Previous Chapter: Eight
Summary: Love, silk, and memory, in shades of cold and dangerous blue.
The latest chapter, because I currently labor under the misapprehension that I can move this story forward. For those who are interested, here are the previous chapters:
Prologue and Chapter One
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It wasn’t really coffee, but as a caffeine substitute it was perfectly capable of helping Jack stay alert. Playing with the mug – staring over its rim at a disbelieving Nico as he was doing now, for example – also helped him marshal his thoughts and stall for time. That overly dramatic intro didn’t help your cause. Learn to govern your mouth. Idiot. But chastising himself could wait.
“I know that sounds unbelievably cheesy –”
Hilda snorted from her vantage point on a threadbare love seat next to the sitting room door. Jao Neves, sitting next to Nico, across from Jack, remained impassive. Knife boy (Salvha, Salvha, Salvha Adao, he’s got a name, don’t forget it) was using the facilities; Jack didn’t mind having one less observer at this point.
“Yes, it does.” Nico wasn’t ceding any territory.
“You have to admit I tossed it off with aplomb,” Jack said. He grinned – when in doubt – then wiped the grin off his face and continued. “And you haven’t said I was wrong. I like to think I have a second sense about these things.
”But enough about me, let’s get back to you (keep talking, baffle them with bullshit now that you’ve opened your mouth) and what you’re doing.
“First things first; I don’t know if our bar crashers were after me or you. It doesn’t matter, really. It could be both, since my team members have been missing long enough to assume capture and interrogation, and you folks have probably been on Bohlver’s top ten list for a while.”
He stopped, as he saw Nico’s lips thin. “Oh, now, you’re not going to deny it, are you? This city reeks of insurrection, and Nico Machado’s a call sign if ever I heard one. You’re part of whatever’s going on here, and by that I mean you’re part of the insurgency, the revolution, whatever it gets called around these parts.”
From the corner of his eye he could see Hilda watching him closely. In front of him, Jao’s eyes glittered in the bare-bulbed glare of the ceiling light.
“Aren’t you undercover types supposed to be more ... undercover?” Nico finally said. It was about as close to an answer as Jack had expected.
“Not when my team’s in danger,” he answered. Honesty was, occasionally, the best policy, and his anxiety didn’t have to be faked.
“That’s the second time you’ve mentioned your team.”
“Third time, actually.” Jack grinned again, leaning forward and putting his mug on the table. “I mentioned them about two seconds before the Maldads broke down the front door of the bar. Are they usually that insistent, by the way, or is it just when they want to catch members of the underground?”
Nico ignored the question. “Are you Imperium?”
What do you say, Captain? Jack asked himself. In for a penny, boy, in for a pound.
“Yes. Not that any Imperium official on this planet would know. Or admit.”
Jao caught Nico’s eye for the barest of moments and both men looked, if it was humanly possible, even more flinty. Jack fought his own face, and a flare of alarm. What had he said?
“You’re not Black Throne,” Jao said, his voice sounding rusty as it capitalized the words.
“No,” Jack replied promptly, easily, wondering what the hell Black Throne was besides something he had better deny, “Black Throne doesn’t know we exist.”
The title of one of those frightening Lizhbauan history books flashed into his mind, and now (jump!) he he thought he knew what to say next.
Salvha, re-entering the room just as he said it, gaped at him. So did Hilda. Jao looked at Nico again. The silence stretched on longer than Jack wanted it to. Outside, he heard the sound of distant traffic; echoing footsteps on the dirty stones of the narrow street below; the indefinable melange of sounds a city makes in the darkness before dawn. He was grateful when Nico finally spoke.
“Sit down, Salvha,” the man said, softly. The little man did so, on the floor beside Hilda. Nico resumed. “Go on, Ser Capitão.”
“Silk is being moved here,” Jack said. He didn’t pose it as a question. “Silk and slaves. Both are being moved under protection of law, despite being illegal on Lizhbau and everywhere else in the Empire. It’s being done by Dehde Bohlver. We don’t know how, or for how long, but he’s subject to the full force of Imperial justice. There’s no appeal.
“Normally this wouldn’t be a problem,” Jack said. “We’d bring in Imperial justice forces, remove the governor, and that would be the end of it. David’s taken down better men than Bohlver, for lesser crimes. Sometimes he’s taken down good men for no crime at all; he can do it. He is the Empire, after all.”
Nico stopped him, his voice suddenly harsh: “Then what it is about this case that differs? Why can David, Lord of Armies, Judge of Civilization, Image of the Imperium, O Graça, O Majestade of the Great and Bountiful Empire of Humankind Among the Stars, not take down one corrupt and ... foolish planetary governor?”
What was that in his voice, Jack wondered, under the bitterness?
Across the room, Hilda watched Nico anxiously. “Nico ...”
“No, Hilda,” he said, turning to her briefly with a crooked smile. “Let the Captain answer me.”
It’s anguish ... for – who?
“Because he’s ringed about with enemies,” Jack answered, mirroring Nico’s sardonically ceremonial language with his own as he built his case from whole cloth. “The Imperium isn’t at peace, and the Court’s dangerous, even for its Emperor. There are parties, now uncomfortably close to the throne, who thrive on the silk road.”
“And the Emperor has such trouble keeping order that this is a problem? Has he no allies, no strategies? He wields Imperial censure, banishment, death; why would his enemies be of any concern? What does one greedy little man on Lizhbau represent, that the Emperor doesn’t exercise his proper power?”
There was that undercurrent again. Jack couldn’t interpret it, not in the middle of trying to route the conversation the way he wanted it. Which, he admitted, was becoming increasingly difficult.
“Yeah, well, empires are like that. Big. Scary. Fragile.”
“And so you, you and your team, are what? His one hope?” Now Nico’s bitterness was closer to the surface. And rage; Jack knew the sound of rage.
His answering smile was careful (Captain, is that your internal alarm going off?), but before he could respond, Nico went on.
“If he can’t use the military, why not Black Throne?”
“Nico?” Jao looked from his commander to Jack, then back. The thickset man looked, like Nico, increasingly hostile.
“No, I’m interested. Why not his very, very effective more-than-secret service?”
Jack’s throat went tight; always the first sign of panic and always that special kind of panic he only felt when he’d royally screwed up. You chose badly, boy, but you don’t know how, and you can’t back down now.
He leaned back, throwing both arms up and resting his head on his hands. “Why do you think? Because the powers I’m talking about own people in both.”
“Not in Black Throne.”
Jao’s confidence was unnerving; time (since you’re already hip-deep) for another jump. “When did you muster out?”
Jao blinked. “What? Out of the force?”
“I don’t doubt you were a ground pounder once upon a time, but no. Out of Black Throne.”
Jao didn’t answer Jack. Instead, he turned to Nico. “I’ve heard enough.”
Nico rubbed his eyes, then nodded. “So have I.”
Jao moved, and the gun appeared.
“No, Nico!” That was Hilda, springing from the loveseat.
“What?” from Salvha, his eyes wide as he scrambled to his feet.
Jao’s arm was extremely steady. The simple and undoubtedly very effective gun – complete with silencer, Jack noted abstractedly – pointed directly at Jack’s right eye, without the slightest tremor.
“Jao?” Salvha again, apparently not quite as quick on the uptake as he was with a blade.
“Not here,” Hilda said, crossing the room and putting her hand on Nico’s arm. “Somewhere we can dump him easily.”
So much for cultivating the pretty face, Jack sighed to himself, keeping his hands on his head. He didn’t want to make any sudden moves. When faced with a gun, move slowly, choose your actions and your words carefully (what, you couldn’t have tried that, oh, five minutes earlier?) and calculate the odds of a dive for the exits. Right now? They were extremely bad.
Come on, think! he castigated himself. You’re a trained operative with years of experience! You’ve been in worse situations, and gotten out of them! Hell, just weeks ago you escaped a bomb –
He hadn’t escaped. He’d been rescued.
Rose and the Doctor had saved his life and taken him in. To his chagrin, he’d become a lot more than grateful. They’d gotten to him, the both of them; the slip of a girl with the blazing smile and the strange man with the ice blue eyes. They'd brought him in to an impossible ship, and they hadn't — they hadn't! — abandoned him. The strangest man, the strangest woman, the most unexpected saviors.
And here he was, Captain Jack Harkness – former Time Agent, cold-eyed strategist, born adventurer – and he couldn’t return the favor.
He’d been hoist on his own petard because he’d been too clever by half. He'd gotten caught up in the game and forgotten his real goal — paradoxically, because it was easier to think about the game than it was to think about them.
It was the kind of mistake that killed amateurs, and why? Because ... because he couldn’t get them out of his head. He hadn't compartmentalized thoughts of them, the way he'd been taught to do in this kind of situation. Everything he thought, everything he planned, each of his reactions, was skewed — thrown off course, drawn out of proper orbit into theirs.
He couldn't operate with them there; it could kill him.
Worse, it could kill them.
And that is not going to happen he thought, at least not because you were a fucking moron. Suck it up, Harkness, and fix this mess.
Jack shook his head and laughed softly, an unexpected sound in the quiet room.
“I’m an idiot, aren’t I?”
Hilda blinked. Nico, who had been looking at some unseen thing over Jack’s head since giving Jao the nod, refocused on Jack.
Jack smiled at him, shrugged, then laughed a little more.
“I knew I shouldn’t have led with the whole ‘turn the world upside down’ thing,” he said. “The guys at super secret spy school will never let me live it down. If I, you know, actually get to live.”
Jao’s brow furrowed, but the gun didn’t waver.
“Now that we’ve established my complete incompetence as an undercover agent, can I suggest to you that I’d be equally incompetent at giving you up, or turning you in? If we can get past the unpleasantness, I can get back to my original goal of asking for your help.”
Salvha was eying him ever more warily. Jao didn’t put down the gun, but his gaze shot to Nico, obviously for guidance, before returning to Jack. Hilda had begun to shake her head in amused disbelief. Perhaps she didn't think he was completely expendable Jack thought.
“Look, it has to be obvious to you guys that I can’t even tie my shoes by myself, let alone extract victims from the hands of villains. And I have a couple of friends who need rescuing, if only because I miss the sound of them telling me I’m a waste of space.”
The gun still hadn’t gone off and Jack thought he spied a nascent and ruthlessly suppressed smile on its bearer’s rocklike face.
“So, Nico: you want to hear the real story? Just because I’m an idiot doesn’t mean my team – Rose Tyler and the Doctor, by the way, you should know who I’m currently failing to rescue – have to die in Bohlver’s hands. You’d like them, I think. If I can convince you to help them stay alive.
“And I think you people can do it,” he said, waiting a beat before adding, “because you’re David’s people here, aren’t you?”
Hilda put both hands to her mouth and Salvha glanced at her, nervously. Jao could have been part of his own gun for all the reaction he displayed.
Nico said nothing for a moment. Instead the tall man walked to the sitting room’s one small window, and moved the curtain aside very slightly, so that he could watch the street.
Nobody moved to interrupt him.
After a moment, he spoke.
You are either far more stupid than I thought you were, or theatrically profligate with your observational talents. Or perhaps just completely mad.”
“Yep.” Jack left it at that.
Nico left the window, returning to his confederates. “Well?”
“It would be a lot less messy to listen to him, Nico,” Hilda said.
Jack was startled to see Salvha nodding vigorously in agreement, more surprised to hear him speak. “We can always deal with him later.”
Nico made what looked like a gesture of surrender.
“Alright, Jao, put the gun down.”
“Huh.” For a moment, Jack was afraid Jao wouldn’t obey, but the muzzle finally lowered, and Jack judged that he could finally think beyond the next five seconds.
“Can I put my hands down?”
“Of course.” Nico’s shrug was elegant.
Jack relaxed, blew out a grateful breath. “Thanks.”
Nico’s face was unreadable. “Now. Let’s hear the truth, Captain – are you a captain? Of any kind?”
“No, not really, but I’ve called myself one for so long that I answer to the title. Look, this all might go a lot better, and quicker, with a refill of – what is this stuff, exactly?”
“Bidasfeina,” Hilda said, rubbing the back of her neck. “It’s not Fort’leza’s best, but it keeps you awake. I’ll make some more. I don’t want Nico’s sludge.” She headed back to the rear of the flat, presumably to provide something better than sludge.
“Staying awake,” Nico said, looking after Hilda a moment before re-seating himself and indicating that everyone else should do the same, “is what’s going to be important tonight, I suspect.”
(to Chapter Ten)
(Quick and dirty translations of the blurred and mutated neo-Portuguese of the First Great and Bountiful Empire: Machado means "axe," while bidasfeina maps out very roughly to "caffeine drink." Unimaginative, but Truth In Advertising ....)