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Hello, I'm Dead

By Caro Roberts

The sun was beating down inside
The walls of stone and razor wire
As we made our way across the prison yard
I felt my heart begin to race
As we drew nearer to the place
Where they say that death is waiting in the dark
The slamming doors of iron echoed through the halls
Where despair holds life within its cruel claws
~~"Free"--Steven Curtis Chapman~~

"Run, damn you! Run!"

"I am!"

They pelted desperately down the alley, panting so hard that their labored breathing almost drowned out the sounds of pursuit from behind them. "Jed, I don' think we can outrun 'em much longer."

"I'm afraid I have to agree with you there." Jedar was, in fact, developing a horrible stitch in his side from trying to run full speed while carrying a sack of extremely heavy jewels. The alley they'd been following split in two different directions. "You go left, I'll go right, we'll lose them and meet back home."

"Fine," Rio gasped, fighting too hard for breath to waste oxygen on extra words. "See ya there." Struggling to shift her bag into a better position on her shoulder, she turned and left him behind, forcing her legs to keep moving, even though they no longer seemed to be attached to her body. They'd been running for what felt like miles; the cops had been waiting for them right outside the museum, when an alarm had inexplicably gone off. They'd taken so many twists and turns trying to elude their pursuers that she barely knew where she was.

She went skidding around a corner, almost stumbling as she did so, but managing to right herself without losing more than a few steps. A few steps I couldn't afford ta lose, dammit! She'd run herself into a blind alley, though she could easily vault the fence at the end of it; or could have vaulted it, if her legs hadn't been shaking from exhaustion. Rather than take the obvious escape route, she shifted the end of the loot bag around to clutch it in her teeth, then took a running leap and jumped, somehow managing to grab the bottom rung of a fire escape. Pulling herself onto the ladder with trembling arms, Rio clambered up to the roof and collapsed, laying still for a moment and waiting for her breath to come back and her limbs to stop quivering. Maybe...I've...lost 'em...

There were shouts down below, on the ground. She closed her eyes and waited, praying they'd figure she followed the easier, more obvious path: over the fence.

Shouts from down below. "You, you, and you--go over the fence. The rest of you, go up that fire escape!"

Damn.

Rio dragged herself to her feet again and started running, jumping off that rooftop and onto the next. The distance was a little farther than she was comfortable with, and she very nearly didn't make the ledge. That was close. The next two leaps were shorter, and she had just begun to relax when the row of buildings came to an abrupt halt, ending in a three-story drop to an empty road below. She'd hit a main street; the next rooftop was two stories higher and five lanes of traffic away. She turned to go back, but saw that the cops were closing in, only two roofs away. DAMN.

There were no options left; it was go down or be captured. There was a semi-truck coming up the street, in the curb lane of traffic. Deciding to try for its roof, Rio got up on the ledge and braced herself for the fall, waiting for the truck to come underneath her.

Just before she could jump, she heard the crack of a gun, felt a sharp pain in her back, and plummeted head-first off the building.

*****

Home sweet home, Jedar thought dryly, pausing just outside the Blade's doors to brush a few pieces of debris off his shirt and out of his hair. Jumping into that dumpster and pulling the lid shut after him to escape the cops had been a stroke of genius; they had run right past without even thinking to check the local garbage cans. Of course, it had also been a rather messy stroke of genius, and he had no doubt that he'd take more than his share of ribbing about it from Rio, who'd most likely escaped without a scratch. As usual. She was probably sitting in the lounge right then, not a hair out of place, boasting about the heist over a drink and waiting for him to get back and claim his share of the bragging rights.

He made his way down to B level, deciding to make just a quick stop before cleaning up and going home. When he opened the door to the lounge and scanned the room, though, he was surprised to see that Rio wasn't there. Querida was, though, and she waved him over to the bar, where she was pouring herself a cup of coffee. "How'd it go?"

"Great. There were police right around the place, but they were good enough to let us get what we wanted." He lifted his sack up as proof. "Where's Rio?"

"I was just going to ask you the same thing. I thought she was with you."

"She was, but we had to split up to lose the cops. She should have been back by now, though."

"She probably just had to take a detour," Kerry assured him, though she looked a little nervous herself. "Can I pour you some coffee? The pot's fresh."

"Please."

Gina left her darts game and wandered over to join them. "I thought Rio was with you, Jedar."

"She was." Jedar was getting a little annoyed at having to repeat it.

"They had to split up," Querida answered for him, handing him his coffee at the same time. "She'll be back soon, I'm sure."

The ten o'clock news had come on without them noticing it, but their attention was drawn by the leading story. They stopped talking and turned to look at the holo-v as the newscaster, very blonde and entirely too perky for that late at night, came up. "This just in: the prestigious Farnsworth jewel collection was stolen tonight from the Keltor Jewel Museum. However, one of the thieves, apparently suffering from remorse, committed suicide by throwing herself off the roof of a building in west Keltor. Half of the collection was recovered. Documents found on the body identify it as Alle Featherwalker. At the scene is our very own..."

The name was drowned out by a crash as Querida's coffee cup slipped out of her hand and hit the floor.

*****

Sergeant O'Beakston sighed and shook his head as he looked at the too-still body lying on the stretcher. Such a waste. So young...and so very pretty...well, probably pretty when she wasn't bruised and bloody. But that's what a life of crime got you. Early grave.

O'Beakston frowned as he saw an Enforcer approaching. They could never keep to their own place, always butting in where they didn't belong. What did the big government-types care about the suicide of a single thief?

"Sergeant O'Beakston?" He nodded reluctantly, and the Enforcer flashed some ID that went by too quickly for O'Beakston to really see. "My name is Captain Cross, and I'll be conducting the investigation."

"What investigation? She threw herself off a building because she felt guilty!"

The Captain leaned in closer. "Now, you can play that game with the media, but we both know that's not what really happened." The Sergeant refused to meet his eyes, and Cross nodded, as if satisfied. "You can take your men home, we'll handle it from here." O'Beakston nodded grudgingly and hurried away. Cross turned to the doctor that had been brought along. "You know what to do?"

"Yes, sir."

"Then get to work. And remember--this is an autopsy, not a medical report."

"Yes, sir."

Leaving the doctor to his work, Cross stepped out into the hallway and started pacing. A member of the Brotherhood of the Blade... now that was a rare catch indeed. He pulled out the saber that had been on the body and turned it over in his hands thoughtfully. He didn't know how to ignite it, and he wasn't exactly sure he wanted to try. Getting a hand chopped off would be definite bad luck. But it was the saber itself that mattered, not whether it was activated or not. It marked its bearer as a member of the Brotherhood.

Well, of course someone else could have stolen a saber, but that was vanishingly unlikely. For one thing, no Brotherhood member would have allowed its saber to be stolen; for another, the thieves at the museum had had the skill of Bladers, and no one else could have pulled it off.

Committing suicide in fit of remorse. It was so deliciously ironic. Cross didn't know if the Brotherhood would fully buy it, but even if they didn't, even if they did suspect foul play... as far as they were concerned their member was still dead, and unlikely to tell them otherwise. Oh, there might be a few retaliatory raids or strikes here and there, but the woman would be forgotten soon enough. It wasn't as if anyone cared about her, after all, she was just a thief. A crazed, suicidal one at that.

The doctor came back out and handed him a report. Cross scanned it rapidly, then glared at the doctor. "When I told you to turn the medical report into an autopsy, I meant to turn it into an autopsy that supports what we've already said! This autopsy clearly states that she died from the bullet wound, but suicide victims don't have bullets in their backs! We've told the media that she died from falling--excuse me, jumping--off the building. Where'd the bullet come from, then?"

"Sir, I..."

"Write a new one!"

The Doctor sighed and nodded, not wanting to argue. Arguing with Enforcers tended to lead to an early death, and not a swift one, either. "Yes, sir. The new report will show that she died from head trauma." Never mind that what he's asking me to say is medically impossible, and any doctor who looks at the report will know that...

"Better. Get right on it."

*****

Rio opened her eyes and found herself staring at a dull grey ceiling. Well... either hell looks a little different'an I thought it would, or I'm still alive. She tried to move, to roll over on her side, but a sudden pain ripped down her back and she fell back, wincing. Oh, DAMN! I must be still alive, I couldn't be dead an' hurt this much. Unable to move her torso, she tried to ascertain where she was just by turning her head. Bare grey ceiling and walls... no window...cell bars across her field of vision. Jail. I'm in jail... or in hell after all. Right now it don't make much difference. Now, how did I GET here?

Her head was spinning, and it took a few minutes for it to clear enough for her to remember what had happened. I was gonna jump... somethin' hit me in the back, an' I fell... after that I don' remember anythin'. Like how I survived, fer instance, 'r how I got here. But I can figure that out later... right now I need ta get OUT.

Rio forced herself to sit up, even though the movement made her back feel as if it were ripping in two. Her body ached unbearably and the room seemed to spin. I can't figure out how ta get outta here while I can't even see straight. She shoved herself to her feet and staggered in the general direction of the cell door, collapsing against the bars. Her rapidly-narrowing field of vision was suddenly filled with the dark blue of an Enforcer's uniform. Someone grabbed her shoulder and hauled her up. Stars exploded in front of her eyes, then cleared slowly, and she found herself looking up at the Enforcer. Young, brown haired, green eyes... he could have looked rather pleasant if he hadn't had a very impressive gun held loosely in his right hand.

Rio wasn't in the mood to look for a potential date at the moment. She pulled away from him and stumbled back onto the rock-hard bench that was posing as her bed. "What do ya want?" she snapped, drawing back against the wall and rather wishing she could sink right through it.

He smiled thinly. "You could do with a lesson in respect, woman."

"Ain't gonna learn it from ya, am I?"

"I think you should realize which side of the bars you're on."

"An' I think you should realize that I'm gonna get outta here, an' when I do, there won't be enough left a' ya ta stuff a pillow!"

"Just how do you plan on doing that, Blader?" Rio's shock must have registered on her face, because he smirked and continued, "We would have guessed anyway, since the average street thug couldn't have pulled that off and gotten away. The saber just confirmed it. You can glare at me all you want, it's not going to change anything. And don't think your friends are coming to save you, either." He brought over a holo-v set up on a wheeled table and positioned it right in front of her cell. She didn't have anywhere else to look. "This is a tape of last night's ten o'clock news. I'm sure you'll find it very interesting."

Rio didn't want to look. She tried not to look. She directed her gaze to the ceiling, to the floor, to the walls, to anywhere but at holo-v in front of her cell door. However, even if she wasn't looking, she couldn't helped but listen. "...committed suicide by throwing herself off the roof of a building in west Keltor." Rio's head snapped around and she stared, open-mouthed, at the screen. "Half of the collection was recovered. Documents found on the body identify it as Alle Featherwalker. At the scene is..."

Rio missed whatever else was said, everything else blanked out as she watched a sheet-shrouded corpse loaded up into an ambulance and driven away. They... Jed, Ker... Gina... they think I'm dead... If Hunter saw that, he'll think... think I'm...For a moment, she wasn't sure whether she was more worried about them or herself. On the other hand, I may end up dead if I don't do somethin'.

"In care you're wondering what happened," he continued blithely, as if not noticing the look on her face or simply not caring about it, "you did land on the truck. That's why you're not dead right now. We simply hauled you off the roof of the semi before the media got there and let them see a sheet-covered body being put in an ambulance. No one thought to check to see if that still-looking body was actually still breathing."

"The Brotherhood'll never believe it," she managed, her voice sounding weak and not terribly convincing even to herself. "They'll... they'll know it was faked."

"That's where you're wrong, Featherwalker... if that's even really your name, which I sincerely doubt. They have bought it already. Because you've been out for hours. And are there any search parties out for you? Any reports of raids on morgues, police headquarters, even this prison? No. Our files are untouched, our reports unquestioned, and our security uncompromised. Get it through your head: no one. Is. Coming. For. You. To everyone you know, you are dead, and in a very short time you are going to prove them correct."

"After what? Ya want a night, is that why ye're keepin' me alive? Nah, yer taste probably runs more toward men, don't it?"

He scowled. "You're not going to be so cocky for very long. We keep files on people like you."

"I'm just sure ya do. Ya probably have lots a' 'em on me. One fer each a' my aliases... I got a lot a' 'em, ya know. Or ya could look fer my physical appearance--oh, but wait, ya don't know what I really look like, do ya? Contacts, hair dye, liposuction, implants--I'm sure ya've had more experience wit' the last two, eh? It costs money ta look this way, but I got enough a' that ta reinvent myself forty times over. Or maybe ya could look fer accents. Ya want the whole spectrum? Ingallish? Thrannian? Caltec? Plain old Remaican maybe." With each word, she changed her accent dramatically. She stood up and paced slowly to the bars, standing almost face to face with him. "Face it," she continued, switching back to her favorite, Keltorian. "Ya got nothin' on me. Ya don't know where I come from, what I look like, what my name is. I might as well not exist, fer all the good yer records are gonna do ya."

He leered at her. "Oh, they will soon enough, because you'll tell us everything we want to know. By the time we're through with you, you won't be able to talk fast enough."

"Whatever delusions keep ya happy. I suppose it would kill ya ta take this bullet outta my back."

"No, it wouldn't. But there could be... an accident... and it just might kill you." He grinned at her ferally.

Not deigning to answer, Rio stood with her arms folded tightly, no matter how much havoc that was wrecking on her back, and glared defiantly at him. After awhile, he evidently realized that he wasn't going to get anything else out of her, and walked off.

She waited until he was gone, then sank weakly down on the "bed." Burying her head in her hands, she choked down sob after painful sob.

*****

Not being able to sleep was a new experience for Gina. She'd seen and done a lot of definitely insomnia-causing things in her life, but had never allowed them to get in the way of a good night's sleep.

She checked the bedside clock. Just after ten. It had been twenty-four hours since they'd found out about Rio's death. She knew that she wasn't even the one who was suffering the most. Jedar and Querida hadn't even really been out of their quarters since last night.

That didn't make her feel any better. How could she have died? How could she have killed herself? It doesn't make any sense. Dalin was sleeping soundly next to her, and she felt almost like shaking him awake. At least then he could commiserate with her pain and helplessness.

Helplessness? So that's it. Gina had had a number of people die on her. Not friends, most of them, just acquaintances or associates in some way. But none of them had ever died of natural causes, always leaving her someone she could take vengeance on. But for Rio, there was no way she could even the score. No sense of closure. That's what bothering me. Not only is she dead, but there's no one I can kill to get even.

She rolled over, rolled back, then, afraid she'd wake Dalin up with her constant tossing and turning, got up. Drawing on a robe, she went over to the table and opened up her laptop. She needed answers, and she wasn't going to rest until she found them.

After a grueling hour of hacking, Gina had found what she was looking for. It had been tucked within a file, within a file, within approximately six more files, but she had found it.

The first odd thing she noticed was that there were two autopsy reports. That was distinctly unusual. One does after all usually only die once, though Gina could think of a few people she'd like to bring back just so she could kill them again.

The other strange thing was that the second report had been filed an hour after the first, so it wasn't just a copy, but the later one was the one marked "official." Could the first be just a draft, maybe? Though that doesn't make sense, either. She opened the first report and scanned it. A bullet? How the hell did she get a bullet in the back? People committing suicide may occasionally shoot themselves, but I don't think it's even possible to shoot yourself in the back!

That was the first red flag, and from there she only found more. Gina had read more than her share of autopsies; she always read all the police reports and autopsies for her kills, or kills she had been associated with. Always paid to know if there were any suspects or clues. Might keep her alive a bit longer. So she knew what to expect from a real autopsy. This "report" was nothing of the kind.

For one thing, there were no pictures. Gina was just as glad, she wouldn't have wanted to see them, but they should have been there anyway. Also, the report didn't even say where the bullet had entered the body, what muscles it had pierced, where it had exited if it had exited--it didn't get any more specific than "back." Vagueness was not something that usually characterized autopsy reports; usually they went overboard in gruesome detail.

The next report was just as sloppy, just as vague, just as unconvincing. Immediate death? After falling just three stories? How does he think he's fooling? Jumping--or being pushed, as the case might be--off the roof of a three story building could do all sorts of unpleasant things to a person. Break their neck and leave them paralyzed. Break other assorted bones as well. Split the head wide open. Or just crush the body to a bloody pulp on the inside, leaving it to die slowly of internal bleeding while snapped ribs punctured the lungs, heart, stomach, and other various internal organs they had been designed to protect. Nasty thing, falling off a roof was. Terrible way to die. If one in fact did die, because while plummeting thirty feet was definitely painful, it didn't have to be fatal. Even if it was fatal, it was a long, slow death, which could be agonizing but could also give help time to arrive.

In short, the report's conclusion that it was "instantaneous death from head trauma" was nothing short of ludicrous.

Gina sat back and steepled her fingers, tapping them against the tip of her beak. One of these is a fake. If not both. I smell something... very suspicious here. The only thing the reports agreed upon was the address of the morgue where her body had supposedly been taken. I think I'll pay that address a little 'visit' tomorrow.

Suddenly aware of how exhausted she was, Gina dropped her robe and crawled back into bad, cuddling up to her husband. She was asleep almost as soon as her head touched the pillow.

*****

Ya know, we like ta think we're some kinda advanced civilization, but we apparently can't even take out a... ouch... bullet outta someone's back. We can't... ow... be nice, just fer a... change. Say what ya want, there were still some people who'll never be above... ooh... torture.

Rio had been lying on what passed for her bed for hours, changing position every few seconds, desperately trying to find a position that didn't make her feel as if her muscles were slowly being torn in half. It wasn't just the bullet that was still lodged in her back--though that certainly had something to do with it--but the fact that they were denying her any and all painkillers. They made her humiliate herself by having to ask, practically beg, to be walked down to the bathroom. She'd been denied any sort of food or water. Sleep just wasn't happening. Frequently guards would walk by and do what they could to torment her. The first few times she'd responded angrily, verbally pulling out all the stops, but after awhile she'd given up and just faced the wall, studiously ignoring the attacks and trying not to let them see the effect their words were having on her.

I gotta keep a hold on myself... They want me ta crack, they're tryin' ta make me lose it, that's what they want an' I'll be damned if I'll give it ta 'em!

An' I ain't paranoid, either.

I just gotta... hold on fer a little longer. They are gonna figure out it's a hoax, an' they will come fer me, or I'm gonna go mad. There was a niggling little doubt deep down inside that she was trying to ignore; the fear that they wouldn't figure it out, that they had left her for dead. So far, she'd kept it shoved on the far back burner, but with each passing hour, with each time a guard came by and taunted her, that doubt got closer and closer to taking control.

*****

Gina sighed as she looked at herself in the mirror, checking the black dye in her hair to make sure it was going to stay there. Yes, it was, and so were those hideous contacts that turned her eyes blue. She hated it. Black hair and blue eyes. It was so... so normal. She knew she wasn't trying to stand out, knew that having blonde hair and grey feathers marked her in a way she didn't want for this... Which didn't mean she had to like it.

She gathered up the props she was going to need to pull off her cover story, then went to Querida. Much as she hated to admit it, she needed help, and that help unfortunately had to come from someone she wasn't sure she could count on. She just lost her best friend, she'll be emotional, difficult to deal with--on the other hand, maybe she'll be that much more eager to help.

She knocked on A34, waited for the soft "Come in," and swung the door open.

Querida was standing over the crib, staring down at her baby but probably not seeing her. She looked dully up at Gina. "What do you want?" Her voice shook with repressed pain, her eyes were red from crying, and her face was haggard, as if she hadn't slept since she'd heard the news. She looked, in short, like hell, and would need to be handled delicately. Gina chose to approach the situation with her customary gentleness and tact.

"I don't think Rio's dead."

Kerry had turned back to her baby, but now her head snapped around. "What?"

"She's not dead. Or, if she is, she didn't die the way they said she did."

"How... how do you...?"

"Do you know what a real autopsy looks like?"

"Well, yes, of course. I never wrote one, I'm not a coroner, but I've seen them from time to time."

"Good." Gina flipped up her laptop lid and brought up the two fakes. "Read these. They're supposedly Rio's."

Querida looked vaguely ill. "I'd rather not--"

"Don't worry. They're not what you're thinking."

She didn't look too sure on that, but took the laptop anyway and scanned the files that were open, then frowned. "Those aren't real autopsies."

"No, they're not."

"So you think Rio might not be dead?"

"That's the idea. Right now, I'm going to go verify it. And I need you to come along."

"To where?"

"To the morgue. We're going to see if Rio's body is there."

"And you need me for the medical knowledge?"

"No. I need you to hold my cover."

"Oh."

"I'll tell Tarrin you're going." Gina calmly picked up Elle and carried her into the infirmary before Querida could protest. She felt an unexpected pull at her heart as she cradled the baby. I can't have children... I don't WANT children, remember that! They're a waste of time, waste of space... helpless, useless... Right. Of course. Can't imagine why anyone would want them.

None of which kept a very unpleasant pang from surfacing when she handed the baby back to its father.

*****

"Are you sure about this?"

"Of course I'm sure. It's my job to be sure. Your job is just to take pictures, look interested, and distract the worker. Now come on."

Kerry nodded unhappily and followed Gina into the morgue. The clerk behind counter looked up at the door chime, but Gina launched in to her spiel before he could say a word. "Hi, I'm Marie Firedrake, reporter for the Keltor Times, and this is my photographer, Rune Cobbelduck."

"Hi," Kerry began, but Gina kept going.

"I'm doing an avian interest story on the thief who threw herself off the building two nights ago, so tragic, wasn't it? Crime doesn't pay and all that, you know there are so many misguided youths in our city perhaps something like this will help them see the error of their ways. So could I see the body, please?" She paused for breath for the first time, then blinked such earnest, guileless blue eyes at the clerk that only the most suspicious person could have doubted.

Unfortunately, this clerk was the suspicious type. After he'd managed to piece together what had just happened, he asked doubtfully, "If you're a reporter, why haven't I ever seen your name in the paper?"

"Oh! I was just hired, right out of school, and I'm so glad they were nice enough to take a chance on someone as young and untried as I am! I'm trying to break in with a really interesting piece, totally grab the public's attention, pay them back and all that, you see?"

"I'll have to see some ID."

"Oh! Of course! Don't want to let anyone who shouldn't be here go by, would you? Of course not! But who would want to see a corpse anyway?" she chattered away brightly as she handed over a falsified driver's license and press card.

"Aren't you laying it on a bit thick?" Kerry murmured as the clerk checked their cards.

"Shut up," Gina muttered back. "Men fall for this stuff more often than you think."

"You're authorized," the clerk told them reluctantly. "Right this way." He lead them down the corridor and they followed, heels clicking loudly on the tile. Finally he pointed at one of the body drawers. "There you go. Alle Featherwalker. Have fun."

Now all business, Gina ignored him, taking a deep breath to steel herself before yanking the body drawer open. Her face registered shock, which the clerk put down to her seeing a corpse for the first time. Corpses Gina had seen, and they didn't bother her. What bothered her was what was in the body drawer.

In other words, nothing.

She nodded Kerry over. She looked in the drawer as well, her expression as surprised as Gina's had been, but she dutifully took some pictures to hold their cover. Composing herself with effort, Gina shut the drawer again and turned to the clerk, wondering if he knew. But if he had known, he would have tried to stall us. "Were you... on duty when the... the body was brought in?"

"No."

"Can... can you tell us who was?"

"Must I?"

"It would, ah, help with the article, yes."

"If I have to." He rattled off a name and number too fast to be written down. Gina memorized it. "There. If you ladies are done here...?"

"Yes, I think we are." They turned and walked out. As soon as the door shut behind them, the clerk walked back to his desk and picked up the phone. He didn't know why he was doing this, but he did have his orders. Orders given by a very powerful person who would probably slice him to ribbons if he didn't obey.

"Hello, sir? You wanted me to let you know if anyone asked to look at Featherwalker's body..."

And then the line went dead. Puzzled, he looked down at his phone and tried several more times, before finally going outside and finding that the phone line's breaker switch had been neatly thrown.

*****

Gina hung up the receiver in the phone booth and went back out to the car. "I called our man. He was on duty, but he was in another room when the body arrived. He heard sirens and came running out, found the whole place swarming with cops. He never saw the body."

"So... Rio could still be... alive?"

"I'm willing to bet that she is. And I'll find her." She checked herself in the rearview mirror and frowned. "I can't wait to wash this dye out. Black hair is so... normal."

"One thing that you will never be accused of, Gina, is being normal."

They'd driven almost all the way back to the Lair before Gina realized that Kerry had actually made a joke.

*****

Rio had, against all odds, finally managed to drift off. It was probably just because her body had become too exhausted to allow pain to keep it awake another second. She had no idea how long she'd been out when voices right outside her cell door woke her. She kept still, forcing herself not to open her eyes and fervently hoping that her stomach wouldn't growl and give her away.

"Has she eaten?"

"Not since she got here."

"Good. That'll take some of the fight out her."

"I think it'll take a lot more than starvation to take the fight out of this one."

"I don't doubt it. Crimson will probably enjoy it."

Crimson? Rio had to consciously keep herself from stiffening up. What's he got to do wit'... oh, no. Oh, Drake, no.

"I'm sure he will. When's he coming back?"

"He couldn't get away before today. He'll be hopping the next flight back to Remaica. He wants to interrogate her personally. He should be here in about twelve hours."

Their voices faded away as they walked down the hall. Once they were gone, Rio's eyes snapped open and she lay there, gasping. Crimson... Crimson is comin'. He knows who I am, he'll remember me, and he'll-- oh, Drake, death is gonna be the easiest part of it! She forced herself to sit up. Twelve hours... I have twelve hours before he gets here an'... I gotta get outta here. I can't afford ta wait on 'em any longer, I have ta get myself out. It looked impossible before, but impossible is a lot better 'an the alternative.

She went over the room again, but it looked no more escapable than it had the other times she had examined it. No window, extremely solid metal ceiling, walls, and floor, and iron bars across the front. They could have just used energy bars, but apparently they felt that those were too easily shorted out.

There's GOT ta be... some way...

She stopped, realizing something. They'd left her her own clothes, for some unknown reason, and though they'd probably given her a cursory search, they definitely wouldn't have found everything. Rio turned up the cuff of her pants. Extracted a lockpick from the hem. And smiled.

*****

Thirty keystrokes or less.

Gina had always prided herself on her ability to get into a system in thirty keystrokes or less. If it took more than that, then that system was far better than just "good", and deserved grudging admiration.

It took her fifty to get into the system she was after. Her opinion of the Enforcers went up a notch, reluctantly.

But the files she wanted were in there, and she knew she was going to get them. "Where are you, you little bugger," she muttered, hunting around through dead ends and useless bits of bytes. "Come out, come out, where ever you are... I know you're in there, you can't hide from me... Where ARE you, you little--" Whatever harsh term she was about to use was cut off she finally found what she wanted. "Ah, there you are." She downloaded the file and got herself the hell out of the system before she was spotted, then brought it up and scanned it again, more thoroughly. No doubt about it. That's her. Unable to keep a relieved smile off her face, she got up quickly, then sat back down again and hooked her laptop into her mainframe, transferring the file. I'll probably need some proof, or everyone will think I'm crazy... bloody hell, I'D think I was crazy if I didn't have the evidence sitting right in front of me!

Her amused smile died away as she realized that she wouldn't be able to carry out her plan alone. Damn, damn, and damn some more. Two operations in a row where I need help. All this time in the Brotherhood must be making me lose my edge. On the other hand, Gina admitted to herself somewhat reluctantly, this is a little harder than my usual job... the other time I didn't really need help, it was just useful. This time I do need it... but anyone would. Oh, Drake damn. Now I'm even rationalizing for myself. As soon as this is over, I'm going to throw myself off a bridge.

Checking to make sure that the file had finished downloading, she grabbed her laptop and headed for the lounge.

Jedar was there, just as she'd expected. Well, his body was there, at least--his mind was most likely somewhere else. With someone else. Gina, however, didn't have time for sympathy. She marched up to him and slammed her hands flat on the table in front of him. "She's not dead."

Startled out of his reverie, Jedar jumped, jerking himself upright sharply. "Huh?"

"Rio," she explained impatiently, as if it should be perfectly obvious. How many other she's had "died" recently? "She's still alive."

Jedar stared at her. "She can't be... we saw her dead."

"She's alive, damn it! And I have proof!" She forced herself to calm down, remember that he'd known nothing of her suspicions and subsequent investigations until that moment. "I checked into the coroner's file, and there were two autopsy reports. Not only were they incomplete and vague -- obvious fakes -- but the first says she died of a gunshot wound in the back. The second says that she died from head trauma, caused by falling off that building." She paused, waiting to see if that produced some kind of reaction... preferably one more articulate than "huh?"

The haze of grief and shock started to lift. "That's definitely inconsistent, isn't it," he agreed, trying not to sound too hopeful. She nodded.

"I thought so. So I went to the morgue and checked the body drawer she should have been in." She leaned in and lowered her voice, giving extra weight to her words. "That drawer was empty, and none of the clerks actually saw her body taken in."

Jedar tapped his beak thoughtfully, lost in thought, and stared into space for a while before he focused back on Gina. "She could have been taken somewhere else..." he began doubtfully, but she raised a hand to cut him off.

"She was, but not another morgue." She pulled a chair over and sat next to him, opening her laptop. "I downloaded this file directly out of a top-secret government computer. It was in a list of all those admitted into the nearest max-security prison. The name's blanked out and there's no mug shot, but look -- the physical description matches Rio. Same height, weight, brown hair, brown eyes, white feathers. Crime: robbery. Everything else is classified, except for her location. Cellblock 36-J, cell number 14D." She closed her laptop case with a satisfied snap. "The Enforcers have her, but she's alive and we know where she is."

For about five seconds, there was absolute silence while Jedar pieced off that together. When it finally hit home, he grinned, bounded to his feet, and grabbed her off the floor in a hug. "Gina, you're absolutely brilliant!"

"And you're going to be absolutely dead if you don't put me down!" she snapped, struggling. She didn't mean it, of course, but she did have a reputation to keep up.

"Oh. Sorry," he apologized, letting her down. "I got a bit carried away."

"I should have expected that," she admitted, rubbing her back. She was going to have a bruise there later. "Now. They probably know she's part of the Blade, so they'll have extra guards on her. Has she had any run-ins with the Enforcers before this, where they saw her face? Because if there's someone out there who has a vendetta against her I need to know about it now."

He looked first pained, then guilty, and Gina winced inside. That couldn't possibly be a good sign. "Yes... yes, there was, a few years ago."

"Who? No one high-ranked, I hope, or getting her out could get that much harder. Especially getting her out alive and with her sanity intact."

Jedar ran a hand through his hair nervously and looked away, refusing to meet her eyes. "It was my fault," he said at last, "I got her involved in something I shouldn't have. And if anyone can hold grudges, that's Crimson..."

"Crimson? As in Crimson Pintail? Drake, Stormwing, you might as well have just signed her death certificate!"

"I know that, but I'm not clairvoyant, Gina!" he protested. "I didn't know what I was getting her into, otherwise I never would have."

She sighed and drummed her nails against the table. "All right, all right, maybe this isn't as bad as it sounds. While I was digging through their files I discovered that Crimson is out of the country for a few days... he isn't scheduled to fly back until day after tomorrow. That gives us a little time. Unless he'd fly back as soon as he found out who they had...?"

"Probably," Jedar managed, sounding ill. "He enjoys taking a personal hand in the interrogation procedures."

"Interrogation procedures that the victim rarely survives... No he doesn't. No he damn doesn't. I have worked too hard to find her to let her die again, tortured to death like some...!" Gina stopped, visibly trying to control herself. Jedar watched, wondering if she was facing some bad memories of her own. "I was going to plan this out, but since the time table's shot... I'll get her out tonight and plan as I go along."

He frowned. "You mean we'llget her out."

"What? No. Absolutely not." Conveniently forgetting that she'd planned to ask him along anyway, suddenly she was insulted that he thought she needed help.

"Yes."

She wanted to tell him any number of things. She wanted to tell him that she'd been the only one to not give up on Rio. That she'd found all that information on her own. That not five minutes before he'd been in a grief-stricken, numbed state, and would be no help to her. That this was her job. That he could go to hell for all she cared.

She forced herself not to say anything of those things, though, knowing that it was just stress and lack of rest making her edgy. And what I came down here to get him to begin with. Swallowing her pride, she sighed and nodded. "All right, fine. I'll go get some... equipment. Meet me at the entrance in half an hour."

He nodded, looking more alive than she'd seen him since they'd heard the news. "Deal." Gina nodded and even managed a dry smile, but as she hurried to get her things, she had to wonder if they were already too late.

*****

Rio hadn't originally thought of her lockpicks because she couldn't use them in the conventional fashion. The lock was electronic and just out of reach. She might have been able to do something about the bars if they'd been energy instead of iron, but even if they had been, she would have had as good a chance of shorting herself out as she would have shorting out the bars. Fortunately, creativity was one of her strong points, so not being able to do things the "conventional" way wasn't a great worry.

Instead, she'd spent the past ten hours steadily working on a wall panel. It was frustrating, tedious work, wedging lockpicks into hairline cracks and trying to work the metal up. It wasn't physically straining work, but sweat kept dripping down into her eyes anyway. Every time she thought she heard someone coming, she had to stop and sit back to resume her "stare sullenly out the door" act. The stress and fear was making her insane, especially since there was a clock directly opposite her cell. Every time she sat back, she looked right at the clock and was reminded of how little time she had left before Crimson arrived. And she hadn't even gotten out of the cell yet, much less figured out how to get out of the prison.

Pop

The panel finally dropped off. She grabbed it before it could hit the floor, cursing viciously under her breath as doing so snapped a nail off deep into the quick. That had been her last unbloodied finger. Ignoring that for the moment--though she'd have to give herself one hell of a manicure after she got out--she sat back on her heels and stared at the jumble of wires in front of her. Red, green, white, blue, black... they were all tangled together in an indecipherable mass. Cutting or crossing the right combination would open her cell door. Cutting or crossing the wrong combination would, at best, alert the guards. At worse, it would turn her into something that looked like fried cockatrice.

She had one thing on her side; it was night, and there were more guards outside than there were patrolling the halls. That meant she might have a certain leeway to experiment with the wires, providing she didn't something really stupid, or kill herself.

She fingered the wires gingerly, wishing that they were labeled in some way. Why did engineers have to be so damned elitist? What, did they figure if someone didn't have the training to be able to tell forty identical wires apart, they deserved to fry? Evidently they did.

She forced herself to stop cursing all engineers to the lowest netherhells--amusing as that might be--and to concentrate on the problem in front of her. As a thief, she was fairly skilled at bypassing security systems, but that was as far as her technical knowledge went. Hacking and similar things were far past her experience, and this mass of wires went even further. Well, might as well get started, I ain't gettin' any younger... an' I AM gettin' that much closer ta bein' dead. With no better place to start, she selected a red wire--her favorite color--and crossed it with a black.

The already-dim hallway lights went out.

Oops! Damn! She quickly uncrossed them, and the lights blinked back on before anyone could think of it as more than a strange glitch. She sighed and kept trying.

Over the course of the next ten minutes, Rio brought the lights up, shut them off again, turned the water on and off, and did just about everything else exceptopen the doors. She was starting to get nervous; eventually someone was going to notice all the "tiny glitches" happening in her section and come to investigate. Finally, just when she was on the verge of giving up, she touched three wires together accidentally, and her door slid soundlessly open.

For a moment, all she could do was sit there and stare, disbelieving. Then she marshaled her strength and staggered to her feet. She had no way of knowing if the door opening had triggered a silent alarm somewhere, or of knowing where the patrols were. One could walk by and see her empty cell at any second. Picking a direction at random, she started limping down the hall as fast as she could.

As she staggered along, Rio was hit with the hopelessness of her situation. She hadn't food or water in two days, she had a bullet cozying up to her spine and no painkillers to dull the agony. She had no idea where the prison itself was, much less where in it she was, how to get out, and how to get away once she was out. Up until then, she'd been driven by the need to, proverbially, "get out of Dodge." Now that she was out of Dodge, she had no idea what to do next.

Details, she decided, and kept moving.

*****

"How did you manage to come up with all of this?"

"I worked on the black market. I've done just about every illegal thing possible. And I never reveal my sources." Gina smoothed her hair back before putting her uniform cap on. Confining her rather voluminous hair into a neat military bun had been something of a challenge, and had required what felt like gallons of hair spray, but it had been necessary to complete her image. She was back in her blue-eyes-black-hair disguise, but without the wide-eyed over-eager curiosity of her reporter persona. This Marie Firedrake--Captain Marie Firedrake--was hard-hitting, no nonsense, and likely to rip heads off if someone crossed her.

Rather like Gina herself, actually.

She turned to Jedar and brushed a piece of lint off his jacket. "You don't look too comfortable in uniform."

"I'm not."

"Well, if you can stand it for just a few hours, then it'll all be over."

"I wish you had found a better way to phrase that." He sighed and pulled his cap down a little further over his own freshly-dyed hair. "I do have... one more question."

She glanced back at him impatiently as she pulled out their identification papers. "And just what is that? Make it fast, we're almost there."

"Why did you get the higher rank?"

"Because I know where I'm going, and what I'm doing. Now, we don't have a lot of time here, so you're just going to have to shut up and follow my lead, no matter what. If you have a problem with it, then I suggest you leave."

Jedar had to fight down a wave of anger at her tone. "I don't care who's in charge, all I care about is getting Rio back in one piece."

"Believe it or not," she actually stopped and turned to him, "that's all I care about, too." Then, as if embarrassed by her admission, Gina doubled her pace toward the prison. Jedar caught up with her easily.

"Why are you doing this for her?"

"You said you only had one more question."

"I came up with another. Humor me."

She hesitated, then admitted softly, "She... helped me awhile ago. I owe her, and I take my debts seriously. This is it," she continued briskly. "Shut up and stay behind me."

The prison loomed above them like the gateway to hell. Jedar couldn't stop himself from glancing nervously up at it every few seconds; the last place any thief wants to go is into a prison. Gina, however, seemed to be perfectly comfortable. She flashed some ID at the guard standing at the gate. "Captain Firedrake, and this is Lieutenant Starling. We're here on official business."

"I'll have to see your orders, sir."

Gina flashed those too.

"Can you state your business?"

"I could. But then, of course, I'd have to kill you. Slowly."

The guard risked a smile, as if unsure whether she was kidding or not. "Good one, sir."

"I wasn't joking." She put her hand on the soft, pliable pad that scanned her fingerprints and determined if she had clearance or not. Jedar held his breath, unsure how she'd fake her way past this, but she seemed unconcerned. After a tense five seconds, the computer beeped its acceptance. She passed through, then the guard nodded to Jedar. Gina reached out and stopped him before he could put his hand on the pad. "That's not necessary. We're on a very tight schedule, every second counts. He's with me."

"I'm sorry, sir. Standard procedure. Even Pintail himself has to."

Gina's mind raced, trying to figure out a way around this. She fingered the gun in her holster, hoping she wouldn't have to just shoot the guard, but ready to do so if she had to. Luckily, she was spared from having to do so as a young aide burst in, babbling about how Pintail was coming, and everything needed to be ready, and why hadn't a squad met them already to provide a proper escort?? Taking advantage of the confusion as the guard tried to sort things out and pacify the over-eager aide, Gina and Jedar slipped past the security checkpoint.

"Did you hear that?" Gina kept her voice steady, even though she was worrying inside. "Crimson's here for her. It's a damn good thing we already know where she is, or she'd be so much roast duck by the time we found her."

Wincing at the too-vivid mental image, Jedar tried to find something for his mind to focus on. "How did you do that?"

"Do what? Cellblock 36 is this way, we turn right here..."

"Get past the hand-scanner."

"Oh, that." She peeled a nearly-transparent glove off her right hand and showed it to him. "It has microchips embedded in the fingertips that basically tell the computer what it wants to read."

"Very nice."

"I thought so when I came up with the idea." Ignored his surprised look, she slipped the glove into her uniform pocket. "The problem with security today is that it relies too much on computers. Retinal scans, fingerprint scans--they can all be faked. Even brainwave scans... they're a little harder, but it can be done. Nothing's impregnable. Turn left here. I ought to try to crack my way into the Brotherhood some day, just to see if I can. And to shove a major stick up Cutter's... and turn here. This is the right block. She should be down that hallway."

In a matter of seconds, they'd located cellblock 36-J, #14D.

The empty cellblock 36-J, #14D.

Gina swore viciously. "Damn it! Damn it, damn it... DAMN it! Trust Rio to break herself out twenty seconds before we arrive for her!"

"If Crimson finds her..." he began, but she cut him off, unable to even consider the possibility.

"He won't. Because we're going to find her first. You go that way, I'll double back, whoever finds her first can get the hell out. Good luck."

And she was gone.

"I hate it when she does that."

*****

The alarm went off.

Rio cursed and shrank against the wall, momentarily disoriented by the suddenly ear-splitting alarms and flashing lights. Guess they missed me. Damn. Knew it wouldn't take long, but I didn't think it'd be quite this fast. I was bettin' on at least a little more time! But then, when has my luck been good lately?

Choosing a hallway at random, she hurried along it, finally find a door out. Locked, of course, but after what she'd just gone through no mere security system was keeping her out. Fifteen seconds, and the door was open, and she was out of it.

She didn't know where she was, what part of the courtyard she was in. All she knew was that there were lights all around, barbed wire in front of her, and guards running all over the place. She couldn't get away, but she could sure as hell try. An' I'll die before I'll let Crimson get his hands on me. This is as good a way ta go as any. Maybe they don't know where I busted out yet...

"ATTENTION, ALL UNITS! BREACH AT SOUTHWEST COURT, AREA EIGHT!"

Rio looked up and saw a great big "8" emblazoned on the wall above her head.

"Well, damn."

*****

Jedar skidded to a halt and looked up at the sound of the announcement. Area eight... and just where am I? Scanning the walls around him, he finally located the designation: Area eleven. On the opposite side of the complex. He sighed and turned to retrace his steps. It wouldn't be hard to find Rio once he got back to the right section. All he'd have to do is watch for the brawls.

*****

Gina had already figured out that Rio wasn't on any of the lower levels and was working her way up. She was racing past a window on the third story when she heard the announcement. She slammed to a halt and doubled back to the window, scanning the area. She'd studied the floor plans of the building and knew that she was right by section three; Rio had to be right around her.

From her vantage point, Gina could look out over the entire area and see what the guards hadn't yet; Rio, crouching behind a vehicle, presumably waiting for the right moment to break the fence. What she couldn't see, however, was that the guards were right on top of her and would most likely find her in a few moments, and they were so spread out that they'd quite unwittingly surrounded her. They must not know what they're doing, there's no way they could do something that smart on purpose.

They'd be right on top of her in roughly thirty seconds. Gina knew she'd never have time to get down there and help, and even then... two women, one of them most likely severely injured, against thirty guards? The odds weren't good. So, instead of going down, she went up, at double the pace.

One of the control towers was right above her. Gina pounded up the stairs, kicked the door open, and ran straight for the microphone. Pausing just long enough to make sure that it was on, she shouted into the mike. "Attention, all available guards! The escapee has been located. She's in the northwest court, area two!"

From her position, high above the rest of the southwest court, Gina could see the guards scattering and running in the opposite direction. By squinting, she could just make out the shadow that was Rio. She's probably wondering what the hell's going on... well, I can explain later. I'll have to do something about that electrified fence if she's going to get out... Gina started merrily hacking into the systems, shutting off the electricity and alarms. She was finished, left a little "surprise," and was headed for the door when she heard them.

The attack canids.

*****

Rio heard the howling coming up behind her and jumped out of her hiding spot like a scared mabbit, heading straight for the fence. She had no idea what had made the guards think she was somewhere she wasn't, but she was not about to complain. She'd planned on hiding there, waiting for the right timing, trying to find some way around the fact that the fifteen-foot fence was electrified and had three rows of barbed wire at the top. Given enough time, she could probably claw her way up the fence even in her injured state. She was sure she could find a way around the wire, too, hopefully before she was riddled full of bullets. The electricity, however, she hadn't been able to figure a way around.

But when she heard the attack canids coming, all of her plans fell to pieces and all she could do was run. The viciousness of the Enforcer's canids was renowned; they might rip her to pieces before anyone could, or would, stop them. The guards might be fooled, but the canids wouldn't be.

The fence was right in front of her. If she grabbed it, she'd die, cooked through before she could even realize what was happening. It'd be like being struck by lightening. But she'd rather kill herself that way--quickly and painlessly--than die at the hands of Crimson.

She took a running leap and launched herself forward, grabbing onto the fence with both hands. She had been braced for the shock, but had a different kind of surprise when she wasn't instantly fried. Quickly deciding not to worry about it for the moment, she startled clawing her way up the fence. Unfortunately, this was when all her injuries decided to make themselves doubly felt. Her shoulders and arms started shaking, unwilling to support her. She kept hitching herself upward desperately, but she hadn't made it even half way up when she felt a violent tug at the back of her shirt as a canid leapt up and snagged her. Unable to hold on, Rio was yanked back to the ground, landing hard on her back. The pain was so intense that she nearly blacked out, clinging to consciousness just enough to try to push away the canid that was hovering over her.

"Call that thing off."

Someone whistled the canid away. Rio was vaguely aware that she was being surrounded, but she didn't have to strength left to fight her way free. Not that she could have succeeded even if she'd tried.

"Get her on her feet."

That voice... that voice was familiar, somehow... Two guards caught her arms and hauled her up. Too weak to support herself and not even willing to try, she allowed herself to hang there between them and pray that they'd kill her quickly.

"Look at me."

Rio found the strength somewhere inside to lift her head, and through a tangle of hair looked up at Crimson Pintail.

And then she really did black out.

*****

Crimson felt mildly disappointed when his quarry collapsed just as he reached her. He'd hoped for at least some resistance. Well, he'd probably get plenty of that later, when the... interrogation... started.

His head snapped around as an explosion rocked the entire complex, blowing the southwest tower to bits. Fire literally rained down from the sky as burning computers parts and bits of debris peppered the courtyard, catching what few patched of dry grass there were and turning the whole area into a raging inferno. All the prisoner's cells had been opened, and convicts and guards raced about, ignoring each other as they desperately tried to find a way out.

Crimson barked out an order, leaving two Enforcers to guard the 'prisoner', while he and the rest of his squad ran to do what they could. The guards exchanged nervous glances.

Fifteen seconds later they were out cold, along with their previous charge. Jedar dropped the pipe he'd used on them and picked Rio up carefully, trying not to jostle her too much, not that she would have noticed anyway. Gina materialized out of the smoke next to him. "How is she?"

"Unconscious."

She gave him a nearly-annoyed look. "I can see that. I meant, how bad is it?"

"I can't tell." He looked around at what was left of the prison. The flames were getting a little too close. "Is this your answer to every problem? Blow something up?"

"No. Usually I just shoot people." She glanced at Rio and winced. "Poor choice of words. Now, let's go before someone figures out to stop us. Though in this chaos, they're not likely stop anyone at all, much less someone wearing a uniform." She calmly drew her gun and blasted a hole in the fence. "I'll climb through first, then you hand her through and I'll hold her while you get out. Then we'll be gone before Crimson thinks to come back to get her. Wish I had time to wait for him, though. I'd like to blow his head o..." She trailed off when she saw the look on Jedar's face. "Never mind." She turned quickly and pulled herself through what was left of the fence, then held Rio while Jedar climbed out after her.

They headed back to the Brotherhood, leaving what was left of the prison behind them, red flames illuminating the area but slowly dying out as fire trucks arrived and started fighting the conflagrations. They were long gone before anyone even realized they'd left.

 

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