Part 3   Chapter 6

By Phantom Bard

For Disclaimer: See Part 3 Chapter 1

I've been workin' on the railroad,
All the live long day.
I've been workin' on the railroad,
Just to pass the time away.
Don't you hear the whistle blowing?
Rise up so early in the morn.
Don't you hear the captain shouting
"Dinah, blow your horn?"

(First verse of, "I've Been Working on the Railroad",©1936, by Calumet Music Co)

December 6, 2005 - Amtrak Atlantic Ave. Station, Boston, Ma.

How does an army of two set out to cripple the world's most powerful nation? In 58 BC, Xena and Gabrielle had gone to war against the Roman Republic of Julius Caesar. At that time, their goal was to rescue Eve, and that goal didn't require them to topple the western world's most powerful state. Still, they'd spent a dozen years at war, used every tactic they knew, and slaughtered over 86,000. In the 21st century, cloned Xena and Prima began their war against their divine enemy by attacking her patron state. Their first objective was to undermine the technological and military might of the United States. It was the same goal the Islamists had held, but they'd had neither the Destroyer of Nations' abilities nor her experience. They'd lacked the resources that the DON GROUP's now $108 billion could provide, and they'd never had the Blessing of their god. Where all of America's enemies had failed, she would succeed. Removing the USA as a power base for Athena was Xena's first goal. Her second goal was the nullification of nations that could become secondary threats, a strategy she shared with her enemy. Her final goal was the utter defeat and elimination of the Goddess of Wisdom and Warfare.
The Hellene's Bane had four months before her army was mature. During that time she was free to act anonymously, to strike without warning, and to capitalize on the advantage conferred by her paucity of troops…the advantage of surprise. Unlike an army, two could hide in plain sight.
At 6:00am Prima stood beside a departure monitor and looked at the milling rush hour throng moving around her. Commuters and travelers hurried past like a disorganized school of sardines. She was the barracuda. She regarded their frenetic activity with a cold disregard, feeling no connection to them on any level. They were not near-self and they were not her sisters. To the "special", they moved as if in slow motion. She found their lack of intuitive survival awareness even more appalling. They rushed right past death incarnate without the slightest clue to her presence.
A woman holding a cell phone crushed against the side of her head nearly slammed into the clone as she blabbered and strode towards a departure gate. Prima's eyes flicked to the name badge hanging from the woman's jacket; Spittoonia May, Mass. Dept. of Health it said. Another foot closer and Prima would have snapped her neck in a blur of movement too quick to see, but the woman barely saved herself. After jerking to a halt with a gasp, she stood well within the clone's personal space. Her eyes traveled up Prima's form to meet her face with a sheepish expression. The glacial blue of a killer's calculating attention met her caffeinated brown and made her blanch. The clone's glare was so inhumanly cold that the woman gulped, stuttered an apology, and fled from her in abject terror.
The "special" discreetly reached into her jacket pocket and extracted an aerosol can the size of a "D" cell battery. She scanned the area for anyone that might be paying her too much attention, but they were all too self-absorbed. After seeing no one observing her actions, she twisted the cap and placed the can atop the departure monitor. Almost immediately, a soft puff of vapor issued from the six pinholes around the circumference of the can's cap and swirled off on the currents of air. It would spritz the surrounding space once every two minutes until it was empty…about three hours hence, dispensing a melange of influenza, small pox variola major, and Ebola Zaire. Over that period of time, thousands of people would pass by the place Prima had chosen as the first infection source for the plague that Xena had directed her to spread.
She took a last look around, saw the second puff of germ-laden air expelled from the can, and walked briskly to departure gate 2S. The "special" had a southbound Acela Express to catch. Her next stop would be Penn Station in New York City, and then on to the 30th St Station in Philadelphia. At each stop, she would leave a can of engineered microbes, though the other two would have time delays that wouldn't actuate until 4:45pm, when the evening rush hour crowds were getting thick. At each stop she would have to wait for the next train out, but she had almost twelve hours to travel the six hours of actual train time. Finally she would reach Washington D.C. to meet the Destroyer.
Xena had started out the night before in Miami. She'd boarded the northbound Amtrak Silver Service/Palmetto after placing her first can of microbes in the station at 37th Ave. Her next stop had been the Sligh Blvd. station in Orlando. She left a third can in Savannah, Ga., but somehow, when the conductor announced the stops for Denmark, Columbia, and Camden in South Carolina, the Destroyer of Nations didn't leave her seat. Instead she cursed the Amtrak routing that had denied her Atlanta, Ga. as a target, and didn't leave the train until she reached Raleigh, NC. She left a final can puffing out germs in Richmond, Va., boarded the next Amtrak Regional train, and went to the club car for a Coke. By the time she reached Washington's Union Station, she had missed the evening rush hour in the Capitol City. A cab brought her to the Gangplank Marina at 8:30pm. Prima was already waiting for her.
"You're ahead of schedule, Strategos," Prima dispassionately observed. Xena only grunted in response before going below. She was over three hours early.
The clone tossed her briefcase onto the bench in her cabin. She calculated that there were less than eight hours before her war began in earnest and the casualties started streaming into hospitals up and down the eastern seaboard. The people who were infected first at the train stations would fan out to their destinations and spread the plague. The Destroyer of Nations had no problem with that. Like Athena, she was preparing the battlefield.
Unlike Athena, who had spread her initial military actions across three years in hopes of remaining undetected, Xena could only gain by striking quickly and with ferocity while still unknown. The element of surprise was a strategic advantage that she intended to milk for all it was worth. Once she openly declared herself and her army took the field, she could never regain her anonymity. After a change of clothes, she went back up and rejoined Prima on the bridge. She needed some time alone to think.
The two clones readied the Miss Artiphys and cleared her moorings. This time, as the ship made its way down the Potomac, Xena piloted the hydrofoil personally. She dismissed Prima and stood at the wheel looking up at the stars. Despite the impending destruction she'd unleashed, the thing that bothered her most was the canisters that had remained unused. Surely her deviation from the plan wouldn't save anyone as the epidemic spread. She could find no reason for why she'd spared those three cities, giving Columbia a breathing space of a couple hundred miles. It might translate into only a day's grace. She told herself that in the long run, it would make no difference at all.

"Capture brings one to the heart of the enemy."

~ The Destroyer of Nations

December 18, 2005 - Somewhere in the North Atlantic

Things had been growing quieter for the last nine days. The Hellene's Bane sat at a desk in a cabin aboard CVN-75, the USS Harry Truman. The Nimitz-class aircraft carrier was the centerpiece of carrier group five, which was patrolling the north Atlantic, a thousand miles east of Maine. Across the room, Prima was inputting files on the laptop, having received it back after a through examination by the onboard intelligence officers. The two clones had been aboard since December 9th, after the USS Kauffman, a frigate patrolling the carrier group's perimeter, had approached the Miss Artiphys and noticed the Phalanx. The Destroyer of Nations had been amazed that they'd been able to shadow the naval vessels for almost two days before being approached and taken into custody. It seemed that becoming a prisoner was only difficult when it was a tactical ploy.
On the evening of the 9th, the frigate had edged closer and closer, probably only intending to warn them away from the carrier group at first. Xena had watched them and tapped her foot on the bridge deck in exasperation. Finally, at a quarter-mile's distance, the ship had turned broadside to them, allowing it to bring its 5-inch guns to bear, and had demanded that they hold their position. Prima had complied and they had waited. At last someone on watch had noticed the domed gun carriage of the MK 15 Phalanx system and become curious.
After fifteen minutes, a motor launch had delivered a junior grade lieutenant and a dozen MPs to the Miss Artiphys. They were jumpy, not knowing what to expect. First they'd noted that the Phalanx was loaded and looked operational. Then they'd demanded to be allowed to inspect the ship. Though they were in international waters, Prima had just shrugged and stood aside, as per the strategos' orders. The LTJG had left four MPs to guard the two clones after restricting them to the cabin. The men stood with their fingers on the triggers of their M16A2 rifles, nervously breathing the cabin's microbe tainted air. The officer and his remaining men searched the hydrofoil thoroughly. They found no contraband. They found no dead bodies. They found no hidden terrorists. They too breathed the infected ship's air as they examined the reactor, the advanced high-pressure waterjet propulsion system, and the ship's electronics that were as sophisticated as their own. Finally they'd made their report and been ordered to pilot the ship to the waiting carrier group and deliver its crew to the USS Harry Truman for interrogation.
Aboard the carrier two hours later, the clones had been confined under guard in a cabin. They were made comfortable while inspectors and US Navy intelligence officers went over the Miss Artiphys again with a fine toothed comb. In all, a total of 47 naval personnel went aboard the hydrofoil at one time or another. They were more than enough to ensure that the plague spread throughout the massive ship. Because the emergencies in the US and their unusual prisoners demanded radio silence on intelligence matters, a limited exchange of intelligence officers to brief the other captains in person spread the plagues throughout the task force. The security detail had returned to the USS Kauffman.
Eventually both the Harry Truman's captain and the rear admiral in charge of the carrier group met with the clones. After three days and six meetings, Xena and Prima slowly began to tell them lies that sounded like what they wanted to hear. On the fourth day, neither officer arrived at their cabin, and Xena had remarked to Prima that both had been flushed and concentrating poorly the day before. Two days later, the commanding officers and their closest subordinates had been dead of Ebola.
Panic had broken out on the aircraft carrier. The clones were confined and shunned. Having come from the mainland, from which horrific intelligence reports of epidemics had been received, they were regarded as the obvious disease vectors. Only the medical corps questioned why they were still alive and uninfected. Since the deaths of the captain and the admiral, Xena and Prima had seen almost no one, had spoken with almost no one, and had remained alert to the increasing silence on the ship.
"Strategos, it is 0900 hours on the eighteenth. Projections show that 94% of the crew should have succumbed by now," Prima reported as she closed the laptop.
With a crew of 3,200 and an air wing of 2,480, the projected casualties numbered 5,340.
Without answering, Xena rose to her feet. She crossed the cabin, from the desk to the door and with a hard flying sidekick, sent it crashing off its hinges into the passageway outside. The single Marine guard spun from his station beside the door to face her. His presence confirmed Prima's assessment. The last time the clone had caught a glimpse outside, there had been three sentries, one to each side of the door and one across the hall.
The Marine began to raise his rifle, but Xena was prepared for the encounter and she had the element of surprise. The Destroyer of Nations whipped her left arm out, the hand clenched flat, the thumb tucked tightly against her palm. She caught him squarely in the throat with the ridge of the knuckle at the base of her index finger, and his trachea collapsed with a sharp crunch. She snatched the rifle by the barrel and wrenched it from his grasp as he fell. Prima was already at her back carrying the computer. The "special" stooped and retrieved the guard's sidearm and spare magazines.
They headed upwards, making their way through deserted hallways, empty stairwells, and vacated spaces. The few remaining officers and crew were expected to be on the bridge, in operations, or below in engineering. Their first stop was Operations, the nerve center of the carrier. During the entire trip, they only shot one sailor, an engineer's mate who looked more lost than they were and had tried to flee.
In the passageway outside of Operations, they heard only a few voices. The large room was grossly understaffed. The acting Chief of Operations was busy receiving reports from the acting Communications Officer. He was standing beside a ship to ship transceiver with one hand over his face, wiping sweat from his brow. The man was obviously sick. Their news wasn't good. As the clones listened, a crackling transmission came through from a Ticonderoga-class guided missile cruiser. It was reporting massive numbers of crewmen going down with a deadly flu. Only 7 of their 24 officers and 51 of their 340 enlisted men were healthy. The next status report was from a Burke-class destroyer. 276 of DDG-55, the USS Stout's, 323 personnel were infected or already dead, and the ship was being commanded by an ensign. A second destroyer, the USS Cole, DDG-67, failed to answer its hail. The USS Kauffman reported in next. The Perry-class frigate normally carried a crew of 300. It was the ship that had first encountered the Miss Artiphys, and it had led the epidemiological evolution. What the USS Harry Truman's Com received was a "mayday" distress call from a dying man, a young cook's mate who'd wandered into operations and managed to get the radio to work.
"Sir, there are only a dozen of us left…no officers at all…and we're all sick over here," the panicky voice from the Kauffman warned. "We're a death ship, god save us. Stay away, sir. Don't try to come aboard. I'm scared, sir…we're doomed."
"We're sick over here too, son," the Chief said in a soothing voice before breaking into a fit of coughing, "and we've been unable to contact anyone in Washington or Norfolk for a week. They're sick too. Stay in contact as long as you can. It feels like the end of the world."
The Chief turned away from the Com and was violently ill, gagging and heaving up a vomitus that looked like coffee grounds. He was bleeding out from Ebola. The Communications Officer rose to steady him when he staggered and then froze as Prima stepped into the doorway and shot the Chief in the head. She shot the Communications Officer next, and then the other six crewmen who were just beginning to react. Against her speed, they never had a chance. Eight shots…eight dead in just under three seconds.
"Capture brings one to the heart of the enemy," Xena whispered softly, "their ever vulnerable heart." It was a ploy that she'd used many times in her original life.
Xena wandered over to an animated chart screen set in an island in the center of the room. It showed surface and submerged objects across most of the Atlantic. Among the blips were the "friendly" blue dots representing the carrier group centered on the USS George Washington, CNV-73, and the red dots of the Russian North Atlantic Fleet off the Iceland coast. Both were moving towards the USS Harry Truman, the blue dots at what appeared to be flank speed, the red dots at a conservative and inquisitive 6 knots. She nodded to herself and made a hand sign to the "special". Without a second look, she followed Prima out of Operations and headed for the Flag Bridge.
Five stories above the flight deck, the clones entered the admiral's bridge. It was deserted. The Destroyer of Nations looked down out a window and saw bodies littering the 4½ acres of asphalt below. Most of them were flight deck crew, wearing yellow, red, brown, purple, and blue vests, color-coded to their duties. Only a few were feebly moving. Equipment sat abandoned on the deck like a bored child's forgotten toys.
On the next level up, Xena shot two officers in the ship's bridge, the acting Officer of the Watch, and a Marine captain. On the seventh and top level, they found Air Control empty. There was no one left to fly, no one to operate the catapults, and no one to prep the planes. It might take another day or two for the remaining crewmembers to succumb completely, and before that time, the USS George Washington's carrier group would arrive. After a week of remaining on station and overhearing a few hundred panicked radio transmissions, the Russians would approach for a look. Both would start their investigations with the carrier. Within a month at most, they would all be dead. Their battle readiness would falter long before that.
Beyond those nearby ships, both navies were crippled by epidemics at home. Neither the Americans nor the Russians wanted to deploy ships and then find their crews dying at sea from diseases contracted in port. Any other naval vessels already on the high seas were patrolling the Pacific or Indian Oceans, and were not a threat at present.
"Prima, go forward and set two canisters on different levels in the berthing spaces, then meet me in the magazine," Xena ordered. "We'll make this the mother of all plague ships."
The "special" removed the lower casing from the laptop and extracted four "D" cell sized aerosol cans. She handed two to the strategos, then nodded and quickly headed back towards the forward stairs. Xena reassembled the laptop and headed toward the aft stairwell. Her two canisters would be placed in the engine room and the passageway to the main hanger. All four would create a reservoir of microbes; virulent, concentrated, and located so far below the weather deck that they would be slow to disperse. It would be Xena's final surprise aboard the USS Harry Truman.
A short time later, when Prima reached the ship's magazine, she found the strategos taking an inventory. Among the conventional and guided munitions for the aircraft wing, there were also a dozen Mark-28 strategic weapons configured for aerial delivery.
"Let's make ready to transfer these to the Miss Artiphys," Xena said. Acquiring them was the second goal of her strategy involving the carrier group.
An hour later, the two clones had made their way to the waterline after hauling the Miss Artiphys abreast of the Harry Truman's open stern. A loading crane there lowered the dozen Mk-28s through the forward hatch in the hydrofoil so they could be stowed below deck. It was slow work with only the two clones, but they proceeded methodically and without interruption. When the weapons were finally secured, the clones cast off from the carrier. Once aboard their own vessel, they stood off from the doomed Harry Truman with the channel motor and set a course of 112º that would place them at the Strait of Gibraltar in just over two days.
"Bring us to flank speed," the Destroyer of Nations ordered.
As always, Prima obeyed in the blink of an eye. The hydrofoil came onto its new heading and began its acceleration to 90 knots. It wasn't yet 1500 hours, but they'd already had a busy day. In their wake, 7,000 sailors lay dead or dying. With the arrival of the second carrier group and the Russian fleet, that number would eventually climb to around 24,000. Xena wasn't sure of the exact compliment of the Russian ships' crews, but that wasn't important. What was important was that no major power would control the Atlantic for some time to come. Equally important, the Hellene's Bane had acquired a dozen hydrogen bombs and procured a troop transport. As she stood gazing ahead across the miles of open ocean, she indulged in neither malicious celebration nor maudlin self-recrimination. She felt no guilt, only accomplishment and purpose. She was already refining her New Year's plans for the Mediterranean.

Cometo me when winter's snow lies thick upon the ground,

Cloaking all the world in white and shrouding every sound.

Then gift me with a peace so still, all's frozen as in death,

And the only hint of living is the billow of my breath.

(Opening stanza of verse 4 from "The Lay of the Conqueror", author unknown, circa 42 BC)

December 30, 2005 - USAMRIID, Ft. Detrick, Maryland

0415 EST came with three hours of darkness still remaining on a chilly winter morning. At the main gate of Ft. Detrick, a pair of sentries sat in a small guardhouse watching the views from surveillance cameras on a bank of black and white monitors. One of them rubbed cold-stiffened hands, sipped lukewarm coffee, and slipped his US Army issue lined gloves back on. His duty shift had begun at 2200 hours the previous night. Now, after over six hours, he wasn't as alert as he'd been earlier. The chill sapped his energy, the boredom sapped his concentration, and the last vehicle to approach USAMRIID's main gate had come in at 2340 hours, over four-and-a-half hours ago. Guard duty didn't get much duller than this.
"I'm going to step out for thirty," he said to his partner who was sitting with heavy eyelids at the console next to him. She grunted and nodded absently, then shook herself and drank from her own coffee cup.
Outside the guardhouse the air was bracing. A newly fallen foot of snow carpeted the wide parade ground and softened the silhouettes of the nearby trees. In the near distance, the massive USAMRIID building squatted with its air scrubber vent stacks pointing from the roof up into the sky. The cold slapped him awake in an instant, and he looked overhead at the crystalline night, admiring the sharpness of the stars. It was so different from the ever-present glow of the city he'd grown up in, but then, he'd never seen snow in Miami either. Here, just across US-15 from Fredrick, Maryland, and only 40 miles from the US Capitol, the sky was wide above the trees, dark as velvet, and speckled with twinkling points of light. One of those points, he noticed, was moving. Could it be a falling star? A satellite in orbit? He watched as it seemed to trace an arc from east to west, its speed ever increasing, its brightness growing fast.
By the time he realized that something was very wrong it was far too late. Perhaps the first real clue was the shattering series of sonic booms, which came one after another like the reports from a howitzer battery, and reverberated back from the nearby foothills of the Allegheny Mountains. He'd never heard anything like it. In what seemed like an instant, the star was falling on the base. It struck its target with devastating accuracy.
The scramjet cruise missile slammed into the containment labs at Mach 8, almost 6,000 mph. Its mass was a scant 300lbs and there was no warhead. There was no explosion. The inertia from the impact alone shattered buildings for two hundred yards in all directions. Most of the high value USAMRIID technical facilities were destroyed in an instant. All the positive pressure containment labs, the microbe isolation storage, the biological agent weaponizing factory, and the medical research areas disappeared in a cloud of debris and dust that rose a half-mile into the night sky and slowly followed the prevailing winds southeast.
By dawn, the first of the microbial fallout had reached the western suburbs of Baltimore and Washington, D.C. By noon, both cities would be enveloped in an unseen pall of death. The US military would be deprived of its biological arsenal, courtesy of the Destroyer of Nations. More importantly, any unprotected scientists, agents, or clones in Athena's strongholds would be infected.
0430 EST hours saw full dark in Hanford, Washington. The local time was 1:30am. In a replay of the events at the USAMRIID facility in Maryland almost 2,200 miles to the east, a falling star slammed into its target. This star had a total mass of 600lbs, a full-size scramjet cruise missile. It carried a warhead weighing 120lbs, composed of 27.5lbs of weapons grade plutonium, the triggering mechanism, and the guidance system. The yield for the warhead was 25 kilotons, rather modest by modern standards.
Hanford, Washington was a small town on the west bank of the Columbia River. In all honesty, it was in the middle of nowhere, east of the Cascade Range and the populous Pacific Coast. The nearest town was Edna, population 349. Still, it was a high value target. Hanford had been a notorious government production facility for weapons grade plutonium. It had been active from 1943, to 1989 when it was closed down, and it had accumulated the nation's largest collection of high level nuclear waste. An eerie, neon blue water pool containing cylinders of radioactive cesium and strontium, the by-products of four-and-a-half decades of nuclear weapons production, was the primary target.
The scramjet cruise missile struck it dead on at 6,000mph. The impact and the blast vaporized the glowing pool, its contents, and another 53 million gallons of deadly radioactive waste stored in shallow-buried, single-walled tanks nearby. Within minutes of the strike, a cloud of high level fallout was headed outwards from an altitude of six miles, and with a volume of almost 300 million gallons. The radioactivity from the bomb itself only served to enrich the ejecta of what was the mother of all dirty bombs. Within five hours the cloud would reach Seattle, Vancouver, Portland, and Boise. In ten hours, Salt Lake City and San Francisco would be sterilized. In two days, the fallout would spread south to Los Angeles, Denver, Phoenix, and Las Vegas. The Air Force Bases at Ellsworth, Mountain Home, Dyess, and Whitman, would become dead zones. The prevailing winds would carry the radioactivity east, all the way to Chicago, Detroit, and Indianapolis. The projected short-term lethality was on the order of 65 million souls.
432 nautical miles due east of Virginia Beach, at 70º0'0"W X 36º0'0"N, the Argo had surfaced after salvaging the torpedoes and reactor core from the sunken Alfa. The Argo's pilot had set the helm onto a heading of 310º, but held her position steady at station keeping. The hecatontarches had raised the beam along the submarine's spine and elevated it to thirty degrees. In the aft hold that served as a weapons bay, a team of clones had loaded a 600lb Mach 8 cruise missile onto the launch rail. When it was in position, they'd sealed the aft bay doors and prepared for the launch.
By 0400EST the reactor aboard the Argo had charged a battery of capacitors and the fire control officer in the sail triggered the current. The prodigious power stored in the capacitors charged the series of electromagnets in sequence, from the rail's rear to its front, drawing the metal cruise missile down its length and launching it into the night sky. The process took only a few hundredths of a second. The cruise missile left the electromagnetic launcher at 90Gs, and accelerated to Mach 9 within two seconds. After a twenty-eight minute flight at Mach 8, the scramjet with its nuclear fission warhead would slam into the Hanford atomic waste site 2,800 miles away. Ten minutes later, the 300lb half-scale cruise missile was launched towards Ft. Detrick.
The Destroyer of Nations had used an electromagnetic launcher, or rail gun, instead of a solid fuel rocket booster, to accelerate her scramjet to supersonic speed. She had minimized the necessary mass and expense of her weapon system, and reduced the telltale procurement of the sensitive materials required. With the same system, she could launch non-self-propelled projectiles as well. The result was that the Argo was tens of tons lighter and hosted much less explosive material than a conventional submarine. The only drawback was that it took almost a full ten minutes to accumulate the electrical charge necessary to fire a single projectile. In the Destroyer's plans, neither rapid fire nor simultaneous multiple launches were necessary. The Hellene's Bane had opted for an "economical" approach to conquering the world.
At 0415EST, as the first impact demolished the USAMRIID facility, the Argo sank silently into the Atlantic, leaving no trace of its presence. The pilot set a course of 75º, or east-northeast, and brought the Argo to flank speed, 45 knots. The diving officer made the sub's depth 400 feet. In 3 days, 18 hours, and 45 minutes, the Argo would be lying 500 miles off the coast of France, in position to prepare the battlefield of Europe for the coming war. Since the Miss Artiphys' mission earlier in the month, the Atlantic Ocean had been largely unpatrolled, a free zone for those with the means and the will to sail it. The Destroyer's forces had both the means and the will.

January 1, 2006 - The Mediterranean, West of Sardinia

Moscow- After nearly a month, the influenza epidemic that began here and in Kiev and Minsk has claimed an estimated 11.4 million lives in Europe. Within days of the official report, thousands of cases had been diagnosed. The death rate began to accelerate during the second week of December as the epidemic spread through Poland, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Romania. The next week, Austria, Germany, the Balkan states, and Bulgaria were affected. These countries have now confirmed 4.8 million fatal cases in the last week of 2005. In Brussels, experts are skeptical as to the efficacy of the European Union's control measures. Isolated pockets of cases began showing up in London, Paris, Lyon, Milan, and Bern as early as December 20th. The World Health Organization has refused to make predictions about the eventual death toll. "This could be the start of a worldwide pandemic far worse than what was endured in 1918," said Dr. Bozo Wasascu of the Bucharest Red Cross, last Thursday. The doctor could not be reached for further comment today, and a colleague explained that he had been struck and killed on New Year's Eve by a car whose driver had collapsed at the wheel and died of the flu.

The Miss Artiphys rested at anchor in 14 fathoms of clear blue water, two miles off the Sardinia coast, at the mouth of the Bay of Oristano. It was a travel poster beautiful afternoon, in a travel poster beautiful destination. The hydrofoil lay gently bobbing among other pleasure craft. Her occupants were relaxing on the bridge like any other pair on a vacation. Sunglasses and bikinis had replaced their black uniforms, helping them "blend in" as rich and beautiful American twins enjoying their carefree leisure while the world around them died.
Xena and Prima had been busy over the last two weeks. 50 hours after leaving the Northern Fleet behind, the catamaran had passed through the Straits of Gibraltar and sailed into the Mediterranean Sea. It was a homecoming of sorts, for two souls who had never plied its waters in their present lives. Both remembered their days spent as pirates, ranging from Hispania to the Hellespont, harrying the coasts of Italia, Illyricum, Achaea, Macedonia, Thrace, Ionia, Lydia, and Caria.
But those memories were 2,080 years out of date. The present day Med was a pond, criss-crossed by container ships, fishing vessels, passenger cruisers, and the naval vessels of over a dozen nations. Most ports were so congested that the clones had fought ebb tides to make the docks early enough in the day to claim a berth. The big hydrofoil drew attention as well, being such an uncommon type of craft. Still, the two clones had achieved their mission and maintained their timetable…barely.
They'd made landfall at the ports of call for Athens, Rome, Tel Aviv, and Alexandria. At each stop, they'd succeeded in hiding two Mk-28 warheads. Usually they distributed them, one in the harbor, and the second near the government centers within the city limits. The eight thermonuclear bombs were counting down the seconds until 3:15:44pm, using the local time for Rome. It was a subtle message that Xena intended to send. The time represented a special date. The bombs were synchronized according to the clock in the city where she'd died, on March 15th, 44 BC…the Ides of March in the year that her original self had been crucified.
New Years Day 2006 fell on a Saturday, and by mid-afternoon, no celebratory crowds would be congregating as they might have been near midnight. Only government and military personnel would be carrying on their duties, and the more of them who were killed the better.
"This year'll be remembered as the year of war," Xena said, "the year the past ended. It was fated to be the year of change. It just won't be changin' the way Athena hoped."
"1515 hours, Strategos," Prima reported as they stared east towards Sardinia and the sea beyond. They waited in silence.
The closest bombs were in Rome and its port of Ostia, two hundred miles away. In the daylight, they wouldn't even see a flash. The only clue that the detonations had occurred was the radio suddenly crackling and falling into harsh static as the electromagnetic pulse from the blasts shocked the atmosphere and created magnetic fields. Although the effect was minimized, because the explosions were either at ground level or submerged in water rather than occurring in the atmosphere, the local AM radio station in Arborea disappeared. Prima checked the tuner's presets and found nothing being broadcast from any of the stations in Oristano or Terralba either.
The Destroyer of Nations waxed philosophical. "With the epidemic in Europe claiming so many lives, maybe I shoulda' skipped Rome and Athens and attacked Istanbul, Beirut, an' Tunis instead. Seems kinda excessive, like bombin' the dead."
"We'd have no assurance or control over the timetable or the targets affected," Prima commented in response, "and for all we know, Athena's microbes have been engineered to lose virulence in a month. Maybe Athena wanted to spare Rome an' Athens. They were once her cities."
"You're right," the strategos conceded, "and the first lesson is to never second guess a plan after its execution. You can only adapt. If there was a mistake made, then the error was overkill, and that's a lesser flaw than omission."
"No victory comes from an unused weapon, but excess is acceptable in war."
"Exactly. It trains the enemy to despair rather than to expect sloppiness or mercy."
"So do we maintain the timetable, Strategos?'
"Yes, Prima. Make our course 255º for the Strait of Gibraltar."

January 2, 2006 - Bay of Biscay

Europe was reeling as it never had before. Even at the height of the Second World War, the destruction and loss of life had been spread over many months and years. The fear of nuclear war that had traumatized a generation during the Cold War paled before the realities of the raging influenza epidemic and the New Year's Day destruction of Rome, Athens, Tel Aviv, and Alexandria. Throughout the European Union, over 16.2 million lives had been lost to disease. The casualties in the bombed cities hadn't been tallied.
Throughout the Old World, voices were raised in horror, fear, and helpless anguish. No country was unaffected. Every nation quaked as social order decayed. The last month had brought more death than any month of war known to mankind, but for the first time, there was no declared war. There were no enemies, no allies, and no understanding of the hostilities. There were no visible good guys or bad guys and no "sides", only casualties. Most people didn't believe that a war was raging. They saw the epidemic as an act of nature, and the bombs as the work of terrorists. And yet there was war. Those who would have reflexively blamed the Americans could only shudder at the destruction that had been wrought in that country.
Right on time, at 2300 hours GMT, the Argo surfaced outside the Bay of Biscay, five hundred miles off the coast of France. The submarine was positioned at 7º0'0"W X 47º0'0"N, as per the strategos' orders. The trip had taken just shy of four days, and though the time had been short, the crew of clones had been busy. They had fashioned an atomic device, crude but operational, from the reactor core of the sunken Alfa. Its yield on detonation would be greater than any of the remaining three warheads made from the black market Russian plutonium that Xena had bought. The Alfa's high-pressure reactor had provided twenty kilos of enriched uranium, forty-four pounds worth, which had been divided into five sub-critical masses. These would be blasted together by charges derived from a couple of the salvaged torpedoes.
In the sail, one of the chiliarchoi raised the rail of the electromagnetic launcher. Another passed the order to the aft weapons bay, and a crew of hecatontarches readied a scramjet cruise missile for firing.
The first weapon left the rail gun at 2312 hours, followed by three more at ten-minute intervals. Each accelerated to incandescence as it left the launcher at Mach 5.5 and reached its maximum velocity of Mach 9 less than two seconds later. After another ten seconds, as the projectile decelerated toward Mach 7, the scramjet engine ignited and maintained the missile's speed at Mach 8. With that speed, most of the warheads were detonating before the next weapon could be launched.
Berlin disappeared in a fireball at 2324 hours after an eleven-and-a-half-minute flight by the first cruise missile. 2.7 of the 3.4 million innocent people there died in the 25-kiloton blast. Launched at 2322 hours, the second warhead vaporized Brussels at 2330. The third scramjet to be launched struck Paris at 2338 hours, needing only six minutes to reach its target. All three cities had been struck by fission bombs built with Russian plutonium. Like the weapon that had destroyed the Hanford site, these produced a yield equal to 25 kilotons of tri-nitro-toluene. The fourth bomb had been assembled from the enriched uranium gleaned from the Alfa's reactor core, and devastated London at 2348 in a blast of 50 kilotons. England's capitol city had been selected because of that country's close ties to the US and its having been least affected by the European plague. The Destroyer of Nations was "leveling" the playing field in more ways than one.
In each case, there had been so little time between detection of the incoming object and the resulting destruction, that no action beyond confirmation of the target and a first communication with the military command had been possible. The longest flight time had been under twelve minutes, the shortest, just five-and a-half minutes. In no case had there been time for a response. There hadn't even been time to sound the air raid alarms.
As the London bound scramjet screamed into the night sky with air friction bringing it to a red-orange incandescence, the weapons control officer in the sail began retracting the launch rail. The clones in the weapons bay secured the aft hatch. The helm turned the Argo onto a new course of 225º, and the sub moved in a starboard turn at one-quarter speed. Seconds before 2400 hours, or midnight GMT, the Argo submerged.
The communications officer had radioed the Miss Artiphys at 2342, directly following the fourth launch, to report that the action had proceeded on schedule and according to plan. That transmission was received by Xena as the hydrofoil sped past Tangier, to the south of the mouth of the Strait of Gibraltar.
Before the electromagnetic interference from the blasts in Paris and London disrupted radio reception, the strategos replied to the Argo, "Preparation of the European Theater is complete. Proceed as planned."

January 6, 2006 - Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee

"Daaaaad! How long do we have to stay in this dump? There's dirt all over the ground here. Do you think you coulda' found anyplace more egreeeegiously boring?"
Harry Tasker rolled his eyes at his 21-year old daughter, Dana, who was braying her displeasure with the grating whine of an indignant teen. Across the picnic table, Helen groaned and dropped her face into her hands.
"See, even Mom's like…bored to tears!"
Harry sighed. In the last month, his daughter had lost ten years of maturity and his wife had gained twenty. The agent just felt tired and irritable. He was too worried to be bored, and too scared not to worry. He hated it, but could do almost nothing about it.
"Do you think this is my favorite place in the world?" He snapped at the GW Univ. senior. He still thanked god that she'd been a commuting student living at home. "All the interesting places are full of dead people! You want to join them?"
His eyes bugged out and the veins stood inflated in his neck. Take ten deep breaths, he ordered himself, recalling the anger management courses from his military days. Slowly he calmed down enough to feel thankful that his family had survived the last month. Up and down the eastern seaboard, 31 million others hadn't.
Early on December 7th he'd already been in bed with Helen when Spencer Trilby himself had called the agent at home. It was a first. Harry had jerked awake in response. Trilby had told him that four cases of Ebola had been diagnosed in Miami, a case of small pox and three cases of influenza in Boston, and another of each in Philadelphia. Two cases of influenza and a case of Ebola had just been admitted in Orlando, and New York was hosting two cases of small pox and one of Ebola. Savannah Georgia had just reported a case of influenza and a case of small pox. Omega Sector's computer had made a projection and the data supported a sweeping epidemic of three unrelated diseases moving from both the north and south and slated to converge on Washington. The first cases were expected in the Nation's Capitol around 9:00am. It was already 2:35am, early on Pearl Harbor Day. America had been victimized by another sneak attack, maliciously timed. Get out, Spencer Trilby had told him, stay away from the cities and await further orders. Harry Tasker had never heard from Omega Sector again.
By 3:00am he'd been on the road, having hauled his wife from their bed and Dana off the computer and out of a chat room. He'd driven from McLean, Va., speeding around I-495, the Washington Beltway, to I-66, heading west. While Helen and Dana questioned him, he'd done 80mph all the way to the junction with I-81 south. Most of his answers had been, "I don't know. People are dying." His wife had been terrified and his daughter had been angry. After 25 miles he'd turned off onto US-211, heading east for 10 miles, and then pulled into the parking lot of Luray Caverns, 6 miles west of the Shenandoah National Park. It was 4:50am by then. He'd picked the locks on the doors and herded his family underground.
By morning they'd been joined by an increasingly panicked group of locals. The proprietor of the cave had chained the gates of the parking lot, locked the building that contained the entrance elevators, and hung a "closed" sign on the door. The natives of Luray, Virginia didn't want outsiders bringing their diseases to the rural town.
For a week they'd waited, listening to the area radio stations reporting on the spread of the epidemics. Those stations had gone off the air, one by one. By December 14th, the last one had fallen silent. On the 15th, a farmer came down with flu symptoms. It might not have been the plague flu. It might not have been the flu at all, but Harry had no way to tell. He and his family were back on the road a half-hour later.
They continued south on I-81, staying to the west of the cities. After 30 miles, they reached the junction with I-64, the main highway leading west from Richmond. There hadn't been a car in sight. Harry had pressed the gas pedal down harder and kept on going. They drove all day and their single reassurance was that the small towns off the interstate seemed mostly normal. Harry stopped in Fancy Hill, Va., and charged $600 worth of camping supplies and dehydrated food. A hardware store had provided P-100 particle masks and batteries. Though he suspected that he'd never pay the bill, he carefully stashed the receipts out of habit. After that, it was back out onto the highway.
Soon he found that he'd have to make a choice. Knoxville, Tn., sat astride I-81. Beyond it lay Chattanooga and then Atlanta. They'd started to see a few cars on the road when they'd passed through Roanoke, 200 miles north. Now traffic was getting heavier, and as it grew, Harry's nervousness grew along with it. For each vehicle they encountered, his blood pressure went up a point. Finally he couldn't take it any more. He'd turned south onto SR-66, driven 15 miles down US-321, passed through the town of Gatlinburg at 45mph, (though the place looked normal), and driven into the Smokey Mountains National Park. Off the Little River Trail Rd he'd pulled into a campground, parked in an end space, and fallen asleep at the wheel with the doors locked and his sidearm in his lap. When he awoke the next morning, he'd discovered that many others had had the same idea. The campground was over half-filled with cars and RVs, though it was the dead of winter.
Fearing infection, people in the campsites kept to themselves. No one had approached the Taskers that first day, nor on the second. They'd rigged their campsite and tried to make themselves as comfortable as they could, without electricity or running water, in the year end winter's chill. Harry remembered the skills he'd learned as a commando in jungles and hostile places around the world. After his shopping spree in Fancy Hill, he was better equipped than on any mission he could recall. Still, Dana soon began whining, and Helen took on a resigned melancholia. Both were unused to "roughing it", and both missed their home and friends. Without understanding the background info that Harry did, they couldn't understand the gravity of the threat around them. They both expected to pack up and go home any day. The longer it went without that happening, the lower their spirits got.
By the second week of their stay, their tempers were frayed. No one was unaffected. The people camped around them understood even less than they did. They were displaced and terrified refugees, hiding from the epidemics that they'd heard were ravaging the cities along the eastern seaboard. These campers recreated the migrant peasants of England and Europe in 1348 AD, when Yersinia pestis, the Black Plague, had driven them off their productive lands and into wandering lives of starvation, looting, and lynching. They were afflicted with the same ignorance, horror, anger, helplessness, and even superstitions of their predecessors in suffering from 650 years before. The South had never lacked for fire and brimstone preachers, a wrathful god, or predictions of the apocalypse. The Taskers stayed in their tent, hearing shouted arguments in the night, then finally gunshots, screams, and wailing. That was Christmas Eve. Harry had grimly loaded magazines for his HK-53 as Helen and Dana watched with wide, fearful eyes.
Like the world of pre-industrial times, darkness ruled the night. The physical darkness that had followed the death of so many utility workers was mirrored by the psychological darkness of scared people for whom the constraints and order of society were failing. It was the same effect seen in asylums, where "lights out" inaugurates a cacophony of wailing and gibbering as inner delusions replace institutional structure. After the first few nights, the four park rangers took to patrolling the grounds, spotlights stabbing into the dark from their Jeep as they enforced a sundown curfew with rifles. They controlled the worst behavior, and most people stayed in their tents at night.
During the daylight an air of depression and resignation prevailed in the campground. It was dismal. The Taskers felt it like everyone else. Harry, unable to stand the inactivity, finally undertook a project, mostly to preserve his dwindling reservoir of hope. Each day, he spent a couple hours driving the park roads, visiting each campground he came to, and searching for a familiar face.
It was on his sixth foray that he drove through Right Hand Gap on US-441 and crossed the state boundary between Tennessee and South Carolina. He continued along the scenic road, worrying and watching, and hopefully twisting the tuner dial on his radio. Nothing but static came from the speakers. The agent wasn't surprised. The last Knoxville station had gone silent on the 23rd.
Finally he entered an area on the park's South Carolina side, where the park shared a boundary with the Cherokee Indian Reservation. Only a mile from the park boundary he saw the sign for a campground and pulled in.
Driving into the campground was like riding into a paranoid small town in a cheap western movie. Suspicious eyes watched him from the campsites as he rolled past. It had been the same everywhere he went. Everyone was a potential danger; everyone was a stranger. Harry had driven down the first two short roads that had joined the main road from the right. There had been no vehicle and no face that looked familiar in either place.
Back on the campground's main road, Harry took the third turnoff, a left this time. For the first hundred yards it was the same tiresome scenery; muddy cars beside dirty tents, muddy RVs, and suspicious-eyed people, all under a coating of half-melted snow. He passed them with failing interest. Another fifty yards down the road there was a splash of color. A pair of ancient VW mini-buses with a carnival bright awning stretched between them sat parked on either side of a raised BBQ and picnic table. On the ground a slow fire was smoldering beneath an old style iron tripod from which hung a kettle right our of a witch's dream. A heavyset woman was stirring the contents with a long metal rod. She looked up at the sound of Harry's car, and the agent jammed on the brakes when he saw her face. It was Lynn, Ray Fell's significant other, and the co-owner of the Congressional Diner in Columbia.
Harry Tasker leapt out of the door, leaving it hanging open in the middle of the road. With a whoop he crossed the few yards and ran into the campsite. Lynn recognized him only moments before he hoisted her substantial bulk off the ground in a bear hug.
At the sound of his voice, Ray had stepped out of the nearer van with a large revolver in one hand and a machete in the other. The Ph.D. certainly looked capable of murder. In fact, he'd never looked more like Hannibal the Cannibal. He stopped in amazement when he saw who it was and a wide smile spread across his face.
"Harry," he exclaimed, "Harry Tasker! Of all the people I could possibly see out here, you're the last I would've guessed we'd meet. How the hell are you?"
"I'm depressed and angry, but I sure am happy to see you," the agent answered. He took a quick look at the vans and saw Angie peering out a window of one, Allan peeking from behind a curtain in the other. "I see you managed to escape the city. I'm very glad."
"How about Helen and Dana," Lynn asked seriously, "are they with you? She'd checked the car for anyone else and seen that it was empty. She looked worried.
"They're in a campsite at the other end of the park, in Tennessee," Harry said. "They're safe, but depressed and angry."
"Look, Harry, there's plenty of room here," Ray told him, gesturing expansively down the road past their vans. The remaining sites were deserted. "We'd feel much better having you close by, and honestly, it's pretty disturbing around here at night. I don't think I've slept a wink after dark in weeks." He'd tucked the revolver into his waistband and laid the machete on the picnic table. He sighed and said, "I haven't been this on edge since Nam."
"I know what you mean," Harry said, "and I think Helen and Dana would love to have someone else to talk to." He checked his watch. "If I leave now, I can pack up our site and bring them back here. We should be able to set up our camp before dark."
"We'd be glad to help y'all," Angie offered, having stepped out of the van and joined Ray and Lynn. She gave Harry a wide smile.
"Great!" Harry said, answering her smile with one of his own. Then he gave Ray a serious look. "Tonight after we've settled in, I've got some serious stuff to discuss with you. I couldn't have hoped for a better person to ask about some of the things that have occurred to me over the last couple weeks."
"Well, I'll be here," Ray told him, as if he had anywhere else to be, "just go and bring back your family. There's strength in numbers and I'll tell you, frankly, I believe we're the only sane ones in the park."
He still looked so much like Hannibal Lecter, and hearing him speak of sanity in any context struck the agent as humorous. With a wave and a wide smile, Harry Tasker hurried back to his car and swung it around, letting the tires spin on the gravel and slush. On the drive back, he was so happy that he whistled badly all the way and didn't touch the radio once.
Helen and Dana thought he'd cracked when he leapt out of the car and practically danced over to the tent. They were eyeing him nervously until he told them who he'd found. Helen and Dana were barely aware of who Ray, Lynn, Allan, and Angie were. They'd heard of the Congressional Diner, but had never been to it. Harry talked non-stop about it as he stuffed things haphazardly into the car's trunk, finally pulling down the tent and stuffing it into the back seat with their clothes and sleeping bags still inside.
"Never mind," he told them, "you'll like it better than here."
"I'd like anyplace better than here," Dana muttered as they drove off. "I'm sure things always look greener on the other side of the park." Her mother shot her a look.
"So who are these people, dear?" Helen asked.
"Well, I guess you could call them hippies," he told her.
"Daaaad, the last hippie died of a drug overdose in 1974," Dana claimed with absolute certainty, "so, duh, everyone knows that."
Harry spent the trip telling them about their new neighbors. The Taskers had absolutely nothing in common with the uber-hippies except for Xena. Still, after a month without seeing a friendly face, the prospect of having familiar people nearby was more positive than anything that had happened in weeks. It was the first really good turn to come their way since leaving home.
That night, after they'd set up their camp, the Taskers joined the uber-hippies and traded stories. Though they'd all introduced themselves when the Taskers had first arrived, they hadn't had time to get to know each other. Now, with the flickering flames from burning logs lighting their faces and Lynn softly plucking notes on a guitar, they resembled groups of travelers from centuries long past. In the damaged modern world, they reverted to the kind of social activity that had developed through the ages. It grew from the pull of the human instinct to seek out others of their kind, and provided the opportunity to pass on the wisdom that they'd gleaned in their daily struggle to survive. Now, without telephones, TV, radio, or computers, face to face communication reclaimed the place it had enjoyed though all the centuries of human history. The Taskers and the uber-hippies partook of a nighttime ritual that had arisen in a time before humans were truly human.
"We'd heard the reports of rapidly spreading plagues to the north and south," Ray told them, "and I thought it was suspiciously similar to what had happened in other countries around the world. We'd heard about the flu in Russia and Europe, and then there were those epidemics in China, North Korea, and the Sudan a few years ago. All I could think was that if the cities were the centers of infection, then we had to get away. Then Alex Williams showed up on duty wearing a gas mask. That was it. We left."
"You see, before we settled in Columbia, we spent all our time traveling," Lynn told them, gesturing vaguely at the VW mini-buses, "so we just went back out on the road after Alex warned us of the plagues. Anyway, no matter where you are, there's always a campground nearby."
Allan nodded his head in agreement, but said nothing. He eyed the Taskers shyly and only offered a self-conscious smile.
"I always liked travelin'," Angie added, as she popped open a can of Pepsi and dropped the bag of Doritos she'd been holding in her lap, "it reminds me of when Ray an' Lynn found me after I'd run 'way from home."
Sitting next to her at the log, Dana found herself retrieving the bag of Doritos and handing them back to the blonde. Angie gave her one of the wide smiles that came so easily to her.
"Thanks," she said, taking the bag and fumbling the can of soda, "but maybe y'all had better hang onto 'em." She was holding the can tightly in one hand and the bag in the other, and didn't have a free hand left to eat with. "Help yourself if ya want," she offered.
Dana took the chips back and started munching. For some reason, the sometimes-cynical young woman didn't comment on the blonde's clumsiness or the fact that she could have simply set her soda can on the ground at their feet.
"What about Alex and Karen?" Harry asked, since Ray had mentioned the policeman.
"Well, we'd planned to meet here in the park if he ever got away from Columbia," Ray said, "but being a cop…" He trailed off and shrugged.
They both knew that with the responsibilities Alex's job carried, he'd probably be the last to leave, if he didn't end up dead in the line of duty. Columbia was in the midst of its most serious emergency, and with all the social disruption, law enforcement would be critical. After a prolonged silence, Harry continued, relating his side of the story.
"I got a call from my boss warning me of the first cases in Boston, Philly, Miami, and Orlando," Harry said, "and I was ordered to leave town."
"It was terrifying," Helen added, "and they thought the diseases were going to be coming to Washington in a few hours. We drove away from the city and spent the next week hiding in Luray Caverns…until someone there got sick. Then we came here."
"Harry, what does your boss think is going on," Ray asked. He was trying to ask the man he'd become convinced was a covert government agent for information, without forcing him to reveal his connections.
"I don't know," Harry admitted, "I haven't heard anything from them since. They were based in Washington, and for all I know, everyone there is already dead."
He looked down and shook his head sadly, thinking of Albert Gibson, with whom he'd worked for almost twenty-five years, and Spencer Trilby, the man who'd freed him from the badgering of the CIA and given him a new life.
Ray realized just how profoundly changed the world was. Their country, the most powerful on earth, no longer had a functioning intelligence community. It was a safe bet that the military and civilian authorities were just as disarrayed. With that in mind, he felt less necessity to preserve their past illusions. Many of their secrets simply weren't worth keeping secret anymore.
"Do you have any theories about what's happened?" Ray asked the question allowing plenty of latitude for the agent's answer. He could preserve whatever level of cover he thought was still necessary.
Harry thought about the question. He sighed and looked up at the frigid, clear, night sky, with its twinkling stars and half-moon. Unchanging…uncaring…all our troubles come to nothing when all's said and done. I'm a spy. Who'll know or care in a thousand years? Finally he composed his thoughts and took a deep breath before answering.
"There's been a war going on for the last five years. The clone we know as Xena has become the Destroyer of Nations. Her enemy is the Goddess Athena, who has positioned herself to rule mankind through our own devotion to science, technology, and modern warfare. The goddess was responsible for the deaths of Xena's daughter, Eve, and her partner, Gabrielle. I believe the Destroyer of Nations is committed to bringing Athena down." He paused for a moment and noticed that everyone except Ray was regarding him as if he were a maniac. "You can believe me or not, but I will tell you that over the last five years, the group I work for have been her allies, and we have built her an army."
"You can't…you must not…" Ray was stuttering in horror at what Harry had told them, for better than anyone, he knew what the Destroyer of Nations was capable of, especially without Gabrielle's moderating influence. "She will not hesitate to destroy the world in her quest for vengeance. Harry, she isn't even fully human, and now…now there are no limits to what she will do. With an army to back her, she will become the Conqueror."
"Her army won't be ready until March, Ray," Harry admitted, "so she can't be behind all this. There's only her right now," but that wasn't really true, and though he only had suspicions, he realized that they were based on denial, "and maybe two others."
"What two others?" Ray narrowed his eyes.
"There may be two clones with her. They escaped from the lab where they were being created, back in April of 2004. We thought they'd joined her, but we weren't sure."
Eight months ago, Ray mused, plenty of time to act for someone as ruthless and decisive as Xena. "What kind of clones, Harry? Clones of her? Clones of Gabrielle?"
"Enhanced clones of Xena," Harry said, and as he revealed this, he realized some other things as well, "according to the timetable, she may also have her officer corps by now."
Ray groaned out loud and covered his face with his hands. "How many?" He asked.
"She may have as many as ninety cloned warriors at her command."
"All clones of herself?"
"Yes," the agent answered, "eighty-eight exact duplicates, and two that are engineered to move over twice as fast as she can."
Ray Fell looked at the agent in shock. Each revelation seemed worse than the last.
"And what other assets does she have?" Ray asked. He was beginning to think like a soldier again after four decades…an ex-soldier who had studied ancient warfare and realized how little it differed in some respects from modern warfare.
"We don't know," Harry told him, "we were never able to track her movements or discover her contacts. After she left Columbia she had help. I…we…were taking her to Washington," he began hesitantly, "we were aboard a jet over the city, and she just vanished out of the cabin at 20,000 feet. We discovered that she'd gone home briefly and then left again. There was no trace of her on the public air carriers, and no records of her travel. It was as if she moved instantly from place to place whenever she wanted, and we couldn't follow her. That was shortly after I asked you about the chakram, remember?"
Ray did remember. He remembered the mission video Harry had shown and the supposedly hypothetical questions the agent had asked about the Temple of the Chakram, the nature of the weapons themselves, and the possible uses for them. That had been over five years ago. Xena had been patient, and she had prepared for her campaign far in advance. She had moved step-by-step, but even in the beginning, she had been steps ahead. At this late date, with the first moves already made, there would be little anyone could do to stop her, even if they had the assets to deploy and knew what was going on.
"She most certainly had help, Harry," Ray said, "the help of her patron god. In Gabrielle's scrolls, the bard often referred to the Olympians' mode of travel; appearing and disappearing in flashes of light. There was a flash of light on the plane, wasn't there, Harry?"
"There was a flash of intense blue light," he admitted, just like the flash she disappeared in at the temple after the air strike. But that time, there had also been a flash of golden light a moment later.
"Then Ares, the great God of War, appeared to his Chosen Warrior in a blaze of azure, colored like the heart of a flame, and offered to her his Blessing on her campaign." Ray recited, "That's how Gabrielle described Ares' appearance to Xena at the beginning of her war against Rome, in the scroll, One Against An Army. In 58 BC, Xena declined his Blessing and chose to fight without it because she had renounced her role as a Conqueror and didn't want to lose her soul to the katalepsis. The choice had a lot to do with Gabrielle's presence and influence."
"Because she didn't want to disappoint her lover by becoming a bloodthirsty warlord again?" Harry asked.
"Because in Gabrielle, Xena found a reason to love, to accept love into her heart, both the love she felt for her partner, and a love of mankind. Harry, she was the daughter of the God of War. Her natural love was for battle and conquest, not for her fellow man. In Gabrielle, she found an inspiration that allowed her human soul to rule her divine blood. Gabrielle's love was her drug…a balm for her bloodthirsty mania."
"And now that she's dead?"
"And now she's dead, and Xena has an army of ninety clones, with a larger force to come in March? She has no love for mankind and has probably accepted Ares' Blessing. She is fighting a war of vengeance and conquest. She will stop at nothing and cares for nothing but the success of her campaign to destroy Athena. That's why she took the Chakram of Day five years ago. Even then, she probably had a plan.
You see, Harry, she was already the foremost tactician of her day, and tactics don't change as much as weapons or assets. Now she is preparing her battlefield, removing potential challengers and the advantages of modern technology. She is moving to level the field between herself and the goddess. In doing so, she will try to ensure that the final battle will depend on her warriors' personal weapons prowess, their bravery, and violent face-to-face bloodshed…all those aspects of warfare ruled over by her patron god.
Add to that, she holds a god-killing weapon. If she has also accepted Ares' Blessing, then the outcome is almost preordained. This was a fact everyone lived by in the ancient world, and she believes it viscerally. She will defeat her enemies and kill the goddess, and then she will rule what remains. It will be a world based on individual mastery, warrior skills, and ferocity, not on science, technology, and law. She will rule an empire, not create a democracy."
Most of that had become apparent back in June, when Harry had talked with Ray and Alexander Williams in the Congressional Diner. Back then, Harry had come to understand what helping Xena would mean, but seeing it becoming reality was another thing. He realized that like most modern men, he lived in a world of ideas, where concepts could be weighed and analyzed in the abstract. Xena lived in a world of realities, of blood and guts, where decisions were made with a sword, not a conversation. The two worlds had begun to clash, and taken by surprise, the modern world would fall.
"You see, Harry, when Xena fought Caesar, she had only Gabrielle as a constant ally. Do you remember reading The Eternal City? They infiltrated Caesar's palace in Rome, decimated the Praetorian Guard there, and escaped with Eve. In the years before that, they inflicted a constant stream of casualties on the Roman legions. Now Xena has clones of herself as allies…maybe ninety of them. She understands modern weapons and will use what she can without mercy. Before she leads her full army onto the field, she will lay waste to nations and end millions of lives. To her, they have no intrinsic value. They are nothing but obstacles.
We don't know what other weapons she has amassed. We can't know what she has been able to capture from her enemies. We can only make the most general assumptions based on knowing her goals and history. I can tell you this though. When she was a warlord acting as Ares' Favorite, she was merciless to her enemies. They feared her, with good reason. Gabrielle tells us this in Sins Of The Past. No one but Athena would understand that now. I think that what's left of this world will be Xena's within a year, because without Gabrielle, this world is facing something it has never seen."
As Harry and Ray chewed on their thoughts of the coming inferno, Lynn softly strummed and Helen chewed her nails. Allan looked up at the sky, where no demands on him had ever come from and where he could get lost in an impersonal grandeur. Across the fire, Angie looked at Dana and opened her mouth. Dana carefully fed her another Dorito.

January 7, 2006 - Columbia, South Carolina

It was shift change on Friday afternoon. The squad room held only a dozen officers. They sat around the table in silence with an air of resigned depression and fatigue. The soft wheezing of their breath could be heard as it passed through the full-face respirators they'd worn almost constantly since December 14th when the first evidence of plague was reported in the city. Since that day, several thousand cases of small pox, flu, and Ebola had been diagnosed. The most affected groups were medical personnel and the public employees who were on the streets. They covered more ground, came in contact with more potential disease carriers, and had often been called in to support ambulance and EMT crews working with the afflicted. In the last two weeks, almost 70% of the force had been infected.
Alexander Williams looked up through the faceplate of his mask. A sergeant, the highest-ranking officer left, had just entered the room. The other tired patrolmen gave him their attention.
"Gentlemen," he said, "we just got an unprecedented directive from the state's Deputy Attorney General, who's assumed the responsibilities of the governor's office this afternoon. He's been unable to contact federal authorities. He's been unable to contact his counterparts in North Carolina, Tennessee, or Georgia. Now, while there's no reliable estimate of the death toll, video from helicopter flyovers has revealed unattended dead in the streets of every city that's been visited. In most places it actually sounds worse than here.
Well, the DAG admitted that there was no realistic way to maintain control at the state level and he released the localities from enforcing state laws." The sergeant looked each man in the eyes before continuing. "Bottom line is, I guess I'm in charge of Columbia's law enforcement, but that's where the problem lies. See, there's no Columbia municipal codes with respect to maintaining basic order. We always just used the state and federal laws. Guys, I'll be honest here. I don't know what to do and I don't know if anything we do will help anymore. I'm open to suggestions."
The room was silent. Nobody even moved. What they'd just heard was the abdication of central authority. Rule was being turned over, not to the states, but to the municipalities. The union had dissolved itself, something that the Civil War had been fought to avoid. For all practical purposes, at least here in the southeast, the United States had ceased to exist.
Alex had spent his adult years as a cop. He had given his duties the better part of his life. Along the way, he'd accepted the necessities of the job…the compromises and long hours it demanded, because he'd always felt that law and order were the necessity that separated his country from many others around the world. Whenever he'd read a news story of some bloody uprising or revolution overseas, he'd thank god that he'd been born in a stable nation. Though America had plenty of faults, something he knew well as a racial minority, still the available options were mostly worse. Besides, he'd grown up in Columbia; it was home. Now though, everything had changed.
Alexander rose to his feet, nodded to the sergeant and his fellow officers, and headed out the door. The sergeant was asking for suggestions. Alex voted with his feet. If central authority had lapsed, then his next responsibility was to the individuals who were dear to his heart. He walked out of the station for the last time and got in his car.
On his way home, he looked at the empty streets and empty stores. The Congressional Diner was carefully closed down. The Columbia School of Martial Science was boarded up, unchanged for over five years. He drove around a body lying face down in the street, scattering a flock of crows and a mean looking dog. He'd seen that more than he cared to think about during the last couple weeks. Even a week ago, someone would have collected the body the same day it fell. Not anymore.
Karen met him at the door. She too wore a respirator. In their new ritual of greeting, they touched faceplates and hugged.
"You have the stuff packed?" He asked. She nodded. She'd been packed for weeks.
"We're finally leaving?"
"Yes," he told her, "just one stop and then we're out of here. Sweetheart, they've more or less dissolved the Union."
Karen looked at him in shock for a moment as he moved past her. He walked into their bedroom and pulled down the prepacked duffel bag from the shelf at the top of their closet. He added the boxes of ammunition for his service pistol and walked back through the house to begin loading up their car. Karen had already taken out the suitcase she'd kept beside the front door for the last three weeks, just hoping for this. When Alex came back inside, it was to drag out the cases of bottled water and the boxes of MREs. He came back one last time and went to the basement to shut off the gas and water at the meters, and shut down the circuit breakers. The last thing Karen brought out to the car was the massive photo album that held a lifetime of memories, and the carton of replacement P-100 particle filter cartridges for their hazard masks. Between the two of them, they used four a day. They still had enough for another month.
They took a last look back at their darkened house. Somehow it already looked sad and empty, abandoned like the city they called home. Alex put the car in gear and drove down the street towards the south side of town. He had one stop to make before leaving Columbia. "As our most senior student, you can help most by watching out for the others," Gabrielle had told him on that last fateful night. He was still the most senior student and he still felt that responsibility.
There was no phone service anymore and no way to call ahead. He honked twice as he pulled into the driveway. Ahead under the trellis sat a car covered by a heavy tarp. Alex knew that underneath the oilcloth was Xena's black Z-28 Camaro. He'd brought over enough cans of gas for it. Danielle had made sure to run it each Saturday, lurching and stalling it until she finally mastered the racing clutch and vertical gate shifter. Now he saw that the windows of the house and the kitchen door had been sealed with plywood. He got out, went up the steps to the porch, and pounded on the front door. After a few minutes he heard a muffled voice inside demanding to know who he was. He shouted his name and moments later the door swung open.
Danielle stood in the front hallway, dressed in desert camo BDUs and wearing a US Navy gas mask with a single large ABC canister filter. She was cradling an M-4 carbine in the crook of her right arm, the stock resting along the outside her biceps. Behind her, two large duffel bags leaned against the doorframe leading to the parlor.
"Ready?" He asked as he entered.
The CWO nodded and slung the carbine over her shoulder, then they each hefted a bag and went out onto the porch. Danielle snapped open a key case and carefully locked the front door of the Pappas house. The old place had been her home since she'd moved to Columbia in 2001, and she'd stayed even after Xena and Gabrielle had disappeared. She'd done a responsible job of keeping the place up for its owners ever since. Now she looked back at the building one more time, shook her head, and followed Alex to the car. She greeted Karen in the mask muffled speech they'd grown accustomed to over the last month, tossed her bags into the back seat with her carbine, and climbed in after them. Alex wasted no time in starting the car and driving off.
They headed south, driving out of the city following Bluff Rd to its junction with I-71. Their route had been long planned, and Alex was happy to see almost no traffic moving on the highway. Everyone who had opted to leave was already long gone, like Ray and Lynn, the Chu clan, or Owen and Debbie Chambers. Soon the sign announcing I-26 came up, and Alex stayed on the highway, the compass on the dashboard read a few points off due north. I-26 turned northwest after eight miles, and Alex followed it, finally leaving the city of Columbia behind.
The group followed I-26 for 150 miles, past Newberry, Clinton, and Spartanburg, until it dead-ended just west of Asheville. There they took I-40, following it west for eighteen miles until they reached US-19. The road got smaller, finally becoming a two-lane asphalt road. The sun was going down as they entered the Cherokee Indian Reservation. The road twisted and turned for ten miles before its intersection with US-441. Here they turned north, and two miles later entered the southern end of Great Smokey Mountains National Park. According to their plan, they would meet Ray and Lynn somewhere nearby.
The owners of the Congressional Diner had been among the first people that Alex had warned to leave. They had heeded his warning, while staring in horror at the full-face respirator mask he wore. They'd packed up the next day. He hoped they'd made it safely in their antique mini-busses.
Alex started into the park, keeping his eyes peeled for campgrounds. The first one he came to was only a mile-and-a-half inside the park boundaries. He slowed and made the right-hand turn into the campground.
"Take a look," Danielle said from the back seat. She was gesturing at the unprotected people eyeing them from the campsites. No one was wearing a mask.
"Leave 'em on a while longer," Alex advised, just being cautious, "you can't wear a mask you don't have, even if you should."
Danielle nodded in agreement. Alex continued down the camp road and took the first turnoff leading right. They searched and found no evidence of Ray and Lynn. In the same fashion they took the second road to the right and again found nothing but more unhappy and nervous people. The campers quickly noted Alexander's police uniform and Danielle's BDUs and military issue assault rifle. Like Harry Tasker had, Alex, Karen, and Danielle continued their methodical search. It was the only way to precede. And like Harry Tasker, they found their friends on the third road, with their VW mini-busses set up parallel in a campsite with the colorful canopy bridging them overhead.
It was a joyous reunion, hoped for, but less and less expected with each passing day. It was an even less expected surprise to find the Taskers right next door. Alex parked in the site just past them and finally took off his mask. No one in the park was wearing one.

January 17, 2006 - The Northern Persian Gulf

"There," Xena said as she pointed through the special glazing of the bridge to a shadowon the water about a quarter mile distant. Prima's eyes locked onto the target, black on black, and estimated its length with a calibrated range finder scope. The distant hull read mostly as an absence of the slight reflections from the sliver of moon and stars that shone down on the placid chop all around them. Higher up, the superstructure was lit from within the bridge, but the important targets were much lower.
"Got it," Prima acknowledged after a few moments, "target bearing 347º, range 431 yards, length 1,090 feet…locking on." She entered the data into a fire control computer.
"Five second bursts. Fire at will," Xena commanded.
Prima flipped up a safety cap on the console and depressed a large red button. High torque motors jerked the MK 15's gun carriage around to conform the targeting radar's data to the fire control computer's coordinates. A fraction of a second later, the low-pitched belch of firing was combined with the high pitched whine of the rotating barrels and the zip of projectiles. A gout of flames eight feet long lit the nearby water as the Phalanx fired at a rate of 4,500 rounds per minute. The MK 15 tracked its own output and adjusted its pitch a fraction of a degree for windage. It fired for five seconds, ceased for a heartbeat as it adjusted to a new target's coordinates, opened fire again for five seconds, and then repeated the sequence two more times.
A quarter mile away, four groups of 375 20mm, depleted uranium, armor piercing rounds breached the hull of the supertanker Exxon Malachi in four places. The rounds struck a yard above the water line, punching neat rows of overlapping perforations into each of the ship's four internal oil tanks. Almost immediately, the cargo of high-grade Kuwaiti heavy crude oil began gushing out into the night-darkened waters. From the supertanker's deck, spotlights stabbed down to light the hull as the crew inspected for damage. They didn't immediately realize that they'd been shot. The tanker's cargo of roughly 3.1 million barrels of oil was gushing out at a gravity fed rate of almost 32,000 barrels per hour.
"Secure that gun," Xena ordered. She shifted the annunciator to bring the Miss Artiphys to three-quarter speed as she took the wheel, turning to port and making their course 285º. "We need a fresh magazine for our next stop," she remarked to the "special", who immediately moved to reload the Phalanx.
The Miss Artiphys sped over the water at 67 knots, heading just north of west towards the Saudi off shore oil fields near Khafji. Their sailing time was about 45 minutes. The black hydrofoil ran without beacons, nearly invisible in the dark. At the end of their run, Xena slowed to 4 knots and brought the vessel to within a furlong of the main pipeline before ordering Prima to open fire.
"Firing on the first target," Prima reported as she depressed the red button.
The Phalanx growled for a full twenty seconds in response, emptying the 1,500 round magazine into a set of 6-foot diameter feeder pipes running parallel to each other along a sand and gravel levee. The attack damaged over a hundred yards of piping. The resulting hemorrhage of crude oil fountained out under 3psi of pressure. The clones reloaded the MK 15 as quickly as they could and the gun swung around to its second target. This time, a ten-second burst demolished a tanker loading station capable of pumping two million barrels a day.
Somehow, somewhere, the leaking oil was all part of a contiguous stream, through pipes and down well heads, and finally, into layers of sand and rock where the billions of barrels of Persian Gulf crude oil lay in reserves like Safaniya, Zuluf, and Marjan. The outflow from the tanker and the Saudi pipelines were the first of a series of targets to be hit within a 150 mile circle that also included Kuwait, Iraq, and Iran. Those four countries produced about 82% of the area's oil. Xena and Prima would strike Qatar and the United Arab Emirates as they left the gulf.
While the physical damage to the pipes and the environmental impact was highly destructive in the short term, it was an integral part of Xena's plan to cripple modern technology. By depriving the world's armies of their gas and oil, she could greatly decrease their effectiveness. Air power would become strategically nonviable and no conventionally powered ship would be combat ready. The Phalanx opened a doorway with its hail of projectiles, but the real damage would be done on the molecular level.
Into the gushing oil spills, the Destroyer of Nations released submicroscopic nanobots, developed with the best of intentions years before by Dr. Eric Drexler, for cleaning up accidental slicks. The tiny self-replicating nanobots indiscriminately broke down hydrocarbons and reorganized some of the basic organic molecules to replicate themselves. The remainder, they rendered into its elemental constituents. Working in the secret lab in Yokohama, Dr. Drexler had created the first Von Neumann machines
The infinitesimal creations that the strategos introduced into the Persian Gulf oil reserves were bugs of the very sort that opponents of nanotechnology had prophesized as the source of doomsday. In the presence of hydrocarbons, the nanobots reproduced like a virus, multiplying arithmetically and eventually pervading the environment. Like any arithmetic growth curve, the beginning would be slow and the initial numbers small, but there would come a point of saturation, reached in what seemed like an instant, when the last few generations doubled their numbers. It might take weeks or months to reach the saturation point, but the final outcome would make its impact like a comet. Then like a virus, "infected" oil added to international reserves would simply widen the affected area. Refineries and distribution centers for the finished products would soon host swarms of oil eating nanobots. Xena had projected that it would take about eight weeks for the petroleum dependant world to grind to a halt.
By noon of the next day, the Miss Artiphys was passing the Strait of Hormuz and heading into the Gulf of Oman. Xena steered a course of 100º and brought the hydrofoil to flank speed. Soon they would be in the Arabian Sea, beginning their cruise back to the decimated New World. They would clear Oman to the south and then steer a course of 210º that would take them down the eastern coast of Africa, all the way through the Mozambique Channel before they turned west to round the Cape of Good Hope. There were things to do before the main army was ready, a timetable to keep, and a plan to bring to fruition.
The first twinge came at 1130 hours local time on January 21st. Xena slowed the Miss Artiphys to 40 knots in two-foot swells, four miles off the coast of northern Tanzania. The sky was clear overhead, the ambient temperature about 72ºF. With the wind chill on deck, it was closer to 50º. It was something else that Xena felt though, as she stood at the wheel in the weatherproofed bridge.
It came as a tingle at the edge of her awareness, and while she easily maintained control of her craft, she allowed a segment of her consciousness to contemplate this unknown sensation. It wasn't wholly unpleasant, only unexpected. That in itself was worthy of attention because it wasn't part of the plan. The strategos tried to decide if it constituted a threat. The clone still hadn't reached a conclusion about it when Prima came topside from her berth in the cabin. She stared out to sea, swiftly turning in a circle and dismissing her surroundings as normal.
"You felt it too," Xena said. It was not a question.
"I felt…something," Prima acknowledged, making neither judgements nor conjectures.
Both clones eventually came to face towards the distant land off the starboard side. The enhanced "special's" finely tuned senses pinpointed what Xena could only feel vaguely.
"It comes from there," she stated with certainty, lifting her arm and pointing 60º off the starboard beam.
"Yes," Xena agreed, then, almost too softly to be heard, "like a second sunrise…"

Continued in Chapter 7

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