targeted confirmed bases of the Al-Qa'idah terrorist organization that was responsible for the attacks a year ago today against the World Trade Center. Reports from observers in Pakistan have claimed that ground-shaking walls of fire were seen over mountainous areas in southern and eastern Afghanistan. Tactical analysts have conjectured that this area was struck by B-1 and B-2 bombers, which were noticeably absent from action in Iraq. If that were indeed the case, then the Pakistani reports would gain credence. The bombers are capable of launching both the JASSM (Joint Air to Surface Standoff Missile, or "cruise missile"), and laser guided ordinance, both including those with nuclear warheads.

Los Angeles, Ca. - Federal disaster relief payments have begun on claims from residents in the Beverly Hills, Marina Del Rey, Culver City, and Santa Monica areas. Additionally, benefits have been earmarked for the merchants and businesses of Hollywood; primarily those involved with film production. Damage assessments have been indefinitely postponed in the city, south of US 10, where a month of riots last July has left neighborhoods burned and gutted. An estimated 2 million people are living in makeshift tent cities and relief centers run by private charities.

New York City - Continuing federal investigations have been bogged down due to their inability to obtain documents from the Boaz Schlitz company regarding the derailment and catastrophic crash that caused the deaths of over 450 homeless persons being transported to the hastily built residence camp on Grenadier Island, in upstate Jefferson County. Rail inspectors reported that the train, which was composed of five converted livestock transport cars, an engine, and an employee personnel car, had been dangerously overcrowded. The five cars carrying the homeless had been padlocked from the outside, though this was termed, "a standard safety procedure". Inspectors refused to open the cars, fearing infection by the AIDS virus, known to be common in the homeless population. Instead, they cremated the deceased en mass and in situ. The controversial plan to remove the homeless from New York City was given the go ahead last July, and has drawn nationwide attention. 7,000 persons have already been removed from the city and another 4,500 are awaiting transport. The mayors of Baltimore, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Patterson are considering similar measures in their cities. President Bush has made several off-the-record remarks suggesting that he may be considering a national program for the concentration of destitute persons in "employment camps". Federal officials have been slated to tour American Samoa, Puerto Rico, and Liberia on fact-finding missions for the Dept. of HEW.

Khartoum, The Sudan - A spokeswoman for the International Red Cross gave a statement yesterday explaining the deaths of over 12,000 predominantly Muslim people in the northern lands bordering the Nile River. "We are in the opening week of a small pox epidemic," Avangelina Istamente claimed, "and the death toll will certainly rise. How many victims will eventually succumb is impossible to predict, since there is no longer a vaccine or treatment." Dr. G'rumbadaba L'membe of Doctors Without Borders confirmed Ms. Istamente's statement with an official diagnosis, saying, "this is the horror being so long awaited. We are seeing the reemergence of a disease that had been eradicated throughout the great wide world decades ago now. I am having nothing with which to treat the many dying persons here because this strain it is very, very bad. It is so sad." Both the variola major and variola minor forms of small pox were believed to have been erased from the roster of human pathogens in 1977. At that time, the only remaining live virus samples were in research labs in Moscow and in Atlanta, at the CDC, where they were being preserved for gene mapping. Currently, the only known live smallpox virus is a frozen sample at the USAMRIID facility in Ft. Detrick, Md. The first deaths were reported outside Khartoum, just one day after a corporate jet belonging to Kress Pharmaceuticals of Baltimore Md. crashed nearby.

Seoul, Korea - Reports have been received here that North Korean broadcasts from Pyongyang were overheard today, claiming that an unknown epidemic has struck the northern capitol. Facts are sketchy due to the communist regime's suppression of the details, however it is clear that fatalities are in the hundreds of thousands. The already impoverished country is in no position to halt an emerging epidemiological challenge. The broadcasts also noted the crash of an unidentified aircraft, but no further details about the incident are known.

"So, it begins," Kori Polemos whispered to the darkening bridge where she sat alone aboard the Miss Artiphys. She folded the Washington Post and tossed it on the bench next to her. "Athena's openin' her campaign with a purge of her enemies, domestic and foreign. It's time for me to make a move, and none too soon. There's so little time."

Outside, another evening was mantling the Capitol City with dusk. Late summer heat and humidity had replaced the cherry blossoms of spring, yet still the lights winked on. The monuments stood bathed in Lucifer's gift, but no evening star lit the heavens tonight. Perhaps in the morning, she thought, when Phosphor waits to greet Eos.

She'd been busy the past month, taking what had amounted to a crash course in how things worked on the most miniature of scales. Over the past three and a half months, furious construction had been underway as a lab had been refitted at Mitsubishi. Now it was ready, but a lab without a scientist was just a useless shell.

"I guess it's time for me to go," Xena whispered, rising to her feet, "Kori has another meeting tomorrow."

September 12, 2002 - Los Altos, Ca.

The place she'd traveled across the country to reach was an unassuming 60's tract house, two stories high, white with sky blue trim, sitting on a smallish lot. Rather unpretentious, she thought, for the home of such an important man. She walked right up to the door and pressed a button for the buzzer. Inside, an ordinary ding-dong chime announced her presence. Her hyper-acute hearing noted the footfalls of a person on the second floor moving to answer.

Xena had taken an overnight flight from Reagan International Airport in Washington, to the San Jose International Airport. After her arrival in California, she'd rented a Lincoln Towncar because it suited her purpose and she'd liked the name. She'd been happy to find that it had an abundance of legroom. First she'd driven a mile east to claim her reservation at the San Jose Lodge. It was a basic Best Western chain establishment on N 1st St, and it featured internet connections. She'd plugged in a special laptop and began a long IM briefing with Harry Tasker and a group of consultants from Omega Sector. After that, she'd gone outside and walked up 1st St to the Denny's restaurant for a late lunch/early dinner. Throughout her travels, no one had recognized her by name or face. She thought with disdain of the corporate types she'd seen, worth a fraction of her net, who demanded fine hotels and limousines with drivers, while she reveled in her anonymity and personally controlling her vehicle. Now the Lincoln sat parked at the curb, shiny and black, and looking official, sitting in full view. It was early evening.

A light flicked on, illuminating the concrete pad where Xena stood waiting outside the front door. The Destroyer of Nations constructed a disarming expression when the peephole in the door went dark for a moment as the resident checked her out. She was dressed in a sleeveless white blouse and a navy blue skirt, with the matching jacket draped over her right shoulder. In her left hand she carried a small laptop. Xena could have been anything from a graduate student to a reporter. With a click of the lock, the door swung open.

Hestia's blood, Xena thought, he answers his own door. This will never do. If I were an assassin, it would be too easy a kill to charge for.

The man standing before her was of average height, with a slim build and dark hair combed back from a high forehead. His eyebrows were arched in question, his mouth a neutral line. Xena could practically feel the intensity of the intelligence radiating from his deep brown eyes. He wore khaki slacks, a white polo shirt, and dark loafers. Utterly unremarkable to the naked eye, the clone thought, a genius, invisible in plain sight. How many people, she wondered, passed this man on a daily basis and never suspected that he had changed their lives, or that his work was changing the world.

"Dr. Eric Drexler, my name is Kori Polemos." He started slightly at the introduction, seemingly understanding the translation of her name. She presented an ID case bearing a CIA badge and photo identification card, then stood still as he took it and examined it closely in the light. He looked at her again to match her face with the card's tiny picture and then handed it back with an uncertain expression.

"Sir, may we go inside and talk? I have some data I'd like you to look at," Xena said, making a slight gesture with the laptop, "and I seriously believe that I may need to offer you protection."

The scientist gave her another startled look and then hesitantly gestured her in while standing aside. After he'd closed and locked the door, they walked a few yards to the living room. Xena took a seat on a couch facing the entry and Dr. Drexler seated himself in a chair to her right. The clone realized that he'd positioned himself with neither his back to the door nor his body in line with any of the windows. She nodded to herself in approval. Between them stood an end table with a stalk-mounted high intensity lamp.

"May I ask what this is about?" Dr. Drexler asked. "It's not everyday I get a visit from the CIA, and I don't believe I've ever been in physical danger before."

"Sir," Xena began, recalling her coaching and the material that had been prepared for her, "as you know, your work in molecular nanotechnology has had great impact. Still, some facets of it have been rejected by the government. In particular, the breadth of its potential applications has not been explored by the National Nanotechnology Initiative. It is obvious that some of this outcome has been a result of the attacks on your work by Dr. Richard Smalley. I can reveal that there are other very influential forces that have had a hand in determining official policy. Some of these elements are highly unsavory and unscrupulous, and are believed to present a significant danger to you personally."

"I don't see why they would feel the need to endanger my welfare now," the scientist reasoned, "nothing's changed between me and Smalley or between me and the government. They've never considered me a threat. Why am I suddenly in danger?"

"Dr. Drexler, you're aware of the epidemics that have recently begun in the Sudan and in North Korea?" Xena asked. "The virus responsible in both cases is a recombinant small pox strain that was developed through nanoengineering at the USAMRIID facility. It can not only replicate and infect, but it will mutate in a predetermined manner intended to optimize its lethality over a precise period of time. Thereafter, it will become benign in time for an occupying force to move through the area in safety. It is thought that you would be one of the few persons capable of reverse engineering the virus in order to point a finger at the perpetrators and cause international condemnation of the administration. I can assure you that this virus is only one of many that have been created recently using nanotechnology's greater precision in assembling the required amino acid components." Xena sighed and prepared to drop her bombshell. "We believe that they may have created and produced a new dihelical coding system."

The look of horror on the doctor's face screamed his shock and condemnation for an act of heinous inhumanity. The US had denounced the use of biological weapons, while at the same time creating an arsenal of germs more deadly than any found in nature. The scale of the duplicity was stupefying. If what she suspected was true, then someone had engineered microbes from the ground up, making their own equivalent of DNA. It was something incredibly complex, and for that reason, it made sense to start with a virus…the simplest of living things. The achievement was awesome in its implications. Man had created life, yes, but worse, there would be no countermeasure, no vaccine, and no cure. It was as if he'd opened his eyes to find the Sword of Damocles, grown to the size of a world-killing meteor, poised overhead.

"What I need to do is assure that you are safe," the clone said, "because there may soon come a time when only your knowledge can lead to the creation of nanobots capable of fighting these viral weapons. How long would you need to prepare for an evacuation to a secure site?"

For silent minutes the theoretical researcher only sat and stared at the Destroyer of Nations. He seemed to be in a state of catatonia, unresponsive and dissociated from the present. Finally he blinked once and looked up to meet her eyes.

"If you require the kind of work you suggest, then I will need to copy data and secure certain existing research, and you will have to assemble a team of scientists. I'm a theoretician, not a practical researcher or engineer. I can do my work with a computer, but to translate it into concrete results, there will have to be an extensive dedicated facility with personnel and an operating budget…and it may take a of couple years."

"Do you know who you'd need?"

"I can name three individuals I work with at the Foresight Institute who would probably be perfect as co-creators. The rest we'd have to search out. As for my own materials, well, I'd only need a day or two to round up everything necessary."

"Excellent. You've got twelve hours," she told the startled man. Without a pause, she continued, "Dr. Drexler, I'd like you to look at this."

She set her laptop between them on the end table, then opened it and folded the screen flat. Though the keyboard was upside down from her position now, she quickly typed in a DOS command to start a program. The laptop had looked like a standard Dell Inspiron, but the casing had been gutted and refitted by Omega Sector. Above the flat plane of the screen, a holographic projection sizzled into existance. A vector graphic rotated in space, describing a secured complex with massive computational facilities. Attached to it were practical laboratories, fully equipped to work with hazardous biologicals and the chemistry of limited molecular nanotechnology. Funding appeared to have been no object. The doctor's eyes lit as he absorbed each detail.

"This is beyond anything I've ever seen…this actually exists?" There was no disguising the awe in his voice. When Xena nodded yes, he asked, "Where?"

"In a restricted access facility within Mitsubishi's Advanced Technology Research Center, in Yokohama-Kanazawa, Japan," Xena answered. "It is guarded electronically and exceeds the CDC and USAMRIID Level 4 containment in the biolabs. For any hardware fabrication, we have access to Mitsubishi's electronics, metallurgy, and machining facilities. The lab's computational capabilities include a fully dedicated supercomputer with architecture similar to the Cray XD-1 series. It was created for this one purpose…to do nothing less than save the world."

"How? How was it funded…by whom?"

"I am not at liberty to say," the clone told him. How could she claim to have funded it herself, that she currently owned 22% of a company that did business in over 100 nations, or that her financial officers had mushroomed the $723 million Pappas fortune to $1.9 billion on paper in only nine months? The estate had been growing exponentially and she had no idea what it was worth at the moment. Xena's fingers skipped over another sequence of keys on the laptop and the hologram disappeared. It was replaced by a slideshow on the screen. Image after image of the completed lab flashed past. "You and your team will be there by this time tomorrow," she told him with a genuine smile. She found that conning a genius into helping her destroy the world made for a satisfying day's work.

November 8, 2002 - Columbia, South Carolina

Halloween had come and gone. This year the Pappas house had hosted only a quiet get together. Alex and Karen Williams, Harry and Helen Tasker, and Ray Fell had joined Danielle Lefferts, for an evening of dismal camaraderie, uncomfortable conversation, and morose reminiscing. In the house where Melinda and Serena Pappas and Janice and Gabriella Covington had lived, memory's ghosts walked in the Samhain night.

They'd sat in the parlor and listened as Ray had recalled his years studying with the elder couple, then progressed to their more recent stories of Serena and Gabriella. Most of them had secrets they didn't tell the others. All of them had suspicions they didn't voice. None of them saw the figure, dressed in black and silent as a thought, which looked in on them through the parlor's gauzy curtains as they drank their punch. None of them heard a window in the study rise or her movements as she located and removed an old file. None of them saw her walk back through the yard to a deserted clearing.

Perhaps the Destroyer of Nations remembered the traditional beliefs of the holiday and sought the ghost of her soulmate. Perhaps she also hoped to meet the shade of her lost daughter. What solace could either have given to a woman who had chosen a path of war and whose soul was cold and empty? What she saw or heard or felt in the darkness as the wind whispered through the chill fall night, no one but she herself can tell. Did the daughter of war long for her lost humanity? For love and her soulmate? For the life of peace that had always eluded her in a time so long past that it was only remembered as myth? Or was she sitting her watch in memoriam for the dead; a silent requiem in place of the song she hadn't been able to bring herself to sing a year before? Did she remember that a year before she'd still had a heart? She sat in the woods near the site of the pyres, under the same tree where Gabrielle had napped, still as a statue while the stars slipped by and the hours fled. When the morning star rose to greet the coming of dawn she rose and left. Only the fact that she had come at all gave some hope. And a week later….

"I don't understand," Xena whispered to herself as she stood alone in the deserted and boarded up space that had been the Columbia School of Martial Science. She could smell a year's dust, the trace scents of sweat, floor wax, and beneath it all, the barest hint of long dried blood. "A year ago I was so sure." In the darkness her unhesitating footsteps led her to the weapons rack where she ran her hand across the gorytos.

"Why am I here? There are things I need to be doin', but I sat at the pyre on Hallows Eve and I'm here tonight." She stared around the space, absorbing every detail with both her senses and her memory. Scenes of that last violent night flickered in counterpoint to the stillness around her, the past and present intercut together in jerky flashes like a film student's editing. "Why am I here, Gabrielle? A year ago today you fell in battle and I changed. I'm not who I was then…and not who you knew. You probably wouldn't even recognize me now. I remember that I didn't want you to leave me then, but I can't feel the need anymore. Maybe you were wrong about me for all those years. You were right about one thing though. There's still a battle to fight…one more battle to fight. An' maybe after that there'll be no more fightin', 'cause there won't be anything left to fight over." Her mood was slipping downhill from somber to fatalistic. "I wish you could tell me what's waitin' for clones on the other side, but I don't guess I'll end up in the same place as you this time anyway."

With a soft sigh, the Destroyer of Nations lifted the bow case and shouldered it. A few moments later she silently slipped out the back, relocking the firedoor behind her.

December 20, 2003 - Gangplank Marina, SW Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C. - The White House announced today that it is pulling US troops out of Afghanistan and Iraq and ending its occupation of those countries. Inspectors report that all weapons stockpiles have been destroyed and the radioactive areas cordoned off. The peacekeeping forces, who were deployed following the six-day air war fifteen months ago, have just finished supervising those countries' first free elections. The new Democratic Islamic Republic of Afghanistan, and the Democratic Confederation of Iraq will be opening their new government functions with the swearing in ceremonies of their presidents elect and parliamentary representatives. Both countries have petitioned for membership in the Islamic Union, the international trade federation that is modeled on the European Union.

New York City - The United Nations High Commissioner for World Health, and the Chairman of the World Health Organization have presented their findings regarding the epidemics in the Sudan and North Korea. According to their figures, over six and a half million lives were lost in the affected areas. The epidemics were caused by a mutant strain of small pox variola major, whose origins are unknown. The original disease was thought to have been eradicated in 1977, but it is now believed that a new viral form has emerged. Protests from the governments of North Korea and the Sudan were presented to both organizations, questioning how the same germ could emerge at the same time in two such distant places. Epidemiologists have been considering the question for over a year, and suspect the culprit to be an infected air traveler who carried the virus from one country to the other while still asymptomatic.

Beijing - Today the city is in the grips of an epidemic that began ten days ago and has since overwhelmed hospitals and clinics. The current death toll stands at over 257,000, with new cases being diagnosed daily. The rate of infection is accelerating, according to health officials, and no more treatment facilities are available. The government had quickly moved to quarantine the city a week ago, but fleeing government officials spread the disease to surrounding jurisdictions. The current at risk population is estimated at 17 million and growing. Government health officials announced that the epidemic is caused by a highly virulent strain of influenza, which is both highly contagious and highly lethal. The onset of symptoms follows exposure by only six to nine hours, rapidly progressing to debilitating fever, delirium, seizure, and coma. Death usually follows within thirty-six hours of infection. The disease is reported to be spreading rapidly, and calls to mind the influenza pandemic of 1918, that killed over 20 million worldwide in one year. The current epidemic began only a day after US trade officials met with their counterparts in Beijing to negotiate next year's most favored nation trading status and increased Chinese action against the pirating of US intellectual property and copyrighted material. Action on those agreements has been postponed.

"Sounds like a one-sided trade agreement to me," the Destroyer of Nations declared. A second manufactured plague had been unleashed, this time carried from Ft. Detrick in a briefcase rather than released from the wreckage of a plane. "So Athena's movin' against a major league enemy now. 'Bout time. Looks like she's destroyin' a major contender for power in her post-war world."

In her yacht's cabin Xena set the newspaper aside. She stood and donned a black leather duster. The clone's mood demanded motion, and so she found herself walking down the gangplank and onto the dock. Her boots struck a slow rhythm on its wet boards, producing a hollow, even sound akin to a funeral march. The USS Sequoia rested silent at its berth and the Odyssey was dark after returning from its moonlight charter cruise. Xena's steps led her out of the marina, across Water St. and Maine Ave., away from the closed seafood markets, and up SW 6th St. past Arena Stage and the Marina View Towers. She was accompanied by the wafting fishy scent of softly lapping water. A thin fog wove through the damp chill air that blew off the Potomac, keeping her company like a ghost. This neighborhood was deserted like much of the District late at night. A part of her mind kept tabs on her surroundings and she didn't fear anyone approaching her with stealth. She trusted her reflexes to answer any surprises, with a short sword and the Chakram of Day, drawn before a hand could be laid upon her. As Xena walked a random route she freed the rest of her mind to think. The news stories had told more between their lines than in them, and the cloned warrior had read carefully.

The Goddess of Wisdom and Warfare was preparing her battlefield, and that battlefield was the entire world. It would be a global conflict, a campaign to unite the whole earth under one leader, and bring all mortals under the power of one god. Neither had been done before, but never before had there been the potential for such a concentration of power. Science had conferred that opportunity, and Athena's cold-blooded strategy was applying its options through covert means. Already, three of America's enemies in the Muslim world had been neutralized, and the terrorist threat diminished, by depopulating the cadres of Islamists in Afghanistan, Iraq, and the Sudan. All those fighters, trained by mujahideen left over from the CIA backed Afghan resistance against Russia who had turned their militant fury on the west, had been decimated. The moderate Arab states were probably breathing a sigh of relief, just like the leaders here and in Israel. In Asia, North Korea had long been an unpredictable threat, always lurking and destabilizing the Far East. Almost no one had been unhappy to see them suffer. Now, no one would ask too many questions or protest a suite of events whose end had justified their means.

There was one question Xena had increasingly asked herself. Where was Athena? Why hadn't she assaulted the Miss Artiphys or the Destroyer of Nations. She must have known why Xena had been at the Temple of the Chakrams. Why else would her clones have appeared that day and attacked? That incident had suggested two facts to the analytical mind of the strategos. First, that despite the possible advantage Xena stood to gain by possessing the Chakram of Day, the Goddess of Wisdom and Warfare hadn't attacked her with more overwhelming numbers of clones because she simply didn't have them. It hinted at the progress of the goddess' own cloning program. Living clones of Livia and Valesca had never been seen. Although she'd sent three each of Mavican, Callisto, and Elainis within about a week, she didn't have any more left on the day Xena had gone to the temple. And Xena had disabled every clone sent against her, depleting her enemy's forces. Second, perhaps the Goddess actually feared her now, much as a person might fear a black widow spider, knowing her to be potentially deadly but in no way accepting her as an equal. Surely she knew that the cloned Warrior Princess held the fourth chakram, and that it was a god killer. The most compelling reason why she hadn't assaulted the mortal clone personally was her fear of the weapon itself, and Xena's known prowess with it. It was slim insurance, but Xena had kept the chakram close ever since. In her time, many a mortal had died at a god's hands.

Xena's analysis had yielded other possibilities. Perhaps the goddess wasn't yet aware of whom she faced. Perhaps she still thought herself opposed by the Warrior Princess, not the Destroyer of Nations. Perhaps the goddess didn't understand Xena's aims or the depth of her hatred. If she expected only a personal vendetta over the deaths of Eve and Gabrielle, conducted with the Warrior Princess' morals and restraint, then she was expecting a faint echo of the mayhem the Destroyer of Nations was willing to unleash. No one had ever seen the Destroyer of Nations as she was now, fully dedicated to the God of War, possessed by the Spirit of Battle, and without any designs past her enemy's destruction. They had only seen her rampaging in a frenzy of katalepsis a few times long ago. Had they ever even understood that she wasn't completely human? And finally, no mortal had ever truly threatened the existance of a god in battle. Deep down in her heart the goddess almost certainly felt safe, no matter how Xena's actions might hamper the execution of her plans. She'd assessed the mortal clone and dismissed her as being nothing more than an annoyance, short-lived and soon to be dead, just a vexing distraction for her own clones to deal with. Her divine pride would allow her to expect nothing more.

Xena allowed herself a grin. The Goddess of Wisdom had made a number of strategic errors. She didn't know her enemy. Athena didn't understand the roots of her motivation. She didn't discern her adversary's resources or patience or commitment. But worse, the goddess overestimated her own position. All of history supported her mistaken assessment of the balance of power in this conflict. Xena had only to bide her time, seemingly playing into the immortal's hands as the goddess consolidated her power. The longer Xena waited, the stronger Athena would be, and the more she'd be lulled into the belief in her own invincibility.

In three months Xena's cloned army would be half-grown, but the mad Dr. Kishihara had built in a surprise. In another year or so, Athena would stumble on and destroy the primary cloning site, terminating the humans who had have outlived their usefulness and destroying their potentially dangerous secrets. At the same time, the goddess would congratulate herself on nullifying Xena's bid for power, and the Destroyer would make sure she believed that. Then in July a year hence, the surviving clones' training would begin with the chiliarchoi. A year after that, the last war would be fought. The strategos hypatos already knew the targets and what weapons would destroy them. By the time she finished preparing the world as a battlefield, one out of two people would already be dead. The technological base of the industrialized nations would be set back five hundred years or more.

She knew how the last battle would be fought. It would be contested by a limited number of warriors who killed face to face, with courage and physical prowess, not from a distance with the advantages of science and technology. She would force Athena to fight on her terms, and those terms would favor the attributes over which Ares had always held sovereignty. After the fighting ended on the battlefield, the last act of war would begin when the goddess appeared to personally exact her revenge on the mortal who had dashed her hopes. When that time came, Xena would be ready to do what no mortal had done in all of history. She would kill a goddess.

A furtive sound from somewhere behind alerted Xena's conscious mind to a possible threat. She snapped from her reverie to full awareness in an instant, senses focusing on her surroundings, probing, sampling…receptive to a degree most mortals never know. She placed herself on C ST., just past SW 1st St., and a half-block before its intersection with Delaware Ave. Alongside her on the north stood the Rayburn and Longworth House Office Buildings, divided by South Capitol St.. The slightest scuff of a sole crossing Canal St. behind her informed on the position of a potential enemy. The footfall had been light, speaking of stealth defeated by a random stone, unnoticed while the person's attention centered on her figure 20 yards ahead. She didn't turn or acknowledge the person's error, but instead maintained her pace, passing the mouth of Delaware Ave. As she walked, the Destroyer of Nations tuned in more and more closely on her pursuer until she could feel every footfall. At the same time, her secondary awareness reported on an idling motor vehicle around the corner of New Jersey Ave. Its engine confessed to missed tune-ups with a roughness at idle that didn't come from a racing cam. Definitely not a police car. More likely some lurking compatriot of the person following behind.

Xena turned the corner onto South Capitol St., continued to let her shadow to pass out of the nearest street lamp's glow, and then she leaped into a double somersault. She landed in the margin between two cars and lowered her body out of sight below their fenders. And then she waited, silently, blending in with the shadows and making herself invisible.

Swift footsteps followed a moment later, striking loud in the silent air, and speaking of the panicked surprise of a tail who had lost their subject in plain sight. She could count their strides and place the person to within a foot as they pounded down the sidewalk, coming abreast and then passing the well of darkness where she crouched. They had just passed when she leaped back up, launching herself across the fender of the car in front of her, taking two swift strides over its roof, and leaping into the air. Xena drew her weapons while her body flipped through an aerial cartwheel. She hit the ground moving fast, marking her target who was just turning to face her.

The man was unfamiliar but that hardly mattered to the Destroyer of Nations. Thief, mugger, or perhaps something more, he would find himself just another unfortunate soul who had pitted his fate against the Hellenes' Bane. He had swept back one side of his long coat, desperately reaching for a pistol in the inside pocket. His hand had barely touched the cold metal when the black blade of the short sword forced its way between two of his ribs. It struck with the force of a hard punch, but instead of throwing him back it simply pierced his body. The distal foot of the weapon sliced through the layers of muscle, fascia, and organs, lacerating them as Xena wrenched the blade sideways before pulling it free. The man didn't even have time to react before the flash of the ancient chakram whipped across his throat to silence him. Xena had slashed him with a quickly sweeping forehand stroke. She continued to pivot, following through by rotating her body while spinning on the heel of her right foot, and completing the move with a high crescent kick that knocked him off his feet and into the shadowed pit between two parked cars. In just a few seconds they had traded places, Xena standing on the sidewalk, he crumpled out of sight between a pair of bumpers.

The man hadn't even taken his last sucking, lung-cut breath when the clone rounded the corner of South Capitol St., turning back onto SW C St. at a dead run. Her long strides ate up the distance. Up ahead, around the corner on New Jersey Ave., she could still hear the motor idling. As she approached the corner, she cut across the grass to the shadows beside the Longworth Office Building, slipping behind the decorative hedges that sheathed the foundation. In the dark, she barely registered the slumped body of a homeless man wrapped in a ratty blanket in time to leap over his sleeping figure and keep from tripping. She cleared him by inches and continued until she could see the whisping puffs of exhaust from the tailpipe of a dark blue Ford van parked a half-dozen spaces from the corner. The vehicle sat across the strip of lawn and the sidewalk, perhaps thirty feet from the office building's side. There were two men inside.

The clone came to a halt behind a bush opposite the van. Silently, she took careful aim, and then with a quick overhand flick, she whipped the chakram towards the target. The weapon flew with a soft simple whistle, unlike the warbling of the Combined Chakram. It struck the nearer window, crumbling the safety glass into a shower of tiny shards. The blade skipped off the nearer man's forehead, cutting deep and sending up a fountain of dark blood and brain matter that painted the inside of the windshield in front of him. It ticked against the rearview mirror with a ping and struck the driver at eye height before continuing out his open window as it curved gracefully up into the night air while crossing the street. Xena took two strides out of the brushes and waited. The chakram continued to rise, finally ricocheting off the second story of the Cannon Office Building on the far side of New Jersey Ave. and reversing its course. As it approached she raised her left hand and snatched it out of the air. Xena slipped back into the bushes, trotted back the way she'd come, and only broke from cover after a careful check of the surroundings revealed that SW C St. was still silent and deserted. The homeless man hadn't even twitched in the meantime, despite having been hurdled twice.

Xena never looked back. She didn't make any attempt to identify the dead. Every instinct she possessed told her that the man who'd followed her had meant her harm and that the two in the van had been accomplices. Her intuition recognized that all three had been plotting something that she'd stumbled into. She had no concrete proof of any of this, but as a warlord, she'd followed her instincts in the same fashion. If she had erred on the side of violence, at least it had kept her alive. What were a few more dead? It was her own life that was of paramount importance, and that alone justified the bloodletting. She not only struck before asking questions, but often she didn't bother to ask them afterwards either. What would have been the point?

Fifteen minutes of walking at a moderate pace brought her to the Gangplank Marina. Within twenty minutes she was back in her cabin aboard the Miss Artiphys, removing her duster. Her weapons lay on the newspaper she'd read earlier, awaiting cleaning. Before her the familiar blue flash of light announced the appearance of the God of War. Xena stopped to watch, and then moved to hang up her coat. When Ares was fully materialized, he offered her a wry smile.

"Can't stay out of trouble, I see," he stated, eyeing the blood on her blades. "Were you just out to do a good deed, or did you intend to piss off my sister?"

Xena looked him in the eyes with a lack of comprehension.

"Just out for a walk and ended up dustin' some strays off my coattails," she told him evenly, shaking her duster for emphasis, "so who were they and what did they have to do with your sister?" Xena slipped a hanger into the coat's sleeves and hung it in a closet.

"Oh, let's just say you've foiled her most recent plot," Ares told her as she turned to face him, her attention captured now by his words, "she'd indirectly made it possible for those three terrorists to obtain the materials to pollute half of the city. In the back of that van they had a very large explosive device and a larger barrel of 'hot' waste. It was a 'dirty bomb', and the blast would have sent up a cloud of radioactive dust across the District."

"So she's got mujahideen doin' her dirty work too now?"

"Sure, everyone gets to play in her game. The Al-Garna'ah al-Islamiyyah of Egypt are returning to active military actions against the United States…this time in response to the US attacks on Iraq and Afghanistan. Their leader, Sheik Omar Abdel Rahman, is still rotting in prison here for his part in the first WTC bombing in 1993. Now they're trying to even a handful of scores, but the real point of Athena's strategy is to prod the US into opening a campaign against the rest of the Muslim world…Egypt, Yemen, Algeria, Pakistan, yadda, yadda, yadda. One more terrorist attack on American soil would probably do it right now with things the way they are, and the outcome is predictable, so another nest of enemies would be disposed of before the main battle begins."

"Makes sense," Xena conceded, "clearing the board before beginning serous operations."

"And tonight, you just happened to be in the right place at the right time."

"I had no idea who they were, but I don't like bein' followed or chased. Must've been fate."

"Maybe so." He eyed her speculatively for a moment before advising, "Be careful."

His gaze shifted to the Chakram of Day, regarding it with an unreadable expression, and then the blue light flared and he vanished. Xena moved to begin cleaning her blades.

Continued in Chapter 5

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