SUMMARY: It pays to know exactly what is swimming in your tank.
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.
1.4: Deceptive Coloration
For some time after their game ends, Jerome sits in the soft light of his office, turning that black pawn over and over in his hand. He looks up at the aquarium, following the flowing patterns of movement there. The ugliest thing in that tank is a korjer. Peaceful and harmless, it looks like a lumpy, algae-covered rock. The most beautiful species is the thistlefish, all graceful streaming pennants and delicate silver gill-fronds; touch the thing and its poison will kill you in ten minutes.
He keeps these creatures because they interest him, soothe him, and remind him now and then that sometimes the good guy looks pretty damn bad.
Glancing at his wrist-com, Jerome startles mildly at the time. There's somewhere he's supposed to be, but it's not absolutely required. He taps the com once to activate it, and again to reach the command deck. "Lieutenant Franklin," he says, "got a moment?"
"Need you to fill in for me at midweek reports, record whatever's relevant, brief me later."
"Certainly, sir. Anything else?"
"Yes. Call in basic meal packages for our two strangers. Turns out someone made an assumption and put 'em on convict rations. Damn shame to feed a man Total-Nutro when we don't even know if he's guilty."
"I'll take care of it, sir," she replies, and he can hear the smile in her voice.
He's been making assumptions himself, and not without cause. Experience has taught Jerome to expect the worst out here in the unpoliced quadrants. Pirates or not, it stood to reason that his two drifters were guilty of something -- probably something significant, to have ended up where they were.
Rather than give away his own hand, Jerome had decided to see what the two men would reveal about themselves and each other. This strategy meant that there were questions Jerome couldn't ask, such as how long a haemovore can go without blood, and what happens to his human companion if the answer is, 'not very long.' For those answers, he'd called upon Reginald Norian, who would tell him the truth.
That is, if Norian would only get back to him. It's been two days now without a response.
Settling behind his desk, Jerome turns the monitor to just the right angle and unfurls the keyboard like a miniature bedroll. May as well get comfortable, because this could take a while. If he can't have all the answers he wants, he can certainly play the game well enough to get most of them.
"Century Corrections Corporation," he commands, and the subether network begins searching for the address.
He looks over the food-service bids while Century's call delay music seeps from the com like a poisonous gas. We're assisting other clients, the recording repeatedly assures him, and will answer each call in its priority order. You can aid us in meeting your needs by providing more information about your inquiry and account history in our automated system. Our loyal customers are truly our greatest asset.
Jerome thinks that if there were such a thing as transmolecular technology, he'd be in prison himself, for beaming fusion bombs into the 'client services' departments of companies like this one. The temptation, he believes, would simply be too great.
"If you're not interested," Jerome says, to the third pasty-faced 'supervisor' in a half-hour's time, "I can end this call right now. And you can explain to your boss why you pissed off the guy who could've verified your insurance claim." These people record every word their employees say, so the threat is very real.
"No, don't -- I'm -- I'm not authorized to release those records, sir, but please, don't log off. Ms. Reed has that clearance."
"Then I'll talk to Ms. Reed."
Ms. Reed is one of those people Jerome thinks of as a black hole with skin on, the kind of creature from whom nothing can escape, not even light, not if she has her way. The endless darkness is in her voice, in each coldly chosen phrase, in the way she never refers to the dead prisoners as anything but "cargo." Ruined cargo on a lost ship, on which she is hoping to collect insurance money that she cannot collect because she has no proof of the accident.
"I have the precise coordinates. I will provide those and a third-party verification to your insurance representative -- but not until I have that passenger information. I'm not giving you vultures anything until I positively identify a couple of bodies."
"I told you, sir, our regulations --"
"You are wasting my time, Ms. Reed. There's nothing in this for me. I'm ready to forget I ever saw that wreck."
"Very well," she snips, and the skin on her face looks so brittle it might crack, crumbling away to reveal the insatiable void underneath. A moment later, her image disappears, replaced by something more welcome, if no less chilling: the full cargo manifest for CCC M109-D-811. The Medusa.
Alton Jerome has never dealt with Century before, but he knows their business. They're a prison contractor, taking out the trash for any government that'll pay the transport fees. Clean up the streets of your cities! Promote safety and tourism! Increase your tax base while cutting costs! Cheaper than building unsightly jails! That's the public pitch, the things they dare to come right out and say.
The thing they don't say is that a "convict" is whoever your government decides it is. If your world convicts its dissidents, well, that's none of Century's concern. The other thing they don't mention is that they'll go and sell your criminals to mining camps, metal refineries, agricultural compounds -- hell, even brothels.
Jerome knows all this, knows it painfully well. He expects the worst, yet his breath still catches when he spots the COD address for the Medusa's cargo. Brielle Colony.
He'd heard rumors, and asked Norian about the Colony prison once. "It's a holding pen," was all Norian would say, and that had been enough. So it's true, Jerome thinks, while his gut does a slow twist, that Century sells to the blood market.
Perhaps House was a warden after all. Jerome suddenly finds himself hoping it isn't so. An intelligence as obvious as House's shouldn't squander itself in the rancid holds of Briella ships and human-stockyards.
There is no House listed among the hired personnel, but who knows if it's even the man's real name? Jerome scrolls down, and down, and down the prisoner list; there are so many. Were so many.
House, Gregory, G.M.D.
Jerome leans forward, reading and re-reading the name. Damn. Wilson had it right. Mister House is really Doctor House, of the Greater Medical Degree. Highly educated; that would certainly explain how he learned to play chess. A click on the name brings up his prisoner status.
Under contract, reads the form. Planet of origin: Ursoria Nel. Assignor of contract: Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
A photographed face stares from the screen -- clean-shaven and less gaunt than the man Jerome has met, but unmistakable.
"Under contract" is prison-company jargon; Jerome has seen it before. What it means is that House isn't a damn convict.
What it means is that he pissed someone off, someone powerful, on his own world. Whatever he did, they couldn't legally jail him for it, and they were too cautious to simply have him killed. Having met the man, Jerome can vividly imagine how such a thing could have happened. He sighs, rubbing his forehead. I really am pathological, he thinks. I forgot that I'd been there, where House is right now, not knowing what happened to an innocent man.
The picture on the screen stares through him with furious blue eyes. "I should've told you," says Jerome, very softly. "We didn't hurt your friend."
This isn't the kind of truth, the kind of apology, he can deliver via intercom. Nor are the questions he must ask the sorts of questions he could ask that way.
He's got to face the man, so he may as well do it now. Jerome leaves his office, walking swiftly from its comforting shadows and into the brightness of the hall. He's halfway to House's cell when his com link starts beeping as if the ship were on fire.
"What's the matter, Doctor Royston?"
"I swear I didn't do it," Royston almost pleads, and Jerome draws a very deep breath.