Part 3 Chapter 7

By Phantom Bard

For Disclaimer: See Part 3 Chapter 1

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

~ Harry Tasker to Spencer Trilby on March 28, 2002

January 18, 2006 - Beneath Bed 1, Olduvai Gorge, Northern Tanzania

She awoke with a jerk though she really couldn't remember having gone to sleep. Now she found herself in a place that she'd never seen before, with pictures moving before her eyes, with sounds and words filling her ears, and with a ravenous hunger growling in her belly. She also found herself naked beneath a thin sheet, but it was pleasantly warm here, wherever "here" was. In fact she felt fairly comfortable, strange circumstances aside, and though the surface she was lying on was smooth and hard, at least it wasn't cold. Some warm food and a cool drink would have been nice though.

For a long time she only watched the pictures. They meant something…she was sure of it. Soon she recognized herself, whenever her self appeared. She also recognized the tall dark haired woman who seemed to accompany her so much of the time. She realized that she knew that woman and wondered where the woman was. That would be Xena, she told herself as the name popped into her head, where's she gone off to now?

As she continued to watch, (for what actually seemed like days), she slowly began to remember other things that she was pretty sure she hadn't seen since awakening. They were things that grew from the pictures and sounds, but hadn't been among them at all. Sometimes they contradicted what she was being shown, and when that happened, she believed what she remembered. She had always believed that the senses could be tricked much more easily than the soul. What the hell? Heyyyyy, that's Joxer! And what's with the bell? That’s Aphrodite? Huh. From what I remember, she'd cursed him at birth, what with that cleft palate and the fistula…oh yuck! Whose life is this anyway?

Then the pictures started to come faster. The words sounded rushed, with the voices speaking quicker then she knew they should. Things were wrong at the speed she was seeing and hearing them. She knew better. She knew how things had been. She remembered. She remembered everything. I died and left Xena behind, heartbroken and in a rage! She'll revert and go off, I just know it. How long has it been? Where the hell am I? I've got to get out of here. I've got to find her!

Suddenly the pictures stopped. The voices fell silent. Now she could see with her eyes and hear with her ears. The download had ended. Moving slowly, she lifted her hands to her head, plucked off the wires, and looked around to her side. She was lying next to herself and her self was looking back at her. Their eyes widened in surprise rather than fear.

As one, they offered each other hesitant smiles and said, "Hi, I'm Gabrielle. Have you seen Xena, and do you know where we are?"

As one, their mouths dropped open in shock. All around them, for as far as they could see, their conversation was being repeated by an infinite crowd of themselves, all starting to sit up and look around in confusion and wonder. They each wrapped themself in a sheet, stood up, yawned, and stretched.

It took a while to get past the impact of finding herself replicated, but eventually they all started working together. They took a head count and found that they numbered 8,000. It quickly became obvious that no one there wasn't Gabrielle, and none of them could claim to know anything more than what the rest knew. None of them knew where they were or why. All of them were hungry and worried. The throng began exploring their surroundings and ended up forming an ever-extending line that penetrated each corridor and room. They discovered a dining area, labs filled with cryptic equipment, locker rooms filled with an endless repetition of clothing, and a storage hall filled with backpacks containing identical sets of survival gear and rations. The Gabrielles sat down to eat, still wrapped in their sheets, before they bothered to dress.

Eventually they came to a consensus; they needed to find Xena, and the choices were to either wait for her here, or to leave and search. She certainly wasn't anywhere inside with them. They'd looked everywhere and hadn't found a single Xena.

It took the rest of the day for them to discover how to leave, although part of that time was spent asleep. When they did discern how to get out, they each shouldered a backpack and walked up a tunnel, following the white painted arrows to a steel door they'd discovered. The Gabrielle closest to it smashed the glass front over a control panel and pushed the large button that said, "Push Here To Leave". Someone had made things simple for them at every turn, but who that was remained a mystery. The Gabrielles originally suspected that it was the missing Xena(s).

The steel door rolled up. It was a dry and eroded wasteland that greeted them. The exit was set into the side of a ravine, and had been hidden by a surface covering of dirt and rocks. One by one they stepped out into the bright morning sunlight, squinting and wrinkling their noses as they sniffed the already hot dry air. Above the door a light blinked each time one of them stepped through, and when the last of them had passed, the door slid shut. A small landslide buried it with fresh dirt and scree, and finally a few small boulders. The Gabrielles regarded it for a moment and then gave a collective shrug. They hadn't been intending to go back inside anyway.

Their eyes slowly adjusted to the bright sun and sky and found it too bright for comfort. They searched their packs and put on the floppy, wide-brimmed boonie hats that they'd been given, then spread sunblock on their fair skin. A low aggregate rumbling of muttered comments and speculations filled the air. Finally they began to walk; a mass of compact blondes, all dressed in identical desert camo BDUs, and all beginning to organize their impressions of this new existance into a narrative.

Though they didn't know it, that day was the 21st of January 2006. They had missed about 50 months since dying and things had changed. But now they were up and they had a goal. The Gabrielles began their search for Xena by moving through the gorge and heading north. A visceral compass directed them at the subconscious level, without discussions or maps. They felt no threats in their surroundings and therefore took no measures for stealth. They went forward, and in such a large group, they fairly radiated an aura of inquisitiveness, basic goodwill, and determination.

After a couple of hours they emerged from the gorge, stepping out onto the plains that surround Olduvai. Soon after that they encountered other people, herders and farmers mostly, and these passed the word of a great miracle. The news of the strange and wondrous migration of identical white women spread rapidly across the countryside, and the Gabrielles were greeted as whole villages turned out to watch them pass by. The people had hidden their livestock and were thankful that the strangers didn't stop. Such numbers would surely eat a locality to starvation in a single day.

March 2, 2006 - The Mirror Site, Washington, D.C.

It was 0400 hours EST. Under the burned out building at 1005 E St. NW, a flurry of activity animated the rooms and tunnels buried deep under the block bounded by E and F Sts. and 10th and 11th Sts. On three levels, clones donned their black uniforms, slung backpacks of equipment, and armed themselves, loading assault rifles and sidearms. Each carried a longsword in a back scabbard. Each wore a dagger on her left hip. On her right hip, each bore a Combined Chakram. The Destroyer of Nations' cloned warriors were finally ready.

Among them moved the guardian, Secunda, dressed in identical body armor, but bearing her paired Glock 18 autopistols in shoulder holsters and the magazine rigs on her thighs. She carried no chakram or bladed weapons yet, for her duty was still to protect the army in the strategos' absence. In the mirror site's control room, she uncovered a console that she had been instructed about almost two years before.

Her first action was the activation of a beacon. It contacted the strategos and informed her that her army was ready to move. The message was sent out in an alphanumeric cipher that used coded battle language from ancient Thrace. It broadcast until it was acknowledged, only a few seconds after it began.

The second action was the opening of the main hatchway. This comprised a section of the original building's basement floor. A pair of heavy doors swung downwards, opening like a trap and dumping the wreckage of the building above them into a deep pit below. Three stories worth of building debris dropped into a five-story deep shaft, leaving the area above almost completely clear. Into the cleared space, at a depth of eight feet below the original basement floor, a second pair of doors slid out from recesses to the sides, forming a new partial floor.

Secunda viewed the results through a periscope mounted video feed and then released a cloud of nerve gas to clear the surrounding blocks. Heavy white vapor spread from ductwork above the new floor, its volume forcing it up out of the basement and into the streets. It was just a precaution though. So many people had died so quickly in the plagues that Xena and Prima had released, that only half the city had survived to be killed when USAMRIID was destroyed at the end of December 2005. Almost everyone else had succumbed to the cloud of germs that blew in from the Ft. Detrick. Now the Nation's Capitol was a ghost town. Even so, Secunda followed her orders to the letter. The nerve gas would have given the emerging army a four-block perimeter…the minimum space that the strategos had calculated as a necessary toehold to successfully take the city.

An hour later, while the first light of dawn slunk across the sky, Secunda activated the massive ventilation fans that cleared the gas from the perimeter. As it spread out into the surrounding neighborhoods and dissipated, she unlocked the tunnel doors. Even before these were fully open, squads of clones advanced from the long passage that led up from the mirror site to the surface. They came with their weapons drawn, moving up and covering each other like commando teams. They established an ever-expanding zone of occupation around the site, clearing building after building and securing their perimeter. They moved like any invading force, communicating with each other and with Secunda when necessary, until they held a pentagonal section of the city bordered by 15th St, New York Ave, Massachusetts Ave, 2nd St, and Constitution Ave. Within that perimeter lay the FBI building, the Archives, the Depts. of Justice, Commerce, and Labor, the IRS, and Judiciary Square, all deserted and standing without a purpose. Secunda made their temporary headquarters in the FBI building, diagonally across E St from the mirror site.

The next morning, after the clones had reported all areas of occupation secured, Secunda chose four hundred clones and marched west down Constitution Ave. They passed the Ellipse and gazed at the empty White House.

The President and his staff had long ago fled the plagues. Marine One had lifted from the south lawn with the First Family and the White House staff, not long after the Taskers had left the city. The big helicopter had flown to Andrews Air Force Base where its passengers had joined the Joint Chiefs of Staff aboard Air Force One. They had fled Washington and the Destroyer's plagues, hoping to preserve the nation's government. Now they were hiding somewhere in the Midwest, isolated and irrelevant, and perhaps even dead. They couldn't travel, unless it was on foot or horseback. Almost all of America's oil had become tainted with Xena's nanobots and there was no more gasoline.

The clones broke into assault teams of twelve when they reached Virginia Ave, and they moved forward as if expecting opposition. Every tree and shrub was examined for traps and remote cameras. Every building was cleared with infrared sensors and then subjected to electromagnetic bombardment. They reached their objective, between 21st and 22nd Sts, and conducted a high-speed assault, sparing no hiding place or bolthole. Their target was the National Academy of Sciences building, and before they'd finished securing it, the deserted structure was riddled with bullet holes and grenade craters. The clones detonated charges to perforate the foundation in their search for the hidden subterranean spaces that Xena had ordered them to find. Stairwells in the three-story building were subjected to close scrutiny as possible sites of disguised entrances. Any shred of suspect information was collected. Any intelligence gleaned here would be presented to the strategos.

After two hours of intensive searching, no hidden entrances had been found. Secunda contacted the Destroyer of Nations to report that they were ready to demolish the site.

"Strategos, we have searched to protocols, and we have found nothing," the "special" told her commanding general.

"Check for accessways in the lawn," Xena instructed, "they may appear to be only hatches covering valves for the sprinkler system. Also check the utilities access doors in the surrounding sidewalks. If ya find nothing, I want even the storm sewers checked. Athena's headquarters and lab were there." Its purpose was dedicated to her, and the chemical trail from Kishihara's corpse had led to this building over a year ago.

They had seen evidence of the devotion the occupants of this place held for their enemy. The roofline just below the gables was decorated with bas-reliefs of owls. Among the eight bronze door panels commemorating great scientists, one pictured Charles Darwin with Athena's owl behind him. The owl appeared again, joined by a Medusa's head and Athena as well, all emblazoned on separate medallions flanking the doorway. More owls leered down at the clones from the corners of the marble pediment above the door. That ubiquitous owl was symbolic of wisdom; it was what the scientists here worshipped, and in doing so, they had built a modern temple to wisdom's goddess, Athena. The owl had been her personal symbol in ancient times, and it was still hers, try as the moderns might to divorce its essence from its patron.

Within the great hall, the taunting symbology continued. Among the decorated panels of the ceiling dome, the science of Anthropology was illustrated with a primitive and a Caesar. Below it, on the northern wall, was a painted mural celebrating the theft of fire from Helios' chariot by Prometheus, aided by Athena. She had been behind it all from the start, predisposing mankind to the quest for knowledge that would ensure her worship as the patroness of wisdom.

Below the mural, carved atop pilasters framing the doorway beneath the painting, stood figures symbolizing darkness and light. They opposed each other across the entranceway as they complimented each other architecturally. That dichotomy, Dark and Light, Day and Night, had been such a basic division throughout creation that even the gods had not been immune. Yet at evening and morning and during eclipses the two blended, tainting each other's purity and hinting at the element of conflict each hid within. A day could be dark, just as a night could be bright. Good could breed evil just as evil could be redeemed. And all too often, work done with the best intentions led to devastation.

Secunda dispatched teams of clones to carry out the strategos' orders and then waited for their reports as they searched.

Not ten minutes passed before a clone hurried up to report. A squad searching the grounds had found a suspected entrance. They had examined a sprinkler head on the southwest side of the lawn near the Albert Einstein Memorial grove. It had been a decoy. The dummy sprinkler head had been easily removed with a twist. Beneath it, instead of a feeder pipe, they had found a rotating dial. The squad leader had ordered the others to back off and then she had rotated the dial. Behind her, a click had signaled the displacement of a section of the green granite star map embedded in the memorial's base. A pie segment, with a radius of 14 feet and an arced border 11 feet long, had lifted two inches above its base level along one radial edge. The opposite edge was hinged.

Secunda listened to the report and then relayed the information to the strategos.

"Guard the entrance, Secunda," Xena ordered, "Do not enter. I’ll join you there."

Fifteen minutes later, Xena and Prima arrived from the Gangplank Marina pedaling racing bikes. The two "specials" acknowledged each other with only a glance. Secunda led the Destroyer of Nations to the suspected entrance. Around it, she'd posted a dozen clones. Each was standing with the muzzle of her weapon trained on the small opening in the star map.

Xena walked right over to the curved edge of the trap door and nudged it up, testing its movement with the toe of her boot. It rose easily, as if counterbalanced. She nodded to Secunda who was standing beside her, then lifted the door partially open. The "special" displayed her enhanced speed. In a heartbeat she had both Glock 18s clear of the holsters and pointing down into the entrance. A foot of flames spewed from the barrels as she emptied the magazines of both pistols in a long unbroken burst, playing the weapons slightly to spray the opening with all 62 available rounds. In the silence that followed, the last tinkling of ejected brass shell casings could be heard on the pavement. At the same unnatural speed, she rocked the handguns back in her palms, released the spent magazines, and brought the pistols down alongside her thighs. The tops of the replacement magazines slipped into the magazine wells in the handgrips and locked in place. She raised the weapons, pulled back the slides with her thumbs and then trained them onto the entrance again. The whole process had taken under two seconds.

The Destroyer of Nations kicked the trap door fully open. Three waiting clones tossed handfuls of light sticks into the darkness below. Some landed on a flight of stairs. Others bounced further down, landing in a corridor that led towards the Academy of Sciences building. At a nod, a squad of clones started down the steps. They clicked on the tactical lights attached to their assault rifles and began moving forward into the corridor. The clones advanced in four groups of three, two groups along each wall. The group leaders crouching low, the seconds standing erect with their rifles over the leaders' shoulders. The third in each group held her rifle out from her body toward the center of the corridor, next to the second's elbow. Secunda started down the steps with Xena directly behind her. The strategos lifted a simple ring from a concealing holster at her hip and held the Chakram of Day ready. Two more squads of clones followed.

Originally, the corridor had been lit by florescent fixtures in the ceiling. These no longer functioned, since the PEPCO grid had gone down months ago. Now the clones moved through a black tunnel, lit by the stabbing beams of the tactical gun lights. The groups managed to array the light beams so that they illuminated the corridor from side to side, and from about thirty feet ahead to the far extent of the beams' projection. They held their weapons steady to minimize the jumping and flickering that could conceal a hostile movement. Secunda, trusting that her reaction time would allow her to dodge aside if she saw a muzzle flash from the darkness beyond the light beams, fearlessly walked down the center of the corridor, both machine pistols trained straight ahead at arm's length.

They reached the end of the corridor without encountering anyone. There they found a blank steel door, and Xena recalled an identical one that she'd seen years ago. It had been blocking the tunnel beneath the DOE installation in Georgia that had held the cloning site where she'd found the body of her daughter, Eve. She felt her rage building by reflex, but choked it back with a surge of her will.

"Blast it open," she ordered, "I want 84s thrown in as soon as the door goes down."

A pair of clones immediately moved to the door and attached shaped charges of Composition-4 in a rectangular pattern a foot inside each of the door's corners. Like a Claymore mine, the charges directed the blast's energy in one direction, in this case, the contact surface where they were attached. Unlike a Claymore mine, they contained no steel ball projectiles since they were intended as cutting charges rather than anti-personnel weapons. The remaining clones withdrew down the corridor with Secunda and the strategos, and donned goggles and earplugs. A clone set a small box on the floor from which paired red laser beams stabbed out. She adjusted them to touch the door at a point about a foot shy of where they'd converge. Steady twin red spots marked the door six inches apart. The two demolitions clones quickly attached timed fuses to the charges. Each activated two and then ran back to join their comrades

The twenty second delay passed as the clones counted silently and looked away. They covered their ears and lowered their heads as an added precaution. The blast shook the corridor with tremors but produced very little light and surprisingly little sound. The concussion did produce a pressure wave that felt like a solid thump and would have burst eardrums if an unprotected person were too close. As the dust swirled at the far end of the corridor, the closest assault group immediately rose to their feet readying M84 stun grenades. The small box on the floor emitted a chirp, announcing that the laser beams had converged.

"Door's down," a clone reported.

The group of three clones closest to the door flung their M84 "flash/bang" grenades through the breached door. The 175db reports were accompanied by 8 million candela flashes, which blasted out of the jagged edges of the doorframe and lit the corridor's walls in a succession of lightning bolt strobes. The clones were on their feet and charging towards the blasted door, but Secunda was already almost there. She reached the doorframe and spun into the room, weaving and ducking in a blur of motion as she went, one handgun pointing out in each hand as her eyes flicked across the walls and corners. She would fire at the first hint of movement, quicker than any human enemy could aim a weapon at her.

"Clear," she called out as the assault teams reached the entrance.

"Move forward," Xena ordered.

The assault teams charged into the cleared room and tossed flares into the corners. The first trio moved to back up the "special", who was standing at the only interior door. One ignited a flare. At a nod from the guardian, a second clone shot out the lock with a short burst from her assault rifle. Secunda launched herself into the air and took the door off its hinges with a spinning back kick. The flare immediately flipped into the room over her shoulder, lighting the space. The guardian landed with her front leg bent fully at the knee, the other straight out behind her, and the top of her head barely eighteen inches off the ground, presenting a forward target profile barely larger than a one year old child. Both pistols were up and her quick eyes were searching. Two clones leapt into the room and landed to either side, advancing and sweeping the space with their gun lights. The third stood crouched in the doorframe with her rifle trained over Secunda's shoulder.

"Clear," the guardian announced. The assault team set more flares to light the room more evenly.

The remaining nine members of the first squad entered with the Destroyer of Nations on their heels. She noted that the room had been a guard station, with a single desk, chair, and surveillance camera in a rear corner near the ceiling. She noted that a section of the wall opposite the outer door looked like frosted glass. Beside it was a scanning pad for palm prints. A bulletproof, electronically activated, probably one-way viewable security door, Xena thought. Bullets will ricochet off and setting a charge will take time. She nodded to herself, wanting to maintain their momentum.

"Down," she ordered as she hefted her chakram. The clones in the room went prone as Xena launched the ring sidearm.

Any normal steel ring would certainly have struck the glass and rebounded. With a sharp crack, the Chakram of Day embedded a third of its circumference into the milky surface. For a heartbeat, nothing more happened. Then, with a soft crackling like thin ice crazing on flexing sheet metal, a network of cracks spread from the impact point and raced across the surface. With a crystalline ping, the entire sheet fell into tiny irregular shards, like automobile safety glass spraying from a windshield in an accident. The Chakram of Day fell, lodging in a shallow nick that its weight drove into the floor and remaining upright, waiting on its edge for Xena. A clone tossed a flare past it into the next room.

Secunda and the first trio moved through the door, sidestepping the chakram. Xena followed them, retrieving her weapon. The space they entered had been a control room, and like the first room the assault team had entered at the Georgia site, it was filled with computers and other equipment. Beyond a glass wall opposite the door lay another large cloning lab.

The setting was familiar to the Destroyer of Nations. The machinery, the brooding darkness, the menacing shadowed shapes of the cylindrical tanks, and the curtained off examination cubicles along the right wall. The rest of the first assault team entered the control room, training their weapons on the dark lab beyond the glass.

"Take out the windows," Xena ordered.

A trio of clones opened fire, shattering the glass. Another trio flung flares into the lab, revealing the interior in wavering, hissing red.

"Search it. Find out where the main entrance is," Xena commanded.

The first assault team began spreading out in threes, clearing the lab yard by yard to ensure that there were no living inhabitants. For the first time, the smell of death hung in the air stronger than the smoke from the flares. There were certainly dead inhabitants inside. The strategos was almost sure they lay on gurneys in the curtain draped examination bays, just as had been the case with her daughter at the DOE site. She really didn't want to look. The best she could hope for was to find the decomposing cadaver of one of her four known enemies, Elainis, Callisto, Mavican, or Achilles.

"Strategos," a clone called uncertainly. She was standing by one of the exam cubicles, holding back the drape with the barrel of her rifle…and she was trembling.

Xena felt a twinge of apprehension as she paced towards the waiting clone, though no true premonitions came to her. Applying logic, she expected to find the body of one of her enemies, but she braced herself in case she was forced to confront another clone of her daughter. The strategos had to wonder if even that sight could penetrate the ice that had grown around her heart over the last five years. She still wasn't ready for what lay behind the curtain. The sight stopped her in her tracks.

In the cubicle Athena had contrived to leave a last reminder that she was a goddess, and therefore capable of almost anything. She fought with modern weapons and modern technology. She waged war, not just against the bodies of her enemies, but against their morale and psyches as well. Her forces had covertly slaughtered millions, leaders, military personnel, and common civilians alike, with engineered microbes. Against Xena and her patron god there was no limit to the pressure she would apply, for there was no point in waging a war unless the desire for victory was paramount. In this conflict, the Goddess of War was waging a campaign that she had waited over two thousand years to prosecute. Its goal was dear to her heart, for it fulfilled an ambition as old as the history of Western civilization. To attain that goal, she'd sought to break the spirit of her rival's Favorite. The evidence of her intentions lay on the gurney. It was the end result of a plan set in motion before Xena's primary site had been destroyed over a year before.

Secunda appeared at Xena’s elbow, staring past her general and the nervous soldier.

The body was badly decomposed. Even so, its identity was unquestioned. The frame had been compact, less then five and a half feet tall. Whisps of fine blonde hair still clung to a shriveled scalp stretched tight over the rounded skull. The shrinkage of tendons had twisted the features into a tortured grimace, though the flesh of the cheeks had partially sloughed away. The cadaver's eyes were desiccated and sunken. A coagulated trail of gore traced the fluids that had leaked from the body weeks before…blood mostly, oozing from the mouth, nose, and other orifices of the body. Nylon web straps still restrained the corpse as they had during the last struggles of its life.

The strategos looked at the body for a long moment, barely breathing in the stench through her mouth. She memorized the evidence and filed it away to add to her list of grievances. Once the sight would have driven her into a rage that would have burned itself out in the embers of suicide. Now it only served to enhance her resolve and plant a lingering doubt. Xena indexed that doubt for future reference. It might become strategically important one day. She also realized that here again, Athena had miscalculated. She still didn't understand the fundamental change that had occurred in her enemy. As recently as three months ago, the Goddess of War still believed that she was facing the Warrior Princess. Xena filed away that confirmation too. It conferred an advantage. Then she turned away and strode to the center of the lab.

"Set the charges and withdraw," she ordered, her voice ringing out even and cold, "complete the preparations for demolition."

The clones immediately stopped their search for the main entrance and regrouped. Their leader was already walking back to the control room.

"Double the charges," Secunda ordered, "don’t leave a single brick standing."

The cloned warriors moved to implement their orders, rapidly and efficiently setting and rigging the explosives at critical structural points. They worked with confidence and speed, mostly unaffected by the discovery of the only body in the lab. None of them had ever met the soulmate of the Warrior Princess.

A quarter hour after discovering Gabrielle's body, Xena stood on Constitution Ave and nodded to Prima. All her troops were accounted for and safely clear. The "special" depressed a button on a detonator control box and a signal was transmitted to the primary charges. The coordinated explosions were followed by a sequence of secondary blasts, and then the building began to implode. The main building, with its domed hall and original wings, the later additions, and even the memorial statue of Albert Einstein all crumbled and collapsed. A cloud of dust rose as the shattered structure fell, blown out into the streets by the tons of masonry cascading to the ground. Sections of the lawn, underlain by hidden subterranean construction, caved in. Even a length of sidewalk and part of 22nd St gave way and violently subsided.

After the dust settled, Xena looked at the remains. Now nothing rose higher than eight feet above ground level. There was nothing recognizable.

Coming here accomplished nothing, she thought. Strategically it was a waste of time. I could've done the same damage with a pinpoint missile strike. The only benefit was seeing Gabrielle's cloned body, dead of Ebola. Maybe Athena hadn't even bothered to do her downloads…just left her body there as a calling card. That's another mistake on her part though. Now I'll know to suspect any Gabrielle clone I meet. But I gave Athena this opportunity to strike at me. And I will not forget that.

March 8, 2006 - The North Atlantic

The Argo's periscope had showed all that the chiliarchos had needed to see.

"Helm, mark this bearing and proceed at 4 knots. The target is 2,761 yards. Surface us at a distance of fifty yards." The acting captain snapped the grips up against the sides of the stainless steel tube and the periscope slid down as it was retracted from the sail.

"Ahead, 4 knots," the acting helmsman reported.

"Diving officer, make you depth 80 feet."

"Coming to 80 feet," the diving officer confirmed.

"Helm shifting to bearing 328º, as marked."

"Steady as she goes," the captain said.

The Argo moved forward at 4 knots towards the target, but this time they were not preparing to fire. They had no intention of destroying the surface ship that lay ahead of them.

"Sonar, any active contacts?" The captain asked.

"No active contacts, Captain. No changes in aspect ratios for any contacts, no prop or plant noises, no active sonar pings, no communications. They are dead in the water."

"Bring us in," the captain ordered.

At 0800 hours local time, the Argo surfaced fifty yards from the USS Harry Truman's stern on the carrier's port side. The bulk of the Truman's carrier group lay to starboard. Beyond them, the USS John Kennedy's carrier group lay a kilometer to the north, and to the east, the Russian fleet drifted. The captain, and three other chiliarchoi, climbed to the observation deck atop the sail and surveyed their surroundings through binoculars.

"Com reports nothing ship to ship or on the satellite systems," one remarked.

"The whole fleet has drifted precisely as the strategos calculated. The Gulf Stream and the Westerlies have brought them 250 miles closer to the Azores since December 18th."

"Exactly. None of these ships have been under their own power since the strategos killed their crews. I doubt if there's a single living soul onboard any of them."

"I agree," the captain said. "The teams may proceed with the salvage."

Six inflatable Zodiacs launched from the Argo, each carrying a dozen clones. They converged on the USS Harry Truman, tying off to the same ladder that Xena and Prima had descended to the Miss Artiphys by. From the aft hanger deck they spread out through the ship, checking and securing the engineering and navigation sections. Clones invaded the superstructure and operations. They occupied the bridges and control rooms. One by one, they restored functions and powered up systems. The automatic shutdown protocols were reset to restore full power throughout the ship. The clones went about their tasks with knowledge and efficiency, having studied the Truman's schematics that Prima had downloaded from the ship to her laptop back in December.

At 1200 hours, two Zodiacs returned delivering seventeen clones to the sub. The other four Zodiacs were hoisted aboard the Truman and stored in the aft boat hanger. A crew of 55 clones had remained behind to sail the aircraft carrier and dispose of bodies. The Argo stood off from the Truman and floated at station keeping, 100 yards off the carrier's port side. From the observation deck, the captain watched as the mammoth ship's lights came on, its radar dishes spun, and finally, its props began to turn. She received confirmation from the chiliarchos in command of the carrier, reporting that everything was operational and that they were preparing to get underway. Then she watched as the flattop turned southeast, finally coming to 30 knots as it churned away towards the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The remaining 33 clones aboard the Argo secured the sub and submerged, running as a shadow escort for the world's biggest troop transport. In Washington, D.C., the strategos was waiting.

March 13, 2006 - Gangplank Marina, Washington, D.C.

"Secunda, proceed to the T-slip with your remaining forces." The strategos' order came through her headset.

"Withdrawing all remaining troops," the guardian replied, "our ETA is one hour."

The "special" switched the com channel to speak with the final 800 clones. Over the last week, the army of occupation had withdrawn by companies of 800. They had abandoned their posts, marched to the T-slip at the Gangplank Marina, and boarded either the Miss Artiphys, or the converted Odyssey that she towed. From there, they had been ferried downriver to an assembly point at Cape Charles, Virginia, near Norfolk and the southern terminus of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge and Tunnel. The operation had been going on day and night, with the Miss Artiphys running at 30 knots, as fast as the flat bottomed tourist vessel could be hauled.

For years the Odyssey had plied the Potomac River, allowing upscale tourists to enjoy fine dining as they took in the sites of the Nation's Capitol from the water. Now she was gutted, reduced to a passenger barge capable of carrying 600 troops at a time. It was a tight fit, but no other hull in the area could have held so many souls or been towed so fast. As it was, she'd traded two feet of waterline clearance for the increased stability of an overloaded condition.

The remaining 200 clones in each group had piled aboard the hydrofoil, and the two vessels had sailed downriver as fast as Prima could pilot them. On the return trips, the "special" made almost 40 knots most of the way, allowing the Odyssey to come within a hair's breadth of swamping both ships. Xena had gritted her teeth as she'd watched the flat-bottomed tourist cruiser, with no rudder or draft to speak of, slewing and hydroplaning around each curve as it trailed behind them. She could only trust in the enhanced clone's ability to instantly adjust their speed and course to compensate. It had been a nerve-wracking week.

The last clones occupying the Capitol City converged on Secunda's headquarters in the FBI building. They drew up in ranks and files on the Constitution Ave side and she met them at the entrance to the building's concrete courtyard.

"Everything is ready, Guardian," a clone reported, handing over a small control box.

Secunda took the offered control box and nodded. Then she set off, leading the last of the army to the marina. She didn't look back. The city had been her tour of duty for two years, but she had only caught a handful of glimpses of it before the army had emerged into a deserted necropolis. She had no fondness for it at all. She hung the control box from her duty belt and led the way down 9th St and into the underpass below the mall. When they resurfaced, they were south of L'Enfant Plaza.

Their route took them across the overpass above I-395, then down 9th St SW to Water St and finally the marina. The Miss Artiphys was waiting, and Secunda handed over the control box to her general. Prima was already directing companies to board the two craft.

They moved with the same precision and speed they’d used to accomplish everything else they'd done. Most of the clones knew no other way. It was what they'd been trained for, what they'd experienced since their first minute of consciousness in this life, and it was what they expected. Each did her part. In twenty minutes they were aboard with their gear stowed, and they were casting off the ships' lines for the last time. Prima managed the channel motor, drawing the vessels away from their moorings, then started up the water jets as they entered the channel. She looked over the rows of clones, steady on their feet as the ships gained speed, patiently waiting out the hours of transport. Not a one would think of complaining. Their current situation was simply part of their mission, and though uncomfortable, it would be short-lived in the overall scheme of the campaign. Every one of them had identical memories of enduring much worse.

Hours later the vessels reached Cape Charles at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The clones debarked from the Odyssey and Prima cut the barge loose. On the seaward side of the Bay Bridge's span stood the immense bulk of the aircraft carrier, USS Harry Truman. As the army watched, CVN-75 edged closer and closer to the bridge. To its portside, in the center of the navigation channel, the Argo had surfaced.

"Move everyone onto the northbound lane," the strategos ordered.

The two "specials" moved to implement her orders. Soon a line of clones was marching up the bridge towards the southern section of the span where the navigation channel still gave the carrier sufficient depth for her draft. The carrier had moved in so that its acres of deck lay above and adjacent to the bridge. With nearly 80 feet to the waterline, the carrier rose more than 40 feet higher than the bridge's road surface. Although the bridge spanned 17 _ miles, it ran most of that distance on low trestles barely 40 feet above the water. Shipping normally passed into the bay by sailing over one of the two tunnel sections where the road disappeared below the bay's bed into manmade islands.

Now the Truman's crew had inched the big ship in so close that the flight deck overshadowed the bridge's right hand traffic lane. The acting captain watched the operation from the bridge in the island, almost 120 feet above. As the army massed in ranks, the carrier lowered its three starboard aircraft elevators, leaving a height gap of only eight feet to the bridge. The crew deployed boarding nets from the elevators and the 8,000 clones climbed aboard. It took close to two hours, but no other army could have boarded so quickly under such unconventional circumstances.

Finally the Destroyer's army was aboard. There was some redistribution of personnel between the USS Harry Truman, the Argo, and the Miss Artiphys. Zodiacs flitted between the vessels. The chiliarchoi and hecatontarches distributed themselves among the cloned troops to form the intended chain of command. Two hundred crewed the sub. The strategos and her two "specials" went aboard the hydrofoil. The remaining 7,800 troops stayed with their officers aboard the Harry Truman. As dark descended over Cape Charles, the ships weighed their anchors put to sea. The clones were heading back to the Old World to wage war on ground they all remembered intimately. They were returning to the country where the features of the landscape were still the most familiar, back to the lands of their gods where they'd first learned to wage war. Back to where another ancient weapon waited, forgotten.

March 25, 2006 - Abu Simbel, Southern Egypt, the Nubian Desert

Float, float, float, and roast in the sun. She didn't think she'd ever had such a tan, even during those years of traveling long ago. The Gabrielles self-deprecatingly likened their appearance to the California beachy girls they'd seen somewhere on TV. Bronzed skin, hair bleached almost white, and 16,000 emerald green eyes squinting across the water at the cliffs and the endless sky. They'd been floating down the Nile River for two weeks. It was boring, but far better than the six and a half weeks of walking that they'd endured before that. It had already been a long journey and it wasn't over yet, but once upon a time, each of them had spent a lifetime walking.

Walk, walk, walk, it had gotten old fast. Out of Olduvai Gorge, they'd headed north and then west, on the advice of an ancient village woman who had looked like a dried mummy, bald, wizened, toothless, and burned black by the sun. She'd stood balanced on one leg, adorned with a sprinkling of gold ornaments that seemed to blaze against her ebony skin, and holding a long switch with which to intimidate her dozen goats.

"Hibare. Hujambo," one of the Gabrielles had offered in greeting. The old woman had cackled at her Swahili and then spoken to her in English.

No, she hadn't seen any Xenas, but she did warn them to head west, so that they'd pass south of Lake Victoria rather than walking its northern shore where Mt. Elgon slept. The volcano was evil, she'd declared with certainty, and everyone knew that Ebola and the yammering, flesh-eating spirits lived in its caves. Of course Mt. Elgon was to the lake's northeast. To the lake's northwest lay the Sese Islands, a reputed reservoir of Marburg virus and a suspected original epicenter of AIDS. The Gabrielles had heeded her sage advice and passed south of Lake Victoria.

Their migration had continued into the hilly lands of northern Burundi, staying east of the Mitumba Mountains, walking, walking, walking, gathering whatever they found, killing and eating anything that moved. Nowhere had anyone seen a Xena. They'd heard rumors of war in other countries to the north, and there weren't as many TV stations or working cell phones anymore. It had sounded ominous to the blondes as they continued on their walk. And as they had in the distant past, they'd helped the people they'd met along their way.

Digging a new village well had taken them only a few hours. Rebuilding a herder's thorn tree fences had gone just as quickly with so many hands. The same was true of the cinderblocks they'd stacked for a new clinic. One afternoon, the Gabrielles had covered many square miles searching for a lost child before finding him wedged in a hillside crag, unconscious from thirst. They'd woven nets for fishermen and checked a line of snares for a man too sick to feed his family. They'd practiced the herbal medicine and even some simple surgeries that they remembered. Finally, after working their way through Rwanda, they'd found themselves in western Uganda, on the northern shore of Lake Albert. The Gabrielles had reached the head of the White Nile.

For the Gabrielles that hadn't been such a big change. They were still stuck walking for a few hundred more miles. The White Nile began in the highlands with miscellaneous swamps and rapids that continued off and on until they reached Nimule, on the Sudanese border. There the river seemed to make up its mind and continued for the next hundred miles as rapids. At Rejaf the river changed its mind again and became a swampland where the water was topped with masses of floating vegetation. Those swamps continued across the Sudan Plain for the better part of 325 miles. Here and there, sections of the waterway were navigable, and ferries plied the river, crowded to the point of floundering, with people, trade goods, and livestock. The Gabrielles, instinctively trusting their feet, had decided that walking was far safer and wouldn't have boarded one of the ferries even if there had been room. In fact, those conveyances had been dangerously overloaded since their first day in service, even to the point of people cooking their meals over open fires on the roof.

The Gabrielles walked the riverbanks where possible, around the rapids and beside the margins of the swamps, and finally along the questionable "seasonal" road between Bor and Malakal that paralleled a canal. The road actually existed during the dry season, but during the wet season it turned into a 160-mile long morass of mud, slime, and insects.

Like most places they'd seen in Africa, there were always people moving. Almost no one could afford to sit still. Many of them had wares to sell, whether it was fabric, grain, bush meats, spices, livestock, or craft works. The bazaars were mindboggling, but the towns were mostly very poor compared to what the blondes remembered of the modern world. Here they saw poverty, diseases, agriculture, and animal husbandry that hadn't changed since their ancient lives. And all of it was juxtaposed against satellite dishes, laptop computers, cars, sneakers, radios, and colorful modern money.

In the center of one concrete town, they'd spied an elder wearing the baboon skin cape of a shaman, busily making deals on a cell phone. He stood cheek by jowl with a younger man in a business suit who'd turned out to be his son. The son was drinking fermented goat's milk from a gourd, while the shaman was downing a can of Pepsi. Both wore chrome-framed sunglasses, probably Rayban knockoffs made in Taiwan. Both wore sneakers…pink sneakers with the "Hello Kitty" character printed on the sides. A man nearby was casually pulling a Guinea worm from its burrow in his leg and winding it around a stick. Just down the street, a family had dragged their sofa into the road, and sat with their friends in a happy circle surrounding a blind man who was plucking out a jaunty tune on a kora. The itinerant musician was seated on a groundcloth in the most ragged tuxedo the Gabrielles had ever imagined. He was sweating profusely and smiling broadly as he stared at a spot somewhere above the heads of his audience.

The days had passed, and with them, the miles. March had found them in Kusti, in the northern region of the Sudan. The land was underpopulated, for people still feared the small pox plague that had devastated the area in September of 2002. Khartoum was believed cursed and the lands surrounding the Nile were deserted. There the Gabrielles had found abandoned boats and they took to the river.

It was a motley flotilla of ferries, cargo and fishing ships, and pleasure craft. They moved together in an armada. Because the old cataracts along the Nile had been flooded under the reservoirs formed by dams, they could navigate freely downriver. At the Abu Dawn dam they filed into the shipping bypass and continued on their way. The same maneuver was repeated at the dams near Al Begeir, Merowe, and Tageb.

Now the Gabrielle armada was passing the drowned temple site of Abu Simbel and the river had widened to form Lake Nasser, the reservoir behind the Aswan High Dam just above the first cataract. The waters had flooded up to the second cataract where the river had been navigable since antiquity.

On the cliffs above the waterline sat the Temples of Ramesses and Nefertari. Both had been relocated in the 1960s as the reservoir’s water level first rose. The Gabrielles had heard of these temples in their original life, but had never seen them. Now they stood at the railings on their assortment of boats, staring upwards as transfixed as any tourists in the last 3,000 years. Every one of them recalled their history lessons.

They had married young, in an arranged ceremony before the pharaoh had come to power. For once, such an arrangement had led to love. Pharaoh Ramesses II had ruled the united northern and southern kingdoms for 67 years, and during the first twenty-four, Queen Nefertari had ruled by his side. Seldom had any Egyptian queen been regarded so highly. Many depictions of Ramesses showed Nefertari with him, in both peace and war, attesting to her status and influence in state and foreign affairs. Many titles had been conferred upon her by her loving king, among them, "Mistress of the South and North", and "Lady of the Two Lands". They were royal titles that paralleled his own, setting her above the other queens in a role as closely approaching equal as the culture of that time could permit to a queen who did not rule in her own name. She'd had personal epithets as well; "Queen of All Lands", "Beloved of Mut", and "Bride of God" among them. And then she had disappeared from history. During the 43 years after her death, no other queen was so honored by Ramesses II. In artwork, no other queen's figure was again painted or carved equal in size to his own. In the Valley of Queens at the Necropolis of Thebes, hers was the finest tomb ever uncovered. To the Gabrielles, it was obvious that the pharaoh's soulmate had been irreplaceable.

Soulmates, she’d thought, who had they truly been, this pharaoh and his queen? Where had their souls come from and where had their afterlife delivered them? Gabrielle had always hoped that they’d been reunited beyond the mortal world and rewarded with bliss.

Here, at Abu Simbel, Ramesses II had built a temple for his queen. He had dedicated it to both Nefertari and Hathor, the Goddess of Love, Fertility, and Women. It was the only known Egyptian temple dedicated jointly to a queen and a goddess, and by doing so, Ramesses had conferred divine status upon his beloved wife. Of the six colossal statues guarding the temple's entrance, four depict Ramesses and two depict Nefertari, but more importantly, the figures are carved the same size, indicating equal importance. And above the doors of Nefertari's temple at Abu Simbel, Ramesses had directed masons to carve his dedication.

"Ramesses II, he has made a temple, excavated in the mountain, of eternal workmanship, for the Chief Queen Nefertari, Beloved of Goddess Mut, in Nubia, forever and ever...Nefertari...for whose sake, the sun does shine." This in a land where the sun was a god.

The inscription was almost 3,300 years old, and the Greeks had known of the temples in antiquity. Mercenaries in the service of Psammetichus, son of Theolces, had carved graffiti on its stones to commemorate their visit some 500 years before Gabrielle's time. By the Roman Era, the words had been regarded as an inspiring testimony to a great love between a king and his queen. To Gabrielle, they had also been an inspiration, a testimony to the possibility of equality between partners…not just rulers, but any lovers. She had found that and more in her relationship with her soulmate. Xena had been everything that Gabrielle had dreamed of as a young girl with a head full of legends, myths, and stories, back in Poteidaia. She'd been heroic, dauntless, devoted, and wise. But Xena had also been bound by a dark heredity that coursed through her very blood. Xena had loved Gabrielle as truly as Ramesses had loved Nefertari, but the warrior had also needed her light and her love as truly as Egypt had needed the sun and the river.

The Gabrielles turned their eyes from the temples as they shrank in the distance. The need to find Xena was stronger than ever…not just for the sake of her own desires, but for the sake of Xena's soul. And, the Gabrielles thought, for the sake of the world.

April 12, 2006 - Kavala, Macedonia

The army of the Destroyer of Nations had debarked and set up a temporary encampment to the west of the small seaside town of Kavala. Eion, the ancient town at the mouth of the Strymon was long gone, and the river's mouth had ceased to be navigable centuries ago. Now it was a swampy estuary rather than an open channel, and even ships of shallow draught could never have sailed upriver to the site where Amphipolis had once stood. Even using Kavala's docks, landing the troops had taken most of a day, ferrying them from the USS Harry Truman in zodiacs, longboats, and the Miss Artiphys.

During the passage across the Atlantic Ocean, through the Strait of Gibraltar, and across the Mediterranean Sea, the clones had been busy. They'd spent the time drilling on the aircraft carrier's deck, converting shipboard weapons for deployment by ground troops, and planning alternative tactics. They had taken the ship's stores, medical supplies, survival equipment, and linens to provision the army.

The day before the ships had reached their destination, the Miss Artiphys had disappeared for half a day with the strategos and her "specials". The hydrofoil had come to the island of Thasos that the Destroyer had sacked in 77 BC. Now there was no Caesar, nor the triremes of the Roman navy. This time her intention was not destruction, but shopping. The clone had procured three goats for "ceremonial" purposes.

"Every army should have goats," she'd declared to Prima. "It was SOP in ancient times. No army would've thought of goin’ to war without asking for the blessing of the gods."

"But you already enjoy that favor, Strategos," the "special" had observed.

"I know," Xena had said, "and even back then, it was done mostly for the morale of the troops. I never believed that the gods could be so easily influenced. Still, in this campaign, I intend to follow the old forms and rituals of war. It's symbolic of a return to Ares' way…our way." The "specials" had nodded in agreement.

Secunda had helped Xena drag the reluctant animals aboard the hydrofoil and Prima had set their course to return to the fleet. In a couple of hours they'd been back escorting the Truman around Mt. Athos on the easternmost peninsula of Chalcidice. And later….

"See that coastal highway," the strategos said, indicating a four-lane asphalt road that ran right along the cliffs above the shore for the last twenty miles to the mouth of the Strymon River. Prima and Secunda nodded, yes. "Have it destroyed. It's a back route right to our doorstep." The modern highway, E90, closely followed the same route the Spartans had taken to assault Amphipolis in 424 BC, during the Peloponnesian War.

Secunda picked up the radio headset and contacted the Harry Truman. She spoke to the acting captain and then shut the transceiver down. Aboard the carrier, clones quickly moved to follow Xena's orders. From the portside stern, just below the flight deck, four con trails marked the shrieking passage of a volley of Sea Sparrow missiles. The missiles struck their target, an overpass bridging a narrow streambed that drained the southern highlands of Chalcidice into the sea. Two hit the pilings supporting the span at either end, the other two struck the road surface as it left solid ground. The explosions sent up a cloud of dirt and debris, and when that had cleared, the clones could see that the eighty-foot span had been breached, leaving a cliff-walled gorge nearly a hundred feet deep. The missile battery's crew moved to reload the Sea Sparrow launcher.

After the clones debarked, the USS Harry Truman had remained at anchor off Kavala. It was still a functional battle platform with its full air wing. Below the flight deck were massive tanks of untainted aviation fuel and countless airborne ordinance. The onboard Sea Sparrow defensive missiles were fully functional, but the clones had removed the two .50 caliber machine guns from the bow, and the four stripped down M-61A1 Gatling guns from the Phalanx systems. They had taken all the available infantry munitions, the charges from a score of 500lb bombs, and some massive batteries. Before leaving, they also rigged several booby traps in case of a hostile boarding attempt.

On the morning following their encampment, Xena reviewed the clones. For the first time her army stood complete, arrayed in companies as if on parade. The strategos faced her troops. Before her stood the two "specials", ten paces away. Behind them stood the eight corps, each of a thousand clones, each with their chiliarchos front and center, six paces ahead of their ranks. At the head of each of the eighty files, one of the hecatontarchea stood two paces forward. All the clones, from the strategos to her regulars wore uniforms of identical black woven body armor. They bore identical weapons…sword, dagger, and chakram, with the single exception of Xena, who carried the plain ring of the Chakram of Day, rather than a Combined Chakram with the s-curve across its center. And each of the 8,088 clones in the regular army bore an assault rifle and a sidearm. Today, both "specials" bore the paired Glock 18 pistols. All stood at attention, silent and unmoving as statues; even their lungs rose and fell in a unison of shallow coordinated breaths.

Twenty feet behind the Destroyer of Nations, a small pyre had been laid and doused with oil. Beside it, a torch stood ready. Halfway between the Hellene's Bane and the pyre stood a waist high flat rock, a perfect natural altar.

Between Xena and her two enhanced clones stood a cage that held the three goats. The strategos paced forward and dragged one from among its companions. She hauled the reluctant beast back to her station before the army, and clamped it immobile between her knees. Then she called out to her god as the hoplites of Sparta had done a millennium and a half before her time.

"Blood shed in token of bloodshed to come,

Flesh offered in promise of enemy's flesh.

Life ended in token of lives to be taken in battle,

A spirit given in promise of spirits defeated.

God of War, Mentor in Courage,

Patron of Soldiers, Teacher of Prowess,

Accept this sacrifice, bled in your name,

Gift your Blessing to this army,

Ares, Slayer of Enemies."

In a single swift movement, Xena hauled back the goat's head, drew the Chakram of Day, and slit its throat. The animal convulsed as its blood fountained out in an arc that spattered the ground between the Destroyer of Nations and her army. The arterial font pulsed, then faltered, and finally stopped as the animal went limp between the general's knees. She wiped the chakram clean on its belly fur before replacing the weapon on her belt clip. Finally, she took the carcass to the flat rock and butchered it, separating the flanks from the carcass and setting the meat on the pyre. She lit the oil soaked wood with the torch. Then she returned to her place before the army and waited as the smoke and flames rose to the heavens. Not a soul moved.

The flash of blue light flared into the space between Xena and her army. It flashed so brightly on that day that the shadows of the front ranks danced as they flickered across the faces of those standing behind. Ares appeared before his Favorite without a direct summons, and stood before her army in acceptance of the sacrifice. His eyes flicked to the pyre and he nodded in appreciation at Xena's adherence to the old ways. It had been a very long time since a warrior had beseeched him for his favor. It had been a very long time since a Favorite had asked for his Blessing. Though not a single clone moved, the collective relief and awe that radiated from them could be felt as a tingling charge that raised the hair. Though each had awakened with memories of the God of War, only Prima had actually seen him in this life. His presence now was the confirmation that their existance was all they remembered it to be and that the promised future would come. They believed in their destiny, every single one of them.

Ares looked at his Chosen, realizing that for the first time she stood at the head of an army that did her justice. The faintest of grins curled his lips. Then he turned and viewed the army, slowly nodding in approval as his eyes seemed to count each soldier as an individual. Each felt as if she had been inspected and had passed muster by her god. In their hearts, each felt a warmth; the closest thing they could feel to an upwelling of human pride.

The God of War turned back to his Favorite again and moved to stand before her, just a half-pace away. For a long moment he stared eye to eye with her, neither of them blinking, neither moving a muscle, with their senses open and focused, searching. And then, with the entire army as a witness, he leaned across the space between them and gently kissed her on the lips, a gesture symbolic of his Blessing.

"Just like old times, Xena," he said softly for her ears alone, "as it should have been."

They shared a sad smile before he withdrew and turned again to face the massed troops.

"On this day you prepare to wage war, and the war you will wage has been an eon in coming," he announced. "Now the old contest will finally be laid to rest. The nature of combat will be decided. To this army I give my Blessing. With this army I will stand in victory or fall in defeat. There can be only one Conqueror, and there can be only one God of War."

And the voices of the 8,090 clones rose in a spontaneous response, for each felt what her sister clones felt, and thought what her sister clones thought, and all of them clove to the will of the strategos.

"In the name of the Destroyer of Nations, with the Blessing of the God of War…Victory or death!"

The God of War raised his right hand, and on each uniform throughout the army, two tokens materialized in crackling flashes of blue light. On the right shoulders of each clone, embroidered in gold, the Lion of Amphipolis appeared. On their left collars, emblazoned in blood red, the Sigil of War appeared. Alone among all the Xenas, on the right collar of the Destroyer of Nations, the ring of the Chakram of Day appeared in silver.

Ares turned back to face his Favorite and gave her a brief smile as he lifted a hand and touched the special emblem with a fingertip.

"Just so I can tell the real you, Xena," he whispered, "another weapon."

The God of War vanished as he had appeared, in crackling flashes of blue light.

Another weapon, the Destroyer of Nations agreed, as she watched from her place beside Secunda, another weapon indeed. She wondered if Prima felt any different now.

The Aether - Timeless

"Once the world would have trembled at what transpired…"

"…but now it dies in ignorance…"

"…and yet in ignorance it shall rejoice…"

"…for darkness lies deepest just ere dawn…"

"…when Phosphor signals with his lonely light…"

"…and Helios proffers tidings of blood."

"But She has watched, and She will come…"

"…and with the blindness of Wisdom's pride…"

"…find Her destiny in the dawn."

April 13, 2006 — The Strymon Vale — Macedonia

Following the sacrifice and the Blessing by Ares, Xena had ordered the army to march to the Strymon. They had reached the river’s mouth in the mid-afternoon. Another hour’s march north brought them to a curve in the river where the highlands closed on the eastern shore. A bluff overshadowed the banks and cliffs receded as they ran to the north. From them a narrow gully opened, delivering the flow of a small tributary stream.

This had been the site of Amphipolis in ancient times. Now the home of the Warrior Princess lay buried beneath two millennia of sediment. Not a shaped block or remnant of her stonework remained. The land was devoid of any evidence of occupation. History had erased Amphipolis, just as it had long ago erased the memory of Xena.

The army made it’s camp on either side of the river, which in these later days was merely a shallow stream during the dry season. They pitched tents, set pickets, and dug waste pits. But the Destroyer of Nations set her command tent upon the bluff, where she could overlook the encampment from what would have been her polis’ main gate.

The tent mirrored the room that had been the soulmates’ study back in Columbia. Her map table had been set to the right of the entry flap, her chair behind it three swords’ lengths from the wall. It was prudence, and a habit that had been imitated by a host of later commanders, friend and foe alike. Here she spread her maps and contemplated the campaign to come, and here she called the synedrion, the meeting of the commanders.

Only hours after the camp was set, as the Apollo’s chariot rode down the sky to the horizon, she called a detail of six clones to her for a special mission. She remembered this place as the border between ancient Thrace and Macedonia, but over time, names and borders had changed. They were now in modern Macedonia where her story in modern times had begun. She had read Janice and Melinda’s expedition notes years ago, and she had forgotten nothing. She laid a file on her table and opened it to a hand drawn map.

"Praipositos," she addressed a clone at random, naming her commander of the mission detail, "you will lead your sisters to the position marked on this map. Take charges and if necessary, blast your way in…carefully. You are to enter this ruin and locate the tomb within it. There you will recover a weapon and deliver it to me."

She handed over the map and a drawing, and the clone nodded her understanding.

"Strategos," the newly chosen praipositos asked, "are there any special precautions or dangers in this mission?" She had Xena’s memories and she had a suspicion.

"Funny you should ask," Xena said with the hint of a grin, "there is only a single special requirement. You must maintain absolute secrecy from mortal and immortal alike. This object may be our only insurance of surviving our eventual victory."

As I lay me down to sleep
This I pray
That you will hold me dear
Though I’m far away
I’ll whisper your name into the sky
And I will wake up happy

(Partial lyric from, "As I Lay Me Down", ©1994, Sophie B. Hawkins)

April 15, 2006 - Damietta, Egypt, the Nile Delta

Some of the Gabrielles stood on a quay staring north, looking out at the blue expanse of the Mediterranean Sea. Their ragtag armada had arrived in Damietta two days before, in the morning, just as the sun was clearing the horizon. Damietta was only about 40 miles from the mouth of the Suez Canal; much closer to it than to the gaping crater that had been Alexandria, 115 miles to the west. The two cities stood on opposite sides of the Nile Delta, though neither actually occupied the very margins of the fertile area.

The city of Damietta was only sparsely populated now, for the majority of its people had fled in terror, shortly after the New Years Day attack on Alexandria. Most had assumed that the nuclear blast had been the work of the Israelis up the coast to the east. They had the bombs, and they had a history of grievances. It had been over a week before word had reached Egypt that the Israeli city of Tel Aviv had also been destroyed at the same time. Even then, most of the citizens had assumed that the Jewish state would blame them and retaliate. It was the conditioning of long habit that had caused them to continue to flee. In fact, the Israelis were too busy exterminating the last few hundred Palestinians left in the West Bank, (whom they did blame), to bother with Egypt…yet.

The hodge-podge flotilla had run out of gasoline. Boat after boat had heard its engine sputter and die for lack of fuel. It had begun only shortly downriver from Khartoum, near the city of Sandi. One by one, the stricken vessels had been lashed together to become a train of barges. The decreasing number with working engines had pulled the rest until the last had coughed and given up near al-Uqsur, (Luxor). The Gabrielles had shaken their heads in stoic acceptance and floated downstream with the current, carefully manning their rudders to stay in the center of the river. Nowhere had they encountered anyone with gasoline. A fisherman in a reed boat that looked like it had come straight out of a tomb mural had excitedly explained that the gas had all turned into water.*

(*Technically the gas hadn't actually turned into water. Mostly, the hydrocarbons had degenerated into carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, and some sulfur…predictably enough, although a percentage had been reorganized into more nanobots.) ~ Editor

Upon their arrival, the Gabrielles had quickly noticed the empty streets, empty docks, and empty marketplaces. They'd also noticed the empty ships. Since they didn't expect to find gas, they'd searched for the next best thing…boats with sails. Mostly what they found were small boats, fishing craft and yachts, but there were enough of them that the Gabrielles were able to pack themselves aboard. For once they were happy to be small. When they'd finally managed to fit their numbers onto the wind-powered crafts, they realized that they'd be every bit as overcrowded as the ferries on the White Nile had been in the Sudan. More than one of them wondered if they'd end up cooking their meals over fires on the roof.

Now the Gabrielles who stood staring out to sea commented among themselves, agreeing that they had to make their way north across the water. They'd become convinced that the pull each of them felt had been leading them toward their soulmate, and by extension it seemed, to their ancient homeland of Greece. They'd guessed that much already, remembering that Xena had been intending to go to war. A general would want the advantage of campaigning on familiar ground, and Greece was familiar to both Xena and Athena. The Gabrielles wondered if their course would lead them to Athens, which they guessed would be Athena's choice for a battlefield, or to Thrace, which they suspected Xena would favor. Given Xena's past history, perhaps she'd even choose the very battlefield where she'd arranged the destruction of Caesar and Pompey's armies on the summer solstice in 63 BC.

The Gabrielles had no idea that Athens had been destroyed. They had no idea that Europe lay decimated by cruise missiles and plagues. That knowledge wouldn't have stopped them in any case. They would get back aboard their ships, set sail across the Mediterranean Sea, and follow the mysterious urging in their souls that had directed them more reliably than any compass. It had already drawn them here, 4,500 miles from Olduvai Gorge.

Still, sailing had never been their favorite pastime. It wasn't because of the seasickness that the TV show had presented as a comic detail. It was the uncertainty of being on the water where landmarks were few and far between. Gabrielle had always liked to know where she was. This would be very different from floating down the Nile, where they could see the cliffs on either side, and swim to shore in an emergency. Now every one of them was nervous, and they traded nervous smiles and softly spoken words of reassurance. It would be another leap of faith. They would set out tomorrow, after a good night's sleep and a decent supper.

April 21, 2006 - The Strymon Vale, Macedonia

"Any word from the scouts, Prima?" The strategos asked.

Xena was holding the morning synedrion, the meeting of her commanders, and hearing the scouting reports from the kataskopoi.

"Nothing to the south, Strategos," Prima reported, "the sea and the coast are clear."

After the sacrifice and the Blessing, one of Xena's first orders had been to capture 100 horses. When that had been done, she'd mounted 80 scouts and sent them in roving companies up the vale to the north, and both east and west along the coast. Another 200 scouts on foot patrolled the highlands to either side of the Strymon River. They moved with Amazon stealth, and unlike the scouts of a modern army, everywhere they went they collected herbs as well as information.

"And to the north?"

"The vale is quiet for 60 miles, Strategos, as are the highlands to the west, however signs have been seen to the east." At a nod from her general, the "special" elaborated. "Overnight, the kataskopoi east of Drama noted lights, silhouetting a ridge and reflected off the clouds, down in the further valley of the river Nestos. The waters downstream were muddied and they also report hearing the faint sounds of machines. This morning, just past daybreak, there was a scattering of birds and the renewed sounds of machinery. During the night, a company of scouts had moved towards the disturbance and should be reporting soon."

The Destroyer of Nations had been pinpointing the area on a map and now she smiled. It was at least a segment of Athena's army; she was sure of it. And with even greater clarity than in her original life, she could foresee Athena's strategy. They were almost certainly heading up the Nestos river valley, hoping to cross the highlands in secret and come down the Strymon from the north, intending to drive her into the sea. But they had been discovered. Their element of surprise was lost. Surely they moved with all the stealth of a modern army, which, she thought, was without stealth at all. They'd thought it safe to use lights, while her scouts moved through the darkness, marching from cold camps and remaining silent and invisible like the Amazons of old. Athena's warriors were unable to abandon their machines, and their goddess her technology.

"Shadow 'em," she ordered, "and expect similar movements in Chalcidice. Athena will try to flank us from the west as her force attacks from the north. I suspect at dawn in three days. Tonight, we move with 4,000 to destroy the force in the east. 4,000 will remain to hold the Strymon and destroy those in the west. Ready the troops."

The two "specials" and the eight chiliarchoi nodded in assent and left the tent to carry out her orders. Alone now, Xena returned her attention to the map while idly fingering the silver chakram emblem on her collar. She had marked nothing on the map, not even with pins or loose tokens. She never had in all her years in the field. No spy had ever gleaned any insight into her strategies by glancing at her maps. It was a lesson she'd learned early on from Mithridates.

"A good general fights the campaign in his head long before taking the field. Politics and war counter-train the mind for each other. In neither case should a plan be visible. In neither case should the whole strategy be shared. A kingdom can have only one king, and a war only one victor."

By modern standards the King of Pontus would have been considered a paranoid sociopath with grandiose tendencies. By the standards of his time he'd been considered a crafty general and a deadly enemy. To Xena, he'd been a good teacher and an inspiring mentor. His lessons had given her the practical groundwork to successfully wage war, and she had avenged him on that bloody vernal equinox in 58 BC. She returned her concentration to the map.

Here, Xena thought, eyeing a pass in the eastern mountains where a tributary of the Strymon River turned southwest towards Seres…and here, she saw in her mind's eye the lands of Chalcidice, north of Lake Bolbe. The modern map showed a paved road from Thessaloniki, (which she remembered as Therme), and she felt confident that Athena would use it. Over 2,000 years before there had already been a dirt track in that very same place; a rural road used mostly by shepherds and traders. Her own army had used it many times for their cavalry, but her footmen had spread out for miles on either side to secure their passage. Would Athena's clones be as careful? She wondered.

The modern road was joined by a spur at a spot between and to the north of Lakes Koroneia and Bolbe, at a town called Sohos. It was about 10 leagues from Amphipolis, safely distant. She could force an approaching army off the main road and onto the spur, and then demolish them in the narrows between the two lakes.

On her table sat a small console from the USS Truman's fire control, and the control box that Secunda had given to her in Washington, D.C. They brought another concern to her mind. Should she commit a force to counter yet another option that she herself would have exercised had she been assaulting her own position? Would Athena divide her forces thrice? The Destroyer of Nations gave it serious thought. Do not underestimate her, she warned herself, nor overestimate yourself. The words of her patron god came to her mind. Make no mistake, Favorite. You are facing a goddess, and that enemy is the Goddess of Wisdom and Warfare. She was once Strategos Hypatos to Zeus himself and all of Olympus.

Very well, Xena thought, and whispered, "No victory comes from an unused weapon, but excess is acceptable in war." They would come from the south as well. She walked around her table and out of the tent.

From the top of the Amphipolitan hill the Destroyer surveyed her troops' deployment. The river seemed so small now in comparison to the river that ran in her memory. Today it was little more than a shallow stream of 30 yards' width, capable of being forded in most places on foot. It was worthless as a defensive element and useless for offense as well. In her time, she could have dammed it and then released the waters to flood the better part of the vale between the city and the coast. Now, not only was the river no longer navigable, but it passed far too little volume. Worse, Lake Cercinitis, the natural reservoir she'd known to the north, had silted up centuries ago. Now most of its original area was either fields or swamps. Like the coastal Narrows of Trachis, its strategic value had disappeared.

Xena continued to survey her army. Its encampment lay on both sides of the modern river, with tents, pickets, and gear extending a furlong in each direction. Those clones not on duty sat working on a project she had ordered; that each of them exercise their skills as bowyers and fletchers, and fabricate a toxon and a dozen arrows, now that they had native wood to work. At the same time, the scouts were collecting the herbs to brew poisons for the Pharmacopoeia of War.

Below her on the nearer bank stood five carts, each to be drawn by a pair of horses. Her eyes sought an officer and she put her fingers to her mouth, producing a sharp clear whistle. The chiliarchos looked up at the sound and the Destroyer summoned her with a gesture. The clone responded without hesitation, leaving her task and hastening to join her general.

In the tent with the commander of a thousand, Xena pointed to her map, indicating a bay on the southwest coast of the island of Thasos, only 42 miles from the mouth of the Strymon River.

"One of your hecatontarches is to take her hundred to the docks at Kavala. They're to board the Argo and the Miss Artiphys, an' put to sea. The Argo is to remain hidden on the south side of Thasos. The Miss Artiphys will hide in the bay to the island's southwest. Two days from now they should see ships sailing to take the Strymon an' hold it against us. Follow 'em with stealth in the Miss Artiphys. They'll approach and board the Harry Truman near Kavala. When they do, defend it as long as possible, then run out at flank speed to a distance of at least eight miles, an' use this." She handed the small console to the officer. "They're not to stop until they rendezvous with the Argo."

The chiliarchos nodded to her general, then took the console and left the tent. Xena intended to protect her vessels and strike a blow against Athena's forces. The carrier was too big to hide, and if she were correct, wouldn't be needed again. But it was also a capital ship, a threat and a prize, and it would be irresistible to her enemy's warriors. Thousands could hide aboard the CVN-75. At the very least, Athena's soldiers would have to check to make sure it didn't contain a den of enemies at their back. They could not afford to ignore it, but they would be on a schedule and the search would require many troops if it were to be done quickly. Though only a fraction of Athena's landing force would actually board the Truman, the Destroyer of Nations intended to kill them all. She too could not afford to leave an enemy at her back.

As the day wore on, the army prepared to move. Xena met with the commanders and refined her plans. In the mid-afternoon, Secunda took command of 3,000 clones, and with their officers and four carts, she made her way west into the highlands of Chalcidice. Their column traveled up the paved road after crossing the Strymon River, rounding a northeast curve and finally disappearing into the higher ground leading toward Sohos.

The 4,044 troops who were to march north up the Strymon Vale readied their gear and then gathered at 1600 hours for an early mess. They would march through the night on filled stomachs, under the command of the Destroyer of Nations. Xena expected to reach Seres, twenty-two miles upriver, by 0100 hours, and would then move up the valley toward the Nestos for another four hours. It would be a long march, but nothing the clones weren't capable of. After a five-hour break for rest and food, during which Xena would hear more reports from the scouts, she would move her troops into position.

At 1600 hours while the troops ate, Xena met with the remaining commanders over a meal to hear the afternoon reports. During the day, the scouts had come within sight of the enemy and were shadowing their march. One had ridden back to report.

It was as their strategos had predicted. Their best estimates numbered 12,000 troops, all identical clones of Achilles. They were moving northward up the Nestos at an even pace, with less speed than they were capable of. Xena smiled at this confirmation of her strategic insight. The column was moving according to a timetable and its pace was coordinated with the movements of other bodies of troops. She would have time to move into position and neutralize them as an independent force. In her mind's eye she reviewed the terrain of the valley northeast of Seres.

In her time it had been rough upland country, sparsely populated by sheepherders, and containing the closest of the Pangaion gold mines. These had been a factor in the Athenians' original desire to colonize the area, but they had been mostly played out by the Roman era. More importantly, the lands between the Strymon and the Nestos provided some excellent opportunities for ambush.

"Where'll the enemy be by mid-afternoon tomorrow?" Xena asked.

The scout searched the map, added the time and figured a position on the Nestos.

"I believe they'll camp here tonight, Strategos, and begin moving towards the tributary in the morning. They've begun their marches in the second hour after dawn and should reach here," she indicated a spot near the head of the Strymon's southwest bound tributary, "by mid-afternoon tomorrow."

"They must cross the high pass here," Xena predicted, pointing to the ridge that separated the watersheds of the Nestos and the Strymon. "Remember how it only allowed four horsemen abreast?" Each clone in the tent searched her memories and saw the place in her mind's eye. The eastern side was a steep-sided defile with a seasonal stream, which narrowed uphill and crested the ridge at the pass. Xena continued. "We'll move into positions here, here, and here," she indicated the slopes to either side above the road through the pass, and a place around a bend downslope from it, "and we'll allow 'em to enter the pass before we attack. We'll have to kill any flankers on the slopes. After that it should be easy to slaughter those already in the pass. Then we can move the gun up and assault the rest from the high ground with our flanks protected. It'll be almost impossible for 'em to reverse their march quickly in the confines up there. I expect to kill two-thirds of 'em."

She gave the cold-hearted appraisal in a matter-of-fact voice, and the other clones accepted it as they too calculated the probable casualties. 8,000 dead was reasonable.

"What of the other third, Strategos?" Prima asked.

"Let 'em run," Xena sneered, "just like some in Chalcidice probably will. The survivors will reform and we'll slaughter 'em later. I have foreseen it."

The declaration silenced everyone in the tent. She was their strategos hypatos, their supreme commander, but more importantly, she was the Favorite of the God of War. Every one of them understood this. She had been gifted with a vision of the future, of the battle to come, and in it, they had been victorious. The clones believed. They had been created to achieve this vision. The acceptance of such portents was ingrained in their ancient souls, and they had seen the God of War give the army his Blessing.

"No sign of Athena?" Xena asked, just to be sure.

"The enemy bears her tokens of the owl and the Medusa's head, but her presence has not been sensed, Strategos."

Xena nodded to the scout. It was no more or less than she'd expected.

At 1800 hours they set out up the Strymon Vale. Xena had left Prima with the least dangerous command assignment, in charge of the remaining clones in Amphipolis. Then she marched north on foot at the head of her troops, while at the rear of the column came a horse-drawn cart. They took the modern road, which traced the same curves that she remembered had twisted the northbound way 2,000 years before. It had already been over 300 years old at the time of her birth, but that ancient road had itself followed a track that had been trod by men and beasts back into the shadows of the Neolithic. For almost 8,000 years, people had moved north and south along the Strymon, hunter/gatherers, herdsmen, miners, settlers, and warriors. She had marched this way before, leading an army more than once. Each of them had.

As darkness descended at 1940 hours, Xena noted the increasing wetness of the land west of the road to her left. She also noted the rising land closing in to her right. A chill went down her spine as the topography became familiar. Yes, she had been here 2,000 years ago, but she had been here more recently than that.

The column crested a rise and the landscape revealed itself. The road bent northwest for a stretch and there was a wide gap in the highlands where a tributary poured out its lazy flow from the east. Its valley was lit by the last light of the setting sun, as it would be lit by the first rays of morning. A high hill stood out from the valley facing darkening fields to the west. Beyond that field lay a wide swamp where the tributary's waters stagnated. Cliffs marched northwest in an unbroken arc beyond the tributary, hemming in the field and the road. Their black igneous surface was tinged with bloody hues as Helios sank in the west, while collected at their feet lay the blocks and talus that had sheared from their face. After a league the cliffs failed and shrank to a more moderately sloping incline. Xena realized that the massive swamp had once been the bed of Lake Cercinitis, and the fields now hid its shoreline. The hands of time had resculpted the land. What had been a favorite Amphipolitan fishing and swimming site had become the site of a future battle. Yes she had foreseen it, in Ares' vision over four years ago. With her unnaturally sharp recall she recognized it as if it had been yesterday.

The Destroyer's army reached the small city of Seres at 0015 hours, 45 minutes ahead of schedule, and took a short break. Xena ordered the citizens she met to stay away and the people hid in their homes. She had made no effort to hide her troops, all of whom looked identically alike, and all of whom were heavily armed. It was like an invasion out of a science fiction movie to the civilians, and it was utterly terrifying. The army occupied a block of land outside the city, beside the tributary running down from the north. Since they were ahead of their timetable, they posted sentries and rested. During that time, Xena heard updated reports from the scouts.

"Strategos, the enemy's progress today was as expected and they have been encamped since 1730 hours," a scout said. At a questioning glance from Xena she pointed out the location on the map.

"Excellent," Xena remarked, "right on schedule."

Her forces would be in place with time to spare. More importantly, the enemy forces in Chalcidice would be moving on a coordinated timetable. Their progress and position would be predictable based on their intention of trapping Xena's army. The timeframe would allow Secunda to set up her offensive according to Xena's plan. It would also give the Miss Artiphys and the Argo time to move into position.

"Still no sign of the Goddess of War?"


"Then return to your post. Send word immediately if ya suspect her presence or if there any are other changes."

"Yes, Strategos," the scout said before turning and leaving the tent.

"She could change everything by directly aiding her army," one of the chiliarchoi observed.

"If she did, then she'd be escalating the war," Xena told her. "By actin' in person without mankind's declared devotion, she'd be breaking an ancient pact of non-interference that's been in force since mankind ceased worshippin' the Olympians…and then she'd have to accept Ares' direct intervention. Maybe other gods too."

The officers gave this information their attention. They searched their memories but found nothing to directly confirm or refute Xena's claims. Still they accepted her word. She was their strategos hypatos, and the Chosen of the God of War.

"So you don't expect her to appear," the chiliarchos said.

"No," Xena answered, "I do expect her eventually…in fact, I'm counting on it."

At 0100 hours the clones broke camp and moved up the valley. They marched along a dirt road that became a dirt track after the first seven miles. At 0415 hours the dirt track narrowed to a path. Xena ordered the contents of the cart unloaded and distributed among the clones who would work in shifts hauling two .50 caliber machine guns, the M-61A1, their ammunition, and several hundred pounds of batteries. The horses were left to graze free. They promptly lay down and went to sleep.

The army continued to march on through the darkness. Xena was impressed. In her memory, all the armies that she'd led had slowed down by increasing increments as they continued uphill. The decrease in speed was related to the length of their march, the steepness of the grade, and the their general morale. An uphill march at night would have been testy. Out of habit, Xena had calculated these factors into her timetable. What she hadn't expected was that she was leading an army of clones of herself who didn't react to any of those factors. There was no stumbling, cursing, or lagging. They continued at the original pace she'd set, and she, sensing no fatigue on their part that she didn't feel herself, maintained her pace. In that way, they covered almost fifteen uphill miles by 0500. At that point, Xena called a halt. The army set up a guarded cold camp and the clones ate and rested. Again, Xena heard updated reports from her scouts.

"Nothing moves in the enemy's camp," a scout reported. "There have been no changes."

"Very well," Xena replied, "return to your post."

Outside, the camp was nearly silent, more so than with any army Xena had led. Most of the clones had simply lain down with their weapons close at hand and fallen asleep. The sentries, of course, were silent and hidden. In their black uniforms, the area looked deserted to the casual eye. Only by concentrating hard and knowing that 4,044 troops were nearby, could Xena barely discern bodies at rest among the shadows.

"An enemy could almost walk through this camp and be none the wiser," a chiliarchos whispered from her side. Her tone wasn't prideful, merely observant.

"We could make that a certainty," Xena whispered back. Her focused senses reported that several nearby clones had awoken at the officer's soft voice and now lay with slitted eyes observing them.

"I calculate that we'll reach the pass by 1300 hours, Strategos," the commander of a thousand said.

"I agree," Xena replied, "now let's get some sleep."

At 0930 hours the clones awakened, ate their morning rations, and resumed their march. During the morning, the enemy column had begun its march at the same 0800 hours that had been their starting time for the last two days. The scouts reported no unexpected developments.

At 1310 hours the cloned army reached the pass. Xena ordered the placement of her troops and they deployed rapidly. A scout materialized and reported that only in the last hour had they been forced to kill several advanced scouts from the enemy's army to maintain security in the pass. Incredible, Xena thought, they're only ranging three hours ahead of the main force. They may as well be walking blind.

"And blind they will be," the Destroyer of Nations whispered. She gave a whistle that imitated the call of a hawk; then lowered a filter over her left eye that enhanced her vision into the infrared. Across the high ground surrounding the pass, another 4,044 clones did the same thing. The army vanished. They had activated the outermost layer of their laminated uniforms, the "chameleon cloth". Photoelectric cells powered sensors that sampled the environment, and microprocessors conformed the mimetic pigmentation cells on the uniforms' opposite side to the sampled data for chroma, hue, value, and density. Each clone could see the thermal image of her invisible sisters with her left eye, and they could see what their enemies saw with their right. When they moved, a slight lag between sampling and miming gave the appearance of a subtle ripple against the background, as if a heat wave were every so lightly distorting the landscape. Only their shadows and uncloaked equipment remained unchanged.

1445 hours arrived and the clones heard the first signs of the approaching army. Soon there was noticeable movement among the trees downslope, the aggregate sound of footfalls, the faint noise of motors, and the telltale glints of reflections off of metal. Xena's clones froze in place, weapons held behind their backs. No telltale movement of their shadows or uncloaked rifles would reveal their presence. They watched, hidden in plain sight by their mimetic uniforms; every eye trained on the path leading up to the pass. On the high ground, and on the slopes above and to the east of the pass, there was nothing to be seen at all. It would be a perfect ambush.

April 22,2006 - Sohos, Chalcidice

Secunda and her company had arrived in the town of Sohos at 2210 hours on April 21st, having covered the twenty-two miles from Amphipolis in a seven-hour march. Their way had begun uphill from the Strymon Vale on a two-lane asphalt road that followed a streambed, and the land had become progressively drier.

In the highlands of Chalcidice, scrubby trees and brush grew on pale soil laced with chips of limestone and sandstone. After a league, they'd made a descent to an interior plateau while the light had faded into evening. There in the creeping darkness, Secunda had noted large areas where only tall coarse grass seemed to grow, just high enough to hide boulders. She'd observed everything with rapid flicks of her eyes, weighing the potential benefits and liabilities. Throughout the march, she'd been receiving regular reports from the scouts already roaming the interior of Chalcidice.

The road had finally led Secunda into Sohos, a sleepy settlement of roughly 1,300 souls. With her were 3,033 heavily armed clones in black uniforms, eight horses, and four carts. All the soldiers wore the same cold face. It was a nightmarish invasion that had descended upon the small town in the dead of night. The people of Sohos had panicked. Some had tried to flee. The guardian had ordered them hunted down and the population rounded up. No distinction was made between those who had run and those dragged from their beds. The "special" had found the next requirement distasteful. It had consumed yet more valuable time.

"Kill 'em all," she'd ordered four hecatontarches, adding, "quietly."

There'd been no dissent. The commanders of a hundred had nodded in understanding. Secunda didn't want to waste ammunition or announce their presence with gunfire. They'd marshaled their troops and drawn swords. The doomed people had screamed, cried, and begged for mercy. The clones had none to give. They'd all understood the necessity of the guardian's orders. Sohos lay adjacent to tomorrow’s battlefield. She couldn't afford to have their presence betrayed to her enemies. In a half-hour of grisly bladework they'd executed every man, woman, and child. Soon the streets had lain unnaturally quiet under the blessed stars.

But Secunda and her clones didn't stay. Instead they'd rested, eaten, and then marched to the crossroads. There a gravel track made its dead end intersection with the paved two-lane. It was a scenic route that passed between the lakes and led south toward E90, the coastal highway. The asphalt road they'd marched down continued on to the west, eventually passing out of the highlands and down to the coastal city of Thessaloniki. Athena's troops would come from that direction, and according to the strategos, they were probably already on the move. The guardian had given the west road a single glance and then issued orders to deploy her troops.

"Set the guns on the high ground to the north, and south of the road," she'd told two of the chiliarchoi, as she indicated a pair of low rises flanking the road seventy and a hundred yards back the way they'd come. "Position your companies to flank the weapons and block the road. Send snipers out for two miles on the north side and don't hesitate to use the environment. Remember…you must force them down the dirt track. You do not need to exterminate them."

The officers had nodded and moved to implement her orders. Soon two wagons and 2,022 clones had slipped away into the dark.

"The rest of you come with me," Secunda had ordered, starting down the dirt track. 1,011 clones and two wagons followed her. It had already been 0445 hours.

For an hour and a half they'd marched on, until they reached the narrowest point between Lakes Koroneia and Bolbe. There they'd halted. It was visibly narrower now than any of them remembered from their original life. That had been an unexpected advantage. One of the wagons was unloaded and the "special" had chosen a depression hidden among tall weeds twenty yards off the road.

"Walk from the road in my footprints and bury it here, just beneath the surface," she'd told a detail of clones equipped with entrenching tools. She'd taken the detonator and clipped it to her belt opposite her chakram.

As they were digging, Secunda had chosen a clone at random and given her orders.

"Take the horses from the wagon and report back to the crossroads on our progress, then attach yourself to the scouts."

The clone had nodded, unhitched the horses and ridden north. The empty wagon was hitched behind the one still laden. Secunda remembered that the land around the lakes was almost flat…at least it had been in her time and that didn't seem to have changed. An empty second wagon wouldn't overtax the horses on a short haul, and it couldn't be left behind for the enemy to find as evidence of their presence. Gravel, she'd mused looking down, showed very little that would serve a tracker.

When they were finished with that task, the company had set out again as the first hint of dawn blushed the eastern sky. They'd traveled for another half-hour before Secunda called a halt. By then a mile and a half lay between themselves and the trap they had set between the lakes. Again Secunda had dismissed a clone to join the scouts, riding one horse and leading a second. She too had headed north to report to the others on their status.

The land had been curving up and now the clones stood in an elevated position four hundred feet above the lakes' water level. Behind them, a valley narrowed around the gravel road as the land continued upwards to the heights at the southern margin of the interior plateau. A small stream ran down in a shallow bed to their left, on the western side of the road. They occupied a point where a fold of land had been etched by erosion, leaving a gully on their right, which deepened as it led away to the east from the road. The land on of its sides rose fairly steeply, more so within the gully than facing the lakes. It was wider and deeper now than the small creek where Xena remembered watering Argo on the fateful journey that had ended outside of the city of Potidaea, with the rescue of Gabrielle. Gabrielle…the name that went with a decomposing body she’d seen for a few seconds in a lab under the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C.

"Deploy the weapon here, right on the road," Secunda had ordered the commander of a thousand. She'd ignored the surprising twinge of latent feelings evoked by the memory of someone she'd never met.

The chiliarchos had called out the company's gunnery detail and they'd set up their M-61A1 dead center of the gravel track, pointing back the way they'd come. This gun crew moved as quickly as the crew that had accompanied the Destroyer of Nations. The two empty wagons had been drawn up tail to tail to flank the gun emplacement and provide some cover against small arms fire. The gun sat in deep shadows beneath the tailgates, fronted by its steel armor plate.

"Open fire on my signal. Stay with the weapon until you're out of ammunition, then move immediately into the gully," Secunda had instructed the gun crew. She'd turned to the chiliarchos and said, "Deploy your troops along the front-side of this ridge facing the road." She'd indicated the land facing the lakes. "They should stay near the top. On my signal, abandon those positions and move into the gully quickly."

The chiliarchos had nodded in understanding. She'd seen what they'd buried between the lakes.

Secunda's gaze swept the land bordering the road. It was almost flat, dry, with clumps of coarse grass and not a tree for miles. She smiled in approval.

"Mine the land beside the road from 100 to 500 yards out," she told the officer, "we only have 10 mines but they won't know that. Put five on each side within a yard of the gravel. Then dig another couple hundred holes further out and loosely fill them back in as decoys. Make them obvious."

The commander of a thousand had passed the guardian's orders on to her ten hecatontarchea, who in turn had relayed the orders to the troops. As always, they'd moved quickly to obey. Each of the 200 clones on the landmine detail dug a hole beside the road and filled it back in before returning to her ambush position on the slope. The land alongside the road appeared to be a prodigious and hastily created mine filed. At 0900 hours they'd been back in position and there was nothing more for them to do until the battle began. The guardian had looked at the sky, reckoned the time by the sun though she wore a watch, and spoken to the chiliarchos.

"Allow the troops their mess and then rest in shifts at their posts," she'd said, "Post the standard compliment of guards and be sure they watch the highlands." She'd nodded towards the ridges to the south, behind their position. "We don't have scouts up there now. They've been moved to cover the west road."

Not an hour later the sentries had reported a scout approaching at a gallop. She'd met with Secunda on the road and informed the "special" that the enemy had been spotted at 0700 hours breaking camp five miles outside of Thessaloniki. The best estimate of their strength was 16,000. They were expected to reach the crossroads by 1330 hours. The guardian had nodded, instructed one of her clones to provide water and food for the scout and her horse, and then released her to return north. It was 1000 hours and she didn't expect her company to see any action until 1500 hours. Therefore, she'd lain down in the shade under a wagon and fallen asleep.

Continued in Chapter 8

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