CYCLES

 

 

By Phantom Bard (J. Nakamura)

Jn401160@aol.com

10 /14/2000, 1 /21/2001, 2 /4/2001 Revised © Ides of March, 2001

Disclaimer: This is a work of fan fiction, and is offered for non-profit entertainment. It may not be sold, may be downloaded for personal use only, and must contain this statement. The characters from the TV series Xena: Warrior Princess, including Xena, Gabrielle, Eve, Callisto, Joxer, Tegason, Virgilius, Ming Tien, and the portrayals of Ares, Eli, Sisyphus, and the archangel Michael are the creations and property of MCA/Universal and Renaissance Pictures. No malice is intended to these characters or concepts. I would like to express my thanks to their creators for sharing them with us. The other characters are my own creations, or have been plucked from history, (may they rest in peace).

Feedback can be sent to me at the address above. This is a non-illustrated version, the illustrated version contains 16 photo collages embedded in the text, write to request file.

This story contains violence that may be disturbing to some readers...planets destroyed, and some personal trauma. So what's a story without conflict? There are relationships based on the existing subtext presented in the series. There is no intent to offend, however if you feel that these topics will make you uncomfortable, please read something less disturbing, like the news. This story is based on events in the 2nd season episode "Ten Little Warlords", and the 3rd season episode "Furies". It also contains references to episodes through the mid 6th season. After that this tale starts to deviate from the show in some ways. I hope you enjoy this story.

 

4,514 B.C.

He was in that place where there is no time but the moment. When the present is so demanding that thought disappears and only action remains. Where reflex and instinct balance life and death. All the plans and dreams, forgotten in the face of his attackers. The anger and hatred he felt in their eyes...he fought to resist being hypnotized like a rat before a cobra. The glint of light on the spear point as it snapped towards him, and the sweep of his sword parrying the thrust. He stood with his older brother as they faced their pursuers. It was the bitterest of battles, for those who fought this day were family. Already he had slain his mother's brother, and watched his eldest brother die on his father's spear. They were rebels, cursed as renegades, yet against the spreading evil he knew someone must stand. They had borne away a treasure beyond value; the mightiest heirloom of their world's noblest family. Down the hill from the city and onto the field they fought, buying time for their followers to flee, giving ground in retreat, yet making their pursuers earn every step. A quick glance over his shoulder told him his younger brother had reached the ship. Already his wife and youngest brother were aboard, bearing their prize. Even if he fell now they would succeed.

Now onto the gangway, parrying the thrusts of spear and sword, counterattacking with the fury of the Spirit of Battle. If he and his brother could win the threshold they would be safe. Again he checked the distance behind them. Beside him came a grunt of pain, and he snapped his attention back to the battle. His father's spear had pierced his brother's shoulder, but his brother had trapped the spear with his arm, holding the shaft. Then his brother hewed the spearhead from the shaft with his sword, and cut their father across the cheek. He leapt in front as his brother ripped the spearhead from his flesh, and flung it into their father's side. The tip pierced his jerkin, cracking a rib, but the scrollwork of his breastplate would not allow the width of the spearhead to penetrate. Their father drew his sword, and knocked away the spearhead with disdain as their uncle moved to join him. Suddenly he was grabbed from behind and swung through the port. His brother had spun him around, reversing their positions, and drawing his second sword. For a moment they were face to face, and though his brother's eyes were grim he had a smile on his face.

"May the Great Power bless thy journey," his brother whispered, as he slammed the pommel of his sword against the hatch lock. The port snapped shut.

"Brother, no..." he cried, but it was too late. Through the port he could hear the faint clash of weapons, and his brother's laughter. Then an alarm sounded through the ship, and he felt it start to move. With his back to the port he slid to the floor, put his head in his hands, and wept.

The ship lifted from the launch field, turning to the west as it rose, gaining speed and altitude, rising through the clouds. In seconds the battle was miles below. Lasers tracked the starship as it accelerated, and but for the ship's shields they would have bitten the hull to ruin. Finally he stood and looked out a view port...there lay the void, cold and black, beautiful and terrifying, lit by a billion suns. The starship reached jump velocity and the stars winked out. They had escaped.

"Brother, may the Great Power bless thy soul," he whispered.

In the following days his young wife piloted the ship through over two thousand jumps. No one, not even using the planetary computer, would be following their course to the new world.

"Brother, we prepare for the final jump," his youngest brother said, giggling, as he shook him awake. After the heartbreak of the battle he hadn't slept but a couple hours at a time. He must have dozed in his chair.

"Ok little guy, lets go to the control room and watch, shall we?" he said, as he boosted the youngster onto his shoulders.

They entered the control room and he smiled at his middle brother and his wife, who sat in the pilot's chair.

"I didn't want you to miss this my love," she said, smiling at him.

"Thank you, beloved. I am longing to see this new world of your visions...I pray it is as beautiful as you described."

"You know my dreams always come true, husband."

"I know. It's just a matter of faith."

The stars winked out, and they made the jump. When they terminated there was a blue world below them. Oceans and continents...beautiful as they were revealed by the advance of dawn across the terminator. To their starboard hung a giant moon, and far away, a yellow sun. He felt the presence of a wealth of life below, and a Great Power around them.

"Gods, beloved," he gasped, "you have brought us to a Cardinal world...a world without end. In all the galaxy there are only a few."

"Zeus my husband, this is the world of which I have dreamt. Long shall we live here, and one day, here we shall die. While we live, we shall rule as Gods, yet we are also part of a larger plan I cannot foresee. This too I know from my dreams."

Below them, on the planet, mankind had achieved civilization...cities, metals, and language. In the lands surrounding an inland sea, filled with a thousand islands, a young peoples awaited the coming of the Gods.

 

 

PART ONE

XENA : GODDESS OF WAR

 

INTRODUCTION*

 

I've been around a long time, and I thought I should write all this down. It really is history, and I've started to feel obligated to preserve it. There isn't anyone who knows the whole story except me. Maybe someday someone will need to know. So much has been lost in the passage of time, and often I hear things that make me want to scream, "No, No, No! It didn't happen that way!". While I still have the chance I'd like to get my own story right. It's more than just taking names and kicking ass.

This is a big step for me. It's really out of character. I guess writing was never my thing, but things change...I've changed...the world changed. (Now that was really deep, wasn't it). I knew someone once who could have done this right, so I just keep asking myself, what would she have done? How would she have told this story? What words would she have chosen to make it come alive? (By the gods, I still miss her). I guess I'd be satisfied if you didn't throw this scroll down in boredom and disgust. What makes it difficult for me is that I've never loved hearing stories about my adventures. Writing about them myself...well, I never even considered that. Still, maybe in time the people who want to know what I have to say will find this story, and their questions will be answered. I hope they read it in time. I really do, because I know some things they don't. Something is going to happen sooner or later, and every year that passes increases the odds that it will be soon. Just like a town waiting for a siege to begin, we need to prepare. We will be facing a new enemy, with our lives at stake, and we won't know how they play the game of war....

* I wrote this Introduction in 2002, before the invasion, but I have left it to stand in the final version. ~X.

 

 

HOW IT ALL BEGAN

 

Well it was just like I thought; Sisyphus had hidden Ares' sword in plain sight. That old warlord, the one who tried to sneak up on me, he'd had it all along and he never knew it. Sisyphus had changed its appearance. I buried my dagger in his guts without even looking at him. Ironically, Ares had tucked his own sword into that dead warlord's hands, when we laid his corpse on the table. I only knew where it was for sure when I leaped up on that table while I was fighting Tegason. The first time I reached down to take it from the corpse he nearly cut my arm off. Actually he nearly cut Callisto's arm off, but I was trapped in her body, and I still needed that arm. Eventually I grabbed it and used it to parry Tegason's sword and disembowel him. Then I raised Ares' sword as if in salute, and I felt the power course through my body. It was as though I'd been struck by lightning. Though I didn't know it then, I was already half way to being a goddess because I was Ares' daughter. (The Furies later led me to discover that). Just holding Ares' sword, and knowing what it was, finished the job. The old bloodlust I knew so well blossomed, like Greek fire, in my heart...it became almost too much to resist. I saw strategies within strategies, and countless options fanning out before me. I could almost sense the future, and I quickly made some hard choices. For a few moments I wanted to be the sole Goddess of War. The power was intoxicating, and I was a better warrior than Ares, even in Callisto's body. Meanwhile, he was still fighting.

After taking a beating, Ares finally gutted Virgilius with a dagger. It had taken him long enough. That left the two of us, with Sisyphus trying to convince me to kill Ares. Then Joxer and Gabrielle burst in, still acting flaky. Well, you know I'd had my differences with Ares, but I understood him, and I'd trust him long before I'd trust Sisyphus. Sisyphus had made a deal with Hades, and if I'd killed Ares, he would have become the new God of War in spite of me, for Hades had the greater power. That scenario just wasn't an option...so I saved Ares' hide when Virgilius started to get up behind him with that ridiculous axe.

 

 

ON THE BEACH...AND AFTERWARDS

 

"Now if I can just survive the boat ride with Joxer, I'll be fine," Gabrielle said as we walked beside the surf. Ares had been restored as God of War, and Sisyphus went back to pushing his rock. Joxer was running on ahead, with his loud mindless giggle...

"Trust me, you'll be fine...and so will I," I said, as I shifted bodies. The surprise on my bard's face was simply priceless.

I didn't need Ares to help me recover my body from Callisto, any more than I needed his sword to remain a goddess. In the time my favorite mortal took to speak a sentence, I could go and seize my body back from Hades' realm. Hades looked at me, more shocked than Gabrielle. Ares had just given him a tongue lashing for his deal with Sisyphus, and when I showed up, he didn't know what to think. All he knew was that I had godlike powers. I didn't tell him anything either. I liked letting him live in suspense. Better still, Callisto always thought Ares had switched us back. The less "sick girl" knew the better.

"Xena? It's you, right? Not Callisto?" (Gabrielle's so cute when she's perplexed).

"It's me. Go on, test me," I answered, as I touched her arm.

"Whose body is worse to be trapped in than Callisto's?" she asked.

"A snake haired Gorgon's...but not by much," I replied with a grin.

"It really is you...." she exclaimed with relief, and she hugged me.

I decided I could never tell Gabrielle about my godhood. I didn't want it to come between us. I let her think Ares had kept his promise, and restored me to my body. I thought telling her I was now a goddess would have turned her friendship into worship. That would have felt too much like of the days of "Xena the Destroyer of Nations", and her army. Years later, when I saw how she acted with Aphrodite, I had some second thoughts, but by then it was too late. I wouldn't have gone through another rift for anything, and this was kind of a big secret I'd kept from her. Made my lie about killing Ming T'ien seem like horse feed.

I learned to control my powers, like I'd learned to control my reflexes. I found that my ability to make plans was greatly enhanced. With my divine sense of strategy and tactics, I seldom resorted to raw power. When I did use my new abilities, I always made sure to explain them in some other way. I used my powers in Chin, to escape execution and destroy Ming T'ien, and later to turn Khan's army into stone. Without my powers, Gabrielle and I would have been killed in that fall down the cliff, back when we convinced the Olympians of our deaths. Mostly I used my powers to appear mortal.

I think the hardest thing I ever did was staying in that ice tomb for 25 years. Long enough for Eve to grow up without me. I knew there was no way I could keep her safe from the gods all that time. Sooner or later they would have gotten to her. So I watched her become a warrior, and I preserved Gabrielle. Strategy takes on a whole new dimension when you're immortal. I even let Ares play his part. I had to wait until the time was right, but by then I had strong allies. Michael and his God told me Eve had an important role to play in the world. They'd arranged her birth for a reason. Eventually they persuaded me to wait, and their plan was so subtle I couldn't refuse. Talk about the greater good...hmm, they had it all figured out, and I just had to be in on it. They were out to change everything...taking down those Olympians was just a sideshow, and in the end it actually worked. Michael's God sent his son into the world, and he caused a major shift in mankind's beliefs. Instead of living in a world ruled by the whims and cruelty of many gods, people could believe they were the objects of their god's love. A god who valued every one of them, good or bad. A god who would forgive them. A god who asked only that they confess their failings and seek redemption through faith.

For me it started with a few of Eli's followers, but in time, billions would kneel before this god. At first Eli was a street magician who wanted to be a healer. It wasn't really about god. Later he went out to teach a way of living based on love. He wanted to find a true way to peace. Then the Olympians got worried because he gave people an option to worshipping them. People stopped believing they had no choice but to accept the pettiness of the gods. So the Olympians, Ares in particular, tried to intimidate Eli and his followers. Around that time, Eli started having visions when he'd pray for guidance. In seeking, he found someone who could give him answers. The ancient One God of the Israelites took Eli under His wing and used him to perform miracles...curing the sick, and even raising the dead. I wasn't sure if God had inspired Eli, or if Eli had stumbled on God by chance. In the end, Eli was martyred and the One God inherited all his followers, but Eli's teachings were the groundwork of the movement.

One thing I have come to understand is that the Olympians differed greatly from the One God. They were tied to the world, and so they experienced a flow of time. For this reason, they consulted the Fates for their prophecies. Not so the One God...for Him, time does not flow, it simply is. He could see ahead as easily as He could see back into the past. He made the Fates read what He willed into their strands, or as we say now, He used them to disseminate disinformation. Everyone from Zeus on down bought into that "Twilight of the Gods" routine. Ares almost saw through it when he told Livia that for 25 years, while her identity was a secret, nothing happened, and all they had to fear was fear. Thankfully, he was only trying to convince her to kill me...he didn't believe his own words. As I said, there were tactics within tactics. They never knew their real enemy.

I tried one last time. I came to Olympus to offer Athena a deal; she would heal Gabrielle and Eve, and I would leave them in peace. I had really hoped she would accept. But on the way to the great hall, Ares appeared with a deal of his own.

"I'm here to make you an offer," he said as he came towards us. I was losing patience and time was running out. I wanted to shoot him dead for old times' sake.

"We'll make you a god." (Good one Ares...what you don't know will get you killed).

"And what about Eve and Gabrielle?" I asked, knowing what his answer would be.

"Gabrielle we can negotiate, but Eve...she is our death warrant. She has to die."

Then he came forward and lowered the crossbow I held, from his chest. He had guts, I'll give him that.

"You know, this is the second time we've faced off one on one, since you became Xena Slayer of Gods, and you still haven't been able to pull the trigger."

I shot him in the thigh by reflex. I'd intended to re-aim and shoot higher, but I twitched. So I bound him in Hephaestus' chain, and brought him along to my confrontation with Athena. He was shocked, blustering, and indignant. Guess he'd forgotten about being wounded by Diomedes II at Troy, when Athena had driven the chariot against him. In the end I was glad he survived. When all appeared lost, he brought Gabrielle and Eve back to life, allowing me to impale Athena for a second time. I hadn't known it was possible without her blessing. For that one act I was forever in his debt, and I finally let myself feel something for him. Gratitude. I protected him for the rest of his mortal life.

Athena, Goddess of War and Wisdom, was dead, and Ares, God of War, was mortal. But Xena, Goddess of War and Strategy survived. Wars still happened and people didn't act violently insane, as they had when Ares lost his sword to Sisyphus all those years ago. But did anyone wonder why? Noooo! Not even Gabrielle, who had been through that, realized what wasn't happening. She was preoccupied with our happy ending. Her bard's sensibilities for a plot line blinded her. In all the years that followed, she never caught on. No one did.

For as long as she lived she was my favorite. Once she chose to accept the necessity of fighting, I strengthened her, and increased her prowess. Nothing unbelievable, but though she sometimes lost a fight, in the end she always vanquished her foes. She never fell prey to hubris and she never lost her heart, or her hope for a better world. She has repaid me a hundred to one. Whenever I have felt like giving up, her memory strengthened me, and increased my prowess. Over the centuries she has done more good, through me, than she could ever have imagined. I hope she forgives me.

 

THE FIRST CRUSADE

 

Time went by fast after Gabrielle left the world. At many times and in many places I fought to protect the civilized nations I knew. I tried to preserve peoples' freedom, and the knowledge of ancient times. It was a long, slow defeat. I spent years watching the Roman Empire as it grew too large to manage, and eventually rotted from within. The leadership went to hell, and without it the territories fell prey to invaders and insurgents. Finally the known world was reduced to petty kingdoms and city-states. I was tired of it all. Been there, done that.

The followers of Eli had become a dominant power, with all the corruption and politics that go along with it. Just like the Roman Empire, the church rotted from within. The leadership was cynical and worldly. The rank and file was fanatical. What a great legacy to Eli's memory...hatred for all non-Christians, and constant suspicion of each other. It really hit the fan when the Arabs took over the Holy Lands and tried to expand into Europe. By then, Christendom had split into the Western Roman, and the Eastern Byzantine churches. There was plenty of animosity between them, (and in fact their prelates had excommunicated each other), but when faced with a common enemy, they got together to "crush the infidels".

In 1095, on November 27th, Pope Urban II begged the faithful of Clermont, in central France, to bring military aid to the Byzantine Emperor, Alexis 1 Comnenus. His capitol of Constantinople was threatened by the expansion of the Turks and Arabs. Well, Urban II managed to rouse the rabble. Soon zealots were screaming, "Dieu li volt!" (God wills it!), and in the best traditions of the church they marched off ready to kill. As a measure of the fanaticism of the times, thousands of peasants joined the crusade, following Peter the Hermit. He rode heroically from Amiens at the head of his troops, (on a donkey), on March 10, 1096. Much to their credit, or the discredit of the nobles and militaries, Peter's "People's Crusade" reached Constantinople in August, about half a year ahead of the soldiers. They having been sidetracked in Mainz, slaughtering the Jewish population.

When Peter the Hermit and his rabble arrived in Constantinople, Alexis 1 tried to persuade him to await the Crusader armies. Well after riding all that way on a donkey, he wasn't going to let a silly thing like common sense stop him. Peter the Hermit, besotted by his status and following, convinced the Byzantine Emperor to take him and his peasants across the Bosphorus Strait. When I spoke to Alexis 1, he told me he just wanted to be rid of them all, and would do anything to get them out of Constantinople. I could see this was a disaster in the making...even real soldiers would have had a hard time with the Turks in Anatolia. Sure enough, after crossing the Bosphorus, the "People's Crusade" was massacred by the Turks at Civetot. As someone I once knew had said, 'What could you possibly have been thinking?' This wasn't a war. It was a stupid, wasteful slaughter. I saw the effect of religion on the feebleminded masses. Frenzy, hysteria, and loss of life followed the charisma of faith run amok.

In the following years the Crusader armies were militarily successful, but the bloodshed on both sides, in the name of God, was a bitter embarrassment. When the Christians finally took Jerusalem in 1099, they killed almost everyone inside. Mutilated dead lay hip deep in the al-Aksa Mosque, and the smoke of the bodies, from the great synagogue as it burned to the ground, screamed to heaven. In that time, I turned my back on the One God.

 

THE INVENTOR OF MILAN

 

He had recently arrived from Florence, and he was the most unlikely military engineer I had ever seen. I don't think he ever wielded a weapon in battle. His first love was sketching plants and landscapes, and he'd apprenticed as a painter. He was a vegetarian when I met him at the court of Duke Lodovico Sforza, the warlord of Milan. I heard he was also accomplished as a sculptor, but my interest was in his military inventiveness. In hopes of safeguarding the civilized lands from barbarian invasion, I had become obsessed with developing better weapons. I came to his studio as the day was fading. I had some ideas I wanted to discuss with him.

He was sitting before an easel, which held a smallish wood panel. The partially finished painting he'd been applying colors to was a portrait of a woman, seated before a craggy landscape. Though her clothing was dark, there was a light reflected in her face, and her expression suggested patience, touched by amusement. It looked like it needed work, yet the space and light he depicted appeared very real. I thought it would be a nice painting when he finished it. To either side of the easel was a clutter of sketches, books, and partially finished scale models of sculptures and machinery. It spoke of a mind distracted by too many interests competing for attention, and too little time. It also made me think of lack of focus, or discipline.

An apprentice announced my presence, "Master, you have a visitor, Xena di Amphipolis...she wishes to consult on engines of war."

With a sigh he turned to face me, and I registered the intensity of his eyes.

"Xena di Amphipolis, you are far from your home...engines of war you would discuss. I am so tired of war, and death, and fighting. There are so many wonders in God's Creation, yet so much energy is spent in conflict and destruction."

"Master, it has been so in all the days I have known," I spoke, in the Latin of Byzantium, "Mankind seems destined for conflict, with the world, and with other men. I believe it comes as the result of our spirits being each alone in our bodies, striving against the elements."

His eyes brightened as he pondered my words. My belief that all conflict was an outgrowth of our struggles to survive, as individual beings, in an indifferent world, had excited his mind. I knew what conclusion he would reach.

"Xena, speak not of this beyond this room. The priests would see in it a heresy, for it negates the omnipotence of God's design for us in the world. They would demand your penitence with torture."

"This I know well, and to you alone I will say that God is not as men would believe Him to be. The world is driven by a will, blind and ruthless, and being of the world, man can be blind and ruthless as well. Civilization is threatened by barbaric tribes in the north, and the east. In the south the Arabs spread their influence. Your own lord is threatened by the French. I would wish for new weapons to confound our enemies, and save our lives."

"I have given much attention to the development of weapons. It is a part of my duties to the Duke. But perhaps you have some ideas of your own," he said, "and I must ask you to accept my apologies. I thought you merely a mercenary, enamoured of violence for the glory it confers, yet now I see you are a thinker as well as a beautiful woman."

"Beauty lives in the beholder's eye, and what wisdom I have is from experience," I replied, "as for the engines of war, I have some ideas...would you like to hear them?"

"Yes, of course. I seek always after knowledge, and I thirst for discourse with those who have it."

So we spoke a long time that evening, and many evenings after. I told him of my thoughts on a rapid firing weapon using the small canon that could be handheld. I spoke of an armored mobile platform for canon, to allow them to move on the battlefield. I shared my vision for ways to allow soldiers to attack from under the water, and from the air above. He devoured my information, sketching constantly. He had a sense of how such inspirations could become real machines...could be built, and deployed on the battlefield. My respect for his abilities increased greatly. I had great hopes for the construction of the designs he sketched in those meetings. And I indulged him in his true love. I posed for him. He sketched me standing, looking down and to my right, my arms embracing a column for reference. He said he was inspired to paint a subject from the old mythology. Another project to contest for his time.

The years passed, and none of the wonderful machines he designed were built. For one reason or another they never became real weapons until hundreds of years later, and then they were deadly. The machine gun, the tank, the helicopter, scuba gear, and others were eventually developed. I can't imagine how history would have been changed if they had been built in 1485. I will tell you this. The small portrait he was working on when we first met hangs in the Louvre in Paris, revered by art lovers the world over, though the colors have darkened. Her smile has captivated millions of viewers over the centuries...it is perhaps his best-known work. And the sketches he made of me? He actually did finish that project. In his painting I stand embracing a swan, with cherubs to my right, as Leda.

He was a peaceful, intelligent, and inquisitive soul, forced by his times to serve corrupt and violent men. Men, whose memory has faded, while his lives on as the model of a Renaissance Man. Five hundred years later, people still speak the name of Leonardo, from the country village of Vinci.

A NEW HOPE

 

A few years after I spoke with Leonardo in Milan, a Genoese sea captain, Cristoforo Colombo, won patronage from the monarchs of Spain, and led three small ships on a voyage of discovery into the west. In time, I learned he had discovered the Caribbean and parts of South America. Soon there were trade, colonies, and slavery. Just what you'd expect of the avaricious, immoral, hypocritical movers and shakers of those times. Gold, God, and Glory, but also Slavery, Small Pox, and Spirits...the colonization of the New World started as an extension of the worst the Old World had to offer. Thankfully, the natives eventually became restless. It seemed to take forever...from 1492 to 1776.

In the meantime I had begun to formulate a strategy which was based on "arming all quarters". The aim was to make the approaches by land, air, and sea impossible for an invader to overcome. Since the dawn of warfare, land passage had been the preoccupation of generals, warlords, and kings. Sea power had been proved in the Mediterranean for two millennia. After my talks with Leonardo, I realized that underwater and airborne warfare would someday be of strategic importance as well.

Both were centuries away, so I concentrated on ships. The voyages of discovery led to trade routes which needed protection. The Spanish and English built formidable navies to enforce their interests around the world. I felt the development of naval power was better undertaken by an island nation, and so I worked with the English. I fed inspirations for tactical and engineering advances to their admiralty, and on October 21, 1805 they were victorious at the Battle of Trafalgar. There the English navy smashed the navies of the France and Spain. They had saved themselves from the impending invasion by Napoleon, and established themselves as the supreme naval power of their time. Another act that turned my favor to the English, was their abolition, in 1800, of the ancient evil of slavery. Yet, they impressed tradesmen, prisoners, and even foreign sailors into service on their ships. For this reason, in the last years of the 1700's, I traveled to the fledgling republic of the United States of America. At the time they had no navy, but they had guts, and they had raw materials. And unlike the Europeans, they had a much looser social structure that I found refreshing. It allowed them a willingness to try new things, and this was a characteristic I needed for my plans.

Like I had with Leonardo so long before, I went to meet with the leading military designer of that time. He was a Philadelphia shipbuilder named Joshua Humphreys, who was a master shipwright, and had been commissioned by Congress to design frigates for the nation's navy. After a few minutes, he realized that I knew the specifications of all the British naval vessels. Because I had recently come from England, he assumed I was a spy, and this suited me. His budgets didn't allow him to build battleships, called "ships of the line". Instead, I convinced him to build enlarged versions of intermediate sized warships. We created a concept for these ships, that what they could not outgun, they would be able to outrun.

The three sister ships, United States, Constitution, and President would carry up to 50 long guns, which fired 24 pound shot. They also carried 20 shorter carronades, which fired shot as heavy as 42 pounds. By contrast, a British frigate might carry an equal number of lighter guns, firing 18 pound shot. Physically, our frigates were about a third longer, at 204 feet in length, and slightly wider. These proportions created a swift hull, and a long gun platform. Humphreys designed tall masts to carry huge sails, giving these ships more speed than any similar frigates. Finally, to protect them from damage by enemy fire, the hulls were live oak, and white oak, 15 to 25 inches thick. In battle trim, they carried crews of about 450, and displaced about 2,200 tons. USS United States and USS Constitution were completed in 1797. USS President was launched in 1800.

On June 12, 1812 the United States went to war with the greatest navy then in existence. There were 860 ships in the British navy in 1812. Of these, 191 were ships of the line carrying 74 to 130 guns. Another 245 were frigates, armed with 50 or more guns. The United States navy had 50 ships, the largest being Humphreys' three new frigates. It had been seven years since the British navy had lost a one on one battle at sea. In 200 engagements, they had lost only five battles in the last twenty years. It was of vital importance to me that this new country prevailed. My plans for the future of warfare hinged on its development into a world power. There was no alternative to being prepared....none.

In the first battle, August 19, 1812, it took the USS Constitution less than three hours to render the British frigate HMS Guerriere a dismasted wreck; so badly damaged she was sunk, rather than taken as a prize. She fired more than 950 rounds at her enemy. Sailors saw 18 pound British cannonballs bouncing off Constitution's oak hull. Battle casualties; 101 British, 14 American. Next, the USS United States defeated the HMS Macedon, forcing her to surrender, and killing a third of her crew. Finally as the year ended, USS Constitution again destroyed a British frigate, the HMS Java, a faster ship. The British Admiralty forbade its frigates to engage the American ships one on one. Then, as the war came to an end in 1815, USS Constitution fought and defeated HMS Cyane and HMS Levant, both ships of the line, in a two against one engagement.

The war ended with the young United States a respected power abroad, and a confident nation at home. It foreshadowed the eventual might and influence this country would one day hold. In the development of arms, no country has ever succeeded so well. From those ships built in the first twenty-five years of their country's history, to the high tech weapons of the 21st century, the American military always managed to hold an edge. Their only defeats came from political constraints on the exercise of force.

And finally the dreams of the inventor of Milan began to come into existence. 1862, Richard Jordan Gatling created the first machine gun. 1864, the CSA H.L. Hunley became the first submarine to sink a warship, the USS Housatonic. 1903, Wilber and Orville Wright made the first controlled airplane flight.

 

A TIME OF TESTING

 

Now came the time of testing, and may the Gods forgive me. The human capacity to find conflict is endless. There are hatreds simmering all over the world, ancient and recent. At any time they can come to the surface; just a spark can start fires that scorch their way across the world. In the 20th century it happened twice, and both times I let it burn. I needed to assess what level of warfare mankind could unleash. I needed to see if we could meet the challenge I knew was coming. By 1918 I knew we weren't ready. I reached the same conclusion in 1945.

In June of 1914, a minor nobleman was assassinated in Sarajevo. Within four months most of Europe was involved. Leonardo's inventions were deployed for the first time on a large scale. Submarines, tanks, automatic weapons, and aircraft, as well as chemical weapons all made their major league debuts. By the time it ended, 8.7 million had died. For me it was depressing. Any enemy capable of invading us would have run over us in a week.

In the late thirties, Germany began a series of invasions in Europe which shattered the post World War I peace. In the Pacific, Japan expanded too. Industrial development had given nations deadlier weapons, in greater numbers, and the death tolls reflected this. 36 million lives were lost, mostly between 1939 and 1945...over 5 million a year. There were two new weapons. The Germans had developed truly destructive rockets. But only at the very end, when the United States detonated atomic bombs, did there seem to be any hope for our preparedness. We might have held out for a month.

Almost 45 million people died in those two great wars. As bad as that was, it must be kept in perspective. Twelve years of war resulted in about 3.75 million casualties per year. In 1918 an epidemic of influenza swept the world. 20 million died of infection in that one year. And though I was immune, I remember the horror when, from 1346 to 1350 the plague ruled in Europe, killing a third of the population. 20 to 30 million people died...4 to 6 million a year. Deaths from disease have no purpose. Death in war is for a cause, even if that cause is unworthy. As Goddess of War I could sense impending threats. I knew we were running out of time, and I knew we were far from ready.

 

 

A WARLORD AGAIN

 

My senses were making the hair on my head stand on end. I was losing patience with the pace of mankind. I had to do something, fast. (Of course this is all relative, being immortal, fast gets measured in decades, as opposed to centuries). So I did what I knew how to do so well. I marshaled soldiers for war. For the first time in almost two thousand years I took up the mantle of leader. I became a warlord again.

In 1938 I had a taste of the possible invasion I had come to fear. On October 30th I was in my living room in New York City, reading news of the growing troubles in Europe. The radio spewed out a report of landing craft falling from the sky outside Grovers Mill, New Jersey. As I listened in horror, the reports spoke of the emergence of alien craft, armed with "death rays", making their way across the countryside. They were destroying anything in their path, and they seemed to be invincible. Local authorities and the National Guard were helpless to stop them. I made a gesture, and disappeared.

In a moment, I reappeared in the town of Grovers Mill, which is about 4 miles from Princeton University. There was panic in the streets, and no one noticed the flash as I materialized. I was ready to destroy anything alien, regardless of who saw it, but I sensed no non-human presence. Although everyone was reacting as if there was an invasion, there were no invaders. This was just like some trick of the Gods from the old days, but I didn't sense any of them either. For a while I sat on a bench in the town's park, trying to make sense out of what I was seeing. Nearby a radio was playing another report. The couple listening to the radio were young hipsters, sitting on their porch, the radio playing through the window. I approached them...they were the only calm people I saw.

"What do you know about all this space invader stuff?" I asked, trying to appear relaxed.

"Isn't it hip? They've got the old cats jumpin'", the young man said with a big grin.

"It's so cooool !" his girlfriend giggled as she put an arm around his shoulder.

This was just too weird. I knew young people had different values, but this...

"It's the Mercury Theater show", he said, almost in hysterics, " and it's got everyone in a panic."

"This is a radio show? And all these people are believing it? What in Tartarus?"

"They made an announcement right at the beginning," the girl was starting to heave with laughter, "but do you think people listen?"

"There're going to be seizures all night long....", the boy was leaning back laughing too.

"Of all the stupid....." I disappeared in a flash. Maybe those kids would be the ones having the seizures. I guess they were the only ones to see anything unexplainable that night.

Turned out to be a clever hoax, created in the studio by a young man of 23, named Orson Wells. His radio troop was giving a dramatic presentation based on the 1898 novel "War of the Worlds", by H. G. Wells, a failed science teacher. It was an early highlight in a stellar career in entertainment, and a lesson to me about the power of the media. I felt like a fool, but as I stewed about it, I realized that the threat was possible. Why couldn't there be creatures from other worlds that could become our enemies? Perhaps this was the source of the foreboding I'd felt growing inside me for so long. Was it an outgrowth of a warrior's paranoia? Was I becoming unhinged after so long? I had to know.

In the weeks that followed I wrote letters to scientists, and the results confirmed my suspicions. In learned circles it was assumed that alien life existed. What temperament it had, no scientist could reasonably say. When or if it would come to Earth was anyone's guess. They claimed all that was the realm of fantasy and fiction. My own certainty grew stronger. I was a warrior with senses attuned to threat. I was the Goddess of War, and my senses were more attuned then any mortal's. So I followed my instincts, and I raised an army.

One thing about being an immortal is that you never want for material things. I had amassed a fortune equal to the worth of some nations, and it was untraceable. I began cashing in investments based on my knowledge of the fortunes of war. I was pretty sure the world was going to battle on a giant scale very soon. I barely got my money out of Europe before Hitler took everything for the Reich.

I watched and waited, and hired a few core agents to help me as the war began. Some were politicians, some military, and some scientists. They kept up with the status of weapons development, having contacts with allied governments. On several occasions we "helped out", providing military intelligence I had been able to obtain by superhuman means. We also concentrated on bringing scientists out of the war zones, and each of those scientists repaid us with information. My forces grew. In late 1943 we tested a uranium fission device in Antarctica, and no one knew. Unlike today, there was no worldwide radar network. The next year we had a primitive ICBM to deliver it. This we also tested, firing from a ship at 58 S x 130 W. The South Pole was taking a beating, but it was for the greater good.

After the war my army grew quickly. We concentrated on the development of high tech weapons systems, and I could afford to hire the best minds. Men and women who would have been "persuaded" to work for various governments came to me instead. We were a shadow organization without a country; a rumor of hope to scientists behind the iron curtain, simply a rumor in the west. I had never intended my army as an invasion force. I didn't need great numbers of troops. Only half of my personnel were combat regulars. The remainder was support or research oriented. We never numbered more than 5,000.

Throughout the cold war we managed to outstrip the weapons development programs on both sides of the iron curtain. We didn't have red tape to contend with, and we didn't have to mass-produce our current weapons in the numbers the U.S. and U.S.S.R. did. We always concentrated on what was next. In 1978 we were working on high-energy projectile weapons. We soon had an electromagnetic launcher that could drive a 10-pound steel egg to a good fraction of the speed of light. On June 30, 1980 during a test, the egg passed through Mt. St. Helens, blowing the top off the mountain. The projectile then continued on its path, retaining enough energy to escape gravity and fly into space. It moved too fast for conventional radar, outpacing their emitted waves...no image could bounce back.

Another 80's program we developed was the x-ray laser. It had been rumored as a research topic in the Strategic Defense Initiative of President Reagan. The claims were circulated to disturb the Russians. They derived from a security breach at my facility. The only way we could test this weapon was to launch it, disguised as a communications satellite, in a rocket hired from the French. After achieving orbit, it had a "malfunction" which sent it around the far side of the moon. There, sensors detonated a hydrogen fusion device. The blast energized a pure carbon rod, causing it to lase for 1/ 10,000 of a second. The resulting beam was reflected onto 4 mirrors, and from there lanced out into space. The entire satellite ceased to exist in under 1/500 of a second. By then the beams were well on their way. We registered energy spikes on 4 asteroids that disintegrated. This was undetected, as no one is watching every obscure asteroid between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. We now had a second weapon I felt we could use against invaders.

My next problem was the development of weapons platforms. I couldn't just deploy my weapons wherever I wanted, and I knew we would need to use them quickly. Mobile platforms seemed the only answer. I pondered solutions for many years. Finally I sent out spies to check on rumors I'd heard about a government installation in Tenopah, Nevada. When I got their reports, I led troops into a conflict for the first time in a thousand years. I chose 50 members of my Beta team, and trained them for a covert strike. I could transport myself anywhere by my will...all Gods could. I could also bring whatever I held. On a night of the new moon, when the desert was dark, my troops entered a non-metallic troop carrier. I put my arms around it, and transported us to Area 51 at Nellis Test Range. The results were never reported. What happens inside an Air Force maximum-security installation is not reported in the media. It would have been an embarrassment. In a short battle, my troops took possession of two American flying saucers, products of 50 years of development based on the Roswell crashes in the late 40's. They flew themselves home, and I still beat them back to our headquarters. It probably took the Air Force weeks to repair the damage we did to their radar and security structures. My expectation is that they believe the aliens repossessed their hardware. We took pains to make it appear that way.

 

 

THE DARK OF NIGHT

 

We have no past,

We won't reach back,

Keep with me forward,

All through the night.

And once we start,

The meter clicks,

And it goes running,

All through the night.

Until it ends, there is no end. *

*Lyric excerpt from: "All Through the Night", Jules Shear ©1982

We had developed the flying saucers we took from the U.S. Air Force, making them larger, and improving their handling. My development team perfected and installed devices that directed electromagnetic pulses, converted to microwave emissions, strong enough to destroy any electronic device. By the turn of the millenium we had twelve ships, armed to the teeth. I named them for the Olympian Gods and Goddesses of ancient times...a tribute, and a last chance for them to protect the people they had once ruled. They were housed in the mid-Pacific, one of the least known places left on Earth. At all times two were aloft, and they could come and go as they pleased, for they reflected nothing. No radar on Earth could detect them. Of course my flagship was the Ares. How fitting for a Goddess of War, to fight from her father's namesake. All the years of development and testing created, for the world and its people, an unknown shield against the enemy none could see. Just like a town waiting for the siege to begin, we were finally prepared. We would be facing a new enemy, with our lives at stake, and they won't know how we play the game of war...

In 2006, as winter gave way to spring, my senses left me no doubt the attack was near. I put my forces on alert status, and ordered a third ship onto patrol. We listened to every voice from the sky, our sensors ceaselessly probing the heavens. On March 14th we detected a whisper. It came, like a rumor on the breeze, reflected off the Jovian moon Ganymede. The invaders sought to approach us by stealth from behind the giant planet. My hackers commandeered three spy satellites, and triangulated its position. Still beyond the orbit of Saturn, but closing on the Earth, and adjusting its approach to remain hidden. We left the satellites pointed at the invader, and returned control to their governments. Twenty-three minutes later my hackers reported the armed forces of the U.S., Russia, England, Germany, France, and China coming to DefCon 2 status. They were too slow. I already had eight ships beyond lunar orbit, and all our planetary systems were at DefStat 1. Still there was no communication from the alien.

Leaving Apollo and Zeus around the dark side of the moon, I formed six ships into two squadrons. Aboard Ares, with Hera, Aphrodite, Hephaestus, Artemis, and Hades, we blocked all gravitational fields save one. With no sensation of movement, our ships fell towards Jupiter. We approached using the planet to hide us, just as the enemy did. At 228 million kilometers from the sun we lifted briefly from the system elliptic, dodging the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Aphrodite, Hephaestus, and Hades fell 1,000 miles behind my squadron, and began a course divergence. My plan called for a squadron to transit the giant planet on each side, to catch the enemy in a pincer maneuver. We would time our appearance to coincide with the increase in gravitational effects of the planet on the enemy ship. This would reduce their options to maneuver.

Transmissions from my base reported dozens of small ships lifting from the desert of Nevada...the New Air Force. They were positioning themselves in a network over the hemisphere of the earth, facing the alien ship.

As my squadrons approached Jupiter, my base reported the alien was releasing dozens of smaller craft, each about a mile in diameter. Just to make sure, I went to my ready room and I vanished from the Ares. And reappeared in the void of space, directly in front of the invader. It was a huge disc, with a spreading ring of smaller ships forming a perimeter around it. For a moment I was seduced by the cold, stark void...the sensation of eternity...the siren call of oblivion. Someday I would return here, I told myself. When the wars, and the fighting, the conflict, and the blood made my soul too weary. When to continue was more painful than to die, I would commit myself to the endless reaches of space. I would let myself fall into the heart of the sun, and allow my remains to burn on the Pyre of the Gods. It was the Thanatose Desire that shadows the survival instinct. I shook it off, and in a flash I returned to my ship.

Just before beginning the transit of Jupiter, each of my ships launched two 20-pound projectiles at 27% of the speed of light. They would punch through the gaseous planet, exiting the far side to impact anything in their paths. With double the mass, they carried the square of the energy of the projectile we had tested at Mt. St. Helens, 26 years before. As a last action, each squadron spread out to provide fighting room for its ships. We would attack across 30 degrees of planetary latitude from each side. The pilots fine tuned the gravitational blinds, and the ships fell around the giant planet. Onboard sensors revealed 9 impacts on the far side of Jupiter; a 75% strike rate. Our enemy knew they were under attack.

As my squadrons passed the terminator into the dark side of Jupiter, the crews discharged electromagnetic pulses to disable the enemy's electronic systems. We broadcast a burst of pulses for five seconds. Though each pulse lasted only 1/100th of a second, the total energy expended would have powered everything on Earth for a year. We saw the cloud surface of Jupiter recoil as it ionized under the onslaught, and for a moment the planet was no longer round. No electrical device could have withstood such an attack, regardless of the shielding used to protect it.

Within two minutes we had transited sufficient planetary longitude to engage the enemy from both sides of the planet. There was wreckage, the fragments of nine smaller ships, still incandescent from the absorbed energy of our pulse attack. But the remaining small ships, and the giant mother-ship were gone. Our sensors probed the planet to see if the enemy had taken refuge below the clouds. There was nothing. Then, faint but clear, we heard what we'd always hoped we'd never hear. Broadcast from my base on Earth, flung into space on a tight but powerful beam came the cry for help.

"Mayday. Mayday. Earth is under attack. Earth is under attack. Targets have entered the atmosphere. Landings expected on all landmasses. Mayday. Mayday."

Somehow, without our sensing it, all the undamaged alien craft had jumped. From the dark side of Jupiter, to a low orbit over Earth, they had jumped. And I had a sickening feeling in the pit of my stomach. In my time, long ago, such a tactic could only have been achieved by a God.

The return fall to Earth would take my ships almost three hours. Too long. But I could return in a heartbeat. So I addressed my crews.

"Warriors, you have fought with courage and honor, but we have been taken by surprise. Our enemy has an unexpected capability. They have made a teleport, and now threaten Earth. I am returning to Earth with Ares. I order the remainder of you to make greatest speed and return to Earth. I do not know what you will find when you arrive, how the battle will stand. You are soldiers in a shadow force. No one knows of you. No one will thank you. But you are the best hope for our world, and for mankind. You are the guardians, the first and last defense. What you are going to see may not make any sense to you, but believe me when I say that you are the heirs to a tradition of honor that stretches back over 4,000 years. I know that I have been a question to you, as much as I have been a leader. I will tell you that I have expected and prepared for this battle for a very long time. To lose is not an option."

"Almost 2,500 years ago, King Leonidas heroically defended the pass at Thermopylae against an overwhelming force of Persian invaders. They fought to the last man. I expect nothing less of you. No one could ever expect anything more."

"If we prevail, mankind will see a new dawn. Our race can continue to find its way in the sun. But if we fail, we shall be lost in the dark of night."

"You and I are warriors. It is all we have, and it is all that we can be. We have no past. We won't reach back. Keep with me, forward all through the night. Until it ends, there is no end."

On five ships the blinds opened, and 500 warriors started the fall back to Earth. And as they watched there was a flash, and the Ares with 101 warriors aboard vanished.

 

 

RETURN OF THE WAR GOD

 

We reappeared only 5 miles above the Earth's surface, and our coming was greeted with lightning. For a moment my crew panicked, but admirably they recovered quickly, though they never looked at me the same again. I knew I had shocked them, but what they thought I didn't find out until later. Most assumed my flagship employed a new technology. I don't think anyone suspected something divine.

Our sensors picked up a wealth of information. The New Air Force was engaging the smaller alien ships in the atmosphere, while the mother-ship remained in low orbit. They seemed to be holding their own, but they had to team up against the enemy ships, and they were too few. They were also sustaining major casualties. Already they were down to 60% strength. The older weapons, the nuclear arsenals, simply had no effect. After the first couple of detonations caused degradation of communications they ceased. Several of the aliens had made landfall. Once down, they disgorged hovering killers, which seemed to be armed with particle beam weapons. They were highly destructive, and virtually unstoppable. Of my remaining six ships, Apollo, and Zeus, reinforced by Athena, were battling in the skies. They had managed to destroy five enemy ships with their electromagnetic launchers. Hermes, Poseidon, and Hestia were unaccounted for. U.S. military communications were confused. They were reporting aerial actions by unknown friendly forces, (ours), and friendly fire from unknown ground based weapons, type undetermined, (also ours). The President was in his command bunker under the White House, directing the New Air Force, with his generals. The populace was in a general state of panic, except for the survivalist paramilitaries. They were being slaughtered while trying to fight the hovering killers. (Gods bless their useless heroics).

The enemy battle plan seemed to concentrate on landing killers to take control of the capitols and major cities of the world powers. This was predictable. There was one thing that didn't make sense. A number of the smaller ships were in the process of landing near Athens. Greece had been a second rate power, at best, for centuries. It should have been a secondary objective. I sensed it was a clue to a riddle that I didn't understand. It captured my attention. In battle, an anomaly can hold the key to victory. I ordered the Ares to Athens.

We flew, east to west and crossed the terminator over Viet Nam, passing into the dawn of March 15th. Our sensors reported two alien ships northeast of us, on a course to make landfall on the mainland behind Hong Kong. A squadron of the New Air Force was engaging them. As the air battle raged, we saw first one, then another of the New Air Force saucers vaporized by the alien's beam weapon. Against two alien ships they were hopelessly outclassed. We had to do something fast, in a few minutes they would have been destroyed. I ordered the Ares' ExO, Lieutenant Adam McClellan, to hail the New Air Force ships.

"New Air Force fighters, this is the Ares. Break off your attack. We are targeting the alien ships. On my mark, you will have three seconds to clear a five-mile radius. I repeat, break off your attack. For your safety, clear a five-mile radius from the alien ships. You will have three seconds from my mark."

"This is the New Air Force Epsilon squadron leader to the Ares. Who are you? This is a war zone. Transmit your identification codes."

"This is the Ares. I repeat, on my mark you will have three seconds to clear a five-mile radius from the alien ships." Lt. McClellan was getting tired of military procedure.

"We are elements of the United States Air Force. This is a war zone. Transmit your identification codes, now."

I could tell Lt. McClellan didn't like that demanding tone. They wanted to get into a macho pissing contest. We were closing on the alien ship too quickly to indulge this squadron leader. As we spoke, another New Air Force saucer was hit by an alien beam weapon. It tumbled into the sea. I looked at my ExO with one eyebrow raised, and the hint of a grin at the corners of my mouth. He understood that look.

"Mark. One one-thousand..."

Three of the fighters broke off their attack on the aliens, and sped away. The two remaining fighters, (probably the squadron leader, and his wingman), flew directly at us.

"Two one-thousand..."

Within the Ares huge capacitors built up a charge, from the special fusion reactors, of 1.5 x 10 joules. The ship began to glow and shed gamma radiation. The two approaching New Air Force fighters were roasted, and spun out of control. They fell from the sky.

"Three one-thousand!"

There was no visible beam, but two bolts from the x-ray laser leaped from the Ares towards the alien ships. The clouds jerked, recoiling from the air expansion around the beams. Then there was a flash, and the enemy ships exploded. The Ares changed course to avoid the wreckage.

"Direct hits Mr. McClellan, well done." I praised my ExO and the crew, "Resume course, and make all possible speed to Athens."

"Xena, the remaining New Air Force fighters are pursuing us. They are hailing us."

"Audio on," I ordered.

"Ares, this is the New Air Force Epsilon squadron. We are ordered to demand that you accompany us to our base. Military Intelligence is requiring you for a debriefing. Please comply..."

"Audio off," I ordered with a sigh, "Mr. McClellan, we don't have time for this. What is our ETA for Athens?"

"Eleven minutes and thirty seven seconds, Xena."

"Continue heading and speed. I will rejoin you as soon as I can. It appears I have some business with the new Air Force." I vanished from the bridge of the Ares.

I reappeared with a flash in the war bunker six stories under the White House. There was no use dickering with the M. I. agents. I decided to talk to the boss. At first the whole room was stunned into silence, and no one moved. I could have killed most of them. Then they realized they had an intruder. A detail of Marines surrounded me, with carbines leveled. A group of Secret Service agents hustled the President out of the room. I gave them time to clear the doorway. The officer in charge of the Marine detail was puffing himself up to demand my identification, or some such nonsense. I vanished, and reappeared in the hallway, in front of the elevator the president was being led to.

"Mr. President. I am here to help. My forces are also fighting the aliens. I only need a few moments of your time," I said, as I spread my arms to show I had no weapons. The hail of pistol fire from the Secret Service agents struck me at point blank range. Bullets ricocheted, others struck the walls and the elevator doors. I waited for them to empty their magazines. It was obvious they required a demonstration of power. They had started to reload when I formed a fireball, and flung it at the nearest agent. Flames enveloped his body, flaring, then dying away. The other agents were paralyzed. I seized the initiative.

"Mr. President, your Air Force is being decimated. On the ground your forces cannot withstand the hover killers." I decided there was no gain in sparing his feelings, "You will lose this war in a day because you are not prepared. You cannot lead this fight. You cannot match my forces. I demand that you keep out of our way. My warriors will defeat these invaders. You have no talent for war, and this battle is worthy of the Goddess of War."

As the Marine detail crowded into the hallway, and the Secret Service agents pulled the President behind them, I vanished with a flash. I had spent three precious minutes on a flabby ex-lawyer and his cowboy wannabe guards. It felt like a waste of my time.

I reappeared on the bridge of the Ares...the dozens of bullet wounds were already healing, but my uniform remained tattered. There was no blood. Gods don't bleed. Again I had shocked my crew into silence. They stared at me. They must have had a thousand questions. Now was not the time. Lt. McClellan was the first to regain his composure.

"Commander on the bridge," he announced, as if anyone needed to be told, then he gulped, and added, "Xena, course and speed are stable. ETA to Athens is now seven minutes and eighteen seconds."

"Very good Mr. McClellan." I said as I left to get a new uniform, "I believe the New Air Force will not bother us anymore...I've just had a chat with the President."

Oops, why did I say that? Often the best thing to do is minimize a disturbing situation, not make it more bizarre. I didn't want my warriors' focus diverted from the battle ahead by speculation about my behavior. Making the ship jump from Jupiter to Earth might be explained by technology, but I had vanished and reappeared twice without explanation, the second time reappearing full of bullet wounds. McClellan and a couple others had been close enough to see my flesh healing through the holes in my uniform. I hadn't been wearing body armor. The rumors would be flying. Oh well. As I changed into the fresh uniform, the silliest thought crossed my mind, and I laughed out loud. I should have appeared to the President as a snake-haired Gorgon. When I returned to the bridge, that thought kept playing in my mind, and it took heroic control to keep from giggling in front of my crew.

"Xena, we are crossing the Hellespont, forty seconds to Athens," Lt. McClellan reported, "sensors indicate two alien ships on the ground. There are hover killers roaming the city, and there is something going on at the Acropolis."

Something was going on at the Acropolis...I could feel it in every fiber of my being. I had to see what it was.

"Target the alien ships, Mr. McClellan," I ordered, "from now on, they aren't going anywhere."

"Yes Commander," he said, then turning to the weapons officer he ordered, "prepare the x-ray laser for firing, target the alien ships, fire on my mark."

"Mr. McClellan, I am going to investigate the Acropolis. You will have command of the Ares." I said as I turned to go, "Attempt to destroy the hover killers if possible, but watch for alien ships appearing. Remember, they can jump."

He looked at me, and for once I couldn't read his expression.

"Xena, we will do all we can," he said gravely, then he added, "god speed, and good luck."

"Thank you, and may the Gods bless your efforts." I whispered, as I disappeared.

I watched my ship from the entrance to a cave on the north side of the Acropolis. The Ares was barrel-rolling and tumbling in an aerial ballet. As it wheeled over the city there was a resounding blast, and one of the alien ships exploded, sending fragments into the sky. The Ares turned and made a pass, buzzing the Acropolis right above me, then it soared vertically and back-flipped, twisting as it hurtled towards the ground. It came into the city again so low I saw dust drawn up into its wake. It was able to hit the second alien as it lifted off. There was an electromagnetic pulse, just one, delivered at an up angle so it wouldn't hit the city. It caught the fleeing alien amidships, causing it to incandesce for a heartbeat before it exploded. The Ares passed unscathed through the fireball and sped north, gaining altitude to continue its attack.

I entered the Acropolis through the ruins of the postern door in the north wall. I hugged the ruined wall, passing unseen into the courtyard of the House of the Arrephoroi. The marching feet of an army echoed in the plaza alongside the Parthenon. Moving from cover to cover in the rubble, I worked my way into the courtyard behind the Erchtheion, through a ruined portico, and onto the stairs.

I could see a procession of troops in black and silver. They were marching in companies with trumpets and drums. Others stood in ranks with their backs towards me. There were hundreds of them, armed with swords and spears. Banners and standards fluttered in the breeze. They were being reviewed from a canopy just out of sight, on the Altar of Athena. I moved closer, hidden in the ruins. I was suspicious, and my senses were ringing alarms in my head. Finally I had a straight line of sight. I could see clearly under the canopy.

I felt the blood in my veins turn to ice. Across the millennia came forgotten feelings that grasped me like Hephaestus' chain. For a moment I was a young warrior again with a freshly bloodied sword. There under the canopy, in the light of the sun, stood Ares, the God of War. Then the scene shifted. The troops and the banners, the canopy and the trumpeters, all shimmered and disappeared. We were alone among the ruins, on the high hill of Athens. He came towards me, smiling, until we stood face to face. He reached out and caressed my cheek with the back of his hand, gentle, and his smile was without guile.

Then he spoke to me, and his voice was still so familiar it tore my heart.

"Xena, I have returned from beyond death to win your heart and soul. Did you forget after all these years? I told you that I love you, and that someday nothing would stand between us. Remember? A God need never lie."

So many feelings ripped through me in that moment. I was a warrior, a Goddess, a leader, and an immortal. Before any of that, I was a human. But first and last, I was a woman. He was the one man who meant more to me than any other. He had been father, teacher, idol, enemy, and savior. I had worshipped him, waged war for him, rebelled against him, fought him, and saved him. He had given me my divinity and my heritage. He had always loved me, and in the depths of my heart I had always felt for him, even when I knew he was bad for me. After two thousand years, I could finally admit I had loved him. I realized tears were streaming down my face. It had been hundreds of years since I had cried. But, what was he like now? How could he be here? I was in the middle of a war. Could we possibly see an eternity together? In that moment, I admitted to myself that it was what I wanted.

"I know you're confused, and you have a million questions, but there's a war going on baby," he said with a grin, "and a world with two war gods should fear nothing. The aliens who have landed are doomed. In a few hours they will die."

I was suspicious...it was starting to feel like old times.

"How can you know that Ares? We know nothing about these aliens. We haven't captured or interrogated even one of them."

"We don't need to Xena. You see, I've got the inside dope on them, straight from the boss. They don't know it yet, but they can't survive on Earth, trust me", he said with a big grin, and he rolled his eyes, making a point of looking at the sky.

"What do you mean, 'the inside dope', and who's this boss you're talking about," I asked, my suspicions rising. I was starting to suspect who he was referring to, but I had to hear it from him.

" I'm talking about the One God Xena, and I don't mean Dahak. He's the big guy now, and I work for Him. Hell, you're working for Him too, you just don't know it."

"Ares, I stopped working for Him 900 years ago, after that wretched First Crusade. And how is it that the God of War is working for the God of Love?"

"Well, love can be seen in severity as well as mercy. You know, spare the rod, and spoil the brat. Love without strength is a force out of balance. It can become a pathway to evil. I'm not the God of Blind and Pointless Conflict, Xena. I have become a God of Righteous Wrath and Holy Retribution. I have a place in the order of things."

He was making sense, and I felt my doubts weaken, "But what about me...you said..."

"You've been driving mankind forward in their ability to wage war, not trying to stamp it out. You have a natural feeling for the necessity of war, and you don't deny its worth. While I've been gone, you have been the Spirit of Battle. And believe me Xena, if you hadn't been needed, you would have found yourself stripped of your powers."

"So how come you're back now?" I asked, since he'd died as a mortal so many years ago.

"Do you know what today is?" he asked in return.

"Yeah, it's March 15th, 2006...the Ides of March."

"It is two thousand years to the day, since I died as a mortal man. As a mortal, my soul passed to judgement before the One God. I had to serve two thousand years for my old sins, before I could return to Earth. Well, I'm back...and I like older women!"

I couldn't help but laugh. It was partly release of stress, partly rediscovering a close relationship that had changed for the better. The world was being invaded by aliens, but I was happy. (Gods, did that ever sound callous).

"All this feel-good stuff is great, but there's a war going on...lets kick some ass."

I would swear he was reading my mind. And when he winked at me I was sure of it.

"Let's go see the mother-ship Xena, your guys are going to do fine with the ones here on Earth."

He put his arms around me, and I didn't resist. I felt his power as we vanished in flames. It was just like the old days.

 

THE RETURN OF THE GODS

 

We appeared inside the mother-ship, and it WAS just like the old days. We grabbed a guard in the hallway before he could react. I tried to put a nerve pinch on him, but it didn't work. Ares just grabbed him and lifted him off his feet.

"Tell me how to get to the bridge, or I'll rip your guts out," he snarled, an inch from the guard's face. He ended up showing us the way on a panel readout. Ares threw him against a wall so hard he slumped onto the floor.

We made our way to the bridge of the mother-ship through corridors and lifts. We punched out all the aliens we encountered along the way. They had great weapons, but they couldn't fight. They had lost that edge so long ago it was easy. Most of them only reacted with surprise when they saw us. They were technicians, not warriors. I'm sure they never believed their ship could be invaded. A deadly mistake.

"Xena, lets have some fun. When we get to their bridge, lets take them out the old fashioned way," Ares said with a wolfish grin.

"Ok," I agreed, "no god tricks".

Finally we came to the doors of their bridge, and we blasted them open.

I had a sword in my hand when we invaded the bridge, and it sang a song of blood. The aliens looked like men, and they bled like men. They fought us with handheld beam weapons, powered down so as not to destroy their own ship. They were too slow. Ares moved as fast as lightning, always a step ahead of his enemies. In the end, the weapons didn't matter. Fighting hand to hand has always been a matter of speed and practiced ferocity. When it was done, we stood together on the empty bridge, surrounded by the bodies of the fallen.

In the space at the center of the bridge, the air shimmered, and with flames and flashes of lightning, six figures appeared. Four male and two female, dressed in armor and leather, like warriors of old. They were armed with swords. They spread out across the bridge to keep us at bay.

"The last of the renegades," said one of the males, "your sires fled from our world, and ruled the mortals here as Gods."

"It is our fortune to capture or kill you, for the bounty on your heads has grown great over the centuries," said one of the women, "your choice."

Ares and I just looked at each other, a glance passing between us.

"Glad to know somebody out there's heard of us," Ares quipped.

"Give it your best shot," I said, summoning all my menace, "I knew there were Gods involved with the aliens when their ships jumped away from Jupiter. I'm glad you finally worked up the guts to show yourselves."

"Brave words," the woman said, "Lets see how you do when you're not fighting mortals."

She leaped to attack Ares. He sidestepped, spinning away from her sword arm, and as he finished the spin, his sword sliced away her left arm and shoulder. As she staggered forward from the blow, he reversed his grip and impaled her. Her body vanished, as her sword clattered to the floor.

Two of the men charged at me from the front. I flipped over them and impaled one of the others who hung back blocking the doors. They hadn't seen that coming, and I began to wonder if they were complete pushovers.

"Two down, and four to go," Ares called to me from across the bridge.

Now I was trading blows with the other woman, and she was an outstanding fighter. Her sword moved with the assurance and grace of a natural born warrior. Ares was holding off two of the men, advancing and retreating...it looked like a stalemate. The last man moved to join the woman I was fighting. This would be tough. I flipped over the woman's sword, and landed behind the man. I kicked him in the back, sending him sprawling onto the floor between the woman and I. It gave me a second. He flipped back onto his feet and joined the woman, to attack me from two sides. I rolled out from between them, and they came after me side by side. Across the bridge, Ares had smashed one of his attackers in the face with the pommel of his sword, stunning him. Then, with a crescent kick, he sent him head over heels onto the floor.

As the man and woman I was fighting pressed me, I gave way, parrying and blocking their blows. They advanced, slashing furiously, trying to force me to make an error. In the next moment, I let them think just that. I feigned a stumble, and to recover I had to roll over my left shoulder. The woman's sword slashed so close to my leg I could feel the blade nick my boot. Then I was rolling to my feet grasping the forgotten sword of the woman Ares had killed at the start of the fight. The next time they came at me, I spun, deflecting the man's sword with one blade, and slashing the woman across the chest. I continued the spin, moving to put her between the man and I, and when I came around again, I buried the borrowed sword in her neck, nearly taking her head off. It happened so fast that she was still swinging her sword at the place where I had been, when her body disappeared. The man attacking me looked shocked, and I pressed him with my sword. He was no match for me. It was just a matter of time.

Ares had forced one of his opponents into a corner, then kicked him in the stomach so hard he doubled over. His second opponent charged at his back, but he was too quick. He dodged the oncoming sword, and tripped the man, shoving him into the first. He impaled him. Ares was laughing at him as the other man's body disappeared. In a blind rage, the remaining enemy raised his sword, and charged at Ares. Ares dropped into a low front stance, and drove his sword into the attacker so hard he was lifted into the air, and flew over him.

At almost the same time, I backhanded the man I was fighting, whipping his head to his right. My right hand followed the left, like a swinging double punch, but my right hand held my sword. It crashed across his temple, opening his head, and separating his jaw from his skull. Ares' and then my opponent disappeared almost at the same time.

We looked at each other across the bloody bridge, and I gave my war cry, something I'd given up long ago. Then I went to him, and kissed him, as his arms came up to embrace me.

Now for the payoff of our battle. I found the navigation controls, and discovered how they jumped. I learned enough that I could send their ship on a jump into the sun. Not so long ago I had contemplated that same trip, yearning for the Pyre of the Gods. Now I wouldn't have let go of life for all the riches of ten worlds.

I set the controls to co-ordinates 000x000x000, and triggered the helm to execute the jump. Then we vanished together. We watched the jump from the stillness of space. (A God need never breath). I saw that the Hestia, Poseidon, and Hermes had been attacking the mother-ship, and they were suddenly engaging empty space. With the vision of Gods, we saw the flare on the sun's face, marking the passing of the alien ship.

When we reappeared on the Acropolis we could hear the sounds of the battle in the city. The Ares was spinning overhead, directing pulses at the hover killers in the city.

"Xena, that ship's one of yours isn't it," Ares asked, watching it with admiration, "you can order them all to stand down."

"What do you mean, Ares," I asked, for it was strange to hear the God of War advising a retreat.

"I told you, these aliens are doomed. They have only a few hours of life once they land," he replied, "there's no use jeopardizing your warriors, trust me."

I laughed, remembering all the times he'd said that. Times when I could count on him betraying every bargain we made. But now...now I knew I could trust him.

"Ok," I said, smiling, "I'll trust you."

I took the com link from my belt, and hailed all of my forces. On twelve ships, at my base in the Pacific, and among all the land forces my voice was heard.

"Attention...Attention. This is Xena of Amphipolis, ΑΩθπΣΦΔΨ,* this is a direct order. All forces disengage and return to base. I repeat. All forces disengage and return to base. I will meet you there."

Overhead, the Ares spiraled up into the sky, then banked into the east, headed for the base in the mid-Pacific. Within the orbit of the moon, the five ships from my sortie to Jupiter joined the Hestia, Poseidon, and Hermes, and adjusted their courses for home. Over North and South America, the Zeus, Apollo, and Athena broke away from the alien ships they were attacking. In the Americas, and in Europe, my troops silenced their ground-based weapons, moved to their assembly points, and entered troop carriers. The aliens continued with their dispersal and occupation.

"I hope you know what you're doing," I said to Ares, "if something goes wrong, it will be almost impossible to beat them once they have control on the ground. There are too many of them for my forces to handle, and the old armies are almost useless."

"I know, I know," Ares said, "But have a little faith. It's God's world too, and He's been preparing for this longer than you have."

* Daily code identifying Xena of Amphipolis: Alpha,Omega,theta,pi,Sigma,Phi,Delta,Psi

 

THE SECRET WEAPON

 

In the air, in the earth, and in the sea there was a secret weapon hiding. This planet was protected against invaders from the very beginning. It was almost a case of reality imitating art, for the ending to this story had already been written. Back in 1898, a failed science teacher, who was a man of uncommon foresight, had written a novel about space invaders...invaders from Mars rather than another solar system, but alien invaders none the less. The Martians had succumbed in the end through no doing of man, for men had been powerless to stop them. When the invaders came to Earth in 2006, we could fight them, and we might have won, but again, it was unnecessary. The Earth was protected.

All across the globe, the hover killers ceased their attacks. The alien ships dropped from the skies, or lay dead where they had landed. In every nation, the invading soldiers slumped to the ground, dying horribly. They couldn't retreat and they couldn't go home. As Ares had said, they were doomed.

They were beaten, in the end, not by the weapons of man, or the strategy of a Goddess. They were defeated by the smallest of living things. Just as in H.G. Wells' "War of the Worlds", the viruses and the bacteria, to which we were immune, proved deadly to the aliens. They were the secret weapon which the One God had blessed the Earth with from the very beginning. Being the first living things, they armed all quarters, and created a defense for all the life forms that came after. They have been mutating and evolving for over three billion years. They change within months, defeating our own antibiotics. No invader could have prepared for or neutralized such a defense. Having no immunity, the aliens contracted myriad combinations of infections of the most potent virulence. Truly, by the grace of God we were victorious.

 

PART TWO

THE TWILIGHT OF THE GODS

 

INTRODUCTION

 

Long ago, in a time of ancient Gods, Warlords, and Kings, the schemes of Sisyphus and Hades allowed me to secretly become the Goddess of War and Strategy. Within a few years, Ares, the Great God of War, became a mortal man, sacrificing his immortality to aid me in battle. The war of the Olympians against my daughter, the Twilight of the Gods, brought destruction to seven of the twelve major Gods and Goddesses. Afterwards, I remained the Incarnation of the Spirit of Battle, and for over two thousand years I worked to prepare mankind for an invasion that I sensed would come. Finally, in the second half of the twentieth century, I reclaimed my ancient mantle of warlord, raised a shadow army, and created the most powerful defensive force the world had ever known. As the twenty-first century began, the prowess of my warriors and our twelve warships was unmatched. We could have dominated the planet. Yet even a Goddess cannot foresee all that is to come. There was a Power above me, and as battle raged, Ares, my God of War, returned from death, and an ancient weapon was revealed.

 

 

THE FOLLOW UP TO THE INVASION

(Or Last War, On Xena)

 

In 2006, an alien invasion acted as a diversion for a troop of bounty hunters who intended to capture Ares and I for some kind of intergalactic reward. They had said we were the "last of the renegades", and claimed, "your sires fled our world, and ruled the mortals here as Gods". I doubt the bounty hunters would have been broken hearted if their invasion had succeeded. After all, settling down to rule the Earth, as Gods themselves, would have been a good backup plan. I would have done the same thing if I were still a bloodthirsty warlord. You always need a fallback position in any campaign, it's just good strategy.

In the end, the invasion failed. I would love to claim the forces of my shadow army had defeated them. That's just not the truth. When I started writing this history, I promised my long lost soul mate and favorite that I'd tell the truth. The truth is that terrestrial microbes had infected the alien soldiers, and wiped them out on the first day of their invasion. True, a newly resurrected Ares and I had invaded their mother ship, beaten the bounty hunters in an old fashioned sword fight, and sent the mother ship into the sun. Not bad for a day's work I guess. Well anyway, the Earth was saved, Ares and I got together after a couple thousand years, and a lot of alien technology almost fell into human hands. There was also a major mess to clean up. The invading force numbered thirty-one landing craft, each a mile in diameter, about three hundred hovering killers, and about thirty thousand alien soldiers. These are the ones who made it to Earth. Nine landing craft were destroyed on the far side of Jupiter by my warships. Of those who came to earth, my forces, and the New Air Force of the United States, destroyed another twelve.

A war, like an illness requires a time of recovery and healing. The destruction of even a day of modern war can take years to be healed. I sent my forces to take possession of as much of the alien technology as possible, and we acted quickly, while the world's governments were still in shock. We couldn't collect everything, but only a couple ships and a handful of hover killers escaped our immediate acquisition. Ares and I went time after time to the sites of the alien wreckage, appearing in a ship or hover killer, and disappearing with it, transporting it to my base in the mid-Pacific. Some we took as Military Intel cadres approached. Some we took before they arrived. The last ones, we took from government labs within a couple days. I know mortals, and I felt that the alien technology was too deadly for their possession. After all, my own ships were the results of human development based on the Roswell crashes from the forties. When we had rounded up everything the aliens brought to Earth, I let my scientists go through it all. They were so excited, like the cliché kids on Christmas Day, tearing into the alien hardware, and even the bodies of the aliens themselves. We left it to the governments of the world to clean up the damage the aliens had done.

The U.S. President in particular was furious. He broadcast demands and ultimatums in all directions, requiring me to share not only the alien technology, but my own as well. Ares and I ignored him. After a few weeks he stopped sputtering, realizing he couldn't command me, and only appeared impotent. I had paid him an insulting visit during the war, and my initially helpful gesture earned me a few dozen bullet wounds. Someone once said, "no good deed goes unpunished". Ares and I let him stew...we would deal with him at our convenience, not his. Such is the prerogative of Gods.

There were some unanswered questions in my mind. Things which the war brought up. The most troubling was the bounty hunters. Where were they from? Was there a whole world full of them, and if so, where? Would they come after us again? What about the aliens and their civilization? Ares and I spent many days talking about these issues, but in the end there was no way to find out, unless they showed up again. And a big "no thank you" to that offer.

"Ares, I'm worried about the bounty hunters. There are probably more of them out there, and they could show up anytime," I said while we watched the scientists in one of my labs, "what's to stop them from invading us and starting a new race of Gods?"

"Us," he replied.

"You aren't worried at all are you?"

"What me worry, baby," he said with his usual bravado, "we kicked their asses, they'd be suicidal to show up here. Besides, we aren't alone in this you know."

"Ares, a secret weapon is only a secret until you use it. I'm not going to relax and depend on a bunch of germs to keep the world safe again."

"Xe, it's not just germs. There are other Powers, other defenses. Just relax, hon, the big guy isn't going to let a bunch of aliens take over...this is His show."

"Yeah, yeah, He's the one who needed me to do away with the other Olympians, and put a new king in hell," I said, reminding him that God hadn't done everything, "I think we should be ready, just in case. After all, He let Zeus take over way back when, and maybe Zeus wasn't the best or brightest of the race of the renegades."

"Well, keep a couple of your ships flying if it makes you feel better."

"I just wish you'd be a little more concerned."

"I just wish you had a little more faith," he replied, "but you're right, He did let Zeus take over...LET being the important word here. When He was ready for a change, Zeus was history."

"Wait a second, are you saying what I think you're saying?"

"Yeah. He used Zeus to clear out some leftovers...the Titans, and the Old Ones. He wanted mankind to get used to the idea of their Gods looking like people, like us. I mean, let's face it...who would have accepted His son if Jesus had looked like a sea cucumber?"

I chewed on that for awhile as I watched the scientists preparing to test a particle beam weapon they'd removed from a hovering killer. They had set up a target, and attached a power source. Ares came up behind me and wrapped his arms around my shoulders. I leaned back against his chest. Below us in the lab the scientists had retreated behind a force-wall, and put on shield helmets. A klaxon sounded. Suddenly there was a whump, and a blinding white beam sizzled the air. In under a second it had pierced a six-foot thick steel plate. The beam stopped dead where it met a force-wall, and then it ceased. We could smell ozone. The scientists examined the plate, and congratulated each other. One of them looked up, and seeing us made a "thumbs up" sign. We would have the beam weapons installed on our ships within a week.

"Well that was hot," Ares joked as he took my hand, "come on Xe, let me show you something."

My scientists, so nonchalant in their investigation of the alien weapon, jumped as we vanished in a flash of lightning and flames.

 

 

WHAT WAS AND WHAT SHALL EVER BE

 

Granite cliffs fell sheer to the pounding surf two thousand feet below, and the reddish sun cast lengthening shadows on the columns and arches in the hall. A ring of sixteen thrones circled the meeting space, open to the sky. Six of the thrones sat empty. A shadow cast into the circle struck the red stone inlaid at the center. The figure on the South throne rose and addressed the other nine.

"We have all felt the loss of our brothers and sisters. They no longer exist in time. In success their hunt has failed. They have been cast into the void."

The figure on the East throne rose and spoke.

"For the renegades they sought, and finding them, by the renegades they have been destroyed."

The figure on the North throne rose and spoke.

"Behold, the renegades have become strong in their prowess, and as warriors they have endured. Such is the legacy of our way."

The figure on the West throne rose and spoke.

"Still the riddle remains: Two rings that hold the dark and light, And through eternity remain, No hand of man shall hold the right, For joining them shall be our bane."

In the silence that followed the image of a figure formed in the red stone, a warrior in leather and bronze, and from his anguished face his voice echoed in the circle.

"My son, my son, why have you betrayed us."

 

 

THE CAUSE OF FAITH

 

I didn't know where Ares was taking me, or what he wanted to show me, but I trusted him, and let him take me where he would. We reappeared outside time and the world, in a place I'd never seen before. It was a high meadow among clouds, where the sun shone brightly, and a gentle breeze blew. There was a familiar feel to the place, but I knew I'd never been there. In the meadow were many figures, some with wings of black and some with wings of white.

"They can't see or hear us, but they are angels and archangels," Ares whispered to me, "you never came to this part of heaven. I don't know if we're really here, or if this is a vision. All I know is we can't interact."

"Why did you bring me here," I said.

My heart was deeply troubled, for my only memories of heaven were twisted with pain. I had been here with Gabrielle when we had died together, crucified by the Romans. I had tried to defy the Holy Order to be with her, for I had given up my purity and become a demon. Ares wrapped his arms around me in comfort, and I could see the sadness in his eyes.

"Wait, and watch," he said, "what you see will bring you joy and tears."

As I watched the angels and archangels moving about on their business, one came towards us. A figure with the black wings of an archangel. I fell to my knees, and my heart broke. I knew that figure. In two thousand years I could never forget her. Never, never, never in a million years would I forget her. Through the blur of my tears my voice croaked as I whispered her name.

"Gabrielle."

Of all the company of heaven she alone seemed to be searching for something or someone, and though she looked through us as she drew near, she stopped only an arm's length away. I stood, and saw her clearly, the sun-lightened hair I knew was silky to the touch. The piercing green eyes which had held my own so many times. The lips that had called my name, and had given me so much hope and brought so much laughter. As I watched, her eyes filled, and a single tear overflowed. I reached out, but I could not touch her face. Though she was looking right at me she gave no sign of recognition, yet I heard her whisper.

"Xena where are you."

Then she turned away, and walked back across the meadow the way she had come. But as she turned, I noticed something I hadn't marked before. At her waist, on a brass belt hook, hung the chakram that I had lost so long ago. Then I leaned against Ares sobbing, and I wrapped my arms around his neck. He held me a long time until my breathing quieted, and when I dared to look up I saw on my finger a single tear of gold.

Before he brought me back to the world, to my base in the mid-Pacific, he said one thing to me that I have never forgotten.

"Xena, my beloved, her spirit will never die. As a Goddess you are immortal and cannot join her in heaven, but you must believe that all things in the world change in time. As I too have done, she has waited two thousand years, and kept her love for you alive with hope. In love and hope lies the cause of faith."

It was the first time I truly realized how much he had changed. Then we vanished, and when we reappeared I looked down at my scientists. A blinding white beam sizzled the air. In under a second it had pierced a six-foot thick steel plate. The beam stopped dead where it met a force-wall, then it ceased. We could smell ozone. The scientists examined the plate, and congratulated each other. One of them looked up, and seeing us made a "thumbs up" sign. We would have the beam weapons installed on our ships within a week. This time they didn't have a reason to jump.

"I know you don't like to startle them with God Stuff," he said with a sad smile, "I brought us back while they were busy."

The scientists hadn't noticed our reappearance, and as the timeline had been altered, our disappearance never happened. God Stuff alright.

For a while I was silent, lost in memory, seeing the pictures in my mind from a simpler life. The cherished memories of the years I had spent with Gabrielle so long ago. I was shaken by the sight of her, and by knowing her soul had not been reborn to a new life. I was moved by the knowledge that she still loved and missed me. I realized she knew I had not died. I realized she was still waiting for me after two thousand years. Ares had said love and hope were the cause of faith. Unlike me, love and hope were such a natural part of Gabrielle. The faith that so many strive for, and cling to, was second nature to her. I didn't doubt she had the strength to maintain her faith forever.

Our souls were supposed to be linked, destined to find each other again and again, in life after life. Somehow that promise had never come to pass. I hadn't realized how much I missed her...how much I still loved her.

"Oh Ares," I sobbed, "what happened to all the things we believed in?"

"You became a Goddess," he said softly, "and she became an archangel again. Both of you are outside the order of the world. The cycle of rebirth was broken from both sides."

"I belong with her," I whispered.

"Maybe," he said, "but I sense the One God's Will in this, Xena. After being around Him for two thousand years, I can sense His presence, just as you can sense mine."

God's Will? I knew from long ago just how subtle He could be. When I was first reunited with Ares, he had claimed that I too worked for the One God, whether I willed it or no. If I accepted that, then I had to accept that the One God had a reason for separating Gabrielle and I...for interrupting our destiny, of which it was implicit that He approved. Could two thousand years of loneliness be nothing more than part of the job? Then I thought of Ares. He had taken me to see Gabrielle, knowing I would find again my soul mate, and my desire to be reunited with her...at the cost of my love for him? Oh gods how his heart must have been breaking. To finally win my love, only to lose it again. After waiting for two thousand years just to be reunited with me. Did he know? Yes, of course he did. He had never been stupid, and yet he took me to see her anyway. What kind of God would cause such heartbreak and sorrow? What plan for the greater good could require so much sacrifice and pain? Ares, Ares, I do love you, for this more than all the other things you have done for me, save one. And what could I say to him that would acknowledge his pain and sacrifice. What poor words of comfort could I offer without speaking a lie we both would know. Ares, my heart is breaking too. Between what is, and what shall surely be, there is no clean victory, no happy ending. All choices are tainted with sorrow and guilt. Sometimes even a Goddess and a God are helpless in the arms of fate. I turned and looked at him as he stood before me, and as I had before long ago, I spoke the most pitifully inadequate of words, though they came from my heart.

"Thank you."

 

 

WORLD WITHOUT END

 

In the circle of thrones eight figures rose in greeting as two rejoined the circle. The ten figures seated themselves, and one of the newly arrived figures rose to speak.

"We have followed the trail of the hunters. It leads to a small world that circles a yellow star on the fringe. It circles in the third position, and holds captive a giant moon. Much debris circles this world. It is a strange world, with lands and seas much like ours. It is overrun with life in many forms. There the trail of the hunters ends. Beyond the fifth planet is the debris of attack ships destroyed in battle. The trail of the transport ship ends in the yellow star."

The second newly arrived figure rose and spoke.

"Many powers inhabit this planet, but they inhabit different planes. Some we can see, and some we cannot see. The spawn of the renegades is there, but the renegades are gone. Though they are few, the spawn turned against the hunters, and threw them into the void. There are many mortals, and many machines which seem to live. They have many weapons, but we could not see the rings. They are not there."

The figure on the South throne rose and spoke.

"If the rings are not there then we have nothing to fear, for we outnumber the spawn."

The figure on the East throne rose and spoke.

"To avenge our brothers and sisters, to this world we shall lay siege."

The figure on the North throne rose and spoke.

"Beware, for the spawn destroyed the hunters yet they were outnumbered. They are strong in their prowess. They are warriors."

The figure on the West throne rose and spoke.

"There is danger and there is doom. There are powers that we cannot see. There are powers on many planes. The renegades took the rings in their betrayal, yet the rings are not there. There is treachery on this world. One of the Great Powers is on this world, for there are so many forms of life. This is a Cardinal world. Through future colonies it shall endure. This is a world without end."

The figure on the South throne spoke again.

"If the renegades could thrive on this world, then so shall we, with the blessing of the Great Power there."

The figure on the East throne spoke again.

"To rule as Gods on a Cardinal world would a great victory be."

The figure on the North throne spoke again.

"Beware the enemy within, lest the hubris in your heart destroy us."

The figure on the West throne spoke again.

"On a Cardinal world a Great Power rules to it's own desire, and even the Gods may be scattered in the wind of it's passing. Yet to this world we shall lay siege for vengeance, in our brothers' and sisters' names."

The figure in the red stone spoke in a voice that echoed in the circle.

"My son, thy betrayal has doomed thyself, and thy family, for the riddle is a prophecy. The rings survive from a Cardinal world long ago abandoned. They were the creation of the Great Power that first separated dark and light. If the rings have been joined, then it's wounds will kill Gods of your generation, yet leave the spawn untouched. In vengeance for the dead you shall doom the living, and all shall be lost."

 

 

THE KINGDOM

In the weeks that followed I again felt the sense of impending danger which had accompanied me for centuries before the invasion. I wasn't wholly sure that my emotional upset wasn't the cause, but being a warrior I valued preparedness above all else. Two weeks after the equinox I ordered three ships to patrol at all times, and we again watched the sky.

Several days after my warships resumed patrol, there was an incident involving the U.S. New Air Force. Fate required that the Ares be involved. Now under the command of Adam McClellan, recently promoted to Captain, the Ares was over the North Atlantic travelling from Europe on a routine flight path. At 0400 GMT, the Ares was approached by a squadron of eight American saucers. The following exchanges come from the A/V recorder aboard the Ares.

"Captain, we are being hailed," the communications officer reported.

"Audio on, Mr. Davis," Capt. McClellan ordered.

"Aye, Capt."

"Unknown warship, this is the New Air Force Theta Squadron. You are in a NATO airspace. Identify yourself at once," their squadron leader transmitted.

"This is the Ares. We are on routine Atlantic patrol. Please do not approach. Maintain a twenty-mile radius. This is a safety warning. We are at DefStat 2 condition. Hostile actions will not be tolerated," Capt. McClellan replied. This is a standard warning when my forces are at DefStat 2. At this condition level my forces will accept no interference.

"Ares, you are regarded as a suspect foreign power. You are operating in defiance of NSC guidelines, and are within NATO sovereign airspace. We require that you accept our escort, and make landfall at Reykjavik, Iceland base. Do you copy, Ares?"

"Theta Squadron leader, this is the Ares. Conditions are unacceptable. We will not comply. Do not approach. Maintain a twenty-mile radius. This is a safety warning. Hostile actions will not be tolerated. I repeat. Do not approach," Capt. McClellan said. At the same time, he ordered his communications officer to inform my command center of the developing situation. I ordered the Apollo and the Athena off patrol. They were to converge with the Ares by the most expedient courses...about six minutes.

"Ares, refusal is not acceptable. Procedures are dictated by the lawful charter of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. You must comply or you will be forced down. I repeat, you are required to accept our escort, and make landfall at Reykjavik base."

"This is the Ares. We do not recognize your authority. We accept orders only from our own commander. We will not comply. I repeat. We will not comply. You are within twenty-seven miles and closing. Do not approach. I repeat. Do not approach."

With these ships, seven miles disappears in seconds. The twenty-mile radius allows only one course correction and adjustment for the New Air Force fighters. We had made maneuvering advancements on our warships, and they were perhaps two generations beyond anything the New Air Force had.

The Theta Squadron continued closing on the Ares, and as they crossed the twenty-mile radius, McClellan knew he had them.

"Weapons officer, charge the x-ray laser and initiate a full force-wall shield," he ordered.

"Aye, Capt."

Captain McClellan had ordered the giant capacitors within the Ares to build a charge of 1.5 x 10 joules. A sphere of visible distortion surrounded the ship. Within two seconds the Ares was glowing blue-white, and shedding gamma radiation. The g-rays built up within the force-wall shield to create a radiant weapon. Upon collapse of the force-wall, the gamma rays would kill anything within a twenty-mile radius, literally roasting metal, plastic, and living tissue. A body so exposed would explode in less than 1/100 of a second. This was a passive-aggressive tactic.

Sensors aboard the Ares monitored the inter-ship communications between the Theta squadron fighters.

"Theta leader to Theta squadron, they were radiating g-rays, then nothing. What's going on?"

"Theta 6 to Theta leader, long-range visual of the Ares is distorted, but the ship is glowing. I don't like this."

"Theta 4 to Theta squadron, remember that briefing we got about this ship from the survivors of the Epsilon squadron? It destroyed two alien ships at the same time, but before it fired it was radiating g-rays. Two E-squad ships were roasted."

"Theta leader to Theta squadron, maintain intercept course. Those bastards are fuckin' with Old Glory, and we can't let that pass."

"Roger that Theta leader."

They didn't have a chance. Capt. McClellan ordered full stop, which maintains a ship's celestial position and negates the Earth's rotation. Before they could react, the New Air Force fighters had closed to within three miles of the Ares. From the mesosphere the Apollo and Athena power-dived to meet them. Glowing blue-white, they came like flaming bolts out of the near black where the unblinking stars are bright. They stopped their fall to bracket both the Ares and the Theta squadron, orbiting them at a seven-mile radius, like the twin electrons of a helium atom, creating a spherical shell. The Ares at the center glowed within its force-wall shield, nova bright, utterly blinding to the New Air Force crews. The trap was sprung, now for the test of wills.

Ares and I appeared in the New Air Force command center, at National Security Council headquarters. With lightning and flames we materialized in their situation room, where a huge screen showed the view from the Theta squadron's cameras. It was blasted out...the screen completely white. Ares made a gesture, and the screen darkened, filtering the image to make it visible. I addressed the commanders, as their guards belatedly surrounded us.

"General Reusch, General Abbot, Mr. Hewitt, we have a situation," I said with a smile, "your Theta squadron has managed to enter my trap in pursuit of one of my warships. How dare you interfere with my forces?"

"Who the hell are you, and how did you get in here?" General Abbot countered.

"General, please leave this to me...it is an intelligence matter, not a military matter," Hewitt said with forced restraint, "we cannot gain anything by force, for I guess we are in no position to make demands."

"You're the brains of this outfit?" I asked, knowing Dean Hewitt had been head of both the CIA, and the NSC, and had been in charge of U.S. intelligence, under four administrations, for over twenty years.

"I guess you could say that. I have never met a Goddess, " he said with a slight smile, then nodded to Ares, "or a God before."

"What the hell are you talking about...are you crazy?" General Reusch interrupted.

"I told you I would handle this." Hewitt said more forcefully, " Neither of you can recognize your most valuable allies, or keep from provoking them. If they didn't have centuries of patience you would both be dead in a heartbeat."

"Believe him," Ares said, "and by the way, she's the one with the patience, not me."

The generals were seething, but Hewitt was in charge. He probably told the President off too. I knew enough about him to know the President should be scared of him. In some ways, the United States was his kingdom, and in his kingdom even some high ranking people went missing. No one overruled him on national security issues.

"Mr. Hewitt, we have to reach an agreement very quickly. Your pilots are having difficulty with restraint. I believe their orders are to try to shoot their way out of such situations where possible?"

"Yes," he confirmed, "and yes, an agreement for future situations is a necessity."

"Do you know what you are looking at, now that the screen is showing an image?" Ares asked him.

"High energy radiation, type unknown, contained around your central ship in an undetermined manner." He looked at me and continued, "I would guess the results of a containment failure are lethal, and that failure is under the control of your crew. That's all I can be sure of based on our reports of your forces' actions during the invasion last month."

"That's accurate enough," I replied, "this is only a passive tactic. If your crews fire on my ship, it will elect to breach its force-wall. Your ship's fire will not pass the force-wall. They cannot harm my ships. Because of my two other ships, they cannot withdraw. They can surrender unconditionally, which we prefer, or they can be destroyed."

"Flawless battle tactics," Hewitt replied, "I would expect no less from the Goddess of War. We surrender. I don't want to sacrifice our crews needlessly, but more important, I dont want us to be enemies. We got off on the wrong foot when you came to see the President. I'm sorry about the Secret Service overreaction. They were stressed."

"That's acceptable, as far as it goes," I said, "but I want it clear to all the armed forces everywhere that they are never to interfere with my forces. We are concerned with the defense of the Earth, not with the acquisition of territory on it."

"Make them understand they can't beat us, and we don't want to have to beat them," Ares said, "we've got more deadly enemies in our sights."

"Another alien incursion?" Hewitt asked, making the connection in a flash. He was smart, and he didn't miss a thing. Our conditions were expected sooner or later, and didn't seem to concern him much. I realized that they were a military matter to him.

"Perhaps," I replied, "I suspect another assault soon, and I have placed my forces on alert."

It seemed we had reached an agreement. There was nothing further to discuss. Ares and I vanished. Moments later I ordered my three ships to stand down, and I saw the New Air Force squadron fly off in the other direction....whipped.

 

 

AND THE POWER

 

A week later the assault I had expected began with the materialization of two mother ships in low orbit over the Earth. This time there was no stealth, no warning, no chance of waylaying the invaders before they reached us. They had learned their lesson well...once burned, twice wary applies everywhere in the galaxy. Within twelve minutes all of my warships had moved to engage the enemy. Joined by the New Air Force, we barricaded their flight paths, hoping to keep them from landing any of their attack ships. At first it appeared to be a stalemate. They made no move to release the numerous smaller ships. Perhaps they knew enough about their earlier failure to be wary of landing, but if there was to be no landing, then there could be no goal to the invasion, except Ares and me. Perhaps this was only a great posse coming to apprehend the renegades. Perhaps the Earth would be spared. That would almost be acceptable.

We waited. Ares and I had materialized in Washington, D.C. to meet with Dean Hewitt. He had become a valuable contact for us, reigning in the impulsive President, and using him to manage the Congress. Where the U.S. led, the rest of the nations would follow. In a way, the whole world had become Hewitt's kingdom. Not bad for a South Carolina army brat.

Then all hell broke loose. From the mother ships over fifty landing ships emerged. The battle plan Ares and I had agreed on with Dean Hewitt left the New Air Force to rain fire on the emerging ships, while my twelve warships would deal with the ones who got past them. A lot of the aliens got past them, and many more would have if not for the heroics of Delta squadron. All eight fighters of the Delta squadron, realizing they were outclassed by the alien ships, chose a suicidal maneuver which will be long remembered in the military history of Earth. Ares will make sure those courageous warriors are never forgotten.

Taking advantage of their smaller size, the Delta squadron moved into the dispersing formation of alien landing ships, and flew head-on towards the mother ship's exit portal. Because of their position in the column of enemy ships, they couldn't be fired on. The aliens would have been shooting at each other. They fired continuously at the landing ships, destroying many as they passed by. That was not their objective. Though reduced to five fighters, they breached the mother ship's defenses, and flew into the alien's hanger deck. Once inside, they made kamikaze runs at the command structure that acted as a flight control tower for the departing ships. They overloaded their own reactors, turning their ships into fusion torpedoes. Three of the New Air Force fighters managed to crash into the command structure, causing so much damage that almost twenty alien ships were trapped inside. This meant that close to two hundred hover killers and twenty thousand enemy troops never joined the battle. Their attack was recorded, from their onboard cameras, at the New Air Force command center. Those images are now almost a cliché for patriotism and self-sacrifice. The Delta squadron's attack is studied by every military cadet in every branch of the service, and there is not a single American school child that hasn't seen the footage.

There were many other outstanding acts of bravery in the skies over Earth that day, as mankind fought for its continued freedom. My warships attacked the aliens relentlessly, and all the while their tactics and capabilities were being analyzed by military experts on Earth. To say they were astonished would be an understatement.

Over the South American rainforests of the Amazon basin, my warships Apollo and Hera engaged a squadron of six enemy ships. The enemy ships were attacking from a formation, and so my ships applied a fast moving and unpredictable attack pattern. They combined to engage the aliens from two sides, making high-speed feints and firing runs. In this attack pattern, they minimized the disadvantage of being outnumbered by always keeping the enemies in each others' lines of fire. They made their attack runs keeping two or more of the alien ships perfectly lined up behind each other. They fired both x-ray laser beams, and electromagnetic pulses. As they flew, they corkscrewed or wove erratically so as to present an inconsistent and difficult target. The aliens couldn't fire on them with any accuracy.

The Apollo lined up a target, with another enemy ship behind it. The approach was made with the sun at the Apollo's back, making visual and infrared tracking impossible. At only a half-mile from the targets, the Apollo struck the nearest alien ship with an electromagnetic pulse series. In the three-quarters of a second it took the Apollo to close with and pass the nearer target, over a hundred pulses lashed out, shifting from the first to the second target as he passed. Behind the Apollo, first one, then the other enemy ship incandesced from the absorbed energy, and exploded. By the time the debris sphere began to expand, the Apollo was far beyond the blast zone.

In the confusion of their destruction, the Hera swept up from below, glowing blue-white with deadly gamma radiation. Two beams lanced out from the Hera as she passed through the center of the ruined enemy formation, and two more of their ships exploded. In a second and a half she was two miles above the targets, back flipping to reverse her course and resume the attack. But ill fate was with her that day, and as she lined up the remaining two aliens for a diving attack, another three enemy ships dropped from the cloudbank to the south to intercept her. From the west, the Apollo hurtled in to cover for her, and from a distance of almost fifteen miles a projectile from his electromagnetic launcher punctured one of the alien ships, causing it to flip end over end into the jungle below. At 27% of the speed of light, the projectile had struck the target before the weapons officer had lifted his finger from the firing button. Still, two enemy ships were closing on the Hera from the south. There were also two ships remaining from the original squadron she was engaging. She targeted the original two with electromagnetic pulses, but the Apollo was closing too fast. She aborted the firing, closed her force-wall shield, and rammed one of the enemy ships instead. At the speed the Hera was moving, it was like a bullet hitting an alabaster egg.

The two incoming aliens waited for her to drop her shielding. As the Hera began to glow with gamma radiation prior to an x-ray laser attack, they fired their particle beam weapons. The beams from the two ships were directed through rotating prisms to form a flickering net two miles square. The Hera struck the net at full speed. She absorbed so much energy that for a second she appeared to be a multiple image in blue-white, being stretched like a rubber band. There was no explosion. One moment she was there, the next moment she was gone. Like her namesake two millennia before, the Queen of the Olympians was the first to be lost.

Half a world away, over the sub-continent of India, Zeus and Poseidon were fighting for their lives. Outnumbered six to one at the start of the battle, they were facing two full squadrons of alien ships, the squadron they had engaged, and a second which had reinforced them. My warships were designed to fight at a numerical disadvantage. They had to be. We never intended to build many of them. So we armed them to the teeth, and each ship carried a triple crew. When the second squadron arrived to oppose them, the Zeus and the Poseidon changed tactics. Double teaming their battle stations, and linking their navigation controls, they maintained a distance of a half a mile between them. Then they flew in tandem, revolving around each other like the suns of a double star, covering each other's backs, and multiplying their firepower. As their enemies converged on their position, their flight path described a tumbling spiral, electromagnetic pulses dispersing in a widening sphere around them. The tactic was devastating. Around them seven enemy vessels incandesced, doomed, but the five that remained formed a sphere around them, tracking their procession across the sky with weapons fire. As the population of Srinagar watched the Gods battle above, the five surviving alien ships laced the sky with their particle beams, driving the battle to the West. Whether they drew straws, or acted on orders, no one shall ever know, but two of the alien ships, despairing of victory by normal means, flew into my warships' formation, ramming them, and sacrificing themselves as well. It was a tactic of desperation, but valid on the battlefield against a smaller force. The resulting fireball could be seen for almost two hundred miles, and the shock wave leveled buildings in Islamabad, now only fifty miles away. In a moment I had lost two more of my ships, and two hundred of Earth's finest warriors met their end.

The hand of fate struck down the Hephaestus over the Bering Strait. Having destroyed a lone alien ship with a beam from his x-ray laser, the Hephaestus was suddenly besieged by the remaining five ships of the enemy squadron. They were fighting in the whiteout of a squall, targeting each other by sensors, their weapons lacing the clouds with the lightning of war. The Hephaestus flew within the enemy formation, tricking them into shooting down two of their own ships, while killing another with an electromagnetic pulse. But the pulse was his undoing. Though not a weapon of war, yet still destructive are the forces of nature. The electromagnetic pulse series caused a huge static buildup on the ship's hull, and when an alien ship approached, the discharge of lightning jumped between them. For a second the Hephaestus was blinded, and at the speed the ship was travelling, that second brought doom. The Hephaestus struck the Bering Sea at over 3,500 miles per hour, skipped twice on the surface, and slammed into Gambell, on the tip of St. Lawrence Island.

 

AND THE GLORY

 

Ares and I had concluded our meeting with Dean Hewitt. We had agreed to release some of the alien technology, and to have our advisors direct its integration into the U.S. arsenal. By the terms of our agreement, my advisors would answer only to me, and they would not be obstructed by the military command structure. I think Hewitt enjoyed the idea that the generals would have no real control over my men. He also knew I would never agree to having my warriors take orders from them, and he wanted the technology. He had succeeded in achieving through negotiation, what the President had failed to get with his earlier demands. We were all in the oval office, getting his signature on the documents, when we saw the flames, and the flashes of lightning that could only signal the appearance of Gods.

Out on the lawn of the White House, with the Washington Monument in the background, they materialized. There were ten of them, dressed in leather, fur, and coarse fabrics. They wore helms and armor of steel and bronze; bracers, grieves, breastplates, and gauntlets. They bore the weapons of ancient warriors, spear, bow, and sword. They were equally divided, male and female. They stared directly at Ares and me as if the walls of the White House were glass. They stood in a line facing us, and in the center a God stepped forward.

"We have found the spawn of the renegades, and our triumph is at hand."

From the end of the row of figures a Goddess stepped forward.

"Two only are they, yet in battle our hunters did they overcome."

At the far end of the row another Goddess stepped forward.

"Fear not, for the rings are not with them, and they are unarmed."

The God standing next to her in the row stepped forward.

"Still, there are powers unseen about us, and the fate of worlds is not ordained."

Ares and I looked at each other as Dean Hewitt and the President looked on. Their aides had fled in terror, but a detail of secret service agents had entered the oval office.

"Take them to the bunker," I told them, "and keep your heads down."

"Guess it's' time to go to work, baby," Ares said. "looks like we could use our weapons though...now where did I put that sword?"

"Ares, I think they really don't take us seriously," I said with a grin, "and I always did like a fight against overwhelming odds."

"Makes them careless, huh," Ares quipped, "I'll take the ladies, and you can have the boys hon, I know you'll knock 'em dead."

"You're both crazy," Hewitt remarked as the agents dragged him out into the hall, "hope you beat them though, they don't look like they're very reasonable folks."

"We've got a deal," I called after him, "and I always keep my word."

Ares was concentrating on something, but then he smiled and said, "Oh yeah, how could I forget."

There was a flash, and we were in the battle dress we had worn two thousand years ago. I didn't remember that breast-plate being as heavy, but it felt good to have a sword at my back. I drew it, absently spinning it twice on my palm.

"The balance is good," I told him as I watched him draw his own sword.

"It should be, Xe, it's yours...took me awhile to remember where it was though. I don't think the British Museum will miss it a bit. It hasn't been on display since the forties."

"I see you've still got your old blade," I said, looking at the sword that had once made me a Goddess, then glancing at the battered sword in my hand. I swore I'd never lose it again.

"Yeah, the One God gave it back to me when he let me return to the world," he said, "I think he liked it himself though."

"Come forth to your doom," one of Gods yelled from the row of figures on the lawn.

. "Sounds like a challenge to me," I said.

"Nothing like ganging up on us, ya know...kinda rubs me the wrong way," Ares said.

"Me too. Guess we should start by evening the odds," I said with a grin.

"Don't scorch the carpet," Ares joked as we disappeared in flames from the oval office.

We appeared on the White House lawn right behind the row of Gods and Goddesses, and before they knew what hit them we had hewed down three. Then we disappeared again, and materialized twenty feet in front of them. They were still reacting to our surprise attack.

"Hey," I said to Ares with a smile, "no fair...you slashed two of them, and I only got one."

"Kindness to your enemies is cruelty to yourself," Ares replied with a grin.

"Have you noticed the four standing ahead of the others?" I asked him, "I think they're the ones we're going to have trouble with."

"They don't look so tough," Ares said, appraising them like warlords in the old days, "I'll bet it's been forever since they've really had to fight."

"The time has come for you to meet your fate," one of the three secondary Gods said, "and we will beat you without cowardly tricks."

"If you think ten against two is a fair fight, you've got nothing to say," Ares yelled back at him, "this is WAR, boy!"

"Yeah, give it your best shot," I yelled, "and by the way, when you're in our back yard, you play by our rules."

We closed with them. The three who had stayed in the line took the lead at first, the four speakers hanging back. I noticed they were watching us, trying to get a feel for our tactics. I would have done the same with an unknown but deadly enemy. Perhaps they underestimated me, but it was a young looking God who approached me, while a God and a Goddess attacked Ares. The young God I fought was a very good swordsman...not a prodigy, but more than competent. He just didn't know enough tricks of the trade to survive very long. He began by circling me, then opened with a high slashing attack. I tested him by blocking his strokes and shoving his blade away to break his rhythm. He didn't fight my force, but continued with it, pivoting on one foot, and spinning to attack me from the other direction. Again I shoved away his blade, and again he pivoted, to attack from the other direction. I knew his weakness. After trading blows with him face to face, I shoved away his blade for a third time, and as he started to pivot, I leaped over his turned back, landing behind him as he slashed at where I had been. I brought my blade down on his neck from behind, and he fell on his face. A moment later his body disappeared.

Now I joined Ares as he fought the God and Goddess. The Goddess was wielding a spear, and had managed to keep Ares from killing the God, who was armed with a sword. They fought well together, covering for each other, and working their weapons at the long and middle distances. I knew from experience that to best them I would have to neutralize the Goddess with the spear to allow us to get close enough to kill them. I waited for an opening, and leapt in front of her as Ares traded blows with the swordsman. She used the spear like the Romans had, holding it from the end, and attempting to stab with the point. The Chinese field lance, with its flexible shaft, used both ends to attack, by both stabbing and slashing, and I had always found it a more troublesome weapon to defeat. She made rapid controlled movements, parrying my most rapid attacks, and driving me back with the point, using longer thrusts that came from the movement of her body. I was again testing my opponent, probing her techniques to find anything unexpected. She was very quick, very strong, and very predictable. A good technician, but not an artist. I had no doubt that I would kill her.

By now Ares had appraised his opponent, finding the weakness in his repertoire. Being used to fighting with the spear wielding Goddess, he was lazy, and didn't recover well. I watched them out of the corner of my eye as I fought. Ares pressed his enemy, changing speeds to confuse him, then, without warning he unleashed his full speed. His opponent couldn't believe how fast he could move that massive sword using only one hand. Ares slammed both sides of his blade, slapping it to the side, and sliding the tip of his own blade up his arm, slicing him to the bone from the wrist to the shoulder. Shock and pain distorted his face, and he looked at the wound. He was out of position, and couldn't parry when Ares thrust his sword into his chest.

And I saw the reaction I was looking for on the face of the Goddess with the spear. She was either the lover or the sister of the swordsman Ares had killed. When she thrust at me again, there was the slightest decrease in her speed. I spun, rolling up the shaft of her spear, now too close for the way she used it. If she had abandoned the weapon, leapt back, and drawn her own sword, perhaps she could have recovered, but she was hurt by the loss of her loved one. My sword entered her body just above the sternum, and pierced her windpipe before striking her spine. She gave me an astonished look, and then her body vanished. I looked over, and gave Ares a big smile.

"Yeah," he crowed, "we bad, we bad."

"So what about you?" I asked the four who had been watching us, "Seen enough? Going home?"

As if to make a final test, one of the Goddesses notched four arrows in the long bow she carried, and fired them at us. As two arrows came towards me, I leapt high into the air, back flipping, and landed after the arrows had passed. Ares just held out his sword and angled the blade towards the arrows targeting him, using it as a defelade. The arrows struck the blade, deflecting off it and away.

"Is that the best you can do?" he asked.

I took a quick look around us, and noticed, on the other side of the fence surrounding the White House lawn, a news team had set up and were broadcasting our battle with a camera. I couldn't resist waving, and seeing this, Ares looked over at them too...and bowed.

Our four opponents drew their swords and approached us. Ares and I went to meet them. We squared off, each of us facing a God and a Goddess. They were very good fighters. Actually, they were outstanding. They were pathetic tacticians. I would have set three against one, leaving the fourth to hold off the other of us, until the three had made their kill. Then it would have been four against one...one who was already tired. The second kill would have been quick. But they must have been ruled by their own code of honor, and whatever it was, it worked to our advantage that day. They drove us apart, and kept pressing us relentlessly.

Those I fought favored attacking me from two sides, knowing I had only one weapon to fend them off. I expended a lot of energy turning back and forth, defending against their attacks from both sides, and hoping for a mistake or an opening. They made no mistakes, and I realized if there was to be an opening I would have to create it. To make things more difficult, the Goddess was using a main gauche, or parrying dagger, as well as a narrow bladed sword. I had often wielded my chakram with my left hand for this purpose. Now I had to move at high speed constantly, just to keep them away. At one point we had locked swords overhead, and as I blocked their two blades, she stabbed me with her dagger. I felt it pierce my left shoulder. The wound would slow me down until it healed, even though I wouldn't bleed. Ares called my name, and I knew he had seen it. I could only hope it wouldn't break his concentration. She smiled at me then, trying to goad me into an error. It wouldn't work, but it gave me an idea. The next time they closed in, I locked up their blades with my sword, and as she went to stab my chest with the dagger, I turned my wrist, letting their blades slide away down mine, and moved closer to her. There, her dagger slipped between the leather and the bronze of my breastplate. I turned, and the dagger was trapped in the scrollwork. Then I twisted my body, and wrenched it from her grasp. I would have a bruise along my side below my right breast, but I had a second blade! I pulled it out with my left hand, turned the blade towards her, and smiled. Now I could create an opening.

I fought them with renewed vigor, weapon against weapon, and I think they were surprised. As the Goddess closed in again, I kicked her hard in the stomach, throwing her off balance, and I cut her right thigh deeply with my sword. She staggered, but the God covered for her, forcing me back.

Ares had been holding off the two he fought, and his greater strength made his combat more equal than mine. At one point he had managed to slide his sword down the blade of the Goddess he fought, catching her blade guard, and by twisting his wrist, flipped her sword from her grasp. She back flipped out of his range, as his blade whistled past her throat. It was close. The God came at him, but he parried his attack, and kicked his forearm, driving his sword to the side, and creating an opening. He drove his left fist into the God's face, and followed it with a crescent kick that knocked him to the ground. Then Ares reversed his grip, stabbing his blade down to make the kill, only to have it blocked at the last moment by the Goddess who had retrieved her weapon. He turned towards her, and had to settle for kicking the downed God hard in the ribs. From where I fought I heard the snap of bone. He pressed her, driving her away, but before he could overpower her, the God rejoined the fight.

Having wounded the Goddess, I found myself concentrating on the God who was covering for her. He lunged at me, but I flipped over his blade, turning in the air, and kicked the Goddess' sword arm as I came down. There was a satisfying crack of bone as the elbow joint gave way. I had managed to damage both her right arm and leg. She transferred her sword to her left hand, and kept her injured side away from me after that. Then I heard a yell of pain, and a curse. Ares had caught his foot on a sprinkler head embedded in the lawn, twisting his ankle, and losing his balance. In that moment, the Goddess he fought had managed to knock away his sword, and the God had pierced his left side. I could tell from the position it was a lung wound, a wound that would lethally degrade his fighting ability. The Goddess was reversing her grip preparing to impale him. I did the only thing I could. I rolled over my shoulder, away from my enemies, flipped the parrying dagger so I held the blade, and threw the dagger as hard as I could. It struck her, burying itself to the hilt in her back, driving her off balance, and making her drop her sword. She fell right on top of Ares. I barely turned back to my attackers in time to roll away under the blade of the God's sword. I was rolling towards the injured Goddess, and she was ready for me. It was a bad situation. Luckily I was on her injured right side, and she had to turn to attack me. Instead of regaining my feet, I stayed down, and lashed out with my legs, sweeping her feet out so she landed on her back, the broken arm twisted beneath her. I could have killed her if I'd still had the dagger. I settled for a jabbing strike, crushing the nerves in one side of her neck. Then I was on my feet, racing towards Ares, with the God at my back and the Goddess close behind. All I could think of was keeping them away, so he could die in peace with me beside him. I doubt more than a dozen feet separated them from me, when there was a blur overhead, and the ground right behind me erupted, throwing me head over heels.

 

 

UNTO THE AGES

 

As Ares and I fought on the lawn of the White House, battles raged in the skies. The Hades was high above the Earth, firing on the damaged mother ship. Making pass after pass, the Hades had fired seven rounds from its electromagnetic launcher...each a twenty pound steel egg, moving at 27% of the speed of light. Each had pierced the mother ship, passing completely through it, and imparting part of its energy to damage the structural integrity of the target. The shots were not directed at random. The Hades' crew had scanned the mother ship, and located its structural axis. Each round had chipped away a part of the mother ship's frame. After seven impacts, it was like a giant cracked egg. At my base in the mid-Pacific, this message was received from the Hades.

"In the name of the free people of the Earth, we choose the way of the warrior. The crew of the Hades sends this message to any beings that would oppress mankind. IT IS A GOOD DAY TO DIE."

The Hades circled in an arc of one thousand miles, and turning back towards the mother ship, accelerated to full attack speed. The crew charged the x-ray laser capacitors to 120%, and within its force-wall shield, it glowed the blue-white of a dwarf star. The Lord of the Dead had become the Avenging Angel. The Hades slammed into the mother ship at almost 34,000 miles per hour, on the damaged axis it had created. They collapsed their force-wall shield, freeing the gamma radiation. And vaporizing themselves. The mother ship was reduced to a dead hulk, lit from within by secondary explosions, broken into two halves, which slowly drifted apart.

Two other ladies lost their lives that day. Artemis, and Athena. They were destroyed in separate battles, Artemis while engaging four alien ships over the Gibraltar Strait, and Athena during a dogfight over the Australian outback. Their crews won honor in combat, taking many invaders to Tartarus before their own destruction. I lost seven warships that day, but seven hundred warriors lost their lives.

As the Hades was preparing to make its suicide run, I was lying on my back on the White House lawn, stunned, staring at the sky. A few feet away there was a gaping hole in the ground. On the other side of the hole were a God and a Goddess who wanted to kill me. About eight feet away from me lay the fallen Ares, wounded through the chest, while a wounded Goddess, and a God intent on killing him were starting to regain their senses. In the sky above the blur resolved itself as it sped away to the east. It was the warship Ares...the distinctive red color of the hull unique among all my forces. It took what seemed like hours for my head to clear enough for me to understand what had happened. When I did, I knew I owed a crew of mortal warriors my life. Capt. McClellan had somehow managed to line up the Ares, in a vertical dive, and fire a round from the electromagnetic launcher straight down into the White House lawn. He had used the ship itself as a gun sight, and the shock wave, as the projectile slammed into the earth, had knocked us all off our feet and stunned us. He had pulled the ship out of the dive only eighty feet above the ground. Heat from the ship scorched the famous rose garden, while the suction behind it tore the antennas off the roof. I hadn't recovered enough to stand or walk, but I could crawl. I grabbed my sword, and dragged myself over to where Ares lay dying.

"Who turned out the lights," he mumbled to me as his eyes focused on mine.

"It was McClellan...he shot the lawn. Saved our butts, for a few minutes at least," I told him.

"Damn hot rodder," Ares said, forcing a grin, "we're screwed I think...at least I am."

"Bull," I said, "you're a God. You can heal."

"Yeah, yeah," he said, blinking, "not if they have anything to say about it."

I followed his gaze, and I saw the enemies staggering towards us, weapons in their hands, confident that it was all over.

"Why don't you bug out," he said, "live to fight another day and all that crap."

"I'm not leaving you," I told him, then I said it, " I love you. We're in this together."

"I have always loved you, Xena," he said, "I'd be happier knowing you were still alive. I'll tell 'em you went to powder your nose or something."

"Ares, shut up." I said, "I'm going to take at least one of them with us."

"That's my girl," he said with a grin, figuring he'd get away with it this time.

I kissed him, and I staggered to my feet, my sword gripped in both hands. I glared at them as they approached us. I thought the wounded Goddess would be joining us in hell real soon. She was closest. I didn't notice the spotlight that came down behind me, but Ares must have.

"Well, I never thought I'd be happy to see the you again," he said, "hey Xe, cavalry's here."

"Oh great, now your getting delusional on me," I muttered.

Then I heard a sound I hadn't heard in hundreds of years. It's whine sang of metal and speed. It came from behind me, and by reflex I dropped to the ground. Something flew past me a few feet above the lawn. It struck the nearest God so hard he flew backwards, ricocheted with sparks, and nailed the wounded Goddess in the side of the head, flipping her off her feet, ricocheting again...back towards me. I raised my hand, and it slammed into my palm. I closed my fingers, and let my arm absorb the impact, pulling it close to my body. When I looked, I saw I held a ring of steel, with an S-curve in the center. I just stared at it, unbelieving. Two bodies sizzled on the ground where they'd been struck down, flesh smoldering, impression of their skeletons, burning and crumbling to dust. Then they were gone. I'd seen a God die that way once before. Only once before. I stared at the chakram I held like a dim witted mortal, still unable to comprehend.

"Shut up Ares," a voice said behind me.

I didn't believe my ears, but I wanted to believe so bad that I hurt inside. There was a shadow moving up behind me, and now it covered me. A shadow with wings. I turned around, forgetting the two enemy Gods still before me. She was right there in front of me, not two feet away. The Archangel Gabrielle, and she was smiling up at me. I choked back a sob and grabbed her in a hug that would have squeezed the guts out of a mortal. She wrapped her strong arms around me and shrouded us with her wings. Neither of us spoke, for words could not express the tidal wave of emotions at this reunion. I rested my chin on her head, and would have been happy to stay that way forever, never letting go again. I might have too, but from behind me came a grunt, and a cry of triumph.

I released Gabrielle and spun around. The remaining God had driven his sword into Ares chest, pinning him to the ground. He wasn't moving. I took a step away from Gabrielle, and I threw the chakram so hard my feet left the ground. It closed the distance between us in a heartbeat, just a silver blur in the afternoon sun. Then it struck him down, the impact severing his head from his body, the force carrying it right through him to slam into the Goddess who accompanied him. It knocked her flying across the lawn, and ricocheted away, its whine a cry of outrage and vengeance. It's flight carried it to the White House portico, where it finally struck the chain of a great lamp over the doorway, dropping it to the pavement, and rebounding back to me. I caught it as I ran to Ares.

He was dead. No question about it. No breath, no twitch of dying...he was gone, killed while my back had been turned. Was every joy to be shadowed by despair? Was this the will of the One God? Though our enemies were vanquished, the cost was bitter to my heart, yet such were the fortunes of war. Many had lost their lives that day in battle, but none so dear to my wretched heart. I fell to my knees and cradled his head, and my tears splashed his face. Emotionally, I was a disaster...beyond conflicted, I felt the rise of the blinding fury that had once been my emotional retreat. The red of bloodlust grew in my heart, and demanded sacrifices, bodies to hew, enemies to snuff out...yet there were none. All our enemies were dead...the last two falling to dust a few feet away, smoldering. I raised my eyes to the sky, and with a cry that tore my throat, I wailed out the pain in my soul and the anger in my heart.

"OH GOD NO!!! WHY HAVE YOU BETRAYED HIM!!!"

And then my senses shut down. I may have passed out, or I may have turned within. I don't know how much time passed, minutes I would guess, because when I regained my senses, nothing on the lawn had changed. There was a warm hand resting on my shoulder, gently squeezing. I let the chakram and the sword fall from my hands, and I wrapped my arms around Gabrielle's waist, and buried my face in her chest. Her hands cradled my head as I sobbed. And there I stayed, as her warmth thawed the monster I knew lurked a hairsbreadth below my skin.

After a time, she gently tilted my face to look up into her eyes. I saw there the love that had changed me two millennia before, and a greater wisdom than I had ever seen.

"Xena, I know this tragedy has brought you immeasurable pain," she said, "but beyond the pain is a chance which is hidden within. You will know what to do. It is the time of change, and the time of restitution. There is a debt to be paid."

A debt? A time of change? I tried to understand, because in some deep place, her words rang true. I played back all the time I had spent with Ares since he had come back to me. His words came back to me then..."you must believe that all things in the world change in time...in hope and love lies the cause of faith." He had brought me to heaven so I would know that Gabrielle still waited for our reunion, still had faith in the promise of future lives together. He had done it, knowing he would one day lose me again. He had done it though it had broken his heart. All I could say was "thank you", such a paltry expression for what he had done...for what he had done at Olympus an age ago, when I had supposedly been a mortal, and he a God. And I knew what I had to do.

Gabrielle stepped away to give me space. I laid my hands on his head, cradling his face, and I concentrated as I had never concentrated before. "Immortal beloved, my life force for you...accept my immortality, for I would bring you back. I will that you take my gift, it was ever yours from the very beginning. Come back from the hall of souls. Come back to the world. You were meant to be a God. Come back to me." A blue light had surrounded him, flowing from my hands, and I felt the power draining out of me. I felt my wounds, and the fatigue of battle. I felt him move beneath my hands!

Behind me I heard Gabrielle softly beseeching her God as well, "Almighty Father who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name. Thy kingdom come, thy Will be done, on earth as in heaven..."

He lifted his head, and looked into my eyes, and he knew what I had done, for a God always knows a mortal from an immortal.

"Xena, why?" he asked.

"It was the only way," I stammered, "I couldn't let you go like this. I couldn't leave you. The world needs a God of War...the world needs you...and, and I need you. You gave up your immortality to heal Eve and Gabrielle...now things are back the way they should have been."

And I realized another thing. The circle had come back to its start, and I was mortal again. I could die, and finally, I could one day be reborn. On some day in the future, in some place we could not foresee, a child would be born to fulfill the promise made so long ago. God had granted me a way back...a way out of the detour of two thousand years we had taken. All things in the world change in time, yet all things flow in a circle. I had done God's Will, and He owed me. I knew there was one other debt to be paid, but now I had faith. I turned to look at Gabrielle. She stood on the lawn next to us, just her. The wings were gone. She looked into my eyes, and I could see the truth. Her prayer too had been answered. We were both mortal, and we could both die one day, and we could proceed with the cycle of rebirth that had been promised so long ago. We were home.

In the silence that followed I felt the sun on my back, and the beating of my mortal heart. I began to hear the sounds of the world around me. I stood, and I helped Ares to his feet. He was shaken, but otherwise unchanged. He looked into my eyes, and I knew it was an emotional moment for him, but he swallowed, took a breath, and spoke to me.

"Thank you."

Better than any other I now knew those words were not pathetic, not inadequate, for they came from the deepest part of his heart, just as they had twice come from mine. A weight of guilt lifted from me. The circle had truly closed at last.

 

 

 

SO MOTE IT BE

(2256 A. D.)

 

I've been around a long time, and I thought I should write this all down. It really is history, and I've started to feel obligated to preserve it. There isn't anyone now who knows the whole story except me. Maybe someday someone will need to know. So much has been lost in the passage of time, and often, I hear things that make me want to scream, "No, you morons! It didn't happen that way". While I still have the chance, I'd like to get it right. It's more than taking names and kicking ass.

This is a big step for me. It's really out of character. I guess writing was never my thing, but things change...I've changed...the world has changed. I've known a couple people who could have done this right, so I just keep asking myself, "What would they have done? How would they have told this story? What words would they have chosen to make it come alive?" And yes, I miss them both, even the annoying little blond. What makes it difficult is that I've always liked hearing stories about myself, but I've promised to tell the truth this time. This is not a myth or a legend. Well, maybe someday it will become a legend, for the events deserve to be seen for their heroism and passion, and they are bigger than life.


part 2

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