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The tear gas canister burst through the window of the rough-hewn mountain cabin in a shower of sparks. It rolled on the packed earthen floor as the irritating cargo it was sent to deliver hissed from the cracked cylinder. The lone occupant of the crude fortress immediately responded to the familiar odor, coughing and wheezing, as he donned the gas mask always carried in a pack on his back in readiness for the inevitable attack on his compound. He fired the last few rounds of his dwindling stock of ammunition through the same window to provide cover as he made his final exit through the barricaded back door of the cabin and into the thick woods.
"Give up your weapons, Brown, and surrender immediately or be shot down like the red-neck dog you are!"
The voice of the commander of the FBI Contraband Weapons Force resounded from the bullhorn and through the thick pine cover surrounding the isolated compound. "You know that the Feds banned the ownership of weapons by private citizens years ago. You are in violation of the change made to the Constitution by the Bleeding Heart Party of the all new Socialist government of the United States. Come out now and I promise you'll be sent to a Rehabilitation Camp for Survivalists. You'll be changed into a model peaceful, compliant citizen."
Empty long-necked beer bottles crashed to the floor as Jerry Patrick Brown sat bolt upright in his bed from a troubled sleep, dripping sweat and screaming "NO...not my guns....not my guns! Breathing in great gasps from the exertion of his terror-filled thrashing, his eyes gradually adjusted to the dim light of the dawn, until they focused on a form standing at the foot of his bed, muscled arms crossed over his massive chest. The rosy tones of the early morning light fell on his jet-black hair and illuminated the wicked grin on his chiseled face.
"Morning, Jerry...have pleasant dreams? A sample of Morpheus' handiwork in a favor to me, but it's just a sample of what will really happen if you fail me again." His dark-fire eyes narrowed in anger as he spat out the last words in a low growl.
"Ares... it's been a while. What can I do for you? You seem a little pissed off."
"You moron.... You're the head writer--Did you really think I'd be pleased about the way this season is going? You and the other dickheads totally dropped the ball with the Dahak thing. You made me look like a sniveling coward - the all-powerful God of War switching sides and then totally bailing out. You never did explain the reasons for it or show what really happened with Dahak. You made Xena totally wack out like some damned witchy woman and even put reindeer horns on her head! Could you have screwed that whole thread up anymore than you did? Is that even possible? Then you all did some kind of mind-altering drugs one night and came up with those totally lame excuses why Hope and Gabrielle survived the lava pit! And you think I'm just a LITTLE pissed off!"
Jerry ducked a bolt of blue flame that shot over his head and tore through the moose antler headboard, leaving a singed, smoking hole in the bedroom wall, right below his gun rack and ammo belts.
"Ares-wait-give me another chance. It was Tapert that made us write all that crap. He wanted us to make Lucy the focus of the shows, so we had to do it. He thought the Celtic and Norse gods would liven up the show and make Herc the logical one to destroy Dahak. I didn't know he was planning to kill Iolaus. It wasn't my fault...I was deer hunting the week they wrote that stuff. You gotta believe me!"
"Greek gods are what made these shows successful and suddenly they aren't GOOD ENOUGH for you idiots! You think the women who drool over me in all my War God glory are suddenly going to be happy with Thor the dimwit and Loki, of the poor bleach job? What is it with the hairdressers on these shows? Do they intentionally try to make us look like the 'before' pictures in the Miss Clairol ads?"
Ares walked around to the dresser and picked up Jerry's paintball gun, inspecting the detailing on the rifle stock and running his fingers over the notches cut into the butt. He turned to face Jerry as he held the gun in one hand and a flame flared from his other palm.
"A small sacrifice to appease me seems to be in order, Jerry. This will do nicely given how attached to it you are. The sacrifice of your beloved weapon of choice to the glory of the God of War in atonement for your writing lapses...yes...I like it." He held the wooden butt of the rifle over the flame in his palm until it charred in the intense heat.
"Please, Ares...no...not that one. My father gave it to me when I was eight. I'll make it right, I swear. Tell me what you want me to do."
Ares' left eyebrow arched and a small grin returned to his glowering face as he closed his fist to extinguish the flame and blew on the smoldering rifle stock to cool it.
"Much better attitude, my friend, a wise decision on your part. I can't imagine you living in a world filled with Socialism and a global One-World economy. You wouldn't fit in there very well, Jerry. No guns, no beer, and no Vanna White turning letters in those low-cut dresses on 'Wheel of Fortune'. All your favorite things gone, Jerry, to say nothing of the world's dwindling supplies of chewing tobacco and pork rinds. All that would be left would be brown rice, tofu, and leftover hippies promoting all that flowerchild love-and -world peace propaganda. And all I have to do is start one little minor uprising between a couple of insignificant Third World countries for the great old busybody United Nations to stick their noses into -and poof...another Vietnam or Afghanistan. Pretty soon the anti-war protests will begin and it'll be just like the Sixties. You hated the Sixties... remember, Jerry?" His deep, resonant laugh raised goosebumps on Jerry's arms.
"All right...all right...I'll fix it with Tapert. I'll convince him to re-write the rest of the season. You'll be back as the baddest God of War yet. And you'll be the one to take Dahak out...I swear! There's a staff meeting today to plan the season finale. Just please, don't make me eat tofu!"
"Fail me again and your next job will be writing sales blurbs for the Eplilady on the Home Shopping Club!"
The angered War God disappeared in a single fireball as the paintball gun he had been holding clattered to the tile floor.
"Melissa! Get me some stick donuts...how do you expect me to write without stick donuts..."
Rob Tapert's voice boomed through the noisy conference room bringing the meeting to attention as he rummaged through the trays of breakfast pastries on the mahogany sideboard. It was nearly 10:00 a.m. in the sunny southern California morning, yet practically the middle of the night for that locale and for these participants in an emergency meeting called by the executives of Renaissance Pictures. A emergency had occurred in the last few days, the only situation which could have possibly gotten the attention of the studio executives diverted from their golf games, mistresses and polo matches - the ratings of their two cash-cow series had begun to plummet, threatening the
cancellation of both Hercules and Xena. Something had to be done before the fans of the shows revolted by switching their channels to "Night Man" and "Highlander - The Raven". If that happened, they all might have to give up their Malibu beach houses and BMW's and actually get a job - a thought too horrible to contemplate.
"Peopleà..let's get started with this." Tapert called the meeting to order and took his seat at the head of the conference table as his ever-faithful assistant, Melissa, she of the low paying and unappreciated support staff ranks, placed a silver tray of crullers within his reach.
"Here you go, Rob... the closest thing to long and hard that you've seen since you married Lucy. Enjoy!"
She smiled her ever-present ambiguous smile at him and hesitated to see if he caught the inference for once. She needn't have waited; as usual the dig went right over his uncomprehending head. Closing the double doors behind her, she giggled to herself as she caught Liz Friedman's wink.
All the players were present: Liz Friedman, Paul Robert Coyle, Alex Kurtzman, Beth Hymson, Roberto Orci, and B.S. Hollingfoffer, all The Powers That Be, as they were called by the fans. In that conference room sat the entire creative brain trust for Renaissance Pictures, those who could make or break the success of any action/adventure series that had been dreamed up by schizophrenics writers on bad acid trips. They had been called together to stop a revolt of the fans that had been rapidly fomenting over the declining quality of the storylines and writing of the two series in the current season. Horrible signs of the approaching Apocalypse were now evident: the sales of the recently introduced Xena and Gabrielle dolls had never taken off - in fact, Tapert had been mailed a Xena doll with an Amazon arrow stick in her over-sized chest and miniature reindeer antlers from some hacked-up Christmas decoration glued to her head. Luckily, he had gone to the mailbox that day and Lucy never saw the monstrosity. It wouldn't do for her to know how the fans really felt about the Alti thread. Hordes of frenetic fans of the God of War had organized protests at every Creation Con, chanting "ARES...ARES....ARES" every time the speakers tried to discuss the coming episodes of the new season. And the most ominous foretelling sign of future misery had finally occurred - the Hercules and Xena Net Forums had been taken over from Universal Studios by fans, incredulous and angry that their Iolaus, the sweet yet strong golden hunter, was to be replaced by the Sovereign's buffoon from the alternate universe. Their angry posts filled the bandwidth of the Forum, over-loading the circuits and causing the World Wide Web to disintegrate into unsearchable chaos. Astute as ever in the decisions he made in the series' plotlines, Tapert had decided to act. After all, Lucy wasn't pregnant yet and she needed SOMETHING to occupy herself while she waited to become the next Meryl Streep.
Unheralded to the mortal participants in the meeting, they had been joined by the very characters for which they wrote. Their apparent dissatisfaction in their characterizations clearly evident on their faces, the characters were a glum lot as they watched the proceedings and talked among themselves.
"Can you believe they actually gave me HEAD LICE this year? Tell me what's so funny about head lice? I should be fighting off your advances, not picking nits out of my head! And could they have made me look more ridiculous this season... making me dance around a bonfire with antlers on my head, like some "Dances With Wolves" wannabe? What happened to us, Ares, we were so great sparring with each other. Do they really think the fans want to see me fight some wacko cult woman named Najara or has Tapert really just joined the Moonies and he's afraid of being deprogrammed by his parents?"
"I know, my dear, we belong together. I thought that might happen at last if I got to save Gabrielle from the lava pit and you would be so grateful that you would join me to fight Dahak. You might have even figured out at last of my brilliant plan to con Dahak into thinking I was serving him then betraying him in the last battle for supremacy. But NO-O-O-O-O...what did they do? They sent you off to some tangent about the wrong you did to the Amazons and just left me hanging - no explanation, no chance to redeem myself, just a bunch of pissed off Amazons and more threads that they left hanging. It all started to go downhill when they made me kneel to Dahak. I won't soon forget that, and I will have my revenge. The God of War kneels to no one!"
Ares pounded the table with one massive fist causing a glass of ice water to fall into Tapert's lap. Luckily, Rob's ever-present rubber wading pants prevented any damage. As he wiped the wetness from his lap, he looked up and inquired, "Anyone else feel that 'quake? Must have been about a 4.2."
Ares shook his head slowly and commented to the amusement of the others: "Well.. we always knew he had nothing in his head to speak of, now we know he's got nothing in his pants either!"
On the other side of the conference room, Joxer and Iolaus were commiserating about their fates.
"They signed me to 22 eps this season and they 're paying me to get fungus medicine for Gabrielle and Rid for Xena. They're wasting good money while I sit at home and wait for a funny episode to turn up. Last year, I got 3 naked dancing Gabrielles in a cave and I got to be the big hero with the hind's blood covered dagger. This year, I get to be the delivery boy!"
"Hey at least they didn't decide to kill you off and then turn you into Dahak. Now the rumor is that they're bringing me back as the alternate universe Iolaus. I finally found the woman I love and they kill me off only to send my best friend off looking for me. When he finds me, I try to kill him too. Now THAT'S entertainment!"
Hercules' booming voice caught their attention as they overheard snippets of his comments to Ares and Xena, made in an unusually boisterous tone.
"First they send me off to Ireland for some unknown reason, maybe Tapert wanted a vacation trip to Ireland for 'research' to write off his taxes as a business expense. Then they send me off to the fucking icebox of the world, Scandinavia! Yep, fucking cold-as-a streetwalker's ass, Scandinavia! Can you believe this shit?"
Ares' eyebrows showed clear surprise at Hercules' new vocabulary.
"By the gods, Brother, I've never heard you use such language! Do you kiss your mother with that mouth?" Ares grinned and flashed his dimples at Xena as he tormented his brother.
"Hey... they wanted me darker and badder this year...they got it. Right after we finish here, I'm going out to get drunk and find a hooker. Like they made me say, 'No more Mister Nice Guy'. Wait until they find out Morigann gave me the clap too!"
Ares slapped his brother on the back and the rest of the characters turned around in amazement to hear him comment "Brother...I think I like the NEW you!"
"All right, my over-paid staff, the ratings are in the toilet. Mr. Hollingfofer says this is it for both shows unless the ratings get back to the top. And Lucy will have my nuts on a plate if Xena gets canceled. No wait...we did that last night. Make that she won't give me any and all that Viagra I take will just get pissed down the toilet. And I don't need to tell you all where you'll be if you have to get real writing jobs. I hear the Donny and Marie talk show is hiring! C'mon peopleà work with me..."
Ares moved into place behind Jerry Patrick Brown and poked him in the shoulder blades. <"NOW! You asshole...tell him about me taking out Dahak or I swear you'll be writing the next Snuggle Bear commercial!" > He hissed into Jerry's ear.
"Uh.. Rob? Got an idea..."
"Well... Let's hear it. And try to remember whose wife needs to be the star of the show!" Xena stuck her tongue into Rob's ear at that remark in approval as he nervously adjusted the collar on his L.L. Bean flannel shirt.
"Rob, I've been thinking..."
"There's a revelation for ya!" Paul Coyle whispered to Liz Friedman.
"We screwed up the finale of last season on both shows. And then we didn't do anything to explain what we did this season. There are enough loose threads to knit a sweater. The fans want us to fix that."
"Go on, Einstein..tell us something we don't already know. But don't you think Lucy was spectacular on the 'Sin Trade' eps?"
"Of course she was, Rob, and that's what the fans want to see...even more Super Xena and while we're at it, why don't we just kill off some more of the most favorite characters so Lucy has all the show to herself to show off her spectacular talents. Killing off Callisto and Strife was pure genius... and now killing off Iolaus just proves to the world what a mega-intellect you are. Maybe we should think about doing another ep like 'The Bitter Suite' - except instead of dancing with Ares to show her attraction to him, she could just do it in front of a mirror and sing to herself!" Liz rolled her eyes in disgust as Callisto whispered into her ear "You go, girlfriend!" as Alex and Roberto burst into giggles and Beth Hymson murmured "gonna be a long day..."
"Just what would you have us do to fix things, Jerry?" Tapert asked, pointedly ignoring Liz's sarcastic remarks.
"Jesus, Rob...everyone with half a brain knows that Ares has to be the one to take out Dahak. He was the only one who could have saved Gabrielle from the lava pit...it's a sure bet that Callisto didn't do it and why would Dahak do it when Gabrielle pushed Hope into it. It had to be part of Ares' master plan to betray Dahak and make Xena come back to him. And what was that bullshit all about that we wrote for the finale of Hercules last year. We had Ares and Hercules in the fight to end all fights, brother against brother, for Zeus' life, and we actually expect the fans to believe that Ares would just walk away from a chance to kill both Zeus and Hercules on Hera's orders? Come on, no wonder the fans are sending you hate mail!"
<"Tell them I liked kicking down that tavern door- that's the proper way for the God of War to make an entrance! You wrote that, didn't you, Jerry I LIKED that!" Ares slapped him on the back as he continued. >
"Ares' fans are fed up with him losing every fight to mortals like Xena and Hercules. Why- Ares could kick Thor's Nordic ass in a New York minute! And while, we're at it, they want him to take off that vest once in a while. Don't gods EVER sweat? And give him a little more sexual tension with someone besides Discord. After all, he's not known for fucking farm animals and she's still a chicken!"
<"Good, Jerry...I'm pleased. The fucking part was brilliant. Yeah...give me some hot babes to fuck once in a while. Let's start with Gabrielle... work on that Jerry and there's a new Hummer in it for ya!" Ares smirked his approval.>
"Hey! Wait a minute! What about Callisto? She kinda got the short end of the stick in 'Sacrifice'. Do you know how much of a fan base she has? They want her back. Whadda think Rob?"
<"Whoo hoo, girl! You said it...get me back and I'll put some hind's blood on Tapert's razor blade. You'd like that gold plate hanging on his office door to say 'Liz Friedman, Executive Producer' now wouldn't you, Liz?" Callisto stuck her tongue out in retaliation at Ares' smirk as she coached her protege.>
"Get off it, Liz. I know how you stick up for Callisto, but get with it, girl, she's dead and she's staying dead. Hudson made it very clear she doesn't want to play the part again. Besides, she always stole the show from Lucy and we can't have that! Melissa..get in here. I need you!" Tapert yelled into the intercom sitting at his place.
"You screeched, boss?" Melissa asked as she took her place at the table beside Tapert. "What is it you require from me?"
"You're a common person. Tell me as best you can in your limited writing knowledge, just what you think we can do to fix these shows. Don't try to impress me with your vocabulary, just tell me straight."
Everyone at the table, from B. S. Hollingfofer to Paul Robert Coyle leaned forward to hear her answer, knowing Melissa was the real creative force behind her boss, although she was never given credit for her ideas. Tapert took the credit for that.
"Well...since I am no where near as astute in these matters as you, Rob, let me just tell you in monosyllable words, what I think the problem is. I guess a Magna cum Laude degree with honors from the USC film school sure doesn't make me an expert in filmmaking, but here goes. First of all, what the fuck is Hercules doing in Ireland and Scandinavia? He's a Greek hero for Christsake, get him back where he belongs. You've forgotten he's a good guy, and he needs to deal with the Greek gods, not the Norse gods who live in the frozen North. Just when do you think he'll ever take his shirt off and chop wood up there? DUH? Do you really think all these slobbering women watch the shows just to see the plots? Get a clue what the women want, Rob, and it ain't Xena making out with Gabs! Get Callisto back and let her and Ares roll around the Temple floor like sex-crazed weasels, but show it this time, you dork! Everyone but Xena wants to fuck Ares - so let them! And just what the hell is her problem, anyway? Is her breastplate too tight and it's constricting the flow of blood to her brain or what? How can she not want him? Everyone else does! And Jerry's right, let Ares win a few fights. We know you're not married to HIM, but tell Lucy it's for the good of the show! He's a GOD! How is it that both Xena and Herc can beat him up, but this cult-babe, Najara, can flatten Xena on her ass? Ever heard of continuity, Rob? No wonder the fans are revolting. And fire all the hairdressers on both sets...it's obvious they're blind anyway! Find some that can actually READ a color chart before they dump the dye on! Was there a reason Loki's hair glowed in the dark? Sheesh! He looked like a punk rocker in a bad documentary about heroin abuse. And one more thing, Rob, get Joel back to play Strife. That was idiocy to kill him off. Find some way to bring him back through time travel...for gods sake don't use that lame excuse that you used for 'Dallas' when you wrote for that show that it was all just a dream!"
The silence in the room was deafening as they looked at each other and then back at Tapert for a reaction, as Melissa left to answer the ringing phone.
<Ares turned to Hercules and said "I always liked that girl... she's smart as well as beautiful. I think she's about to get a big promotion!" Hercules nodded his agreement.>
B.S. Hollingfoffer broke the silence by slapping the table with his ever-present golf club as he pointed it at Rob. "She's right, Tapert! We're all idiots...you especially! I want Melissa promoted to Senior Executive Producer and she's in charge of all storylines from now on. You don't make a move without checking with her, do you understand? I want these shows fixed now or your next job will be as my pool boy. Now get busy with it and call my limo. I'll give you until the end of the season. If the rating aren't up and the fans aren't happy, you'll finish out your very lucrative contract writing puppet shows for my kids. Got it?"
Rob slumped down in his chair, burying his head in his hands. "Better order some pizzas...it's going to be a long night."
(or is it really just the beginning?)