SUMMARY: Wilson thinks he's traveled back in time.
CHARACTERS: House, Wilson, an OFC
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: Part of the Distress Call universe. Links to all chapters of this story are here.
They're docking on autonav, Callie and the station's control center chatting one another up prior to inserting Tab A into Slot B and exchanging a little atmosphere.
Too bad spaceship sex is boring.
House leans against the viewport in his quarters, watching the planet. It looks just the same as he remembers: a great big space-turd.
The vast deserts are a dull gold in the light of Exeter's sun. It might be kind of pretty if it weren't broken up by splotches of algae-green ocean and clouds stained brown with sulfur-heavy smoke. The combination makes the place look like it was shat out by a giant cosmic groundling.
He was sixteen the last time he tasted the filthy mixture that passes for air on Exeter Prime. How Edgar Poland -- or anyone -- survives decades here? House hopes never to know.
"Docking complete," says Callie, and House imagines the ship and the station sharing a nightcap now that they've screwed. The corner of his mouth quirks up while the computer continues. "Doctor Wilson is waiting for you in the control room."
"You're going to get us killed," says House, looking him up and down. "You are way too shiny. Go change."
"I already did. This shirt was the worst I could do. If only I'd known; I went and threw out the one with the blood stains." He hopes that reminder will be enough to shut House up, but of course it isn't.
"You don't have a ratty old backbag, either, do you?"
"Neither do you."
"Lost mine in a tragic spaceship crash. You, on the other hand, have no excuse."
"Forgive me for not living down to your standards." He shortens the strap on his satchel -- a very nice one, made of Cornelian leather and stuffed with a change of clothes for both of them -- and throws it over his shoulder. "Let's just get this over with, okay?"
House nods and turns away, heading not for the bay with their runabout craft but for the front passenger portal.
"Wait. We're not taking our own --"
"If you want to still have a shuttle, it's a very bad idea to park said shuttle on Exeter Prime. You coming?"
They use the cred-key Jerome gave them to hire a taxi. Or rather, House uses it, insisting that if he leaves the matter to Wilson they will end up getting robbed and probably sold as brothel-slaves at someplace called Lithna Rinna. This is doubtless a load of bullshit, but House obviously has experience with low-end orbit stations, where Wilson emphatically does not.
The place is dark, cavernous, noisy, dirty, and it smells jarringly familiar -- humanity and booze; cheap greasy food; fresh and stale bacca-smoke. It's the Delphus Commons Square, he'd thought, without the sunlight. For a few seconds he'd been sure a gang of boys would come around the next corner, trap him right there and finish the job they'd started all those years ago.
Then House had grabbed his arm and shoved him forward, through the crowded concourse and down one corridor that looked just like another. Momentarily Wilson had been grateful that at least one of them wasn't lost.
Now he regrets following House's lead, because House is leading him into a tiny craft whose interior -- walls and everything -- is upholstered in decaying velvet. It was probably red in a previous life and now ranges from dull pink to dark brown, with stains everywhere. A shiny gold-toned bauble stamped Cabin-Fresh! hangs from the ceiling, thumping House's head as they enter.
"Keep your pants on," grumbles House, claiming one whole velvet-padded bench for himself. He stretches his right leg across the seat and pulls a vial of pills from his pocket. "It's just a twenty-minute ride."
Wilson wonders how many diseases it's possible to catch in that amount of time.
Wilson steps out of the shuttle and gets slapped in the face by the wind -- hot, dry, full of smoke and grit. The ground beneath his shoes is hard and its heat soaks right up through the soles. He looks down and sees a rough dark surface half-covered with sand.
Behind him, the taxi takes off in a rush of dirty air, throwing more dust into Wilson's eyes and ears.
"Move!" yells House, over the noise. "Another one's coming in."
Wilson takes a tight hold on his satchel and runs, forgetting for a moment that House can't do the same.
There is one small mercy: they're walking eastward, facing away from the planet's late afternoon sun. They are not, however, walking very fast. House seems to be doing all right with the cane, but Wilson's not sure how much longer he'll be able to keep it up.
The noise of this place is astounding. Behind them, there's a row of massive buildings made of metal -- pipes and shafts and corrugated sheets -- all rattling, hissing, grinding and pounding, shaking the ground. A few have upright tubes spewing smoke into the air. Blue smoke, white smoke, brown. It joins in a wide slanting column that stretches out toward the horizon.
Ahead of them is a dirt-track thoroughfare, almost indistinguishable from the identical dirt on either side. The only way Wilson knows it's a road is because of the vehicles careening over it. Primitive, ugly, loud things, they leave heavy fumes in their wake. Just like the buildings, some smoke and some don't.
Wilson coughs, but keeps walking, noticing that House's pace has slowed a little more.
Across the road is a wide, bare plain with ranks of long-necked metal monsters, their massive oblong heads rising and falling, rising and falling again. Creatures at the watering hole, Wilson thinks.
"This," he says at last, "this is the ... mining operation?"
"Drilling. I take it you've never seen an oil well."
"They look like kyrecranes feeding." Not that he's seen any actual kyrecranes, either. No one has; they've been extinct a million years.
"Technology from the old days of the Old Planet. C'mon." House nods toward a long, low building just past the oil-well field. "That's the Third Shift Pub, right there."
"Oil," Wilson repeats, his eyes drawn back to the mesmerizing rhythm of the cranes. "So ... all these four-wheelers are running on ... refined petroleum? You're seriously talking about internal combustion engines?"
"That's the smell." House wrinkles his nose. "Well, one of the smells."
"Are they insane? Petroleum's a deadly explosive!"
"And the near-vacuum of open space would kill you in a few seconds, but you hurtle through that without a second thought. Shut up and walk."
Wilson walks, his nostrils full of dust and pollution and that strange pungent odor. His shoulder hurts a little from carrying their meager bag; he stops to sling the strap over his head and across his chest. Among the more distant cranes he notices what looks like a giant torch jutting up from the ground.
A tingling feeling creeps upward from the soles of his feet, through his spine and over the back of his scalp. He watches a woman, lithe but dark with grime, hop into an equally dirty open-top runabout that's parked near the side of the road. The motor roars to life and she speeds away, long dark hair snaking out behind her. For a second Wilson feels like he can't breathe.
House, intent on their destination, has trudged onward, and Wilson jogs a few paces to catch up.
Sometimes it's hard to spot Eggie's latest customers, but this time Jolene has no problem at all. These guys stand out like two coins in a mud puddle.
"You the doctor? House?" she asks, finding her way to the table as soon as he and his friend sit down.
House looks her over, and she puts her hands on her hips to show off the lumen tattoos on her arms. She never wears sleeves; the one time she did her tips went down by half. "And you would be Jolene," House says. "The Waitress Who Glows in the Dark. Got those designs on your legs, too? Or anywhere else I should know about?"
"Don't be an ass, House," says the other man. He really looks like he needs a drink.
"It's all right, hon." She gives him her kindest smile. "I shoulda listened when Eggie said this House guy was a dick."
"You didn't believe him?" House scoffs, leaning back in his chair. "But he's Honest Eggie!"
"And we all love him," she says, "but he's a fuckin' shyster." She pulls her EZtab from its apron pocket and stands with stylus at the ready. House is looking hungry-eyed at the lit menu board on the wall. "So," Jolene says, grinning at him, "what'll it be?"
Wilson doesn't ask what kind of meat it is in his Smoked Meat Sandwich. It's shredded, tender, tastes pretty good, and if it's Praxian Bog Rodent or something, he really, truly doesn't want to know. His stomach already feels a little uneasy about this whole venture.
House, apparently having no such qualms, is busy devouring a steak.
When Jolene returns with a list of whiskeys, Wilson picks one at random because he doesn't recognize any of the names. Well, except for redpile bourbon -- but he's not ready to take that ride again.
"The stuff he just ordered is crap," House tells Jolene, "and you know it, but he doesn't. Bring him some Calston."
Wilson shrugs his assent and watches her bounce away, her sideways ponytail jiggling. The scrollwork of luminescent vines and insects climbs all the way over her shoulders, up her neck, and fades into the hair at the base of her scalp. Wilson's never seen anything quite like it. She really does glow in the dark.
"Quit gawking," snaps House.
"I think you need a drink yourself."
"God, make up your pathetic little mind. Now you want me to drug away all my problems?" House pulls out his pill-bottle and takes another oral merstellin with a quick sip of water. "That would be bad. Anyway, I think I have to drive."
Wilson's finishing his drink when Jolene shows up with their tab -- and a black shiny globe-thing cradled in the crook of her arm. Her glowing tattoos are mirrored on its surface, and then she hands the thing to House and it mirrors his wickedly curving smile.
"Eggie left this for me?" he says, and it's perhaps the first time Wilson has ever heard him sound hopeful. "There a key to go with it?"
Jolene drops a small piece of metal into House's waiting palm. House pockets it, then turns the black globe over in his hands.
Wilson sees the underside and comes to a sudden, horrible realization. His stomach drops to the floor and tries to burrow underground like a frightened vole.
"Why," Wilson asks, "do you need a helmet?"
They find the tiny shed where Jolene said it would be, outside, attached to the west wall of the pub. Its door is open, but there are thin threads of blue light across the entrance. In a curious confluence of low tech with high, the lasers disappear when House pushes the crude key into an equally crude-looking lock near the door frame.
As the lasers shut down, a single interior light powers up, revealing a terror Wilson hadn't imagined.
"How ..." breathes House, his mouth falling open, "how did Edgar H. Poland get his grubby paws on this?"
"No, House. No. That's a ... a prop for a circus act. Like -- like those Ancient Times shows. Take your date, have dinner, watch a bunch of maniacs risk their lives." He's babbling now, he knows it, but this just can't be happening. "Actually those things aren't half bad, provided you're the audience and not the fool on the ... the ..."
"Motorcycle," says House, yanking the helmet free of Wilson's petrified grip. "A Brittanic. Damn." House caresses the side of the machine. "Take this," he says, and holds out the cane. "You'll have to hang onto it." Wilson does hang onto it, much more tightly than he means to. House is putting on the helmet. He hitches up his right leg, wincing, and then he's astride the thing as if he actually knows what he's doing. "Move," he orders. "Gotta back it out."
"Are you out of your mind? You can't operate this -- this arcane killing machine!" Wilson wants to stop him, but instinctively he steps aside as House rolls the motorcycle -- large and heavy and black -- backward out of its stall. "If you die, you jerk --"
The rest of Wilson's words are lost in the abrupt, unholy noise of the engine. There's a puff of blue smoke from its exhaust, a whiff of petroleum. House grins wildly, sliding a transparent shield down over his face.
This is so far beyond crazy. Even in the daredevil shows, the replica machines are powered by fuel cells. Internal combustion engines aren't even legal.
"House! House, you can't --"
But with one concerted motion of hands and feet, House does.
There goes House -- the only lifeline Wilson has -- hurtling into the deepening dusk on two wheels and a tank of liquid explosives. He weaves around the sheds and huts, around the giant crane-rigs, making it look as easy as breathing.
When he gets back onto the main road, the other drivers seem to pay him no mind, as if they're used to this kind of thing. He darts around among them and they barely seem to notice.
Where in the hell did House learn to do that? Wilson wonders, then chides himself: Here, you idiot. He learned it here, the same place he met Honest Eggie.
The machine charges toward him again, its single headlight shining into Wilson's eyes. He stands firm, refusing to be cowed this time.
The cycle rolls to a halt at his side, sending a plume of dust into the growing darkness. "Get on," House yells through the engine noise. He jerks his chin toward the back of the machine, where there's a tiny piece of upholstered padding. A seat. There's a back seat on this fucking thing.
"No," Wilson yells back. "Not just no, but hell no!" He doesn't even have a helmet for himself, because apparently Eggie didn't think the passenger's head was important enough to bother --
"It's twenty-two kilometers," House shouts, and then cuts the cycle's engine. "You can get on, or you can walk. In the dark. Through the oilmen's camps. But hey, if that's what you want ... "
Wilson looks around, across the landscape of cranes, tanker vehicles, and ever-growing crowds of raucous working men. Shift change, he realizes. They'll be getting drunk soon. The huge torch-pipe he'd seen earlier still burns on the horizon, joined now by two others just as bright. That prickling feeling climbs up his spine again.
"You're an asshole," he says, but he gets on.
House wonders, if he zigs and zags enough, if he really tries, whether he can make Wilson scream like a girl.
It turns out that he can't.
One point for Wilson, he thinks. He aims the bike straight down the pitch black road and opens up the throttle.