SUMMARY: They're asking all the right questions, but where the hell are the answers?
CHARACTERS: House, Wilson, 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: This is the fourth chapter of Part Five. Earlier chapters are New Hires, Scavenger Hunt, and Krater. Links to all chapters of the Distress Call universe can be found here.
The lines between days on this boat are jagged and blurry, despite the best efforts of diurnal lighting and temperature shifts. They've been at this, House thinks, about forty-two hours. House has taken blood, eaten a little, demanded more coffee and worked straight through shipnight. He's allowed Wilson a few hours' sleep, stretched out fully clothed on the spare infirmary bed, but for himself ... he's too restless, the job too urgent. Even with this equipment, a whole boat's worth of samples takes a long damn time to process.
Longer, if worried, suspicious thugs keep barging in -- ostensibly to bring Krater the latest Thug News, but in reality to ease their paranoia, or maybe feed it. House isn't quite sure which.
Almost anything on a ship could be toxic somehow. House runs the spec while Wilson checks compounds against symptoms and possible routes of delivery, eliminating one after another. The work is mind-numbingly boring, but Wilson ... isn't. When the thugs intrude, he talks to them, explains things, diverts them out of House's way. Laughs at their thug jokes, deflects their thuggy accusations, answers their questions in a voice calibrated as precisely as any medical instrument. House has met his share of silken-tongued devils, but Wilson is extraordinary. A magical talking sorel, just like the fairy tales, except that this one walks on two legs.
It's almost a shame House will have to cut the leash so soon. It won't be fun, but then they might avoid that unpleasantness by getting killed first.
As if on cue, the door opens to reveal the guy who's most likely to kill them.
"What can I do for you, Len?" Wilson asks.
Len spends a long moment looking at Krater, who's asleep for now, his condition unchanged. "Not a fucking thing," he says. "Either of you." He turns and walks out. Wilson rubs his neck and then looks up again with an expression House deeply dislikes, wary, fearful, bordering on demanding.
"You want an answer? Get me three more ten-mil blood samples."
Wilson presses the palms of his hands into his eyes. "What else could you possibly be -- never mind. But if he dies of exsanguination, I'll kill you before Len does."
"You're just paranoid because Dobie said their last medic was dead."
Wilson stops in mid-stride, a fresh pair of gloves hanging limp in his grasp. "He ... what? How?"
"He didn't elaborate, which meant I shouldn't ask. You never wondered who made all these old charts? Now get me that blood. Gonna run compatibility checks before we pump him full of chelation agents that might or might not kill him."
"Oh. That ... makes sense." In that short moment, Wilson has shoved fear aside and gone straight back to Competent Doctor Mode.
"Ordinarily," House says, "I'd just start treatment and see what happens."
"Well, of course. No sense wasting time." Krater's sleeping so deeply he only shifts and sighs while Wilson grasps his arm, bands it, and slides the needle in. He's gentle but efficient, good at this. House had somehow failed to notice that skill when he and not Krater was the patient.
"Idiots with guns," House says. "They take the fun out of everything."
"Not fair, is it." Wilson talks softly as he fills the vials, pulls the needle and applies a bit of skinsalve to seal the small wound, all without waking his patient. "All these shiny new medical toys, and you can't play. God, I'm tired." He hands over the samples and rubs his eyes. "But I've slept, and you haven't. I'll take care of the last few samples. You ... go get some rest."
House wants to object, but Wilson is right. Exhaustion makes for poor observations, poor decisions, bad medicine. He slides the fresh samples into slots in the biocooler, where they'll keep while he gets at least a couple hours' sleep.
In the hall, he passes Natan, who is heading the opposite way. Whatever work is left for Wilson to do, he won't be doing it alone. That might or might not be a good thing, but House is too tired to care.
"You woke me up for this? It's nothing." House tosses the ethertab onto the bed with a contemptuous flip. The clock tells him he's slept for four hours; it's the middle of shipnight, again. He should have known better than to hope for something useful, a miraculous answer at the last moment. After Dobie's tour, after hours upon hours in the clinic, analyzing every worthless sample of everything -- he has no new information at all.
"It's everything you wanted to test," Wilson snips. "I've been sitting here, going over the results three times while you slept. I accounted for everything, right down to the silicate laminae in the damn sound system."
"Exactly my point," House snarls. "Everything, and it's nothing. But he can't be dying of nothing. He's reacting to something and he's got the histamine levels to prove it. And don't say autoimmune again or I'll --" He catches himself. "Punch you," he says, instead of bite. Fucking surveillance. "It's not autoimmune. His immune system's already shot; no way it's causing his symptoms."
"So, what?" Wilson's almost yelling, his hands flapping upward from his sides. "You've got everything you wanted, every piece of his medical history; the equipment on this boat is better than half the hospitals in the galaxy. I could understand not finding it if we were using those portables we brought and we couldn't program them to --"
"Doctors," says a voice -- a very frightened voice -- over the com. It takes a second before House recognizes it as Natan; he doesn't sound like himself at all. "To the infirmary now. Now!"
House, though he can't run, can still move fast enough to make Wilson run after him.
Evo Krater is flopped backward in his autochair, turning blue.
His dignity gone, he's gasping like a fish, losing consciousness despite the oxygen mask Natan is holding over his face.
"Anaphylaxis," House says. "Damn it, get the --"
"Epispray." Wilson scrambles for the drawer, and then he's got it. He puts the dose directly into Krater's neck, where it will circulate the fastest. As Krater begins to breathe, Natan helps Wilson and House lift him from his chair into a bed. Krater, still busy inhaling, shuts his eyes and lets them do it.
An hour later, the reaction is under control, but Krater isn't all right. Wilson inspects his arms and finds them wreathed in fresh bruises where he'd been lifted into bed. More worrying is the onset of bradycardia. He shouldn't even be conscious, with his heart rate so depressed, yet he is. He watches House inject a little atropine and draw yet more blood. At last, still wearing the oxygen mask, Krater falls into a heavy sleep.
Natan has been watching, too. He sits on the side of the bed and holds Krater's hand in his own, the way Wilson saw friends do on Tuuvi, so long ago. "If he dies," Natan says, "this crew will kill you. Krater would not want it, but they will. I won't be able to stop them."
"Len already wants to kill me," House says.
"His job is to protect Krater, and he's angry because he can't. He keeps trying to understand why our spec arrays can't find the answer."
"Len?" Wilson thought Len was only interested in spying and thuggery. "He ... knows these machines?"
"Len is ... not my favorite guy, but he is our best with high-grade tech. When we bought the array, we paid an expert to train him."
House freezes, wearing an odd, startled expression Wilson hasn't seen before. "You should get your money back," he grumbles, and the strange look goes away. He's standing at the spec array, running the fresh blood sample and coming up with the same old evidence of liver and kidney damage, and the same old lack of answers about the cause. "Worthless piece of junk."
"It saved us when we came back from Kettren Post carrying gluebone fever."
"So it does actually work," Wilson says. Tension and uncertainty have gathered into a lump at the nape of his neck, and he tries rubbing away the pain. It helps, as long as he doesn't stop.
"It works. Just ... not for Krater. I know what you might be thinking, about the one man who can program these machines, but Len wants Krater to take more power, more territory, not to go away. He wouldn't want Krater dead."
"Nice of you to say so," House replies, turning around to lean on the counter, "but if this is a case of deliberate poisoning, he's not my main suspect. You are. It's princes who kill kings."
"House! You can't --"
"Can't he?" Natan asks. "Bura Ong poisoned her own mother last year. People do these things." He lets out a slow breath. "Think what you like, but keep thinking."
House is not only thinking, he's tucking something into the pocket of his pants, over on the side where Natan can't see it but Wilson can. The look House gives him clearly means Don't ask. Wilson doesn't.
"I know," House says to Natan, "that you'll be staying here, with poor King Krater. And even if you are the Poison Prince, you know you're being watched. Which means you'll call me if anything starts changing for the worse."
Natan laughs, a short, dry-straw sound. "You're sure you're not a criminal, Doctor?"
"I'm working for you, aren't I?" House rubs his hand over his face, and his weariness shows as if he's taking off a mask. "I need to think, so I'm going to go eat and sleep. Part of the diagnostic process, so don't let Len shoot me for it."
Natan shakes his head and gestures silently at the door. They are, for the moment, free to go.
When they step back into their quarters, Wilson realizes he's starving. Dinner had been delivered sometime last night, but not eaten, and the cart full of cold food is still there.
He thinks he might regain his bearings, if he could only have a sandwich. "Sandwich" appears to be a foreign concept to the crew of the Zelushka; they don't even slice their bread. The small loaves are torn apart by hand and shared, in a communal way that seems bizarre given what these guys are, what they do. Wilson has gathered that while Krater is king on this ship, he is merely a nobleman in a much larger empire. The emperor is someone named Pecorino. And Pecorino, unless he's spying somehow, doesn't know Krater is sick. This is not, Wilson has realized, the sort of job that allows for medical leave.
On their walk back to their quarters, Wilson had mused aloud that perhaps Pecorino himself had ordered Krater taken out, for some convoluted reason or other. House snorted. "Yeah," he said, "because a guy like that has to hide it when he wants to kill someone."
"Right," Wilson said. "I keep forgetting that nothing around here is normal."
So Wilson wants just one small, normal thing: a sandwich. He mutters, picks up the meat knife, feels it slide off the bread's crust at an unexpected angle and --
"Damn!" He's sliced his index finger instead of the bread. Not very bad, a nick alongside the fingernail, bleeding freely. Wilson stares at it for a moment and then, reflexively, looks up at House.
"What? You think I want that?" House rolls his eyes. "That's barely a snack for a newborn."
Wilson feels his mouth fall open; he'd never imagined a bloodsucking baby until this moment, and --
"I'm joking, you idiot!"
Wilson begins to protest that he knows not a damn thing about the development of infant haemovores, but then he remembers the surveillance, which is the same reason he can't ask House what it was he pocketed, back there in the clinic. Probably some useful medical gadget he decided to lift. Whatever; they can hardly be in a worse mess than they already are.
At least Wilson hasn't hurt himself much. A little pressure, a minute of putting up with House's gibes about klutziness and gullibility, and the bleeding stops. On his next attempt, he pierces the bread's crust with the knife point first.
House lounges on the bed, watching. "You could make me a sandwich too, while you're at it."
"Yeah, I could," Wilson answers. But he doesn't.
Wilson sits on the bed, finished with his food but picking at more leftovers anyway. By now he ought to have collapsed into sleep, but he hasn't. It's not that he's still hungry; it's that there's something he wants. Salt, maybe? Sweetness? A certain texture, a particular mineral content -- something, and whatever it is, it isn't on the meal cart.
The craving is so strong he's considering whether he'd be allowed to raid the kitchen, in the hope of finding something to satisfy it. And that's when House, who's been in the shower, comes out and sits down beside him and he comes to an abrupt understanding. What he wants is not in the kitchen at all.
House doesn't reply. He's toweled himself dry but hasn't bothered to put his night-robe on; obviously he means to replay their little performance. Wilson's head throbs. He hates this, but it isn't getting them killed, and the truth almost certainly would. He puts down his plate and touches the bedside control pad, turning off the lights.
When it's over, Wilson lies supple and warm beneath him, sleeping more soundly than he has any right to do.
The very-wrong smell of acclimated vulgaris is wrapping softly around him, pulling him toward sleep. Can't do it, though. He's figured out Len's schedule: the watchdog is off shift, likely sleeping as soundly as Wilson by now. Natan is doubtless at Krater's side in the clinic. It'll be one of the youngsters in the vid-pit, Tusko or his pockmarked buddy, and if they're even paying attention, they're not likely to know what they're seeing.
House turns on the lights, low and very dim, picks his pants up off the floor, and retrieves the thing he took from the clinic. He'd have told Wilson what it was, but there was the surveillance to contend with. House couldn't let anyone know he'd borrowed a vial of Krater's blood. Still naked, he hops in the semi-darkness across the room to the bags where Wilson packed their portable spec unit. The one they'd been glad not to have to use, because as Wilson recently reminded him, the ship's machines were vastly superior.
Maybe, House thinks now, a little too superior.
He sits his bare butt on the carpet and digs the equipment out from under the socks and shirts. The unit's small screen glows beneath his touch, first red and then green, powered up. House opens the hatch at the top of the cylindrical device and slides the sample in.
In a few short minutes, he knows precisely what's killing Evo Krater.