SUMMARY: His whole life has turned into a series of crashes.
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: The beginning of the second part of the Distress Call Universe. Links to all chapters of this wild AU are here.
Captain Norian leaves the stock decks a little earlier than usual, at what he hopes is the end of his old friend's watch, all those light-years away. Space isn't like a planet, where one time zone borders the next in logical progression. Stars distort time itself with their gravitational fields; across these staggering distances it is never quite possible to synchronize two clocks.
Behind him, the cattle-noise fades as he shuts the door to the mudroom, the practical foyer at the entry to his quarters. Dirty boots, stained overtunic, dusty pants, all get removed and tossed aside. A shower cube awaits, custom-built for Norian's huge frame.
Faintly, he hears a calf bawling as he steps in beneath the water. What others would call a nuisance is a comfort for him. Let the Pilot have the highdeck suites, away from the constant rustle and murmur, the warm breath of animals. Norian's domain is here, close at hand. He shakes his head as he remembers the last factory ship he'd worked on, right before he'd qualified for his Captain's certificate.
That ship ... what was its name? It's something he's tried to put out of his mind all these years since, and he smiles a little as he guesses he's finally succeeded. Like most factory ships, they'd had just one live-freight deck, for the delicate stock that couldn't be suspended because it'd damage the muscle tissue, make it less than desirable dining to the educated palate. And because those animals were literally worth their weight in gold-credits, the cartels that ran those factory transports only employed the best freighters. That meant blood-race men and women, who would tend to the small and large animals with the same level of care and diligence as the sorels and marsh ponies they shipped with them.
So Norian had looked after them all -- the tundra hare, the wattle-pigs, the shy little clouded zebras with their polled horns, while the rest of the cargo, not dead but not exactly alive either, rode in sealed tubes twenty decks deep, their open, staring eyes with fixed pupils seeming to follow him whenever he strode the eerily silent aisles, checking their gas and liquid levels.
He shuts his eyes, scrubs his face, tries to wash away the memory along with the grime. The day's responsibilities drain with the water, down into the reclaim system, to be made fresh and new tomorrow. Meanwhile, there's the situation that's been at the back of his mind all day. The story is uncommon, but it repeats throughout history: haemovore and vulgaris, a matter of pure survival; an attack or a sacrifice, a compromise. All his life he's heard the tale that is playing out right now aboard the Silver Bay. The place changes, the names change, the exact circumstances vary; none of that matters much to the people involved.
Reginald Norian is just glad it isn't him.
A soft chime sounds, and although the flow of hot water doesn't abate, the noise does as the sonic blocks automatically kick in. Norian sighs.
"Go ahead," he says.
"Sorry, Boss," his Executive Officer replies. "Tried to reach you by ear com, but -- "
Norian smiles as he splashes soap out of his eyes. "It's all right, Exec. What's up?"
"Got your friend Captain Jerome on a gust beam, descending channel," Bebe Rouland says, her soft Palisade-Loupgarou accent lending a gentle lilt to the words. "He's a little early, but you did ask to be notified."
Norian's smile widens. "Indeed I did. Tell the Captain I'll be with him in five minutes."
"Wait a minute, kid." Norian shifts in his chair, adjusting the monitor until the glare on its surface disappears. "You've got those doctors' lives in your hands and you want to talk to me about ... artifacts? Old Earth marine charts and paper books?"
"That's not ... listen, Nori. I have to do something about those guys. They can't stay here."
"No, they can't." It surprises him that Jerome understands this; Norian had been expecting to explain it. "You've got too many people aboard, from too many places where they think haemovores are the Blackstar's own children."
"Not to mention that their ... situation is going to require some adjustment. Maybe I'm an asshole, but if those two kill each other, I want 'em to do it somewhere else."
"Yeah. I can see it now," says Norian. "They blow up; things get thrown; security comes in and your guy's yelling about vampires; someone in the hall overhears. You do need 'em out of there, poor bastards." He takes a breath, thankful again that it's someone else's life and not his own that they're discussing. "So what's this got to do with the things you found on their ship?"
"Everything. I have a plan, and now I have a way to pay for it."
"Captain." Wilson's response to Jerome's authority is immediate; he sets down the vid remote and begins to swing his legs off the bed, meaning to get up.
"It's all right, Doctor. This is more of a, ah ... social call." Wilson has his doubts, but this is the first time he's seen Jerome with neither an escort nor a gun.
House, who has been floating in and out of dreams ever since Makano dosed him, opens his eyes but says nothing. The fact that he seems to be watching may not mean much. Nine mil of merstellin can do some pretty strange things to the human brain.
"Gentlemen," the Captain begins, seeming unoffended by House's silence, "there are some things I ought to tell you."
"We already know how babies are made," mumbles House, more alert than Wilson had imagined. "Well, I do. Wilson still thinks they grow in the garden with the pinkleaf sprouts."
Jerome merely shakes his head. "I know your secret," he says, and Wilson's chest tightens. This could be anything; it's not as if Wilson knows much about House in the first place.
"Just one?" House mocks, and Wilson desperately wishes he'd just go back to sleep. "I don't know about Jimmy over there, but I've got, well -- " He pretends at tallying the sum on his fingers. " -- three hundred, at least."
"You needed to survive." Apparently fearless, Jerome walks to House's bedside, pulls up the nearby chair and sits down. If he cares that he's in range of those quick hands, those sharp teeth, it doesn't show. "And your animals were gone."
There's a long pause from House. "The standard procedure is to kill the damn vampire on sight. Meaning you must not have figured it out until Wilson went nuts. You spared me for his sake?"
"You were both scanned as soon as you came on board."
"You mean as soon as we were stun-gunned and taken prisoner."
"Purely a precaution, and you know it. My vendetta is against pirates, not haemovores."
"Last time ..." House speaks slowly, his wits seeming shackled by the drug, "... last time, the game was to make me think you were killing Wilson. Now you're the nice guy." He looks around. "Where's De Santos? Is she the bad guy this time? Excuse me, the bad girl? Not gonna work -- I like bad girls."
Jerome ignores the taunt. "I came up on the freight lines, Doctor House. I know your race isn't much different from mine, but I was missing some information about your biology." He glances up at Wilson, and the apology is plain in his eyes. "I'd never have separated the two of you if I'd understood."
"What did Wilson tell you?"
"Nothing. I consulted an expert."
"Great," House scoffs. "Lots of experts out there. I bet yours has a degree and everything."
"No," says Jerome, smiling. "He has fangs." The Captain rises, and Wilson notes a bone-weariness in the way he moves. "When you're feeling better, we'll have some things to discuss. Right now, I just wanted you to know you're not in any danger from me."
"Oh, he's half right, Doctor Wilson. I never said I wasn't dangerous. I'm just not dangerous to you."
With that, Jerome is gone, leaving a heavy silence settling behind him as the door slides shut. Wilson turns to look at House, wondering what could be going on inside that bright, drugged mind.
"I'm going back to sleep," growls House. "Leave me alone."
For a long time he just lies there, staring at the ceiling, then at Wilson, and back again. Damn Wilson.
House is going to live. This is the one thing he'd never seriously believed would happen, not since his last beautiful evening at home. Not since the moment when she, his own true love, aimed a stun gun at his chest and fired. He'd woken on board the prison ship, bound for Brielle, knowing he was screwed; his own nature would get him killed once he arrived at the Colony -- if not sooner.
This wasn't supposed to happen. He's supposed to understand things, and to know things. He was supposed to be dead by now, and it might have been better if he were, but he's not. To make matters worse, there's a hole in his mental map between Point A and Point B: he never knew, and never will know, what went wrong with the Medusa.
A shrieking alarm had been his first hint that there was a problem, and by then it was too late to investigate; they were already on their way down.
Impact imminent. Repeat, impact imminent. All personnel to the safe-holds, blared the intercom, in that booming corrections-officer tone that reminded House of his father. All personnel and inmates will report to the safe-holds at once.
Fuck that, thought House. He stayed where he was, feeling the observation deck floor shudder and hum when the ship's reverse thrusters kicked in. Trying to slow the descent, he thought, fighting the pull of the planet. Star. Whatever we're about to hit. Outside the huge transparent wall, he could see nothing but the usual panorama of deep space.
"Safe-holds" -- what a joke that was. Nobody lived through this kind of crash. House wasn't about to spend his last moments cowering in the dark with a stinking, yowling herd of convicts.
He strode to the support beam nearest the viewport, and wrapped his body around the smooth metal pillar to hold himself in place. He would watch until the very moment he died.
For a while -- it could have been a minute or several hours -- he lay drifting in and out of a dull, dream-shot consciousness, trying to decide if he was dead or alive, and reaching no firm conclusion.
When he finally woke and knew it was real, he found himself lying in a tangled heap against the rear wall of the observation deck. The floor beneath him was tilted at a wild, drunken angle; he tried, but he couldn't remember the actual crash.
He'd watched a beautiful, fiery cloak envelop the ship, felt the heat seeping in as flames flowed white and blue, violet and green and orange, across the viewport.
There had been the rush of atmosphere, the frantic squawking of technicians who'd forgotten to turn off the com while they routed every shred of available power into the inertial dampers.
There had been the dark, curved silhouette of a horizon. They were crashing into the night side of a planet, and he wouldn't get the spectacular view he had wanted. His only condolence was that he'd die right-side-up.
He remembered a shock of regret for the only real innocents on board. His own animals, and the stock the Briella had ordered -- none of them had a chance. At least, he had thought, it will be quick.
The very last thing he remembered was wondering whether there was anyone on the ground, gawking at the fiery omen falling from the sky.
It figures, House thought, while he picked his way slowly across the dangerously slanted floor, that the one guy who would live is the one who didn't care.
Day was dawning by then, a grimy purple light bleeding into the wreck as the planet turned. Part of the ship's hull had been sheared off, leaving a huge, ragged hole in place of the observation deck's port side wall. Rank, mud-fragranced steam was rising in the air -- breathable air, which was another surprise.
There was also the creeping smell of something else, acrid and toxic. He'd begun to look for other survivors, but the vapor got worse with each step into the darkened corridors. He remembers the taste of the stuff on the air, metallic, bitter, sour and sharp. It stung him, making him cough, half-blinding him, pushing him outward toward the freshly opened side of the ship.
After that is a patchwork of pictures, short sequences, and blank spaces that will probably never fill in.
House remembers looking out into the dirty dawn, over a landscape of smoking debris, a crater of dark mud, and more bodies than he cared to count. He was standing at the torn edge of the observation deck, listening to the creak and pop of the settling ship-carcass. He remembers the feel of it, holding his sleeve over his mouth and nose, filtering as much of the chemical stench as he could. His eyes were watering as he tried to find a means to climb down the side of the hull without falling or slicing himself open.
He thinks he found a slope where he could slide to the ground. He doesn't remember actually doing it, though. Maybe he fell. The next memory is of being on his back in the mud, coughing again because he was lying in a low spot, with those poisonous vapors beginning to pool around him.
Everything he tries to remember, right after that, is in blurry slow-motion, like he was walking on the bed of a lake. Effects of the toxin, most likely. The next thing he clearly recalls is the nearby strike of lightning that heralded the rain.
It soaked him, a thick, fine mist, the sort of thing that you might expect at the bottom of a waterfall, only warmer. He remembers being grateful for it, letting it wash his face, tasting the strange combination of minerals in the water. He had gone on a mission then, picking up any curved bit of flotsam he could find and turning it upward to catch the precious liquid. There was no telling how long he would be here.
While he worked, the pain began to set in, the stiffness and bruises from the impact he'd suffered. Everything hurt, but House kept walking, afraid that if he sat down he'd be too sore to get up again.
It occurred to him then to wonder why he should care if he kept moving or not. Trudging along the mud-crater's ridge, he found nothing in the landscape except for more, ever more of the same treeless waste. If this place were inhabited, either humans or animals ought to have gotten curious by then and come to investigate. The fact that this had not happened told House everything he needed to know.
He began to think of ways he might kill himself, rather than die of exposure, hunger, thirst. It would likely come to that, and he was going to be prepared. The simplest thing, of course, would have been to take a gun from one of the dead guards -- but the only guard he found was crushed from the shoulders down beneath a massive chunk of the hull.
After some minutes of searching, he found the next best thing: a crescent-shaped shard of vitreous power-conduit cable. Carefully he set it atop a large, rounded piece of debris, right beside one of his makeshift water-dishes. When he needed it, he'd know where it was.
The shard was razor-sharp on every edge, and he'd probably end up slicing his fingers while he slashed his throat -- but since when was anything perfect in life or in death? It would do.
His father once told him that no good deed ever went unpunished, and House's recent history is proof enough of that. He'd done his job, saved a life and been sold into slavery for his trouble. It's a shame, he thinks, that he didn't learn faster; he should have known better than to do the thing he'd done next.
Ever the physician, he heard the sounds of suffering and followed them until he found their source. Toward the rear of the wreck, a man lay wet and bloodied, his torso propped up on a broken piece of the helm's viewport. House went to him, back into the crater -- into what might have been the Medusa's shadow, if the sun had been shining.
Up close, he could see a bright yellow prison uniform beneath the dirt and blood. The man was burly and young, his hair shorn short in new-convict fashion. An intricate web of dark blue tattoos encircled his neck. His right arm was twisted at the elbow, bent backward in defiance of nature. With his left hand the man clutched at the hole in his abdomen, pathetically holding in the parts that lay exposed. How he was alive at all was a thing House could barely fathom.
The most bizarre details have stuck in House's mind. There was an ID stamped in black across the shoulder of the convict's shirt: SP37597. House had been aboard long enough to learn what that meant: it was a specimen number, an earmark. This vulgaris was a special order, bound for death at the hands of some wealthy Briella pervert. House allowed himself only a moment to wonder which fate would be worse, the convict's or his own.
The man looked up at him, a dazed film over his eyes, the irises jet-black.
"I'm a doctor," said House. "Can you understand me?"
"Uhh," moaned the convict, in a way that pretty clearly meant yes.
"You know you're dying, right?"
The convict nodded once, water streaming from those dark, hopeless eyes. House settled beside him, on his knees in the muck. "I can't save you," he said, "but I can stop the pain."
The convict squirmed feebly as House grasped his jaw, pushing it aside.
"Lie still," House ordered, even as he wondered why he was bothering. This was a creature who, if he were healthy, would kill a vampire on sight. "Trust me."
He'd never bitten a human before. The vulgaris stank of sweat, blood, fever, decay; it was a disgusting proposition. He tipped back the man's head and tried to strike the carotid without tasting the filthy skin. It didn't work. The man was large, so he needed a heavy dose, and House came away with oil and dirt on his lips, on his teeth, rank and crude.
The convict's terrified whimpers turned to gasps of relief, and then, at last, to silence. When the man was completely unconscious, House took that ugly, heavy head in both hands, and twisted fast and hard. There was a loud noise, the cervical vertebrae snapping. In an instant the pulse was gone.
House staggered away from the corpse, bent double with nausea from the sound, the feel of that snapping neck, the filthy taste in his mouth, the growing death-stench so close to the wreck. He had been without food for about a day; there wasn't much to bring up, but that didn't stop his body from trying.
And then, just as the cramps began to ease, it happened.
From somewhere to his right, there came a sudden metallic whine, rising until it drilled into House's eardrums, made his teeth ache. Surprised, House straightened up -- just in time to see the aft thruster engine blow itself apart.
He doesn't remember the chunk of engine casing -- he's pretty sure that's what it was -- hitting his leg. There's only one image in his mind, of himself on the ground, slippery red fingers pulling a chunk of metal out of his quadriceps. If it hurt at all, House has no recollection.
How he got up the side of the crater and onto the ridge -- and why he bothered -- is a mystery.
House can't remember bandaging the leg.
He found the shirt-bandage when he came to his senses, lying on his back along the crest of that great wave of mud. The few bits of fabric that weren't stained with blood or dirt were a light blue, the color of Century's officers' uniforms.
House couldn't remember tearing the shirt from a body, or wrapping it around his thigh, or tying it tight with the sleeves. But there it was. Maybe there was no body; maybe he just found the shirt, a bit of soft shrapnel from an exploded laundry chute. He hoped that was how it happened, because otherwise it meant he'd been a moron, taken the shirt but left the man's gun. Fucking delirium; it had made him good for nothing.
For what seemed an eternity he bobbed up and down, conscious and not and then conscious again, the pain now worse and then better, rising and falling like a boat in the tide.
As night fell he bobbed into awareness again and realized it was warm there in the mud, the temperature staying level and mild. He wouldn't freeze to death.
He lost consciousness again while wondering whether or not that was a good thing.
Sometime that night, House tried to move. The resulting screams of pain were the sort of thing people said could wake the dead. It didn't, though; he was well and truly alone.
His conduit-shard razor, so carefully selected, was so far out of reach it might as well have been on another planet. No quick throat-slashing now, and if he wanted to slit his wrists, he'd have to use his own fangs. All his life he'd been taught that it wasn't possible, that an autonomic reflex would retract the teeth before any real damage could be done.
For once, the thing he had always been taught turned out to be entirely true. Even the tiny amount of voracin he'd managed to inject into his bloodstream had had no effect -- just as he had always been told that it wouldn't.
Leave it to the perversity of the universe, to have given him a potent painkiller that he himself, no matter how desperate, could never use.
The second night was worse, surrounded by dark things with glowing eyes; shot in the leg over and over again by a convict whose head lolled sideways at a hideous angle; attempting to run while the ground took hold of him, dragging him deeper, deeper. Fevered nightmares when he slept, or agony when he awoke, with no third option in sight.
He could not get up, could barely even roll sideways in the thick, cradling, grasping mud. Gregory House, GMD, was going to die alone, in agony, lying in a puddle of his own blood and shit. His father had made some dire predictions about House's fate, but this? This beat his dad's pronouncements all to hell.
When the man appeared, running like a soldier across the thick, sloppy ground, House thought it was another damn dream.
Only the feeling of frantic hands on his body convinced him that this was probably real. And if it was real, this man -- a vulgaris -- might kill House just as House had killed the convict. He remembers wanting to force it, to grab the stranger's arm and bite him, shocking him into drawing his electron pistol and ... then House had realized two things.
First, he was too weak. He couldn't move, let alone bite. Second, the idiot didn't have an electron pistol -- or any other weapon, as far as House could tell. He didn't really care to be stabbed to death with a pair of scissors.
What kind of imbecile, he wondered, wanders unarmed around a place like this?
Now he knows.
That kind of imbecile, the one lying in the bed on the other side of the room, sullenly watching a month-old news show from Delphus. His ... former home.
"Tell me, Wilson," House says, and Wilson half-turns, arching an eyebrow at him. "If you'd known then what you know now --"
"Stop it," Wilson snaps. "It's a stupid question. I ... did the right thing."
"Didn't ask if you thought it was right. Asked if you'd do it again."
This time, Wilson doesn't answer. House drifts into sleep with his mind slowly trying to figure out dosages and substitute drugs, to translate veterinary medicine from four legs to two. The sooner he can be on his own again, the better.