SUMMARY: Now it's over.
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 seventh chapter of Part Five. Previous chapter is New Morning. Links to all chapters of the Distress Call universe can be found here.
Joris stumbles back into the mess hall with a brand new dog and his knuckles all white. Kid's hands are sweating on the wrapper, his face splotchy-pale like he's the one about to fucking die. Len wants to sock him in the jaw, maybe break the bone, leave him with a keepsake for life. Nothing personal, he thinks. Not a bad kid. I ought to leave a mark somewhere, though.
But he can't, because Natan will shoot him. And if someone's going to kill him -- and they are -- he wants it to be Krater.
"Now," Dobie says, "I can't be the one to scan us. Conflict of interest. We all have alliances here, friends. Jobs. Except House, and he can't do it either, if that shit he ate was really poisoned. He holds the dog, it'll ping off him and tell us everyone's a goddamn black widow. So what we have to do --"
"Is bring in the emergency backup doctor," House says. "Wilson."
Len's already so damn sick of this. "Don't fucking bother," he says. May as well be a man about it, so he holds up his head and looks around at the crew. They look like they've been stun-pulsed so hard they forgot to fall down. Joris and Tusko, most of all. Stupid, stupid, trusting kids. Len himself was that way, back when he was, like, eight. These guys should've learned better a long fucking time ago.
Natan's still got his pistol trained on Len, but Dobie has lowered the one he'd been pointing at House. "For real, Lennie?" he pleads, like this could still be one great big weird-ass prank. "For really fucking real?"
Len has a hundred answers to Dobie's unspoken question of why, and they'd all sound like dumb excuses. "I guess," he says, "I won't see you for drinks tonight."
A soft humming sound announces Krater's arrival, sick and weak in that chair of his. "Natan, Dobie." His voice is very quiet. "Please take Mister Dubrissa into holding."
"I was gonna name my kid after you," Dobie says. He slides the safelatch on his gun and the barrel's stripe changes from red glow to blue. "My own God damn kid."
The stun pulse hurts like fuck-all, but only for a second.
"We ought to be prepared. Never know when or why we might need it," he'd said. Len remembers it well. Five years ago, it was, just before he'd concluded that Krater was utterly hopeless.
"I deal with my problems at once, not tomorrow," Krater answered. "You know this."
"I also know that you don't act until you have all the relevant information." This was true, and it made Krater smile. "If that information takes a little time to gather? You'll need a secure place to keep 'em while that happens."
"Very well," Krater said. He might as well have been indulging a child with a cup of sweetcream. "Bring me the specs."
Len smiled back at his boss. He already had the crystal in his hand.
He stares at the walls of the detention cell he designed, the one he insisted that they needed, and that hasn't been used even once, until now.
It was his own damn idea that there's no clock in here, and that he can't touch the walls without getting neuro-pulsed right off his feet. The design is fucking solid, no way to escape; he'd made sure of that. He's going to be here a while, too. Krater doesn't believe in delegating, so he won't send someone else, and he won't take down a former friend from the comfort of an autochair. He'll want to be on his feet, looking Len in the eye.
Len won't die until Evo Krater is well enough to come and kill him.
The Nice Doctor stands there, watching him through the thick, pulse-embedded Novaglas. First person Len's seen in hours. He isn't sure if he's glad someone's paying attention, or if he hates the guy more than ever.
"Thought you had a job," Len growls. "Coddling your patient. Who, by the way, is a bastard who's killed more fucking people than I ever did."
The doctor shrugs. "You were his friend."
"I meant," Len says, "get the hell out."
"Is that why you tried to kill him? You think he's killed too many people?"
"No," Len says, and almost leaves it at that, but what the hell. Nothing he says matters now. "He wasn't willing to kill enough."
The doctor shakes his head and walks away.
It's shipnight by now, but the solatiles in the ceiling don't dim, ever. This too was Len's own design: it feels like he's spending an eternal night in the Lightwaste. That was the point. Deprivation of diurnal cycles causes psychological imbalance, leads to quicker confessions. Or to shouting, as Len realizes he's doing now, that everyone on this fucking ship is in a fucking cult, licking the boots of some slave of Gully Pecorino's, and is this? This? What they really wanted to do all their fucking lives? Well, is it?
Nobody answers, and after a while Len lies down on the floor. He's sane enough to know he's cracking up. He can't tell anymore if he's sleeping -- dreaming -- or awake and lucid, or maybe hallucinating.
So either Dobie is really there -- hurt and disappointment making those giant shoulders slump -- or he's not, and Len's not sure which option is worse.
"Dobie," he says, and Dobie doesn't answer. "I wanted him to make a real move, and he wouldn't. Krater's a coward in a pretty suit, that's all he is, and I was sick of us, you and me, being the fucking lackeys of Gully's fucking lackey." He knows it's pointless. Dobie's too far up Krater's ass to see it, they all are. "It wasn't ever going to change. Live and die bending over for Pecorino. That's what you want?"
Dobie, if he's really there, doesn't argue. He doesn't bother with the questions idiots ask who don't know about real life. Why don't you just leave, get an honest job, work your way to the top. No honest sap will hire an ex-dealer, and no other dealer will take you in. Your boss is happy to keep sucking another boss' dick? Well, too bad for you.
"I really liked you," Dobie says. "No, I like everyone, right? So I guess I loved you." He stops, turns away and then back again. "There were ways, if you fucking wanted out. But you wanted in, didn't you?"
After a while he realizes, through what seems to be a long-distance ether feed, that his brain has shut itself halfway down. Objectively he knows he will die soon, and that this ought to be cause for concern, but whatever lobe or cortex or shit is responsible for that? Has checked out.
His shipmates are feeding him well, everything fresh and hot like he's quarantined due to sickness instead of waiting to be shot. Krater and his arcane ideas about dignity. Len eats as much as he can choke down, while absently wondering if he could ever explain this to Krater. I love you like I always did, but you're content to let Pecorino use you for a pisspot and I couldn't do that. All I wanted was to help you take what should've been yours, all I ever wanted, but you wouldn't do it.
Len wouldn't apologize even if he knew it would help. Which it wouldn't. He's seen Krater shoot right through other men's groveling.
Judging by the number of meal trays, he's been in here three days. Maybe. He's not sure his tally is correct, or whether he's being fed three times a day, or twice. Whichever it is, he knows it won't be that much longer -- and yet, unlike the first day or two, he sleeps.
The first words he ever heard Krater say were, "With your permission, Gullano? I will take him."
Len was sixteen, a hanger-on with the gang who'd hired him a couple times. His first and only appearance at Pecorino's court, and he'd been such a dumbass he'd made that crack about "Pecorino" being Tuda-speke for "tiny dick." Pecorino didn't laugh. He looked Len up and down, nodded at someone, and next thing Len knew he was being grabbed from all sides and marched outside to die.
And then Krater asked for him the way you'd ask for a piece of equipment someone else didn't want. "My new ship is too large for the crew I have now," he explained. "If it is the same to you, I will train him."
Pecorino shook his bald, round head. "You're too charitable, Evo. You want this little snake on your boat, it's your boat, but you'll have to kill him sooner or later." He stuck his chubby hands into the pockets of his pricey grey-silk suit; how all these big, lean men deferred to that short, plump gargoyle, Len would never know. "Go ahead," said Pecorino. "Keep him if you like, but keep him out of my sight, and when you have to shoot him? I am going to say I told you so."
That was twelve years ago, and at that moment, Len was sure he'd be loyal to this elegant new boss of his forever. Until the day he died.
When he finally sees Krater at the door, there is Dobie on his right side and Natan on the left, standing very close, at the ready if their king should need them. He stands steady, moves as well as he used to, but he's so fucking thin. Krater always had lines on his face, as long as Len knew him, from the ocean and sun of that backwater dirt-clod where he and Natan were born. It's more than that now; it's the grooves of the Fates Festival masks that used to scare the fucking shit out of Len when he was a little kid.
Weird how there's no fear this time.
"I never wanted to hurt you," Len says. He's telling this one last truth to the wrong end of Evo Krater's gun.
"And yet you did anyway," Krater replies.
It's the last thing Len ever hears.
"They're going to kill us," Wilson says. He's sitting on the edge of the bed, hands dangling between his knees, and then one of the hands comes up and he pinches at the bridge of his nose.
"They're not going to kill us," House growls, but it's an assurance he's not sure he really believes.
"No? Then why is the door locked?"
House doesn't answer, because that's the question of the day and there's no getting around it. After spending the last two days answering more inquiries in what had amounted to a combination crash course and interrogation session on the history and forbidden uses of organo-phosphates, they'd awakened this morning to find themselves locked in and the intercom shut off. When the door had finally opened a few hours later, Wilson had stood up, his hands curling into fists, but it was just Joris and Tusko, delivering their breakfast. They looked very sad and were very well armed, and Tusko kept a wary eye on House and Wilson as Joris wheeled in the small breakfast cart. They'd left as silently as they'd entered, resealing the door behind them. House had lifted the lid on one of the covered dishes. The sweet fragrance of honeyed corn-porridge filled the air.
"If they were going to kill us, would they bother feeding us?" House had asked. Wilson hadn't answered, and that was just fine with House. He sat down on the bed and draped a napkin across his lap. Wilson had turned away.
That was the last time the door had opened, until now.
Now it's Evo Krater.
He's alone -- no Dobie, not even Natan by his side.
"My apologies, gentlemen," Krater says, as if it's the most natural thing in the world for him to be standing there in the doorway, gun in hand. "I am afraid I had some ... business to attend to this morning, and I believed you might have tried to stop me." His eyes flick over House, come to rest on Wilson. "One of you, anyway," he amends.
He enters, still holding the black pistol -- the same kind, House notes, that Natan had aimed at Len's head three mornings ago. Maybe it's the same one. Krater has the thing loose in his hand, pointed at the rug. "I could not risk your safety, but I did disable surveillance in your quarters. I see you enjoyed your breakfast?"
"I did," House says. "Wilson thinks it's so nice because it's the last meal of the condemned. All the more reason to eat up, if you ask me."
"Which I didn't," Wilson says.
Krater looks down as if he'd forgotten about the gun in his grip. "I keep my word," he says. "And I am hungry." He puts that clean-lined pistol on the shelves and sits down on the bed beside House, who still has the kitchen-cart in easy reach. The informality seems to startle Wilson, who blinks, hesitates, folds his arms tight across his chest, gripping his own elbows.
"I did not cause him pain," Krater says, "if that helps at all, Doctor. It was done in an instant."
"You couldn't have taken him -- "
"I could not. Whatever you are thinking of, no. To spare such a man is to convince him forever that he was right." Krater's shoulders slump a little; he seems exhausted, but he gestures at the foot of the bed, inviting Wilson to sit down. "Do eat something. You think I will hurt you now?"
"I don't know," Wilson says. "I don't ... I don't know." He raises his hands a bit, as if surrendering, or pushing something away, House can't quite tell which, and then in another moment he's gone, disappearing into the only place guaranteed privacy in these quarters. House shakes his head, moves to follow him, and Krater places a hand on his arm.
"Let him go," he says quietly. "Every man must come to his own terms, alone."
"He'd better hurry it up, or the terms will come to him." The universe is full of Len Dubrissas and Edgar Polands; there are almost no decent, honest Alton Jeromes; there probably isn't even the one they met. Dig deep enough, and --
"Edgar Poland wishes me to return 'his' two doctors to Exeter Prime. I am thinking ... no."
"You plan to retain us? I need a big salary and plenty of perks. You can take it out of Wilson's pay."
"I plan to return you to your ship. If you choose to work for Mister Poland again, that is your own affair."
"Nice of you, but you're forgetting one eensy detail. Eggie's got our credentials in his thick, grubby paws."
Krater smiles, but only halfway. "Not for long, I think," he says.
"Don't kill him. Wilson'll implode from guilt and I'll have to find a new ... new ..."
"Animal," House snaps. "A new animal."
"Of course," Krater says, "of course, a new animal," but he's watching House and there's an odd look in his eyes, something House hasn't seen there before.
House's chest hurts, and suddenly he's tired of this, tired of the guns and games and stupid vulgaris who can't get it through their thick vulgaris heads that this is the way things are, that out here there are monsters who will eat him alive and throw away the empty husk.
He wants to be back on the California more than anything else in the world.