It was almost 7pm when the Diego Garcia Base finally began to look as if a battle hadn't taken place there that day, and the air was cloying with the heavy smell of chemicals. House had taken the many dozens of samples he'd been determined to inspect from outside the hangers whilst there was still daylight, moving inside when the sun slid into a thick band on the horizon. Now, cold, exhausted and with stabbing cramps building into crescendo over the persisting throb in his leg, House sat on a crate in the dark watching the last of the clean-up.
The NEST soldier behind him, who the doctor had only permitted to help when he agreed to 'maintain inhuman silence', fidgeted in the biting cold. Drawn back to himself by the quiet motion, House nodded to the sample case. "Alright, Sparky: take those to Doctor Foreman and tell him to quit playing nursemaid and get onto chemistry instead."
House's eyebrows rose in deliberate arches as the soldier slowly bent to pick up the case. "I meant yesterday, soldier – there's a war on! Quick-to, double-time! Hut-hut-hut!"
His grin at the soldier's rapidly retreating form slid away to leave a hissing grimace, and House clasped both hands around his gingerly extended leg. The pain was worse than it had been since Cuddy had delivered the captivating case file to him, compounded by the diagnostic dead-ends and the near-death condition of the patients. He'd combed this base around the clean-up, and though he was certain that the answer was here, inspiration hadn't struck. And none of his team had come running out with a breakthrough from working with RoboDoc, indicating that they were all, presently, as useless as each other.
Sitting in the dark and letting frost build up in the creases of his coat wasn't doing anything to help, however. With a pained grunt for his cold-numb hand around the cane as much as for his stiff leg, House forced himself to his feet. He was just stepping into the perimeter of the Yard when a muffled roar and flash of orange seized his attention, and suddenly the pain and cold were distant sensations. He lurched quickly back between the hangers and through, following the unmistakable sound of a discharging flamethrower and gleeful male cackles of laughter.
House reached the scene just as Skids threw something small high into the air, Mudflap ready with the fire to incinerate the object at its apex. It landed still-burning a little way off, extinguishing under-pede as Sideswipe bore down on the howling mechs at full speed from around the side of the hanger. The sound of the flat of a blade striking two metal helms rang out loudly.
"What in the Smelter do you two think you're doing?" Sideswipe demanded in a superior officer's roar, optics incredulous and furious in equal measure.
Mudflap staggered back with one hand to his helm, jaw hanging from the force of the blow. "Damn, man – you gone'n hit us too hard to answer that right now."
Alongside his brother, and taking extra confidence in his proximity, Skids glowered back at the dark mech. "Yeah, Sides. Save the processor-smacking for after the questioning."
"Poor interrogation technique right there," Mudflap added sagely with a nod. "Starting with the processor an' all."
Sideswipe raised the blade again with a rumbled growl, immediately silencing both Twins, before pointing to the littered (and still burning) mounds. "Explanations. Now."
They exchanged a look before Skids shrugged, rolling his helm on his shoulders as if resetting a gimble. "Clean up – decontamination. Them pigeons got scared offline in the fight- "
"-by Starscream's face-"
"-and there weren't nobody taking them away or whatever, so me and Mudflap figured we'd incinerate them."
"Very important: hygiene."
"Yes," Sideswipe grated in a long, deeply irritated drawl. "It's very hygienic to send flaming organic detritus spattering about all over the base. Stellar work as always. I think that'll be earning you two monitor duty for a year."
The pain in his leg thinned as the word resonated in his mind, and House lurched his body towards the aliens. "Hey, Colonel Kurtz, you got any more of those birds pre-barbequed?"
Skids, only too glad to veer away from Sideswipe's glower, shunted a crate across the asphalt towards the doctor. "Down to two, man. You want 'em?"
House squatted with both hands braced on the cane to look into the box. Both birds were slick with fuel – doubtless the reason why they were so spectacularly flammable. Without averting his eyes, he produced a rubber glove from his pocket, slipped it on and picked up both animals by the head. The petroleum stink chased away the lingering weariness in his joints, and the doctor began a quick limp back towards the main hanger.
After watching the human's retreat for a few seconds, Mudflap punched his partner in the side to get his attention.
"What'd'you reckon, Skids? Barbeque?"
Skids didn't get a chance to respond as Sideswipe's hands closed around both their napes, forcing their protesting heads down as he dragged them away.
House had bypassed the hanger where his team and Ratchet continued to toil over dead ends and groundless speculation, going around the back to the small area set up as their accommodation. There was a coffee maker and associated sundries, four barrack-style beds, an adjoining washroom and a metal worktable stacked with books and notepads.
Shoving their research material onto the floor out of the way, House pulled the cord on the desklamp and squinted at the brightness of the yellow bulb. Not perfect, but it would do.
It took twenty minutes to gather materials from all five bags and the base's medical kit, long enough for the bulb's filament to warm up. House wrapped the smaller of the two pigeons in a plastic bag and left it outside, laying the other on its back in a metal tray on the desk. Ragging his gloves off, he swung the lamp across to shine over the body.
Placing a fingertip beneath a scaled leg, he studied the bird's foot and the patchy feathers about its thighs. Purple discolouration was spreading from the toes upwards, and there was a deep, dried gouge along the left foot. House rubbed the muscles in the limb, dismissing the likelihood of infection and pursuing the symptom of disorientation that might have led the bird to screw up a landing.
Though rotating the dissection tray would have made examination easier, House leaned over the small body out of habit to tip the head. Prying the eyelids open, he found discharge and inflammation of the nictitating membrane, suggestive of conjunctivitis. The slit of a nasal opening on the beak was also streaked with fluid. It took a minute for the doctor to locate the bird's ear opening, and he frowned at finding it clear.
Still frowning, House returned to where he'd left Thirteen's lipstick after rifling through her belongings and brought the makeshift pen to the examination table. To the right of the dissection tray, he quickly scrawled:
Lost muscle mass
He set the lipstick aside on its base and uncapped the scalpel. Pinching the skin at the base of the bird's tail, he pulled the flesh up and nicked a shallow cut. Swapping to the scissors, House pushed the bottom blade through the hole and cut along the midventral line from cloaca to throat.
"How contagious is this malady?"
The scissors clattered to the floor between House's legs from his surprised fumble. Waiting for the clenching ache across his heart to ease, he glared at the Autobot kneeling in the hanger's partially-opened doorway. Prowl had remained on the other side of the door's runner, leaving a clear thirty feet of distance between his leaking frame and the doctor's impromptu surgical table.
"First of all, it's rude to just come in without knocking," House barked, shaking his head and resting his wrists against the edge of the table. "And second of all, giant robots should not be able to sneak up that quietly."
Prowl was uncertain as to what to do with those statements, so he merely raised his doorwings. The silent communication was entirely lost on the other. "Doctor?"
Rolling his eyes, House retrieved the scissors. "I have a team for answering pointless questions." He gave Prowl a brief and uncomfortably false smile. "They'll even sound like they care. I'm busy."
The tactician watched House make four further cuts outwards from the initial incision, opening the body fully. Prowl slid the door further to underline that he was not going to be so easily dismissed.
"Why are you dissecting a dead bird?"
"Because the live ones won't keep still." House used the tip of the scalpel to fold back the layers of skin, then moved the lamp with his wrist to better see into the body cavity.
It had been years since he'd dissected anything other than rats and people. Birds had been rare in med school, but they were also interesting. That made them memorable. House pushed the syrinx to one side, recalling perfectly the complex structure of membranes inside through which birdsong was created, and followed the oesophagus to the crop.
Finding the organ completely empty, House returned to the lipstick.
Lost muscle mass*
Loss of appetite
Prowl did not enter the hanger any further, and checked that no part of his frame was overhanging the raised door runner as he knelt on the ground. The heavy dousing with liquid nitrogen would only provide a short reprieve from the leaks. Something shuddered as his weight settled, and it took a moment of minute fidgeting and internal micro-shifts to free the spasming part.
There was nothing in the mech's tone to indicate pain. Only a grim urgency that made his words terse. "If this affliction can be transmitted, then the leader of the Decepticons and his second in command may already be infected. It is of the utmost tactical importance that you are able to confirm or refute this."
House's tone, in response, was light. "I assume that if it is contagious and I can provide an effective treatment which the Decepticons don't find out about in time to save their leaders, then someone else will take charge and your war'll go into overtime." He didn't look up from the small body in front of him, systematically nicking each of the air sacs radiating from the lungs open and sliding a fingertip inside.
Prowl lay his wrist across his raised knee, the powerful joints in his deceptively slender hand contracting into a fist. "Without Megatron or Starscream in command, in all likelihood the Decepticons will succumb to infighting and disarray. Without their leaders' vitriol, it is possible that a temporary ceasefire, truce and even peace can be attained."
The air sacs should have been scorched dry, but there were still traces of fluid in the abdominal and posterior thoracic. House was still a moment, as if sudden movement might destroy the convergence of hunches, results and obviousness.
Vents. Cooling system*
He circled the addition to the pigeon's differential diagnosis. Finally, he squeezed a loop of the bird's lower intestine and cut it in half. With the pressure created by his fingers, a sizable amount of excrement immediately sluiced out. House smiled despite the smell, running his gloved thumb from the green droppings. Bilge pigments. Biliverdinuria.
"Whilst that's a beautiful dream of peace through biological warfare, it's not going to happen. Because it isn't contagious." House sat back and nodded at Prowl. Specifically towards the bag near his feet, out of sight but rustling in the breeze. "Pass me that other pigeon, would you?"
When the Cybertronian didn't move, he stretched out his leg with a grimace and rubbed the gutted muscle. "I'd get up, an' all, but I can't just turn off my pain receptors or reroute my hydraulics like some people can."
The interlocking lenses of Prowl's optics cycled, contracted and spiralled open again. He made no move to pick up the pigeon. "You have determined that this undiagnosed affliction is not contagious through your analysis of another species," he said, his deadpan tone simultaneously neutral, disbelieving and condescending.
Hooking the handle of his cane over his arm, House took the scalpel and hobbled towards the door. Prowl watched him take the body out of the bag, then mumble as he arranged it belly-up in one gloved hand. "No, by looking at the numbingly obvious." He held the bird up and examined its head, the scalpel held in his fist. "No one else has gotten sick aside from the original four."
"They have been isolated and quarantined to prevent-"
"How comprehensive is that quarantine?" House barked in the same instant as he stabbed the blade into the pigeon's throat and drew it down. There was a certainty in the roughness, confidence where with the first bird there had been cautious meticulousness. "You're disposing of their effusions with a diligence that'd make Erin Brockovich quiver, but you're doing nothing about the air. Or the soldiers marching back and forth between the sick and the healthy, traipsing spores and bacteria on their uniforms. You're not even scrubbing down what they touch. It's the mundane that kills."
A rubbery string of intestine came out over his curled finger. He trapped a section between his thumb and the scalpel, pressing until it split and green sludge oozed out. "Washing your hands after you sneeze but forgetting to disinfect the light switch you turned on to go to the bathroom. It's environmental. Some event they were all exposed to."
Prowl waited for the doctor to go on, half a processor thread from pinging Ratchet. He couldn't determine why the man would be smiling unless he had found the answer inside the dead pigeon. When House put it back in the plastic bag and began limping with it back to the table, he prompted: "And the bird?'
House didn't reply until the other bird had joined the one in the bag. He pulled his gloves off and dropped them in as well, tying it off with a smile to Prowl. "Part of that environment."
"I fail to see-"
"It was sick," House cut in, as he was compelled to do whenever someone was about to launch into a tedious list of everything that escaped their narrow understanding. He considered it an act of self-preservation: stupid could be transmitted.
Leaving the bag of pigeon corpses next to Kutner's bag, which overflowed with paraphernalia to such a degree that House figured it could easily be mistaken for a bin, House leaned into his cane and made for the door. "It ultimately died from the stress of the firefight, but it was already starving to death. Two more for the intergalactic body count."
Prowl stood and took a jerky step back to give the doctor room. "Likely due to exposure to our energon fumes, coolant vapours, exhaust-"
"Wrong way round," House announced as he cleared the lip of the door. "Han totally shot first." It was a laboured metaphor, hardly stretching to 'these aren't the droids you're looking for', but House was in a determined rush.
Turning to follow the doctor across the Yard proved to be disastrous. Prowl grunted as a slew of errors lit up his HUD and he heard as much as felt a congealed energon plug slip loose. Absently noting that House was moving at an increase of 26% his average pace, the tactician sent a clean-up notice and made his way back to the freezer.
I'm sorry for the hideously long delay in this update. The last year has been extremely eventful, and it's been a challenge to find time and my muse to write. Thank you to those who have stuck with the story. It would be lovely if you left a comment of some kind.
Thanks for reading!