SUMMARY: Here's how this is going to be, gentlemen.
CHARACTERS: House, Wilson, Jerome
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 second part of the Distress Call universe. Links to all chapters are here.
At the end of his watch, he walks into C-dock and up the boarding ramp, resting his hand on the dull, battered skin of the Hotel California. He lingers there a moment, caressing the worn alloy hide the way he'd stroke a living animal, softly. The sheer age of this boat is humbling, and he always pays silent homage before he steps through its passenger portal.
He's been aboard five times now, exploring from the warmly lit control room up at the bow to the dingiest, darkest cargo holds at the stern.
The Hotel California has a simple enough layout: a merchant cruiser, the lower two thirds of its interior is comprised of engine rooms, maintenance facilities and most of all, cargo holds -- almost all of which are empty. A docking bay on the starboard side is designed for two shuttlecraft but houses only one, a semi-modern autopilot thing whose flight recorders verified every word of Wilson's story. The crews had even found House's old clothes, a stiff heap of fabric and dried mud and blood, crumpled on the shuttle's floor.
Above the cargo levels are the three upper passenger decks. At the front of the middle passenger deck is the helm, the control room with its graceful crescent arc and its wide viewport, and next to that the tiny dark hyberroom; starboard, on a curious explorer's right hand if he faced forward.
As he should, Jerome thinks. Forward, always, into the unknown.
Curving corridors lead back from this area on either side, making an elongated oval like the shape of a racetrack. The passenger quarters are all on the outside of that track, so that each cabin has its own round porthole, the better to watch the stars go by.
People cared about the view back then, when travel through space was a luxury, a thing few could afford more than once or twice in their lives.
The utilitarian spaces are all in the windowless center of the corridor track. Just past the few large master suites is the infirmary, which barely seems to have been updated at all since the shadowy years when the craft was first built. It must not have been a priority; medical care never is, until you need it.
To the rear of the infirmary is the antiquated atmospherics station where life support is calibrated, gases mixed and their flow rate controlled. After that, there's the spacious, beautiful old kitchen -- a private one, Jerome suspects, meant for a chef employed for the owners and their personal guests. There's a galley kitchen down on the third deck, larger and duller than this, where more ordinary meals might have been made.
But the truly astonishing thing is what lies behind a set of gorgeous carved wooden doors (real wood!, Jerome marvels. On a spaceship!), in the very heart of the topmost passenger deck, its vaulted ceiling following the arc of the hull.
The Hotel California has a theater.
It has a theater, a scaled-down replica of an Old Planet moviehouse, complete with velvet chairs, heavy curtains, a library of titles Jerome has never seen before. His teams are already copying each one, translating and preserving the precious digital files.
Everything, every aspect of this vessel, its contents and configurations, is being precisely recorded. This isn't a mere repair job, but a work of archaeological recovery.
For all its apparent simplicity, the California is a labyrinth of strange technological pathways, blind alleys, patches and redundancies and pitfalls. Every day, Jerome's teams learn more about the history of navigation and computing. Every day they find new problems and new surprises from this old, old vessel. Jerome loves that about it; it seems almost to move and breathe all around him, alive in an ancient, intimate way that the Silver Bay, for all its splendor and energy, is not. He'd thought that was the extent of its wonders, that the vessel had given up all her secrets. And then they'd discovered its intelligence system, and the little ship had revealed her heart.
The California, it turned out, had been as good as comatose, operating on its lazarus net the way an unconscious body depends on its autonomic nervous system. The higher functions were all in place, but dormant, not getting enough power to operate.
A series of delicate tests showed them where the decay had set in. Dozens of corroded circuits were replaced with a central gold-crystal board, the power reconnected, and that was when it happened.
The California began to speak to them -- not in the flat, inflectionless rote of the automated distress call, but the smooth, unhurried tones of the ship herself. Jerome, the first time he heard that voice, had goosebumps for half an hour.
He'd keep this amazing old girl, if only he could.
It isn't an issue of legality. The easiest thing, the thing any corporate captain would do, would be to ditch the two refugees -- a couple of legally dead anomalies from worlds that don't want them back -- at the nearest station. Hand 'em over to a station court, the people whose job it is to deal with the flotsam of space, and be done with them.
Legally, they are not Alton Jerome's problem.
Legally, the Hotel California is now his property, all of it, under the immutable force of salvage right. The law is on his side, if he wants it.
It's worth a fortune. Clean it up, restore it as closely as possible to its original condition, and it would be a museum piece of magnificent proportions -- pivot-arm turbines and all. Dear God.
It's also the only home Wilson and House have got, and wonder of wonders, it still flies.
To take it would mean ripping the last shred of hope away from those two doctors. Innocent men, and without a refuge they'd be as good as dead, and what would Jerome really gain? Would he snatch that miraculous anachronism out of the sky, kill it, display it like a dead trophy above a mantel? Last of its kind, folks! Step right up! Just a gold-cred apiece to take the tour!
No. He's got enough damn money.
House stares across the lunch table at the Captain, who is obviously lying, but for reasons House has yet to deduce. Jerome's power in this place is absolute. He has no need to tell fairy tales unless there's something -- information, perhaps -- he believes he can get from a happy captive.
"You're talking about repairs that'll cost ... how many thousands?" Nobody does this kind of thing. Nobody. For their best friend, maybe, but for a couple of ragged strangers who haven't got a pot to piss in?
"Not as many as I'll make," Jerome drawls. "It's just the nav system and some basic maintenance. Restocking some of the food. No big deal."
"Nobody's that good," House insists, while Wilson simply sits beside him, watching with those brown-hawk eyes, every bit as suspicious in his silence.
"You have no idea," says Jerome, "what was aboard that ship of yours. Artifacts, probably bought or stolen ages ago. Old Planet stuff; the marine charts alone are worth millions. We found it all packed in the middle of ruined crates of food, way down in the lower holds." He shifts position a little, fishes his ethertab from a uniform pocket. "Wouldn't be surprised if some of the original owners elginized a lot of this cache, all the while calling themselves collectors."
Here," he says, handing over the 'tab, "is the inventory. The items in red are those I'm taking in payment for my services."
Wilson leans in to look at the list, his brow furrowing. "You could take it all," he says, "but you're not?"
Jerome is as cool as a stone. "I am not," he says, "because I am not a damn pirate."
He leans back, pouring more coffee for himself, completely at ease. "It's not about money," he says. "It's about right and wrong. You can believe me or not, but it won't change my decision."
"How long will the repairs take?" House asks. "You've gotta be dying to get us off your ship."
"I am. It happens that I like you, but you're a safety hazard, through no fault of your own. You have twenty days before we reach Alexandria Station. At that point, I will regretfully send you on your way. On the Hotel California."
"How," Wilson muses softly, "are we going to live?"
Jerome shakes his head. "I wish I knew. You're both bright, resourceful. You'll have a ship, enough money to last a little while, some things you can sell. It's the best I can do. You two will have to work out the rest."
You two. Meaning that Jerome really isn't dumb enough to try taking Wilson out of symbiosis. "You're letting me keep him?" House scoffs. "What if I don't feed and water him?"
Jerome ignores the gibe; instead, he reaches across the table and takes his ethertab out of House's hands. "I have work to do, gentlemen. You'll find the inventory list on the 'tab in your quarters. Have as ... good a day as possible. Under the circumstances."
Jerome leaves them to their meal, awash in the tide of cafeteria-sounds, their appointed chaperon sitting a discreet distance away at another table. Twenty more days, drowning in an ocean of pain and vulgaris-smell and God, the boredom. Why don't they, House thinks, just put a blaster to my head and end the misery now?
He leaves his lunch unfinished, wheeling away from the table without another word, Wilson and the nanny both hurrying to follow.
Idiots. He's not about to try and hijack the damn ship. He's just not hungry anymore.