SUMMARY:They're free men now, except from each other.
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 final chapter of Part Five (although if you stay for the credits you may find an extra little snippet hidden there). Previous chapter is Amnesty. Links to all chapters of the Distress Call universe can be found here.
He kept his word, Wilson thinks. I'm not on the floor. Or ... maybe he's just not awake yet. Wilson stretches his legs beneath the covers, takes a breath, and does a quick mental check for hangover symptoms. Surprisingly none, other than thirst. He rolls over, sees that House isn't in bed, and gets whapped in the head by a flying shirt and pair of trousers.
"Get dressed," House says. "We'll take care of Krater and be done just in time for breakfast."
On the infirmary door, held fast with an elegant old-fashioned ion tack, they find an equally old-fashioned paper note, hand-written:
Please be my guests for breakfast in my cabin.
"Okay," Wilson says, looking to House, who merely shrugs.
"He needs his crew back on their game," House says. "So he's keeping us out of their sight, giving 'em back as much of 'normal' as he can. And no, I didn't release him from the infirmary, but I would have. The equipment he needs now is all portable."
Of course House would think of that. Wilson remembers moving from Callie's stale, cramped old clinic to the control room, where they slept beneath that huge viewport, surrounded by stars. It wasn't half bad, if you left out the way they both thought they'd die. He feels himself smile, and tucks Krater's note into his pocket.
Breakfast in the Captain's private cabin turns out to be very like breakfast anywhere else on the ship. Excellent, if foreign-to-Wilson, fare, but no extravagance reserved only for the elite. Wilson finds it odd that a band of criminals is more egalitarian than any lawful organization he's ever known, and he absently slips a hand into his pocket and touches the note again.
Just for a moment, though. Natan's refilling his coffee cup. Or khaffe, as these men call it.
"I would recommend," Krater says, holding his hand out over the table, "that you take these." The things he's offering look like two very genuine cred-packs. Krater flips open the covers and there, in living tri-vid windows, are Wilson and House, respectable as you please. "There is nothing Edgar Poland could do for you that my crew could not."
House snatches his pack and scowls, flipping through it. "Looks good," he says, and hands it to Wilson. "And the price tag is?"
High, Wilson thinks, because it does look good. It looks amazing. Everything is there -- House's medical degrees, his history at several hospitals, everything except for the political-exile part and his presumed death and the fact that he has fangs.
"I think you have paid it already. What price would Mister Poland demand?"
Wilson puts down his cup. "Did you ... please tell me you didn't kill him."
"Always the concerned one," Krater murmurs, but his tone belies the possible sting in his words. "No, I think I like him. He dealt fairly with me, but I am someone he fears. You, on the other hand, have brought him a good profit. You think he would want you to do that once, only?"
Wilson knows immediately that Krater is right. You ever want off this fucking rock, Eggie said, you will do the fucking job. And the next one, and probably just one more after that, and ... he hesitates a moment longer, then stretches out his hand. "Let me see mine?"
Now that the bruises are fading from Krater's hands, the scars stand out -- lines marked across all sides of his fingers, one smashed thumbnail that never quite regrew. All the fingertips are slightly widened from years of hard use. There were fishermen and weavers on Tuuvi whose hands looked like this, and on Delphus it would mark him as labor class, no matter how wealthy he might be.
"I could help with that scarring," Wilson blurts, wincing even before the words are completely out of his mouth. Luckily, Krater smiles.
"I am the son of net-fishers," he answers. "I do not care to hide it. This is one advantage of my work, that competence matters, and little else."
"There's a genechip in here." It looks like a real one, a golden hexagon embedded into the Delphus Shareholder seal just as it ought to be. "But if it works -- "
"Relax," House says, dishing out more fried ... Wilson's forgotten the name of it. Something golden, starchy, and very good. "They've set up a shadow."
"Don't you pay attention? Same thing I told you Eggie would do. The chip redirects inquiries to an entry on Krater's own etherblock. Delphus hackers would know the difference, but everyone else will think you're perfectly legit."
"I am perfectly -- never mind."
"The only trouble," Krater says, "is that if something happens to my ship, those chips will no longer work. It is possible Edgar Poland could arrange something more certain, but I think ... perhaps it would be better to trust fate than to trust Edgar Poland."
"No shit." House is pocketing his cred-pack, clearly intending to keep it. "So now that that's settled, how much longer are we stuck on this boat?"
"One more day," Natan says. He's smiling, Wilson notes, a lot more at ease after last night's card games. "Enjoy the cooking while you can."
Wilson is relieved to see they won't be exiting the Zelushka the same way they arrived; instead, Dobie leads them through a series of corridors, down a stub of a hallway, and past a set of decom chambers. There are no more rows of cabins here, in the utility passages with their towers of pipelines and ductwork reaching to the high dorsal ceiling of the ship. At a secure door, Wilson glances up. Far above in the half light, a crewman's booted feet cross a narrow catwalk.
"Here we are," Dobie says, and they are there, through the door and in the belly of Krater's ship, looking out over the serried array of lifeships and darts. "Come on, docs," Dobie rumbles. "Your chariot awaits."
The "chariot" is a slender four-seater, a Class IV mothship with thorium drives and a cheese-grater syncopated synthesizer. At least, that's what it sounds like Dobie tells them -- the technical specs are lost as Wilson is beginning to realize they're really leaving. They're settling in their seats -- House takes the co-pilot's position, shouldering Wilson unceremoniously to the back -- when a woman's voice pierces Wilson's euphoria.
"Hello, Dobie," the woman says. "Who's your friends?"
The voice is clear and low, with an undertone of smoky seduction. With a start, Wilson realizes it's the ship's voice. He leans forward.
"Hey, Ryno," Dobie says. "This is Doctor House, and that's Doctor Wilson in the back."
"Doctors," Ryno purrs. "Dobie, you're not sick, are you?"
House rolls his eyes.
"No, hon," Dobie says. "Just gotta run these fellas back to Exeter Station."
"Ryno?" House says. Dobie shrugs.
"Girl I used to know," he replies. He checks over the drop-down screen in front of his eyes. "Let's do ex-dock, soco?"
"Soco, Dobie," the ship's voice murmurs. "Initiating ex-dock."
Wilson tries to imagine Callie's voice like this, someone who'll actually talk to them, and suddenly, with a depth of feeling that takes him very much by surprise, he finds that he's missed the Hotel California.
The bay doors open; out there, somewhere, is the creaky whirligig in space that is Exeter Station.
They can't get there soon enough.
This side of Exeter Station is a bell jar, a domed monstrosity of a commons teeming with transiting passengers and animals. Wilson clutches the strap of his pack a little tighter; after the close confines of the Zelushka, this place is almost overwhelming.
"This is it, gentlemen," Dobie says, and reaches into his own knapsack. "Mister Krater said to give you this."
It's a small thing, flat and square, wrapped in a smooth brown paper that House rips to shreds immediately.
You must've been a delight on Yuleday, Wilson thinks, and then wonders if haemovores have a Yuleday.
"I thought you said you weren't part of a cult," House says. The calm, placid eyes of the good-luck charm, the goddess, whatever she is, gaze back at them. Lady of the Waves.
"I'm not," Dobie protests. "My whole family's New Roman."
"All religions are cults. And if you're New Roman, then you were named after someone, so who's Saint Dobie?"
The question hangs in the air as Dobie's cheeks pinken. "Nickname," he mutters at last. "My baby brother couldn't pronounce my name when he was a kid."
"And that name is ... " House prompts gleefully.
Dobie's cheeks pinken even further.
"Dodolinus," he mumbles. "My name's Dodolinus."
"See?" House says. "Confession's good for the soul, my son. Now go forth and sin no more."
Dobie grins. "Can't do that, Doc," he says. "No way to run an honest business."
Wilson, however, isn't grinning. He isn't even smiling. Instead, a very bad thought is starting to worm its way into his head.
"Dobie," he says. "Dobie, this isn't ... this charm ... it isn't the same one that ... " He hesitates, not wanting to say the name.
Dobie's eyes widen, but his look of alarm fades as he peers over House's shoulder.
"No," he says, and points out the details with one broad, blunt finger. "This is out of Krater's collection, not ... see how the old girl's holding out a shell? Len's had a golden fish." He shakes his head. "Bastard probably sold his to a collector somewhere along the line."
"Why us?" House muses. "I wouldn't have thought a guy like Krater believed in luck."
Dobie's smile returns. "Oh, he doesn't. He believes in ... remembering things, I guess."
And with that, he claps them both on the back, nearly knocking them both over, and then turns and -- impossible as it seems for a guy his size -- utterly vanishes into the crowded station commons.
"That's it, then?" Wilson stammers. "That's ... it?"
House is already herding him toward the docking ring, through a maze of other peoples' backs, shoulders, elbows, baggage, leashed animals -- Wilson imagines this place as an orbiting refugee camp, people fleeing with whatever they could carry. House brings him back to the present. "You wanted an award? A ceremony with a secret handshake? What did you expect?"
"I don't know." They have to stop for a moment as an overloaded trolley clatters past, passengers swaying half out of the car, holding on for dear life to the side rails and hand straps. A group of young women, their faces painted with bold red and blue stripes, wait patiently on the other side. Wilson watches as one of them raises a hand to absently pat the nose of the donkey she's leading, but the animal shakes her off and brays loudly at the rattling people-mover. "It just seems ... kind of anticlimactic."
"Yeah. Who's been watching too many vids, again? We don't get repeat business from this. We don't want repeat business. Just because we lucked out and Krater wasn't a complete murdering lunatic doesn't mean -- "
"Their last medic is dead. You think I want to keep working for these kinds of guys? You're enough of a hazard. I just ... I'm not sure this can be over. I think we should make sure Callie hasn't, hasn't been ... sabotaged somehow. I don't know. We were docked at E Branch, weren't we?"
"Yep. That way." House steers them left, along a wall where the crowd's less dense. There are food vendors here, men and women selling grilled meats and vegetables, kebabs and fresh-baked flatbreads from rickety little carts. Wilson looks, but sees nothing resembling moliska sauce.
"So you still think," House continues, "Krater might have found some convoluted, labor-intensive way to knock us off. Instead of just shooting us the way he shot Len. Way out there in the ass end of space; no witnesses, nobody to care; toss the corpses out with the trash, simple."
"I was thinking about Krater's enemies, not ..." He rubs his hand across his face. "I know. It's paranoid and stupid; I'm just ... tired." And he is. He's so tired of the running, the hiding, the men who sell each other, poison each other, kill each other with a single dispassionate shot. Tired of eating other peoples' food, of seeing dull metal instead of the sky, of not knowing what happens next. Tired of not having a home, only a House -- and all the complications that come with him. A shadow, then another, flits over him, and he stops instinctively to look up. They've walked all the way to solarside; Wilson shades his eyes with his hand as he follows the source of the small shadows, but he still has to squint to make out the sparrow-sized birds darting in and out of the station's cantilevers. The sun is warm on his face, and Wilson closes his eyes for a moment, soaking it in.
"What are you doing?"
Trust House to destroy even the smallest moment of peace. "The sun," Wilson says. He points upward. "How long has it been since we've seen real sunlight? Just ... enjoy it for a minute, okay?"
House looks at the sun, then at Wilson. "Can't," he says. "Might burst into flames."
Wilson gapes at him. "What?"
"Didn't I tell you? Direct sunlight isn't recommended for my -- oh, never mind. This is hopeless. I'm taking you out of symbiosis as soon as I can get the supplies together."
"What's that got to do with -- "
"You being a hopeless idiot? Nothing. Just thought you ought to know." House starts walking again. Wilson scrambles to keep up.
"Ah ... okay. That's ... what supplies?"
"Don't know yet. Never done this before. Probably have to order from Vussu Veterinary -- they've got the widest stock list available."
"You keep saying that. Tranquilizers, for sure, but I'll have to be careful what kind. Cell regen agents, but, again, gotta figure out which ones. Stop giving me that look; I'm not gonna let you die."
"I'm not so sure about that."
"Trust me," House says. "I'm a doctor." He holds up his cred-pack. "See? Got the papers to prove it." He's finally come to a halt, and Wilson realizes that's because they've reached their docking tube. House opens his eye wide and presses his face against the retinal reader and the doors fold open. "Come on," he says, walking inside the el without a backward glance. "You're not the only one who's tired."