The prudent see danger and take refuge
The simple keep going and suffer for it
Run and hide!
— graffiti on USG Ishimura, Dead Space
Holmes burst into the room, brandishing his tool case (actually one of Watson's medical bags, the one he'd just spent a week and a half looking for).
"Take off your trousers!" he demanded.
"I beg your pardon?"
"I have tried to turn a deaf ear to it, I have tried to drown it out with music, I have tried to be patient and let you attend to it yourself this time, but the noise that damnable leg of yours is making is just impossible to ignore." Holmes set the tool case on the table and turned to Watson. "What are you waiting for? Take off those trousers. Last time there were stains, and you complained for a week." He watched Watson heave a sigh and cross the room to the sofa and begin undressing. "And they weren't even your trousers!"
Once Watson was trouser-less, Holmes frowned at him. "Why are you still standing?"
"Is there any use in hoping that one day you'll finally learn to respect my desire to keep certain aspects of my life private?"
"You can hope, certainly. Today, however, is definitely not that day." Holmes picked up the leather bag off the table and knelt beside Watson, looking up at him expectantly. "Well?"
Watson sighed and sat down, stretching his left leg out in front of him. The pistons and gears of the metal limb, running from just above the knee all the way to the foot, gleamed dully in the dim light of the room. Holmes bent down over it, muttering under his breath as he reached into his pocket and pulled out a pair of absurd looking spectacles. He fitted them over his head, glancing up at Watson, his eyes comically distorted. Watson let his head fall back and waved his hand in Holmes' general direction.
"Get on with it," he said. He braced himself for the still-foreign sensations of tools touching the metal of his leg, gritting his teeth. It wasn't unpleasant so much as strange, downright peculiar. The logical part of his brain knew that there was no possible way the metal could register the feeling of the tools, or the gentle brushes of Holmes' fingers against it, but sometimes, there was just no persuading his body otherwise.
Holmes muttered under his breath as he worked. Watson tried to catch what Holmes was saying, but all he got were muffled words as Holmes talked around the tools in his mouth. Still, he had a good idea of what was being said. It was the same thing Holmes always said, and the same thing he would probably always keep saying.
"You always let yourself go like this, same time each year," Holmes said, and Watson's head snapped up. "One of these days, you're going to have to forget about M—"
"Don't," Watson said, sitting up and pushing Holmes away roughly. "Don't say it."
"Mary," Holmes said spitefully, coming back to Watson and pulling the leg back toward him. "She left, Watson, and she's not coming back. It's been three years; if you keep brooding over it—"
"Contrary to what you may think, everything in my life does not happen because Mary left. My leg doesn't hurt because Mary left, I'm not in a bad mood because Mary left, and I'm not still living here because Mary left. You of all people should know that!" Watson shot to his feet and almost immediately sat back down, wincing and kneading the join between flesh and metal.
"Does it still pain you?" Holmes asked, laying his hand over Watson's.
"Only when I think about it," Watson answered quietly. He slid his hand out from under Holmes', letting the warmth of Holmes' hand seep into his skin. He let his head fall back while Holmes finished his work.
"Would you like to do something tonight?" Holmes asked as he put away his tools. "Take your mind off your melancholy, whatever the reason for it?"
"I thought maybe we'd go to see the new cabinet of curiosities. I've heard about it from my patients. Mrs. Harwood tells me the new specimens from the Continent are fascinating," Watson said. He watched Holmes start to frown, then catch himself and nod instead.
"Dinner and a museum, then. It should be an entertaining evening." Holmes stood up and brushed his hands clean. "I still think you should have Winifred take a look at your leg. There's only so much I can do, and if it still hurts, after all these years..."
"There's nothing that can be done," Watson said, getting dressed. "Short of removing the leg, the pain is just something I'll have to live with."
They strolled through the narrow aisles in the main room of the cabinet of curiosities, Holmes bending down over the display cases, lip curling in disdain. He paused at a case with a long spiraled horn laid out on a bed of velvet, a neatly lettered card proclaiming it to be the horn of a unicorn.
"I can't believe how gullible these people are," Holmes hissed at Watson. "Take this, for example. It's merely a narwhal tusk, carved into a spiral, and distressed to make it look older." He crossed the aisle, pointing to another case. "And this! I'll admit, the workmanship is somewhat impressive, and the idea of combining the corpse of a monkey with a papier mâché fish tail is imaginative, but I can see the glue leaking out from the joint between the two!"
"Keep your voice down," Watson said. "You're disturbing people."
"Good!" Holmes' voice was louder now. "They should all be disturbed by how they're being duped. Paying money to be deceived, it's ridiculous!"
"You paid our way in," Watson reminded him, and Holmes' frown smoothed out.
"Only because you made me," he said, stepping back from Watson. He hadn't taken two steps before he bumped into someone, the collision sending them both stumbling. When he turned around, he discovered that the person he'd bumped into was a woman, fallen to the floor in a tangle of skirts and petticoats. Rushing to help her, he knelt at her side.
"I'm very sorry, madam," he said, holding out a hand to her. "Are you all right?"
"Yes, I—" She looked up and over his shoulder, and her hand slipped out of his. Ignoring Holmes, she scrabbled away from the case which stood behind him, crawling backwards. Two men rushed to her side, helping her to her feet and leading her to a nearby bench.
Holmes watched Watson sit on one side of the woman, taking her hand and speaking softly with her. Looking around the room, he saw a few curious onlookers staring at the woman and her companions. Turning around to look behind him, he saw the case in the centre of the room. Most likely, it was what had caused the woman to become frightened. A wooden pedestal held a strange object in a glass case. Holmes walked closer, examining the statue carefully. It looked metallic, its two upright segments twining around each other as the artifact spun slowly. Strange symbols were carved into the sides, gleaming as the light caught their edges. The card in the case identified it as a "strange artifact, found in the wreckage of a ship on a deserted island in the South Pacific."
Holmes glanced back, and saw that while the men only had eyes for the woman they were attending to, she was looking everywhere but at the case he stood beside. He walked over to the bench, just in time to hear Watson assure the woman she seemed fine.
"My apologies again, madam," Holmes gave her a bow. She held out her hand and he kissed it, ignoring the glares from the man sitting on the other side of her. "Sherlock Holmes, at your service. And you've already met my colleague, Doctor John Watson."
"Lady Alexandra Porter," she said, her accent identifying her as an American. "Porter-Hall, actually," she corrected herself, shaking her head. "It's only been a few weeks since we've been married, I haven't had a lot of time to get used to my new name. This is my husband, Lord Oliver Hall," she motioned to the man sitting beside her. "And this is our dear friend, Titus Casey," she turned to the man standing behind her.
Lord Hall gave Holmes a quick nod, then turned back to his wife, all his attention on her. Holmes turned to Casey, holding out his hand. When Casey shook it, Holmes noticed the calluses on the man's hands, as if he worked with his hands. A ship's mechanic, perhaps, judging by the small smear of grease on the cuff of his overly fancy coat.
"Lady Alexandra," he said, turning back to her, "I hope you were not too alarmed by the exhibits here. I assure you, most of them are nothing more than elaborate hoaxes."
"Yes, Mister Holmes, I'm aware of that," she said. "I appreciate your concern, but it was simply fatigue that made me react like I did." She squeezed her husband's hand and smiled. "A transatlantic journey takes a bit out of you, even in the comforts of a private airship and with a stopover at the mid-Atlantic aerodrome. I'm afraid I overextended myself." She glanced toward the display case, and Holmes looked back, to see Titus Casey leaning in to examine the artifact. When he looked up, he shook his head slightly. When Holmes looked back to Lady Alexandra, color was returning to her face and she looked calmer.
"Perhaps it's best we cut the evening short and return to the Grand," Lord Oliver said. "We can continue our exploration of the city tomorrow."
"Yes, perhaps it's best," Lady Alexandra nodded. "Thank you for your assistance, Doctor Watson."
"Of course," Watson stood and gave her a bow. "It was a pleasure."
"Mister Holmes, Doctor Watson, I wish you a good evening," Lady Alexandra said, getting to her feet. "Perhaps we shall see you again while we are in the city."
"That would be delightful. If we do not, I wish you all the best on your visit," Holmes said. He and Watson watched Lady Alexandra and her companions leave, Lord Oliver's arm around his wife's waist, Titus Casey offering an arm to her on the other side. Lady Alexandra glanced back at the artifact, eyes wide, and turned back after a moment, speaking intently to her husband.
"Do you believe her?" Watson asked. "The explanation about fatigue?"
"Not in the slightest," Holmes said. "She was terrified when she saw that artifact. She didn't really relax until Mister Casey gave her the nod." He turned back to the artifact, peering at it. "I think she's seen something like this before, that's why she was so frightened."
"Did they seem familiar to you?" Watson asked. "I have the strangest feeling I've seen them before."
"They do seem vaguely familiar," Holmes nodded absently. "Can we leave now? I think that was about as much excitement as we're going to find here tonight."
Watson sighed, but nodded, and they headed for the exit as well.
In the morning, Holmes read the paper while they ate breakfast. The front page headline proclaimed MIDNIGHT MASSACRE and the article that Holmes helpfully read out loud spoke of several murders near the cabinet of curiosities they'd visited the night before. Watson left his breakfast unfinished as Holmes elaborated on the gruesome details in the article.
"You're going to want to go to the museum, aren't you?" Watson asked, setting down his tea, unable to finish even that.
"I suppose so," Holmes said, calmly folding the paper and finishing his tea. "I'm sure that Inspector Lestrade will be calling upon us for help sooner or later, we may as well save him having to send for us."
"You'll have to go without me," Watson said. "I have a patient I need to attend to this morning."
"That's all right, I've got something to take care of first, too." Holmes got up, grabbing his coat from where it lay on top of a pile of newspapers. "Shall we meet at the museum, say in a couple of hours?" He didn't wait for Watson's reply before heading out the door, leaving Watson with his mouth open to answer, and nobody to hear him.
Sighing, Watson got up and headed to his bedroom to clean up and get dressed. The widowed Lady Ferguson was an old-fashioned kind of woman, demanding absolute attention to detail. As he laid out his best suit, Watson chuckled at the memory of the last time he'd gone to visit her dressed in something other than his very best—it had taken twenty minutes to convince Lady Ferguson that he'd meant no disrespect and for her to allow him to examine her without being sent home to change his clothes like some unruly school pupil being sent home for punishment.
Twenty minutes later, he gazed out at the street from the hansom cab. There was an overturned carriage blocking one of the streets, and the detour would make the ride to Lady Ferguson's residence longer than usual. Watson allowed himself a moment of relaxation, leaning his head against the side of the cab and closing his eyes. He turned his face to the side and inhaled the smell of Holmes' tobacco that seemed to permeate most of his clothes these days.
Holmes arrived at the cabinet of curiosities only minutes before Watson, and they headed inside together. One of the constables posted at the door tried to stop them from going inside, but as soon as he recognized them, he stepped aside.
"I think Lestrade is expecting us," Watson said in a conspiratorial whisper.
"Of course he is," Holmes said, examining the floor of the hallway they stood in. He walked into the main exhibit room and paused at the door, taking in the scene. Most of the display cases lay overturned, shattered glass covering their contents. Inspector Lestrade and his men were gathered in the centre of the room, standing over a sheet-covered body. When Lestrade spotted Holmes and Watson, he stepped over the narwhal tusk masquerading as a unicorn horn and walked toward them, frowning.
"What are you doing here?"
"I wanted to offer my services," Holmes said pleasantly, "if you should find you require them."
"If I required your services, I'd have sent for you," Lestrade glared at Holmes.
"And yet we are here, and you have not asked us to leave," Holmes gave Lestrade a smug smile.
"There's nothing here for you to do, Holmes," Lestrade finally said. "It's all very clear what happened. That poor wretch," he motioned to the body on the floor, "must have been the one to kill the other two near the workhouse. He was probably injured in the fight and ran off, leaving the bodies behind. He broke in here, hoping to wait out the worst, and succumbed to his injuries."
Holmes nodded as Lestrade spoke, looking around the room. "Why here, though? Why crawl all the way to this room, when there are two other rooms before this one?"
"How did you know he crawled?"
"There are bloody hand-prints on the floor in the hallway, rather faint and blending in with the dark floor. Also, there is blood smeared on the floor in here, and on the remains of the broken display cases. It's as if the man was looking for something." Holmes stepped around Lestrade and walked to the body, lifting the sheet to get a look underneath. "See how his hand is outstretched toward this central case?"
"It looks like he was reaching for it," Watson said, coming to stand beside Holmes.
"He was doing more than reaching," Holmes said. "See here, at the base of the case? Blood."
Holmes let the sheet drop, and crouched down to get a better look at the wooden case. "What do you make of these?" He pointed to the bloody smears.
"I don't recognize—" Watson trailed off, leaning closer. "They look like..." He looked up to the artifact they'd examined last night.
"Exactly," Holmes said, standing up. "They look exactly like the symbols on the artifact."
"Was this moving last night?"
"Yes," Watson nodded. "But it definitely wasn't glowing." They stared at the artifact, the strange red light emanating from inside shining through the symbols carved on the surface. "And it wasn't making that sound." He rubbed at his temples, frowning.
"Are you all right?"
"Yes," Watson nodded. "It's just a little headache."
"Holmes!" Lestrade interrupted them. "What have you got?"
"I can tell you that you should send a couple of men to the Hyperion Aerodrome. Find out if there's a ship with a missing crewman." Holmes crouched beside the body and lifted the dead man's sleeve, peering at his wrist. "An electronaut, to be precise."
"How do you know that?"
"These burns, on his wrist," Holmes pointed. "The metal of the electrosuits heats up when exposed to electricity. Repeated exposure to such heat leaves marks."
"All right," Lestrade stood over the body, looking down at it. "I suppose he is dressed like a sailor, we'll look into it. Now, have you got something to point to this being anything other than an ordinary murder?"
"No murder is ever ordinary, Inspector," Holmes said. "And as a matter of fact, I do have my suspicions. I don't have enough evidence to formulate a theory, however; so I will require more information."
"Of course you will," Lestrade muttered under his breath. "What do you need?"
"I'd like to know who the owner of this artifact is, where it came from, that sort of thing."
"I'll send someone to you as soon as we know."
"Splendid. We'll be at the Grand Hotel," Holmes said, and left the room without waiting for an answer or to see whether Watson was following.
Watson gave Lestrade a shrug, and followed Holmes out to the street.
"Why are we going to the Grand?" he asked as they waited for a cab.
"To pay our new American friends a visit, of course," Holmes said, rocking back and forth on his heels. "They know more about they matter than they let on, and they let on quite a bit."
"What are you talking about?"
The cab arrived and Holmes stepped in first. "After all these years, Watson, you've still so much to learn," he said, leaning his head back and closing his eyes.
When they arrived at the Grand Hotel, Holmes jumped out of the cab, leaving Watson to pay the driver. By the time Watson caught up with him, Holmes had somehow managed to charm the information he needed out of the hotel staff and was waiting by the elevator.
"There you are, Watson," he said, leaning on the lift call button. "Apparently our new friends are having their luncheon right now."
"I'd ask if we were going to wait, but I already know the answer," Watson said, stepping into the lift as the doors opened. "What exactly is it that you hope to learn from them?"
"Just wait and see, Watson," Holmes said with a knowing smile on his face. "All will be revealed, I promise."
When the door to the Americans' suite opened, Titus Casey frowned at Holmes. "Can I help you?"
"I certainly hope so," Holmes said, pushing past him and into the suite. Watson nodded apologetically, and Casey glared at him, but stepped aside to let him in. When they caught up to Holmes, he'd already made himself comfortable at the table where Lady Alexandra and her husband were sitting, both of them staring at Holmes in confusion.
"Now, then," Holmes said when Watson and Casey came into the room. "Now that we're all here, we can get to business. Yes, please," he said to Lady Alexandra, who was holding out a teacup to him. "My associate pointed out that you three seemed somewhat familiar, and this morning, I undertook to find out where exactly we'd seen you before. It didn't take much searching at the archives to find this," he pulled out a crumpled newspaper page out of his pocket, laying it on the table and straightening it as best he could. "There were more, but I only needed the one. After all, they all said the same thing. Fabulous stories of your heroic deeds, saving Gotham from an extraordinary threat. You succeeded where the military had failed, it seems." He looked up from the paper, first to Lady Alexandra, then Lord Oliver, and finally to Titus Casey. "The papers didn't mention the exact nature of the threat you faced, I thought perhaps you could enlighten us."
"Mister Holmes, I would be more inclined to answer your questions had you not barged in on our meal, without any decorum whatsoever," Lord Oliver said, glaring at Holmes.
"Oh, I could have gone through the proper motions," Holmes shrugged, "but you'd only have said no. It may not be the conventional way to do things, but we've all been spared the tediousness of me asking, you refusing, and me having to take some drastic measures to get you to speak with me. This way, we've saved ourselves some time." He sipped at his tea, then fell silent for a moment. "Forgive my bluntness, please, but I can't help but think whatever you faced in Gotham has something to do with the artifact that so affected you yesterday," he said to Lady Alexandra.
"We've already told you, my wife was simply fatigued—"
"Oliver, stop," Lady Alexandra laid a hand on his. "Let's not try to fool the detective. I'm sure he'll figure it out eventually anyway, we may as well tell him." She turned to Holmes and smiled. "You've been in the papers on our side of the Atlantic, we're familiar with your exploits as well." She drained her tea and sat back, gathering her thoughts. "The artifact doesn't seem to have anything in common with what we faced," she said, paling a bit as she remembered. "It's eerily similar, though, and while I could just be seeing ominous things where there aren't any, I'd rather never see anything like that again." She reached for her husband's hand, and held on tightly.
"Forgive my prying," Holmes said, his voice quiet and gentle, "but what exactly was it you all saw?"
"It wasn't from this world," Titus Casey spoke up from where he was sitting. "It infected people, altered their very bodies..." He trailed off, his lips pressed into a thin line as he composed himself. "It made them part machine, turned them into grotesque versions of what they'd once been."
"Why all these questions, Mister Holmes?" Lady Alexandra asked. "Has something happened?"
"There have been... suspicious deaths," Holmes said. "We think they may have something to do with the artifact. The police haven't made a solid connection yet—shocking, I know," he sneered derisively, "but there certainly wasn't any trouble like this in the area before the artifact went on exhibit." There was a knock at the door, and Holmes looked up. "That will be for me, most probably. I asked Inspector Lestrade to send the information here."
Casey got to his feet, but Watson motioned for him to sit back down. "We've caused you enough inconvenience for the day, I'll go." When he returned, he was carrying a sheaf of papers, reading as he walked.
"What is it, Watson?"
"The owner of the artifact is a Mister Michael Altman," Watson said. He sat down and continued reading. "Apparently he's an adventurer of sorts, he's made his fortune bringing back various treasures and selling them to the highest bidder. He's been denied membership in the Explorers ' Club because of his lack of standing and his less than ethical methods."
"I suppose that's why his artifact is on exhibit at a cabinet of curiosities rather than a respectable museum," Holmes mused. "No matter how fascinating such an establishment may be, both for the subject matter on display," he grimaced a little, "and the opportunities it presents to study human nature and how willing people are to believe the extraordinary."
"Did you say Altman?" Lady Alexandra asked, and Watson nodded. "I think I know him. Well, of him. He's made a bit of a name for himself in the less reputable circles. I know some people who may know more. I can contact them if you'd like?"
"Perhaps we could wait until we determine if there is anything to be concerned about," Watson interjected before Holmes could answer. "Maybe this recent spate of violence is, as Inspector Lestrade said, nothing more but ordinary."
"It's nice of you to think so positively, Watson," Holmes said, "but I think we all know that's not the case."
"It seems that once we are involved, it rarely turns out to be anything ordinary," Watson sighed.
"Thank you for your time, Lady Alexandra," Holmes stood and bowed to her. "Perhaps London is not the place for you, if you are looking for a more restful holiday." He held out a hand to Lord Oliver, who shook it. "I apologize for the intrusion, Lord Oliver. Hopefully there will be nothing more like it while you are here in Europe." As Watson made his goodbyes to the Lord and Lady, Holmes shook hands with Titus Casey.
When they were standing in front of the hotel, waiting for a cab, Watson turned to Holmes.
"Was anything you learned from them useful in any way, or did we just interrupt their meal for nothing?"
"I'm not quite sure yet," Holmes said thoughtfully. "This could prove to be, as you said, nothing extraordinary. And since our new friends' experiences in Gotham appear to have nothing to do with the case, we can probably leave them and their arrangement out of the case."
"Arrangement? What are you talking about?" The cab pulled up and Watson stepped inside.
"Come, Watson, surely you don't mean to tell me you didn't notice?" Holmes took off his hat and set it on the seat beside him.
"Notice what?" Watson refrained from grabbing Holmes by his coat and shaking some sense out of him.
"Last night, when Lady Alexandra fell, both Lord Oliver and Mister Casey rushed to her side. Once you and I were involved, Mister Casey took a step back, but his actions cannot be denied."
"He's a friend of theirs, why wouldn't he rush to her side if there was something wrong?"
"True, but there are other things. He has a tan line on his ring finger, which was not visible yesterday, because he was wearing a ring. A ring which, although not made from the same material or indeed identical to the Lord and Lady's rings, is similar enough to signify an attachment far beyond that of a friend to a man and his wife."
"Don't be absurd," Watson scoffed. "He could be married, or widowed, or indeed just wearing a ring which has no significant meaning."
"I saw the way Lord Oliver looked at him, Watson," Holmes said, his voice suddenly husky. "Indeed, I saw the way they all looked at each other. Only people who are very much in love look at each other like that."
"So what are you saying, that the three of them..."
"That's exactly what I'm saying," Holmes nodded, then leaned out the window to talk to the driver, giving him a new destination.
"Where are we going now?"
"To see Mister Altman, of course. His artifact appears to be at the centre of this case, he might have some information we don't." He leafed through the papers Lestrade had sent over. "It says here Altman's rented rooms in Bloomsbury, near the British Museum. No doubt he was hoping to exhibit his finds there, and sought to secure an address nearby. Apparently he had to settle for Mister... Pendergast," he tapped the page in front of him, "and his cabinet of curiosities.
"What makes you think he's going to want to talk to us?"
Holmes flipped through the pages Lestrade had sent. "Like it or not, our names carry a certain... notoriety, and if Altman is indeed trying to make a name for himself, he'll be eager to help the famous Holmes and Watson with one of their cases."
"Even if he may turn out to be the suspect in this one?"
"We'll simply have to make sure not to give too much away," Holmes said, putting on his hat. "He's hosting a fancy to do tonight, being able to say he's helping us will make him the star of the evening."
"And if he refuses to speak with us?"
"I'm sure Mister Altman wouldn't want the rather alarming developments surrounding his artifact to get out, it might make people reluctant to attend," Holmes grinned, stepping out of the cab almost before it stopped moving. He was up the stairs and knocking on the door before Watson had time to get out and tell the driver to wait.
When the door opened, Watson gawked at the man who stood in front of them. The doorman, because there was no one else he could be, wore an elaborate uniform, complete with shiny buttons and embroidered epaulets. He frowned at them.
"Mister Altman is not accepting visitors presently," he announced in a sonorous voice.
"Do you know who I am?" Holmes asked, and the doorman remained stony faced, not budging from where he stood, blocking the door. Holmes peered around the doorman, spotting someone in the hall behind him. "Mister Altman!" he called out, and when the doorman turned to look behind him, pushed his way past. "Mister Altman, just the man I need to speak with!"
"Who the hell are you?" The man turned to Holmes, his face reddening with anger.
"Sherlock Holmes, at your service," Holmes gave Altman a bow. "We need to speak with you concerning an urgent matter, Mister Altman."
"You'll have to come back another day, Mister Holmes," Altman said, composing himself. "I'm really quite busy—"
"Yes, I understand you're hosting a dinner party tonight. It's quite a guest list you have planned," Holmes said, taking Altman's arm and leaning in to speak quietly. "I apologize for interrupting your preparations, but I'm sure that's preferable to the police interrupting you later in the day. They probably wouldn't be considerate enough to wait until tomorrow to speak with you."
"If you think you can blackmail me into anything," Altman sputtered, pushing Holmes away, "you will find you picked the wrong target!"
"I'm merely pointing out the facts," Holmes said. "But if you are unwilling to take a few minutes to speak with us, we will have to inform Inspector Lestrade, and he will deal with the situation in his own way." He turned to Watson, throwing him a wink, and put on his hat. "Come along, Watson. We can probably still catch the inspector at the crime scene."
"Wait," Altman called out, and Holmes turned back to him. "In the interest of not having my party disturbed, I can see I have no choice but to concede to your shameless tactics, Mister Holmes. Please, follow me, we'll speak in my study."
"You really are shameless," Watson muttered to Holmes as the followed Altman.
"Yes, but it works so well," Holmes grinned at Watson.
When they entered the study, Altman sat down, palms laid flat on the desk in front of him.
"Now, gentlemen, what can I help with?"
"The artifact you have on display at Mister Pendergast's cabinet of curiosities," Holmes said. "What can you tell us about it?"
"There isn't much to say," Altman shrugged. "I found it on an island—"
"Yes, yes, 'a deserted island in the South Pacific', I read the card," Holmes said, spinning the globe that stood in the corner of the study. He let it spin a few times, and then stopped it, his fingers sliding over the empty waters of the South Pacific. "I don't suppose you could tell us where this island is?"
"Unfortunately, no," Altman shook his head. "We were caught in a storm, and by the time we crashed, we were very much off course. We stayed on the island long enough to make repairs and resupply, and then left. Our only goal was getting back home, not charting the location of an island to which none of us had any intention of ever returning."
"And you found the artifact in the course of your search for supplies?"
"What does it matter?" Altman asked. "We found it, we brought it back, that's all there is to it."
Watson turned back from the bookshelf she'd been studying. "In the course of your return trip, did any of your crew fall ill? Perhaps behave strangely, violently?"
"No more than is normal for an airship crew on an extended journey," Altman shrugged. "Why all these questions?"
"There were several deaths in the vicinity of the cabinet of curiosities," Holmes said. "We're trying to determine if perhaps they're connected to your artifact."
"That's... that's preposterous!" Altman shot to his feet. "Has something happened to my property? Perhaps I should contact Mister Pendergast, remove the artifact from his exhibit until this matter is resolved."
"Is that what you're concerned about?" Watson clenched his fists and crossed the room to the desk where Altman was sitting. "People are dying, and you're worried about your property?"
"Gentlemen, I'd like you to leave," Altman crossed to the door, holding it open. He glared at Watson, who had crowded in close, staring into Altman's eyes. "Doctor Watson, if you please..."
"Watson, now is not the time," Holmes laid a hand on Watson's arm and gently pulled him away from Altman. "Let's go, we have work to do."
Altman stayed in the door of his study as they walked out, glaring after them. When they were out on the street, Watson turned on Holmes.
"Are you out of your mind? He's obviously involved!"
Holmes smiled smugly. "Of course he is." He stepped into the cab and waited until it was moving before reaching into his coat pocket and pulling out a sheaf of papers.
"I, uh, borrowed this from Altman's desk," Holmes grinned. "He seemed so preoccupied with you, it seemed a shame not to take advantage. Thank you for that, by the way."
"I didn't—" Watson shook his head.
"I know. But it all worked out for the best, don't you think?"
Holmes moved to sit beside Watson and spread out the papers on the other seat. They leaned forward to examine the pages, shoulders pressed together in the tight space, and tried to arrange the pages into something coherent.
"These look like the symbols on the artifact," Watson pointed to a cluster of symbols in the corner of one page. "And here's more," he pointed to another page. "And here as well."
"It seems Mister Altman has made a study of the artifact. I wish his handwriting was a little clearer, though," Holmes squinted at one of the pages.
"Give it here," Watson took the page out of Holmes' hand, peering at it himself. "No, you're right, this is indecipherable."
"I'm sure we'll figure it out if we put our heads together."
"So what now? We've hit a dead end with Altman, what else can we do?"
"I'd like to get another look at the artifact," Holmes said. "Thorough as Altman might have been, I want my own notes on the thing. If it's responsible for what's been happening, if it's somehow affecting people, we need to learn as much about it as we can."
"If it's affecting people, are you sure it's a good idea to spend any time with it?"
"That's where you come in, Watson." Holmes turned to him, solemn. "I shall need you to keep an eye on me, make sure I'm not showing signs of madness."
"Any more than you already do, you mean," Watson answered him, a small smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "And if you do suddenly go mad?"
"I'm sure a physician of your reputation could get me a room at Lambeth," Holmes winked at him. "Now, what do you say to another visit to the cabinet of curiosities? The sooner I get a look at that artifact, the sooner we'll have the information we need."
"If I said I wanted to wait till morning, would it do any good?"
"Absolutely none," Holmes said, already leaning out the window to give the driver their new destination.
The scene at the cabinet of curiosities was an utter shambles. Police were everywhere, some holding back the curious crowd, some walking the perimeter, on the lookout for evidence and anything else that might pertain to the case. The constable stationed at the door headed inside as soon as he spotted Holmes and Watson getting out of the cab, and returned moments later accompanied by Inspector Lestrade.
"Well?" There was a smudge of blood on the inspector's cheek, smeared down over his chin.
"What's happened here?"
Lestrade glared at Holmes, more so than usual. "Have you found out anything? Or are you going to waste more of my time?"
"I'm working on it," Holmes said, glancing around the scene. "What the hell happened here?" There was a woman sitting in the street, her hands covered with blood, and she turned her head up to the sky and screamed, her voice ragged and hoarse.
"That's what I'm trying to find out. I can't get anyone to make any sense," Lestrade threw up his hands. "She won't stop crying long enough to give me a straight answer, and my men..." He pointed to the door that opened just then. Men carried out five stretchers, the bodies on four of them covered with blood soaked sheets. The last stretcher held a young constable who kept mumbling something under his breath. When Holmes and Watson stepped closer, they could hear what he was saying.
"They just kept coming, no matter how many times we fired… Horrible creatures, ripped the men apart, we tried to stop them..." A violent cough seized him, and Watson let him grab onto his hand for support. Blood trickled out of the corner of the young man's mouth, the bloody stain on the sheet he was covered with growing larger by the minute. "They weren't human, sir," he said, looking from Watson to Holmes to Lestrade. "They couldn't have been."
He coughed again, a horrible wheezing sound that had Watson wincing. He had the medics set the stretcher down and knelt on the sidewalk by the young man, holding onto his hand. It wasn't long before the constable's grip slackened and his hand slid out of Watson's. Sighing softly, Watson closed the constable's eyes and pulled the sheet up over his face.
"What the hell happened here?" Watson repeated Holmes' question.
Lestrade motioned for the medics to take the stretcher away, not taking his eyes off it until it was loaded into the hearse.
"I had men here, finishing up with the scene from this morning. And then there was a call about someone attacking them. They fired on the attackers, and apparently it wasn't enough, because when we got here ten minutes later, all of them were dead, except for young Harmon there. He lived long enough to tell me what he told you. That whoever attacked them withstood the fire of five PEWs and ripped them apart."
"You don't really think they were something other than human, do you?" Holmes scoffed.
"Of course not," Lestrade said. "They couldn't have been anything but human."
"Is it possible that they were wearing some sort of armor?" Watson asked. "There are sufficiently advanced technologies that allow for a combination of man and machine," he glanced pointedly at Holmes and then down at himself. "Who's to say someone couldn't have made some kind of contraption to allow them to withstand Plasma Energy Weapon fire?"
"There we go, then, a reasonable explanation," Holmes said. "I'm sorry about your men, Lestrade."
"Whatever it is that you're working on, Holmes, work fast."
"May we go inside?" Watson asked. "We'd like to take another look at that artifact."
"It's gone," Lestrade said, staring off into the distance.
"What do you mean?"
"When I got here and saw the slaughter, I didn't go looking for it, but when I was inside, I noticed it was gone."
"Who took it?" Holmes pressed.
"How the devil should I know? I was more concerned with my men being slaughtered than some useless trinket being gone!" Lestrade gave Holmes one last scathing look and stormed off before either Holmes or Watson could say anything.
"Come on, Watson, let's go see for ourselves."
"You're just going to barge inside?"
"He didn't say not to," Holmes pointed out and headed inside. Watson sighed and followed him. He just hoped they wouldn't get arrested. Again.
There were still a few constables finishing up in the room, but they gave Holmes the briefest of glances before returning to work.
"See?" Holmes turned to Watson as they looked around the room. "Nothing to worry about."
"Except the fact that there are murderers running around the city, and the police can't stop them. Monsters or human, they're dangerous." Watson glanced at the walls and display cases, scorched with PEW fire. "Perhaps we're in over our heads, Holmes."
Holmes gave him a serious look. "Are you saying you want to drop this case?"
"I'm not sure what I'm saying," Watson shook his head. "Come on, let's get a proper look at things."
Their examination of the room revealed nothing that they had not seen on their last visit, excepting the addition of more damage and another series of symbols drawn in blood on the pillar that supported the empty artifact case. Around the glass case were more symbols, these ones appearing to have been scratched into the wooden shelf. Holmes produced several sheets of paper and a piece of charcoal from somewhere in his coat, and took careful rubbings of the symbols for further study.
"Perhaps if we manage to decode the symbols, we can figure out what all these are saying," he nodded at the blood-painted symbols as he drew them on another piece of paper. "I wish we could get another look at that artifact."
"Well, how do we find it?"
"I suspect that if we were to inspect Altman's home, we would find it there on display."
"Do you think it was there when we went to see him?"
"Probably," Holmes put the drawings and rubbings away, wiping his hands on his coat. "We came here straight from there; he wouldn't have had enough time to beat us here, not before¬¬—" He trailed off, looking around the room.
Watson looked up at him sharply. "Holmes, you don't think he's responsible for what's happened here, do you?"
"It's difficult to say, but I think I'd keep my voice down if I were you," Holmes said. "We wouldn't want anyone seeking to avenge their colleagues' deaths to do anything rash. We don't have any evidence pointing to Altman being responsible."
"What do we do now?"
"I think we need to speak to the curator, perhaps he'll be able to shed some light on the matter."
They found the curator, Mister Pendergast, in his office, with the door ajar. The door had several deep gouges in it, as if someone or something had tried to rip its way through the wood. As Holmes pushed the door open, they could see Pendergast, gaunt and pale, pacing his office. His hair was a tangled mess, and running his hands through it did not help his appearance.
Holmes knocked on the doorframe and Pendergast whirled toward them, eyes wide. When he got a look at them, he slumped, leaning on his desk, one hand on his chest.
"I'm sorry, gentlemen, but you will have to come back another day. I don't know if you've noticed, but there's been something of a disturbance in the museum."
"Mister Pendergast, we're investigating the murder," Watson started.
"Oh! Forgive me, please. It's just that you don't look like police."
Holmes frowned. "We're not police," he said, scowling at Pendergast. "Sherlock Holmes," he drew himself up and held out his hand. "Doctor Watson and I are assisting the police," he explained when Pendergast shook his hand. "Were you here when the attack happened?"
Pendergast nodded shakily. "I was trying to figure out what to do about the unfortunate events of last night. It was finally quieting down, the police were almost done, and the next thing I knew, there was shouting, and shooting. They told me to stay in here and lock the door." He nodded to the gouges in the door. "Thankfully the door was strong enough to withstand... whatever they were."
"Do you have any idea why they would try to get into your office? Was it you they were after, or something in here?"
"I... I'm not sure," Pendergast took a deep, shuddering breath and sank into his chair. "Please forgive me, Mister Holmes, I'm still a bit shaken. I have no idea how I'm going to recover from this. Murder! In my establishment! This will drive people away; I'll lose all my money."
Holmes patted Pendergast's shoulder. "I'm sure an enterprising businessman like yourself can find a way. It might cost a bit; after all, there's an awful lot of blood out there, and you'll probably have to replace some of the exhibits. But people will want to see the scene of such gruesome events."
"Yes!" Pendergast looked up at Holmes, color coming back into his cheeks. "I can adjust the lights, rearrange the exhibits, and create the proper atmosphere. Of course!" He rummaged in his desk for paper and began scribbling notes.
"It's only a pity that the artifact which was the centerpiece of your exhibit is gone," Holmes said, watching Pendergast carefully.
"Oh, Mister Altman will be returning it tomorrow," Pendergast said, not looking up from his notes. "He wanted to show it at his private party tonight. Apparently his guests are the kind of people who do not frequent establishments such as mine."
"Tell me, Mister Pendergast, how did Mister Altman come to display his artifact here? He strikes me as the overly ambitious kind who'd try for a more, uh, renowned museum."
"I have an object in my collection, which he claimed is related to the artifact. It's been in my family for years, there are stories it has special properties. The man who sold it to my great-grandfather spun tales of miracles, people seeing their loved ones, long dead and gone, and of the dead coming back to life."
Holmes scoffed. "And have you seen this object do any of these things?"
"Of course not. I never believed it could do any of that. Neither did my great-grandfather, I suppose."
"Then why did he purchase it?"
"Because it was strange and mysterious, and he collected this type of thing. That's how this collection got its start, you know. My family has a history of collecting the unusual. We see the potential in strange objects, no matter how odd or useless they may appear. Mister Altman tried to buy it from me, but it's been in my family for so long, I've come to regard it as a family heirloom, so I refused. He offered me a significant sum of money, then, to display the two objects together."
Holmes and Watson exchanged glances. "May we see the object?"
Pendergast frowned, glancing at the large portrait on the far wall of his office. Judging by the resemblance, the man was a relative of Pendergast's, and if the clothes he wore were any indication, most likely his grandfather.
Watson leaned forward over the desk. "Mister Pendergast, it would be very helpful to our investigation if we could see the object. The sooner we can find out what exactly has happened, the sooner you will be able to get back to business."
"Of course, of course," Pendergast nodded, getting to his feet. "You must understand, with everything that's happened, I'm reluctant to let anyone have access."
"We would be very grateful," Watson continued, speaking in a gentle voice.
Pendergast walked to the painting, and swung it away from the wall, revealing a large safe. He opened it carefully and took out an almost cube-shaped box. It was a little wider than it was tall, but Pendergast carried with ease that belied its size. He set it on the desk and Watson and Holmes stepped forward to get a better look.
It resembled the artifact, both in the strange metal it was made of and in the symbols engraved on its surface. At the top of the box, there was a circular opening, through which gears were visible.
"What exactly did Mister Altman do with this?" Holmes asked.
"He placed the artifact on top—it fit perfectly—and turned it. As soon as it was slotted in, there was a loud noise, and the artifact began to move." Pendergast shuddered at the memory.
"Are you feeling all right?" Watson stepped closer to the man, laying a light hand on his arm.
"I'm fine," Pendergast said. "I've had some ringing in my ears the past few days, and I've had trouble sleeping, but I'm all right."
"May we borrow this, Mister Pendergast?" Holmes asked, and Pendergast's hand tightened on top of the box.
"I don't think that's possible, Mister Holmes," he said, turning to pick up the box.
"Mister Pendergast, you may think I'm exaggerating, but this is a very serious matter," Holmes leaned in, lowering his voice. "This box may hold very important clues as to the reason for these horrible deaths. I'm sure the Scotland Yard would be very appreciative if you were willing to help us."
Pendergast frowned, but put the box down and stepped back from the table. "What guarantee can you give me that you will return it?"
"What about a trade?" Holmes looked from Pendergast to Watson and back. "You said this is a family heirloom, why don't we offer you the same, as collateral. A watch, perhaps?" He turned to Watson, holding out his hand expectantly.
Watson glared at Holmes and shook his head. Holmes wiggled the fingers of his held-out hand, and when Watson still didn't move, he sighed and reached into Watson's pocket, ignoring his protest.
"You will get it back, I promise," he said, winding the pocket watch chain around his fingers and holding it out to Pendergast. "You see how important it is to him, is it satisfactory?"
Pendergast looked at the watch Holmes held out to him, then took it. "Thank you, gentlemen. If you believe this can help you with your investigation, I will accept the trade," he slipped the watch into an envelope and wrote Watson's name and the date on it, then walked back to the safe and placed the package inside.
"Thank you," Holmes told Pendergast. "We will return it as soon as we can." He held out his hand and Pendergast shook it. "Do not hesitate to contact me if anything else... strange happens. And do take care of yourself. If they were after you, you may not be safe."
"Good luck with however you decide to proceed," Watson told him. He picked up the box and gaped down at it. "But it's so light! I had expected it to be heavy."
"The artifact was like that, too," Pendergast said. "Mister Altman could have carried it easily with one hand, were it not for its bulk."
"Speaking of Mister Altman," Holmes said. "I think if I were you, I would not count on the artifact being returned. I'm afraid you were being used to activate it, and you will not get it back. Not that you'd want to, I think." He looked to Watson, who was waiting for him by the door. "Take care, Mister Pendergast."
On the ride back home, they looked over the box, but could not make much out. Holmes spotted several symbols he recognized from Altman's notes, but the approach of dusk and the appearance of fog limited how much he could see in the cab.
"What do you think they were after?" Watson asked after they'd sat in silence for a while.
"The men at the museum. They tried to get into Pendergast's office; do you think they were after him? Or something else?"
"I think they were after this," Holmes patted the top of the box.
"You don't suppose Altman sent them? If they'd killed Pendergast, no one would know about their connection."
"I don't know," Holmes shook his head, lapsing into silence again.
"What do we do now?" Watson asked when they were once more settled in at home, the floor covered with Altman's notes, spread out all over, along with the rubbings and notes Holmes took at the cabinet of curiosities.
"We need to convince Lestrade that Altman and his artifact are responsible. If we do that, we can question him, maybe confiscate the artifact, or at least get an explanation."
"He seemed pretty determined to find out who killed his men. Perhaps we can tell him what we suspect."
"And if we're wrong? We don't have enough evidence, and what we do have is more speculation than fact. No matter what, we cannot twist the facts to fit the theories."
"Then what do you suggest we do? We've been staring at this for two hours," Watson pointed to the papers on the floor, "and we haven't made any headway."
"In the morning, we'll go and speak with Lestrade. I doubt we will be successful, but perhaps we can convince the inspector to be reasonable and not jump to conclusions." Holmes knelt on the floor and began to gather up the papers. When he had them all, he bundled them together with Pendergast's box and locked everything away in the safe. "Better safe than sorry," he shrugged.
Watson nodded and pulled Holmes away from the safe. "It's late, Holmes. Stop thinking so hard and come to bed."
In the morning, Mrs. Hudson withheld the paper from them until they'd finished breakfast. She scowled at Holmes when he tried to grab the paper out of her hand and he sat back down, chastised. Both of them knew something had happened, but no amount of pleading looks would get her to budge.
"If I give you this," she said, "you're just going to go running off, without finishing your breakfast, and then I won't see you again until after supper time, as usual. I'll not have that!"
Once they'd finished eating, she finally handed the paper over to Holmes, who spread it on the table, turning it slightly so Watson could read at the same time. As had become their habit, Watson ended up perched on the armrest of Holmes' chair, reading over Holmes' shoulder.
"Anything?" Holmes started to fold up the paper before Watson got a look at much more than the GHASTLY MURDER headline. "I was reading that!"
"I believe we're not going to need to rely on the paper for this," Holmes said, setting the paper on the table. "We're about to have company," he glanced toward to door, and sure enough, Watson could hear footsteps heading up the stairs. When the door opened, Clark stood in the doorway, hat under his arm.
"Mister Holmes, Doctor Watson," he said, finally stepping into the room. "Good morning, sirs. My apologies for disturbing you this early, but—"
"But Inspector Lestrade wishes to see us as soon as possible," Holmes finished for him, getting to his feet. "We've seen the paper, thank you," he said. "Well, Watson, let's not keep the inspector waiting, shall we?"
Ten minutes later, they were in the police carriage, Clark sitting on one side, and Holmes and Watson on the other. Holmes had drifted off, his head leaning on Watson's shoulder, and Watson gave an exasperated sigh.
"He's seen the paper," he said to Clark. "I still have no idea what's happened, other than what the headline said."
"There's been more deaths, sir," Clark said, looking a bit pale. "More tales of... monsters. And then there's the Finley house."
Cornelius Finley was a well-known London banker; he'd even been Watson's patient once or twice. "What happened?"
"He..." Clark paused, grimacing. "He's killed his whole family, looks like."
"My god," Watson paled. "Has he been arrested?"
Clark shook his head. "He's disappeared. Only the dead are left at the house."
Before Watson could ask any more questions, the carriage pulled to a stop, just in time for Holmes to wake from his sleep. Clark led them inside, past the cordon of police trying to hold back the crowd. As soon as they went inside, the smell of blood and death hit them, strong enough to make even Holmes pale slightly. The entrance hall was crowded with policemen, all of them pale, all of them casting nervous glances back at the interior of the house.
"What in heaven—" Watson gaped at the scene in front of them when they passed through the crowd. Almost every surface in the front hall was splashed with blood. Several bodies lay on the floor, three of them painfully small, covered with crimson stained sheets, blood pooled around them. Around each of the bodies, a circle of symbols was scratched into the floor. While they couldn't decipher the words, it became clear after a cursory examination that whatever the symbols meant, the same word or phrase was repeated over and over, in each circle. As they stepped around the bodies and headed upstairs, they could see the walls were painted with more of the symbols found on the artifact. And on the second floor, painted in blood that had to have been fresh, were the words DEATH IS ONLY THE BEGINNING.
While they stood staring at the bloody letters, Lestrade came out of one of the rooms.
"Well?" he demanded, crossing his arms. "What have you got?"
"We have... suspicions," Holmes said, deliberately turning away from the gruesome message.
"What kind of suspicions? Do you know who did this, or not?"
"We think Michael Altman may be somehow connected," Watson said, ignoring Holmes' glare. "We've got no proof, and no real evidence, but what there is certainly points to the possibility of his involvement."
"Watson," Holmes hissed. "We cannot twist the evidence to fit the theory."
"What we cannot do, Mister Holmes," Lestrade stepped closer to Holmes, "is let more innocent people die because you refuse to pursue a specific line of questioning." He motioned to Clark, who had joined them upstairs. "Bring the carriage 'round, we'll be going to see Mister Altman right away." Turning back to Holmes, he lowered his voice. "Is Altman involved in what happened at the museum yesterday?"
Holmes frowned. "We can't tell," he shook his head. "But," he added when Lestrade started to speak, "we're not ruling it out."
"Well, until you have proof, keep your theories to yourselves," Lestrade said. "Now come on, let's go."
"I take it this is an official visit," Holmes said when they stepped outside and saw the waiting police carriage.
Lestrade nodded. "There's enough evidence to warrant at least an interview. If Altman isn't involved, we need to know."
They rode through town at top speeds, leaving shouted insults and shaken fists in their wake. When they arrived at the Altman residence, Lestrade motioned for Holmes and Watson to stay behind him and Clarke as they headed inside. It soon became apparent that they were too late. Bodies lay in the front hall, gruesomely slaughtered, blood spreading out in puddles around them. The walls of the hall were painted with the strange symbols now present at every crime scene related to the case.
They searched the house thoroughly, finding only blood and more dead bodies. Holmes headed for Altman's study, its floor littered with scattered papers and books. He searched the room, eventually coming across a secret panel hidden behind the books on one of the shelves. He was just about to reach in for the wooden box he saw there, when Watson shouted for him. Dropping everything, Holmes ran up the stairs to the room Watson was in.
Watson was kneeling on the floor, blood soaking into his trousers. He was cradling a barely conscious woman in his arms, a maid by her clothing, holding her head up with one hand and trying to staunch the bleeding from her abdomen with the other.
"Give me your coat," he told Lestrade, who preceded Holmes into the room. The inspector obeyed, and Watson rolled the coat up, using it as a pillow as he lowered the woman to the floor. Gently, he peeled back the shredded remains of her dress, paling at the sight of the damage he found.
"Is she going to—" Lestrade asked.
"I don't know," Watson said. "I don't have my medical bag, I don't think I can keep her alive for long if we don't get her to a hospital soon—" he broke off as the woman reached up and took his hand.
"It's all right," she said in a quiet voice, her words choked off by the blood she coughed up. "I will be... reborn. He said... he said I had to embrace the change."
"Who said that?" Lestrade crouched beside her. "Was it Altman? Where is he? What's happened here?"
The maid stared at Lestrade, struggling to breathe. "Only for the chosen," she whispered, quietly enough that Lestrade had to lean down over her to hear. "It's not for you, it's only for the chosen."
Lestrade looked up to Watson, who shook his head. He'd pressed his hands to her wounds, trying to slow the blood flow, but it was coming fast now, soaking everything. "We need to get her out of here, otherwise she won't—"
The maid reached up to grab at Watson's sleeve. "It hurts," she cried, coughing up more blood. "It hurts, and I'm cold, why is it so cold?"
Watson looked up at Holmes, who took off his coat, gently draping it over the maid as best he could. "I'm sorry, I have to ask. Where is Mister Altman?"
"I don't want to die!" The woman cried out, her hand tightening on Watson's arm. "Please, I don't want to die."
"Holmes, get over here," Watson told him, motioning to the other side of the woman. "I need you to put your hands here, on the wound, press down. I'll carry her downstairs, we have to get her to the hospital."
"Watson," Holmes started, even as he moved to where Watson had directed him. "I don't think—"
"God damn it, Holmes, you're not a doctor!"
Before Watson could pick her up, the maid started to convulse, more blood flowing from her mouth. Her eyes flew open and she sat up, throwing off Watson's hands. "It's coming," she said, her voice hoarse. "It's coming!" The scream had barely left her mouth when she fell back, limp and unresponsive to Watson's attempts to revive her.
"Watson," Holmes said again, putting a hand on Watson's shoulder. "Watson, she's gone."
"No!" Watson shrugged off Holmes' hand. "I can save her, I just need..."
"Watson," Holmes repeated, taking hold of Watson's arm and pulling him away from the body. "Let her go, Watson, she's suffered enough." He managed to pull Watson to his feet and was leading him away from the body and out of the room when the woman sat up, shrieking and gasping for breath. Watson turned back to the room, pulling away from Holmes.
"There! You see? She's still alive!" He hadn't taken more than three steps back into the room before he stopped in horror. The woman lurched to her feet, heedless of the gaping wound in her abdomen. Watson took half a step forward and then Lestrade and Holmes yanked him back into the hallway, Lestrade drawing his PEW.
"What are you doing?" Watson pushed Lestrade's gun hand down and away from the woman. "Can't you see she needs help?"
"I think she's beyond our help," Holmes said quietly, pointing to the woman. She was still standing where she'd gotten up, but her body was twisting and arching, accompanied by the sounds of bones cracking.
"What's happening?" Lestrade shouted, backing away from the doorway, still keeping his gun pointed at the woman. "What the hell is happening?"
As they watched, the woman raised her arms and threw her head back, screaming. Something was pushing its way up her arms, toward her hands, and as the scream rose to a shrieking intensity, bones tore their way out through her wrists, obliterating her hands and sending a spray of blood into the air. As it rained down on her, she straightened up, eyes locking on them with a singular purpose.
"I think we should leave," Holmes said, pulling Watson with him. "Lestrade, now would be a good time to show us how good you are with that thing."
The creature in the room growled, then took a step forward. It stopped, lowering the bony blades that took the place of its arms, and looked down at the bloody clothes it still wore. Growling, it tore at the fabric, ripping it away until only the barest tatters remained.
Lestrade fired, a single shot that grazed the thing's shoulder. It looked up sharply from the shredded fabric at its feet and hissed, baring teeth that bore no resemblance to human teeth.
"Lestrade! Just shoot it! In the heart, in the head, I don't care, but for God's sake, just hit it!"
They retreated down the stairs, and turned to head for the door, but the thing leapt off the second floor, landing between them and the exit. Lestrade fired again, hitting it squarely in the chest, but the shot had almost no effect.
"Holmes! Are you armed?"
"Are you asking as a man who requires backup, or as a police inspector?"
"Dammit, man, now's not the time for your games!" Lestrade fired again, hitting the thing's neck, and it paused, baring its teeth and hissing again.
Holmes drew his weapon, a slightly smaller model of the PEW that Lestrade carried, and fired at the thing, which had begun to walk toward them again. The repeated shots slowed it down slightly, but it kept advancing.
"Is there a back door?" Holmes risked a look over his shoulder into the interior of the house.
"Go!" Lestrade shouted. "I'll hold it off!"
Before Holmes and Watson got more than a couple steps away from Lestrade, the thing shrieked and flew at him, tackling him to the floor, one of its claws impaling his shoulder, and sending his gun clattering to the floor.
"Keep going!" Lestrade shouted. "Get out and get help!"
Holmes and Watson exchanged a quick glance and turned back to Lestrade. Holmes fired his PEW at the thing's head, and for a moment, it seemed like that might be enough. It reared back from Lestrade, tossing its head this way and that, but then it turned its attentions back to Lestrade, bringing its other arm up to stab at him again.
Watson lunged forward, drawing the blade from his sword cane, and brought it down on the creature's arm, severing it. It howled and lost its balance, toppling to the floor beside Lestrade. Watson leaned over Lestrade, holding out a hand to help the inspector up. Lestrade was almost to his feet when the thing struggled to get to its feet, advancing on them again. Pushing Lestrade in Holmes' direction, Watson slashed at the thing's legs, trying to slow it down. The creature paused, looking from the slashes on its legs up to Watson.
"Uh," Watson said, backing away from it, "I think now would be a good time to run."
"Watch out!" Lestrade shouted and lunged at Watson, tackling him out of the way just in time for something to pass over their heads. When Watson looked up, he saw the marble wall behind him was now smoking, pitted from whatever the creature had spat at them.
The creature shrieked again and advanced on them, raising its remaining arm. Watson tried to reach for his sword cane, but it had rolled out of reach when Lestrade had tackled him. Snarling, the creature started to bring its arm down, and Watson closed his eyes. There was a sudden silence, and then a loud thump of something hitting the floor. When Watson opened his eyes, he saw Holmes standing over the creature, Watson's sword in his hand, the creatures other arm lying beside its body.
Holmes looked down at the sword in his hand and then at the creature. It wasn't moving, even when Holmes bent down and cautiously poked it with the tip of the sword.
"Strange," he said, looking up. "I didn't think I did enough damage to it to kill it. Maybe there's something about their limbs that makes cutting them off lethal?" He saw Watson kneeling over Lestrade, hands pressed to the wound in the inspector's shoulder. "Is he—"
"No," Watson said, shifting his hands, which elicited a yelp from Lestrade. "We should get him to a hospital, though."
"Like hell you will," Lestrade groaned, trying to sit up. "There's work to be done, I'll be damned if I'm going to—"
"Inspector, if you don't get this taken care of," Watson said, pressing his hands down firmly, making Lestrade lie back down again, "you run the risk of infection."
Lestrade gritted his teeth and tried not to groan in pain. "Just... patch it up as best you can. I need to do my job."
"There are certainly other people who can do the job," Holmes said, wiping the sword clean and sheathing it. "Here are some of them now," he said, as the hall filled up with police, led by Clark.
"When you did not come out, I called them in," he said, kneeling on the floor beside Lestrade. "There are medics on the way now."
"Tell everyone to get out," Lestrade said, batting away Watson's hands and sitting up. "Nobody comes inside without armor and heavy weapons. And pass along what you said about cutting off their limbs."
Watson and Clark helped Lestrade to his feet and out of the house, where the medics took over, despite grumbling from Lestrade. Watson went with them to make sure the inspector did not simply order them to stop.
"Do try not to destroy anything that might be a useful clue," Holmes told Clark, who was suiting up in heavy armor for a search of the house. "And be careful."
An hour later, the house was declared clean. Two men had been injured when another of the creatures attacked them, but their injuries were fairly superficial and the creature had been dealt with. Holmes and Watson headed back inside, Holmes leading the way into the study. Going through the box he'd found earlier, Holmes found a large map. After Holmes unfolded it and laid it out on the desk, they discovered it to be a map of central London, several locations marked on it with red ink.
"What is that?"
"I don't know," Holmes shook his head. "Several of these are significant—Parliament, Kensington Palace, the Tower... But the others, I'm not sure. They seem to be just random locations. We should check these, find out what's there."
"We should give this to Lestrade, let him and his men check these," Watson said. When Holmes scoffed at his words, Watson rolled his eyes. "There's no talking you out of doing this yourself, is there?"
"Inspector Lestrade is injured, he'll require time to recover. It's our duty as citizens to assist him in this investigation," Holmes said.
"The hell it is," Lestrade said from the door. He stood leaning against the doorframe, his shoulder now bandaged and his arm in a sling. "You've done enough, Holmes, but things are getting dangerous now, we'll handle it."
Before Holmes could reply, no doubt in a way that would escalate into argument that would probably end in them being barred from the case, if not arrested, Watson stepped in.
"Perhaps we could divide the work, Inspector? Holmes and I would be happy to take these locations here," he pointed to the map, indicating several of the random locations in the city. "Your men can handle the Parliament and these others. After all, a police representative should have less trouble investigating them than civilians."
Lestrade examined the map and finally nodded. "You're to check these locations and report to me as soon as you know something, is that clear?"
"As crystal, inspector," Holmes beamed.
"You should really get that arm looked at in a hospital," Watson reminded Lestrade. "The medics have done the best they could, but you're risking infection if you do not have it properly dressed."
Lestrade grumbled something that could have been anything, then turned to look at Holmes. "Keep him out of trouble, doctor." Before Holmes could protest, Lestrade was gone.
"Very well then, Watson," Holmes said putting away his notes. "Let's go, and you can try and keep me out of trouble."
"Why should I?" Watson asked, following Holmes out of the room. "I try and I try, and it never works."
The first two locations they visited turned out to be busy street intersections, bustling with traffic both pedestrian and vehicular, but there was nothing out of the ordinary at either one of them. Holmes insisted on spending almost half an hour at each location, observing the traffic and the people passing their cab. When he couldn't see anything that caught his attention, he had the driver move on to the next address.
While walking around the square at the third location, Watson paused in the middle of the street they were crossing, looking down. When Holmes caught up to him, they stood in the street, staring at the manhole cover they were standing over.
"Were there manhole covers at the other two addresses?"
"I'm fairly certain there are manhole covers everywhere," Holmes pointed out.
"You're right," Watson said. "It's just... there was nothing else there, or here, and why would they have these locations marked on the map?"
Holmes was silent for a moment, ignoring the shouts from drivers of carriages and cabs for them to get out of the way. Finally, Watson pulled him out of the way of an oncoming carriage. "We should call the inspector, have his men check for sewer entrances at the other locations."
"What are you thinking?"
"If I was planning something nefarious and wanted to move around the city undetected, the sewers would be a convenient, if somewhat unsanitary, way to do it."
"Holmes, the sewers go practically everywhere in town," Watson said.
"Yes, they do," Holmes nodded.
"We need to get this news to Lestrade." Watson took off running for the nearest public telephone. He dialed Lestrade's number and stared at the telephone in surprise when he heard Clark answer.
"Clark, I need to speak with Inspector Lestrade."
"The inspector is in the hospital," Clark explained. "He felt ill, and I insisted he get his shoulder seen to."
"Good, good," Watson nodded. "Are you in charge of the investigation, then?"
"Only temporarily, until Inspector Lestrade returns to his duties," Clark said. "Which he assures me will be soon. Have you found anything?"
"There was nothing at any of the locations we checked, except for sewer entrances."
"There are sewer entrances on every street, doctor," Clark reminded him.
"We realize that, but there was nothing else here, so we may as well check the only thing that's left."
"All right," Clark said. "I'll have the men start checking the sewer entrances and the sewers themselves."
"Thank you, Constable. Please do let us know how the inspector is doing."
"I'm sure you'll be hearing back from him soon," Clark chuckled. "Try to stay out of trouble."
They headed back to Baker Street after that, and Holmes immediately went to the wall in his study where the map of London hung. He marked the locations he and Watson had checked, as well as the other ones they'd seen on Altman's map. When he was done, he stepped back, studying the map with a frown.
"What are you hoping to find?"
"I'm not sure," Holmes said, not taking his eyes off the map. "It just feels like there's something..." He stopped, turning to his desk. He crossed the room in three long strides, and rummaged through the contents of the desk, sending them flying to the floor, until he finally unearthed what he was looking for—a large sheet of onion skin paper covered with a map—and brought it over to the map of the city he'd been studying. Lining the two up, he tacked the second map over the first, then stepped back again, studying the new addition.
"Is that..." Watson stared at the new map. "Is that a map of the sewers?"
"It's not complete," Holmes said. "I haven't had time to get all the details down properly."
"Of course you have a map of the sewers," Watson shook his head. "Why am I even surprised?"
"I don't know," Holmes said, pressing the onion skin map down with his hands. "Look at this, Watson. All the locations we've marked correspond to sewer entrances."
"We knew that already," Watson pointed out. "But what does it mean?"
"I haven't the faintest idea," Holmes told him. "I need more evidence, more data, without it, I'm simply spinning useless theories and trying to fit the evidence to them."
"What do you suggest, then?"
"It's simple," Holmes said. "One of the locations is in Regent's Park, so I will take a stroll and take a look at the scene, see if I can find anything."
"I'll get my coat," Watson said.
"I'm perfectly capable of doing this on my own, Watson," Holmes said, a note of resentment creeping into his voice.
"Yes, I know you are. But you will inevitably end up requiring my assistance, so I may as well accompany you and be there when you need me, rather than you having to wait."
"Your concern is always appreciated, Watson," Holmes said, a smile tugging at the corner of his mouth. "You are simply the definition of a good partner."
The walk to Regent's Park did not take long, and they maintained a leisurely pace, simply strolling through as the day waned and the park slowly emptied. Eventually, they reached the location on the map, right by the entrance to the Zoo. Holmes ignored the curious looks the last visitors to the park gave him and got down on his hands and knees by the manhole cover, examining it closely. He traced the pick holes, his finger coming away with fresh metal shavings.
"Someone's been here very recently," he said, holding up his finger. "Workmen, perhaps?"
"I don't think so," Watson shook his head. "There's been no work in this area for a long time."
"And how do you know this?"
"This happens to be one of my favorite places for a morning constitutional."
"I thought you got plenty of exercise at home," Holmes looked up at Watson, raising an eyebrow.
"Yes, well," Watson cleared his throat. "I still take the occasional stroll through the park, and I have neither seen nor heard of any work being done here. Also, if there had been any work done recently, the grass would have been disturbed," he pointed to the near-pristine lawn Holmes was kneeling on.
"All right," Holmes nodded. "Then we'll have to assume the marks on the grate were made by our mysterious villains." He bent back down to the manhole, peering at it closely. "Hello, what have we here?" He tugged at Watson's pants until Watson had no choice but to crouch down beside him. "Take a look at this." He ran his finger over the manhole, his fingers coming away coated in a strange red substance, fibrous and sticky.
"I thought this was the actual color of the manhole, but apparently I was mistaken." He rubbed his fingers together, and when he pulled them apart, the sticky substance stretched between his fingers, web-like. "I've never seen anything like it," Holmes flexed his fingers, the fibers following suit. "I think it's actually growing, as we speak. There's more of it now than there was a minute ago."
"Perhaps it would be a good idea to get it off your fingers, then?"
"Yes, of course," Holmes nodded, looking around for something to wipe his hand on. He looked down at his clothes, but at Watson's frown, settled for wiping his hand on the grass.
"Look at this, Watson," he pointed to the grass around the manhole cover. "It's spreading." The strange red fibers, spider-silk thin, had spread out from the pickholes to cover the entire iron plate, and from there into the grass, twining around the roots of the grass, yet leaving the top part of the blades clear. From afar, the grass looked perfectly normal.
"We should take some of it home with us," Watson said. "It's getting dark, I can't really see anything in this light."
"We need to check the other locations," Holmes said, getting to his feet. "If we find this strange growth there, then we'll know it's related to our case."
"I don't suppose you'd be willing to just call Clark or Lestrade, and have the Yard look into it?"
"I don't think we need to bother them, just yet," Holmes shook his head. "If they're thorough, they'll find the same evidence we just did and inevitably come to us for help. We may as well save ourselves the time and investigate this on our own."
Watson sighed. "Very well, then. Let's go."
Holmes hailed a cab and had the driver ferry them from one location to another, despite the man's increasing reluctance to wait for them. Watson collected samples from most of the locations, Holmes carefully noting the details of each sample in a notebook. When they finally made it home, Watson began to examine the samples with a microscope.
"This is most extraordinary," he stood back from the microscope, motioning Holmes over. "Take a look at the cells!"
Holmes looked through the eyepiece for a moment then looked up at Watson. "I don't understand," he said. "They have the elements of animal cells, but their structure and appearance is distinctly plant-like. How is that possible?"
"Exactly!" Watson bent over the microscope again, adjusting the focus. "I haven't got a clue how this is possible."
"Can you tell what it is?"
"Not without further analysis, with better equipment than this," Watson shook his head. "I can try tomorrow, at the hospital."
A knock on the door interrupted them, and Inspector Lestrade stepped into the study. He was pale and out of breath, his shoulder bandaged up and his arm in a sling.
"Inspector," Holmes greeted him. "Should you be out of the hospital?"
Lestrade glared at Holmes, then down at the sling. "I can't afford to lie in a hospital bed while people are dying. Clark filled me in on this afternoon's discoveries, have you got anything else?"
"We found something growing around the entrances to the sewers," Watson said. "It's both plant and animal in nature, but anymore than that, I can't tell without analyzing it further, which I cannot do with this equipment."
"The Scotland Yard's laboratory is at your disposal, doctor," Lestrade told him. "Tonight, if you'd like."
"Thank you, inspector," Watson nodded. "I believe time is of the essence in this case, so yes, I'd like to go tonight."
Holmes bundled up the papers on his desk and reached for his jacket as Watson packed up the samples he'd been examining. "What have your men found, Lestrade?" he asked as they headed out the door and into the waiting carriage.
"Clark ordered them into the sewers, and they followed the... growth through the tunnels. Several of them led to the river."
"Has the growth reached the river?"
"Yes," Lestrade nodded. "They found it in several spots, mostly on the north side of the river."
"I hate to be an alarmist," Holmes said, "but perhaps the time has come for us all to be concerned about the turn of events."
"In the morning, I'm sending them back into the tunnels with flame units. We'll burn the stuff out, eradicate it before it can do anymore harm."
When they arrived at Scotland Yard headquarters, Lestrade escorted them to the laboratory, where Watson got to work without a moment's pause. Holmes shook his head when Lestrade offered to take him upstairs, and hunkered down at a small table in the corner of the laboratory, wanting to stay with Watson.
While Watson worked on the analysis of the strange red growth, Holmes spread out the paper he'd brought with him, trying to make some kind of sense from the strange symbols and Altman's cryptic notes. There was nothing that resembled a key or pointed to the meaning of the individual symbols, and yet Altman's notes contained whole lines of the symbols, grouped together in what looked like sentences.
"Either he figured out the cipher and didn't bother writing it down," Holmes said, looking up from the symbols, "or there are notebooks we haven't seen yet."
"Maybe there's nothing there to decipher?" Watson suggested. "If Altman has gone mad, maybe he's just scribbling nonsense?"
"There are repeating patterns in his notes," Holmes shook his head. "Too many to be coincidental. What about you, have you figured anything out?"
"I found a substance similar to the red growth in the blood of the... people we found in Altman's home. Whatever it is, it's infected them."
"Was it the mechanism of the changes they underwent?"
"I have no way of telling, but whether it was or wasn't the mechanism, it certainly has something to do with it, either as a cause or effect."
A commotion outside distracted them, and Holmes went to the door, sticking his head out into the hallway. Several men ran by, ignoring Holmes, until he grabbed one of them by the sleeve, forcing him to stop.
"What's going on?"
"There have been more sightings," the young constable told him, breathless. "One of the creatures shambled through Berkeley Square, and two were seen in Hyde Park!"
"Is Inspector Lestrade going with you?"
"I don't know. I'm sorry, sir," the constable shook his head, "but I have to go."
"Watson, I'll be right back," Holmes said, and ran out of the room and up the stairs to the main squad room, where Lestrade was giving instructions to a group of constables. Out of breath, he leaned against a desk, waving his hand to catch Lestrade's attention.
"Inspector! There is something—" he paused, trying to catch his breath, "something important you need to know."
"What is it, Holmes?"
"The red growth—" Holmes stood up straight and cleared his throat. "The red growth is connected to the changes in the unfortunate souls we've seen. Your men, they have to stay away from it."
"What are you saying, that it causes people to change?"
"We're not sure yet, but Watson found it in the blood of those dead brought in from Altman's residence."
"I'll make sure they get the message, Holmes," Lestrade told him, grabbing his coat. "Is Doctor Watson finished? I thought perhaps you two would like to accompany me."
"Accompany you where?"
"It seems that Mister Finley has been found. Given his... condition," Lestrade made a face, "they've taken him to Lambeth for treatment.
It was Holmes' turn to make a face. "No doubt the doctors there were eager to get him in their clutches."
Watson made a face. "Holmes, I know you don't necessarily approve of their methods, but some of their cases have been successful."
"Some of them, yes," Holmes admitted, gathering up his papers. "Others, however, could be said to have been unmitigated disasters." He looked back at Watson over his shoulder. "Let us hope that their treatment of Finley hasn't done any permanent damage."
"They've only had him for a brief time, I think we're safe," Lestrade said as they got into the carriage.
"I hope so, inspector."
The ride to Lambeth hospital was uneventful, the streets mostly empty due to the late hour. When they arrived, they were met by an orderly who escorted them inside, where they were met by a scowling man who introduced himself as Doctor Atwood.
"I really can't see why this couldn't have waited until the morning, inspector," the doctor said, making no move to lead them to wherever Finley was being held.
"It's crucial to the case that we see Mister Finley tonight," Lestrade told him, leveling a glare of his own at the doctor, making it clear he wasn't about to explain himself further.
"We shall have to see how far along the initial therapy session is," Atwood said. "I'm not going to interrupt if it's gone too far."
"I don't care if he's two minutes away from being cured, doctor, we need to speak with him, tonight," Lestrade told him. "Now take us to him, or find us someone else who will."
"Very well, inspector," Atwood said, starting to walk down the hall. "But I will not be held responsible for the damage this interruption could cause to Finley's mind."
"Doctor Atwood, the man murdered his wife and children, along with several members of his household staff," Lestrade pointed out. "I doubt there's much more damage we could do to his mind."
"It's attitudes like this that make my job difficult," Atwood huffed, then stopped in front of a door. Not much was visible through the barred window's warped glass, but they could make out the sound of splashing water and indistinct screaming. "He's through here." Atwood opened the door and stood aside to let Lestrade in. Watson and Holmes followed, leaving Atwood to bring up the rear.
In the center of the room was a large basin, filled with water, chunks of ice floating on the surface. Mounted on a swiveling hinge was a heavy wooden chair, fitted with numerous restraints. Strapped to the chair was Finley, his eyes wide and wild, head straining against the straps so much that the leather was digging into his forehead. As an orderly cranked the winch to lower the chair into the water, Finley trashed against the restraints.
"The light! The light shows us the way!" He screamed, the last word drawn out until it was cut off as water closed over his mouth. His whole body convulsed, and Watson pushed the orderly away from the winch, turning it to raise the chair. When the orderly tried to fight back, Holmes stepped between him and Watson, grabbing the orderly's outstretched arm and twisting it, forcing the man to turn away from Watson.
"Let the doctor work," Holmes told the orderly, marching him to the door. "I think it's better if you wait outside, don't you?" He pushed the orderly into the corridor and closed the door behind him.
"This is a very bad idea," Atwood said as Watson locked the winch and stepped up onto the platform with the chair. "He's not coherent, you can see for yourself."
"Perhaps the reason he's incoherent is that he's been immersed in ice cold water," Watson said, glaring at Atwood. He made no move to undo the restraints on Finley, however, and kept his examination of the man rather cursory.
"Mister Finley, my name is John Watson," he said, leaning forward a bit. Finley's eyes widened and he turned his head toward Watson, as much as the strap across his forehead would allow.
"The light shows the way," he said. "The light shows the way, the way to unity. Keep us whole, keep us whole!" He started to convulse again, and Watson turned to Atwood.
"We need to speak with him, and he's not making any sense this way. Have you got any sedatives on hand? A low dose only," he added as Atwood took out a syringe and a vial of sedative from his coat pocket and filled the syringe.
"If you had let me continue the treatment," Atwood said, holding out the syringe, "we wouldn't need to sedate him."
"Yes, we wouldn't need to sedate him, because he would be in shock, or worse yet, dead," Watson said, injecting Finley with half the dose from the syringe. "Mister Finley," he leaned forward again as Finley's convulsions eased. "Do you know where you are?"
"The light shows us the way," Finley repeated. "We must keep ourselves whole, only then can we embrace the change. Death is only the beginning!"
"Watson," Holmes cleared his throat. "I don't think we'll get anywhere with Mister Finley. Clearly, his mind has been damaged beyond repair. Whatever's happened to him, I don't think there's any turning back."
"Mister Holmes, you are hardly in a position to give opinions on the mental state of my patient," Atwood scoffed. "I have every hope for Mister Finley. Given time and careful treatment, I believe we will see him able to return to proper society."
"I wish I could share your optimism, Doctor," Watson shook his head and stepped down from the platform. "I don't think we're going to get anything out of him," he said to Lestrade and Holmes.
"Would you like to go back to the lab?" Lestrade asked as they left the room and headed back outside.
Watson shook his head. "I don't think there's anything else I can learn right now."
Lestrade had the carriage drop them off at Baker Street, and left them with instructions not to pursue any line of investigation without first contacting him.
"What are the chances you'll actually listen to him?" Watson asked.
"Slim to none, as usual," Holmes told him with a grin. "The inspector is just worried we'll solve the case without him."
"You don't suppose it could have something to do with him not wanting to see us get hurt?"
"Nonsense," Holmes scoffed. "That would imply he actually cares about us that much."
"Ah, so it's just professional jealousy. Of course," Watson returned Holmes' earlier grin.
Mrs. Hudson greeted them at the door, frowning at the late hour they were returning. Without a word, Holmes headed upstairs, unbuttoning his coat. Watson gave Mrs. Hudson an apologetic shrug, and followed Holmes.
When he came into the sitting room, Holmes was already at his desk, papers spread out in front of him. "This has been a long day, so if you need me, I shall be in bed."
"I'll be in shortly," Holmes called out, eyes still on the symbols in front of him. "Don't wait up for me though."
Watson suppressed the urge to grab Holmes and drag him away from the accursed scribbles and force him to get a good night's rest. Holmes would only toss and turn and keep them both up most of the night; there was no sense in both of them losing sleep over it.
"—so they're focusing mostly on just making sure the day to day functions of the pipes and tunnels aren't impeded, since there's not enough men to go around to deal with it." Watson took off his hat and tossed it onto the desk, slumping onto the sofa. "At least not until someone finds a different method of destroying the growth."
"In other words, Lestrade is giving up," Holmes said, chewing on his pipe as he strolled over to the window. "How terribly unsurprising."
"Why must you always do that?" Watson frowned. "You put the man down every chance he gets."
"It's not entirely undeserved, you know. More than once he and his men have bungled a case so completely it was only by the skin of our teeth that we managed to salvage the situation."
"You're exaggerating," Watson scoffed. "Also, you have to admit, he's gotten better over the years."
"I suppose even a man of Lestrade's intelligence will pick something up from repeated exposure," Holmes muttered. "Enough of that," he said, lying down on the sofa, his head in Watson's lap. "How was your day otherwise?"
"Not terribly eventful," Watson said, letting his head fall back, one of his hands going to Holmes' head. He ran his fingers through Holmes' hair absently. "Mrs. Ferguson believes we're in the End Times, what with the bodies going missing from the mortuaries. She was going on and on, 'when there is no more room in Hell, Doctor Watson, the dead shall walk the Earth!,'" he wiggled his hand in front of Holmes' face. "I had to give her a sedative before I left, she worked herself up into such a state."
"Do you think she might be right?" Holmes asked, craning his head up to look up at Watson.
"What, that this is a sign of the End Times?" Watson laughed. "Don't be ridiculous. It's most likely just body snatchers or something."
"Stealing bodies from mortuaries? Body snatchers haven't been this brazen in a long time." Holmes sat up, shaking his head. "No, I don't think it's just that. Lestrade said that there have been more dead bodies showing up, especially in the poorer areas, so the mortuaries are starting to overflow."
"You think it's all connected? The deaths and the missing bodies?"
"Watson, you and I saw a dead body get up and walk around with our own eyes," Holmes pointed out. "And we know it wasn't the only one. There were no witnesses to these bodies going missing, we don't know what's happening."
"Where are they all going, though? You'd think if something that... grotesque was walking about," Watson shuddered at the memory, "someone would have seen something by now."
"It's only been a couple of days," Holmes was back at the window, looking outside. "And with this damnable fog, who knows what's out there?"
Mrs. Hudson knocked on the door just then, and announced a visitor. Inspector Lestrade stepped into the room, the dark circles under his eyes standing out on his paler than usual face.
"There's been an... incident," he said after Mrs. Hudson had left. "They've had to transfer some of the bodies to one of the waiting mortuaries, and there were witnesses when three of them got up and started killing."
"How many dead?"
"Seventeen, so far. It's..." Lestrade trailed off, sinking into an armchair and closing his eyes. "It's hard to tell, exactly. The bodies have been mutilated."
Holmes poured a drink and handed Lestrade the glass. "What happened to the— what are we supposed to call them, anyway? Creatures?"
"With all the panic after the killing, they disappeared," Lestrade drained the glass in two swallows. "I have my men searching the neighborhood, but so far, they've found nothing but a little blood not far from the mortuary."
"They're using the sewers," Holmes muttered. "They have to be, it's the only way for them to get around."
"My men are watching the sewers," Lestrade protested.
"You don't have the manpower to watch all the sewers in London, inspector," Holmes said, refilling Lestrade's glass. "I'm not saying you're not trying," he added before Lestrade could protest again, "but it's a big city."
"What do you suggest I do?"
"You need to go home and get some rest," Watson interjected before Holmes could answer. "You won't be any good to the investigation in your current state."
Lestrade opened his mouth to protest, then slumped in the chair, letting out his breath in a long sigh.
"Frankly, Doctor, I'm not sure I'll ever be able to sleep after what I've seen tonight."
"I can prescribe you something to help you sleep," Watson suggested.
"I've not had the best of luck with things like that," Lestrade shook his head and got to his feet. "Perhaps I'll take your advice and go home, however. Have a drink, try to relax. Doubt much will come of it, but it's worth a try. Maybe the fog will lift a bit by morning, we might be able to make some headway then."
They walked Lestrade to the door and waited until his cab had arrived to take him home. Once it had disappeared into the fog, they headed back inside.
"Do you think he'll actually do what he said?" Watson asked as they headed back upstairs.
"I doubt it," Holmes said. "If we were to visit the Yard tonight, I have no doubt we'd find him there. The sofa in the inspector's office is actually quite comfortable, perhaps he'll get some rest there."
"And what are we going to do tonight? More work on decoding Altman's notes?"
Holmes shook his head. "I don't think so. I haven't gotten anywhere with it, beyond identifying a few of the repeating patterns. I've another idea for tonight. Are you up for an outing, Watson?"
"And just where are we going?"
"By morning, the news of the creatures and the havoc they've wrought will have spread throughout the city. People will be panicked, and they'll only get in the way. I propose we visit one of the mortuaries tonight, while the streets are empty, and see whether we can ascertain where our grotesque friends are disappearing to."
"You're insane," Watson told him.
"Only a little," Holmes grinned. "I'll go myself if you'd rather stay here."
"Don't be absurd," Watson told him. "I have no intention of finding the police at the door in the morning, informing me that you've perished somewhere. I'm coming with you, of course."
"Of course," Holmes said, but his grin grew wider. "I suggest we equip ourselves accordingly," he said, crossing the room to the large chest under the window. He swept the newspapers piled on top of it onto the floor and threw back the lid. While Watson watched, Holmes bent down to rummage through the contents of the chest, throwing out assorted objects as he came upon them and rejected them. Finally, he emerged from the chest, hair wild and cheek smudged with dust, a long canvas-wrapped object held aloft in his hand. "Eureka!" he exclaimed, getting to his feet and coming to lay the object on the table. He untied the ties that held the canvas wrapping together and threw it back to reveal a saber-like curved sword in a tooled leather scabbard. Watson stepped closer to take a look at it and gasped as he examined it.
"Holmes, this is... exquisite. The workmanship..." He reached out to touch the scabbard, then drew back his hand, glancing at Holmes.
"It's a karabela," Holmes said. "Well, a replica of one, anyway. It was going to be a present for your birthday, but under the circumstances, you'll forgive the early unveiling..."
"Yes, of course," Watson nodded, not taking his eyes off the sword. He drew the sword, the eagle-headed pommel fitting his hand perfectly, and the blade emerged with nary a sound but a soft whisper of steel. When he swung it through the air, he could almost hear the blade singing. "Holmes, where did you find this?"
"I have my sources," Holmes smiled. "Does it please you, then?"
"Excellent! We should get going." Without another word, Holmes left the study. Watson sheathed the sword and followed. They would undoubtedly be getting dirty, and he had no intention of letting Holmes ruin yet another pair of his trousers, however indirectly.
It was more than a little unusual for someone to be taking a trip to a Whitechapel mortuary late in the evening, even if that someone was the infamous Sherlock Holmes. The driver of the cab glared at them suspiciously when they got out of the cab and stood on the sidewalk in front of the mortuary.
"We shan't be needing you to wait," Holmes told the driver, dismissing him. Watson paid the man, giving him a little extra, hoping to ensure his discretion. It wouldn't do for the driver to go to the police, telling them what Holmes and Watson were up to.
"Are you sure this is a good idea?" Watson asked as they watched the cab drive away, fog swirling in his passage.
"Not at all," Holmes said, already at the door of the viewing mortuary, digging in his pocket for his lock picks. It didn't take long for him to open the door, and they entered as quietly as they could.
"We need to find somewhere they won't find us," Holmes said quietly, looking around the darkened entrance hall. "Or at least somewhere they won't be able to reach us." There was no need to clarify whom he meant by "they."
"And where would you suggest that is?" Watson opened the door to the next room, which had several caskets on display.
Holmes opened his mouth to answer, but a crash of broken glass from the adjacent room interrupted him. Watson gently pushed the door between the rooms open far enough for them to get a look into the room, and they pressed closely together to watch what was happening in the room.
There were four sheet-covered bodies laid out on tables in the room. A long table that ran along with side wall held various cosmetics and brushes, used to prepare the bodies for viewings. As they watched, a strange shape slithered along the table, sending things clattering to the floor. One of the jars hit the tile floor and shattered, sending up a cloud of powder, and the shape paused. It reared up, resembling something like a bat crossed with a manta ray. The creature lacked anything that could be called a face, instead possessing only a single proboscis, which it used to scent the air with.
Holmes and Watson held their breaths as the creature turned toward the door, extending the proboscis toward them several times. Finally, it folded the wing-like flaps of skin and sank back to the counter, turning toward the bodies on the tables. It flapped its wings and flew over to the first body, landing on the chest, its claws snagging and ripping the sheet under it. It took only a couple of the strange hop-steps for the creature to come to rest on top of what was unmistakably the body's head, and it took a great deal of effort for both the men not to cry out when the creature reared up, extended its proboscis, and brought it down on the head, puncturing the skull with a gruesome sound.
Sickened, and yet unable to look away, they watched as the creature repeated the same grotesque assault on each of the bodies, leaving behind a puncture wound in each head. Once it had completed its task, the thing half-flew, half-glided toward the window, and squeezed through the small broken pane, disappearing into the swirling fog.
Watson pushed past Holmes into the room, pulling back the sheet on the nearest body, examining the wound in its head.
"What did it do?" Holmes asked? "Was it feeding on them? Taking their brains?"
"I don't think so," Watson shook his head, bending down to get a closer look. "It left some sort of substance behind," he raised a hand to poke at the wound.
"Don't," Holmes grabbed Watson's wrist before he could touch anything. "We don't know what it does, or how it'll affect you if you touch it."
"Quite right. Get me that jar, over there," Watson pointed to a small empty jar on the shelf. Judging by the worn label on its lid, it had once been used to hold face powder. "And a clean brush or something I can use, too."
Holmes fetched the jar and a brush, and handed them to Watson, then stepped back and watched with a grimace as Watson scooped some of the yellow substance into the jar.
"I'll examine this when we get home, see what I can get from it," Watson said, "but I'm pretty sure we'll find it's related to the growth from the tunnels and the substance I found in the blood of the transformed."
"Speaking of the transformed," Holmes said, grabbing Watson's sleeve. "We need to go, right now."
"What?" Watson looked at Holmes, then followed Holmes finger, which was pointing to one of the bodies a couple of tables away. It was moving, and the bone-cracking sounds were very similar. "Oh no," Watson breathed.
"Oh yes," Holmes said, dragging Watson away from the nearest body, which was also beginning to move.
"We need to leave, right now," Watson said. They backed out of the room slowly, so as not to attract the attention of the monsters now rising from the tables. This proved to be a mistake as the creatures shed the sheets covering their faces and spotted the two men.
"Not to alarm you, old chap, but I do believe we have a problem," Holmes said, glancing behind him. Having seen how fast the creatures could move, there was no way they could cover the distance to the front door and get out before the creatures were upon them. "Alas, only one of us is properly armed," he nodded to the sword Watson held. "I don't suppose you brought your—" He didn't get a chance to finish, finding himself yanked by his jacket, landing in one of the display caskets, squarely on top of Watson. "What—" he tried to speak again, only to find Watson's hand covering his mouth as the doctor reached up past his head to bring the lid down, shutting out the light and sound of the room.
"Really, Watson, is this the best time for this?" Holmes whispered in Watson's ear, nuzzling the sensitive skin just under it. He was rewarded with a full body shiver from Watson, and he grinned into Watson's shoulder. "If you've been feeling neglected, you had but to ask," he added, pressing his body against Watson's.
"Holmes," Watson hissed, pinching Holmes' side lightly. "Stop that this instant. In case it has escaped your notice, we are still in danger." As if to bring emphasis to his words, a muffled shriek sounded in the confines of the casket, followed by the sounds of something scratching at the lid.
"We can only hope that they can't figure out how to open a casket," Holmes whispered, and Watson made a frustrated noise, muffled when he turned his head and pressed his lips to Holmes' to keep him quiet. Holmes made a surprised noise, then leaned into the kiss, molding their bodies even closer together.
The kiss lasted for a long time, the two of them pulling apart only to breathe. Holmes was very aware how his body had responded to the close confines they found themselves in, and the merest shift of his body told him Watson was similarly affected. As Holmes leaned in for another kiss, Watson cocked his head to the side.
"Do you hear that?"
"I don't hear anything," Holmes said. "Do you suppose they've gone?" He reached for the lid of the casket, raising it slightly, peering through the narrow opening.
"They're gone," Holmes threw back the lid, sitting up. "As lovely as this interlude has been, I think we should probably go."
"Yes, well, you'll have to move first," Watson pointed out. Holmes glanced down at where he was sitting, straddling Watson, and grinned.
"We'll pick this up later," Holmes said, leaning down for another kiss, then pulling away before things got too heated. He climbed out of the casket and leaned against it, taking a deep breath. "Right," he said when Watson joined him beside the casket. "Let's go."
"Where are we going?"
"To follow them, of course," Holmes said, already heading for the now broken front door.
"Follow them? Are you insane?"
"I think we've already covered this subject, no?" Holmes didn't bother looking back as he strode into the street. The fog swirled thickly around them, and he paused, looking this way and that, trying to discern which way the creatures had gone. He spotted something off in the distance and ran off, ignoring Watson's shout. Watson sighed, then followed Holmes into the fog.
When he caught up, Holmes was kneeling in the middle of the street, trying to pry up the manhole cover. Watson knelt beside him, and together, they managed to lever the cover out. Holmes pulled out a mini-torch and shone it down into the manhole.
"I think they went this way. Come on!" He started to climb down, and Watson grabbed his arm.
"What do you think you're doing?"
"Following them, of course. What does it look like I'm doing?" Holmes shook off Watson's hand and continued climbing down, until only his head was visible above ground. "Are you coming?"
Watson stood in the street for a good couple of minutes before heaving a sigh and climbing down after Holmes. At least he'd changed into clothes he didn't mind getting filthy.
The strange growth they had seen in Regent's Park covered the walls of the tunnel, denser than it had been when they first saw it. Holmes swung the torch around, casting wild shadows on the walls.
"Look at this, Watson," he pointed to a spot high on the wall where the growth was thicker, forming a kind of a knot-like hub. "It looks like it's still fresh, like it's still growing. I wonder what it'll be when it's done."
"No doubt something horrifying and grotesque, like everything else has been," Watson muttered. "Can we please go home now?"
"Watson, where is your sense of adventure? Here we are, exploring an unknown territory, with who knows what waiting for us around the corner, and you want to go home?"
"That's precisely why I want to go home," Watson scowled. "It's cold, and wet, and I don't really enjoy trudging through the sewers, no matter what the reason."
"The reason, my dear Watson, is the possibility of discovering what these creatures are up to," Holmes said. "But you're welcome to go home if you'd like," Holmes said airily, thrusting his chin up. "I'm perfectly fine down here by mysel—" He turned to go and lost his footing, slipping off the ledge into the center of the tunnel, where the water was almost two meters deep. He dropped the torch and it sunk to the bottom of the water, the light distorted by the murky water.
"Watson, I hate to alarm you," Holmes said when he surfaced, his voice strangely shaky, "but there is something in the water with me."
"Get out of the water, then," Watson said. "Quickly, if you please."
"I'm afraid that's not going to be easy," Holmes said, seconds before being yanked under the surface.
"Holmes?" Watson stepped closer to the edge, trying to see what was happening. Despite the torch shining up from the bottom, he could only see vague shapes moving in the water. The torch simply wasn't strong enough. "Holmes!"
There was a splash further down the tunnel, and Watson could hear spluttering and coughing noises. "Watson, over here! It's got me!" More splashing sounds. "Hurry, for the love of God! It's pulling me with it!"
Watson broke into a run, trying to stay out of the deepest water, in case there were more of whatever had got hold of Holmes. As he ran, he saw Holmes clinging to a railing on the side of the tunnel. There was something wrapped around his waist, a column of muscle and sinew as thick as Holmes' thigh, clinging to him. Watson drew back the sword and slashed at the thing, cutting almost halfway through in one swing. The thing howled, thrashing around, shaking Holmes like a ragdoll. Holmes lost his grip on the railing and the thing dragged him into the water. Watson slashed at the thing in a spot he prayed was far enough away from Holmes to avoid harming him. When he felt the sword make contact, he stabbed and slashed again, until the thing gave a mighty heave, thrashing around again before falling into the water. There was no sight of Holmes.
"Holmes!" Watson knelt on the ledge, filthy water soaking into his trousers be damned, and reached into the water, trying to catch hold of Holmes. For the longest time, his fingers touched nothing but water, and then, finally, he felt something brush past his hand that felt more solid. Grabbing frantically, he caught hold of Holmes' coat, and yanked him out of the water, pulling him onto the higher ledge. In the darkness, he couldn't see Holmes' face, and had to make do with trying to feel his way with his hands.
"Holmes, are you all right? Holmes!" There was no reply, and Watson moved to kneel beside Holmes, brushing his hands over Holmes' face, tilting his head back. He was mere inches away from Holmes' face when he felt breath on his cheek.
"I keep telling you, Watson, if you are that starved for my affections, you have but to ask," Holmes said, grinning up at him.
Watson slapped Holmes and stood up, stepping back from the center of the tunnel. "The next time, I'll just leave you there, whether you're breathing or not."
"I'll keep that in mind," Holmes said, still grinning. He sat up, running his fingers through his hair, grimacing at the smell. "Thank you for your timely assistance," he said, his voice and face both serious. When he moved to stand up, he grimaced and grabbed at his side.
"Are you all right?"
"Just a bit bruised," Holmes said dismissively. He straightened his jacket, frowning at the wet squelching sounds his clothes made, and started in the direction they'd been heading before the creature attacked him.
"Where the hell do you think you're going?" Watson's voice was deadly quiet.
"We can't stop now, Watson!" Holmes stopped and turned to face him. "We're getting somewhere! That was proof!" He pointed at the water where the tentacle creature had been. "They're trying to stop us!"
"Yes, by killing us," Watson said. "We're not going anywhere."
"As I said before," Holmes huffed indignantly, "you're welcome to go back, but I'm—"
"Holmes, I will shoot you if you take one more step," Watson said, drawing his PEW.
"You wouldn't," Holmes said.
"Try me." The whine of the PEW charging was answer enough, and Holmes held up his hand in a gesture of surrender.
"Very well, Watson, you've convinced me," he said. "I can see you're serious, so let's go home."
Despite the fact that it was well after midnight Watson vetoed the idea of trying to find a cab.
"We both reek of sewage, no one in their right mind would take us as passengers," he said. "We'll walk, it'll be good for our constitution."
"I've had enough exercise to last me a long time," Holmes said, trudging behind him. He pressed his hand to his side, wincing with every breath, but shook his head at Watson's concerned glance. "I'll be all right," he said.
By the time they made it home, they were both chilled to the bone. Once in their rooms, Watson made Holmes strip his clothes, eyes widening at the sight of the band of bruises encircling Holmes' torso.
"You should have said something," he said, moving to retrieve his doctor's bag.
"There wasn't anything you could have done," Holmes shrugged, wincing with the motion. He bent his head down to his shoulder and sniffed at his skin. "I think I shall have Mrs. Hudson burn the clothes," he said, kicking the dirty clothes aside.
"Come on, then," Watson wrapped an arm around Holmes' waist. "Let's get you into the shower, before you fall down."
"You're no less dirty than I am," Holmes said, looking back at the pile of Watson's clothes beside his own. "Why don't we make it a shower for two? It'll save us time and get us to bed faster. As I recall, we were going to pick up something from earlier?"
Watson gave him a disbelieving look. "You can't be serious."
"Always," Holmes said, wrapping an arm around Watson. "Always serious about you."
"Let's see if you make it through the shower first, shall we?"
Holmes clung to Watson throughout the shower, and Watson ended up doing most of the work, cleaning both himself and Holmes. He had to bat away Holmes' hands several times, but eventually, he got them both cleaned up. He walked Holmes into the bedroom and left him sitting on the edge of the bed, while he went to get his doctor's bag to treat Holmes' ribs. When he returned, Watson found Holmes lying on the bed, sprawled on top of the covers, fast asleep. It took a bit of doing, but he managed to get the covers out from under Holmes and on top of him where they belonged. Sighing softly, Watson set his medical bag aside. Holmes' ribs could wait till the morning, after all. When he got into bed beside Holmes, he moved slowly and carefully so as not to disturb Holmes' sleep or jar him too much. As soon as he lay down, though, Holmes rolled onto his side and sprawled onto Watson as was his habit. As the warmth from Holmes' body seeped into Watson's, he forced himself not to think about nearly losing Holmes in the sewers, and clenched his fists in the covers to stop himself from clinging to Holmes too much.
In the morning, they intended to sleep late, but they were woken far too early by the sounds of screams and sirens outside. They scrambled to get dressed, Holmes a bit slower than Watson (waving off Watson's concern about his ribs), and stepped outside into complete pandemonium.
There were people running in the streets, casting panicked looks behind them, in the direction of Regent's Park. There were people milling about, talking excitedly. There were people heading toward the park, ignoring the astounded looks everyone else gave them. In the distance, police sirens wailed, almost loudly enough to drown out the panicked screams.
"What's happening?" Holmes grabbed a random passer-by, a young man out of breath from running down the street.
"There's a monster in the park," the young man shouted, shrugging off Holmes' grip on his arm. "It's killing people!" Before Holmes could ask him anything else, the young man took off running down the street.
"Do you hear that, Watson?" Holmes turned to Watson, a glint of excitement lighting up his eyes. "There's a monster in the park!" He got three steps away from the door before Watson caught up to him.
"Where do you think you're going?"
"I know, I know," Holmes nodded. "I'm in no shape to go running off, one of these days I'll get myself killed, and then where will you be?"
Watson frowned. "You're mocking me."
"I am not," Holmes spluttered. "I'm merely saving you the time and effort it would take to deliver another one of your speeches."
"Fine, then," Watson threw up his arms, turning to go back inside. "Since you are clearly capable of fulfilling whatever role you would require of me yourself, I can see you don't need me with you on this."
"Watson," Holmes ran to get ahead of Watson, stepping far too close than was appropriate in the street, in broad daylight, "I always need you with me." As if becoming aware of where they were and what he was doing, he took a step back, still keeping his eyes focused intently on Watson. "I'd like to think I've proven that, time and time again, but if you require another demonstration..."
Watson rolled his eyes. "At least come back inside and let me wrap your ribs, before you go running off. Dress appropriately, bring a weapon, for pity's sake."
"I'd rather bring you," Holmes told him, following him into the house.
Mrs. Hudson met them at the door, face pale and eyes wide. "What it is? What's happening?"
Watson and Holmes shared a look, and Watson stepped forward, taking Mrs. Hudson by the elbow while Holmes closed the door.
"It would be better if you remain inside today, Mrs. Hudson," he said. "It might be... dangerous to go outside."
Mrs. Hudson gasped, one hand covering her mouth. "I suppose he's intending to go running off straight into the middle of it?" She nodded to Holmes, who stood leaning against the banister.
"I'm afraid so," Watson nodded.
"And no doubt you're going with him?" Mrs. Hudson frowned.
"I'm afraid so," Watson repeated, this time with a smile. "Hopefully my presence will be enough to minimize the trouble he gets himself into."
Holmes cleared his throat. "If you don't mind, Watson, we do have a case to investigate," he drummed his fingers on the railing. "Assuming you've assuaged our dear Mrs. Hudson's fears sufficiently?"
"When it comes to you," Mrs. Hudson grumbled, "no amount of assuaging is ever sufficient." She laid a hand on Watson's arm. "Do be careful, doctor."
"Always," Watson gave her a warm smile. Turning to Holmes, he straightened his jacket. "Let us go and prepare, and then we shall brave the chaos outside."
Twenty minutes later, they were standing on a path in the middle of Regent's Park, impeded from proceeding toward the zoo by a police barrier. The fresh-faced constable who'd stopped them spoke with a shaky voice but refused to be intimidated, even when Holmes threatened to report him to Lestrade.
"It's the inspector's orders to keep the park clear until everyone is evacuated, sir," he told Holmes, his voice cracking slightly when he invoked Lestrade's rank. "I've called in to the inspector to let him know you're here, I'm sure if he wants you there he'll—"
A fresh round of screams interrupted him, and he spun around to look toward the zoo. There was something running across the grass, in pursuit of a small group of people. As the creature drew closer, they could see it was like nothing they'd ever seen before, appearing to be a monstrous amalgam of several animals; a Komodo dragon's head was flanked by a wolf's head on one side and several small monkey heads, none of them moving, on the other.
"What the hell is that thing?" Holmes squinted into the morning sun, trying to make out the details.
"I believe its torso and legs are that of a Komodo dragon," Watson said, lifting his hand to shade his eyes. "There was only one of them in the zoo; it won't be easily replaced."
"I hardly think the loss of a rare animal is the greatest concern of the day," Holmes said.
The creature leapt into the air, bringing down several of the group it was pursuing. The young constable who stood with them turned aside and fell to his knees, retching, as the creature ripped the people apart. It paused over their bodies, throwing its wolf's head back in a howl, and as they watched, tendrils of flesh resembling the growth they'd seen in the tunnel the previous night extended from the creature's body, winding around the fresh corpses and pulling them toward the creature.
"Perhaps it would be wise to remove ourselves from the creature's path," Watson said, not taking his eyes off the monster. One of the men it had brought down was still alive, screaming as his body merged with the rest of the creature. His screams continued as the creature rose to its feet and shook itself, a strange ripple spreading over its body from neck to tail. The Komodo dragon head snapped at the still-screaming man, tearing a chunk of flesh from his neck, cutting off the screams.
"I think that's a very good idea," Holmes said. Together, they dragged the constable to his feet and started to back away from the barrier. As they moved, the creature scented the air, turning in their direction, the wolf's head howling as it began to move toward them.
The constable threw off their grasp and turned and ran, but before they could follow suit, there was a loud buzzing sound, like crackling of electricity, and the creature stopped in its tracks, turning toward the source of the sound. When it didn't find anything within its immediate vicinity, it turned back to Holmes and Watson, pawing at the ground and getting ready to charge at them. Before it could move, a bolt of energy struck it, making it howl in pain as it collapsed. When it tried to get up, two more bolts struck it, cutting large gashes into its body, and the beast stopped moving.
Holmes moved toward it, and Watson yanked him back by the collar of his coat, Holmes stumbling to a stop with a choked little noise.
"Are you insane?" Watson hissed at him. "That thing could still be alive!"
"Clearly it's not," Holmes pointed. "See? It's not moving."
"I don't know why I even bother," Watson shook his head, releasing his hold on Holmes' collar.
Without a pause, Holmes started across the grass toward the fallen creature. He was only a few steps from it when it lifted its head slightly and growled at him. He skidded to a stop, ready to bolt, but another energy blast hit the creature, and it exploded in a geyser of blood and body parts, showering Holmes from head to toe. He stood motionless for a moment, eyes and mouth firmly closed against the viscera and bodily fluids coating him, then slowly lifted his hand to wipe his face clean.
When he opened his eyes, blinking carefully, he saw Inspector Lestrade and Clark walking toward him out of the trees. Clark was carrying a strange looking contraption on his shoulder, and when they got closer, Holmes could see that it was a weapon of some sort, studded with buttons and levers and energy capacitors.
"One of these days, your luck will run out, Holmes," Lestrade glared at him, keeping a bit more distance than usual between them.
"And on that day, men and women will weep in the streets, lamenting the loss of one such as I," Holmes told him smugly. "Could I bother you for a handkerchief, inspector?"
"Holmes! Are you all right?" Watson approached him carefully, also keeping his distance.
"I feel sullied and unusual," Holmes told him, grimacing as he wiped his face with the handkerchief Lestrade handed him. "Other than that, however, I feel just fine."
"We should get you home, get you cleaned up," Watson reached out and swiped a finger through the slime coating Holmes. "Who knows what this stuff will do to you?"
"Yes, yes," Holmes batted Watson's hand away. "Inspector, what the devil was that thing?"
"Damned if I know," Lestrade shook his head. "We got a call this morning about a disturbance at the zoo. The keepers found some of the cages and enclosures vandalized, and called us in. When we got here, we found them... well, we didn't find them, actually, just that," he glanced down at the remains of the creature and shuddered. "We tried to contain it, but of course it didn't work. It killed one of my men, and injured three others. After that, it ran, and I sent Clark here back to the armory to retrieve our new toy," he ran a hand along the length of the weapon Clark was holding.
"It's certainly impressive," Holmes nodded, glancing at the weapon. "This is a Tesla design, isn't it?"
Clark nodded. "We're one of the first cities to get one," he said proudly. "Production is still limited, so we only have the one, but it's definitely effective."
"It is that," Holmes said, turning back to Lestrade. "When your men search the zoo, tell them to be on the lookout for a bat-like creature. It'll probably be hiding, looking for corpses to infect."
"How do you know about that?" Lestrade closed the distance between them, glaring at Holmes. "We've only seen two of them, and you weren't there."
"We had an encounter of our own last night," Holmes said. "It infected several bodies in the Whitechapel viewing mortuary."
"What were you— No, never mind," Lestrade shook his head. "I've got too much on my hands as it is, I don't want to know. News of this is going to spread throughout the city, and I need to try and prevent panic from spreading."
"Have you found out anything else about Altman?" Holmes asked. "More and more, he seems to be at the center of this case."
"His ship, the Unity, is still docked at the aerodrome. I'll send some men over there to impound it and bring it down to the city. I assume you'll want to have a look?"
"You assume correctly, inspector," Holmes nodded. "But first, I believe I require a shower and a change of clothes, so if you'll excuse us." He didn't wait for Lestrade's reply before he started to walk away, Watson following him back to Baker Street.
When Holmes and Watson arrived at the New Scotland Yard, they were greeted by the young constable who'd stopped them in the park.
"You're looking much improved," Watson told the constable. "Are you feeling better?"
"Yes, sir," the constable nodded. "Once I got away from the park and that... thing," he shuddered, then caught himself and straightened up. "I'm to escort you to the Unity, as per Inspector Lestrade's orders."
"Of course," Watson nodded. "Lead the way."
The Unity was empty, either because it had been left that way or because the crew had made themselves scarce after news of police involvement spread, and they had free run of the vessel. Holmes headed to Altman's cabin, and Watson followed, glancing around the interior of the cabin curiously.
"Do you ever wonder, what a life like this would be like? Sailing the skies, having adventures, discovering new places and people?"
"I think we have plenty of adventures in the life we already lead," Holmes answered absently as he examined the paintings on the walls of the cabin. "Aha!" he gave a cry of triumph and lifted a landscape painting off the wall, revealing a safe.
Watson watched from where he stood, leafing through the maps and charts on the table, as Holmes concentrated on opening the safe. One of the maps was that of the South Pacific, with hand-written notes covering the empty expanse of the ocean. Altman had marked several possible locations of the strange island he'd found the artifact on, but none of them were certain, each possibility raising more questions. Apparently Altman had lied about not trying to find the island's location.
The click of the safe door opening made Watson look up, just in time to see Holmes beaming at him from where he stood. Watson walked to stand beside Holmes as he reached into the safe. It was a large safe, and it was almost completely filled. The upper shelves held several journals, all of them filled with Altman's precise handwriting, margin to margin on each page.
"Look at this," Holmes was leafing through the topmost journal, flipping through the pages randomly. "He writes here about getting caught in a storm, and crashing on the island. We made our way through the jungle, searching for anyone or anything which could help us effect repairs. Several of the men found a ship in the middle of the island, it must have been washed ashore by a storm." Holmes continued to read silently, and Watson turned his attention to the other contents of the safe. A crew manifest caught his attention, and he brought it to the table to read by the light from the window.
"There aren't a lot of details about the crew, but it lists the dates they came aboard and departed," he said, paging through the book. "What's the date on that last entry you read, where they crashed on the island?"
Holmes paged back to the entry. "March eighteenth," he said. "Why, have you found something?"
"Beginning of April, there are four deaths listed, within three days. And another three in the next week."
"What's the cause of death?"
"Unknown illness, fatal injury, nothing specific." Watson looked up from the book. "Maybe they died as a result of the crash? Or something on the island? Bad food, or water?"
"It was something on the island, all right," Holmes muttered. "Listen to this: I have been exploring the island while the men work on repairing the ship. Despite their objections, I ordered some of the men to take me to go see the wreckage of the ship they'd found, but now I find myself wishing I had not done so. The clearing in which it rests is disturbing. There is a strange haunted quality to it, eerily silent and deserted. The ship itself is overgrown with some sort of vegetation I had not seen before, which has spread to the ground and trees around the ship. There are no animals in the ship's vicinity, despite their abundance elsewhere on the island." Holmes put down the journal, glancing up at Watson. "Sound familiar?"
"Altman ordered his men to stay away from the wreckage, but some of them didn't listen, and went exploring. They cut a path into the ship and brought back a crate. Altman confiscated it, and had it brought to his cabin. When he opened it, he found the artifact. Two days later, the deaths are mentioned."
"Do you think the artifact did this to them?"
"I don't know how, but probably, yes, I believe so," Watson said, going back to reading.
"What else is there? Anything about what the artifact is?"
"Once the ship was repaired and they began the journey back, Altman writes it was slower going—not enough crew to keep everything running smoothly, I imagine. Several of the crew killed themselves during the trip, as well. There is an entry here, detailing the case of a crewman who'd tried to kill his cabin mate and had to be subdued. When they restrained him and put him in the brig, he somehow managed to free himself and smashed his head against the wall until he died."
"Lovely," Watson grimaced. He leafed through the crew manifest, shaking his head. "There isn't anything here about those deaths. The seven on the island are the last ones recorded."
"I imagine Altman was being affected by the artifact by then. Keeping a complete record of the everyday happenings on his ship was probably not that important to him."
"As the return journey continues, the entries grow more erratic," Holmes sat down at the table, paging through the journal. "I cannot stop thinking about the artifact, it occupies my every waking thought. Even my dreams are full of it, when I can sleep. Every time I close my eyes, I see it in my mind's eye. I have begun to study the symbols on its surface. I believe they form a language of some kind." Holmes turned the journal so that Watson could see the page. "There are drawings of the artifact for pages after this. He made a detailed study of it, transcribing the symbols from each segment. This could be useful," he looked up, his eyes glinting with pleasure.
"We still have no way to start deciphering the symbols," Watson pointed out. "Unless there's something in there?"
Holmes waved a hand in the air to hush him and continued flipping through the pages, muttering to himself. Eventually, Watson gave up waiting and turned back to the safe, going through the rest of its contents. The bottom shelf of the safe held a wooden crate, and he dragged it out into the light. Holmes glanced at him once when Watson set the crate on the floor by the window, then went back to reading the journal.
Watson brushed away the dust from the lid of the crate, bending down to get a closer look. When he couldn't make it out, he lifted it onto the table, brushing at the lid with the sleeve of his coat.
"Holmes, what does this look like to you?" He turned the lid this way and that, trying to make out the design. It had been carved into the wood, but as the crate aged, the wood wore away, leaving only a faint impression. Watson traces his fingers over the faint lines, and when Holmes ignored him in favor of reading more, he pushed the lid aside and grabbed one of the charts off the table. He laid it face down on the crate and patted his pockets, coming up with a stub of a pencil.
Holmes finally looked up from the journal and watched with interest as Watson gently ran the pencil over the paper, tracing the carved lines underneath. The rough wood of the lid made getting a clear rubbing difficult, but what Watson got was enough to make out several words and a fragment of a symbol. Holmes set the journal aside and got to his feet, moving to stand beside Watson as they stared down at the paper.
"-OYA- -O-IET-," Holmes spelled out. "What do you think it is?"
"Loyal? Royal?" Watson traced the first word with a fingertip. "And this could be... Is it all one word?"
"Society," Holmes said. "Royal Society."
"Then this must be the Society seal, then," Watson pointed to the symbol above the words.
"The question is, what was a ship with Royal Society cargo doing in the South Pacific? Were they bringing it back here, or taking it somewhere else?" He turned to the window and lifted the crate up onto the table. "Let's see what else is in here."
Most of the contents of the crate were damaged beyond salvaging, and Holmes frowned as the papers he lifted out practically fell apart in his hands. He sifted through the fragments of pages in front of him, finding one with still readable writing on it.
"On this, the 30th of October, in the year of Our Lord 1666, I commit these thoughts to paper. I have been at sea for two—that's where it breaks off," he said, the scrap of paper falling from his fingers. "Watson, how's your history?"
"What are you thinking?"
"1666, Watson," Holmes said, looking up at Watson intently. "A rather significant year in the history of England, don't you think?"
"What—" Watson trailed off. "The Fire?"
"The Fire," Holmes nodded. "And, if you'll recall, a terrible plague that swept through the city in the previous year."
"What are you saying, that it's all connected?"
"Why not?" Holmes started pacing around the table. "The plague may have been an outbreak like the one we are currently seeing, and the fire was a way of cleansing that infection."
"That would mean the fire was deliberately started," Watson said, speaking slowly and carefully, as if measuring the weight of every word before he spoke it."
"Yes, it would," Holmes said.
"But what was the Royal Society's involvement? And if the Society was involved, then that would mean..."
"We should take all of this home," Holmes stopped pacing around the table. "I think I'd feel better if we continued this discussion at home."
Watson nodded tersely, and they packed up as much of the contents of the safe as they could. When the young constable met them outside the ship, he was unceremoniously recruited into carrying the heavy crate. He saw them to the cab and paused before closing the door.
"Is there... Is there anything you need me to tell the inspector?"
"If he asks, you can tell him we're working on it," Holmes said, reaching for the door and closing it. "We'll be in touch."
"You didn't have to be rude to the boy," Watson chided as Holmes signaled the driver to drive away.
"He'll get over it," Holmes shrugged. "And besides, I've got more important things on my mind," he nudged the crate sitting on the floor with his foot. "Hopefully some of Altman's notes will allow me to translate the symbols. Or maybe there's something in there that will give us a hint about how to fight these creatures."
"I hope so," Watson said, looking out the window. As news of the morning's incident at the zoo had spread throughout the city, there was more and more chaos. They passed numerous carriages loaded up with luggage as people headed out of the city, and the streets were full of panicked people. "This is only going to get worse." He turned back to Holmes. "What if we went to Lestrade, gave him all the evidence, told him to work on evacuating the city?"
"We don't know how many people have been affected," Holmes shook his head. "There may not be any visible signs, and if they leave the city, it would only spread the infection."
"You're right," Watson sighed. "So what do we do?"
"We work with what we have," Holmes said. "And we go from there."
When they got home, Mrs. Hudson met them at the door, her lips pressed together tightly.
"You've a visitor," she hold Holmes. "He's been here for an hour, waiting for you."
"Let's not keep him waiting any longer, then," Holmes said, taking the steps up to his sitting room two at a time.
"Mrs. Hudson, if you could bring us some tea?" When she nodded, he followed Holmes upstairs.
There was a man standing at the window in the sitting room, watching the crowd in the street below. When Holmes and Watson came into the room, he turned to them and flashed them a brilliant smile before approaching them, hand outstretched.
"Mister Holmes, Doctor Watson, it's a pleasure to finally get to meet you," he said. Holmes and Watson each shook his hand, and Holmes settled into chair, Watson following suit.
"I'm afraid you have us at a disadvantage, Mister..."
"Harkness. Captain Jack Harkness, at your service," he grinned again, sitting down opposite Holmes. "I work for... well, you know who I work for," he paused, and Holmes nodded. "We know about what you found on Mister Altman's ship."
"How could you possibly know?" Watson asked. "We only just returned from there!"
"You would be surprised at what we know, doctor," Harkness raised an eyebrow.
Holmes cleared his throat. "What is it that you've been sent here to say, Mister, er, Captain Harkness?"
Harkness drew himself up. "Her Majesty's government welcomes your efforts to stop this infection from spreading, to find the source and eradicate it, if you can. But we ask that you do not pursue the question of government involvement in the previous appearance of the artifact."
"Then you are aware of it," Holmes said, leaning forward. "Tell me, why aren't you doing anything about it?"
"We've got the best person for the job on the case," Harkness gave Holmes a smug smile. "We would like you to keep working on decoding the information you've collected. There isn't much left from the 1666 case, and we find ourselves in the dark."
"Captain, how is it that an American comes to work for Special Branch?"
Harkness smiled. "It's a long story, actually, and I'm pretty sure we don't have time for that." He got to his feet and started heading for the door, then turned back to Holmes and Watson. "I actually work for a very specialized division of Special Branch," he said, "and I'm on loan on this case. May we count on your cooperation, gentlemen?"
"Captain Harkness, I'd like you to take a message back to my brother," Holmes stood up. "Tell Mycroft that if he's going to interfere and tell me how to investigate my cases, he's going to have to give me more than vague hints."
Harkness nodded, then walked closer to Holmes, speaking in a low voice. "Look, I'm not supposed to tell you this, but here's what we know. The artifact may or may not have been responsible for the plague, but the abundance of bodies left in its aftermath provided the perfect breeding ground for the transformations. There was... an agency involved in removing the artifact from London and getting rid of the infection, but basically it amounted to burning the city until there were no more dead bodies to reanimate. They sent in a man who'd volunteered to sacrifice himself to retrieve the artifact—I'm not sure where it was found, that information has been lost—and put him on a ship with a skeleton crew to take it out into open water and destroy it."
"Then the ship Altman found on the island..." Watson glanced back at the crate.
"We're not sure what happened, but clearly, the ship wasn't destroyed. Maybe the artifact affected them, we don't know." Harkness leaned in toward Holmes and Watson. "Officially, I didn't tell you any of this," he said, his voice low. "But I have a great deal of respect for you, regardless of whom I work for, so we'll just call this a friendly exchange of information, all right?" He winked at them, grinning. "Perhaps after this case is over, we can all get to know each other a little better." He reached into a pocket and pulled out a small card. "This is my private contact information," he said, putting an emphasis on the word. "Should you find yourself in need of my... assistance." He swept his gaze over both of them, then turned on his heel and left before they could react.
Once they heard the downstairs door close behind Harkness, Holmes walked to the window and watched his progress through the street. As if aware he was being watched, Harkness turned to look up at the window, tipping his hat at Holmes.
"Are we going to do as he asked? Drop the subject of the government's involvement?" Watson asked.
"Stopping the contagion is far more important than uncovering a conspiracy," Holmes said. "We need to focus on getting through Altman's journals. For the moment, at least."
Watson lifted the crate up onto the table and began laying out its contents. "Looks like it's going to be a long day," he said. "You get started, and I'll ask Mrs. Hudson to keep a steady supply of tea flowing through the day."
A few hours later, Watson pushed away the journal he was reading through and got to his feet, stretching his legs.
"You can take care of yourself for a few hours, can't you, Holmes? I need to go check on my patients, and see if I'm needed anywhere else."
"Yes, go," Holmes waved a hand in Watson's general direction, not taking his eyes off the pages in front of him.
"Please don't do anything stupid," Watson told him, but received no reply. Familiar by now with Holmes' habit of immersing himself almost completely in a case, Watson left him to his own resources and went to change his clothes.
He didn't expect to be gone for long, but he stopped to see Mrs. Hudson before leaving, and asked her to keep an eye on Holmes, as much as she could.
When he returned to Baker Street, it was starting to get dark. He found Holmes exactly where he'd left him, bent over one of the journals, pages covered with notes littering the table. There was a pot of tea (cold) and a plate of sandwiches (stale) on the table as well. When Watson dropped into a chair across from Holmes, he got no response until he touched Holmes' hand.
"Watson! When did you get back?"
"Just now. Have you been working on this all day?"
"All day?" Holmes blinked at him. "What time is it?"
"It's late. You haven't eaten since I left, have you?"
Holmes glanced at the teapot and plate as if he was seeing them for the first time, which he probably was. "I wasn't hungry."
"Well, I am. I'll have Mrs. Hudson prepare something, unless you'd rather go out to dinner somewhere?"
"I haven't got time for dinner," Holmes shook his head. "I've made some progress, although how useful it is remains to be seen." He reached for his notes, handing them to Watson. "I read more of the journals, from before the island, and after, and let me tell you, Altman doesn't strike me as the most stable of men. After they left the island, he became obsessed with the artifact, and through whatever methods, decoded some of the symbols. I think under the artifact's influence, he began to write in its language, too. Some of this stuff reads like the ramblings of a lunatic," he nodded to the pages Watson was looking over. "There's a lot about being reborn in unity, whatever that means, death is only the beginning—we've seen that before—and something called the Overmind, which must be nourished and allowed to grow, in order to lead the chosen ones into the future."
"That sounds ominous," Watson muttered, flipping through the pages. "Any idea what the Overmind is?"
"I haven't quite figured that out, yet," Holmes said, his eyes shining with excitement. "There's still a lot to translate."
"Dinner, first," Watson pulled the journal away from Holmes. "You need food, and rest. Preferably sleep, but at least some time away from all of this."
"I can't sleep now, Watson," Holmes shook his head. "I have to keep working on this."
"You're beginning to sound as obsessed as Altman," Watson frowned. "We are going to have dinner, and then you are going to rest. Doctor's orders."
"Speaking of doctoring, how are your patients?" Holmes turned back to the table, reaching for the journal again.
"Don't think you can distract me," Watson grabbed the journal and set it out of reach. He grabbed Holmes' arm and pulled him to his feet. "Come on, Holmes. Take a breather, will you?" He led Holmes to the sofa, where he made him sit down, then rang for Mrs. Hudson. When she arrived, he asked her to bring up some food and a fresh pot of tea, then sank to the couch beside Holmes, letting his head fall back with a sigh. He groaned when Holmes wrapped a hand around the back of his neck, gently massaging some of the tension away.
"I wasn't trying to distract you, you know," Holmes said. "How are your patients?"
"Suffering from stress and having trouble sleeping, which can probably be said for most of the people in the city," Watson said, leaning forward so Holmes could have better access to his shoulders. "I stopped by the hospital, and they're full to overflowing. People injured in fights, people unable to sleep, all sorts of stuff. The mental wards are overflowing as well. Whatever this is, we need to find a way to stop it, or the city will tear itself apart." Mrs. Hudson brought up a pot of tea and a fresh plate of sandwiches, taking away the cold ones with a reproachful look at Holmes. Watson gave her a wan smile as she left. "Don't worry, I'll make sure he eats this time."
"It's not just him I'm worried about," Mrs. Hudson said, pausing in the door. "You both look as if you haven't slept in days."
"Your concern is appreciated," Holmes said, reaching for a sandwich. "With luck, this will all be over soon, and then we can all get some proper sleep."
"From your mouth to God's ears," Mrs. Hudson muttered and left them alone.
"I compared some of the symbols in Altman's notes to the ones on the box we got from Mister Pendergast," Holmes said in between bites. "They look to be similar, I might be able to translate them as well."
"I beg you, Holmes, half an hour without speaking of the infernal case," Watson said, picking at his sandwich. "After everything I've seen today, thirty minutes of normalcy isn't too much to ask for, is it?"
Holmes nodded, and they ate in companionable silence, finishing off the sandwiches and relaxing with tea. Afterwards, Holmes pulled Watson down to lie on the sofa, his head in Holmes' lap, running his fingers through Watson's hair.
"How badly do you want to get back to your translations?" Watson asked, his eyes half-closed, a pleased smile on his lips.
"Not badly enough to leave you here alone," Holmes muttered, tightening his fingers slightly. He leaned down to Watson, kissing him softly. "We don't have to stay here, you know," he said, his voice growing husky.
Watson reached up to wrap a hand around Holmes' head, holding him close as they kissed again. "I think that, however pleasant, might need to wait until we've solved the case," he said with a soft sigh. "Or at least until you've finished with the translations. We've an important job to do." He pushed Holmes up and sat up himself. "Come on, let's get to it. Perhaps if we both work on it, we'll get through it twice as fast."
"You've been working all day," Holmes said, shaking his head. "Take a rest, sleep for a little while, and then you can help me later."
Watson opened his mouth but whatever he was about to say was swallowed by a yawn. "Maybe you're right," he said, sinking back down on the sofa. "Wake me in an hour, no more."
Holmes pulled a blanket over Watson's shoulders and brushed the hair from his forehead. "Yes, dear," he muttered, turning back to the table. Before he sat down, he glanced back at Watson, who was already asleep.
It was dark outside when Watson woke up, and the fire had died down almost completely. Despite the blanket draped over him, he was cold, and he forced his stiff muscles to move as he sat up. The room was almost completely dark, the only source of light the lamp on the table where Holmes worked.
After tending to the fire and lighting more lamps, Watson made his way to the table. Holmes sat slumped in his chair, his chin resting on his chest, fast asleep. The strange box they had borrowed from Pendergast sat on the edge of the table by Holmes' hand, and the table was littered with his notes, scattered over multiple pages. Half of the scribbles were the strange symbols Holmes had been working on deciphering, and the rest were a mixture of nonsensical drawings and random phrases, apparently translations of the symbols. Watson leafed through the pages, reading through them, watching Holmes sleep.
Holmes shook his head and shifted until he was sprawled in the chair, his head tipped back. Watson watched with a fond smile until Holmes was almost on the verge of sliding out of the chair and ending up on the floor. He mumbled something under his breath, shaking his head again, and Watson leaned forward to try and catch some of what Holmes was muttering.
All he got were louder mumbles, and a close look at how tightly pressed together Holmes' lips were. The frown lines on Holmes' forehead got deeper, and he shook his head again. Watson leaned back just in time to avoid one of Holmes' hands hitting his head. When Holmes' head fell back against the chair again, and his lips opened to let out a mournful moan, Watson reached over and touched Holmes' hand, squeezing it to let Holmes know he wasn't alone.
When Holmes awoke, it was suddenly, with a start that almost sent him sliding out of the chair and onto the floor, then tried to recover his balance and jerked strongly enough to send his chair tilting off balance. Watson caught the back of the chair just in time, setting it upright, and Holmes ran a hand over his face, rubbing the last dregs of sleep from his eyes.
"What time is it?"
"Long past when you were supposed to wake me," Watson said. "Why did you let me sleep so long?"
"I had intended to wake you, but you looked very tired, so I decided to let you sleep a while longer. After that I got caught up in the translations and lost track of time."
"It sounded like you were dreaming. Something bad?"
Holmes glanced up at Watson, then looked away, shaking his head. "Nothing more than usual," he said, sitting up and shifting papers around on the table. "Not worth talking about."
Watson narrowed his eyes at Holmes, but nodded nevertheless. "Very well." He turned his attention to Holmes' notes on the table. "I see you've made a breakthrough. I take it you've cracked the code, then?"
Holmes nodded. "I'm not exactly sure what a lot of it means, but we can read whatever Altman's written using these symbols."
"What about the ones on the artifact?"
"If these drawings are accurate, and I believe they are, the symbols contain some sort of genetic code. I can't tell for what, or if in fact I'm right about what it is, but that's what it looks like to me," Holmes said, handing Watson a piece of paper, covered with writing from margin to margin. "This is what I got from it."
Watson scanned the page. "There is a lot more here than I remember seeing on the artifact."
"There is," Holmes nodded. "We didn't get as close a look at it as Altman did, apparently. The larger symbols, the ones we saw, weren't the only ones there."
"You're right, this does look like a genetic code," Watson said. "I'm not a geneticist, so I don't know what it's for, but I suspect whatever it is, it's nothing good."
"It doesn't really help us, anyway," Holmes said. "I suspect whoever or whatever made the artifact had access to technology far advanced beyond ours. If we had more time, perhaps we could figure something out, but as it is..." He stood and walked to the large map of London he'd marked with the locations they'd found on Altman's map. Frowning, he rubbed at his temples.
"We need to go see Lestrade," he finally said.
"Now? It's the middle of the night!"
"I doubt the Scotland Yard shuts down just because it's night, Watson. I need to see the map we found at Altman's. The symbols on there, I'm sure they mean something."
"Holmes, no," Watson shook his head. "It's late, this can wait a few hours. We'll wait till a proper hour, get some rest in the meantime, and then we'll go see Lestrade."
"This could be important, Watson," Holmes stared at him intently.
"I know that, but you being able to function is also important. In the past few days, you've almost died, you've barely eaten, barely slept, you need rest."
"I slept!" Holmes protested. "You yourself woke me not twenty minutes ago."
"That doesn't count," Watson said. "You're not going anywhere but bed until the morning, and that's final."
"Only if you come with me," Holmes stepped closer, his hands going to the buttons of Watson's jacket. "Sleeping on the sofa can't have been much more comfortable than sleeping in the chair."
"You talk too much," Watson said, leaning down to brush his lips against Holmes'. "Why don't you shut up now, and put your mouth to better use." He fisted his hands in Holmes' shirt and pulled him away from the table. "Bed. Now."
"You're not going to insist that we turn off the lamps and bank the fire?" Holmes quirked an eyebrow at Watson, who dragged him from the room in reply.
In the morning, Holmes woke up first, as was his usual habit. Watson was still asleep, sprawled out beside Holmes, and Holmes was content to do nothing more than watch Watson sleep. There was a tightness in Watson's face, and Holmes almost reached out to smooth his hand over the lines around Watson's mouth. He pulled back just before he touched Watson; perhaps it was better to let the doctor sleep, even if the sleep was obviously not very restful.
Watson moaned then, fisting his hands in the covers, shaking his head on the pillow. Holmes reached out to take one of Watson's hands, squeezing it gently. Watson clung to Holmes' hand, gripping it with a white-knuckled desperation. He moaned again, his entire body shuddering, and Holmes made a decision. Not letting go of Watson's hand, he shifted until his other arm was free and reached out to grip Watson's shoulder and shake him awake.
When Watson awoke, his body tensed up, and his eyes flew open, darting around before settling on Holmes. It was only then that he relaxed, breathing deeply and composing his face.
"Are you all right?" Holmes still held on to Watson's hand, not wanting to let go.
"Now that I'm awake, yes," Watson nodded. "Thank you for waking me."
"Yes, well, it didn't seem like a very pleasant dream you were having. Care to talk about it?"
"How about we just stay here for a while, instead?" Watson pulled Holmes down to lie beside him, pulling him closer. "It's a much more pleasant alternative than recalling visions of dead soldiers—" He caught himself, and turned away from Holmes, lying on his back and staring up at the ceiling. "I'm sorry, I didn't want to—"
"You've nothing to apologize for," Holmes said, propping himself up on an elbow and looking down at Watson. "If you'd like to talk about it, we can."
"No," Watson shook his head, turning to Holmes. "Distract me, Holmes. You're good at that."
"You're the doctor, you know what's best," Holmes murmured, already leaning down and speaking the last words against the skin of Watson's shoulder.
Later, they lingered in bed, until Holmes reluctantly pulled back the covers, shivering in the morning cold.
"We need to—"
"Yes, of course," Watson nodded.
"Do you have to go anywhere today, or can you come with me?"
"I took care of everything yesterday, I'm coming with you."
"Good," Holmes said, bending down for a kiss before getting out of bed.
They showered and dressed, grabbing only a few bites of breakfast, much to Mrs. Hudson's dismay, before setting out for Scotland Yard HQ. Inspector Lestrade was already in the office, and he joined them in the main room when he saw them come in.
"What have you got?"
"I've translated the coded writings," Holmes said, handing Lestrade his notes. "Among other things, Altman writes about something called the Overmind. It's not a lot to go on, but it's more than we had before. Have you got the map we found in his study?"
"It's over here on the table," Lestrade motioned, and Holmes pushed past him to get to the map, leaning over it to study the symbols.
"What is it, this Overmind?" Lestrade asked, and Watson shook his head.
"I'm not sure. From what Holmes has told me, it's something that can perhaps control the creatures? There was something about it being nourished and allowed to grow, so perhaps there's still time to destroy it."
"But how do we find it?"
"That, my dear inspector, is why I'm here," Holmes looked up from the map. "These symbols," he pointed to the red markers on the map, one in each of the locations he and Watson and Lestrade's men had examined, "they translate to something like perimeter, or boundary. If we connect these points, like so," he grabbed a pen off one of the desks and drew a line connecting all the markers, "I believe this delineates the area they've claimed. Do you have a map of the city's sewers?"
At Lestrade's confused look, Holmes waved a hand dismissively. "Never mind, I've brought my own." He unfolded the map and laid it over the map of the city, tracing the perimeter from the map below. "See?" He pointed to the hand-drawn map of the tunnels. "They all converge in the center of the area. I believe this is where we'll find the Overmind."
"Very good, Mister Holmes." They turned to the speaker, a tall man dressed in black clothes with a clearly military cut, walking into the room with three others tailing behind him. "We had our own experts working on this, but clearly, they didn't have access to the same materials you did."
"And just who are you?"
"My name is Smith. Who I am is not important," the man said. "What is important is that I have the capability to destroy the infestation plaguing the city. And with your help, I know exactly where to go." He motioned to one of the men with him, who stepped around him to the table, reaching for the overlaid maps.
Holmes slapped his hand down on the table, and the man took a surprised step back. "Now wait just a minute! You can't just come in here and take over this case! We've risked our lives to get this information!"
"And we thank you for your services, gentlemen," Smith smiled thinly. "Rest assured that your contribution will not be forgotten."
"Contribution? We practically solved the case ourselves!" Holmes glared at the man standing by the table. "Don't you dare touch this!"
"Mister Holmes, please, step aside. All materials relating to this case, including what's on that table, are now our property."
"On whose authority?"
"The highest authority," Smith paused meaningfully.
Holmes frowned, then stepped away from the table. "Very well, then."
"Thank you," Smith said, and motioned to his compatriot, who folded the maps and collected Holmes' notes. "Is there anything else, anything you haven't brought with you?"
"There are journals and logs, from Altman's ship," Holmes said, his lips pressed into a thin line. "They're at home."
"We shall accompany you to Baker Street, then," Smith said. "You understand, we must have all the materials available to us."
"Of course," Holmes nodded. "Come along, Watson. Let's not delay these... gentlemen any more than we already have. Lestrade," he nodded to the inspector. "A pleasure, as always."
The crowds milling in the streets slowed down the ride back to Baker Street. Some of the people carried signs, proclaiming the end of times had arrived. The largest crowd by far was gathered around a man standing on a makeshift stage, preaching loudly about unity and rebirth, surrounded by both men and women with signs written in the artifact symbols.
"This is why we must act, and act quickly," Smith told them as they all gazed out the window at the crowd. "Whatever this Overmind is, its influence is spreading, and its effects are not limited to the transformations anymore. These people appear perfectly normal, and yet they have undoubtedly been affected."
"What are you going to do?" Watson asked.
"We have specialized units, trained to deal with extraordinary threats. They will be deployed into the tunnels from outside of the perimeter, and they will work their way inward."
"You seem very confident that they will be able to handle whatever they find down there," Holmes said, still looking out the window. "What happens if they cannot?"
"Mister Holmes, you and Doctor Watson managed to escape with your lives, several times. My men are highly trained; I have no doubt they will fare even better." Smith's lips quirked up in what could, at a stretch, be called a smug smile. "I appreciate that you are not used to being cut out of your cases before resolving them, but surely you can see this is for the best?"
"Oh, of course," Holmes said. "Absolutely."
Two of Smith's men accompanied them upstairs when they reached Baker Street. Holmes and Watson stood off to the side as the two men packed up all the journals and notes, not leaving even a scrap of paper behind when they were done. Holmes watched the carriage drive away and pulled the curtain shut before turning to Watson.
"No doubt we'll end up having to clean up after them," he said.
"They did seem to be somewhat competent," Watson said, looking around the room. "They were certainly thorough in removing all our research."
"Not thorough enough," Holmes said, crossing the room and opening the safe. "We still have this," he took out the box they had borrowed from Pendergast.
"That reminds me," Watson said. "When I was out yesterday, I saw the growth everywhere, coming out of the sewer grates in the streets, even clogging up one of the fountains."
"So? We've established it's spreading all over the place."
"Then why are we the only house on Baker Street not affected? Mrs. Hudson said that they've had to have the pipes cleared twice in the past week next door. You'd think being close to the center of the affected area, it would be everywhere." Watson took the box from Holmes and turned it this way and that. "Something's stopping it from growing around here."
"And you think it's this box?"
"I don't know," Watson put the box down on the table. "Have you been able to translate any of the symbols on it?"
Holmes nodded. "There's not much different than the ones on the artifact, or in Altman's notes. More about the Overmind, and this, here," he pointed to the symbols lining the outside of the opening in the top of the box, "this is something about the artifact, and activation."
"Pendergast said that Altman used the box to turn the artifact on," Watson said. "Do you think we could use it to turn it off?"
"If we had the artifact, perhaps? Although I'd be hesitant to get anywhere near the thing, given what it's doing to people."
"Yes, perhaps you're right," Watson said.
"However," Holmes continued, "given that this may be the only chance of saving the city from utter destruction, we may have no choice but to try and locate the artifact ourselves."
"You're not suggesting we go into the tunnels ourselves?"
"That is precisely what I'm suggesting. Although perhaps first we should attempt to determine if the box does indeed inhibit the growth of the... growth."
"And how do you suggest we do that?" Watson was already reaching for his coat, knowing precisely how Holmes meant to go about the task.
Holmes looked up from the box to take in the sight of Watson already wearing his coat. "Excellent, you're ready to go." He grabbed his own coat from the back of the chair and headed for the door, the box held under his arm. "If the box really does have the effect we think it does, it's really too bad we don't have more time to study it. Perhaps we could have developed a way to maximize its effect." He stepped out onto the busy street ahead of Watson, motioning for Watson to follow. "We need to hurry. The men they're sending down there will be slaughtered, no matter how well trained they are."
"Mister Holmes! Doctor Watson!" The voice came from behind them, and they turned to see Captain Jack Harkness pushing through the crowd to get to them. "I'm here to take you in," he said when he caught up to them.
"Take us in where?" Holmes asked.
"They're evacuating the city, in case the attempt to eradicate the infestation fails, and you're to be evacuated along with Inspector Lestrade and his men."
"Isn't that risky?" Watson asked. "What if there are infected among those evacuated?"
"Then they'll be easier to find and isolate," Harkness said.
"What exactly are they going to do if the attempt fails?" Holmes asked. "Burn the city again?"
"That's the plan," Harkness nodded. "Look, I don't like it anymore than you do, but there's no other way."
"The last time the city was burned, the threat was not eliminated completely," Holmes said. "Unless they have a way of destroying the artifact, it's just going to reappear again."
"We don't know where the artifact is," Harkness admitted. "The men in the tunnels are supposed to try and find it."
"I'm not sure the men in the tunnels will live long enough for that," Holmes said. "Altman is the last one to have the artifact, and he's disappeared. I'm guessing he's involved in this, perhaps protecting the Overmind and the artifact. All the tunnels the creatures use converge in the center of the affected area, and that's where we'll most likely find the Overmind, the artifact, and Altman." He gave Harkness a wry smile. "I imagine Her Majesty's government will wish to question him, although I doubt he'll in any shape to talk when we find him."
"You can't possibly go down there alone," Harkness protested.
"But we're not alone, captain," Holmes pointed out. "We've got you."
"Whatever we're going to do," Watson interrupted, "we've got to do it quickly." He pointed north, where the silhouettes of airships could be seen approaching.
"Those are the military ships," Harkness said. "When the civilian ships have left, they'll come in and firebomb the city."
"You'd best get on the radio to your superiors, then," Holmes said. "Tell them to give us more time. We can retrieve the artifact, and if it can be destroyed, or perhaps just removed from the city, the contagion could be contained."
"They're not going to let me take you down there," Jack shook his head. "Not when there's already men in the tunnels."
"The men don't have this," Holmes held up the box. "We believe it can help us get close to the Overmind, hold the creatures back."
Jack stared at Holmes and the box for a moment, then nodded, stepping away to radio his superiors. Watson spoke in a quiet voice, trying not to be overheard.
"We don't know that it's going to help us with the creatures," he said. "What if it doesn't work the same way on them as it does on the growth? What if the absence of the growth was just a coincidence?"
"I don't believe in coincidences, Watson," Holmes said. "We'll just have to wait and see what happens."
"I can't hold off the attack for long," Harkness came back to them. "An hour past the scheduled time is the longest they're willing to wait."
"How long does that give us?" Watson asked.
"That should be sufficient," Holmes said. "If we haven't succeeded by then, we'll either be dead or we'll be monsters like the rest of them, and the city will burn just as well then."
Harkness sighed, then squared his shoulders. "Let's go save the city, then."
They lifted the manhole cover out, ignoring the stares of the crowd around them. Harkness drew his weapon, a pistol that looked like a strange version of Watson's PEW, and went down first. When he called up that it was safe to proceed, Holmes and Watson followed, Watson pulling the manhole cover closed before making his way down the ladder.
The tunnel walls were covered with the strange growth they'd seen before, grown thick and impenetrable. When Holmes poked at it with the tips of his fingers, it sprung back where he pushed his fingers in. It grew in both directions, and Harkness peered first one way, then the other.
"OK, which way do we go? Do you actually know?"
Holmes reached into one of his pockets and pulled out a compass. He took a minute to get his bearings, then pointed down the tunnel to his left. "That way," he said. "If we were correct about the affected area and about the Overmind being in the center, south is the way to go."
"If?" Harkness asked, and Holmes shrugged.
"We're here, we may as well keep going."
"Well, no, if we keep going and we're wrong, we're all going to die."
"Captain Harkness, you are welcome to return to your superiors if you'd like," Holmes told him without looking back as he carefully walked along the edge of the water. "I'm sure Doctor Watson and I can manage just as well without y—" The last word ended up a strangled gurgle as Harkness grabbed the back of Holmes' jacket and yanked him back. When Holmes regained his balance, he turned on Harkness, furious, and then looked to where Harkness was pointing. One of the knot-like hubs he and Watson had seen the other night was fully developed, apparently, a tangle of clawed tentacles waving in the air where Holmes' head had just been.
"Thank you, captain," Holmes said, straightening his jacket. He drew the battered old model PEW he sometimes carried and kept on walking, keeping a watchful eye on the walls.
They had been walking for almost an hour when Watson called out to Holmes and Harkness.
"I hate to say this, but I think we're being followed," he said, shining the torch into the tunnel behind them. The walls looked like they were moving, and the three men stared at them, trying to make out what they were seeing.
"What the hell is that?" Holmes asked, stepping a bit closer to the wall.
"Don't," Harkness pulled him back. "I can see them from here, they're small, smaller than rats, and there are hundreds of them."
"I suspect if they were to swarm us, they would overcome us rather quickly," Watson said, shuddering.
"Let's not let that happen, then," Holmes said, starting ahead again.
Ten minutes later, they came to a stop at a junction of three tunnels, the south opening blocked entirely by the interwoven tentacles protruding from four hubs spaced around the tunnel opening.
"Now what?" Harkness asked. "I suppose we'll have to go around."
"Nonsense," Holmes shook his head. "This is the way we have to go, going around could take hours."
"Then what?" Watson asked. "Our PEWs aren't capable of sustained fire, so we can't use them to cut through, and I've a feeling if we try to push our way past them, we'll get cut to shreds."
"How about your weapon, captain?" Holmes turned to Harkness. "It doesn't seem like a regular issue PEW, does it have any extra functions?"
"It's an experimental model," Harkness drew his weapon and pointed it at the cluster of tentacles. "I'm going to tell you now, this may not work."
"We don't really have a choice," Watson said, looking down the tunnel they had come from. "Those... swarmer creatures are getting closer."
Holmes took a spot in front of Watson, drawing the box he carried from the bag slung over his shoulder. "I guess we'll find out if this really does hold them back," he said, holding it up. "It probably doesn't have a very big range, so I suggest you hurry, captain."
Harkness began firing his weapon at the tentacles, in sustained bursts longer than regular PEW fire. The tentacles writhed and squirmed around, and something began screaming, a loud, high-pitched piercing noise that made them all wince. Slowly, the tentacles began to burn away, leaving an opening big enough for a man to squeeze through.
"Captain, is it done?" Holmes yelled without looking over his shoulder as he kept his eyes on the advancing swarmers. "The box is holding them back, but there are really quite a few of them!"
"Go!" Harkness yanked Watson toward the opening he'd just made, and Watson crawled in through the narrow gap. He looked back to see Harkness and Holmes, standing side by side, Harkness firing his weapon into the tunnel. In between shots, Harkness pushed Holmes back toward the opening, backing away from the tunnel as well. Watson pulled Holmes into the elevated tunnel opening, and together they reached out for Harkness, who was almost within reach.
The PEW in Harkness' hands gave out a crackle and then stopped firing. Harkness tossed the PEW off to the side and drew another weapon, its brushed metal lines sleek and deadly. When he fired it at the advancing swarmers, a beam of light shot out, incinerating the creatures and leaving a roughly square-shaped hole in the ground. The swarmers fell into the hole, and it slowed them momentarily, but there were enough of them that eventually they filled the hole and began advancing again.
Harkness looked over his shoulder at Holmes and Watson, their hands still outstretched toward him.
"Go!" he shouted. "Keep going, no matter what!" The creatures reached his feet and they swarmed him, enveloping him completely. Watson pulled Holmes away from the tunnel opening, away from the horrible sight of the captain being devoured and the sound of his screaming, and they ran through the dark tunnel ducking and dodging the tentacles reaching to them from the walls. When Holmes held the box up in front of him, the tentacles retreated a bit, allowing them to pass.
"Why didn't it work back there?" Watson asked, shuddering at the all too fresh memory. "Why didn't it stop them?"
"Perhaps there were too many," Holmes said. "Come along, Watson, I see a light just ahead. We will mourn the captain later, if we ourselves survive."
They reached the end of the tunnel in a matter of minutes, emerging in a large chamber with six other tunnels opening into it, all but the one they came from blocked by another mass of tentacles. In the center of the room was a large column, its shape indistinct in the flickering light. When Holmes and Watson shone their torches on it, they gasped, backing away in shock.
The column reached from the floor to the growth-covered ceiling. It looked like an exposed mass of muscle and sinew, covered in a fibrous shell, and in the center of its mass was Michael Altman, his face distorted by the tendrils of the growth winding their way into his skin.
"My god," Watson said, bringing his torch up again. "What's happened to him?"
"I suspect he has become part of the Overmind," Holmes said, stepping closer. "Isn't that right, Altman?"
"I have been reborn in unity," Altman said, his voice rough and quavering. It sounded like there was someone else speaking in unison with him, a voice deeper and more alien than his own. "I have been reborn as the face of the Overmind."
Holmes raised an eyebrow. "Of course you have," he said. "And you've made quite a mess of the city in the process."
"You are too late," Altman said, his voice rising to a feverish pitch. "You are too late! I am one with the Overmind. The chosen ones are spreading out across the city, you cannot stop us!" Altman raised his eyes upward, his face lit up in ecstasy. "You think you can stop us, you think you can turn back the conversion. You are unbelievers, unworthy of witnessing the change. You cannot stop us!"
Watson drew his sword, and Holmes did the same with Watson's sword cane. "We've stopped you before, we'll stop you again." Watson stepped forward, raising the sword. "You cannot have this city." He brought the sword down, slashing at the fleshy column just below Altman's torso.
Altman screamed, and the pillar of flesh shuddered. When Holmes stepped closer and began slashing at it with his blade, they worked together, cutting chunks of flesh from the pillar. As Altman's screams grew louder, more voices joined it, echoing from within the tunnels. The nests of tentacles blocking the six other tunnels became agitated, the tentacles extending into the room, waving about. They were too short to reach Holmes or Watson, as long as they stayed near the center of the room.
"You may destroy me," Altman howled, "but you will never leave here alive. More are coming now, you will not escape."
"Oh, shut up," Watson growled, slashing his sword across Altman's throat. He stepped back to avoid the spray of blood from the wound, and ducked to avoid Holmes' sword slashing through the air where his head had been. When he turned to look behind him, he saw Holmes had cut through the tentacles which had been about to snare his head.
"Thank you, Holmes," he said, his breathing ragged.
"My pleasure," Holmes answered, his next words dying on his lips as he stared at the Overmind.
They watched as the wound in Altman's throat knitted itself back together. Altman's eyes fluttered open, the green pupils now replaced by livid yellow, and he turned his head toward them.
"You cannot kill us," the voice, now entirely alien, said. "You cannot stop the change. The pilgrimage must be completed. The nonbelievers will be shown the way, and they will join us or die."
Watson set his sword on the ground and reached for his PEW, ignoring the continuing ranting of the Overmind.
"What are you doing? That won't hurt it," Holmes said.'
"It will if I set it to overload," Watson said, fiddling with the pistol. "The explosion should do a lot more damage than we can just with the blades."
"You'd better work quickly," Holmes said. "I'm afraid we're about to have company," he looked into the now-open tunnel they were standing by. "If it's all the same to you, I'd rather not die."
Watson picked up his sword and stabbed it into the fleshy column, cutting an opening in it. He winced as the Overmind screamed, louder than before, the sound almost deafening. He jammed the PEW into the opening and dove for the side of the room.
"I don't know how big the explosion will be, we should probably try and get a bit farther away from here," he said, grabbing Holmes' arm and pushing him toward the tunnel they had originally come from. "Don't go too far, we don't want to run into the swarmers."
"How long before the explosion?"
"Shouldn't be long now," Watson said.
They didn't have to wait long, only seconds, before there was a deafening roar from behind them, and they were both sprayed with flesh and blood from the column. A loud howl echoed down the tunnel and they scrabbled back into the central room, examining the damage the explosion had done.
The lower part of the column was virtually gone, only tattered pieces of flesh left connecting it to the floor. Nestled between these was the artifact, glowing even more brightly than the last time they had seen it. The red light was pulsating, and the strange sound it had made was louder now, an angry buzzing hum that made their heads hurt.
"I don't think it's dead," Watson said, pointing at the disfigured head of Michael Altman, turning toward them, its mouth open wide to let out an ear-splitting shriek. "And it's putting itself back together." They watched the tattered tendrils surrounding the artifact begin to grow back.
"Give me the box," Holmes said, kneeling down and holding out his hand for the box. Watson handed it to him, and Holmes turned it this way and that, trying to make sense of the symbols. "Dammit, there's got to be a way to reverse the effects," he said. "Maybe if I put the two together," he reached out for the artifact.
"No!" Watson slapped his hand away from the artifact. "You mustn't touch it, it's dangerous."
"Watson, if we can't touch it, how are we to reverse its effects?"
"We must find a way to do it without touching the artifact. I'm not going to let you risk your life on this!"
"You're not going to let me?" Holmes let the box fall to the ground and got to his feet, stepping closer to Watson. "You don't have a say in this, Watson. This is my decision." He turned back to the box, and Watson grabbed his arm, forcing him to turn around.
"Damn you, Holmes," he snarled. "You can't just make a decision like this by yourself. It affects both of us!"
Holmes swung a punch, hitting Watson square in the jaw, sending him stumbling back. "You can't stop me, Watson!"
"Now you're starting to sound like Altman," Watson said, rubbing his jaw. "It's affecting you."
"It's affecting both of us," Holmes said, crouching beside the box. "Which is why I have to be the one who does this." He reached for the artifact again, ignoring the Overmind's screaming and Watson's arm on his, trying to pull him back. A howl came from one of the tunnels, this one much closer than the last one, and Watson lost his grip on Holmes when he turned toward the sound. He gaped at the sight coming towards them through the tunnel, stumbling back until his legs touched Holmes' back. He groped blindly for Holmes, trying to get his attention.
"Look!" he hissed.
Holmes glanced behind him, the box slipping from his fingers as he joined Watson in gaping at the sight of Captain Jack Harkness, his clothes tattered and bloodied, but still alive, stumbling toward them, shaking off the last of the swarmers still clinging to him.
"H-how?" Watson stammered.
"I doubt he's still alive," Holmes said, frowning. If Harkness had indeed joined the throngs of the Overmind's creatures, their chances of success were much slimmer.
"He hasn't changed," Watson pointed out. "Maybe he survived, somehow."
"We haven't got time to test that theory," Holmes said. "Our time is almost up, and if we cannot do this, the city will burn." He reached for the artifact again.
"Don't touch it!" Harkness shouted, lifting his strange pistol. He fired it at the upper portion of the Overmind, obliterating it almost completely, Altman's head vanishing mid-scream. Holmes yanked his head back from the artifact just in time to avoid the chunk of flesh that fell down after being severed from the rest of the column.
Together with Watson, Holmes whirled on Harkness, who was firing at the nests of tentacles blocking the other tunnels.
"How are you still alive?" Holmes demanded while Harkness worked.
"It's a long story," Harkness said, peering into the tunnels, one by one. "If we make it out alive, I'll try and explain, I promise. For now, we need to get going. You take the box, I'll take the artifact."
"You can't!" Watson protested. "It'll destroy your mind!"
"I'll be fine," Harkness told him, leaning down for the artifact. "Find us the exit closest to Hyde Park Corner," he told Holmes. "Quickly."
Holmes took out his compass again, and pointed down one of the tunnels. "It's further south, that way!"
They climbed into the tunnel, Holmes leading the way. Harkness turned to Watson, handing him the weapon he carried. "Take this, you might need it."
"I can't... I've never fired anything like this."
"It's exactly the same as a PEW," Harkness said, swaying on his feet a little. "I'm fine," he shook his head when Watson reached for him. "Just point and fire, simple as that."
"Come on!" Holmes called out to them. "It's not far, we can make it."
They had to stop several times when Harkness stumbled, almost falling to his knees. Each time, he waved their concern away, struggling to his feet and continuing on. He kept a white-knuckled grip on the artifact, never once letting it fall, no matter how many times he lost his footing.
"We need to speed up," Watson called from the rear, running to catch up to Harkness. He pulled the captain's arm over his shoulders, dragging him along. "They're catching up, and I don't think they're happy we killed the Overmind."
"We're almost there," Holmes assured him, shining his torch into the tunnel ahead. The light caught the edge of the ladder leading to a manhole cover, and Watson allowed himself a small sigh of relief. They were by no means out of danger, but reaching the surface would at least give them a greater chance of survival.
"Doctor!" Harkness called out, reaching out with the hand that held the artifact. Watson looked around, but saw nothing where Harkness was pointing, and pulled him along toward Holmes and the ladder.
"You'll have to help him up," he told Holmes, who climbed up to the top of the ladder and reached for the manhole cover. Glancing back down the tunnel, Watson could just make out the swarmers crawling towards them. "Holmes, hurry!"
Holmes managed to move the heavy iron cover and climbed back down the ladder. He reached for Harkness, pulling him up the ladder. Harkness went silently, but he kept staring down the tunnel, and Watson didn't think he was looking at the swarmers. When Harkness and Holmes were far enough up the ladder, Watson started to follow. When he was halfway up, he glanced down to see the swarmers covering the ground he'd just been standing on. A fleeting thought occurred to him, whether the swarmers could climb a ladder, but he forced himself to ignore it and climbed instead.
When he reached the top, Holmes helped him out, and they moved to push the manhole cover back in. Before it was fully in place, Watson took one last look at the teeming mass of swarmers at the bottom of the ladder and found himself fervently wishing for an explosive device, if only so he could have the satisfaction of killing as many of them as he could.
"Captain," Holmes said, picking up the box he'd carried and turning to Harkness. "What now?"
"Doctor?" Harkness called out again, reaching out to thin air.
"I don't think he's talking to me," Watson said.
"Well, what the devil are we supposed to do now?" Holmes turned around in circles, looking up at the airships descending over the city. "We've come so far, I refuse to accept that we've failed!"
"Perhaps we haven't," Watson said, pointing just up the street to the Wellington Arch. Tied up to the neck of Wellington's horse was an airship, and Watson could see someone standing on the statue, holding onto a ladder.
"What the—" Holmes gaped at the airship.
"Never mind that now," Watson said, grabbing Harkness' arm and pulling him along. "We've got to get to that ship and get a message to the military!"
They ran for the Arch, and the man standing on top of the statue lowered a ladder to them. With a little help from Watson, Harkness managed to secure the artifact before climbing up. The captain's eyes were glazed, and he kept glancing around as if seeing or hearing something the rest of them didn't. Watson followed Harkness up the rope ladder, with Holmes bringing up the rear. When the reached the airship, outstretched hands were waiting to help them inside.
"Don't touch the artifact!" Watson warned them as they reached for Harkness. To their owners' credit, the hands did not retreat, but instead grasped Harkness' coat and pulled him up.
Once they were all inside, Holmes looked around the loading bay. "Who's in charge here?"
"I am," a woman answered. She was tall, her long dark hair escaping from under her cap. "I'm Fiona Peterson, captain of the Nemesis " she said, holding out her hand to him. Holmes returned the handshake, feeling the calluses on her hand.
"Sherlock Holmes, at your service, captain," he gave her a smile. "You'll forgive my being abrupt, but we really need to make a call. Well, Captain Harkness needs to make a call," he turned to look at Harkness, who was sitting with his back against the wall, cradling the artifact to his chest. He stared off into the distance, muttering something under his breath. Holmes went to him, kneeling on the floor.
"Captain? Are you with us?" He reached out to touch Harkness' arm, and at his touch, the captain startled, as if jerking awake. "There you are, Harkness. Are you with us?"
"Y-yes," Harkness nodded shakily. He looked down at the artifact in his hands and set it on the floor, edging away from it. "I really don't like that thing."
"You're not the only one," Holmes said, getting to his feet. "Come on, you've a call to make." He turned to Captain Peterson, pointing to the artifact. "Make sure nobody touches that thing," he said. "It's dangerous."
"You heard the man," Peterson said to the rest of her crew. "No one comes in here." She motioned to the door behind her. "Come this way, please," she said, leading them through the narrow corridor and up the stairs.
When they emerged on the bridge of the ship, Jack lit up when he spotted someone at one of the consoles. He was across the room in three steps, grabbing the man and kissing him with gusto. Adding to everyone's consternation was the enthusiasm with which the other man responded. Seeing Captain Peterson press her lips tightly together, Holmes cleared his throat, and the two men pulled apart.
"What?" Harkness turned back to them, grinning. Seeing the look on Captain Peterson's face, he crossed the room toward her and pulled her into a kiss as well. She struggled in his embrace, but he managed to dip her in a passionate kiss before she pushed him away.
"If we're all done with the greetings, maybe we could get back to the business of saving the city?" Holmes said, glaring at Harkness. Before Harkness could answer, the ship rocked, sending everyone stumbling.
"What the hell was that?" Captain Peterson yelled as they struggled to regain their balance. The crew all worked together, checking systems and communicating with others elsewhere on the ship.
"Something hit us, captain," one of the crew, a young woman with multicolored braids said.
"You don't say." Peterson glared at her. "What was it, Candy?"
"Jeff says some sort of flying creature," Candy said. "He says there are more of them coming."
Watson and Holmes ran to the window, looking toward the back of the ship.
"They fly? I didn't know they could fly!" Watson said, eyes widening as one of the creatures swooped past the window. It was approximately the size and shape of the bird-like dinosaurs on display at the Museum of Natural History, although Watson certainly hoped the similarity was just a coincidence and not an actual pterosaur reanimated by the creatures.
"I don't think any of us knew," Holmes said, watching the thing bank and turn, coming in for another pass over the ship. A metallic screech filled the room as the creature disappeared from view, and Captain Peterson cursed.
"That was our communications antenna being ripped from the ship," she told them. "I'm afraid we won't be making any calls any time soon."
"We need to get to the aerodrome, then. They're going to firebomb the city if we can't get in touch with them!"
Something like an explosion sounded above them. "If we can't shake them, we're not going anywhere but down," Peterson said, holding onto the console with a white-knuckled grip as the ship shook again.
"Why don't we take the ship up into the storm?" A familiar voice said, and Holmes and Watson turned to see Lady Alexandra Porter-Hall come into the room, followed by her husband and Titus Casey. "We can use the lightning to get rid of the creatures."
"No," Captain Peterson shook her head. "It's too dangerous, and I'm not taking my ship into the storm."
"It's not your ship, Fee," Lady Alexandra said quietly.
"I'm the captain, it's my ship," Peterson protested. "You agreed to abide by my rules when you hired me for this."
"Ladies," Harkness stepped between them, holding up his hands. "It won't be anybody's ship if they bring us down, or get in here and kill us all."
"I'm open to suggestions, Fee," Lady Alexandra nodded to Peterson. "I know it's dangerous, but I don't think we have any other options."
"All right, dammit, all right," Captain Peterson shook her head angrily. She reached for a microphone and turned it on, wincing at the squeal of feedback. "This is the captain," she said. "We're taking the ship up into the storm, to try and fry these bastards. Find yourself a safe spot, and strap in. Make sure you stay away from the outside walls and anything metal. We're not really supposed to do this without electrosuits, but we're out of options." She hung up the microphone and turned to glare at everyone.
"Well? What are you waiting for? You heard what I said." She opened a drawer underneath the console and pulled out a long pair of heavy gloves. "Linus, you stay and help me fly, the rest of you, get strapped in. Alex, if you could please see that our guests are properly secured?"
"Of course," Lady Alexandra nodded. "Mister Holmes, Doctor Watson, if you'd like to come with me?" She led them off the bridge and into a large cabin off the main corridor. It was a dining area, a large table in the center of the room surrounded by chairs secured to the floor. Lady Alexandra motioned Holmes and Watson into the chairs, which all had safety harnesses hanging off them. She checked Watson's harness after he'd done his up, while Titus Casey tightened the straps on Holmes' chair.
"So, Lady Alexandra, how did you become involved in this venture?" Holmes asked as she and her companions strapped themselves into their chairs.
"The Nemesis is my ship," Lady Alexandra explained. "Captain Peterson and her crew, they have their own ship, but it's currently being refitted. I hired them to crew the Nemesis for our trip," she glanced at her husband, reaching out to take his hand. "We were on our way out of the city when Linus received an urgent call, asking for help. Imagine my surprise when you turned up on our ship."
"We didn't make the call," Holmes said. "It must have been Captain Harkness. Judging by his reaction to seeing him on the bridge, I believe they're old... friends."
Casey winced as the ship shook. "You'd think I'd be used to this after all these years," he grumbled. "At least I don't have to be out there this time."
Lady Alexandra reached for his hand and he gave her a small smile. "It's just not the same when it's not part of your job, is it? Titus used to be an electronaut," she added, seeing Holmes and Watson's curious looks.
"Aha, I was right," Holmes said to Watson. "I surmised as much when I shook hands with you at the museum," he explained to Casey and the others.
A crack of thunder shook the ship and they all winced at the noise. "We're in it now," Casey said, glancing toward the window. The dark sky lit up repeatedly as lightning struck, and the ship began to buzz as lightning hit the energy capacitors mounted on the outside. As they watched, sparks danced over the walls, leaving the air charged.
The whole thing lasted perhaps twenty minutes, and then the ship began to descend, leaving the storm and clouds above. Once they were out of the storm, Captain Peterson's voice echoed through the ship.
"All right, we're safe, you can all move about. Those of you who are supposed to be on the bridge, get up here, now."
"She's a good captain, with a capable crew," Lady Alexandra said. "They've saved my life more than once."
"It's a valuable friendship, then," Watson said. "To be able to trust someone with your life is important," he finished with a glance at Holmes.
"How far are we from the aerodrome?" Holmes ignored Watson and headed for the door. "We need to call off the airships, at least temporarily. Now that we've destroyed the Overmind and removed the artifact from the city, perhaps the creatures will be more easily destroyed."
They headed back up to the bridge, meeting Captain Harkness on the way.
"I've checked on the artifact, made sure no one came near it," he said.
"Are you all right?" Watson asked. "You look ill, again."
"I'll be fine," Harkness shook his head. "And let's just say that I'm looking forward to destroying the damned thing." He frowned, rubbing at his temples.
"We're nearly there," Captain Peterson told them. "There are repairs to be made, so I hope you're not in any hurry to get back home," she said to Lady Alexandra.
"Two, three days, maybe? I don't think it's anything too bad, though, so we should be all right."
"Do what you need, captain," Lady Alexandra told her. "Spare no expense."
"Everyone hang on, we're coming into the dock," Peterson said. "Good thing, too, because I really need a drink," she grumbled.
Linus came up behind her and handed her a flask. "Why wait?" She laughed at the sight of the flask, then took a long swig.
"Interesting crew you've got, captain," Harkness said, sidling up to them. "Any chance I could have a sip of that?"
Peterson looked him over head to toe, then handed him the flask with a grin. "Be my guest, although you might find it a bit strong."
Harkness took a swig and barely stopped himself from choking as the liquor hit him. "What the hell is this, engine degreaser?"
"That's one of the things we use it for, yes," Captain Peterson said. "Would you care for another sip?"
"Maybe later," Harkness told her with a cocky grin. "I've got a job to finish first, but if you don't mind, I'd certainly like to come by and visit you two."
"We'll look forward to seeing you, Captain Harkness," Linus told him.
Harkness clapped him on the shoulder. "Excellent. But first, work. I'll head down to the loading bay, so I can head out as soon as we've docked. Gentlemen," he turned to Holmes and Watson, "if you'd like to come with me? You can join in on the call."
They headed to the loading bay, Holmes taking out Pendergast's box as they walked. "I wonder if we could just do what Altman did, only in reverse," he said. "Pendergast said the artifact fits into the top, here, and that Altman just rotated the artifact to turn it on."
"What if we make it worse?" Watson said. "Surely it's not worth the risk."
"At this point, it probably doesn't matter," Harkness said, reaching for the artifact. He pulled his hand back, frowning. "Give me your bag," he said to Holmes. When he had the bag, he put it over the artifact, then turned it the right way up with the artifact inside it. "I don't want to touch it any more than I have to," he said.
"Quite right," Holmes said. "What do we do with the box?"
"We should probably destroy it as well," Watson said. "Just in case."
"If we do, you won't get your watch back from Pendergast," Holmes reminded him.
"That's all right," Watson said, a smile tugging at his lips. "It was the one you gave me for my birthday. You can buy me another one."
They watched the approach to the aerodrome, Holmes and Watson gaping at its size and complexity. Three and a half kilometers above London, capable of docking upwards of three dozen airships, with hangars to accommodate half that number again, the Hyperion Aerodrome was a marvel of construction. Docking spires stretched upward from its main platform, giant engine-drive turbines holding it aloft above the city.
"Gentlemen, we're docked," Captain Peterson's voice told them. "You may disembark when you're ready."
Harkness opened the door and they stepped out into the main hall of the aerodrome, Holmes and Watson glancing around curiously. There were people everywhere, from all classes and walks of life, pushing past each other in the hall. Their walk took them through the giant marketplace that sprawled over most of the main hall, past stalls selling everything from fresh clothes to food to exotic pets. Watson gawked at one of the stalls they passed, its counter lined with cages containing tiny animals that looked suspiciously like miniature versions of the specimens in the dinosaur exhibit at the museum.
Holmes saw him looking, and they paused, examining the animals.
"If you'd like, we can get one," Holmes said. "I'm sure it would get along just fine with Gladstone."
Watson turned to look at Holmes. "Perhaps now is not the right time to consider acquiring another pet," he said.
"Quite right," Holmes nodded. "We'll come back and look at them later. Let's catch up," he nodded toward Harkness, who was waiting for them at the edge of the marketplace.
"Have you ever been up here?" Harkness said as they walked toward the administrator's office.
"No, we haven't," Holmes shook his head.
They walked through a narrow corridor lined with numerous doors and windows higher up on the walls, and Watson craned his neck to look up.
"Do people live up here?"
Harkness nodded. "Mostly it's for the people who work here. It's not the most luxurious place to live, but I've seen worse."
They reached the administrator's office and Harkness talked to the man, requesting the use of his radio. The storm interfered with communications somewhat, but soon enough they were speaking to Mister Smith, who was expressing his displeasure with their continued involvement in the case.
"Holmes, I thought I made it clear, this case wasn't yours anymore. You purposefully kept crucial details from me and my men, and then risked not only your lives but the entire city by pursuing this yourselves!"
"And yet, we have destroyed the Overmind, and retrieved the artifact," Holmes pointed out. "Does it really matter who did it, as long as it's done?"
Smith was silent for a long time, then cleared his throat. "I suppose you're right, Mister Holmes. Whether it was the destruction of the Overmind or removing the artifact from the city, it seems to have had an effect. The creatures are no longer nearly impossible to destroy. They seem to have lost their resistance."
"Then you're not planning on firebombing the city?" Watson asked.
"Not at the moment, no. As long as the clean up continues to go well, there shouldn't be any reason for it."
"Good," Holmes said. "What do you intend to do about the artifact?"
"We're sending a ship," Smith said. "Captain Harkness, you will take the ship out into the Atlantic and using the remote module, you will dispose of the artifact."
"What ship are you sending?" Harkness asked.
"I believe you're familiar with the Thunder Child?"
"Captain Sparrow and I are good friends, yes," Jack said, grinning. "It'll be good to see her again."
"Just make sure you do your job before you get too distracted by reunions with old friends, Harkness," Smith told him. "And Holmes, do be so good as to stay out of this from now on, will you?"
"I make no guarantees, Mister Smith," Holmes said. "Should my assistance be required, I will not hesitate to give it."
"Just... try not to get yourselves killed," Smith gave a resigned sigh. "I really don't want to have to explain the deaths of prominent civilians and why I failed to keep them out of harm's way."
"Don't worry about us," Holmes said. "I believe we've proven that we're capable of taking care of ourselves."
"Call me when it's done," Smith said, then disconnected the call.
"Well, then, I guess I have my orders," Harkness said. "Gentlemen, it's been a pleasure, but while I understand that you have been instrumental in the resolution of this crisis, I'd really rather you didn't accompany me. Besides," he added quickly when Holmes frowned and started to speak, "I've made arrangements for a luxury suite of rooms for you, as a token of our appreciation of your assistance, and I'm sure it would be a far more pleasant way to spend your stay here at the port."
"If you put it that way," Holmes said. "What do you say, Watson?"
"I think we could be persuaded to stay behind," Watson answered with a small smile. "If you're sure, Captain Harkness?"
"I'm sure," Harkness nodded.
"We will accompany you to the Thunder Child, captain," Holmes said, "and then we shall say our goodbyes."
"They should be here soon," Harkness said, leading the way.
"The sooner they get here, the sooner the artifact will be away from these people," Holmes said, watching the crowds walking past them.
"What about Captain Sparrow's crew?" Watson asked. "Aren't you worried about them?"
"Sally and her crew are a hardy bunch," Harkness said. "They've been through a lot, I think they'll be able to handle it. Besides, the artifact won't be on the ship for long. We'll go out into the North Sea, and then use the remote ship to take the artifact out and destroy it."
They arrived at the dock just in time to see the Thunder Child arriving. As the ship docked, Jack slung the bag with the artifact and the box over his shoulder and turned to Holmes and Watson.
"Gentlemen, it's been... unique," he shook their hands before reaching into his pocket and pulling out an envelope. "The keys to your suite," he said, handing it to Holmes. "I hope you enjoy it."
They watched him head up the ramp, where he was met by a young woman who wrapped her arms around him in a tight embrace, then laughed as he kissed her.
"I hope he manages to get this done without any problems," Watson said. "It will be nice when it's all over and done with."
"If it were anyone else, I'd doubt it," Holmes frowned. "But perhaps Captain Harkness can manage."
"Stop being so pessimistic, Holmes," Watson said. "We've defeated the monsters, saved the city, and we've got a posh suite at the aerodrome as a reward. You should relax a bit, enjoy yourself. How about we go see the suite, clean up, and see about dinner?"
"If we must," Holmes said, smiling a bit. "Lead on, then, doctor."
The next day, they met Lady Alexandra, Lord Oliver, and Titus Casey for dinner in the restaurant, and all of them ended up at the same table, celebrating the victory over the threat to London. Wine flowed freely, the food was excellent, and as much as Holmes and Watson might have denied it if asked, they enjoyed the company. It was only after the second course that Watson looked up and froze, seeing a familiar face coming into the room.
Holmes noticed Watson stiffen and looked to what Watson was staring at. He frowned, setting down his wine glass, when he saw Irene Adler and Mary Morstan coming towards them. The Americans picked up on change in atmosphere at the table, and looked around curiously. When Irene and Mary were almost at the table, Holmes got to his feet and walked towards them, taking Irene by the elbow to stop her from getting any closer to the table.
"What are you doing here?"
"It's good to see you, too, Sherlock," she said, lifting a gloved hand to touch his cheek. "You haven't been getting enough sleep."
"I asked you a question," he said, jerking his head away from her touch and tightening his grip on her arm.
"We'd heard you were involved in something in London, and that you were here. We wanted to congratulate you on another successfully solved case," Irene smiled sweetly. "Now let go of my arm, you're hurting me."
"Spare me the pretense at courtesy, Miss Adler," Holmes hissed. "You know as well as I do that neither I nor Watson have any desire to see you, or her," he nodded at Mary.
"Irene, I told you this was a bad idea," Mary touched Irene's arm gently. "We should go."
There was a commotion by the door, and one of the crew from the Nemesis ran into the room, looking around. When he spotted Lady Alexandra, he ran to the table, practically shaking as he spoke to her quietly. When he was done, Lady Alexandra shot to her feet, dropping her napkin on the table, her husband and their friend following suit.
"What is it, what's going on?" Holmes released Irene and stopped Lady Alexandra.
"The Thunder Child was attacked," she said. "Pirates."
"Are they all right? What about the—" Watson joined the group, trailing off when he met Mary's eyes. They stared at each other for a moment, then Watson cleared his throat and turned to Lady Alexandra. "Have they completed their mission?"
"We don't know," she shook her head.
"Can we go after them? Maybe they need help."
"The repairs on the Nemesis have been completed," Lady Alexandra said. "We'll take you where we need to go." She turned to the young man who'd come to deliver the message. "Jeff, please tell Captain Peterson we'll be leaving shortly." Jeff turned to leave, and Lady Alexandra stopped him with a hand on his shoulder. "We'll probably need everyone back on board."
Jeff nodded and ran back to the Nemesis, and Lady Alexandra turned to Holmes.
"We'll be ready to leave in about half an hour, if you'd like to get ready?"
"Excellent. We'll meet you at the dock in twenty minutes," Holmes said. He turned to Irene and Mary and sketched a bow in their direction. "Ladies, looks like we'll have to catch up another time," he said, and he and Holmes left the dining room at a run.
The Nemesis was a fast ship, and it would have taken only a few hours to catch up to the Thunder Child were it not for the surprise storm. Unwilling to risk the ship in an electrical storm again, Captain Peterson took the ship down below the clouds, flying her as close to the ocean as was safe. This meant moving slower than everyone would like, but eventually, they caught up to the Thunder Child, surprised to find the pirate ship in the vicinity, docked with the smaller remote ship.
The survivors on the Thunder Child, including Harkness and Sparrow, welcomed their arrival with relief. Watson went below to attend to the wounded, along with Titus Casey, while Captain Harkness briefed the rest of them on what had happened.
"We'd just sent out the remote ship when they attacked," he said, wiping at the bloody gash on his forehead. "They attacked so quickly we barely had time to bring up our weapons. After they disabled the engines, they hit us a couple more times, and then went after the remote ship. We managed to hit them and apparently do enough damage to stop them from leaving, but we were stuck here, too, unable to follow, and all we could do is watch them board the remote ship. I guess we hurt them more than we thought, since they're still here." He glanced around the bridge, several consoles burnt out and still smoking. "I think they got hit by a couple of blasts of lightning, too, just like we did."
"Or something's gone wrong, and there's no one left over there to fly it out of here," Holmes said. "How were you planning on destroying the remote ship?"
"There is a rather large explosive charge on board," Captain Sparrow explained. "We had a remote detonator, but it was damaged in the attack. Besides, for all we know they've already moved the artifact onto their ship."
"So what you're saying is that we have no way of destroying the artifact, and that the pirates will most likely make off with it?" Holmes asked.
"Unfortunately, that seems to be an accurate assessment."
"The hell it is," Holmes said. "They're still docked with the remote ship, if we set off the explosive, it might be enough to destroy both ships. There's got to be something we can do to repair it."
"If we had the equipment, perhaps," Harkness said. "The nearest place to get it is back at the aerodrome, and we don't have the time to go back there and back."
"Let us take a look," Captain Peterson said, stepping forward. "Seth and I have been fixing things for a long time, we may be able to repair it."
Harkness showed them to the detonation device, and they bent over it, trying to figure out the best way to repair it. Watson and Casey returned from looking after the wounded, and Lord Oliver filled them in on the situation.
"Alex," Captain Peterson called out. "Do you have a hairpin? We need something long and thin, made out of metal."
Lady Alexandra pulled a hairpin out of her hair and handed it to Captain Peterson. "Will this do?"
Peterson unbent the pin and tried to fit it into the mechanism, then looked up, shaking her head. "It's not long enough."
"What if we used several of them?" Lady Alexandra pulled out two more pins, straightening them out and twisting them together. "Would this work?" She handed the pins to Peterson, who tried to fit them in, then shook her head.
"Even if we got them long enough, the metal simply isn't pure enough. It won't conduct well enough to make it work."
"Dammit, there's got to be something here that we can use!" Holmes looked around the bridge.
"Don't you think we've looked?" Captain Sparrow glared at him. "We've tried everything we could think of, and nothing fit!"
"I think I may have something," Watson said, and everyone turned to look at him. "Captain Peterson, may I borrow a pair of cutters? Something fairly strong would be best." Peterson handed him the cutters and he looked around for something to sit on, finally settling on the chair beside one of the ruined consoles.
"Watson, what the hell do you think you're doing?" Holmes stood over Watson, glaring down at him.
"It's the only way, Holmes," Watson told him. "It's all right, it won't take much to repair it when we get home."
"You won't be able to walk properly!"
"Better than not being able to live properly, isn't it? How long do you think it'll be before that thing finds a buyer, and the whole cycle starts all over again? And we won't be there to stop it this time, not before it spreads far too wide to be stopped." Watson bent down to pull up his trouser leg, and Holmes knelt in front of him, batting away Watson's hands.
"I'll do it," he said, taking the cutters from Watson. As everyone watched, Holmes rolled Watson's trouser leg up and bent down to the metal limb, examining it closely. Finally, he brought up the cutters and carefully cut out one of the joints and the long thin metal piston attached to it.
When he was done, Holmes handed the piston to Captain Peterson. She fitted the metal tube into the detonator device and looked up, face hopeful.
"I think this might work," she said, "but we're only going to get one try at this. Maybe we should try and come up with a contingency plan, in case it doesn't work?"
"Does the Nemesis have weapons, Lady Alexandra?" Holmes asked, and Lady Alexandra shook her head.
"Not enough to take on a pirate ship," she said. "If they could disable the Thunder Child, they'd blow us out of the sky before we did enough damage."
"Then we have no other options," Holmes said, turning to Captain Peterson. "If you please, captain."
"Here it goes," she said, closing her eyes and throwing the switch on the device. For the longest time, nothing happened, but just when they were about to give up hope, the device came to life, making a whining noise similar to that of a PEW charging. Just when the noise was loud enough to make everyone uncomfortable, it stopped, the device shutting down.
"Is that it? It didn't work?" Captain Sparrow stared at the device, then turned to the window, where the remote ship and the pirate ship were still docked together. "Come on, come on, come on," she chanted quietly.
The remote ship shuddered then, and a large fireball engulfed it. Pieces of the smaller ship lodged in the side of the pirate ship, the fire spreading quickly. In moments, both ships were burning and losing altitude, falling to the cold waters of the North Sea below. Everyone on the Thunder Child watched as the ships fell, and they stood by the windows until the wreckage sang below the waves.
"Do you think that destroyed the artifact?" Lady Alexandra asked as she stepped away from the window.
"We can only hope," Holmes said, helping Watson walk back to the chair. "I for one have no intention of trying to find out. How about you, Captain Harkness?"
Harkness shuddered, turning away from the window. "I think my superiors will be satisfied as to its disposal," he said. "And we've destroyed a pirate menace in the process, which will doubly satisfy them."
Captain Peterson looked from the detonation device to Watson. "I'm afraid the piece you gave us has been damaged beyond salvage," she said. "I'd been hoping we could simply remove it and return it to you, but that doesn't appear to be the case."
"Don't worry, captain," Watson waved away her concern. "I'll get it fixed when we return to London."
"Speaking of which, would you be able to assist us in getting back to the aerodrome?" Captain Sparrow asked Captain Peterson, who nodded.
"It might take a while to get back, towing another ship, but we're not going to leave you stranded here. We'll head back to the Nemesis and get us started on the way back, then," she said. "The galley is fully stocked, and there is plenty of room for everyone to get some rest, if you'd like."
Holmes walked to where Watson was sitting, slumped in his chair.
"That looks familiar, wouldn't you say?" He glanced back at the glass and copper contraption of the detonator.
Watson nodded, then winced as he shifted in his chair.
"Are you all right?" Holmes was at his side, hovering nervously.
"As much as I can be, under these circumstances," Watson nodded. "Can you see if you can get me something to walk with? A cane, or a crutch?"
"You can lean on me if you need help," Holmes said.
"I'm not going to make you go with me everywhere I go, Holmes," Watson said, rolling his eyes. "Just go and find me something, will you?"
"As you wish," Holmes gave him a small smile and left the ruined bridge of the Thunder Child. When he returned, Watson was sitting with his left leg outstretched in front of him, his trouser leg pulled up, examining the mechanism of the artificial leg.
"It's not so bad, really," Watson said, looking up. "You did a good job extracting the part. Doctor Wells-Stark won't berate us too much for damaging her work."
"Us? What makes you think I'll be going with you?"
"You just offered to help me walk around," Watson grinned up at him. "Of course you're coming with me."
"Naturally," Holmes nodded. "Now, here you go," he handed Watson an elaborately carved walking stick.
"Where did you find this?" Watson examined the exquisite carvings closely.
"I borrowed it from the Nemesis' cargo hold. I assume they'll want it back eventually, but for now, I'm sure they wouldn't begrudge you while you're on board." He held out a hand to Watson. "Come on, I'm starving."
Watson let Holmes pull him up and they made their way back to the Nemesis and the promise of its fully stocked galley. When they had eaten, they retired to one of the cabins made available for them and the crew of the Thunder Child. They were still several hours from the aerodrome, and other than the crew remaining to make sure the ship sailed smoothly, most everyone retired to get some rest.
They returned to the aerodrome late at night, and everyone parted ways without much ceremony, heading for the nearest available rooms to get more rest. There would be time for proper goodbyes in the morning.
Holmes awoke first and, not wanting to wake Watson, headed out to the dining hall to get an early breakfast. It was still too early for proper breakfast to be served, so he made do with tea and pastries. As he looked around, he could see there were only a few people in the room, including Irene Adler, sitting by the window, watching the sunrise below. Her food sat untouched as she looked out the window, her chin propped up on her hand.
"You don't mind if I join you, do you, Irene?" Holmes didn't wait for an answer and took a seat across the table from her.
"You said you had no desire to see me again, Sherlock," Irene said, turning away from the window. "And yet you sit with me as if you wish to talk."
"I don't," Holmes said, taking a sip of his tea. "But this is a necessary conversation. One that's overdue by three years, I'd say."
"I have nothing to say to you," Irene set her teacup down with a clatter. "Despite what you think, I did not seduce Mary away from John. I merely suggested that she might want to consider other alternatives than settling for marriage to a man whose heart was quite obviously not entirely his to give. Mary made her choice."
"For someone who has nothing to say on the subject, you've said quite a lot," Holmes said.
"Sherlock," Irene chided.
"Irene," he answered. "What you did not take into consideration were Watson's feelings on the matter. Had Mary come to him with her concerns, they would have most likely come to an amicable agreement, and everything would have been fine. But I have no doubt it was your influence that brought her to her departure, leaving only a letter to inform Watson of her decision."
"I did not influence her either way," Irene said, looking Holmes in the eye. "If she had asked my advice, I would have suggested a conversation with John was in order. She made the choice to leave as she did, and you blaming me for it is ridiculous."
"If it hadn't been for you, she wouldn't have left."
"Yes, and they'd have been married, and living in some semblance of domestic bliss, while you would have been left alone and miserable," Irene pointed out. "I don't know why you're so upset, you clearly came out the victor."
"My victory, as you call it, came at the cost of Watson's heartbreak," Holmes said, his voice quiet. "I would have never wished that on him, not for anything."
"I'm sorry, Sherlock," Irene said, leaning forward to touch Holmes' hand with hers. "But it wasn't my fault. It really wasn't."
Holmes pulled his hand away, and stood up. He walked to Irene's side of the table and leaned in close. "I don't care if you seduced her. I don't care how you got her to leave with you. But I do care that it caused Watson a great deal of pain, and for that, I will never forgive you."
"Sherlock," Irene called to him as he walked away. "Holmes!" She went after him, running into the corridor and grabbing his sleeve. "You're not just upset that Mary left, hurting Watson in the process. You're upset I left, too, aren't you?"
"Irene, if I were inclined to be upset about either of you leaving, Mary's departure would elicit a stronger reaction," Holmes said, giving Irene a tight smile. "Frankly, if I were never to see you again after today, the quality of my life would not be diminished in the slightest."
Irene let go of Holmes' arm, and stepped back. "Keep telling yourself that, Sherlock," she said.
Holmes glared at her for a moment, then turned to walk away. Irene caught his arm, turning him around to face her.
"What—" He didn't get to finish before Irene grabbed his shoulders, pushed him against the wall, and kissed him. When Holmes kissed her back, she let go of his shoulders, her hands moving up to tangle in his hair. When she tightened her fingers and tugged, Holmes made a strangled sound in her mouth, pressing his body closer against hers.
"Seems you haven't put the past as far behind you as you'd like to think," she said when they pulled apart to catch their breath.
"A momentary lapse in judgment," Holmes said, pushing her away, straightening his clothes. There wasn't much to be done for his mussed hair, kiss-swollen lips, or the evidence of his reaction to the kiss.
Irene cast a pointed look downward. "You should probably go take care of that before someone reports you for indecency," she said. "Would like some company?"
Her laughter followed Holmes all the way to the cabin he and Watson shared. He slammed the door behind him, not caring if it woke Watson, and ran for the shower. Watson was not averse to being woken up by an amorous Holmes, but given the origin of Holmes current condition, he thought it was best to make do with a cold shower. After he was chilled enough that his teeth were chattering, he crawled into bed with Watson and curled up with him, doing his damnedest to put Irene Adler out of his mind.
It was several hours later, when they'd both awoken and dressed, that the knock on the door came. Watson answered the door to reveal a slightly flustered Mary Morstan.
"Mary," Watson said, and the catch in his voice made Holmes look up sharply and frown.
"John," Mary said, clutching her hands nervously. "I know you've been... injured, but I was wondering if perhaps you and I could take a short walk? I'd like to speak with you. In private," she added with a hasty glance at Holmes.
"Of course," Watson said, turning to grab his walking stick. "I'm afraid it will have to be a slow walk." He turned to leave, then looked back at Holmes. "You don't mind, do you, Holmes?"
Holmes motioned Watson toward the door and Mary. "By all means, Watson."
"I'll see you later," Watson said, closing the door behind him.
Holmes stared at the door for a moment, then grabbed a pillow from the bed and threw it at the door, where it caught the coat hook and ripped, sending a cloud of feathers floating to the floor.
"Oh, bugger it all," he muttered, throwing himself back on the bed, ignoring the feathers.
When Watson knocked on the door to the cabin, Holmes was half-asleep, sprawled on the narrow bed bolted to the wall. He didn't bother answering the knock, and Watson came inside, leaning on his walking stick.
"Well?" Holmes said without opening his eyes. "How did your reunion with Mary go?"
"How did yours and Irene's go?"
Holmes sat up, taking a look at Watson. There was not much different about Watson's appearance—he still had dark circles under his eyes and his face looked pale and gaunt—but his eyes were calmer, somehow.
"What did she say to you?"
"Must you always know every detail of my life, Holmes?" Watson limped over to sit on the edge of the bed beside Holmes.
"Of course," Holmes said.
Watson opened his hand, revealing a ring sitting in his palm. The Maharajah's diamond caught the light and sparkled merrily.
"So, after three years, she finally returns it to you," Holmes scoffed. "At least now her conscience is clear, I suppose."
"Don't," Watson said, putting the ring away. "I'd have been happy to let her keep it. She would have gotten more use out of it than I ever will."
"You're right," Holmes said, getting to his feet and crossing to the mirror mounted on the wall. "It's not my style at all."
"She's waiting on the observation deck," Watson said. "She'd like to talk with you."
"What could she possibly have to say to me?" Holmes straightened his clothes and ran his hand through his hair, smoothing it down a bit. "What did she say to you?"
"I want you to speak with her first," Watson said, avoiding eye contact with Holmes. "Just... please, go and talk to her. I will join you shortly."
"Very well," Holmes said, turning back to Watson. "If that's what you want."
"Thank you. Try not to throw anything," Watson added, eyeing the pile of feathers by the door.
Holmes grabbed his coat and headed up to the observation deck. Mary stood against the railing, looking out over the ocean below them, wind whipping her hair around her face. When she turned to face him, she had a cautious smile on her face that made Holmes even more curious about her reasons for wanting to speak with him.
"Miss Morstan," he said, nodding to her. "Watson has told me you wished to speak with me."
"Thank you for coming, Mister Holmes" she said, her breath fogging in the air. "If you'd like to go inside, where it's warmer..."
"It's all right," Holmes shook his head. "I find the cool air refreshing. But if you're cold, we could—"
Mary looked down at the heavy coat she was wearing and shook her head. "I suppose I should tell you why I asked you here."
"We haven't yet exhausted the small talk possibilities, but yes, by all means, do tell."
Mary stood silent for a moment, looking down at the ocean. "Thinking back on it, I think I could have eventually shared him with you," she said quietly.
"As would I, had it come to that," Holmes said. "Why did you leave, then?"
"I wasn't actually sure if I could do it. And I didn't want to make him choose between us. I loved him too much to do that to him."
"Loved? As in not anymore?"
"That's what I thought. Over the last three years, I told myself I was done with John Watson, that my feelings for him were in the past."
"So what's changed?"
"We heard about your exploits, and that you were aboard the aerodrome. Irene convinced me that we should at least say hello. And then when I saw him, I realized I still care for him, more than I care to admit."
"So what are we doing here, then? Is this where you tell me that you want him back? That you're not going to leave without a fight?"
Mary smiled and shook her head. "I suppose that is what you would like? To have a reason to hate me, for trying to take him away from you?"
"What I would like is for us to stop dancing around why we are here, Miss Morstan," Holmes said, losing patience.
"What would you say if I asked if perhaps we could share him now?"
Holmes raised an eyebrow. "Three years with Irene Adler have changed you, Miss Morstan. I never expected you'd be capable of making a proposition like this." He stepped closer to her, crowding into her space. "Tell me, what does Irene have to say about this? Is she willing to share you with us?" At Mary's surprised look, he chuckled. "You aren't as subtle as you think you are. And even if you were, your reaction just now would have told me everything I needed to know."
"You were willing enough to have Irene back in your life earlier today," Mary said, stepping back from Holmes. "She knows what is involved in this proposal," she added.
"This is a mutual decision, then?" Mary nodded. "And Watson? Where does he stand?"
"His decision is entirely contingent upon yours," Mary said, sighing softly.
"And if I said no? If I said 'he's mine, stay away from him'?" Holmes stepped closer to Mary, drawing himself up to his full height to loom over Mary.
She squared her jaw, looking him squarely in the eye. "I believe the arrangement as it has been proposed would be null and void, but I would have to say whether I stayed away from John would be entirely his decision. I am not in the habit of making decisions for other people, Mister Holmes."
"Had you said anything but what you just said, I'd say no to the whole idea," Holmes said. "And I believe we could do with a little less formality, Mary," he moved in even closer, sliding his hands around her waist, his voice growing husky. "After all, if we are to become... intimate, we can dispense with the honorifics." Before Mary could answer, Holmes leaned in, pressing his lips against hers.
Mary resisted the kiss, but only for a moment. She molded her body to his, returning the kiss and raising her hands to tangle in his hair. It went on for a while, heating up, until they both pulled back, panting for air.
"I take it he's agreed?" Irene called out from the door. Holmes and Mary turned to her, entirely unsurprised to find Watson standing there with her.
"You could say that," Mary pulled away from Holmes, walking to Irene and kissing her cheek. "He was a bit difficult to start with, but I believe I've made our proposal clear."
"What exactly is it that you're proposing, though?" Watson asked. "I understand the basic principle of the thing, of trying to make this," he waved his hand between the four of them, "work, but how do we go about it? Are you going to come back to London? Are we going to come with you?"
"You worry too much, Watson," Holmes said. "Our American friends have made their arrangement work, surely we can do the same with ours?"
Watson still looked dubious, but after looking from Mary to Irene to Holmes, he nodded. "It's agreed then."
"Excellent," Holmes clapped him on the shoulder. "Will you be accompanying us back to London?" He asked Irene and Mary.
Irene shook her head. "We've got some business to take care of first," she said, "but we shall join you in a week's time."
"A week's time is not very long," Holmes said. "We'll do our best to get everything taken care of, though."
"Taken care of?" Watson asked.
"There are four of us now, Watson," Holmes smiled. "We're going to need bigger rooms."