Part 3 Chapter 8

By Phantom Bard

For Disclaimer: See Part 3 Chapter 1

April 22, 2006 - The Highlands Beyond Seres, Macedonia

Now the first groups of enemy scouts stalked uphill among their unseen foes and the Xenas let them pass. By 1500 hours, the mass of Athena's troops was clearly visible, marching in ordered companies of 500, and walking at an easy pace, ten abreast, 50 ranks deep. 500 and then 1,000 appeared from the forest below, all clones of the warrior Achilles. The lead companies carried spears, shields, short swords, and assault rifles slung over their shoulders. 1,500, then 2,000, then 2,500 showed themselves. The next companies that revealed themselves were armed with carbines, pistols, swords, and daggers. They maintained only fifteen feet between companies. From the very top of the pass, Xena smiled as she watched them advance.

It took the foremost marchers another half-hour to reach the top of the pass. By then, 15 of the 24 companies were visible on the ascending trail. Between the 12th and 13th companies, were a dozen three-wheeled ATVs drawing small trailers filled with gear. The muffled whine of their motors carried on a slight breeze that also conveyed the scent of exhaust. Xena glared at them in irritation. They were taking up space in the enemy's formation. Without them, another two companies would be closer to the ambush, and the more that had walked into range when the firing began, the higher the casualties would climb. The Destroyer of Nations suspected that the troops who marched behind the ATVs might be able to retreat to safety and she would have to settle for a body count of 6,000 rather than 8,000. She watched as the first troops entered the narrows at the top of the pass. In seconds, they would begin to round the curve on the western side. They would come face to face with her own forces, positioned across the pass in rows, prone, kneeling, and standing.

A moment later it began. The first rifle fire came from the clones around the bend. It slammed into the leading company of enemies at a range of only a dozen feet, mowing them down execution style. The Achilleses immediately tried to break formation and dive for cover from the wall of muzzle flashes directly ahead. They'd marched around a bend and run headlong into a solid curtain of gunfire, but they couldn't see any troops holding the guns! Most of them died before they could unshoulder their own weapons. Only a few lived long enough to scream.

The Destroyer's clones raked the fallen bodies with gunfire over and over just to be sure they were dead. Their plan called for them to advance through the pass and they couldn't chance leaving a living enemy at their backs. The unseen Xenas advanced methodically, continuing to concentrate their fire on the head of the enemy's column, and driving the zone of death eastward through the pass. They were creating the necessary breathing room for a special gun crew.

When the slaughter commenced, the enemy scouts walking the slopes to either side of the pass were dragged down and killed by Xena's unseen troops. Then the Destroyer's clones began shooting from both sides of the path, laying down a saturating fire with their automatic rifles. Most of them fired from the prone position, more to reduce the chance of friendly fire casualties than from fear of enemy fire. From the high ground to each side, the belt-fed .50 caliber machine guns taken from the Truman's bow opened fire. First they struck the ATVs, turning them into a flaming wreckage rocked by secondary explosions that partially blocked the path against retreat or advance. Then their long arcs of raking fire turned to slam into the ordered companies of enemy clones.

To the enemies, the gunfire seemed to come from all directions. Xena's clones had ranged as much as a quarter mile downslope on both sides. The machine guns were placed in nests of boulders near the top, close in on each side. They had almost ideal fields of fire. The only area they couldn't target was the deadly top of the pass itself and perhaps a hundred feet to either side. Into these areas, companies of foot soldiers poured a hail of bullets that drowned out the screams of the dying.

The clones of Achilles began to return fire after the ambush started, but they could find no easy targets. In desperation, they sprayed bullets indiscriminately upslope. They couldn't see their enemies. Tactical wisdom told them that the ambushers were well camouflaged and dug in deep. The best they could do was to target the muzzle flashes of the weapons firing at them, but that meant having their heads up, searching for the sources of the fire that was decimating them, and of course, risking a round between the eyes. Even so, they caused some casualties, as much by luck as by skill.

In this type of a firefight, dominance depended on the density of accurate rounds each side could lay down. Though the Xenas were technically outnumbered six to one, only about three-quarters of Athena's troops were in position to return fire. These were restricted to a narrow file with very long flanks, an extremely vulnerable condition. Xena's clones had the advantages of initial surprise, position, weaponry, and they were invisible. Their numbers and high rate of fire capitalized on the surprise of the ambush. They intimidated their enemies with a constant hail of accurate bullets from automatic weapons quickly brought to bear. It was crude, bloody slaughter, and the weapons did most of the work.

In a purely modern engagement of this scale, both sides would have called in airstrikes, applied supporting fire from mortars or remote artillery batteries, or utilized dozens of grenades. But this was neither a purely modern nor a purely ancient engagement. It was a deadly bastardized hybrid. Xena's kataskopoi had reported on the enemy's available armaments, and the Destroyer had encumbered her troops with only what was necessary to defeat them.

The Destroyer of Nations watched all this from her place at the top of the ground near the pass. Xena actually stood within five yards of enemy clones several times, but they never saw her. She watched her enemies falling, and with her other eye she also saw her own troops firing. By infrared, their weapons bloomed with heat.

The first two minutes of the attack saw the top of the pass cleared of living enemies. Their bodies blocked the path from side to side for a hundred feet, in many places two and three deep. Downslope, the road was already littered with dead. The secondary explosions amidst the burning ATVs reported the presence of RPGs or perhaps mines among their cargo. The living were cringing and seeking cover. Some were shooting blindly. A grim smile curled her lips. As always, her clones aimed for the head.

Now an assigned detail of ten clones began moving Xena's heavy weapon upslope to the crest of the pass, while others shoved the dead aside as they quickly trotted forward. Two of them set a tripod on the downslope side of the pass. Another three from the special detail lowered an M-61A1 onto it. The other clones had tossed the enemy dead out of the way to form a crude wall several bodies high. The tripod crew loaded the first magazine as the rest set down the batteries and attached the lead clips to the high-speed motor. Three more clones hefted a quarter-inch steel plate into position in front of the gun and clipped it to the tripod to serve as both a shield and ballast.

On their Mediterranean passage they had practiced this drill over and over again aboard the USS Harry Truman. Now it took only 100 seconds before the low-pitched belch of the 20mm Gatling gun commenced. They had stripped the M-61A1 out of its Phalanx gun carriage and detached the radar. The tripod from a TOW infantry missile launcher served as a support. Batteries intended for emergency lighting aboard the Truman powered the only necessary motor, the one that turned the six barrels to fire 4,500 rounds per minute.* All the other mechanisms were gear driven from it.

(*The weapon fired 20mm shedding sabot sub-caliber projectiles. Each "bullet" was a 15mm depleted uranium armor piercing round inside a plastic shell. The plastic sabot minimized friction, reducing wear and heating of the barrels. The Phalanx system had been designed to destroy aircraft or cruise missiles. Against personnel, the reduction in projectile size made no difference at all. The heavy metal, 3/5th-inch diameter bullets carried so much energy that they passed through up to a half-dozen bodies, and at the gun's rate of fire, it was as if a solid wall of projectiles was mowing down targets like a scythe.) ~ Editor

The entire enemy column was easily within range, and the Destroyer's gunnery clones began killing those furthest away while their sisters concentrated on those closest. They fired in bursts until the magazine was empty, spun the barrels to cool them until the next magazine was in place, and then stopped them for reloading. The clones had practiced this sequence so intensively that they meshed together with unconscious precision. And of course, they were clones of Xena, dedicated to perfecting their skills. Over the six minutes that the gun was operational, they emptied four magazines totaling 6,000 rounds, and killed nearly 5,000 of the enemy.

The battle raged for just over twenty minutes before trailing off. Xena searched the downhill road with eagle sharp eyes and saw only the feeble movements of the wounded. She heard their groans of pain, and the occasional scream. She calculated twelve companies slaughtered, the destroyed ATVs, and perhaps most of another two companies behind them. She followed the road down into the forest where it disappeared from view. More dead down amongst the trees. A conservative estimate, 7,000 dead and dying.

There was no way to know how far the enemy had retreated, but somewhere down there the demoralized survivors were seething with hatred and craving vengeance. She would not send her troops down to confront them. The potential gains didn't justify the risk. Xena would content herself with the existing level of damage and accept her victory. 6,000 or 8,000 would make no difference in the end. Now Athena's troops would fear her technology, her tactical abilities, and her viciousness. When the time came, they would accept her terms for a final battle, fought with the old weapons, hand to hand.

Her clones had ceased firing. They stood vigilant but still cloaked. Xena reached up and raised her filter. At the crest of the pass she suddenly appeared, a black uniformed silhouette, standing alone against the bright afternoon sky. In a single swift movement, she drew her sword and raised it overhead. She knew she was too far away to be heard, but she could still send a message.

By tilting her polished blade in and out of the sunlight, she cast blinding flashes to the trees below, spelling out words across the distance as warriors had signaled each other in ancient times.

With the Blessing of Ares, the true God of War, I, the Destroyer of Nations, shall kill you all. Meet me face to face if you dare.

For several minutes Xena stood still, searching for an answer, but none came. Finally she turned away and leaped down onto the path. Over the next hour, her troops withdrew. They made sure that they were safely out of their enemies' sight before decloaking. Let them think that they had been bested by the Warrior Princess' vaunted stealth and the battle tactics of the ancient Amazons. Last of all came the scouts, almost two hours after the firing ceased.

"strategos, the enemy has retreated a league into the forest and is encamped on the road," one scout reported.

"By their initial count, they have numbered their dead at 7,200," a second added.

"Who commands them?" Xena asked.

"An Elainis," the second scout answered, "Athena's Favorite."

"You saw her?"

"Saw her for the first time an hour ago as I stood near their camp," the second scout said. "She had not been seen before." The first scout nodded in agreement.

"She wasn't there before," Xena told them. "The column behaved like an army from Mycenaean times. Athena's Chosen would have known better."

The clones regarded this in silence. After several moments, Xena issued more orders.

"Take the heads of 100 enemies and set them on their own spears in a row blocking the pass. Impale their bodies with the butt spikes so they appear to be sitting up with long necks."

The clones nodded in approval. They had expected this and remembered having left similar messages before. Last of all, Xena asked for the tally of her own army's dead and wounded.

"Thirty-one dead, mostly unlucky head shots. There are also sixty-four wounded with miscellaneous injuries, strategos," a chiliarchos reported. "The body armor stopped the small arms fire."

"Bring 'em all back," the Destroyer of Nations commanded, "we'll honor our dead with pyres at Amphipolis because they have been Blessed by Ares. Can the wounded walk?"

"All but seven who suffered leg or spinal injuries." The commander of a thousand told her general.

"Carry 'em on litters to the wagon, then they can ride."

"strategos, there are two with spinal wounds who will not recover," the chiliarchos reported matter-of-factly.

"Then they are warriors who can't fight. At Amphipolis, offer them the honor of a pyre," Xena told her evenly. "I honor the dead, but this army has no hospice."

At 1800 hours the Destroyer of Nations' army began their march back to Amphipolis. Behind them lay the carrion of war; over 7,000 enemy dead, cooling in the shadows of the eastern slope. Under the coming dawn, the scent of blood and breached entrails would be joined by the first reek of putrescence in the rigor stiffened cadavers. By the next nightfall it would be intensifying, and as the rigor faded in the second day's heat, when Athena's troops might again venture uphill, it would be reaching a nauseating intensity.

After the battle, Xena had examined several of the dead. The birthmark on their right cheeks had progressed as Dr. Kishihara had predicted, from a full moon shape to the barest sliver of a crescent that she saw now. With it had gone the ancient blessing of Thetis, the imperviousness to wounds that had left only Achilles' heel vulnerable. It had been just a matter of a genetic heritage, a vulnerable heritage that could be abridged as the body's cells replaced themselves during life. The sociopathic doctor had managed to mutate Achilles' genes so that he had lost his inherited advantage within a year and a half. Just another mortal warrior, the Destroyer of Nations mused, another dead warrior.

As the first day's light faded after the battle, Xena's clones marched downhill. They had left behind the now useless M-61A1, its ammunition expended and its barrels heat-warped upon cooling, as a taunt to the enemy. The wounded were carried on litters, but the bodies of thirty-three dead were piled on travois, lashed down, and dragged. Knowing that it was easier to haul the dead than the wounded, the two irreparably damaged clones had taken their own lives.

April 22,2006 - South of Sohos, Chalcidice

At 1340 hours a clone called her name, but Secunda was already awake. Even in her sleep she'd heard the faint low-pitched growls of the two Gatling guns flanking the road six miles away. It seemed to her that the high plateau acted as an amphitheater in which sounds carried unhindered in the clear bright air. She squinted at the sun burning in the cloudless sky and then crawled out from under the wagon.

"Watch for dust rising from the road," she instructed the closest sentry.

The sentry clone was standing on the wagon's bench, seeking a higher eyepoint. She was staring north through an oversized pair of field glasses.

"Nothing yet, Guardian," she announced.

"No, probably not for another hour," the "special" agreed. "They've gotta be turned away from the main road, then find their way down the gravel track. It'll take a while since they'll be under fire and marching in a long column. The gravel track is narrower so there'll be confusion as they reform their files." The scout nodded at her words but never took her eyes from the binoculars.

Just after 1400 hours the sentry reported seeing, not dust, but smoke to the north. The guardian sampled the breeze and smiled. It came from the east, mild but constant.

The company waited another ten minutes and then Secunda gave the order to cloak. At 1410 hours the entire company vanished. All that could be seen were a pair of empty wagons drawn up across the road.

At 1415 a horse galloped up to the wagons and came to a halt. The beast appeared to be riderless, but bore a saddle, and tack. The clones could see the invisible rider with their infrared filters. Secunda went to hear the scout's report.

"They've been turned," she announced as she caught her breath, "I was two furlongs down the gravel road and saw the enemy column starting to march this way. They sustained heavy casualties in a twenty-minute firefight before the guns ran out of ammunition. Then the chiliarchoi set the grass afire and withdrew behind its cover. We were lucky that the wind was in our favor. It fanned the flame and smoke directly towards the enemy. That more than our assault decided them and they took the turn. The Callistos among them were particularly easily convinced."

Like the rest of the clones, those commanders of a thousand near Sohos remembered firing the brush to break an enemy's advance or force them into a killing ground. It was a good tactic when the winds cooperated. There had been one rather pathetic and memorable case thoughÖ.

In 72 BC Xena had set ten thousand acres of wheat, barley, hay, and other crops aflame to save a village from a warlord named Talmadeus who had demanded their supplies. The warlord had raised an astonishing army of 4,000 mercenaries, and had needed massive amounts of victuals for an autumn campaign against the city of Abdera. The city lay on the Aegean coast, east of the mouths of the Nestos River in Thrace. The village Talmadeus had threatened was the principal farming community inland and traded their surplus crops to the city for fish, salt, and other goods.

The fire was intended to prove to the warlord that the villagers were willing to burn their crops before turning them over to marauders who would enslave them. Either way they expected to half-starve during the coming winter, and they'd chosen to do it as free men. It was the lesser of two evils; the kind of choice that Xena and Gabrielle had come to call, "deciding for the Greater Good".

The burn was to have taken place in a restricted number of fields that were furthest from the village and had been deemed the most risky to harvest. At least that had been the plan. Zephyr hadn't cooperated. The wind had strengthened and shifted, suddenly coming from the north. The fire had gotten out of hand and burned all of the crops and part of the village. It wasn't quite Cirra revisited, but the results hadn't been pretty.

Talmadeus couldn't hold his army together without taking the riches of Abdera, and his mercenaries wouldn't fight on empty stomachs. The village and the city were savedÖsort of. It was another Phyrric victory, much like Amphipolis, and Xena had been there, done that. The soulmates had left the area as quickly as the warlord.

In the end, over 1,000 villagers and outlying farmers starved to death that winterÖmen, women, and children. The citizens of Abdera, who had benefited most from their sacrifice, took further advantage of the starving farmers by forcing them into tenancy, outright slavery, and prostitution. By that time, Xena and Gabrielle were hundreds of miles away, just beginning their fight with Callisto. Salmoneus, the swindler Xena had used at Corinth in 78 BC, was already dead, and there had never been a "Lord Seltzer".

"Self-sacrifice never goes unpunished," Secunda whispered to herself. Beside her the scout nodded in agreement, remembering of the same story.

The sentries reported the first dust from the gravel road at 1450 hours. It was still perhaps three miles distant. At 1510 they could see the reflected glints of sunlight on spearheads as the leading enemy companies closed to within a mile. By 1525 they were only a couple furlongs away. If they thought anything amiss because of the wagons, they didn't stop. At 100 yards the column finally came to a halt, though there was some jostling as the order was passed back through the ranks. The lead company of Achilles clones looked dusty and tired from their earlier battle and forced march. A detachment of two-dozen moved forward.

"Steady," Secunda ordered, "we'll let them come and satisfy their curiosity. Kill 'em when they see the gun. After that, fire at will."

The enemy clones moved forward warily, but the landscape appeared deserted. They got within ten yards before recognizing the Gatling gun nestled in the harsh shadows between the wagons. One pointed to it and they paused. The clones spoke together for several moments and then advanced again. They reached the wagon, wondering why anyone would leave a heavy weapon abandoned in the center of the road. It appeared to be ready to fireÖin fact, they could see the drumlike magazine, large as a beer keg, and the link belt of ammunition entering the breech. They split up, and while a dozen remained in front, six moved around the wagons on each side to investigate. Near the front wheels they were met with quickly moving swords. It was 1545 hours.

The dozen clones still in front of the wagons saw their comrades falling and started to reach for their weapons. They too were cut down by unseen clones who beheaded them with their swords. The enemies in the column reacted immediately, dropping their spears and freeing their rifles. It was as if a shudder ran through the column from front to back as it came to life, accompanied by shouts of warning and anger.

Then the M-61A1 opened fire directly on the column. The rumbling growl and high-pitched whine of the motor spinning the barrels was accompanied by a tongue of flames that leapt toward the enemy ranks. On the slope adjacent to the gravel road, Secunda's enhanced eyes saw a stream of black projectiles flicking out like bees in a blur of constant motion that mowed down their targets. The ranks fell as the impacts pitched bodies backwards, rounds punching through up to a half-dozen at a time regardless of their woven body armor. In a scant few heartbeats, several hundred lay dead.

The rest of the clones in Secunda's company opened fire with their rifles from the slope as the enemy column began to break up. Clones of Achilles, Callisto, Mavican, and Elainis dove to the sides of the road, crawling away from the terror of the Gatling gun, and trying to find cover from the hail of bullets that zipped through the air all around them. Some returned fire, aiming by instinct towards the sounds of the Xenas' weapons.

Suddenly a crawling Achilles clone put his weight on the pressure plate of a landmine. The unmistakable explosion blasted his body upward and showered the road with a cloud of dirt. The crawling clones froze, fearing the presence of more mines, their eyes searching the area. Soon they were pointing to the landscape and yelling to each other. They were immobilized by indecision and crawled aimlessly, trapped between the gun they saw, the mines they suspected, and the unseen shooters ahead. The Xenas picked them off, desperate to hold them close to the road. They couldn't be allowed to spread out and form a front, for they outnumbered the Destroyer's clones many times over.

Then somewhere back in the ranks one of Athena's officers must have realized that they were at too great a disadvantage and ordered his men to fall back and regroup. At a point that the watching "special" estimated was 2,000 from the head of the column, soldiers began to slowly back away. Ahead of that point chaos reigned, and the guardian estimated 50% casualties already. She needed to kill these troops now, lest they survive later. They were the ones most likely to become a threat.

"Fire only on the lead companies," Secunda ordered. "Lay into 'em!"

Her clones were reloading the M-61A1 and there was a lapse in the gun's firing. Some of the enemy got to their feet and sprinted to the rear while others shot bullets blindly up the road trying to provide cover. The Xenas kept mowing them down with small arms fire, aiming as much as possible for their heads. Then the big gun resumed spewing its deadly hail. More bodies quickly fell and the enemy clones dropped prone. Secunda noted that the most effective cover the enemy soldiers could find was behind the bodies of their own dead. The body armor on the corpses could stop an assault rifle round. But the rounds from the 20mm gun passed through the cadavers, actually flinging them into the air. From those projectiles there was no hiding place on the barren flatland or the road. The clones firing the Gatling gun mowed through the mounds of dead, mercilessly searching out the living and taking more lives. Soon none were standing down there on the road, though some were still crawling.

By now the rear ranks had retreated 40 yards and were still moving back. They were firing as they went, pacing backward behind a wall of automatic weapons fire, but they had no targets to aim at. Like those who had been defeated by the Destroyer in the east, they assumed that their foes were simply well camouflaged and dug in. They fired at the positions they themselves would have been deployed to. Most of their bullets were striking too low on the slope, but the occasional lucky shot felled some of Secunda's troops. The Gatling gun fell silent again as it was reloaded a second time. The hail of small arms fire broke off to occasional reports as the Xena clones sniped from the slope at the decreasing number of enemy survivors below.

The gun crew had reloaded the Gatling gun as Secunda surveyed the situation. Her clones were mopping up the few living clones still left from the first company of enemies. The remainder of the enemy column was still retreating.

"Fire at their feet and then over their heads," the guardian ordered. She wanted them to continue retreating, not become inflamed to stand and fight, or worse yet, desperate enough to charge.

The gun crew complied. The column reacted, ducking away on instinct. Another mine blew up beside the ranks of soldiers. Under a rain of dirt from the explosion, the lead ranks of the Athena's army began to break formation. Enemy clones at the front tried to move away from the danger faster than those behind. There was jostling and the retreat hastened. For the first time, Secunda drew her pistols and emptied both weapons directly at the front rank. They were over 160 yards away now, and against their body armor the pistol fire was mostly for effect. As soon as the Glocks were empty she moved several body lengths to her right and reloaded. No return fire came despite the high visibility of the muzzle flashes.

That was it, the guardian decided. The enemy's morale was broken. They would continue to retreat rather than counterattack. Perhaps it would have been different if the Destroyer's troops had been visible and their positions knownÖor their lack of numbers.

"Abandon your posts," Secunda ordered her company. "Proceed into the gully and go eastÖdecloak and run."

The clones immediately left the road and the slope and hastened into the narrow defile. They didn't form ranks but immediately began racing away. Behind them Secunda remained alone, observing the enemy's retreat. They didn't give any sign of slowing down or stopping. Soon they were 180 yards away, then a furlong, then finally two. She continued to wait, giving her own forces time to withdraw. It was quiet now. The shooting had stopped. All she heard was the faint breeze and the pings and clicks from the cooling barrels of the M-61A1.

After a quick glance at the sun, she turned and began jogging away. Only when she cleared the top of the slope and started down into the gully did she lift her filter and reappear. In her own estimation she was moving at a prudent speed on a scree-covered incline, but she would have outpaced an Olympic runner. Then she hit the flat ground next to the creek and broke into a full out run.

The Xenas were precise genetic duplicates of the original Warrior Princess, blessed with her metabolic advantages. Secunda was something else again, genetically enhanced for a simplified nerve arc that conferred inhumanly quick reflexes. But the benefits didn't stop there. Anything the Xenas could do, already quicker, faster, and stronger than a normal human being, the "specials" could exceed. In all of history, Secunda and her identical twin, Prima, were the closest that mortals had ever come to godhood. She hit her stride and covered the first mile in 90 seconds. Before the fifth minute ended she had caught up with the rest of her clones. She slowed and moved forward to take her place at the head of the column, and as she did, she lifted the detonator from her belt clip.

"Everybody down," she ordered. "Cover your heads."

The line of clones halted and lay prone against the northern bank. They wrapped their arms over their heads, covering ears and eyes. Secunda unscrewed a safety cap from the detonator's end and depressed a red button.

From the north came a flash of light so intense that it eclipsed the sunlight of a bright afternoon. Following it was a roaring blast, the bellow of the very earth, wounded like a quarrel-struck beast, which grew so loud that every clone felt it in her bones. Sound melded with sensation in a combined assault that culminated with a tremor that bounced them on the quaking earth. It shook loose rocks and dirt that tumbled down on them from the top of the gully. For long moments it felt like an earthquake that went on and on, shockwave after shockwave transmitted through earth and atmosphere, into their bodies from the ground they lay on and from the very air they breathed. Then came the wind and the heat.

The blast wave carried tons of dirt, and it slammed through the atmosphere overhead like a tidal wave scouring the sky. The pulse was from a shockwave of expanding air, displaced at supersonic speeds from the detonation of the Mk-28 thermonuclear bomb buried between the lakes. At the blast center, temperatures immediately rose to solar levels of over 10,000,000†F. Identical blasts had destroyed the cities of Athens, Rome, Alexandria, and Tel Aviv on New Year's Day. On April 22nd, a three-mile diameter fireball engulfed the land between Lakes Koroneia and Bolbe, instantly killing the remaining 9,500 of Athena's cloned warriors. Not a single one survived.

Secunda and her company were in a well-protected position ten miles from the blast. Had they been standing in an exposed position, the neutron bombardment, X-ray radiation, and the firestorm that followed would have killed and cooked them in an instant. As it was, each absorbed contamination that would have killed an ordinary human. But the clones, already gifted with metabolisms that healed far faster than normal, had been further protected by Dr. Drexler's nanobot serum. Even as the high-energy neutrons damaged their cells, their bodies fought to repair them and maintain their biological functions. And slowly, healing outpaced damage as the environmental insult diminished second by second, minute by minute. Fifteen minutes after the blast, they were ready to move, though none were unaffected.

"Everybody up," Secunda ordered, and the clones staggered to their feet. "Move out."

They resumed a jogging pace down the gully. Overhead a nightmarish lightning-split blanket of brownish red-orange hung low over Chalcidice, fanning out from the familiar mushroom cloud. It rumbled like the rolling thunder that accompanies heat lightning, as if in a stuttered echo of the initial explosion. A pall of heated dust thickened the air. The clones ran on with bandannas over their faces under the gloomy sky.

As she jogged east with her sisters, the guardian pondered the fugitive sensation that had come upon her at the memory of someone named Gabrielle.

April 22, 2006 - Off Thasos, Northern Aegean Sea

The Miss Artiphys had parted ways with the Argo at 0115 hours. The company of a hundred had marched south from Amphipolis at 1100 hours the morning before. They'd moved quickly down the Strymon River and then east along the Aegean coast. At 2110 they'd reached Kavala where the ships were anchored. The thirty-five mile trip had been uneventful. All those lands were held by the strategos, patrolled by her scouts, and the hecatontarchea had received running reports of the conditions on land and sea.

Once they'd reached the docks of Kavala, the commander of a hundred had reported her orders to the sentries guarding the docks and then taken command of the submarine and the hydrofoil. She had divided her company then, sending 75 aboard the sub, and after clearing their checklists, they'd set sail at 2340 hours.

"Withdraw to the Strymon by 1500 hours tomorrow," the hecatontarchea had told the soldiers as she'd gazed at the huge carrier anchored three furlongs offshore, "the strategos predicts a battle tomorrow night, and we're ordered to defend and then scuttle the Truman. It won't be safe here."

The sentries and scouts had eyed the fire control console that the company had brought aboard the Miss Artiphys and needed no further evidence. Scuttle the Truman, they'd thought? There wouldn't be anything left to sink. They'd nodded their agreement and moved off the docks and into the city, for soon they would have nothing left to guard.

In the still darkness just before midnight, the sub and the hydrofoil had cast off their lines and slipped away to sea. They'd proceeded south at a quiet ten knots. There was no rush. The strategos had predicted that the enemy flotilla wouldn't appear before the next evening. They would be part of a coordinated three-pronged attack, in which Athena's armies would assault Amphipolis from the north, crush the western flank from Chalcidice, and drive them down the Strymon Vale to face a force of marines on the coast. That third contingent would forfeit the element of surprise for all three if it appeared prematurely. In fact, it would be to its advantage not to approach until the battle was already joined at Amphipolis and the Destroyer's troops were fully preoccupied. Most likely they would land on the coast to the east, then wait for the time when they could charge toward the mouth of the Strymon to play their part as the anvil upon which the cloned army would be crushed. Xena had estimated the enemy force at approximately 8,000, the smallest of the three since it would have to land and join the fight in as little time as possible. She had told them to expect numerous amphibious troop transports and their support ships.

"You must destroy them while they are engaging the Truman," Xena had ordered. "Don't let 'em land."

At 0100 hours the two ships had approached the island of Thasos. A few lights shone out from the coastal town of the same name, almost out of sight around a headland to the east. The town of Thasos, where Xena had bought her goats, was the very same town that the ancient Hellene's Bane had laid siege to in 77 BC. She had overrun the defenders and sacked the town, and among its treasures, she had captured the then Roman Legatus Legionis Gaius Julius Caesar. She should have run him through along with his officers, for the incident sparked a lifetime of the bitterest rivalry and deepest hatred. After 33 years at war against each other, the Roman Emperor and the Thracian Warrior Princess had died on the same day and in the same city. The town of Thasos had survived them bothÖand the Roman, Byzantine, Moorish, and Ottoman Empires, plus two World Wars. Perhaps it would survive the near future as well.

The submarine turned east, to port, and the hydrofoil turned to starboard. They parted in the same darkness and silence with which they'd made this short run. As the Argo came abreast of the headland, it submerged, to pass unseen around to the south side of the island. The Miss Artiphys continued towards the western side of the island, running like a shadow across the waves. At 0200 hours the ship hove to in the broad bay on the southwest side of Thasos and hung in close to shore. The hecatontarchea was thankful for the vessel's shallow draft, which allowed her to draw within a small cove that read less than two fathoms deep.

"No anchor," she ordered, "use the channel motor against the tide."

She wanted to be able to come to flank speed and launch the craft into the open sea at a moment's notice if they were seen. In the lee of the shore, they were sitting ducks. Only on the open waves could they capitalize on the hydrofoil's speed and maneuverability. It could easily outrun any conventional hull or submarine. It could even outrun an average torpedo's 35 to 55 knots. Only a few commercial short-run hydrofoil ferries could match her pace, and only then on calm waters. In the unlikely event that such a ship appeared and gave chase, they had the Phalanx. The same weapon answered against the more real threats posed by cruise missiles or aircraft.

The commander of a hundred sat down on the bridge and partially raised the ship's mast. This was not a standard ship's mast, rigged to loft a fabric sail. Rather, it was a mast such as was present on a submarine. Five telescoping sections of stainless steel, mat finished in black, which held a precision periscope and extended from the bridge to a maximum height of 35 feet. The hecatontarchea switched on a monitor and rotated the mast to a start position with a joystick, then chose an infrared filter. She set the mast's controls to perform a slow oscillation through an arc of 120†, once every two minutes, set the cursor at sea level in the center of the monitor to position an IR sensor, and turned on the silent alarms. The sensor would react to a deviation of +10†F above ambient temperatures in a field of 2†. If a vessel with a warm hull, a heat bloom in its power plant, lanterns, lights, or crew on deck passed through the search field, soft red lights would begin blinking throughout the ship.

Having prepared the ship for surveillance, the commander of a hundred put her feet up on the console and promptly dozed off. She trusted the ship's sensors, but she trusted the strategos' judgement even more. Xena's analysis of the tactical situation had convinced her that the enemy ships wouldn't pass by until late the following day.

All through the night the sensor kept watch on the empty black sea. When morning came, the hecatontarchea ordered the Miss Artiphys to stand off five mile from shore for a look around. The hydrofoil was still on station at 1500 hours, but the Aegean had remained empty to the horizon since daybreak. It confirmed Xena's expectations.

The day featured a clear sky under the same bright Mediterranean sun that the clones remembered from their previous life. A welcome breeze mitigated the heat without raising more than gentle swells. The conditions were perfect for observation and the hydrofoil bobbed gently as the commander of a hundred searched the distance with the periscope mast in telescopic mode. She watched her monitor as the mast rotated in endless circles, while a band of numbers crawled along the top of the screen denoting the compass heading in degrees and minutes of arc. It was horrendously boring, but during the daylight hours, IR sensing simply wasn't as effective. The temperature differential between target and background diminished with the day's brightness and heat. She couldn't risk missing a reading.

Eventually her vigilance paid off. At 1610 hours she noted a silhouette to the south-southwest. It was nothing more than an irregular black hump protruding above sea level, but it shouldn't have been there. The hecatontarchea stopped the mast's rotation, then left the monitor and pressed her face to the eyepieces. She zoomed the periscope to its maximum magnification and stared hard at what she saw.

Just edging into visual range were ships. She kept her eyes on their image and watched as they resolved into a flotilla of amphibious troop carriers escorted by a pair of guided missile destroyersÖAmerican, she noted, by their profiles.

"Arleigh Burke-class, with four gas turbine engines for propulsion and another three for electricity generation," the clone mused, "where did they get the gas?"

But the puzzling question of the ship's fuel was only of passing interest. What was much more important was that these ships be destroyed. They were as much of a threat as the troops aboard the transports they were escorting. Each vessel carried 90 vertical missile launching tubes, and among those missiles were Tomahawk Land Attack Missiles. The ships also carried Standard and Harpoon missiles, torpedoes, Phalanx systems or Sea Sparrow rockets, and an automated 5" gun.

Even one of them would have thoroughly outclassed the Miss Artiphys in a sea battle. The hydrofoil would be no match for two. The commander of a hundred's only choice was to flee and hope to be ignored. Even so, she coolly watched the flotilla's progress for another ten minutes to verify their course bearing before issuing her orders.

"Bring us onto a course heading of 72† and come to 12 knots," she told the clone manning the helm.

The direction would put the enemy back beneath the horizon in the least amount of time, and the relatively slow speed wouldn't reveal her ship as a hydrofoil. Once out of sight, she could come to flank speed and make for Kavala and the Harry Truman. She would beat them there by hours. Yes, she could flee now, perhaps lead a destroyer off on a chase, and maybe even sink it, but the risk didn't warrant that action and it would leave the second destroyer with the troop carriers untouched and suspicious. No, she would act according to the strategos' plan. Like her general, she wanted to kill them all.

By 1640 hours the distant enemy flotilla had dropped behind the horizon again and the periscope was clear. The hecatontarchea retracted the mast into the bridge.

"Come to 60 knots and make for the Harry Truman," she ordered.

The clone at the helm nodded and pushed the lever on the annunciator to 2/3rds forward and the hydrofoil lunged ahead as it rose onto its hydroplanes. By 1720 hours the Miss Artiphys was closing on the massive aircraft carrier.

"Slow to 6 knots and bring us in behind the breakwater," the commander of a hundred ordered, "set us behind the abandoned yachts, but give us a straight shot out to sea."

The hydrofoil slowed and maneuvered into Kavala's port, sliding up to the docks between the few remaining pleasure craft. The hecatontarchea raised the mast to keep a lookout for the approaching enemy. The mast helps give this vessel the appearance of a sailing craft, she thought, perhaps not good enough to pass a close inspection, but maybe sufficient for a casual glance when their attention is fixed on the carrier.

Sitting on the map table a few feet away was the fire control console from the USS Harry Truman. It had been wired into the Miss Artiphys' power supply and also to the ship's radio. A broadcast preset was tuned to the carrier's receiving frequency in the deserted operations room. With the console, they could control the carrier's electronic warfare capabilities, defensive armaments, and the other surprises that they'd rigged. With her clones, she settled down to wait.

The flotilla came into sight at 1810 hours. It moved in slowly to a distance of ten miles and then halted. A single destroyer broke away from the formation and moved in closer. Aboard the Miss Artiphys, the clones listened in as the enemy hailed the carrier from three miles out. The voice was that of a woman, hard-edged with command, and she spoke ancient Greek. When her transmissions went unanswered, the destroyer went silent and then moved in closer, to a mile away. At a mile, the woman again hailed the carrier, this time demanding acknowledgment and surrender. Again, she got no response. The destroyer fired a series of 5" shells, bracketing the Truman fore and aft. The enemy fired another series of shells low over the flight deck. Still there was no response.

The destroyer held her position. The remaining enemy ships had moved to within three miles and moments later, three troop carriers broke away and closed in.

"She's calling for a boarding party," the hecatontarchea remarked. Her clones nodded in agreement and continued to wait.

When the troop ships came abaft the destroyer, the four vessels moved with the transports sailing in a line behind their escort. They closed the final mile cautiously and then made their final approach to the big ship's stern.

"They're going to go in through the open repair shop bay," the commander of a hundred commented.

The enemy clones quickly tied off their transports to the carrier. The first troops aboard were a heavily armed contingent who secured the repair bay and rigged rope boarding nets for the rest of their comrades. The hecatontarchea counted 450 enemy clones of several types as she watched the boarding through the periscope. They'd be as good as dead with the microbes still lingering aboard, she thought, but we don't have a few days to wait for the plagues to kill 'em. The clones had been aboard for five minutes when she opened the battle.

"Detonate the BLU-73s."*

(*The BLU-73 is a fuel-air munition containing 75-lbs of highly flammable ethylene oxide, and is deployed in a 550-lb cluster bomb called a GBU-72 that includes three BLU-73 submunitions and an altimeter fuse set for 30 feet. The US Marine Corps used 254 of them in Operation Desert Storm, primarily for psychological effect.) ~ Editor

Aboard the Harry Truman, each of six 75-lb fuel-air submunitions expelled a high-pressure cloud of ethylene oxide, 60 feet in diameter, before being ignited by a timed fuse. The aggregate fireball blasted out of the open stern in a fast moving jet of flames almost a hundred feet long. Just as quickly, it extinguished itself, having burned every molecule of oxygen available in the repair shop and hanger. Ironically, it did minimal secondary damage, though it had killed every living being aboard.

The reaction was almost instantaneous. As the hecatontarchea watched, the destroyer's automated foredeck gun turret swept around to starboard and targeted the single lowered portside aircraft elevator that had been purposely left in the lowered position. It was high enough above the destroyer's main deck to act as a shield for the carrier's hanger.

"Fire the portside aft Sparrows," the commander ordered.

A clone pressed another button on the fire control panel and a moment later the missile launcher closest to the destroyer activated. Already trained to its minimum elevation, the trapdoors on the four launch tubes popped open. The destroyer got off three shots with its 5" gun. The shells slammed into the edge of the portside elevator. Then the Sea Sparrows launched from their tubes in a roiling cloud of smoke. They crossed the 180 feet separating the carrier from the destroyer and slammed into it at almost 150 miles per hour. The four missiles blasted away most of the front and starboard side of the destroyer's deckhouse. The complex radar and communications mast toppled to the main deck, crushing the forward Phalanx turret and obstructing the forward Sea Sparrow and MK-41 missile launching tubes with debris. Internally, the ship's bridge and combat information center took massive damage.

Three miles away, the remaining destroyer and six more troop ships began moving towards the carrier. At once, the destroyer opened fire, launching two Harpoon anti-ship missiles. It was a questionable maneuver, since they were firing over their own damaged sister ship.

"They can hit with a few of those but the Truman's so big it won't go down easily," a clone remarked.

"No, but they could damage the remaining defensive weapons we've got aboard," the hecatontarchea replied, "and I want as many of the enemies as close as possible. Still, it's use 'em or lose 'em I guess. Fire the bow Sparrows on the portsideÖfire them at the incoming destroyer."

The four missiles shot from the launcher at the front of the carrier just before it was struck amidships by the Harpoons. The anti-ship missiles exploded against the Truman's hull, creating a huge cloud of gray and black smoke that enveloped the middle third of the carrier halfway between the flight deck and the waterline. The four Sea Sparrow missiles raced back towards the destroyer, almost along the same trajectory. Two struck the ship and two passed wide and aft. The two that hit exploded towards the ship's stern, one striking the area of its aft MK-41 missile launching battery, the other near the waterline below the helo deck.

A moment later a series of secondary explosions rocked the approaching destroyer as several of its missile warheads detonated in their launch tubes. A great column of black smoke churned up out of the hull and began rising and spreading.

The nearer destroyer, its bridge battered by the first four Sea Sparrow missiles from the Truman, had begun to back away from the carrier after being struck. Now it lay a boat length aft of the bigger ship and was preparing to launch its own Sea Sparrow missiles.

The commander of a hundred assessed the situation. There was almost nothing further that she could do. All of the Truman's remaining missiles were in the starboard side launchers, pointing away from the attackers. But she had accomplished the first part of her mission. All the ships of the enemy flotilla were within five miles of the USS Harry Truman. They were as good as dead. She retracted the periscope mast.

"All ahead full," she ordered. "Clear the harbor and then come to flank speed. Make our course 175† to Thasos."

The clone at the helm shifted the lever on the annunciator fully forward. Within the hull, control rods shifted and the reactor came to peak output. A heartbeat later the water jets abruptly spewed massive geysers from their nozzles, irised fully open to three-feet in diameter, launching the hydrofoil forward with a stomach-wrenching lurch. The bow rose with the acceleration, and the Miss Artiphys nosed skyward at a 35† angle. By the time the 120-foot vessel had made five boat lengths, it was already clearing 16 knots. Beneath the hull the nozzles of the water jets gimbaled to maintain the most efficient angle of thrust. The black ship rose on its hydroplanes, and with the resulting reduction in water friction, leaped almost immediately to 30 knots.

They passed the USS Harry Truman, three furlongs offshore, at 60 knots and only a minute after breaking cover. The crippled enemy destroyer never even had a chance to react. The clones raced by and didn't look back. On the bridge, one clone read off the increasing distance from the carrier.

"One mile out, Commander."

"We are at flank speed, 90 knots," the helmsman reported.

"Steady as she goes," the hecatontarchea told them, "run us out to eight miles."

In the increasing distance, the second destroyer and the troop ships continued to move towards the carrier, now hoping to aid or rescue the survivors of the boarding party and its escort. They didn't react to the flight of the Miss Artiphys, for they had their own pressing problems. Their enemy was the damaged carrier that had fired on them, not what they took to be a harmless hydrofoil yacht, probably filled with terrified rich civilians fleeing the battle, which they ignored.

"Six miles, Commander."

"Steady as she goes."

"Seven miles."

"Stand by the fire control."

"Eight miles, Commander."

"Seal the cabin and initiate air filtration," she ordered.

"Done, Commander," a clone reported after flipping a series of switches. The crew felt a slight sensation of popping in their ears as the cabin came under positive pressure.

"Fire control, release the safeties, lock-out abort, and transmit the triggering sequence."

The fire control officer unscrewed the cap of a covered a button. She flipped several toggle switches and the button lit up red, then she depressed it. The hydrofoil's high-powered, narrow beam, microwave transmitter broadcast a final order to the Truman's combat operations center. It was a code sequence of digital bits that actuated the detonator within the single remaining Mk-28 thermonuclear weapon that the strategos had initially acquired from the carrier. It had been left on the highest deck within the island, the Air Control Center, seven stories above the flight deck.

The clones were still fleeing towards Thasos at 90 knots when the blast lit the air and the sea to the luminance of the sun's surface. The fireball expanded in an unimaginable rush of photons, X-rays, newly formed helium nuclei and high-energy neutrons. Within seconds, the fireball began to rise and expand. It formed a mushroom cloud, with a pillar and cap of fire glowing bright yellow within, red and black outside, that leapt upwards to a height of ten miles. In seconds, the Miss Artiphys was under its shadow, and even at 90 knots it easily outpaced them, shadowing the sea. But by then, they were in the open water, running blind because the ship's glazing was made from Mitsubishi's auto-darkening blast shield, a modification of the industrial glass formulated to reject UV radiation and visible light from arc welding. It had gone opaque black with the first onslaught of photons. A layer of lead foil laminated into the hull stopped the X-rays, but nothing on board could stop the high-energy neutrons.

At one minute after he blast, a shockwave rippled the water beneath the fleeing craft, causing it to launch airborne and then slam back down. The wave front continued at high speed, out into the Aegean. Upon the shores of nearby islands, it would crest into small tsunamis and inundate a few unlucky coastal villages. Secondary shock waves passed through the seabed, adding to the stresses concentrated along the Anatolian Fault, and perhaps hastening the next adjustment and slippage. All those considerations went unrealized to the clones speeding south. They continued to carry out their duties, while on the cellular level, their bodies struggled to repair the instantaneous damage of the hydrogen bomb. Blessed with the ancient genetic gift of their patron god and the nanobots of a modern genius, they survived where normal humans would not.

After a twenty-seven mile run, they rounded the south side of the island of Thasos.

"Transmit the code," the hecatontarchea ordered.

The communications officer activated the VLF transmitter and broadcast a message.

"Ms. A to Argo, surface and rendezvous, mission accomplished at 1910 hours."

The submarine broke the surface 100 yards off the hydrofoil's starboard bow. Neither vessel opened its hatches. Instead, they both made their way south to stand watch on the sea roads approaching Amphipolis. They traveled side by side at 25 knots as a torrent of muddy brown rain began to fall from the bruised sky.

April 22, 2006 - Northwest of Limnos, Northern Aegean Sea

It had been a long week at sea. In fact to the Gabrielles, any week at sea seemed long. Boats just weren't her favorite thing and it seemed as if all of her had been floating on one boat or another forever. In fact, they'd been aboard ships for almost six straight weeks, first on the Nile, and then on the Mediterranean.

After leaving Damietta in their motley collection of sailboats, the Gabrielles had steered northwest. They'd worked at recalling the seacraft they'd learned from their soulmate 2,000 years before, and discovered to their immense relief that sailing hadn't changed too much. There was still the wind, a sail to catch it in, a rudder to steer by, and the sun and stars to guide their course. Though they were initially uneasy, the actual act of sailing was reassuringly familiarÖsort of like going to a dentist you've known for years.

Every one of them had expressed their worries and uncertainties to the others, and they'd all agreed and offered each other encouragement and support. This was typical of Gabrielle, whether there was only one or 8,000. It was behaviorally consistent whether she was dealing with others or herself, and now she was dealing with bothÖmany others of herself. Despite the strangeness of the situation, they'd come to accept it with characteristic good humor. Also telling was that the idea of choosing a leader had never crossed their minds. They were all the same, they all agreed, and they all preferred to work by consensus anyway. Unlike the Xenas, there was no chain of command. They were not an army. They were all equals.

They'd set out from the Nile delta on a fine morning; 8,000 clones packed into just over 200 small ships. They'd taken turns trimming the sails, holding the wheel, checking their position and writing down their thoughts about the experience. Unsurprisingly, every one of them was keeping a journal. By evening of the first day, they'd realized that their convoy had spread out across a dozen square miles. This wasn't due to any variance in the crews' proficiency, but rather to the designs of the ships themselves. At that point, by yelling across the water and waving, they'd passed a message to converge. Those at the front held steady and waited for those behind. Those to the sides heeled in towards the center. Eventually they were close enough to confer, and after shouting to each other for a half-hour, decided to tether all their craft together lest any be lost. So they'd strung lines from ship to ship, forming a loose net that equalized the speed and course of all at a snail-like maximum of 4 knots. It was a raft made up of 203 separate hulls, bristling with fishing poles and bored blonde women, all under a ragged assortment of sails.

For a week they'd continued northwest, making the same headway 24 hours a day. In that time, they'd covered roughly 700 nautical miles since casting off. For the first 400 miles they'd held their course steady, but on the fourth day they'd turned north as the coast of Crete had appeared in the west. They'd woven between the Cyclades and the Sporades and finally passed into the relatively open waters of the Aegean. Today the large island of Limnos had fallen behind during the afternoon, and the Gabrielles turned northwest to make for the mouth of the Strymon.

Around suppertime, the Gabrielles noticed a distant flash up ahead to the northeast. It was about 80 miles away, and at first they took it for lightning, but the sky was still clear. Over the next quarter-hour they watched as a mushroom shaped cloud formed and then degenerated into a peculiar looking squall. A small section of the sky had become unwholesome, with sickly localized clouds overhead and muddy colored rain falling beneath. It was downright ugly. The Gabrielles cringed. They had a bad feeling about it and they commented to each other about this being an ill omen of some doomÖhopefully not their own. As it was, they weren't running towards it, and after watching for a while, they decided that it didn't seem to be moving towards them either. The island of Thasos lay between. They decided to continue on their course. Ten minutes later a swell passed beneath every craft, making the boats rise and fall. It wasn't threatening, just odd.

Later, as the sun was setting and they'd moved to 65 miles from the coast, several boats full of Gabrielles who were tethered on the eastern edge of the flotilla noted a peculiar "thing" sticking up out of the water about fifty yards off their starboard side. It looked like the bare trunk of a sapling, paced them for a while, and then disappeared underwater.

That night, during the time when they would have been sitting around a campfire or in front of the TV, the Gabrielles compared their impressions of the days' events. Finally they came to a disturbing consensus. Someone was spying on them and maybe following them, and someone had set off an atomic bomb. From what they remembered of their most recent life, they suspected Athena. Despite their nature, none of them thought they'd sleep well that night. And they were right about that.

April 22, 2006 - The Argo, Southwest of Thasos

"All ahead 4 knots," the acting captain ordered, "come to periscope depth."

"Making my depth 60 feet," the diving officer reported.

The sub's hull measured 40 feet in diameter and the sail another 15 feet in height. A 60-foot depth left just 5 feet of water above the top of the sail. The captain would be able to extend the periscope tube 10 feet above the surface.

"Sonar, contact details," the captain requested. The prior report had beenÖinteresting.

"Sonar reports 203 contacts, Captain, none producing engine noise, some hull creaking consistent with wooden ships, but in no discernable vessel classes, all moving at 4 knots, all bearing 330†."

"Density inversion? Barrier distortion? Countermeasures?"

"None, Captain, and we are above the thermal boundary, the water is clear."

The captain paused for a moment. 203 wooden vessels of no organized types, running silent, and all moving together towards Amphipolis. If this was an attack force, then it was the most unexpected yet. The strategos hadn't foreseen it.

"Helm, maintain course and speed," she ordered, "up periscope."

The scope went up and the captain unfolded the handgrips before gazing into the eyepieces. She rotated the scope and began to observe the undetermined craft. After a moment she exhaled sharply and increased the magnification, zooming in on the nearest boat. And then for long minutes she simply stared at what she saw.

Facing her across a gap that appeared to be only a few yards were a crowd of identical blonde women, staring right at her over the railing of a decrepit fishing boat. Beyond this boat, she'd seen countless other ships in such a range of types as to convince her that this was a mass flight of refugees. The only thing they had in common was the unfurled sails at every mast. None had visible weapons. The blonde women staring back at her bore no weapons either. The captain counted themÖ37 at the railingÖall absolutely identical, and more disturbing, all equally familiar. She knew she'd never seen even one of them in this lifetime, but one had been reported seen in Washington D.C.Ödead. Extrapolating from what she knew, she did the mathÖ7,511 blonde clones, for they could be nothing else. Figuring for those actually on duty and the differing sizes of the ships, there may as well be 8,000. One for each of ourselves. Who but Athena could have done this?

"First officer, look at this," the captain said to her second in command as she stood aside from the periscope, "memorize it in case I can't report."

It was standard operating procedure in case of an officer's fatality when important intelligence information had been observed. The acting second in command stepped over to the periscope and stared through the eyepiece. She twisted the handgrip to adjust the magnification, and then panned the scope across the armada. Finally she relinquished the scope to her captain, swallowed and reported only, "Observed and noted, Captain."

The captain folded the handgrips and the periscope slid back down into its well.

"Diving officer, gently make our depth 200 feet. Navigator, plot the quickest course to rendezvous with the Miss Artiphys and proceed at flank speed," she told the navigator. To her first officer she said, "You have the Conn."

"Making my depth 200 feetÖgently," the diving officer said. "Three degrees down on the bow planes. Adjusting for slow water intake."

The navigator looked up from the chart table to her captain's retreating back, then at her first officer, and noted the puzzled expression on her face.

"What is it? What did you see?" The navigator asked.

"The best or worst thing that could happen to us," the officer answered barely above a whisper, "something that may change everything." Then more sharply, "Plot the course."

In her cabin, the captain reclined against the headboard of her bunk and wrapped her arms around her bent knees. She couldn't get the vision from the periscope out of her head. It was as if she'd stood ten feet in front of Gabrielle, a whole crowd of them in fact, and the effect had been profoundly unsettling.

She'd heard the reports of the dead clone that had been found in the basement lab at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, D.C. The captain understood who the blonde had been once or twice before. The Destroyer of Nations had looked at the corpse and then terminated the search. She'd immediately proceeded with the demolition, and though she'd betrayed no emotion, such a change in plans was significant in itself.

Now there seemed to be an army of Gabrielles headed for Amphipolis. They appeared to be unarmed, but that was only an appearance. Their impact on the Destroyer's army would be psychological; the blow to their morale, profound. It would generate more confusion than another army of Achilleses appearing unexpectedly in the midst of battle.

If Athena had created one clone of Gabrielle before then she could have produced these 8,000 clones and turned them loose. One Gabrielle for each of us, she thought. What more could I want. What could I fear more? If I have to, can I kill a clone of my soulmate? What soulmate? And a lifetime of memories assailed her. The minutes passed as the Argo moved north towards the Miss Artiphys.

Beside her bunk the intercom squawked to life. It was the first officer.

"Captain, sonar reports a new contact. Range is 13,350 yards, bearing 200† and closing at 20 knots. It's a submarine, Captain, American, Los Angeles class."

She burst into the control room 8 seconds later with predatory fire in her eyes.

"Sonar, where's the new contact?"

"Range is now 13,200 yards, speed and bearing steady at 200†. Captain, she's not closing on usÖshe's closing on the 203 earlier contacts."

The captain stared the sonar officer, then asked, "First contact with her?"

"Thirty seconds ago. She just came to life. Must have been sitting dead in the water since Athena's convoy moved in on the Truman, Captain. She's been lying silent for the last three hours or so."

"Hidden escort. All stop, systems down, go silent."

The Argo shut down every sound generating source aboard, and like her newly revealed adversary, she disappeared to all listeners. Only an active sonar ping would reveal her presence, and such a ping would pinpoint the source even more accurately than the target.

"30† right rudder," the captain ordered.

The Argo had shut down her propulsion, but at 45 knots, inertia would carry her forward a good distance before she actually stopped. During that time, the captain intended to execute a turn to starboard and alter their known heading to make their position less predictable. So, she thought, Athena's sub commander considers these Gabrielle clones a preferable target to us, and she must know we're here. Why?

"Captain, the Los Angeles has flooded her number one and two torpedo tubes."

Athena's sub was preparing to fire on those pitiful wooden boats? Why would her forces destroy her own creations? Across the control room, the first officer looked her captain in the eyes, waiting for a decision and further orders. Intercede? Reveal their position to save the Gabrielles? Instinct demanded that she protect her soulmate, but that soulmate had been cloned by her enemy. Yet if all that were true, then it didn't make sense for the Los Angeles to be shooting at them now. But if those Gabrielles weren't part of Athena's plan or weren't her creations, then where had they come from?

"Has she opened her outer doors?"

"Not yet, Captain."

"Fire Control Officer, plot a firing solution and flood tubes one and two," the captain quietly ordered. "Enable arming at 1,500 yards. She's an enemy preparing to fire and we won't sit unprepared."

The Argo still had a total of eighteen torpedoes that had been salvaged from the sunken Alfa. They occupied the six torpedo tubes with two spares for each. Flooding a torpedo tube required replacing the tube's air with water and normally that process could be heard by passive sonar, but the Argo had been engineered to do this virtually silently. The air simply moved from the tubes into the ballast tanks while water from the ballast tanks replaced it. This was done by gravity flow, without pumps. Neither air nor water was displaced to the environment. All the changes occurred within the sub's hull, and the sub's total density didn't change. After firing, the tube, still full of water, was bled to the ballast tanks and the air returned to the tube for reloading.

"Tubes one and two are flooded, Captain."

"Standby fire control," the captain ordered. "Position?"

"8,900 yards to their target, speed and bearing steady."

"Relative distance?"

"6,700 yards to us and closing, bearing to the Los Angeles is 5†."

"Steady. Maintain silence."

Another six minutes slowly passed as the Argo's crew waited and the Los Angeles class submarine continued to close on the Gabrielles. It was still ignoring the Argo.

"Captain, the Los Angeles has opened its outer doors," the sonar officer reported. "5,400 yards to target, speed and bearing steady. Relative position is 3,200 yards, bearing 0†."

"She'll pass us to port at 350 yards," the navigator reported. Too close to safely fire.

Can't let her fire the voice of memory screamed in the captain's head. She looked at the first officer and noted the sheen of sweat on her brow and the clench of her jaw.

"Open outer doors and fire torpedo one," the captain ordered, as calmly as if she were ordering a cup of coffee. In the Argo's bow, the iris rings of the first two torpedo tubes snapped open and a pneumatically driven plunger ejected the weapon.

"Torpedo is away," the fire control officer reported.

In the water, the torpedo's prop began to spin at 300 rpm, driving the 20" diameter cylinder to 45 knots. The weapon's homing radar immediately went active, acquiring its target.

"The torpedo has acquired the target. Time to impact is 120 seconds," sonar reported.

"Come to flank speed, bearing 0†," the captain ordered. She would follow the torpedo in, not trusting the weapon to score with a two minute run time. Too much could happen between now and then.

"All ahead full," the helm confirmed. The Argo broke her silence. Her thirty-six foot prop clawed the water as it accelerated, each blade's pitch adjusting for maximum bite, and the submarine lunged forward. "6 knots, 10 knots, 14 knotsÖ"

"Time to impact is 70 seconds. Target has launched a spread of countermeasures and has accelerated to 25 knots."

The Los Angeles class sub had fouled the water with radar opaque dye, and was trying to sidestep the torpedo while leaving a decoy target behind.

"Turn to home on the target. Helm, come to 350†. Speed and range?"

"Our speed is 34 knots and accelerating, Captain. Range to target is now 2,200 yards."

"The target is turning to meet us, bearing 10†."

So, they want to play chicken? An evil grin flickered on the captain's lips.

"Torpedo has lost contact with the target, Captain."

"Original time to impact?"

"10 seconds, Captain." The fire control officer's finger hovered over a button on the fire control panel. "9, 8, 7, 6Ö"


The fire control officer stabbed the button with her finger. 1,800 yards away, the torpedo exploded, triggered by a small charge that the clones had attached to each of their salvaged weapons. The enemy's maneuvers had placed the detonation 150 yards to the Los Angeles' port side. The explosion would give them a good shaking up.

"Set our safety to zero on torpedo number two," the captain ordered. "Speed?"

"42 knots, coming to flank speed. Distance to target is 1,450 yards."

"They've fired their number one torpedo, Captain."

"Useless, we're already within their minimum safety range. Speed?"

"45 knots, flank. Distance to target is 1,300 yards."

"Their torpedo has acquiredÖtwin screws, sounds like a MK-48, a ship-killer."

"Steady. Sound collision. Red lights."

Throughout the Argo a claxon sounded a warning and the ship's daylights switched to emergency red. Clones grabbed onto any available handholds or assumed crash positions on the decks.

"Distance is now 1,000 yards. Collision course. Their speed is 25 knots."

"850 yards."

"Steady." One shot only. Give them no time for evasion.

"600 yards, Captain!"

"Fire torpedo two." You are mine.

"Torpedo is away." And with the Argo at flank speed, it was moving at 45 knots before it was out of the tube. It's screw made 300 rpm towards a target closing at 25 knots. Although it would eventually slow to find its normal 45-knot velocity, for a few hundred yards it was half torpedo, half bullet, and the Argo was the gun. With its safety set to zero, it was armed as soon as it hit the water. Its radar homed in on the target dead ahead.

"Close outer doors, 40† up angle on the bow planes, blow all ballast. Emergency rise."

Without hesitation, the diving officer's fingers flew across the control panel and the helmsman shifted the planes. Neither spent a moment to even acknowledge their orders.

"400 yards."

The sub moved like a high speed elevator ascending. At 45 knots the effect of inclining the bow planes was instant. In an upward lurch that left stomachs behind, the Argo inclined nose up to 40†. It was like hooking a turn in a car at 50 mph.

The Los Angeles' MK-48 torpedo struck a glancing blow against the underside of the Argo's stern, just to port of her keel line, where it left a 6" deep furrow eight feet long in the titanium hull. It was deflected sharply downward and continued on its way.

"Passing 50 feet, Captain."

"All stop."

The Argo was 400 feet long and had been submerged at a depth of 200 feet. She was 55 feet tall at the sail. Running at 45 knots and a 40† incline, she encompassed almost 300 vertical feet. The effect was that 100 feet of the Argo's bow broke from the surface of the water at 52 mph. Suddenly absent normal water resistance, inertia carried another 150 feet of her hull into the air as her angle of incline reduced with her speed. She was still half-airborne when the Aegean rose like a fountain to meet her. It was as if Poseidon himself had thrust up a cushion of spray beneath her hull.

Almost directly below her position, the Russian SS-N-15/81R torpedo struck the Los Angeles class sub head on at a combined speed of 105 knots. The impact stove in the submarine's bow and punched through the sonar compartment. The weapon didn't even explode until it had penetrated 60 feet within the hull. When it went off it detonated the dozen tomahawk cruise missiles waiting in the forward vertical launch tubes, creating a massive secondary explosion that displaced thousands of gallons of water, mostly upward into the air against the lowest resistance. Into this flume, the Argo settled with a tremendous splash, relatively unscathed, though her crew of clones had been tossed around like pebbles inside a maraca. She finally came to rest as the turbulence around her spread and faded in giant fairy rings; a picture of serenity under the rising moon.

A mile and a quarter to the south, 8,000 Gabrielles had watched in amazement.

April 22, 2006 - The Gabrielle Armada

Under the rising moon a mile and a quarter to the north, a great black fish had leapt almost clear of the sea. It had been launched into its jump by the exuberant energy that fish sometimes possessed, perhaps some living joy that drove them to celebrate their watery lives by leaping into the air. The Gabrielles had seen fish behave this way many times in the streams and lakes of Greece. Happy fish, tickled by the water nymphs. The sea had been happy too, sending up a fount to welcome the big fish back into its embrace. Naturally given to poetic imagery and positive interpretations of events, the Gabrielles reflexively described what they'd seen to themselves in bardly terms. The warrior inside each of them knew better.

It was a submarine warship that waited on the surface a mile and a quarter to the north. It had landed amidst the upwash of some great explosion, but the evidence of that upheaval had passed and now it lay still and silent. Somewhere under the waves a battle had been fought and won by the surviving fish. Somewhere below, the crew of another great fish had met defeat in Poseidon's realm, and now their spirits were embarking in a much smaller boat across the river Styx to the realm of the sea god's brother, Hades. In the subsequent peace, the victor lay at rest. She would recoup her strength and live to fight another day.

The Gabrielles continued to watch the sub closely. It, or its enemy, had approached close to their group's starboard flank near dusk, and observed them through a periscope. Was the crew friend or foe? They were all very aware that they had no weapons and no way to defend themselves. The situation was potentially very threatening, yet the crowds of blondes, staring to the north from the rails of their 203 small boats, didn't feel the fear that came with an overt threat. Rather they felt an edginess that acknowledged the presence of an overwhelming potential for violence that was not directed at themselves. That feeling was familiar. In fact, they'd felt it many times before. The first timeÖ

In the late spring of 78 BC, an eleven-year old girl had been playing with her nine-year old sister in a fallow field within shouting distance of her family's farmhouse. It was late afternoon and both girls had finished their chores. Being in a good mood that day, their mother had granted them a candlemark's reprieve to just be children before they'd have to come and help her prepare supper. But childhood was short-lived in those times, and seldom carefree. A girl soon became a woman, became a wife, and became a mother, usually before the end of her teens.

Suddenly the ringing of the village alarm bell broke the girls' revelry, and then their father was charging towards them from the nearer of their fields. He'd been shouting for them to come to the house and they'd hesitantly started on their way towards home. Not fast enough for Herodotus though. By the gods, why couldn't he have had two sons?

The panicky man had snatched up one daughter under each arm and fled for home. Gabrielle and Lila had dangled like sacks, wedged between his coarse-shirted ribs and the crooks of his elbows, bouncing with every jerky stride. Lila had immediately burst into tears. Gabrielle, older and of a different temperament, had tried to ask her father why. All she'd gotten from him, between agonized gasps for air, was that the army of a warlord was nearing the village. This warlord was unknown, and might not be above taking and selling his little girls into slavery. Then he'd gone on a jag of curses, directed at warriors in general, that both girls had heard often enough before. His words came in vehement spurts between inhalations. When he'd finally made it to the house, instead of going inside, he'd dragged the two sisters into the root cellar where their mother was already waiting, wringing her hands and cringing in fear.

Hecuba had gathered her daughters to her, squeezing them more tightly than their father. Gabrielle had barely been able to breathe. Lila hadn't stopped crying.

Their father had gathered his family in the embrace of his long arms and begun a non-stop litany of prayers. Gabrielle had chronicled the experience along with the rest of her childhood, filing it away to examine later. Among the things she'd recall was her father's words beseeching the goddesses Hestia and Demeter to protect them.

"Preserver of Hearth and Home, Goddess of the Harvest, save us from pillage and death at the hands of Xena's army. We're honest people who honor your gifts and lead simple, peaceful lives. We work hard tilling the earth and raising our families. We make offerings of our first harvests at your temples and give thanks in our homes. Please, save us today."

And somehow they had been saved. The army had ridden past Potidaea without stopping, but no one had been about to see it. The streets and the fields had lain quiet and deserted. Nothing had stirred as the line of warriors marched past the village. At their head, an angry woman of 19 had felt the tickle of guilt. A simple village, much smaller than her home city of Amphipolis, had reacted to her presence with terror, just like her kinsfolk had reacted to the coming of Cortese a couple of years before.

Here though, there was no militia and no hotheaded young woman to lead the farmers to resist. She'd vacillated between burning the place in contempt and sparing it for mercy's sake. In the end, haste and training had made up her mind. She'd wanted to get to Scione, at the tip of Chalcidice's Pallene Peninsula, to take a pirate's ships for her army. And the recent lessons from her mentor, Mithridates, reminded her that these fields might support her troops some day, and would support those who would feed her in the meantime. By doing nothing now, she would lessen the peasants' antipathy towards her in the future. Where she'd obeyed expedience, they had perceived mercy. She'd passed Potidaea by that day and left it untouched.

At her closest approach, Xena had been within a furlong of the root cellar where Herodotus' family lay hidden. Xena had felt nothing, for her heart and soul were preoccupied with her strategies: Scione, the ships, and then Corinth, gateway to Attica and Boetia. But Gabrielle had felt. Nervous energy that came from the close presence of a dangerous power, yet with a foreshadowing of some inexplicable sense of safety she couldn't understand. She'd felt no personal threat from the army passing by and she hadn't been sure why. Everyone else had certainly felt threatened. Only six feet of dirt and some wooden boards had hidden them, their mighty fortress, and it was a sham built mostly on the hopes of an ignorant farmer. It wouldn't have saved them for two heartbeats. No, it had been something else. At that time, Gabrielle had thought that maybe it was the Goddess Hestia calming her, an innocent, in her own home. Years later, she would suspect that it had been Fate.

Maybe she'd still remembered that sensation six years later when she was saved from slavers by an unknown warrior woman. Maybe she'd felt it when she talked with the warrior afterwards. And when she'd found out that her savior was the very same warlord who had once spared their village, maybe she remembered that feeling of safety she'd experienced so unexpectedly as a girl. Maybe she remembered not feeling the threat everyone else had felt, for she certainly didn't feel it on that day when Xena had first entered her life as a real person.

Each of her did remember it now as they stood at the railings of 203 little wooden ships. They could easily believe that the great black fish had passed their boats by and gone off to fight another enemy, just as Xena's first army had passed her village by once long ago. Now the warfish lay still, just as powerful and just as capable of violence, but not directed at her. Every one of the 8,000 clones would have bet that if she'd stepped aboard that sub, she'd have found Xena in command. Each of her continued to watch, their nervousness replaced by anticipation.

Twenty minutes passed after the sub's leap to the surface, and nothing changed. Then there was movement in the distance, just the barest impression of ghostly black racing under the moon. They heard a soft droning whine accompanying a specter that was moving towards them at a phenomenal speed. Surely no ship could sail so fast! Yet it sailed ever closer, and soon they saw that it was a black ship that skimmed above the waves on stilts! It approached the submarine in a long, graceful curve, slowing as it did, and finally sinking its hull into the sea. Now it moved like a normal boat, finally coming alongside the sub and tying off to her so that the pair rode the swells tethered together much like their own myriad craft. As the Gabrielles watched, their eyes riveted with intense interest, they thanked Selene for her moonlight.

From a distance of a mile and a quarter, it should have been impossible for the Gabrielles to see any details of the figures that emerged from the top of the sub's sail. It should have been equally impossible for them to recognize anything about the figures from the stilt-boat that met them on their deck. But somehow the Gabrielles saw with a sense other than vision. It was Xena! In fact, four Xenas! The Xenas greeted each other, met in a small group and talked, then cast off their lines and returned to their ships. Up on the sail, one figure seemed to hesitate, perhaps even staring towards them, before disappearing again within the submarine.

The stilt-boat moved away first. It shaped a course arcing away from the sub, accelerating until its hull lifted from the water, and then it leaped forward to an unnatural speed, accompanied again by that droning whine. The boat continued its arc, spiraling in to a distance of a quarter-mile and circling the Gabrielles. They waved. But the stilt-boat didn't stop or slow its pace, nor did it return any greeting. It continued to complete its survey and then it sped off to the north from whence it had come.

Then the submarine simply sank out of sight. It too had never signaled them or acknowledged them in any way. If the vessels had been crewed by Xena, or many Xenas, they didn't stop for the Gabrielles. Instead, they passed them by like Xena the warlord had passed by the village of Potidaea. The Gabrielles were silent and sadly disappointed. Had the soulmates they'd just spent the past 4 months, the entirety of their current lives, journeying to find just declined to be reunited? That thought hurt. And yet, perhaps Xena wasn't ready for that reunion yet.

Fate again. Long ago, Xena had ridden within 220 yards of her beloved, but the time hadn't been right; they'd each had a road to travel before they'd be ready for the meeting that would change them both forever. Perhaps the same was true on this night. The Gabrielles had to content themselves with the "almost certainty" that their soulmate lived. But that soulmate was at war. Those ships they'd seen were warships, as surely as anything the Gabrielles could imagine. And each of them recalled their last words from a previous life.

"No, Xena. Not yetÖstill a battle to fightÖnow I know why IÖI wasn't in Ares' visionÖ"

We knew thee of old,
Oh, divinely restored,
By the lights of thine eyes
And the light of thy Sword

From the graves of our slain
Shall thy valour prevail
As we greet thee again-
Hail, Liberty ! Hail !

(Partial lyric from the modern "National Anthem of Greece")

April 24, 2006 - The Strymon Vale, Macedonia

"Total enemy casualties?" Xena asked, her voice cold with command.

"Estimated at 31,200 dead, count of the wounded, unknown," Prima reported.

The Destroyer of Nations had returned to Amphipolis with her troops late the night before. Most of the troops from Chalcidice had come back earlier, in the afternoon of the 23rd. The hecatontarchea in command of the Miss Artiphys had reported in around midnight, and Secunda had finally returned in the early hours of the morning. Now the strategos was holding her morning briefing, at sunup, as was her custom. She, the two "specials", and the eight chiliarchoi were gathered in her command tent on the hill overlooking the army's encampment along the Strymon River.

"And our own casualties?"

"51 dead, 107 wounded, strategos," a chiliarchos announced.

"Good work," Xena stated, "a kill ratio of 612 to 1. This has been a successful opening engagement against Athena's forces. Her uninspired three-pronged strategy failed because of our vigilance. She was trying to entrap and destroy us with sheer numbers of troops, and we defeated her with technologyÖbeat her at her own game. Now I've challenged 'em to fight face to face the old way.

We know that 4,800 troops survived the battle to the north. A few may have survived in Chalcidice as well. I have foreseen us in battle against 24,000, so about 19,000 of Athena's soldiers are unaccounted for. Double the scouts. I want them found."

A chorus of, "Yes, strategos," came from the loyal officers and she dismissed the meeting.

After they had gone, Xena sat in the chair at her desk, her mind occupied deep in thought. The hecatontarchea who had commanded the Miss Artiphys had brought back a disturbing intelligence report. Xena wasn't sure of what to make of it, yet. A flotsam of junk sailboats was headed their way bearing a suspected 8,000 clones of Gabrielle. Her immediate suspicion was that these were a component of the missing 19,000 that Athena still had in reserve, but the behavior of the Los Angeles class sub that the Argo had destroyed brought that assumption under doubt. Why would Athena want to destroy the Gabrielles if she had created them in the first place? Why go to so much trouble and not deploy them as a weapon? Athena's strategyÖshe sought understanding in conjecture.

They could have rebelled against the goddess and gone AWOL because of some inbred loyalty to their soulmate or some aversion to serving the enemy that the original Gabrielle clone had first discerned years ago back in Columbia. They could have been cleverly conceived pawns in Athena's strategies, bred like the clone in the lab in Washington, D.C., simply to be slain en mass for Xena's torment. It would explain why the Los Angeles had ignored the Argo. Or they could have been threatened by the Los Angeles, which was sacrificed to gain the Destroyer's confidence in their independence, and once accepted as allies, would be in a position to strike her at a crucial moment. Or they could be something else so unforeseen that their threat wasn't subject to calculation. Perhaps they'd been cross-programmed, their downloads aberrant, containing the memories of someone else. Callisto's mind and memories in Gabrielle's skin? Xena cringed at the possibility, and yet she knew it was possible with clones.

But what if they weren't Athena's tools? What force besides Athena could have created the Gabrielles in that case? On this point rested all her suspicions. Athena had created one Gabrielle, and so she could create more. She had demonstrated that capability. She had access to the bard's genes. In this world, only one other group had mass-produced clonesÖOmega Sector. Here she paused to review her memories, dredging them up with her eidetic recall.

Xena lay Gabrielle's body down with the kranos below her feet but said no farewell, then she lit the pyre and watched the creeping flames engulf the logs, wrapping the body of her beloved bard as if in the blanket of her love. Xena's clone stood silent, for once not singing the requiem, but simply stroking the lock of Gabrielle's hair that she had cut, endlessly through her fingers. What had happened to that lock of hair, she wondered?

It had been taken from her before her questioning by the detectives in the Columbia police station. She'd been so preoccupied that she'd barely noticed. It would have been among the lots of evidence handed over to Harry and Al when they'd come to rescue her.

Even when Harry Tasker entered the room, the FBI ID badge hanging from the pocket of his suit jacket, she only gave a slight twitch of her left eyebrow in recognition. When the four Special Services officers surrounded her, she got up and followed them out in silence. Within minutes, Harry rejoined them, carrying a stack of cassettes. Shortly later Al and the other four operatives joined them, carrying a box holding bagged evidence and folders of notes. It must have been there amongst the evidence!

In all the time since, why hadn't she remembered the lock of hair that she'd cut from Gabrielle's head before laying her on the pyre? Why hadn't she suspected the ever-crafty agent who'd initially had reservations about cloning her army? He'd had obvious doubts about turning her loose with such a force. He'd been horrified by her alliance with Dr. Kishihara and the creation of Prima and Secunda. And then, there had been his boss, Spencer Trilby. The man had acted passively during their meetings, allowing Harry and Al to handle her, but he'd always been present in their headquarters and sat in at their meetings. The man had "fox" written all over him. He was a survivor who'd managed to stay alive for decades in the twilight world of espionage, a world with few elders and a short life expectancy. Why had she not suspected him? Had she thought that her requests were sufficient to keep Omega Sector focused and busy? Had she simply been too preoccupied to think laterally? The flowcharts of Mithridates would have predicted a threat from within her organization, and none had surfaced. She should have been much more suspicious of her "allies". It was far too late now.

So Omega Sector too had been capable of cloning the Gabrielles. Now, she had no way to be certain of their origin. Omega Sector was gone, along with Washington, D.C., or was it? She hadn't even ordered Secunda's troops to check and make sure during their occupation of the Capitol City. Her strategic lapses were coming to light as they always did in hindsight and it annoyed her. Now there were possibilities to examine and plans to be made. There were contingencies to be developed.

For a moment she toyed with the idea of seeking out and enlisting the Gabrielles. 8,000 of them would be a potent addition to her forces. Perhaps she could contrive to use them. But these Gabrielles were an unknown. They could be the best of allies, but they could also become the perfect weapons against her. She could not afford such a gamble now. This was not her Gabrielle. She was not the clone who had come to life beside her in Alti's lab and died in Columbia years ago. These were strange clones wearing a familiar face, and she couldn't know what had been downloaded into them or how their genes had been modified. They had not appeared in Ares' vision. No, she could not take the chance. There could be no trust. Her army would have no contact with them at least until after the final battle and Athena's defeat.

So what was the worst that could happen afterwards? That these Gabrielles would try to rise up and defeat her? The blonde had never been the equal of the Destroyer of Nations. And yet, Athena would be dead. The world would be in ruins. Leaving the globe under the rule of 8,000 Gabrielles might be better than what would come to be under her hand as the Conqueror. Had that been Spencer Trilby's plan? The Hellene's Bane smiled a cold smile to herself. She could almost agree with the old man's reasoning. Almost.

Given the necessity, she would kill them all. This was not 73 BC and she could not again abdicate her destiny. She had walked that path of denial, the path of the Warrior Princess, and it had led to years of anguish, frustration, and finally, an ignominious death. Now she would walk the path that she had turned from when she'd disbanded her army. She would walk the path of the Conqueror.

This world had never seen her like, a living demigoddess and daughter of war, not in Alexander, nor even in Caesar himself. Once in command, she would never relinquish the fruits of her victory. She was the Chosen of Ares, Blessed by the God of War, and she was fighting in his name. Xena would be satisfied with her revenge, but once that was done, Ares' Favorite was bound to represent her god on earth. She would be the God of War's mortal emissary for the rest of her days. This was her destiny. She'd accepted it back in Columbia on a November night in 2001 as she'd committed her soulmate to the pyre, and she accepted it now.

Would Gabrielle oppose her in the role of Conqueror? She had ever kept the Destroyer at bay during their earlier life. Would she join me now under those conditions, Xena asked herself? In all honesty, she had to admit that no, the bard would not. The empire to come would be built on force and martial power, and the unfettered exercise of her will. The Greater Good would have little place in it. No, sooner or later she will come to oppose me, Xena admitted. And with that, she remembered a scene from the TV show, Hercules, which they'd seen and laughed about years ago.

Armageddon Now.

"Put her on the cross," the Conqueror ordered, and it was done. Then as she turned away, back to her lonely throne, she casually tossed over her shoulder, "break her legs."

No one would stand against the Conqueror of the Known World. In Ares' name, and by the will of the Destroyer of Nations, no dissent would be tolerated. When subversives were discovered in her realm, an example would be made. She didn't even flinch as the mallet slammed home and the "voice of the people" screamed in pain.

A road appeared in her mind's eye, leading to the Colosseum of Rome. It looked as it had in 44 BC, on the Ides of March when the soulmates and their enemy had died. Yet on this day, she herself occupied the royal box, and she had come to witness the sport. Along the avenue outside, circling the massive building and stretching for a mile facing each other across the Via Sacra between the Colosseum and the Forum of Rome, stood rows of crosses. From each cross, hung the limp body of a blonde woman, her blood painting the timbers as it trickled from her broken legs. Crows waited impatiently.

Xena shook herself out of her fatalistic ruminations. Taking inspiration or foresight from a TV show was simply pointless. She shelved the images and stood up from her desk, then walked around it and exited the tent. Below her in the Strymon Vale, the army was holding its morning mess. Troops were consuming rations and bands of mounted scouts were changing duties. The Destroyer of Nations started down the hill. Even a future Conqueror had to eat.

The morning passed, giving way to afternoon as Helios waded through the sky. Clouds came and went like the lost nations of the past, driven by breezes that could have been the tides of war. The scouts had spread throughout the surrounding territory, extending their range in a circle of 100 miles on horseback and 40 miles on foot. Reports began trickling in by mid-afternoon, but they spoke of nothing new. From the coast came the unexpected and continued word of no sighting of the Gabrielles.

The Destroyer of Nations had quickly plotted their coarse and speed from the report the hecatontarchea had delivered. They had been 65 miles off shore and moving northwest at 4 knots. They should have been in sight of land within 16 hours, but that time had passed yesterday afternoon. Where had they gone? Their absence now was as troubling as their appearance had been the day before yesterday. Both were unexpected, and the unexpected in war was usually bad. Somewhere out there were 8,000 wild cards whose intentions were unknown.

Xena briefly contemplated the possibility of having to fight a two-fronted war, against Athena's troops and the Gabrielles. It could be disastrous. The appearance of the 8,000 blondes would have a profound effect on her army, breaking their concentration as they tried to come to terms with the existance of soulmates they knew only from memory. Those memories would argue for trust that the realities of the situation couldn't allow. If they marched onto the battlefield they could turn the tide of the conflict against the Destroyer. Each of her clones would be fighting herself at a time when they needed to be single-mindedly focused on fighting their enemy.

Now that the Gabrielles' position was unknown, Xena couldn't even monitor them. She couldn't predict their actions or counteract their threat. They had to be found as surely as Athena's troops. But what could she do once they were found? She was fresh out of atomic bombs though she did still have plagues.

Through the rest of the day Xena waited for word that the scouts had discovered Athena's hidden troops. By now, those who had survived her ambush would be on the move again as part of some contingency plan. She had no doubt that the Goddess of Wisdom and Warfare had more than one strategic option, and like any good general, could segue from her primary plan to her backup.

As she waited, Xena reviewed the map on her desk. She saw the lands in her mind's eye, grid square by grid square, mile by mile, until she had refreshed her knowledge of a block, 100 miles per side, that had once been her home territory. These lands around Amphipolis and the Strymon Vale had been her the base of her power as a warlord, and it had been from that part of Thrace that she had once moved to conquer Greece.

Throughout the afternoon and evening, reports came back from the scouts, but these were only repetitions of what had already been heard. No enemy forces had been sighted. No troop movements had been discovered. There was no sign of the enemy, and there was no sign of the Gabrielles. Night approached and the Destroyer of Nations, twitchy and having nothing else to do, contented herself with sword drills.

She began in the gloaming hour, as Helios sank and reddened the hilltop with a bloody light. Her shadow elongated, wraithlike, to stretch eastwards towards the highlands that had backed her home polis during her original life. Here, a furlong and a half from her tent, was a height that overlooked the river, the place were she had first learned her sword drills with her brothers. They had begun their training under the tutelage of a hometown childhood hero, one Meleager the Mighty, a flea-bitten alcoholic who owned a real sword and had once seen battle. That had been in 84 BC, a year before their "hero" fell to his death while drunk, off the very same cliff where they trained.

Xena had returned to this spot many times during her original life, seeking the solace of earlier times and a shroud of concentration that lifted her spirit from the blood of war to the purity that she found in controlled physical movement. Here she submerged herself in the discipline of her chosen weapon and integrated the growing repertoire of techniques that she had accumulated.

The first sword drill took her back to her years as a teen, before she had ever raised a sword in anger. The simple, basic movements were designed to hone the body's strength and coordination in a novice machairophoros. The overhead strike, swinging parry, cross and horizontal slashes, and straight thrust. She could still hear Meleager's gruff baritone. Advance with your attacks but never allow your stance to become unbalanced by overcommitment; moving her feet to advance her body's center of gravity, and never leaning beyond that center of gravity even during a lunge. Parry from the inside to the outside with the flat of the blade to preserve the cutting edges; always redirecting the enemy's blade away from her body. Shift your weight back to absorb a blow. The legs are like springs. Never meet the enemy flat-footed, avoid crossing your feet, watch the hips and shoulders, the eyes can lie. Xena recalled the timeless wisdom of her first lessons. She made the same movements that she had learned almost 2,100 years before, but now she moved with the fluidity and assurance of a master. She moved at combat speed as the last rays painted her sword with the colors of spilled blood, arterial bright as she began, deepening to venous rust, and finally falling to scab-black as Apollo's chariot fled the sky. The drill finally ended with the stillness following the kill.

In the new-fallen darkness Xena immediately began the second drill, a training exercise for the close-quarters fighting of the euzonos or psilos, (the light infantryman), and the Roman velites, (legionary skirmishers), that she had learned in her first months serving Mithridates. She practiced the fluid transitions and continuous movements necessary to a frontline fighter clashing with similarly armed enemies in advance of the heavy infantry lines. Xena slipped past a row of imaginary foes, slashing, sidestepping, and feinting. Always move, never stop or you become an easy target, always make the decisive stroke first, and remain unpredictable. One attack blended into the next so that her momentum never faltered, turning her into a vicious close-in killing machine. Here assurance and speed counted. Wound the foe, kill 'em if you can, but always keep moving. You're a shock troop; don't worry about a clean kill, someone behind will finish 'em off with their buttspike. Just keep advancing, be unrelenting, run 'em over and mow 'em down. No fatigue, no thinking, and no mercy.

She had been at it full speed for a quarter of an hour. A normal human would have been collapsing in exhaustion. Xena's skin showed only a slight sheen of sweat. Her breathing was elevated but controlled. She was reaching her second wind, after her body had processed the energy already in her blood, and her metabolism switched over to tap that which had been stored. The Destroyer of Nations reaped the benefits of her ancient and divine genetic mutation. When she was done she moved on to a third exercise, much more advanced, much more demanding, and much more personal.

This was the sword drill that she had never finished composing. She had added to it and refined it up until her last mission in Rome. Over the years she had spent countless candlemarks contemplating the movements and weighing the efficacy of the techniques. For a long time, she had been the only warrior capable of performing it. Once she had hoped to bequeath this knowledge to both her own daughter, and Gabrielle's. In the end, it had died with her on the cross.

Now she moved through the opening series, "The Annihilation of the Line", designed to destroy a linear formation regardless of the number of enemies that made it up. Based on the truth that an effective line can only face one way, the movements of tracking her body caused the linear order to fail, and with it, the threat of the line. A variable sequence of aerial maneuvers allowed her to strike down every third and fourth soldier out of five. While those between turned to follow her progress, they hindered each other's readiness. After engaging a series of ten, she backtracked to slay each first and fifth, then moved on to the next ten in the line. All the while, the line would be trying to compensate, to track and attack her, but their very deployment order and numerical advantage hindered them. The unpredictable and unrelenting aggression of the euzonos combined with the aerial fighting of Indus and Chin and her personal speed made her an almost impossible target for heavy infantrymen encumbered with shields, armor, and spears. In applied situations, she had actually witnessed soldiers wounding their comrades in their confusion. She carried the drill on for what would have been a line of 40, a common ektaxis, or battle order, for one centuria.

Without a break, the switched to the second series, "The Smashing of the Wheel", used to overcome encircling foes numbering five and up. These were often the surviving second soldier of each five in the annihilated line. In this drill she fought, sword in her right hand, chakram in her left, using both weapons to parry and strike. Her attacks progressed as if she were rebounding within the wheel's circumference, focussing in an evolution at 120† intervals, killing one and wounding the one adjacent before turning to those a third of the circle away. Thrust, cut, turn, two strides, slash, thrust, turn, three strides, backslash, front slash, leaping back somersault, slash, thrust, flip and repeat. Sometimes she moved clockwise, at other times widdershins, striking with unexpected combinations of her two weapons and immediately moving on. Again, she fought an imaginary 40, tallying the wounded with the dead and finishing them off in her mind with strokes appropriate to their injuries.

And finally, she moved to the third drill, "Katalepsis". When she had first created this drill, she had allowed the Destroyer a brief sojourn to celebrate her battle frenzy. Later, after Indus, it had come to mean the honing of her Way. What had started as an offering to Ares had progressed to an avowal of her dedication to the warrior's path. Now, as the Destroyer of Nations, the exercise had ascended to the sublime.

Here the finest warrior of her age unleashed her skill with the subconscious mastery of no mind. The spirit alone guided her hands and her weapons. Flawless instinct, supernatural intuition. The body she had trained for a lifetime, the reflexes honed by decades of fighting, and a soul divorced from moral restraints melded in an unremitting and merciless outpouring of martial energy that brought lightning-quick death to all quarters. Each progression was aimed for a kill, each movement set up another even as it accomplished its task with the highest possible efficiency. Stroke for stroke, "Katalepsis" had the highest killing return of any battle tactic in hand to hand combat. Even Gabrielle, after a lifetime spent training against this very warrior, would have been cut down in moments. Though she could spar toe to toe with the Warrior Princess, the blonde had never been the equal of the Destroyer of Nations.

When she was still again at last, a hundred lay dead in her mind's eye. She saw every one of them with perfect clarity, recalled their death strokes exactly, and she could find no more efficient way to have slain them. Tonight she could even smell their shed blood in the air. And she knew that on this night, she had performed the "Katalepsis" for the first time without a single flaw. For the first time, she was truly the Destroyer of Nations.

Xena left the hilltop and made her way back to her army. Along the way she stopped at the stream that had once been so much larger. It was a tributary that ran down from the highlands behind where the city had once stood, and in that time, had contributed to its water supply. Now it was reduced to a small lively rill, but she had seen the place where it widened above a boulder on her way to practice. Now she stripped off her uniform and walked unhesitatingly in. The cool water came only to her mid-thigh, but she sank down and sat, then stretched back and let it cover her. For ten minutes she stayed in the water. She submerged completely for five minutes and sank into a transcendental state just to relax. When she finally rose and walked from the stream, she flicked the droplets from her skin, stood under the moon to dry, and then dressed and headed back to her tent.

In the darkness on the clifftop where Xena had practiced her drills, a shadow separated itself from the tree line a scant dozen yards away. Though she had followed Xena from her tent, she had projected no foreign energy and had remained undetected. To her, Xena was "near-self", closer to the "I" that she was than the "they" that described even her fellow clones. Only her "identical twin" was equally close. The shadow walked to the place Xena had vacated and stood absolutely still. For long moments she absorbed the energy of the night, the atmosphere of the place, and her memories of the Destroyer's movements. To her, that timespan felt like an hour. Eventually she heard Xena leave her bath and dress. And then she drew her sword and began the first drill.

She worked from her memories, tapping them directly and applying what had been dormant there. Converting her memories into actions took so little time that to the naked eye, she appeared to be executing a sequence of movements learned through a lifetime of practice. When she completed the machairophoros drill, she continued with the Mithridatic euzonos exercises, and these too she performed in every way identical to the Destroyer. And finally she moved on to Xena's personal training regimen. "The Annihilation of the Line", "The Smashing of the Wheel", and at last the "Katalepsis", all indistinguishable from what Xena herself had done. All were performed with technical perfection and kinship of spirit.

The workout took her forty-five minutes, just as it had for Xena. It would have brought a mortal aerobics instructor past the point of collapse. After a two-minute break, she began again. This time, she worked at her own speed, the movements internalized now and performed with no conscious thought. Under the glow of the moon and stars, a display of mastery never imagined in this world came to life. Silver reflections flickered pale on her blade as it wove through the air too fast for mortal eyes to follow. For all practical purposes it was cloaked by its speed, invisible and unavoidable. The movements became a whirlwind, the actions compressed, and the imaginary enemies fell. No mortal warrior could have withstood this onslaught. The human capacity to process visual information rendered a timely response physically impossible. Defense was beyond the limits of the human reflex arc's minimum reaction threshold. Neither one nor a hundred could have preserved their lives though they faced only a single warrior.

The ten-minute machairophoros drill passed in three minutes and a handful of seconds. The euzonos drill in five rather than Xena's fifteen. "The Annihilation of the Line", "The Smashing of the Wheel", and finally, "Katalepsis", she completed in just over seven minutes. She fought in silence, only the whistling of her sword and chakram singing in the night air. In a hair over fifteen minutes she made every move that had taken Xena forty-five. In that quarter-hour she slew an imaginary 221 foes.

After only a short break, she moved again to the "Katalepsis", but this time there were differences, though no human eye was capable of following them. Blessed with inhuman abilities, Prima had found that certain of Xena's moves were unnecessary when fighting at her speeds. There were more efficient ways to slay a hundred when you could move at 150 feet per second. She split skulls on her backswings, outpacing the reflexes of enemies that would have jerked away or parried at normal human speeds. With a twist of her wrist she could cut the throat of a foe that couldn't be slain by a blade wielded in a normal mortal's hands. Often she opted for strikes rather than parries. Prima found that she could slay the hundred with seventy-six fewer moves than her strategos, for not only could she capitalize by striking multiple targets with the same stroke, but she could also negate the need for many of Xena's defenses.

When she finished this time, she sheathed her sword and returned to camp. A quick dip in the river washed away her sweat. At no time did she revel in her mastery or make value comparisons between herself and her general. Her concept of self didn't allow for that. One thought alone presented itself. When the time comes, I will be ready, for no one, not even a god, can withstand those techniques at those speeds. Finally she headed towards the army's mess tents, seeking food to replenish the vast quantities of energy she had expended.

Continued in Chapter 9

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