SUMMARY: It's way too soon to call it a rescue.
CHARACTERS: House, Wilson
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: Links to all chapters of this wild AU are here.
"Sir? We have an eight-sixty." The page comes over his wristcom. Its sound is soft, heard only by the Captain and his Dawn Watch Lieutenant, sitting at a small table at the far end of the Third Deck cafeteria.
Alton Jerome is only a little surprised; the excitement always seems to start the moment he sits down for breakfast. He sets his fork aside and drawls, "Do we, indeed? Distance?"
"Off-route, eleven hours and drifting."
What that means is that if they inspect this thing, they'll lose about thirty hours, but they're on a month-long run. They can afford it. "Alter course to intercept," Jerome orders, a slow smile forming on his face. "We're nothing if not helpful."
"Yes, sir!" comes the enthusiastic reply. "Calhoun out."
The Captain chuckles and digs into his eggs. From this corner of the cafeteria he can survey the whole place, with its endless rows of neat, cream-colored tables. Crew and passengers alike dine here, beneath a warm sea of ambient noise; a thousand conversations over coffee; the soft scrape of dishes and the dim clank of cutlery. Where most ships this size have a posh dining hall for the officers, this one does not. That's just how Jerome likes it.
"You're pathological," says Franklin, dark eyes crinkling at the corners as she smiles over the rim of her cup.
"What was that, Lieutenant Franklin?" Jerome rumbles.
"You're pathological, sir." Her smile gets wider. "Where will you take this batch of crooks?"
"Station Court at Iris, most likely. Nearest to our route, and you know how much the Merciful Judith loves to give leniency to brigands."
Franklin leans back, raising an eyebrow. "I know she gets kickbacks for selling prison labor to the Ghirovet mines."
"Now, now. That's just a rumor," Jerome chides, contentedly pouring more coffee from the thermal carafe on their table. "If we're lucky, it will turn out to be completely untrue."
"If we're lucky?"
"I'm hoping she's much worse than that."
She laughs and refills her own cup from the pot Jerome just put down. "Shall I run inspection on C-dock, sir?"
"Finish your breakfast first, Lieutenant. We've got eleven hours to dust off the red carpet."
"Wilson. You're the biggest imbecile in imbecile history."
Of course House would disturb the few moments of real peace Wilson has found, here in the cozy library adjacent to the master suite. The com system is wonderful, except when it isn't.
"I'm busy." This room, lined with gorgeous dark shelves full of antique books, is Wilson's newest haven. It's the most comforting spot he has found in his (admittedly rather limited) explorations of the ship. He's been looking through the titles, letting them lead his mind into intriguing places, far away from here, in a past without vampires or pirates. "Can you just ... insult me later?"
"Nope; got it scheduled now. Followed immediately by the Accusation Hour: you're not only an imbecile, but a lying little grease-rat."
Wilson smiles at the creativity of that volley, and stretches out on the heavy leather sofa with something called Fahrenheit 451. "Did I do something to merit such praise?"
"You didn't turn off the damn beacon."
"What? Yes, I did. I didn't want to, but --"
"You didn't. And I can't, because I can't walk across the fucking room. All you did was kill the sound so I wouldn't hear it anymore. Shut up and get in here."
"All right." Wilson puts the book down; he can pick it up again soon enough. It's not like he won't have time, out here. "I'm on my way, but I'm not shutting up."
"See that?" growls House. He points at the monitor alongside his bed -- a monitor miraculously displaying a star chart of what must be the local area, and ... two red dots converging from differing angles toward the bright blue dot in the center. "You want to explain that to me?"
"How'd you get this chart to --"
"I said, care to explain?"
Wilson's mouth is hanging open, and his stomach is dancing around somewhere between horror and hope. "They must've heard the beacon before we shut it down?"
House's answer is to press an unmarked (of course) flat silver button Wilson had somehow failed to notice before.
"-- five five. Distress situation; assistance urgently requested," says the placid, inhuman voice over the com. "Total navigational failure. Last set coordinates will appear on your monitor."
"What the hell?!"
Repeating message. This is Class G merchant cruiser HC two five five. Distress --"
House slams his fist on the console to turn off the sound. "I thought you could tell me what the hell."
No, no, no. This one is not Wilson's fault. "I thought you set the damn thing for incoming signals only!"
"You were obviously mistaken. Don't fucking lie to me. Did you know about this?"
"No. God, no. It's ... probably the same automated system that woke me up to go scavenging in the mud."
"You'll notice how well that turned out."
"I did live. That's got to count for something."
"Your life counts, and mine doesn't?"
"You kept telling me to kill you. Are either of these ships talking to us?"
"So we don't know if they're friendly."
"Probably wouldn't matter if they were. They find out what I am, 'friendly' can change really fast."
Wilson inhales deeply, rubbing at a sudden, severe ache in the back of his neck. "I thought we'd hear their other communications?"
"Not if they're using secure encoding, we won't. Or if they're on subether silence because they'd rather surprise us."
"How long --?"
"The one to port, four hours. Starboard, five hours twenty minutes. Nineteen minutes. If you want to have one last good meal, now would be the time."
"Is that a request?" Wilson asks, a little confused by the subdued resignation that seems to have washed away House's fury.
"No." House shuts his eyes and lies back against the raised head of his bed. "Go away," he says. "Do whatever makes you a little less miserable, while you still can." Wilson turns away, pausing just a moment near the control room doors.
"Merstellin?" he asks, softly. It's been a while, and House is probably in pain.
"Not yet. I'll wait until just before they board us." House nods across the curve of the room, to the other side of the console. "I think the control to turn the damn beacon off is over there. Far left monitor station."
"Does it matter now if it's broadcasting or not?"
"Depends how many more people you want to drop by. Try the key labeled EMP MAN. I saw it before you rolled me back over here. Didn't realize what it might be."
"EMP MAN? I thought that ... never mind." A press of the key in question produces a dialog box on its attendant monitor:
Emergency Protocols: Automated
Set default to Manual? Yes/No
That simple. It was that fucking simple all along. Wilson enters YES; he glances up at House, sees him hit the unmarked intercom button, but this time there's only silence. Horses and barns, Wilson thinks, and glances again at the glowing dots on the monitor. Maybe one will be friendly. Maybe both will be friendly. Or maybe ...
Wolf in sheep's clothing, a tiny, taunting voice whispers in the back of his mind.
Wilson can't think of a damn thing to say about that, so he leaves without another word.
He does go to the kitchen, but he detours into the infirmary first, wincing at the harsh lights and the drab ... everything. Wilson doesn't like the place any more than House does, but he needs to prepare something so that it'll be ready when it's needed. Then he can focus on cooking, or packing his few bags, or whatever the hell else you do when you're waiting to be rescued or killed or enslaved.
He takes a fresh syringe and draws up a full dose of merstellin, his hands shaking only a little. Whatever will happen, will happen; they can't predict it or stop it. Wilson's been letting House self-medicate, choosing whatever dosage he needs, but not this time. He's not handing over a full vial of the drug to a man who already thinks he's doomed.
Life's about to get either a lot better or a lot worse. God help him, but Wilson won't let House commit suicide before they find out which.
When it happens, it happens quickly.
The approaching ship identifies itself as the Silver Bay. One Lieutenant Levin commands them to shut down their idling engines, which of course they cannot do.
"What part of 'total navigational failure' did you idiots miss?" demands House. Wilson says nothing, watching him clean a spot on his arm and inject what may be the last dose of pain meds he'll ever get, or the last he'll ever need. "If you're a Class R liner, like you claim, you've got a kill pulse. Use it."
"A what?! House --"
"Electromagnetic, you planet-bound nitwit," House snaps. "Kills the turbines, not the hostages."
"You have hostages?" Levin, Wilson thinks, sounds excited. This is not likely to end well.
"We are hostages," retorts House. "Don't bother pretending otherwise."
"Kill pulse in thirty seconds. Don't be surprised if the lights go out, boys."
Thirty seconds later, with a dull, bone-aching whump, the engines and the lights both stop working. In the last moment before things go dark, House watches Wilson stagger from the heavy wave of the kill-pulse, reaching out to steady himself on the console.
House's eyes are still adjusting to the thin, fragile starlight through the viewport, and then a series of amber-colored flickers announces that somewhere in the innards of the ship, an emergency power supply has awakened. It's much like being in night-mode, with just enough light to find their way around.
The turn of their ship can't be felt, but it is happening. At the left side of the viewport, the edge of a gigantic shape emerges. These people weren't lying; they really do have a Class R vessel, one of the largest things that can hurtle itself through hyperspace. That would explain why the second ship, the one that would have reached them in another hour, had abruptly changed course. They'd taken one look at this behemoth and fled.
"The other guys were the pirates," House says softly, almost to himself. "These people are civilized."
Wilson's understanding shows clearly on his face, even in the low amber glow of the emergency lights. His world, Delphus, sounds about as civilized as they come, and yet here Wilson is. If he ever did believe that appearances corresponded to reality, he doesn't believe it so much anymore.
As the ship continues to turn, House counts twenty-seven passenger decks and guesses that there are almost as many for cargo. One giant docking bay has its doors wide open, the lighted interior complete with sliding buttresses to hold its captured prey upright. That's where they're headed, being drawn inside, for better or worse.
The first thing these people will want to know is: who are you and where do you come from?
If House answers honestly, his whole world could be lost. "I told you," he says, and his voice is grave and quiet. "You should have killed me, Wilson. You'd be safe with these people."
"Would I?" Wilson approaches, hands fisted at his sides. "I wasn't even safe with my own."
"You'd have a hell of a lot better chance, and you know it." They fall silent again, watching the steady approach of the Silver Bay's gaping mouth. There's a bump, not nearly as jarring as House expects, when HC255 makes contact with some part of the dock.
Ahead of them, far into the interior, House can make out a ThermaPlast control booth with a set of miniature figures inside. Lieutenant Levin is surely among them, these little faceless people who will decide who lives and who dies.
House already hates every one of them.