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Rebirth - Part One

By Quillblade

 

It was raining. No, scratch that - it was flashflooding. It was thundering, storming, crashing, pelting, monsooning. There was rain, and sleet, and occasionally there was hail. It was heavy precipitation in the 'solid wall of water hitting you at what feels like a hundred miles an hour' sense. There was only one type of fool who'd be out walking on the duCaine Metropolis streets in this kind of weather, and that type of fool was...

Jedar Stormwing took a wrong step onto some black ice and went skidding across the road, slamming hard into a streetlamp before tumbling to the curb. He rubbed his beak, muttering a mild curse under his breath.

It was really very cold. He used the lamp as a lever to heave himself back up and, shivering, pulled his coat up a bit higher. But he was already soaked inside and out, and it made very little difference to his currently half-frozen state. When I get back to the hotel I'm going to have a shower, order a hot drink and curl up next to the heating system. Maybe I'll order some soup as w--yie!

Thud. Not six paces down the road and he was flat on his back again.

Stormwing, he thought glumly, clambering upright again. With a surname like that I ought to be able to keep on my feet in a winter downpour, but nooo... Whatever reason my ancestors got that name, it hasn't been passed down to me. Just the hair. Damn you, genetics. A nasty thought occurred to him then, and when he passed a parked car he glanced in the rear vision mirror, but was relieved to see that his hair was still dyed brown. The rain hadn't washed that away, at least. Although a lot of his pride was down in the gutters, as was the hat he'd stolen earlier along with a couple of wallets whose contents were safely tucked inside his jeans pocket.

Thankfully, however, he wasn't very far from the hotel. Having done the necessary scouting before a heist, he could now just sleep for the rest of the day in a nice, warm bed. It would of course have been a lot nicer if Nylessa had come along with him, but she'd refused. They'd had one of their little arguments just the day before (the cause of which he couldn't even remember but Lessa had flared up as if it were terribly important) and she was still sulking.

THE IMPERIAL ROSE HOTEL (est. 2202)

Jedar walked up the stairs, hanging tight onto the railing, pausing only to watch a suited man dash out the doors with a briefcase over his head and skip nimbly down the steps to his car without so much as skidding. Shaking his head, Jedar walked in and stood in the foyer for a while, dripping. The woman at the counter raised an eyebrow as he slogged past to the elevator, but his dark look made her think better of saying anything.

His room was right up on the top floor; ironically enough number 10 - D10, in this case. The door was locked, and he gave it a quick knock. "Honey, I'm home."

After a few moments, Rio opened the door; she stared at his drenched appearance, and broke into a smirk. "Don't you even think of commenting on the weather," he warned her. "Or cracking any bad jokes such as 'you're all washed up'."

"No fear, I ain't the one of us two who cracks the bad jokes." Still smirking, she stepped back to let him in. Jedar immediately headed for the shower, shutting the door after him. Rio leant against the wall, shouting through to him, "So did ya case the gallery like we planned?"

"Yeah," was his brief reply, half drowned under the noise of the shower running.

Rio considered attempting to continue the conversation, but gave it up as impossible. She paused, then banged on the door and hollered through, "Yo, Jedar? Ya want I should call room service an' order up some soup or some coffee or somethin' else hot for ya? Ya looked like a drowned fel when ya came in."

"And I felt about the same," came through a moment later. "Yes, that'd all be much appreciated, thank you."

"Got ya."

By the time he came out of the shower, dressed in his pyjamas that Rio had thoughtfully left in there for him, she'd just finishing fixing up the coffee. "Damn you an' yer accent, Jedar," she began conversationally. "I had ta go an' try ta make myself sound respectable when I called up room service."

Jedar grinned at her. "Terribly sorry. But it was either you speak like me or I speak like you, and I can't do a Keltor accent very well. In any case, someone with as extensive and well-exercised a vocabulary as yourself should have no trouble at all."

"Well you're damned lucky I can mimic, is all I can say. Now siddown an' drink yer coffee."

"Yes ma'am." He saluted, took the mug and jumped onto the bed, almost spilling the coffee as he did so. Rio glared at him.

"An' fer cryin' out loud, be careful! I ain't callin' room service up here again just ta clean up yer mess!" She curled up on the couch with her own mug of coffee. "Oh, an' that reminds me. We have ta discuss the bed issue."

"Uh, what about it?"

There was just the one, large bed. Rolling her eyes, Rio pointed at it. "What do ya think? Jed, we been friends fer a long time, an' ya know I trust ya. But friend or no, if ya think I'm sharin' a bed wit' you, ye're more whacked 'an Nosedive."

"Oh.. good point." He sipped at his coffee. "I suppose one of us is sleeping on the couch, then."

Rio was about to say, An' it ain't me, but she looked at him and reconsidered. "You've had a hard day," she admitted gruffly. "I'll take the couch tonight."

"Thanks," he replied, genuinely grateful. Glancing at the little television, he added, "Anything interesting on the news tonight?"

Shaking her head, Rio put her coffee mug on the little table beside her and sat back against the arm of the couch. "Nothin' that interests us too much. Couple burglaries down in the 'burbs, cheap jobs, gotta be amateurs but, believe it or not, cops are blamin' the Blade or Black Omega." She smirked briefly. "Not that I'd put it past Stargon ta be cheap an' clumsy, but that was just ridiculous."

"There wasn't anything about the exhibition?"

"Nope. Some guy upstate has managed to clone farm animals an' he's makin' a big thing over that, but there wasn't nothin' 'bout the gallery." Rio reached over and took her mug back, blowing at the steam absently. "So, what'd ya find out there? Everything lookin' ta go accordin' ta plan? An' would ya gimme a pillow?"

He picked up the spare pillow and offered it to her. "There's a bit more security than I'd expected, but nothing that will make the heist impossible. Just a little risky. I found the statuette, too, it's practically right in the middle of the hall without any glass. It doesn't need glass, it has laser alarms right around it, it'll be a tight squeeze even for you."

Rio snorted as she dropped the pillow at one end of the sofa, plumping it idly with her free hand. "Oh great, yeah, that always makes for a fun job. But we can handle it, right? Oh, an' toss me that extra quilt, will ya? It's kinda cold over here."

"Right." Tossing the quilt on top of her, he ducked under his own covers and lay with arms behind his head. "There are a couple of cameras as well, but they're simple enough to black out. I wouldn't have minded Cutter come along, however, I must say... but don't tell him I said that."

"I'm all for keepin' his ego down ta roughly the size of Puckworld, thanks." She sat curled up, knees tucked under her chin, and tried not to yawn too wide. After a few moments of silence, she raised her head. "Hey, Jedar? Can I ask ya a question?"

"Shoot."

"Why didn't Lessa come? I'm sure ya would rather have had her along than me."

Jedar grimaced. "We, uh, aren't talking at the moment."

"Oh." Rio winced, cursing her lack of tact. "I didn't know... sorry."

"It's okay."

She sighed and sat up. "I'm beat. I'm gonna have my shower an' then get some sleep. Did ya leave any hot water for me?"

"I have no idea."

"You're just a bundle of information, anyone ever tell ya that, Bond?" She grabbed her things and walked into the bathroom, shutting the door before he could reply.

*****


The morning was still blustery but no longer pouring with rain. The streets, however, were partially flooded with the amount of puddles spread across them, and for a few unlucky souls who'd left cars out with the windows down, so was the transportation. Rio and Jedar were fine, however, as they walked out to buy lunch. The sky was clear now, and so apart from the strong wind it was a fairly pleasant morning.

Jedar recognized a corner he'd come down hard on the previous night, and was surprised to find it was right outside a nice little cafe, framed on either side by a chemist and a hair salon. He waved a hand in its direction. "How about there?"

Rio looked, nodded. "Looks good. Your treat."

"Yes," Jedar said, albeit a little reluctantly. "My treat."

There were few people in, but the overall mood was cheery as Rio selected a table and sat down, telling Jedar exactly what to get her and waiting for it to be ordered. As she waited, a lady came to stand outside the cafe, setting up a small box with a sign saying 'Raffle worth $1000, donated by Coullmans and Jenkins.' It bore the stamp of the DC Metro's local orphanage. The tickets were a dollar. To every person who went past, she would ask if they wanted a ticket. And they would buy one. It was nice to see there were caring people in the world.

Jedar shifted in the seat opposite, and she turned around to look at him. "You got any money left?"

"Of course," he said, handing the breakfast plates and beverages out. "Why?"

She nodded back at the raffle ticket-seller. "I thought we could contribute a little somethin'. I don't, y'know, hold out any big hopes of winnin' nothin', but hey."

He looked up. "Sounds good to me. Hold on, I'll go get a couple." Standing, he pulled out his wallet again and headed over to the ticket seller, already readying a couple of dollars. But someone else walked past ahead of him and occupied both the ticket-seller's and his own attention.

He was Cardakian, around six feet tall with the solid build and yellow feathers common amongst his race, and a head of dark pink hair worn like a hunterfel's mane. However, Crimson Pintail despised the bright colors that were almost the trademark of his people, and instead wore black velvet, his only concession to color being the gold trim. The most memorable thing about him, however, and the last thing seen of many a man during the reign of the Authority, were his eyes. One was deep bottle green flecked with yellow. But the other was mass of scar tissue that ran from across his forehead, ripped into the empty eye socket and continued down over the cheek.

This did not seem to disconcert the ticket-seller very much, as she held out her box to him. "Would you like to buy a ticket, sir?"

The man glanced down at her, and took a step away. "No, thank you. A thousand dollars doesn't really take my interest." And having said that he started to walk off.

But Jedar caught him by the arm. "Oh, please, sir," he said, his voice falsely sweet. "Allow me."

Crimson's head snapped around, single eye narrowing, but Jedar turned away before the man could recognize him. Buying three tickets, he stuffed two into one pocket and held the last out to the ex-politician. Crimson hesitated before taking it, apparently still trying to work who he was, as Jedar kept his gaze on the ground now and, with a brief wave, slouched away. After a few moments during which he could feel the scar-faced man's eye glaring after his back, Jedar lifted risked a guarded glance behind him in time to see Crimson leave. He smirked slightly.

Thousand dollars not take your interest, hm? he thought, twisting the man's wallet in his hand.

One of the amazing thing about busy streets, he decided, was that crime could be committed, and often was committed, practically right in front of people's faces and they just wouldn't see. He'd picked a pocket in broad daylight and not one person, if they had noticed at all, said anything as he went back to his seat.

Well, no one except Rio. "Because you up an' left, I had ta pay," she grumbled good-naturedly, conveniently forgetting that she'd given him the idea. "Who was that?"

"I don't know," he shrugged, tucking both wallets away.

She fixed him with a hard look. "Don't lie ta me," she whispered, almost too low to be heard even by him. "You recognized him, and I think ya knew that he'd recognize you, too, if he'd only got a good look at ya. So who was he?"

"An old business partner," said Jedar, still evading the actual question. He started on his breakfast, ignoring the slightly exasperated sigh from his current 'business partner' across the table.

"I hate it when ya lie ta me, Jed. So don't. We both know I can see right through it when ya do. Now who. Was. He."

Jedar sighed, sitting back a little more in the chair as he glanced behind them at the now empty sidewalk. Then he leaned in closer. "He was a part of the Authority, before it.. ended. Crimson Pintail, military captain, led a caste in the original resistance. He and I, we never got along." His expression became slightly wry. "In fact, we were closer to homicidal. But he was in charge of the Enforcers. Is, I should say, though it's all in secret now as you know..."

Her knuckles had turned white, she was gripping the table so hard. Damn, Jed, she thought, ya say it all so calmly... "Oh," was all she could manage to say for a while. "Well. Ya certainly know some int'restin' people."

"Agreed. You, for instance," he added lightly, obviously trying to change the subject.

Rio took the bait for a moment. "C'm'ere so I can rub yer face in that caramel yuck a' yers."

"No fear, but thank you anyway. My hair's enough of a mess already."

"So's yer face."

"Ouch."

"You started it," she pointed out, pushing her empty plate to one side. Folding her arms, Rio raised an eyebrow. "So, anyhow, why'd ya risk yerself like that? What would've happened if he'd gone an' recognized ya, huh? The cops... not ta mention the Enforcers... they'd a' been all over here in about twenty seconds flat."

He shrugged, looking uncomfortable. "It seemed like a good idea at the time," he confessed, sheepishly. "And besides, he irritates me. He's the kind of guy who says 'bah humbug' at Snow Festival Night. The type.. who refuses to pay a few dollars toward food for orphan children." A rather evil smile broke out on his face. "The type who, with any luck, will have to walk home tonight because I've got his money and his car keys."

"That's petty, Jed."

"I'm like that sometimes." He checked his watch. "We've still got a whole eight hours to waste before the job tonight. It might be better if we split up for a while, at least until, say, five-thirty. In any case, I know I saw you eyeing some of the shops back there."

"Well... yeah," she admitted reluctantly. "I would like ta check some a' 'em out, but..." Suspicion clouded her voice, and she gave him another raised eyebrow look. "What're you gonna do?" What are ya plannin' that ya want me outta the way for?

Jedar tidied up his plates - deliberately not looking at her, she noticed. "I'm going to take a trip around town, see some old sights, and find a collection box for that orphanage so I can deposit Crimson's most generous donation of another thousand dollars." He sighed, twisting a fork in his fingers. "Sometimes I really hate being a thief."

Rio, who was just beginning to stand, promptly landed back on her seat with a thud at this apparent non sequitur. "What did ya just say? Where the hell did that come from?"

He grinned a little lopsidedly at her. "Sorry, I'm, ah, really not at my best in the mornings." It was a weak excuse, and Rio was sure Jedar knew it. "You have to admit, though," he added suddenly. "It's a lousy job at times. Always hiding, always skulking, always being hunted..."

Though she did her best not to show it, Rio was starting to become concerned at this sudden change in attitude. She pulled her chair a bit closer, as unobtrusively as possible, and placed a hand on his arm. "Jed, what's wit' you? Ya okay?"

"You wouldn't believe me if I said 'I'm fine', would you?"

"Not likely." Leaning back in her chair, she studied him for a moment. "Seein' Crimson really bothered ya, didn't it?"

A sigh. "Yes, it did. It brings back some memories I'd rather I didn't have to face again." Dropping the fork back to the plates, he stood up. "Don't worry about me, Rio. It's nothing a bit of fresh air won't cure."

She stood as well, still looking unconvinced. "Ye're sure?"

"Quite." Pausing a moment, he then pulled out his own wallet and handed her some notes. "Since you ended up paying for the food, the least I can do is pay you back, plus a little extra to help with your shopping trip."

Now Rio looked as if she wasn't sure whether to be even more concerned, or to just be thankful for her good fortune and get moving before he changed his mind. "Well... thanks, I guess." Still a little worried, she pocketed the money, then gave him a broad smirk that hid her concern. "Ye're sure ya ain't just tryin' ta get rid a' me?"

"But I wouldn't want to be rid of you," he said, sounding somewhat over sincere. "You're a little ray of sunshine in an otherwise dreary day."

Rio whacked him on the shoulder, but gently. "Shut up an' leave before I decide ta hurt ya."

"Yes, ma'am." With his customary lazy half-salute, Jedar turned and walked out of the cafe, hands in his pockets, and whistling You Are The Sunshine Of My Life.

If it hadn't been a public place, with so many other people sitting around, chatting, and eating, Rio would definitely have thrown something after him. Like a chair. As it was, she had to content herself with hissing after him. "Hey! Get back here so I can shove a pastry where the sun don't shine! Did ya hear me? Get back here!"

Jedar wisely pretended not to hear her furious whispers, but did quicken his pace a little until he was out of sight and firing range.

*****


Midday was quickly replaced by afternoon, which itself faded into evening, when a wash of gold and scarlet lit the sky, edging the occasional cloud with a burning orange fire. A couple of stars were already out, although they were hard to see through the sunset, but the twin moons hovered in the sky like a pair of fierce eyes, one white, one red. Delos was most prominent at this time of the night, and as Jedar stood in the long shadows of some busy trees, the pock-marked face of the red moon appeared to be glaring at him.

Truth be known, he'd not actually intended to leave the city. He'd meant what he'd told Rio earlier, that he'd just look around for a donation box. And he'd done that, although keeping the rest of the wallet, before taking a look around the shops to see if he could find something for Nylessa that might get him back in her good books once he got home.

It was while wandering about that he'd come up with the admittedly crazy idea of paying Crimson's residence a call. Crazy, because Crimson had quite possibly the best security system of any estate on Puckworld. Even if you managed to get past that, you'd have to come up against the ex-Enforcer servants, and Crimson himself - who was more dangerous on his own than every other security measure else combined.

But that aside, he was angry enough to go ahead with the plan he'd concocted.

Jedar was not usually vindictive. However, he was inclined to make an exception where this man was concerned. During the resistance movement against the Authority, in an effort to draw him out Crimson had publicly 'executed for treason' Jedar's only surviving relatives, his elder sister Caerine and her husband.

It had worked, too, Jedar reflected bitterly. He nearly got himself killed, until finally his friends in the resistance dragged him back to relative sanity.

He hadn't been the only one affected by the actions of this madman, however. As the supreme head of the Enforcers, Crimson had personally ordered the deaths of hundreds of people, guilty or innocent. His sense of justice had long ago been twisted so that he didn't care whether the one made an example of was the true perpetrator or not, as long as someone paid for the crime.

Once, perhaps, Crimson may have been an okay sort of fellow. The violent loss of his left eye during the Saurian occupation was definitely the end of that, though. If he was still sane at all, then it was only by a tenacious thread.

Rio would probably have been even more concerned had she known any of this.

Rio, Jedar thought guiltily. He hadn't lied to her, per se, but then he hadn't exactly informed her of his change in plans, either, and that was as good as a lie. She's probably wondering where I am by now; not even Rio could shop for this long.

The shadows were fading fast. Crimson's estate was not far out of the Metro, but it occupied a large expanse of land that made it seem pretty isolated. The house - house! Mansion was closer, archaic in outward style but that was only a front - stood aloof at the top of a hill near the centre of the property, a ring of trees surrounding it like the moat of an ancient castle or fort.

And when considering the electrified fences, the single heavily guarded gateway and the patrols scouring the grounds, 'fort' did spring to mind. The rolling hills and scrubby brush of the surrounding country provided a bit of shelter for Jedar as he'd crawled under the fence through a thick bramble grove, where the fence had been lifted slightly through months of thorny growth. And then again, as he'd ducked past security patrols, taking nearly an hour to finally make it to the comparative safety of the trees and their thick, drooping foliage.

By now he was scratched, bruised, aching, but successful. At least, he corrected himself, successful thus far. He still had to get inside the house.

There were no lights on, which caused him a little suspicion. Crimson was a late worker; that the house should be in total darkness now could be a bad sign, or a stroke of good fortune that was just a little disappointing. While Jedar had to admit to himself that he was not overly eager to see the man's scarred face again, it would have been that much more fun to carry the plan out under his very beak. Still and all, better safe than dead. Jedar had tempted Crimson's wrath many times in the past, and the ex-politician's opinion of the thief was as low as the thief's opinion was of the ex-politician.

The uphill climb was steep, dry, and surprisingly rocky; at times it was hard to tell whether he was scaling a hill or a cliff. There was little of even the tough, wiry grass (that normally grew plentiful around here) to adorn its barren earth. A flicker of a dry smile passed across Jedar's face; it probably tried to keep as far away from the owner of this land as possible.

He paused halfway, standing carefully, leaning out to take a look around. It just wouldn't do to have a patrol sneak up on him unawares, and it was very hard to be quiet when scrabbling up a loose-stoned hill. He'd deliberately chosen the eastern side to be out of the sunlight's path, and because it was a little less steep than all the other sides, barring the western side where the road sloped gently up to the gates of the courtyard above.

Lovely view, he thought, glancing briefly to the horizon. He could just make out the dark shadows of the Pieter Ranges, the sun sinking colorfully down behind them. To the south, the Metropolis rose from the ground like a garden of white and pearl grey stone. The sunset flooded the nacre-like stone with an ever-shifting play of fiery light, so that it seemed the city was aflame.

But Crimson, Jedar knew, hadn't chosen the place for its view. Exactly why the man had set up here he wasn't sure, but it almost certainly wasn't for that. In Jedar's experience, Crimson hated beauty - likely because he was nothing pretty himself. There may be something strategically important about this site, he thought, but I'm damned if I know what. And then again, the house is fortified like a maximum-security prison...

He continued the climb, cursing quietly as the ground gave way underneath him and he slid down a few feet, snatching frantically at a protruding rock. A cloud of dust and dirt tumbled to the bottom of the hill as he hung awkwardly by one hand. Carefully, Jedar reached up to find another handhold, and he all but crawled the remaining distance. As he hauled himself over the top, he made a silent decision to use the proper equipment next time, even if he had to steal it first.

It was a nice house, but again, Jedar doubted that was the reason Crimson had bought it. Two stories with an attic and, if he was any judge of houses, a basement and wine cellar as well, and at least twelve separate rooms within the house itself. It was the kind of house that all but shouted 'rich aristocrat', and Jedar could imagine many mouths back at the Brotherhood watering at the thought of having a look inside. Crimson was rich, and could afford to be lavish with his decor simply to shove that fact down the throats of many a colleague.

There was a lake at the other side of the hill, he noticed vaguely, as he looked around once more before stepping closer into the shadows. A tall, spike-railed fence ran around three-quarters of the house, turning into an arching gateway at the northern side. He did not wish to go walking blindly into such an open area, so he stayed where he was, testing the bars of the fence. The gaps weren't big enough to squeeze through, so Jedar pulled himself up to the top, balanced briefly with his feet between the spikes, and jumped down to the other side. There on the ground he hesitated again, listening for any sounds that might be footsteps.

None; he relaxed a little, straightened, and hid in the darkness of a deadly garden. With Crimson's loathing of beauty, the usual flowers had little place here. Instead it was a landscaper's nightmare, of thorn trees and nightshade, thistles and blackberries, yet all impeccably (one could almost call it militantly) arranged in neat rows. Seven of the plants that he could identify were toxic or dangerous, and at least another six that looked as though they were one or the other. Well, he thought, it's a garden that suits him.

The house was far taller than it had seemed when he'd first viewed it, and now that he was closer he could see the alarms on every window, ground floor or not. Takes no chances, does he? Jedar craned his neck back further, looking up at the attic. It was boarded up, and did not seem as secure as the windows further below. It would, though, put him in plain view of anyone within a two-mile radius, so he put that idea to the back of the list.

There was a back door just around one of the jutting corners. After listening again for voices, footsteps, or even the faint whir of hidden cameras, Jedar stepped up to the door and patted his jacket for his lockpicks. Just as he found them he stopped, and looked closer at the door. Then, grinning sheepishly at himself, he pulled out Crimson's wallet and selected a security card, which he swiped through the slot. With a flicker of accepting green, the door unlocked and he pushed it open.

The hallway beyond was surprisingly warm, a pleasant change from the cool evening air outside, and it breezed in behind him and down the open spaces before he shut the door again. If one had not been able to guess from the outside that the owner of the house was rich, then the interior would have left them beyond doubt. The plush carpet was deep scarlet, a color echoed in the polished redwood walls, and it stretched over the floor from wall to wall. It was only a narrow hall, so there was little furniture save a small but beautifully ornamented table and chair near the entrance, and a pair of miniature chandeliers hanging from the ceiling.

Jedar walked to the end of the long hall, the thick carpet eating up any sound his quiet footfalls might have made, and carefully pushed open the double-doors at the end. He looked around, impressed despite himself.

At one stage, the main room had possibly been two or three large rooms, encompassing a dining area, a sitting room, and a ballroom. The walls separating these three areas had been demolished, and what was left was an enormous hall that could easily have fit a medium-sized plane, with room enough left over to park a limousine. The floor was stone, a dark, almost black rock, contrasting with the stripes of carpet which twined around the room in an eccentric whirl, to the very center of the room where a marble column held up the ceiling. Arranged at all four points around it were full-sized crystal chandeliers, lined with shining silver, and in the corners great lamps reached out over the floor like willow branches.

Like the hall, it was sparse on the furniture side, but above the strictly ornamental fireplace at the furthest end of the room was a range of delicate porcelain plates, trimmed in gold. The walls were decorated in an array of portraits - none of them, Jedar noted, Crimson's own.

He felt exposed as he crossed the room, heading as quickly as he could without actually running to the broad stairway that rose up to the second level landing, which circled the room. At the end of either banister were a pair of proud stone busts of some ancestor or another, or possibly an old family retainer. More statues, of almost full body, lined the sides of the staircase.

Only almost, since they were all headless. All aristocrats are a little mad, he thought. Crimson just likes to take it that much further... There was something wrong with the room; he'd known it immediately. It made him feel trapped, as if the huge expanse of empty space was only a mirage.

He had no time to dwell on it, however, as the lights in one of the other hallways flicked on. The doors began to open. Working on an instinct fuelled by pure panic, Jedar leapt backwards over the banister and threw himself into the corner of the stairs. His back complained at this unorthodox treatment, but he gritted his teeth and willed himself to stay silent.

"...you hear something?"

The sound of soft footsteps on the carpet - stopping.

"Your imagination, I think," was the eventual reply.

And then there was light. Wincing, Jedar shut his eyes, automatically turning his head away from the source. Even as he did so, he realized that he was in full view of anyone who happened to turn the corner, and felt around frantically for a hiding place. His hand fell on the outstretched arm of one of the statues. Its hand was beckoning, and he took that as a good sign, crouching in behind it.

The ballroom, because that's what he was certain it was, had undergone a massive change with a throw of the switch. The lamps cast a brutally direct glow into the very centre of the room, setting the stone pillar afire with a shifting play of electric light. In itself, that was pretty. But the blood-red carpets also caused a reflection, in the chandeliers, and that red light was bounced about the sharpened crystals and onto the walls so that the entire room appeared to be oozing...

The effect was horrifyingly mesmerizing. He had to remind himself to breathe. Dear duCaine and the higher gods, he thought, aghast. Now I know why I felt something was wrong. The whole room is a visual simulation of death...

It took him a few minutes to realize that the guards had gone, and longer to actually relax. He remained where he was for a further minute or two, to be certain that they had indeed gone, before he playfully slapped the statue on the back. "Thank you, my good man! I'll be--"

The wall disappeared from behind his back.

With a startled cry he tumbled backwards, landing on a steep ramp that continued down into darkness. And he continued down into darkness with it, unable to stop himself from rolling along the slippery metal surface. He bounced and clanged and crashed into the walls at least twice before there was a sudden burst of light and he exploded into another room, finally rolling to a halt.

Jedar opened his eyes carefully, blinking until his vision was no longer split double. He was staring at a pair of something. Shoes. Black shoes, in fact, still attached to the person using them. Looking up, he found himself staring at an unfortunately very familiar face. It was a thin face, with a darker than normal beak, one bottle-green eye as hard as glass, the other replaced by a twisted scar, and all of it framed by a thick mane of dark pink hair.

It was also, currently, showing the most shocked expression Jedar had ever seen on Crimson's face before. The man's mouth worked before finally asking, "What the blazes are you doing here?"

"I wanted to drop you a line and say hello," said Jedar, his own mouth going on automatic, "but you know how the postal service is these days, terribly unreliable..."

Crimson's hand shot out and grabbed his collar, wrenching him into upright position. "Jedar Stormwing." He laughed quietly, amused at some private joke. "After so many years searching for you in all of Keltor's foulest gutters, you finally stumble in my front door. Guards!"

The last was spoken - snapped - to a trio of burly men in Enforcer uniform who marched forward, two of them grabbing Jedar's arms while the third jammed a gun with unnecessary force into the small of his back. "Confiscate his weapons," the third ordered. They patted him down, removing his saber, his wallet, and the other wallet.

They looked at the last briefly, before handing it back to Crimson. His twisted face darkened momentarily. "I thought that man at the cafe was familiar." Picking through it casually, he raised an eyebrow at the empty cash pockets. "It's really very impolite to spend other peoples' cash."

Jedar said sharply, "You'd know that best, of course, seeing as you must have spent a few million of taxpayers' money in renovating this grandiose mansion of yours."

"Thirteen point eight, to be relatively exact." Crimson stepped away, hooking his arms behind his back, an unnerving smile creeping slowly across a face that was not suited to smiling. "You've saved me a lot of trouble, Jedar."

"I've always been an obliging chap."

"Why are you here?"

"Then again, I know when to be stubborn and unresponsive too."

Again Crimson's hand moved, this time catching Jedar a heavy blow to the side of the head. Bursts of multicolor light obscured his vision. He closed his eyes, wincing, as the older man repeated his question, "Why are you here?"

You know I'm not going to answer that, you crazed psychopath. In the end, though, he didn't have to. A voice came from nowhere - or more correctly, arrived from nowhere, Jedar saw as he opened his eyes again that a tall, thin man who reminded him of an older version of Shockwave had poked his head out from behind a heavy black curtain.

He was looking nervous. "Captain, sir."

"What is it?" Crimson turned, regarding the man with a frown.

"We have a small..." The young man's eyes flickered briefly, questioningly, to Jedar, before continuing. "Small problem, sir." His accent was foreign, either Alemainan or Jeneviess, he couldn't quite place it. "The simulations have... our calculations must be inaccurate."

"How inaccurate?"

"You'd have to see for yourself, sir."

Crimson hesitated, then turned back to face Jedar with a goblin smile. "Bring him along, gentlemen, I have a feeling he'll want to see this."

"While I'd love to stay and catch up on past times and past crimes, old boy, I have some truly pressing business on the other side of the planet. So if you'll let me go, I'll find my own way--" The third Enforcer rammed the deadly end of his miniature bazooka into Jedar's back again, and he gasped. "--ow! Well, fine, seeing as you insist..."

*****


The clock read 6:21pm. Rio sat slouched in a chair, fretting. Almost an hour late, she thought, watching the twenty-one turn over to a twenty-two. Damn you, Jed, where the hell are ya?

*****


It was a scene straight out of the darker science-fiction movies, a kind of space-age laboratory. Placed directly underneath the enormous hall overhead, the single column was again the centerpiece, only it was no longer stone but metal - a computer - a very big computer, circled with a screen. Situated around it were a beehive of consoles and flat black screens, and a man at almost every station, working frantically. Enforcers strode amongst them, checking on and inspiring progress.

"Well," said Jedar eventually, "you certainly seem to have taken on the role of mad scientist with great enthusiasm. And who is this," he asked, nodding at the tall red-head, "Igor?"

The young man extended his hand with an uncertain smile. "Why, yes... Igor von Haardbeak."

Crimson slapped the hand away. "Don't waste my time with useless pleasantries, boy, he's only going to be disposed of in any case. You said there were... inaccuracies?"

"Indeed, sir." Igor whirled, shouting across the room to those at the center. "Con thirteen, display the simulations at the table!" Something was shouted back, Jedar couldn't make it out. "Yes, now! Ah, good. This way please, sirs," he continued, leading them into an adjacent, and much smaller room.

It was bare, except for a hologram table in the middle of it. Apparently now in his element, Igor lost all his previous neurosis and walked around to the opposite side of the table with assurance in his step. There, he fiddled with a few controls. A row of 3D figures melted into the display area, and Jedar felt the guards' grips loosen in horror.

They were avianoid, at least to a point, but while none were alike they were all based on one generic form: Canard Thunderbeak.

Jedar looked at them all one by one, feeling sick. The first, along with the last, was predominantly avian in looks - except for its face. It had no face, only a deep black pit and straw-like tube dangling from it. The second was barely avian at all, a figure of a slug with a few arms and legs and a head sticking out from the body in all the wrong places. The third was reminiscent of a man recently been in a horrific car accident, and sprouted tendrils instead of fingers. The fourth was perfect in form and feature, except for one detail...

"Female?" demanded Crimson. "How did that happen? And why all those... things?"

"We believe," Igor began, "that something of the energy worm that attacked Canard when he leapt into Limbo fused with his genetic pattern, thereby changing it irreversibly. It did not affect him on the outside, although I myself think that in a few years there would have been some physical signs..." He faltered at Crimson's glare. "Um. Yes. Oh, the woman. The, uh, the energy worm was apparently of the female sex. In fact, we come up against this possibility more times than any other. The complex genetic pattern of the worm has so thoroughly melded with Canard's own pattern that it's difficult to separate the two."

"You're trying to clone Canard." Immediately Jedar wished he'd kept his mouth shut, as the look Crimson gave him promised a slow and painful death if he spoke up again. A second Canard... back from the dead, they would say. A true Messiah. The word would spread, and everyone would believe it. The Authority would come back into power...

Jedar my boy, he thought, you should have stayed in bed today.

"Difficult," said Crimson sharply, "but not impossible. I want results, Lieutenant, not excuses. I don't care what you do or how you do it, I only care about what is created at the end of it. Gullible as the general populace is," he added scathingly, "not even they will accept a Canard reborn if he has tentacles or wears lipstick."

He spun about to face Jedar. The hold of the three Enforcers immediately tightened again, enough to start bruising. "Yes, that is exactly what we're doing... or attempting. Your unexpected and unfortunate arrival has caught us at a crucial moment, but thankfully you'll be causing no damage this time around. Guards, take him to the storeroom and lock him up there. The execution of a known and hated assassin should prove to be good entertainment for my... guests... on the night."

"Throwing a party, are we? My, how generous. Are you going to reveal any more of your sinister plan to me, or will I have to start guessing?"

Crimson ignored him, gesturing to one of the guards. "Knock him senseless, please."

There was a brief burst of pain, and then darkness.

*****


No sound. No light. No dreams at all. Just a sense of floating in blackness with no idea who, or what, or where, or why he was. The man studied this emptiness in a detached fashion, since he wasn't even sure if it was himself experiencing them or someone else entirely. If even there was a someone or something else. The nothing was everything he could sense. Maybe he was the nothing...

"So... do we do..."

"...wait... said not to kill him until... over with..."

He frowned, as the low mutter of sound vanished again. Something, something important, tugged at the back of his mind. He was cold. He was cold - a sense, finally, even if it wasn't a pleasant one. An even less pleasant one slowly ebbed into his mind; a dull, thudding ache in his head, a feeling of being oddly twisted around and lying flat on a hard surface.

So he was cold, in pain, and lying down. Not a great combination.

Eyes, he had eyes, he distinctly remembered being able to see. That was another revelation: he could remember things now. Not very well, only in a blurry kind of fashion, and nothing that would explain why he was in such a situation as he seemed to be, but he knew his name now, and everything about himself and where he came from. It was an odd feeling to be remembering something that should have been knowledge so obvious to himself he didn't have to think about it...

"...hate waiting." The voices were back. "What are... doing... Fireday?"

"The Festi... got a social thing... party goin' down, suppose he's... the Authority and..."

Jedar opened his eyes, to find himself staring across a cold concrete floor at a wall perhaps six inches from the end of his beak. Not a very helpful sight. He lay twisted to the side, his hands behind his back. He felt the tug of cuffs around his wrists.

The voices were coming from behind him somewhere, and he raised his head slightly, just enough so that he could look over his shoulder, but there was only bare wall there too. And a door. It was, he thought, some kind of storeroom. Well, had I really expected to wake up in a luxurious bed with breakfast tray awaiting my disposal? Of course not.

Problem was, he couldn't recall why he hadn't expected that. I remember Crimson. That face of his is hard to forget. And I remember the Enforcers... why were there so many? Why am I being guarded, why didn't he just shoot me and throw me out with the trash... Oh, wait, I can guess at that answer. Crimson had always loved a good show. Of course he'd want to save Jedar's execution for a more public audience.

I suppose I should be grateful, this gives me a while to plan an escape of sorts. Pushing aside thoughts of why he was here, Jedar concentrated instead on how to get out.

The room was empty of anything that could have been remotely helpful. It was four walls with a single door, and a ventilation shaft far too small to be of any use. There was light, however, coming from a window about ten feet from the ground. Barred. Jedar twisted his arms around and tried to search his pockets, then remembered that the Enforcers had confiscated everything - his wallet with fake ID, his lockpicks, and his saber. Well then, I'll just have to improvise, won't I?

Sitting up carefully, he waited until his head stopped spinning before he used the wall and a prop to haul himself to his feet so that he could walk over to the door. There was a small grill in the door, and he peered through. Two young men, probably a good five years his junior, sat in full Enforcer uniform in the freezing hallway. Their visors were up, and he could see their beaks were pale with cold. If they hadn't been carrying big guns and likely assigned to shoot him should he attempt an escape, he might have felt sorry for them.

"Excuse me," he said politely, and waited until the two men had stopped scrambling for their guns and had calmed down enough to be, he hoped, rational but suspicious. "I don't suppose there's a chance of you men finding a blanket for me and tossing it in here, it's rather cold, you know."

One laughed briefly, a dark-feathered man. "You're not a guest, Stormwing, you're a prisoner."

"That as may be, but it doesn't mean I have to freeze to death, does it?"

The other flicked the safety off his gun, lazily threatening. Jedar frowned inwardly, his eyes going back to the first, the one who'd spoken. He'd be the more competent of the pair, and therefore the most dangerous, not the man brandishing his gun like a toy. He'd tell his partner to put the gun down and fetch a blanket, while he'd stay and watch.

Sure enough, the dark one turned to his fellow jailor. "Don't be stupid, Private, you know Crimson said no more harm was to come to him until the social. And you know that he'd be.. upset, if Stormwing should die prematurely by your damn trigger-happiness. Go and get him a blanket, for the gods' sakes, if it'll shut him up for a while."

His partner wasn't so certain. "But..."

"Do it. Now."

As the Private stalked off down the hallway, the dark-feathered man sat back down, arms folded across his legs, and smirked slightly. "Clever, Stormwing. Get rid of one guard, even the odds. I'd love to see how you plan to get out of that room, though, handcuffed as you are, because it's locked tight and I'm the only one who has the key."

Jedar grinned; his fingers already moving around in his cuffs, pulling down the sleeve of his jacket so that he could reach the tiny fiberglass pick sewn in under the hem. "Oh, don't worry, I'm more or less out of brilliant ideas. Give me another half an hour and I might come up with something that's better than just half-baked. Actually, when your man comes back with that blanket, I wonder if you couldn't ask him to get me a drink of water as well, my throat is parched..."

"Violence against you is prohibited for the moment, Stormwing," said the officer harshly, "but that doesn't mean I can't tie your beak closed if it keeps on flapping like that."

"Can I help it if I'm bored?" That was it, all the time he needed. The lock of his cuffs clicked almost inaudibly and he caught them as they fell from his wrists.

The Enforcer looked sadistically amused, as his partner returned, a blanket over his shoulder and a disgusted expression on his face. "You won't be bored for very long, trust me." Digging the keys out of a section of his uniform, the dark man tossed them to the other. "All right, Private, just throw it in there with him. Be quick about it."

As soon as the door was unlocked, Jedar moved. He stuck his foot in the gap and spun around, kicking the door open with one foot while the other landed a heavy blow to the Enforcer's stomach. The guard crumpled into a heap, gasping, as the senior officer sprang to his feet and snatched up his gun. Too late: the blanket snapped it out of his hands, and Jedar's fist went through the open visor of his helmet. The dark man flew into the wall, where he slid unconscious to the floor. His partner made a grab for the gun, but it was swept from his hands and clouted over his head.

Jedar dropped the gun quickly and wiped his hands on his jeans, looking around at the now-silent hallway. I almost can't believe that actually worked, he thought wryly.

No time for this, his common sense reminded him. Since there was only a dead end to his right, Jedar turned up the left passage and began walking quickly. It was a dim hallway, what few bulbs lit its dingy spaces were few and far between, so that at times he could barely see where he was treading, let alone if there were any alarm systems in the hallway.

But this was the cellar, or a part of it anyway. He doubted there would be much in the way of security down here, unless Crimson was paranoid enough to believe that someone could break through the security above in order to come down here and poison his food. Some of the doors were left wide open, revealing cold storage rooms and refrigerator units in every one. Jedar frowned. I can't see how he'd need so much food, it's as if he's preparing for some kind of world disaster, there's enough here to feed an... army?

He didn't like where this thought was heading, especially as he knew there was something important that it should be linking to in his mind, but it wasn't. All right, I have to find an exit, I don't know how much time I have before those men back there wake up, or else someone figures out that things have gone wrong. There has to be an-- ah!

Stairs.

*****


Rio's finger was twisted in the phone cord, but her voice was business-like; at least as much as she could manage while inwardly she wanted to start biting her nails. But the man at the other end of the phone was not forthcoming, and reluctantly she thanked him and put the phone down.

It was now almost a quarter to eleven, over ten hours since she and Jedar had parted ways that afternoon and two hours late for the heist. As Jedar had not arrived back, Rio had to assume that something - or someone - had happened to him. So she had done the rounds of the local police stations, quietly breaking in to check the holding cells. She'd kept the TV and radio on both in case some report came in, but there had been nothing. No traces. No clues. It was as if Jedar Stormwing had simply vanished off the face of the planet.

*****


Shots were being fired.

Jedar cursed himself for a fool as he ran down a different and far longer flight of stairs while four Enforcers standing at the top level fired at him. He had no idea where he was; the cellars had continued into an enormous underground complex beneath the earth, forming a warren throughout the hill on which Crimson's house perched. Judging by the distance that he'd covered already, it may well have extended right over the entire estate...

Skidding to a halt as footsteps clanged on the level below him, Jedar panicked briefly and wrenched open the door nearest to him. It opened out onto a narrow bridge from one end of a room to the other. Jedar slammed the door shut and smashed the locking panel with his fist. The glass shattered and cut into his hand, but he just wiped it on his jacket and kept going.

The room was enormous, a great cavern, and below him were a long line of plain white transport trucks, all pointing toward a large, upward-slanting ramp at the far end of the room, leading into a dark tunnel. It looked like the best opportunity he had - and as the Enforcers began firing through the doors, he decided that it was also the only opportunity.

He jumped from the bridge and landed with a metallic thump on the roof of a truck. Around him a few men - possibly mechanics and scientists because none of them toted guns - stared blankly as he swung himself through the open window into the driver's seat, and tried to find the keys. There were none. Just my luck... do I have time to hot-wire it?

The Enforcers blew the door open. I'll take that as a resounding no. Jedar jumped back out of the truck and straight into the next one, where a mechanic was just taking the passenger door off its hinges. The keys were in the ignition, and he quickly pushed the inoffensive man out of harms way. "Excuse me, I just need to borrow this for a few minutes!" he yelled, turning the keys.

Gunfire shattered the window beside him and he leaned back sharply, stepping hard on the acceleration. The truck coughed, growled, and then roared. The people and some Enforcers who'd managed to get down in time threw themselves out of the way as he went straight backwards into the truck behind him. There was a loud, grinding crash, and Jedar glanced in one of the rear-view mirrors. "Oops." He took the vehicle out of reverse.

The radio was on, he noted in a detached sort of way, as he charged up to the exit and was plunged into darkness. Someone was yelling orders on it, and, blinking, he realized that he was tuned to the Enforcer radio wave. "--ttention all troops, Stormwing has--" A crackle of static. "--lower section three exit. Do not let him escape. Shoot on sight, repeat, shoot on si--" Crackle.

The end of the tunnel came with a suddenness that could very nearly have ended Jedar's life, if he hadn't caught sight of the red light and a sign, 'Do not approach gate when light is red'. He had no time to slow his momentum however, so he ducked down into the seat and hung on tight.

It was like hitting a wall. Technically, he had hit a wall - or rather, he'd hit the closed gates of the tunnel exit. The front of the truck buckled as it ploughed straight through, and the dashboard was rammed against Jedar's side. The jolt sent a burst of pain through him like he'd just been broken in half, and the windscreen shattered, sending glass everywhere. Behind him he heard the noise of sirens wailing, people yelling, the tattle of guns blazing...

Ignoring his various pains, Jedar sat up, sweeping glass from his seat and out through the crumpled door. His head was spinning wildly now, but he put his foot down again and kept going. He was past the main gates of the electrified fence by now, near the main road in fact, and looking in the cracked glass of the rear-view mirror Jedar was able to see that he'd more or less left everyone behind.

The fuel gauge was going down rapidly, and he cursed. A bullet must have hit the fuel tank, which, he recalled, had not been entirely full to begin with. But he kept driving, and driving fast. There was only the road, everything else was a blur, though whether that was because of his speed or because he felt like he was going to faint, Jedar wasn't sure.

He just kept driving, and driving, in a direction he hoped was toward the Metro. At some point he became aware that he was driving along a main road and that cars were swerving to get out of his way, and he pulled quickly back to the proper side.

It must have been only a few minutes later that he blacked out.

*****


Twenty steps, exactly.

It was twenty steps from one end of the room to the other. There were thirty-four panels in the ceiling, eighty-seven repetitions of the pattern in the wallpaper, and thirteen channels on the television, not counting pay-per-view.

Rio had gone over the room a thousand times, trying to find things to keep her mind occupied, but she was running out. She'd already been all over the Metro, checking in every possible place for Jedar, but still nothing. Now she was pacing in the hotel room, afraid to leave in case something happened - what, she didn't know, she was worried to the point of irrationality - but frustrated at having to stay here, helpless, when duCaine only knew what was happening...

Someone was coming up the fire escape.

Rio's head snapped around, wondering for a moment if she was so keyed up she was hearing things. But no, someone was coming up the fire escape, very slowly, trying not to make a sound but not doing very well at it. Now stopping at that landing and working at the window to the room.

Oh, that would-be thief picked the wrong night to mess wit' me! Grabbing her saber and activating it in the same motion, she moved silently next to the window, waiting for the intruder to drop all the way into the room. As soon as his feet hit the ground, she brought her blade up to his throat. "Breathe in a way I don't like, and ya'll get an up close look at yer insides."

The man winced. "Yes, thank you, Rio... just one more bruise to add to my growing collection, maybe in another hour I'll have the whole set..."

Rio gasped, and her saber landed with a quiet thud on the carpet. "Jed?! What the hell??" She reached over and flicked on the nearest lamp, and her eyes widened further. Jedar was, to put it lightly, a mess. How he was still standing was something akin to a miracle - his face and clothing was covered in a mix of blood, dirt and grit, and there were two beauty bruises on his head, one at the side of his temple and the other just under his right eye.

He was swaying a little, and Rio quickly grabbed his hand and helped him over to the bed, where he collapsed gratefully. "What happened ta you? Wait, lemme get you some ice, an' a medikit...

"Don't need ice..." A groan. "Don't need ice, need a new head, this one's shot." As her eyes widened to horrified saucer-width, he added quickly, "Figure of speech."

She shook her head slowly, snatching up a facecloth and throwing some ice into it from the freezer. Carefully she put it against the bruise on the side of his head, and he grimaced, eyes shutting to pained slits. "Drake duCaine, Jed, ya look like ya were in a bloody car accident an' got scraped off a' the pavement."

"Close enough," he replied in a mumble, raising a hand to wipe some blood out of his eyes. His voice was oddly slurred, and she suspected concussion. "Had a bit of an accident, ran a truck into a tree. Nothing broken, 'cept maybe the truck... and the tree..."

Rio turned his head carefully toward the light and examined him more carefully. A particularly nasty cut ran almost right across his forehead, although it seemed to have mostly scabbed over by now, the feathers around it were coated. The rest of the cuts were largely superficial, and had stopped bleeding. "Ye're one damn lucky drake," she said matter-of-factly, standing again to get some bandages. "I brought a first aid kit along, didn't know I'd actually need ta use it... Keep that ice on yer head, an' tell me what happened."

As she pulled the kit out from under her pack, she paused, and frowned as a terrible thought occurred to her. "This don't have anythin' ta do wit' Crimson, does it?"

"Don't... I mean, I think so... I just... can't..."

With great difficulty, Rio restrained her temper, but she opened the first aid kit with a vicious wrench that almost snapped the hinges. "Damn it, Jedar, I've been sittin' here worried sick about ya, and ya've been runnin' around out there tryin' ta get yerself killed! I don't believe this! What the hell were you thinkin'?" Still berating him all the while, she poured some antiseptic onto a cotton pad and started to clean his face. But her angry expression soon changed to one of concern as she noted that his pupils were dilated and out of focus and by his lack of response she guessed that he hadn't heard a word she'd just said.

She sighed, and helped him lie down. "Ya need sleep, ye're run down," she muttered, not so much telling him what to do as just talking so he could hear her voice. "I'll watch out fer ya tanight... then I can yell at ya tomorrow when ye're feelin' better. Okay? Okay. Good." Perching on the arm of the couch, Rio waited until Jedar had fallen asleep before she slid down onto the couch and wrapped herself up in the quilt to watch him.

At some point very early in the morning she must have gone to sleep, because she woke with a start to see the bed was empty. Her heart thrummed for a moment, until she spotted Jedar making the coffee. Relieved, and also slightly irritated, Rio sat up and rubbed her eyes so that she could glare at him properly. He noticed her movement, however, and turned before she could even figure out something to say. "Morning, Rio," he said, bringing a cup over to her.

"Mornin' yerself," she said grumpily, but took the cup with a grateful nod. "Ye're lookin' a lot more alive 'an ya were last night. Head still givin' ya any trouble?"

Jedar pulled a slight face and sat down, mug in one hand. "Well, let me put it this way, I haven't felt so utterly pained, drained and nauseated since I was nineteen and prone to hangovers. Had a look at myself in the mirror, though, and nearly died." He indicated the deep purple bruises showing through his dark feathers. "I didn't realize I looked such a mess."

"Yeah, well, ya never been that observant..."

"Thanks very much, Rio," he said dryly. "You always know how to make me feel better."

"I try. So. Last night." Fixing him with her best no-nonsense glare, she added, "What happened? I know ya went ta Crimson's place. I dunno what in the name a' duCaine ya thought ya were doin' goin' there, but I know ya did. Now I wanna know why..."

He sipped at his coffee. "I have no idea."

"Don't play wit' me, Jed, not this--"

Raising his free hand, Jedar cut her off mid-grumble. "Rio, I mean it. I can't remember a thing about last night. I don't even remember how I got here. The last thing I recall was deciding to pay Crimson a visit, and by the look of myself I did that... the rest, well, there are flashes of images, sounds, a few clips of speech..." Frustrated, he shook his head. "I remember that there was something important I should be remembering, but I can't!"

Rio looked at him steadily, then grimaced. "I believe ya. Ya took enough knocks ta that brick of a head a' yers, yer brains prob'ly got the rattlin' a' their life." She sat there quietly, silence around them. Something that hadn't ever happened before that she knew of. Usually one or the other would be starting off some kind of conversation by now.

"I'm gonna turn the holo-v on," she said suddenly, reaching over for the remote control.

The morning news was about halfway through, the blonde newsreader possessing a smile like it was pasted onto her face with superglue. Rio disliked smiley people in the mornings. "...were captured on their latest grocery store heist, thanks to the efforts of the DMPD, and an anonymous tipoff from a member of the public. Contrary to popular belief, neither of the burglars were associated with any of the major thieves guilds..."

"Well, glad they got that straight, finally!" Rio snorted.

Jedar smiled briefly though it was obvious that he wasn't in the mood for banter - that, she noted, was worrying in itself. "Now you don't have to be so insulted anymore."

"It was insultin'. They were morons!"

"...more local affairs, Crimson Pintail, one of the last remaining members of the Authority who stepped down from government after the tragic assassination of our beloved President, Canard Thunderbeak..."

Not ta mention homicidally paranoid, thought Rio, looking sideways at Jedar. He was sitting very still, very quiet, staring at the screen with an expression of intense hatred that she'd never seen on him before when talking about Canard. Glancing back to the screen, she saw that it wasn't directed at Canard, but at the shots of Crimson being shown by the holo-v. She listened.

"...performed many generous acts of charity since his resignation from parliament, including multi-million dollar donations to the benefit of science and technology. His latest is a plan to throw open his entire home and property for an extravagant Snow Festival Night costume ball this coming Fireday. No expense has been spared, it seems, and already construction has begun on his estate three miles out of duCaine Metropolis..."

The scenes flipped to show overhead footage of Crimson's estate, where a number of trucks and vans and people were busying themselves setting up an enormous framework of steel rods, the kind generally used in tents, only stronger. Rio made a wry face as she listened to the newsreader gabble on about what was to be expected at this party and how Crimson had invited near to a hundred guests from fellow peers to reporter crews. "No expense, all right," said Rio grimly, "only a couple million of taxpayer's money. Huh."

"He was always ambitious, Crimson," said Jedar, his voice an odd mix of bitterness and grudging admiration. "If Canard was ever at a loss, Crimson would be the one to step forth, to offer advice and promising ideas. They always sounded good at first. There was the one about creating a world that was strong and secure, where no one ever had to fear to walk the streets alone."

Rio felt the feathers on the back of her neck prickle. "The Enforcers?"

Nodding wordlessly, Jedar went back to staring at the holo-v screen. The article about Crimson and the Snow Festival he was hosting had finished, and the news was moving on to the next. "Those ideas became twisted over time," he soon continued, "much like he did. After I left, he became obsessed with hunting me down. I was the thorn in his side, I always had been, and he wanted me out of the way. I think he knew I'd fight them to the finish, even before the resistance..."

Having fallen silent during this, Rio remained uncharacteristically quiet for a good few minutes after her friend's voice had trailed off. She tried to smile, but it didn't quite work. "Ye're too much a white knight, Jed. Ya always gotta save the world when it's in peril. All Crimson has ta do ta catch ya," she added, with a little more steel in her voice; she still hadn't forgiven him for last night, "is ta make a ruckus somewhere an' ya'll come rushin' ta save the day."

"It's not just that," replied Jedar briskly. "One of these days I'm going to finish what I started."

And Rio couldn't make heads or tails of that, so she settled for silence again, her attention drifting to the screen where a reporter was interviewing a professor, the guy in charge of the farm animal experiment. Two identical shepers were milling about in the background.

"...that was involved?"

"Well, the idea of cloning has been around for a long, long time. Botanists have been taking cuttings of well-developed plants and using those cuttings to create copies that are of the same genetic makeup as the mother plant, and they've been doing this for centuries. To clone a more complex animal, such as a porcine or a sheper, you need..."

Jedar's eyes had gone curiously blank, as he literally tuned out of the world. Crimson... cloning... Crimson and cloning, why did it feel like there was some kind of connection between the two?

The reporter continued: "Is it possible that one day we might be able to clone avian beings?"

"Perhaps, but certainly not the way science-fiction has portrayed it! You wouldn't be able to clone an adult to create another adult, for example, it would follow roughly the same process as cloning an animal. But of course, our technology is advancing every day... who knows what the future might bring? However, even if we could develop a way to clone avians, it's not entirely provable that--"

"I have it!" Jedar yelled, leaping to his feet and scaring a day's life out of Rio. She had just picked up her - thankfully empty - mug, and promptly dropped it on her foot. Gritting her teeth, she looked up and glared at Jedar, who had all but danced over to the television and turned it off again.

"What the hell d'ya think ye're doin'?" she asked crossly.

He started to grin at her, but his expression suddenly changed direction and went to serious before she could comment. "I remember last night again now. No, don't say anything, let me explain from the beginning. I decided to sneak in and... cause a bit of havoc, really. Steal some things, maybe vandalize a few others, just for the sake of getting on his nerves. But then it all went dreadfully wrong. I... there were guards, they almost caught me, so I hid behind a... a statue. A headless statue. I triggered some sort of secret passage..."

"Jed, this is already startin' ta sound weird."

"It gets weirder. I fell down an indoor slope and found myself literally at Crimson's feet. I remember he looked very surprised... which was rather funny now I look back on it, I don't think I've ever seen him surprised before. Angry, vengeful, cruel, yes, but never surprised." He caught her Look. "But I digress. He has a laboratory under that mansion, Rio, an enormous place, hundreds of people, and then there are more levels and more rooms, like a warren of some sort. But the lab... Rio, he's trying to clone Canard."

She stared at him. "He what?! Jed, I think ya bumped yer head worse 'an I thought."

"Listen to me, please. I'm not raving, I'm not delirious. For the first time this morning my head is perfectly clear. I know what happened now." Full of nervous excitement, Jedar started to pace up and down the room, while Rio's eyes followed him. Back and forth, back and forth. "No, he's planning to clone Canard, set him up as the president again - can't you guess what everyone will say if they see their president reborn? Returned from the dead, Drake duCaine's chosen..."

"But ya heard the scientists yerself," she argued, albeit doubtfully. "It'd be years before someone could clone a real person..."

"And hasn't Crimson been generously donating large amounts of money to science over the last two years? Believe me, Rio, I saw what they've been attempting..." Rio threw her arms in the air and moved to stand in front of him, arms folded. Jedar halted in his pacing and looked at her expectantly, almost pleading. "Please. I know it all sounds crazy, but it happened, I'm sure."

Rio's expression became resigned. "Okay, okay. I'm not quite convinced that ya ain't gone a little wacko, but I'll give ya the benefit of the doubt. Guess it's too crazy ta be anythin' but the truth." Rubbing the side of her beak thoughtfully, she returned to her seat, tucking her legs up underneath her. "Well, whadda we do now?" she asked of her friend, who was also sitting back down.

"Do? We have to stop him, as soon as we can-- ow!" He broke off sharply, putting a hand to his head. "Ugh... make that as soon as the room stops spinning."

"We ain't doin' nothin' until ye're better," said Rio, in a tone that was Not to be Argued With.

He looked out between his fingers, noted that her expression matched her tone, and decided that he wouldn't chance it. "All right," he sighed. "They'll probably be fixing fences for a while anyway, that's probably why construction for the costume ball was started so early." Suddenly his hand dropped and he leapt to his feet again, just missing the overhead light. "Of course!"

Rio, collecting the shreds of her dignity, scowled at him. That was twice in the last few minutes he'd startled her, and after last night her nerves weren't what they used to be. "Ya did that one on purpose, didn't ya..."

"Sorry. But I've just had a brilliant idea."

"I've been involved in some of yer 'brilliant' ideas before," she grouched, "an' they usually end up wit' us doin' a lot more runnin' than ya planned."

Ignoring her remark, Jedar carried on. "The costume ball, of course. That's how we'll get in. If we can get ourselves some elaborate costumes and copies of the invitations we should be able to slip right into the party unnoticed." She was giving him a skeptical look, so he added, "Well, there are a few holes in that theory, of course, but I'm sure we can work our way around them. The ball isn't for a few days yet, we'll have good time to prepare... Well." He paused. "That's assuming you're going to be with me. I'll understand if you don't want to risk coming along."

"Don't be an idiot, a' course I'm comin'. We're partners an' we're friends, it's what we do." She settled back against the arm of the couch, and regarded him with wry amusement. "But ya could never pick the easy jobs, could ya, Jed?"

"This one will make the statuette heist look like child's play," he remarked. "But we have to ruin his plans. If he does succeed, and Canard is cloned... you know what will happen. The people will reinstate him and they'll accept whatever he says. But the words Canard speaks won't be his. Two successive reigns of terror are enough, I'll be damned before I let a third begin."

"Ya don't always have ta be the one ta save the world, Jed."

"Right now, who else is there?"

He was right, and she knew it - but oh, how she hated to admit it. From somewhere she managed to dredge up a smile. "Ya know I hate it when ye're right."

"Of course." Jedar smiled back a little wearily. "That's partly the reason why I always am."

End Part One

 

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