Summary: He's got nothing up his sleeves except hope ... and a device from Ages past that may or may not work. It's showtime.
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 fifth chapter of the Cierros arc. Links to all chapters of the Distress Call universe can be found here. The next story update will appear Monday, April 4th.
"You are wrong, you know," he says to the holovid projection. It's a recording from Doctor House's last visit, a frozen image hanging in the air. It can't answer, which means the Alchemist is talking to himself. Lucky for him, he's a good conversationalist.
"I can't get absolutely anything, and certainly not on a moment's notice." The holovid stands there in all its weathered glory, as big as life, and moves not a fraction while he marks the finer points with a lightpen. Shoulders, waist, inseam, sleeves. "Nor can I fly, cure illness with a touch, or even, without the assistance of fantastically complex technology, transform lead into gold." He walks around the figure, carefully tracing the phantom shirt-collar and reading the measurement at the display-end of the pen. "And you may have failed to notice, but that sign does not read, Franklin Magellan, Tailor."
He takes out a slip of treepaper and begins scrawling down the measurements, not in Standard but in his native hand. Tailor he is not, except on the occasions -- and there have been many -- when he needs to be. His sign also doesn't read Forger, Thief, or Aetherfish, and he is all those things as well.
He reaches one hand into the center of the haemovore's chest, snaps his fingers, and the holovid disappears. The rest of his work -- other than the thieving part, of course -- will have to be done aboard his ship. That's where the equipment is.
The accessories will be complete well before the assigned hour for the required bit of burglary. Research goes very quickly with the tools he has on hand, and it would seem that poor Jehosa Mason had it right: Cierros' technology, all of it, is woefully out of date. The fences around their subether networks are falling into serious disrepair.
Anyone with enough skill could slip in easily. For an Alchemist, it's not much harder than taking a breath.
It's the mundane things that drive chinks in a society's armor.
In this case, there are many, many officers on this floating anthill of a station, and only one clean-and-press shop, and that puts the odds in the Alchemist's favor. He pulls up the station map, the schedules, does a few swift mental calculations, and smiles.
This is not in the job description of his illustrious Guild. He's risking his safety, trying to save one brief life while millions of others are guttering out all across the galaxy, and he's seen death and seen it until it shouldn't matter anymore. In these last few decades he's often thought it didn't matter. Yet now it does. Doubtless this is a good sign, even if the Regents won't see it that way.
They'll have a point. He's about to steal a thing which would probably mean death if he were caught. The risk would be considerably less had he not sold his best means of escape to someone who may or may not be entirely sane. Sold it on a whim, because he liked the guy, and he knows a hunted creature when he sees one. It's not the first time he's done this and he hopes it won't be the last, but the Regents are right when they say that this game of his is irresponsible. Even if it works this time, and Doctor House doesn't get himself killed, there's really nothing in it for the Alchemist. Saving someone else's friend will not bring back his own.
But he likes to think John would approve, if John were here.
Overnight shift-change for the station cleaners, and the Trader-turned-Thief stands in a darkened hallway and lock-breaks the ugly green door of the Janitorial Lounge. Where the locker rooms are, and the easyvacs, and the spare cleangreens and caps, and doubtless a few name tags.
It smells of stale skin and industrial cleaners inside, and the light-traps overhead throw a seasick pallor on the rickety tables, the dented lockboxes, and the rack of rough-woven coveralls.
He's got about a half hour before the actual Janitorial staff begins to come in. Just enough time to change, tuck his clothes into one of the disused lockboxes, and trundle out with an easyvac. The rolling canisters have a trash receptacle welded to their sides, which makes them over-wide and clunky to maneuver, but perfect for the job at hand.
In the corridor outside, a station officer approaches. At the sight of the cleangreens, the easyvac, the man tilts his chin into the air and changes course, forcing the lowly, tan-skinned foreign janitor to step aside.
The Alchemist turns his head away, feigning deference. In another Age, he thinks, he'd be bowing and scraping, mumbling by your leave, lord, tugging at his damn forelock for all he was worth.
He truly cannot wait to get the hell out of here.
Sure-Press Cleaners has basically no security. Getting in is no more difficult than it was to crack the door of the Janitorial Lounge. He imagines that's because, seriously, who robs a garment service in a place that runs on cred-keys and has no cash to take?
What he needs is easy enough to find, but he turns on a few lights, all the same. Let anyone who peeks through the shuttered windows see him there, cheap help sweeping the floor as he was doubtless hired to do. And he does the whole job, because if someone does watch, he can't be in and out too fast. If he does this right, nobody will know a thing until the shop reopens tomorrow, and by then it will be too late. There's a handwritten note on the front door, OUT FOR THE HOLIDAY, BACK AFTER NOON.
When he's done, he makes one more pass with the sweeper, right alongside the rack where he's found the best candidate. Take it down smoothly, tuck it into the sidebag on the vacuum, keep moving. The alterations it will need will be the hardest part of this whole misguided endeavor. He's glad he's got until morning.
The man whose name is not Frankie Magellan sweeps his way slowly outward toward the docking rings, and the airlock where his own little ship awaits him. The few people who pass him, at this late hour, never look twice.
He's an idiot who won't be getting any sleep tonight at all, but he's ... almost happy, and that hasn't happened for a very long time.
The Cierros Transgression: Ch. Five
A burly trooper unbuckles the gag when the first rays of morning sunlight cast a warm glow over the fieldstone storefronts of the square.
Wilson's lips are cracked and bloody, but they immediately start moving; he's been listing the bones of the human face in his mind for the last few hours, fighting against the delirium of full voracin shock.
The trooper slaps him hard across the face and steps back as another guard empties a bucket of cold water over Wilson's head. They laugh as Wilson tilts his head back, trying to catch a sip to soothe his parched throat. The bastards have been busy most of the night, moving things around, dumping what sounds like wooden planks on the execution deck, but it's all been behind him and in his haze of pain and need, he has paid it little mind.
"Coronal suture," he mumbles. "Forehead boss, glabella, supraorbital foramen, supraorbital process -- "
The guard slaps him again, this time on the other cheek.
"Zygomatic bone," Wilson gasps. "Fuck you. Zygomatic bone."
A rough hand grabs his hair and jerks his head back; Wilson squeezes his eyes shut and grunts in pain.
"Talk all you want," the trooper growls. "Goddamn feeder -- you'll be screaming for your master soon enough."
"Lacrimal bone," Wilson whispers. "Maxilla, ramus, mandible. Oh, god. Nasal concha. Temporal ... temporal ... "
Another cramp causes his stomach to roll over, and he vomits up a thin, sour bile on the platform in front of him.
"Almost there," the trooper says, and douses him again.
"On you it looks good," the Alchemist admits. House scowls at him but takes another, grudging look in the mirror.
A stranger stares back at him; tall and lean, clean-shaven with piercing blue eyes set in a craggy, aquiline face. He is obviously a veteran officer in the Intelligence Services Division of the Cierrosian Security Brigades. The jet-black uniform is perfectly tailored, not a button, not a service badge out of place. The silver Warden flashes fastened on either side of the collar glitter in the sunlight. The slender nameplate over the left breast pocket identifies the officer as one E. THORSSON.
Intrigued, House lifts his chin in a calculated, arrogant tilt. The Alchemist takes a step back.
"Very nice, Major," he comments dryly. "You'll find you've got everything you need."
House stops preening in the mirror and flips open the thin black leather portfolio the shopkeeper has given him. It's all there -- his Brigades i.d. card, letters of transit authorizing him to take Federal custody of and transport the feeder prisoner to the capital for further, more aggressive interrogation, up to and including Special Measures. All the documents are signed, sealed, and stamped with the official imprimatures of the Government of Cierros. By law, they cannot be revoked or even questioned.
"Impressive," House says, and he means it. Evo Krater's guys were very, very good, but this is art. "How'd you get these?"
The Alchemist smiles. "My story, not yours," he responds mildly. "Theft, forgery, ether-slipping; does it matter what I did? We only have to settle the question of payment for those services."
House pretends he doesn't hear and slips the portfolio back into an inner jacket pocket. "I'll just be going -- " he begins.
"Dr. House." The Alchemist's smile is suddenly very serious. "Your payment."
"Fine," House grumbles. "What do you want? More books? A nice first edition or two? The deed to the Hotel California?" He leers ingratiatingly at the Alchemist. "Or is this a devil's bargain? If you want my immortal soul, you're out of luck. I sold it when I was five."
The shopkeeper laughs out loud. "No, Dr. House. I just want something returned to me -- something very small." He looks pointedly at House's wrist. "I want the TeeDee, as you so eloquently call it."
"No," House says automatically. "You moron, the whole point is -- "
"Not now," the Alchemist responds gently. "Afterward. Send it to me by NovEx, to the address on this card." He slips an innocuous, ordinary business card into the same breast pocket that holds the precious portfolio.
"And that's the thing I don't get," House says. "Obviously you want to keep it. It's got to be worth ... it's absurd, what this thing must be worth. Why the hell did you sell it to me?"
The Alchemist shrugs. "A hunch," he says. "You looked like someone who'd need a transmolecular dematerializer, and fast."
House stares at him. "Not possible. You're either claiming to be telepathic, or that you've got a hell of a batch of tea leaves."
"I'm observant," the shopkeeper says, but doesn't bother to clarify. "A quality crucial to my trade. I know a hunted creature when I see one. You'll use the device, you'll send it back to me, and sometime -- in a month, a year, maybe only in a few days -- I'll sell it to someone else who looks like they'll need a transmolecular dematerializer, and fast." The Alchemist's smile returns. "As much as you'd like to think so, you're not the only hero in the galaxy."
"And if I don't return it?"
"Then you'll receive no more help, ever, from another of my kind," the Alchemist replies calmly. "You and Dr. Wilson -- you're accepted by neither humans nor haemovores. A situation like this might easily arise again."
"Not if I don't let it," House insists. "We don't need your help."
"You don't know that," the Alchemist says. "And your friend is in agony while you're standing here arguing with me."
It's House's turn to take a step back. "You're a bastard," he murmurs.
"As are you," the Alchemist replies lightly. "Perhaps that's why I like you. This is a simple exchange, Doctor. You'll send back the device, or you won't. Either way, it's up to you." He reaches up and brushes a tiny bit of lint from the sleeve of the black uniform. "Do you understand?"
House feels as if he's in a trance, a dream, a strange vision that has caught him up in its own reality. "I understand," he says slowly.
"Good." The Alchemist nods. "Then go save your friend."
Going to save his ... friend, as the Alchemist insists on calling Wilson, is not as simple as it ought to be. Just because he has a machina with which to ex Wilson out of there, sadly does not mean that House is deus. Gods don't limp, and as a rule they can't get shot and die if they screw up.
He strides resolutely -- as resolutely as he can, with the cane and all -- in the direction of the station's Customs lines, with the TeeDee secure in his uniform pocket. He'd be an idiot to use it to get to the surface, flying blind, not knowing a single safe place to land. It won't matter who sees him leave there in a blaze of glory, but he can't get caught arriving that way.
He can't risk losing his head down there, either, in those savage-throwback moments that follow in the wake of the jump.
The Customs lines and officers part before him like subjects making way for a king; the men who'd kill him if they knew who he was are standing pike-straight in salute. And in the end it matters not a bit, the way he glides through there, because he arrives at the docking gates one minute after the shuttle has left.
There won't be another for at least thirty minutes. Everything's at half-pace for the impromptu national holiday. And to keep the crowds entertained while they stand around waiting, the station monitors are tuned in to the execution. Of course.
House wishes he'd thought to write pocket flask of genever on that list he gave the Trader yesterday.
The feeder's quieted down a lot, and for that Sergeant Doyle is glad. He likes his job, he really does, but after a while it gets to him the way the condemned prisoners scream and yell and plead and he has to work hard to tune it out. Some of the other guys in the squad say they don't even hear it anymore, but Doyle isn't like that. Sometimes he's glad -- some of those other guys are real hardcases, animals who'd torch their own grandmothers if the Captain ordered them to.
Enjoy it while it lasts, the Sergeant thinks sourly.
The prisoner stirs and moans, and Doyle glances at him. The feeder's legs won't hold him anymore, not even on his knees, and he's slumped back against the execution post, sagging from his tightly bound arms. His head has flopped forward, and the Sergeant watches as Trooper Stewart and Trooper O'Neil lift his jaw and secure it with a slipknot of rope around his throat.
The condemned has to watch the crowd watch him die. It's the law.
Doyle hears the rattle of the deck elevator ascending but doesn't look around. Probably some town official or corporate bigwig, wanting to be seen as supporting the Security Brigades at an important event.
"We done here, Doyle?"
The Sergeant takes out his pocketwatch and snaps it open. The gold gleams in the sunlight; his father gave him this watch when he joined the Defense Forces. "I believe we are, Captain," he says.
"Good," Captain Rockwell replies. "Then let's finish this. Get Stewart and O'Neil to start stacking wood for the corpse-pyre. Read the warrant, the Special Orders, you know the drill." His gaze sweeps over the attentive troopers. "Who's got the pigsticker?"
"I do, sir." Corporal Nisko steps forward, presenting the blackwood case for inspection. Rockwell lifts the lid. Nestled in its bed of red velvet, the bloodbore gleams back at him -- five inches of polished steel mounted in an ivory handle, tapering to a honed razor point. Satisfied, he closes the box and runs through the procedure in his mind.
Tighten the rope around the prisoner's throat. Locate the target mark, perform a double-check to confirm. Tap in and step back, hope you don't get spattered when the feeder starts kicking.
Rockwell sighs. He wants a cigarette, but it'll have to wait. His hand lingers on the blackwood case ...
It's a new voice, and both men turn around.
At first all Doyle sees is the rank; the silver harrowleaves on the man's shoulders flash like brightly polished coins. The Captain sees them too, and both men instantly stand ramrod-straight, their left hands snapping up in salute.
"Major," Captain Rockwell says, and Doyle is glad it's him that has to talk to this guy, because the second thing he's seen are the Major's eyes. They're blue, iceberg blue like the pictures he's seen of the Polar Lakes, and just as cold. The Sergeant's eyes flick down to the Major's nametag -- THORSSON -- he doesn't recognize the name but that doesn't mean anything. Lots of desk officers in the Services, men who've never commanded anything more mobile than their own rolling office chair. But this guy doesn't look like a desk jockey. He's tall and lean but with a lot of muscle, and he's leaning on a cane.
Warrior, Doyle thinks. A real soldier. This guy got knocked down, almost died, got up and kept fighting.
The feeder moans again. He wants to be free, he wants to go home, his house, please, his house. He's been like that a while now. Everyone ignores him.
"Captain," Major Thorsson says, and reaches inside his uniform tunic. He pulls out a thin portfolio of supple black leather and hands it to the Captain. "I'm afraid I've got to call a halt to this little farce."
The Captain fumbles in the act of taking the leather folder. "I'm sorry, Major ... this -- what?"
"Farce," the Major repeats, and makes it sound like a dirty word, a word whispered in back alleys and dark rooms -- certainly not a word that should be coming from the mouth of a full Major in the pitch-black uniform of the Intelligence Services.
"I don't understand," the Captain says, dazed. He hasn't even opened the portfolio yet.
"That part is obvious," Major Thorsson snaps. "Get the prisoner up and on his feet. He's on his way to the Brick for a real interrogation."
Doyle flinches, just a tiny bit.
The Captain is still valiantly trying to understand the sudden turn of events. "But Major," he says, "we're almost finished here -- "
"And that's the problem," the Major barks. "You're almost finished here, and you know nothing!" Thorsson leans aggressively into Captain Rockwell's space. "You don't even know the name of this feeder's master," he hisses.
"No," the Captain protests. "His master is Rupert Norfolk!"
"And has he called out for this Norfolk even once? Has he called out any name?" The Major shakes his head. "Rupert Norfolk is a dead human, not a live vampire."
"But -- "
"I suggest you take a look at the letters of transit. I'm sure you'll find them all in order."
The Major's last words drip contempt, and Doyle sees Captain Rockwell's lips tighten in impotent anger. "Fine," he says through obviously clenched teeth, and begins to make a show out of going through the folded and stamped documents.
The mob, at last aware that something different is going on on the platform, disrupting their entertainment, begins to mutter; the sound washes over the men in an ominous susurration.
"My ... apologies, Major," Captain Rockwell says at last. "These papers are entirely in order." He shuts the portfolio and hands it back to Thorsson. "So the feeder will undergo a special interrogation?"
"I believe that is what I said, Captain," the Major growls. "You can have him back after we're finished. Execute him all over again, maybe after a big show trial with all the real evidence we'll have gathered."
Sergeant Doyle flinches again. It won't be much of a trial after the I.S. interrogators are through -- the few prisoners they've gotten back in similar circumstances have tended to just rock back and forth and drool.
The Captain steps back; his stiff posture is that of a first-year recruit at the academy. While it's clear he's silently furious, military discipline takes precedence always.
"Sergeant," he says quietly. "Release the prisoner and get him ready for transport."
"Captain," Doyle responds just as softly. "The people are expecting an execution."
The Captain rounds on him, obviously glad to have a target he can actually berate. "Then bring up another prisoner," he snarls. "Move what's-his-name, Jarvis, up from next month to now."
"Of course, sir," the Sergeant responds. It's not the Captain's fault -- this is a real first, and in the meantime Major Thorsson has been standing there the whole time, looking more and more tired and disgusted.
At the front of the platform, the prisoner has begun screaming again.
"No! No!" the feeder wails. "Don't! What are you doing? God, please no!"
Doyle glances over even though he knows what's going on. Sure enough, Stewart and O'Neil have wheeled the first kindling-cart up to the front of the stage, and are starting to soak the wood with kerofuel. Preparation for the corpse-pyre. The fumes are coming up like a mirage off the fully-stacked barrow, spreading out so far that Doyle's starting to smell it all the way back here.
The feeder is very weak, and losing what's left of his mind. Poor bastard must think he's going to be burned alive. He thrashes feebly, then has to stop, gasping, when the rope around his throat tightens.
"Oh God, no! Please! Not this! Not this! Please, oh God, please I'm begging you, no!"
"Shut him up," the Major says.
"Yes, sir," Sergeant Doyle whispers. He turns on his heel and strides toward the the front of the platform, sincerely glad to get away from the Intelligence Services officer.
"Stop what you're doing and gag him," he snaps, and Stewart and O'Neil look up at him in surprise. "Do it!" Doyle shouts, and the two troopers leap to obey. The gag goes back on, Stewart buckling it extra-tight behind the feeder's head. The prisoner continues to make whimpering sounds and struggles weakly against the ropes; the noise he was making replaced by the growing clamor of the crowd. This could get dangerous, fast. Rockwell is already off to the side, making a call to someone, probably for more troops.
"Unstrap him and get him on his feet," Doyle orders, and the two troopers look at him again. "I know," he says, shaking his head just a little, "but it's his orders." And he jerks his head towards Major Thorsson. Stewart and O'Neil nod, and bend to their work, using sonic blades to slice through the straps binding the feeder to the crossbar. They yank the needle from his arm and toss it aside, ignoring the leak of blood from the wound.
When they're done the feeder simply falls forward, collapsing in a crumpled heap on the platform. He moans softly as the troopers pull his arms behind his back and handcuff his wrists together; the locking of fetters around his ankles gets no response at all.
The mob below is restless; surging like an oceanic tide, they're beginning to shout questions and insults. Doyle ignores them as he motions for the two squad members to haul the feeder to his feet. He sways unsteadily between them, the long muscles of his legs visibly cramping.
"Is he ready?" The Major has advanced in his hobbled, three-legged gait, and stands before the prisoner. The feeder's head lolls back, then forward again. He appears to be listening closely to the Major's voice.
"As ready as he'll ever be," Captain Rockwell replies grimly. "You'll have an escort as far as the provincial border."
The prisoner is making strange sounds from behind the leather gag, and his swollen eyes are tearing up again, wet with some undefined emotion.
Poor son of a bitch, Sergeant Doyle thinks. He turns and spits. Oh well. Knew what he was getting into the first time he let a vampire leech suck him off.
"Captain," the Major says softly, and the Captain looks around. "Do you have the exact time?"
Captain Rockwell blinks, then looks at Doyle. The Sergeant retrieves his father's pocketwatch once again.
"11:30, sir," he announces.
"Thank you," the Major murmurs, and raises his right hand to adjust something on his other wrist. "I'm afraid I'm still on kalifornya time." And faster than anyone can react, he drives his right fist into the feeder's gut.
"UNGHHH!" the feeder grunts explosively. He doubles over, wrenching free of the troopers' hands, and is immediately caught by the Major, who throws both arms around him and holds him upright.
"Major!" the Captain shouts.
Thorsson looks at him, looks at them both, then makes a tiny movement with his right forefinger.
Afterwards Sergeant Doyle will think about that moment, into the long hours of the night and into a dawn that brings no comfort -- had Thorsson's lips moved, in just that split second? Had he said something? And if so, what? All he knows is the sudden splash of light, seemingly brighter than the sun, that blinded everyone on the execution platform.
And when the light had finally dimmed, and they'd been able to see again after rubbing their eyes until new red comets had spilled across their fields of vision ... there'd been no one there.
No one at all.