Convert this page to Pilot DOC Format
Epilogue: The Year 2042
Xero smiled as her fingers moved across the sensory input pad. Arctic blue eyes watched lines of data scrolling across the top and bottom of her screen. It was a new security protocol by Hybrid Systems Inc. Running an absent hand through her long black hair, she studied the data carefully. Xero was at work. Paid to compromise and steal intellectual property, Xero was one of the best in the business. At age twenty eight, she already had fifteen years experience as a professional hacker, a nettie, cyber thief, and virtual thug. Watching the two data streams simultaneously, she keyed the sequence to launch one of her own encryption programs. It would take a few moments to insinuate itself within the data stream, so Xero reached for her glass of water and took a long decadent sip.
There was nothing quite like the taste of natural water, and Xero sighed as the cool liquid spilled down her throat. Sadly, she knew that her bottle was almost empty. It had been a gift from her roommate and occasional business partner after a tricky job well done. Never taking her eyes from the screen she saw the green flash as her program launched into operation. Xero proceeded with the next phase of her theft. After defining her search parameters, she let the retrieval program go and checked its progress with her watch as well as the on screen chronometer.
As the seconds ticked down something at the top of the screen caught her eye. Almost imperceptible, there had been a slight lag in the data reading across the security field. Keeping her input strokes on the sensory pad consistent, Xero keyed the sequence to her personal trace/counterseek program. It was doubtful she'd been tapped by a syscop, it'd never happened before. But Xero knew all too well that there was a first time for everything.
There it was again, someone was definitely on her channel observing. Carefully, she continued her work. So far she could only be hit with snooping charges, since she hadn't downloaded any data, yet. Keeping a steady hand she relaxed. If it was local security, they might just think she was with an MIS company or an overworked employee doing routine maintenance. Her cyber-retriever flashed orange, it had the data. She could set it aside to download later, or continue with her theft. She was spared the decision when the watching entity made it's presence known.
Nice work Xero, the greeting flashed on her screen, gold text on a black background. Automatically Xero keyed the sequence to launch a tracer program.
Who are you? she replied, stalling for time.
An admirer, possibly an employer, came the immediate response.
Xero's blue eyes flashed in surprise. The tracer error message was unmistakable. Whoever was at the other end of the data line had heavy duty encryption. She read a few lines into the error subroutine and froze. The encryption had syscop data nodes. She'd been spotted by a net cop.
As you've no doubt discovered by now, I've got syscop access, the message flashed. But I'm not interested in arresting you. Xero, I need your help. My keyword is Amphipolis. I'll meet you at--
Xero launched her scrambler and cut the connection cutting off the data stream mid flow. Letting out a controlled breath, she launched her sanitation program and shut down the system. It was possible if she'd been tapped, she'd also been given a worm. Virtual tapeworms were an effective tool cybercops used to identify the hardware used in the theft and compromise of intellectual property. A tiny data code, it was impossible to find unless you knew what to look for, but when activated could shut down entire systems as well as forward transcripts of all net activity to the authorities.
"Hey, Xero. I'm back," Bat called from the doorway. Xero could hear the distinctive sound of groceries being put away as various cupboards were opened and closed.
"Bat, get in here," she called, "I've got a job for you."
"What's the problem?" Bat asked, navigating the various cables and link lines that littered the floor of the tiny living room.
"I just got tapped by a syscop. I need your eye to check out the system," Xero said with a glance to the woman who had taken a seat next to her.
The most unusual thing about Bat was a black eye patch worn over her left eye. The result of a botched lens implant job, she'd decided on practicality over vanity. She'd gone to a gray market surgeon for a mechanical eye. Revolting to look at, it gave her an edge hacking. In a business where every edge counted, this was a decided advantage. "A syscop?" Bat echoed, impressed. "No shit. Must've been a good one."
"Not that good, I spotted them," Xero replied. "I hope you didn't have any plans tonight. I need you to go through my system, check for tapeworms. I still need to get this job done, cop or no cop."
Bat nodded, understanding. She had no illusions about her role under Xero's roof. She worked for the enigmatic woman, simple as that. Until her debt was paid off, Xero, for all intents and purposes, owned her. "No problem. Like I've ever got a date," she muttered. "Why don't you give me some space. If I'm going to disassemble the system, you'll only be in the way. Go down to the 'Horn. Get something to eat, relax, get laid."
Xero watched as Bat pulled her long brown hair into a ponytail. Already she could see the shorter woman planning which backup systems to use, what tools she'd need. "I thought that was what you were for?" she shot back good naturedly.
Bat frowned. "What? I don't kick you out of my bed the two or three times you end up there drunk, and now I'm a dyke? Spare me."
"You didn't have any complaints at the time..." Xero stopped herself. She knew exactly why the other woman hadn't complained. Bat was afraid of her. As one of the few former corporate systems managers, Bat had a price on her head. People who worked corporate and then got out didn't have long life expectancies. That was in fact how they'd met. On a rainy night, with two corporate security thugs at her heels, Bat had wandered into the Saddlehorn Pub & Grill. Desperate for a cover, she'd foolishly made a play for Xero and ended up in an entirely new line of work. Since then, she'd enjoyed the protection of Xero's association, but also responded to the taller woman's demands unflinchingly. "Sorry," Xero mumbled, thinking she may have pushed the other woman too far.
"Shit, don't worry about it," Bat replied with a grin. "You know our deal. I worry about your hardware, you take care of your own software, so for chrissakes, go get some, will ya? You've been edgy as hell all week." Xero grinned at that. The other woman got up and began to set up some diagnostic equipment. "Xero," she continued as she worked, "I'd consider you a friend if I thought for a millisecond that you had any. This thing has obviously gotten you spooked. So take the night off and chill. Say hi to everyone at the 'Horn for me and by the time you get back, this rig will be running in top form." Xero nodded, grabbing her leather jacket from the couch.
"Here," Bat said, picking up a small mobile communications unit. "Take the mobie." From a compartment on the bottom she extracted two tiny ear pieces. "Wear the wire, and if I've got any questions, I'll let you know."
"Sure," Xero agreed, slipping the tiny receiver into her ear.
"Oh, and do me a favor, will ya?" Bat finished as Xero headed for the door. "If you see some good looking Bobs tonight, for god's sake get their number. It's been so long since I've had a guy, I'm forgetting what being straight is all about."
"I'll see what I can do," Xero replied with a grin, pocketing the mobie unit and clipping the tiny phone to her jacket.
The Saddlehorn was unique even though it was only one of several hangouts frequented by hackers. Versus was a well known hacker bar as was Fire Circle, but they didn't have the mystique of the 'Horn. The Saddlehorn Pub & Grill was exclusive. The word was out that only the invited and initiated could congregate there, those who ignored the warning usually found corrupted net accounts soon after an unwelcome visit. The clientele was also exclusively female, not that it was a lesbian hacker bar per se, although at first blush that was what most people assumed. The usual crowd of hackers also included those buyers who would procure their services.Only the most serious and determined buyers ended up at the 'Horn. Simply put, it was the place adopted by the best of the best. Even the managers of other bars spent time at the 'Horn. If you were female and good on the nets, you had to be there.
It wasn't an easy place to find, but Xero knew the route by heart. The 'Horn was more of a home for her than her apartment. Nodding to the bouncer, Bandit, she stepped through the door. The security light glowed green. She wasn't packing any weapons. Several unfortunate incidents with flamethrowers had made the precautions necessary, but Bandit did her job with unobtrusive efficiency. Quickly, her eyes adjusted to the dim light. The ancient battered saddle that hung over the bar was bathed in soft blue light today, reflecting the mood of the patrons gathered. It was a little on the early side, only nine thirty. The lights would be changed over to red when the prowlers were out. A place to relax, make business deals, have a decent meal and cruise, the 'Horn was something different to everyone.
Xero made her way to a table in the back. Lady Delirium and Addict, the bartenders nodded and sent the Pirate over to take her order. "A little early for you isn't it, Xero?" Pirate Ska Mayhem asked conversationally.
"I'll have a beer, make it a Buckner. Maybe dinner later, ask me then," Xero replied as she looked around. The small dance floor was vacant. Several women played darts at one end of the room. Credit codes exchanged hands after a decisive throw won the game. At a corner booth, Wordee sat with several other women. She recognized MaryD, but the other two she couldn't place.
"Where's your sidekick?" Ska asked, putting a dark bottle down in front of Xero.
"Working," Xero answered as she keyed in her payment and a tip. "Who's the newbies?"
"Just that, newbies. Both after Wordee, the one on the right is a potential employer, the one on the left is a suitor." After a moment's reflection she continued, "I guess it's your fault."
"How do you figure?" Xero asked, taking a sip of the smooth beer.
"You nailed Bat, one of the few straight women who hang out here. That makes it hard on the rest of 'em. Not that I'm going to cry them any rivers anytime soon."
"I heard that," Lani remarked from a table behind Xero's. "Pirate's picking on the straight chicks again," she continued, only louder this time.
"Oh, look who's talking," Ska shot back sarcastically.
All eyes turned to a table in the center of the room. Blue, the Arbitrator who had been trying to enjoy a peaceful dinner with Jenbob, was suddenly the center of attention. "So make her buy the straight chicks a drink," she finally decided. Sentence passed, everyone returned to their individual business.
"There go my tips for tonight," Ska muttered wandering off.
Xero enjoyed her beer. Left alone to observe the interactions around her, she felt herself finally unwind. The big winner at darts, Trillbaby, bought the next round for the house. Halfway through her second beer, the receiver in her ear clicked on.
"I've got something for you, can you talk?" Bat's disembodied voice asked softly in her ear.
"Yeah, what do you have," Xero asked after another sip.
"I'm off the nets, running a closed loop system to check out your files. You've got a tapeworm all right, but it isn't a tracker."
"What do you mean?"
"I mean she sent over a shitload of files, but nothing to track you. It's all stuff so you can get ahold of her. She may be a psycho."
"How do you know it's a she?" Xero wondered.
"That's what I'm telling you. She sent over personnel files, all kinds of shit. Her name is Rielle MacGab, I've got a picture, she's cute... I mean if you're interested in women, that sort of thing."
"I get your point, Bat, go on," Xero pressed.
"According to this, she's a syscop for the Archives Corp. But she's on a leave of absence. She had a medical leave a couple of months ago, now she's just taking vacation." Xero could picture Bat as she went through the files. Shoes off, curled up on the couch fidigiting with a pen in one hand. She was talking fast. That meant she was scanning files as she spoke, struggling to keep up with her mechanical eye.
"So why do you think she's a psycho?" Xero asked.
"All this other stuff she sent you. Xero, buddy, she must have been waiting for you to log into that data stream. She was watching you the whole time. She's downloaded a book, The Adventure of a Lifetime, a Memoir by Melinda Pappas. Provided links to a television database for an old '90s show, her own records and the message that you tried to cut off. Be careful, Xero, she's planning to meet you at the 'Horn."
"You unlocked all this with the keyword Amphipolis?" Xero asked, scanning the inhabitants of the club once again.
"Yeah, just like her greeting said. I'm running a buffer system, so I'm not worried about getting zapped. But it was just a simple keyword. No traps or homing beacons. If this picture is an accurate one, you're looking for a twenty six year old red head with green eyes and," she paused to read further "according to her psyche files, a sunny disposition." Xero didn't answer right away and Bat laughed. "Yeah, I know. Just your type. Still, why not have a go? The 'Horn regulars are too intimidated to actually sleep with you. Did I mention you being annoyingly tense all week?"
"If that's all the news you've got," Xero cut her off. "Why don't you reassemble the system and get it back on the nets. Put all this new stuff on an isolated drive and I'll look at it later."
"Okay, will do," Bat assured the hacker. "Logging off now."
The 'Horn was beginning to fill up as more women came in after their mid-day shifts. Few of the women who frequented the place had regular jobs, but a number of hackers kept regular hours too. Especially the women who worked for hacking companies. They had shifts and benefits like legitimate workers. Xero considered ordering dinner when a tense hush settled around the club. A couple of men, Bobs as they were known at the 'Horn, stepped through the security markers and were making their way to the bar. Both were tall, about Xero's height and good looking. Their sun bleached hair and bronzed skin screamed 'surfer'.
Xero noticed Lady Delirium step away from Addict, who was pouring drinks for the Bobs. Retrieving the mobie unit from her pocket, she keyed in the secured frequency and turned on her communications unit.
"...obs at the 'Horn, Shadow. See what you can do." Lady Delirium said quietly.
"They been here before?" Xero asked quietly.
"Xero, that you?" Lady D asked as she looked over. Seeing the dark haired woman's affirming nod, she continued. "No, they're newbies, not trolls. They just told Addict that they're in construction and retrofit, they're here on vacation. Too tan to be hackers."
"I'm in their net accounts now," Shadow offered.
"Then take it easy on them, Shadow," Xero asked. "When you screw with their files, don't mess 'em up too bad."
"Bat send you out to find her dates?" Shadow asked with a wry laugh.
"Yeah, so give 'em her locator file. Then they'll know who to contact to clean up the mess."
"Okay, will do," Shadow agreed. "They should be out of there as soon as they try to pay."
As if on cue, one of the men looked up alarmed as he swiped his account card through the reader a second time. The other man tried his card but with the same lack of success. Both men left abruptly when they'd logged on to their accounts only to find garbled text instead of account information. Once they were out the door and down the block, their drinks were raffled off, the two women who won raising their glasses in silent toast to their now absent benefactors.
Bat carefully adjusted her baseball cap before connecting the final system wire to the net brainbox. If a trap or other aggressive program had slipped past her careful examination, this was often enough to trigger it. She held her breath for a couple seconds, and when nothing happened she readjusted her hat and relaxed. No matter how many years went by, every system connection took her back to the day five years ago when she'd earned the name Bat and lost an eye in the process. She should have seen the trap but didn't. As a result her client's brain box blew up in her face, damaging the lens of her left eye beyond repair. Convinced she'd be blind, her friends started calling her 'Bat'. Her eye recovered, with the aid of a mechanical replacement, but the name stuck anyway.
System initialized, she keyed in Xero's general use account. If someone was after her boss, logging into the system as herself would serve little purpose. She started with routine housekeeping. Xero's preferences were pretty straightforward, and Bat knew the subroutines as if they were her own. She logged in the day's messages and took note of the net account balances. Everything was in order there as well.
Satisfied that the system was operating as it should, she launched the program that would fling her onto the nets. Cruising Xero's regular haunts, she began to notice a few familiar faces, identified by their screen icons, as well as several new ones. She'd cloaked Xero's own icon, making her invisible to the other passersby unless they were using a high end detection program. Even then, the detector would only be able to tell that another entity was logged on, not that it was Xero. Unfortunately, such programs caused more trouble than they were worth while hacking, so they were only used for sightseeing or other legitimate net business only.
Things were slow, but Bat noted that it was still early. She was about to make her way to the node for the 'Horn when she was stopped by a greeting.
We meet again, Xero, the message said.
"Holy shit," Bat gasped, her good eye wide in surprise staring at the screen.
Or should I say, Xena? the message continued.
"It's her psycho," Bat whispered as she touched the control of her mobie unit. "Xero, you there?" she asked, worried. There was no response. Either Xero was on another channel, or the mobile communications system had been jammed. Bat glanced back at the screen. The message was waiting for a response. "What would Xero say?" she wondered. She'd been spotted and tagged, it was no good to try to pretend otherwise. Finally she keyed in her response. Who the fuck is Xena?
Could it be that you don't know yet? This gets better all the time, the message flashed, red letters on black. I'm going to enjoy killing you, Xena, I only hope it's as good for you as it will be for me.
Who are you? Bat asked, trying to fight her growing fear, and losing.
I'm sorry, it's been such a long time. Xena, my dear, my name is Ares.
Xero decided it was time to leave. There wouldn't be anything happening here for her tonight. She pushed away from her table, and stood as a third Buckner was put down in front of her. The hacker looked up into lovely green eyes she'd never seen before. "Mind if I buy you a drink?" a soft voice asked.
Towering over the shorter woman, Xero smiled. It could only be the syscop Bat had warned her about. Strawberry blond, petite, beautiful. Her one-eyed associate did have a gift for understatement. Xero wrapped her long fingers around the neck of the beer bottle. "You don't mind if I take it with me?" she asked. Beautiful as this woman was, she was still a syscop.
A smaller hand wrapped around her own, holding the bottle onto the table. "As a matter of fact, I do," the young woman said evenly. "When I buy a beautiful woman a drink, I expect her to finish it in my company."
Xero flashed her a grin, displaying a mouthful of perfect white teeth. There might be something here worth the risk after all, she decided. "That's rather butch of you," she commented sitting down again. The other woman took the seat opposite her and let go of her hand but didn't say anything. "Use that line a lot do you?" Xero asked, after taking a sip of the beer.
"On occasion," the other woman replied with false bravado. Xero laughed and the other woman frowned. "I say something funny?"
"You don't lie very well," the hacker replied. "No, I'd bet a bottle of spring water that I'm the first woman you've hit on in a bar. Isn't that so, Rielle?"
Her companion looked at the table as her cheeks flushed crimson before making eye contact again. "I'm glad you took the time to look at my files at least," she finally said, changing the subject. "Xero, I need to talk to you."
"Too bad, I don't talk to syscops," the older woman replied flatly.
"Can I buy you dinner? Give me that much time at least?" Rielle asked.
"Fine," Xero replied with an artful shrug. She nodded to the Pirate who came over to take her order. "Kitchen have fresh produce?" she asked.
Ska blinked, naturally grown fruits and vegetables were very expensive delicacies. "Yeah, some," she replied.
"I'll have a salad with the works," Xero requested.
"For two," Rielle added, handing over her account card.
When the waitress was gone she turned to her companion once again. "Xero, I'm going to tell you a story, you're going to think its fantastic, but I want you to hear me out anyway."
"Until I'm done eating, I'm all yours," she replied.
Feeling warm, Xena? The message on the screen taunted.
Bat tried again in vain to break eye contact with the data code that scrolled past her eyes at blinding speed. If she'd had two natural eyes, all she'd see was a mesmerizing blur, unfortunately with her mechanical eye she could make out some of what she was reading. The repetitive, hypnotic code was sending signals to her body. Her brain, unable to filter out the harmful instructions, could only wait and experience the body's self destruction. Like subliminal advertising on steroids, Bat was helpless against the onslaught of information. Sweating and dizzy, she guessed her fever must be well over one hundred three degrees by now.
I'm not Xena, she finally managed to send.
Sure you are, the message came back. You just don't remember yet. I really didn't know the battle for the third age would be this easy. Even Melinda Pappas was more of a challenge than you. So, wanna race?
Bat's heart started beating faster, her heated blood pulsing through her system. Then her lungs collapsed, cutting off her air as the hacker tried desperately not to panic. If she was going to die, as now seemed likely, she wanted someone to know why and how. Eyes still riveted on the scrolling text, in the periphery of her vision she could see the isolated drive sitting on top of the brainbox. After yanking a wire from an unused diagnostic unit, she plugged the drive in and keyed in a record sequence. Just then her chest expanded, air finally filling her lungs. The racing of her pulse continued. Whatever was killing her intended to do it slowly.
You don't know how long I've waited for this, Xena. I've had thousands of years to plot your destruction. I never doubted that as long as I got to you before that irritating blond did, I'd have you. I hope you're able to fully appreciate what you could have had all those millennia ago, when a simple 'yes' from you would have given you immortality.
Feeling something wet on her leg, the hacker noted that her hands had broken out in blisters that were popping soon after forming. Clear plasma ran down her hands onto the input pad and finally and dripping on her thigh. Her eminent death looking messy, Bat took the battered baseball cap off her head and tossed it aside. A remembrance of her mother who had died in the Plague, she wasn't about to let her own demise ruin Mickey Mouse.
Her lungs collapsed again, this time she hoped for good. Her vision changed and she absently noticed it was from her natural eye giving out. The moisture and soft tissues burned. Were it not for her implant, she'd be blissfully blind.
Well, Xena, it's been fun. Give my regards to Callisto, Valaska and Hades when you see them.
She could smell charring flesh now and would have screamed had she been able to get the air, to do so. Instead she winced as she felt her heart finally explode in her chest cavity. After that everything slowed down until life itself mercifully ended.
"Let me get this straight," Xero said dubiously. "You're saying this bar was originally funded by the Pappas Foundation. That saddle hanging over there bought at the big auction the Smithsonian had when their funding was cut?" Rielle nodded and let the other woman continue. "And this Melinda Pappas fought the battle of the second age." Rielle nodded again. "And I'm related to her, how?" Xero asked.
"That's just it. You aren't," Rielle explained. "Melinda Pappas was related to Xena and Janice Covington was related to Gabrielle. You and I are the reincarnated souls of Xena and Gabrielle."
"That's right," Xero amended, not believing a word of it. "Which one am I again?"
"You're Xena," Rielle said loosing her patience.
"Of course, the 'X's, I should have known. Okay, I'm Xena and I'm going to fight the battle of the third age. Against who?"
"Against Ares," the syscop continued clearly annoyed. "And believe me, if you don't start taking this a bit more seriously, you're going to loose."
"Well I wouldn't want that," Xero shot back with a smirk.
"Didn't you read any of the material I sent over?" Rielle asked. "I was hoping it'd jog your memory."
"Y, you've said that Xena and Gabrielle were lovers," Xero offered. "Don't you think that would jog my memory?"
An unreadable look crossed the younger woman's face. "I'm willing to try anything," she said quietly.
"Well, don't make it sound like such a chore," Xero shot back miffed.
"It's not that, Xero, it's just that obviously I can remember things at this point that you can't." She shook her head sadly. "It'd be a lot different for me than for you, I suspect."
Xero was tempted to tell the young woman to forget the whole thing and just leave. Still, there was something about her company she found intriguing and wasn't ready to part ways just yet. If nothing else, she could take the woman home and let the terrified newbie off the hook then. "Fine then," Xero said as she stood. "Let's go."
All eyes in the Saddlehorn Pub & Grill watched the newbie leave with Xero. The only puzzling thing was why she didn't appear pleased about it.
"So when did you first realize that you were the reincarnated essence of an Ancient Amphipolitan Bard?" Xero asked as they stepped off the lift at her floor.
"Poteidaia, Gabrielle was from Poteidaia," Rielle corrected her.
"I started having vivid dreams a couple of months ago. Unusual at first, but they wouldn't go away. Then I started to do some research. The more I learned, the more things fit into place," the syscop explained as they walked down the hall to the older woman's apartment.
"I still don't see how it's possible to be reincarnated from a television show," Xero insisted.
"Not from a show, you big dumb hacker," she snapped. "The show was based on a collection of scrolls Janice Covington discovered in 1942, then later in 1961. The '42 Scrolls were hidden away until the '90s when they were used for the show."
Xero nodded as she ran her thumb over the door's ID patch. It unlocked and upon opening it her senses were immediately assaulted by the acrid smell of burnt hair and flesh. "What the fuck!" she gasped and ran inside.
Bat, or rather her charred remains, rigidly sat on the couch. Small tendrils of smoke still drifted off of her body. A flaming sword could clearly be seen rotating on the screen in front of her with the words Goodbye Xena below them. A green light was blinking on the portable drive indicating that it had just been backed up.
"That's Ares' symbol," Rielle said, pointing to the screen.
"What happened to her?" Xero whispered realizing her roommate was beyond dead. "She's grounded," the hacker noted the grounding wire trailing from band wrapped around the dead woman's wrist. "How could she have been zapped?"
"That is what I'm trying to explain," Rielle said softly. "Ares must have thought she was you, or he's just practicing. Xero, this is a god we're talking about. He's powerful."
Xero turned to her companion, her blue eyes flashing in sorrow and anger. "So now you're a Fundie?" she demanded. "Did you orchestrate this?" she growled as she advanced on the smaller woman. Wisely, Rielle backed up. "Rig the equipment? A syscop who works for Archive Corporation, maybe, is that it?" Backed against the wall, Rielle looked up into the face of her aggressor. She was much shorter than the hacker, her head only reaching just past the taller woman's shoulder. Craning her neck back she tried to remain calm as cold blue eyes bore into her. "I'll ask one more time, 'cop. Are you or are you not a bounty hunter?"
"Xero, you know I'm not," she said carefully. "You can see for yourself she's still smoking. She's only been dead a matter of minutes. I was with you. Do you honestly think I could construct a remote program that your friend wouldn't be able to disable?"
"She wasn't my friend," Xero muttered turning away.
Rielle looked again from the charred body to the woman who once was Xena. "What was she then?" she asked quietly.
"A good acquaintance," Xero answered with a shrug.
Walking over to where the taller woman stood, she put a comforting hand on her arm. "Even so, it isn't safe for you to stay here. Even if you don't believe what I've told you about Ares, surely a corpse in your apartment isn't something a hacker would care to explain, now is it?" Rielle asked seriously. "Why don't you come to my place. You can crash there tonight. Maybe in the morning you'll listen to some of what I have to say."
Xero nodded absently. The syscop was right. Bat's body would have to be tended to and there were too many unanswered questions for her to remain. She'd probably be implicated in the murder, although the authorities didn't worry too much about the death of a hacker. She would find whoever it was who did this, syscop or no syscop. Shaking her head, Xero grabbed a small bag and began to collect a few things.
First she picked up her portable system. After that she picked up the isolated drive that had been blinking. She grabbed a second pair of jeans and a shirt and some loose credit slips. When she'd added her wallet and mini discs, she was ready to go. "I should take Argo," she said as an afterthought.
"Argo?" Rielle asked, eyes wide.
"Yeah, Bat's iguana."
The syscop looked at the dead woman in wonder. Could she have been mistaken and contacted the wrong one? "This woman has a pet named Argo?" she asked to be sure. "Where did she get the name?"
"I don't know," Xero replied with a shrug as she headed for the bedroom that led off from the main living room. "I think she said she heard me mumble it in my sleep." She returned several minutes later with a large bright green reptile perched on her shoulder. The animal's body was about forty centimeters long, Rielle guessed, with a tail almost as long. "I don't know why, but Bat had a soft spot for lost causes," Xero explained as she put a container of food into her pocket.
"Is that why she lived with you?" Rielle asked.
Xero glared at her. "She lived with me because she worked for me. She put in long hours keeping my rig in shape. Besides, here she had some measure of protection against corporate thugs." Xero looked once again at the dead woman's body. "Apparently it wasn't enough." She made her way towards the door when she paused at the couch. Picking up Bat's antique baseball hat, she put it on and smiled sadly. "I'm going to find the thugs that did this," she whispered. "And when I do, they won't end up looking half as good as you." Cold blue eyes taking a final sweep around the small apartment, Xero realized that there was nothing else she needed, nothing else she could take with her. "Let's go," she muttered tightly to her companion.
"Here we are," Rielle said as she pushed open the heavy front door to her apartment. Xero already impressed by the prime location of the building. She was speechless at the spaciousness of the dwelling.
"How many people live here?" she asked, putting her heavy bag down on the overstuffed couch.
"I live alone," Rielle answered.
"I didn't know syscops did so well," Xero quipped, trying to mask her amazement. No one lived alone save the extremely wealthy. The fact that she only lived with one person spoke volumes about how well she did as a hacker.
"Yeah, well it belonged to my parents," Rielle explained, answering Xero's unasked question. "They both died a few years ago. The flat was already paid for."
Xero nodded and looked around. The place even had windows. Unable to resist, she strolled over and looked outside. At night the city lights sparkled brightly, making the South California skyline pulsate with glowing beauty. "Would you like something to drink?" Rielle called from the kitchen.
"Sure," Xero called back. "Whatever you've got." After moments spent in rapt fascination at the window, she was joined by the syscop.
"You mentioned spring water earlier, so I thought this would be okay," Rielle explained, handing her a glass of iced water.
"You seem to have everything here," Xero commented after long sip.
"I guess," Rielle replied, uncomfortable. "But I stand to lose it all, everyone stands to lose everything if you don't get your memory back and battle Ares."
"Are we on that again?" Xero asked, exasperated. "Look, kid. If this is a clever line you're using to get me in the sack, trust me you're trying way too hard."
"Is that what you think this is about? Fucking you?" Rielle stormed away from the window. "Xena must have looked long and hard to fine the densest, dumbest... most clueless body she could. Your friend is sitting burned to a crisp on your couch and you think I'm making a pass at you?"
"I'd be careful if I were you," Xero growled. "I'm in no mood to be taunted by some spoiled syscop who thinks she's bringing in the catch of the day. You don't play this game very well do you, Rielle? You pick me up in a dyke bar, give me this bullshit about past lives, throw in New Age Fundie crap with the god Ares and tell me I'm going to suddenly remember being a reformed warlord from Amphipolis!" As she turned she winced. Argo, losing his balance from her shoulder grabbed with a foreclaw, sharp nails digging into her exposed skin above the collar of the leather jacket.
"Here," Rielle offered moving to take the lizard from the taller woman's shoulder. "Why don't we put Argo down." Gently as she could, she put the big reptile down on the floor. The lizard was heavier than he looked.
"Thanks," Xero muttered.
"I'm sorry," Rielle replied. "Why don't you take some time. I'm sure there's someone you should notify about your fri... associate's death. I wish you'd trust me, but I realize that you think you can't. Still, I have to tell you that I've no intention of arresting you or turning you in. You're welcome to stay, the couch is yours. Make yourself at home. We can talk more about Xena and the other stuff in the morning." She turned away and walked toward the bedroom. "If you were serious about what you said earlier," she added turning back around. "About needing to jog your memory, I'll be in here."
Xero watched her go. The other woman made it clear that she was up for sex but didn't want it. No matter, Xero decided, she wasn't in the mood anyway. She wandered into the kitchen, opening up cupboards until she found a small bowl. She poured some of the spring water from her glass into the bowl and put it on the floor near the lizard. Pulling out her mobie unit, she keyed in the satellite codes for maximum encryption and called the 'Horn.
Wandering back to the window, she waited for the connection to link up. "IQ? This is Xero, put me through to Shadow." After a moment's pause she was connected. "Yeah, Shadow, it's Xero. Look, I've got bad news. Bat is dead. She was fried about an hour ago. I found her when I went home... No, I'm not there now. I'm... elsewhere. If she's got any family or anything, you need to let them know. I'm uploading the codes to my place. Security would just dump the body, she deserves better than that.... Thanks, Shadow, I appreciate it. Keep my place secure if you can. I'm going to track down whoever did this, I might need to go back and get some things... Okay, I will. Thanks again." Feeling numb, she broke the connection and put the mobie away. She looked around the stylishly decorated apartment, then headed for the couch. If the syscop was set on taking her in, Xero decided it was one way to see how good the young woman really was. She took off her boots, casually tossing them under the low table near the couch. Next she removed her jacket. While she was at it, she pulled out the small container of food pellets and put a few down on the floor for the lizard. She also extracted her small hand held flame thrower from a concealed pocket and put it on the table as well. Finally she took off her hat. She gazed at the faded picture of a cartoon mouse for long minutes, reverently tracing its outline with her finger. Shaking off the pensive reflection, she put the hat on the table as well. She laid down, stretching her long legs, flame thrower concealed in her right hand. With that ,and easy access to two knives, Xero realized that she was as safe as she could be under the circumstances. When she closed her eyes, sleep was almost instant.
...Xero looked around disoriented. She was standing in a board room dressed in her jeans and t-shirt with nothing on her feet.
"So glad you could make it," a firm voice said in greeting.
Looking up, Xero was startled to see two women sitting behind a polished black table. Both were dressed in old fashioned tuxedos, one of them looked a lot like her, the other looked like Rielle, the syscop.
"I must be dreaming," Xero said trying to make sense of her surroundings.
"The hacker catches on fast," the strawberry-blond continued. "We decided on formal wear for our first meeting, I hope that's okay with you. I am Janice Covington, and the ravishing creature next to me is Melinda Pappas."
"It's nice to meet you, Xero," Melinda said with a Southern accent.
"I never dream," Xero stated bluntly, wondering why she wasn't simply waking up.
"Believe me, that's been a major problem for us," Janice replied. "Fact is, this isn't going to be fun. The stuff Rielle is telling you is true. If you can stop thinking with your libido and refrain from bullying her you might learn something. Why don't you try listening for a change."
"I don't have to take this crap from you," Xero growled deciding she liked the syscop's look alike even less than the syscop.
"Auctually , Xero you do," Janice replied with a grin.
"What she means," Mel interjected, "is that you have to sleep. Now that we've reached you, we're going to keep at it."
"Look kid," Janice continued. "Ares is on the move, he offed that friend of yours. With our help we're going to see to it that you blow his sorry ass to kingdom-come."
"Janice!" Mel implored at her companion's harsh language.
"Relax, Mel!" Janice soothed. "I'm just trying to get through to the Warrior Princess over here. Xena, we need you to remember. We're going to do whatever it takes to see that you do remember. We didn't risk life and limb to have you forfeit the battle of the third age."
"Battle of the third age?" Xero mumbled.
"Gods she's slow," Janice groaned in frustration.
"Janice, please!" Mel implored. "She's been through a lot. It was hard getting through to Gabrielle too if you remember. Give her some time to get her bearings, get to know Rielle. At least let her say goodbye to her friend."
"I don't have any friends," Xero replied automatically.
"I never thought I'd meet someone who made Xena look well adjusted," Janice quipped. After getting an icy glare from Mel she continued in a rush, "Alright, you've been through a lot. We won't get started right now. Rest up some, but start thinking. Search your feelings. You are more than you imagine. Get in touch with what's beyond you. We can't help you if you don't help us."
"Whaaa..." Xero looked around the dimly lit room. The lights had dimmed automatically with her inactivity. Something felt odd but she couldn't quite describe it. She checked her watch, she'd been asleep for three hours. Mildly surprised that the syscop had not in fact tried to arrest her, she sat up and stretched. Absently she considered that the young woman may have been telling the truth after all, far fetched as it sounded. Putting her weapons on the coffee table with the baseball hat, she silently walked over to the bedroom door.
Rielle was sleeping on her side, facing the door on the far side of the bed. Staying as far away as possible from me, no doubt. Xero considered. When she crossed the room and picked up the bed cover the other woman's eyes flew open with a start.
"What is it?" Rielle asked worried, frightened.
"Relax, Rielle. I'm not after your virtue. I think the couch is uncomfortable, it made me have a weird dream. I'm sleeping here," the hacker mumbled as she slid under the covers.
"Weird dream you say?" Rielle asked, the hint of a small smile tugging at her lips.
"Yeah," Xero muttered. "These two women in tuxedos. It's nothing. Lemme sleep."
Rielle's smile broadened as she watched her companion slip into slumber. Realizing that things might just work out after all, the smile remained as she too drifted off to sleep.
Well for now anyway. Stay tuned for UberMadness (The Battle For The Third Age)...