They say it came in a wave of gold light. They say that anyone touched by the light was immediately turned to dust. They say that plants and animals were vaporised where they stood. They say that every plane of glass in the world shattered in an instant. They say that as one, the people screamed.
No one really knows, because no one who saw survived. All they know is that ninety-eight percent of the world’s population was wiped out in that second of light.
And after that, everything went to hell.
It shouldn’t have been surprising to find someone amongst the dust.
Although London tended to resemble a ghost town these days there were still plenty of people left in the city. Scavengers, scroungers, lunatics. After the Event, the chaos, the riots, the bombings, the fires, the infections and finally the spring floods most of the remaining population had headed for the countryside. But still some remained, kept there by some mawkish sentimental attachment. It was insane, the urban life was unsustainable, but still they stayed, unable or unwilling to abandon the capital.
Sherlock had certain contacts amongst the survivors. He helped them out with fresher food than they could find - without telling them where he got it from of course - and they kept him informed as to what was happening in the complex new society that had built up in the remains of the metropolis.
He was well aware that the west end was a very popular area for the gangs. It was considered lucky because of the large number of people who had survived by virtue of being in darkened theatres at the time of the Event. So he shouldn’t have been surprised to find the man holding the gun in the ruins of the old office. But he was.
It wasn’t the gun that surprised him. There were lots of guns in London these days, desperation having turned people violent and grasping for the biggest weapon they could find. Following decades of anti-weapon licensing guns were now enjoying a heyday again, and after the short-lived martial law there had been plenty to be had – plucked off the bodies of dead soldiers. Although admittedly they were being seen less and less as the ammo ran out. These days they were most likely to be found empty and in the hands of kids who didn’t even know which way up to hold them.
This gun was an army issue Sig Sauer P226. It was fully loaded. It was also being held - the right way up - in a steady grip that told Sherlock the holder knew exactly how to use it, and would do so if Sherlock took another step forward.
As a precaution Sherlock did not take another step forward.
They were stood in what had been an office of the local borough council, facing each other from either end of a long line of desks. The building didn’t look like it had been entered since the early days after the Event. The reception area had been a wreck; a car had crashed through the front door, most of the furniture had been missing and someone had sprayed the words ‘The eNd is Ni’ on the wall in pink paint, although that was hardly unique to this building. The same words, occasionally spelt correctly, were spray painted in different colours all over the city. Sherlock had often wondered why people were so unoriginal with these things.
However this office, further into the building, still looked as untouched as if the Event had happened only the day before. Paper swayed gently in the breeze from the empty window frames, slightly mouldering coats stuck firmly to their racks and on a desk halfway between Sherlock and the other man a phone receiver lay off the hook, a slight covering of dust the only remains of the hand that had held it.
It was obvious what the man was doing here, one look at the half open khaki duffle bag at his feet told Sherlock that. It was also obvious exactly what the man was which was a far more intriguing and, if he was honest, surprising prospect. He hadn’t realised there were any of them still about. He had to do something.
“Weavers Fields or Barbican?” he asked mildly.
The man’s eyes widened in alarm. No, not just alarm, there was something else there, something much more interesting. Anger. Absolute outrage.
There was a click as the man released the safety of the handgun.
“Who the hell are you? And how do you know about Barbican? Have you been following me?”
Sherlock frowned briefly. “Why would I do that?”
It was in fact the most incredible piece of luck. He almost hadn’t come. This was supposed to be one of the boring fact finding or reconnaissance trips ordered by Mycroft that Sherlock was required to undertake from time to time in order to allow his more fun forages out into the city the rest of the time. But halfway down Queenstown Road he had remembered one of the cases he had been working on shortly before the Event; the murder of a woman that he had been convinced had been organised by the husband despite a tight alibi. In a flash it had come to him how he could put a hole in that alibi and he had practically run all the way to the West End.
And now there was this, standing between him and the evidence he had been after. Ragged, thin, dirty, unshaven and quite frankly stinking, the man in front of him still managed to hold himself with a stiff upright bearing that betrayed his past life. The confusion was obvious but the gun didn’t veer an inch away from the direction of Sherlock’s chest.
Sherlock kept his hands down but in clear sight, his eyes low but fixed on the other man’s, and his face carefully blank. It was almost like approaching a dangerous animal although Sherlock was certain he was dealing with an entirely different type of creature.
“Then what the hell are you doing here?”
“I need that phone,” Sherlock replied instantly. He gestured towards the desk behind the man with a nod of his head. “The landline. Behind you.”
Sherlock felt oddly pleased by the slideshow of emotions this created across the man’s face. First surprise accompanied by a clearly automatic flick of the eyes towards the phone. Then suspicion as his head snapped back towards Sherlock, eyes narrowing as if expecting all talk of phones to be a trick. Annoyance, probably at falling for such a trick, followed but was quickly replaced by confusion and then disbelief as it no doubt dawned across the man’s mind that he might actually want the phone.
Sherlock, for his part, remained entirely still throughout the display; making no threatening movements but at the same time not backing down.
Time passed silently save for the sound of their breathing in the dust filled room.
Finally the man started to move. Sherlock tried very hard not to let his face light up. For a moment he had feared the man would argue. Obviously the man had decided he would leave once he got what he had come for and wanted to speed up his departure. A quite correct conclusion, Sherlock couldn’t help mentally adding. If not an entirely comprehensive one.
The man took a few steps sideways then backwards until he was beside the desk. He pulled the cord out of the back of the phone then picked it up and moved forward again. Reaching out his arm he offered the phone to Sherlock. Throughout the entire manoeuvre his eyes, and his gun, remained perfectly fixed on Sherlock.
Sherlock moved forward slowly and steadily, maintaining eye contact. He stopped far enough away that he had to lean forward slightly when he reached for the phone. The man pressed it into his hand then quickly snatched his own hand back but not before Sherlock had had an opportunity to surreptitiously double check the man’s fingertips.
He had been right. Amazing. Not at him being right, obviously, that was practically a given. No, the amazing thing, the thing that had surprised Sherlock as soon as he had laid eyes on the man, was this; there was a doctor in London. An army doctor. And if Sherlock was right, and he almost always was, he was a good one.
Now to get him home.
As soon as he had his hands on the phone he knew it wasn’t what he was looking for.
“Ah, no, you see? Although the message would have been only retrievable through this phone it doesn’t actually have a memory to store it on.” He looked at the wire the doctor had pulled out the back and started to follow it with his eyes. “There will be a hard drive somewhere with it on. Most likely upstairs.”
He tried to hand the phone back but the doctor took a step back. He dropped it on the nearby desk, the one with the off the hook handset, and slid it towards the doctor instead.
“We might as well take it with us anyway, it will be good for components. Also you really don’t want to take water from that cooler; it’s been in direct sunlight for four months. You’d be better off getting some from their stock of cooler bottles. They’re most likely kept in the canteen at the end of the corridor. Not that you’ll need it anyway, we have a purification system. I’ll pop upstairs and get this server, shouldn’t be too hard to find, and then we’ll go. Need to stop off at the local park first though, you don’t mind do you?”
“No,” the doctor said firmly.
“I didn’t think you would. It won’t take long anyway. We’ll soon have you back to the Enclave in time for dinner. Nice hot meal? I expect it’s been a while. So if you just put the phone in your bag-“
“I said no,” the doctor said, cutting across him in an almost deathly tone which told Sherlock very succinctly that the speaker’s finger would most definitely pull that trigger if he said another word.
As a precaution he stopped talking.
“I’m not…” the doctor continued. “No. Not with you. This Enclave place… I won’t…”
Despite the floundering the doctor maintained his certain tone. Sherlock could tell the doctor hadn’t spent much time with other people for at least three weeks. He suspected the trouble with words was lack of practice. That was fine with him. In fact it might be nice to have someone around who didn’t talk back too much. Like the skull. He missed the skull sometimes.
“I’m not going anywhere with you,” the doctor finally managed.
He gave Sherlock a firm look that Sherlock inferred was meant to assert that this was an undeniable statement. Sherlock didn’t doubt it. Or at least didn’t doubt that was what the doctor thought it was. Sherlock, however, knew the man was wrong, but then not everyone was as smart as he was.
There was a pause which Sherlock took as permission to speak.
“You’re not?” he said.
The tentativeness he forced into his voice would have surprised Lestrade who had seen him argue with armed men many times before. But then there were people with guns and then there people with guns who you wanted to come with you.
“No!” The man sounded surprised that Sherlock wasn’t getting it. “Home cooked meal, long hot bath, nice warm bed. Not going to work on me. I mean I’m… I’m nearly flattered. You lot normally go for people a bit younger but… no. Just… no.”
Sherlock let out a sigh as realisation dawned. “You think I’m a collector.”
Which was ridiculous because the man was right; he wasn’t exactly collection material. The men who preyed on the London survivors usually went for those who were young, pretty and not doing very well at taking care of themselves.
Sherlock had heard about the invitations, how the chosen would be practically drooling at the descriptions of the large, clean, heated house the collector had commandeered out in the country and the abundance of food they would be offered. After that it took almost nothing to persuade the victim into a waiting vehicle and they would be swept out of the city before they knew it. And that was that. From that point on they were a possession of the collector. They would get to see that large clean house and be given some of that abundance of food and then they would be told, in no uncertain terms, what they had to do to earn it.
Sherlock had met a girl who had escaped a collection. He had seen for himself the chain marks, the bruises and the unmistakeable signs of rape. He had heard the stories about the others who had been forced to slave in mines and hellish factories. The girl had died from her injuries the next day. She had been thirteen years old.
Sherlock thought a collector would have to be insane to try and pick up the man in front of him. He was too self-sufficient, too hard-nailed, too armed to be easy prey. Sherlock was more insulted by the question against his intelligence than the inference he was a child-snatching monster.
“If I wanted to collect someone I certainly wouldn’t be likely to choose a person currently pointing a gun at me.”
“We’ve only just met,” the man was starting to sound a touch hysterical, “and you want me to go home with you but don’t want anything in return?”
Well certainly not anything he wouldn’t want to give once he knew the situation.
The man gave a disbelieving huff. “We don’t know a thing about each other. I don’t know where this Enclave place is. I don’t even know your name.”
Sherlock fixed him with a piercing look. “I know you’re an army doctor and you were working at the Barbican distribution centre when the bombing happened. You’ve been in groups before but it’s never worked out, possibly because you’re ill, more likely because you suffer from violent nightmares. At the moment you’re on your own, trying to keep your profession a secret and doing your very best to isolate yourself. That’s enough to be going on, don’t you think?”
Leaving the man wide eyed and stunned, Sherlock turned on his heel and headed for the doorway, allowing his coat to billow behind him. Once there he turned again, said,
“The name’s Sherlock Holmes and I’ll be back in twelve minutes.”
Then with a wink he bounded out the door and up the nearby staircase, barely able to contain the grin on his face.
As he heard the footsteps of the curly haired stranger disappear up the stairs he desperately tried to rearrange his brain into something capable of processing what had just happened. Or even capable of any thought at all. At that moment all he had managed was, My God!
He tried again but was only able to get a variation on the same theme.
Eventually he managed to get past two word thoughts with the addition of, He’s magnificent!
Finally, finally something clicked and he was able to correct himself. No, he’s insane and it’s contagious.
Because how else could he explain the fact that a man who was so obviously a collector – smart clothes, clean face, well groomed, no signs of malnourishment – had just gone away but promised to be back in twelve minutes and he was still standing there. Not just standing there, frozen there like a rabbit in headlights, in exactly the same position he had been when Holmes had started that little diatribe of his life. Staring at the empty doorway, his gun pointed at nothing. He had gone mad. Sherlock Holmes was mad and he had found the whole thing… amazing. He was almost, almost, tempted to go with the man.
Which was bad, very, very bad and enough to snap him out of it.
He started moving quickly because in about ten minutes an utter nutcase was going to come back down those stairs and he needed to be out of there before those piercing eyes hit him again and he threw away all his sense.
Tucking the gun into his pocket he seized his bag, tugged it firmly shut then practically threw it onto his back. He pulled the hood of his faded hoodie over his head, deliberately ignored the phone that still sat on the desk and headed for the door.
He pieced his way carefully through reception trying to make as little noise as possible. The last thing he wanted was to get caught on the way out. Hanging back behind the rubble that had once been the entrance way he checked the street for dangers, particularly for Holmes’ backup because he must have backup, surely? No one stayed that fresh, that cool, that confident all on their own. He couldn’t see anyone but he couldn’t take any risks.
He slipped into the long evening shadows and kept a wary eye out as he headed away from the office as quickly as he could. He had to get away. He had to get to safety. He had to- dammit! After everything he had forgotten the water. After everything he had been through to find some place that still had the standalone water cooler bottles and he had just walked out without any.
It had been a plan. It had even been a good plan. West End, small businesses, get enough water to keep him going for just that little bit longer, that was all he had hoped for and then Sherlock Holmes had swept in and turned it all upside down. The arrogance of the man! He hadn’t so much been invited along as been expected to follow. He had been the one holding the gun for god’s sake! So why had Holmes been the calm controlled one. Too calm actually. His eyes had been sharp and focused, no desperation at all which was downright weird because everyone was desperate for something these days. Even collectors were desperate to grab their prey and get out the city before they got stopped. All Holmes had seemed to want was… that phone. Why the hell did he want that phone? Mental, absolutely mental.
Why was he still thinking about it?
What was that movement?
Hardly breathing he ducked into an alleyway.
It was a couple of kids, primary school age and so thin it looked like a strong breeze would sweep them away. They didn’t appear to notice him and he stayed as still as a rock to make sure it kept that way. There was nothing he could do to help them. There was nothing he could do to help anyone.
Holmes’ words came back to him, ‘trying to keep your profession a secret’. Holmes had got that one right. Got everything right actually. Pinned him right down to a tee. How had he known about the nightmares? How had he known about any of that? And much, much more importantly, why the hell did he care about any of that to find it out? Why was someone like Holmes interested in him? To have that much attention pressed onto him had been almost… flattering. Oh god, why had he actually told Holmes he was flattered? Huge mistake. Giant mistake. Moment of utter madness.
The children had passed so he pressed his head against the brickwork and let out a deep breath of exasperation.
That’s all it had been. A moment. He was just lonely, that was all. Thrown by the shock of someone actually wanting to look him straight in the eye instead of avoid it and hurry away. Well the moment had passed and he was walking away.
He started to pull himself out of the alleyway then retreated back into it quickly. Further down the road the two kids yelped in horror and fled down the nearest side street. A large black Land Rover cruised ominously down the road. He watched it carefully as it came to a stop in front of the office that still contained Sherlock Holmes. Five men, each looking more brutish than the last, piled out and headed into the building. He paused, heart thumping in his chest, knowing he should walk away but unable to tear his thoughts away from the man he had left behind. The man who could be in a lot of trouble.
He should… he had to… he needed… he…
…he was going to regret this. He knew it.
It didn’t exactly take all of his deductive abilities for Sherlock to know that that wasn’t his army doctor pounding up the stairs. Not unless the man had found himself a group of very burly friends in the last ten minutes.
Slipping the computer’s case back into place, he palmed his screwdriver before turning towards the uninvited guests.
There was no point in trying to hide. The computer had been tucked away in a cupboard right near the top of the stairs. It was only big enough for one person to stand in and even if he had time to close the door it had a window, which was, of course, now a big gaping hole.
It wasn’t long before the face of a man who looked like he would be confused by the statement ‘One plus one equals two’, popped his head around the doorway. Sherlock’s coat was grabbed and he was tugged out into the large open plan office that made up the bulk of the top floor.
There were five men, including the one who had grabbed him, all cleaner and better fed than the London scavengers. That as well as their calloused hands and bruised knuckles told Sherlock he was very unlucky indeed. These were muscle working for a collector.
He spared a thought for the army doctor downstairs, listening out for any sounds of struggle that might indicate he had been caught as well. A lack of gunshots surely indicated that the man had managed to hide himself away somewhere. Relieved he was able to turn his full attention on the shortest thug, no doubt the leader, who he was being pulled in front of.
“Nah,” said the man, shaking his head, “keep looking. Mike, go back to the car.”
Sherlock wondered if that meant he would be let go but it turned out to be too much to hope for as the grip on his arm didn’t let up.
The three other men split up. One, no doubt Mike, headed back down the stairs, another, a man with exceptionally long arms, started checking the other doors sporadically placed along the wall while the third, a man with spiky hair and uneven highlights, explored the main office, checking under the desks. He began to wonder who or what they were looking for when his attention was suddenly demanded by the leader of the group
“’Ello, pretty boy. What ‘chu doin’ ‘ere?”
Sherlock deigned to even offer that sloppy half question an eye roll.
The leader moved towards him, stopping a few paces away and craned his head upwards to meet Sherlock’s look of disdain.
“You ain’t been doin’ too well ‘ave ya? Look at ‘chu, all skin an’ bone.”
Sherlock sighed. “Does that actually work on anyone?”
His opinion of the intelligence of general population was plummeting as the thug spoke. Perhaps his boss was more subtly persuasive – he couldn’t see this guy collecting very many people if he was on his own.
“Now, now.” The man took another step towards him. “Don’t be rude. You’re talkin’ to the man who could take you away from all this. Nice place to stay, feed you up a bit.” He pinched Sherlock’s chin, raising his hand above his head in order to reach. “What ‘chu say?”
Sherlock smiled. “I wouldn’t have thought I was your type.”
“What ‘chu mean by that, pretty boy?”
No imagination for compliments this one. “I mean that you play around with the collection, like you’re supposed to, but you much prefer the burly type.” Sherlock flicked his eyes towards spiky hair who was currently examining the large empty window frames that ran along the side of the wall overlooking the street. “Like him.”
The leader and spiky hair looked at each other in mild astonishment. Sherlock felt the man behind him tense slightly and he glanced down to look at the hand gripping his arm.
“Ah no, I see,” Sherlock said. “You two aren’t sleeping together but you are both sleeping with this guy here.” He gestured backwards with his head. “I bet he told you both that you were the only person he had been close to since his wife died. Except his wife didn’t die, she left him long before the Event. No doubt because he had the same inability to commit to one person then as he does now. She must have been quite a large woman for you to have confused her old ring for yours. Although it doesn’t fit perfectly, does it? You could have cleaned it you know. If she had died still wearing the ring it would have been cleaned. It certainly wouldn’t still have the mark on it from when she threw it at you and chipped the wall.”
He had obviously hit a sore point there because before he could react the grip on his arm strengthened and it was wrenched painfully behind his back.
“You’re going to want to shut up right now,” was growled into his ear.
“Joe!” the leader called.
Any hope that it was a cry of restraint was dashed when the long limbed man reappeared and was told,
“We need your help in here to teach pretty boy a lesson.”
Oh excellent, thought Sherlock as the three men advanced on him and the grip behind him tightened even further. This was going to hurt.
The gunshot took everyone by surprise, especially Joe who didn’t appear to notice it for a few moments before he dropped like a sack of potatoes. Another shot and spiky hair was down. Feeling the grip on his arm loosen somewhat, probably due to shock, he leant back into it and spun the thug round until, with a twist, he broke free and threw the thug off him and into a desk, knocking it over with a crash. Readjusting his grip on the screwdriver, he swiped at the leader with it, catching him in the side. He turned towards the stairs as he heard the heavy footfalls of the fifth man, Mike, coming up them and was nearly caught from behind - the adulterer was back on his feet much quicker than Sherlock had anticipated. Ducking the first blow with ease he turned and struck his attacker in the stomach.
There was another gunshot which hit the wall and Mike retreated back down the stairs.
Sherlock aimed a punch to the head but was thrown off balance by a white searing pain through that shot through his knee as a well-aimed kick sent him tumbling him to the ground. Taking advantage of his new position, he threw himself at the other man’s legs and tackled him to the floor. Ignoring the shooting pain in his knee, he scrambled on top where a few well aimed blows with his fist stopped the man moving.
From the floor below there were more gunshots then the sound of footsteps ascending the stairs again.
Sherlock rolled off the now unconscious attacker and, unable to get up, spun on the ground until he faced the new threat. Unexpectedly the threat was a lot closer than he had predicted.
The leader stood in front of him, his hand pressed into his bleeding side and an angry look on his face. He opened his mouth to say something, some petty insult or threat no doubt, but was unable to make any sound other than a brief moan as something heavy was brought down on his head and he crumpled into an unattractive heap.
Sherlock had never been happier to see an ex-army doctor wielding a Sig P226 in his life.
“Why didn’t you shoot him?”
The doctor looked a touch irate at the greeting. “I just wasted six bullets because of you, I wasn’t going to waste another one.”
Sherlock glanced towards the windows and the building opposite where two of those bullets had originated from. “Good shots.”
That seemed to go down better. “They were, weren’t they?”
Sherlock looked back at the doctor to find him kneeling by the leader checking for a pulse.
“He’s still alive,” he said. “How about the one behind you?”
Sherlock reached around the check. “Just about.”
“Then we’d better get out of here before they wake up.” He tucked his gun into the back of his trousers then offered his arm to Sherlock. “Come on.”
Sherlock grabbed the proffered hand and began to use it to pull himself up when his knee gave a twinge of protest and he cried out in shock. In an instant the doctor was on the floor beside him, rolling up the trouser leg and gently examining the injury.
“Looks like a sprain to me.”
He looked around the room wildly then suddenly jumped to his feet. He yanked out the drawer of the nearest desk and started pulling items of stationary out, moving on to the next drawer - and then the next desk – when he failed to find what he was looking for immediately. Finally he laid hands on a stapler and a pair of scissors then, to Sherlock’s astonishment, started to take the shoes off the unconscious leader.
“What are you doing?” Sherlock finally asked after he moved on to removing the leader’s trousers.
“If you think I’m wasting my limited supply of clean bandages on you when all you need is support you’ve got another thing coming. Take off that guy’s shoes as well.”
Sherlock twisted, trying to move his knee as little as possible, and did as he was instructed. When he turned back the doctor was cutting the trousers into long strips. Sherlock offered him the shoes and with a brief, “Thanks,” the doctor took them and threw them out the window, followed by the leader’s shoes.
“Slow them down,” he muttered, lining up the strips of cloth and stapling them together.
He very carefully wrapped the makeshift bandage over the top of Sherlock’s trousers around the knee until it was firmly – but not tightly – bound. Standing up he offered Sherlock his arm again and this time was able to pull Sherlock firmly onto his feet.
“How does it feel?”
Cautiously Sherlock put some weight onto the leg. It hurt enough to be uncomfortable but didn’t feel like it was going to buckle. “It’ll do for now. I’m sure you can do better once we get to the Enclave.”
The little ‘huh’ this comment provoked told him there was still some doubt to their destination. Nevertheless the doctor pulled Sherlock’s arm around his neck and started to guide them in the direction of the stairs. Sherlock gripped his shoulder and steered them both towards the cupboard.
“What are you doing?”
“I told you. I need to get the hard drive.”
The doctor sighed, released him to limp into the cupboard then pulled the gun out again. Even though he was blocking the light by standing in the doorway Sherlock quite enjoyed the way this man he had met less than an hour ago took up guard while he worked. It didn’t take him long to remove the hard drive which he handed to the doctor with a,
“Where’s your bag?”
“Downstairs. Can we go now?”
Sherlock obligingly threw his arm around the doctor’s neck and allowed himself to be assisted down the stairs.
Fifteen minutes later the doctor had retrieved his duffle bag – and the desk phone which for some reason he had left in the office where Sherlock had found it – and they were back out in the street and on their way to the Enclave.
Sherlock frowned. He wasn’t still refusing to come, was he? After Sherlock had showed off his brilliance by telling him everything about himself? After he had just shot three people for Sherlock’s sake and taken the trousers off another? After he’d so very sweetly guarded Sherlock while he worked?
“Come on,” he tried again.
“No, it’ll be dark soon and you’ll never make it in your state. You need to rest your leg. It’s too far.”
Sherlock raised an eyebrow. “You don’t even know where it is.”
The doctor gave him a steely look that Sherlock suspected a lot of difficult patients had received over the years.
“Is it further away than Baker Street tube station?”
Baker Street was in entirely the wrong direction, they wanted to go south not north. However the voice, on top of the look, brokered no argument and the doctor was indeed right; Baker Street was closer. Not that Sherlock’s leg was so bad he couldn’t have made it to the Enclave but the doctor seemed to be at least offering to spend more time with him which was strangely appealing.
Sherlock nodded and let the doctor take them to Baker Street.