SUMMARY: Something is very wrong with this picture.
CHARACTERS: House, Wilson, 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: The beginning of the second part of the Distress Call Universe. Links to all chapters of this wild AU are here.
Curiouser and Curiouser
Alton Jerome sits in his office and stares at the words scrolling slowly across his ethertablet. After a while he leans back and huffs out a soft breath.
This makes no sense, he thinks. An ancient galactic cruiser -- it should be in a museum, not adrift in uncharted territory. Four sets of diplomatic identification, one of them complete with a pilot's license and credentials. All of them visa-stamped and festooned with official seals proclaiming the dignity of the bearers, urging all who might encounter them to grant safe passage. Four sets, and two passengers. Only one set of i.d. matching one of those passengers -- a certain Doctor James E. Wilson.
Who is the other man? Who caused his injury, and why? And where the hell are the other three passengers?
Captain Jerome glances back at the diplomatic papers. In keeping with ancient tradition, they're printed on small folding booklets, the archaic introduction on the first page a stark contrast to the everyday language of Universal Standard:
... sans délai ni difficulté et, en cas de besoin, de lui accorder toute aide et protection légitimes.
All lawful aid and protection, Jerome muses. Perhaps. But not until he knows who he's aiding and protecting.
The intercom buzzes softly, and he sighs. "Jerome."
"Koreaga here, sir."
"Yes, Number One."
Gabriel Koreaga's voice is calm. "Security teams have finished sweeping the captured ship, Captain. They found something I thought you'd like to know about right away."
Jerome listens to his Executive Officer's report with growing interest.
"Well," he says at last. "I guess we know what happened to the other passengers." He drums his fingers slowly on the desktop. "What, but not who did it or why. I believe I'm going to go ask Dr. Wilson," Jerome says. "Carry on, Exec."
I probably have better things to do, he thinks as he shuts off the intercom, than listen to a stranger lie to me. He's got to turn in quarterly reports, approve the new hiring guidelines, weigh the competing bids to overhaul the entire food-service system. He looks again at the ethertab screen and narrows his eyes. Better things, but not necessarily the most interesting. After all, it's not every day a man gets the opportunity to talk to the dead.
The last time Captain Jerome had seen the prisoner, the man had been deeply unconscious, his face relaxed and peaceful beneath the clear membrane of the steri-sack as the physioscanner had declared him one hundred percent healthy and one hundred percent human.
Now that he's awake, he's looking somewhat the worse for wear. Dr. Wilson is lying on his back, his left forearm blocking out the light. Whenever he takes his arm away, his face is pale and washed out, and he seems to squint in pain at the ceiling, so much so that he quickly covers his eyes again.
Jerome watches for a while on the wall monitor next to the door. The two security guards De Santos has stationed there watch with him.
"All right," Jerome says. "We're not going to learn anything just by standing here." He nods to one of the guards, a youngster whose name tag reads "SGT. T. SPRUCE." "Open it up."
"Sir," Sergeant Spruce acknowledges, and palms a large red button on the control panel set under the monitor screen.
The door slides open with a soft hiss, and Alton Jerome steps into the cell.
There's no chronometer in the bare little cell, so Wilson's been tracking time as best he can, based on the frequency of meal delivery -- if two Total-Nutro bars and a flimsy bottle of water can be considered meals. There have been two room-service calls thus far, so probably twelve hours or so since he awoke. How long he was out, prior to that, is impossible to know. The people who bring the emergency rations literally won't give him the time of day; they will only repeat "Can't talk to you, sir," and then leave as quickly as they can.
It's too soon for another visit from them, so the motion he sees through the tiny window must mean something else.
Wilson struggles into a sitting position at the sound of the door; it remains open long enough for him to see the two green-uniformed armed guards outside. The man who's walking into the room is armed too, although his uniform is an ivory color that almost matches the warm-white walls of the cell.
Message received, Wilson thinks. As if I could overpower any of these guys anyway. He's got a headache that just won't quit, and a deep, dull pain in his chest like something's trying to gnaw its way out. Guess getting stun-blasted isn't anything like on the drama-vids, where the hero jumps up and keeps fighting.
"Dr. Wilson, I presume," the man says, and Wilson looks up.
His visitor is tall, as tall as House, if House could stand on his own, with clipped silver-grey hair just a little shorter than Wilson's own. His face is tanned, burnished copper by the light of a thousand alien suns, and his green eyes seem to shine with a fiercely sharp intelligence.
"That's me," Wilson says, and tries not to wince as his pounding headache suddenly intensifies.
"Then I'm afraid we've got something of a problem," the man says. He holds up an ethertab in his right hand; he smiles, revealing strong white teeth, but the smile isn't reflected in his eyes. "Or should I say, you've got a problem, and it's a rather large one."
A cold dread begins to form in Wilson's stomach. "I ... don't understand."
His visitor regards him silently for a moment, then begins to read from the 'tab's screen.
"'The chief Public Information Attaché for Delphus Planetary regrets to announce the deaths of Doctors Rupert Norfolk, Sara Ulman, and James Wilson. The three esteemed physicians, members of the first Medical Exchange Diplomacy delegation to Capinari Corporation, were murdered while en route home, in a vicious sneak attack on their vessel. Intelligence services of Delphus Planetary have determined the attack, a cowardly act of sabotage, was carried out by operatives of Capinari Corporation. Not only is this tragic incident an affront to all peace-loving peoples of the quadrant, but it constitutes a Level 1 contract breach, cementing Delphan support for the long-proposed hostile takeover of Capinari.
Merger negotiations, according to sources within the Executive Board, are set to begin immediately.'"
He lowers the 'tab and shakes his head. "'Merger negotiations,'" he drawls. "Because 'war' is such an ugly, little word." The tall man stands quietly, his hair shining silver in the harsh light of the cell. He's waiting, Wilson realizes, for answers to the questions he hasn't asked yet.
Wilson swallows. "They forgot Sutherlin," he says softly. His head is still pounding, jarring piston-strokes inside his skull. "The pilot. He's dead, too. 'Hostile takeover' -- that's what they're calling it now?" The walls of the cell tilt lazily around him; Wilson pinches at the bridge of his nose to try and make it stop. At least the pain in his chest has receded. "Your uniform -- are you the Captain of this ship?"
"I am. Alton Jerome, at your service." Jerome nods politely, but of course there is no doubt as to who will serve whom.
"Captain, is House all right? The, uh, other guy, the one who was with me. He's ... my patient."
"His name is House?"
"Gregory House. I don't ... don't know much about him, other than that."
"I notice he's not mentioned among the dead."
"He would be ... on someone else's casualty list, somewhere. I found him, or rather, my ship ... he was shipwrecked, which is why his leg -- "
"Looks like a large carnivore had him for lunch."
The floor of the cell tilts this time, and Wilson squeezes his eyes shut for a moment. God, but his head hurts. I don't even know how long I was unconscious, he thinks wretchedly. Just how much do these guys know? He opens his eyes. Captain Jerome is watching him calmly.
"What happened ... you ... you might want to record this, if you aren't already," Wilson says. He takes a deep breath. "I'm afraid it's going to take a while."
"I appreciate the update, De Santos, but Mister House will have to wait." Jerome slips off his polished shoes and tosses his uniform jacket over the arm of the sofa. The pale fabric almost glows against the dark, rich leather. "Tell him I'll talk to him in the ... later in the morning. I've got to get some sleep before I fall down."
"He's demanding pain meds, sir."
"He should be." From a simple decanter atop the end table, Jerome pours a glass of Siglis single malt, watching the soothing, pale gold sparkle. "I've seen his leg. Get Royston to dispense something." He pauses to take a sip of the warm, smooth fire.
"Will do, sir. Anything else?"
"This Wilson fellow told me the wildest tale I've heard in years. The part about the hybercells, we already know; the rest I won't believe unless it's verified. Tell Messner I want those flight records today, not tomorrow. "
"He's trying, sir, but he says he's never seen a recorder this damn old. None of our systems will interface with it, so they've got to use the California's own equipment. Apparently that's ... just as easy as you'd imagine."
"Cali-what?" Jerome takes another, larger sip of his drink, which seems to get better with each new bit of information he learns.
"He hasn't informed you, sir? Our relic has a name. HC255 is otherwise known as the -- " The Lieutenant pauses, obviously looking at something. "The Hotel California."
Jerome frowns. "The hell's that mean?"
"I have no idea, sir." She sounds, Jerome realizes, almost as tired as he feels. No damn wonder; she's been sticking with this ... capture, or rescue, or whatever it'll turn out to be, right from the start. Her watch ended hours ago.
"Take off your next shift. I'll have Burke cover it; let him know."
"Thank you, Captain. Anything else, sir?"
"That's all, De Santos. Get some rest."
By now barefoot, Jerome walks over to the alcove of shelves in his living room. On the center shelf, beneath a tiny floodlight, sits a box of clear novaglas. It holds a single piece of Old Planet scrimshaw -- the tooth of some eternities-dead cetacean, a chunk of etched ivory that tapers to a smooth, blunt point. An orphan of some ancient chess set, the tooth bears the figure of a robed man on one side, charcoal against the yellowed bone. The grooves of the tall headgear he wears have been worn down by untold numbers of fingers, leaving only a faint impression of the original crosshatching.
By rights it should be in the Silver Bay's Museum of Sail on the seventh deck, but something in the little piece had spoken to Alton Jerome, and ... well, being a Captain does have its privileges. Besides, this isn't a perfect example of the art anyway. It's cracked on one side, splitting the image of the Bishop carved there right down the middle. He looks at the scrimshaw for a long moment, then smiles, struck by a sudden thought.
He wonders if Mister House plays chess.