“Good morning, good morning, it’s great to stay up la-“
With one well-aimed fist John Watson shut up the tinny-sounding alarm. What on Earth had Sarah been thinking, he thought for the thousandth time, as he pondered his ex’s choice in presents. Then he groaned as the pain in his shoulder registered. Wrong arm.
He sat up on the hard bed, bleary-eyed, and wondered why the thing had woken him up in the first place. It was still dark outside, he realised, as he watched the faint flashing of the neons through the blinds of the tiny hotel room. Through the thin single window he could hear the perpetual sound of Coca-Cola adverts and recruitment slogans for the off-worlds. Some things never changed. He didn’t even need to look outside to know that it was still raining.
It slowly dawned on him, the thought that he had been trying to push away for the last few minutes. Off world. Today was the first day of his new life, his new beginning on the Mars colony, and as far as he could see the end of everything that had ever been important to him.
He groaned again as he cursed the bullet that had turned his life upside down in that fraction of a second only a few months ago. He wished he’d never taken the Moon assignment, and not for the first time. But the extra money had sounded good, and besides, it was in the line of duty.
John sighed and stretched as well as his shoulder allowed him. There was no point in looking back. He just wished that Earth military pensions would actually be large enough to enable him to stay on the planet which he had been nearly killed for trying to defend.
He took his wash bag and made his way along the long, barren corridor to the communal shower area. The grey walls and total lack of décor did nothing to lift his spirits. Marks and stains on the paintwork told stories of accident and neglect, and possibly worse. The yellow rings on the ceilings told of months or years of leaking water pipes. He was surprised that even the drinking water shortage with the exorbitant price increases that had followed in its wake had not motivated the owners enough to make repairs. They probably just reduced the shower time, John thought.
With a pang of regret he remembered Sarah’s bright and cheerful flat, seeming now like an oasis of homeliness, like a haven to him. Once again John wondered if he was making a mistake. But here he was, the die had been cast, and he was set on a course that was almost irreversible now. Looking back, or even looking sideways, served no purpose.
There were a few other people around in the shower area, mostly looking as dazed as himself, but he didn’t take a great deal of notice. Keeping his head down he entered one of the shabby-looking cubicles and inserted his token. He tried to enjoy the sixty second shower but as usual the water ran out before he had finished rinsing and it left him feeling dissatisfied.
After getting dressed he considered breakfast. He knew about these hotel breakfasts, he’d been subjected to them before on several occasions. At the same time he didn’t want to begin an off-world flight on an empty stomach, and there really wasn’t much time to go wandering around the space port looking for something more acceptable. Besides, breakfast was included in the hotel-and-flight package and he was painfully aware that he would need all the money he could hold onto when he arrived on Mars. In the end he decided to try his luck and go downstairs.
The lift made its way slowly and smoothly down from the 19th floor. At level five it stopped to let in another guest. John gave him a cursory glance and muttered some kind of greeting, out of politeness more than anything else. Rich boy, he thought, judging by the sharp suit and the fact he could afford to stay on the lower floors. A glimpse through the closing door told him that not everyone in the hotel was subjected to battleship grey walls and dank shower rooms; the décor was lush, extravagant almost, and the carpet looked more comfortable than John’s bed had been.
The man met his eyes and gave him a curt nod, looking him over briefly before returning his attention to the small communicator he was holding. John couldn’t escape the feeling that he had just been evaluated and dismissed as irrelevant. There was something about the man’s clear blue eyes, he thought, that was entirely unsettling. Something altogether too perceptive.
He found himself staring at the guy. He had a strangely angular face, slightly slanted eyes and a tall thin frame. Combined with the expensive suit and the thoughtless untidiness of his mop of dark hair he looked outlandish, peculiar. Everything but the hair and the eyes said city banker, or stock trader, but John was almost sure that he wasn’t. He checked himself. Christ, what am I doing. For all he knew the man was secret police, or worse, replicant.
He’d heard the rumours like everyone else, or course. How the new series of Nexus models was nearly indistinguishable from humans. How some of them were living undercover on Earth, illegal or not. He turned his gaze away and looked up at the lift’s floor indicator lights instead, now settling on ground floor.
When the lift stopped the man gave John an amused look before politely allowing him out first. John didn’t meet his eyes, suddenly embarrassed, and made his way to the breakfast room with far more speed than was strictly necessary.
Breakfast was everything he had feared it would be. True, the cook didn’t have a great deal to work with if all that was available was reconstituted protein products, but even so the sausages were some of the worst he had ever tasted. And he’d been in the military. He resolved to eat it anyway.
Outside the world was still in darkness, and rain. It didn’t stop the usual bustle of the streets coming past the window, even this early in the morning. Everyone John saw rushing past looked hurried, pre-occupied, and sodden. It wasn’t an appealing view, and after a while John turned away and looked at the interior of the restaurant instead.
The breakfast room itself at least was tidy, although that was all that could be said in its favour. Another anonymous mess hall, much the same as the army ones, not much different from the dining hall in the military hospital. The only difference was the thin sound of piped music that filled the air in this one, and the pretence at luxury that was conveyed by the plush carpet and the cheap gold-effect fittings around the room. Why anyone would pay money to stay in such a place was a mystery to him.
The man from the lift had installed himself in a corner across the room. The place was otherwise quiet, and although John tried to focus on the disgusting breakfast in front of him his attention kept wandering over to the tall figure.
The stranger’s eyes seemed to be continually glued to his communicator, and he seemed to be in the middle of a frantically typed conversation with somebody. At least he won’t notice me watching him, John thought, as he tried to drink the lukewarm dishwater that the place served as coffee. He found the guy intriguing. His facial expressions continually changed as he typed. Most of the emotions rolling across his face were negative; various shades of disdain and anger, occasionally outright contempt. It was funny to actually see him roll his eyes at the device when an apparently particularly offensive reply arrived.
He looked at the man again. He wasn’t having any food, so John concluded that he couldn’t be going off world. Nobody with any sense would attempt space travel on an empty stomach. He was drinking the coffee though, and John was surprised to see that he actually seemed to be enjoying it. No taste buds, John concluded. Maybe he was a replicant after all.
Suddenly, the man kicked back his chair and jumped up. John startled from the unexpected movement and nearly dropped his cutlery. To his surprise the stranger walked straight over to his table.
“Time to go, Doctor. You don’t want to miss your flight.”
“Wha-,” John managed, but the tall man had gone, out of the door of the restaurant. John looked at his watch and jumped. He’d been right. He had no idea how it had suddenly got to 6:30, but if he didn’t hurry he would be too late. He quickly grabbed his bag and ran outside into the rain.
He managed to catch the space port shuttle, but only just. Thankfully it would only take a few minutes if it didn’t encounter any delays, and the traffic was still relatively light this early in the day. The shuttle was crowded though, and John just managed to squeeze in as the thing took off ponderously through the morning rain. His nostrils filled with the smell of rain-soaked clothes, fuel, many people’s personal scents, and other unnamed but more unpleasant things. He pushed the memories of the military convoys to the back of his mind, held onto his bag and stared out of the window, trying not to look down.
John found his thoughts wandering to the stranger who had ensured he’d actually get to the space port in time. He couldn’t work out how the man had known he was a doctor, or how he had figured that he was even travelling, let alone on which ship. He guessed he’d never find out, but still he was thankful. He really didn’t savour the idea of having to explain to Sarah that he’d missed the flight, and God only knew how he would have afforded another ticket to Mars. It was kind enough already of her to have helped him out this once, considering he’d probably never see her again.
The rain had turned into a steady drizzle when the shuttle pulled into the space port and settled on the landing pad as ponderously as it had taken off. John tried to hold his own against the push and shove of the passengers getting off, but he couldn’t avoid his shoulder getting jarred as a particularly abrasive man pushed his way past him, knocking him with the backpack he was carrying as he did so.
John grunted, wondering whether the guy was carrying bricks, and steeled himself against the pain. With a pained expression he set off towards the check-in point, wondering where he put his pain killers, and whether there was enough time to take some. In the end he decided to keep going and sort himself out on the flight.
Thankfully the check-in went smoothly and he didn’t get searched. There’s always a first time for everything, he thought as he made his way to the gate. The space port was huge, small trolleys dashing here and there carrying the more moneyed passengers to their crafts, travellators along the endless corridors for the less fortunate. Most of the latter were broken, leaving John to trudge his way to the gate. By the time he got there he was exhausted and his shoulder was throbbing.
The ship was already boarding when he arrived, but he was glad to see he wasn’t the last to get there. John looked at his ticket as he entered the dimly lit ship. Seat 359B for takeoff. It was right at the back of the craft, of course. He resigned himself to the cramped walk up the right-hand aisle and got going. The ship was already crowded with more people boarding still, and it promised to be a claustrophobic experience. The stifling heat inside the craft did nothing to help and neither did the smell that accompanied it.
Thankfully his hand luggage wasn’t very big, most of his sparse belongings having been forwarded a couple of weeks ago on a slow cargo ship, and he managed to move without bumping into too many of his fellow passengers. He slowly made his way up, mumbling apologies as he went.
When he got to row 359 he stopped dead. Seat 359A, the window seat, was already occupied and he recognised the passenger. The tall man from the hotel. He looked like he had been there forever.
For a long moment, John didn’t know what to say. The man was looking out of the window, seemingly far away in thought. John’s seat was taken up by a briefcase, a pile of papers and an empty coffee cup, with what looked like a folded-up rug underneath it all.
He shifted uncomfortably, not wishing for a confrontation with someone he was going to share a seat with for four days, and cleared his throat.
“Ehm. Excuse me.”
There was no reaction from the guy. John was getting more and more uncomfortable. He tried again.
“Ehm. Excuse me. Could you maybe move your things?”
Now the man looked up, giving him a vaguely disturbed look. “Oh.”
He didn’t seem to recognise John, but quickly cleared his belongings off the chair and put them underneath his seat. John realised it wasn’t a rug but a very large coat that was at the bottom of the pile as the man moved it into one of the overhead lockers. The stranger sat back down and watched as John put his hand luggage away. John winced a bit as he lifted the bag above his head, his shoulder reminding him that he should take better care of himself. When he took his seat his neighbour turned back to the window.
“Europa or Moon?”
For a moment John didn’t recognise it as a question.
“Which was it,” the man repeated, now looking at John, “Europa or Moon?”
“Moon,” John said, confused. “How did you…?”
The man smiled, and looked out of the window again. John thought of pressing the point, but he felt unsure. Besides, he needed to let Sarah know that he had got onto the ship before they weren’t allowed to use their phones anymore.
He took the vid phone out of his bag and brought up Sarah’s number. As he did so, the man next to him turned back to watch him. John hesitated a moment, then thought better of it. He really didn’t want to be observed making what would probably have been his last face-to-face call with Sarah. He’d seen the cost of interplanetary calls, and had already realised that they would have to be saved for very special occasions indeed.
He sent her a text instead. Before he put the phone away again he looked at it, turning it over a few times in his hands. Harry’s parting gift. Extravagant, beautiful, impractical, and second-hand. A bit like the giver, he thought cynically and put the thing in his pocket. The man next to him returned to staring out of the window.
John looked around the craft, taking stock of the place he was going to call home for four days. The seat he was in was comfortable enough, although there wasn’t very much leg room. It was OK for him since he didn’t have overly long legs, but he wondered how his neighbour was going to fare with those long limbs. John tried to recline the seat to see how far back it would go, and was disappointed but not surprised to find that it went back by thirty degrees or so and then stopped. Sleep would have to be upright. It wasn’t as if he hadn’t slept in worse conditions, although he worried how his shoulder would cope.
The seats in front and behind him were taken by what looked like business travellers. Across the aisle there was a young family with two pre-teen children who he guessed were relocating. He couldn’t imagine anyone travelling with kids in these kinds of conditions for pleasure. The children were already getting bored and John vividly saw the kind of nightmare this flight could easily turn into. He sighed. There was nothing he could do about it.
He turned around and craned his neck to look at the rear end of the ship. It seemed to go on further than he expected, which looked promising. The brochure had made much of the on-board entertainment, and there was a chance that the bar was indeed half decent. It might also mean that his neighbours’ children might not get as bored as he feared.
Having surveyed his limited surroundings, his gaze returned to the man at the window. He was still looking out over the space port, his eyes darting over the space port staff and vehicles as they came and went. He seemed to be completely absorbed in his observations, and John was wondering why he was taking such an intense interest. There wasn’t much he could see in the movement of the uniformed workers and the shabby-looking support vehicles that would interest anyone.
John considered his options for a while, then decided that spending days sitting next to and being observed by an anonymous stranger was not acceptable. He took a deep breath, thinking of something neutral to say.
“You got here very quickly from the hotel,” he settled on.
The man looked at him, his eyes scanning John’s face a moment before answering. “I took a cab.”
“Oh.” The price of air taxis was that far out of John’s range that the option hadn’t even occurred to him. On the other hand, it seemed the guy did actually remember him from this morning. He was still looking at him, as if waiting to see what John would do next. John found his quiet composure just a little unnerving.
“I’m surprised you went for a seat in cattle class, then,” John said, with a grimace. It didn’t make much sense. Nobody in their right mind would book one of these if they could afford not to.
“It was a last-minute booking,” the man replied, looking slightly put out. “All the decent seats had gone.”
That, at least, made some sense. Still feeling pretty awkward, John extended his hand. He thought of himself as a people person, and was beginning to see this man as a bit of a challenge. Since he had nothing to do for the next four days he might as well give it his best shot.
“John,” he said. “John Watson.”
The man shook his hand, giving him a slightly curious look. “Sherlock Holmes.”
It was clear to John that if he wanted to know anything about this Sherlock Holmes, he’d have to draw it out of him. The guy was as forthcoming as a brick wall.
“Are you… Just visiting Mars?”
Lucky bastard, John thought. “Business trip?”
Right, thought John, how was I supposed to know that? For all he knew the guy might just enjoy wearing a suit. The man was still watching him, but didn’t seem about to offer any further information.
“Well. I couldn’t just tell that by looking at you, could I,” John said, but he smiled as he said it. He knew it was a little flippant, but he was getting a bit frustrated with the man, and he wanted to see if he could draw him out.
Sherlock Holmes looked at him for a moment, head slightly tilted back, and then answered, “While I can tell by looking at you that you are a retired army doctor, recently invalided from one of the off-world colonies after receiving a bullet to the left shoulder, and about to settle permanently on Mars for financial reasons. You have a brother who is worried about you, but you won’t go to him for help, possibly because he’s an alcoholic, more likely because he has recently walked out on his wife.”
“You like to think you are making a considerable personal sacrifice leaving Earth and with it your current partner, but still consider emigrating off-world to be the only solution, suggesting that you either have less of an attachment to her than you pretend, or that you feel you have a point to prove. I would favour the latter from the fact that you are a moral man who clearly has a strong sense of duty.”
John stared at him. For a precious few seconds he could think of nothing at all to say. The man was looking at him calmly, waiting for a reaction, assessing the impact of his words. After what seemed like an age, John managed, “What? How…?”
All he got in return was a sly smile as Sherlock Holmes pointed a long hand at the lights above their heads. Seat belt signs, flashing. “We’re going.”
John had just enough time to sort himself our before the ship started to move. He braced himself against the takeoff, unprepared, confused, in no way ‘calm of mind and happy of heart’ as the Interplanetary Travel Co’s brochure advised travellers to be. He wasn’t ready.
John hated space travel. He especially hated takeoff. It made him invariably feel disorientated, dizzy and sick. He tried to sort his thoughts out as the increasing g’s started to register, trying to prepare himself for the crushing weight that he knew would soon be pressing his body flat against the chair. Next to him, Sherlock Holmes relaxed into his seat, closed his eyes and appeared to go off to sleep, looking like some lanky and comfortable feline. John groaned.
It was worse than he remembered. It was definitely a lot worse than the Moon journeys, and he’d thought they were bad at the time. John lay back in his seat, his eyes focusing desperately on the seatbelt sign above him, trying not to pass out. He was struggling to breathe and his vision was becoming blurred as the pressure on his body increased. The throbbing in his shoulder turned into a sharp, continuous pain.
Random images began to flash in front of his eyes. Visions of his parents’ apartment, of Sarah smiling in bed. Harry holding a glass of whisky, giggling drunkenly, spilling half the contents over her shirt. Suddenly he felt as if he was falling, tumbling through the sky, and the image in front of his eyes was of himself plummeting back down to Earth, the clouds coming up to meet him. After that, everything went black.
When he came to it was to the sight of a young and pretty female face looking at him with a worried expression. He smiled vaguely at her, wondering how he got so lucky. Then he looked more closely and recognised the ITC uniform. Space hostess.
“Are you all right, sir?” the girl asked. “You seem to have passed out.”
John sat up a little, trying to look composed. “Yeah, I’m fine. I’m fine. Thank you.”
His head was still spinning and he felt sick. At least the terrible pressure on his body had gone, replaced by a feeling of lightness, and that must mean they had entered space and the artificial gravity had kicked in. Things should improve from here on.
The girl was holding something in front of his face, and he looked at it vaguely. A couple of white pills and a cup of water. “Travel sickness tablets, sir. I suggest you take them.”
He said thank you, and absentmindedly took the pills from her. He looked at them a moment, trying to work out what they were, and then decided that he couldn’t feel much worse even if there were going to be side-effects and swallowed them.
“Do you usually pass out when you travel?”
John couldn’t place the voice a moment, and then realised that it was the man next to him asking the question. He turned around a little, still dazed, and looked at him.
“Mr Holmes. Yes, I mean no. I don’t usually pass out, no.”
“Please, call me Sherlock,” the stranger said. “I apologise if I confused you earlier. My timing might have been better.”
The memories of what had happened just before he passed out came back to John. He suddenly felt irritated, angry. He’d led a clean life, there was no need for anyone to follow him or dig around in his personal history. Who was this guy, anyway?
John cleared his throat. “Yeah. Can I ask why you know all this stuff? Because I’m not used to people digging around in my personal details. I haven’t done anything to warrant it.”
The man smiled at him a moment, in a self-satisfied kind of way. “I haven’t. I simply observed.”
“Really,” was all John could come up with. He simply couldn’t believe that. “How?”
Sherlock Holmes seemed to consider him a moment. “Your haircut, the way you hold yourself, say military. However, you have none of the customary callusing on the hands that come from the regular use of a firearm. Support staff then, but the Caduceus pin on your lapel says doctor, not something menial. Army doctor it is.”
“You are travelling off-world yet you are alone and un-uniformed. Not work, then. Absence of leave to Mars? Unlikely going on the fact you stayed on the cheapest floor of our hotel, booked one of the worst seats on the flight and actually ate the breakfast. That says short of cash, and even the cheap seats on this craft cost a small fortune. So, resettlement it is, but why?”
“You are clearly too young to retire, but the way you move indicates a recent injury to the left shoulder. You are showing a degree of muscle wastage that can only be associated with a considerable time in a low-g environment. Had you been out of our solar system you would have been hospitalised in one of the colonies, but you returned to Earth so the injury occurred somewhere relatively local. Not Mars, its gravitational field is too strong, but one of the smaller off-worlds. Europa and Moon both have similar gravities, and you confirmed Moon yourself.”
John found himself staring at the man, mouth slightly open, wondering if he’d finished. He couldn’t quite believe what he was hearing.
Sherlock Holmes continued. “The recent unpleasantries on the Moon have been well publicised on Earth. I understand the rebels were badly resourced, with access only to simple weapons and home-made explosives. You bear no scarring to the throat or face which would have been nearly unavoidable had you been involved in an explosion, suggesting you were shot, and most likely with a firearm. From the way you move your arm, I’d say the bullet got you about here.”
He reached out and touched John lightly on the shoulder. John winced, not so much because it hurt, but because he got the location exactly right. Before he had a chance to say anything, the man continued his impossible narrative.
“So, invalided on an army pension, not enough of an income to stay on Earth in any kind of comfort. Now most people would rely on family or friends at this point. Give me your phone.”
John blinked, and without conscious thought took out his phone and passed it over. It was only when he saw it in the hands of the other man that he wondered what on Earth he was doing. He was mesmerising, this Holmes, there was no other word for it. And John was spellbound.
Sherlock Holmes turned the phone over in his hands a few times, studying it. “To Harry Watson, from Clara. Three kisses.” He pointed out the engraving on the back.
“It’s a new phone, the model less than six months old. The engraving and the fact it is covered in scratches says it has had a previous owner who didn’t look after it very well. You’re on an Army pension relocating off-world, you wouldn’t treat your one luxury possession like that. So, Harry Watson. Clearly a family member, but not your father. This is a young man’s gadget. It could be a cousin, but you are leaving Earth because you are unable to find cheap accommodation, so it’s unlikely you have an extended family. Brother it is.”
“Now then, who’s Clara? Three kisses says it’s a romantic attachment, expense of the phone says wife, not girlfriend. The fact he is just giving it away means it’s a marriage in trouble. If she had left him, he would have kept it – sentiment, people do. But he gave it to you, he wanted to get rid of it. He left her. He wants you to stay in touch, yet you won’t go to him for financial help. That means you have a problem with him. Maybe you liked his wife, maybe you don’t like his drinking.”
At this, John cut in. “How can you possibly know about the drinking?”
Sherlock Holmes smiled. “It’s easy if you know where to look.”
He showed John the phone’s charge point. “Tiny scuff marks all around. He goes to charge it each night, but his hands are shaking. You never see a sober man’s phone with those marks, never see a drunk’s without it.”
John stared at him, taking back his phone. “You said I was leaving Earth to prove some point.”
“You have family who would be prepared to help you out – the phone shows that much. From the text you sent it seems you also have a partner that you care a great deal about. Yet you won’t stay on Earth and accept charity. That either means you don’t care as much about her as you make out, which would make you a very good liar, or you simply want to prove that you can stand on your own two feet. Given that you accepted the Moon assignment in the first place, which says you have a strong sense of duty, I’d go with the latter.”
With his deduction finished, the man turned back to the window, leaving John to stew for a moment.
“You read my text. Off my phone.”
Apparently this did not warrant a reply, because Sherlock Holmes just looked briefly at John, raised an eyebrow and returned his gaze to the window.
“How did you even know I was travelling? You only saw me for a minute or so in the lift this morning.”
“Staying in that god-awful hotel last night and coming to breakfast that early with a bag that was obviously hand luggage could only mean you were flying out this morning. Given the time you were at breakfast the only flight that matches is this Mars shuttle.”
John gave a chuckle. “That’s incredible.”
At that, Sherlock Holmes turned back to him sharply. “Do you really mean that?” He looked genuinely surprised.
“Of course I did. It was extraordinary. Absolutely extraordinary.” John was aware he was gushing, but he was too impressed to care.
“That’s not what people usually say,” Sherlock said, sounding slightly scathing.
John was taken aback a little. “What do people usually say?”
“Piss off,” Sherlock said, with a sardonic smile. John couldn’t help it, he giggled. Sherlock’s smile broadened into a grin as he looked at John, then turned back to the window.
Maybe the trip won’t be so bad after all, John thought, looking at him. He got the feeling that whatever this journey turned out to be, it wasn’t going to be boring.