SUMMARY: Nobody here has had a good night.
CHARACTERS: Wilson, House, OCs
RATING: R for language and themes (gen fic).
WARNINGS: This is a very alternate universe. Adult themes and adult language.
DISCLAIMER: Don't own 'em. Never will.
NOTES: This is a long post. Interlude and second chapter of the Cierros arc. Links to all chapters of the Distress Call universe can be found here.
It's still dark at the Last Light because that's the way it is in the morning, rotated away from the sun. But that's okay -- the shadows are soothing right now, after the night he's had.
"Hey!" someone calls, and he turns around quickly, half-afraid that one of the young militiamen has followed him here, but the owner of the voice is smiling, holding his hand out, dark eyes alight with pleasure, and Mason relaxes as his old friend Phil Handley approaches.
Phil's dressed for work already, in his cleangreens, spotless coveralls with his name tagged above the chest pocket. For an uncomfortable moment Mason is embarrassingly aware of his own disheveled state, but before he can say anything, Phil charges ahead.
"Hey," Phil says again, this time with genuine concern in his voice, "Mace, looks like you were on one hell of a call." He takes Mason by the arm, guides him to an empty table near the front window. A waitress appears, one of the early-morning crew that Mason doesn't recognize, but Phil waves her away and leans over the table, close enough so he can speak in a whisper.
"Mace," he says. "What happened? Did somebody die?"
Mason bites down hard on a sudden, almost hysterical urge to laugh. "No," he says, "no, but -- " and then he hesitates. Above the bar, the omnipresent vidview is showing yesterday's highlights of the Viceregals' Tournament; the few customers shoveling fried eggs and toast into their mouths are more interested in breakfast. In another few hours, Mason knows, afternoon at the latest, the news will be all over. He settles back in his chair, scrubs at his face with both hands. His eyes feel gritty.
"You need coffee, Mace."
Mason groans at the thought. "No, oh gods, no." He puts a hand to his stomach to indicate the trouble. "Soft eggs, panfries and farm ale, and I don't give a damn if it's morning. I was on a call," he says. "And if I never have another one like it, that'll be too soon."
The call comes in the middle of the night, and all of Mason's old instincts kick in as he rolls out of bed to answer the phone -- someone's dying, someone's being born, someone's depending on me to save them. Then when the phone rings a couple more times he slows and sits on the edge of the bed, the past ebbing away from him and the present soaking back in.
Nobody's depending on him, not for three years gone now. Mason can't save anybody because he couldn't save himself, and it's with a weary sigh that he picks up the tiny cell. The wooden floorboards are cold under his bare feet, and the voice on the phone only adds to the chill.
"Jehosa," the voice says. "Dr. Jehosa Mason."
Mason thinks about hanging up, putting the cell down and going back to bed. He doesn't do any of those things, because he can't.
"You know I'm not a GMD anymore," he says. He curls his toes inward, trying to reduce the surface area of cold against the soles. Where the hell are his slippers?
"Doesn't end your usefulness to us," the voice says.
Mason shakes his head. "Westerberg," he begins.
"Captain Westerberg." Mason pauses to gather himself. "It's late," he says finally. "What do you want?"
Now it's the Captain's turn to hesitate. "We've ... got someone. Colonel wants you to come in, run a few tests."
Mason bites back the sarcastic response he wants so desperately to give. "Someone" means a prisoner -- they probably think he's carrying contraband and want Mason to get up, get dressed, come all the way out to Security Brigade headquarters just to run a 'scope up the poor bastard's butt.
"Let Porter do it," he growls.
"Major Porter refused," Westerberg says, and that's so surprising it stops Mason completely. After a moment he realizes his mouth is open, and he closes it.
"Porter said, and I quote, 'I'm not wasting my medical supplies on any feeder maggot piece of shit.'" Westerberg's voice contains an element of dry amusement, possibly at both his Chief Medical Officer's words and Mason's silence.
"But," Mason starts, and then Westerberg's words shove his brain into gear. "Wait ... a feeder?" He scrubs at his face with his free hand. "But ... come on, that's still not a reason to call -- "
"A real feeder," Westerberg says. "A real one, Jehosa. The tests came back positive. The bastard's been in thrall for a while, too -- he's got enough leech scars to make a road map for the March Mountains." Westerberg's voice drops. "He was here, Jehosa. Planetside."
Mason's mouth is painfully dry; he reaches reflexively for his bedside water glass and drinks.
"All our tests confirmed it," Westerberg continues. "The Colonel wants one run by an outsider."
"That's where I come in," Mason murmurs.
"That's where you come in. We need to know this isn't a false positive before we go public."
Mason stands up. "I'll be right there ... I have to get dressed ... " Acid rises in his throat, and he swallows back a bitter hiccup.
"No time," Westerberg says. "We've already sent a car. Oh, and Mason? Bring a 'scope. If this piece of shit picked something up for his master and he's hiding it? We want to know."
Mason's managed to pull a pair of sweat pants over his sleep boxers, and his rumpled t-shirt proclaims him to be a proud graduate of Bell University, Class of '23, but for all that he's still better dressed than the pathetic bastard handcuffed to the exam table. After all, he's completely naked -- his only adornment one of those gags the Security services use, a vicious thing like an animal's bridle, with a flat piece of metal that presses down on the tongue.
Westerberg's not there, but two guards are -- young men whose hard faces Mason doesn't recognize, but then he doesn't keep a lot of company with Security Brigade troopers, much less Wardens anymore. The guards are fully armed, their pulse rifles pointing at the ceiling, stocks resting on their hips. It looks as if they've been busy with their truncheons -- a cut over the prisoner's right eye is crusted with dried blood, and there are multiple contusions on his ribs and shoulders. The little exam room smells of sweat and cigarettes, and Mason stands awkwardly still for a moment.
"Get to it, doc," one of the guards says.
Okay, he thinks. Okay; he can do this. A real blood test first, because those rinky little blotting-paper kits they have at Customs are a joke, and Westerberg knows it, which is why he's called Mason in. And while the decades-old spec unit grinds away at the analysis that will prove this is just another 'feen shooter or whatever drug it is, Mason can take care of the ... exam. And the guy's face, which if he does end up on the vidfeeds, will have to look normal and clean, because that's how the politics of paranoia operates: teach the people not to trust their eyes.
Mason picks up the blood-draw kit and the steri-pen. "Gimme your arm," he says. "Just a blood test. I'm not going to hurt you."
"He ... needs to be on his side," Mason says, while the spec unit whirrs grudgingly into action behind him. The supposed feeder -- the prisoner -- blinks. "For the rectal exam." The man shakes his head frantically. Mason's heartburn flares again. Oh, great. "Look," he says roughly. "It's not like I have a choice here."
The guards roll their eyes; one of them steps forward and pokes the captive with his rifle muzzle. "Turn over," he barks, and before Mason can stop him he reverses the rifle and slams the butt into the prisoner's side. "Now." The feeder grunts in pain, then grunts again as the guard uses his rifle butt between his shoulder blades to encourage a speedier response. The prisoner's other wrist is cuffed to the table, and the trooper leans down. "You give the doc any trouble," he says, "you'll regret it." He steps back and pulls a pack of cigarettes from his breast pocket.
"He's all yours, doc," he says.
There'd been nothing up there that you wouldn't expect, but the expected stuff was bad enough. Mason had taken care of that part first, to just get it done, get cleaned up, try to let himself and his victim both put it out of their minds.
While the spec works slowly, Mason works fast, drawing two more vials of blood, peering into the prisoner's ears, his eyes. He can't test reflexes, but that's pretty much a moot point. He runs the blot test, sees something that makes his skin prickle slightly, then steps up to the molecular level with the gas-hexameter reading. He caths the feeder for a urine sample -- it's not necessary, but it's protocol.
And after all that, there's the cut and bruised face to tend to. He's just getting the supplies out for that when the spec finishes its work and he goes to see for certain what kind of prey the Security Brigades have bagged.
Mason hasn't felt the blood in his veins run this cold since the day he watched the cops march into his practice to shut it down.
When he's finished, the prisoner looks mostly normal again. The remaining bruises will clear completely in the next ten or so hours. It's the best Mason can do, and he pulls off his gloves and tosses them in the biohazard bin.
"Tell Westerberg he can have his party," he says. He doesn't look at the prisoner, still chained to the table. "He's caught himself a real feeder." The two soldiers break into slow grins that Mason doesn't share. His stomach is still gurgling, and he's supposed to break out a waterfast marker and draw a small circle and crosshairs, just like in the photos of the last one they caught, directly over the exterior jugular.
Someone else is going to have to do that part, if it does come to that, which it ... will. Leave it for one of the goddamned executioners.
"I'm going back to bed," Mason says, though he knows damn well he won't sleep. He pushes past the troopers, out the door, to the corridor where Westerberg's escort is waiting.
"Home?" asks the man, whose name Mason does not know or care to know.
"Station," Mason answers. "Think I'm heading for the Orbit." And with one last, bilious burp, his heartburn is gone.
"So ... what does he look like?"
Mason takes another swallow of ale. He should say the feeder is a monster, a distorted wild-eyed thing with filthy claws and rotting teeth, because what else but a monster could be such a fucking pervert? But he remembers the way the monster's eyes had followed him as he worked, how they'd tracked from the guards back to Mason, again and again, until Mason had finally realized the poor bastard was pleading for help. The eyes that hadn't closed until he'd started prepping the feeder for the 'scope, mumbling that he wasn't allowed to administer an anesthetic, and the guards had started making obscene jokes and Mason had wanted to shut them up and apologize, and what the hell was that all about? Mason sets his mug back down and shrugs.
"He looked like my brother-in-law," he says, and feels an odd sense of satisfaction at Phil's look of shock.
"Look, I, uh ... I gotta be on shift pretty soon, Mace," Phil stammers, at last. "Catch up with you tomorrow, right?" He gulps down the remainder of his coffee and runs a shaky hand across his mouth. He's on duty tonight, sure, but Mason knows that's not for at least three more hours. Janitorial doesn't start until there's more of a mess to clean up.
"How you've fallen, Mason," he mutters to himself, watching Phil's broad back for a second -- Phil, fleeing to the safety of his incinerators and his carbon reclamation presses. Mason the GMD, now Mason the mere medic, his best friend a guy who works Sanicycle duty.
"Hope you'll forgive the intrusion," says a soft voice near his shoulder, "but you look like the only person here who's had a night as shitty as mine."
He looks up. It's the dark guy, one of the Free Traders. Looks like a vampire, but isn't, now that he's got vampires on his mind; they'd have checked his teeth three times on arrival and probably every couple weeks, just to be sure, after he set up shop. Mason's seen him here a few times before, seen him around the station, wandered into his junky little emporium once, when it was new. Phil tells him every time someone comes or goes, which is often.
"I'll see your 'shitty' and raise you an 'utterly fucking bizarre,'" Mason answers, and nods at the chair Phil just vacated. He shouldn't, shouldn't trust anyone enough to talk to them. He shouldn't trust Phil, doesn't trust the bartender (known to be a bastard), should certainly not trust a damn Trader, who could've come from anywhere and who knows where he'll be next.
But then, that's sort of the point. Who's a Trader going to tell, and be believed?
"We've met, you and me," he tells the Trader, "but not officially, I don't think." He holds out his hand. "Jehosa Mason, one-time GMD, permanent lost soul."
"Ah. If that all happened just now, you've outdone me for certain. Franklin Magellan,"says the Trader, shaking Mason's hand. "You can call me Frankie."
"No way in hell that's your name."
The Trader smiles. "I could give you another one."
"And it would be just as real."
"Now you've got it."
Mason feels his own lips twitch upward. "First drink's on me, if you care to stay," he ventures, not so much because he's feeling generous as because he'd rather not be alone with the thoughts in his head.
In less than an hour, he's told the Trader more than he'll ever tell Phil, maybe more than he'll even tell Allen, because Allen -- yes, yes, Captain Westerberg, but the guy you've known since you were both seven will never quite be Captain anything -- will be around tomorrow. And the day after that. Allen will have to be lived with.
Whereas the Trader is about to move along, as Traders do, and Mason lets the man distract him by talking about his next stop. "Planetside trade court at Nal Obereh," he says, with this wistful smile. "The fabrics alone, I can get a fortune from any clothier in the Focus. The antique metalwork, you have no idea. And then there's the food." His eyes grow distant, doubtless remembering some exotic dish.
"So you've been there before, is what you're saying."
"I'm older than I look," the Trader answers. "Good genes. I've been from here to the Khirjin Ring and most points in between." He waves down the server and pays for two more ales, shrugging away Mason's look of surprise. "My night ... the only trouble I really had was insomnia, a near mugging on the outer ring, and routine harassment by the Station Brigade," he says. "On the cosmic scale of horror, that doesn't come close to yours."
Mason takes a long sip of ale; his hand aches a little from gripping the handle of the icy mug and he forces himself to loosen his hold.
"Your travels," he says. "I'll bet you've ... seen a lot of strange things." Gods, I sound like an idiot.
"I guess you could say that," the Trader replies. "People are pretty much the same everywhere, though."
"You ever met a ... uh ... " Shut up! a voice in his head screams. Shut up, finish your ale and go home! But Mason doesn't want to go home, not back to that too-cold little room where he can't find his slippers, and in the end the words seem to blurt out on their own. " ... a vampire?" He swallows. "I mean, that you know of." He drops his voice. "Or ... a feeder, or ... "
Incredibly enough, the Trader doesn't laugh. "Feeders, I don't know," he says. "But half the Nal Obereh cattlehands are blood-race." The Trader doesn't seem bothered by the memory. "They call themselves haemovores, use animal stock like marsh ponies, sorels."
"How do they ... what does the government do about it? In ... other places."
"About ... oh." The Trader shrugs. "Depends on the place. The Focus worlds mostly don't believe haemovores exist. Out on the Verge, some worlds they care, others they don't. I've never been attacked, or even approached by one, if that's what you're wondering."
Mason doesn't know what the hell he's wondering. Whether he'll ever get off Cierros, what he'll do if he does run, whether that poor fool they just caught really deserves to die --
He realizes with a start that this is the longest conversation he's had with a stranger since ... well, he can't remember when.
"You'd like it at Nal Obereh, if you're not too afraid," the Trader says. "It's warmer than Cierros."
Jehosa looks at the Trader's face and suddenly imagines all kinds of warmer climates than this, as if they're worlds he knows even though he's never been there and never will be. Cierros pulled his passport on the day it took his license.
"This place doesn't have a use in hell for me," he says, and drains off another long sip of ale. "But it is never going to let me go."
The Trader smiles. "Well," he says, "perhaps there's a way you could let Cierros go instead."
The Colonel taps one fingernail against his teeth as he gazes at the 'tab screen. "How sure are we," he says at last, "that this is the truth?"
Westerberg shrugs, and the Colonel sees in it the same unconscious gesture the Captain's father always had. "Fifty-fifty," he says. "The feeder claimed his master had a GMD, which could tilt the odds either way, but if he was going to lie, that's a damn weird lie to tell."
"True." The Colonel looks at the 'tab a moment longer, then sets it back on his desk. "Any trace of this vampire on the Customs reports? Immigration have a record on him?"
"We're still checking, sir. Immigration's systems are down, and we're having to hand-check the books."
"Immigration's always down," the Colonel growls. Immigration's down one day out of four, lately, and the State would rather sit around with its thumb up its ass, relying on the overworked Brigades to do it all, than spend the money on better scoop towers. "Security cameras?"
"Only one working was the one that caught the arrest. We'll use that for public broadcast. We did get a name and physical description out of the feeder, and we're having a sketch artist work up a poster."
The Colonel nods. He knew Westerberg could get what they needed, and he also knows Westerberg doesn't like the way they got it. Neither does the Colonel, but this decision came from outside the Brigades. "Well, keep working, Captain. In the meantime I want to move forward with preparations for the execution."
"Already in motion, sir." Westerberg indicates the ethertab on the desk. "Judge Essex has passed sentence, and the proceedings are set for Clocktower Square." He sits back and arches his fingers together in a steeple. "Construction's begun on the deck. We'll make a formal announcement within the hour."
"All right," the Colonel mutters. "We're sure he wasn't in contact with any children while he was planetside?"
"Not so far as we can tell, sir."
"Good," the Colonel says. "At least there's one good thing." He shakes his head; his earlier excitement at the capture of a real feeder has faded, and he feels every day of his sixty-four years. "With those credentials he forged, you know he hoped to set up shop here. Him and that master of his." He looks around his office, and his proud achievements seem to mock him -- his bullyball trophies from his youth, the team plaques, his family pictures in their gilded frames.
He turns his eyes on Westerberg and sighs. "My granddaughter asked me for a story last night," he says, "and the first one that came to my mind was Little Redcape. I don't believe in omens, but damn."
Every Cierrosian knows that legend, an innocent girl led astray and ultimately kidnapped by a young woodsman in thrall to a ruthless vampire. The woodsman's master, to all appearances a doting grey-hair until his fangs emerge. The brave wolf, who hears the girl's cries and calls for his pack, a dozen of them breaking down the cottage door to kill vampire and servant alike.
The Colonel sighs. It's only the truly old ones who remember Newland now -- a century past, the villages burned to the ground long before the Colonel was born. The last real feeder had been caught damn near thirty years back, and not a one since then; there'd been drug-runners the Security Brigades had taken, idiots who were hooked on their own merchandise. They deserved to die anyway, pushing poison to the youth of Cierros -- and the crowds couldn't tell one kind of withdrawal from another. A writhing, moaning prisoner in a cage was addicted to whatever the Wardens said they were; once bridled and gagged, who could say otherwise?
Men like the Colonel know better. Knew better, until today. They'd believed that these days, with Newland so far behind them, the vampire menace was as much a fairy tale as Little Redcape. There were no more wicked feeders waiting in the woods to lead innocent children, men and women, astray; there were no more vampires for the feeders to serve. There were only the legends of a vanished enemy, told and retold because they kept the State strong.
But this so-called Doctor Wilson is the Woodsman in the flesh. Soft-spoken, clean-cut, the kind of man you'd trust without thinking twice. The Colonel himself might have been taken in, led not into a cottage in the forest but a waiting room in a hospital.
Right into the vampire's grasp.
It took a wolf, a force of nature, to save Little Redcape, but there have never been wolves on Cierros. The Wardens are the only pack this planet has.
The Colonel's hand creeps up, bypasses the golden harrowleaves on his collar to touch instead the silver animal's-head badge.
"We have to be wolves, Captain," the Colonel says. "We may not always like it, but we have to be the wolves."
Wilson doesn't come home for dinner, so House celebrates his freedom by staying up late, drinking, and watching porn. As a special surprise for Wilson, he has Callie change their terms of address -- from now on, he's Admiral Lord Emperor House, while Wilson is Scut-boy. After he drinks some more, he changes the messaging system's notification protocol to play a bit of dialogue from the porn vid. The next time Wilson wants to downstream one of his boring medical journals it'll ask him to please baby, please, put your big meaty cock in my airlock RIGHT NOW HARDER HARDER. He imagines Wilson's scandalized face, the eyebrows going up, the hands on hips, and laughs until he chokes.
He wakes to an empty ship. He knows it without even asking Callie, or, horrors, actually getting out of bed and padding around the chilly deck. That's another thing he hates about this arrangement -- the hyper-awareness of where his animal is all the time in these close quarters. Wilson's damn scent is everywhere, and he can't get away from it, but it's fading a little because there's been no warm vulgaris body to send its molecules wafting through the airhandlers.
House would still like to have one of Wilson's fresh-cooked breakfasts, but it looks like that's not happening. Goddamn sensitive vulgaris and their sensitive feelings. He rolls over and goes back to sleep.
The second time he wakes, Wilson still isn't there. "Ha," House mumbles. He lies still for a few moments, contemplating the ceiling.
"Yes, Admiral Lord Emperor?"
Despite himself, House smiles a little. It's good to be king, even if you've only got one subject who's apparently fled the kingdom and is probably plotting revolution. His smile turns into a wince as his leg makes itself known; House looks around, hoping that perhaps Wilson has actually come back to the Hotel California, left some meds for House, and departed again. It's just the sort of pathetic I-don't-care-but-you're-my-patient thing James Wilson would do. There's nothing there, though -- no analgesics, no medicine, not even a refilled glass of water.
"Callie," House says again. "Has Wilson been back to the ship at all?"
"No, Admiral Lord Emperor. Scut-boy has not been on board the Hotel California since oh-ten hundred yesterday."
Fine. If that's the way Wilson wants to play, fine. House rolls to the edge of the bed and sits up. He scrubs at his face with both hands. He can find plenty of things to do today, starting with making a fresh pot of coffee and watching the newsfeeds.
Wilson'll be coming back just as soon as he starts to itch and twitch, his system telling him in no uncertain terms that it needs what it needs. House passes the tip of his tongue across the backs of his incisors, feeling the smooth, deep grooves. Imagining his fangs sliding downward, the near-imperceptible puncturing of delicate, hairless skin and then --
-- shit. He's been thinking of the throat, which just proves that this needs to end. One, maybe two more doses for Scut-boy, clinical doses, and then it'll be time. And Wilson knows it, and he's putting it off because it is going to hurt worse than anything else has ever hurt in Wilson's whole sad vulgaris life.
It's almost hard to blame him.
There's only so much porn a guy -- even a guy with a great stamina level -- can watch before it gets really damn boring. And before the sharp upper-abdomen pangs become too insistent to ignore: he needs blood.
He's got to feed his new animal, too, and make sure that its portable enclosure is holding up well. The thing's been aboard all of ten hours and House keeps forgetting it's here. After all, it doesn't talk to him, lecture him, snark at him. Doesn't wander all over the ship, trailing scent-marker in its wake. All it did was snuffle over him and blow warm, grassy breath in his face. And then start mawling for its herdmates, a long, soft, desperate cry.
It's still crying when House gets to the midship deck where he had Loony Sue's two guys set up the pen. And the bedding, and the manure-pick and portacineration barrel, and the feed bins, and damn. His whole childhood history of star-crossings and shipbound animal care is coming back to him.
He wishes it wouldn't. It feels like his dad might come stomping in at any moment to inspect the pen. The sorel's already dropped a couple piles of crap and then helpfully scattered the bits all around in its frightened pacing.
House isn't about to kneel down in that. He breathes out a long sigh.
Manure fork first. Blood later.
He's tired. It's not that he doesn't need the blood, or that he gives a damn it's not Wilson's blood, but he's tired and he needs lunch. He could start acclimating this animal right now -- should do that, really, but first bites to a new source are always tricky, often dangerous.
Food first, he decides. Rest first. Blood later. But after eating (a cold sandwich, some scorched soup), his tiredness has drained away and left something else in its wake. It would be a lie to call it anger, exactly, because really, Wilson can stay away as long as he likes. He'll come back when he has to, but in the meantime, he's going to pay for his stupid, passive-aggressive sulking.
"Fuck this," House mumbles, and heads for the ship's library.
The station looks the same as it did yesterday -- hurrying travelers, arrival and departure boards flickering like electrobyte waterfalls, black-uniformed thugs standing around making tough-guy poses for each other. House ignores them all and follows the signs to the giant flea circus they call the Free Traders market.
It's like every other market on every other docking platform everywhere, with one major difference. The only merchants who set up shop here are Free Traders, because it's the only place the government will let them. Planetside is denied -- reserved for upstanding citizens only. At least, that's what Loony Sue had told him, when he'd bitched about having to come "downstairs" to find what he needed.
"You coulda got an animal stationside," she'd said, "like you coulda got a set of hobbles, but they'd be crap, cheap knockoffs like all Free Trader shit. Your sorel'd be infected with pen-cough, kill half your herd 'fore you knew what hit it. That's the way with those people, undercut honest folk. Sell you a gammy fisheye, claim it's a pearl. Thieves, the lot of 'em." And she'd bundled all his transaction papers -- seven of them, with three in triplicate, House had counted -- into a tight, tidy bundle and tucked them for safekeeping into a big envelope with her name on it.
"Don't you need to stamp my Visitor's Visa?" House had asked. "You do realize I'm a foreigner."
Sue just laughed. "A man looks like you, and a girl can forget most anything," she'd said, stamping his folio. She'd gone babbling on about House's blue eyes, just like her cousin-so-and-so the Brigades veteran, retired after being shot in the line of duty by a smuggler. House had tuned her out and watched as a scruffy blond-haired child wandered around her supply aisles, filling its pockets with whatever small items it could steal.
Loony Sue would be positively scandalized to see him now, happily poking around the shop of one of those dirty, dirty Traders. Well, Sue might believe that crap about nasty foreigners undercutting the natives, but if there's one thing haemovores recognize on sight, it's xenophobia. This planet has a terminal case. Not House's concern, though, and certainly not his problem, and so he wanders through the crowded aisles, the books he's taken from Wilson's library in a bag slung over one shoulder.
He trades the first two -- a copy of Ras Russell's Big Times and an illustrated volume on lepidoptery -- for a bottle of what the Trader woman assures him is authentic genever, flavored with juniper berries and other exotic botanicals. Three of Wilson's dusty old mystery novels, one with a bookmark still stuck between the pages, go for a small, intricate chess set carved in onyx and quartz.
House still needs blood. Food and pain meds have helped relieve the sharp twinges, but it's past time; he'll just duck into this one last, interestingly dark and grubby shop.
The thing glints at him from the back of a dimly-lit display case, if you could call this mishmash of tarnished jewelry and old silver utensils a "display." House needs to see it, because it's strange, small -- and thus easily carried -- and looks both intact and utterly useless. Wilson will be seriously annoyed that House traded his precious books for this. In other words: it's perfect.
"It's a what?"
"A transmolecular dematerializer," the Trader insists.
"Transmolecular technology is nothing but a pipe dream." House prepares to set it down on the case and walk away, but something holds him back and he takes a closer look.
It's simple, too simple to even pretend to be what the Free Trader claims it is. A numbered metal disc, covered with a clear crystal face, hangs suspended between two short woven-metal straps. A tiny silver buckle allows it to be fastened round something. It reminds House of old illustrations of an ancient timekeeping device. A ... wristdial. No, a watchseer. A ... wristwatch? Is that it?
"A transmolecular dematerializer," the Trader repeats. He leans closer to House, as if imparting a great secret. "I got it from a Trismegistium."
House restrains himself from an outright guffaw. "An Alchemist?" he snorts. "Right. More like the back of your dead grandmother's closet." Still, the small thing looks both impractical and interesting ... almost like an Old Earth compass. It will be fun to take it apart.
"Tell you what," House says. "I'll take it off your hands for A Tale of Two Cities, and throw in A Christmas Carol just because I like your face." And because Wilson has marked both books as his, although House doesn't disclose that part.
And before the Trader can make any more absurd claims, House is the proud owner of a ... whatever it is. He buckles it around his left wrist and regards his reflection in its crystal. He thinks of how he'll show the thing to Wilson, how he'll explain what he traded for it -- and House watches his reflection smile.
Wilson wants to run off, make House wait for him? Fine, he can have his vacation.
Then he'll have to live with the consequences.
Wilson's still not back.
House dumps his purchases on the floor, just past the entry-dock airlock, and asks anyway. Who knows? Maybe his animal, coming back from his runaway adventure, took a shuttle into the ship's lower bay instead of coming in from the station as he always has before. If he'd thought ahead, he could have kept both himself and his scent out of House's path.
"Callie! Is Wilson here? Has he been here?"
"No, Admiral Lord Emperor. Scut-boy has -- "
"Never mind." House shakes his head. He's tired, his leg is throbbing, and he wants nothing more than to sit down someplace comfortable and let his mind drift. Someplace where he can lie back ...
The Bijou theatre, a little voice in House's not-yet-drifting mind murmurs. The seats in there recline. Why do you think Wilson watches all those stupid antique vids there?
"The Bijou it is," House says, and if he's talking to himself, well ... it's Wilson's fault.
"Oh, Wilson, you bastard." House sinks deeper into the plush seat, its gentle curves cradling all the angles and bones of his body. "You bastard, not telling me about this."
"On the contrary, Admiral Lord Emperor," Callie pipes up. "Scut-boy specifically informed you -- "
"Quiet!" House barks, and the ship's voice falls silent. He glares at the ceiling for a moment, as if Callie's neuralnet consciousness is somehow lurking there, then settles back in his seat. "That's better." He scrubs at his face with one hand.
I want to leave, he thinks dully. Take the ship out of orbit, get away from this rock and all its idiotic regulations. He tilts his head back, lets his right arm slip off the arm of the chair. Come on, Wilson. Get your vulgaris ass --
The palm of his hand brushes against the arm-rest control pad, and the blank theatre screen is replaced by the enormous talking head of a newscaster. The strident, amplified voice jars him out of his muzziness.
" -- king news! I repeat: all citizens are urged to stay tuned for an important announcement from the Security Brigade!"
The Security Brigade can go fuck itself. House picks an arrow-pointing-upward symbol on the control pad, presses it, the channel thwips and --
"--ustoms officer's vigilance and bravery resulted in the capture of -- "
"Go awaaay," House moans. Thwip goes the channel, to the next one.
" -- posing as a harmless physician, with what officials are calling some of the best-forged -- "
Something very, very cold begins to travel all the way down House's spine.
It is on every channel. Wilson's smiling face peers out from the close-up of his forged credpack, only to be replaced with distant shots of some black-hooded figure who could be anyone, being propelled across a nondescript barren yard from one unmarked doorway to another.
" ... is safely in custody, but we urge anyone with information to call Security at once. If you saw this man, if you noticed where he was going and whether he had anyone with him, you could have the critical link. Do we have that sketch yet, Tom?"
"I'm sorry, we don't yet, Paul, and I'd like to remind our viewers -- "
" -- unclear at this time if -- "
" -- the danger cannot be overstated -- "
Wait. One channel is showing something different. House pauses, his thumb hovering above the control. An unseen narrator drones away; the words BREAKING NEWS scroll in an endless loop across the bottom of the screen, but the scene is different. It's the interior of a large building with an arched dome, people hurrying back and forth ...
" -- last capture of this magnitude, thirty years ago. As shown in Dels Finmor's classic documentary, Deadly Stranger, the apprehension of -- "
He tunes out the narrator and leans forward. The large building looks familiar, and with good reason. He recognizes it now -- it's the old section of Cierros Station, planetside. The main tubeways are there, looking a hell of a lot cleaner when they were new thirty years ago and the arched dome let in more light. The camera swings around, pans slowly across some of the departure signs, lingers on one in particular --
House blinks. The sign doesn't change.
FERRIES TO NEWLAND
"No," House says. "No. I would've seen it." Besides which, the Newland Massacre happened before House was born. By the time they filmed this, just thirty years ago? Nothing would have been left of Newland but a ragged, fading scar on the ground.
And a memory, which the people who run this operation wanted to keep alive. You didn't see the sign because it's not there any more. Big public works project, remember the memorial plaques? The little voice inside his head laughs. It's not a good sound. Bet they'll put up a new sign now.
On screen, a loyal citizen points at a young man; her mouth opens in a gaping, accusatory O. On some detached level, House notes that the one accused, dead and gone these thirty years, is wearing a pain collar.
"Briellean," House mumbles. The haemovore who'd owned that man was a native of Brielle, or someplace like it; leave it to the guy from disposable-animal world to bring his bloodboy here.
But the joke's on House, isn't it? Because the name House learned for this world was not Cierros, as the natives and the Standard starcharts call it. A little less laziness, a few minutes' more research, and he might have known, but no. He has done the exact same thing.
He's brought his animal to Karosia.
House's priorities have changed -- before, he'd wanted to leave Cierros. Now, he must. Why, then, is he still sitting in the Bijou's plush seat, seemingly unable to turn away?
Because I have to watch, he thinks. I have to know.
The talking heads of the newscasters have been replaced by the trim form of a military officer. Impeccably uniformed, not a hair out of place, he projects an air of supreme confidence. A caption identifies him as Major Wells Brady of the Cierrosian Security Brigades, Warden Division. House hates him on sight.
"It is a very serious matter, of course," Major Brady is saying. "But citizens should take comfort in the knowledge that, because of rigorous questioning of the captured feeder, we can now show you this artist's sketch of the renegade vampire."
That would be me.
"Additionally, the feeder provided us with the name of his vampire master."
Brady pauses, undoubtedly for dramatic effect. The news crawl has changed to Feeder confesses! Details to follow! The Major's eyes narrow.
"The vampire's name," he says, "is -- "
Rupert ... what?
House stares at the screen, where Major Brady has been replaced by a full-face artist's sketch. A dark-haired, dark-eyed stranger stares back at House.
Wilson lied to them.
House drags a hand across his mouth; he doesn't understand. Wilson told Alton Jerome everything he knew, and these people are no Alton Jeromes. Rigorous questioning is the paleword for torture. Those people tortured Wilson, and Wilson lied to them.
And you, a little voice whispers, should have been gone ten minutes ago.
And he isn't gone, or going. He's numbly half-listening to Major Brady droning on about an execution set to begin at nine tomorrow morning. Public holiday historical event bring the children finished by Wednesday noon and oh fuck, it's Sunday here, isn't it? What do they mean by 'finished'? Wilson, or the giant fucking party?
The pain in House's abdomen grows suddenly worse.
I can't -- I need to -- I need to find food, I haven't eaten. House wrenches his gaze away from the screen. Galley. I'll go down to the galley, see what's there.
That's not the kind of nourishment you need, and you know it, another voice admonishes. Three days, think about that.
"Stop it," House growls.
Karosia. Couldn't you have even looked?
"Shut up!" He runs one hand through his hair, reaches for his cane and brings it close. He leans on it heavily for a moment, one hand rubbing over the back of the other. His fingers absently touch the winding knob on the -- wristwatch? sundial? and --
The blaze of a miniature sun fills the Bijou theatre, and then the lights go out.
"And I'm telling you, Major, there is no Rupert Norfolk aboard this ship, and there are definitely no vampires!"
The Captain of the Beryl is a tiny woman with fiery red hair and a scattering of freckles across her nose; the top of her head barely reaches the blast-stripe on the troopers' chest guards, and her face is pink and flushed with anger at the intruders on board her ship.
"You're sure of that." Major Madsen's tone makes quite clear his opinion that Captain Tavistock's certainty is open to debate. He casually picks a tiny piece of lint off his black Wardens uniform. "Perhaps he's hiding under another name -- we have a complete description from the captured feeder. Surely a full-scale search of the crew is in order."
"Do you realize how many crewmen you're talking about? The Beryl is a Taru-class freighter. She's over 400 meters long, 90 meters wide, and has a stock capacity of well over one hundred thousand tons. There are four thousand hands on this ship, and we're due to depart in less than one hour." Captain Tavistock scribbles her signature -- Emmeline V. Tavistock, CLC, on the clipscreen she's been holding and hands it back to her waiting First Officer. "Now if you gentlemen -- " She makes the word reek of sarcasm -- "will excuse me, I've got exdock procedures to go through."
"Delay the sailing," the Major suggests, and is rewarded with the sight of the Captain's elfin face reddening even more.
"Forget it," Tavistock snaps. "I've got a schedule to keep, and the Corporation prefers its captains keep to them."
"You'd prefer a court order?"
The Captain's eyes narrow, and only the Major's rigorous training keeps him from taking a step back.
"I'd prefer never coming here again, Major. Hell, half my crew can't take shore leave without being accosted by your thugs. For the crime, apparently, of having the wrong color eyes." The Captain pauses, tugs at her uniform jacket. "We both know your courts have no jurisdiction aboard an offworld ship, port-docked or not. Now. I suggest you and your officers leave now, unless you want to take a nice, long journey to New Australia. Look for your Rupert Norfolk somewhere else." She turns away, attention already focused elsewhere. "Cochran! Where's that updated manifest?"
"What are your orders, sir?" the Colonel's young assistant asks as he and the rest of the Wardens leave the freighter.
The Major shrugs. "No way Norfolk would be on the Beryl anyway, knowing his slave broke and talked. We'll keep looking, encourage the citizens to pay attention to strangers, watch for suspicious activities, especially among their neighbors." He fixes the Lieutenant with a stern gaze. "You know how these creatures are -- they hide in plain sight! We have to be always vigilant."
"Yes, sir!" the young man responds, and the Major represses a sigh at the Lieutenant's enthusiasm.
"That's the spirit," the Major says.
"Do you think we'll catch him, sir?"
Major Madsen smiles -- a thin narrowing of the lips with the very slightest upturn at the corners, and instead of answering, he asks a question.
"Did we ever catch Roman Campion?"
Madsen's smile widens, and this time he bares his teeth. "Did we ever catch Roman Campion?"
"Sir, that was thirty years ago -- "
"And the feeder supplied a name, a description, the ship, the ship's registry -- even after that barbaric collar was removed, the feeder stuck to his story. And yet," the smile disappears, "the vampire got clean away." He turns away, gazes at the numbers skimming past on the control panel. "And before that, and before that. They always get away, Lieutenant." His left hand clenches into a fist, then relaxes. Lieutenant Holloway wonders if he's conscious of it. "They always get away," Madsen says again. "They're smart enough to know when to cut their losses and run."
The sorel stares at him, nostrils flaring, eyes wide, the white sclera bright in the dark face. She bleats long and loud -- a call for help, a warning to the rest of the herd. Her front hooves drum a panicky rhythm on the stall floor, and then she starts to run.
The animal is trapped, racing around the perimeter of this small space, skidding in the litter as she careens around, frantic to escape. The haemovore knows his prey, knows she will jump, will crash, but not if he's quick enough.
There is nothing now but the hunt. Crippled though he is, the haemovore will win: he's smarter than the prey. He thinks only of that. There is him and this animal and he needs blood.
The haemovore moves sideways, forward, positions himself, rocks forward on his good leg and leaps. He and the prey go down together, his fangs finding their mark along the way, sinking into the throat as predator and prey hit the ground.
The struggle sends thrills of pleasure through his body, and as the thrashing ends, he finds a vein and drinks. This is his catch, and it is good, so --
The universe shifts, reorients itself with a pop!, like a joint returning to its socket, and the haemovore ...
"What the fuck," House mumbles, and touches his lips. They're slick with blood. He's in the hold, but how ... how ...
He scoots away slowly from the fallen sorel, which sleeps on, oblivious. The adrenaline drains away, his pulse slows, and he wonders for just a moment if he's dead. Then he thinks if he is dead, this is a pretty sorry excuse for an afterlife because his leg still hurts. House levers himself up slowly, blinking away the ghostlights from the incandescent flash that had blinded him and knocked him ... straight into another part of the ship.
House is staring at the small device. The timeseer. The watchkeeper. The sundial. Or maybe he should start calling it by its real name: transmolecular dematerializer.
He's taken it carefully off his wrist, noting in a numbed kind of fascination that the hands form a narrow vee -- it's either one-on-the-clock or the needles are indicating north-northeast.
"It can't be," House whispers. "Transmolecular technology is a myth."
Well, then how did you get here?
Do you remember walking here?
"No. But that doesn't mean anything. I'm ... tired." House sweeps a callused hand down his scrubby face. What the hell is happening here?
Why are you tired?
"Because they're murdering Wilson!" House shouts, and his voice bounces off the walls of the hold and falls back over him like an ice-cold waterfall. "Shit! Leave me the fuck alone!"
You want to be left alone? You love puzzles -- try figuring this one out. Maybe ... just maybe ...
Through trial and error, House has learned how the little transmolecular dematerializer (or the TeeDee, as he thinks of it, because let's face it, "transmolecular dematerializer" is two too-long words to keep stringing together) works. Which isn't strictly true -- he knows now how to make it work. He doubts he'll ever learn how it works unless he takes it apart, and that's out of the question.
For now, anyway.
The key is in the hands, or the compass needles, or the reality re-setters, or whatever they really are. He's discovered the tiny knob on the housing case can be pulled out and the little indicators moved to point north and south in a single line. If he pushes the knob back in, touches it gently with his right index finger (and it has to be the right forefinger, not the left, and not any other finger -- that's one of the other things he's discovered) and thinks of someplace other than where he is, then --
He's there. So far he's tried jumping from the hold to the control room, the control room to Wilson's quarters (he didn't stay there long), Wilson's quarters to the Bijou ... and each time he's landed panting for breath, growling, a 1.0 version of a feral haemovore, and if that's not disquieting enough ...
This last time, when he'd snapped out of the temporary-wild-man mode and sunk once again in one of the feather-soft red plush seats, he'd had a disturbing realization. He didn't know how this thing worked, and it might stop working at any time. There might be a finite supply of ... jumps. Transits. Whatever the proper term is.
"What are your secrets?" he murmurs, staring at the small device. "Who made you?"
The public execution announcement is still broadcasting on the viewscreen; House averts his eyes.
He holds the dialface to his ear and hears a quiet little tick tick tick, then looks at it again. The indicator hands have changed position; now (somewhere) it's 4:00. He frowns. He'd set the needles to 12:30, had jumped, and now they've ... moved? He thinks back over the jumps he's made, and the simplicity of the solution strikes him immediately.
Four o'clock. Four jumps. It's a counter, so the possessor will know how many transits are left.
That is, if the little device had said it was three o'clock before he'd transported himself back to the Bijou. Had it? House concentrates, but try as he might he simply can't remember.
Doesn't matter, he thinks. Occam's Razor, so the odds are on my side. Besides, if it's not, there's nothing I can do about it anyway.
He pushes himself up from the velveteen seat. For a while now he's had a vague plan in his mind, but even if it could work, he'll only get one chance. Better make sure it's even possible.
The sorel eyes him warily, still groggy from the heavy bite he gave it a couple hours ago. All the same, best to proceed with caution. There have been plenty of haemovores kicked to death by their own animals; House isn't about to join those less-than-illustrious ranks. He takes a deep breath, moving slowly into the pen.
He eases close and wraps his arms around the animal's shoulders. He's got to bite her again, sedate her so that nobody gets hurt if this works.
"Okay, girl," he says, whispering into her ear as he hunts for a vein at its base. "Just gonna try ... a little experiment."