“Watson!” said Holmes, strolling into Watson's office as though he lived there. “I am in need of your assistance.”
“If you need me to watch over Stupid Watson again, you can forget it,” said Watson. He continued to read the newspaper, not bothering to look up at the man who had replaced him.
“Of course not, Watson, don't be ridiculous,” said Holmes, “I need your help with a case.”
Watson put his paper down, astonished. “You do? Me?”
“Yes, of course,” said Holmes, “Where would I be without you, Watson? You're always useful to me.”
“But... you need me? Not Stupid Watson? Or Gay Watson? Or any other Watsons?”
“Well actually, that's the thing,” said Holmes. He sat in the armchair opposite Watson's. “It seems Stupid Watson and Gay Watson have gone missing.”
Watson's face fell. “Oh.”
“Yes. And I need your help tracking them down.”
Watson picked his newspaper back up, sulking. “And what do you need my help for? You should be able to track them down on your own.”
“I can, but you Watsons are such a good ego boost, you know.”
“I really shouldn't be surprised by that.”
“So what do you say, Watson?” said Holmes, “Will you help me?”
Watson sighed. “Fine, I was bored anyhow.”
“Excellent! Then let us be off. There's not a moment to lose!”
“Except to grab ego boosts, apparently...”
Watson had no idea where they were. He knew that it was dark and suspicious-looking, and that he had never been there before. He also knew that it was filled with mysterious globs of unidentified substances that Holmes couldn't walk past without examining. He was like a dog being taken on his morning walk, stopping every few seconds to look and sniff when all Watson wanted to do was walk straight.
“Look at this, Watson,” said Holmes, bending over an exceptionally nasty-looking sliver of wood. “This has more than five types of mold growing on it, and still has room for these blood stains!”
“Absolutely fascinating,” said Watson. Though it was nice to be out with Holmes again, he still felt bitter about being replaced. “Can we please just find my lesser doppelgangers and return home?”
“I shall not stand by and let you say such things, Watson,” said Holmes, “Gay Watson is just as you are, only we have a much deeper relationship. And he gets in peril more often.”
“And Stupid Watson?”
“Well, of course he's an imbecile. But that's his charm, you know.”
“Right, of course,” said Watson. “Now can we please continue?”
“Right away, Watson,” said Holmes, “My trail leads me to this establishment.” Holmes strolled over to a suspicious building with cracked, boarded windows and a roof that looked ready to collapse. He walked up to the door and tried the handle. “Hm... locked.” Holmes bent down and took out a lock-picking kit. “I'll just—“
A foot flew out from behind him and smashed the door open with a loud 'crack'. Watson and Holmes flipped around, eyes wide with astonishment.
A tall, thin man with a glare like an eagle and a smirk like a fox looked down at them. “Hello.”
Holmes grinned. “Ooh!”
Watson was flabbergasted. “What? Who are you?!”
“Don't pretend you can't tell, old friend,” said Holmes. He got to his feet and held out his hand for the newcomer. “This is clearly another of our friendly variations... Action Watson.”
“Pleased to meet you,” said Action Watson, shaking Holmes' hand firmly. He tipped his hat at Watson. “I wonder if I could be of assistance?”
“But of course,” said Holmes with a smile. “You have been of great assistance already.”
“Great assistance?!” said Watson. “He kicked the door down! He just alerted whoever is inside this building of our presence, as well as alerting any constables who may be about looking for people breaking into homes or businesses. Which is what we are doing. How in heaven's name is that assisting us?!”
“Oh, do come off it, Watson,” said Holmes, patting Watson's shoulder. “You're just upset because he's yet another Watson come to take your place.”
“That is not... That's... Well, it's not as though we need another one, now is it?!”
“Is that it? Not to worry, chap,” said Action Watson, “I won't be sticking around much longer. You see, I am capable of having a life outside of my friends. I am a full-rounded person, with interests and relationships not revolving around a single man whom I admire.”
Watson scowled. “Holmes, I believe he's insulted me.”
“Nonsense,” said Holmes, “Now let's get inside before all your yelling draws attention to us.”
Watson followed Holmes and Action Watson into the shadows of the unlit building, resisting the urge to mutter under his breath.
“Just as I suspected,” said Holmes, “It's completely empty.”
“Holmes,” said Watson as he brushed a cobweb off of his shoulder, “What exactly does this have to do with finding Gay and Stupid Watson?”
“Everything, Watson, everything.”
Action Watson rolled back his sleeves and slapped his cane against the palm of his hand. “Any villains you need me to dispose of for you, Holmes?”
“Not at the moment, Action Watson, but thank you,” said Holmes. Holmes peered about and rifled through the various piles of dust, seeing things that only he could pinpoint amongst the murky depths. “They've been here, as well as a few others. One of them smoked a cigarette, and another a pipe. One of them stubbed his toe on this corner here, jumped around a bit, then felt embarrassed. Then they left.”
“Brilliant, Holmes,” said Watson, “Could you explain how you came to that conclusion?”
“I could,” said Holmes. “But there's no time for that now. We must find them as soon as possible. They went this way.”
They moved to leave, but were stopped when three very large men stepped in their way. One held a crowbar, another a mallet, and one was just really big.
“What? Impossible,” said Holmes, “I would have detected they were here.”
“I apologize,” said Action Watson, “Thugs appear where I go. It's part of the Action.”
“What do they do?” said Watson.
“Just try to beat you up while you're investigating.”
Watson was offended by the very idea. “How tactless!”
Holmes straightened himself up and got into a boxing stance. “I suppose we'll just have to take care of them, then.”
“You'd best stay out of this one,” said Action Watson to Watson. “You've got your injured leg, after all... or shoulder... whichever you decided on.”
“But you yourself have a cane!”
“Yes, but just to make me look English.”
“He's right, Watson,” said Holmes, “We can handle this one.”
Watson sighed and went to another corner of the room. He watched and pouted while Holmes and Action Watson threw people, were thrown, and caused various explosions around the room that somehow hurt no one.
Finally they finished. Holmes, Watson and Action Watson left the building, the former and latter with only a few singe marks in their clothes, a couple bruises and ruffled hair. Watson, however, was hurt emotionally.
“I can't believe you, Holmes,” said Watson. “I can't believe you didn't want me to help you. I am a soldier!”
“But Action Watson and I are more used to this sort of thing,” said Holmes. “I just didn't want you to get hurt.”
Holmes got a strange look in his eyes. He touched Watson's face and sighed. “You look so much like Gay Watson...”
Watson also got a strange look in his eyes. It looked like he would throw up his spine.
Holmes was politely shoved a good distance away. Watson stormed off, not caring that he didn't know where they were going. “We are going to find them as quickly as possible and you are not going to touch me until we have.”
“Watson, wait,” said Holmes, “You're going the—“
A short, fat man stepped around the corner and right into Watson's way, his shoulder colliding with the doctor's side. He tipped his hat apologetically. “I'm very sorry, my good man.”
“It's quite all right, it was my fault,” said Watson. He paused and looked closely at the man. “Wait, aren't you...”
Holmes gasped with delight. “Stupid Watson!”
The man started with indignation. “I beg your pardon?!”
Holmes ran over and swept the man into his arms. “Oh, how I've searched for you!”
“Wh—put me down!” said the man, kicking his stubby legs around as he dangled in Holmes' grip. “I've never met you before in my life!”
“Oh dear, he's forgotten me,” said Holmes. He set the man down, grabbed him by the shoulders, and stared directly into his eyes. “Stupid Watson, it's me. Holmes. Sher-lock Holme-s. Remember?” Holmes sighed. “Watson, do you have his jam? His memory's better when he has his jam.”
“On second consideration, I do know you,” said the man. “Or at least I've heard of you. But the Sherlock Holmes I've heard of was not an imbecile. Nor did he put the word 'stupid' in front of someone's name whenever he addressed them!”
“This isn't Stupid Watson, Holmes, but it is another one,” said Watson. He groaned. “I'm getting tired of my own name...”
“I see. Well, then,” said Holmes, “Which Watson are you?”
“Which Watson?” said the new Watson, “Which Watson?! I am just Watson! Dr. John Watson! Are you trying to tell me I'm not who I am?!”
“He's not much different from the original besides being short and fat,” said Action Watson, “I'd say he's just Fat Watson.”
“Why on earth would there be a Fat Watson?” said Watson. “I'm not that terribly thin as it is. I may not be short, but that too is pointless!”
“I have never been more insulted in all my life!” said Fat Watson.
“Wait. I have an idea,” said Holmes. “Where are you coming from, Fat Watson? Have you seen any other Watsons?”
“I am the only Watson!”
“Believe me,” said Watson, “You're not.”
“Have you at least seen any other men that looked like you?” said Action Watson.
“Now that you mention it, I have,” said Fat Watson. “I don't quite remember what I was doing this morning, but I do remember leaving this large building, along with several other men my age who had many similarities to myself. Yet we were all different as well, so it didn't strike me as too odd.”
“You don't remember what you were doing this morning?” said Holmes. “How very peculiar.”
“It is, isn't it?” said Fat Watson. He rubbed his moustache thoughtfully. “Hm... Or what I did yesterday... Or the day before...”
“Perhaps he is Stupid Watson,” said Holmes to the other two Watsons beside him.
“No, he's not,” said Action Watson, “Now that I think of it, I don't recall what I was doing this morning either. Or anything before that.”
“Bizarre! Incredibly bizarre!” said Holmes. “And you, Gay Watson?”
“I am not Gay Watson!”
“Oh, my apologies. I forgot.”
“Goodness,” said Fat Watson. He looked deeply troubled. “I don't remember anything of my life...”
“Please take us to that building you came from,” said Holmes. “Then, perhaps, we can answer any questions you have. As well as find my missing comrades.”
“Yes, of course,” said Fat Watson, in a bit of a daze. “Right this way.”
The building they came to was a factory. Large smokestacks rose into the sky and billowed out dark gray smoke. No one came in, but a stream of men filed out, all of them looking like variations of the same thing. Some were short, some were tall, some were fat, some were thin, but all of them were Watson. Or at least a version of Watson. Some of them seemed to be copies of copies, and even Holmes began to look confused by the mass amounts of Stupid and Gay Watsons that came filing out of the building.
“When earlier I said 'bizarre',” said Holmes, “I did not know the meaning of the word. Now I do.”
Watson buried his face in his hands. “I want to go home.”
“We're almost there, old man,” said Holmes. He tried to pat Watson on the shoulder, but the doctor flinched away. “Soon we'll find Gay and Stupid Watson, and you can go right back home to prop your feet up before the fire and have a nice cup of tea.”
“Fine,” said Watson. He stormed to the entrance of the building. “Then let's get moving before I'm buried in a stampede of myself.”
“Come along, Action Watson, Fat Watson,” said Holmes.
The four of them ventured inside, pushing through the Watsons who bumped into them in a constant stream.
“How I didn't know this existed I'll never know,” said Holmes.
“You'd think you'd at least notice how many Watsons there were around London,” said Action Watson.
At last they made it inside. Still they could only see the Watsons, endless bowlers and top hats and moustaches bobbing around them like the waves of an ocean. It was so like water that Watson began to feel like he would drown.
“They're coming from that way,” said Holmes, pointing towards a doorway on the other side of the room. All the Watsons streamed out of it either to make it to the door or just bob about the room aimlessly. “Stay together. Is everyone present?”
“I'm here,” gasped Watson.
“Right beside you,” said Action Watson.
They waited for the fourth voice. They heard none.
“Fat Watson?” Holmes called, looking around. “Fat Watson? Fat Watson!”
“I don't see him anywhere,” said Action Watson, “Yet I see him everywhere.”
“We don't have time to look for him,” said Watson. More Watsons buffeted into him. “I'm sure he's fine. We need to keep moving. This place is getting more crowded by the second.”
“But what could have happened to him?” said Holmes. “He could be trampled...”
“No time, Holmes,” said Watson.
Action Watson grabbed Holmes by the coat and started dragging him towards the doorway. Holmes put up a light struggle, but otherwise didn't protest.
Watson walked beside him, pushing copies aside and parting the crowd with his cane the best he could. “Don't worry about him, Holmes. And besides, there are a hundred others.”
“But I love all my Watsons...”
At last they made it through the crowd and to the doorway where all the Watsons were coming from. They had to push and shove for a good five minutes before they actually made it inside, but at last they were in the room.
What they saw in there was possibly the strangest thing of all. A large machine the like of which they'd never seen stood in the center of the room, electric lights covering its surface. Every second or so it would flash bright blue, and another Watson would step out, and go out into the world with a blank look in his eyes.
“Holmes,” said Watson, his voice barely a whisper, “I believe I've gone insane.”
“No, Watson,” said Holmes, “Unless we happen to be sharing a hallucination.”
Action Watson wasted no time. He rolled up his sleeves and tightened his grip on his cane. “Let's destroy it.”
They turned to see a man standing in a doorway they hadn't seen before. In the room behind him they could see another stream of men coming from another machine almost identical to the Watson one. This man looked rather like Holmes, only shorter and a bit more rugged.
Holmes determined the man's identity almost immediately. “Action Holmes!”
“Yes,” said Action Holmes. “Please, don't destroy the machine.”
“But why not?” said Watson. “Why must this madness continue?!”
“But it's always been this way,” said Action Holmes. “This is how it's meant to be.”
“Don't be so vague,” said Holmes, “It's unbecoming of us.”
Action Holmes laughed. “True,” he said, “But it's difficult to be anything but vague. All I can really tell you about this machine is that it's always existed, and it has to.”
“Oh, so we don't get an explanation for the machine that makes copies of me? We just have to accept it?” said Watson. “That's wonderful. Fantastic.”
“But what is the purpose of these machines?” said Holmes. “Who runs this place? Why does it have to exist?”
“The purpose, as you can see, is to make these other versions of you two,” said Action Holmes. “It runs on its own, but I've taken over a bit for supervision. At least, while I'm here.”
“Are you dying?” said Holmes.
“Everyone is dying,” said Action Holmes, “But yes, I suppose I'm dying faster than most. All of us are.”
“But why?” said Watson.
“We are only copies,” said Action Holmes. “In time, we fade. A few of us last longer than others, but we still fade someday. Only the originals last.”
“Oh, I see,” said Watson. He inched closer to Holmes and whispered in his ear. “Does this make sense to you? None of this makes sense to me.”
“On the contrary,” said Holmes, “It's becoming clearer and clearer as we speak. So because they fade is why I haven't noticed how many there are?”
“Yes,” said Action Holmes, “Some of them fade after only a few seconds. That's why this mass production is able to continue.”
Holmes glanced at the machine as it flashed again. “I suppose some of them don't last very long, even without fading.”
Watson glanced at the copy Holmes was looking at. “Is... is that a mouse?”
“Some are strange, yes,” said Action Holmes.
“So, you never answered my last question,” said Holmes, “Why does it have to exist?”
“No, really, a mouse?”
Action Holmes shrugged. “It just does. You can't stop them from being made. And what's wrong with a little variety?”
“But why of us?” said Watson. “And again... a mouse?”
“You're not the only ones,” said Action Holmes. “There are others with different versions of themselves.”
Holmes walked past Action Holmes to look inside the other room. “They don't look much different from me.”
Watson followed him. “Aside from the mouse one.”
“No, but trust me, they're all quite different,” said Action Holmes. “And all of them have a Watson to go with them.”
“So... A set, eh?” said Holmes. He glanced at Watson. “Hm...”
“And the reason Gay Watson and Stupid Watson have disappeared,” said Watson, “Is because they... faded?”
“Is that who you're looking for?” said Action Holmes. “Then most likely, yes. But we have more of those, if you want a replacement...”
Watson looked to Holmes. “It's probably painful, Holmes, but... would you like to...?”
“No,” said Holmes, shaking his head. “I'll miss them, but... I'm beginning to think it's for the best.” He smiled at Watson. “The original for the original, and all that.”
Watson was astonished. “Holmes...”
“Would you assist me in my cases from now on, Watson?” said Holmes. He held out his hand. “Unless you're still angry with me... Which I would understand.”
Watson smiled and shook the offered hand. “I'd be delighted.”
And so they walked side-by-side out of the room, kinship reestablished. Action Holmes watched them go, until he noticed a tall man approaching him out of the corner of his eye.
Action Watson offered his hand with a grin. “Hello. I believe I'm your other half.”
Action Holmes grinned back. “I was wondering where mine was.”
And so they, along with thousands of others outside, became acquainted. And maybe not everything made complete sense, at least not if taken literally, but everyone and everything matched up once more. If not of normalcy, there was, at least, a feeling of contentment all around.