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Pixels Like Acid Rain (Extended Cut)

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He arrived at the address Moriarty had given him, rang the doorbell four times as instructed, and was immediately greeted by two whitecoats who led him upstairs and bade him disrobe in a retrofitted examination room. Once finished, he lay down on the exam table and closed his eyes against the fluorescent lights. He twitched under nitrile-gloved hands, skin crawling along his spine as they felt and  prodded. A scanner was being wheeled out.

"Don't you get bored, Mr. Holmes? Surrounded by all these idiots who use tools to substitute for cognition?"

Sherlock arched his eyebrows at the silhouette on his screen, a lone glow in his darkened flat. Moriarty was clever, he had to admit. Studied neutrality. The figure was slim, androgynous, straight-shouldered; no ticks or body language to give hint to gender. The voice was mellow, altered to eradicate any sex-linked timbre independent of pitch; the accent, studied London standard, with zero hint of a possible origin, more neutral than neutral. Of course it would match no voice records.

"It's really fascinating to watch the mediocre attempt to better themselves, isn't it?" continued Moriarty. "Kind of pathetic. But, no, they aren't actually bettering themselves, are they? They're all just aping the improving intuitive capabilities of computers. Ultimately, it's all just a pantomime, starring meat puppets wired through their spines. Puppets who are desperately trying to avoid having to think."

"You are bitter, aren't you?"

"We'll have to check that prosthesis you have in your calf, Mr. Holmes."

He grunted and jerked his chin in affirmation.

"Bitter?" Moriarty snorted. "Do you mean 'aware'?"

"Adolescent, even."

"Adolescent!" Moriarty laughed. "It that not the only time most people are prodded out of their comfort zones, when they resist the anesthesia of a society that is entertaining itself to death? How could any authentic person validate such an existence, other than by deluding themselves into thinking their resignation was mature, a by-product of an existential awakening? And you didn't answer my question, Sherlock Holmes. Are you bored?"

They had to hold him down as one of the doctors inserted a probe to ensure any myoelectric current did not map back to anything in his brain but the motor control areas. They hadn't bothered with anesthesia. He had screamed. Like most people of his generation he had not known pain in a medical context, only the pain of the initial injury, but it left him feeling focused, a perverse glittering in his nerves that made him smile.

"Why, is that why you keep providing me with mysteries? Are you that concerned for my welfare?"

"Oh, now, don't be so modest. You provide me with a considerable source of entertainment. Might be the only thing keeping me from going over the edge completely."

Sherlock huffed. "And I thought you were going to start in with that 'We're not so different, you and I' nonsense."

"Oh, but we're not. I thought it was a foregone conclusion."

A henchman returned with his clothes, folded and steamed, and set them on the metal bench. After dressing, he was ushered outside onto the balcony overlooking the square. Light rain was falling, clearing the air. Moran was outside lighting a cigarette--one of the real ones banned decades ago. She did not look at Sherlock as he emerged, but merely offered the pack to him, edging one of the rolls out with her fingernail. He nodded in thanks and accepted it, allowed her to light the tip. Took a deep breath, enjoying the dirty crash into his lungs. Real nicotine, taken in without medical cleanliness. Imprecise.

Moran flaunted her scars, though they could easily be erased, in a defiant if not thoroughly adolescent show of studied carelessness. She had all the trappings of a tedious nihilist, another pseudo-intellectual fetishist of bad, but Sherlock had known her long enough to see what Moriarty saw in her. Intelligence hummed there, bright, sharp, in the set of her brows, behind color-injected neon green eyes. It matched Moriarty's sense of showmanship, an almost ironic play up of villainy. He took another deep drag.

"Five minutes," said Moran.

"And I'll prove it. Do you want to play a game, Mr. Holmes?"

His heart rate spiked; he was sure his pupils dilated for a moment. He resisted the pull of a smile at the corners of his mouth.

"You don't have to hide anything from me, Sherlock. You can show your excitement."

"And how do you know I'll play?"

"Oh, you will. Your curiosity and pride won't allow otherwise."

Not for the first time, Sherlock Holmes was wondering how he would have dealt with his own feverish brain in an earlier age. He loved to stretch it, brilliant and sharp and humming as it was, but when there were no mysteries to solve, no puzzle to pull apart, he could re-submerge in all the world's information through the internet. How mad would he have gone, without that distraction. Far from being a Luddite reactionary, he appreciated the utility of any tool available. But he had nothing but open contempt for people who used it as a substitute for cognition, or who used direct-parsing to avoid having to think. He spent most of his time locked in his room, shrouded in blackout curtains, with the harsh blue light of several monitors uplighting his narrow face ghost-white, sharpening the hollows under his eyes. He lived the spaces between cases in a rush of frantic violin playing and the weak daylight that bled around the curtains, eyes bloodshot and dry scanning machine code until he reached some conclusion, some revelation, at which point he would set the violin aside (tilted, on a server tower, the green power light slicing around the body) and type frantically. Sometimes he typed in short bursts, stopping frequently to observe with satisfaction; sometimes he did not stop typing for hours, and drove off the pains in his wrists and back with heroin and counterfeit cigarettes. In those times when he needed to rip the blackout curtains aside and light the room for physical experiments, he would obsessively clean every surface in the flat, though he was so meticulous even in the dark that there was often little to clean.

The light in the square changed, filtered through the rain. The razor-thin projection of a commercial over the square blinked out, and was replaced with Moriarty's silhouette.

His heart was pounding. Energy hummed along his nerves like sparks.

"Good," said Moriarty. "Now, this is what you'll do. You're familiar with Southwark, I take it."

It was a short announcement, without preamble. Unnecessary, anyway: Moriarty had achieved a semi-mythical status, as had Sherlock. Sherlock Holmes had twenty-four hours to find hir--using only his own, organic mind; no mental enhancements--before a catastrophic system crash. Specifics were not important; nobody would take hir seriously anyway when zie said that every electronic device in London would be bricked, from life support systems to banks to watches.

Bitter and bored: it was a perfect convergence. Sherlock grinned.

The message flicked past millions of headsets. A few listened without annotation, without aid--without needing it--and smiled, or laughed, or just reveled. Many were self-styled cynics or philosophers who fancied themselves part of the chosen 'few', and had something of a chip about being leveled with the rest of the masses. "Professor", as Moriarty called hirself, was an archaic term, a remnant of the days when few had a monopoly on specialized knowledge, and worked many years to master it. Before the days of direct feed-and-storage and integration of data into permanent memory, when knowledge took mastery, time, discipline. When 'natural ability' created its own hierarchy and division between the smart and the dull. It was an inflammatory statement--a threat, an insinuation and a reminder that without technology, there are still those who are special, and those who are not.

Moran showed Sherlock out. He wanted to slink back in and look around, but Moran had made it clear that he was not to be allowed back in. He'd learned a grudging respect for her the hard way. His shattered calf, and the cigarette-burn pain from the probe, reminded him of that. So, he padded along Park several blocks, doubled back, and ducked into a cafe across the street from the building, hoping he could at least down a coffee before the TV drones, or--marginally more annoying--Scotland Yard, found him.

He was devising a way to get back inside when the building exploded.

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It hadn't taken long for the TV drones to find him. Immediately after the explosion, drones started swarming around the ruins, and one was fortunate enough to scan and recognize him. And, since every station was hacked into every other station, every TV producer who was salivating to find him would be sending out drones immediately. He was surprised he only had three hovering behind him thus far: spherical, camera-lenses scanning about. More would be on the way, until he was followed by a veritable cloud, and by then they'd be trying to sabotage one another, crashing and wheeling clumsily. A crowded place with irregular topography was the best place to lose them. He waved his hand behind himself futilely, as though shooing them off (they just danced neatly out of the way), and headed north. As fun as it could be to pit them against each other, this was not the time. And they were faster than he was--he had tried to destroy them before.

The Borough Market had overgrown tumbledown to St. Mary's, surging around the old cathedral to a cubicle-stacked wall along the South Bank ruins. Sherlock wove through the push of people shuffling along, half-absorbed in headsets. The rain was cool; his face still felt scorched, stretched into a feral grin. Thorough, Moriarty; very thorough.

The TV drones were only so flexible. Their cameras pivoted, but the bio-signature tracker could only shoot in laser-straight lines. He knew their trajectory, the split-second recalibration calculations. He wove through doorways and verandas, under construction tarps, quickly calculating how best to throw them off. One more duck should buy him a blind spot, and--

He ducked into the alcove of a convenience store. Water dripped off quick-lashed corrugated plywood and plastic. The crowd shined with layers of neon signs and cast-screens. One was showing a beauty show, and the chirpy vinyl-clad hosts were already analyzing him: what he could do to improve himself, where his body could be snipped and cut and trimmed down to an ideal. Not a bad face, one said, good bone structure, the bridge of his nose too high, but that could be shaved down, now couldn't it? Yes, yes, they all nod, as he fingered his nose and huffed. And that body, they speculated based on the drape of his clothes --

Oh, and look, now, they said: a new picture, just coming in from one of their drones. It was a close-up of him by the Market entrance, hair plastered down from rain, face half-hidden behind the collar of his coat. When was the last time he had plucked his eyebrows? And that skin, so sallow, already showing thirty-plus years of aging! The commentator in bottle green pointed out that his unkempt appearance was thoroughly rugged-chic, that counter-cultural, intellectual inattention to grooming that had becoming a thoroughly studied fad. Oh, yes, they all agree, and might tonight's chase bring that back into vogue? Let's ask our analyst.

It was the absolute lowest common denominator of the 'reality' shows he would be on, but not by much. He looked around. The quickest way out was up--he could haul himself onto the scaffolding and duck through the support struts until he found a discreet place to drop behind. But he would have to swing himself out of the alcove and into the line-of-sight of the drones, providing more than enough time for them to register. He slipped into the convenience store and--ah, perfect, they were selling those foam stress balls by the cash register. The clerk was talking to another rust-head, so he paid Sherlock no mind while he tested the ball, confirmed it was made of the necessary rubber-replacement--cheap, absorbent--and slipped it into his pocket.

Outside, he rubbed it between his hands, hoping it was absorbing his sweat and oils and sloughed cells. Somebody slid into the alcove behind him, and he tensed, for a split-second visualizing the intruder pulling a knife, until he recognized the presence, and stilled, not showing recognition.

"We're trying to recruit every hacker we know, put them onto security."

Detective Inspector Lestrade looked out across the crowd, seemingly uninterested. Sherlock huffed and twisted the ball in his fingers.

"Don't bother. It won't be something that obvious. Besides, you can't trust any of your 'recruits'."

"A few dropped charges here and there, a few pounds change hands--"

"None of that will matter when the entire country collapses into complete anarchy."

He felt Lestrade's breath hitch, though the man's face stayed impassive.

"You really think it's going to be that bad?"

"Theatrical, Inspector. Grandiose. Biblical. You've got to think big. Brute force. Direct. I would expect something like an electromagnetic pulse, maybe high energy radio frequency."

Lestrade hissed. "Jesus..."

"And stop following me. Moriarty is watching my every move. No cops, remember? You really want to help me? Get the paparazzi off my tail."

He flung the ball hard and hauled himself into the rafters so suddenly his vision went out. He heard a thwack, a yell of surprise, and half-saw as a blur the drones as they chased the ball, trying to lock on to the weak bio-signature. He did not stop to confirm it had worked, but scrabbled through the scaffolding, shouldering aside hanging tarps, until he found a quiet place to drop down into the alley. He took a deep breath and jogged toward the ruins at the base of London Bridge. He knew Borough Market, and that which had sprung up in the weeks' space since his last visit he could guess by reading patterns in spatial alignment and drifts of dust and plaster, angles of fallen plastic sheeting.

The ruins were dark, shattered slabs of ferroconcrete flowing and cresting like waves, a quiet graveyard ghostlit by the purple city light reflected off rolling clouds. In the middle distance the Thames reflected light from the North Bank. Sherlock padded along the shattered ground, crushing old plastic pipes, soles rounding over buried bottles. He desperately hoped the City did not work up the expertise, or drive, to find a way to break apart the first-generation, self-healing concrete, because the moment they did, the slime-mold progression of condo high-rises on the north bank would skitter across the open ground. 

He knew this was a futile exercise. As soon as he re-entered the city, the security cameras would find him, some hacked signal would catch the stations. But he needed a few moments peace, absolute isolation from the grid.

There were always a few eccentrics out here. Some just came to deal drugs, others to enjoy solitude, but they all tended to keep to themselves. But this man did not look like he belonged here. His clothing was utilitarian, multi-pocketed. Military. No, not just military-chic, but real military. A veteran, judging by his haircut and posture. He sat on slanted shale, staring up at the hazy sky. Sherlock padded around him. The man wore no headset, and his studied, rigid posture showed no sign that he was artificially engaged. Recent injury to the left shoulder and leg, judging by the way he favored the opposite side.

Sherlock intentionally stepped hard on a pipe, shattered it. The man spun around, hand drifting for his calf. Sherlock held his hands up and stepped toward him.

"This isn't Manchuria anymore. Though I wouldn't put much of London past that sort of brutality."

The man's eyes raked over Sherlock's face, eyebrows raised a split second seeing he had no headset, no eye-piece.

"How did you..." He narrowed his eyes. "Ocular implant. Of course. Must have, uh..." He waved his hand loosely at himself. "...carried some dust home with me, or something. Or facial recognition? Military records?"

"I am using zero enhancements right now. I deduced it."

The man scoffed. Sherlock saw the doubt, the cynicism, slowly be replaced by a grudging desire to believe him.

"Who in this bloody country bothers to use their own brains anymore? Sorry." He rubbed the back of his head as Sherlock sat down beside him. "Not meaning to be a bitter Luddite."

His posture was rigid, but pained; too prideful to show hurt, he clenched his teeth behind his lips when he shifted his weight. He frequently licked his lips and glanced around, but nonchalantly, as though he did not want to seem nervous. He finally turned toward Sherlock, brows furrowed.

"Um, do you need something?"

Sherlock blinked, moved his head back a little, realizing that he had been staring quite openly. He looked toward the river.

"What happened, exactly?"

"I beg your pardon?"

"In China, what happened? Something traumatic, something that turned you off enhancements."

The man seemed blindsided. He finally wet his tongue.

"What makes you think that?"

"This is new to you, being out here, wasting time 'meditating' or whatever it is you're doing. Yes, wasting time; that is what you think it is, though you're trying to convince yourself it's not. You're coming down off the addiction most people have, wherein they mistake repetitive mindless tasks for arbitrary rewards for some sort of 'productivity'. You're becoming re-acquainted with long periods of just being. Now, maybe you did this sort of thing out in the field--maybe whatever it was that made you take off the headset happened earlier in your tour--but you're still getting used to the idea that it won't be interrupted at a moment's notice by an emergency. Every time you almost drift out, your body tenses up."

The man stared at him for a long time. Sherlock merely stared at the Thames, glanced back at the man's quizzical, almost unnerved stare.

"Am I wrong?" 

"It's not that simple."

"Oh?"

The man rested his wrists on his bent knees and was silent for a while. Finally, he said:

"Our headsets shorted out in the field a lot. I found I preferred the rush of doing surgery without their help, anyway. It was so much more... imminent. Intimate, I guess, also; you couldn't pixel out the dust and the blood and the shouts. You could do that, you know, set your headset so the place was greener, or cooler, however you wanted your... battlefield... to appear to you. But it's just blown-out concrete and dust." He laughed. "No wonder people hated us. We didn't even have the decency to invade their homes seeing what they were."

Sherlock stared at him, watched him swallow and collect his thoughts. He furrowed his brow, took a breath, and looked up, out, firming his jaw.

"It's really powerful to rely on your own hands to do something like that. Knowing you have it in you. I was scared--fucking scared, at first, I mean, I might kill someone because I'm fucking around in my own existential crisis--but it was so powerful." He was silent for a long time. "If I'd used my headset, and finished seconds earlier, I wouldn't have been shot, you know. How's that for the universe giving you a sign?" He laughed quietly. "Just use the tools you're given, John, and leave your ego out of it. No more of this hippie naturalism. I don't know. Bloody weird, isn't it? I should stop running my mouth off." The man offered his hand to Sherlock. "Name's John Watson, by the way."

Sherlock took his hand. It was heavily-calloused, firm. "Sherlock Holmes."

Watson narrowed his eyes for a moment, cocked his head, trying to recall something. Sherlock sighed.

"Do you ever tune in to the news feed? That's probably been where you've heard my name."

"I haven't lately, but sometimes you can't avoid all the noise, out and about."

"What sort of gun do you have, Dr. Watson?"

Watson seemed taken aback for a moment. His hand hovered toward his calf.

"I'm not a cop; I don't care that you're actually carrying."

"How did you... 'John' is fine, by the way."

John drew his gun and discharged the clip, checked the ejection port to ensure it wasn't loaded. It was one of the old British Army SIG Sauer pistols, stripped of the usual features of auto-lock targeting and smart ammo.

"Yeah. Not much, is it? It was my great-granddad's service gun. I know it's stupid and nostalgic. It's kind of the contemporary equivalent of bringing a knife to a gun fight. So to speak."

"But you're a crack shot, I take it?" asked Sherlock.

"I was the best shot in my regiment."

They sat in silence for a while. Sherlock openly stared at John, brows furrowed, fingers folded over his mouth. John was pretending not to notice, staring off across the shale ocean. The clouds undulated, rippling dark in the city light.

"Do you want to go on an adventure?"

It was sudden, impulsive, but Sherlock knew in the pit of his chest it was the right question. John blinked and jerked back a little. Sherlock stood and dusted off his coat, fluffing it out.

"The welfare of the entire country, and probably the world, is as stake. I'll give you the details later. It's going to be dangerous. Are you interested?"

"I've just met you."

"Is that a problem?"

John stared, mouth slightly agape, brows furrowed. Sherlock huffed impatiently and offered his hand.

"Time is running short. The fate of the world hangs in the balance." He cocked his head a little and smiled crookedly. "The game is on, Dr. Watson. Do you want to be part of it?"

John stared at Sherlock for a long time. A moment suspended, the purple-hazy city sky vaulted above them, and Sherlock felt multiple threads of tension, multiple potentials, cross over it. He was heady with the suddenness of it, with the weight. But it was fated to be asked. It was most intuitive, illogical compulsion he had ever indulged. And he knew it was right.

Finally, John grasped Sherlock's hand.