Previous Chapter: Eleven
Summary: Love, silk, and memory, in shades of cold and dangerous blue.
Previous chapters: Prologue and One, Two, Three, Four, Five, Six, Seven, Eight, Nine, Ten, Eleven
Edited by: my Best Beloved, the amazing dr_whuh
Author's Notes: In which Jack learns much about family dynamics, something of politics, and, finally, a hint about the whereabouts of his team mates.
Disclaimer: As much as I wish it were otherwise, The Doctor, Rose, Jack and the TARDIS are part of the BBC's Whoniverse. I mean no copyright infringement, and take no coin.
The grey light of false dawn was doing its best to get past the curtains, and Jack’s throat was dry from talking. He finished his third cup of bidasfeina, and looked for a spot to put it down on the card table, now littered with other mugs and one overflowing ashtray.
He’d done his best to tell his listeners the truth, at least about his current crisis. The reality of the Doctor and his marvelous time ship still had to be obscured as subtly as possible.
So the Doctor was now Professor John Smith (unimaginative much, boy?) a brilliant but incredibly eccentric scientific researcher of independent means and incurable wanderlust, from somewhere he never mentioned to Jack; Rose was Smith’s companion, part student, part ward, and would-be girl friend; and Jack himself was simply an employee, someone who had needed a quick exit from his previous life as a government and corporate operative. No, he wasn’t Imperium, he assured them; his bailiwick had been a network of less sophisticated outer rim systems, and he’d needed to leave that neck of the galaxy rather quickly when ... well, it wasn't murder or rape, he told them, and let's leave it at that.
“I hired on with them a couple of months ago, when the Doc got it into his head that they might need some professional muscle around for dicey situations,” he’d explained. “He likes bouncing around and sticking his nose in some pretty weird places, and he wants to keep Rose safe.
“At first it was all business for me, but I have to admit that's changed. They get under your skin (boy, howdy.) Frankly, I really like the two of them. And they’re both sort of babes in the woods.”
“You really have no idea who Professor Smith is?” Nico took another drag on one of his foul cigarettes, and yawned. “You call him doctor. Of what?”
Jack shook his head: “He’s a bit fuzzy on his degrees. He’s fuzzy on a lot, actually, but his credit is good, he pays regularly — nothing extraordinary, but enough for me — and he’s a (fascinating, attractive, dangerous, sexy alien) good man. I honestly don’t know whether he even remembers much of his past,” Jack said, mixing a judicious amount of truth, educated guesses and his own story into the narrative.
“You’re willing to risk a lot to get these two back.” Hilda said. Her bartender persona had disappeared completely by now, replaced by someone who didn’t mind looking older, and who was probably as well educated as Nico, if not born into the same circles in which Jack suspected Nico had once travelled. She’d taken Jao’s spot on the couch next to Nico. Their body language told Jack they were close, probably old friends and perhaps occasional lovers.
“Yeah. I like the paycheck, and I like the Doc. And Rose is ... well, she’ll follow him anywhere. She’s really bright, but not well educated, and entirely too trusting. The Doctor’s always after her about that, but he ignores the fact that he’s the trouble magnet. This trip’s been no different. They headed off to sight-see without any preparation.
“When they failed to turn up where we were supposed to meet, I knew things had gone pear-shaped.”
“But how did you connect them with silk?” Jao asked.
Alright, Captain. Let’s see if you can actually work it right this time.
“Well, hell, we’re on the planet where it was developed; that’s not a secret, at least not in the corporate world. Or to types like the Doctor. He talked about it a lot (well, he would have. Maybe.) and he has a pretty expansive library, not to mention access to some impressive inter-system information grids.” Jack paused. “I find these things out. It’s part of my job.
“I don’t know why we landed here. It was supposed to be a vacation, but ... he may have been interested in silk himself — no, nothing like that, purely out of curiosity,” he broke off, holding his hands up to ward off their frowns. “Look, he doesn’t even drink, and he hates (injustice, evil, the wrongs of the universe) things like that. No, it would have been that damned curiosity of his.”
“Being curious is dangerous on Lizhbau.” Nico rested his elbows on his thighs, his chin on his clasped hands. “And you didn’t come in at the port, so if your friends were picked up, the authorities wouldn’t even have to look for records to erase.”
Jack had told his listeners that Professor Smith’s transport was kitted out with some less-than-completely legal souped up drive and instrumentation — the Doctor’s own idiosyncratic work, he said — that made it both possible and prudent for them to land outside regular ports. They’d nodded, obviously familiar with the concept of clandestine landing needs.
“How long have they been missing?” Jao asked.
Jack grimaced as he thought about it. “At least 24 hours now since I last saw them.”
Jao nodded. “Yeah, they could’ve been swept by the Maldads. If this professor of yours, or doctor, or whatever he is, likes sticking his nose in where it’s not wanted, they could definitely have been picked up. What’s the girl look like?”
For a second, the apparent non-sequitor left Jack confused. Then he remembered the history book, and he had another weightless moment of fear and anger. “She’s ... (like the sun, like candy, like eyes you can’t stop looking at, like good clean air and that rush you get thinking of kissing her) very pretty. Beautiful.”
Salvha made a noise like a hurt animal, deep back in his throat, and Hilda glanced at him, worried.
“They always brain-wipe the beautiful ones,” the little man said, almost matter of factly. “With silk, or infusion, doesn’t matter. Some of them think they’re artists. They think doing it with the silk’s a work of art. Then they sell ‘em to the highest bidders. The wipes, they move, they do what their owners tell ‘em to. But they’re dead ... dead as far as their lives were, or the people they loved,”
He sounded very calm, very measured. Jack wanted to move away from him. He’d thought he’d heard rage under Nico’s words, but Salvha was worse.
Jao put his hand out as if to steady Salvha, but caught Hilda’s minute headshake and pulled it back. “We know.”
“But he doesn’t.” Salvha looked at Jack, who saw that his eyes were as wild and filled with grief as his voice was calm. “He doesn’t.”
Hilda, perhaps spurred by a need to route Salvha away from some imminent melt down, said, “Nico, Ser Harkness has done all the talking. Isn’t it time to to give him some information?”
“Yes, I suppose you’re right,” he replied. “And then, perhaps, we can decide whether to help each other.”
Nico looked around the room at nothing in particular, probably marshaling his thoughts. Finally, he stubbed out his cigarette, took a swig from one of the mugs on the table, and began.
“Captain, you said you thought we could help you because we were David’s — the Emperor’s — people here. You’re right.”
Jack didn’t react, waiting for more information.
“I grew up here,” Nico said. “Well, not here, not dirt side, but I grew up in Abela Fort’leza. Up with the swells, Jao would say, on Gel’Colinas. I was quite the son of privilege. My mother died when I was four, and I was closer to my nurses and governesses than I was my father, but it was still a very pleasant childhood. Gel’Colinas really is quite beautiful. You can see it from that window in the daytime, if you look out at just the right angle.
“I didn’t have a lot of friends growing up. I didn’t go to school, so I didn’t have the chance to find playmates of my own class. My father wouldn’t hear of me attending even the old noble schools, and what he said was law.”
Nico stopped for a second, then resumed. “My life revolved around our household. It was large, with a big staff, so I didn’t really feel the lack. There were the servants’ children to play with when I was young, my nurses to love, the governesses and tutors to keep my mind sharp as I grew older. And we would pack up and move to one of my father’s farm estates in the western valleys when the winters got really cold here in the city, so I got to see a little of life outside the walls.
“As I said, a pleasant life. Eventually, however, boys grow up, and my father had to decide what to do with me. I begged him to let me study off planet. To my considerable surprise, he immediately assented when I asked to be enrolled at Oxford Resurrected. Despite my cocooning from real life, I did know that travel to Earth, and an Earth education was no small request.
“But he agreed - I wanted to be a historian, someone who visited the past, and what better place to study the past than in the ancient center of Empire?” Another brief pause. "My father is not the most cosmopolitan of men, nor the brightest. He had only been to Earth once in his life, despite his riches, and he didn't consider what I might find there besides classes. I learned more about my world in the first year of university than I had learned from any of my tutors or governesses.
"I learned about silk. And I learned about my father's part in it."
Jack could have kicked himself, for not seeing it sooner. "You're Bohlver's son."
Nico nodded, and stood up, absentmindedly stroking Hilda's hair as he moved past her, heading, again, to the window; he'd done it several times during the past couple of hours. Jack thought the man would have liked nothing better than to fling up the sash and fly away. He spoke again.
"Once I understood who and what Governor Dehde Bohlver was in the eyes of the Empire, I stormed back to Lizhbau and confronted my father. That self-righteous stupidity accomplished rather less than I'd hoped." His eyes were shadowed. "My father ... loved me as well as he could, but he had long since fallen in with bad companions. When I made the mistake of pushing my luck, going to Renhald Inverno and threatening him with Imperial exposure, he had me arrested."
Jack thought for a second. Right, Inverno, the major-domo. Due to end up dead, according to the book, but apparently alive and dangerous right now. He put that aside for now and returned his attention to Nico. The tall man's earlier attitude made sense now.
"Inverno wanted him dead," Jao said, joining the conversation and shifting a bit uncomfortably on the ottoman he'd dragged in from the front landing. His voice still sounded rusty, that of an old soldier more comfortable with doing than with talking. "An aristocrat, a governor's son no less, going back to the Emperor with anything about the silk trade being back up and running? Inverno knew he'd be dead quick as cats.
"He wanted Nico out of the picture, but he couldn't risk killing him outright. He couldn't get the Governor to swallow that. Bohlver wasn't his creature to that extent." He looked at Nico almost apologetically. "So he suggested prison."
"To which my father agreed," Nico said.
Jack said nothing, but he must have signaled his disgust because the other man smiled crookedly. "Trumped up charges of murder and sedition worked nicely, with a side of leaked gossip about my actual bastardy and possible history of mental illness. My father may not have been able to bring himself to kill me, but he didn't mind disappearing me.
"How long?" Jack asked.
"About six years, give or take a month," Nico replied, his smile slipping. "As far as the rest of the world knew, I'd committed suicide in prison. Inverno made sure to tell me that, and to give me news vids of my funeral. Just small and hurried enough for a disgraced lunatic son of the Governor. I gave up hope at that point.
"Then Jao found me. He was a member of Inverno's command structure at the time, newly in charge of the prison. What neither Inverno nor I knew was that he was also Black Throne."
"I was right, huh?"
"Yeah," Jao said. "I'd been in place for 10 years by the time I got promoted to FCD, the prison. The Imperium has always seen Lizhbau as chronic trouble, no matter who was in power. Silk's always moving; s'just a question of whether only a little moves, or a lot. By the time I was heading the Lizhbau mission, it was a lot.
"And it was Bohlver's fault. Old Emperor Maxim appointed Nico's family to the governorship back when Emperor David was a kid, and the Bohlvers still had a reputation as reasonably honorable local aristocacy. Nico's grandfather Philipe was honorable. But he only lasted 12 years before his stroke, and Imperial appointments last a minimum of 75 years, so Dehde stepped into the role by law. There was nothing we could do."
"You couldn't get him, or Inverno?" Jack steepled his fingers, two index fingers pressed against his lips.
Jao shook his head. "Inverno? No. The son of bitch is brilliant. The Imperium lost general agents regularly, when they tried to go after him. That's why they sent Black Throne in. That was me; raised here, had been in the planetary forces, officer corps, should have been able to penetrate the people he placed around him. I couldn't. He kept the worms producing and the shipments running and all we could do was slow it down a bit."
"Well then, what about the governor? Nico, how do you feel about your father?" Jack knew it was a risk.
Nico Machado Bohlver jerked, and Jack tensed.
"I used to think I loved him," the man said. Jack heard in his voice the soft, aristocratic cadence that marked the gap between Nico, Jao and Salvha, between Nico and Hilda. "If it was ever true, it is not true now. I do not love him. I would rather he were dead than be what he is, dishonoring my family; my world."
"If that's the case, why not take him out?" Jack asked.
The two men looked at him, obviously shocked. "He's Imperium," Jao said stiffly; he might as well have asked Jack what rock he'd crawled out from under. And this, kids, is why even benevolent empires go rotten.
"Forget I said it, then," he said, smoothing his gaffe over with a smooth nod of his head and a respectful glance at the floor while he did it. "Jao, you found Nico was alive and — what? Why not just help him escape, take him to Court and ... oh. I see." He grimaced, and the others nodded.
Of course the agent couldn't do that, not with Nico supposedly a dead murderer. David might have been Emperor, but he undoubtedly knew taking Bohlver and the silk trade down openly could endanger his own rule. All empires were bolstered by commerce, including illegal commerce. And power structures always err in favor of the status quo. Even had David been strong enough to move openly and risk the wrath of other governors, or of his industrial barons, the move would have alerted Inverno; he'd have had the chance to take the trade and himself further underground.
"So how could Jao use you, Nico?"
Hilda frowned, and Nico shrugged. "Jao convinced his superiors I would be useful as a symbol of hope to the growing insurgency against my father's rule — the empire can, apparently, accept a change of government that comes from within." He stopped and laughed softly. "As I say, Jao freed me. In doing so, he blew his cover, and the best hope Black Throne had at the time of discerning Inverno's silk distribution network."
"Home office mustn't have liked that," Jack said mildly.
"With me in hand, they changed their mission," Nico said. "We kept out of sight until we could connect with one of the more efficiently organized resistance cells; Salvha's as it happened. We've been busy for about two years."
"Assassinations here, riots there, pamphlets, rumors ... the usual. Salvha's group is good."
Salvha acknowledged the compliment with a quick jerk of his head, before turning his attention to one of the knives he'd brought out to polish while listening to the others. A big knife, Jack noted.
He stood up slowly, his muscles protesting after hours spent in one position. "Mind if I stretch my legs?" He walked over to where Nico was standing. "And you've got plans for more."
Nico shook his head and again looked at Hilda. "No, that part of the story isn't mine."
"Hilda?" Jack turned to the woman, and lifted an eyebrow.
"No," she responded firmly. "No particulars."
She considered him steadily, then seemed to reach some internal compromise with herself. "Did I tell you where Nico met me?"
"I taught at Oxford Resurrected. Genetics. I was doing xenobiological genetics research."
"And I imagine you were just as good at that as you are slinging drinks," Jack said. "But you left the first and ended up doing the second."
"I was born here on Lizhbau," Hilda responded. "A considerable block of neighborhoods south of Nico on Gel'Colinas, but not quite dirtside. My parents could afford to provide me an excellent education. I worked very hard to become an off-world professora."
"Hard enough to win a fellowship to Earth," Nico said, his pride evident. "She'd been there about four years when I arrived, wet behind the ears. It didn't take a homesick lad very long to search out someone from home. I found Hilda."
"As it happens, the Imperium had also found me, some time before," she said. "I came home a year or two after Nico, as an imperial agent; my cover story was of a career ruined by booze. Eventually Nico heard I was back. When Jao realized we knew each other, he contacted me. We've been working together ever since."
"Xenogenetics." Jack repeated, slowly, his mind suddenly racing. "I imagine you folks have a cunning plan."
"Very cunning," she agreed, unsmiling. "Not finished. If it works ... well, as I said. No particulars."
"But if you were to tell me," Jack said, working with the supposition exploding in his head. "And if you were to help me find the Doctor ... did I mention that he dabbles in just about every possible field of science? And that he's the most brilliant man I've ever met? I think I did mention that our ship has some very ... esoteric equipment. He might be helpful."
"You don't even know what you're making a deal about. How have you not gotten yourself killed before now?" Hilda said, smiling despite herself. "Your employer might not agree."
"He would, if you're trying to do what I think you're trying — no, no particulars, I know. And he and Rose are in trouble. I know it. If you folks can help find them, I think we'd be more than happy to help the Imperium." (If there's a way to do it without mentioning that he's an alien, if they'll believe the TARDIS when they see it, if, if, if.)
Nico spoke again. “You realize that I would have no difficulty killing you if I thought it necessary.”
“Yeah, the whole ‘let’s let Jao shoot Jack’ bit earlier gave me a hint,” Jack said, wondering if he'd just sealed a deal.
Before the other man could say anything more, there was a staccato of hurried footfalls in the stairwell outside. Whoever had just run up the stairs proceeded to bang frantically on the door. "Salvha? Salvha! I know you're in there, open up, please open up!. It's Pau. Please!"
Everyone looked at Salvha, who had jumped from his seat, knife deployed as if by instinct. "It's my father in law," he said, alarmed.
"Sampaio?" Nico did not look pleased. "Everyone make yourselves scarce ... I thought you'd broken off with her family. How did he find you here?"
"I don't know, Nico, I swear I have no idea. I never told him about this place."
Jao had already grabbed everything he'd brought in with him and headed to the back of the flat. Hilda swept the tables of cups and followed him without a word, jerking her head wordlessly at Jack to indicate he should do the same.
"You too, Ser Capitao," Nico said, putting an arm on Jack's shoulder to steer him out of the livingroom. "There's a bedroom we can listen from. Salvha? Let him in before someone calls the Maldads. Find out what he wants, how he traced you. We may have to do something about him."
The little man was once again the person who'd put a knife in Jack's back. He nodded, grim.
Outside, his father in law continued to shout. "Salvha, please. I know you don't want to see me, I know. I don't blame you, but I need your help. Please. Please!"
Jack and Nico slipped into a small room just off the living room. Nico closed the door, but didn't latch it. They could hear Salva, and see a bit of the livingroom through the thin gap.
Once everyone was out of sight, Salvha spoke. "Shut up, Pau. I'm coming, hold your horses."
Jack heard the front door open and caught sight of an older man, thin and nervous, almost fall into the room. "Salvha —"
"How did you find me?"
"I went to the bar. It was closed, there were Maldads all over the place ... Salvha, Laowhra's done something —"
"I asked you, how did you find me?" There was a thump and a muffled cry from the older man, who appeared to stumble back, out of Jack's sight.
"Don't, Salvha. Let me talk."
"Who told you where I was?"
"You shut your mouth about Luisa!" Salvha snarled.
"No, I won't," the older man said. Pau Sampaio was apparently ready to bare his own teeth. "You listen to me. You're not the only one who loved her. She wrote to me before she was taken. She told me she thought you were cheating on her. She'd followed you here once, thought you had a mistress. But I knew you weren't cheating." Sampaio's voice softened. "You were looking for safe house space. That's what I figured. When I saw the bar'd been shut down, I went home, found the letter and got the address."
"She thought I was cheating on her?" Salvha's voice seemed very small.
In the subsequent silence Jack and Nico looked at each other, then back to the door as Salvha asked again, much more gently. "Why did you come here, Pau?"
"I know what you think of me. I ... buckled, I know. I know what you suspect. But there are things ... I never told anyone about you. But Laowhra—"
"What did she do?"
"I had off-world visitors at the stall today," Sampaio said. In the bedroom, Jack felt blood roar in his ears. "They started asking questions about the Memory Market. They .. the administration, you know, it offers money and — and other things, for that sort of information. They told us we could get Luisa and Merrit back."
"You stupid bastard. You believed them?"
"I — that's not the point. These two, they were more than off-worlders. A man and a woman, carrying identification that seemed to say they were Imperial investigators." Jack bit back a cry, and Nico's hand was suddenly back on his shoulder with a warning strength. He gestured to keep listening.
"I admit, I was going to turn them in," Sampaio said. "I don't care what you think. I was trying to rescue my daughter. What were you doing? Anyhow, I got them to come back to Laowhra's place. But I changed my mind. They said they could help us. The man — he was ... when he said it, I believed him. But Laowhra wouldn't listen. She called the Maldads. They took them."
"Why come to tell me? What can I do?" Salvha didn't bother to hide his contempt.
"I don't know." Now the man sounded utterly defeated. "But you're the only one who'll still talk to me, out of the old opposition. Don't you know anyone who could get word out? That someone's holding Imperial inspectors? Surely, if the Empire got word of it, they could finally do something?"
"You really think they were Imperium?"
"The Maldad commander said they weren't. She said the identification was forged somehow. But I think she was lying. She had a look about her, when she took them."
"What did they say?"
"They — nothing. They were unconscious. But alive, I think they were alive."
Jack shook off Nico and walked out of the bedroom, into the livingroom. "When? When did they take them?"
Sampaio and Salvha both stared at him, the older man shrank into the couch where he'd been shoved by his son in law.
Jack repeated himself, and made his delivery as politely threatening as possible. "Answer me. Where?"
"The prison." Sampaio put his hands up, as if he expected Jack to hit him. "To be questioned. Salvha, who is this man?"
"He's with me."
"He is with us," Nico corrected, joining them. Sampaio's eyes could hardly have widened any further, but his face went ashen.
"You're — Salvha, that's Machado."
"He knows," the object of Sampaio's awe said dryly. "And now you do. Imagine your luck." He turned to Jack. "It seems that whether or not we believe in God or fate, we had better decide to act as if we were brought together for a purpose. Jao! Hilda! Come out ... we have work to do."
(to Chapter Thirteen)