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Another Time and Place

By Caro Roberts

 

A lab. All the places I could be knockin' over, an' I'm collectin' chips I don't care about in a place I don't like fer a project I don't understand. Damn, I'm good. Rio turned away from the microchips they were supposed to picking up and surveyed the lab room they'd broken into. An' all on a stupid dare. So Cutter don't think we got the finesse fer technology, eh? I'm gonna wave these chips in 'is face, then shove 'em where the sun don't shine...

She stopped as she noticed something interesting in the corner. Leaving Jedar to gather up the chips, she wandered over to the large...thing...and stared up at it. It looked rather like a mound of spare parts just tossed together, but the intricate security system surrounding it belied that impression. "Hey, Jedar, c'me 'ere an' take a look at this..."

Jedar glanced over his shoulder, raising an eyebrow at the contraption. "What in the name of Drake is that?" He came up behind her, noticing the barely visible light-beams surrounding it. "I judge that it's not an expensive trash compactor."

She grinned and nudged him. "Wanna find out? The security don't look too tough. Not fer us, anyway." Still feeling rather puffed-up with their success at getting through the lab's intricate security system, she was ready to take on any system, just to prove she could.

"Oh, I don't know," he said doubtfully, giving the machine a rather suspicious look. "I'm sure we could. We just don't know what it does. I don't really want to end my life a gray smear on some lab wall."

"If it were lethal," she pointed out, "they wouldn't keep it out here where someone who didn't know what he was doini' could get himself fried, now would they? An' wouldn't ya love ta go home an' be the first ta tell Cutter about some new technological breakthrough when ya show him the chips? Wouldn't ya?"

Jedar considered this for a moment, and finally grinned. "Yes, I suppose so. So long as you're the one volunteering as lab rat."

Rio grinned back; she'd known that he'd give in. "Fine. I take the risk, I get the glory." She started disarming the security.

"Glory?" he asked, still looking faintly doubtful. "Well, I'll make sure they write that on your headstone, in that case. 'She got the glory'."

"Don' be such a worrywort, Jed. If ya really thought it was gonna fry me, ya wouldn't just stand there an' let me do it, an' we both know that." She finished disarming the security and walked toward the 'thing.' For all her bravado, she was still being cautious--like Jedar, she had no great desire to end life as a smear on the wall. Cutter would never stop laughing, and she wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of winning their bet. Behind her, Jedar threw up his arms.

"All right, all right, I'll keep my opinions to myself. Push it out into the center here so we can take a look at it."

The machine was shoved up tight in the corner, and Rio had to squeeze in behind it, then brace her legs against the wall and push back just to get it to move an inch. "Why," she grunted, "am I the one doin' all the work? Ye're stronger'an I am, come gimme a hand!"

"Because it was your idea," he pointed out, but nevertheless ducked around to the side and helped her pull it out. Squinting slightly, he peered at what looked like a chessboard of buttons and dials on the side, trying to read the writing above it, but their smuggler's lantern just didn't give them enough light to read by. "Rio, could you step out of the light for a moment? The lamp's not giving much to begin with."

"'Ere, I'll get the switch. As soon as I find the damn thing..." She felt along the walls, then accidentally bumped against the smooth side of the machine. It felt like the wall; she couldn't tell the difference. "Ah, here it is." She flipped the first switch her hand came across.

And then there was light! Unfortunately, the light was coming from the machine, as was the increasingly loud whine of something powering up. "Rio, what did you do?!" Jedar demanded, stepping back hurriedly.

"I flipped the light switch!" She paused as a horrible thought occurred to her. "Or...what I thought was the light switch..." She held up her hands in response to his look. "It was dark, I couldn't tell the difference!"

"Great. Flip it again, turn it off!"

"I'm goin', I'm goin'!" She moved for the switch, but she was just a hair too late. The ray turned in their direction and gave off a blast of energy, dousing both of them.

*****

Jedar picked himself up cautiously, one hand on his saber as he half-way expected to be blasted at any moment. When nothing happened, he straightened the rest of the way up and helped Rio to her feet. She dusted herself off, looking around the darkened alley suspiciously. "Where are we?"

"I have no idea. There's something...vaguely familiar about it, though."

"Yeah...yeah, ye're right there." She couldn't resist teasing him, and so added, "Fer once."

He glanced at her, but didn't bother to reply. Something else had caught his attention.

The alley they'd landed in was, predictably, dark and dingy. Somehow they never managed to end up in clean places. But then, he was getting the feeling that there was no clean place in the city. Even compared to Keltor, it was dirty, and that was saying something. The air was so smoggy it seemed almost solid. Everything was a uniform dirty gray, as if someone had covered the whole area in gray paint--or maybe smoke. The buildings were squat and tumbled-down, looking as if touching a wall would make them collapse. There was a general air of neglect and decay around, but that wasn't what Jedar was interested in. He took a few steps to the entrance of the alley, after glancing up and down the street to make sure no one saw him. The area was deserted, which for some reason only made him feel more nervous. "Rio, come look at this."

"What up?" She moved over to stand next to him, absently brushing herself off, as if trying to get rid of the darkness that seemed to cling to everything, including them.

"Look." Jedar pointed to the skyline. "Look at those buildings. If you take that one away and add a few stories to that one..."

She stared speechlessly for a moment. "Keltor. We ain't left. Oh, damn, another universe. We should get frequent flyer miles."

"It could be worse."

"How could it be worse?"

"I'm not entirely sure, I'm working on that."

"Well, thanks, I feel lots better now." She looked up and down the street again, trying to get her bearings. "If we are where we think we are, the Lair should be in that direction." She pointed down the street to their left.

"Yes, it should be, but are we sure we want to see what it's like now? For all we know, it could be a guild of assassins, or...anything. It might not even be there."

"I still think it's important that we check. Ain't ya curious? Even a little bit?"

"Well, of course I'm curious." Even as they talked, they started walking almost on automatic. "But that doesn't mean I want to get killed for it. You know what they say about fels and curiosity..."

"We don't even have ta go in. We'll be able ta tell if the Brotherhood's there just by looking for the symbols."

"Well....I suppose you're right."

"A' course." She grinned and nudged him. He snorted but made no comment.

The hockey rink was right where it should have been. Unfortunately, it was no longer standing. They stopped in shock, staring at the rubble that should have been their home. "Holy Drake," Rio breathed. "What happened ? It looks like a hurricane took it out, or an earthquake, or an..." They stopped and looked at each other.

"Explosion," they said at the same time, then ran to the ruins and started frantically digging at the mound of debris. After almost an hour of hard labor, they managed to uncover a tunnel leading down to what would have been the Lair. Jedar started to go down, but Rio stopped him.

"'Ere, let me. I'm smaller, I'll fit better." He started to protest, but knew that she was right and so moved to the side. "Damn, this is tight," she grunted, lowering herself carefully down. "Lemme know if you see anyone comin'," she called, then disappeared. Feeling more than a little nervous, Jedar paced back and forth, constantly checking up and down the empty street. It couldn't have been much more than nine or ten o'clock, but there was absolutely no one out on the streets. It didn't seem natural.

He jumped as a bloodcurdling scream echoed from behind him. "Rio?!" He ran to back toward the tunnel as Rio came stumbling out, pale and shaking. She all but ran into him, and probably would have run past him if he hadn't caught her and held her still. "What's wrong? What'd you find?"

She gasped for breath, trying to get back under control. "Drake, Jedar, that's--that's the Lair, all right--an' it was full when the explosion went off." She closed her eyes tightly, trying to block out the mental image. "The bodies are still there ta prove it."

"But--Nylessa!" He moved to go down himself, but she grabbed his arm.

"Jedar--don't. Don't put yerself through it. It ain't...pretty."

He looked back at the ruins again, then turned away. "They're all dead?"

"Don't see how anyone coulda survived." She shuddered. "I wonder if...we were in there."

"I wonder who did it."

"Enforcers?" Rio hazarded.

"Maybe, but a general bomb wouldn't be their style. They'd want to go in and pick us off themselves."

"Okay, then who?"

"I don't know, but I intend to find out. Look around, Rio. What's missing?"

She looked around, then shrugged. "I dunno, what?"

"People. There are no cars, no pedestrians, no lights in the windows. It's deserted."

"Now that ya mention it....ye're right. We ain't seen a single person since we showed up. Why?"

As if in answer to their questions, two beams of light cut through the darkness as two men who could only have been some kind of police rounded the corner. They wore uniforms like police, but their heavy armor and the huge guns they were carrying indicated that they were probably somewhat more lethal than mere peace-keepers. "Hey! Hey, you two! What are you doing out after curfew?"

Unable to run--not without being shot at, at least--they stayed still and exchanged glances. Curfew, eh? That explains the lack of people... One of the guards came closer, shining his light right into Jedar's eyes. He blinked and looked away, blinded. The guard's jaw dropped. "Stormwing! Sir! We're sorry, we didn't know it was--" He stopped when he caught sight of Rio. "Commander deJeneiro! We're sorry, we couldn't see it was you, it was dark, we thought you were just violating--we didn't know--" He continued babbling on, as if he were afraid for his life. Rio could only stare. Who AM I in this dimension? The guards seemed to be waiting for her to say something, so she scrambled for a response that seemed to be in keeping with the impression they had of her.

"That's no excuse!" she snarled, wondering which accent would be best to use. Her normal Keltorian? Ingallish? Thrannian, perhaps? She settled for plain Remaican. "What do you think I'm going to do to you for this?"

The guards looked at each other, then the first one said hesitantly, "Kill us?"

Rio blinked. Kill two men, just because they'd been trying to do their jobs? Was she actually capable of doing that? Somethin' tells me we ain't quite in Keltor anymore... "Do you know what the penalty for what you just did is?"

"Uh..." They looked at each other again. Evidently ignorance was punishable here, too. "No?"

"You'll find out." She put as much venom as she could into the words. Evidently her impersonation of 'herself' was accurate enough, because the guards quailed. I've gotta be some kinda monster... "You'll escort us back for now, I'll be informing your supervision of this--incident--later."

"Uh--yes, ma'am." They hesitated, probably waiting for her to take the lead. Since she didn't know where they were going, she had no intention of doing that.

"Well? What're you waiting for? Get going, move!" They jumped and started hurrying down the street, glancing back fearfully. "Eyes front! Hell, isn't there any discipline in the ranks anymore?! I said move!" The guards looked like they were about to start running, but didn't quite dare. They were, however, out of earshot, so they dared to attempt to have a conversation.

"You seem to be playing your part well," Jedar said softly, keeping his voice down and watching the guards out of the corner of his eye. "Have you had previous experience as a tyrant?"

"Shut it," she grumbled, thought without any real force. "I don't know what the hell I'm doin.' Jed, they honestly thought I was gonna kill 'em...just fer doin' their jobs! What kinda world is this?"

"I don't know. I seem to be saying that a lot lately. I just hope we don't find out the hard way. If we run into our doubles, or someone who knows us a bit better than these two soldiers, we could be in a lot of trouble."

"Could be in a lotta trouble? Jed, we are in a lotta trouble!"

"Well, in more trouble then."

"We're here, Commander."

They stopped abruptly and tried to hide their surprised looks. From all appearances, the guards had lead them to a nondescript military-style bunker. Rio felt a flash of suspicion. Did they suspect...? "Uh, right. Dismissed." They saluted smartly and left. If they DO suspect, they're doin' a damn good job a' hidin' it. There were two more guards there, one on either side of the door. They snapped to attention as Rio and Jedar passed, nodding to them as if this were normal. With witnesses right there, they didn't dare explore the camp--they had to walk into the bunker.

The unbearably bright light inside blinded them for a moment, and they blinked quickly, trying to get their eyes to readjust. Jedar's instincts were screaming that this was the perfect set up for a trap, but he couldn't DO anything about it until he could see again. Finally his watering eyes functioned again, and he could see without squinting.

There were no guards pointing guns at him, which was a momentary relief. At least they weren't going to die just yet. Rio's eyesight was evidently back to normal, as well, as she was already creeping down one of the hallways. With nothing better to do, Jedar followed her. "Do you know where you're going?" he hissed.

"No idea," she whispered back. "But it's gotta be better'an standin' there waitin' ta be found. Maybe we can find out somethin' about what kinda place this is. " She started to round a corner, then stopped and backpedaled so suddenly that she ran into him. "Guards," she gasped in response to his muffled protest. They pressed back against the way, trying to figure out what to do next. Jedar turned to go back the way they came. She caught his arm. "What're ya doin'?"

"We obviously can't go this way, we might as well double back."

"We don't know that. I've got an idea."

"I'm terrified."

"Ya should be." She peeked around the corner again, then steeled her nerves. "I'm gonna try bluffin'. If it works, follow. If it don't, run like hell."

"Rio..."

She'd already slipped around the corner, and all he could do was wait and hope that she didn't get blasted. After a moment, he heard one of the guard's voices. "Commander deJeneiro! What...what are you doing here?"

"What do you mean, what am I doing here? I have the perfect right to be!"

"Well, yes ma'am, but we let you through just fifteen minutes ago--"

"Are you questioning me, soldier?" Rio's voice had dropped to a low, menacing tone.

"No!"

"'No', what?"

"Ma'am no ma'am!"

"That's better."

She's enjoying this far too much, Jedar thought with a wry grin, deciding that she evidently had things under control enough that he could follow. He rounded the corner, and was irrationally pleased to note that the guards were standing at strict attention. Whoever Rio was in this universe, she was obviously well-respected--or at least feared. The guards moved to the side and let them pass, not daring to say anything else. By the time the door shut behind them, Rio was having a hard time keeping down a grin.

"This is actually kinda fun."

"Well, don't get too used to it," he warned. "We don't know who or what you're impersonating--or how they'll react when they find out that they've got a double running around. Judging from what we've seen so far, I'd guess not well."

"That's a very good guess."

The voice came from behind them, and it was familiar, yet somehow--not. They turned, and found themselves looking into the eyes of Rio's double. And she had ten guards at her back. All of which were armed.

"Hell!"

"Rio, go!" She was already running, and Jedar was right on her heels. They pounded down the corridor, hearing gun blasts erupting behind them. Black marks appeared on the walls around them when the shots hit indirectly, and holes opened up when they hit directly. Whatever those guns were, they were powerful, and Jedar didn't particularly like the thought of being shot by one of them.

They rounded a corner, running full-out--and almost ran into a wall. "Hell," Rio spat again. "Dead end!" They spun around, but found themselves facing a wall of guards. "Well. We're screwed."

"Correct." The guards parted to let Rio's double walk through. They had the same height, the same build, and the same coloring, but there the similarities ended. 'Commander deJeneiro' was dressed in some kind of military uniform, all spit-and-polish. Her hair was pulled back in a neat bun, mostly hidden under her hat. But the most obvious change was the cruel, slightly unbalanced look in her eyes. Whatever else this woman was, she was not sane. "I don't suppose it would do much good to ask who you are."

"Ya already know who we are."

"Not the way I want to. When I heard that there were some strangers running around, I certainly wasn't expecting...this." 'Commander deJeneiro' was practically ignoring Rio, eyeing Jedar in a way that he really didn't like. "Well. Take the girl to holding cell 312. I'll take him with me."

"Girl?!" Rio snorted in disbelief. She didn't even have time to protest before two of the guards grabbed her arms. She instinctively started to fight, but before she could so anything one of the guards pressed something against her neck, and she abruptly went limp.

Jedar gasped and stepped toward her, but deJeneiro held up her hand in a warning motion. "Don't worry about her. She's fine, just sedated. Can't have her fighting, I have feeling she might win. You'll see her again." She nodded toward the guards, who started dragging Rio callously away, as if she were a sack of potatoes. deJeneiro turned back to Jedar and raised an eyebrow at him. "You'll come to my office. I have a feeling that I have a lot to...learn...from you."

He didn't dare protest, not with eight armed guards glaring at him. With a glance back in the direction Rio had been taken, he reluctantly followed her double down the opposite corridor.

*****

When Rio woke up, she was mildly surprised to find that her head didn't hurt.

Well, first off, she was mildly surprised that she woke up at all. Not only did that mean that she wasn't dead--at least not yet--it also meant that someone had knocked her out. Which she didn't remember. And, in her experience, when one got knocked out, one usually woke up with a headache at least the size of Remaica. Squared.

She sat up cautiously, one hand on her temple in case a wave of pain came crashing down on her. None did, so she dared to swing herself around so that she was sitting on the edge of her bunk, and looked around at the cell she found herself deposited in.

It wasn't bad, as cells went. Everything was white; boring, but clean. There was one largish bed, which she was sitting on, and no other furniture. There was a little room in the back, and as soon as she felt steady enough to stand, she went to investigate it. It turned out to be a bathroom--tiny, but functional. Shower, toilet, sink. No mirror, but that was probably just as well. She had a feeling she really didn't want to see what she looked like just then. There was a small closet as well, and it held what Rio thought at first glance were sacks. On closer inspection, they turned out to be some kind of protective clothing, gray shapeless coveralls. Not exactly the last word in fashion, but they'd do if there were nothing else available.

Though her prison was at least moderately bearable, Rio had no intention of staying there any longer than necessary. She did a quick search of herself, and was dismayed to realize that her saber was gone. Someone had evidently recognized it, even deactivated...or maybe they'd just taken anything they found on her, on the off chance that it meant something. Either way, whoever had taken her saber would die.

Well, no saber. That was only a minor set-back. Sure, that would make it a little harder to get out, but she still had her lock-picks. Several sets, actually, concealed in places that would make them impossible to find unless someone really knew where to look. She walked to the door to her cell and inspected it minutely. It was an actual door instead of just bars, which was both good and bad. Having the door there meant that it made it harder for guards to see what she was doing--but it also gave her less to work with. There was a large window taking up almost the entire top half of the door, but the glass was double-paned, with chicken wire in between the layers, and it had bars on the outside. There was no handle on this side of the door, and the hinges were on the other side, too.

Well, her job had just become that much harder. She was evidently dealing with someone who really know how to prevent escape, someone who wasn't going to make stupid errors. At least half of the tentative escape plans she'd been making ever since she'd first opened her eyes vanished.

Rio did another slow turn, looking at the room from a new angle. The door was solid, nothing less than a blast from a very powerful gun would remove it. The walls looked sturdy enough to withstand an earthquake, and there were no windows. "Hell. They really knew what they were doin' when they designed this place. What's it like? Oh, yeah. Alcatraz."

She suddenly felt bone-tired, so exhausted that the room was swaying in front of her eyes. "Damn," she mumbled, almost collapsing on the bed. "Must've sedated me...or maybe the dimensional shift's finally catchin' up...damn things..." She just managed to put her back against the wall before sleep claimed her again. Her last conscious thought was, I hope Jed's havin' more luck than I am...

*****

deJeneiro faced him from across the desk, hands folded and a gleam in her eye that Jedar didn't like in the least. "Well. Jedar Stormwing." He must have jumped a bit, because she added, "That is your name, isn't it?"

"Well--yes it is, Commander de--"

She stood up and waved an imperious hand, dismissing formalities. "Please, you don't have to call me that in private. You're allowed to call me Riaelcha."

Was that supposed to please him? "Uh...thank you?"

"Oh, come on, Jedar..." Her voice had dropped until she was almost purring...in fact, the way she moved reminded him of a fel--a fel that was playing with a jibbril it had just caught. "You don't have to be so formal. Not with me. Not here." She moved around the desk and came toward him, every movement dripping sexuality. He backed up until he hit the door, and she kept coming, slowly removing her uniform jacket and dropping it on the floor. "Come on, don't act so standoffish. You're as much mine as my Jedar is, aren't you?"

Jedar struggled to find something coherent to say, and also to stop his incredible blush from showing too much from under his feathers. "Actually, no, I wouldn't say that..." he began. "Besides, er, what would your Jedar say?"

"He won't mind...Besides, he's not here, and you are." She reached back and pulled some bobby pins out, shaking her hair free. With her hair down, she looked unnervingly like 'his' Rio. She leaned in close and ran a finger down his chest. "And the door locks."

The possibility of making a run for it right then crossed his mind, before he remembered the guards stationed outside. There was no getting out through the door, and while jumping out the window was probably the only other means of escape he likely wouldn't survive the fall. And that wouldn't help Rio--his Rio--at all. "Where is he, anyway?" he asked, trying vainly to change the subject.

Unfortunately, Rio--no matter which dimension she was in--had a one-track mind. Riaelcha, as she was evidently expecting him to call her, was involved in playing with his collar, and didn't seem to hear the question at first. "Hmm? Oh, he's down inspecting the mines. He won't be back for a few hours." She paused, then frowned. "You're acting like you don't want me." There was a subtle change in her tone--she was obviously used to being obeyed, and the thought that she might not be wanted wasn't one that she liked. The implication was that when she got unhappy, the person who made her unhappy ended up in some rather painful situations.

Jumping out the window was suddenly sounding like a very good idea. "I, uh...no, no, that's not it at all, of course," he said hurriedly. "I think you're a very beautiful and...desirable...woman..." Oh, gods, I can not believe I'm saying this.

"Then stop playing hard to get." She hooked an arm around his neck, pulled him down to her level, and kissed him. Hard.

Jedar rather reluctantly put his hands on her hips, fighting off a sickened feeling in his stomach. It was like kissing his sister. Even though this woman was not his best friend, it still felt very, very wrong. And then it felt even worse, because Riaelcha shifted closer and started trying to pull his shirt off.

Thankfully, before she could get any further than that, one of the guards knocked on the door. With an ease that suggested that she spent a lot of time getting herself out of similar situations, she had her coat back on and her hair smoothed professionally back in the time it took her to let go of him and walk to the door. After winking at him, she stepped out into the hall to have a rather heated discussion with the guard; phrases like "I've TOLD you never to INTERRUPT me while I'm conducting business!" filtered through.

Hastily tucking his shirt back in, Jedar headed quickly to the window and peered outside. The drop was as long as he'd feared. "Damn." Still, it was beginning to look appealing, and he wondered if he could somehow climb down. If she came back in and wanted to continue, he might very well jump anyway.

Before he could figure out a way down, Riaelcha came back in, and he hastily turned to face her. "There's an emergency down at one of the mines--some kind of machinery malfuction caused some injuries. I'll have to go down and execute a few of the maintence men to remind them what happens when they slack off on their jobs." She said it so calmly--as if killing a handful of people was something she did every day, and didn't think anything of it. "So we'll have to continue...debriefing..." She winked at him quickly, "Tomorrow. For now, I'll have you 'escorted' down to cell 312. I think you'll find your 'friend' there, though if she'll be in any shape to talk to you I really can't say."

"All right." She seemed to be waiting for him to say something, so he forced himself to add, "I look forward to tomorrow."

"I'm just sure you do." Smirking, she stepped back and motioned for the guards to take him.

*****

Jedar stumbled as he was shoved into the cell, landing hard on his knees. Rio had been sleeping on the bed, but jerked awake as they slammed the door again. "Jedar! Damn, am I glad ta see ya!" She helped him sit down on the bed, steadying him with a gentleness that probably would have surprised most people. "Are ya okay? What happened?"

"My head hurts a bit...but I'm fine." She had a hand resting on his shoulder, and he unconsciously pulled away. She frowned and sat back.

"Well, did ya find out anythin'?"

He grimaced. "Nothing really useful, but more than I wanted to know."

"Well, like what?"

"You're evidently mentally unbalanced and a bloodthirsty tyrant..."

"Oh, gods..."

"...and I'm apparently...ah...sharing your bed."

Rio stared at him in disbelief for a moment, then buried her head in her hands. "Oh, GODS!"

After a moment, she glanced at him through her hair. He was her best friend, her partner--he was very much like a brother to her, and while she supposed that he was handsome enough she couldn't even begin to think of him in that way.

She realized that he was giving her the same speculative look that she'd just been giving him, and from the look on his face he'd found the idea no more palatable than she had. However, the look on his face was very close to repulsed, and for some reason that offended her. She smacked his arm. "Ya don't gotta look so disgusted!"

"Yes I do. Rio, your double propositioned me."

"...What?" She stared at him. "No. No. Not funny, Jedar."

"I'm not joking." He recounted most of what had happened as quickly and non-graphically as possible. Rio gaped.

"I can't believe what I'm hearin'. I can't BELIEVE that. Oh, man..." She flopped back on the bed. "This is a nightmare."

"No kidding." He sighed and ran a hand through his hair. "She wants to continue tomorrow."

"Oh, gods." She sat up and put a hand on his shoulder. "Jed..."

He glanced at her. "Yes?"

She started to say something, then stopped and shook her head. "No, never mind." She winced and rubbed at her temple. "That sedative they gave me ain't worn off all the way yet, I don't think. I still feel kinda drugged. I'll have ta sleep it off."

"Good point. I tired, too, now that you mention it..." He trailed off and they looked at each other as it hit them at the same time.

There was only one bed in the room.

Under normal circumstances, it wouldn't have mattered to them that much. They'd known each other for too many years, huddled together for warmth too many times on heists, seen each other at their worst too many times for a little thing like that to bother them. But, given what had just happened, suddenly neither of them felt exactly comfortable with sharing a bed.

Finally, Rio decided that she was just too tired to care. She lay down again and rolled over, putting her back to him. "Look, Jed, I honestly don't care what ya do, I'm so tired I can't keep my eyes open. Ya can roll me onto the floor an' I'll sleep there, it really don't matter ta me. G'night..." She was asleep again.

She's got to be really heavily sedated...otherwise she'd be fighting more. After a moment of indecision, Jedar lay down as well, putting his back to hers, and tried to relax. He would have bet money that he'd never be able to rest, but after a few minutes his breathing evened out and he was sleeping peacefully.

*****

"Well, isn't this...sweet."

They jolted awake, momentarily disoriented. deJeneiro was standing in the doorway, arms folded, and watching them with a faint smirk on her face. "I was afraid it might be a little cold in here, but I'm sure you kept each other quite warm and comfortable last night."

Rio recovered first and dove for the other woman with a murderous look in her eyes. She might very well have won, too, but Jedar saw deJeneiro pulling a gun out of a hidden holster. He grabbed Rio and pulled her back before she could get herself shot. "No, Rio, don't. It's not worth it." She fumed, but reluctantly backed down.

"Good choice, Jedar. I'd hate to have to kill myself." Her veneer of good humor dropped like a stone, and she glared at Rio. "Don't push your luck. I don't need you, and I have no real reason to keep you alive. Consider the fact that you're still breathing a favor to Jedar. But I'm not going to keep you around here where you could cause trouble, you're going down to the mines. Did you see the gray coveralls in the bathroom last night?" Rio nodded hesitantly. "Good. Go find one that you can wear and put it on."

Rio folded her arms and glared at her defiantly. "Why should I?"

"No good reason. Of course, if you don't wear some kind of protective clothing, you'll get frostbite, third degree burns, probably both, and you'll probably die a drawn-out and excruciating death."

Rio was stubborn, but she wasn't stupid. With a final death-glare, she spun on her heel and stalked into the bathroom, slamming the door hard enough to make the double-paned, chicken-wire enforced window vibrate. "Temperamental," deJeneiro commented mildly, then turned back to Jedar. "You, I still have use for. Lots of use for. You will, of course, be relocated to somewhere a little more--comfortable."

"Well. Uh. Thank you."

"You can thank me later."

"Of...of course."

Rio came out then, still fussing with the gray cover-all she was wearing. It looked like a sack, but at least it was durable. Jedar could tell from the look on her face that she as about to hurl some vicious insults in her double's direction. deJeneiro must have recognized the expression as well, because she pointedly fingered her blaster. Jedar intercepted Rio before she could open her mouth. "No, Rio," he hissed. "Don't get yourself blasted." She snorted but held her tongue.

"Good choice," deJeneiro said again. "Very good choice." She nodded to one of the guards that had been waiting at the door. "Take the girl down to the mines and see that she's taken care of. Only sedate her if she fights, don't shoot her unless you have to. She won't know the rules, assign someone to her to teach her the ropes."

"Ma'am." The guard looked like he bench-pressed cars for a hobby. Even Rio knew better to struggle when he grabbed her arm and started pulling her toward the door.

"Oh, and do something about her appearance, she looks too much like me. Try not to hurt her too much, and definitely don't kill her." She made eye contact with Jedar and added, "Yet." Jedar got the unspoken message: "Make me mad, and I'll take it out on her."

"Don't do anything stupid, Rio," he cautioned as she was dragged away. He didn't dare say anything more personal.

"Don't do anythin' I'd do," she tossed back over her shoulder. He forced a smile in return, but only because she was still watching him. Then the door slammed between them.

deJeneiro nodded, as if satisfied. "All right, Jedar, follow me and I'll show you where your quarters are. You'll be confined to them unless I need you for something--for your protection , of course."

"Of course." Does she really think I'm stupid enough to buy that? He hoped not. It said something about his double's intelligence--or lack thereof--if he actually believed what she said.

She was walking down a nondescript hall, as far as he could tell in the opposite direction of the way the guard had taken Rio. He'd have to find some way down to those 'mines' and figure out a way to get her out, and soon. He wasn't leaving her there to suffer any longer than necessary.

"Right here." deJeneiro had stopped abruptly, and he almost ran into her. She turned and gestured to a door, and he cautiously opened it and looked in.

"Nice," he commented noncommittally. From what he could see, at least, the quarters were incredibly luxurious. He wasn't interested.

"Of course they are. I'd help you settle in, but..." She turned to another man, who'd been approaching them while they talked. "Tarrin, what's on the schedule today?"

"Tarrin ?" Jedar whirled around. Yes, that was Tarrin--superficially at least. But he was only like Jedar's Tarrin in the way that this Rio was like his Rio. Colder, stronger, maybe even a little taller. Or maybe it was just the way he stood, in silent anger and defiance to the world in general. Jedar suppressed a shudder.

Tarrin raised one eyebrow at him, then pointedly ignored him and turned to deJeneiro. "We're still feeling the repercussions from last night's equpiment malfunctions. There are unconfirmed rumors that it was sabotage by the rebels, but they're denying it. There are also some government officials here to investigate us, as well. Would you like them to meet with an accident on the way here? Their plane could easily go down."

"It could," deJeneiro agreed, "but we're already under suspicion, I'd hate to give them any more reason to send more officials after us. No, we'll just have to make sure they don't see anything worth reporting. Or that they see that we can take anything they can throw at us. Or possibly bribe them. Find out about their families, see if there's anyone we can effectively threaten."

"Right away."

"Dismissed."

Tarrin nodded--not bothering to salute, Jedar noted--and walked away. deJeneiro turned back to him and flashed a smile. Somehow, it only reminded him of a chark. "Well, much as I'd love to stay here, it appears I've got work to do. Commander's work is never done, price of command and all. I'll come check on you later tonight to see how you're settling in. I'm sure you'll be lonely by then." She winked at him, then nodded to two of the guards, who moved to positions on either side of the door. "And I will see you...tonight."

"I can hardly wait ."

*****

So. This is the 'mine' we been hearin' about. Sure lives up ta expectations. Rio schooled her expression into impassivity, regarding the scene before her as if it were something she saw every day.

She was so far underground that sunlight was just a memory, and a fuzzy one at that. The cavern she was in was lit totally by artificial lights, relatively bright ones, so that her eyes wouldn't have to spend much time adjusting if she got out.

When. When she got out.

It was a typical mine, perhaps the tiniest bit more modern and 'comfortable' than the ones in the movies. Everyone was wearing the same gray coveralls and hardhats, the only distinguishing features being the numbers and symbols on their chest. Some kind of identification, Rio figured. Men in impeccable uniforms of all things roamed back and forth in the tunnels, glaring at anyone who didn't seem to be moving fast enough. Supervisors, she decided. One of them came over to the guard who was holding her. "New one?"

"Yep."

He got a good look at her face then, and gaped. "She--she looks like--"

"I know. We're supposed to take care of that before she causes some kind of trouble."

"Prisoner?"

"Yeah. Level 1."

"Damn. What'd she do?"

"Get born. And show up here. Come on, we have to fix the way she looks before we start working her. We should put the....'escape hampering device' on her." Whatever that was, Rio had a very bad feeling about it. "And the Commander wants somebody assigned to her to show her the ropes."

"We'll take care of that...."

An hour later, Rio was being dragged around the mine by her 'guide,' inwardly fuming. 'Changing her appearance' had involved holding her down and hacking at her hair with a sword until it hung short and scraggly. It would take months to grow out to something decent again. Her hair and feather color they'd left alone; she'd heard them deciding that a few layers of dirt would hide that. The 'escape hampering device' turned out to be a simple, old-fashioned chain. There was one manacle on her left ankle, then the chain ran up to another manacle at her right wrist, then finally went to a dog-like metal collar at her throat. The lengths of chain were long enough that she could move without being hampered too much, but also kept getting caught and snagged on things. The chain probably weighed more than she did, forcing her to walk with a certain stoop, and clanked depressingly each time she moved. Simple energy-holds probably would have been more efficient, but this chain was definitely more effective in the psychological torture department. As she stumbled along, trying to figure out how to walk without tripping, she knew one thing: some day she'd wrap this chain around her double's neck and YANK.

She followed along and listened obediently as they explained her job to her, the very image of docility. She was going to need every bit of energy for planning an escape, and she knew they wouldn't hesitate to sedate her if she put up a fight. For now, all she could do was wait, and hope that Jedar was having a better time than she was.

*****

He walked down the corridor calmly, occasionally nodding to soldiers as they passed him and saluted. He wished they wouldn't, but Riaelcha had told him repeatedly to let them. She'd said it was 'good for morale.' Or something. Good for profit, she means. That's all she cares about anymore. What happened to her?

There were two guards at the guest suite. Ah, then the rumors were true. Was that good or bad? He didn't know yet. He walked up to the guards and nodded to them. "I'd like to see the prisoner."

"But the Commander said--"

"Now , soldier!" Drake, Ri...deJeneiro was starting to rub off on him. What next?

The guard gulped and moved to the side, letting him pass. He walked in and stood watching...himself...for a moment. Just when he'd thought life couldn't get any stranger... "Hello, Jedar."

The captive jerked his head up, and he found himself looking at...himself. Like looking in a mirror. This version of himself didn't look quite so careworn, he couldn't help but notice. Maybe he didn't face horror every day. Maybe he had friends who helped him get through the tough times.

Maybe he just hid it better.

The other man smiled for a moment, then smiled wearily. "Hello, yourself--or should I say 'myself'? It's nice to meet me. Have a seat."

Jedar sat down reluctantly. "Dare I even ask how you got here?"

"It's a long story. Let's just say that from now on I'm not pushing any buttons unless I know exactly what they do."

"I definitely don't want to know." He paused, then plowed ahead. "Look, we don't have a lot of time, so I'm going to tell you what you need to know and then get you out of here."

"Awfully nice of you."

Jedar passed that one over. "First off. If you haven't figured this out yet, she's insane."

"By 'she,' I can only assume you mean Ri...the...Commander."

"Yes. Ria."

"Ria?"

"What I call her, yes." He smiled for a moment, allowing a haze of nostalgia to come up. "She didn't used to be like this. We've been best friends since we were kids. We met when we were ten, when she beat me up for teasing her brother after school one day."

"Rio doesn't have a brother."

"What?"

"Er, nothing. Never mind."

"....Right. We were in the military together. I was fairly content with rank-and-file, but Ria never was. She clawed her way up to the top, then decided that that wasn't far enough and broke off to establish her own command. Made the official Army madder than hell."

"She's good at that."

"Yes, she is. On both sides, it seems. Well, anyway. A few years ago, a new mineral was discovered. A type of...well, it's hard to describe unless you've seen it. When it's refined, it's like liquid gold. Very valuable."

"I can imagine."

"Ria started to get...power-hungry. Greedy. Corrupt. I...lost her." He shook himself back to the present. "Work in the mines is forced."

"Slavery?"

"Not technically. Your...Rio?...was taken there, she'll be able to tell you more about it. Right now I don't have time. We've been getting more and more revolts, and Ria's taking care of them the wrong way. There's a rebel group out there, and some of her workers, soldiers, even some of her officers are joining."

"And...how do you know about this?" From the look on the other man's face, Jedar figured he probably already had a pretty good idea. Jedar drew himself up.

"Because I'm part of it."

"I figured."

"Of course you did." He paused, then continued. "They want her dead, you know. They've ordered me to...take care of her. I can't do it. But what I can do is shut down the operation--rather, I can do that now that you and your friend are here."

"What can we do?"

"You want to rescue your friend, don't you?"

"Rio has never, in recorded history, needed rescuing. Though she has needed a hand from time to time. So, yes."

"Close enough. I'm going to get you out of here, you're going to go down and...give her a hand, then you're going to get everyone out of that mine and blow it up."

"What ?"

"It's part of a coordinated rebel attack. We're going to disband this place once and for all. During the confusion, I'm supposed to kill her." He sighed and shook his head. "I can't. What I am going to do is take her and disappear for awhile. Maybe I'll be able to get my Ria back." He smiled briefly, then went back to business. "Fair enough?"

"I suppose. But how do we get back?"

"Now there I can't help you."

His double shrugged. "We'll figure it out, I guess." He hesitated, then added, "May I ask a question?"

"Shoot."

"Where's the Brotherhood of the Blade?"

"The what? Oh...them. They were helping the rebels. Ria...had a bomb planted in their headquarters."

He choked and paled, though Jedar couldn't imagine why. "Oh...I...see."

"Are you ready to go? The strike's going to happen in twenty-four hours."

"Well...yes...How do I get out of here?"

"Simple. Knock me out, and make it look good. Then tie me up with those sheets, stuff me in the bathroom, and walk out of here. Those guards won't know the difference." He leaned forward and said in an almost conspiratory whisper, as if confiding some great secret, "They're not very smart."

Jedar's double paused, then grinned slowly. "Ah. I see. Well, I really hate to have to do this, but..."

Jedar steeled himself. "I'm ready."

He paused, then shook his head. "You're a damn fool." Before Jedar could take offense, he grinned and added, "It's nice to know some things transcend dimensions."

And then the lights went out.

*****

Cut...lift...lever...push....cut...lift...lever...push...cut...lift..lever...push....cut...

Rio stopped and straightened up, her entire body screaming at her. She rubbed the small of her back and winced as the movement pulled her shoulder muscles into a position other than the one they'd been in for the past several hours. Her aching legs suddenly gave out, and she found herself sitting down on a pile of rock. "Okay, guess I'm takin' a break now." She leaned her head back against the wall, which in spite of being solid rock was surprisingly comfortable. Of course, she was so tired that a bed of nails probably would have felt comfortable. She was exhausted.

The past seven-plus hours, she hadn't stopped moving once. The routine was simple, but mind-numbing. Cut the hunk of rock out with a laser, lift it up, lever it onto the edge of the conveyor belt-type apparatus that kept moving by, and push it all the way on. The blocks were as big as she was, and probably weighed two or three times more. The same motions over and over and over again. She stayed in the same bent-over position, finding it easier and smoother to just swing back and forth like that instead of straightening up and bending over again constantly, but now her back couldn't take it any more. She just couldn't move.

It didn't help that she'd been denied food, water, or rest. The other workers sipped from canteens, nibbled snacks, took five-minute breaks every hour, and eyed her warily. None of them talked to her, but she had the feeling that that was more because of the supervisors than from any malice on their parts. Not that it really mattered, in the long run. She was too tired to care. All the plans for escape she'd been making when she was first shoved in this hole had long since flown away. After the first hour, all she'd had the strength for was working. Now, she didn't even have the strength for that.

"Get up."

Someone was talking to her. To hell with them. She couldn't have moved even if she'd wanted to. She didn't have the strength to flip them off, and that was saying something.

"Get up!"

Oh, come on, jus' leave me alone...I gotta rest...just a few more moments...

"GET! UP!" A huge hand suddenly closed around the chain at her throat and jerked her up. Her feet weren't touching the ground, and her collar was choking her. She gagged for air as her vision exploded in lights, her hands frantically trying to pry the supervisor's grip away so that she could inhale. Her body's various pains became of secondary importance, compared to the desperate need for air. She began to black out...

Just before Rio lost consciousness, she was dropped to the ground, crumbling into a heap. Her arms and legs twisted underneath her at unnatural angles, scored by the rock, and her body felt as if it was tearing apart. All she could think was, Air, air, thank Drake, AIR!

"Next time, don't take a break until you're told you can," the supervisor told her callously. "Now, get back to work."

If she'd been any stronger, Rio would have spit at him. Instead, it took every last ounce of her strength to gasp out, "Can't."

"What do you mean you can't? Get up!" He prodded her ungently in the side with his boot, knocking her onto her back. At that point, she was in so much pain she honestly didn't care if she ever moved again. Maybe he'd be kind enough to just take that gun and...

"Leave her alone, Riden!"

"What did you say?"

"I...said...she's not used to this, Riden. She can't work this long without a break, and she hasn't been able to eat or drink anything. When she says she can't move, she's not trying to get out of work, she really can't. Let her rest."

A snort from the supervisor's direction. "Fine. Fifteen minutes. Give her some water and something to eat. But when I come back, I expect to see her working again!"

"Yes, sir. Of course."

Rio's vision finally cleared up enough to see the duck who was bending over her and carefully helping her sit up. He was wearing a worker's 'uniform,' like herself. "Who..."

"Here, don't talk yet." He pressed something to her beak, and she felt water trickle down her throat. She tried to gulp it, then choked and gagged as it went down too fast. He held the cup away until she could breathe again. "Not so fast. Sip it. There you go. Easy, now." He brought the cup back, and this time she managed to sip it. "Good. Here, have a little bread and cheese, then drink a little more." She accepted the food gratefully, forcing herself not to wolf it down, then accepted some more water. Then she felt strong enough to speak, and fixed her gaze on her rescuer.

"Who're you? An' why're ya helpin' me?"

"My name's Charden, and I would have helped you a lot sooner if I could've." He helped her lean against the wall, then sat back, facing her and glancing up and down the hall, on the lookout for any guards. "We weren't allowed to speak to you, and none of us dare break orders."

"Wit' guards like that...I ain't surprised."

Charden shook his head. "No, it's not that... Well, not just that, at least. See, the Commander knows what she's doing, in this one thing, at least. She only employs good people here. Very good people. We get nice wages and nice homes."

Rio stared. "Ya...ya mean this is a job ? I...I thought ya was slaves or somethin'!"

"It looks like that, doesn't it? Sometimes I think we are. See, we do get eight-hour shifts, good pay, holidays, things like that--but we can never leave. And we can never disobey orders. Because if we do anything against the Commander--help the rebels, or start a strike, or even try to leave--we're not the ones who suffer. The only ones who are selected to work here are the ones who have everything to lose. We all have someone in our homes we'd die for, but they would die for us if we ever crossed the line. Parents, spouses, children, siblings. If they found out that I'd joined the rebellion, for instance, my sister would be killed right in front of me. That's why we were so afraid of helping you. Fear is a very effective weapon."

She grunted, pushing herself a little further up. "No...kiddin'." Something he'd said earlier suddenly rose to the surface, and she looked at him sharply. "Ye're part a' the rebellion?" she hissed. She didn't know what the rebellion was , but if it was against this then it had to be good--right?

Charden nodded briefly, glancing around. "Yes, a lot of us are--but whatever you do, never say that again. It'd be worth our lives--or rather, our loved ones' lives. The guard's coming," he added in a slightly louder voice, so she didn't have to lean forward to hear him anymore. "Here, let me help you up." He took her arm and helped her to her feet. Her body went back to screaming at her, but at least she was a little more alert now. "The shift ends in half an hour," he muttered as he walked away. "You'll get off then. Just hang on for another thirty minutes."

Hangin' on, she thought grimly as she picked up her laser and started cutting again, is all I *can* do fer the moment. But one thing's fer sure...even if there IS a way home, I ain't takin' it until we've done somethin' ta help these people.

Half an hour 'til quittin' time....

*****

Jedar worked his way slowly through the mines, searching for Rio and at the same time taking note of the general lay out of the place. If he was going to help his double--and get out alive--he'd need to know how to escape. So far, he'd been successful in dodging both supervisors and other workers, since he seemed to be invisible in the coveralls he'd 'borrowed,' but he didn't know how long that would last. Come on, Rio, come on, where are you? When he could, he eavesdropped on guards' conversations, listening for any snatches about some troublesome new prisoner who was kicking up a fuss. But nothing was mentioned--everything seemed to be normal. That made him very nervous. Wandering almost at random, he worked his way further and further down the complex of tunnels, searching almost desperately now. A shrill whistle sounded right in his ear, and he nearly jumped out of his feathers. After a moment of panic, he realized the sound had come from a PA system wired throughout the mines, and evidently signaled quitting time.

Workers surged past him suddenly, talking and laughing and going on about getting home and eating. He wasn't quite sure he dared go against the flow, that would make him more conspicuous, so he worked his way back the way he'd come with them, still listening. He managed to get up to one of the upper levels, then positioned himself in a crevice and watched the flow of workers go by. Rio was somewhere in that mob. Jedar just hoped he'd recognize her--they'd talked about 'changing her appearance,' and he wasn't sure how drastically they'd been planning to do that.

By the time he spotted her, shuffling by him in the line, she was barely recognizable.

Her hair, which had fallen between her shoulder blades, had been chopped to collar-length, and looked like it had been hacked off with a knife. Her hair and feathers both were streaked with dirt and sweat, with darker blotches here and there--blood? Bruises? The shapeless, 'protective' gray cover-all she was wearing obscured everything about her figure, and there was chain running from her left ankle to her right wrist and then up to a collar at her throat.

What was worse, she staggered along as if she couldn't see where she was going, or didn't care, or just didn't have the strength to move properly. Two workers were supporting her, but she still moved slowly, like she was a thousand years old. She passed right by his hiding spot without seeing him, but he got a clear view of the pain-wracked look on her face.

"Hey! You there! Stop!"

The three stopped, and Jedar shrank further back into his hiding place. A guard came up to them. "You two can go, but she ," he pointed at Rio, "stays."

"She can't walk," one of them protested.

"I'll get her to her cell. Get out of here, or you're working an extra shift!"

They gently lowered her to the ground, and she evidently didn't even have the strength to stand on her own, because she remained kneeling on the floor even after they muttered hasty good night's and sorry's and fled. She grunted "Thanks," but so quietly that Jedar barely heard it, and he doubted anyone else did. He tried to contain his growing anger as the guard prodded her in the ribs.

"Get up."

"Not again," she groaned, but somehow pushed herself unsteadily to her feet. "I'm...up."

"Good. This way." He all but crushed her arm in his grid and started dragging her along, and she really had no choice but to follow. Jedar shadowed them at a short distance.

The cells were on this first level, not buried deeper underground, he was pleased to see. At least they wouldn't have as far to go when they broke out. He was further relieved when the guard unlocked the chain that Rio had been dragging around, but his relief turned to black anger when he saw the chafed, bleeding areas the manacles had left. The guard shoved her into the windowless room and locked the door behind her, turning to walk away. Jedar pulled back into the shadows, trying to decide how to break her out. Well, bluffing had always worked well for Rio.... He stepped out, directly into the guard's path. "I want to see the prisoner."

The guard stopped and stared at him. "What?"

"I want to see the prisoner. Commander's orders." He tried hard to project the right kind arrogance that would convince the guard.

The guard pulled his gun, and Jedar rather guessed it hadn't worked. "Nice try, but we'd already heard about your escape."

"Well, damn."

*****

After taking a shower and swallowing down some painkillers, Rio was starting to feel much more like a person again, and her spirit was beginning to come back. Her cell was similar to the one she'd been in the last night, though smaller, and with two narrow bunks instead of one.

When she'd first dragged herself out of her lethargy enough to look around and realize what her surroundings were like, she'd been surprised. For a cell, especially one in these conditions, it was practically what might be called 'comfortable.' After a bit of thought, she finally figured it out. A' course. It only makes sense. Ya don't get good work outta someone too weak an' in too much pain ta stand. Give 'em a nice cell, or a nice home, or nice wages, an' as long as they forget that their families'll be killed if they step outta line, they start thinkin' that life ain't so bad. Insteada bein' the bad guy, ye're the hero. Ye're the one who keeps things from gettin' bad, an' no one wants ta risk their families to get rid a' ya if it might make things worse. She may be insane, but she's smart.

The door to her cell opened suddenly, and she whirled around. Before she could react, Jedar was shoved inside, and the door slammed shut again. He was unconscious, and bleeding from a gash across his forehead and several other cuts as well. Cursing viciously, she somehow managed to convince her aching muscles to work more time, and got him up onto one of the bunks. Thank Drake there're two a' 'em, they're too narrow fer us ta share an' neither one a' us is up ta sleepin' on the floor. There was a first aid kit in the bathroom--yet another instance of the Commander's 'generosity'--and she used the bandages in it to take care of his wounds...at least the ones she could see. Damn, he's messed up--what'd they do, beat him?? What could he've done ta deserve that?

A tray was shoved in under the door. That must have been dinner. Some more bread and cheese--that must be the staple diet around this place--and some stringy vegetable soup. She ate the bread and cheese herself, but set the soup aside for Jedar when he woke up.

She jumped as he moved, groaning and finally starting to come around. She moved over and sat down next to him, patting his shoulder. "Nice ta see ya, sleepin' beauty. How ya feelin'?"

He moaned and reached a hand up to touch the bandages on his head, but she intercepted it. "Like I've been hit by a hover train. What happened?"

"I'm guessin' that ya got caught, tryin' ta 'rescue' me, an' it looks like they beat ya or somethin'."

"Oh...yeah...I remember that now." He tried to sit up, but she gently pushed him back down.

"Hold still, the bleedin' just stopped, don't want it ta start back up again. It ain't serious, I don't think, but it probably hurts like hell."

"Good...guess. Oh, gods, my head feels like it's been split in half."

"Here." She picked up the bowl of soup and moved closer to him, carefully positioning his head in her lap, trying not to jar the bandages. "Just try ta relax, I've got some food...loosely defined...fer ya."

"Thanks, but I'm not really hungry..." He closed his eyes and sighed. Rio frowned and tapped him on the shoulder.

"Yo, Jed, ya gotta stay wit' me, now. No floatin' off inta never-never land."

"Right. Of course..." He immediately closed his eyes again.

"Oh no you don't. No you damn don't. Wake. UP."

He pushed her hand away weakly. "I'm not sleeping. Just resting."

She snorted. "Right." Gotta keep him focused, somehow. Gotta keep him awake, 'cause if he falls asleep...he might not wake up. The thought was too much to bear. "Okay, fine. Rest. An' I'm just gonna keep talkin' ta make sure ya don't do anythin' more than rest. An' ya might wanna give up an' eat this soup soon, because I got a feelin' it don't get any tastier as it gets colder."

He just grunted in response.

Rio leaned her head back against the stone wall, thinking. "How many different universes do ya 'spose there are, Jed?"

He muttered something that could possibly have been "I don't know."

"Seems like we've been through at least half a' 'em. Ya known I had this teacher once who tried ta tell me that there're an infinite number a' universes. I dunno, seems like that's impossible, but then I was never was a scientist. Couldn't get those theories for the life a' me. Shocked the hell outta my teacher an' my folks when I aced the class."

He opened one eye. "How'd you do that?"

"I cheated, of course." She could tell that he wasn't sure if she was joking or not. That was good, that was how she wanted it. "I can't wait ta get outta here, an' get home. Nylessa ain't never gonna let ya outta her sight again after this. Though I'm sure you don't mind." When he didn't reply to that, she frowned and checked on him again. His breathing was evening out; he was almost asleep. "JEDAR STORMWING!"

He jumped. "What?!"

"Ya gotta stay awake. If ya don't try, I'll...I'll...I'll tell ya dirty jokes, an' believe me, I know a lot a' those!"

"Gods, Rio, can't you let a man die in peace?"

Her heart froze for a moment, before she answered cheerfully, "No." And then she launched into a particularly ribald farmer's daughter joke.

She kept him up for another hour, which she judged to be enough time to get him out of any danger he might have been in, then forced him to eat some of the cold and congealing soup. Then she dragged herself to her own bed and they both collapsed into sleep.

*****

"Jed...Jed, come on, time ta wake up."

Jedar groaned and tried to roll over, but a series of pains stopped him. He reluctantly opened his eyes and looked around. Rio was laying on the bed opposite, watching him through narrowed eyes. "How ya feelin'?"

"Terrible."

"Sorry ta hear that. I'd come over, but I can't move."

He sat up slowly; he must have lost a lot of blood from the cut he'd gotten in the head last night, because even that small movement made him dizzy. "What do you mean?"

"I mean, all my muscles stiffened up so much, I can't move. I tried ta sit up awhile ago, but it ain't happenin'." She nodded to a tray that had evidently been slid under the door. "That's our breakfast, but I can't get ta it."

Jedar pushed himself to his feet slowly and went to get the tray. Oatmeal and toast, all of which was now cold. Well, it was still food, and at least remotely palatable. He brought it over to Rio's bed, then sat down next to her and helped her into a sitting position. She groaned and slowly swung her legs over the edge of the bed, leaning back against the wall. "Damn, if this is what it feels like ta be old, I'm gonna shoot myself when I turn for--" She glanced at him, then finished, "Fifty."

Jedar chuckled briefly, then glanced at his watch and jumped to his feet, ignoring the wave of dizziness that hit him. "Rio, get up, we've got to get out of here!"

"What?" She blinked at him, uncomprehending. He turned back to her.

"If I help you, do you think you can run?"

"Run? Hell no, I'll be lucky if I can walk fast!"

"Then walking fast will have to do. Good thing they didn't search me..." He walked over and knelt in front of the door, peeling back to collar of the uniform he'd put on and pulling out some tiny charges. Fascinated, she hobbled to her feet and came to look over his shoulder.

"Where'd ya get those??"

"My double was kind enough to give them to me."

"Ya met him?"

"Yeah. Nice guy."

Rio rolled her eyes. "Yeah, an' this is where ya tell me how dashin', debonair, an' devastin'ly handsome he is."

"Actually..." Jedar planted the last charge and stepped back. "He looked a little old."

"Checked a mirror lately, Jed?"

"Funny. Get back, those charges are set for thirty seconds."

"Okay. Can I ask a question?"

"Shoot."

"Bang. Why're we gettin' out now?"

"Because Jedar...er...the other one...told me that the rebellion is going to blow this place today, quite literally. We're supposed to help get everyone out. But we have to get ourselves out first."

The door blew off, peppering them with pieces of debris. "Well. That's one way ta do it." He offered his arm and helped her over what was left of the door. "Bond, ya never cease ta amaze me."

"Thanks, I'll take that as a compliment."

"If ya think it was one."

"Oh, I almost forgot. Here." He reached inside his uniform and handed her her saber, activating his own. She took her blade almost reverently and ran a hand along the hilt.

"I didn't think I'd ever see this again... Jed, how'd ya--"

"I picked it up when I--" Footsteps running toward them interrupted him. "Looks like our escape has finally been noticed."

"About time. Jed, I can barely walk, I don't think I can fight."

"Well I know I can't. Come on, I've got an idea."

"What else is new?"

They moved down the tunnel as fast as they could--it wasn't very, but Jedar seemed to know where they were going. Rio stumbled along after him. "Can't believe I'm followin' a guy wit' blue hair..."

"At least my hair doesn't look like it's been hacked at with a knife."

Her stride faltered a bit. "That hurt, Jedar. An' fer yer information, that's what they did."

"Oh. Sorry..."

"Whatever. Ya sure ya know where we're goin'?"

"We're almost there." Jedar glanced at his watch, frowned, and doubled his pace. "Come on, we're almost out of time!"

"'Til what?"

Rio's question was answered for her as the ground suddenly lurched under her feet, throwing her violently to the floor and jarring her already-bruised bones. Then his hand closed over her arm, yanking her to her feet and dragging her along behind him. "Don't look back!" he hollered over his shoulder.

Rio felt a wave of heat coming up behind her, and of course looked back, then rather wished that she hadn't. There was a fireball coming up the tunnel toward them, faster than they could ever hope to out-run. Coaxing another burst of speed out of her faltering legs, she rounded a corner, and was relieved to see the entrance to the mine right in front of them.

And then the fireball caught up with them.

Workers who had known about the bomb and had already evacuated were standing just outside the entrance to the mine, but scattered quickly as flame shot out of it the mouth, like a fire-breathing monster out of legend. The ground trembled, knocking people off their feet. "Gods," one of the workers commented to another as they grabbed weapons and started chasing down the scattered and disoriented soldiers, "I pity any poor suckers who didn't make it out. They probably didn't even know what happened to them before they were incinerated."

Charden nodded absently, frowning as he scanned the area. His friend looked over at him. "What's wrong?"

"What? Oh, I'm just looking for that new girl I helped yesterday. The prisoner. I don't see her here. I hope someone got her out..."

"I'm sure she's fine."

*****

I'm dead, I'm sure a' it. There ain't no way we survived that fireball, I know we burned ta a crisp. Her body still ached and even felt a little charred in places. The fact that Rio even still had a body was in and of itself odd. She opened one eye, and looked up at the ceiling. Well, hell looks a little different'an I thought it would. Hell also appeared to be a direct copy of the lab that had thrown them out of their dimension to begin with. She sat up--wincing as she did so--and shook the man next to her. "Jed...come on, Jed, wake up. Jedar, ya wit' me?" She shook him a bit harder. "I ain't gonna shut up until ya say somethin'."

"Fine, I'm dead. Now will you leave me alone?"

"No. Come on, up ya get." She slipped an arm under his shoulder and helped him sit up, leaning back against the wall with him. "Whadya think happened?"

"Well, and this is just a guess, mind you, but I think we died."

"No, I know we died, that fireball caught up wit' us, remember?"

"Oh, right. So...we're dead."

"An' so we ended up back here? Sounds too easy ta me."

"You have a better explanation?"

"Not at the moment, no. An' I don't think I even care. The point is that we're home." She tried to stand up, then fell back, moaning and rubbing her back. "Damn, this hurts. An' the worst part a' this is, we were already in pretty damn good shape when we got here, imagine what this'd be like if we weren't!"

"My brain can't even process the concept of that much pain." They sat in silence for a few minutes, cataloging their various aches and pains.

"Jed, do ya think...think they got what they wanted? Ya think that rebellion was successful?"

"I don't know, I doubt we ever will. I hope so, though."

"Yeah, me too."

They were quiet for a few moments more, then Jedar added, "You know, Rio, that really was all your fault."

"What? How d'ya figure?"

"Well, you did mistake the 'on' switch for the light--"

"It was dark, it was an honest mistake! An' besides, you was the one who agreed ta the dare ta begin wit'."

"Technicalities." He suddenly realized something and jumped to his feet, ignoring the protests of his body. "Come on, we've got to get home! Lessa will be frantic."

"No, she won't be."

"Rio, I know you think she's a little cold-hearted, but we've been away for two days or more, she will be worried."

"No, she won't be." She took the hand he offered her and used it to get to her feet, then took his hand and turned it so that he could see his watch. "We're back at the same exact damn time we left."

He blinked. "So...everything is the same as it was."

"Yep." She picked up the bag of microchips and tossed it to him. "An' we got what we came for, an' then some. Let's go home."

"Good idea." It took them nearly twice the time getting out of the lab as it had getting in; their bodies were too stiff and sore for much movement. "How," Jedar wondered with a grunt as they finally managed to make good their exit, "are we going to explain these injuries when we get back?"

Rio shrugged. "Say we got in a fight, I guess. We'll think a' something." She paused, then said somewhat hesitantly, "Say, Jed..."

"Yes?"

"Ya think, if things had been different, we might've..."

"No."

She relaxed visibly. "Good. I knew that, just wanted ta make sure you did too." She gave him a nudge and a smile, which he returned. They limped the rest of the way home in companionable silence.

 

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