SUMMARY: One of them is trapped below, the other one, above.
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: Fourth chapter of the Cierros arc. Links to all chapters of the Distress Call universe can be found here.
House has spent an entire night alternately failing to sleep, and failing to come up with a plan that didn't involve seeking help from a stranger. Who is still not here.
If he were just a little bit more crazy, he'd believe by now that this was a nightmare, and he was trapped here, condemned to relive every crazy moment, never knowing whether the thing in his pocket could save him or leave him stranded on the surface, surrounded by the death squad. Or run out of range and pop him into existence halfway between the station and the ground.
He tries the door again -- still locked. He peers through the dusty window, around the little sign proclaiming Franklin Magellan ~ Registered Free Trader. He strains to see the slightest movement, but there's nothing.
"It's after noon," he growls. "You're supposed to be here." Maybe it's only 12:02, but it's still after noon. Maybe there's only one other shop open on this conduit, a dowdy little establishment whose proprietor keeps coming to the entrance to give House the Free Trader version of the evil eye, but it's still after noon. He resists the urge to punch the door jamb with his fist and gives it a sharp rap with his cane instead. The action earns him a disapproving scowl from a passing Trader. House has been getting a lot of those this morning -- people refusing to meet his eye, people turning away, furtive hand gestures quickly concealed under a cloak. Fine. They can do whatever they want, there's only one Trader he wants to --
The door swings open. House's eyes narrow; his grip tightens on his cane as he slowly raises it chest-level.
"Doctor House," a voice says from inside the shadows of the Trader's shop. "Please, come in. I've been waiting for you."
Wilson is freezing.
If his mouth were free, he's sure his teeth would be chattering; as it is, he's grinding them together, trying not to think about the pain in his arm or the rest of his body.
The crowd has thinned out considerably as people have gone on to work or back home, but there are still quite a few onlookers milling about. A few of the more rowdy spectators have amused themselves by throwing things at him -- their projectile of choice is some sort of hard, round object with a rough, pebbly skin. It looks something like a purple orange or small grapefruit; whatever it is, it hurts like hell when they hit their mark, which is apparently his crotch. The first time one had struck, he'd let out a high-pitched sound and instinctively jerked back; several in the crowd had laughed, and since then he's been pelted off and on with more of the purple oranges and other small objects. He'd tried to shift, to bring his knees closer together and shield himself, but every time he'd come close to succeeding one of the troopers would come over and kick them apart again. He'd finally given up, and after a short while discovered that it wouldn't have mattered anyway -- when a guard spots an embarrassing trickle of urine dribbling onto the platform, his knees are forced even further apart so that none of the humiliation will be lost on the gleeful mob. After the piss drips to a stop, the crowd jeers, then whoops as Wilson is doused with a bucket of cold water to sluice away the urine. The water is like an electric shock in the chill air, and that's when he starts to shiver.
His blood is still falling, drop by drop, into the glass container, and Wilson watches it with a fascinated horror. It's obvious from the rate of flow that they mean to keep him alive and on display for two or three days -- two or three days of this nightmarish carnival.
Because that's what this is, a circus. Besides the constant presence of the executioner and numerous uniforms on the raised platform, a public-address system has been blaring announcements -- exhortations to stay on guard against vampires and their degenerate feeders, a reminder that public taxes are due on the 15th, special festivities are scheduled for tonight (including a showing of the classic movie The Eternal Vampire), there's a lost child at Police Substation Three. Vendors are moving through the audience, selling snacks and hot treats; the tempting scents tickle Wilson's nose, reminding him of how hungry he is.
The interior of the Trader's shop is just as twilit and dusty as before, but this time there's a sense of something waiting, a barely-perceptible undercurrent of anticipation in the air.
"How do you know my name?" House growls.
The Free Trader doesn't blink. "I could call you Rupert Norfolk, if you prefer," he observes.
House holds himself very, very still. When no goons, uniformed or otherwise, burst out from behind the counter or through the door to arrest him, he allows himself to relax, but only marginally.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Please. If I were working for Cierros, you'd be in custody by now. I'd be lying if I said your race was of no interest to me," the Trader says, "but it isn't of consequence at the moment."
"It's always of consequence," House says. An entire herd of old Ursori curses is tromping through his brain, but he holds them back in favor of one in Standard.
"What the eternal fuck did you sell me?"
There is a puppet theater across the square, on another raised wooden platform. Wilson can see it because the torture post is, if nothing else, a decent vantage point, above the heads of the milling crowd.
Rows of bowed wooden benches serve as makeshift seating for tired parents and their fidgety brats, and what the hell kind of parents bring their kids out to watch a man die?
He looks away from the puppet show -- all he can make out of it anyway is a pair of brightly-costumed moppets beating each other with sticks -- and catches sight of a vendor he hadn't noticed before. She has pretty golden hair and is selling little sacks full of rough purple fruit. A boy no more than ten years old leaves her table, pushing and weaving his way toward the stage, intent on securing a spot from which to launch his attack.
Go to hell, you rotten little bastard, Wilson thinks. He begins to pump his left fist, slowly at first and then more rapidly, trying to increase the blood pressure in the vein. If I can force the valve to give, just a little bit ...
His arm aches and burns, but for a moment he thinks he's succeeded, that the blood is dripping at a faster pace and that he's been able to speed up his own death -- and then he sees the guy in the front row, eyes wide, raising his hand.
"Hey!" the guy yells, and Wilson begs, pleads silently with his eyes for the moron to be quiet, to show a little mercy here and let Wilson try and kill himself. The guy isn't looking at Wilson's eyes, though, his gaze is fixed on Wilson's left hand, and his own eyes are filled with glee that he's been the one who's spotted the dirty feeder trying to put something over on the authorities.
"Hey," the guy yells again, "the prevert's tryin' to get loose!"
It's pervert, you stupid fuck, Wilson thinks, continuing to clench and unclench his fist even as the executioner hurries up. Wilson shoots him a murderous glare and pumps faster. He can definitely feel it now, the blood flowing more quickly, splattering into the glass jar.
The crowd grows more excited now that something's going on; more than a few spectators jump up and down in a pogo-hop to try and see what's happening.
The executioner motions for a trooper and one strides forward, something swinging loosely in his right hand.
Wilson's breath catches; for one horrific moment he thinks the man is going to nail his left hand to the crossbar. Instead he hears the PA system blare to life again --
"The feeder has tried to escape justice again! The sentence of law must be upheld!"
Wilson draws in a low, keening breath as the trooper grasps his left hand, holding the fingers closed in a loose fist.
The crowd roars as the hammer comes down, but all Wilson can hear is the cracking, crunching sounds as his middle and distal phalanxes are fractured. He's screaming, writhing in his bonds, which makes the crowd roar even louder. It's only two blows, but when the hammering stops, his left hand is a limp, twitching claw. Wilson screams again -- gagged, it's not much of a sound -- when the trooper flattens it out against the crossbar and ropes it tight. The man leans close, murmurs in Wilson's ear even as his victim sobs for breath.
"Go ahead," the guard says. "Try something else -- next time we'll cut off your 'trice and burn it in front of you."
The executioner checks the stopcock at Wilson's arm and readjusts it slightly.
House double-checks the door behind him before bringing the thing out of his pocket. The woven metal strap -- the circuit? -- dangles from his clenched fingers, and the crystal dial-face catches a stray sunbeam and sparkles like a tiny lantern.
The Trader looks at it, then at House. "You've used it," he says thoughtfully.
"Enough to know I've got seven jumps left and I don't want to waste them," House agrees. "I do have seven jumps left, don't I?"
The Trader's eyes grow hooded. "You'd have to ask a Trismegistium that question, sir."
House shoves the TeeDee back into his pocket and leans forward, resting his hands flat on the dusty glass. "I am asking a Trismegistium. I should have seen it before. I knew when I met you that you didn't smell right; now I know why. You're not my species or theirs. Whatever an Alchemist really is, you are one." He reaches into his pocket again, pulling out a slip of paper this time, feeling it brush past the small treasure nestled beside it.
"So, Alchemist," House says. He flattens the paper atop the glass display case. "Let's make a deal."
"Tell me again how you think I can get my hands on all this ... stuff?" The Trader is frowning, brows knit together as he runs one hand through his tightly-curled black hair. What passes for midday sunlight struggles weakly through the dusty shop windows.
"It can't be any harder than the thing you already sold me. I figure a guy who can get that, can get anything."
"I already had the dematerializer. More than I can say for this list of yours. And the reason you need all these things?" the Alchemist inquires. "Is it because of him?" He nods toward the ceiling, and House glances up.
In a corner, a small vidscreen is broadcasting the non-stop horror show of Wilson's execution. House frowns. Wasn't that a security camera a minute ago? Two troopers are enthusiastically beating the bound man, and House looks quickly away.
The ambient noise of the concourse outside the shop, the shoppers and Traders and passers-by, fades away as the two men stare at each other. After a moment the shopkeeper's eyes flash burnished gold in the half light, reflecting like the eyes of an animal. And then it's gone, back to an unremarkable brown.
House lets out a slow breath, remembering that last game of cards aboard the Zelushka. The way Dobie, the cold-blooded gun-runner, had flatly insisted that Alchemists exist. This, House thinks, is what Dobie saw. And in another moment, This is what Dobie wouldn't talk about. Makes sense now. House wouldn't talk about it, either.
"You think you can rescue him," the Alchemist says softly. "Walk right into the lions' den and out again."
"Only if the lions have a damn good reason not to shoot me on sight, which is where you come in, and are you even paying attention? I wasn't exactly planning on walking out."
The other man studies him carefully. "No, I don't imagine you were," he says at last. "I don't imagine what you're doing right now is planning at all. More of a ... reaction. You let those men see your emotions, even for a moment, and you will be as dead as your friend."
"I'm not an idiot," House snaps. "And it's not your problem if they catch me." His voice goes low and fierce. "Even if I ratted you out, you'd be long gone before anyone could find you."
The man nods calmly, unruffled by House's tone. "But if the Wardens take you, they also take the device in your possession. And we prefer for our investments not to disappear."
"Then you shouldn't sell those precious investments to strangers on grubby space stations." House closes his hand tighter around the TeeDee. "So it's true about all this ancient, advanced technology. You people steal it. You hoard it."
The Alchemist smiles. "Just as you keep your nature hidden? Because human beings are so inclined to destroy what they don't understand. Mind, I'm not denying that we in my trade have a certain ... thirst for knowledge." The gold flashes again, very briefly, as the shopkeeper bends his head to review House's list.
"I'll need those things by noon tomorrow; I've been watching and I'm pretty sure Wilson can hold out until -- " House begins, but the other man is already shaking his head. "What? You mean you can't get this stuff? What the hell kind of Alchemist are you?"
"By noon tomorrow your friend will be dead," the Alchemist says quietly. "You don't know how these public atrocities are concluded, do you?"
"Forgive me," House replies dryly. "I've been spending all my spare time trying to figure out how to save a live -- he's not even my friend, he's just -- I'm not interested in what they'll do to the body."
The Alchemist shakes his head again. "They burn the corpse," he says, "and as you say, that part's not important." He lays House's list on the countertop and begins making notations on it in a curling script House can't read. "What matters is the part immediately preceding, for which he will be completely conscious. If you'd been watching the history broadcasts, you'd know. There's a ... standard procedure. They'll toy with him a little tomorrow morning, get the mob worked up again. Maybe bring a few 'witnesses' up there, people who'll tell of being kidnapped by feeders and somehow managing to escape." He pauses, tapping his pen on the paper. "And then they'll claim your friend is regenerating his own blood, another vampire gift, so they'll take a thin, razor-sharp ceremonial blade, and they will punch a neat little hole in your friend's exterior jugular." The Alchemist leans closer.
House is frozen in place; his throat is terribly dry and he can't seem to speak.
"How long," asks the Alchemist, "do you think it will take him to bleed out from that wound? How long will he be aware of the people rushing up to the platform with scraps of fabric, soaking up his blood for a souvenir?"
"Shut up. Just ..." He can't help himself; he knows the answer. "Six minutes. Maybe. Longer, if the puncture's not that ... big."
"That which the man gave up to the beast," the Alchemist intones, obviously quoting some twisted Karosian scripture, "shall be taken back by men." He steps back into the shadows; the golden eyes gleam for a second. "Meet me tomorrow morning," he says, "with a clean shave and a regulation haircut. I'll have what you need."
"I'll be here at six."
"If you like," the Alchemist replies, "but I'll be here at eight. Get some sleep, doctor."
And then, without any sign of a door opening or closing, the Alchemist is gone, and House stands alone in an empty shop, watching the dust drift through a single, dim shaft of sunlight.
Wilson has the shakes. Or, rather, he would have the shakes if he could move, but the tightness of his restraints means that he really has the trembles. The bastards have turned the valve way down on the needle that's draining the life out of him, but the rest of him is a dull, throbbing agony. He hurts all over; his broken hand has swollen around the rope that holds it still, swollen until it's somehow both numb and a seething hornets' nest of pain at the same time.
His shoulders feel like someone's jabbed hot skewers into the joints. His thigh and calf muscles have begun to cramp uncontrollably from kneeling so long. He's been in so much pain for so long that he can't tell when the voracin withdrawal began.
And on top of it all, he's watching a very bad movie.
He doesn't want to, but every time he turns his head away or shuts his eyes, a trooper is there to make sure he pays attention. There's nothing he can do about any of it -- he's immobile as a bug in a spider's web, and just as doomed.
He's exhausted, and his eyes are watering, and he'd be sobbing in agony if he weren't gagged, but they want him to watch the screen. So he watches the very bad movie, and tries not to think about anything else.
It's called The Eternal Vampire, and Wilson recognizes it for what it is -- a clumsy propaganda film, designed to stir up fear and hate. The villain is tall, dark-haired and dark-eyed, leader of a ring of callous monsters who are enslaving their innocent, trusting neighbors, one by one. Plotting to take the whole world for themselves. The locals are eating it up, booing and cheering at the appropriate moments and throwing things at the screen.
His body must be releasing endorphins, Wilson thinks, or going into shock. He's begun to feel almost adrift. It's about this time of night, on board the Hotel California, that House would come to him. It's the silent arrangement they'd come to without ever talking about it; there were no words to describe the agreement they'd reached or the compromises they'd made.
The dark-haired man, larger than life on the bright screen in Clocktower Square, looks something like an Old Earth actor Wilson had read about once. Bella, or Luga, or ... he can't remember now. The fake haemovore flips a black cape over his shoulders, and a terrified woman screams at the sight of his fangs -- but they're too broad, too long. They're crude like dogs' teeth, not elegant like House's ...
Wilson falls at last into a light, restless doze, pinned to his execution stake, dreaming of a place where a tall, blue-eyed vampire flings back a crimson-lined cape and sinks strangely comforting canines into his throat to drink deeply of his blood.