Previous Chapter: Fifteen
Edited by: The near-numinous buckaroobob , aka dr_whuh
Summary: A cold and beautiful world, a market, a bolt of silk, and three people walking through the doors of their memories.
Author's Notes: In which Jack learns Hilda's clever, clever plan, learns more about Lizhbau and moves a step closer to the Doctor.
Previous Chapters: Accessible through this link, and also this link.
Disclaimer: As much as I wish it were otherwise, no Whoniverse characters are mine. They are the sole properties of the BBC and their respective creators. I intend no copyright infringement, and take no coin. I do, however, love them all, and thank the BBC for letting me play (and create the occasional original character) in their sandbox.
"It's amazing what you can find in the better retail outlets."
Jack looked around the white clean-room and wondered how long it had taken to create, and whether the authorities didn't already know about it. Was some early morning shift of bored Maldad techs even now looking in on them, logging what they said and preparing to break in here, just as they had at the tavern? He'd abandoned the thought even before it had completely formed, but the complete surreality of this laboratory was hard to deal with.
That probably had as much to do with his weariness as anything else; neither the bidasfeina, nor the cold of the morning as they'd walked warily through the streets to the sagging storefront, was helping him stave off a desperate need for sleep. Still, he'd revived considerably once they'd passed through the shabby main foyer, through two reasonably sophisticated false doors and headed three flights down. The unexpected had a way of providing the occasional jolt of adrenaline.
"Need the provenance?" Nico raised an eyebrow, and Jack fought both amusement and irritation at the mirroring of what would have been his reaction in other circumstances.
"No. Emperor, money, secrecy, great risk, and you'll tell me what's necessary or you wouldn't have brought me here," he said. He nodded at a locker to the right of the door through which they'd come. "Coveralls? I assume we're going to need them if we want to go through Door Number Two over there."
Jao nodded. "Something there should fit you."
A few minutes of maneuvering — it really was a tiny space — and all four of them were suited, complete with hoods and close-work gloves.
Jack spared a moment to wonder just how awkward it was right now back in the safe house parlour. If Hilda thought it was safe, though, he was willing to believe Salvha and Pau Sampaio would keep the peace however unhappy they might be to be in the same room. He was equally certain neither of them needed to know about this space, or would want to. Nico had simply said the four of them would be back in an hour; hadn't bothered to say where they were going. Salvha had looked between Jao and Nico, nodded reluctantly and taken a seat; Jao had told him to turn on the government vid channel loud enough the neighbors could hear, then had walked over to where Pau was trying to make himself very small on the couch. He'd leaned over, peered into the older man's face and had said not to leave. He made the comment effective as only a former military commander could.
Hilda went to the compact console next to the second door, and punched in a code. She turned and said, "Everyone close your visors, and keep them down from now on. Decontamination is quick and dirty, given our facilities, and you don't want it in your eyes." A moment later she added, "And don't remove your gloves. I mean it."
The slightly greasy spray that hit all of them, courtesy of the utilitarian grid of ceiling pipes, smelled as bad as most industrial strength sanitizers usually did; a second spray followed, which smelled slightly better, and largely dissolved the greasy film of the first. Hilda grimaced. "Best we can do to neutralize any stray bio-contaminants."
Ah. So he was right, Jack thought. They weren't dealing in weaponry, code or anything inorganic. Of course that was a given, with Hilda's background.
The second door slid open, offering a very narrow entry to whatever lay beyond.
"Come on. I have a lot to show you, and not much time, since I really don't want all of us in here too long," she said.
The laboratory into which Hilda led them was a little larger than the clean room; Jack estimated that it might be slightly larger than the building's original cellar level above them, but not by much. It was as sparse as the first room, with a counter that obviously was the sole non-medical working surface, screens and diagnostic terminals built in above equipment that looked, as far as Jack's agency-trained eyes could tell, high quality but very basic by First Empire inner-system standards. He turned slightly and saw the main laboratory bench; equally high quality, equally basic.
Hilda was watching him. She flushed. "It does the job. And Renhald Inverno's labs don't have what I — what we — have here."
"Hilda." Nico's smile was complicated, but ultimately owed more to affection than caution.
She nodded wryly, probably aware of how defensive she sounded, then gestured to the lab bench. "There are stools in the recesses. Nico, do you want to get the tray out? I'll get the silk." When she saw Jack stiffen — oh, he could see why Nico worked with her, she was quick — she shook her head. "No, there's no need to worry. Or not much. Which is part of our point."
From his vantage point on the other side of the lab bench, Nico pressed an unseen button, then reached down and pulled out a container, perhaps three inches deep — enough to prevent him from seeing what was inside — and roughly three feet by 18 inches around. He handled it gingerly, almost at fingertip length, and placed it on the bench top. Then he looked at Jack. "Well, come and take a look."
Jack covered his flinch well. After a moment of watching the worms slowly heave and ripple across the tray, following neatly laid rows of bluish leaves, he stepped back. "Silk worms."
"Technically they are Lepidoptera Lizbhaua Sedanensis, but yes, worms. Seda criadora, we call them, or seda diabo, depending on whether you're selling or buying, victor or victim," Nico said.
He definitely had the gift of gab, Jack thought.
"Show them the other ones, Hilda," Jao said heavily. He'd obviously heard Nico's spiel before. Nico eyed him briefly, and nodded. Jack approved; the gift of gab included knowing when to shut up, as he'd often been forcibly reminded himself.
Nico moved the first tray to his left, then leaned back, as Hilda brought over two more trays, one of which she pulled from a regular drawer, and the other from what appeared to be a small incubator at the far end of the bench. When she put them down, Jack leaned over to take a look.
The first tray held a length of silk, perhaps half a meter in width and two in length. He drew in a breath.
"Beautiful, isn't it?' Hilda said.
It was. He tried to think of a word for the exact shade of blue, but even without handling it, he could see multiple shades, bright azures and deep cobalts alike that seemed almost luminescent when light caught at the material. And light seemed to seek it out. Jack was sure his head wasn't moving, but the cloth still shimmered.
At first glance, the worms appeared identical. But Jack looked harder; he wouldn't have been presented with two trays if there wasn't a difference.
Ah. It was subtle, but he thought he could see a slight disparity in the texture of the worms' skin, giving the second tray's worth a barely visible variation in hue. They were still unpleasantly translucent, but the overall effect was less icy. He checked the lines of leaves. They appeared identical to those being devoured by the original worms, so it wasn't because of diet.
"They're ... different species?" he hazarded.
"Not in the least. Or rather, only just." Hilda was serious. "These are Lepidoptera Lizbhaua Sedanensis Bonita. We thought we might call them L.L.S. Terrestrensis, but we thought that was taking it a bit far."
Jack frowned. "Simple gene-splicing?" That was it?
By no means could that be it. By this point in the First Empire, genetic manipulation was a given; it had to be, for the Empire to thrive. Terra-forming might allow Earth-specific colonies to develop, but that only happened under certain circumstance. It was expensive, and the Empire only put out the expense of turning a lifeless world — or human-hostile; there were some cases of erasing native ecosystems and intelligences wholesale, although not many — into a life-supporting one if it was absolutely necessary for military or political reasons.
If a planet was almost earth-like, earth-like enough, colony developers found ways to make it livable. Along with minor atmosphere adjustment and a few non-biologic particulars, genetics was the tool of choice. It became commonplace to cross-breed and cross-fertilize what pioneering colonists found on their new worlds, turning native flora and fauna into plants that could feed, not poison, them.
The success of First Empire expansion was due in large part to the excellence of First Empire geneticists. So, if gene splicing was the answer, it should have been tried years earlier.
As if she'd read his mind, Hilda returned his frown. "Simple? Not at all. For one thing, the psychoactive agents in the silk aren't the results of one gene sequence, or even a dozen. The worm was unusual even within Lizhbau's pre-settlement ecosystem; we weren't just adjusting native sedges so they didn't kill the cows."
"I didn't think you were," Jack said evenly. Sweet mother, preserve us from thin-skinned academics and researchers.
"A lot of time and effort went into finding what caused the psychoactives to do what they do. A lot more time and effort —" She paused, then went on. " — and lives, we lost a lot of good agents before we could get breeding stock off-planet — went into determining how to remove sequences, change them, substitute other genetic material that would take, and wouldn't kill the species."
Jack's face must have betrayed how he felt, and Hilda responded with increased irritation. "We don't want to kill off the species."
He looked from her to the creatures, incredulous. All the misery he'd read about that these things caused, all the chaos ... hell, if they didn't kill the species off, it was a sure bet the Agency would eventually turn its eye to silk. That it hadn't happened yet was just a blessing. "Why not? It's not as if it's a necessary ingredient of your ecosystem."
He was reasonably certain of that. Like ancient Earth's Bombyx Mori, the Lizhbauan silk producer had been domesticated so thoroughly that it couldn't survive in the wild. Jack had no idea what other members of its class or family existed, but none of the things he'd hurriedly read had indicated anything irreplaceable about the silk worm.
"If that had been the mission, we'd have been done and dusted 20 years ago," Hilda replied, looking tired. "Because you're right. Worms could disappear, and Lizhbau would go on. But the people ...."
"The worms aren't necessary. But silk is," Nico said. He looked at the trays and Jack saw his own loathing mirrored in the man's eyes, even as he explained further. "It's part of the economic ecosystem, the one thing that's keeping Lizhbau afloat."
Jack eyed the worms again, watching them inch over their leafy meals. "Are you serious? I thought it was a criminal black market."
Jao spoke up. "It was, 50 years ago. But it's all we've got now."
"Because times change, and our importance as a frontier world disappeared at least two Emperors ago," Nico snapped. Jack blinked and Nico went on. "Because lines of commerce evolve, and the ports we have no longer are needed to move things from here to the inner Empire or even from outer system to outer system. Because we're too far out, and a little too cold, because the original plans to colonize didn't take either of those things into account, but by the time they realized that, there were 150 million souls here, and had been for 100 years."
In Nico's voice Jack heard the desperation of a man who had to carry too much on his shoulders, the weariness previously masked by sardonic eloquence and commanding efficiency. "Because we always had to struggle to feed ourselves at the best of times, and we had two decades of failed crops at just the wrong time, and our birth rates are dropping, and our young people leave, and the tourism isn't enough.
"Because the Empire was hungry for silk, and nothing else we offered."
Before Jack could respond, Hilda whispered, "And the silk is very beautiful."
Her eyes bored into Jack's. She fully expected him to rise to her expectations.
He let out a low whistle, mentally kicking himself. If it had been a weasel, it would have bitten him. You are getting very, very slow in your old age.
"You want to make it a legitimate trade good. And it took all this time to genetically 'lose' its psychoactive properties."
She nodded, satisfied; Jack was momentarily reminded of the Doctor. "All else aside, there's evidence that people might want to use silk thread and cloth in non-lethal ways. There is no other material like it, not anywhere." She gave a humorless chuckle. "In fact, it may make the most beautiful fabric I've ever seen. It almost shines in the dark. We worked hardest to keep that factor, and that was a bear, because it was very hard to maintain it without the alleles involved in some of the psychoactives.
"I promised myself that when we're done, I'll make myself a gown of the bluest, most beautiful silk you ever saw, and be dressed more gloriously than anyone at Court. If this works. And if Lizhbau survives the economic disaster —"
"— Which will happen, there is no mistaking it," Nico finished.
"You're sure." Jack wasn't asking a question. He felt sick. He'd seen more than his share of planetary collapses.
"Yes. The Emperor's best stochastic masters have spent a great deal of time predicting what will happen to us."
"And he's willing to let it happen."
"To end silk-as-it-is? Yes." Nico nodded. "It was that, or worse."
What in the name of heaven and hell could be worse than allowing ‚ no, directing — an entire world to slide into economic chaos? Unless it was being on that world when it happened? "After all this time of letting it go, the Emperor decides that now is the time to eliminate the drug trade?"
"David wouldn't have cared. Oh, he's a good man, a good ruler. He hates the silk. Just not enough to risk his throne, not until now. Someone —" He stopped. "Justice always becomes personal."
Jack tasted ashes in his mouth. "Who?"
"I see." Jack suddenly felt exposed. That sort of information wasn't usually handed out to anyone who wasn't in the right circles. Or who wasn't scheduled for elimination. What on earth had prompted Nico to tell —
"Let's finish this, Nico." Jao's face was the stone it had been when he held his gun on Jack.
Nico closed his eyes. "Sorry, Jao. Hilda?"
She schooled her own face to stolidity, something Jack suspected she had to do a lot with Nico and Jao, then took the tone she probably had in classrooms at Oxford Resurrected.
"One of the biggest barriers to destroying the silk trade until recently has been the fact that, although the source is really just Lizhbau and should on paper be vulnerable to single strike strategy — it doesn't have any place it can start again since the worms don't long survive off-planet, and don't think that didn't cause us fits when we did research elsewhere — the growers and distributors have long been aware of that vulnerability, and have made their farms and manufacturing sites impregnable financially and militarily.
"When Inverno took over major distribution and oversight for Bohlv— for the governor, he centralized things even more, forcing growers to make their stock available to his sericulturalists and management people. He wanted to maximize profits, and control the flow of product so that he could develop new markets."
For a moment, she grinned, turning her face wolfish. "Ultimately, though, that was our big break, even though it took several years for the break to happen."
"I take it this was recent?"
She nodded. "About three years ago. A particularly tough parasite hit the farms and killed much of the breeding stock. Inverno decided the only way to protect trade until his geneticists found a way to battle the parasite was to do all the breeding here in Abela Fort'leza. He told producers he'd kill two birds with one stone ... increase their general protection from the authorities, research the parasite and use his researchers' scientific abilities to boost and diversify the silk's psychoactive effects."
And wouldn't that be a wonderful thing for the empire Jack thought. "I'm sure the producers were beside themselves with joy," he said. Jao snorted.
"How could they not accept his generous, and very weaponized, offer," Hilda responded dryly. "We certainly did."
"You could get to the entire breeding stock at one time," Jack said.
Nico nodded. "Jao still has contacts in Central Command, and we finally managed to get one of them transferred to the research section."
"Our lucky day," Hilda agreed. "Access not only to the worms, but the breeding adults."
Jack realized that he didn't know what the silk worm adults looked like and wondered fleetingly if they might be butterflies with wings of cobalt.
"The one drawback—"
Ah, Jack thought. This was going to be important, this might be the point where he could turn the situation to his advantage. "Beyond pulling off the genetic equivalent of having your cake and eating it too?"
"Beyond that, yes." Nico smiled slightly. "Perhaps I should say the biggest drawback beyond that, is that this is not a one-step process."
Hilda nodded, and took a deep breath while putting one hand protectively on the tray of altered worms. "We needed something more than just entry codes and schedules; we also had to be sure we could get in and out of the facility more than once, because there are several stages the worms go through during breeding. It's not just a matter of introducing our stock and standing back. We have to introduce some of our adults, see that they breed with the regular adults, then we have to step in again and do — well, suffice it to say we had to have at least two and preferably three safe times to access breeding stock."
"That's ... a problem," Jack said slowly, resisting the urge to laugh in delight. It was more than a problem. It all but guaranteed the entire plan's failure, and they had to know that. Getting into someplace he was assured was damn near impregnable even once would be a matter of timing and luck under the best circumstance. Getting in twice, or three times? Codes and schedules were one thing. Jao's contact couldn't provide protection against the increasing probability that they would be discovered in one way or another.
And here's where I come in, even though you don't know it; friends, have I got an offer for you.
"A problem, but not an insurmountable one." Nico said, before Jack could say anything. He sounded cautious, but confident, which wasn't necessarily what Jack wanted. "Now that we've shown you our ... tools, I suggest that this is not the place to hold a prolonged discussion. We should head back."
"We're going to talk with Sampaio there?" Jao protested. Jack glanced at him, and was struck by the suddenly pinched look on his face.
"Sampaio can be kept in one of the bedrooms until we decide just what to do with him," Nico said. "We won't have to deal with him for much longer, anyhow. I think the accelerating situation outside our door rather mandates a speed-up in schedule."
That generated a worried look between Hilda and Jao.
Nico caught it. He frowned.
"Could you hand me the Bonita tray? It needs to go back into the incubator," Hilda said, as if she hadn't heard Nico. "I'll put the—"
"What." Now it wasn't a question.
Jao scratched at the back of his lab coverall, searching for his non-existent neck. Hilda started to bite at her lip, stopped, and and said, "Jao, the tray? As you said, Nico, we've shown Harkness what we needed to show him — now it's up to him to tell us how he can help us, and you're right. I'd rather do that at the safe house."
It's not going to work, darlin' Jack thought, and you probably know that already.
Nico's lips thinned. "I asked a question."
Jao shifted uneasily, cleared his throat and opened his mouth. Hilda glared at him, but Jack knew the look on Jao's face. It was the rare operative who couldn't lie well, but Jao obviously felt the need to tell the truth. It's what comes of being head of mission, Jack knew from experience.
"It's too early—" he started, before Hilda tried to talk over him.
" — Nothing to worry abou — "
Jao clamped down on whatever he was going to say, leaving Hilda dangling by herself.
"Not really, anyhow," she finished weakly.
That would have been funny in a comvid, Jack thought.
Nico looked at both of them. He didn't say anything further, but Jack saw the split second when his face sagged in something much worse than disappointment. That, far more than the controlled but perilous anger that succeeded it, made Jack feel as if Nico had just been kicked in the stomach. He felt a flash of brotherhood with him (just business they said just business they took my memories and smiled). And still Nico said nothing.
The moment stretched into something hard and uncomfortable. The back of Jack's neck prickled. "If you folks want to— "
Nico held up his hand. Jack subsided.
The look she gave him pleaded for understanding, even though Jack knew she'd done nothing wrong. That's what leaders inspired in the ones who loved them, he thought.
"Not here, Nico."
"Oh, definitely here," he said. "And definitely now."
Someone say something, damn it, so I can figure out what angle to work!
"Meirelles," Jao said. "She's missed a call-in."
"Just one," Hilda retorted. "And you said it yourself, it's crazy around there and she's new man on the roster, so she has to be extra careful. She knows to keep her head low. And she hasn't triggered her alarm."
Jack didn't need to be told; Meirelles was obviously their agent on the inside.
"Besides, if she'd been compromised, don't you think we'd have known it already?"
From the look on her face, Hilda knew it was the wrong thing to say as soon as it was out of her mouth.
"What do you call last night?" For the first time since meeting him, Jack felt active anger and frustration from the security man.
So maybe he hadn't been the cause of the raid on the bar, Jack thought. He found himself, against all logic, hoping that it had been him the Maldads were looking for.
Nico looked up at the ceiling, then around the lab. He seemed to be searching for something, but whatever it was, he didn't find it. "Who else do we have? How much did she have in her head? She didn't have this address, did she?"
"No! No ... we worked at the usual removes," Jao said hurriedly.
"Did she know why we wanted the schedules?"
Jao shook his head again. "Of course not." He stopped. "But I'm still worried. There's no telling what they could get out of her with—"
"Fine. When was the last time you heard from her?" Nico cut him short. The disappointment was put away now; all he wanted was information, data with which he could regroup and somehow change course without losing momentum.
"Three days ago. She was supposed to have touched base 12 hours ago," Jao said. "I was going to tell you once I'd checked further."
Nico shook his head. "It's done. And it doesn't matter what's going on, it's safest to assume that she's useless to us now, and that we've been compromised somehow, even if you did maintain cell separation. That raid—"
His eyes shot to Jack, measuring, recalibrating.
"Ser Capitão, I don't know how you play into this, or how you thought you might play into this, but I'm looking for you to make good on your sales pitch. In fact, I'd rather prefer it if you'd better the offer."
Any number of things — offers, explanations, improved propositions — pitched and tumbled through Jack's head. Every one of them suddenly seemed foolish, and he felt abruptly as foolish. It was an emotion he'd felt too often since walking into the bar last night.
Where was the successful conman? Where was the confident intelligence agent? This should be child's play and instead he just felt like an overwhelmed child whose boasts were about to be exposed as empty. He swallowed, horribly unsure of his next step; only sure of his weariness and discouragement, only seeing Rose and the Doctor in his head.
Not my name, Captain.
You ever going to let me drive it?
Not until you apologise to Her for that.
I know. I was apologising to Her.
You meant that.
Uh ... yeah.
Good man. Good man.
I could have told you that, Doctor.
What could you have told me, Rose Tyler?
That he was a good man.
Why's that, then?
Well he just apologised to Her, didn't he?
He did at that.
And he came back for you an' me.
Jack breathed in once, twice. He was still standing on a precipice, but he knew what he had to do. The sudden clarity was like a cold, fresh wind.
He had to walk off that precipice and fly. He had to. He had to rescue the two people in this universe who thought he was a good man.
"You want a better deal? I can give it to you, but you need to get me the Doctor. And the Doctor will take you where you need to go. He'll get you past every barrier, he'll get you to the breeding stock." He took another breath. "And he'll give you all the time in the world to make sure your Bonitas take over."
Nico opened his mouth, but Jack didn't let him say anything. "Can you risk going back to the bar with me? Back to that alley where the rubbish bins are?"
Now all three of them stared at him.
He smiled, wondering when the ground would hit him. "I need the Doctor. You need proof that you need the Doctor. I'm going to show you an impossibility, and you're going to agree to help me save the one man who can make that impossibility work for you."
This time, the silence felt like miles of empty air beneath him.
Very slowly, Nico pursed his lips and inclined his head.
"—bigger on the inside."
They stood like children, staring up. She thrummed and beat around them like a heart.
It was Hilda who finally spoke, tearing her eyes from the luminous rotor, turning them to him.
"We'll find your Doctor. And your Rose."
In Pao Sampaio's dark and claustrophic house, Rose watched Luisa pick up the little holo picture, jerky with age and use. In it, a smiling Pao posed with a tall slender young woman, her hair as dark as Luisa's was pale, her strong dark eyebrows broad wings over darker brown eyes that crinkled with laughter.
Then she watched Luisa take the holo over to the clouded mirror that hung in the hallway, peer at the flickering image, and then at her own face, with shocked china-blue eyes.
When Luisa dropped the holo and fell to the floor, convulsing, Rose caught her.
to Chapter SeventeenThis entry was originally posted at http://kaffyr.dreamwidth.org/222059.html?mode=reply, where there are currently comments. You can comment there or here; I watch both.