Part 3 Chapter 5

By Phantom Bard

For Disclaimer: See Part 3 Chapter 1


April 2, 2004 - An Undisclosed Location in Washington, D.C.

"Impossible!" Spencer Trilby exploded as he slammed his fist down on the conference table in a rare show of temper. Down the table, Albert Gibson shuddered at the reaction to his report. Even Harry Tasker looked at the tabletop for a moment before returning his attention to his boss's face. The Chief of Omega Sector was livid.

"We had no idea, sir," he apologized softly, "Dr. Kishihara never really tells anyone what he's doing, and no one asks. They stay as far away from him as they can…can't blame them either. He even gives me the creeps."

"But he must be answering to Xena!" The Chief asserted, "She knows what he's been up to…what he's done."

"She probably does, but she doesn't tell us much and we haven't seen her in almost a year." Harry sighed. "There's nothing to be done about it now, sir. The 'specials' just got up and walked away last night and there's no way to track them. My guess is that Xena has them. At least I hope she does."

"Sir, there was no way we could have known they'd be ready in just over half the time the regular clones are taking to mature," Gib added uncertainly, "Kishihara must have done something to their genes to accelerate their late stage development."

"Of course he's done things to their genes! That's all he's been doing from the start. That bastard's a psycho," Trilby grated, "he should have had an accident long ago."

"That's still possible, sir," Harry said coldly, "and maybe he will very soon. If the 'specials' are free, then I can't see Xena letting him live. He's of no use to her now."

The three men sat in silence digesting the cold-bloodedness that appraisal implied. The night before there had been an alarm in the primary cloning lab. The disappearance of the two special clones had only been discovered after the fact. By the time security had arrived in the lab, the pair had been long gone. Kishihara had been inebriated as he often was while off-duty and had barely been lucid. He'd known nothing, the other technicians had known nothing, and the security guards had found nothing. Because of the extremely dangerous nature of the subjects and the lack of information, nothing beyond a search of the premises had been undertaken.

The last time the clones had been seen, they'd been immersed in their tanks, stark naked, and at a stage of development equivalent to about seventeen years of age. The regular clones were at about thirteen years of age. Supposedly none of the clones were to awaken until they reached twenty-five years of age. Obviously Xena and Dr. Kishihara had other plans. The Omega Sector agents felt heavy with frustration. The incident had clearly demonstrated their lack of control.

April 2, 2004 - North of Ulaan Gom, Uvs, Mongolia

Xena had to admit that the situation was macabre. Here she sat in her tent, accompanied by a pair of clones who were identical to both each other and herself at a younger age. Even stranger was the fact that their last injection of growth accelerant was still interacting with the genetic adjustments Dr. Junichiro Kishihara had made. They'd aged by about four years since she'd met them after their escape from the lab yesterday. The effect had been progressing faster at first. It had slowed visibly over the past twelve hours. In another six hours they'd have ceased their quickened maturation and would age at the normal rate for Xena thereafter…for as long as they survived. The final result would be a pair of specially enhanced clones of about 25 years of age, completely indistinguishable from their strategos hypatos, their genotype pattern. Xena nodded to herself in approval. Dr. Kishihara had done excellent work. It was a pity that he was a sociopath and had to be disposed of. He was really no worse than many of the loyal soldiers in her old army, but unfortunately for him, this was not ancient Greece. After he was gone, his work would live on.

"In eight hours, you," she looked pointedly at the clone wearing in her own white dress shirt and black slacks, "will return to the lab, position this camera, secure Dr. Kishihara, and then leave with him in your custody. You will bring him here. I don't need to remind you that this must be done while being accepted as me." The clone nodded, agreeing without question. Her concept of self encompassed a middle ground, that included only her twin and the woman speaking to her, between the "I", (or her own internal monologue), and "they", which was everyone else she'd ever encountered.

"Once he is secured, we will leave here, and soon, you," she addressed the second clone, wearing a black battle dress uniform, "will go to the mirror site and act as its guardian. Once there, you will not contact anyone, nor will you be contacted until the chiliarchoi are mature. At that time, you will contact me. Until that time, you will kill anyone who enters the site. Understood?" The second clone nodded. The expectation of almost two years of solitary, dangerous, and unremittingly tedious duty made no visible impression. Like her twin, she had been bred to serve.

Xena checked their weapons. Each bore handguns, either Glock model 19 or 18*. The first clone carried the expected spare 17-round magazine, below the reduced size model 19, in a shoulder holster. The second clone carried a satchel with two dozen 31-round magazines, six of which could be carried at a time suspended on thigh rigs from a utility belt. A duplicate Glock 18 completed the guardian's twinned belt holster rig. All three weapons had been altered to a trigger pull of 3-lbs. and 3/8" travel. On the guardian's paired handguns, two of the three standard safeties had been removed.

(*The Glock model 19 is a compact version of the full sized Glock model 17, and is intended for concealed carry. It is a semi-automatic handgun with a 4" barrel, and uses 9x19mm ammunition. The Glock model 18 is a full size, select fire autopistol in 9mm bore, which can fire in either semi-automatic or fully automatic modes. It can use 9mm Glock magazines of up to 33 round capacity. Without the magazine, it weighs 22 ounces. The weapons feature a non-metallic frame, and come with three trigger-actuated safety systems. The normal trigger pull for both pistols is 5.5-lbs with _" travel.) ~Editor

Not a moment had been wasted since the Destroyer of Nations had met the two. Dr. Kishihara had already performed their preliminary downloads, giving them enough capabilities to escape. Because of their enhancements, the downloading of information to trigger their full memories had been done with a 6X DVD player in Xena's tent. It had taken another four hours instead of several sessions over a couple of days. Then their practical training had begun with an introduction to firearms.

After demonstrating with the autopistols, Xena had tested the clones. She recalled the instruction program that she and Gabrielle had once taught at the FBI's compound in Quantico. By comparison to the HRT operatives, her "specials" needed only a single lesson and a short round of practice before they could outperform her. Each had watched with serious concentration as she'd disassembled and reassembled the Glocks as a timer ticked away the seconds. She'd loaded magazines, shown how to clean the firearms, and finally demonstrated drawing and firing the weapons.

Both clones were identical in their levels of performance. They moved with inhuman speed and precision. It took them only forty-eight seconds to break down and reassemble an autopistols, and only twelve seconds to load seventeen rounds into a magazine. Then they'd stood on the firing line, drawn, acquired, and fired, placing all seventeen rounds through a single hole in their targets within eight seconds.

She had demonstrated with the sword for her own satisfaction, testing their memories of what she herself had remembered from another lifetime. The "specials" had stood facing her on the empty desert floor, each bearing a broadsword patterned after her own. All three of the Xena's had identical blades forged of HyCore steel by Mitsubishi, carried in identical scabbards worn on their backs.

"At my attack, you will act to neutralize my threat without causin' injury," she had instructed. The clones had nodded in understanding.

The Destroyer of Nations had known intellectually that the clone could react and defend faster than she could attack, and yet she'd expected to come close on at least the first try. Xena was prepared to pull her blow when she faced off against the first clone. The God of War's Favorite intended to begin her attack at full speed. She wanted to impress on them the absolute necessity of acting without hesitation and controlling their actions with complete focus and precision.

In a blur she had reached over her right shoulder, her fingers unerringly grasping the broadsword's hilt, and drawing it in a movement that would blend into an overhead blow. It was the fastest and most direct attack she could use. As her blade cleared the scabbard she sensed her opponent's stance shift. As her blade cleared her head she registered a flash of reflections in the air. Xena couldn't have redirected her movement if she'd tried; she was already moving at her own neural threshold.

The impact caught her sword midblade, just before she had straightened and locked her wrist. Contact came precisely from the sweet spot, about two-thirds of the way down between the hilt and tip, on the "special's" blade. The steel rang and then shrieked with a sliding parry that redirected the force of Xena's swing and stripped the sword from her hand. And then there was another reflected shimmer on polished steel and a final shift in the "special's" stance. The Destroyer's blade flipped end over end a half-dozen yards through the air. The "special" had resheathed her weapon before it landed.

"Excellent," the Destroyer of Nations said, swallowing the visceral twinge of anger at being bested. No one had ever disarmed her when she'd used that move, though a handful of warriors had survived it. She shifted her attention to the waiting clone and said, "Next."

The blow to her ego, had she allowed herself to feel it, would have been even worse this time. The second clone had watched the first and planned her response. This time when Xena reached for her blade, the "special" stepped in and locked up her sword arm by grappling her elbow and wrist. She spun the Destroyer's body around, and then drew the sword using Xena's own hand, before twisting the blade from her grasp. All of her actions had been redirections of Xena's movements, and she'd never even bothered to draw her own weapon. When the Destroyer of Nations spun back to face the second clone, the "special" was already standing with her teacher's sword presented hilt outward, resting across a forearm. It was in that moment that Xena had decided the second clone would become the guardian.

Now the three sat together in the tent, sipping Coke and making plans. They were about thirty-five miles north-northwest of Ulaan Gom, the only city in the remote province of Uvs, in northwestern Mongolia. To the west rose a barren mountainous land under whose crags a secret lay hidden. To the east lay the great lake, the Uvs Nuur. They were much closer to the Russian border than to the Mongolian city, but the land was so deserted that even the most paranoid of realms seldom patrolled the frontier. Here, life had barely changed since the time of the original Xena. The Destroyer had come to fetch her "specials", and to settle with the cold-blooded Dr. Kishihara, for whom she still had plans. After that, she and her clones would drive to Ulaan Gom, take her private plane to Ulaan Baatar, and then to Tokyo. They would make a brief stop at Dr. Drexler's lab in Yokohama, and then return to Washington, D.C. None of them would ever see this place again. Already time was short, and Xena could almost feel Athena breathing down her neck.

Typical of a great general, Xena's intentions and actions were unanticipated by friend and foe alike. The only thing she would save from the primary cloning site was the one thing that Omega Sector assumed she had no use for. In her actions, they would see the result they expected, and those actions would confirm their mistaken impression of the primary site's value.

April 3, 2004 - An Undisclosed Location in Washington, D.C.

"I can't believe it!" Spencer Trilby thundered. He'd been doing more and more of that over the last few days. "They let her right walk right in and walk out with Kishihara!"

"Sir, there were no orders to stop her or Kishihara," Harry Tasker reminded his boss. "It's her program anyway and everyone there knows it. Kishihara's her albatross, and I don't think anyone was sorry to see him go. He's probably lying dead in the desert less than a mile away."

"And good riddance," Albert Gibson added.

"I'd like to confirm that," Trilby said.

"We had a tracer on him," Gib said, maintaining a dejected expression when Spencer looked at him hopefully. "Security found it a half-mile out from the front gate. My guess is that she scanned for it, found it and ditched it…and then ditched him."

"It was down in the forties overnight, sir," Tasker added, "and the body's cold by now. Thermal's no good and even an inch of soil would hide him from the best satellites. He could be anywhere, and if Xena doesn't want him found…" Harry paused and shrugged. "Well, sir, we don't have the manpower to search until we turn him up."

"So the 'specials' are gone, Kishihara's gone, and Xena's gone too," the Chief of Omega Sector recited morosely.

"We know a private plane took off from Ulaan Gom within an hour after Xena left the lab," Al said. "It was bound for Ulaan Baatar like everything else from there. No way to track it after it left Mongolian airspace though. She could be anywhere by now."

"Hasn't that always been the case?" Spencer Trilby asked rhetorically. No one answered.

"I'll admit that she's a wild card, sir," Harry told his boss, "but we know one place she'll be." He paused for a moment before continuing. "She's got to come back for her clones. Even though it's two years away, she'll be back in Mongolia in the spring of 2006."

January 6, 2005 - Refitting Slip C271-B, Yokohama-Kanazawa, Japan

Washington, D.C. - The White House announced today that the CIA has confirmed the below ground testing of a thermonuclear device in the remote province of Uvs, in northwest Mongolia near the border with Russia. The area is largely empty desert, forty miles northeast of the city of Ulaan Gom and about 680 miles from the capitol of Ulaan Baatar. The device was calculated to have had a yield of about 20 kilotons, roughly the power of the bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The site has been closed to foreign inspectors, however some flights are known to have landed at the airport in Ulaan Gom this morning. Also this morning, reports of elevated radiation have come in from Khandagayty in Russia. This city is within twenty-five miles of the blast site. Mongolia is not a signer of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaties, having never been suspected of having nuclear capabilities. The country has no breeder reactors or enrichment facilities, and no known program or technology for creating such a weapon. Intelligence experts worldwide are baffled.

Beijing - In an official statement, the communist leadership has expressed dismay at the revelation of a nuclear power on their doorstep. China, still in the aftermath of last year's epidemic, which claimed over 27.5 million lives, called the test, "an unexpected and potentially disruptive factor in Far Eastern relations that will certainly alter the balance of power. We call upon the world's nuclear powers to provide counsel to the Mongolian leadership in formulating non-aggressive policies." Repercussions from the epidemic and the resulting socio-economic upheaval have left the government weakened and preoccupied with domestic concerns. Analysts believe that the Chinese are not capable of waging an effective regional war at this time, especially one involving weapons of mass destruction. There has been no official comment from the Mongolian government.

The real story's much more appalling, Xena thought to herself. She was sitting in the cabin aboard the Miss Artiphys, sipping a Classic Coke and reading the Washington Post, an English language version available in Japan. Ironic, she thought, since she’d just returned from Washington, D.C. two days before, after recovering an important body.

Her primary cloning site had been assaulted by over a three hundred cloned warriors, dressed in woven spider silk armor similar to what Elainis had worn. They had been armed with modern cartridgeless automatic weapons, based on the Heckler & Koch G11 rotating breech design. To take the facility, they had defeated the electronic defenses, uploaded a command to open the gate, and then overwhelmed the security personnel. The invaders had mercilessly executed every technician, guard, and scientist they'd found. Then they had placed their charge and withdrawn. Ninety minutes later the blast had been recorded.

Omega Sector had no idea how the primary facility's location had been compromised. They didn't know that Dr. Kishihara had survived, or what had been done to him in Tokyo before he had been released. They would never know that the hypnotic suggestions Xena had planted in Dr. Kishihara's subconscious had been expressed verbally as he slept. Later, while in Athena's service, the doctor had talked in his sleep, and over several months the accumulated mutterings had finally been assembled into a suspicion. Athena's minions had confirmed that suspicion, pinpointing the locality and giving them the position of a massive clandestine cloning facility.

When the disaster began, the agents at the Washington, D.C. headquarters of Omega Sector had received telemetry and communications at first. They'd known when the attack started and when their security was breached. They'd watched helplessly as system after system crashed.

Aboard her ship, Xena had received information by much less sophisticated means. The day Dr. Kishihara had been taken, the "special" had positioned a simple CCD camera and transmitter near the entrance. The device had fed a masked, 512-bit encoded video signal to a satellite, and from the satellite to her laptop. It was basically a solar powered camera phone, uplinking to a worldwide com network, but it showed her the enemy's troops, their numbers, equipment, and the breaching of the primary site. Because it was fully independent of the site, it had shown her their withdrawal long after Omega Sector's systems went blind. Xena had an .mpeg file of the entire attack.

For a second time, Xena didn't recognize her enemy. She had clear pictures of their faces and they were all the same, clones of an unknown male warrior. She'd made a print and called on her patron god.

"Ares, God of War, appear to your Favorite."

The blue light flared in the cabin, delivering Ares.

"Home movies, Xena?" He asked, watching a replay of the file on her laptop.

"As expected, Athena has destroyed the primary cloning facility," Xena reported. "No surprise there, though it took her a little longer to find it than I'd thought."

"The destruction of the site was never in doubt, but did the secondary tactics work?"

"See for yourself," she said, passing him the printed enlargement.

The picture showed a stern chiseled face with medium length, wavy black hair, a straight nose, and thin lips set in a line. A small telltale birthmark in the shape of a waning moon several days past full accented the slight hollowness of the man's right cheek. It was a handsome face marked by coldness and focus. In the background, the same face was repeated on every figure in the frame.

"Success," the God of War commented, letting the print fall to the desk. He smiled.

"Yes, Dr. Kishihara strikes again," Xena confirmed, looking at the picture and allowing herself a smile. She sighed and looked back up at her patron god. "Ares, who is he?"

"Ahhh, the million dollar question," the god said. "He's a contemporary of Elainis. In fact, he was her intended husband. He died at Ilios about 3,150 years ago. I think my sister has an affinity for the period," he mused.

"Ares," Xena growled, giving her voice an edge of impatience, "that could be a lot of warriors. I'd heard that about 9,500 died there in battle. Was he Achaean or Dardanian?"

"You're forgetting your history and that Athena's an elitist," Ares chided, teasing his Chosen with delay as he stretched out the suspense. "Only the finest for her army." Xena gave him a harder stare. Ares smiled. "Lighten up, Xena," he said, "it doesn't matter who he is, but I'll admit, the situation's poetic, all considered." He savored the irony. Xena sat, waiting him out. Finally he broke down and spilled the information. "Athena has cloned Achilles…dipped by his mother, Thetis, in the River Styx to gain invincibility, save for his heel from which she held him. Of course his heel became his deadly weakness. He was the greatest warrior the Greeks brought to Ilios. I'm sure you've heard the story. I'm also sure that Athena has made some genetic corrections. After all, she 'found' the infamous Dr. Kishihara in Tokyo and it would appear that she employed him. Achilles' heel may no longer be vulnerable, but he's got a bigger weakness now, every one of him."

"He's not the only one," a familiar voice said, addressing him from the salon. The god of War turned to face a second Xena, just entering the room. "You too can be fooled, and that's somethin' I needed to know."

Ares stared at her, uncomprehending. He looked back at the clone he'd been talking to and then back again at the newcomer, and raised an eyebrow in question.

"Ares, meet my enhanced clone, Prima."

The clone that Ares had been speaking with nodded and gave him a smile. Ares frowned in irritation and cast a dark glance on his Chosen.

"She's a special clone created by Dr. Kishihara," Xena explained as she came to his side, "before I sent him off to subvert Athena's efforts." Xena regarded Ares for a moment and then said, "Lighten up, Ares, I already knew she could fool mortals. Now I also know that she can pass for me, even in a god's eyes."

Ares regarded her with a sly smile, his mind working to fathom her intentions.

"About Kishihara…" Ares began, "the primary site's destruction dispensed with all the unneeded human collaborators, but the bad doctor still knows about your project."

"Actually Ares, Kishihara's been neutralized too. He died on New Years' Day of a massive pulmonary embolism. Among other things, I'd forcibly injected him with Drexler's nanobots after we took him out of the primary site. Drexler created them as a cure for arteriosclerosis. Kishihara thought it was a toxin. In return for his continued cooperation, I promised him an antidote…that doesn't exist. In the meantime, the little bugs were converting his lipid plaques into caustics, with the help of the chemicals in the 'antidote' he was injectin' every week. They were happily eating away at the walls of his aorta. Drexler programmed them for eight months."

"You're sure of this?"

"We recovered the body, Ares," Xena assured him, "some of the nanobots were made to create a chemical homing beacon. They began manufacturing a scent marker when his body temperature dropped to 80 degrees. Humans can't smell it, but industrial trace gases indicators and trained dogs can. He'd already reported that he was workin' in the Capitol City, but he wasn't sure where. We knew Athena's headquarters is in Washington someplace. Not really a big surprise, since the government's there, but now we've got a pretty good idea of which building it's in."

"And when will you neutralize her facilities?"

"During the preparation of the battlefield," Xena told him with a cold smile, "after I dispose of my remaining human collaborators at Omega Sector."

The God of War gave his Favorite a smile of approval and vanished in a flash of blue.

Kori Polemos moved to gaze out of her ship. The view through the cabin's portholes showed only the inside of the Mitsubishi refitting dock. It may as well have been the inside an airplane hanger. Only a few shafts of sunlight penetrated the superstructure of gantries, cranes, and scaffolding. The Miss Artiphys lay elevated in the world's most advanced commercial dry dock. She was being extensively modified; so extensively that the normal practice would have been to build a new ship from scratch. Instead, because of her owner's whims, she was being entirely rebuilt. It should have been legally required to rename and relicense her. Kori Polemos wanted neither. Because of the company's status in Japan, the authorities were accommodating, especially since the ship's registry was foreign. On paper, her vessel was only being refurbished. In reality, the marine engineers at Mitsubishi were completely recreating the ship for their stockholder, incorporating the results of several lines of research she'd instituted.

The company built ships, worked in aerospace and energy generating, and a myriad of other fields. As she had foreseen years before, Mitsubishi Heavy Industries could provide the wide range of capabilities her campaign required, and she had given to them in return. They had been conducting research for her in a number of fields for several years and were benefiting from her teams' discoveries. Now the industrial conglomerate would provide all the skills and services Kori's $67 billion corporation could want. Their partnership was cordial and profitable. The Board of Directors would keep her happy.

Kori had brought her ship into Yokohama two months ago, in early November. Even working in teams around the clock, the work would take another two months. The recreated Miss Artiphys would be ready to sail at the beginning of March.

In another factory nearby, other preparations were hastily underway. For the past six months, Mitsubishi Marine had been fabricating components. As soon as the Miss Artiphys was out of the dry dock, the assembly of another project for Kori Polemos would begin with the laying down of a cylindrical, titanium, double-walled pressure hull 400 feet in length.

June 1, 2005 - Columbia, South Carolina

The man in the policeman's uniform walked to the boarded up storefront and stood on the sidewalk, silently looking up at the sign that still hung over the display window. The "Columbia School of Martial Science", it proclaimed in black type over a blue field. Flanking the lettering were two decorated rings. They were really the opposite sides of the same ring, he knew now, but on the day that he'd first seen that sign he'd had no idea what they signified. They had been something new, something ancient, and the first clue in the biggest mystery he would ever face. Like the building itself, they had symbolized changes to come. So many things had changed since that day.

For years the premises had been run down and empty. He'd passed it daily since his time as a rookie, and it had always been the same. Then over a single month there had been a flurry of activity. The space had suddenly been renovated; it had happened almost overnight. At first he'd paid it only passing attention, mildly pleased to see that a new business was opening. Then the sign had been hung, just as the contractors were finishing up. The patrolman had been very curious about the school, because he'd studied the fighting arts for many years. His younger partner was a student as well.

One morning the door had stood open when they came by on their patrol. He and his partner had been the first to enter it. On that summer day they'd stood and watched as a tall brunette and a short blonde had sparred with ancient weapons, the sai against the sabre of Chin. They'd stood and watched in amazement.

"Four years ago today," Alexander Williams whispered as he gazed up at the sign. "I learned so much in those few short months…we all did. And I came away with more questions than answers."

After that last fight against the mysterious stranger, he'd never seen either of his teachers again. Gabriella Covington was almost certainly dead. He himself had taken a dangerous slash across the chest, and his wife had sustained a concussion that night. The stranger's blade had sliced between two of his ribs, partly severing his sternum and passing within a quarter inch of his heart. His last memory of that night was of Gabriella's body draped in Serena's arms as the tall teacher had walked out of the school and into the night. She'd been dazed, barely conscious of her surroundings, and oblivious to anyone but the person lying in her arms. After that, Serena had disappeared.

There'd been talk in the station house. He'd first heard the gossip while still lying in his hospital bed, but he'd been weeks late in hearing all the details. By the time he went back on duty the story had been old and tainted with conjecture. He'd learned that Serena Pappas had said nothing during an all night grilling with two detectives. The next morning she'd been taken by two FBI agents. Those agents were at the heart of the rumors that had circulated through the station house. The detectives had seen their FBI IDs, and so had the captain, but a patrolman had also seen one of the agents at the school after the first attack the week before. On that night, he'd identified himself as a DEA agent. When Alex had asked what that agent looked like, the patrolman had given him a description that could have fit Harry Tasker. But Alex Williams knew that Harry sold business computer systems. He'd never given Alex any reason to doubt his identity. In any case, those suspicions seemed academic now. Two years ago Harry had moved his family back to McLean, Va., the Washington, D.C. suburb where he'd come from.

The FBI agents had taken all the case records at the same time they'd taken Serena Pappas into custody. There hadn't been so much as a fingerprint card left. Even Danielle Lefferts, (who was still house-sitting at the Pappas residence after three and a half years), hadn't heard anything from Serena. Alex had kept in contact with her and the other students. He knew that an attorney for the Pappas estate had informed her that she was welcome to stay indefinitely, and had arranged very generous payments to her for maintaining the property. Those payments had continued after the Pappas estate had been acquired by Artiphys International, a subsidiary of the DON GROUP, Inc., whatever that was. For all practical purposes, any evidence of Serena Pappas had been wiped away. Yet he could still feel the presence of the two teachers when he stood in their odd study at the Halloween gatherings. Like his teachers with their collection of ancient weapons, the students were clinging to a past that had affected them deeply.

Serena and Gabriella's disappearance was only one of many changes. The whole world had changed in the four years since he and his partner had first stepped through the school's door. His partner, Marcus Lewis, was gone, dead almost four years ago in the hijacked plane that had crashed on September 11, 2001. The United States had waged war on Iraq and Afghanistan, where they had used weapons of mass destruction. There had been major plagues in the Sudan, North Korea, and China. Throughout the nation, the poor were being herded into what were really concentration camps, where they were used as slave labor. People on public assistance were being forced to volunteer as test subjects for drug companies. Beginning with the economically marginalized, the rights of citizenship were being denied with the approval of the rest of the population. America had turned its back as liberties that had first been enumerated in the Declaration of Independence were abridged. The rights to, "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness", that predated the Constitution, were regarded as having been superseded by that later document and its less clearly worded articles and amendments.

That population had supported the abridgement of the second amendment to the Constitution, "… the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." By interpreting the entire statement of the second amendment, ("A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed,"), to mean that only members of the military were to be protected by this right, the Supreme Court had ruled firearms illegal for all other citizens. The ownership of firearms by law enforcement officers had been accommodated by placing all law enforcement under the Office of Homeland Security, and placing that office within the Continental Militia. The Continental Militia was organized as a military force and had absorbed the National Guard. They had a Chief of Staff among the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and were conceived of as the equivalent of the Coast Guard on land.

In all these changes, Alex Williams saw the gathering of power under a government that was increasingly unfettered by checks and balances. In the world at large, he saw the US exercising its military might with ever fewer restraints. Whether by acts of war or due to the results of suspicious epidemics, the influence of his country's leadership was being advanced internationally. He sensed the rise of a single power, both at home and abroad, that dealt with opposition in an expedient and bloodthirsty manner. It chilled his blood. He was smart enough to know that power without limit usually turned into tyranny, and in the real world, such limits were most often imposed by the presence of enemies. Without the threat of hostile military action, law and ethics, morals and conscience all quickly lost influence when balanced against greed, ambition, and the will to dominate.

Alexander Williams took a last look up at the sign and then turned away. His patrol route took him to the Congressional Diner and he decided to stop in for a cup of coffee. The diner's atmosphere always seemed to sooth his psyche when he was feeling morose. Inside and out it was unchanged as always, the stainless steel shell shiny, the neon bright, and the tiles sparkling clean; its mundane continuity was precious and welcome amidst unpredictable changes. The diner harked back to simpler times, providing a comforting reminder of a world that seemed more rosy now than when the Cold War, H-bombs, and communism had actually been threats.

Officer Williams pushed the door open and glanced around inside. In the first booth, The Platters crooned, "Only You", on a tabletop jukebox. Behind the counter Angie turned to greet her entering customer. A smile lit her face as she recognized him.

"Hiya, Officer Alex," she bubbled, reaching for a coffee cup and saucer. She was twenty-one now, heartbreakingly beautiful, clean, cheerful, and wholesome. She'd turned down offers from modeling agencies and talent scouts so she could continue managing the diner for Ray and Lynn, her foster parents, because being with them here in Columbia made her happy. The onetime runaway from Texas had never ceased to be thankful for the family that had found and cared for her.

"Hi, Angie," Alex said, unable to keep the smile off his face in reaction to her boundless positive energy, "you look gorgeous as always, hon."

When she came over to the stool he'd taken and set the coffee down in front of him on the counter, he plunked his hat on her head. She grinned while adjusting it slightly over her hair and then announced, "Lynn made some sticky buns and they are soooo yummy. Chock full a' cinnamon and chopped peeeecans. Y'all really oughta try one."

"You know I can't resist her baking any more than I can resist Ray's cooking," the policeman confessed. He said it loud enough to carry to the rear booth where he'd seen the owner engaged in a conversation with a man he could only see from the back.

Ray glanced up and gave him a smile of thanks for the compliment as Angie bounced away towards the desert case. The man he'd been talking to turned in the booth and startled Alex. It was Harry Tasker. He smiled and waved the officer over to join them. Alex wouldn't have missed the chance to chat for the world. He picked up his coffee and walked to the rear booth.

"Hello, Harry, it's good to see you," Alex said honestly as he reached out and shook the agent's hand. "We've missed you and Helen at the last couple Halloween gatherings." The man looked careworn to Alex, and though he was still robust, he seemed to have aged more than two years.

"Alex, good to see you too," Harry said, "Helen and Dana and I have missed our friends down here in Columbia, but it's been a busy couple years. I hope you and Karen are well." He slid over in the booth to let Alex sit down beside him facing Ray.

"We're fine, Harry," Alex assured him, "and I'm glad to hear your family's okay."

"Harry's been consulting with me because he's an amateur historian," Ray injected. It was a surprise to Alex. At that moment, Angie delivered a desert plate with a sticky bun on it. She handed Alex a napkin, and then joined them and sat down next to Ray.

"I've been asking Ray about some details from the Xena Scrolls that Serena and Gabriella's great aunts, Melinda and Janice discovered," Harry said. "I became interested in their history when I was living next door and found out who they were."

The claim held double meanings that Alex sensed but didn't understand.

"Harry's become interested in someone called the Destroyer of Nations, a.k.a., the Hellene's Bane," Ray said. "Since you knew Serena and Gabriella, you might be interested in this bit of history."

"Especially since you've witnessed its repercussions," Harry added, "and felt them too."

Alex unconsciously stroked the scar across his chest.

"You were present both times when the school was attacked," Harry said, "and I'd like to know what you felt, especially during that second attack."

For several moments Alexander Williams was lost in the recollections of those nights. They were indelibly etched in his memories. After almost three and a half years he could still see the fights when he closed his eyes. It had been a final awakening for him. In his teachers he'd glimpsed the gravity of ancient combat and the spirit they mustered that was unknown in the modern world. In battle he'd seen their abilities applied at a level he'd never known existed. He'd spent his life training for combat, and on those nights he'd discovered that he'd never be ready; that he'd lacked even the chance to achieve such proficiency, and that time had deprived him of the years to gain what his teachers and their enemies displayed. In their fighting skills he'd seen the apotheosis of his own life's ambitions, but rendered at an unattainable plateau beyond his dreams. One could not achieve that which he could not first conceive. He shook his head. Those fights had dashed his hopes and at the same time granted him a deep relief, for his daily life would never depend on skills he couldn't attain.

"I felt helpless," he admitted softly, "I'd studied the fighting arts for almost thirty years and when the time came, I was unprepared for the test. We all felt that way. We watched in horror and awe and knew that we'd never be ready."

Harry and Ray looked down at the table. Alex's words were an admission of defeat in a life's quest, and they respected his loss. Harry had seen the footage of both fights at the school and the one at the temple. He'd studied and analyzed it, and had admitted the same thing himself. The agent who'd once fought and defeated a hostile off-world hunter in a South American jungle had found an enemy that he could fear.

"None of you had a chance to match them, Alex," Harry said, "there is no one living who can. In their element, Serena, Gabriella, Callisto, Mavican, and Elainis are something beyond any of us." Harry paused for a moment. He looked at the expression of intense interest on Alex's face and then continued. "They partake of a heritage and spirit that is thousands of years old. Such warriors ceased to exist when their gods faded and mankind chose its own destiny. What they excelled at became unnecessary as warfare evolved, just as their gods became obsolete as civilization evolved. As I said, none of us can match them, but at the same time, they are all millennia out of date."

"With one exception. The Destroyer of Nations is supremely adaptable," Ray said, "and she sees tactics and strategies as timeless. Only the details and assets are updated as necessary. She appeared infrequently in the Xena Scrolls, and only then in times of great wrath. She was an aspect of Xena's personality, and in later years, usually the avenging demon. Gabrielle also wrote of her past history, in the years before they met. She was favored by the God of War and was unbeatable in personal combat. At the age of 24 she conquered half of Greece with an army of 6,500. That's like taking over this country with a conventional force of maybe 20,000. Then she walked away from it all following a defeat that she could have regrouped from. In all of Greek history, she was the only one to resist the siren's call of conquest."

"Alex, I was wondering what you remember of Serena's fighting with respect to her tactics or her attitude," Harry asked.

Officer Williams considered the question carefully. There had been that moment when his teachers had faced Callisto and Mavican, and Serena had changed. She'd answered her enemy's taunts with derision and done so in a voice so cold that it had sent chills up his spine. During the fighting she'd pursued Callisto with deadly intent as a bloodthirsty mania possessed her. By the fight's end, she'd been seething with lust for her enemy's death. During the second fight Serena had been just as proficient, but then the stranger had threatened Gabriella. Serena had become a demon, blindly inflicting whatever damage she could. He could still hear the sickening crunch as the stranger's elbow had been wrenched out of joint. And afterwards she'd been in a world of her own.

"There was a point in each fight when it seemed like Serena unleashed some rage that she normally held in check. Her focus narrowed to the exclusion of everything but the death of her enemy. It was like she was driven or possessed," Alex said, "and that's the only way I can describe it. It was like there was a killer inside her that came out and went on the rampage."

"That's an apt description," Ray Fell said, "and it agrees with Gabrielle's reports from over two thousand years ago. In her scroll, Hooves and Harlots, the bard tells of Xena's revenge on a warlord who had attacked the Amazons and killed her son. She cut him to shreds and brought back pieces of his body in a sack, after single handedly slaughtering three dozen of his men."

Alexander Williams regarded him with horrified astonishment.

"You're talking about people that lived in ancient times and relating them to my teacher as if they're one in the same." Alex was baffled. "Just who are we talking about here?"

"In a way, they are one in the same," Harry answered, "Serena and the Destroyer."

"She always seemed nice, but she was dangerous too," Angie added. "They both were, but there was something inside Xena that was like, waaay severe."

Alex looked at her. The diner was just a block from the school, and at first he assumed that Angie had met Serena and Gabriella here after the school opened. Then he realized that she'd called his teacher Xena.

"Did you meet her here?" He asked, not wanting to lead her answer with his question.

"No," Angie replied openly. "We met them before, in California." Ray Fell winced.

Both Harry Tasker and Alex Williams sat frozen by her response. They stared at the pair across the booth. Ray looked around nervously. Finally he cleared his throat.

"Perhaps it's time for all of us to lay our cards on the table, so to speak," Dr. Fell said. "I suspect that each of us has some information the others would like to know." He looked pointedly at Harry who groaned in response. He certainly had the most secrets and there was no way he could share them all. Still he nodded his assent, as did Alex.

"It sounds like there was a lot I didn't know about Serena and Gabriella," Alex said, "but I guess I always knew that. They said and did things that made me wonder about them the first time that my partner and I saw them at the school. It as brand new then; in fact we were the first people to go in the day it opened. That was four years ago today."

"We'd met them in late April, over a year before," Ray told them as Angie nodded in agreement, "in a campground outside of Los Angeles. The first time we saw them they were dressed in costumes from the TV show. Xena sang to a tune Allan was playing on his flute. She sang it the way it was sung in ancient Amphipolis, in the correct dialect and with the proper pronunciation, not as it was performed for the TV show's soundtrack. Despite all that, they'd never actually seen the show. Later when they did, they resented a lot of what they saw. Not only were they unfamiliar with the series' episodes, they also knew things that weren't in the scrolls. They knew the chronological order the scrolls fell in, something Janice and Mel were never certain of. I spent a lot of time talking with them about their history, on the road while I was bringing them here to Columbia. I wanted them to meet Janice, but more than that, I wanted Janice to meet them."

"I never knew where they came from," Alex confessed. "I checked and there were no records of them before they came here. That would have been in June of 2000."

And now it was Harry Tasker's turn. He knew more than the others, and what he'd just learned filled in most of the holes. He made a quick decision about how much he could share.

"The day I moved in next door to them, Serena came charging out and accused me of trying to run the two of them down on my motorcycle. She said that was near City of Industry…Los Angeles. I thought she was nuts." He shrugged. "I can't tell you everything…I can't even tell you why…but I can tell you that Serena and Gabriella were Xena and Gabrielle in all the ways that mattered. Somehow two ancients came to life in our time and lived among us for a while. I can tell you that during that time, Xena was subjected to the loss of her soulmate at the hands of an ancient enemy. I don't believe that she's dead and I don't believe that she will forego the chance to take her revenge. According to the scrolls, it was at just such times that she became the Destroyer of Nations. Isn't that right, Ray?" The scholar nodded his head in agreement. Harry added, "I believe the Hellene's Bane will be going to war."

It was Dr. Fell who was most affected by Harry's words. Alex was still chewing on the idea that his teachers had somehow actually been ancient warriors. Dr. Fell understood from years of study and a lifetime of belief just what Harry's claims implied.

"If Xena still lives and goes to war as the Destroyer of Nations, then she goes to war with the Blessing of her patron god," he told them gravely. The other two looked at him, not really comprehending the gravity of his statement. He looked from one to the other. "Xena may well have the Blessing of the God of War, and if so, then she is fated to prevail in battle. She was already his Favorite, his Chosen warrior…."

Harry and Alex regarded him without understanding, though Harry remembered Xena's words of warning aboard the plane over Columbia after the second attack on her school. "I can't fight a war against this enemy alone. You will build me an army." It had been the first time that he'd felt the full force of her personality. He'd witnessed that compelling and commanding bearing many times since, but he'd never suspected that it might have a supernatural source.

"What does that all mean, Ray?" The Omega Sector agent asked.

"Xena was Ares' chosen mortal emissary. She was his most favored warrior. As a fighter she was unbeatable to mortal warriors, and she was a brilliant general. If you read Sins of the Past, Gabrielle's accounts of her campaigns as a warlord, you'll understand just how inspiring and tactically peerless she was. I can only recall one general getting the best of her after she became Ares’ Favorite. That was Julius Caesar on the day he kidnapped her daughter, and she repaid him with a dozen years of mayhem before taking her back. She and Gabrielle lost a final battle with Callisto, but…" Ray paused, bit his lip, and refrained from stating all of his doubts. "I've always been suspicious about what happened that day. In any case, if Xena has gone to war to avenge Gabrielle's death, then she will be without the balance of her soulmate's influence, and she will be the Destroyer of Nations. This is extremely important. Gabrielle had a restraining influence on Xena all through their years together. Without that influence, Xena tended toward unrestrained violence when facing an enemy."

The scholar shifted his gaze fully to Alex and told him, "what you saw during the fights at the school was the tip of the iceberg, as they say."

"Are you saying that without Gabrielle to keep her under control, Xena goes nuts?"

Ray regarded Alex's question for a moment. As with most things he'd learned by studying the soulmates' history, it wasn't so simple. Human behavioral psychology only applied with them up to a point because it was a modern study of modern people. Xena and Gabrielle were ancients, and they had been a special case even in their own world.

"Harry, do you recall reading the scroll entitled Bad Rye?" Ray asked.

"That was Gabrielle's account of Xena's ergot poisoning," Harry said. "Yes, I remember it. I remember that Xena had a number of hallucinations and delusions."

"Xena was affected by ergotism almost immediately after their return to Greece from their first trip to Chin…China," Ray explained, "specifically, the Kingdom of Lao. At that time, Gabrielle recorded some of Xena's ranting involving her paternal abandonment issues. The story was that her father, a Thracian warrior named Atrius, had abandoned the family and joined Mithridates' forces during his first campaign, in about 94 or 95 BC. The problem is that the dates don't match. Mithridates was still fighting in Anatolia in 88 BC. Atrius may or may not have gone off to war…some war…but the bottom line is that he never returned. Xena missed having a father, resented his absence, and at the same time aspired to follow in his footsteps as a warrior. It may explain her devotion to her first teacher, Mithridates. Later, when Ares became her mentor and made her his Chosen, she may have seen him as a father figure. During one bout of delusions, Gabrielle reports that Xena asked the Fates, "Moirae, who claims me as the Daughter of War? Atrius, the mortal who abandoned me, or Ares, the God who chose me? By my own choice I'm a child of war…grown, trained, and pledged. Ares is a truer father to me than Atrius ever was. What say the strands?"

Dr. Fell paused for a moment to catch his breath and then continued as if lecturing a class of two. "I don't really think either of them took the statement literally at the time. But later, in 53 BC, Gabrielle relates another incident in her scroll, One Against An Army, that shows something of a change in her own beliefs. Gabrielle chronicles a battle in the mountainous land north of Lake Prespa, in western Macedonia. She and Xena engaged a manipuli of Roman legionnaires, numbering about 160 soldiers. For help they had twenty members of the local banditry, questionable allies at best. The fighting broke out just after dawn. Casualties among the Romans and bandits were high; Gabrielle claims the bandits were astonishingly inept, more of a liability than an asset really. After about a half-hour, the remaining dozen bandits tried to switch sides. The Roman officers ordered their men to slaughter them, but their treachery had inflamed Xena. The bard tells of the bandits caught between Xena and the Roman line, but it was Xena who slaughtered almost all of them. After a short rest she attacked the phalanx with a maneuver called, the ‘Annihilation of the Line’. Although we have no knowledge of what this maneuver was, according to Gabrielle, its results were highly effective. There were probably still over 125 legionnaires. Gabrielle claims to have dispatched 26. According to her, Xena proceeded to slay almost all of the remaining hundred in the battle lines before the end of the second candlemark, in such a display of bloodlust that Ares himself appeared on the field to celebrate her dominance. His words were, "Magnificent daughter of my spirit. You honor our blood with blood." Gabrielle wrote, "The Destroyer of Nations is truly the daughter of War."

"It was clear from Gabrielle's commentary that she believed Ares had claimed Xena in both spirit and blood. To the ancients, the god's wording was not only a statement of pride in a devotee, but also an actual claim of kinship. There was no comma, no pause between magnificent and daughter, so the statement can carry a double meaning. The God of War was confirming a longstanding rumor in something just shy of explicit terms…that Xena had been fathered by the God of War himself. His semantics left just enough room for a skeptic to doubt. In Gabrielle's wording, kori Polemos is not a title but a relationship."

Alexander Williams immediately expressed his disbelief. "You're claiming that the ancient Greek gods actually existed and that Xena was the daughter of the God of War?"

"Yes to both questions, Alex," Dr. Fell replied with a chuckle, "and without Gabrielle, Xena was prone to an unquenchable katalepsis, or battle mania. She craved slaughter."

Harry Tasker remembered the report from the geneticist who had tested samples of the clones' hair in November of 2001. The spot mutation is much more ancient…probably closer to 2,000 years old. It affects the creation of the molecules used in energy production in all the cells of these individuals’ bodies. My colleagues and I have hazarded some guesses…that these individuals are able to metabolize at about 14% greater efficiency than an Olympic athlete, and perhaps 42% or more efficiently than an average person. They would be stronger, quicker, and heal faster. A two thousand-year-old chromosomal mutation allowed Xena to outperform any normal mortal. After seeing the footage of Xena's fight at the temple, the agent could believe that her abilities had a divine origin. It was the only explanation he'd heard for such a perfectly targeted effect. Random mutation hadn't conferred the warrior's hereditary advantage. Random mutation hadn't made her disappear from his plane in a flash of blue light either.

"I'd like to pose a hypothetical question," Harry said to Ray Fell, "please bear with me here. If Xena were the God of War's Chosen, and she was waging war with his blessing, then knowing what you know, who would her most likely enemies be?" He paused and collected his thoughts, giving Dr. Fell a moment to recall his questions almost three and a half years ago about the "bright" chakram. Harry hoped that Alex would assume he was referring only to the scholar's academic knowledge. "Which of the God of War's enemies might attack his Favorite as an assault by proxy on him?"

Ray considered the question carefully. It wasn't as though any modern scholar fully understood the dynamics of the relationships between the gods. There were almost no surviving first person accounts of meetings with immortals. Almost everything known about them was hearsay or outright myth. It simply wasn't possible for him to make an intelligent statement or provide an answer based on fact.

"According to some sources, most of the Olympians regarded Ares as barbaric, and yet he presided over necessary, if unsavory, aspects of warfare. Other sources portray him as inspiring mortal warriors to bravery, glorious combat, and conquest. As for animosities between the Olympians carried from ancient times into the present, well, I really can't express any certainties based on what I know. I have no proof that any of those gods still exist. I can submit two highly speculative conjectures…" here Ray paused. Presenting unsupported opinions wasn't really part of his academic approach. It was an amateurish procedure and demonstrated very poor scientific methods. Harry nodded for him to continue. "The first would be the Goddess Athena, with whom Ares shared dominion over warfare, because in the present, warfare partakes increasingly of science and technology…our modern wisdom, which is her other primary domain. The second would be the God Apollo, not for his rule of the sun, but because he was sovereign over the healing arts and diseases. Medicine has progressed in the modern world, often to heal the ravages of war, while biological weapons are highly developed…as are emerging plagues. Whether either of these deities are present in the modern world though…?" He left the question hanging and shrugged.

Alex shook his head in disbelief. He simply couldn't take this line of enquiry seriously. His closest approach to religion had been in the Baptist Church as a child. The paths of mysticism and devotion to faith were not his way. As he grew up, he'd accepted his natural inclinations towards reason and the investigation of facts. He'd also been a down to earth guy, not a dreamer, and he'd never liked being cooped up indoors. Alexander's value of what could be observed and proven, coupled with his strong practical sense, had helped lead him to a career in police work rather than the life of a scientist.

Harry however, gave Ray's words serious consideration. Unlike Alexander, Harry Tasker could believe in ancient gods. Two decades before, he'd fought for his life against a trophy hunting alien predator, and so contact with the unexpected wasn't beyond his experience. He'd seen the enemy clones and destroyed their lab. Xena herself had claimed, "no matter what you want to believe, you are fightin' a goddess, and that goddess is cloning her own army." His money was on Athena. The idea of two war gods contesting over the conduct of battle, as it changed in the modern world, rang true for him. Perhaps it was because he was a warrior himself. And then there was the fact that if Ares and Apollo were at war, would the God of the Sun have allowed Xena, his enemy's Favorite, to take his own weapon, the Chakram of Day? Not likely, Harry thought.

Across the booth from him, Ray was regarding him with a knowing expression. The man was the foremost living authority on Xena and Gabrielle, their lives, and their minds. He was a treasure trove of knowledge that Harry had found invaluable, but beyond that, he held a disciplined spirit of inquiry and an inquisitive intelligence that illustrated the hallmark curiosity of mankind. Beside Ray, Angie was absentmindedly twirling a wavy blonde lock of hair around a finger and humming softly. She couldn't carry a tune to save her life but she possessed an innocent goodness that the agent knew he'd fight to save from harm. Next to him, Alexander Williams finished his coffee. The policeman was a skeptic, streetwise, but not cynical. In his own way he was a warrior and a servant of the Greater Good, a day to day guardian of society against its own worst elements. He was honorable and commendable, and probably often went unthanked.

Protecting these people, and the millions of citizens like them, was Harry's reason for being. He'd spent over three decades, first as an army commando, then as a covert rescue team leader, and most recently as an Omega Sector agent, fighting the forces that had threatened his country and its peoples' way of life. Most of that time he'd spent in the shadows, his actions classified, his affiliations and battles undocumented. Most of the time he'd come out on top, but he'd left a trail of bodies along the way. Given the choice, he'd do it again. Almost all of it.

Today he found himself in the position of being allied with someone he saw as only the lesser of two evils. Aiding the Destroyer of Nations against her Olympian enemy wasn't a clear-cut choice between good and evil. If anything, assisting Xena would lead to a dictatorship amidst the ruins of nations blasted to rubble in the coming war. Yet the alternative was unthinkable. Allowing things to continue without aiding Xena would lead to a dictatorship that would last forever because the dictator herself was immortal. In that world, the passage of time wouldn't bring a return to a recognizable way of life.

If the Hellenes' Bane prevailed, perhaps mankind would someday rule itself again. And so he would continue along the path that Spencer Trilby had accepted. He would work to further the plan Xena had decreed. He was abetting the coming war, promoting the slaughter, and insuring the destruction of his country and his way of life. Everything he'd worked for would disappear in flames, but just maybe, his daughter Dana's descendants would someday sign a constitution, vote for their leaders, and live under the rule of law.

Outside the diner it was a bright summer day. The sun was shining and Columbia moved to the rhythm of peace. In less than a year, an army would stand ready, and then war would follow. There was one hope. It was a slim chance, scarcely better than no chance at all. It was something only he and Spencer Trilby remembered, and it was unpredictable and uncontrollable. Before the day that Xena claimed her army, the second phase would also be complete.

"An ally bought is an enemy for sale."

~ The Destroyer of Nations

July 6, 2005 - Gangplank Marina, SW Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C. - In a press release this morning, the Pentagon announced the first successful test of the Mach 5 cruise missile. A spokesman for the Joint Chiefs of Staff claimed that the weapon, successfully tested for the third time yesterday in the Pacific, covered about 800 miles and struck its target, "…at over 3,500 mph, and with devastating accuracy." The test was monitored by satellite and AWACS planes near the target. The new missile, (designated the "Mach 5 Joint Stand-Off Attack Missile", or M5JSAM), will be deployed for use on surface ships, submarines, aircraft, and ground launchers. The configuration mates a modified Sprint Hercules X-265 booster with a scramjet that can carry a wide range of munitions.

Pyongyang, North Korea - Radio transmissions were intercepted yesterday between a North Korean destroyer in the mid-Pacific, and the Peoples Bureau of Naval Command. The message reported that the ship's radar registered an unknown object approaching at extreme speed shortly before communications ceased. The transmission, recorded by an USAF AWACS plane that happened to be nearby, was not followed by any further transmissions. Pyongyang has made no official comment, however a special envoy has been dispatched to the United Nations to request an investigation into the loss of the destroyer and two other ships.

New York City - Bancroft Adams, head of the US delegation to the United Nations, has called for a vote on the pending resolution to bar non-members from appealing to the international body for assistance. The measure is expected to pass.

Sacramento, California - The California State Legislature has passed the Alien Labor Act with a vote of 134 to 7 with 17 abstentions. According to the Labor Act, state law will now allow undocumented aliens to apply for provisional citizenship in exchange for five years of volunteer labor. "We've provided a mechanism by which all who would aspire to American citizenship will be able to work, demonstrate their industriousness, and provide this state with much needed manual skills," said representative Patty Hearst after the votes were tabulated. The law will allow the state to employ the needed laborers for agricultural harvesting, brush fire fighting, and highway maintenance, while maintaining the falling state budget. Wages will not be governed by the minimum wage laws, since the workers will not be US citizens. The wages will be calculated to be on par with the prevailing wages in the workers' place of origin, about $200/yr in the case of some rural areas of Mexico and Guatemala. Labor unions and advocates for illegal immigrants have protested the measure, however their suit for a restraint of implementation of the new law has been denied by the State Supreme Court.

"Cynical bastards," Kori Polemos muttered as her pager buzzed against her hip. She tossed the copy of the Washington Post onto the bench beside her and took a quick glance down at its screen. It displayed a string of numbers. It wasn't a phone number, though, but rather a simple alpha-numeric cipher which provided important news in military code words from ancient Greece.

That night the Destroyer of Nations waited in a white step van in the alley behind the 1000 block of E St., NW. It was a man-made slot canyon, three to five stories deep and barely a lane wide, ample for deliveries by dogcart back in the 19th century. Overhead, fire escapes clung to the backs of the buildings, their railings barely two yards apart. They were accompanied by a cobweb of power and phone wires, TV cables, junction boxes, antennas, and clotheslines. Chunks of fallen masonry lay alongside walls of tired bricks, weakened and eroded by two centuries of standing in the city of scandals.

The L-shaped alley was deserted as well as dingy. It hosted only a few small dumpsters, garbage cans, and piles of refuse. Those denizens lurked in the shadows beyond the small halos glowing from a half-dozen bare light bulbs in rusted fixtures beside locked doors. The cobble-paved way backed the Lincoln House Restaurant and the house where Lincoln died, passing through the middle of the block from E to F Sts., across 10th St from Ford's Theater. It was the unseen and unsightly loading access for the block diagonally across E St. from the hulking J. Edgar Hoover FBI building. The step van was silent and dark as Xena sat waiting in the shadows near the corner of the "L".

Her ears picked up a rustle and a scrape. In a less godforsaken alley she might have attributed it to rats. The sound came again, and Xena pinpointed it and fixed her eyes on the source. The old-fashioned storm cellar door behind 1005 E St. shifted and then creaked open. One side rose and swung up on corroded hinges. Softly, hands laid it to rest against the building and then a figure rose into the alley. Xena moved from her seat and slid the passenger door open. The figure slipped inside. She was dressed in black BDUs and heavily armed.

"Strategos, the chiliarchoi are waiting," she said. Her eyes never stopped scanning the alley. Her expression never changed; it reflected neither happiness at their meeting, nor anything but concentration on her duties. She appeared no different from that last time Xena had seen her, fifteen months before.

"Proceed, Secunda, then resume your post," Xena told the guardian. "I'll contact you in early December. Contact me again when the hecatontarches are ready."

The second "special" nodded once, then immediately turned and motioned to the watchers inside the darkened cellar entrance. Quickly and silently, eight figures hastened up into the alley and entered the van one by one. The guardian stood aside, her eyes sweeping the alley for possible threats, her senses projected outwards. When the last figure had entered the van, Xena slid the door closed. Secunda moved to the cellar door and moments later had drawn it closed after her as she disappeared below ground again. With a faint rasp, a series of failsafe mechanisms engaged. Even if it were forced open, all that would be found inside was a depressing underground storage space packed to the ceiling beams with worthless antique junk.

Xena took a quick look behind the driver's seat at her passengers. Each looked back at her in silent concentration. Each looked identical to the guardian and to herself. The strategos nodded in satisfaction. She turned around and started the engine, and then eased the step van up the alley and out onto F St. Fifteen minutes later she was pulling up to the "T" slip where the Miss Artiphys was berthed. A half hour after bringing in the chiliarchoi, Kori and Prima stood watch over the eight figures as they lay in the cabin absorbing their uploads.

"Prima, make ready to cast off," Kori told the "special". "Take us out to the first rendezvous." With a nod, the clone headed for the bridge.

Soon the throbbing of the channel motor was vibrating the hull as the vessel headed out of the Gangplank Marina and into the Washington Channel, moving toward the Potomac River. She passed Greenleaf Point and the mouth of the Anacostia River, and then Haines Point at the tip of East Potomac Park. Entering the Potomac, Prima radioed the Coast Guard station and cleared her coarse to the Chesapeake Bay.

Across the softly lapping water, the beacons at Reagan International Airport winked red in the darkness. Prima looked ahead for the buoy that marked the downstream lane and nosed the rebuilt 120-foot craft into the right of way. Once in the lane, she secured the channel motor and switched over to the main engines. Within the hull, a pair of waterjet turbines came online and bow waves marked the ship's passage as it gained speed. Prima brought the reactor to one quarter power and the Miss Artiphys surged forward, coming to twelve knots as she headed due south past Olde Towne Alexandria. The "special" could feel the ship chaffing at the bit, tugged upward by the cutting edge hydrodynamics that had been incorporated when she'd been rebuilt in Yokohama. Eleven miles down river, just past Fort Washington, Prima steered hard to starboard, rounding the curve near Mt. Vernon. Her eyes flicked upwards, marking the moon's position; it was barely midnight. Over the next three miles she edged the heading back to port until the ship was again headed south, only to repeat the maneuver passing around Mason Neck. For the following twenty miles she gradually steered to port, following the river's course as it curved east. In the river's darkness the black hull and bridge became a ghostly shadow on the water, like a hole in the dancing reflected sheet of stars, with only a small beacon strobe and the whisper of water marking the big power foil's passage.

Ahead lay an s-curve, hard to port, then hard to starboard, and finally a gradual curve to port down thirty miles of river, until the Miss Artiphys finally entered the upper Chesapeake Bay at Point Lookout. Once in the bay, Prima would nudge the reactor up to one third, bringing the Miss Artiphys to eighteen knots. At that speed she'd extend the pylons fully, and the hull would rise clear of the surface. The reduced friction would require adjustments on the annunciator to control the reactor output/velocity relationship. Eighteen knots was only 20% of the Miss Artiphys' flank speed. At last, seventy miles down the bay, the ship would pass Cape Henry and head out into the Atlantic.

Upon reaching the ocean, the "special" would set a course due east and accelerate to sixty knots, or two thirds of the reactor's output. By then the hull would be riding four feet above the surface, skiing on a tripod of shock dampened wings in full hydrofoil mode. The autopilot would maintain that course for just over seven hours, until the first rendezvous point was reached, but Prima would remain on the bridge, standing watch behind the wheel, her eyes surveying the empty sea for potentially hostile contacts.

In the cabin, Kori watched over the eight chiliarchoi as they assimilated the information about her past. They would take a half-day to absorb a lifetime of personal history. It was not just the history of the ancient Xena, but also the life of her clone in the present. Footage from Harry's surveillance had fleshed out the historic material with the fights at the school and the temple, the mission to Georgia, and the killing of Gabrielle. They would learn the same animosities that drove the Destroyer herself.

After that, she would begin their training as "commanders of a thousand". She would give them the modern tactics, the updated battle doctrine, and the mission perameters that they would employ against her enemy. They would serve as her captains in the most deadly army the world had ever seen. Three months hence they would train the eighty lieutenants, the hecatontarches, or commanders of a hundred. Soon they would wear the uniforms that Omega Sector had fabricated, and bear the weapons Mitsubishi had created. They would be blessed by their patron god.

Night passed to day. Dawn had greeted the Miss Artiphys in the lower Chesapeake. Hours had passed as the ship moved into the Atlantic. Now it was 1030 hours. From the bridge Prima watched over the empty sea, which lay relatively placid this morning, with the easterly wind running at two knots and raising only gentle swells. Traveling at sixty knots, the hydrofoil raised foaming bow waves from its foils, rudder, and suspension arms as the black, 120-foot vessel sailed due east under sparse clouds. At nine o'clock, Kori had ordered her to retract the shrouds, and now the superstructure sported a stubby four-foot diameter cylinder topped with a dome, and mounted amidships. Prima had activated the radar systems that would track incoming targets and the outgoing projectiles from the MK 15 20mm Phalanx system. The M-61A1 Gatling gun could fire 4,500 rounds per minute. It was a standard close in defensive weapon aboard US naval vessels.

The "special's" eyes snapped to the main hatch. The strategos and the chiliarchoi had just emerged from the salon, armed and wearing their uniforms. They moved to the flat surface of the main deck, ahead of and just below the bridge. Prima watched as they engaged in practical sword drills, moving at what would have been a fraction of combat speed for her. Though her eyes constantly flicked between the training area and the sea, she managed to pick up a few xiphos techniques from the strategos as she fought off the other eight. The sword lessons continued for a couple of hours before switching to firearms.

3:00pm came on the water, gifted on that day with fickle Poseidon's tranquility, and the Miss Artiphys slowed. The strategos had ordered all stop. Decelerating below fourteen knots, the hull sank into the surface. Now Prima simply maintained the vessel's position at station keeping with the retractable channel motor, which could be rotated 360º. Since entering the Atlantic Ocean, their course and speed had left them about 432 nautical miles, (or 497 statute miles), east of Virginia Beach. GPS reported their position as 70º0'0"W X 36º0'0"N.

The chiliarchoi continued with their practice under Xena’s watchful eyes. Prima watched as well while she wasn’t attending to the monitoring of the ship. Everything remained calm as a couple more hours passed, then a warning sounded and Prima alerted the strategos. Passive sonar had reported a submerged vessel approaching.

The "special" reviewed her general's tactics for the upcoming meeting. She could find no flaw and decided that it would go according to Xena's plan. Even if they should be fired upon, the hydrofoil's resting draft with its pylons retracted was less then four feet, while at flank speed they would have virtually no draft and could easily outrun a torpedo. If anything happened while they were aboard during their meeting, she would take care of it.

The Russian Project 705 "Alfa class" attack submarine surfaced a furlong to the east. Retired from the Soviet northern fleet a dozen years before, the 14 nuclear powered Alfas had been recommissioned only last year by the Russian Navy. Capable of 41 knots, they were still the fastest military submarines ever built, although not the quietest or most sophisticated. Kori entered the bridge and stood beside Prima, watching the sub. A pair of officers appeared up on the sail, silhouetted against the light of the early evening sky. One signaled in Morse code with a handheld spotlight. The two clones silently translated the Russian and the strategos answered with the response code using flashes of the strobe. One of the officers briefly disappeared, and then the sub slowly began to approach.

It took ten minutes for the cautious Russians to bring their vessel alongside the Miss Artiphys. The Alfa was small by modern naval standards, just over 265 feet in length compared to the 360 feet for an American Los Angeles class attack sub. It carried a crew of 45, compared to 129 aboard a Los Angeles class sub, and typical of the Russian Navy, a high proportion, (over two thirds), were officers. The Alfa also rode low in the water with barely a yard of hull above the waves. The top of the Russian sail was almost at eye level with the Miss Artiphys' bridge. Kori Polemos looked across 24 feet of space at the Russian captain, waved once in an abbreviated gesture, and then left the bridge with her laptop. Prima accompanied her to the starboard side of the hull and tossed a line over to the second Russian officer who had climbed down from the sail. He caught the line and tied it off to a cleat on the deck. When the vessels were tethered together bow and stern, Kori and Prima surprised the Russians by flipping across the narrow stretch of water between the ships.

Prima followed her strategos up the handholds on the sail's side, to its top where they joined the officers and descended into the sub's bridge. It was a claustrophobic space, dim and filled with the accumulated stench of bodies in prolonged confinement, cigarette smoke, recycled air, and a trace scent of burnt electrical insulation. The "special" hated it at once. Kori followed the captain to a combination mess and conference room where the group seated themselves around a scarred metal table. Kori set the laptop on the table, opened it, and booted up the operating system.

"$50,000 USD for 10 kilos of material," she said in Russian. At the captain's nod, she added, "I am prepared to purchase up to 50 kilos at this time, and another 50 kilos in three months."

Smiles lit the faces of the two Russian officers. $250,000 was a fortune to them, and all for delivering the 110 lbs. of weapons grade plutonium that they'd smuggled out of a naval storage facility at a Northern Fleet base. It had been surprisingly easy. The storage facility's guards had looked away for a few hundred Euros. They would look away again a few months from now. The captain nodded to Kori.

"The first delivery will be transferred to your ship as soon as we complete the wireless transfer of funds," he said with a smile, "and we shall certainly be able to deliver again in the future. You have but to contact us in the same manner as you did this time."

"Give me the account numbers," Kori asked as she opened a program on her computer.

A web page opened showing the financial status and transfer of funds as a bar graph. Kori took the slip of paper from the captain and typed in the numbers to fill a box on the screen. The two officers looked over her shoulder as she typed in a password. The bar began to fill in green as the money moved from her Swiss account to theirs. She turned the screen towards the Russians so that they could watch their fortune grow. After twenty seconds a bell chimed and the transfer was complete.

"Congratulations, gentlemen," Kori told them as she closed the laptop. She and Prima rose from their seats along with the officers. They shook hands all around.

Back up on the sub's deck, night was falling. The sun had set and the velvet darkness of the sea deepened to surround them. An escape hatch opened on the hull just behind the sail and two pairs of crewmen carried out two caskets marked with the international warning symbol for radioactivity. They set the caskets down on the deck, saluted their officers and then returned to the sub's interior. The hatch clanged shut behind them and the lock made a hollow rasp that carried through the steel beneath their feet. Kori went to the caskets and checked the seals. There had been no tampering since they'd been affixed after the material had been removed from Soviet MIRV-6 warheads two decades before, in accordance with SALT-II.

While they'd been aboard the Alfa, the chiliarchoi had deployed a small swinging boom with a block and tackle. Now Prima and Kori used it to lift the caskets onto their ship. In a few minutes the transfer was complete. Finally the clones shook hands again with the Russians, who bid them a smooth sailing.

"I'll contact you in three months," Kori informed the captain.

The clones flipped across the water to the Miss Artiphys. The Russians loosed the lines and tossed them back onto the hydrofoil. They had almost climbed back to the top of the sail when the MK 15's gun carriage whipped around and the Phalanx opened fire.

Within ten seconds the MK 15's six rotating barrels had fired 750 depleted uranium armor-piercing rounds through the Alfa's titanium pressure hull. A gaping hole showed amidships at the water line, just below the sail where the subs operations section was located. High-torque motors whined as the MK 15's turret jerked aft to target the rear of the sub. Another flickering gout of flames lit the darkness as the gun fired a second burst into the attack sub's engineering section.

The captain was standing atop the sail, screaming in Russian at the Miss Artiphys, as Kori ordered Prima to make her course southeast at flank speed. The "special" engaged the waterjets and brought the reactor to full power. Two minutes later the hydrofoil was skimming across the waves at 90 knots*, leaving the crippled sub quickly sinking.

(*Slightly over 103_ mph, since one knot, or nautical mile per hour, equals 1.15078 statute miles per hour. A nautical mile is also one minute, or a sixtieth of a degree, of arc of the circle of the earth’s circumference. The British standard of measure, 6,080 feet, differs slightly from international measure, 1,852 meters.) ~ Editor

"We're still over the continental shelf in about 320 feet of water," the strategos remarked to the "special" as they watched the chiliarchoi reloading the Phalanx and stowing the plutonium, "and in a few months, we'll salvage what we need from the Alfa. In the meantime, we've covered our tracks. Remember, an ally bought is an enemy for sale," she instructed with neither mirth nor sympathy.

"I find it interesting that they didn't monitor the accounts to verify the transfer of funds," Prima remarked.

"They'd only have received a transmission from the Miss Artiphys," Kori informed her. "At no time was this computer ever in contact with any bank," she said, patting the laptop. The "special" nodded in understanding and the strategos pointed out that, "I doubt they informed anyone of this clandestine rendezvous, and the first burst destroyed their control room an' transmitters. When they're finally missed, they'll have disappeared without a trace," she shrugged, "just more lost mariners hundreds of miles from where they were supposed to be. This should be a good lesson in the wages of greed."

Prima nodded again and checked the GPS to confirm their heading.

"Remain on course and then turn due south and run down the 60ºW meridian all the way to the Windward Islands. We'll turn west to pass between St. Lucia and St. Vincent," Kori instructed. "We're movin' fast enough that the DEA might find us interesting if we sailed further west or north into US waters. They've got some hydrofoil boats that can do 40 knots. We can easily outrun 'em, but why bother? We'd still need to turn south to make Panama anyway."

Three days would see them through the canal and in the Pacific headed for Yokohama. For a moment, the Destroyer of Nations reflected on how easily she'd reverted to the ways of a pirate after a lapse of 2080 years. Everything was different in the modern world, but some things never changed. The thought brought the ghost of a smile to her lips. A conqueror still had to clean up after herself.

October 14, 2005 - Yokohama-Kanazawa, Japan

In a comfortable lounge at the Mitsubishi Advanced Technology Research Center, Dr. Eric Drexler was meeting with his esteemed guest, Kori Polemos of the CIA. She had made his "dream lab" a reality just over three years ago, and with his team, he'd worked there feverishly ever since. They'd only been at the Mitsubishi lab for a little over a year when the December 2003 news of the Beijing epidemic had shocked them to even greater efforts. Unlike the September of 2002 plagues that had struck the Sudan and North Korea, the Chinese plague had been an engineered strain of influenza rather than small pox. The horror of 27.5 million dead had confirmed the claims that Kori had made to him back at his home in California. Since that time, he'd never doubted that his life was endangered or that he owed his continued existance to the beautiful CIA agent.

Ironically he was now in the best possible situation for someone of his abilities. The last three years of work in the lab had been fruitful. Eric Drexler had watched as his theories and research became realities in the hands of a gifted support staff. It was the most talented group he'd ever worked with, and they had grown together into a family, united by their devotion to his vision. Never had he witnessed progress move so quickly, nor had he worked in so well funded an institution. At every turn, his requests for materials and equipment had been granted. Upgrades to the lab had appeared without the administrative entanglements he'd become used to in American academe. Still, he was never frivolous, for he wasn't greedy or whimsical by nature. Kori could never mention to him that by mid-2005, the net worth of the DON GROUP was close to 80 billion US dollars, sufficient to finance anything he could imagine.

The doctor was astonished, thankful, and filled with more hope than at any time in his life. His work had never been more inspired either. In three years his team had achieved practical advances that he'd once consigned to the next two decades. His nanobots could heal the body of most infectious agents, hasten wound repair, prolong life by counteracting the mechanisms of aging, and could be created for specific purposes more rapidly than had ever been thought possible. At one point he had toyed with a personal project long in the theoretical state. Self-replicating nanobots that rapidly "bred themselves" into colonies that could break down damaging oil slicks, or more dangerous petrochemical spills, into their component elements…mostly carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and traces of sulfur. As always, Kori had supported and encouraged his work.

Had the research not been conducted under the tightest security, the lab would have published a stream of scientific articles and probably won several Nobel Prizes. Yet Dr. Drexler didn't miss the renown of the scientific community. They had stymied him, conducted pointless attacks and tedious discussions, and hampered the advancement of knowledge through politics and subterfuge. His work was being done for the benefit of mankind and for the purest of reasons. As Kori had once said of the lab, "It was created for this one purpose…to do nothing less than save the world."

Despite maintaining a busy schedule that he could only imagine the details of, Kori had managed to visit the lab on a handful of occasions. At those times, she never failed to greet him and ask about his progress. She seemed to have a good grasp of his work, though she wasn't a scientist herself, and she always asked about his plans and hopes for his research. The CIA agent was always deferential and helpful, taking notes during their talks and telling him that, "I'll expedite this if possible, doctor."

On a couple of those visits, she'd requested samples of the lab's products for her superiors. In April of 2004 she'd requested nanobots that could remove the lipid plaques that led to arteriosclerosis. Late in the month this past July, she'd been back for a dozen doses of the nanobots that would protect against infection and hasten the healing of wounds. She'd hinted at a covert mission into the USAMRIID facility itself, and had wanted to protect the agents. In each case, Dr. Drexler had been only too happy to comply. Now it was mid-October and she was paying him another visit. This time she was requesting a larger quantity of his nanobots.

"Dr. Drexler, I can only tell you that my superiors are forming a special tactical squad in response to the developing situations as they see ‘em," Kori told him apologetically, "and as usual the details are highly classified. I don't know the complete parameters since they're on a 'need to know' basis." She sighed and gave him a conspiratorial smile. "I've been asked to obtain from you, nanobots capable of providing infection resistance and rapid healing, in sufficient quantities to inoculate eighty troops. I have also been asked to request that you prepare the same serum in a quantity sufficient for 7,950 doses, and provide a quantity of the infectious agents sufficient for field testing the nanobots in primate subjects."

"How long do I have to prepare the larger quantity?" Drexler asked. "I have sufficient material for the 80 doses now, and of course I have the infectious agents, but it'll take me a month to prepare enough for 7,950 inoculations." He gave her a worried look.

"According to the timetable I was given, the larger quantity isn't required for about six weeks, so there's no problem there, Eric," Kori told him with a smile. It wasn't as though she hadn't already known what his capabilities and inventory were. "I'll take the material for inoculating the 80 troops and the infectious agents for testing with me now, and we'll arrange a timetable for transportin' the larger quantity later." He nodded in agreement.

"I'll have a technician prepare the material for transport," he told her, "standard chilled casing for the nanobots, and a cryogenic biohazard capsule for the infectious agents." He shivered involuntarily and she nodded grimly in sympathetic agreement. Enhanced and reengineered strains of small pox, Ebola, and influenza, all quick acting and highly lethal.

"Those bugs give me the creeps too," she told him. "Now, how about some lunch?"

At that same moment, in Slip C271-A at the Mitsubishi Refitting Dock, Prima was moving through a checklist. She was standing in an observation room six stories above the floor of the dry dock. Below her, stretching more than a football field in length, lay the completed Argo. The cylindrical, black, pressure hull was tapered to a pointed stern while the bow was smoothly rounded. The low conning tower, or "sail", was flared seamlessly into the hull at its base, and quickly tapered into a laterally flattened cross-section much like a teardrop lying on its side. It was located further forward than in most submarines and would hide in the bow wake when the boat was moving underwater, adding almost no hydrodynamic drag of its own.

Prima noted the next test and grasped the handle of a joystick. By moving the handle, she could put the articulated bow planes through a "range of movement" drill. Below the sail, a pair of streamlined fins extended from the hull and tilted through an arc of 180º up and down. Finally, they swung back into the hull leaving no trace of their presence. With a flip of a switch, the joystick put the stern planes through a similar exercise. Next, Prima moved to a console and tested the articulation of the rudder. Last, she used the console to execute a series of commands that caused a narrow rail to rise along the sub's spine. The rear disappeared into a bay in the aft hull, while the front was elevated to clear the top of the sail. The rail was 300 feet long and two feet wide. It was composed of alternating electromagnets and insulators sandwiched down the length of a non-conductive support beam. The rail's elevation was actuated by a hydraulic cylinder, which was hinged to the hull just behind the sail. Prima returned the rail to its hidden rest position and checked off the final boxes on her list.

The past few days had seen the finalization of construction, the loading of stores and provisions, and the shipping of the arsenal. Today the Argo was ready for the strategos.

Not far from the refitting dock, a vacant warehouse hosted 88 warriors. All of them were dressed in identical black woven armor, and all of them looked exactly the same. The eight chiliarchoi were instructing the eighty hecatontarches. Following their downloads, the lieutenants were receiving their tactical information from the Destroyer's captains. A short time later the warehouse rang with the clash of swords, and later still, with the staccato of small arms fire. For a full day the clones practiced both practical drills and theoretical strategy. They absorbed the skills, goals, and philosophy of their general. In another five months the main body of the Destroyer's force would be ready to take arms. They would come into the world as part of an established command structure and join a campaign already in progress. They would provide the numbers their strategos hypatos needed to bring down the army of a goddess.

That evening, as the drills ended, the Hellene's Bane surveyed her officer corps. Eighty-eight clones, identical to each other and to herself, stood in their uniforms bearing the arms that had been created for them, xiphos, xiphidion, Combined Chakram, and the cartridgeless assault rifles and sidearms. She felt what could have been called pride, seeing their ranks drawn up in rows of ten, standing two paces behind each of her eight captains.

Beside her, Prima carried a refrigerated case in one hand, a satchel with an injector in the other. Xena made a series of hand signals to her chiliarchoi. They in turn passed the orders to the lieutenants. As they filed past, Prima administered an inoculation to each of the hecatontarches, an injection of nanobots that would confer immunity from infection and rapid healing. It was the same inoculation that each of the captains, Prima, and the strategos had received last July.

When the injections were finished, Xena led her troops to the refitting dock where they took up their berths in the Argo. She spoke with the eight captains, refining their orders.

"Run silent, run deep," she told the Argo's acting captain, "and maintain the timetable."

Then she and Prima returned to the Miss Artiphys. Both ships would sail just before dawn following morning. When they put to sea, they would comprise a nation without territory, a force without recognition, and a nuclear power without a limitation treaty between itself and any other government in the world.

The Destroyer of Nations calculated that Dr. Drexler's delivery of nanobot serum would reach the mirror site on December 2nd. It would be delivered to the waiting Secunda, who would administer it immediately to the near full-term clones while still in vitro. Her army would be "born" with protection from the biological horrors she or Athena would unleash, and blessed with the ability to survive potentially fatal battle wounds. Their systems would have a few days to assimilate those benefits before she opened the war.

December 3, 2005 - An Undisclosed Location in Washington, D.C.

Washington, D.C. - The Pentagon announced today that it has deployed the first delivery of production Mach 5 cruise missiles at the Mountain Home, ID, Dyess, TX, Ellsworth SD, and Whitman, MO, Air Force Bases. About 100 of the new M5JSAM weapons will be available for delivery by B-1B and B2 bombers. A second delivery of 100 missiles is slated for March 2006.

Moscow - Russian health officials have reported the outbreak of an influenza epidemic with symptoms similar to those observed during the outbreak in the Beijing area in December of 2003. Cases have appeared throughout European Russia, from St. Petersburg to Volgograd, and as far east as Yekaterinburg. Isolated cases have also been diagnosed in Minsk, the capitol of Belarus, and Kiev in the Ukraine. Readers will recall that the epidemic in China killed 27.5 million people and raged for almost a year. Pockets of infection are still active in China two years later. The current outbreaks have the potential to spread into Western Europe through the affected nations' ties with the European Union. Dr. Janice Ward of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in Atlanta, Ga. said that, "It is almost a certainty that the disease has already been carried outside the affected areas by air passengers. A death toll of 50 million would not be beyond belief." The United States, Canada, and Mexico have suspended all flights to and from Europe until further notice, and have quarantined cargo and ships that have docked at European ports in the last two weeks.

In his office at Omega Sector headquarters, Harry Tasker folded the Washington Post and set it aside. He accessed a State Department database and checked for diplomatic missions to Moscow, Minsk, and Kiev within the last couple of weeks. The agent's search didn't take long. Sure enough, a group of international trade law liaisons and their support staff had toured the ex-Soviet republics just the previous week. It had been a relatively low-level mission aimed at assessing the status of the International Tariff Equalization Treaty implementation between America and the European Union. The republics had been the final stops on the trip and the liaisons had returned to Washington. The mission hadn't received any significant press. Harry recalled that the Chinese epidemic had followed close on the heels of negotiations between the Chinese and Americans over the then pending Most Favored Nation trading status.

There was little doubt in the agent's mind as to who was responsible. Surely Athena's agents in the government had orchestrated the dispersal of biological weapons of mass destruction. Harry had realized for some time that Xena's enemy had been conditioning the world for her eventual overt bid for supremacy. He wondered what the Destroyer of Nations was doing, and when she would retaliate. He wondered where she was.

As he sat wondering, his ear caught a news report on WWDC radio. A 3-alarm fire had broken out in a building only a few blocks away. It was another aging commercial structure near the FBI building, a neighborhood he knew well. His sharp mind realized that for such a dilapidated building to burn vigorously enough to result in 3 alarms, it was probably arson with accelerants involved. It wasn't surprising. An owner was torching his property to collect the fire insurance. It happened a couple times a month in Washington. He turned off the radio. He had more serious things to think about.

Prima and the Destroyer of Nations sat in the step van and watched as three ladder companies responded to the blaze that they'd set on the ground floor of 1005 E St., NW. The strategos could think of few better ways to disguise the significance of a sensitive site than to render it a pile of rubble. Streams of water jetted from a half-dozen hoses as firemen attempted to control the blaze and protect the adjacent structures. Unfortunately, the fire had moved far too fast for their efforts to do any good. It had been planned that way. Even the gawkers standing at the curbs up the block could see that the building was already fully involved. Overhead, a billowing cloud of black smoke roiled into the sky. Something shifted in the facade as if the masonry walls had coughed. A creaking protest increased to a hellish screech from overstrained timbers as the fire weakened ceiling beams and flooring joists finally gave way. The two clones saw the roof of the three story building collapse into the gutted structure as gouts of flame leaped out the windows.

In the rear of the van sat a refrigerated hermetic case with activated bioseals. It contained microbial agents derived from the samples they'd gotten from Dr. Drexler seven weeks before in Japan. Over the intervening time, they'd amplified the microbes, farming the deadly germ strains to produce strategically viable quantities for warfare. They now had enough for scores of weapons. When they'd finished, they'd torched the building to destroy the evidence of their work.

The day before, they'd delivered the 7,951 doses of nanobot serum to Secunda. The "special" had been inoculated by Prima, and had received her orders from the strategos. The guardian would still be busy injecting the nearly mature army of clones. Xena expected the process to take two full days; even moving at the speed a "special" was capable of. By tomorrow night, her army would be protected. She almost felt tempted to allow herself a grin. With a resounding crash, the front wall of the building collapsed.

Continued in Chapter 6

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