SUMMARY: It's one of the oldest games in existence.
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.
House thinks about counting the solatiles on the ceiling again and then decides not to. He'll save that scintillating pleasure for later -- maybe after he's listened to the chirps from his medical monitors for another two or three hours. The worst thing about being a prisoner, he decides, is the sheer, unremitting boredom.
And he is a prisoner, there's no doubt about that. This infirmary room is a cell -- well-stocked with medical apparatus and monitors, but a cell nonetheless, with armed guards stationed outside the door. The orderlies who come to feed him and who help him lever himself slowly to his feet are always accompanied by a green-clad gorilla who keeps one hand on his holstered stunner. As if House is planning to ... what? Break out of here? Crawl all the way to the command deck? Brilliant plan. He'll get right on that just as soon as he starts magically regrowing new muscle in his leg.
He flexes the leg in question and winces. Someone's looked at it, he knows that -- whoever re-wrapped it wound the bandage from right to left instead of left to right. House assumes that someone is the pasty-skinned vulgaris doctor who's been to see him -- Dr. Ricardo or Roanoake or whatever the hell his name had been. He'd kept his head down while he'd checked House's vitals, wouldn't answer any questions except to confirm that yes, this was still the Silver Bay. Wouldn't tell him the Captain's name, or where they were bound, or how long it would take to get there. Wouldn't tell him where Wilson was.
Not that House really cares, but the hell with Royston -- that's his name, Royston -- for not answering a simple question.
He twists his neck, craning his head around to take another look at the medical equipment. Smooth, sleek lines. Self-cleaning, self-disinfecting, self-everything, the very latest technology. Most of it's standard, but some of it's not -- scopes and scanners and little bullet-shaped instruments with odd gauges that House's hands itch to hold and inspect.
This one small room makes Wilson's entire infirmary look like something almost unutterably primitive -- Salt Key Gamma after the Big Burn, perhaps, or even Old Earth in the Pre-Expansion days.
His neck twinges, and he rests his head back against the pillow. He'd awakened here with a dull ache behind his eyes, a souvenir of the stunner blast. House knows he's lucky in that regard -- stunners could trigger crippling migraines in some people, tachycardia and temporary paralysis in others. He blows a soft breath out through his lips. It's not the first time he's been stunned, and considering the way things are going, it probably won't be the last.
It's the sound of the door hissing open that awakens House, and he blinks for a moment, trying to focus quickly.
He watches warily as the two orderlies enter his room. They're guys he's seen before, regular medical personnel, but the three right behind them are new -- two men and a woman, all dressed in dark green, with a silver logo shining on their uniformed chests.
Security detail. Shit.
Then he gets a closer look at the automaton tagging obediently behind one of the orderlies, and his stomach tightens even more.
It's an autochair. House hates autochairs -- the memories they hold and the future of dependency they represent. He'd spent an eternity in one when he was fifteen, the result of playing jumpball in a rigged tourney, his opponents' teams stocked with semi-pro ringers and tough enforcers. House had been the only one of his crew-brothers who'd played to win against them; the consequences had been two broken legs, a fractured pelvis, a shredded femoral artery, and a crushed sciatic nerve. The doctors had ordered him to use the chair for eight months; House had rehabbed with grim determination and walked again in six.
"Captain wants to see you," says the woman in green, and House tears his eyes away from the chair.
She's tall, with smooth skin the color of light mocha and short black hair that gleams under the bright artificial light. Her name tag reads "DE SANTOS," and she's got a dancer's build; lean and balanced, with a coiled strength and air of watchfulness promising a lethal response to any threat. House has no doubt she could put him on his ass in about five seconds, even if he had two good legs.
Well, fuck that. He's already on his ass, so why be careful now?
"Aw, Mom," he whines. "Can't I steer?"
Her right eyebrow quirks up.
"So we can get our exercise chasing you down the hallways? No thanks." She nods, and the orderlies position the autochair next to the bed. "It's this or be strapped to a grav-slab. Either way you're going, so which will it be, Mister House?"
House scowls, hating her and these goddamn power games where other people flaunt the fact that they know your name, but her gaze holds steady.
"Chair," he mutters at last, and she nods again, an abrupt little jerk as if to say, "Good boy."
God, but he hates corporate goons.
They pass lots of doors, but none of them with guards in front of them like his own.
"Where's Dr. Wilson?" House asks, just for the hell of it, and isn't surprised when he doesn't get an answer.
The corridors are wide and clean; House gets a few curious glances from passing crew members, and from the lack of leisure-clothed gawkers, he figures he's below the passenger decks.
They guide him into a rich, spacious office with dark fabristone floors. In one corner stands a big wooden desk -- the graceful, well-built kind that's usually kept purely for appearances. This one seems to be in actual use. Papers, a monitor, an ethertab, an antique fountain pen lying alongside a tightly spooled flexiplast keyboard.
There's a table and one chair -- one, House presumes, because he has brought his own -- not far from the desk.
Built into the wall on House's left is a large aquarium, lit from within and alive with the languid circling of a host of exotic sea creatures. They're all unfamiliar species, multicolored denizens of an ocean House doesn't know. He would find them intriguing if he weren't preoccupied with a bigger specimen, dressed in white and standing in the middle of the room as if he owns it -- because, no doubt, he does.
"I take it you're the Captain around here?"
The man nods. "Alton Jerome, at your service." It seems like a practiced introduction; House bets he says that to all the girls.
"In that case, Captain," scoffs House, "how about serving me some real food and an upgrade to a better suite? With subether access. I'm missing my favorite seri-mance."
He hears corporate goon-girl's snort behind him, but Jerome simply turns his attention to the polished box that's sitting atop the equally-polished table.
"Thank you, Lieutenant," he murmurs. "That will be all for the moment."
"Sir," she acknowledges.
"Don't forget to run my bath, Lieutenant," House calls after her departing back. "I like it hot." He doesn't get so much as a twitch, and he shakes his head, disappointed. The faint squeak of the box's lid opening recaptures his attention, and he cranes forward as much as he's able.
He recognizes the contents of the box at once.
He's not bored anymore, but that doesn't mean this will be fun.
The Captain turns away for a moment, then faces him again, smiling as he holds out his two fists. House looks at them, then back up at Jerome. The Captain's smile doesn't waver, and after a moment House reaches up and gives his right knuckles a hard tap. Jerome nods and turns his hand over, opening his fist to reveal the black pawn.
Of course, House thinks sourly. Of course he gets the first move.
White pawn, black pawn. White knight, black knight. Jerome's bishop advances, moving boldly across the board; House sends out another pawn to counter and the bishop sensibly retreats. Through it all the Captain talks, talks of inconsequential things. How the Nullaborean nickel-market is doing. The start of the nine-year storm cycle on Half-Dome Prime. Why isn't there anything good on the ethernet anymore? Where the ship's chefs' contingent thinks they can get Skandik red-trout out of season.
He's got some soft accent, a familiar, rhythmic lilt in his speech that House can't quite identify.
Knight, queen, rook. House allows one of his own bishops to test the waters, but all Jerome does is move his rook one space over. House grunts impatiently and moves a pawn recklessly close.
Jerome's bishop pounces; the Captain picks up the captured pawn and sets it gently aside.
House wants to stuff it down his goddamn throat.
"You didn't have me hauled all the way here to talk about fish," he rasps out. "Why don't you cut the crap and get to the point."
Jerome looks unperturbed. "You know, Dr. Wilson said you were an asshole," he remarks calmly.
"Wilson says that a lot," House growls. "He's right. Want to tell me something I don't know?"
"He thinks you're a doctor, too."
It's House's turn to stare at the chessboard, buy a little time. "Is that so?" he says at last, not raising his eyes. He can feel Jerome's cool gaze on him, and he senses the Captain's shrug.
"Dr. Wilson told me many things," Jerome says. His voice is still utterly calm. "We had quite the talk; he spun the wildest story I've heard in many a year." He moves a white pawn one square forward. "All lies, of course."
House's mouth is dry and he wants another pill, but he threatens with an advancing knight.
"Really?" he asks. "How do you figure that?"
"Norfolk, Ulman, and Sutherlin were murdered," Jerome says bluntly. "Wilson's the killer. I want to know why and who put him up to it."
House is seized with a coughing fit. "Wilson ... told you this?" he manages to gasp out.
Captain Jerome looks vaguely amused.
"Of course not," he says. "That's why I turned him over to my Security service." He surveys the board, moves his white queen up three spaces. "Checkmate in two, I believe, Mister House."
House ignores the last sentence -- the bastard's bluffing, anyway. "Security service?"
"They're very good at their jobs."
"And that would be ... "
"Persuasion," Jerome says calmly. "Convincing reluctant guests to tell them the truth."
House stares at him. "And by 'guests' you mean prisoners. And by 'persuasion' -- "
Jerome picks up the captured black pawn and rolls it idly between his thumb and forefinger.
"What the fuck are they doing?" House snarls. "Filling him full of psychotropes? Sensory overload? Or are they old-school and they're just beating the crap out of him?"
The Captain is watching him carefully, and House wants to knock that goddamn scrutiny off his face.
"I'll admit their methods are a bit harsh," Jerome says. "But -- "
"You son of a bitch," House breathes, and in the next instant the air is filled with a whirl of chess pieces as the game board goes flying.
Jerome's expression never changes.
"I've been called worse," he murmurs. The last chess piece to hit the floor is the white queen; it bounces and skitters away, disappearing under the sofa.
"You don't think Wilson did it?" Jerome asks quietly, leaning casually back from the table.
"Wilson's not a killer."
"And you know that because?"
Because I've met the man, House thinks. Because I saw the hybercell histories and I know he was one of the victims; because I'm not a muscle-headed idiot. All these things flash through his mind, but what House says -- to his own horror -- is:
"Because I'm not dead."
Jerome looks at him again, and this time there's no hint of amusement in those sharp green eyes. Instead there's an almost clinical detachment, a gaze of shrewd speculation.
"No," Jerome says softly. "You're not, are you." Carefully he sets the black pawn on the table between them. "The question remains of what you are," he continues, "other than alive. The sole survivor, or so Wilson claimed, of a wrecked vessel by name of -- "
"The Medusa." Bastard, using Wilson to make House behave, and House doesn't know which one of them -- himself or Jerome -- to hate more, because it's working. "Stop hurting him. He's telling you the truth."
"Now why would he tell us the truth about that? Unless ..." Jerome reaches for the black pawn, and at first House thinks he's going to pick it up again. Instead, the Captain gives it a nudge with his forefinger. The pawn falls on its side, a tiny dead soldier. "Unless he doesn't know it was a prison ship."
Impossibly, the room becomes too hot and too cold at the same time. House shifts painfully in the autochair.
"Why," he says at last, "would I have told him the truth about that?" This petty tyrant Captain has been doing his research; House will grant that much. "Seems you can find all the facts you want on your own," he growls. "So is the torture just a hobby? Compensation for your shriveled little dick?" He leans across the table; his leg protests furiously and he can feel the sweat break on his forehead, but he forces his voice steady. "I'll repeat, since you didn't seem to hear me the first time: stop hurting him."
"You're pushing me," Jerome observes, with no inflection except for a mild curiosity -- the kind of thing House might recognize, if he could admit having anything in common with this man. "I could ask Century Corrections why you were on that ship. I'm guessing you weren't a warden."
"Then ask them. And," adds House, "go to hell."
"That's, 'Go to hell, Captain,'" Jerome corrects absently, his voice as calm as ever. His eyes have changed, though -- as if he's looking at something far away. He touches the com link on his wrist and calls for De Santos to come take House away.
He says ill-advised things to powerful people. He always has, and always will. This immutable fact of his nature is a big part of the reason House was on the Medusa to begin with.
He's just done it again, and he doesn't fucking care. Jerome will kill me or he won't, House reasons, and he's doomed without an animal in either case. Nothing I say will change that; if I'm lucky it'll only speed up the process.
As badly as he wants to calculate this situation, working out all the vectors, all the angles until he knows how it will progress, he can't. Too many variables; not enough hard data. He can -- and does -- imagine a whole galaxy of possibilities.
They were either put into a physioscanner -- unconscious after being taken on board -- or they weren't. Two separate starting points appear like stars on a chart, glowing quietly. But if they scanned us, they'd be torturing me now, not him. One star goes out, leaving the other.
Beyond that, there's a thickly glowing nebula: all the unknown stories Wilson might have told Jerome. Before they were taken, Wilson had said he'd keep House's secret, but he's just a vulgaris and his life is on the line. The same instinct for survival that had made him feed House would now drive him to seek refuge among his own kind, people Wilson would have expected to help him.
Because Wilson wants to see everyone as good, because Wilson is an idiot who says prayers over dead assholes. The jumbled nebula disappears, leaving one inevitable conclusion, one more star on the chart.
From those two stars, a new constellation grows. The shape of it is this: Wilson must have told Jerome the truth, but Alton Jerome is from another place like Delphus, where no one in their right mind thinks vampires really exist.
House squints at the ceiling, at the solatiles dimming as they shift into their "night" cycle. This thing Wilson has done -- House can't even call it a betrayal. They'd had nothing between them but a mutual need to survive. Wilson owed House nothing. Of course he would have told them, to try to save himself.
It's what I would have done, if I'd been in his place. Whatever I thought would get me out of it alive.
The room is fully dark now, as dark as it can be with the blinking lights of the monitors. The numbers are declining, slowly enough not to trigger any alarms. He'll be a corpse, he thinks, in another six days. His lie is as deadly as any truth Wilson can tell; it'll just kill him more slowly.
How long before they do to you what they're doing to Wilson right now? Think they'll wait six days?
"Shut up," House whispers, watching his carefully constructed constellation sputter and fade, useless to guide him anywhere. Wilson should've lied. Should've told them I was a shipwreck survivor, nothing more. He should've known that the truth would sound laughable; it's his own damn fault he's being --
House squeezes his eyes shut, and waits for the morning.