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Interesting Facts About the London Zoo

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Nora Barlow looks at the rows of empty jars and thinks: around the whole world, and this is what I have to show for it. Pathetic.

***

Sharp and - whatever they're calling Alek - are bright-eyed, on time, and expectant. They're going to need training - worse, to truly be of maximal use to her, at some point they're going to need educating - but not today. Nora still has stacks of unread post from her absence, and a long list of people she needs to see.

"Come back at the end of the day and tell me something about the Zoo I don't already know," she orders them. "Something of interest to me," she adds quickly, lest she receive a count of the bricks in the clock tower, or a review of the Zoo's best nooks and alcoves for adolescent indiscretions. That should keep them busy. She addresses herself to the first of the piles of letters.

***

It's a long day - her most urgent communications were forwarded to her on the Leviathan, but she keeps up a correspondence with most of the other top-ranked fabricators in Britain (not to mention France, and Russia, and the rest of the Darwinist world) - and she's only just sorting the last of the letters by priority when Sharp and the boy come back.

"There are more species of fish in the aquariums than any other genus of animal at the Zoo," Sharp reports, and Nora blinks for a moment until she recalls their assignment.

"Yes, of course I knew that, and fish are a class, not a genus. Three classes," she corrects. Sharp's face falls.

"Each elephantine eats over 150 kilograms of food a day," Alek tries.

"Not interesting," Nora sniffs. The commissary keeper handles all that. "Try again tomorrow."

***

At home, her sample case is still open in the parlor, but she averts her face as she passes it.

***

Someone from Asquith's office has questions about Russia, and someone from the Admiralty has questions about Japan, and Nora doesn't even manage to put pen to paper to start answering letters until the afternoon.

She wrinkles her nose when Sharp comes in with the former prince. They're stained and streaked with white and smell distinctly of sewer.

"You can get into the experimental aviary through the floor drains!" Sharp announces.

"And you can get out again by the doors," Alek says slyly, and skips back a step when Sharp shoots him a glare and makes to smack him.

Nora coughs and Sharp comes to attention.

"So did you know that, about the drains?" she asks eagerly.

"Sadly, yes," Nora says, "The orangutan likes to escape, and last spring he found his way into the aviary. It was very upsetting for my parrots. We clearly focused our security improvements on his cage and not the drains."

She turns to Alek. "Do you have anything else?"

"Well," he says slowly, "You could improve the efficiency of the vivarium heating system by twenty percent if you coupled the boiler to - "

Nora holds up her hand. "You may take it up with physical plant when your time permits," she allows. "But that is a proposal, not a fact about the Zoo."

Sharp is frowning determinedly. "So, another try tomorrow then?" she asks.

Nora had meant to take them with her tomorrow to King's - there's a professor whose current line of research requires closer supervision - but she's starting to be amused by their efforts. "Tomorrow," she agrees, "Now please, go clean yourselves."

She hears Alek muttering something teasing about orangutans as they go out the door.

***

If the case was entirely empty, if her sampling equipment was perfectly untouched, Nora could just close the case and declare it ready for next time.

But there are samples from the broken loris eggs and from the two surviving lorises (that she really should run soon, part of her mind tells her, if she's ever going to make further headway on that project.) And there is one solitary moth, blown aboard the Leviathan somewhere over the Mediterranean - the last time she'd been thinking about specimens.

She remembers coming back from the Congo, only thirteen and already a full participant in scientific expeditions, lugging jars upon jars of ants and termites, caged living birds, carefully swaddled eggs, flasks of different waters. She's used those samples in her fabrications, too; the parrots most obviously, but there are life threads from some of those very ants twisted into her lorises and her airbeasts.

She'd been so painfully young, blazingly sure she was going to follow in her famous grandfather's footsteps and become a great naturalist and scientist.

After King's, she has a meeting tomorrow regarding Zoological Society funding, and then another meeting regarding Zoological Society grants, and then another meeting with the Admiralty regarding Japan, because apparently they didn't like her first set of answers.

She runs her hand over the small array of loris specimens, and hears the lorises giggle in her head, and wonders when science became the thing she does when her time permits.

***

By the time she makes it back to her office, her head is aching and her cheeks hurt from repeatedly forcing herself to smile when she wants to shout.

She hopes her young assistants have something good for her today, she could use the entertainment.

They are in fact loitering in her outer office, pestering her secretary, who seems to be indulging them with an explanation of the Zoo's organizational hierarchy. Which is a quite proper thing for them to be learning, except that it reminds Nora that the manager for her personal laboratories is giving notice and moving to Manchester and she needs to decide whether she's moving someone up from the technicians, or poaching someone from another Society scientist, or looking outside of the Zoo for a replacement.

She sighs and waves Sharp and the boy - Hohenberg, she supposes - ahead of her into her private office. As she sits down she realizes that Sharp is sporting a blackened eye. Nora raises an eyebrow.

"There used to be a gang of pickpockets operating in the Lion House," Sharp tells her. "I bet you didn't know that."

"We've had complaints," Nora says, "But we've never been able to apprehend anyone in the act." She pauses. "Used to be?"

Sharp shrugs. "Aye," she says, "I figure they're run off alright."

Nora feels the sudden certainty that her day will not be ending without a visit from the Lion House keeper.

"And how about you," she asks Alek. "Highwaymen in the giraffes? Smugglers in the snakes?"

He's startled into a smile. "No," he says, "But the Curator of Reptiles is having a love affair with the girl who brings the mice."

Nora tsks. "Not a fact, Mr. Hohenberg," she tells him, shaking her head. "If you are going to collect information for me, you must learn to be very sure of what you say. Perhaps you saw one assignation, then you may say, they had an assignation. An affair implies an ongoing connexion, for which you do not, I think, as yet have evidence."

Alek is shaking his head and looking abashed. Nora turns to Sharp.

"And likewise," she instructs, "You have taken some sort of action - some sort of lively action, I am sure - against the pickpockets, and you surmise that they have been rousted. But you cannot assert that they are gone until you see that they do not, in fact, return."

Sharp nods. "Alright, then, I surmise those bum-rags won't dare creep back here again." She smiles, showing teeth. Ah, primate aggression face. Nora had mostly suppressed it in the lorises...

She collects her thoughts. "One more try, gentlemen," she tells them. This has been an amusing exercise but she'd best rein them in before they turn her poor Zoo upside-down.

She lets herself smile after they see themselves out. So John has finally spoken up to the mouse girl! The things she misses, while traveling.

***

That night in the parlor she thinks of Borneo, the first and last time she had led an expedition herself. She remembers how they ran out of glass jars, surrounded by such rich diversity of life to sample, and had to hire a local artisan to make them more out of clay.

She's glad there's no way for that younger self to find out that she would one day circumnavigate the globe and come home nearly empty-handed.

On a sudden impulse, she closes the sample case and stacks it with her valise to bring to work in the morning. At least her housekeeper will be pleased to have it out of the parlor.

***

The day proceeds in a reasonably satisfactory manner - Nora's finally made enough progress on the personal correspondence to start thinking about the journals, which have taken over a separate table. The Royal Society is apparently not about to let a little thing like war in Europe interfere with their publication schedule.

She also squares her shoulders and sends a certain memorandum to Asquith, which should lead to a meeting, which should lead to a series of unofficial conversations, which should lead to the invitation of certain people to the upcoming peace conference, and the express disinvitation of others. It's going to be delicate, but it has to be done, before Churchill sticks his foot in it and they end up fighting the whole thing again in a few years.

She's secretly curious how Sharp and Hohenberg will present themselves today - costumed as monkeys, perhaps, or crowned kings of the circus - not that the Zoo has a circus, but she's sure they could work around that - or rolled in elephantine dung. She's almost disappointed when they arrive decorated with nothing more spectacular than Sharp's fading black eye and a suspicious new bruise on Alek's neck that she decidedly does not need to know any more about.

They arrange themselves in front of her desk and look back and forth at each other, communicating in nods and tiny jerks of the head.

Finally Alek speaks up. "The Zoo is an ecosystem," he says carefully. "Like the Leviathan. All the different parts all work together."

And Nora thinks, oh.

"You collect these critters and the punters come to gawk and pay for the boffins to make new beasties and bring in more punters," Sharp is saying, but Nora only half-hears her.

She remembers working on the Leviathan, tinkering with the bees, the gut flora, reworking the numbers every time someone else on the team added something, trying to figure out how to keep the whole thing aloft and motile.

She pictures the Zoo, an island in the sea of London, and all its metabolic cycles diagrammed upon it: money, ideas, animals, scientists, flowing in and out in neat loops. She sees the changes she's made, the unlikely combinations of life threads (personnel and projects and connections) adapting it to the modern era.

Alek is saying something about the Zoo signage, the boards full of information about diet and habits and incidental notations of which creatures are cutting edge and which will soon be seen on your city streets and that's another cycle, the careful influencing of public opinion, it's lovely that they've spotted it.

She beams at them, suddenly, her shiny new assistants - so much more useful to her current work than another kind of ant. Had she really thought she'd come home with empty jars?

And it's not just them, of course. What she's seen in Japan could never fit in a specimen jar, but she's collected it just the same. Her vision shifts, like turning the page in an atlas, and now London is just one dot on a map of nations, and the metabolic fluxes have changed too, to alliances, and trade, and ideology.

The European ecosystem is even more interesting than bees and barnacles, she tells her younger self. When you grow up you're going to fabricate peace. You're going to fabricate empire.

Out loud she tells Sharp and Hohenberg that she's pleased with their work and tomorrow they'll be coming with her to her meetings. She waves them off gaily; they appear bemused.

On her way home she swings by her laboratory and hands off her sample case to a startled research assistant. "Batch analysis for the loris project," she requests. "Expression differentials - I don't need to spell it out. Everything in there should be labeled."

"You don't want to do it yourself, Dr. Barlow?" the assistant asks.

"I am eager to see the results," she answers sharply, and the assistant looks gratifyingly catalyzed.

Before she leaves, Nora looks around her laboratory with satisfaction. So many possible threads to pull, to entwine.

"Catalogue the moth," she tells the assistant, and picks up her valise full of scientific journals to go home.