On the TV show, Xena Warrior Princess, several episodes gave viewers a glimpse of the Destroyer of Nations. She was portrayed as a creation of Alti, and was assigned to a period of time after Xena had left Lao Ma's Chin and was roaming the northern steppes with Borias. She was perhaps a more extreme version of the Dark Xena who had existed since her crucifixion by Caesar. The Destroyer of Nations was the condensation of Xena's most violent and self-serving traits. But like much else, the TV series misrepresented those accounts of the Destroyer of Nations that actually appeared in Gabrielle's scrolls. In fact, hints of the Destroyer had existed within Xena since shortly after she'd first commanded her own army, for this "alter-ego" was a product of the increasing attentions of the God of War. He gifted her with a superior ability to focus her already formidable prowess. Xena's battle-mania, or katalepsis, became channeled to create an unrivaled killer of astonishing and deadly potential. After accepting Ares' patronage and becoming his Favorite, Xena allowed this full-blown aspect of herself free reign on the battlefield for many years, making her merciless and unbeatable, a terrifying celebrant of war. For years the Destroyer of Nations complimented the Dark Xena, who presented her with endless opportunities to revel in conquest and bloodshed. She was the most belligerent manifestation of Xena's personality, and she persisted throughout the Warrior Princess' lifetime. In fact, the Destroyer of Nations outlived the Dark, or "Evil" Xena. During later years, the Destroyer was mostly submersed by the will of the "Good" Xena, the Warrior Princess. Controlling her became much easier once Xena renounced her consuming ambition. Still, the Destroyer peeked out of her soul when rage consumed her, (as in the blood haze of vengeance following Solon's death), making brief guest appearances to exercise Xena's wrath. Such appearances grew increasingly rare as Xena discovered preoccupations other than violence and outgrew the desires of the self-serving warlord she had been. Perhaps the truest test of who the clones were lay in whether or not Xena still hosted the Destroyer of Nations within her soul. Had Alti succeeded with her cloning process and recreated that aspect of the warrior? In the 21st century it would require an overwhelming catalyst to set her free.
The return flight from Auckland had remained uneventful during the hours crossing the Pacific. There'd been a brief stopover in Tokyo for refueling, and then the second leg of the trip to LAX. Predictably, Xena had barely been able to sit still. As soon as the "Fasten Seatbelts" sign had gone off, she'd been stalking the cabin and pestering the flight attendants for information. Cloned Gabrielle had chuckled when her soulmate had swallowed her pride and enlisted four children to help legitimize her request to see the cockpit. With a groan, a stewardess had relented and given them five minutes to look through the door. The warrior had loomed over the kids, asking questions and trying to memorize the positions of the controls.
"Since you seem to be so interested in flying, I'd recommend you try one of the flight simulator programs for computers," the copilot had commented after pointing out an array of indicators, "the newer ones are pretty good. Then, of course, if you have the money, you could always try flight school?start by getting an instrument license for single engine planes and work up from there."
"I'll let ya'll in on somethin'," the pilot had said with a smile. "In 'bout six minutes I'll be makin' an 'nnouncement. If ya have binoc'lars, look out the left side 'a the plane, an' be lookin' up. We'll be havin' the rare chance ta see somethin' ya'll may never see again. Now then, since we'll be landin' in 'bout sixteen minutes, ya'll 'a have to go back to your seats."
Xena had been a bit grumpy about being sent back to her seat, but the warning sign had come on, and she and her soulmate buckled themselves in. Grumbling, Xena had dug her field glasses out of her carry-on and waited for the pilot's cowboy drawl to come over the intercom. It was just past noon.
"Ladies an' gentlemen, this here's yer pilot. At this time, I'd like ta direct ya'lls attention to the view outta the left side cabin windows. If'n ya'll look due north, at 'bout 11 o'clock high, ya'll may be able ta see the space shuttle Endeavor an' its chase aircraft, returnin' from the International Space Station fer a landin' at Edwards Air Force Base. They'll be 'a comin' in fast, 'bout twenty miles off, but ya shouldn't be able ta miss 'em. Just be lookin' fer the con trail."
To most of the passengers, the shuttle had looked like a dot etching a billowing con trail across the heavens, moving in fast from the west and losing altitude rapidly. Over the sounds of their own plane's engines, the orbiter's sonic boom had been felt more than heard. From twenty miles away, the naked eye had reported only three silver glints, two flanking the shuttle and one trailing slightly above. Through her 8x50 Swarovski optics, for Xena the image had leapt into crystalline clarity and detail.
The warrior had watched in rapt fascination as the lumbering boxy shuttle glided, seemingly effortlessly, on its stubby wings. She'd barely believed it was possible that such an ungainly thing could fly, and yet the three sleek fighters chasing it had appeared to be struggling to keep abreast. Endeavor had dwarfed those jets, and though Xena loved airplanes, she'd virtually ignored them.
The minute ice crystals that formed the con, or condensation trail, had roiled from the craft's every edge, testifying to the disturbance it wrought cutting through the thickening air. Like the smoke in a wind tunnel, the trail had revealed the shuttle's speed, but Endeavor rode the tempest as steady as Gibraltar. Xena could only stare, awed by the mastery she witnessed. Whoever sat at the controls was sensing the ship and its surroundings as finely as she had ever sensed her own body during a flip. Black and white against the bright blue sky, massive as a house, the whalelike orbiter somehow seemed to engender a majestic dignity; somehow, it seemed graceful.
Their plane was heading to Los Angeles and they'd gradually peeled away to the south, while Endeavor was heading east, straight into the Mojave Desert. Before long the shuttle had been just a speck, even in her field glasses, and Xena had lowered them from her eyes. For long minutes she'd stared out the cabin window, into the distance where the massive bird had flown. And finally, she'd relaxed and exhaled the breath she'd held.
"I'm gonna find out more about this," she'd declared simply.
NASA mission STS-100 had concluded its flight at 12:11 pm, when the orbiter landed at Edwards Air Force Base. Xena and Gabrielle had debarked from their flight at 12:26 pm, at LAX. They'd had 50 minutes to wait for their flight to Columbia Metropolitan Airport. As Gabrielle wolfed down a roast beef sandwich in a coffee shop in the terminal, Xena had stared into a cup of Coke and replayed what she'd seen.
More than anything in the 21st century, the shuttle had inspired her. She had even been moved deeply enough to rekindle some of her belief in humanity's chances. Despite the sheer volume of madness and violence she'd witnessed, there were still those who moved with their dreams?those who questioned and yearned and aspired?those who shaped a destiny that wasn't frivolous or evil. For the first time since her recreation, cloned Xena had felt as though she wanted to do something to help humanity; not necessarily heroic acts of valor, but something of positive value, some personal contribution to society. The newborn impulse was fragile.
I'd better figure out what to do or get over it, she'd thought, before I see another dinosaur on the rampage.
The space had been just another storefront, but in the month since their return from New Zealand, the clones had done some renovating.* Eighty feet long by thirty wide, the open room under the twelve foot ceiling had been musty, dusty, and grudgingly lit by anemic sunlight struggling through dirty show windows flanking the front door. The breaker box had been gutted, the gas meter long gone and the pipe capped off. Electrical conduits and junction boxes had dangled haplessly from the ceiling, left behind when the lighting fixtures had been looted by a scavenger too lazy to claim the copper wiring. Along the back wall, water had dripped lazily from leaking pipes under a mop sink. Crumbling plasterboard, dingy with water stains and mildew, had sheathed the walls. The original wooden floor had lain rotting under cheap sheet linoleum, torn, scuffed, and filthy with dust and ancient spills. A padlocked steel door secured with welded link chain had opened onto the alley in back. On the outside it had been blocked by a dumpster.
(*Among the things that Janice Covington's attorney had helped the clones with, was the acquisition of the storefront. Xena had dragged her partner through town looking for empty buildings. She'd reasoned that, like abandoned land in Greece, any unoccupied space could be claimed if it could be defended. The attorney had convinced her that squatting was illegal in Columbia. Xena had then asked about other villages?maybe Charleston? He'd sarcastically asked her what "village" she'd been born in. She'd proudly responded, Amphipolis. Where's that, he'd asked? Due north of Athens, she'd replied. After that he'd thought she was from Georgia.) ~Editor
"It's been empty since the owner went off to war," the real estate agent had explained when the clones had first been shown the space. "He was a reservist." The previous owner had been in the US Army Reserves and had been called up for duty during Operation Desert Shield. He hadn't returned to Columbia, S.C., instead settling permanently in Arlington, Va. with full military honors.
"Reminds me of a war zone alright," Gabrielle had commented in agreement.
"Looks like the place musta' been looted when the Yankees withdrew," cloned Xena had guessed, "at least they didn't burn it down like Atlanta."
Gabrielle had nodded sadly in agreement, extrapolating from Janice's comments on the Civil War. The agent had looked at them, trying to control his surprise.
Now there were bright banks of overhead lights illuminating a smooth newly finished oak floor and freshly painted white walls. Floor to ceiling mirrors ran the length of one side wall. The second mirror from the front of the space was mounted on hidden piano hinges and double touch latches and concealed an 8-inch deep space. Along the opposite wall, below a large roof-mounted exhaust fan, stood a weapons rack. Staves, eastern and western spears, several kinds of swords, sais, bows, long and short axes, and chobos stood ready. A 60-lb. heavy bag hung from chains in one rear corner of the room, while a narrow 25-lb. bag on a spring pedestal stood in the corner opposite it. Behind the new rear wall was a small locker room with a bench, shower, sink, and toilet. Above the locker room was a low loft space, almost Japanese, with table and cabinets accessible at kneeling height. It held a phone, some office supplies, teaching materials, and a comprehensive first aid kit. Past the locker room was a new steel firedoor. At night the alley behind the row of buildings was lit by a harsh quartz floodlight in a bulletproof housing. Today was the first day the clones had left the front door unlocked.
For most of the morning, the clones simply worked out for their own benefit. Dressed in sports bras and gym shorts, they had none of the formality of a traditional school. They had neither uniforms nor colored belts. No picture of their system's founder hung on a wall. In the front window there were none of the trophies, tournament pictures, oriental decorations, or emblem displays so typical of martial arts schools. Over the front window, a sign proclaimed, "Columbia School of Martial Science". Fight training was only a part of what the clones were intending to offer. So far, there were no students.
After their stretching and warm ups, Xena had plucked a Chinese style saber from the rack and Gabrielle had retrieved her sais. They had sparred increasingly energetically, becoming completely focused on each other. The exchanges had come quicker and quicker, until soon they'd been moving at real combat speed. It looked nothing like the choreographed moves from the TV show. The steel rang as the weapons clashed in an almost constant succession of parries, thrusts, and cuts.
Xena's assaults were relentless, direct, and blindingly fast. She moved her blade in a continuous, fluid attack and defense, using the point, cutting edge, sides, and spine of her sword. Her techniques attempted to capitalize on her flexibility and greater reach. Gabrielle wielded the sais with contained and economical motions, turning away Xena's blade and forcing the warrior to parry her weapons, as she hooked, jabbed, and whipped the sais in improvised patterns, trying to force a mistake. She knew that if Xena were to ever touch her, she would have to move in close where the blonde would hold the advantage. At the long and middle distances, she could easily hold Xena at bay. By the same token, she was seldom able to move into close range to press an attack. They had been through this tactical standoff countless times and had never decisively resolved it. Unlike the representations from the TV series, they had long been evenly matched, both drawing on decades of practical combat experience.
After a quarter hour of sustained effort the two exchanged a glance, and by mutual agreement slacked off on their pace. Over the next two minutes they ramped down their speed, a cooling off period that finally ended in stillness. Almost simultaneously, the clones turned to face the pair of police officers who had been watching in amazement from the open door.
"Welcome, officers," Gabrielle said, greeting them with a smile. Neither of the women was really comfortable around the local militiamen yet, but the blonde had always been the more open of the two.
"That has got to be the most complex weapons form I have ever seen," the younger officer said in awe. His own smile and sharp honest eyes flashed brilliantly from skin as dark as ebony and eased the clones' uncertainties. Both could feel his genuine interest in what he'd watched. "I'm Officer Lewis," he said, venturing into the school a few steps and offering his hand to Xena, who was closer, "and this is my partner, Officer Williams." The older officer smiled at the clones as he too moved into the school to join them.
Xena shook Officer Lewis' hand, feeling the strength of his grip and noting the calluses on the knuckles at the bases of his index and middle fingers. "Pleased to meet'cha Officer Lewis. I'm Serena Pappas and this is my partner, Gabriella Covington. You study too, don'cha?"
"You're very perceptive," Officer Lewis replied with an appreciative smile. "I've studied Hung Gar for eight years. What's the system you teach called? Some of the movements seem familiar, but I really can't identify it."
"It's not really a formal system," Gabrielle offered, "it's based on techniques we've developed through practical experience. Most of my techniques are common to the sai no matter what system is teaching it. I guess some of the movements Serena uses with the Chin saber are common to all the Chinese systems that developed later." Gabrielle fell silent, realizing that her claim might have seemed suspicious.
"Actually, that was just free sparrin'. It wasn't a form," Xena said quickly. The two officers regarded her with surprise. "I started out learnin' some training exercises that could be the equivalent of forms in a modern system. The problem with forms is that you run the risk of internalizin' sequences of moves and becomin' predictable."
The two officers regarded her claim with doubt bordering on disbelief.
"I have never seen anyone do weapons sparring at combat speed without protective gear," Officer Williams declared, speaking for the first time. "Not in any school I've ever studied or taught in, and I've been studying various systems for over twenty-five years. I've only seen two-person forms demonstrated like that once, by monks from the Shaolin Temple."
"Gabriella and I've been sparrin' together for years," Xena calmly told them, "and I haven't worn armor in a long time. She never wore it," she continued, glancing quickly at Gabrielle, "and it's been a very long time since either of us was able to complete an attack successfully."
Officer Williams gave her a quizzical glance and raised an eyebrow at her choice of wording. Officer Lewis simply looked at the clones, amazed. Finally, he asked, "so when do your classes meet?"
"Well, at this point we're just opening, so we don't have a schedule set up yet," Gabrielle told them, "but I suspect most of the classes will be in the evenings or on weekends."
"We're willin' to be flexible with advanced students who have work schedules, if they're truly interested," Xena added, "we really aren't intending to teach classes for kids."
After the two officers had left, Xena turned to Gabrielle and quietly said, " I saw a website that showed the Shaolin Temple Officer Williams mentioned. It's in what's now called Hunan Province. A lot of it had changed, but I recognized parts of a couple buildings. It's at the bottom of Songshan?Mt. Song. You remember it, don'cha Gabrielle? It wasn't called the Shaolin Temple back then though, and it was deserted when ya first saw it."
"It was on the border of the Kingdom of Lao. We hid the refugees from the Green Dragon's black powder army in the caves under the foundation," the blonde remembered sadly, "so many died before they were defeated. It must have rained for two weeks straight and the humidity finally ruined the powder?theirs and ours. After that, it was a typical bloody battle for four days and nights. There were probably over thirty thousand killed. At least we finally captured Ming Tien."
"Captured him and turned him over to the Lao's for execution, though they had to have a trial first. Of course, there was never any doubt about the verdict. Lao T'zu was only slightly less of a tyrant that Ming T'su had been. At least he had Lao Ma to tame the worst of his savagery. Still, what passed for peace resumed in Chin?nice touch in your scroll, Gabrielle, referrin' to the reborn peace as the Phoenix."
Xena paused to remember the hapless Mings. The father she'd assassinated and the son she'd doomed. Both on behalf of the Laos, because she'd recognized them as being the lesser of two evils. Lao T'zu and Lao Ma had wanted to suppress the use of the black powder, while the Mings had wanted to embrace it and conquer. They were potentially more dangerous than the Persians. Sooner or later they'd have consolidated their power and marched west. Xena had feared that in a generation or two they'd have threatened Greece. Racism wasn't absent from her decision either. The Warrior Princess would accept the hated Romans as the overlords of her native land long before she'd even consider subjugation by Chin; at least the Romans were Occidentals and she could understand their games of power. And so she had destroyed the Ming's leaders. The Laos had finished the job, slaughtering ninety-one thousand helpless people and laying waste to an entire kingdom. Beneath their wisdom and philosophy they'd been the most cultured barbarians she'd ever met.
"Ya know, I can't blame Ming Tien for seekin' to avenge his father. I woulda' done the same thing. The whole business made me feel dirty?there were no good choices."
"I was so glad to leave, Xena. It's too bad you couldn't really have turned them all into stone like in that TV episode?the Mings and the Laos both."
"Don't I just wish," Xena agreed. But not even their gods could have done that.
The class had met twice, from 6:00 to 8:00 in the evening, after which those not headed home went to dinner at the South China Restaurant, just three doors down from the school. So far there were six students; Officers Marcus Lewis and Alexander Williams, Alex's wife, Karen Williams, a Columbia firefighter named Owen Chambers, who lived up the block, Ronnie Chu, a cousin of the South China's owners, and Debbie Ryan, a grad student in psych at USC. Alex Williams had the longest experience in martial arts, 27 years, and held degrees in Shotokan karate and Hung Gar. Debbie Ryan had the least; 4 years of kick boxing at the YWCA.
It made for a good advanced class and Xena and Gabrielle were impressed with their new students. The first thing Xena had asked was for everyone to come to class in gym clothes rather than their uniforms. The first thing Gabrielle had asked them to do was to try to kick her ass. The clones needed to know their students' abilities.
"Open sparring, light or moderate contact, no strikes to the throat or eyes," Xena had declared as Gabrielle had faced off against Debbie Ryan. "Maybe later?."
"Wait a second," Alex Williams had interrupted, ever the sensei, "what about protective equipment; head gear, mouthguards, gloves??" He trailed off. Xena had been staring at him as if he were insane.
"Wear 'em if ya want," she'd replied dismissively, "I can't imagine really bein' able to move in that stuff."
Debbie had shrugged. Her experience didn't include a lot of sparring or competition. She faced the compact blonde in the center of the room while the rest of the class sat along the wall in front of the mirrors.
"Well? What're ya waitin' for?" Xena had asked, to prompt Debbie into motion. The woman gave her a quick glance of uncertainty. "Oh, alright," the warrior had said in exasperation, "begin."
The bout went on for three minutes. Debbie threw every kick she knew, in combinations or alone, and she never managed to contact the cloned bard. After a minute she was sweating and laboring for breath but she seemed to reach a second wind quickly and didn't tire out. It was a good measure of her conditioning that she could keep up the level of attack she did, and her kicks showed speed, power, and flexibility. She found it very frustrating. At the end of the bout, Xena called time.
"Two minute rest, then my partner will show ya how you can be defeated," Xena announced. The young woman just looked at her as she caught her breath. Gabrielle had never touched her either and hadn't gotten close enough to attack as far as she remembered.
When the two minutes were up, the women walked back out onto the floor and faced each other. This time when Xena commanded, begin, Debbie opened with a spinning back kick. She'd had a perfect bead on the blonde's head, but when she'd pivoted and extended there was no one there. By the time she registered the air movement below her it was too late. Gabrielle's foot lightly contacted her stomach. What Debbie hadn't seen was the blonde moving in and dropping to one knee as her student had started her turn, and then flicking a high roundhouse kick into her stomach from a kneeling position.
"Break", Xena commanded.
They parted and stood facing each other again.
"You've got good basic kicking skills," Gabrielle told her, "but you're telegraphing your intentions and I could see everything you were going to do before you did it. We'll teach you how to strike without warning. We'll also show you hand techniques to broaden your options."
"Next," Xena announced, looking at the rest of the students as she walked out to take the blonde's place in the center of the floor.
After a moment of collective indecision Marcus Lewis stood up, slipping a mouthguard onto his teeth, and joined her as Gabrielle and Debbie moved to the wall. When Marcus had taken a half-horse stance facing Xena, Gabrielle absentmindedly called, "begin," and sat down to analyze their second student.
Marcus was a strong, quick fighter, agile and flexible, both physically and mentally. He used unpredictable combinations of techniques with assurance, but the cloned warrior either parried them away or slipped aside. She wasn't attacking, but she wasn't expending much energy compared to her student. When the three minutes were up and Gabrielle called for the two-minute break, Marcus was panting but Xena's breathing was barely above its rate at rest.
"You've got a lot of options to choose from," the warrior told him, "all hard techniques, and I coulda' killed ya in seconds." Officer Lewis looked at her, not sure whether to believe her or not. He'd seen her masterfully sparring with the sword, but he was used to holding his own in full contact tournaments and on the street.
After the two minutes were up, Xena and Marcus moved to face each other again. Gabrielle gave the start command and they closed. This time, when the policeman opened with a combination straight punch and front kick, Xena sidestepped his attacks and struck a pair of nerves on the sides of his knee, then stayed close as he dropped to the floor with his supporting leg useless. Before he was down, the warrior snapped a fist upward towards a target at the bottom of Marcus' sternum, careful to make only light contact. Her movement was almost too fast to see. The policeman's face had shown surprise rather than pain, his concentration completely focused on his dysfunctional leg. Xena's attacked had rendered it numb; he simply couldn't use it.
"I've got more options," Xena told him as she knelt beside him, "and this technique is actually used for medical treatment, to remove pain. It's not originally taught as an attack, but it's still effective in combat as an incapacitating diversion. The killin' blow was directed at your xiphoid process. Ya didn't even see it."
She released the nerve pinch on Marcus' leg and helped him to his feet. He found that it tingled as if recovering from being asleep. "Where did you learn that?" he asked.
"A Celtish woman from Gallia?France?taught me a long time ago," she replied with a smile.
By the wall, Alexander Williams filed her comment away for later. No one in America referred to France as Gaul anymore, at least as a first choice, and no one had referred to Gaul as Gallia as a first choice for probably hundreds of years. Along with the references to "armor" and more "recent" Chinese systems, (all hundreds of years old), that had "developed later"; he was beginning to sense a mystery afoot. It wasn't initially the suspicious mind of a policeman at work. The need to solve puzzles was what had led him to become a cop years before.
When his turn came, he faced Gabrielle. For three minutes he honestly thought he'd fought her to a draw. After the two-minute rest, Xena commanded "begin", and they re-engaged. Before he could attack, the blonde immediately tapped him on the sides of the neck with her fingertips and withdrew. He was baffled by her technique and shocked at the speed she'd used. He gave Xena a questioning glance.
"Ya got about twenty seconds left, Alexander," the warrior informed him.
He'd checked the clock and it showed over two and a half minutes remaining. In twenty-seven years of studying the fighting arts, Alex Williams had never seen such a technique. He was intensely curious.
"I'm afraid I really don't understand that attack, Gabriella," he finally said, while checking his neck. "Please explain to me what you just did."
"If I'd applied that technique with force, it would have stopped the blood flow in the carotid arteries," she told him, "and a person will typically live about half a minute unless the nerve paralysis is released. It's almost immediately incapacitating."
"Okay," he doubtfully agreed, "in Shime waza techniques, those same arteries are constricted to cause unconsciousness, but it's not considered a nerve attack. I've never heard of it being done with a strike. Is it a kind of Dim Mak?"
"Shime waza are submission choke holds. This is a reversible but lethal attack based on a nerve pinch. The effects aren't that similar and the techniques have almost nothing in common. Umm?I guess you could say the Dim Mak derives from it."
"Someday, you must teach me this," Alex said, "it's been years since I've learned a new technique that I've never even heard of, or suspected was possible. I'm intrigued."
In their next class, the students had been introduced to a system of meditation. Xena had them sit cross-legged in the lotus position, in a circle on the floor.
"I want you to try for a state of emptines," Xena requested. "This may be familiar to some of ya who've studied meditation in the past. Usually you're asked to begin by concentrating on your breathin', while attemptin' to silence any internal dialog. It can take years to be able to achieve such a state at will. That's where most systems stop. For us, it's just the beginning."
They spent the first hour sitting on the floor, in silence, in the dark. All eight people had been focused on an imaginary spot several feet ahead, but the room was pitch black. Near the end of the hour, Gabrielle silently got to her feet and moved away to the weapons rack. No one else had moved. After a few moments, there was a soft sound of something stretching, then a twang, and a hiss that was abruptly arrested. She turned the lights on a moment later.
Near the door, Gabrielle was holding a bow. In the center of the group across the room, Xena was holding the arrow. Someone gasped. Her eyes were still closed. They flicked open, revealing sharply focused blue, and they were staring directly at Gabrielle.
"I want ya to continue to try for that state of emptiness every chance ya get," Xena softly told them. "Once you can achieve it at will, you'll be able to focus on any threat, any attack, any danger. You will sense it and react faster than all the physical training I can give ya, 'cause your own senses won't slow ya down. Your brain won't need to make decisions usin' information from your eyes or ears. Darkness won't matter. An enemy can't surprise you. How many of ya were surprised that I caught the arrow?"
All the students raised their hands.
"And how many of ya were surprised that Gabriella could aim it at me?"
No one moved. They were trying to imagine just what had been required to cross the room and aim at one of seven people in the dark. An error could have sent the shaft at any one of them, causing a tragedy. More likely still would have been for the shot to go off target, ending up in a wall somewhere. It implied not only an unbeatable defense, but also an unerring attack.
"Are you telling me that she got up, armed herself, crossed the room, and fired on a target while in a transcendental state?" Alexander Williams asked in disbelief.
"I'm tellin' ya that she exists in that state at will," Xena answered. "That's why we can spar with weapons at combat speed without danger. We could even do that in the dark."
"Listen to the sounds behind the sounds?"
"That'd drive ya crazy, and then you'd be ready to be in this TV show," cloned Xena commented. The soulmates were watching the first half of the series finale of Xena Warrior Princess. "If I ever tell ya somethin' like that, I hope you'll know I'm kiddin'."
"If you ever try to tell me to do something like that I'll kill you myself," the cloned bard laughingly told her, "and while I'm sure they meant it metaphorically, it's like one of those Ch'an koan things I've been reading about?a riddle with no answer."
"You and I both know that no conscious sense will reveal things like they're showing them. The only way is to enter a transcendental state. Then ya become receptive. Besides, no one can hide five armies in that little space. You'd have to be blind not to notice all the disturbed birds flyin' outta the trees. Then there's all the noise they'd make?the dust they'd raise. By Cupid's balls, ya'd probably even smell 'em comin' a league off."
Gabrielle changed the subject and asked, "Xena, what did you think of them putting out that fire in Higuchi? That's the scene we saw them filming in New Zealand."
"Looked like fun, but they didn't have anywhere near enough water."
They continued watching as the show played on.
"Well, this is the most twisted thing I've seen yet," Gabrielle commented during a commercial break. Xena and Harugata had just finished their chat on the battlements. "It's pretty obvious they're going to kill off your character, my love. It's the only way she'll be able to defeat the shade of Yodoshi."
The show resumed with the soulmates meeting in the meditation room in the castle.
"Will ya look at that costume," Xena exclaimed in amazement, "yup, she's out to get herself killed alright. Might as well just go out naked."
"Oh my gods, they left it until now for you to teach me the nerve pinch?" It was Gabrielle's turn to be amazed. "You taught me that when we fought Callisto, during the second year we traveled together." After a pause she continued, misty eyed. "I did like that line about, 'if I only had thirty seconds to live?', that was sweet."
"Sickeningly so," the cloned warrior mumbled, having always been less receptive to saccharine sentimentality in dramas, "not that I wouldn't have meant it in that situation." She winked at her partner. "Of course in that situation, I probably woulda killed Harugata and let him fight it out with Yodoshi."
After two months the students had made better than expected progress. Xena and Gabrielle were elated with their advances. At the end of July, Marcus Lewis had flown to Atlanta, Ga., to participate in a full contact, open tournament. He'd fought his way to first place in his weight division and then placed second overall. Along the way, he'd defeated fighters with higher rankings and twice his years of experience. The previous March, at a tournament in Miami, he'd placed third in his weight class, his best finish at that time. He was glowing when he returned.
"There was a time in my third contest when I felt something I'd never felt before," Marcus had told his teachers, "and I sensed my opponent's intentions before he moved. He advanced behind a straight punch, but I was already turning sideways into a horse stance and I caught him with a sun-fist punch to the sternum. I had moved before he did and he literally ran into the blow."
The clones had smiled, knowing that at least one of their students had absorbed a pivotal lesson.
"You found a state of perception based on the meditation techniques you've learned," Gabrielle told him, "and that's the most important technical skill we can teach you. I'll bet your opponent's forward movement doubled the power of your strike. A normal blow can become incapacitating, a focused strike deadly."
"If you're ever forced into mortal hand to hand combat," Xena added, "this skill will probably save your life, Marcus. Against multiple opponents, it's a necessity."
The advice was prophetic. In just over a month, it would save hundreds of lives.
"I'm flying up to Newark tomorrow to visit my cousin and her family for a long weekend," Marcus told Xena over the phone on Thursday night, "and on Tuesday I'll be flying to that big tournament in San Francisco. Wish me luck, Serena."
"Marcus, I'm sure you'll do great," Xena told her student, "you've made exceptional progress these last three months and ya had a breakthrough in your last tournament. I'm sure you'll do even better this time, but whatever ya do, we'll be proud of you. An old ally once told me that, 'To conquer others is to have power. To conquer yourself is to know the way'. Ya see, beyond winnin' there's livin'."
Sometime in the last few months it had become true again for the cloned warrior. Though she still felt a profound sense of displacement and doubted if she'd ever truly be comfortable in the 21st century, she realized that her faith in mankind had been renewed. This time and place were far removed from what her memories recalled that she'd grown up with. The modern world was a much different place than the world in which she'd fought and lived so long ago. And yet?
The hopes and dreams of people, for happiness and peace, and for the opportunity to work to make their dreams come true, were still familiar and common currency among mortals. Though evil had found new guises and new goals, still it was something that could be fought. Not only by heroes, but also by everyday people through each responsible act and each gesture of caring and kindness. She and her soulmate had been shown kindness by Ray and Lynn, Allen and Angie, and the aged Dr. Covington. She had been inspired by the aspirations realized in the airplanes and the space shuttle. Now, she was sharing her hard won knowledge with her students. And she realized that her wisdom was the result of things passed on to her over two millennia ago. It was a legacy of hope that transcended the passage of time and the changes of culture. Like her bond with Gabrielle, it transcended the mortal world and partook of a higher spirit.
"Ladies and gentlemen, your attention please, Untied Airlines flight 93, departing at 8:40 am for San Francisco, is now ready for boarding. Please have your boarding passes and tickets ready. Thank you."
"That's my flight, coz."
"It's been wonderful seeing you, Marcus, try to get up north here more often."
"I've had a wonderful time these last few days, Alisha. Wish Anthony and little Terrance my best. I'm sorry I had to get you up so early, and I can't thank you enough for dropping me off here?I know how you hate airport traffic."
"Honey, I'm going right back to sleep as soon as I get home. Don't you worry. Now have a safe flight and knock 'em dead in San Francisco."
"I love you coz."
"Love you too, Marcus."
"Here's what we know as of right now. At 8:45 am, a hijacked American Airlines Boeing 767 struck 1 World Trade Center?that's the north tower. That plane has been identified as Flight 11 from Boston, bound for Los Angeles. Then, at 9:03 am, a second hijacked airplane, believed to be United Airlines Flight 175, also a Boeing 767 out of Boston, struck the south tower, 2 World Trade Center. Both towers are burning and plumes of smoke are trailing southeastwards as response teams, police, firefighters, and emergency medical crews, make a valiant effort to evacuate and aid the injured. Then, just 20 minutes ago, at 9:40 am, a third plane slammed into the Pentagon. The identity and origin of that plane is uncertain at this time, but unconfirmed reports claim that it was American Airlines Flight 77 from Dulles International Airport. If so, then there were 65 persons aboard and?what? (Oh, god, no?).
Ladies and gentlemen, we have just received a report stating that only moments ago, World Trade Center Tower #2, that's the south tower, the second tower struck, has collapsed. This is absolutely tragic. Let me repeat, the south tower of the World Trade Center has collapsed and?just a moment please, I have another report coming in?.
(Another hijacked plane? Yes, I've got that). I have just gotten word that a fourth hijacked airplane has gone down. This plane has been tentatively identified as Untied Airlines Flight 93, a Boeing 757 out of Newark International Airport, bound for San Francisco with 45 aboard. It has been reported down in rural Stony Creek Township outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and?(What? You're kidding?). Ladies and gentlemen, it is believed that this plane was en route to a target in Washington, D.C., but was intentionally crashed when the passengers and crew fought the terrorists who had skyjacked their plane. This is unconfirmed at present, but is based on reports of cell phone communications with onboard passengers before the crash."
"Turn it off, Gabrielle. I've heard all I can take of this. Marcus was on that plane."
The ringing of blades resounded in an almost constant clash of steel against steel that went on and on and on. The blows were struck and met at a rate of more than one per second. For the first time in their reborn lives, the soulmates fought with the fury that they had once unleashed against their enemies two thousand years before. This was no sparring match. That they fought each other was the only reason that no piles of bodies lay at their feet, for in this time, no living warrior fought with such weapons at their level. No living warrior had vanquished the numbers of enemies they had, spilling their blood face to face. Now they held back nothing. Xena wielded a freshly forged broadsword patterned on the one she'd carried for decades in her war against Julius Caesar. With her left hand she parried with the Combined Chakram, a weapon now close to three thousand years old. Gabrielle met her fury with virgin blades patterned after those once carried by the Greek Amazons, bearing one in each hand as she had used them in battle so long ago. They were her trademark skeletonized short swords. Their unique whistling as they sliced through the air had once struck fear into the hearts of soldiers from Germania to Thrace. It was the only catharsis they knew.
The death of their student, Columbia Municipal Police Officer Marcus Lewis, was confirmed. His cousin Alisha had seen him board the plane at Newark International Airport, and there were no survivors. But beyond the loss of another friend was the impact of the monstrosity of the evil that had been unleashed. The best estimates of casualties were one thousand dead at the Pentagon in Virginia, and up to twenty thousand in New York's World Trade Center. Though later figures were, thankfully, much lower, still on that day, the deaths of so many had overwhelmed the clones with anger. It was equal to the number of dead at Teutoburg Forest, where two Roman legions had been slaughtered by Germanic clansmen. It was greater than the Roman losses to Hannibal at Trebbia, or at Lake Trasimeno. But these modern dead had been civilians not soldiers, and still it wasn't without precedent. It was a quarter of the immediate death toll at Hiroshima. And so they fought.
For ten minutes, Alexander Williams watched from the doorway, standing alone and unnoticed in his uniform; bereft of his partner and friend. The two women had been fighting full out since before he'd arrived, and they displayed no signs of fatigue or loss of concentration. They showed no intention of slowing down or stopping either. He knew better than to approach them or interrupt. Finally he walked away, returning to a patrol that he had no heart for.
In all his years he had never witnessed the relentless savagery and passionate mastery he'd just seen. He'd never even known it could exist. Even on that first day, when he and his partner Marcus Lewis had stumbled upon the newly opened school, the two women hadn't fought with this intensity. In all his years in the martial arts, this was the first time he'd seen the ancient weapons used in a way that communicated how utterly terrifying the battles of the distant past must have been. He realized that what was studied and taught in the modern schools was but a fading ghost; the pale imitation of the killing craft, as it had been practiced when life and death hung in the balance, and survival and victory rested on one's skill at arms. Along with certain words he'd heard and certain techniques he'd seen, he realized that his teachers weren't just some talented martial artists. They were warriors whose hearts, at the very least, were centuries out of place. Certainly they were the deadliest people he'd ever known. But they were more than the spirits of bloodthirsty ancient warriors, somehow living in the modern world, for they fought from their hearts. He'd seen the tears staining their cheeks, trailing down from grim eyes set in merciless faces that would freeze an enemy's blood. That was the core of what had inspired the terror in ancient warfare. The fighting became personal, and the killing was conducted face to face. It was a good thing that he had walked away when he did.
Eight feet from where the clones fought, a flash of blue light flared, bringing into their presence the person of the God of War. For a moment, Ares watched his ancient Favorite and her partner, dueling with an intensity that he'd missed since his liberation from the tomb. But it was only for a moment. The clones broke apart, and then Xena was charging him, her broadsword already moving to take off his head. Even with his divine speed, he was barely quick enough to catch her blade as it whipped towards his neck. For a moment they contested in strength, and then the warrior relaxed her pressure on the sword and Ares released it from his grip.
"Why?" Her one word question carried both condemnation and a demand for understanding. Behind her Gabrielle's eyes were drilling holes into him as her fists clenched the grips of her swords so hard that the blades trembled.
"Because mankind makes its own destiny now, and the souls of mortals hold the capacity to righteously embrace great evil. For the human heart, any truth is sacred when that heart can rationalize its desires as necessities, or act without compassion against those whom it considers less than human. It has always been so and you both, more than any others now living, know it to be true. I will concede that the attacks were surprisingly unforeseen. They were cleverly planned and executed, against valuable and undefended targets, to undermine morale. They were successful. In some ways these attacks would have appealed to the dispassionate aspects of warfare once presided over by my sister, Athena. Do you understand the roots of the discord that once existed between she and I?"
Ares looked them in the eyes one at a time. It was obvious that today he was not the mirthful God of War they had met in New Zealand. Today he was not reveling in the bloodshed; if anything, he was angered by it.
"Two thousand years ago I was the patron of soldiers and battle was my concern," Ares stated, "but what fed me was the glory, the mastery, and the heroism that war brought out in mortals. The struggle demanded the best of a warrior, and at times offered a taste of something higher than mortal existence could provide. Through courage and discipline, a fighter might transcend even death and live forever in the memories of his peers. War was the means to that end. What was done yesterday did not honor the Way of the Warrior or the Spirit of Battle. It was savagery without heroism, brutality without glory, and slaughter without victory. The attacks did not fall within my old domain. To me, it was not warfare. It was murder." He sighed, for a moment appearing to be tired of it all.
"Ya know, the longer I live in this time, the more I'm seein' that freedom of choice is wasted on mankind," Xena spat. "People have just taken it 'n used it to justify their insanity 'n hate. Evil has grown outta control, 'n with the weapons they've got now, things look pretty hopeless to me. They'd almost be better off with the Olympian gods still runnin' the show."
"I wouldn't go that far," Gabrielle commented, "but this world is much worse than the place we came from. In spite of all the modern advances of this time, I'd prefer fighting Caesar's Rome to fighting in this insane world. We don't belong here."
What had once fallen under the auspices of known gods had become the province of mortals, and they had no such domains or scruples, their acts too often ruled by desire and ambition alone. Unlike the gods, those mortals who now wielded power had too much to gain and lose; they were too invested, too close to the conflict. Worse, the range of modern options led to tragic unpredictability and catastrophic possibilities.
The God of War regarded them in silence for a few moments. He remembered the Athenians of King Theseus. In 1,247 BC, though terrified by the confederation of eastern armies and the mastery of the Scythians and Themiscyra Amazons, the Athenians had still defended his sister's city though their defeat seemed certain. They could have fled, but they had chosen to fight because they'd believed in the new form of government their polis had instituted?democracy. He remembered the defense at the narrows of Trachis, over 750 years later. There 300 Lakedaemonian's and their allies had held back an army of two million Persians, buying time with their blood?time for the naval victory at Salamis, and finally the land victory at Plataea that had allowed Greece to remain free. It had been centuries before Xena and Gabrielle's time, but some things did not change. A cause without courage to support it would die. Yet courage without a cause was wasted.
"It's ironic that I have to be the little ray of sunshine," Ares humorlessly said, "but heroism isn't completely dead. Your friend Marcus and the passengers on that plane chose to fight the hijackers rather than let them carry out their plan. They're heroes as much as any of the warriors from your time were, and anyway, you're stuck here. Sorry."
"Well, isn't that just our luck," Gabrielle replied.
"Look," the God of War resumed, "if anything, the good and evil of this time are more intense and more extreme than in your time. I mean, look around; everything's exaggerated here. But the battle is still on. What you're doing with this school is good, training warriors to fight, but they're all civilians. Marcus being on that plane was just a fluke. It's really up to you two, but this is like teaching boxing in the Temple of Ilithyia."
While the clones were still registering Ares' taunt, the blue lightening flashed again and the God of War disappeared. After he was gone, the warrior and bard regarded his words with a renewed and growing determination. They'd spent most of their original lives fighting and the battle was still on, two thousand years later. The Goddess of Childbirth had no use for boxers. The blonde sighed.
"Xena, I'm going to San Francisco," Gabrielle solemnly told her soulmate, "I'm going to honor Marcus' memory." Their student had deserved a chance to compete.
"Um hum." Xena absently responded. She was beginning to develop a plan of her own.
Forty-five minutes later, having showered and dressed in their street clothes, the soulmates sat in the Rosewood Dairy Bar. They were both still feeling morose, but the fighting had taken the edge off of their deadly rage and left them needing ice cream. Cloned Gabrielle was digging into a hot fudge cake with peach ice cream, butterscotch sauce, whipped cream, cherries, peanuts, and sprinkles. (The waitress had grimaced at the choice, but the brunette had glared at her, daring her to say anything).
"I think this is one of the few good things mankind has come up with since our time," the blonde declared. She moaned with pleasure as the cold ice cream and hot sticky sauce melded together on her tongue.
"You're probably right," Xena agreed, as she worked on demolishing a banana split. She was still distracted, but she'd noticed a girl who'd come in a few minutes before with what appeared to be her younger brother. The girl was staring at them over an ice cream cone. The warrior realized that it annoyed her more than the simple lack of consideration merited, but she'd been on edge since the news report the morning before. Finally she turned and stared back at the girl, catching her and pinning her with a steady glare. Her upper lip curled in what might have been a sneer.
"So do ya want somethin' or are ya just jealous 'cause ya gotta stick with that cone 'n yer 'lil brother?" Hearing her words, Gabrielle looked up from her feast, wondering what had set her partner off. She followed Xena's line of sight to the girl, who looked like she'd been frozen in mid-lick.
"S'rena," she whispered with her mouth half full, "she's probably only 10 and you're scaring her out of her wits. Now stop it." Xena slowly turned away from the girl to face her partner.
"Ya know I never liked bein' stared at while I'm eatin'," she said, though with a trace of self-consciousness. After taking another bite of banana, she added a more contrite, "she's been staring at us since she came in. It was gettin' on my nerves?and ya got whipped cream on your nose."
Gabrielle went cross-eyed trying to check for the whipped cream, bringing a chuckle from the cloned warrior. She reached over and gently wiped the bit of topping off the tip of her soulmate's nose and lasciviously licked it off of her finger while letting her eyes slip closed with a moan.
"Ewwwwwww!!!" The girl's shrill voice shrieked, "sooooooo gross!"
The clones both whipped around to face her. She was pointing at them, so absorbed in her reaction that she'd absentmindedly put her own ice cream cone down in her lap. She continued, "You licked that stuff off her nose!!! Icky!"
"Did not!" Xena indignantly replied. "I wiped it off her nose and licked my finger?big difference."
"It's soooo not," the girl reasoned, "and I watched your show every week. Oh yuck!"
The clones looked at each other for a moment as what the girl meant sunk in. Both of them groaned. They'd been wrongly unmasked as the Warrior Princess and the Battling Bard of TV fame. The girl wasn't through either.
"You're supposed to be my heroes, and?and I never believed you actually were, uhhhh, well, you know?." Her eyes had grown wide and round.
"Well, huh?" Gabrielle muttered as Xena shook her head and covered her face with a hand. "Were what?" She asked the girl.
"Lez-beans," her little brother supplied, his eight-year-old sagacity filling in the gap in the conversation as his sister sat staring at the women in fascinated horror.
"That's it!" Xena growled, "C'mon, we're outta here!" She'd leapt to her feet and threw her fork on the table as Gabrielle spooned up a last mouthful of her fudge cake and reluctantly stood. "Ya got ice cream in yer crotch," Xena spat back at the girl, eyeing the ice cream cone in her lap, "or are ya just sticky cause yer happy to see me?"
Moments later in the parking lot, Gabrielle had burst into a fit of laughter.
"What? Ya think that brat was funny?" The cloned warrior had asked in annoyance.
Between choked cackles, the cloned bard had managed to sputter, "Ya got ice cream in your crotch or are ya just sticky because you're happy to see me? (Heehee) Oh gods, Xena. Guess she's going to be a Buffy fan from now on, huh?"
"Jus' get in the car,"* Xena had grumped. The blonde had giggled intermittently all the way home while Xena had chirped the tires at every opportunity.
(*Where to begin?Xena and Gabrielle had received driver's licenses with the identity documents procured by Janice Covington, but that didn't mean they knew how to drive. They had taken the aged professor's advice and signed up for instruction at the Columbia Driving School. Gabrielle had adapted reasonably well to the controls, once she'd overcome her initial uneasiness about the concept of controlling a mindless machine. It wasn't at all the same as riding a horse. For one thing, she couldn't bribe it with an apple or the promise of a good rubdown. Xena had displayed both an inherent aptitude for driving, as well as a flagrant disregard for driving conventions. She'd terrified the kid who'd been assigned by the school as her instructor, guiding the car over curbs, speeding in reverse, crossing medians, misleading her "enemies" with her turn signals, and intimidating oncoming traffic whenever advantageous. Xena did these things with a maniacal glee, simply because she could. As always, her control was uncanny. She didn't take well to criticism either, rendering the kid petrified with a few glares and growls. He'd passed her just to get out of her presence as quickly as possible, but Xena had picked up enough to convincingly "fake it" while in traffic. Mostly her knowledge had come from observing the other drivers on the streets around her. In any case, neither clone would have to take a practical driving exam for some time). ~Editor
But later on, Xena was still disturbed about the incident. Feeling that she hadn't lived up to the heroic image that a TV show she didn't even like had created for her was conflicting at best. Stupid as it was, and ignorant as the girl's attitude had been, the idea of having failed as a hero didn't sit well with the cloned Warrior Princess. So while Gabrielle had been making her airplane reservations for the flight to San Francisco, Xena had wandered out into the back yard. For a while she simply stood under the deep green leaves of a star magnolia, thinking. Finally she nodded to herself, having made up her mind. She was still a god's mortal Chosen.
"Ares, God of War, show yourself," Xena called out. Her summons was answered by the familiar blue flash, and for the second time that day, the Patron of Warriors appeared.
"Thought I might be hearing from you sometime soon," he began, this time with a self-satisfied smile. Xena scowled, still hating to be predictable. Ares' smile graduated into a chuckle, which the Warrior Princess regarded with a raised eyebrow. "Is that ice cream in your crotch or are ya just sticky 'cause you're happy to see me?" He chortled.
Xena groaned and shook her head. "Ares," she began, "much as I hate to admit it, you were right earlier. If I'm gonna train warriors, they gotta be able to make a difference. So who'd ya say are the best of the best in this country?"
The God of War stood silent a moment, thinking seriously about her question. Despite all the mediocrity in the modern world, there had seldom been as many elite warriors who were as well trained and equipped as there were in the early 21st century. He realized that it really depended on what goals Xena hoped for.
"Well, you've got your SWAT teams in just about every major police department in the country. Then there are the elite military counter-terrorism units and special assault teams?like the Navy SEALS and the Delta Force. There's the Federal strike teams, FBI, DEA, BATF, even the spooks in the CIA. Some of the best, maybe the best, are the FBI's HRT?the Hostage Rescue Team." And then there was a group he'd sensed that even he wasn't about to name. He gave her an appraising glance. "Or maybe you could start your own outfit?do it your way." He trailed off when she gave him a sour look. "Ok, no personal army this time around?I got it."
"What's that Hostage Rescue Team about, and where do they operate from?" She remembered rescuing a few hostages in her time, including one in particular who had changed her whole life. It still seemed like a worthy cause to her.
The God of War greeted his Favorite's question with a smile.
"Ladies and gentlemen, on behalf of the University of San Francisco, and the staff of the War Memorial Gymnasium, I would like to welcome you to the 23rd National Open Full Contact Martial Arts Championships. Qualifying rounds have been completed and the first elimination round will begin shortly. The organizers and sponsors would like to wish the best of luck to all the contestants, and we hope that those of you in the audience will enjoy this demonstration of the skills of the best martial artists in this country."
On the mat covered floor of the Gymnasium's basketball court, the contestants and referees, coaches and judges, contest production assistants and medical attendants, all listened to the opening address of welcome as it reverberated from the loudspeakers of the public address system. Then, at a call from the officials, they turned their attention to the head referee. Gabrielle joined them in receiving their final review of the rules.
"This is a full contact tournament. Each match will consist of three rounds of three minutes each. There will be a two-minute rest between rounds. You may win by knockout, by demonstrating clear superiority by forcing your opponent to capitulate, or by scoring points. One point will be awarded for each clear contact of aggression noted by the judges. The point total at the end of the third round will decide the match. As always, in each round, stepping outside the mat's boundaries will result in a first warning. A second warning carries the loss of a point. The third warning will result in disqualification and forfeiture of the match. Are there any questions?"
The sixty-four qualifying contestants had listened to the words of the head referee and not a single one spoke. All but one of them had been through this many times before. To the one who hadn't, the rules didn't make any difference.
The short blonde was a stranger to the organizers and the other contestants, and had appeared alone at the sign-in desk at the last moment. She'd paid the entrance fee with a handful of crumpled bills, presented a driver's license for identification, and then qualified with ease. The unknown fighter had defeated three opponents without having a point scored against her. Those matches had been short and decisive, each ending within the first round. Now Gabriella Covington was regarded as a dark horse, an enigmatic fighter, whose style, affiliations, and origins were largely a mystery. Her registration papers listed the Columbia School of Martial Science, an unaccredited dojo that no one had ever heard of. She'd named no teacher or style. She claimed no rank. She had never been a contestant in a regional or national tournament, and she held no membership in any martial arts association or federation. Even more unusual was the fact that she wore no protective gear of any kind. While waiting between matches, she was relaxed and courteous to those who spoke to her, but beneath the tranquil waters of her demeanor they could sense forged and tempered steel. She had quickly knocked out all three of the fighters who had tried to qualify against her.
After the head referee's instructions, the contestants were divided into four groups. Each followed their referees and judges to one of the four sections of mats that had been placed atop the polished wooden floor of the basketball court. The first three rounds of elimination would take place with four bouts running simultaneously. The quarter-, semi-, and final rounds would be held after a single set of mats had been moved to the center of the gymnasium.
It was a well-organized and smoothly run tournament. Within ten minutes of their arrival at the mat, the first pair of contestants was fighting the first round of their match.
Gabrielle watched from the sidelines with the other 13 fighters in her group. Though both of the women on the mat held black belts and had years of experience, they fought like mid-level students to her eyes. They seemed evenly matched and neither did anything her opponent wasn't familiar with. Scoring points was almost a matter of luck, the clone thought. After watching the first round, Gabrielle checked the action on the other mats, and then, having seen nothing of interest, let her mind wander.
You would have done great here, Marcus, she thought. I haven't seen a fighter yet who can sense their opponent's intentions. There's no inspiration here?just sweat and focused power. These contestants would have been blade fodder in my time. Plus, they separate the women and men and I'm used to fighting both indiscriminately. It's not really much of a challenge compared to what Xena and I knew. But I'm going to win this for you, though you'd have been fighting tomorrow in the men's division. You should have been here instead of me.
"Gabriella Covington?Carol Birch, you're up," the referee called.
Gabrielle realized that the first match had ended while she'd been immersed in her thoughts. She rose to her feet and glanced at her opponent. Carol Birch was a tall, fit brunette in a white gi, the obligatory black belt tied around her waist. Over her left breast, a patch with the words, "South Chicago - Shotokan", surrounding a stylized tiger in gold on black adorned her uniform. The karateka wore headgear and a pair of hand guards that left her palms bare. She adjusted her mouth guard, gave Gabrielle an appraising look, and then walked to the center of the mat where the referee tied a red sash through her belt. Gabrielle moved to take her place on a mark facing her.
The contestants bowed to the referee then bowed to each other. The referee took her place between them, checked the judges briefly and then chopped her hand down.
"Begin," she commanded, and quickly withdrew a short distance away.
Birch moved forward, intending to pressure Gabrielle by attacking immediately, hoping that her smaller opponent would hesitate, but it was futile. With the formality of the contest, no one could really launch a surprise attack. No one could, for example, leap into your campsite wielding a spear while you lay asleep in your bedroll, fire an arrow at you while you were eating supper, or attack with a sword while you were squatting in the bushes. Gabrielle read her opponent's intentions as the black belt shifted her weight forward to take her first step. There was no uncertainty in her response. The blonde slid her left foot forward to close the distance by widening her stance, and then she rotated her body from the hips, driving her right shoulder and arm forward in a straight punch. Maintaining the looseness in her shoulder gave the blow speed and snap, and Birch, still in mid-stride, practically impaled herself on Gabrielle's right fist. The impact knocked the wind out of her, and she keeled over, falling onto her side.
"Break," the referee commanded. Gabrielle relaxed and returned to her starting mark.
It was a textbook application of the most basic technique, but for it to work, there could be no hesitation. Executing it in a match required lightning speed and an uncanny sense of the opponent's intentions. In her memories, the cloned bard saw herself using the same technique against enemies lunging at her with swords, though often back then, she'd been driving the butt end of a sai into their bellies. The two judges raised their white flags.
"Point, white?reverse punch," the referee declared.
With a groan, Birch struggled to her feet taking several deep breaths. Gabrielle could understand the nausea and pain that accompanied a strong blow to the solar plexus. It was?distracting. Time to finish this, the cloned bard thought as the women took their ready positions, in a real battle she'd already be dead. The referee checked Birch's condition, received a nod in response to her questioning glance, and again commanded "begin".
This time Gabrielle was in motion even as the ref's hand finished it's descent. The blonde took one skip-step forward and then she was twisting as she launched her body into the air. The rotation was fast. Her head snapped around to verify the target, and as the revolution brought her torso around to face her opponent again, her leg lashed out, delivering an aerial spinning back kick to the side of Birch's head. The momentum of the follow through carried Gabrielle back to a landing in a perfect front stance, while the imparted force of the kick sent her opponent's body cartwheeling off her feet. She landed hard, two yards away near the margin of the mats, splayed out, face down, and dazed.
"Break," the referee commanded, insuring that Gabrielle would stay away and allow her opponent to recover. The judges held up their white flags. "Point, white?flying spinning back kick," the ref announced.
Birch was slowly shaking her head, but hadn't risen to her feet. The ref knelt by her side and asked her if she knew where she was. She didn't respond except with a delayed and stupefied look. Her gaze swept across the area, obviously disoriented. The ref stilled Birch's head by cupping her chin with a palm, and checked the condition of her eyes. Finally she nodded to herself as if satisfied with what she'd seen and stood back up, moving to take her position in the center of the mat. She nodded once to Gabrielle, who stood waiting at attention on her starting mark.
"I am stopping this match," the referee announced. "Red is unable to continue. White is the winner by technical knockout." Birch was just beginning to struggle to her feet, but crashed back down onto her hands and knees.
Gabrielle, the referee, and the judges traded bows, and then the cloned bard left the mat breathing an unconscious sigh of relief. In a combat situation, the blonde might have had to finish Birch off, and though she'd done it countless times, killing a dazed and helpless enemy had never felt good to her. Across the mat, two medical attendants and Carol Birch's coach had converged on the fallen fighter. They were preparing to slide her onto a stretcher, but she managed to stagger to her feet and lurch off towards the locker room while being supported by her coach. Without the headgear, she'd probably have been unconscious. Gabrielle sat watching from the sidelines. Eventually she'll be fine, the clone thought, allowing herself a second sigh of relief.
The next six matches of the first round were finished over the following hour, but Gabrielle had retired to the Gymnasium's entrance hallway. She'd intended to call her soulmate and report on her first modern tournament experience. After searching out a payphone, the blonde had fed her coins in and dialed an impressive string of numbers, but no one answered at their home. She'd called the school with the same lack of results.
Damn it, where is she, the cloned bard asked herself. She realized that it was already noon "back east", and Xena always got up early. With a sigh, she hung up the phone, dug her quarters out of the change return, and wandered over to a concession stand. She ended up settling for another of the sausages on a soft roll. After adding a dab of every available sauce, (which made the girl running the counter grimace), it tasted exactly like the ones she'd had in the Puddingstone State Recreation Area. She washed it down with a can of Pepsi. All the while, she was thinking.
The cloned warrior was up to something; Gabrielle could feel it in her bones. It was also the only real explanation for her not being right here in San Francisco with her now. Xena had begged off on the trip, and her excuse of needing to stay in Columbia to teach their Thursday night class was weak at best. We're getting an answering machine and some of those cellulite phones as soon as I get home, she swore.
As she made her way back toward the gymnasium, she happened to look out through the glass doors. The traffic on Golden Gate Ave. flowed by like a column of fire ants in the early afternoon sun. A yellow Mini Cooper zipped past, dancing and weaving like a boxer. The tiny car narrowly dodged a terrified pedestrian. The incident caught the bard's attention because the driver, a woman wearing a black battle dress uniform, had been clumsily struggling to reach an ice chest on the rear seat. She'd been paying absolutely no attention to the road. For a brief moment, Gabrielle had been able to see right into the passenger's side of the car. Why, that's a wolverine wearing a fedora, she'd thought in amazement. In the car's wake, an empty longneck Budweiser bottle had flipped out of a window and shattered on the road. Incredibly irresponsible behavior, the bard fumed. The car's license plates had read "Lizzie", and the blonde had half a mind to call in a complaint to the local militia.
Xena had always been a morning person. Today the Warrior Princess had begun her mission at first light. She'd flown to Richmond from Owens Field, rented a late model white Jeep, and then headed north up I-95. Knowing that Gabrielle was fighting in San Francisco that morning; fighting in a "karate tournament", had left the cloned warrior with few worries about her soulmate's well being. The "combat situations" will be so artificially contrived that she really can't lose, Xena had told herself, and after all, I doubt if any of her opponents have spent 28 years fighting life and death struggles with the whole Roman Empire trying to kill them. Furthermore, Gabrielle would only be fighting one person at a time and only women. If they believed what they saw on TV, they'd have a grievously incorrect impression of her partner. Only during a few scenes in the series' last couple seasons had her bard's prowess been accurately portrayed. She was still chuckling every time she thought about it. In reality, the blonde would have beheaded that samurai without a second thought, probably before he'd gotten a single word out of his mouth. Xena had been much more worried about Gabrielle getting on the plane.
The cloned warrior turned her attention back to the blue Ford van moving steadily through traffic a couple of cars ahead of her. She'd picked it up just a few miles north of Richmond, near the I-95 Exit 89 to SR-802, and she'd stayed on its tail ever since. They'd been just where she'd been told they'd be.
"This is a freebie, Xena," Ares had said as he'd pointed out their quarry, "and you owe me nothing for it. If these bastards get the chance, they'll dump 10 lbs. of weaponized botulism toxin into the Washington, D.C. Metro's air circulation system during the evening rush, and they'll turn Metro Center will be a necropolis. In the chaos, they might actually kill someone important. I hate these terrorists. They're really nothing but damn self-righteous anarchists. I'd blast 'em myself, but the air quality would suffer."
He'd been grinding his teeth as he'd pointed to the blue van as it sped by in the northbound lane. Xena had hit the gas, surging out of the rest stop and pushing the Jeep into traffic behind it.
"Have fun," Ares had said as he'd vanished, his flames lightly scorching the upholstery.
Stopping the van would be almost too easy, the cloned Warrior Princess thought. She could have forced it off the road and taken out the three men inside in moments, but that wouldn't have accomplished her purpose. She needed to take them out, but only at the right time and place, because, important as it was to foil their plot, her objective was to initiate a contact with the elite Hostage Rescue Team. Now it was almost 10 am, and they'd passed Fredricksburg twenty minutes ago. Exit 148 was a mile ahead, and finally it was almost the right time to act.
The north and southbound lanes of I-95 parted, leaving a hundred feet of green median between them, while on the right a wooded area sped past. Xena pulled out of the slow lane and accelerated sharply to pass the last car between her Jeep and the van. Blowing by the beige Oldsmobile at 80 mph, she quickly drew abreast of the van and then passed it as well. There were now less than 100 yards before the exit.
With an evil grin, she set a cheap rotating emergency light on her dashboard, and then veered sharply into the right hand lane. Her Jeep had barely cleared the van's front bumper, and she heard the satisfying sound of its brakes screeching and its horn blaring. Xena decelerated, matched the van's speed, and kept edging into the right lane, forcing the van off onto the exit ramp of eastbound Russell Rd. Then she slipped the Jeep in behind the van and turned on the emergency light.
Within the 50 miles surrounding Washington, D.C., there are probably over 100 law enforcement organizations. Few places in the world have such a concentration of departments and bureaus. In the white Jeep, which could easily have been an unmarked police vehicle, the emergency light looked enough like a cop's rotating cherry to panic the van's driver.
The terrorists accelerated away down Russell Rd. with an inaccurate spray of pistol bullets directed out the windows. Xena wove across the lanes behind them, staying right on their tail. Figuring that they were looking at her in their mirrors and out the rear of the van, she held up a pack of Reese's Peanutbutter Cups, miming the actions of speaking into a mobile radio. It seemed to be working brilliantly, she thought, for the van sped up another 15 mph, careening right through Entrance Gate 4 at the southern end of the Quantico Marine Base, at almost 85 mph. At the roadside, a Marine sentry stared after them in amazement. She allowed herself a gleeful cackle, turned on her headlights, and began blinking her high beams at the van. The chase was on and she was loving it.
Russell Rd. began curving to the left. As Catlin Ave. flashed past, Xena noted a Military Police Humvee lurking at the roadside. It was an observation post, set up on the edge of the base, and she slowed down abruptly, coming to a stop alongside the road. The van continued at full speed, a few more pistol bullets spraying from the side windows. The MPs looked at her Jeep, noted the flashing light and the bullet holes in the front end, saw the van with guns hanging out the windows, and finally put two and two together. The Humvee's emergency lights and siren came on and it began to move in pursuit. The cloned warrior thought the MPs were still reacting too hesitantly as they passed her, so to help make up their minds, Xena stuck her arm out the window and frantically waved them after the speeding van. She noticed that the Humvee's interior was bristling with rifle barrels.
200 yards ahead on the left sat a McDonalds. The van shot past it, clipping the rear bumper of a 2 ½-ton truck that was just backing out of the parking lot. With a crash, a sizable piece of sheet metal comprising most of the van's left front fender spun off into a yard by the side of the road. The van gave a heave and a lurch, but with a squealing of tires, it straightened out and sped on. Xena watched the Military Police accelerate after the damaged van. She unwrapped the peanut butter cups and followed them at a more leisurely pace.
Gabrielle had a bad feeling about her upcoming match. It was the semifinals. She'd defeated another three opponents with little difficulty, and so far her worst enemy had been her own hubris. It was getting hard to curb her disdain for the other competitors. Her quarterfinal match had been against a woman who had been introduced as Marine Corps 2nd Lt. Janine Bradshaw, a cocky member of the US Armed Forces Tae Kwon Do team. The tall stocky redhead had actually had the audacity to call the cloned bard "Shorty", as in, "I'm gonna kick your ass, Shorty". The blonde had staggered her with a hard side kick to the chest followed by a flying roundhouse kick to the temple. She'd noted the satisfying sensation of cracking ribs despite her opponent's chest guard. The medics had taken Lt. Bradshaw from the mats on a stretcher, still unconscious. The match had lasted a total of 12 seconds.
"I may be short, but I'm the one still standing," Gabrielle had muttered derisively in her fallen antagonist's direction, adding, "you empty braggart," for good measure.
She'd turned away after the referee's announcement of her 7th knockout to find two of Bradshaw's armed forces teammates glaring at her as she moved to take her seat by the edge of the mats. She'd glared back at them and tried out one of Xena's sneers.
Now the referee was calling her name again. "Gabriella Covington?SSgt. Hudson Lykos," she announced. The blonde stood up and looked over at her competition.
Gabrielle could only shake her head in amazement. This was beyond weird. The Air Force staff sergeant was a slender blonde a hand's width taller than the bard, with elfin features, and cold brown eyes that spoke of madness. The woman studied Gabrielle for a moment and a taunting smile curled her lips. She was all too familiar to the clone. Had it been 44 BC, the woman would have been a life long enemy; one who'd been born in the town of Cirra, in 90 BC. She was a dead ringer for the woman who had once broken her soulmate's back with the Chakram of Night during a fight in the Eternal City of Rome. She had caused their deaths. A growing antipathy began to take possession of Gabrielle's heart.
The blonde clone took a deep breath as she adjusted the jacket of her new uniform.* Now she moved to stand on her mark. This time, the referee tied the red sash through her belt, (the same black one that had been included with the costume.)
(*As a concession to the tournament rules, she'd had to purchase a proper outfit. At the school in Columbia, no one wore a uniform, and so, before leaving South Carolina, she'd gone to a martial arts shop and bought a ninja costume. She liked the hand coverings and the cut of the pants, loose, but snugged with ties at the calves and ankles. Xena had laughed at her choice, but the bard had thought the typical karate uniform fabrics too heavy and the cut too floppy. They left too much for an enemy to grab onto. Besides, she'd reasoned, her uniform came with the right colored belt and she could wear it to any upcoming Halloween parties. She'd actually been even happier when she saw that no other competitor was similarly dressed, though she'd had to forego the hood and face covering.) ~Editor
Opposite her waited SSgt. Hudson Lykos, with a mocking grin on her face. Gabrielle already half-suspected that she was either a descendant or a clone of the very dangerous Callisto. The staff sergeant winked at her in a familiar and flirtatious way. As if sensing something abnormal, the referee looked closely at the two contestants and shook her head before moving into position to start the match. Gabrielle was remembering.
In 71 BC, Callisto had led an army of outlaws in a reign of terror. Simple looting and pillage hadn't satisfied her bloodlust. She'd murdered villagers with glee, crucifying or impaling some, torturing others, and selling the rest into slavery. Even Xena hadn't made the mistake of underestimating her, though she'd been barely 19 at the time. The self-dubbed "Warrior Queen" had been slender and beautiful, but also dangerously insane. Her lithe frame had outstanding flexibility and for years she'd hardened her hands and feet, training with methods that the soulmates had only later seen in the Far East. When they'd first met her in battle, she'd broken Gabrielle's staff with an open handed blow and shattered the arms and legs of defending militiamen. Gabrielle had seen her kill a cavalryman's horse with a kick to the ribs. They'd never fought anyone quicker. In response, Xena had taught her partner the nerve pinch and other deadly techniques, just so she'd have a chance of defending herself. They'd fought Callisto for most of a year, finally dragging her from a pit of quicksand and then standing by until she was incarcerated on Shark Island. She'd already escaped justice once and had managed to kill Gabrielle's cousin, Perdicus. They'd taken no chances of her escaping a second time.
Even locked away for life in the island prison, she'd caused the soulmates trouble. Callisto had spent ten years training an ambitious and merciless warrior named Mavican. When Mavican had escaped Shark Island, (a dry run for Callisto's own escape years later), she'd stalked the soulmates and challenged them for her teacher's vengeance and to enhance her own reputation. That had been in 59 BC. Xena had been 37 at the time, Gabrielle 29. They'd both had young daughters to raise and no patience for the deadly upstart who called herself the "Warrior Queen's Successor". In a short bloody battle just outside the Amazon lands, Gabrielle had slammed a sai through the flesh above Mavican's hip, causing her to bleed to death from a punctured abdominal aorta. She'd lacked Callisto's maniacal intelligence and almost unnatural speed.
In 52 BC, Callisto had escaped from Shark Island Prison. The soulmates had been in the middle of their twelve-year war against Rome, trying to reclaim Xena's kidnapped daughter from Caesar. There'd been no time to hunt down their deadly adversary, and that lapse would become their doom. As if doing them a favor, Callisto had disappeared for eight years. Sometime in those intervening years Callisto had traveled to Asia Minor, located the Temple of the Chakram, and taken possession of the Chakram of Night.
Then in 44 BC it had all ended. A woman fitting Callisto's description had been killing in and around Rome itself. More chilling than the description of the killer had been her techniques. Bone breaking, aerial fighting, nerve point attacks, and mutilation of the victims. They had known her by her crimes more surely than by her appearance.
Xena was 53 now, Gabrielle 45, and they'd only rescued Eve from Caesar's clutches two years before. The aging Warrior Princess had sighed, but her eyes had hardened, and Gabrielle had known what was to come. They would go into the den of their enemies one more time; into Rome itself, though their decimation of 3 cohorts of Praetorian Guards during their rescue of Xena's daughter was still remembered as recent news. Xena was now 1st Enemy of the Imperium and the price on her head was 6 million denarii. An additional 3 million would be paid for the apprehension or death of the blonde bard. Kingdoms had been founded on smaller fortunes. Julius Caesar was obsessed and Callisto was insane. She'd kept the Chakram of Night hidden.
The soulmates had armed themselves and set out for the Eternal City, determined to finally settle with Callisto once and for all. They'd both felt responsibility for the situation. Callisto had begun her life of crime in retaliation for Xena's destruction of Cirra in 78 BC, and Gabrielle had convinced Xena to spare her life and take her to trial for a second time. There'd been enough guilt to go around. All the way to Rome, Xena had chaffed about not letting her enemy sink into the quicksand so many years before. Gabrielle had held her peace, worrying about the stiffness of her soulmate's arthritic hands. Callisto had been 46 and not getting any younger either. The years in prison had been hard on her. It was nearing her last chance for revenge.
The journey to Rome had begun in winter with snow still on the ground in the highlands. The trip had been miserable, the weather wet and cold the whole way. Unwilling to risk being recognized onboard a ship, they'd traveled overland from Thracia, passing with stealth through Macedonia, Illyricum, and the lands north of the Mare Adriaticum, before finally entering Italia. North of Ravenna, Gabrielle had fallen prey to a vicious pneumonia that had delayed them another week and a half. For days she'd been delirious, feverish, and nauseous. A barking cough had persisted and she'd still been short of breath when they'd finally reached Rome in early March. Neither of the soulmates had been at their best by then; Gabrielle still sick, Xena worried, tired, and past her prime. The trip had taken almost two moons and it had drained them.
March 12th, 44 BC. They'd caught up with Callisto and fought her in an alley behind the Temple of Mars Ultor. Though they'd expected a very difficult battle, the soulmates had expected to win. They'd outnumbered Callisto, four blades to two. Gabrielle had been armed with a pair of Amazon short swords, Xena with her broadsword and the Combined Chakram, while Callisto had wielded her broadsword and a parrying dagger almost three hands long. They were all bloodied within minutes, and then Callisto had lost her dagger. Seeing the opening, the soulmates had pressed their attack, driving her back near a wall. It had been a mistake. They should have cut and bled her until she'd weakened. Then Callisto had broken Gabrielle's left arm and cracked three of her ribs with a front kick. It had been the turning point in the battle and the cloned bard's anger grew.
After a furious exchange of sword blows, Xena had thrown her chakram from point blank range, and only Callisto's hypertrophied reflexes had saved her. She'd used a sacrifice maneuver, back flipping away from of the raging Warrior Princess. The Combined Chakram had flown a hairsbreadth above her head as she'd retreated, but Callisto had reached the place where she'd hidden the Chakram of Night before the fight. She'd thrown it against the nearest wall, where it ricocheted once and struck Xena in the back, breaking her spine before the rebounding Combined Chakram clove it in two. Callisto had staggered forward and slammed a palm blow into the injured bard's face, knocking her to the ground and dazing her. Then she'd collected her weapons and Xena's chakram, and ululated the Warrior Princess' war cry. As she'd turned and smiled before walking away to collect the bounties, Gabrielle could already hear the tramping sandals of approaching legionnaires. Three days later, on the Ides of March, the soulmates had been crucified.
The referee called, "begin", and stepped away.
Her opponent asked, "so, was the cross comfortable? Did you enjoy your ten minutes of fame? I remember that you both looked so pathetic up there?especially Xena, already dead from the waist down." Staff Sergeant Hudson Lykos giggled.
Now there could be no doubt about her identity and Gabrielle's rage peaked. She didn't even question how it was possible that her ancient enemy was standing before her in the 21st century. There was no question in her mind that this was the Callisto she had known. She owed her blood. It was no longer September 13, 2001, and she was no longer in a tournament in San Francisco. She was back in that filthy alley in Rome, behind the Temple of Mars, it was March 12th, 44 BC, and this time, she was going to kill Callisto.
For the first time in the tournament a contestant fought her to a draw. Gabrielle attacked with combinations of techniques, displaying a viciousness she hadn't shown before. The Staff Sergeant retaliated with the same speed and flexibility that she'd had 21 centuries ago. The seconds of the first round ticked by without either woman scoring a point, and as they waited through the two-minute rest period, the bard noticed a growing crowd of other competitors gathering around their mat. Both had been undefeated, but Gabrielle had knocked out all of her previous opponents. Now she was being forced to fight head to head in what looked like an even match, and both fighters were demonstrating skills that were a league beyond anything that had been seen in the tournament earlier.
The cloned bard realized that she wouldn't beat Callisto the way she'd beaten her other opponents. As she'd been in Rome, Callisto was probably still the better fighter now. In the past, the soulmates had defeated her through teamwork, surprise, and chance. In the end, Callisto had used their teamwork against them, goading Xena by injuring Gabrielle, and she'd held the element of surprise. If the cloned bard were going to win today, she would only be able to do it through a surprise of her own. That meant through the use of an unexpected technique, since her tactical options in this artificial combat situation were sorely limited. She realized that both she and Callisto knew techniques that weren't common knowledge in the modern world. The problem was that using them would attract attention. So far, it had been to their mutual advantage to hide their knowledge during the fight. Neither would reveal anything that could arouse the suspicion of strangers without a compelling reason. For Gabrielle, there were few things she could think of that would be more compelling than removing the rediscovered threat of their ancient nemesis. By the gods, she thought, the mayhem she could unleash in the modern world was beyond comprehension, and now that Callisto knew Gabrielle lived, neither she nor her soulmate would ever again know peace. The "Warrior Queen" would stalk them for the rest of their lives. "Xena, I will never give up. I will never rest until you are both destroyed?." Gabrielle could still hear the oath that Callisto had screamed at them in 71 BC, and she'd already kept her promise once.
The referee had moved to her position in the center of the mat and was signaling the competitors to take their places for the second round. Gabrielle looked up to see SSgt. Lykos rising from her seat and meeting her gaze with a wiggle of her eyebrows and a suggestive leer. Gabrielle offered an icy glare in return and it provoked a giggle in response. They moved to their starting marks, and Callisto, ever the flirt, whispered, "you're such a cutie?even when you're alive." The ref glared at her for the comment and she bit a fingernail, whispered, "ooops," and fabricated a contrite expression while not even pretending to be sincere. The referee checked the judges once more, took a last look at the competitors, and then signaled for them to begin. She moved away, but was watching the two like a hawk, expecting infractions.
Again Gabrielle attacked with ferocity and inspiration, and again, Callisto neutralized her moves with the options her flexibility and speed conferred. They were both lulling each other into the belief that they were intending to fight the second round with the same strategy as the first, while each intended to set up their opponent for a surprise. They engaged each other again, fighting at the close range now, and trading hand techniques instead of flying kicks. Being so near provided an opportunity for the Staff Sergeant to taunt her cloned enemy.
"I'll bet you died wondering what I'd do after you were gone," she whispered, before lashing out with an elbow strike that the bard barely managed to parry with a palm. Behind the elbow strike, the "Warrior Queen" applied a pin point attack, aiming a fingertip blow at Gabrielle's radial nerve, just below her elbow. The referee and the judges couldn't see it, and it paralyzed the bard's lower arm and hand. Gabrielle had no choice but to back off and apply a counter strike to return the sensation to her extremity.
"You know, I remember having so much fun after I retired with Caesar's bounty," Callisto stated, while making a half-hearted attempt to gouge the clone's right eye with what looked like a palm strike aimed at her chin. The bard held her tormentor at bay with a series of Phoenix Eye punches directed at her sternum and solar plexus, then drove her further back with a combination of different height side kicks. "The Senate paid me every dinar and even proclaimed a holiday to honor lil 'ol me. I was pardoned by Rome?vindicated in the end." Madness was growing in her flashing brown eyes as she closed in again, reveling in the memories of her triumph. "I was the hero, while you and Xena died as the criminals you always were. I remember it as if I'd been there?just like you, my dear. Soon you'll be just as dead. And after you, there's Xena?again."
Gabrielle ground her teeth at the news. Not only had Callisto become a hero in ancient Rome, but modern history remembered only Caesar's death on the Ides of March in 44 BC. All the sacrifices her soulmate had made in three decades of heroism; all their years of fighting for the Greater Good had been forgotten by the world, until that TV show had misrepresented it all. A quick glance at the official time clock revealed only 15 seconds remaining in the second round.
Callisto moved towards her, offering a grin that promised further provocation. Gabrielle could see her set her feet for what would be a bone crushing front kick to open a series of attacks. When her weight shifted forward for the first kick, the clone made her move. She let the steely muscles in her legs uncoil, launching herself into an aerial roundoff so that she passed completely over Callisto's head. She was a fast moving blur of black uniform cloth, still twisting through the air when she attacked. She was barely quick enough, for Callisto was already recovering and turning to face her. Using the index fingers of both hands, she struck lightning fast blows on either side of her enemy's spine, crushing the lateral processes and the nerves arising from the 2nd thoracic vertebra.* Immediately upon landing, she swept Callisto's legs out from under her with her right leg and allowed her enemy's body to fall onto her left knee. Gabrielle hoped that her nerve attack had been too quick and unexpected for the referee or judges to notice. The resulting damage would be attributed to her opponent falling spine first onto her bent knee. Callisto had slammed down hard and lay still.
(*The nerves leading from the 1st to the 5th thoracic vertebrae join with those from the lowest three neck, or cervical, vertebrae, to form the nerve bundle, known as the cardiac plexus, which regulates the heart. The blow had shocked the entire plexus and caused Callisto's heart to go into a temporary arrhythmia that rendered her immobile.) ~Editor
Knowing there were only moments before the referee ordered her away, the cloned bard firmly crushed the sides of the 3rd cervical vertebra, affecting the nerves of the phrenic plexus that controlled her enemy's diaphragm. It was a death sentence, delayed by 1 to 3 hours.
The clock ran out, ending the second round, and the referee called, "break". Gabrielle slowly rose to her feet, allowing Callisto's unconscious body to roll off her knee and onto the mats. She retreated to her mark to await the referee's decision. The armed forces team coach and two medical technicians rushed onto the mat to examine Staff Sergeant Lykos. After two minutes she still hadn't regained consciousness and they prepared to move her to the locker room on a stretcher. The ref moved back to the center of the mats.
"SSgt. Hudson Lykos is unable to continue. The match goes Gabriella Covington by knockout." As Gabrielle moved back to the edge of the mat to await the final bouts of the tournament, every eye in the War Memorial Gymnasium followed her.
The TV show had made much of the ancient Gabrielle's tendency towards mercy, her righteousness, and her unwillingness to kill. For part of her first year with Xena, that impression had been mostly correct. Unfortunately, it was a simplistic and inaccurate appraisal of the bard. She had fought at the Warrior Princess' side for 28 bloody years. In their first 2 years together she had survived Callisto's predations, the Mitoan-Thessalian War, and her first conflict with Rome. In their third year together, they had gone to Chin to assassinate the despot, Ming Tsu, and insure the leadership of the House of Lao. Had Gabrielle been the woman portrayed in the TV show, Xena would have left her by the side of the road?for her own good as well as Gabrielle's. The brutal and terrifying battlefields of the ancient world were no place for a tender heart.
Within 4 years, Gabrielle had been proficient enough a fighter to defeat Alti, the "Blood Shamaness", and become an Amazon Warrior. This alone was remarkable, for the Amazons took up martial training at the age of six. Gabrielle had already learned the nerve pinch, and was highly skilled with the fighting staff, bow, and short sword. Within 7 years she had completed the same training in yoga and internal fighting methods that Xena had, when the two traveled to Indus. She was 8 years Xena's junior, healthy, tenacious, compact, and strong. Where Xena had a native instinct and awesome natural abilities, Gabrielle relied on unrelenting training, raw intelligence, and sheer determination. Though she had grown up as a peasant in a farming village and had never borne arms until she was 17, within 10 years she was Xena's equal as a warrior in almost all respects.
Still, the Warrior Princess would forever be the Favorite of the God of War; in her prime she had been an unparalleled strategist and tactician as well as an unbeatable fighter. Their main difference was that Xena had always reveled in the violence, though in later years, usually only when it was for a good cause. Her younger partner saw fighting as part of a moral duty and was willing to negotiate and avoid a fight?sometimes. With Callisto, there could be no negotiation; the blonde had already shown too much mercy. She still blamed herself for their enemy being alive to defeat them in Rome. She blamed herself for their deaths. On top of that, she was still a warrior of the Amazon Nation and avenging the deaths of kindred was ingrained in their culture.
Callisto, I don't know how you managed to be alive in this time and place, Gabrielle thought to herself as she sat watching the other semi-final match. But now you will die when your own body suffocates you. The nerve damage I inflicted will paralyze your diaphragm and you'll die for lack of air, as surely as we died, too exhausted to draw another breath, after hanging on Caesar's crosses on the Ides of March. Xena, my love, after 21 centuries, we are avenged, and I am glad. At last we have cleaned up our mess from Cirra, and that threat to the world is finally gone. If this cloned life offers me nothing more than your love and this chance, then it will have been enough.
She never thought to wonder how she'd been able to kill the deadly Callisto this time, one on one, in a situation that even Xena in her prime had been wary of.
"Ladies and gentlemen, we have an update on the unfolding hostage situation at the Quantico branch of the 1st Virginia Tidewater Bank, in Quantico, Virginia. Though official statements have been sketchy, we now know that negotiators from the FBI's elite Hostage Rescue Team have been in communication with the three men currently holding 9 bank employees and customers inside the single story building. The hostage takers have claimed to be ready and willing to execute their hostages if their demands for a helicopter and pilot are not met before 4 pm this afternoon. Furthermore, the hostages claim to be in possession of 10 pounds of weaponized botulism toxin, which they have rigged to an explosive device that would spread the finely powdered toxin over a half-mile area. This area could increase greatly depending on prevailing winds. Presently the public and press are being kept outside of a five-mile cordon set up by the federal authorities. Local and Marine personnel have been evacuated and no one is being allowed in or out. The accompanying footage was shot from our TV 11 News helicopter before it was required to leave by authorities. We will bring you further updates as they become available."
By federal "request", there were no further reports that day. No official updates were made available, and the media was strongly advised not to speculate. (There was some quiet talk of licenses being revoked and future access being denied). The situation was "delicate" and appeals were made to patriotism. Following so quickly on the heels of the tragedies of September 11th, the press uncharacteristically cooperated, gagging itself.
Inside the bank, the three terrorists were growing nervous. The cloned warrior had been watching them closely since she'd arrived, pretending to be a customer. They'd been only too happy to have another hostage to bargain with. She'd ditched the Jeep in a nearby parking lot and wandered around to the bank's front entrance only a couple minutes after the building had been taken. They'd grabbed her and dragged her inside at gunpoint as soon as she'd opened the outer door. Excitable bastards, she'd thought, as her host had pressed the barrel of a .45 M1911A1 against her temple and twisted her left arm behind her back. The Military Police had been parked in front of the building, radioing for help and wondering what to do. That had been about 10:15 am. She'd been dragged over to join a group of hostages whose behavior ranged from terrified whimpering to stoic silence. Xena had been very pleased to see that there were no children, elderly, or people with obvious health problems among the prisoners. I lucked out with this group, she thought. It'll be one less worry when the time comes.
She glanced at the wall clock near where they were sitting on the floor in the bank's lobby, noting that the time was now 1:45 pm. It had been an hour and a quarter since the last communication with the hostage situation negotiators. At that time, their captors had demanded that no one approach the building. Shortly later a funny looking robot, more like a radio controlled toy, Xena'd thought, had delivered a large bag of sandwiches and bottles of water. The terrorists had scarfed the food down in minutes.
Most of the time, one man standing behind a table with an AR-15 watched the front parking lot. He seemed to be the leader in the same sense that Moe had been the leader of the Three Stooges. A second man, armed with the .45 ACP, was sitting in a chair guarding the hostages, while the third kept an eye on the rear parking lot through a cracked open back door. He was armed with both a sizable revolver and a pump action shotgun. No two of their weapons use the same ammo, the cloned warrior had observed. Looks like their armory was the Wal-Mart sporting goods department. Ares appeared in front of her, remaining invisible to everyone but his Favorite.
"Front man's toast," he pronounced, looking towards the front of the bank and shaking his head. "Someone's gonna plink him from a quarter mile out with a sniper rifle?this asshole too, since I can see the windows from here." He'd stepped over to the man guarding the hostages and lined his head up with the glass, squinting to be sure. "Yep," he nodded in satisfaction, "clean line of fire from the apartment building on the next block. Two snipers, two shots, two of three dead. At the same time they take them down, they'll dump a flash-bang onto the back doorstep and then crash the rear door. I see the 'device' is on the teller's counter, a dozen strides from the nearest of these bastards." He wandered over to it and pulled a wire loose, then returned to complete his lecture. "Watch the top floor apartments over there for a window opening?they won't show themselves on the roof. You'll have to act quick after that." He vanished. Xena waited. She gazed absently out the windows, the ghost of a grin on her face.
"Ladies and gentlemen, this is the final match for the Women's Division of the 23rd National Open Full Contact Martial Arts Championships. The contestants are Naval Chief Warrant Officer 3 Danielle Lefferts of the US Armed Forces Tae Kwon Do team, and Gabriella Covington of the Columbia School of Martial Science."
The clone sat listening to the announcer introducing the match over the PA system. She took a glance at her opponent and saw a woman with close-cropped black hair, perhaps a decade older than herself, with an unremarkable physique and a calm, serious demeanor. The CWO3's face was an expressionless mask when she met Gabrielle's eyes. She displayed no hatred, no fear, no boastfulness, and no mania as she smoothly rose to her feet and moved to stand on her starting mark in the center of the mat. Gabrielle moved to join her, also serious. After all the matches I've fought today, the bard thought, I'm finally facing a warrior. Her opponent had won her 6 matches with 3 knockouts, 2 technical knockouts, and 1 decision on points.
The referee tied a red sash through Gabrielle's belt. She checked the judges, eyed both competitors closely, and then stepped back. The contestants bowed to the referee and then each other, both alert, respectful, and focused. The referee raised her hand and then chopped it down between them, commanding, "Begin".
Gabrielle and Danielle Lefferts moved towards each other warily, engaged in a flurry of blows and parries, and separated. After a few seconds they repeated the process. Neither scored a point. They were both probing, trying to learn each other's capabilities.
The cloned bard found that her opponent was quick, strong, and flexible, but not unnaturally so. By first impression, her range of techniques wasn't overly impressive either. Yet everything she did was the result of endless repetitions during years of diligent practice. Her arms and legs are like iron bars, Gabrielle thought, and I can feel each of her blocks. She doesn't waste a movement, embellishes nothing, and doesn't try any fancy "show off" combinations. Her defense and offense are equally strong. She uses her momentum, stance, and timing to multiply her force, reaping the maximum effect from the minimum effort. I like this fighter.
(The modern system of Tae Kwon Do had grown from over thirteen centuries of bloody fighting in the old Kingdom of Koryu, trapped on a peninsula of land between Chin and Nihon. That land could be scoured by both ocean storms and the bitter cold of mountain winters. It had bred a tough people. The warriors of that land had fewer resources than either of their traditional enemies, and so they had developed a fighting system that included hard techniques capable of breaking bones and smashing armor, high kicks which could dismount a cavalryman, and quick economical blocks suitable against multiple opponents.) ~Editor
CWO3 Danielle Lefferts, while lacking an intimidating appearance, overwhelming strength, or flamboyance, was a living exemplification of the system. Her application of the techniques she chose was flawless. She was never overextended, off balance, or under committed. She had spent 30 of her 36 years training and had actually been fighting longer than the original Bard of Potidaea. The difference was that Gabrielle's 28 years had been spent in life and death combat, both armed and unarmed. She had studied many systems in many parts of the ancient world, and she had studied under the preeminent warrior of her time.
The first round expired without a point being scored. The contestants returned to their corners, sweaty and winded. Both retained their focused calm, their expressions betraying nothing. The cloned bard had to ask herself some questions.
How badly do I want to win this tournament? How important is it really? If I continue to fight this warrior toe to toe I will never get anywhere, and though I may not lose, I certainly won't win decisively either. I can end this quickly if I want to, but to do that I'll have to reveal techniques that are unknown in this time. It's the same question I faced with Callisto, but I can't hide what I'll be doing this time. The attack will have to be obvious and visible to the judges for me to win. A second opponent collapsing and dying would be way too suspicious. And that's another thing. I have no intention of killing this opponent?she's not my enemy and I'm not at war with her. In this match, there's no ancient score to settle or modern threat to remove. In fact if it were possible, I'd like to someday consider her a friend. Still, I came here to win a tournament that Marcus should have competed in and won?or at least had a chance of winning. I've always hated to fail at a challenge. I've always hated to fail a friend even more. So all right, I'll reveal something no one here has seen before and take this match by technical knockout, and I'll do less damage than I would with a solid kick or punch.
The referee beckoned the competitors forward to begin the second round. Gabrielle and Danielle Lefferts moved to their starting marks, bowed, and awaited the referee's signal. The ref checked the judges, checked the fighters, and then chopped her hand down between them signaling the start of round two.
The clone and her opponent closed and exchanged a quick succession of blows. As the Chief Warrant Officer started to withdraw, Gabrielle followed her forward to close the distance, lunging in low. With her fingertips she struck the same nerves in Lefferts' knee that Xena had struck in her initial demonstration with Marcus Lewis. In shock and amazement, the CWO crashed onto her back, both hands clasped to her now numbed left leg. Gabrielle immediately backed off and waited. As a formality, the referee called, "break".
Immediately, the armed forces team coach charged onto the mats. She examined the fallen fighter's knee, and seeing nothing amiss, called for a medical technician. The tech hastened forward to join them, and when he too could find nothing wrong, shook his head, glanced at Gabrielle, and again asked Danielle what had happened.
"She used some kind of attack against the nerves in my leg," the CWO told him. "It's not painful, but it's completely numb. I can't feel a thing from mid-thigh down."
"Has the sensation changed?" The medical technician asked.
"Not at all," she replied, baffled.
"Can you continue?" The referee asked the fighter and her coach. When they both looked undecided, she added, "you've got another half-minute to decide."
Thirty seconds later, the referee stood in the center of the mat and announced, "CWO Lefferts is unable to continue the match. The final bout goes to Gabriella Covington on a technical knockout."
The crowd in the Gymnasium began cheering for the exciting dark horse fighter from the unknown school back east, who'd had the guts to show up and compete in that ninja costume. Down on the mats, rather than basking in the glory of her victory and giving the crowd a round of bows, Gabrielle was moving towards her fallen opponent.
The cloned bard approached Danielle Lefferts with a look of sincere concern on her face. When she got within a few feet of the fighter and her coach, she dropped to her knees, gave her a small smile, and asked her how she felt.
"Well, except for a numb leg, I'm fine," the Chief Warrant Officer replied, "can't remember ever losing a match and feeling better." She gave the blonde clone a wry smile of her own.
"It's numb but not painful, right?" Gabrielle asked her, "and the sensation hasn't changed since it started," she stated. The CWO nodded in agreement. "It'll wear off in a couple hours by itself, but I can remove it now if you'd prefer," the blonde offered.
After giving her a questioning glance, the fighter nodded 'yes' to the offer. Her coach looked nervous, while the medic looked on with clinical curiosity. Gabrielle reached out a gently straightened the warrant officer's leg, pushed her uniform up above her knee, and then quickly struck a nerve adjacent to the one she'd attacked. The effect was immediate. With a grunt of surprise, the CWO flexed her leg.
"How does it feel?" her worried coach asked.
"It feels like it's been asleep; pins and needles, but actually not as bad as if I'd slept on it wrong," Lefferts answered, while bending her knee, wiggling her toes, and rotating her ankle, "in fact, the sensation's diminishing already." She looked up at Gabrielle with a questioning glance. Gabrielle smiled back at her. "What did you do?" the warrant officer asked with intense curiosity. The method was completely foreign to her.
"It's part of a system of attacks based on nerve strikes?we actually originally learned them for relieving pain. It's part of the healer's art," the clone answered.
"You learned this at your school in Columbia?"
"It's part of what me and my partner teach at the Columbia School of Martial Science," Gabrielle said.
The CWO gave her a steady and serious gaze for a long moment, obviously thinking. Finally she spoke again with sincere intensity. "This is important and I've never seen anything like it. I'd like to learn about your school, Gabriella. Can we talk sometime before you leave?"
Gabrielle smiled. The warrior who had been her opponent minutes before was more interested in learning and enhancing her knowledge and skills than dwelling on having just lost a major tournament. And anyone who could ask for a "chat" under these circumstances was points ahead with her. The clone felt she'd soon come to like this woman very much. "Of course we can talk. I'd like that."
The blonde reached out a hand and helped the other warrior to her feet. When the CWO stood up steadily and smiled, her hand still linked with her opponent's, the crowd rose to their feet and cheered even louder. In the modern world, such a display of sportsmanship was considered part of the heart of the martial arts.
Xena kept one eye on the windows in the distant apartment building that Ares had pointed out. She kept her other eye on the situation in the bank. The resulting eyestrain didn't keep her from noticing that as the afternoon wore on, the man watching the front windows paced his way back to check the captives and the man at the back door with increasing frequency. It seemed to be his answer to the yawning that had begun after lunch. He was countering his fatigue with nervous activity.
Getting a bit antsy waitin' are ya, she observed, before derisively thinking, ya got all the discipline of a 6-year old playin' militiaman. "Toast", as she'd dubbed him, wasn't the only terrorist who seemed to be having trouble maintaining his concentration. With a smirk, she'd noted the hostages' guard becoming glassy-eyed as he sat in his chair, and once, a few minutes ago, she'd seen him shake his head and wipe a trickle of drool from the corner of his mouth. Miss your naptime, "Asshole", she chuckled, adopting Ares' earlier reference to him as a nickname. You're gonna get a chance to sleep all ya want real soon.
From the rear of the bank, the third man was whining about needing to take a crap. Can't blame ya, Xena thought. Those sandwiches the Feds delivered had been thick with grilled meats and cheese, and slathered with mayo. It was little wonder that the terrorists were feeling drowsy. Food like that, dripping with grease and oils, would make anyone feel dopey and send their bowels running for the hills, the cloned warrior thought. Whoever was calling the shots for the FBI team was degrading their enemy's capabilities in any way they could. Xena liked the commander already. It was something she'd have done herself, though in the old days, (and here she smiled), she'd have simply introduced a rather nasty poison.
The eye that Xena had kept surveying the apartment building registered a movement in the windows of the top floor's center unit. A couple curtains had slid aside and the windows had been raised several inches. Her lips curled in a wider grin. The wall clock read 3 pm. It's show time, she thought.
"Toast" had been fidgeting almost constantly and had finally left his post to pace through the lobby again. After checking the hostages with a glance, he'd turned away towards the door leading behind the teller's windows. Six feet in front of where Xena sat with her back to a wall, "Asshole's" eyes were drooping and he finally began a wide yawn, leaning back in his chair.
The cloned warrior was sitting with her legs stretched straight out in front of her, hands in her lap, as the terrorists had demanded. To her right and left, the other 8 hostages were sitting in the same position, lined up against the wall as if they were too lazy to stand up for the firing squad. Her position was one from which rising to a standing position would be time consuming and awkward?and way too slow to take out even a sleepy guard holding a gun. Even so, the time to act was now.
(To those readers who have experience with gymnastics, specifically floor exercise, Xena's solution will be familiar. The cloned warrior arched her back to push herself away from the wall. Next she swung her left arm and leg violently upwards while planting her right hand flat on the well-waxed floor. As soon as she felt her hips rising, she arched her back and let her weight shift onto the heel of her right palm, using it as a pivot. At the same time, she bent her right knee to minimize the mass that was fighting her inertia, bringing the weight of her right leg closer to her center of gravity. The Valdez Maneuver brought her into a momentary one-armed handstand, and when her left foot touched the wall, she kicked off violently into a forward shoulder roll.) ~Editor
"Asshole" was just finishing his luxurious yawn when he sensed more than saw a rapid approaching movement. His reflexes began to respond, shifting his weight forward and raising his gun hand to chest level. At the same time, his adrenal glands dumped a wholesale bolus of adrenaline into his bloodstream, making him involuntarily tense.
Xena had completed her shoulder roll and was flat on her back right in front of his chair. She spun her legs at the hips, pinwheeling them in a two-legged sweep. Her left foot shattered the fibula and tibia in "Asshole's" left leg, and her following right foot smashed the front legs of his chair. He began falling forward in answer to gravity's demand to lower his center of balance, and tense with adrenaline, one hand full of pistol, he couldn't stop himself from falling neck first onto the hira-ken, (fore-knuckle fist), of the Warrior Princess' left hand. The terrorist's trachea made a wet crunch as its cartilaginous rings collapsed, while the gun was deftly twisted from his grasp by her right hand.
In her fight for freedom in the junkyard, Xena had emptied a handgun in Alti's general direction, but had finally managed to hit her by simply throwing the empty autopistol at her head. Reprising that tactic against "Toast", (who was just beginning to turn back to face the disturbance among the hostages), she whipped the 2½-lb. sidearm twenty-five feet across the lobby with a vicious sidearm cast. To save time, she did this while still lying flat on her back.
The spinning Colt .45 described a nearly flat trajectory, crossing the room in a blur, and impacting with an audible crack against the frontal bone of his skull. Dazed by the blow, and feeling blood beginning to flow from the resulting scalp wound, "Toast" reflexively raised both hands to his face. The barrel of his AR-15 was now pointing harmlessly at the ceiling.
He was really feeling like shit. The 1,100-gram handgun had slammed into his head hard enough to damage the frontal sinuses behind his brow ridge, and now blood was flooding out of his nose as well as into his eyes. Like a hard punch in the face, the blow itself had stunned him. At first he actually thought he'd been shot. In the next moment, Xena, grinning like a maniac and having rolled to her feet, had crossed the eight yards that separated them in something barely over three seconds. She slammed into him at full speed, knocking his cadaver flying. "Toast" didn't feel the landing. The clone had violently twisted his head with both hands on impact and snapped his neck.
"I really gotta go you guys," came the whine from the man at the rear door seconds later.
"Oh you'll be gone, doncha' worry," Xena's low velvety voice answered from just over his shoulder, sending a chill up his spine. It wasn't "Asshole" or "Toast"; he was pretty sure of that. He did Xena the favor of turning to face her.
The surprise had barely registered on his face when her fingers snapped out to strike the sides of his neck. It was like being crushed in a chokehold, but she wasn't even touching him. He slowly slipped to his side until he was lying on the floor. Xena casually reached down and wrenched the shotgun from his grasp, negligently pulling open the back door and tossing it out into the parking lot. Then she reached down and snatched the revolver from his waistband. She tossed it out the back door as well, leaving it wide open. In the next moment she was shoving him out the door too. Three staggering steps and then the asphalt leaped up at him and he was lying on his back. He couldn't breath and black spots were blossoming in his field of vision. His pulse was a pile driver pounding. It was impossible to decide whether the pressure compressing his skull was coming from inside or outside his head. He thought he should be choking, but found he couldn't even gasp. The black spots were sizzling and coalescing into a curtain of darkness that became increasingly opaque. Now all he could see was black. Night had squatted on him even as he lay flat in the parking lot staring blindly up at the afternoon sky. Finally the pounding relented when his pulse ground to a halt. His spirit fled out of his gaping mouth, whimpering one last time, "I really gotta go."
Xena reached for the phone on the bank manager's desk. She sat in his comfy swivel chair and put her feet up, and then dialed "O". When a real live human operator came on the line a moment later, she asked for the FBI.
"Do you want their public relations office, the recruitment agent, or do you know your party's extension?"
"Nawww. I'm in that bank in Quantico. Maybe ya saw it on the news? I wanna report that the terrorists here are indisposed. I got a deactivated bomb full of botulism toxins for 'em?.yeah, I'll hold." She began drumming her fingers on the desk while absently disarranging the paperwork lying on the blotter.
"Like hell I'm gonna stick my head out the door and wave "all clear" to 'em," the cloned Warrior Princess muttered. "I'd have to be dumber than a bacchae tryin' to suck blood from a dryad to play hero like that in this world." She chuckled to herself, feeling very good.
Gabrielle had showered and dressed in her street clothes; faded blue jeans and a white dress shirt from the Janice Covington collection. Her snakeskin cowboy boots clicked on the floor of the gymnasium's entrance hall. Before they'd hit the locker room after the awards presentation, Gabrielle and Danielle Lefferts had agreed to try a steakhouse down the block for an early dinner. The cloned bard was planning to catch a late flight back to South Carolina, and Lefferts was due at the Naval Base in San Diego the next afternoon. It would be just about their only chance to have their chat.
She stopped in the lobby, where the green tile floors reminded her of her character's costume top from the early seasons of the TV show. Just inside the main entrance doors, she stood glancing around and hoping to see the CWO. There was no sign of her, but the bard just chalked it up to her being slow in the shower. In the meantime, she decided to try calling her soulmate again. All day there'd been no answer, though it was only 4:30 pm on the East Coast. She wasn't really frantic yet, but she'd had a growing suspicion that Xena was hatching some sort of plot, probably out of boredom, while she was out of town. She fed the payphone a diet of quarters, dialed the cumbersome string of numerals, and listened as the phone rang at home without being picked up. Repeating the process with the school's number had the same result, just like it had all day. With a sigh, she hung up the receiver and fished for her change.
Suddenly the sounds of a disturbance filtered through the lobby. The clone turned back towards the locker room to see what the bustle of activity was about. A group of women had emerged with their bags and were hurrying towards her chattering seriously to each other. Among them, she recognized the US Armed Forces Team coach, the redheaded Marine Lieutenant, Janine Bradshaw, and a couple other fighters she'd seen. Trailing behind them was the Chief Warrant Officer. The coach and her team members passed Gabrielle without breaking stride, but Danielle Lefferts briefly stopped in front of her.
"Gabriella, our coach says SSgt. Lykos just died," Danielle Lefferts told her. "She was taken to Mt. Zion Medical Center when they couldn't wake her, but she never regained consciousness. She was Air Force, and I hadn't known her that long, but the team's headed back to our hotel for a meeting and I've really gotta go. I'll call you at your school in a few days. I'm sorry."
Gabrielle barely had time to nod "okay" before the CWO was gone, rushing off to catch up with the rest of her team as they pushed through the glass doors and hurried out onto Golden Gate Ave. She stared after them for a few long minutes, thinking about her news.
How had the mad warrior woman from Cirra possibly existed in this time and place? Gabrielle couldn't be sure. Was she a clone too, or could her evil really have persisted down through all the years since Caesar's Rome? And yet now, after the slow grinding passage of the millennia, Callisto was dead and she'd killed her. Maybe the Moirae had arranged for the soulmates to be cloned into the 21st century for just that reason. Had the Fates woven the pair's presence into the weft of the world's tapestry to meet an obligation unsatisfied from long ago? The Fates had never seemed to be on their side. She'd joked often enough about wanting to burn their loom, and her soulmate had despised the very idea of being at their whim. Like the Erinyes though, neither of the women had ever seen them. They were just the personification of some convenient concepts on which to blame ill fortune. Even wondering about them now was the reaction of a psyche far displaced in time and culture. Gabrielle realized that when it came to reflexive philosophical thought, she was still an ancient Greek at heart, not a modern woman.
She needed to talk with her soulmate, who had apparently gone AWOL in Columbia. Callisto of Cirra had forever reserved the heart of her hatred for Xena, but the excess had often spilled over onto Gabrielle. Today, the Warrior Princess had played no part in the "Warrior Queen's" demise. Their old score would have been more equitably balanced if Xena had killed Callisto instead, but it hadn't happened that way. If fate had demanded that she meet Callisto instead of Xena, then Gabrielle couldn't understand it. The blonde clone ended up eating dinner alone at the Jack in the Box on Geary Blvd., about a mile and a half from the Mt. Zion Med Center. This time, no dinosaurs disturbed her meal.
This room's as dismal as some of the small town dungeons I've enjoyed, the Warrior Princess thought as she surveyed her surroundings, though it doesn't reek of festering wounds, excrement, and mildew. The HRT had burst into the bank through the open rear door just minutes after she'd explained the situation over the phone. Prob'ly lurkin' outta sight in the side parking lot, she thought, and were they ever pissed that they'd missed out on the party. She chuckled to herself. Nothing irritated a warrior as much as being geared up and having no one to fight. She'd been there, done that.
The HRT team had been bristling with guns, but they'd secured the bank and arranged for the hostages to be evacuated. Regular FBI agents had taken her along with the others at first, while the assaulters of the HRT stayed behind until the bomb squad could arrive. Later, after interviewing the other hostages and hearing their accounts of her actions, the agents had snatched her and put her in this room to be "debriefed".
The room was clearly for interrogations. It contained a steel table, bolted to the floor, three chairs, (hers bolted to the floor as well), a couple of camera lenses embedded in the masonry near the ceiling, and what was obviously a one way mirror against the wall across from her. She'd spent some time staring into it and had finally been rewarded by seeing a slight shift in light levels as someone opened the door to the observation room on the other side. She'd waved and given them a big 'ol smile, then settled down to meditate. She knew the drill?let 'em stew. She'd done it often enough herself long years ago on those occasions when she'd actually had the patience for it. (When she admitted it to herself, it was really only because she'd wanted to see the particular subject squirm. The unfortunate prisoner was eventually confronted with her intimidating presence, accompanied by several cruel looking lieutenants, and then mercilessly browbeaten, threatened, or subjected to the "pinch". They usually cracked sooner rather than later). She grinned at the memories.
Somewhere on the other side of the bare cinderblock walls, several persons' footsteps approached the door to her room. Been about two hours, she calculated, these guys have little patience themselves. That was hardly long enough to even begin to have doubts, let alone develop a good head of fear. She yawned as the door opened, stretching her arms and back. Out of the corner of her eye she noticed a guard stationed in the hall outside.
Two men in dark suits entered the room, the taller one carrying a stack of folders, the other a portable tape recorder. They looked serious. Xena smiled at them.
"Good afternoon, Ms. Pappas," the taller agent began, setting his files on the table and selecting one. The shorter agent, (whose hair was a darker shade of nondescript brown, but cut short in an identical style), set the tape recorder on the table and pushed a button. They had both looked directly into her eyes and folded their hands on the table in front of them. The taller agent resumed speaking. "This is FBI Special Agent Albert Phillips with Special Agent Louis DeMarco. It is Thursday, September 13th, 2001, at 9:15 pm EDT. We are recording the testimony of the 1st Virginia Tidewater Bank hostage Serena Pappas. For the record, Ms. Pappas, could you state your name, age, and place of residence, please?"
"My name's Serena Pappas. I'm from Columbia, South Carolina, and I'm 26, but ya already know that," Xena stated, quickly glancing down at the file with her name on the tab, before asking, "wadda' ya really need, guys?"
With a groan, the taller agent referred to some notes in his folder. The shorter agent ground his teeth. Xena smiled a friendly smile at them. Negotiations were fun until she lost patience with them. Once upon a time it had seemed like they were the only times she practiced her "social graces". Finally SA Phillips, who appeared to be the lead agent of the two sighed and looked up from his notes.
"We want answers," he told her in a businesslike tone, "we've got a deadly hostage situation resolved by a civilian. We've got an explosive biological weapon deactivated in the most direct and effective manner. We've got three armed terrorists dead and no civilian casualties." He paused for a second and the cloned warrior interrupted him before he could resume.
"Pretty good for a day's work, huh? I just wanna thank ya for the help. Those greasy sandwiches really did the trick?slowed 'em down just enough so I could take 'em out easily. Ya shoulda' seen 'em all yawning, and that guy by the back door whinin' that he had to take a crap?priceless."
In spite of themselves, the agents couldn't help but smile.
"Umm, Ms. Pappas," SA DeMarco said, speaking for the first time, "the ME informed us that one terrorist had clean fractures of the bones in his lower leg and a crushed windpipe?"
"Yeah, he had a fortunate accident. Fell onto my fist, throat first." Xena related with a satisfied smile. "That was after I'd kicked him in the leg?I thought I felt both bones snap."
"And the legs of the chair?"
"Had to do somethin' so he'd fall forward, ya know?" She winked at him and he gulped.
"So anyway, the other terrorist in the lobby?." Again Xena cut him off.
"Ya mean 'Toast'? I smashed him in the face with 'Asshole's' .45 and then body slammed him while wrenching his neck."
"Toast? Asshole?" SA Phillips asked in confusion.
"The guy watchin' the front was toast. Ya woulda' blown his brains out any minute there from that apartment building?that asshole guardin' the hostages too, right?"
Both agents looked at her in silence, dumbfounded. Her statement implied her understanding of their covert tactics and assault plan. She'd already thanked them for the lunch, which had been the inspiration of an HRT assaulter who had worked in a McDonalds as a teen.
"Problem is that bullets fragment, skulls fragment, and windows fragment?hostages coulda' been hurt," she continued, more seriously.
Phillips was shaking his head and DeMarco looked embarrassed. Any rescue attempt was the result of weighing the odds of resolving a situation with minimal danger to innocents while refusing to indulge the hostage takers. Yes, there had been possible danger to the civilians, there always was, but the ones she'd mentioned had been minor compared to the possibility of the bio-bomb being detonated. The first objective of the operation had been nullifying that threat, a threat to a much greater population than the nine inside the bank. If push had come to shove, the people in the bank would have been regrettably considered expendable.
Finally it was Special Agent DeMarco who got back on track first.
"The man dumped out the back door?the ME could find no obvious cause of death."
Here, Xena displayed an evil grin, and her expression sent a chill down the spines of the two agents. Suddenly neither felt safe in that locked room. It was a visceral thing, an impression that wouldn't be available to a listener on the tape. It probably wouldn't even be readily apparent on the videotape of the interview.
"Dead before he had a chance to bruise," she told them with a satisfied smirk, "have the ME check the contents of the blood vessels in his brain and the condition of his carotid arteries."
The agents groaned in synch as if on cue, then turned to each other and nodded. Special Agent DeMarco stopped the tape recorder. He made a gesture to the cameras, directed at someone in the observation room on the other side of the mirror. Special Agent Phillips made some notes in his file and then looked gravely at Xena.
"It's usually a professional courtesy between departments for offices to notify each other during an operation when operatives from another agency are present," SA Phillips declared with annoyance, "and we were never informed of your presence. We had no idea you had been assigned to the situation today. We haven't found any information identifying your affiliations. In fact, much beyond a year ago, your existence itself is?sketchy. Obviously you're a deep cover operative. We would appreciate being told what agency you work for."
At first Xena's reaction was one of confusion. Then as the agents' assumptions became clear to her, a curled lip appeared, which graduated into a full grin. In short order, the cloned warrior found herself smiling and then laughing out loud. The situation was just too rich. They actually thought that she was an operative for another of the federal government's myriad covert shops?a fellow "secret agent". It took several minutes before she could maintain a straight face. She'd never thought of this possibility.
Wait 'till I tell Gabrielle, she thought, she'll choke laughing about this after she finishes bustin' my ass. It's almost as ridiculous as somethin' from that TV show.
Special Agent DeMarco silently mouthed the word, "stress", to Special Agent Phillips, who gave him a nod of agreement. They both believed that deep cover agents often became unstable when operating in character for extended periods of time. The 15 months that they suspected encompassed "Serena Pappas'" assignment could leave anyone close to cracking. They gave her time to recover her composure. She'd done good work today.
After wiping her eyes, the cloned Warrior Princess provided the agents with an expression of sincerity and leaned forward on the table, bringing herself closer to them, as if to share a secret. Unconsciously, they leaned forward to meet her.
"Ya see guys, it's like this," she began, "I'm just a violent girl who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Anyway, I did get to have some fun, and I solved a problem for ya, so I figure ya owe me. What I'd really like is to meet the Hostage Rescue Team."
Yep, SA Phillips thought?it's stress alright. She's a wacko. If her bosses find out, she'll get shit-canned real quick. Hell, she's a lunatic with lethal combat skills?sooner or later someone's going to get hurt. Xena was still grinning at them, waiting for an answer.
Definitely stress, SA DeMarco thought. She's a nutcase; a real Scully chick for sure. I can't wait to hear what the grapevine has to say about her. My guess is she'll be dismissed after her next performance review?or psych evaluation. Then she'll end up on Rosie, or maybe writing a novel about her adventures as a spook.
"So wadda' ya say, guys?" She gave them a conspiratorial wink. "Ordinary citizen gets to meet the elite HRT, or Friday's headlines read, 'Citizen Terrorizes Terrorists as FBI Looks On'?"
Both of the agents groaned. It was worse than they'd thought. She was a lunatic with lethal public relations skills. Well, at least this part of the conversation wasn't being recorded. It would probably be easiest to humor her until an opportunity to terminate her could be arranged, Agent DeMarco thought uncharitably.
Xena had been enjoying watching them sweat, but she knew that she couldn't let her personal feelings interfere with her mission. The comment about going to the press had actually made Phillips turn green. She decided to relent.
"Fact is, my partner and I teach martial arts. We've got our own school in Columbia with a few students, but they're civilians. After the disaster a couple days ago, we decided we wanted to do somethin' to help this country. I want to offer my services to the HRT as an unarmed combat instructor."
Special Agent Phillips was trying to think. Serena Pappas was feeding them her cover story, nothing more. She still wasn't willing to be forthcoming about her real affiliations. It implied a very high assignment priority, and her latest offer was only a degree less ridiculous than her original response. The HRT was as highly trained in all aspects of combat as any group in the world. As if reading his mind, though, Xena gave them one last thing to think about.
"Get the ME to find the COD on the third terrorist. If your guys can't duplicate the attack that caused it, give me a call. Ya got my number."
The agents nodded to each other and picked up their stuff. Out in the hall they had a quick conference.
"We really don't have any reason to hold her any longer."
"It's obvious that her real assignment is so deeply classified that she can't even share its nature with us. I just hope there won't be any jurisdictional conflicts. The paperwork?."
"If she's determined to maintain her cover as a small city karate teacher, then so be it. She's basically disavowed her involvement today as an assignment. At least she wasn't serious about making a media splash."
"To tell you the truth, she gives me the creeps."
"If we cut her loose, we'll probably never hear from her again. And she did help us out at the bank."
"Bottom line is, we've got a job to do and she has work of her own. Being involved this afternoon could even have jeopardized her cover."
"Sooner or later, that third terrorist's cause of death will be established, and if there's really anything unnatural about it, she'll be hearing from us within the hour."
They reentered the interrogation room and found Xena sitting just as they'd left her. She grinned that unnerving grin at them.
"Ms. Pappas, we want to thank you for your assistance today. The bureau is grateful for your participation in the resolution of a potentially disastrous situation. That's all the questions we have for now. I'll arrange to have someone drive you back to your vehicle."
"Well thanks, guys," Xena replied with a smile. "Lemme know whatcha' find out about that stiff."
She rose to her feet with the smoothness of a panther and followed them out the door and into the hallway. Damn, there's always something, she thought, mentally smacking herself in the forehead, my vehicle is full of bullet holes. How'm I gonna get home? Gabrielle'll kill me.
Later, when the bureau driver dropped her off in the parking lot next to the bank, Xena shuddered as she approached her Jeep. She'd been having the time of her life, chasing the van full of terrorists, and she hadn't really worried about the damage to the rented car at the time. Tactical oversight, she realized, I hate that. Funny though, as she got closer to the vehicle, she realized that she'd expected to see more damage. They couldn't have been that poor a bunch of shooters to have missed her completely. In fact, when she did a quick inspection, she couldn't see a single mark on the front end.
With a shrug, she unlocked the door and slid behind the wheel. On the dashboard she found a single red rose; in the cup holder in the console, an ice cold can of Classic Coke. The cloned Warrior Princess couldn't stop the smile that crossed her face.
"Ares", she whispered.
Continued in Part 2b