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The TARDIS was empty, but not for long. The doors flew open and a group of seven mismatched people entered.
"We ended up on Earth again!" said Donna. "How are you so bad at navigation?"
"I'm not! The TARDIS just likes Earth! I can't control her!" protested the Doctor.
"She's your ship!"
"We just met Archimedes," said House. "That's amazing! You know he came up with mathematical concepts that are still being used today!" There were not a whole ton of people House admired. Everyone he did admire he had never met, since he found that speaking with his heroes inevitably brought him face-to-face with their faults. Before now he hadn't considered that meeting Archimedes would be possible, and so hero-worshipping him would be pretty safe.
"I should hope so, since 'today' he's still alive." said Wilson cheekily.
"Not met him so much as probably saw him for a second, really. But it's hard to tell the Greeks apart - they tended to dress alike," mused the Doctor.
"Oh, shut up," said House to them both. Tosh also looked rather thunderstruck by their chance encounter.
"You know, that owl was named Archimedes in the Disney version of Sword in the Stone," remarked Owen.
"I loved that movie," said the Doctor.
There was an awkward silence.
"Where to next?" said Sarah Jane.
"Let me just set the randomizer," said the Doctor.
"Well hurry it up," said Donna.
"Hey scarfman, I have a question," said House. Donna sniggered.
"Hmm?" said the Doctor, fiddling with the console.
"In private," House added. The Doctor flicked one more switch and walked over.
"Does this have to do with mustard?" he said.
"What? No!" said House. "I've been thinking. These surgical robot things, if they can heal genetic diseases, isn't it safe to assume they could heal my leg? Because that would, you know, give me a lot more motivation to actually find these aliens."
"Well yes, of course," said the Doctor. "Some of the really advanced ones can even grow back whole body parts."
House grinned at him. "Great! Let's go people!" he added to the rest of the group, clapping his hands. The Doctor grinned back at him and pulled a final lever on the console.
The dematerialization sound began seconds before the doors flew open again and against a backdrop of ancient Syracuse, in strode a tall, slightly imposing man. He had a full beard and looked to be in his late thirties.
"Wait!" he said. "You didn't -- what is this place?" As the man looked around in wonder, the Doctor shouted something indistinct and leapt for the door lever. The doors swung shut just as the TARDIS made its leap into the vortex.
"Fool!" said the Doctor. "Why did you come in here?"
House snickered. "You just called Archimedes a fool," he said.
"Ooooh no," said Donna. "We're taking him back, right now. I'm not gonna have some weird Greek guy in a toga coming with us."
"Who died and made you boss?" said Owen.
"You want him along?" said Donna. Owen shrugged petulantly.
"Wait, wait," said Archimedes, looking around in wonder. "Where am I?"
"Uh, a time machine," said Sarah Jane, who had obviously decided that the gig was up and there was no point in subtlety.
"A what now?"
"It... travels in time. Er, and space too."
"My dear, I would surely know about it if such a contraption existed!" scoffed Archimedes.
"I don't know why you think that," said House.
"Well, see for yourself! We've landed," said the Doctor. "Don't look too long though. You're staying with the TARDIS. I can't be looking after even more reckless humans!"
"What--" began Archimedes.
"Oh yes, and, let's see," interrupted the Doctor. "Wilson, you stay with him! Can't have him wandering off. Don't you wander off either. I mean that!"
With that, he opened the doors with a flourish.
Otto von Chriek, the vampire/chief iconographer for the Ankh-Morpork Times, was not technically "on duty" when he noticed something curious a short ways from where he was walking, but he still carried his iconograph and enough of his equipment to rush into action in case of an event--in many ways, his was a 24/8 job.
He wondered if he should run and get William or Sacharissa, or at least send an urgent clacks message to the Times' private tower, but the nearest public tower was several blocks away and he didn't want to miss a potential story.
It wasn't technically his job, but he always kept a pencil and pad of paper handy just for situations like this, so he could take notes and hand them over to one of the reporters.
The curiosity centered around a small group of strangely-clothed, mismatched people. Probably foreigners, Otto thought, though he couldn't place from where. That was hardly a big deal in and of itself--everyone in the city was foreign--but these people seemed far more foreign that was usual even for Ankh-Morpork. Otto had been all over the disk and he'd never seem clothing or mannerisms like theirs. The differences were subtle, but the most obvious was the distinctly out of place air around them, as if they didn't know quite what they were seeing. It might do well to follow them for a while, he decided.
"Wow," he heard one of them say, a small, different-looking woman. "This is the first alien planet I've ever been on! I've always dreamed about it!" This seemed an odd thing for someone to say, but certainly not the strangest thing he'd heard in Ankh-Morpork. Perhaps they were just crazies. He strained to hear more.
"Yeah. It's a right pity it's such a dump," said another, an unimpressed youngish man.
"Hey frogboy," said a redheaded lady in a take-no-crap kind of voice. "Why don't you remove those tadpoles from your ass and try to relax? If you weren't being so busy being cynical all the time you might enjoy yourself."
"You haven't got one drop of romance in your soul, Owen," said the first woman sadly.
The unimpressed man scowled at her and snarked something back, but Otto had heard enough, and his interest had left them for the time being in favor of the rest of the pack.
By far the strangest character was a very tall man walking at the head of the group, who was sporting a surprising amount of surprisingly curly hair and a wide, nearly manic grin. This look was topped off by an insanely long multicolored scarf that wrapped around the man's neck twice and still had enough length left over for both ends to trail lightly on the ground. The overall effect was something that on a man of any other stature and build would have been exceedingly comical, and yet on this man it looked impressive. He moved as though it were natural to be weighed down by several yards of wool. Otto thought he was probably the sort of man defined by extremes.
He was chatting cheerily with a young woman who was by far the most normal-looking of the bunch, brunette and not too strangely clothed.
In between the squabbling trio at the back and the two in the front stalked a peeved-looking, slightly unkempt man with a cane. The whole group was being followed by a small black cat, but it didn't look like they'd noticed her yet.
They also hadn't noticed Otto, but he knew how not to be seen. It was part of being a vampire.
It wasn't long before the curly-haired man in front spotted something that interested him near Contract Bridge and headed in that direction. The thing that had interested him turned out to be a man in a copper's uniform. Or rather, several men and two dwarfs in copper uniforms, standing around beside the bridge eating lunch and talking amongst themselves. Interesting, thought Otto.
They looked to be on break, but coppers are coppers and they quickly turned their attention to the odd group approaching them. For most of the men in the Watch, coppering was a state of being as much as a job. It wasn't something they hung up by the door when they got home. Otto connected with that on some level.
The curly-haired man had grinned at them and offered his hand, but the grumpy-looking man right behind him shoved him aside, raised his right hand in a four-fingered V, and said, "Take us to your leader" in a stilted monotone. The watchmen stared at him.
Otto stopped a passing boy and gave him a couple pennies to run down to Gleam Street and fetch William, then quickly set up his iconograph.
During the minute or so he'd been distracted, an argument had erupted between three of the coppers, the man with the cane, and the redheaded woman. This ended rather swiftly when the man whacked the nearest copper over the head with his cane, after which they were promptly arrested. Otto got a couple quick shots of the group being led, some loudly protesting, away towards the Watch House.
Around then, William showed up, huffing lightly and with his pad of paper and pencil at the ready.
"What's going on?" he said, looking around.
"I don't know vat just happened," said Otto, "but I fink it vas someting interesting. Some very curious characters have come to ze city."
"Is this Chula or isn't it?" Owen demanded for the fourth time. The cell they were sitting in barely held them all, and certainly not comfortably.
"Er, no," said the Doctor, having finally run out of circuitous answers. Owen groaned in frustration.
"How do you know for sure?" asked Sarah Jane.
"The Chula don't look anything like these people. When we get to Chula, I'll know," explained the Doctor.
"Why didn't we just leave right away then?" said Owen.
"For once I actually agree with you," noted Donna.
"I wanted to confirm something," said the Doctor.
"Since this isn't where we're looking for," said House, "can we just bust out of here and leave?"
The two watchmen guarding the cell looked over at them suspiciously.
Sarah Jane rolled her eyes. "Stop bickering, guys."
"What did you want to confirm?" asked Tosh, who had actually known it wasn't Chula from the start.
"This looks like the Discworld," the Doctor said with the air of one imparting a groundbreaking theory. This failed to cause the expected excitement. "You know, the Discworld," he said again.
House rolled his eyes. "I'm pretty sure there is no reason whatsoever why I should have heard of this."
"It's a world shaped like a disc that sits on the backs of four elephants who stand on the back of a giant turtle that swims through space. No one has ever been able to prove it exists because of its constantly changing spatial coordinates. I still don't know for sure that this is it!"
"I hope you don't expect anyone to believe that."
"Is no one going to do anything?" said Donna. "No plans? Doctor, sonic screwdriver? Uhh, do you have that yet?"
"I left it in the TARDIS," said the Doctor sheepishly.
"Sheesh," she said, then stood and grabbed the bars of the cell. "LET ME OUT OF HERE!" she screamed at top volume. Everyone else in the room covered their ears at once. "I WILL NOT STAND FOR THIS! I HAVE DONE NOTHING WRONG! LET ME OUT, YOU PEA-BRAINED, BUMBLING, BUREAUCRATIC MORONS OR I WILL HAVE YOUR BALLS ON A PLATE!"
"I really don't think that's helping," said Owen.
"Why does he keep leading us out into places he knows aren't Chula?" Tosh asked Sarah Jane.
"He's always been a bit, ah, directionless. He gets distracted easily," explained Sarah Jane.
"Doesn't he realize this is important? Someone's life is at stake!"
"Oh, I'm sure he understands," Sarah Jane reassured her. "Whatever his eccentricities, he's not one to underestimate the importance of life. If he thought the situation was really serious, he'd be a lot more focused."
"Serious? It is serious!" said Tosh. Donna continued shouting through the bars, her threats getting nastier and more bizarre.
"Oh, I know it's serious, but you know the TARDIS is a time machine... right? We can just plop back down a second after we left. Theoretically."
"What do you mean, theoretically?" said Tosh suspiciously.
"Ah. Well. He's actually not very good at piloting it..." Sarah Jane admitted. Tosh stared at her.
Sam Vimes was not happy. His day had started busy, gotten busier, and all signs pointed to the future becoming busier still. It was barely lunchtime and he couldn't even remember all the things he had yet to do. He felt guilty about taking the time even to use the toilet and, worst of all, his investigation was going nowhere. As if all this weren't enough, there had been a very obvious attempt on his life not even an hour ago, and they hadn't caught the shooter. All this accumulated, one problem dog-piling on top of another, and the final result was a Very Bad Mood.
And then he'd been called down to take a look at some "wackjobs" who, apparently, had assaulted an officer. That was ridiculous. He was the Commander of the Watch! There was absolutely no reason why he should have been called in on a matter as trivial as this, as if wackjob wasn't the norm in this city, as if this sort of thing didn't happen every day.
Carrot had insisted, though. He'd said that it would have a calming effect on the rest of the Watch if they saw that the Commander could still deal with the usual problems in a time of crisis. Vimes considered this and decided it was utter bull. Absolutely nothing had a calming effect on any citizen of Ankh-Morpork, where the natural state was one of anxiety, except maybe when they were dead and even then it wasn't a guarantee.
Carrot had added that this group was significantly odder than most they arrested in an attempt to interest Vimes. It hadn't worked, but Vimes had eventually relented under Carrot's firm insistence.
At least they were being held in the Pseudopolis Yard cells, so he didn't have to go far.
There was a pretty steady shouting noise that he could hear from a ground floor, and it only grew louder and more shrill as he descended the staircase. It turned out to be emanating from a sharply dressed redheaded woman, who quite clearly had a superb pair of lungs. She was shouting indiscriminately at poor Corporal Nobbs and Sergeant Colon, who had been trying to get on with a little guard duty in peace and quiet. You needed a certain amount peace and quiet to play poker, which is what they had clearly been doing until somebody had upset the table, probably Colon in his rush to stand up.
"Mister Vimes!" said Colon with an air of obvious relief. "This lady is out of control! I don't know what to do."
"I AM NOT OUT OF CONTROL, YOU DIMWIT! I DEMAND TO KNOW WHAT I AM CHARGED WITH! YOU HAVE NO AUTHORITY TO KEEP ME HERE!" the woman raved, already well into her stride and showing no signs of slowing without a very good reason. The other five people in the cells looked slightly pained. One was covering his ears and making absurd faces at her behind her back.
Vimes took a deep, deliberate breath, slowly removed a cigar from his case, and lit it. He took a long drag, then removed it from his mouth and tucked it behind his ear. Only after that did he finally say, "Why am I here?"
"Who the hell are you?" said the raving woman. He ignored her.
"Er, this one claims to be a doctor, sir, and I thought," began Colon.
"Hold on!" interrupted the weasely looking one. "I'm a doctor too!"
"So is he," said a brown-haired girl, pointing to a surly, unshaven man who was sulking in the back.
"So much for subtlety and keeping a low profile," muttered the man she'd indicated.
"Yes, but I am the Doctor," said a wild-looking man with wild hair and a wildly bizarre scarf. He pointed to each of his companions in turn. "This is Dr. Owen Harper, Toshiko Sato, Sarah Jane Smith, Donna Noble, and Dr. Gregory House."
"Will you all shut up?" said Vimes, trying not to show his impatience. The Doctor--and Vimes wondered what his name really was, because what was he trying to prove with an alias as obvious as that anyway?--looked affronted.
"Er," said Colon nervously.
"You brought me down here because a couple morons you picked up say they're doctors? You know about doctors, Fred," continued Vimes.
"I don't recognize them as belonging to the guild and I thought it might be worth a shot, Mister Vimes," said Colon. "I thought anything might be worth a shot."
"If Igor can't fix it there's no reason why these people should be able to."
"Yes, sir." Sergeant Colon didn't move a muscle. Vimes sighed.
"Fine," he relented. He turned back towards the cell, the occupants of which had ceased making noise a few minutes ago and were now carefully observing.
"Who's sick?" asked the one named House.
"Don't act stupid," said Vimes. The whole city was suffering from a sort of underground panic about the plague, everyone knew. It was impossible not to know.
"We're not really from around here," Sarah Jane explained. Vimes didn't think this was much of an excuse, but didn't press the issue. Most people around here weren't from around here, especially the ones who tended to get brought in by the Watch.
"There's a sickness spreading. We don't know where it came from, how it spreads, or what to do to cure it," said Vimes. He felt silly explaining this to a group of strangers, as if they could do anything to help. But Colon was right: even a vain hope was better than no hope at all.
"How many?" said House.
"Nearly fifty," Vimes said after a moment's consideration.
"It's probably the flu or something equally innocuous," said House dismissively. Vimes raised an eyebrow at him.
"I think I know the difference."
"Yeah, everyone thinks they know the difference."
"Forgive me for interrupting," said the Doctor, who didn't look very sorry at all, "but what does this have to do with the police?"
Vimes had wondered the same thing himself on many occasions. "It is the duty of the Watch to keep order, as much as is possible, in Ankh-Morpork, and the prevention of a panicked riot falls under that category." This was the best excuse he could come up with for himself. He didn't add that he was also under orders from Lord Vetinari.
Colon and Nobby had righted their table and were playing poker again in a failing attempt to cover up the fact that they were both listening in. Nobby had nine cards in his hand. The Doctor looked thoughtful.
"Okay," said the loud one--Donna Noble. "Are you going to tell us who the hell you are, Mr. Bigwig?"
"You really don't know?" said Vimes, a little surprised. He was definitely known all over Uberwald, Klatch, Genua, and all of the other major countries on the Disc, as well as most of the minor ones, even if it was only as being a massive thorn with a penchant for disrespecting aristocracy.
"How should I know? Don't assume you're more important than you are!" she said. Vimes reflected that he could see himself actually coming to like this woman.
"He's Sir Samuel Vimes!" said Sergeant Colon in disbelief. "Commander of the City Watch and Duke of Ankh...."
"So?" said the woman haughtily. Colon's mouth dropped open, but Vimes waved at him to let it go.
"Commander Vimes--that's all right, isn't it? the whole title's a bit of a mouthful--what can we do to help?" said the small brunette, Sarah Jane. This got sneers from House and Owen, who had yet to speak.
Vimes sighed. "Well, if some of you are doctors and you're definitely not from Ankh-Morpork, it can't hurt to let one of you come take a look, I suppose. If you think you might be able to help. It'll have to be quick, though. I've only got an hour." In reality, he didn't even have that, but the idea of getting out of the station was an appealing one.
"Wait, you're just letting us go?" said the other girl, Toshiko, who hadn't spoken until now.
"Normally assaulting an officer is a pretty serious crime, but we've got more important things to deal with right now. Also, you guys don't look very dangerous to me."
"I'll go," said House as he stood laboriously, leaning heavily on his cane and glancing dismissively at the others.
"I'm coming too!" Donna announced.
"Wait, wait, I think I should go," said the Doctor.
"Only one, I said," growled Vimes. "And we need to leave right away. I haven't got time for this."
"I'm going!" Donna insisted.
"You're not a doctor," said Owen. "I'm not staying cooped up in here! No way."
House whacked Owen lightly with his cane. "Down, boy. You're not coming."
"I really think--" began the Doctor, but Sarah Jane tugged on his sleeve and whispered something in his ear, and he hesitated, then sat back again. "All right."
"Fine, you come with me," Vimes said to House, who looked smug.
"Hold it there, big boy. I said I'm coming too! I am not staying here with all these losers!" said Donna forcefully. Vimes stared at her. She didn't back down. He grinned.
"Fine," he said. "You can come too." She crossed her arms over her chest in a very self-satisfied way.
"Of course," she said.
"Let's just get out of here. I'm getting a cramp," House grumbled.
Alice was a Real Cat. When she caught something, she ate all of it. She could hear a pantry door opening from down the street. She hissed and shit and clawed, but she was as sweet as a cat can be when she thought there might be a treat in it for her. She had a family who thought they owned her, though in reality she owned them. She walked with a slight limp from a previous fight, though it on the whole didn't seem to impede her movement much.
Alice didn't look like a Real Cat, which she saw as being to her advantage. She was small and black and had piercing green eyes. She was half Siamese, but the other half was anyone's guess. She was nearly seventeen years old, but that too was something of an asset. She had survived to be very old on the most dangerous streets on the Disc for those seventeen years and she wasn't about to give up anytime soon.
Alice had survived by being clever, swift, and most of all, a good judge of character. She could tell which humans, dwarfs, or trolls were likely to give her food, and which ones were likely to give her a good kick.
She'd found a promising group of people a while ago and had been following them, waiting for an opening she could use to jump in and look pitiful and cute. The crippled man in the back of the group hadn't looked too likely, but there were several clear suckers.
Then she'd lost them! The cripple had done something severely stupid and they'd gotten taken away by men in weird uniforms.
So Alice had followed. It wasn't like she had any other pressing demands on her time. Sneaking into the giant building filled with uniformed men hadn't been a problem, but it was getting down to where they had been taken that was proving an issue. Alice could usually infiltrate places easily by blending in with shadow. Her black fur and small stature were ideal for it. However, the downward staircases were located in an area that was miraculously devoid of shadow.
Ah well. If there was one thing a cat could do well, it was wait. Alice settled down under a desk for a nice nap.
Captain Carrot picked up the crossbow bolt and examined it.
Not too much earlier that day this bolt had nearly buried itself in Commander Vimes' head. Remarkably, the Commander hadn't seemed too perturbed by it. It was, he'd explained, part of the job description. Carrot understood that--the Watch, including Commander Vimes, had been getting shot at and worse for a long time before he'd showed up in Ankh-Morpork--but it was still impressive.
The bolt was extremely ordinary. It was one of the most common sizes and makes supplied by Burleigh & Stronginthearm, with no identifying marks or tells. The sort usually bought in bulk.
It wasn't like Carrot had expected anything different. It would have been terminally stupid to use anything unique, and criminals in Ankh-Morpork were either intelligent or dead.
Despite being painfully ordinary, the bolt did reveal some clues. It wasn't an assassin's weapon, because assassins would never go in for something so crude and anyways the Commander had been taken off the Assassins' Guild register. Since other guilds weren't in the habit of committing murder and in fact frowned rather heavily upon it, the would-be killer was probably not a licensed member of any of the heavy-duty guilds, such as the Thieves or the Beggars, which were more likely to find out.
Finally and probably most importantly, anyone who had spent any amount of time with the criminal circles in the city knew that it was damn difficult to kill Sam Vimes, and something as simple as a crossbow wasn't going to cut it. That meant that the killer was most likely new in town, new to the idea of murder, or knew it wouldn't kill him. A warning.
The door to Carrot's office opened and he smiled when Angua walked in and sat down across from him.
"Not unique at all?" she said, motioning towards the bolt.
"No. I didn't expect it would be," said Carrot, setting it down. "Did you get anything?"
"There was a scent trail up until I hit busy streets. At this time of day, with that many crisscrossing scents, there's just no way to follow it."
"Did you pick up any details?"
Angua frowned. "Well.... I don't know if it means anything, but there was a hint of mildew, and damp. Like he'd been underground a while."
"A dwarf?" Carrot suggested.
"No, he was definitely human. And with the housing situation here like it is, there are plenty of basement rooms being rented out. It could be as simple as that, and we'd never be able to check them all even if we could identify him."
"Hmm." Carrot tapped his finger against the bolt, deep in thought.
"It was in broad daylight, though," Angua said. "I don't see how no one saw him!"
"Hmm," Carrot said again. "Well, do what you can. If everyone in the area has been questioned, that's fine. Mister Vimes doesn't seem too worried about it, so I don't think we should worry either."
"All right. I'm going to get back to work on my other investigation." Angua stood and walked towards the door. When she reached it, she paused and turned back. "Carrot, isn't your birthday this week?"
Carrot blushed deeply. It clashed horribly with his bright orange hair. "Er," he said. "You don't have to get me anything! I'm really happy just being here, really, I am."
"I see," said Angua, and she was smiling when she left.
Wilson kicked the console, then regretted it because his foot hurt. "This is so stupid!"
"This is quite fascinating," said Archimedes from the other side of the console. "Although I admit I do not understand one iota of it. Where did you say this device was from again?"
"I didn't," grouched Wilson. "I have no idea where it's from. Some alien place probably."
"You aren't utterly encapsulated by all this? I am stunned! It is magnificent!"
Archimedes' enthusiasm was really getting to Wilson.
"I'm upset because they left us here, alone, while they went out and had fun! And they've been gone for an hour now! An hour!" he complained.
"But this is just incredible! I could study this device for centuries and still not understand it, and I'm no slouch, if I do say so myself." Archimedes had circled around to Wilson's side of the console and was closely examining a set of suspicious-looking buttons.
"Well have at it," Wilson said sourly. "We'll probably be here waiting for them about that long."
"Oh, don't be so down. This place is huge! There's plenty to explore if you're feeling trapped." Archimedes had moved on to examining the walls. "Fascinating! It seems almost organic!" he said.
"I'm not feeling trapped, I'm feeling left out," Wilson said. "Also I am feeling like a baby sitter." Archimedes shot him an offended look. "I didn't mean it that way," he added. "but you are from, well, more primitive times. I don't claim to understand any of this, but at least some of it's familiar."
"Primitive to you, maybe," said Archimedes, "but that is all a matter of perspective, is it not? To my perspective, where I am 'from' is the present day, and therefore modern, not primitive. In relation to me perhaps you are from a more advanced time, but with respect to this sort of advancement, I'd say we are on pretty equal ground. What's a couple thousands of years in the face of this?" He gazed around him in wonder.
Wilson shrugged, not caring to argue. "Fine, but I still wish I was out there instead of in here."
"Well," said Archimedes, resting his right elbow on his left palm and placing a finger on his chin contemplatively, "it's not like they locked us in. It couldn't hurt to explore a little, if you're that anxious."
"I," said Wilson, "am so glad you said that."
"I'm not just a doctor," House explained reluctantly. "I'm a diagnostician. It's a special type of doctor."
"And what do they do?" said Vimes as they turned onto the Street of Small Gods.
"I tell people what's wrong with them. Take that guy, for instance." House pointed. "See how annoyed he looks? I'm betting it's because he hasn't been getting any lately. The ring on his finger tells us he's probably married, but the bruise on his cheeks looks like a slap. Also, he stinks like a four-day dead fish on a hot day. I can smell him from here, he must work somewhere awful. If he'd just take a bath when he got home, I'd bet he'd get more action from his wife."
Vimes raised an eyebrow. "That must be lovely for you."
Carrot had accosted him on the way out of the Watch House to inform him that the man who'd shot the crossbow at him could not be tracked and also that a brand new member of the Watch had requested a meeting with him. Vimes had told him to tell the kid to shove off, he had more important things to do, but Carrot had looked at him reprovingly and he'd agreed to meet the kid when he got back.
During the whole conversation he'd had the unnerving feeling that House and Donna, who had been standing a little ways off, were listening in quite closely.
Suspicion aside, Vimes was finding that he quite liked both of them, which was rare. Donna had a large, loud personality and spoke her mind with ease, which was a quality Vimes heartily approved of. She carried herself with confidence and displayed an impressive amount of shrewdness. House, on the other hand, was blunt, sarcastic, and often downright mean, but reminded Vimes heavily of himself. House had a similar vice to his, though unlike his former alcohol habit, House seemed to function fairly well despite the little white pills he was always popping.
Liking them didn't mean Vimes trusted them. He was extremely suspicious of them. They were in his city but he'd never heard of them before, and while that didn't necessarily mean anything (there were lots of people in Ankh-Morpork he'd never met), Carrot hadn't known them either, and although not unprecedented, that was a rare thing.
More than that, they acted suspicious. They'd say words sometimes that Vimes didn't understand, they were dressed funny, and they clearly had not only never been in the city before, but they didn't seem to recognize elements that were common all over the Disc.
As if to illustrate his thoughts, Donna make a squeaky noise and jumped as she spied a passing troll.
"What is that?" she said, pointing. Thankfully the troll didn't notice and kept walking. Vimes stared at her.
"A troll," he said.
"Wow," said House, watching it turn a corner.
Not having ever seen a troll was explainable--it's not like they were common all over the Disc. In fact, they mostly stuck to the mountains, and many people arrived in Ankh-Morpork without ever seeing a Troll. Still, such an extreme reaction was a little strange, and it was one more thing on the top of a pile of slightly strange things.
"What do you do, Miss Noble?" he asked to change the subject.
"You can call me Donna," she said. "I'm a temp."
Vimes had no idea what that meant. "Excuse me?"
"I'm a secretary," she elaborated. "I work at different places for short periods of time whenever they need it. What are you snickering at?" The last bit was directed at House.
"Nothing," House said, still snickering a bit.
"Where are you all from?" asked Vimes, changing the subject. He supposed that as long as they were chit-chatting, he might as well try to get some information.
"Oh, around," said Donna, waving her hand vaguely.
"Not here," added House. Vimes raised an eyebrow but didn't press the issue. There was always time for that later.
"What brings you to Ankh-Morpork?" he asked instead.
"The Doctor led us here," said Donna. Her voice took on an irritable tone. "We didn't actually mean to come here. We should have left right away, but instead this lump had to get us involved."
"Hey!" said House defensively. "It's not my fault!"
"It is in every way your fault. There is no way in which it is not your fault."
"If you didn't mean to come to Ankh-Morpork, where were you meaning to go? And how in the hell could you have gotten so lost?"
"Er, it's not as difficult as you might think," said Donna.
"What's with the inquisition?" House growled.
Damn, thought Vimes. He had succeeded in learning nothing of value and they were almost there. "Sorry," he said out loud, more to appease them than because he meant it. "I am a watchman, you know. I do it for a living."
House ignored him. "Aren't you going to tell me anything about this plague?"
"Symptoms? Affected areas? How contagious is it?" House ticked these off on his fingers.
"Er, Vomiting, fever, aching joints, but what sets it apart is the spots. And it's probably contagious, but we don't really know."
"And? What kind of spots?"
"Black spots. They vary in size and location. We don't know what causes them, and no one has ever seen anything like it before," Vimes explained. There were almost at their destination. Vimes walked swiftly and the other two had no choice but to keep up.
"Interesting," House said to himself. "Some sort of pox, maybe? But if they vary in size it's more likely to be purpura...."
"Excuse me, what?" said Donna.
"What else causes spots? Some types of fungus, I suppose, but those wouldn't be contagious," House mused. "What's the size range?"
Vimes shrugged. "Don't know. I haven't really taken the time to look."
"Aren't you just a fountain of information."
They rounded the corner and there loomed the crudely-constructed barracks, looking not at all out of place in this decrepit part of the city.
In front of them, a man opened the large, crooked door and entered. He was dressed very strangely, with a long, encompassing black coat, a wide-brimmed hat, and oddest of all, a primitive sort of gas mask that looked a bit like a bird's beak.
"Who was that?" asked Donna.
"A sort of doctor," said Vimes. "Come on."
The barracks had been constructed in a hurry, and it showed. They weren't built to last and they weren't built to be comfortable, but they were built to be functional. They were made from wood and even though they were built little more than a week ago they already looked ancient. Ankh-Morpork did that to buildings. There were tiny cracks in between the wood planks and the door swung on poorly installed hinges. The building was big, though, and it needed to be if recent events were to be any judge.
The inside was just as shabby as the outside, if not more so. Bedding, if you could call the dirty rags that, littered the floor, which was covered by sick people in rows. There were paths around the sick people through which a couple of the strangely clothed people walked, as well as a few more normally dressed. Several more people, possibly family, sat beside some of the makeshift beds.
The whole building was bleak in appearance, atmosphere, and intent. Vimes shivered. He hated being there. Carrot, he knew, came here every day after he got off work, and sat with them, providing some comfort and companionship. Vimes didn't know how he could stand it, but that was Carrot at his essence.
Vimes glanced at his two companions. House looked pretty blank, almost bored, but Donna looked horrified.
"Oh my god," she said. "This is awful! What is wrong with you? I'm no doctor, but even I know this isn't how you take care of people!"
Vimes was taken aback. "Our supplies are pretty limited," he protested weakly, hating that she was repeating back to him almost verbatim what he'd said to Vetinari only a few days ago, and that he was being forced to take on the role of the Patrician.
"There are no excuses for this!" said Donna and already she was stomping off down the aisle. House had wandered off and seemed to be going about his own business, so Vimes cautiously followed her.
She almost tripped over a bowl of brown stuff which, upon further inspection, she determined must be some kind of food.
It wasn't even recognizable. Donna wrinkled her nose at it.
"This is totally unacceptable," she said. "Is that the kitchen?" She pointed to the other side of the building, where there were two sad-looking cabinets, a sad-looking counter with a sad-looking and extremely large pot on top, and also something that might have passed as a sink to a blind man who didn't know what the actual function of a sink was supposed to be. The young and somewhat dirty girl she was glaring at stuttered an affirmative. "Good grief," said Donna.
"Er--" began Vimes. She whirled on him.
"You! Aren't you the-- the commander or something important? Don't you have money? Why haven't you helped fund this?"
For a moment Vimes was flummoxed. The idea hadn't even occurred to him, and yet it was so obvious. Since his marriage to Sybil he'd hardly had a deficit of spare money. He could have funded far superior facilities without even making a dent in his own wealth.
The problem, of course, was that wealthy though he may be now, he'd lived in poverty for far longer, and that was his default state. He wasn't comfortable with the idea of having money and as a result he often forgot he did until forcibly reminded of it.
He was ashamed all the same.
He wondered why Sybil hadn't broached the idea, and remembered with a start that he hadn't even really seen her in days, not for more than a couple minutes, certainly not enough time to hold a real conversation. He felt a new stab of guilt but pushed it aside.
Donna hadn't bothered waiting around for an answer, at least. She was shouting instructions to the three women who were volunteering.
"You! Clean that pot out, and when I say clean it, I mean actually clean it, and then go fill it with fresh water," she instructed one girl, then turned to another. "Find me some spices! Anything, I don't really care, oh, and salt, definitely salt and pepper. Don't worry about the cost, Armor Boy over there will pay for it." The nervous-looking girl glanced over at Vimes for confirmation of this statement, so Vimes rolled his eyes and shrugged. "Get! Go! Scat!" Donna added.
Orders doled out, she stalked back towards Vimes. He raised an eyebrow at her as she approached. "Anything you'd like me to do?" he asked dryly.
"We passed a meat stall on the way here, didn't we?" she said in a sharp tone.
"I'll be back in a few minutes."
With that she left. Vimes shrugged at the swinging door she'd left in her wake.
"Interesting woman," said a voice behind him. Vimes recognized it as House and grunted. "The markings aren't like anything I've ever seen before," House continued. "Most symptoms are pretty ordinary, could be anything, and the fact that some present in different patients than others isn't strange either. The spots, though, they're not compatible with any disease I can think of. One guy over there had a spot on his leg six inches in diameter! How cool is that?"
"What?" said Vimes.
"Anyway, spots like that are usually caused by burst blood vessels under the skin, or pus building up, or most commonly a rash of some sort. These resemble a rash more than the other two, but I don't know of any rashes that are spread so bizarrely over the body. And these aren't raised on the skin at all! They're like freckles, except they're giant, black freckles! If I can figure out what they are, I'll have a better shot at figuring out what it is and what we can do about it." He paused. "Problem is, your facilities are, uh, somewhat less than stellar, and when I say that, I mean I might as well be working in a sewer. Not exactly what I'm used to."
"I can't stay here much longer anyway, and you have to come back with me," said Vimes. "You can figure it out on the way back. I have things to do."
"Don't think you're getting me back into that stinky jail. No way in hell."
Vimes rolled his eyes. "Don't worry, we're not going to be wasting cell space on you and your friends any longer. Just don't get into any more trouble."
"What am I now, twelve?"
"You'd be a pretty hideous twelve-year-old."
Their bickering was cut short by Donna reentering the building, this time carrying a sack. Instead of acknowledging either of them, she went straight over to the makeshift kitchen and dumped the contents - which turned out to be bones previously belonging to several birds, chickens most likely - onto the top of the cabinet.
The pot had been thoroughly cleaned and filled with fresh water, and she carefully placed all the bones inside the pot. "Someone build me a fire!" she said, and two girls rushed to obey her. House looked on approvingly.
"I like a woman who can bend others to her will. Shows strength of character." Then to Donna he said, "We're leaving, you know. Like now."
"You're going to have to wait a minute," said Donna briskly, without sparing him a glance. She located some large bricks in a corner and placed four of the around the fire, one on each side, on top of which she placed the pot. The bottom of the pot was wide enough that it sat on the edges above the fire without falling in, and the bricks were placed so that there were enough spaces between them and the fire wouldn't suffocate. She stood back and looked at her creation with satisfaction.
"Now," she said, "we can go. But I'm coming back here in a couple hours. This needs to soak under a light heat for a long time, but these people need decent food soon."
"What the hell are you doing, cooking bones?" said House.
Vimes, who was completely familiar with this technique, having seen his mom employ it many a time, explained. "By soaking the bones for several hours you can create a broth. The taste seeps out. It's better than nothing, and when you grow up poor you learn not to waste anything."
"My mum always used to make soup with the bones after Christmas," said Donna. "Of course, she'd put a lot more in it, vegetables and all that, but I haven't got any money. I got these at the market down the road. Do you know how hard it was to get that man to give me them for free? He was such an asshole! It's not like he was using them!"
Vimes was impressed she'd gotten anything for free at all. The city's merchants were notoriously frugal. Anything they could sell was theirs, and they could sell anything.
"Keep that fire going, but don't let it get too high!" Donna added to the girls clustered around the pot. "If the water shows signs of boiling, take it off the heat for about fifteen minutes, then put it back on. Don't touch it otherwise. I'll be back!" They nodded, giggled, and then started chatting amongst each other. "All right, let's go. Where are we going?"
"Excuse me? Excuse me!" said the Doctor anxiously, shoving his face through the bars.
"What, us?" said one of their jailers, a large man, probably in his mid-fifties, whose name was Sergeant Colon, or at least that's what he'd been called.
"Yes, of course you! Can you tell me where I am?"
"What, here?" Sergeant Colon looked around, confused.
"No, where!" said the Doctor.
"Er, this is the Watch house in Pseudopolis Yard."
"No, I mean where. More broadly."
"Er... next to the Opera House?" Colon tried.
"I think he means what city, Sarge," said the other jailer, Corporal Nobbs. This one was short, skinny, and looked more like a monkey than a man.
"Oh, Ankh-Morpork, then," said Colon, who clearly thought the Doctor was an idiot.
"Great! Wonderful!" said the Doctor. "More broadly still, where am I?"
"Uh... the... Discworld?" tried Colon.
"Lovely! Thank you!" the Doctor slumped back. "Do you know what this means? It means that we are on the Discworld, actually on one of the greatest legends in the universe, and I am stuck in a cell!"
"Don't worry, I'm sure Mister Vimes won't keep you here too long," said Corporal Nobbs, then he turned back to his cards. "Give me two, Sarge." Sarah Jane reached over and patted the Doctor's arm consolingly.
"What is that you're playing? Is that Poker?" said Owen incredulously. "How do you have Poker here?"
"What?" said Colon, clearly out of his depth once again.
"There are always some universal constants," the Doctor explained.
"The universe works in mysterious ways."
"What are you now, a bad science fiction narrator?" said Sarah Jane.
"Can I play?" said Tosh.
Sergeant Colon and Corporal Nobbs exchanged glances.
"Ooooh, no, Sarge, Mister Vimes will blow his top if he finds we let the prisoners out," said Nobby.
"No, Nobby, he'll never know! See, Mister Vimes has a lot of pressing demands on his time, which is why he's trusting us to the very important job of guarding the cells. He trusts our judge of character, see, and I'm judging that these guys are harmless. Mister Vimes will be happy that he didn't have to make the decision to let them out himself!"
"I don't know, Sarge. I don't think he'd be all that happy."
"I'll tell you what. We'll only let them out if they promise to stay down here and not try to leave. How's that?"
"I promise!" said Sarah Jane, raising her hand.
"I do too," said Tosh.
"Sure, whatever," said Owen. The Doctor raised an eyebrow and shrugged.
"It's your call, Sarge," said Nobby.
"Great!" said Colon. He stood, grabbed the keys from a tin in the bottom of the desk drawer, and unlocked the cell. Owen, Tosh, Sarah Jane, and the Doctor all piled out gratefully.
"Nobby, go run and see if you can find another chair," said Sergeant Colon. "We've only got five down here now." The five were utterly mismatched and included most of an armchair, and Sergeant Colon was hauling them all around the little round table at which he and Nobby had been playing. Sarah Jane and Owen helped him.
"Mind if I deal first?" said Tosh, gathering the cards. Colon grunted around a heavy wooden chair, and she took it as an okay. Nobby came back down with a cheap folding chair and they all sat. Tosh dealt.
"How do you play?" asked Sarah Jane brightly.
"Really? You really don't know how to play Poker?" scoffed Owen.
"When would I have had time to learn something like this?" Sarah Jane shot back.
"Oh hush," said Tosh. Nobby stared at them uneasily.
The Doctor leaned over and started explaining the rules to Sarah Jane while Tosh passed around cards.
"Three," said Colon.
"Two," said Owen.
"I fold," said the Doctor and he sighed as he set his cards back down.
"I'll take... I'll take four!" said Sarah Jane.
"You don't want to take four," said the Doctor. "You want to fold."
"What? Why? I want to play!"
"If your hand is bad enough that you need four, just fold."
"Fine," she said, and grumbled a bit.
"I'll take three," said Nobby.
"What are we betting here?" asked Tosh.
Colon shrugged. "Whatever you have."
"Alright, then, I'll start off by betting this pop tab." She took it out of her pocket and put it in the middle of the table.
"Great," muttered Owen.
"I'll raise you a button," said Nobby, throwing out a tarnished brass button.
"In that case, I'll bet a piece of pocket lint," said Owen.
"Nuh uh," said Colon. "That's against the rules. No pocket lint."
"What rules?" protested Owen.
"What betting rules?" Colon just shook his head. "Fine! I'll bet, uh...." He sifted through his pockets. "I'll bet this flyer." He took out a crumpled flyer that turned out to be for a video rental store. Sergeant Colon seemed satisfied with this.
"I'll see your flyer and raise you two pebbles," he said.
The betting went around one more time. Tosh put down another pop tab (they looked at her strangely but she just shrugged), Nobby a turkey wishbone, Owen a shoelace, and Colon folded.
"Two pair, kings and jacks," said Owen, laying his cards down with a flourish.
"Four fives," said Tosh proudly, laying down her cards as well.
"Dammit!" said Owen. Nobby sighed and threw his down as well, revealing only a pair of tens.
Thirty minutes later, Tosh was well in the lead. The most interesting bidding items had certainly come from the Doctor, who seemed to have all kinds of trinkets hidden within his large coat, including an arrowhead, a travel-sized bottle of lotion, a plastic ring, a keychain with the Eiffel Tower on it, a cherry-flavored lollypop, and a defunct Italian fifty Lira coin.
Nobby was extremely excited by the coin, so Tosh graciously gave it to him after she won it.
"You've been counting cards, haven't you?" the Doctor whispered to her under her breath.
"Me? Never!" she said in an exaggerated tone. Pretty early on, Owen had confiscated the cards from her and taken over the dealing duties, certain she was cheating.
"I think I'm done playing now," said Sergeant Colon, who was sick of losing. Tosh stared at her pile of junk and started doubting the wisdom of counting cards to win.
"I don't actually want most of this stuff," she said. "Anyone who wants it can have it."
Owen seized the chance and took back both his shoelaces and his belt (he'd run out of things to bet with pretty fast).
"Come on, one more game!" said Sarah Jane. "I'm just starting to get the hang of this!"
"Maybe later," said the Doctor. "For now, I think we ought to... RUN!"
With that, he bolted up the stairs. The others, after being momentarily startled, took off after him as Sergeant Colon and Corporal Nobbs yelled after them.
To Chapter 17: Into the Fire
Back to Chapter 15: Divine Heroin Muffin
Summary: Wilson babysits an accidental addition to the TARDIS crew while everyone else goes to Ankh-Morpork and gets arrested.