When Sherlock jacks out, it’s long past midnight, and John has been telling himself he’s going to bed in ten minutes for the last hour. He’s been telling himself he’ll go and get something to eat to calm his rumbling stomach for longer than that, but he hasn’t moved from his chair.
He hates himself for doing this, sometimes. For sitting up, as good as alone, late into the night, watching the lights of the Ono-Sendai display flicker across the hollows of Sherlock’s face, reflected in the blank slits of his eyes, while his hands fly over the deck and his mouth works around words half-formed, spoken to people who aren’t even in the room with them. People in that same non-place Sherlock inhabits more often than not, these days—inside his head, and so far away from John he might as well be in high orbit.
John watches wanting, every minute, to go over there and pull the dermatrodes off Sherlock’s forehead, push his fingertips against Sherlock’s temples instead and feel the low warm thrum of a pulse, the shift of thin skin as his eyelids flutter at the transition from cyberspace back into flesh. John’s a medic. He knows bodies—human, augmented-human, desperate-not-to-be-human—inside out. Still, sometimes, he catches himself envisioning the veins in Sherlock’s wrists as blue streams of data, throbbing with electricity and light instead of blood; imagining, though he has the memories (small, and worn with long handling) to prove it nonsense, that Sherlock would be cold to the touch, and buzz slightly. The joints in his hands itch with the impulse to prove to himself—to both of them—that it isn’t true.
He never does.
Someone has to keep an eye on Sherlock, he reasons to himself, when he’s sick of the silence and sick of whatever part of his stupid brain won’t let him leave. It’s just that John doesn’t know how much good he can do when Sherlock doesn’t even want to be in the same world as him anymore.
Sherlock jerks upright in a snap of irritation, ripping off the trodes and flinging them halfway across the living-room as he surfaces. His eyes flash annoyance—then they lose their focus momentarily, and he flops back down in his chair.
“Alright?” John asks, after a minute.
Sherlock scowls. “A complete waste of my time. I think.” He’s on his feet again, then, peering through the darkness, scanning the carpet for the trodes he’s just thrown away. “If I could just get one look at the data without Anderson breathing down my virtual neck—Lestrade ought to revoke his clearance. He’s a liability.” He makes a disgusted face. “Honestly, it’s as bad as being in the same room as him. Unbearable. John, help me look, will you?”
“Not a chance.” Sherlock is slow, by his standards, still readjusting, and John gets there first, snatching up the trodes and tucking them in his arse pocket before Sherlock can grab them out of his hand. “You’ve been in there four hours. Food.”
“Angelo’s will be shut by now.”
“So we’ll just have to go elsewhere, won’t we? There’s got to be somewhere else nearby where you haven’t managed to offend the owner by deducing his financial problems from the state of the wallpaper or—”
Sherlock opens his mouth, about to retort, and then freezes, gaze fixed on the empty air an inch or so above John’s head.
“Wallpaper.” He stares off into space a millisecond longer, then smiles widely. “Of course. John, you’re a godsend.” He waves an arm vaguely in John’s direction—where six months ago he might have clasped John’s hand or clapped him on the shoulder; he used to invade personal space without so much as an ‘excuse me’, once—and John tries to ignore the cold prickle of disappointment beneath his skin. Shading closer and closer to resignation, these days, in any case. He doesn’t feel much like a godsend.
He shouldn’t be disappointed. He knows that. It’s not as if they were ever the kind of friends who went in for excessive hugging or matey roughhousing. Sherlock doesn’t drink, and the kinds of stimulants he goes in for are the ones that pinpoint awareness and jack up reflexes to a hair-trigger, not the love-and-comradeship-for-all-mankind variety. John may not be the reserved type, but he doesn’t go in for showy demonstrations of affection, either: hugs are strictly for family gatherings, pissups, and people you haven’t seen in the flesh in at least three months. And besides that, being a bit weird about touch is normal, for cowboys. Okay, that’s not precisely what Sherlock is—other side of the law, such as it is, for one thing—but it’s as close a description as anything. Spend long enough in the matrix, and you can end up forgetting you’ve got a body. Psych isn’t John’s area, but you see it everywhere. It was probably only a matter of time before Sherlock went that way, too.
Now, Sherlock has disappeared into the hallway. He’s on the phone.
“Of course there was no break in the ice,” he’s saying, with a trace of irritation in his voice. “It isn’t their ice.” He sighs, shoves a hand through his hair so it sticks up mad-professor style and doesn’t bother to smooth it back down. “Just get into the bank headquarters. Their console men are already dead, but that should be all the proof you need.”
He hangs up and drifts back into the living room, frowning slightly, eyes narrowed on some distant, invisible point.
“Oi,” John says. “Knock knock, anyone home?”
“This isn’t a simple data theft,” Sherlock says, mostly to himself. “Too neat. It’s perfect.”
“Could it not just be, I don’t know, a very good theft?”
A minute, dismissive headshake. “An ordinary thief might’ve patched up the damage to the ice to cover their traces, if they were very good; more likely, they’d just have cut and run. A wholesale substitution like that takes work. This wasn’t about taking the financial data and getting out of there. Someone’s showing off. Why?” Sherlock presses steepled fingers to his lips, takes a step toward the sofa, ready to flop down into the permanent indent his bony arse has left in the worn-out temperfoam.
John gets right in his way. “Oh no you don’t. Dinner, remember?” He glances over at the time display blinking on the simstim unit. “Or breakfast, whatever you want to call it.”
Sherlock’s brow furrows in annoyance. “I need to think about this.”
“You can think while you eat. I won’t even distract you with boring everyday things like conversation.”
“Don’t make promises you can’t keep.”
“You know, most people don’t sulk about having to talk to their flatmates occasionally.”
A glance, half puzzlement, half annoyance. “I talk to you all the time.”
John stares. “You—” Then he breaks off. The inevitable argument will only help Sherlock to stall. One piece of ridiculous behaviour at a time. “Oh, you know what, never mind.” He grabs his jacket off the back of the door. “Come on. You’ve been running on nothing but those bloody octagons for two days now, and you’ll be no use to anybody if you make yourself ill. Man cannot live by uppers alone.” Sherlock may not like having to eat—having to remember he’s made of anything so unreliable as flesh and blood—but he likes being incapacitated by physical weakness even less. “Anyway, there’s fuck all you can do until Lestrade gets back in touch. You don’t even know if you were right about the console men.”
“I’m always right,” Sherlock retorts, rolling his eyes, but he gets his coat.
* * *
They end up in one of those cheapo late-night Japanese places, heaving even at this time with zaibatsumen off the plane from Narita and teenage club rats waiting for the greasy spoons to open for breakfast, staving off jet-lag and comedowns with greasy ramen and endless cups of coffee and pills of varying legality. Stuffed into a corner booth between sweating conveyor-belt sushi and a window display flashing international headlines, the hubbub rendering individual sounds unrecognisable, it’s almost as good as privacy. From John’s point of view, anyway; Sherlock glares at the newsscreen, narrows his eyes at the snick-snick of the razorgirls in the booth behind them comparing black-clinic fingernail-jobs. You’ll thank me when you don’t pass out at the deck later, John tries to convey with his eyebrows, but he sticks to his word and stays quiet.
He even manages to keep it up for a whole twenty minutes.
John’s finished his noodles and most of the overpriced piss masquerading as lager he ordered to go with them. Sherlock pushes rice and katsu sauce around in his bowl and glowers at everything: the backs of the customers jostling around the till; the slivers of vat-grown sashimi that trundle past them on plastic plates, fleshy and drooping beneath the counter lights. His expression grows more and more thunderous and his bites of food less and less frequent, and eventually John’s had enough of watching him scowl.
“So, what actually happened, then?” he asks, keeping his tone deliberately light and conversational.
Sherlock gives him a frankly evil look.
John ignores it. He’s been on the receiving end of worse. “Just thought it might help if you went over it again,” he goes on, with a small shrug. “Out loud, I mean. To me.”
You know, like you used to, he doesn’t add. Wouldn’t help, probably.
Not that John’s under any illusions. He knows he’s not being a hundred per cent altruistic, here. Yes, he’s genuinely concerned for Sherlock—with the drugs and the endless hours of work and the resentment he displays toward physical necessities, any sane person would be—but equally, he misses it. Being part of the action. Running through the streets side-by-side with him, or, at least, seeing the letters ‘SH’ blink up in the corner of his vision as Sherlock accessed his sensorium via the deck. John’s military rig is basic, but it has a two-way link that would let them trade cheerful insults as they worked without needing to be in the same room. Sometimes, Sherlock’s voice would hiss, stop thinking, right inside his head, which John thought was a bloody cheek. But other times his own amazement would expand past the bounds of matey banter into amazing, he’d find himself whispering it aloud in the street, and the answering to an idiot, probably would seem to bear a different quality, somehow, a similar overflowing. A gratitude, even. He was sure that at least a little of Sherlock’s showing-off was for his benefit. The way he’d interpret London, with all its tangled streets and accumulated information, its piled-up centuries of junk, easy as reading data in the matrix. As if there was another city out there, shimmering beneath the one you could see with the naked eye (army-issue Zeiss-Ikon or otherwise), an augmented reality to which only Sherlock had access, but he’d deign to lend John his special glasses every now and again.
John doesn’t see much of it, these days. Not since—since the Adler business, if he had to put a date on it, though he’s pretty sure the germ of it was there in some form or another all along. But before that he’d just assumed it was a cowboy thing, or an ego thing. Now, the way Sherlock locks himself away in the matrix, or in his own head, and refuses to say why—well, sometimes it seems like hiding.
Sherlock would probably call him an idiot for thinking that. If it even occurred to him to wonder what John’s thinking.
“It makes no sense,” Sherlock says at last, interrupting his reverie, and John blinks and pauses with his beer halfway to his mouth. “Why replace the bank’s ice with their own? Why leave a system in place to protect something that had already been stolen?”
“Industrial sabotage? A virus destroying the data cores? Getting rid of the bank’s console men would slow the response down, give it time to do its dirty work.”
Sherlock dismisses the suggestion with a wave of his chopsticks. “Any half-decent finance institution has strategies in place to deal with that kind of eventuality. They’ll already have transferred their files. Any kind of sabotage would have had to take place immediately after the theft; the delay would be fatal. And so far, nothing.”
John shrugs. “Don’t know, then. Sorry.”
Sherlock’s expression is distant again. John finishes his drink in silence.
* * *
Halfway home John notices a quick black shadow and a silvery gleam down a side-street. Notices it again five minutes later. This time, he turns his head quickly enough to get a glimpse. It’s a woman, pale-faced, mirrored implants covering her eyes. Her suit—mimetic polycarbon, military-grade—absorbs the flicker of neon on brickwork and the darkness of the alley, and she melts into the gloom quicker than blinking.
“One of Mycroft’s,” Sherlock says, without turning his head, at the same moment John says, “We’re being followed.”
“Jesus. Can’t he just pick up the phone?”
“If current rumours are to be believed, then quite possibly not.” Sherlock shoves his hands deep into his coat pockets. “Besides, he never passes up an opportunity for needless theatrics.” And he stalks on down the street, long coat flapping out behind him.
John shakes his head. The ghost of a smile tugs at the corners of his mouth, then vanishes. He follows.
* * *
Grey cubic structures, representing financial systems, pulse silently on the transparent grid. The impostor ice sits neatly in among them, betraying itself only to the sharpest of eyes—only to his eyes. The matrix—clear geometry of logic—manipulated with a magician’s skill.
Sherlock would very much like to meet the magician.
The phone was ringing when they got back to the flat. Mrs Hudson asleep downstairs, held gently under by pink derms, hadn’t stirred to answer it. Lestrade.
“Yeah, you were right,” he said. “Question now is, what did they leave in there, and what the hell is it for? Think you could take a look?”
“You’re not—oh, God, you let Anderson try getting in, didn’t you?”
“Yeah, and now Anderson’s in Medical.”
“I’ll tell him you send your best. So, you’ll be in touch?”
He hung up and found John looking at him. (Lines around his eyes deep-etched in the shadow. Concern.) John pursed his lips as if to speak, hesitated. Eventually: “You should go to sleep.” Not much hope in it. He shrugged and headed up to his own room, then. His tread heavy on the stairs.
Sherlock jacked in.
And now the black ice parts for him like water. No need for an icebreaker. Dark planes of data deliquesce at his approach, clustering shadows dance at the edges of consciousness and then—
A shift. He’s inside a construct. A dark room, low ceiling striped with powered-down striplights. Cyberspace decks—basic models, twenty years out-of-date—ranged along windowless walls. A screen covers the far wall. Dark blotches of gum trodden into the carpet, graffiti scored into the edges of desks by artificial nails, acrylic and illegal razor. Immaculate texturework. The whole scene could have been drawn straight from his memory.
No doubt about it, then. This is for him.
It’s the computer lab in a school. The school he attended, to be precise.
Glance downwards. Human body, apparently solid, not the bare dusting of pixels that serves as his representation in the matrix. The simulation’s doing a little of the work; fooled by the hyperrealism of the construct, his mind does the rest, filling in what it expects to see. He crosses the room, sits at the corner table he used to favour. Runs simulated fingers across a simulated pattern of wear on a simulated keyboard. Every detail present and correct. Someone’s done their research.
But the room remains empty and silent. No message is forthcoming—unless it is, perhaps, I know who you are. Rather a lot of trouble to go to for that.
He contemplates briefly. Rolls his eyes at the redundancy of the action—an absurd charade, pretending to access a matrix within a matrix—and reaches for the trodes.
Students used to leave messages for one another on startup. (The messaging system designed for the use of educators, but easily hacked.) Holmes is a twat was a frequent one.
Sure enough, there it is:
Ready to play?
His (‘his’) fingers skitter across the keypad in annoyance. You don’t seem to be much of a gamesmaster.
Aw, come on. Give me another chance? :-)
To do what?
A moment passes. Then:
He jacks out of the school system, blinks back to (simulated) reality. There’s someone sitting at the next desk; someone who wasn’t there before. Slumped in the swivel chair, head lolling to the right, eyes sightless. Definitely, definitely dead.
* * *
“Carl Powers,” Sherlock announces, and John looks up from his cuppa through bleary eyes.
“What? Who? Wait, is that the suspect? You’ve found him already?”
Sherlock summarily ignores John’s questions, and helps himself to the last of the coffee. There are two bright-blue derms stuck on the underside of his wrist; he obviously hasn’t been to bed, but that’s no surprise.
“Get dressed,” he says, instead of explaining. “I need you to go to school.”
Sprawl Trilogy Terms
The matrix - Cyberspace, basically. Gibson's writing in the mid-80's, so this is a pretty early conception of how cyberspace might look, and rather than consisting of websites etc., it's an abstract representation of data, based on a grid, with the data systems of various companies, institutions, etc. represented by geometric shapes.
Deck or console - Computer used to access the matrix. More immersive than a modern-day PC; being in the matrix is like being in a VR simulation rather than accessing a website.
Trodes (short for 'dermatrodes') - Part of the console, stuck to the forehead when the user is accessing the matrix.
To jack in/out - To access or leave the matrix.
Console man/console jockey - Someone who works in/with the matrix for a living.
Cowboy - As above, but more specifically refers to hackers, such as the characters Case in Neuromancer and Jaylene Slide in Count Zero.
Ice or ICE ('intrusion countermeasure electronics') - Security software used against hackers. 'Black ice' is potentially lethal.
Icebreaker - A programme used to get through security.
Zaibatsu/zaibatsumen - Massive Japanese corporations/their employees.
Razorgirls - Young women who've had their bodies modified with retractable razorblades that slide beneath their fingernails. The character Molly Millions from Neuromancer is one of these.
Octagons - Pills; an unspecified variety of illegal stimulant.
“Are you planning on telling me what’s going on here, then?”
Your knowing what’s going on would be entirely superfluous to requirements. Besides, not knowing doesn’t seem to impede your functioning the rest of the time.
John rolls his eyes. “You know, you’re not actually obliged to be more of a prick than normal just because I’m out of hitting distance,” he points out, and gets a derisive snort in response.
God, though. He’s missed this. Even the parts that involve getting remotely insulted, which probably goes to show that there’s something wrong with him. Well, okay, there’s plenty wrong with him, he knows that—but it doesn’t seem to matter so much at times like this. For Sherlock, a case is a puzzle to occupy his brain; for John, it’s a chance to feel not-quite-useless for a couple of hours. He might not go out of his mind with boredom without them the way Sherlock does (or did, at least; these days, his fits of restlessness are quieter, screened by electronic walls) but he lives for the battlefield just the same.
And today, the case isn’t all that’s piqued his interest. Scraps of information about Sherlock’s life before they met are hard to come by, and most of the time John’s sense of decency keeps him from prying. One of them has got to have boundaries, after all. But the terse confirmation that this isn’t just any school, that it’s the one Sherlock went to—the one he got kicked out of aged sixteen—has John curious. He blows on his watery coffee and eyes the security gate across the street as though it might tell him something if he looks at it hard enough. Sherlock could probably tell him the precise number of students, who their parents are, and how much money they make, plus which of the mothers is having it off with the head, but, predictably, all John sees is a gate.
The time display in the lower-right corner of his vision reads 10:02. Eight minutes to kill before breaktime comes and the kids spill out into the street. He wets his lips before speaking.
“So,” he says, “What’d you get expelled for?”
A pause, and for a moment John doesn’t think he’s going to get a reply. Then: Breaking through security and using the school system to access the matrix proper.
John chuckles quietly. “Thought it might’ve been something like that.”
Then hacking into the records of a governmental office.
“Christ.” John shakes his head. “You’ve always been trouble, then.”
They weren’t important records.
“Still. Bloody hell. No wonder they couldn’t cope with you.”
The reasons for my expulsion were entirely spurious, Sherlock informs him, and John smirks, imagining his indignant expression and then imagining how much more indignant he must’ve looked at sixteen. They should have thanked me for highlighting the weaknesses in their security protocols. A pause. Mummy was furious, however.
Then, a thought occurs to him. “You know,” he says, “that’s the first time I’ve ever heard you mention your parents.” The shadowy figure of Mycroft—John’s spoken to him via screens but never in person, so he doesn’t feel like they’ve properly met; he’s old-fashioned like that, or just unaccustomed to the habits of the powerful—has always seemed to play the parental role alongside that of irritating older sibling.
Focus on the task at hand, John. Time to get to work.
The letters ‘SH’, hitherto hovering in the bottom-left corner of John’s line of sight, blink out.
The gate opens, and a mass of teenagers pours out. They’re in uniform—old-fashioned—chattering and laughing. A significant portion of the mass makes for the fast-food stand where John bought his coffee, the kids shouldering past him without a second glance. A small knot gathers just around the corner, though, out of sight from the school gate. Sixth-formers, at a guess. They lounge against the wall, muttering to each other as they exchange disks and derms and fags.
John studies them for a long moment, picking out the signs Sherlock told him to watch out for. The hair shaved or tucked back behind ears to display garishly-coloured inserts, the bright blues and yellows of stimulant derms stuck on beneath shirt-sleeves, the bad posture indicating hours longer spent hunched over a deck than strictly necessary for schoolwork. Most of them gather in a sort of conspiratorial cluster, though one kid—short and skinny, sucking nervously at his cigarette—stands apart, frowning to himself and eyeing the rest of the group in occasional flickering glances, as though he’s listening to the conversation but doesn’t quite have the nerve to break into it himself.
That, in the end, is what does it, makes John fix on this particular kid. The sense that he’s not certain he belongs there, the vulnerability, the darting intensity of his gaze. A bit unsure of himself; a bit more likely to do something reckless to prove his worth.
John’s not exactly a stranger to that sort of feeling. He was a teenager, too, once.
He catches the kid’s eye as he makes his way over, conscious of movement in the huddle at the corner, curious eyes darting in his direction. He nods, ignoring it. “Alright?”
The kid shrugs, flicks ash onto the pavement. After a moment, he looks sideways at John. Suspicious, but curious. Good.
“You look as if you know how to use a deck.”
“Yeah. So?” Affected overtones of mockney and Sprawl, but the posh is showing through with his nerves. Definitely a wannabe-cowboy.
Another sideways look. “Not bad. Who’s asking?”
“Nobody you need to know about.” John jerks his head in the direction of the school building. “Internal security here. Reckon you could take it down for ten minutes or so?”
The kid narrows his eyes. “What are you, security? Copper?”
John laughs softly. “Do I look like one?” He waits for the kid to look him over—the shabby beige jacket, the fact that he’s a good two inches short of the minimum height requirement for most security firms—and, after missing just about everything that might indicate actual danger (oh, look, he doesn’t even need the rig to hear Sherlock talking in his head), decide he’s harmless. John slips his right hand into his jacket pocket and slips the disk he’s carrying halfway out.
The kid’s eyes light on it straight away. “What’s that?”
“Yours, if you can get the systems down at midday and keep them disabled a little while.”
“Icebreaker?” The kid’s head is cocked to one side now, and his expression’s hungry. He casts a little glance over his shoulder to be sure that his mates are getting this.
John nods, shortly. “Experimental. If you can use it, you can keep it.”
“Where’d it come from? Corporate?”
John shrugs. “It’s not my job to know that sort of stuff,” he says, which is true enough. He has no idea where, or precisely how illegally, Sherlock procured the software, and he definitely has no desire to find out.
Not that this is the first, or even the twenty-first, illegal thing Sherlock has talked him into doing during a case, of course. And really, given the dubious-at-best status of his day job, it’s not as though John’s got much room to complain about any of that. Black clinics can be dodgy as fuck. The first few months after discharge, before he had any kind of reputation, he pulled casual shifts in the lower-stratum Chiba clinics—not the ones you think of when you think of Chiba, the pricey places producing high-end custom work, but the real dregs—and some days, he felt honestly sick with disgust at himself just for being there. He didn’t even take every job he was offered; it helped him preserve some vague semblance of self-respect, even if he knew the client would just move on a couple of doors down the street, to a surgeon who wouldn’t ask any questions. The London ones, for the most part, are the same. Sarah’s a rare proprietor who shares his sense of responsibility.
He was lucky, to get the job with her. There aren’t exactly many other employment options for an ex-military (and ex-government military at that, which makes him as good as a dangerous Bolshevik in the eyes of the corporate extraction boys) doctor with bargain-basement augmentations and a leg that threatens to buckle under him with phantom pain whenever he goes too long without being shot at. No corporation is going to headhunt him to take care of their top research brains, that’s for sure. And besides that, there are—well, all the things John can’t quite make himself see eye-to-eye with, no matter how many times he reminds himself that they’re just standard business practices, that the companies have to adopt them to compete. The poison sacs; the organ-failure timebombs employed to keep high-level personnel tethered to their companies. He doesn’t think he could be a part of all that. Yes, the military uses similar tactics to prevent desertion, but at least soldiers who go AWOL just get marked, not killed. And you know what you’re letting yourself in for, when you join up; you don’t regain consciousness in an unfamiliar med-bay with some grinning suit on a monitor informing you, ‘Hi, you work for us now! Welcome to the company, and by the way, if you don’t check in with our doctors on a regular basis, you can say sayonara to your kidneys.’
John knows it’s all just degrees of the same thing, really. He knows you tell yourself whatever you need to believe to live with your decisions. He sticks with his morals, such as they are, anyway.
The kid is looking at him, biting his lip.
“Well?” John asks him. “Are you in, or do I need to look else—”
“I’m in,” the kid says, quickly. He holds out his hand for the icebreaker.
“Oh, no. After you’ve done the job.” John nods in the direction of the fast food (and—like all those places—under-the-counter cigarettes and software) stand. “Ask Speedy.”
The kid looks doubtful, and John reaches into his other pocket for an unmarked currency card of whose provenance he’s also gladly ignorant.
He holds it out. “Deposit,” he says. “Two hundred New Euro.”
The kid nods again, tucks the card into his pocket, and then darts in the direction of the little group on the corner, lighting up another fag and no doubt itching to boast grandly about the job he’s just been offered, and how that must mean he’s the best console man in the whole school.
He just shrugs and shakes his head importantly when they press him, though. Apparently he’s not daft enough to start boasting before he pulls off a job. Good—though it wouldn’t matter too much if he did. The kid won’t get more than a slap on the wrist even if he is found out; it’s only an internal system. It was breaking into the matrix, where corporate systems lie, that got Sherlock booted out. This is the sort of thing teenage wannabe-cowboys do all the time; kids are always ahead of the technological curve, and even a school tutoring the offspring of the wealthy, like this one, doesn’t have the money to get cutting-edge systems installed. Nobody’s likely to bat an eyelid.
And just in case questions do get asked, Sherlock’s set in motion a dozen rumours that might explain a stranger’s wanting to shut down the security systems of a private school—a teenage elopement, a staff member running a sideline in illegal software, and a journalist looking for dirt on an ex-pupil among them—and ensured scraps of digital correlation for the majority. Surveillance cameras will be shut down with the security systems, and nobody’s likely to notice an unassuming, beige little man with none of the trademark modifications of the modern criminal in the ensuing confusion. They’ll be more interested in finding the prankster—whose boasting rights ought to propel him right to the top of the popularity tree for at least a couple of months—and in avoiding the interference of bureaucracy as best they can.
In any case, he and Sherlock are (mostly) legitimate operators, working alongside the police—and where their activities aren’t strictly legal, it’s the kind of not-strictly-legal to which London mostly turns a blind eye. The chances of this getting traced back to them are slim to none. As long as John manages to grab the Powers file without incident, anyway. He hopes Sherlock knows what he’s doing. (Okay, probably a given.) He hopes the kid knows what he’s doing. He hopes he knows what he’s doing.
* * *
The kid’s as good as his word. At twelve precisely, ‘SH’ blinks up in the corner of John’s vision. He’s made himself scarce for the hour-and-a-half after depositing the icebreaker with Speedy, and now he’s browsing the hardware in a shop on the other side of the road, trying his best to look as though he knows what he’s looking at. Even if he did, the prices in this neighbourhood are astronomical—but nobody gives him a second glance. Places like this sell to rich corporate types and underground operators who’ve managed to get lucky alike; there’s no such thing as a typical customer.
Security’s starting to fail, Sherlock’s voice informs him. Get ready.
It’s a big school. John passes unnoticed among the crowds, no doubt getting mistaken for a tutor or, at a pinch, a member of maintenance staff. He walks as purposefully as he can, hoping that he looks like he knows where he’s going, and aided—mostly—in the endeavour by Sherlock’s voice inside his head.
The records office is on the second left corridor, but that’s not what you want. Those are the current records; the cores hooked up to the matrix. If what we need was in there, we wouldn’t have had to bother with this charade at all; I could have got them in seconds.
“Yes, thanks,” John mutters under his breath. “Just in case a few hours away from your ego had made me start to forget the sheer size of it.”
You know I detest false modesty.
“You wouldn’t know modesty if it smacked you in the face and then apologised for not hitting hard enough. Where am I going?”
We want archive records; they’ll have kept the disks, probably in filing cabinets. Basement. Next staircase on your right. Look under ‘incident reports’.
He finds the disk easily enough. It’s obvious from the dust that nobody comes down here, but luckily that means nobody’s disturbed anything in years, either. Doesn’t take long, and he’s back out, through a side-door and halfway down the road before he hears an alarm sound inside the school building.
“Alright,” John says. “That was easy enough.” He’s smiling to himself, even though he hasn’t exactly done anything earth-shattering—just walked into a building, nicked a disk, and walked back out again. Perhaps it’s just the feeling of being necessary, for once.
It’s a start, Sherlock admits.
“Right.” John pauses a moment. “So, that Carl Powers. Was he a friend of yours?”
Hardly. You know me, John; you don’t imagine I was a popular child, do you?
“Can’t believe the other kids failed to be charmed by your sweet and caring nature.”
Most people are idiots, as I’ve told you time and time again.
“Yeah, and you never tire of reminding me how well I represent the general population, eith—hang on.”
John breaks off, noticing something out of the corner of his eye. Though he’s not expecting to be followed, he’s been keeping an eye on the crowds in shop-window reflections and occasional sideways glances as he walks, out of habit as much as anything. But a security guard would chase him openly; the figure that seems to have followed his path a little too closely for a little too long is just following. It hasn’t gained on him at all.
He turns, and sees a red-headed woman duck into a shop doorway. Trying to look as though she isn’t following him. Not security, then. One of Mycroft’s people? He hasn’t seen her before, but that doesn’t necessarily mean anything. He frowns, wondering whether he should try to duck out of sight while she’s hiding from him, and that’s when the kid on the scooter ploughs into him.
It gets him right in his bad leg, and the leg folds under him, making him sag heavily against shop-front glass.
“Ow,” he hisses. “Fuck.” Then: “Sherlock?”
The ‘SH’ in the corner of his vision is blinking. Once, twice, then it vanishes.
“Excuse me?” There’s a bloke leaning over him, offering him a hand up. He has big, concerned brown eyes, a discreet logo in flecks of dark gold woven into the irises. New models; swanky. “Are you alright?”
John blinks. He lets himself be pulled upright, steadying himself against the shopfront with a hand. “Yeah, thanks. Just need a sec.”
The bloke shakes his head in the direction of the scooter kid, who’s already vanished into the distance. “Bloody teenagers. Need a hand with anything?”
“Um.” John inhales; has to struggle not to reach into his inside jacket pocket and check that the disk is still there. “Could you flag down a taxi for me? Thanks. Thanks a lot.”
Once he’s safely inside the cab, he digs in his wallet for an analgesic derm, pulls up his trouser leg and slaps it just under his knee. Then he reaches into his jacket, sighing with relief when his fingers find the hard plastic edge of the disk.
They find something else, too. John frowns as his touch encounters the unfamiliar objects. Three of them. Tiny. He pulls them out of his pocket and holds them up to his face.
They look like… seeds. From real fruit, not the mushed-up-and-reconstituted nutrient crap that most Londoners eat on the go. They weren’t there before. The bloke who helped him up must have slipped them into his pocket. That’s the only possible explanation.
John’s brow creases in confusion. He tries to remember what the bloke looked like, apart from the expensive eyes. Plainly dressed, he thinks, short hair, no really noticeable modifications, but that’s about it. The disk and his wallet are unscathed, so the bloke didn’t take anything. Some kind of arty prank? The bloke was too old, and not outlandish-looking enough, to be part of a street collective, but John guesses he could be an independent operator, or a student from one of the private colleges. They pull that kind of thing sometimes; a hangover from the old university rag weeks.
He really has no idea. He’d ask Sherlock, but the bottom-left corner of his vision stays stubbornly empty.
“Bastard,” he mutters to himself—then quickly adds, “Not you,” at the driver’s startled glance. He rests his forehead against the window, and sighs.
* * *
“You did know him, though, right?” John asks, once he’s got back to the flat and handed over the disk. He’s stretched out in Sherlock’s usual place on the sofa, for now. The pain in his leg is fading; he’ll have a nasty bruise, but nothing more, and he’s more relieved at that than he’ll admit. Sherlock spared a sideways glance at him when he came in, and, though he didn’t say anything, John allows himself to believe Sherlock is relieved he wasn’t badly hurt. He can’t quite convince himself Sherlock feels guilty for abandoning him like that, earlier, but then he’s not stupid enough to expect miracles.
“No. I made it my business to know about him, after his death—or, at least, I tried to. His files had been passed on to the police, and I wasn’t able to persuade them to give me access. Nor could I risk obtaining them by illegal means once they knew that I was interested.”
“That why you called me an idiot when I suggested we go to Lestrade for a warrant instead of breaking into the place?”
“Among other things, yes. Powers was a year younger than me, and he died shortly after my expulsion. I gathered that the general consensus was that he’d been attempting to copy me. He managed to get into the matrix proper and—it was assumed—encountered black ice, which killed him. Death by misadventure was the verdict.”
“And you don’t think that’s what happened?”
“Powers was of slightly above-average intelligence; breaking security as I had would have taken either a genius or a reckless idiot. Perhaps both. He couldn’t have done it without help. It didn’t fit. The record should allow me to trace his actions; find out what actually happened.”
“And this has to do with the data theft how, exactly?”
“It doesn’t. The data theft’s irrelevant; it was committed in order to draw my attention to the message the thief left for me. To this.” Sherlock turns the disk over between his fingers, then heads for the deck. “Someone’s playing a game with me, John. I don’t intend to lose.”
He slots in the disk, and presses the trodes to his forehead. It’s only then that John remembers the pips in his jacket pocket. “Wait a sec,” he starts to say. “Something else odd happened on the way—”
But Sherlock’s eyes are distant; he’s already left the room.
* * *
The firewall approaching, white and enclosing, reaching to the limits of his sight. A weakness in it; he (Powers) heads straight for it. A weakness that should need to be looked for; a weakness even Sherlock didn’t find first time.
Through. And then.
Something comes at him. Flat and black, rotating fast, and close—
The recording ends.
This is what Powers saw before he died. That settles it, then. He had help—help finding his way past the firewall, and straight into a trap. Carl Powers didn’t run into black ice. Black ice came looking for him.
Petty rivalry, no doubt. Powers was clever enough; entertained ambitions of making a living as a console man. Probably, in the way of the offspring of the rich, he romanticized the cowboy demi-monde; imagined himself at the peak of it, holding court to a ragtag entourage of console men and street samurai, dealers in illicit software and criminal hangers-on. Perhaps, like Sherlock, he saw it as a method of escape from a life of stultifying convention—though that’s less likely. Powers was steady and orthodox enough, at bottom; no conflict to speak of in his home life. Had he lived, he’d have worked out his teenage rebellion in short order and been taken on by a major corporation. He’d be making serious money, now.
A teenage rival, though, with the wherewithal to set up a trap like that? Vicious to the point of obsession; lacking conscience; brilliant? Is that—grown to maturity—the mind facing him now?
Could be interesting.
Sherlock works as quickly as he can, after that. Pulls up the details of what he saw; compares the behaviour of the program to contemporary innovations in the field. Comes up with a likely point of origin: Dublin.
Back into the financial system. Back into the construct. He seats himself at the simulated deck. His fingers fly over the keys in the construct as in the physical world.
Irish connection uncovered.
Well done, you! I take it my little extra incentive helped you on your way?
What, John didn’t tell you about my little message? Well, ordinary people can be so forgetful, always ignoring the important stuff…
I suppose it was a little cryptic for him; we shouldn’t expect too much, should we? Pips, Sherlock. Pips.
Well, of course. Five’s the tradition, but apparently you’re just not that good at making friends. Never mind, though, three will do. And you did it! You saved her.
His mind races. Of the people close enough for him to care about, there’s only one the thief can possibly mean.
If you hadn’t solved my puzzle in time, well… bye-bye, Mrs H. She had a repairman in to look at her simstim deck yesterday afternoon. Don’t suppose you paid him much attention. I’d buy her a new one, if I were you. Word of advice, though: don’t go with Hitachi. Their security’s terribly shoddy, honestly, I’m shocked…
* * *
John’s startled out of a half-doze when Sherlock leaps to his feet and clatters down the stairs into 221A. Surprise and adrenaline keep him from wincing as he levers himself up off the sofa and follows.
Sherlock’s standing in the middle of Mrs Hudson’s flat, the power lead from her simstim unit dangling from his hand. The unit sparks and dies. She blinks at him in surprise; he’s breathing hard.
“Don’t let anyone into the flat,” he says. “Not without one of us here. It’s very important. Do you understand?”
Mrs Hudson’s hands flutter at her breast in distress. “Sherlock! What are you going on about now? First the unit dies on me—still in warranty, mind you, that was a mercy—and now you’ve gone and—”
“Do you understand?”
“Well, yes, but—”
“Good.” And without another word, Sherlock turns on his heel and heads back up the stairs.
“Er,” says John. “Sorry about that.” He attempts a laugh. “You know how he is.”
Mrs Hudson gives him a worried look. “Is there something going on, John? Are you two in some kind of trouble?”
“No—well. I don’t think so.” John shrugs. “To be honest, I don’t know any more.” He lets out a sigh. “I don’t know.”
John comes awake slowly. He’s been dreaming. Not a nightmare, for which he knows he ought to be grateful—though at least, with those, there’s the relief when he wakes.
Tonight he was dreaming about cases again. Not the bad-dream parts, the dead bodies of victims and their wailing families, but the thrill of it, and the odd kind of solidity that came with having a good fight to fight again. Like when he first moved in with Sherlock—what he’s laughably begun to think of as ‘the old days’, though in reality it was less than two years ago.
The dream comes back to him in scraps, disjointed, though it probably wasn’t very coherent to begin with. Something about the second case they ever worked on—the Black Lotus assassin and his brilliant, unwilling accomplice of a sister, who’d been leaving SOS messages to float out into the matrix as bright as flares. (Or at least, that’s how Sherlock put it. He’d been the only person to actually read them.) Other images: some breathless moment in darkness when they’d been running over rooftops. Both of them, out in the city together, with the night air cold in their lungs, and Sherlock hadn’t paused once to look disgusted at the clatter and clamour of life all around them, the sounds of the city and its lights and smells, the pockets of warmth from ventilation shafts, swirling colours of adverts projected into the air, overheard snatches of conversation, all that imperfect mess of living data.
John still feels breathless with it.
There had been something else, too.
Sherlock had spoken to him. “I need to go and see a woman about—” something, he’d said. And John had turned to say, “I’ll come with you,” and Sherlock had disappeared before his eyes in a crackle of interference, like an image on archaic videotape. John reached out a hand toward him and his fingers raked through empty air.
Now, he realizes that he’s still reaching out—as though he’s woken expecting someone else to be on the other side of the bed. Fat chance of that. He curls his hand shut and pulls it back into his chest, pressing his lips together.
A woman. The Woman. That had been Irene Adler’s handle—the wily data-thief who’d burned through the London underworld like cold fire and through Sherlock’s mind with the same intensity, and then finally burned out in an anonymous hotel room across town. Flatlined. A trap, the police had said, set by betrayed associates or criminal rivals currently still unknown. Adler had been remarkably good at keeping her face hidden while she was alive—she must’ve had some bloody good plastic surgeons in her pocket—but the DNA results left no doubt.
Sherlock had never actually met Adler face-to-face, but then those kinds of distinctions have never really seemed to matter to him. When he found out she was dead he jacked into the matrix and worked for ten hours straight. He didn’t speak to John—or anyone—for two days after that.
John never quite let on how sick that made him feel. He’s never dared bring it up since, either.
And things were never quite the same, afterwards. The last couple of days, though, he’s caught himself wondering if this is it—the turning-point. If things will start to look up, now they’ve got a case and Sherlock’s asking for his help again, and if one day Sherlock will grab him by the arm and drag him out into the maze of London to do something unbelievably daft at some utterly inappropriate hour of the night, awake and alive to it, the old manic joy back in his eyes.
It hasn’t happened, yet. He probably ought to stop thinking that it might.
That’s why he hates these dreams more than the nightmares. Waking up screaming, he can handle. But when he wakes up hoping—that’s worse. The emptiness that follows. The hollow that makes its home inside his chest.
John groans, and scrubs a hand over his eyes. It’s dawn, greyish and murky, outside his window. No point trying to get any more sleep. He sloughs off his blanket, sets his feet on the floor, and curls up into a sitting position, watching the indent his body has left in the ancient temperfoam slowly fade into nothing.
* * *
John hears voices on his way downstairs, and frowns to himself. Bit early for that, surely?
“At least you’ve come to me directly this time,” Sherlock is saying, “much as it must pain you to deny your team another opportunity to display their staggering incompetence.”
“Anderson’s doing much better, thanks for asking.”
“Pity,” says Sherlock, and John clatters down the last few steps and pushes open the door, deciding he’d better join the conversation before damage control becomes post-damage cleanup.
“Morning, Greg,” he says, trying his damnedest to sound halfway alert and cheerful. “Something important come up?”
Despite the mirrored visor that covers his eyes, Lestrade manages to look simultaneously harassed, concerned, and relieved to see him, which John thinks is something of an achievement. “John.” He nods. “You could say that. Take it Sherlock told you about our latest show-off? Desperate to get caught, by the looks of it.”
John can’t help bristling, though he can’t exactly say, I helped with that, without admitting he’s been nicking private records on Sherlock’s behalf. “Yeah,” he says, instead. “Yeah, he did.”
“Some cowboy. If it was meatspace he’d be spraypainting ‘I was ‘ere’ on the wall of every building he broke into. We’ll have him soon enough.”
“This is no cowboy,” Sherlock sniffs. “Though you’re right, he is desperate to get caught. Just not by you.”
“Well, maybe you could make use of the fact it’s your attention he’s so desperate to get, and decipher his latest love letter?”
Sherlock sits down and makes as if to lift the deck into his lap. Then he pauses, and turns to look straight at Lestrade. His gaze is penetrant; disconcerting. “This case has risen to the top of your list of priorities rather fast,” he says. “It’s suddenly important enough for you to have come round in person, when a phone call would surely have sufficed.”
“Oh, you know,” Lestrade says, with a shrug. “I was passing.”
I was worried, John hears in his voice, as clearly as if it were spoken aloud. No doubt Sherlock’s been aware of the real reason for Lestrade’s visit since he saw the car pull up outside—and no doubt that means he’s going to be insufferable for the rest of the morning.
John knows Sherlock and Lestrade have some kind of history, even if they’re not exactly best mates, and he knows better than to try asking Sherlock about it. He also knows that, whatever that history is, it occasionally prompts Lestrade to phone or knock on their door on the flimsiest of pretexts, and to give Sherlock searching, worried looks. Lestrade is also the only person other than himself John’s ever known dare to suggest Sherlock might be ‘overdoing it a bit’—and Sherlock’s even seemed to listen to him, a couple of times. (Okay, ‘listen’ here means ‘switch off the deck for a ten-minute nap and glare evilly at anyone who implies it’s well overdue,’ but this is Sherlock. These things are relative.) That was a while ago, though.
Now, Sherlock just snorts, fishes in the pocket of his dressing gown for a stimulant derm and pushes up his sleeve to press it onto the skin of his inner arm. “Yes, thank you, Lestrade. If your touching display of concern is quite finished, perhaps you’d kindly let me get on with my work?”
John ignores him as pointedly as he possibly can. “Cup of coffee, Greg?”
“Nah, thanks. I’d better get back.” Lestrade turns for the door. “Keep an eye on this insufferable shit, won’t you?”
There’s no heat behind it, but there’s not much amusement, either. John nods mutely, and watches him go.
* * *
Another construct from his old life. A bedsit—Spartan: black temperfoam slab on the floor; tangle of computer equipment beside the tiny window; rubbish bin, in need of emptying, in the corner.
He glances down.
A handful of pills.
Then—the room tilts and whirls around him. The world speeds up. His thief has put time and effort into this, accurately recreating the sensations of amphetamine overdose. (And a few other things. Even Sherlock doesn’t remember the exact cocktail; he’d been withdrawing, hard, from puppet-theatre tranks at the time. How could the thief know? Access to his medical records? Mycroft’s private systems will be his next stop.)
Years away, in the front room at 221B Baker Street, his heart races.
A pounding at the door.
“Holmes! Sherlock, I know you’re in there! What the fuck have you—”
The construct folds away into nothingness. Not even the clean, transparent grid of the matrix, and its absence itches inside his skull. Nothingness: a lacuna that demands to be filled, a tenebrous space that would crawl with feardesperationneedeverything, with the irrational, if he faltered for a moment, if he let it in.
Data—however cryptic the form in which it presents itself—is safe. The lack of it leaves gaps for uninvited guests to slip through.
As if in answer, a blossoming. Clinical white. He’s alone in a room—a familiar one, and he’s been half-expecting it. It’s the hospital room (paid for by Mycroft’s money; a vain attempt to make him feel his obligation) he woke up in five years ago, reproduced, as expected, in every particular.
Well, except one. He’s alone, which is an inaccuracy, though it’s also a blessing. No Mycroft to sit beside the bed pursing his lips, sparing one eye with which to fix Sherlock even as the other scans banks of government data, sighing ‘I expected you to have grown out of this by now,’ expressing his sadness, his disappointment, the inconvenience to which this has put him, ad nauseam.
There’s a catheter in the back of his left hand. He pulls it out, admires the resulting pattern of blood droplets that forms on the pristine white sheets. (The satisfaction that accompanies the spoiling of some small thing in this depressing scene instinctive, no less palpable because neither sheets nor blood are real.) He sits up.
Antiquated simstim unit in the corner of the room. Sherlock never used it when he was in here—simulated meatspace has never been his idea of a good time—but now, it draws the eye. And if he’s looking at it, it’s because he is intended to do so. The message will be in there.
False realities within false realities. Again. He is being played with. Someone, he suspects, is trying to make him lose his grip.
The stim segment is uninteresting, the kind of daytime talk and fashion inanity with which Mrs Hudson is so fond of filling her afternoons. The presenter has clearly been nipped and tucked, augmented and diminished, to within an inch of her life, but the sensation of inhabiting unfamiliar flesh draws attention to the sheer corporeality of it all (‘reality’, that’s a misnomer—though, is it? Is sensation any less real because recorded?) and her body feels bulky—inescapably, messily present. Accessing John’s sensorium via the rig has never been anywhere near this unpleasant; the familiarity of it keeps it from demanding so much of his attention. (Though, this morning—but, no. Now is not the time to think about that.) And at least, when he sees through John’s eyes and feels through his skin, he can flip back into the matrix any time he chooses. Here, he has to stay alert—stay trapped—for fear of missing some vital clue.
Simstim is predicated on sensuality, on the physical pleasure of inhabiting an idealised body. Unbidden, words—never heard, only transmitted via the matrix, but indelibly marked on his memory nonetheless—spring to mind. Irene’s words.
“You’d upload, if you could, wouldn’t you?”
“Goodness, no. One ought to maintain a healthy regard for the flesh, don’t you think?”
“Enlighten me. What’s ‘healthy’ about decay?”
No. Concentrate. He pushes the conversation from his mind.
The presenter is standing before wide, arched windows, balancing expertly on her skyscraper heels. The pain that must have throbbed in the arches of her feet during recording has been edited out, but the rub of leather against her feet, the liquid slide of her silk blouse, the cool brush of an incoming breeze, are inescapable. Sensations designed to be pleasurable, and most people would surely find them so, but that’s because most people have nothing better to do with their minds. To Sherlock, they’re irritants; nothing more. Delineating the boundaries of flesh, its limitations. Its imprisoning walls.
The host crosses to a plush, overstuffed armchair and sinks into it. Stocking-friction between her thighs as she crosses her legs. Uncomfortable; it makes him want to squirm. (Perhaps, seated before the deck in his flat, he does.) She sits quite still and curves her lips, sticky with gloss, in a placid smile.
The woman seated opposite her is tall, slender, fashionably-dressed, her irises a striking, unnatural iridescent green. Her face: vaguely familiar from advertisements. Former model, then; aware of the inevitably transient nature of success in her field, and now attempting to build a career in fashion design.
“Nerina Lee is with me today,” says the host, “and we’ll be trying out some of the pieces from her Autumn collection shortly. But perhaps you’d like to tell us a little more about it first?”
The model smiles, and sits up straighter. “Well, Connie,” she begins, “this season I’ve been taking inspiration from—”
And she stops, abruptly—or, rather, is stopped. Her face is briefly immobile, mouth gaping around her arrested response—but only briefly. She changes, then.
The light streaming in through the open windows fades, and clouds the dark grey of a dead screen bank ominously in the simulated sky. Skilfully-rendered shadows pool in her eye-sockets. Her outline melts and coalesces into something—someone—else.
A man. His face: obscured in darkness, but for twin sharp, mad glints in the hollows of his eyes. This is his adversary; Sherlock is certain of it.
The shadowed eyes regard him intently for a long moment.
“That was your clue,” it says, at last. Not the voice he’s been anticipating. Soft, faintly accented; Dublin, at a guess. Almost friendly. There’s no VR-villain playacting here, and he reprimands himself inwardly for expecting the obvious. “Better not waste it.” The figure sounds as though it is smiling. “Can you guess who you’re playing for this time?”
Sherlock ignores the taunt. The little opening tableau has already given him his answer: the most resourceful criminal in the country would have difficulty getting to Mycroft—and anyone who knows Sherlock’s life as intimately as this man appears to would doubt the efficacy of a threat against his life as a motivator—so it must be Lestrade.
“I was going to warn you,” the voice continues, “not to think about telling your friends—all three of them—how they’re involved in our little game. But you weren’t going to, were you?” It sounds delighted. “You just have to work it out by yourself. You know they’d never understand.”
“Who are you?” he demands, instead of responding. The presenter’s voice is entirely unlike his own: it’s soft and pleasantly modulated; lacking the necessary force. He swallows and tries again. “What’s the point of all this? It’s a clever enough little game, but I’m losing patience.”
“Oh, come off it,” the voice purrs. “You’ve been waiting for someone like me for years.” Then, as though it’s an afterthought: “You can call me Jim, by the way.”
“And you’d know my mind better than I do, would you?” he asks, scornful, even as he tucks away the name for future reference.
But the construct is beginning to shimmer, to lose integrity. It fades out around him and he is alone in the colourless grid of the matrix, the ghosts of recorded shadow and light lingering as though he has looked too long at the sun.
* * *
The matrix, shadowless and laboratory-clean; the home his mind deserves. To enter it is to burn away the mess of self; the disabling weaknesses of the body; the unpredictable, distracting wash of hormone and emotion. Here, he is reduced—but no, that’s altogether the wrong word. Here, he is freed. Pared down to essentials, to the bare wiring that keeps consciousness alive, and simultaneously allowed to expand far, far past the limits of sight and sense. The city—the whole world—spreads itself out before him, laid open in clear, clean lines of data. Seen both as through the lens of a microscope, and as from high orbit. An infinity of puzzles for him to solve, each salient detail lighting up for him until the entirety of the picture becomes clear, photic pointillism invisible to lesser minds.
He could live here forever, never bored—and if the longing that thought brings is accompanied by a throb of inexplicable sorrow (John), or a second’s uncertainty, it is soon quashed.
Here, there is no reason for him to be limited by form. Here, he has tentacles.
‘Jim’, whoever he may be, is about to become their search-object.
Examining Mycroft’s private systems has yielded nothing; nor has investigating the sites of other recent major security breaches. ‘Jim’ is good at covering his tracks. Still. Sherlock has other methods. In the matrix, he need never be inconvenienced by the presence of others—by the pressing-in of their needs, their demands, their half-awake minds. But when he wishes to be, he is endlessly connected.
The Wig (real name: Josh Wiggins; location: Tower Hamlets) is a slum neophyte; what common parlance, with its borrowed Sprawl neologisms, would term a hotdogger. Far too small-time to come to the attention of corporate security systems. The Wig is talented, and his handle might one day be well-known in underworld circles, but for now, he’s more interested in impressing his friends than in serious data-theft.
And he has a lot of friends. Every slum kid with access to a deck fancies him or herself a criminal legend, known throughout London and Tokyo and the Sprawl. There’s little else for bored teenagers in what are euphemistically termed the ‘underprivileged boroughs’ to do. It’s the work of a moment to fire off a message intimating serious reward for anybody able to provide information on the mysterious ‘Jim’ or on any criminal activity more unusual, more audacious, than the norm. The criminal up-and-comers of the city are set up to feed Sherlock’s hard drive, functioning as his eyes and ears. There’ll be a steady stream of data for him to sift through, soon.
For now, though, he has a fashion show to watch.
* * *
John drinks his coffee and munches on a nutrient bar while Sherlock sits motionless on the other side of the living room. He switches on the inbuilt wall screen to glance through the morning headlines. Nothing on the mysterious data-thefts, but that’s not surprising; both the cops and the corporations are bound to want this as hush-hush as possible right now. There’s a whole segment on some Japanese idol’s latest virtual ‘tour’, the entertainment correspondent burbling interminably about stunning new advances in immersive broadcast technology, and he raises his eyebrows, opens his mouth to remark, “This is news?” before remembering that nobody’s listening.
He switches off. He showers, dresses, drops back into his armchair and flicks through the channels, but he can’t sit still. He eyes the simstim unit, but doubts there’s anything interesting on. He can distract himself with it, sometimes, but other times, the segments feel washed-out and dull in comparison to the real, to the life he and Sherlock have. Used to have. He suspects that today is one of those times. The silence itches under his skin.
He contemplates ringing Sarah to see if there are any extra shifts at the clinic he can pick up, or if she just fancies meeting up for some lunch. Cheap food and overpriced coffee might not be as exciting as chasing after criminals with Sherlock, but at least he’d have someone to talk to.
The time display is showing 11:13 when Sherlock finally jacks out. But all he says to John is, “Daytime fashion simstim segment. Presenter named Connie. What channel?”
“Um, two eleven, I think.” John says, and then his brain catches up with the conversation and registers, what the fuck? “Wait, you want to watch the Connie Prince show? What’s that got to do with anything?”
Sherlock looks at him with the ghost of a glint in his eyes, but they light on him only for a second, their focus clearly far away. “I’m about to find out,” he says, and presses the stim unit’s trodes onto his forehead.
John shakes his head, and calls Sarah.
* * *
On his way out of the flat, John notices a black car—German, but modelled after the old Bentleys—idling near the pavement opposite. The woman who tailed them the other night is sitting in the back, window wound down, her mirrored implants reflecting the Baker Street traffic. Slightly incongruous in the daylight—darkened alleys seem more like her natural habitat—but still not really someone whose notice John wants to court. She glances once in his direction, registers his presence, but then looks away again, apparently dismissing him as an irrelevance. The car makes no move to follow him. It’s obviously Sherlock she’s watching for.
Frankly, he doesn’t know why Mycroft bothers. It’s not as though Sherlock ever leaves the flat unless he has to, these days.
Still, he can’t help glancing up at their front window himself, just the once. There’s no sign of life. He shrugs, and continues down the street.
I really hope this shouldn't need saying, but just in case: the views on prostitution and body modification expressed in this chapter belong to the characters, and in no way reflect my own opinions.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
John meets Sarah in a café a couple of streets away from the clinic, one he’s been to plenty of times before. Its menu is a mish-mash of all the world’s junk food: ice pearl tea, sickly stimulant drinks and rank black coffee; chips, noodles, and patties of vat-grown meat, all equally greasy. Her suggestion, although by preference she’d probably eat somewhere a bit healthier, more upmarket. John hasn’t been picking up as many shifts as usual, lately, the nagging sense that he ought to do something to keep Sherlock from fading out of the world of the living—even if he’s not entirely sure what—keeping him tethered to the flat. Sarah’s obviously trying to be sympathetic to his budgetary constraints without being too obvious about it, which makes John feel simultaneously resentful and annoyed at himself for being resentful.
She’s already claimed a table, and she gives him a little wave over the top of her coffee cup as he enters. It’s early for lunch, and the place is only half-full, the buzz of the newsscreen on the back wall clearly audible over muted chatter. False windows show a recorded loop of white sand and green palm-fronds, waves lapping the shore in oversaturated blue. The visible flicker and jump of it does nothing to help John forget that it’s London, cold and drizzling and lonely, outside.
He orders coffee and a sandwich and makes his way over, doing his best not to slosh coffee out of his overfilled cup and scald his hands. (New girl behind the counter, dithering over which button to press on the hot water dispenser. Nothing unusual there; staff turnover in places like this is always pretty high.)
“John! How are you?” Sarah asks. She sounds cheerful, even though there are dark smudges under her eyes and she’s drinking coffee even though she normally avoids caffeine. The little voice that John thinks of as his Inner Sherlock informs him that she hasn’t been sleeping well, probably because of money worries at the clinic. Sarah’s good at what she does, and so are the people she employs, but a solid set of ethics is a distinct disadvantage when you run a black clinic. His own inner voice supplies that she’s making an effort to be cheerful, which means she thinks he needs cheering up. He does his best to convey otherwise with a smile and a careless shrug.
“Oh, alright, you know. How about you? Been up to much?”
“Well… things have been pretty busy at the clinic this week. We could use you, if you’re free.”
John is briefly surprised—custom was pretty slack during his last few shifts—but then he remembers the false cheerfulness and notices the way she’s looking at him, a little too intent, her smile a little too bright, and it occurs to him that she’s bullshitting. Offering kindness and trying to dress it up as asking for a favour.
It also occurs to him that she hasn’t asked what he’s been doing lately. And that, until yesterday, his answer would have had to be, ‘sod all.’
He wonders when he went back to being someone people felt sorry for.
* * *
The Connie Prince Show is the early-afternoon distraction of choice for approximately 12.9% of British simstim users.
It’s just a bit of fluff, really, but it’s nice. Lets you get away from it all for an hour. Light entertainment.
Or so Sherlock’s representative sample (Mrs Hudson) tells him. He wouldn’t know. He’s never understood simstim as a source of pleasure—gratuitous meat input amplified to the exclusion of all useful thought, a mess of lightcolourtouchsmellsoundtoomuch, larger than life and pressing in upon the mind from all sides—and he’s not about to start trying. He’s here looking for evidence.
The current guest (singer; Russian; married to her manager and cheating on him with one—no, two—of her female backing dancers) isn’t the model from the construct, so Sherlock deletes her name right off the bat; the mystery is clearly nothing to do with her. The location, too, is different. Today, Prince is in Freeside, sipping white wine on a private balcony bathed in artificial sunshine as she chats. (The stim allows users to experience the taste without any of the symptoms of drunkenness, which seems rather to defeat the point; the appeal of alcohol, like that of simstim itself, is surely the short respite it allows the chronically ordinary from the interiors of their dreary minds.) Sherlock is reliably informed—again by Mrs Hudson—that the setting changes daily; no clue to be had there, either. Which leaves him with Prince herself.
Clothing and makeup: the work of a stylist, carefully managed to project the correct balance of the aspirational and the approachable. (Everybody who uses simstim does so in order to escape his or her own dull reality; nobody likes to feel unworthy of the vessel inhabited in order to do so.) It can tell him little about Prince, save that her employers consider her a property worth considerable financial outlay. Injuries? Any discomfort would be removed in the editing process, but there are no visible marks on her—unsurprising; she has access to some of the world’s most expensive plastic surgeons—and no telltale awkwardness in her movements. She’s in perfect health, and—oh.
It’s an absence that gives him what he needs.
Prince is smiling, leaning back on her chair and twirling her wine glass between her fingers. Her face is perfectly relaxed.
Connie Prince is fifty-four years old, preserved in the appearance of an eternal twenty-seven by an extensive regimen of cosmetic surgeries and—among other things—Botox injections. The associated tightness across her forehead, though: absent. Her features: expressive and mobile.
The woman through whose body he is currently experiencing the stim is twenty-seven, or thereabouts; certainly no more than thirty. Ergo, she is not Connie Prince.
He understands why immediately; all that remains is to find the proof.
This woman isn’t merely a stand-in hired to fill in for illness or a stay in rehab. That would be dull, dull, dull, and his opponent may be many things Sherlock does not yet know, but he is not that. No; there’s only one real possibility. Connie Prince is dead, and someone has an interest in keeping that fact quiet.
He doesn’t wonder who this other woman is. Her name is important only as a piece of evidence, and he already has a good idea of where she has come from.
(In the living room of 221B Baker Street, Sherlock’s hands pause momentarily over the keypad of the deck, his lips compressed in distaste. If a memory flutters briefly at the corner of his awareness, it goes unacknowledged; it has no bearing upon the task at hand. He knows where he must look, now.)
* * *
John’s finished his sandwich and most of his coffee when he sees ‘SH’ flash up in the corner of his vision, and hears Sherlock’s voice in his head:
I need you to go to Soho.
He blinks, surprise making him pause briefly before he answers. “Not now, Sherlock. Out with Sarah, remember?” Setting down his coffee, he gives her an apologetic look, but behind it there’s a brief pulse of something like triumph. See, I’m not as pathetic as you think, and Christ, isn’t that just pathetic in itself? Sarah just smiles back at him, and waves her hand in an ‘it’s fine’ gesture.
It’s urgent, John.
“If it’s that bloody urgent, you can go yourself. Probably do you good to get out of the flat for a bit.”
A moment. Then: Please. I need your help.
Naturally, that does for him. It’s calculated—it’s always calculated—but John already knows he’ll come running. Mostly, he can’t handle the possibility that the day he says ‘sod it’ and refuses to do as he’s told will be the day Sherlock really does need him, after all. Yes, he’s a fool—and the worst part of it is, he’d take being a fool for Sherlock over being sensible and well-adjusted without him any day of the week.
It’s just that, these days, he mostly feels like he’s getting the worst of both worlds on that score.
John? Are you listening to me? The voice inside his head is quieter. Definitely not pleading, but a touch more uncertain now.
John groans inwardly. “Yeah, alright, fine.” He looks at Sarah. “I’m really sorry.”
“It’s okay. I ought to be getting back, anyway. I’ve got a half-past one.” She sips the last of her coffee, reaches for her handbag, checks her lipstick in her compact mirror. Then she looks back at him, hesitating a moment before she speaks. “You should talk to him, John.” And oh, God, there it is, her pity surfacing where until now it’s been submerged, just making faint ripples on the smooth surface of politeness. He won’t be able to ignore it, now. “I don’t like to see you like this.”
Like what? he wants to say, because it might force her to demur, but doesn’t, because it might make her answer, and he doesn’t want to hear ‘lonely’, and know that what she means is ‘pathetic’. John Watson, the bloke whose life consists of nothing but waiting around to run like a lost puppy whenever Sherlock Holmes can be arsed to whistle for him. But that’s not what his, their, life is—or at least, it wasn’t always—and knowing that other people see it like that makes his insides squirm with anger.
There are things he could stand to be pitied for, but Sherlock isn’t one of them.
He shrugs, instead. “I’ll be fine,” he says. “Really. There’s no need to worry about me.”
Sarah’s smile is faint, disappointed. “I’ll give you a ring about work.”
“Okay. Yeah, good.” John gets up, swallows the dregs of his coffee, and then coughs as something solid catches in his throat. He spits it out into his palm and squints at it.
It’s a pip. Orange, he thinks, though he’s no expert on organics. There’s another, identical one still sitting in the bottom of the cup.
Not important. Sherlock. Dismissive. Get a move on, John.
* * *
“So, what do you need me to do in Soho?”
What do people normally do in Soho?
John blinks. “You’re—hang on, you’re sending me to interview prostitutes? You dragged me away from lunch with my boss, who I fancy—” (Not a lie. He does; dutifully and probably—as he sometimes admits to himself when he’s tired or drunk enough to be entirely honest—because Sarah’s far too professional to date one of her employees, so there’s no danger of anything actually happening.) “—to go and speak to prostitutes?”
Not at all.
“Oh. Well. That’s good.” Pause. “What is it, then?”
I dragged you away to speak to their bosses.
“Great, Sherlock. Thanks.”
Don’t mention it.
* * *
Sherlock’s instructions take John around several of Soho’s smaller, seedier establishments. He has a list of questions to ask, mostly concerning disappearances or resignations of employees during the past two months. If the proprietors seem reticent in providing information—which most of them do, and as usual, John’s got no official documentation to back him up—he ends up furtively casing the rest of the building, looking wherever he’s told until Sherlock’s seen enough to decide this isn’t the brothel they’re looking for.
It’s been over an hour, and he’s feeling painfully conscious of just how much he must look like the kind of sad, lonely bloke who actually uses these places, when Sherlock tells him, Next left, third building on the right, and brings him to a halt before the neat smoked-glass doors of what would look like a respectable business hotel if it were in any other part of town.
Wait here a moment, Sherlock instructs him. This particular establishment has a small data storage facility of its very own. Not particularly secure—honestly, it’s practically extra advertising. Going through the files now. Don’t worry—you’ll just look like a nervous customer.
“Yeah, thanks,” John mutters. Sherlock ignores him, flips, and is back a few seconds later with instructions for John to head inside and ask for ‘Katarina’.
The interior of the place is almost as innocuous as the front door. Coffee tables in the same dark glass, boxy armchairs—faux-leather, not temperfoam—coffee machine, bored-looking receptionist examining her chromed fingernails. The ceiling offers a recording of evening sky in lurid sunset colours: bruise-purple, lipstick-coral-pink, a few baroque licks of gold. A little bit overdone for a business hotel, but nothing that screams ‘knocking shop’. The only indications that it offers more than crashspace for tired zaibatsumen are the fact that the screens set into the coffee-table glass are showing a heaving tangle of breasts and limbs instead of the news, and the projected menu behind the reception-desk.
The foyer’s empty; no lingerie-clad girls or shirtless boys hanging around to try and charm potential customers upstairs. Instead, the bodies on offer twirl in endless holographic repetition behind the counter, pseudonyms and statistics hanging in the air beside them as though they’re characters in a VR game. We are ever silent, the stillness of their plush mouths reassures. We won’t distract you from your pleasure by asking your name. We will never inconvenience you with our humanity.
“Puppet theatre,” John realises, and feels a small, sick twinge in the pit of his stomach.
Well observed, says Sherlock, but his sarcasm has little of its usual bite. Distracted. If it weren’t a thoroughly ridiculous idea—Sherlock’s shown no trace of discomfort with the sex trade so far during the afternoon’s search—John would say that he sounds tense.
Tense. Sherlock. John’s frowning, wondering at it, as he approaches the counter, which earns him a stern, You’re thinking again.
“Didn’t realise you considered anything I ever do worthy of the name,” he retorts, instead of sharing his thoughts. He curls and uncurls his fingers, a half-conscious attempt to still the crawling of his skin, and fights away the welling push of something that’s threatening to break through the barrier of consciousness and make itself clear. Whatever this is—if it’s anything—he can wait until the case is over to ask for (and probably not get) an answer. Now’s not the time.
There are possibilities beginning to worm their way up from the depths of his mind to which he’s not ready to give voice, not just yet. They seem traitorous, somehow.
Yes, John knows that rich kids get into this, and smart kids, too—and some of them come out with memories imperfectly repressed, with occasional irruptions of trauma, jagged like rocks at low tide. He’s seen a few, in the course of his job. They tend to seek out extreme augmentations, maybe in some attempt to reclaim ownership of their bodies, and John refers them to a shrink if he possibly can. He’s never felt easy about treating them.
It could make sense, if he let it, this narrative his mind is piecing together only half-consciously—but it still doesn’t feel like one that Sherlock belongs in.
John hopes to hell that that isn’t just wishful thinking.
The girl on the counter taps her fingernails, paging through an article, illustrated by images of models with bioluminescent implants, on her reader. John shakes his head as if doing so might banish the unwanted thoughts inside it, and approaches her.
He clears his throat. “Er,” he says. “Excuse me. Is Katarina in?”
The girl doesn’t look up from her article. “Nope,” she says. “Isadora’s the same body type, Stephanie does similar specialities. Joshua, too, if that’s up your street.”
Does is really the wrong word, though, isn’t it? These kids don’t exactly do much of anything, and John feels a cold little twist of guilt in his gut just at playing the part.
“Thanks,” he says, “but I was really hoping to see Katarina.”
The girl gives him a curious look—understandable; they probably don’t get many specific requests in a place like this. “I’d offer to book you in, but I can’t actually guarantee she’ll be back. She’s taken some time off.”
As I thought, Sherlock informs him. We need to find out whether she had any unusual customers before leaving, or whether she was seen talking to any strangers. Corporate types or very successful criminals, probably. They would’ve looked respectable, either way.
John nods an okay and draws in a breath to ask, and Sherlock snaps, Don’t be ridiculous, John, she’ll never tell you. Discretion is the watchword of this kind of establishment—at least, where the clients are concerned. Time to leave.
He shuts his mouth. The girl is still looking at him, now with an undercurrent of mildly disgusted curiosity in her gaze. She might as well just ask him what kind of a weirdo he is out loud, really.
“Um,” he says. “Alright, thanks. I’ll be off, then.”
She shrugs, and turns back to her article. But when he glances behind him, opening the door, her eyes are on him.
* * *
We’re going to need the puppet-theatre’s security footage, Sherlock informs him, once he’s got a few streets away and perched himself at the bar in one of the many seedy little drinking establishments that have lined the Soho streets since time immemorial. If we can identify the men by whom ‘Katarina’—real name Kathy Noakes, of Bristol, by the way—was approached, we’ll be able to find out who wants to cover up Connie Prince’s death.
“Oka—hang on, you what?” John garners a suspicious look from the barman pulling the pint he intends to nurse without drinking, and shakes his head in apology. “No way,” he continues, in a lower voice. “It would’ve been on the news. And Mrs Hudson was plugged into her show yesterday.”
As was I, this morning. It’s very simple. Usually, this sort of case involves the faking of a death. A lookalike from some lower stratum of society is lured with promises of fame and fortune, the resemblance is finished off with surgery, and suddenly there’s a convincing body in the penthouse suite. What’s unusual in this case is that our criminals are interested in hiding a death, and willing to spend considerable money to do so.
“Wow. Okay. So, how do we get the video?”
The front-of-house attendant will be taking a break in half an hour. This isn’t a busy time of day, so there’s only one security guard on duty. He’s also overweight, therefore slow, and morbidly anxious about losing his job due to his gambling debts.
“Jesus, you didn’t even see the guy. How did you—”
Never mind that, John. The point is that arranging for certain of my associates to provide a distraction should be simple. All you need to do is copy the security footage.
Buy a blank data storage device from a woman called Zena. Back left corner, blue hair, array of startlingly pink microsofts behind her right ear. She’s good; it’ll be untraceable.
“And how am I supposed to get into the computer in the first place? I haven’t exactly got your skillset, in case you’d forgotten.”
The security guard’s office is the first door on the left. Unless he’s changed his habits drastically in the past three years—unlikely—his password will be— A brief pause. Akiko7248.
John doesn’t ask how Sherlock knows that, or what the hell Sherlock was doing in a puppet-theatre three years ago. Hearing the rapid-fire rattling-off of a deduction might reassure him, he thinks, but on the other hand it might not. Not if he can’t be sure that it was made today, and that Sherlock’s not calling up thoughts from—well, from some other time.
He’s not Sherlock, but that doesn’t mean he can just shut off his brain when he wants to. And, somewhere in the back of his mind, his consciousness is weaving together threads of some whole he’s not sure he wants to see; something that ties up with strands of his own thought in a way that makes him feel oddly, achingly guilty.
John knows Sherlock wasn’t always squeaky-clean; knows that he had problems with drugs, and not the kind that are easy to get clean from. He’d always assumed Sherlock’s less legitimate activities were limited to data-theft and dabbling with illegal substances, but something—the odd mixture of familiarity and strained detachment with which Sherlock’s been guiding him around the Soho meat-markets—is making him wonder. And the wondering reminds him of how he felt when they first met, before he clamped down on those feelings and buried them deep, and there’s a place where the wondering and the memories conjoin and end in nausea.
Okay, he’s never been daft enough to let himself hope when he knows it would be fruitless, but he’d have to be blind not to notice that Sherlock has a pretty mouth and bone structure that would make a cosmetic surgeon weep. And those arresting, mineral-grey eyes, the kind of colour Zeiss-Ikon might spend hundreds of thousands replicating—but Jesus, who would ever want to see them closed in unconsciousness, or blank and unseeing? You’d have to be mental—
John. Data storage. You can sleep later.
He’s never been so glad to be snapped at in his life.
* * *
Sherlock sets up a program to scan the Met’s data banks for matches with the men on the surveillance tape, and another to search the endless hours of video in Mycroft’s data cores for them. He doesn’t bother asking for permission. Mycroft tacitly accepts Sherlock’s breaking through his security systems when necessary, ostensibly because, as long as he remains on the (relatively) straight and narrow, he’s using them in the national interest—though in fact it’s more likely that setting up ice that could keep him out would just be too much effort.
He could jack out, now, leave the programs to do their work and check on them later. Eat something, drink tea, talk to John. John would like that. It would boost the self-worth that he has so unfortunately founded upon their association and shared exploits. Sherlock would like it, too, in the moments that it lasted. He would explain his methods, and John would make appropriately impressed noises, even if unable to fully understand them. His admiration would even be genuine. John is so endlessly willing to be dazzled by Sherlock, to see the best of him first. Admiration radiates from him as tangibly as body heat.
Sherlock stays in the matrix.
He burns through it fast, faster, faster, until the endless form and light of it kaleidoscope around him, finance grey and the cold blue fire of government systems, military constructs huge as spiral galaxies and corporate fairylight multicolour all blurring together, a vastness that might hold him forever, if he let it. He pinpoints and turns in half-a-dozen petty data-thefts, none the work of his thief and all of them really beneath his notice, but welcome diversions for now. He will not stop and he will not, cannot, leave.
John would (will) have questions. That’s problematic, and not just because the thought of it distracts Sherlock from his work. Worry was creasing John’s forehead before he left Soho, and it will only have increased in the interim. He’ll be concerned; he’ll try to understand—but he’ll insist upon digging into Sherlock’s past. And Sherlock has no wish to be understood.
Or, rather, he knows that there is no good that John’s understanding could possibly do.
John will tell himself that his concern stems only from loyalty; that any good friend would feel the same. Perhaps, though, underneath it all, there’ll be a touch of jealousy—
But no. Sherlock cuts off that train of thought; that way, madness lies. The point is, John will have questions, and he will have to answer them somehow. But not now. Not yet.
* * *
By the time John gets back to the flat, he’s knackered. Sherlock’s jacked in, working, and for once he feels relieved instead of disappointed. He’s got no doubt that his questions are as clearly visible on his face as if they were spelled out in ten-foot neon letters, and he’s not quite sure how to talk about them, yet. It’d probably be easier if he just didn’t—Sherlock will inevitably insist that it’s none of his business, and it’s not, really—but that isn’t an option.
His suspicions are going to nag at him until they’re allayed, or confirmed. He has to give it a go. He’s just not sure if he really wants to know the answer.
He showers, changes, plugs into the simstim unit and half-pays attention to Tally Isham swimming in a tropical-temperature artificial sea for half an hour. He heats up something cheap and tasteless out of the fridge for tea, opens a can of beer, and alternates between trying to decide what he’s going to say when Sherlock decides to rejoin the world of the living, and trying not to think about it at all.
Meat puppets aren’t exactly a new idea to him—you get puppet theatres all over the world—but John’s always been bothered by them on some fairly fundamental level. He’s not unusual in that; his regiment was split pretty much fifty-fifty between guys who were happy to visit the puppet theatres as a matter of course, and those who found the whole notion faintly disturbing. He did let himself get dragged along, once, when he was younger and more easily influenced—out of curiosity, not with the intention of doing anything, but he’s vaguely ashamed of it all the same—and he hadn’t even managed to sit in the same room with the girl and pretend she wasn’t there while he waited for the others to finish up. He’d actually ended up talking to her, blathering endlessly about Harry and his parents and Mary, the girl from the Sprawl he’d been sort-of-seeing at the time, a couple of the more gruesome injuries he’d seen recently and how he really needed a holiday sooner rather than later. Most expensive whinge of his life.
Anyhow, it didn’t exactly help him to understand the appeal. What’s the point in sex when the other person doesn’t even look like they’re enjoying it?
Until now, though, it’s always been a distant, abstract sort of distaste. But the thought of Sherlock, of all people, slack-faced and inert at the mercy of some stranger, that brilliant mind not just miles away but completely switched off—well, his brain shies away from the image every time, even though he can’t help circling back around to it.
He hopes that’s because it’s impossible.
He drains the last of the lager from his can, and heads into the kitchen to see if there are any more left.
As if he’s psychic, Sherlock chooses the moment that John has his head in the fridge to jack out and breeze out into the hallway, picking up the phone before John can manage so much as a ‘hi.’ John sets the beer he’s just retrieved back in the fridge, and switches on the hot water dispenser for tea, instead. He can eavesdrop while he waits for it to heat up. (One moral scruple of which living with Sherlock has long since divested him.)
“Really, Lestrade,” Sherlock is saying, “it’s quite simple. Prince had an unfortunate accident—probably a botched surgical procedure, though an overdose isn’t out of the question—and her brother saw greater financial potential in grooming a replacement and continuing to siphon money from her income than in claiming the life insurance, especially given that a large percentage of Prince’s anatomy was the property of her employers. He put up enough money to be placed in touch with specialists who would procure said lookalike, and the rest is obvious. I can come to the station if you need my evidence in person—no? Well. Yes. Let me know.”
“One more thing. Have you taken on any new recruits recently? Mmm. Background check perfect? Yes? Fire him.”
“Just take my word for it.”
He puts down the phone, and John takes the opportunity to corner him before he can jack back into the matrix or drift off into one of his silent reveries.
“You did it, then,” he says, keeping his voice deliberately mild. “Celebratory cuppa? You can tell me all about it, then.” He hopes—against hope, perhaps—that the promise of an appreciative audience will have the same effect on Sherlock that it used to, that it’ll make him gravitate towards John instead of turning away and in upon himself.
Sherlock looks at him for a long moment, appraising. Then he nods. “Tea,” he says. “Yes.” He sounds resigned, not enthusiastic, but at least he’s not running away.
John scours the kitchen cupboards for two non-bio-hazardous mugs, pours the tea, and heads back into the living room to offer one to Sherlock, who’s stretched out on the couch, probably with the intention of staying there all night if he gets his way. Their fingers brush as Sherlock takes the mug, and John actually blinks, startled at the contact. Then feels the heat of a blush on the back of his neck, and the faint, sick prickle of guilt as he determinedly doesn’t, doesn’t, connect that innocent, accidental little touch with his earlier suspicions.
Sherlock just keeps his eyes dead ahead.
“I told you Connie Prince was dead,” he says, once John’s settled down into his armchair.
“That should have been obvious from the start, in fact; that her many thousands of fans have so far failed to notice it is testament to the stupidity of the general public. Her forehead told me that she was dead—” And he picks up speed, rattling off the thought-process that led him to his conclusion as though it’s the simplest thing in the world, and—just for the briefest of moments—seeming to light up with his old love of showing off, meeting John’s eyes with the twitch of a pleased smile when he shakes his head and says, “And you got all that from the fact her face didn’t hurt? Bloody hell, that’s brilliant.”
“So you’ve said on many occasions.”
“Yeah, well. I’ll keep on saying it as long as you keep on being brilliant.”
Sherlock looks at him sharply, and suddenly John feels the seriousness of what he’s left unsaid.
Talk to me, please. Because I’m the one who sees the best of you, and I sometimes think I barely know you. I don’t want to leave you alone, and I won’t. Unless you make me.
He swallows, takes a sip of tea to cover up his nerves. “Sherlock,” he says, and there’s a heaviness in the air, now.
What he’s about to say is totally inappropriate, by most people’s standards, and once he’s said it there’ll be no taking it back. He hesitates; almost changes his mind. Then takes a deep breath.
“This afternoon,” he begins, cautiously. “You seemed to know an awful lot about that place. The—the puppet theatre. We’ve never been there for a case before. Is there—how come?”
Sherlock sighs, and closes his eyes. He’s silent for a long moment, and John’s just about given up on getting an answer and started wondering how many months he’ll need to spend hiding in his bedroom for the awkwardness to clear by the time he replies.
“You know I didn’t start out as a legitimate operator, John.”
“Computer equipment costs money. I’d already been thrown out of school and university, and acquired a considerable drug habit. Mummy was hardly going to fund my experimental forays into data-theft, especially with the scrupulous detail in which Mycroft insisted on reporting my activities.”
“So you found another way of paying for it.”
A small nod.
John sinks back in his chair. “Jesus.”
Sherlock looks directly at him, meeting his eyes for the second time this evening. “It wasn’t such a hardship, John. You’re not conscious, most of the time. The drugs were very good.”
“I just—” John shakes his head. “I know you’re not exactly opposed to self-medicating, but—I thought you went in for uppers. Actually choosing to be out of it completely? It doesn’t seem like you. I don’t get it.”
A shrug. “I delete irrelevant data all the time. In this particular instance, I simply avoided saving it in the first place.”
John tries to keep the sadness out of his face, he really does, but Sherlock’s withering look lets him know that he’s failed.
“It’s just a body, John. It exists to serve my mind, and that’s precisely what it was doing. I knew I’d be able to give it up in short order once I’d established my skills as a console man. It was a perfectly logical decision.”
“That’s what happened, then? You made your money stealing data, and you quit?”
“Not precisely.” Sherlock frowns, and John feels a momentary trepidation, unsure whether he should be glad that Sherlock’s showing some reaction to all this, or feeling shitty for dredging it up. But then he realises it’s a frown of puzzlement, not distress. “It bothered me immensely, at the time. I’m still not sure exactly what happened. I’d had only one new customer in the weeks before the incident, and his ID checked out perfectly; an American tourist, entirely nondescript. I simply arrived one evening and found that they had no record of me. I didn’t work there—I never had. I was forced to take up dealing illegal stimulants, instead. Very inconvenient.”
He looks so put out that John almost laughs.
Sherlock fixes him with a Look. “It was hardly preferable, John. Drug-dealing’s incredibly dull work, and you can’t even be unconscious while you’re doing it. Really, it’s no wonder I overdosed.”
“Overdosed? Jesus fuck, Sherlock, what happened?”
“Boredom.” Sherlock makes a face. “However, my dear brother had been keeping a close eye on my activities, and happened to choose that particular evening to send a friend of his on the police force over to curtail them.”
Sherlock nods. “He called for help, and was still there when I woke up in a private ward paid for by Mycroft and began rewiring the security system in order to get out. With one of those occasional flashes of insight that make his usual dullness so disappointing, he decided against arresting me, and asked for my help instead. You know the rest.”
John breathes out heavily. “Wow,” he says. “I—well, I’d never have guessed any of that, but then I’m not you, so…” He trails off, not quite sure whether he ought to say I’m sorry, or You’re insane, or what.
“I’m glad you’re here, now,” is what comes out, at last.
Sherlock is looking at him intently. “I’m okay, John,” he says, slowly, after a moment. “I always was. Don’t ask me to feel traumatised by something I never experienced.”
“No, I didn’t mean—I don’t—never mind.”
Another long pause. “If it’s any consolation,” Sherlock says, then, “I much prefer my current method of making a living.” He’s looking at John with his head to one side. He sounds… unsure, and John can’t remember the last time he heard that tone from Sherlock, if he ever has.
It almost feels like Sherlock is—offering him something. A reassurance, or—well, he doesn’t know what else it could be. Either way, Sherlock offering him anything is rare enough to be precious. As if he could ever not accept.
“Good,” he says, nodding. “I’m glad.”
Sherlock smiles at him faintly. His chest aches.
I've extrapolated the term puppet theatre from 'meat puppets' in Neuromancer; I think the meanings of both are fairly evident from context. Gibson-loving readers will no doubt have noticed that this part of Sherlock's backstory belongs to Molly Millions in Neuromancer.
John’s not entirely sure what you’re supposed to say after a conversation like that, really. In fiction, these kinds of moments are where the stim fades out, or the film cuts away. Nobody ever tells you how to pick the everyday back up, afterwards, and the silence that follows is almost as uncomfortable as the conversation itself.
He falls back on making more tea, since his has gone cold. Funny, really, how even with the endless influx of brand-names and habits and foodstuffs from all over the globe into the sucking whirl of London, a simple cuppa still seems to soothe something primal in him. Pavlovian, probably. Switch on hot water dispenser, rinse mugs, fetch teabags and milk substitute. Everything’s going to be alright.
There’s the beep of an alert from the deck while he’s in the kitchen, and he’s not surprised to see Sherlock jacked back in when he returns to the living room. Sherlock doesn’t stay in there long, though, surfacing after a moment to say, “John, I need you to do something for me.”
John groans, glancing mournfully at his barely-touched cuppa. “It’s late,” he protests, weakly. “I’m knackered.”
But, I need you, Sherlock said. John, I need you. And John can survive a gunshot wound and put a cranial jack in a man’s skull without damaging his brain and fight out a place in a world that has none for him, but withstand that? He’s got about as much chance as a soap bubble in a monsoon; as organic life on the American junk plains.
* * *
So. Back out into the city, into the neon-striped night. Whitish mist of his breath in the cold, and he hunches down into the collar of his jacket to protect himself—half from the chill, and half from the dozens of (mostly illegally) augmented eyes that turn to look him over as he shoulders open the door of the Crooked Man, the cowboy pub where he should, failing any disasters, find Sherlock’s contact.
Flicker and dart of holographic projections at corner tables; illusionist hustlers showing off the cleanness of their lines, the realism of their textures and colours. Low babble of voices doing business, endless circulation of drugs and microsofts and the most precious commodity of the lot—information.
The hum of sound picks up again after a moment, once he’s been assessed and dismissed as a non-threat. (“People never learn”—Sherlock, some other night, one less cold with anxiety and disconnect.) It drowns out the Japanese pop music piped from hidden speakers to the accompaniment of another holo projected behind the bar—this one all screaming pinks and oranges, the lips of the singer outlined in ultraviolet purple. The projection makes her and her backing group look like they’re dancing with the bar staff, their outstretched arms passing through refrigerator-glass and beer bottles and living bodies with equal ease.
John wedges himself in next to a clearly-wasted young couple, she dressed only in towering chromed heels and a few black strips of microfibre despite the cold. She mumbles to the man whose tattooed arm is resting around her shoulders, her voice sluggish and her mouth drug-slack, and he fishes in his wallet for a baggie of unfamiliar, spearmint-green pills. The woman slips one onto her tongue, catches John’s eye, and smiles secretively. He looks fiercely in the opposite direction.
* * *
Back to the construct (predictably reinstated—‘Jim’ is a show-off, and they never can resist talking about their crimes); back to the out-of-date stim unit; back to the late Connie Prince’s recorded body and the accompanying barrage of sensations.
‘Jim’ lazes in the chair opposite him, face still in shadow. No transformational theatrics, this time. He’s leaning back, casual; he raises one hand in a languid wave as Sherlock transitions into the construct. Let’s dispense with the formalities, the gesture offers. He’s trying to create the illusion of an intimacy between them, to make this seem like a conversation between friends—between equals. To say, I’m on your level.
Sherlock will believe it when he has proof.
And—he thinks—it may not be very long before he does. He’d be lying if he claimed not to feel a small start of eagerness, a welling of curiosity, at the prospect. He’d also be lying if he claimed not to be at all worried.
There can be no ‘guess who’s next’ this time, after all.
He meets his opponent’s eyes. “I assume Ms Noakes is settling into her new job well?”
A smirk. “Very. Shame you had to go and end her contract prematurely. Not nice, that. Best job she’d ever had, she said. Thought you might have had a bit more sympathy. Shared experiences, all that.”
Sherlock ignores the dig. “You will insist on placing your puzzles where even the police can’t fail to see them…”
“Ah, yes, the police. I notice you’ve got your little hotdogger friends out looking for me, but not the cops. Funny, that.”
“You’re as aware of their incompetence as I am, I’m sure.”
‘Jim’ inclines his head minutely. “Or maybe you’d just rather keep this our little secret. Can’t blame you. More fun that way.”
“Strange idea of fun, your threatening my friends.”
“Mmm.” ‘Jim’ makes a thoughtful little moue. “Something else I’ve noticed. Haven’t done quite all you can to protect them, have you? You’ve got something on half the hired muscle in London, I should think. And yet I didn’t see any street samurai trailing Johnny-boy down to the Crooked Man tonight. Well, except that razorgirl who works for your brother, but we both know she’s not there for old Johnny’s benefit.”
Sherlock is suddenly glad of the Botoxed immobility of the host’s features. It prevents his startlement from showing on her face.
“So you’ve got an awful lot of confidence in your ability to outsmart me,” ‘Jim’ goes on. “Or maybe you just don’t want to admit how worried you are. How much you care.”
“Caring has nothing to do with it. You could be threatening strangers, and I’d still be beating you.”
“Because it’s the right thing to do? Don’t get boring on me, Sherlock.”
“No, because I’m better than you.”
A chuckle. Abruptly, ‘Jim’ shifts, sitting up straighter in his chair, clapping his hands together. “Well! We all know what’s coming next, don’t we? I wonder how good you’ll be without him?”
“What do you want from me?”
‘Jim’ raises his eyebrows in amusement. “Ooh, getting impatient now, are we? Looks like I’ve struck a nerve.”
Sherlock doesn’t answer, doesn’t wait for the construct to fade away. He flips.
* * *
John manages to locate Sherlock’s contact—a thin, rodent-faced kid twitching with an excess of obviously-chemical energy—and is sitting behind a corner table (invisible from the door thanks to the curve of the bar) listening to his rapid, nervy chatter, when ‘SH’ blinks up in the corner of his vision. He nods fractionally to acknowledge Sherlock, but doesn’t greet him out loud. People in these kinds of places tend to get nervous if they find out you’ve got a rider.
The kid speaks in an urgent undertone. “It was Westie,” he says. “He’d found something out, something he wasn’t supposed to know. He got a bit twitchy. Mentioned a name, once, when he was pissed, and then got all upset. Made me promise not to tell anyone about it. Jim Moriarty, the name was. No idea who that is, though.”
John nods and keeps quiet. Sherlock, miraculously, keeps quiet too, though John can just picture him ricocheting around the living-room in elation at finally knowing who it is they’re looking for. (Though, no—Sherlock’s accessing his sensorium, which means Sherlock is plugged into the deck. Sherlock doesn’t do much bouncing around the flat these days.)
“Anyway, they found him, Westie. He was dead. The cops said he’d offed himself, but—well, I dunno. Seems a bit suspicious, don’t it? He finds out something he’s not supposed to know, and bam, he’s gone? I dunno if they got him, or—or if he killed himself before they could get to him.”
“And that’s all you know.”
The kid nods, and wipes at his nose with his sleeve.
“Right. Right, okay. Thanks.”
“Fifteen hundred, yeah? ‘S what the Wig said.”
“Yeah, that’s right.” John fishes in his pocket.
Wait, he hears, inside his head. Get this Westie’s address.
He pauses. “Your friend, the one who died. Where did he live?”
“Pott Street, near the station. Flat 47.”
“Anyone else living there?”
“Yeah. His fiancée.” The kid pauses, seeming to consider what he’s about to say, then his face sets and he looks up. “She’s my sister.”
* * *
He’s already paid the kid and got out of there when he hears Sherlock again. He’s almost forgotten that Sherlock’s there, with him, and feels obscurely guilty for having allowed himself to do so. He so often feels that Sherlock is drifting away from him that anything Sherlock is willing to give him—even if it’s just his presence via the rig—seems like it ought to be grabbed and held on to, tight.
He’d like to think of their earlier conversation as something—however painful—to be shored up against the loss, as an indication that maybe Sherlock’s ready to share something with him again, but he’s too honest with himself to believe it wholeheartedly. Sherlock would never have imparted that particular detail about his past life off his own bat.
You’re going to check out West’s address?
“I assumed you’d want me to, yes.”
A tiny pause. Yes. Good. Then: Mycroft’s people are following you.
“Aren’t they always?”
“Oh,” John says, in surprise. “Um, okay.” He blinks. “Are you going to tell me why the change of heart, or—”
* * *
John gets off the Tube at Bethnal Green, and glances up and down the road for cars. No sign of any of Mycroft’s, but then the hulking great black things his people usually favour would be a tad conspicuous in this bit of London. John’s hand darts automatically to the inside of his jacket, and he wishes fervently that he’d brought his fletcher.
It’s a short walk to the Pott Street flats, but John’s conscious of the shadow tailing him before he gets there. He can’t see who it is—not exactly a thriving business area, this, so the lighting’s poor—but from the quick slide of her movements and the way she vanishes into alley-gloom as though embraced by it, he suspects Mycroft’s mirror-eyed spy.
Honestly, he’s got no intention of giving her the slip, even if he’s not quite sure what’s got into Sherlock with the ‘let them’. This just seems a bit daft, really. If he knows she’s tailing him, and she knows he knows—which she must, because whatever else you might say about Mycroft Holmes, he doesn’t employ idiots—then they might as well just have a civilised chat.
Cautiously, he waits for the shadow to melt into darkness, and glances down the side-street where—he’s sure—he saw her—
—and then she’s behind him, moving with a quickness and a silence that makes him wonder briefly whether she isn’t a holographic projection rather than a real person, makes him glance around frantically for her source. But the solidity of her hand at his neck soon puts paid to that illusion. Her fingernails are petrol-blue acrylic, clearly false, and she taps one of them smartly at the base of his throat. He goes still immediately.
The work is top-class—there’s no way you’d know she had implants just from looking—but from the implicit threat and the fact that she’s otherwise unarmed, it’s evident that those oilslick-shiny acrylics conceal deadly blades.
John takes a breath and releases it slowly, his hands half-raised in surrender. “Alright,” he says, and isn’t quite sure why he’s saying it. “Alright.”
After a moment—apparently reassured that he’s not going to try running off—the razorgirl removes her hand.
“I’ve got to give you a message,” she says, and her voice is mild, entirely at odds with her posture and the whole situation, really. She sounds more like a secretary than a trained killer. “For Sherlock.”
John sags back against the wall, shaking his head. “Your boss couldn’t just phone?” he says, weakly.
“As if he’d get an answer.”
“He could’ve phoned me.”
The razorgirl smiles blandly. “I’m just following instructions.”
John rubs at the bridge of his nose. “Well, what is it? The message?”
“Tell Sherlock he needs to come in and see us. Soon.”
“He’ll know what you mean.”
And then, just like that, she’s off, darting into an impossibly small space between buildings and disappearing. John stares at the gap where she vanished.
Let them, he remembers, and hadn’t there been a note of urgency in Sherlock’s voice when he said it? Worry, even, maybe?
Suddenly, disconcertingly, he feels exposed, weaponless and alone in the dark street. He glances behind him one more time, and gets moving.
* * *
Westie’s fiancée—blonde, pretty, off-the-shelf bright-blue eyes whose whites are red from crying—doesn’t seem that surprised to see him.
“Are you with the police?” she asks, and after a moment John decides on a white lie and nods yes. She didn’t ask if he was one of the police, after all. “I know he didn’t kill himself,” she says. Despite the tear-stained fragility, her mouth is set in a determined line. “It was them.”
“Them? Do you know who your fiancé thought he was being pursued by?”
She shakes her head. “I tried asking him. He told me—he told me he’d already said too much. But someone was after him. I know it.”
John nods, trying to look professional-but-sympathetic. Counterintuitive as it may seem, he doesn’t actually deal with a lot of grieving relatives in his day job. In the army, families weren’t generally on hand to be dealt with, and in the event that something goes wrong at the clinic—well, the kinds of people who frequent the black clinics tend not to tell their mums and dads where they’re going. (And, besides that, something going wrong on John’s operating table is very rare. He’s got his professional pride.)
“You weren’t here when it happened?” he asks.
“No. No, I was working—at the Million. I work behind the bar.” She gives a watery blink. “It was a busy night, I was helping clean up. Finished late. My brother found him.”
John raises his eyebrow—that’s one detail the kid failed to mention—but keeps quiet. “I know this might be upsetting for you,” he says, “but can you show me where he was found?”
She nods, mutely, shoves the door wide, and points to a spot on the pavement.
It’s dark, but—it’s weird. John can’t make out much in the way of bloodstains. Just a couple of dark splotches—nothing like the volume you’d expect if he’d jumped out of a window high enough to cause a fatal head injury. It’s possible that it’s been cleaned up, since, but—well, this isn’t the sort of area that cleanup crews are eager to visit with any kind of regularity. John frowns to himself, then turns back to the girl.
“That’s where he jumped from, right?” he asks, pointing at what he guesses is the correct window. “Or—fell, or—well, let’s not make any assumptions just yet.”
“No,” she says, “the one next to it.” And, oh, of course; the plush toy and pink plastic mini holo-projector on the windowsill are a child’s, and nobody’s mentioned West and his fiancée having kids. It must belong to the neighbouring flat. Sherlock would’ve picked that up—but then, Sherlock’s not here. “I can show you the room,” she goes on, “if you like. They’ve already been round, once, I’ve tidied up a few things, but if it helps…”
“Thanks,” he says. “Yes. Yes, I’m sure it will.”
She shows him into the flat and up the narrow staircase that leads to their bedroom. The place is a tip, the tiny landing cluttered with tangled wire and miscellaneous shoes and obsolete hardware, brightly-coloured microsofts littering the carpet like oversized confetti. It looks just like Sherlock’s half (okay, three-quarters) of the living-room, and that—more than the girl’s tear-reddened eyes, or the awful circumstances of her fiancé’s death—makes John feel a pang of sympathy for her loss.
As she reaches the landing behind him, she frowns. “Did you hear that?” she says.
She shrugs. “Probably next door’s kids. They’re up all hours.” She sniffs. “Little shits. I’ll just check the door’s locked. Go ahead.”
John pushes the bedroom door open, gently. It’s dark, and he’s fumbling for the light-switch when he hears a muffled cry from downstairs.
“Are you alright?” he calls, pulse quickening, combat instincts kicking in as he listens intently, tries to figure out who—if anyone—is downstairs with her—
—and that’s the worst mistake he could’ve made, isn’t it, because they’re not just downstairs with her, they’re in here with him, and then there’s a bulky form behind him and a blade at his throat for the second time today. Only, this one isn’t being wielded by a pretty razorgirl, and the threat behind it is far from idle, and the last thing John’s brain comes up with before he loses consciousness is, oh shit.
A fletcher is a flechette gun, which seems to be the standard-issue cyberpunk weapon.
ETA: Apologies for the lateness of Ch6! Life exploded a bit. Hope to have it up tomorrow.
Sherlock has no desire to be present for whatever unnecessarily cryptic message Mycroft intends to have his people pass on to him via John, or to answer questions about it. He’ll allow John to draw his own, probably erroneous, conclusions.
Hopefully erroneous. What good could sharing do?
So he flips back into the matrix, taking the words of the kid in the pub with him and translating them into a filter for data. (Something he wasn’t supposed to know, said with a sideways flicker of dark-circled eyes; two-day shirt; incessant twitching—more drugs than he’s accustomed to, taken to boost confidence or to keep him awake.) Sherlock looks for traces. Minute adjustments in the ice, in the stuff and substance of the matrix; traces of alien code; imperfectly hidden alterations to security programmes.
Most of what he finds dates from the days before West’s death. Some left by hotdoggers making brief forays past low-level security, not too concerned with covering their tracks. Others from the corporate security men following them, attempting to secure their (mostly worthless) data. But no sign of West.
Did West clean up after himself? Unlikely: he was, by all accounts, fairly competent, but he’d have been too afraid, too desperate for escape, to cover his tracks. ‘Jim’—Jim Moriarty (he turns the name over in his mind, sends out programmes to trace the alias, though it’s unlikely they’ll find much; none of this is going to be easy)—has done his work thoroughly, then. Sherlock will have to rely, at least in part, on whatever data John is able to gather on the ground.
I wonder how good you’ll be without him?
He flips out of the matrix (and if his hands tremble over the deck back in the world of flesh and blood he does not notice, will not acknowledge it), back into John’s sensorium, and—
Not the warm dark he’d expect were John simply unconscious, but a wall of crackling grey. A refusal. The transmission has been blocked. Wherever John is, it’s been secured against outside communications.
Which can only mean one thing.
* * *
“It’s not my fault. I swear!”
John scowls at the ratty-faced kid. “Don’t need to hear it.”
He blinks a couple of times, tries to ignore the fact that his head hurts like fuck (probably got knocked about while he was unconscious), and inspects his surroundings. He’s secured to a metal post with heavy-duty cuffs; no chance of wriggling out of them. Ratty and his sister are cuffed to an identical one, back to back, a couple of yards away. From the way she’s slumped forward, the sister is still unconscious.
It’s dingy down here—wherever ‘here’ is. No windows, so they’re probably underground, and only a single striplight flickering near the door. The door itself is heavy-duty, and apparently requires a handprint scan to open. The walls seem to be padded with some sort of grey, metallic fibre that looks as if it ought to be soft and spongy to the touch, though John can’t get quite close enough to give it a prod with his foot. The place feels like some kind of nuclear bunker. The dungeon of a villain’s fortress in a VR game.
The bottom-left corner of John’s vision is still empty. He screws his eyes shut and opens them again. Still no Sherlock. He’s not certain how long he was out, but this place doesn’t look like it can be anywhere near the Pott Street flats. In the time it would have taken to get him, Ratty, and Ratty’s sister here, Sherlock must surely have flipped back to check in with him at least once. So, either Sherlock’s been distracted by some new lead, or there’s a signal disruptor somewhere in the building and Sherlock can’t get in touch.
Neither of those possibilities bodes well for him.
“I’m serious,” Ratty is saying, insistent now. “They knew it was me. Don’t know how they knew, but—they said they’d report me if I didn’t help them.”
John frowns, and finally looks at the kid. He’s sweating, sniffing, worrying at his lower lip with his teeth. Whatever he was hyped up on earlier, it’s clearly starting to wear off, punishing him in the process. Good.
“Report you for what?”
Ratty looks down at his knees. “Westie.”
“What are you saying?”
“It was me. I done it.”
John stares. How long ago did Sherlock figure this out? Back in the pub? Probably. Oh, John is going to murder him when he gets home. If he gets home.
“I didn’t mean to!” Ratty goes on, picking up speed and pitch now, voice dripping nervousness just like his face. “It was an accident. He’d seen this thing—wouldn’t tell me what it was, mind, I still don’t know—and all he wanted to do was forget about it. Me, well, I thought that was stupid. Knowledge is power, right? I thought we should find the people who were hiding it, promise we wouldn’t tell. For a price, ‘course. Maybe even see if we could get in with them, see if they could hook us up with some real jobs. Proper biz, you know?”
John nods minutely, still staring.
“Well, Westie wasn’t having any. Said I was the stupid one. And things got a bit heated from there, and—and, well, we got into a bit of a fight. I knocked him over, he cracked his head on the banister and next thing I knew—” Ratty breaks off, hanging his head. “I never meant to kill him. I never meant to get into this mess.”
“So, what? You dragged his body outside to make it look as though he’d fallen?”
Ratty nods. “The coppers bought it. Thought I was in the clear. And then—they came round. Said they were gonna turn me in if I didn’t do what they told me.”
“Who are they?” John presses, but Ratty isn’t looking at him anymore. His eyes are unfocused, and his face twists in anger.
“They lied,” he said. “Said I’d be alright. Didn’t say anything about dragging me in here along with you. They lied, they fucking—”
“Look.” John takes a deep breath. He can’t muster any sympathy for the kid—the little shit hasn’t expressed an ounce of concern for his sister, just for his own sorry arse—but right now he’d lend a hand to the fucking Mob if it meant finding out what was going on and getting out of here. Getting back to Sherlock. “I can’t help you if you won’t tell me what we’re dealing with.”
Ratty looks up and his eyes are hopeless. “You can’t help even if I do,” he says.
John opens his mouth to retort, and that’s when the door opens.
* * *
The room they dump him in this time is smaller. John tries to memorise the layout of the corridors as best he can as he’s being dragged through them, to identify potential escape routes, but the security in this place looks pretty solid. That, and he hasn’t got the first clue where he is. There’s no way he’s escaping without help.
He hopes Sherlock works it out soon. He hopes Sherlock cares enough to do something about it.
It looks a bit more civilised here. A couple of floors up from the dingy basement bunker—John couldn’t see the numbers in the lift, but he’d guess three or four—and there’s actually a window, though the blinds are pulled low. There’s an armchair in the corner, a gleaming new simstim unit on the coffee table in front of it. And, next to the stim unit—John blinks—a bowl of what looks like real fruit. It could just be a decent holographic projection, but there’s a sweet, faintly overripe smell in the air, and the bananas are covered in black blotches. As if the owner’s boasting: I can afford real organics. And not just that; I can afford to let them go to waste. Prick.
The two heavies holding his arms drop him into the chair. One of them lets go and turns around, reaching for the stim unit on the table. John’s torn, for a second, between curiosity and seeing a window for action. Then his brain comes down firmly on the side of, there’s no point knowing what’s going on if you’re locked up and can’t do anything about it.
He goes limp and lets his gaze drift in the direction of the bloke fiddling with the stim unit. “What’s that in aid of, then?” he asks.
The heavy holding him down in the chair grins. “Just you wait,” he says, but his grip relaxes minutely; he obviously thinks John’s distracted. So John leans back as far as he can, and then nuts him in his bulbous nose.
The heavy’s hands fly to his face and he steps back, howling. John twists away from him, fast, ignoring the renewed throb of pain in his head. His legs are quite steady, now—thank God—but the angle at which he falls out of the chair and the fact his wrists are still cuffed behind his back make it hard to balance, and he has to brace himself against the wall to stay upright. Not really where he wants to be.
The bloke John headbutted has stopped yelling now. His nose is bloodied, and he looks pissed off. The other one has abandoned the stim unit and is coming straight at him, ready to throw a punch. John ducks, and the heavy’s fist glances off the side of his head. It connects just enough to sting, but not to throw him off balance, and he manages to weave past them and make for the door.
And then he hears it—a thundering, rolling noise that, if he were at home, might herald one of Sherlock’s sporadic attempts to destroy the kitchen. Before John can even glance behind himself in confusion, his foot comes down on something round and squashy, and he slips backward to land on the polished floor with an arse-bruising thump.
They’ve got him by the arms before he has time struggle back to his feet, and they shove him into the armchair with considerably more violence than before. John stares at the sticky mess on the floor and realises that the thing he slipped on was apparently an overripe tangerine. There are apples and bananas scattered around the room, and a couple of squashed grapes stuck to his trouser leg. Bloody Nose must’ve upended the fruit bowl when he saw John making a break for the door.
Resourceful. Grudgingly, he makes a mental note not to underestimate these guys again.
Bloody Nose is eyeing John speculatively, cracking his knuckles. The other bloke grabs him by the shoulder and shakes his head.
“Boss doesn’t want his bargaining chip damaged, remember,” he says. “We’ve just gotta pass on his message.”
Bargaining chip? John wonders. What can their boss want to bargain with Sherlock for? It’s not as if he’s rolling in it, so a ransom seems unlikely. And if it’s data their boss wants, surely he could just steal it himself? John’s not exactly well-up on the ins and outs of data-theft in the matrix, but if his previous escapades were impressive enough to hold Sherlock’s attention, he has to be good. And—what message?
But he’s distracted again before he has time to wonder any further. Bloody Nose is on the floor, prodding speculatively at the mess of tangerine pulp. He comes back up holding something between his thumb and index finger, and gets up. John’s ready to twist out of reach of his fists—or try to, at least—but all he does is smirk, and press what he’s holding against John’s forehead.
It sticks there for a moment, then drops into his lap.
It’s a single pip.
The other bloke gives Bloody Nose an incredulous look, and he shrugs.
“Something the boss was saying earlier,” he explains. “Thought it was funny.”
“Fucking hilarious.” The other bloke rolls his eyes. “He didn’t hire you for after-dinner entertainment. Stop twatting about and give me a hand, will you?”
Bloody Nose grabs John by the shoulders to hold him still, and then the other guy is leaning across to press the stim unit’s trodes onto his forehead—and the room John is sitting in fades from view.
The one upon which his eyes open is glass-walled and spacious. He finds himself sitting on a leather sofa—real, by the feel of it under his fingertips—with a vast potted plant on either side. One wall of the room looks out into space. John sees the stars, the insane curlicues of Straylight at the other end of the port, and realises he’s in Freeside.
John’s never been here, but he’s experienced it through stims, and he can’t say he likes it much. Everybody always looks so smug and moneyed, plus the gravity does his head in. He doesn’t have any time to wonder why he’s here, though, because then there are footsteps and a bloke in an expensive-looking suit appears in front of him.
Expensive-looking eyes, too. Expensive-looking big, brown eyes, and if John was standing a few feet closer he’d be able to see the flecks of gold in their irises.
“You,” he says.
The man sketches an ironic little bow. “I can see what he sees in you,” he says, cheerily. “Really, you’re very astute.”
John swallows, and tries to tamp down the crawling unease he feels at the realisation he’s spoken to their thief—this murderer, this criminal nutjob who’s got fuck-knows-what on Sherlock—accepted his help, touched him, even, without knowing it.
“Can we do without the sarcasm and just skip straight to the threatening?” he asks, once he’s fairly certain his voice will come out steady. “I get enough of that at home, thanks.”
“Oh, John.” The bloke takes a step closer, and some hindbrain kick of revulsion makes John want to shrink back against the sofa cushions, pray that they’ll swallow him up. He doesn’t. “So little trust. What makes you think I’m going to threaten you?”
“The fact that you’re a criminal? That you’re insane? You’ve killed people just to get Sherlock’s attention, and God knows what kind of data it is you want from him if you can’t just pay some cowboy to steal it for you, but it’s got to be something—”
The bloke actually chuckles. “Data?” he says, raising his manicured eyebrows. “Really, Johnny boy. Still. Easy mistake to make when you’re ordinary.”
“So what are you after?”
Ignoring the question, the bloke gestures for him to stand. “Come on,” he says, “let’s go for a little walk,” and, unwillingly, John finds his simulated body obeying.
The bloke leads him out of the glass-walled room into a corridor, then a mirrored lift filled with tinkling muzak that hurtles dizzyingly down—or is it up?—through the levels of the port. They come out on one of the retail floors, where tanned shoppers stroll amid the trickling water features and couture-clad mannequins beneath a simulated mid-morning sun.
They trudge along in silence for a few minutes—well, John trudges, the other bloke actually saunters—and soon John’s pretty much given up on getting an answer to his question.
“I don’t suppose there’s any harm in my telling you,” the bloke begins, then. “It’s not as if you’ve got any chance of stopping me.” He turns and smiles, and there’s nothing appealing about those big brown eyes now. Their reptilian glitter makes John’s insides crawl. “See, I don’t need to threaten you, John. Sherlock already knows how things stand.”
“Oh, don’t worry. I’m sure he’ll try to save you—I’m counting on it, actually. I just need to keep you out of my way. See, I don’t want him to steal data for me. I just want him. And I can’t have you hanging around trying to change his mind.”
I just want him. So this is a revenge thing. It must be. It makes sense; Sherlock has plenty of enemies. Christ. He has to get out of here—warn Sherlock that he’s walking into a trap, that this guy just wants him dead—
As if reading his mind, the bloke shakes his head, still smirking. “Don’t look so worried,” he says. “I’m not exactly going to kill him. It’s ordinary people who are more interesting when they’re dead.” He sighs, and his expression turns dreamy. “He’s just wasted on the world, that’s all.” Then he claps his hands together, smiling brightly. “Anyway! No need for me to be uncivilised. Just because you’re my prisoner doesn’t mean you can’t also be my guest. So, relax! See the sights!” He gestures around at the shiny shop-fronts, the parasol-clustered cafes. “Have a drink. Have a girl—or a boy, whichever takes your fancy.” John wonders if he’s imagining the glimmer of malicious amusement with which the bloke says that last bit. “And if you need to get away from it all, I’ve got a lovely suite of rooms up on Level 72. Fully catered, soundproofed, very tasteful. Courtesy of an old friend.” He smirks. “She didn’t need them anymore.”
The man inclines his head, and his image begins to disintegrate.
John is the only one who seems to notice; the shoppers carry on drifting by in their ones and twos, unhurried and unfazed.
“Toodle-oo,” says the man. And then he’s gone, leaving John to stare in bewilderment at the space where he stood.
Christ. John has to get out of here. Whatever this man wants with Sherlock can’t be good. And the man may have denied wanting him dead, but what else is John supposed to take from, ‘He’s wasted on the world’? He has to warn Sherlock. He has to try.
But how? He’s not in control of the stim unit, and this construct isn’t the Tally Isham show; there’s no emergency override. He has no idea how to get out. And the blank-faced shoppers stroll around him, indifferent, not even seeming to notice his distress. What the hell is he supposed to do?
There’s a low voice in his ear, then; an arm looping itself through his.
The voice is a woman’s.
“Don’t look at me,” it says. “Start walking.”
* * *
Stupid, sending John out to do his work on the ground. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Moriarty called this a game—and, like a fool, Sherlock expected the madman to operate within the bounds of his own logic. I solve the case, and you leave John alone. Those are the rules. And now the rules have changed around him, and John is at the madman’s mercy.
It feels as though the ground is crumbling beneath his feet.
West’s address isn’t exactly in an affluent area; there’s little CCTV coverage and—as he discovered when he checked Mycroft’s records—the few cameras that do exist were disabled hours before John got there. No word from the Wig or his other contacts in the area, either; there have been either a few quiet deaths in anonymous tower blocks, or some highly localised power outages.
So here he is. The real world.
The Tube is far too slow—the inescapable drag of matter—and Sherlock stands by the doors tapping his foot impatiently as it pulls in at Bethnal Green. Then he’s up and running full pelt toward the exit, heedless of any stares or shouts of annoyance that may follow him.
His path is momentarily blocked by a knot of teenage girls dressed for a night out. One of them shrieks offence as he barges past, and their perfume—cloying artificial vanilla—catches in his throat—
—and momentarily he is eight years old, running down a different corridor with sweetness in his lungs and tears in his eyes, knowing only that the foundations of his world have been irrevocably shifted—
They use vanillin to scent liquid nitrogen. (Absence of odour disturbs people.) Smell is the most emotional of the senses—the one most strongly linked with memory.
He has no time to be emotional now.
His head is beginning to throb. The girls are staring. He glowers at them and sets off again, gulping cold night air as he exits the station.
* * *
John’s guide leads him across the bright, shop-lined plaza and down a series of increasingly narrow avenues heading away from it. They pass through the side-door of an anonymous building which turns out to be a theatre. Later it will play host to holo-projection shows or exotic dancing, augmented prizefights or experimental cabaret, but for now it’s deserted, and they cross the deserted auditorium to slip behind the curtains. Up (or down?) one level backstage via stairs, then into a tiny service lift that brings them out on what John thinks is one of the upper floors. Anyway, it’s a part of Freeside that he doubts the tanned, wealthy visitors ever see.
She lets go of his arm as they exit the lift, warning, “Eyes ahead.” John nods and, doing so, catches a glimpse of his body that startles. His familiar clothes are gone, replaced by a black-and-white staff uniform, and his hands are larger, their nails neatly manicured. He does a double-take, and his guide laughs softly.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “It’s entirely temporary.”
“Right,” he replies, not particularly reassured, and keeps walking.
They hardly get a second glance as they walk through a locker room and then a kitchen, down a few corridors and into another lift. This time, they come out in a spacious corridor whose wall-screens rustle with recorded tropical vegetation, and when John looks down he’s back in his own body.
His guide stops beside a door bearing the designation, ‘72f’, and presses her palm to a reader beside it.
“Level seventy-two,” he says, aloud. “This is—”
“The convenient little suite, yes.”
The door slides open, and she steps inside. John follows. “So does that make you the old friend?”
Her voice is pleased. “Well done, Doctor Watson.”
Finally, John manages to get a proper look at his mysterious guide. She’s a pale woman, thirtyish, in a form-fitting white dress and rust-red lipstick. Pretty—beautiful, even—except that the severity of her sleek black updo lends her face a formidable cast.
Formidable. Good at what she does—John’s no expert on VR constructs, but he’s pretty sure twisting somebody else’s can’t be easy. In cahoots with the criminal who’s gunning for Sherlock—or, at least, she was, once.
That smirk. She didn’t need them anymore.
Not just a woman, then. The Woman.
“You’re a construct,” he says. “You’re dead.”
“And you’re cleverer than you look.” Irene Adler drops into a high-backed white armchair and crosses her legs. “Take a seat, Doctor Watson.”
“But you never had a construct made. When you died, that was it. He nearly lost his bloody mind trying to understand it.”
Adler’s expression grows fixed. “It was a—last-minute decision, shall we say.”
John stares at her. “Right.”
“The man who sent you here,” she goes on, “is Jim Moriarty. He goes by a number of handles, but—well, all you really need to know is that he’s extremely dangerous. And that if you think I flirted shamelessly with your boyfriend—”
“—then just wait until you see the love affair Jim has dreamed up. He’s convinced they’re meant to be. You’re in danger, and so is Sherlock. Let me help you stop him.”
John looks her expression over carefully. “I’m listening.”
“Moriarty is in one of the upper levels of the building where he’s keeping you, plugged into an aleph. You know what one of those is?”
John shakes his head.
“Like a simstim deck, but bigger, and potentially matrix-connected. An aleph can contain virtual worlds. That’s how he’s accessing this construct, and the one he’s built inside the matrix. My guess is that he plans to trap Sherlock in there long enough for his physical body to die. That would eliminate the greatest threat to his organisation. I can help you get up there and stop him. Cut off his life support, destroy the aleph.”
She raises an eyebrow. “No qualms about killing a man, Doctor Watson?”
“Plenty. I’m just not sure I’d call that a man.”
“Hmm.” She smiles, and leans over to place something in his hand. “I’m starting to understand what he sees in you.”
“I wish people would stop saying that,” John grumbles, opening his palm to look at what she’s given him. It’s a scrap of real paper, with a series of numbers written on it in neat black cursive. He frowns at the unfamiliar texture of it in his hand.
“Exit and entry codes. For the room where you currently are, the lifts, and Moriarty’s private quarters.”
John nods. “One question,” he says, and she inclines her head. “I know Sherlock—well, I wouldn’t say he liked you, because liking people isn’t something he really does, but he thought you were interesting. But still. You were rivals. Why help us?”
“Revenge,” she says, brightly. “What? You don’t think just any gangland leader could have outsmarted me, do you?”
“Moriarty killed you.”
“The least I can do is return the favour.”
He takes in the clarity of her purpose, the steel in her expression, and the knot of resentment John has always felt for his imagined version of this woman loosens.
“If I destroy the aleph, you go with it,” he points out.
“That’s the idea. I never intended to continue like this indefinitely, John. It’s not a life. Not for me, at least.”
He bites his lip. “Is there anything I can do?” he finds himself asking.
The red smile falters, just briefly, and Adler’s gaze drops. When she looks back up, she meets his eyes directly. “There’s a girl,” she says. “In the Sprawl. Her name’s Kate. Leave a message with the Finn—Sherlock knows who that is. Tell her—” She pauses. “Tell her I got the bastard back.”
“Okay.” For a second, he thinks of reaching over and squeezing her hand. He doesn’t. “Now get me out of here.”
Irene Adler snaps her fingers, and John is back in the world.
* * *
There’s a public telephone just outside the station. It’s ringing as Sherlock approaches. The sound stops, abruptly, as soon as he has passed. It happens again at the end of the street; a phone-box, this time. He spares it a glare as he sprints on by.
The tyre-tracks outside the block of flats West live in show that somebody drove off in a hurry, but little else. The keypad beside the entrance is broken, the door swinging on its hinges.
There’s a telephone in the lobby, too. Sherlock looks at it. After a split second, he hears the inevitable ring.
He snatches up the receiver. “Not now, Mycroft,” he snarls. “I have another day at least. Leave me alone.”
“It’s me, Sherlock,” says Lestrade’s voice.
“Yeah, look. We really need you in the matrix.”
“I’ll get a team out. Seriously, though, you’ve probably got more chance of helping him if you jack in. Our thief’s struck again. You’re going to want to see this.”
The line goes dead. Sherlock realises that he’s been rubbing his temple, unconsciously. He balls his hand into a fist, and shoves it into his pocket. Then he decides.
* * *
It dwarfs the grey structures of London’s financial institutions, and the cold blue of government systems. It pulses at the heart of the city’s cyberspace representation, a sudden, unthinkable anomaly.
It is a pyramid of light. Vast and silent and waiting.
Waiting for Sherlock.
He walks into the trap.
I'm likely to be short of time this week, due to a family member's being hospitalised. So, apologies in advance for the lateness of Chapter 7!
This looks like it's going to be slightly longer than anticipated. I'm going to have to split the last chapter -- I'm just not sure whether it'll take two or three parts to wrap everything up yet.
The trap is not a trap but a world.
His world: London. Squatting monster-god city, the whole great congeries of junk and wealth and human mess, rendered in unflinching detail.
He is looking upon it from above. The labyrinthine tangle of streets and alleys; the lights of traffic, shopfronts, adboards, newsscreens, holos, in endless permutations of colour; centuries of data-accumulations and millions of moving bodies. The thrum of its pulse felt through masonry and in night air. The circulatory system that underlies and overlays the streets, visible only to initiated eyes: the underground. Information, the vital currency that fills every crack and every channel. The lifeblood.
A construct of this size and realism is far beyond ordinary capabilities; would be the work of years for even the most accomplished of virtual architects, working alone. Its existence confirms the challenge ahead of Sherlock, the brilliance with which he is faced.
The madness, too—for, however brilliant Moriarty is, this must have taken considerable planning. There’s no way he’s created it in the space of weeks. He’s been after Sherlock for much longer than his presence has been visible, then. Years, maybe. How many of the data-thefts and neuro-assassinations he’s solved over the course of his career have been elements of a larger whole? Have had Moriarty, or his agents, at their bottom?
Still. It’s an incredible achievement; one that raises its creator a few notches in Sherlock’s esteem, if not in his affections.
He turns, not quite surprised by the cheery lilt of the intruding voice. Moriarty—or his avatar, though Sherlock suspects he’s the type to attach his own face to his big reveal; dramatic—is smiling smugly, hands tucked into the pockets of his designer jacket. He’s shorter than Sherlock has envisaged; pale; has a soft, pouty face with something unformed and almost childlike about it. Really, expensive outfit and custom-made Zeiss-Ikon eyes aside, he’s fairly unimpressive. Another point in favour of this being his real face. This is an attempt at creating the impression of intimacy; of a reciprocal association, based on respect. I’ll show you mine if you show me yours.
Though Moriarty has already seen far more of him than he would ever have chosen to share.
He makes a noncommittal sound. “All for me? Really, I don’t know what to say.”
“Not very grateful, are you?” Moriarty replaces his smirk with a wounded look. “As bad as your pet. Difficult houseguest, that one.”
In the living-room of West’s flat, Sherlock’s hands go rigid over the borrowed deck. And Moriarty’s smirk is back.
“Where is he?”
“Alright, alright.” Moriarty spreads his hands, looking equal parts put-upon and amused. “Safe, for now. Rules haven’t changed. You solve the little puzzle I’ve set for you, you get your pet back. If you still want him by then, I mean. You might find something more interesting yet.”
Sherlock ignores that last utterance. “Fine.”
“Kind of you to send Johnny-boy out to do your donkey work, by the way—I was starting to wonder if you’d already run out of uses for him. Still. Made my job a lot easier.”
“This is London, correct? Reproduced in every particular?”
“Better than that.”
Sherlock raises an eyebrow. “How so?”
“I control it.” Moriarty lifts his hand, and the traffic in the streets below, the scurrying pedestrians, the aeroplanes trailing high overhead, stop immediately and silently. For a moment, the two of them are the only moving things, the only breathing beings, in the city—and though Moriarty’s conspiratorial glint and the presumption behind it are irritants, Sherlock can’t help being a little impressed.
Moriarty drops his hand, and the cars and planes and people are moving again, the city chaotic with life.
“I can make it better,” he goes on. He snaps his fingers, and fractals of polychrome light wash the sky. “I can make it nothing.” And, in response to some infinitesimal nod of his head, the sky goes out, the streets vanish, the buildings fold down into nothingness. In their places pulse the familiar geometric representations of London’s data cores, and the transparent grid of the matrix stretches away around them without end. “You have to admit, I’m good.”
“Take me to West’s flat.”
Moriarty shrugs. There is a small, knowing twist of amusement to his mouth. It’s a distinctly unpleasant look. “Okay, okay,” he says, with an exaggerated put-upon sigh. “Think about it, though, won’t you?” He doesn’t wait for Sherlock’s reply, though, or for confirmation that he’s not going to get one.
The simulated city blinks back into existence, and now they are standing on a rooftop, overlooking it. Moriarty makes for the entrance to the building. As he pushes open the door, he turns back to look at Sherlock once more, eyes gleaming. “That’s all you’d ever have to worry about if you stayed with me. Thinking. No bodies to get in the way, spilling their blood everywhere at the littlest scratch or stopping working because of tiny little things like bullets None of that meat to weigh you down. We’re too good to be slowed by flesh. You know it. But here—you and me, Sherlock, we could play forever. Just imagine.”
Sherlock rolls his eyes. “Are you stalling because you know I’ve already beaten you, or because you haven’t yet noticed how annoying the sound of your own voice is?”
But he’s never been able to ignore an avenue of thought. He can’t help it. Thinking. Imagining.
* * *
John opens his eyes cautiously, unwilling to give away his consciousness until he has to, but he’s not being watched. Bloody Nose has gone, and the other guy is reclining in a chair with his back to John, eyes fixed on a newsscreen that he’s activated on the far wall. As far as Moriarty’s men are concerned, then, John’s incapacitated. Trapped inside the construct, and no longer a problem.
He moves slow, careful to keep his breathing even and his footsteps steady, despite the throbbing pain in his head and his backside from the fall. (He’s going to have a lovely set of bruises later. If there is a later.) The empty fruit bowl is still on the table, though the floor’s been cleared. John finds the brim of it with his fingers, and it’s thick glass; cool, solid, and heavy. Just what he needs.
He hefts it with both hands and picks his way across the floor, careful to avoid the patch he slipped on earlier. He’s careful, and by the time the bloke catches the sound of his footsteps begins to look around, it’s too late—John’s in range.
The crack the bowl makes as it connects with the bloke’s skull might be sickening under other circumstances, but John doesn’t have time to worry about that right now. He has to get Ratty and his sister out of the basement (damn his sense of duty—though, truthfully, he’d contemplate leaving Ratty to rot if only he hadn’t managed to get an innocent woman dragged into this); find Moriarty and deal with him. Get back to Sherlock.
John nudges the guy with his foot to make sure he’s out cold, then disarms him and tucks the fletcher he finds into the back of his own waistband. After a moment’s consideration, he relieves the guy of his jacket, too, and shrugs it on. There are bound to be cameras in the corridors, and changing his appearance might buy him a little extra time. Then he turns his attention to the wallscreen, shutting off the news channel, typing in one of the codes Adler gave him, and flipping through options until he manages to call up a schematic of the building. He runs over it, floor by floor, noting entrances and exits, places where Moriarty’s men are likely to be stationed. Then he sets off.
Basement first. He does his best to look as though he belongs there despite his hurry—walk purposefully, don’t look nervous—and, for the moment, luck seems to be on his side. The corridors are quiet, and there’s just a lone guard at the door, fletcher holstered. Moriarty clearly doesn’t view Ratty and his sister as any kind of threat. Which, honestly, seems pretty fair—he’s useless, and she’s probably terrified if she’s not still unconscious—but still, it might just betray a weakness.
Moriarty doesn’t think they’re important. Not Ratty and his sister—and not John. He’s already admitted that he’s only holding John to get to Sherlock, and he’s probably managed that by now. He thinks John’s dealt with, done and dusted; he’s moved on. In his crazy game, only he and Sherlock are major players. Everybody else is just a pawn.
The thing is, in a game, once the minor pieces are cleared off the virtual board, they’re gone. It’s not like real life, where they’ve got lives and minds of their own. Is Moriarty still watching the edges of the screen, or is he arrogant enough to think he doesn’t need to?
The guard, for his part, doesn’t seem to be watching much of anything right now. He glances at his wrist display, checking for messages or virtual football scores or the time; sighs and scratches his arse; fumbles in his pocket for cigarettes.
John has the fletcher to the back of his head before he finds them.
The guard starts, but he’s not stupid enough to reach for his gun.
“Can you get this door open?” John asks him, gesturing at the basement entrance.
“Right. Go on, then.”
The guard’s looking a lot more alert, now—he keeps throwing wide-eyed, nervous little glances at John over his shoulder. He presses his palm to the reader and waits for it to scan him, and when he removes his hand it leaves a sweaty smear on the glass.
The door slides open, and there’s a yell from Ratty and a muffled groan from his sister, who’s still slumped on the floor, apparently just waking up. Not conscious enough to have worked out what’s going on and started giving her idiot brother a piece of her mind, anyway. John hopes to hell he gets one later. God knows he’s earned it.
John gestures with the gun. “After you,” he says to the guard.
The guard eyes him warily, but steps ahead of him into the basement bunker.
“What’s going on, man?” demands Ratty. “Get us out of here!”
“Be quiet,” John tells him. “You’re not helping me, or yourself.” He turns his attention back to the guard. “Keys for those handcuffs?”
“Alright. Get these two out.”
John stays close to the guard, gun to the back of his head, but he doesn’t look like trying anything. Ratty jumps up as soon as his cuffs are unlocked, making for the door, but a look from John is enough to stop him in his tracks. Once his sister’s free and on her feet, he steps over to her, offering her his shoulder to lean on and muttering something that might—certainly ought to—be an apology.
“You two, get out of here,” John tells them. “Ground floor’s two levels up—the lift’s on your right, just around the corner. Second corridor on the left when you get up there. There’s a side-entrance that doesn’t look heavily guarded. That doesn’t mean it’s not guarded, though, so be careful.”
Ratty casts a look at the guard. “Hey, aren’t you going to give me his fletcher or something?”
“Do you know how to use one?”
“In that case, no. You’re more likely to end up with it pointed at you than—”
“I do,” interrupts a voice.
Ratty’s sister. Ratty actually turns his head and gapes at her, and she gives him a defiant look.
“What?” she says. “We get some dodgy customers in work. Better safe than sorry.”
“Alright.” John reaches for the guard’s holster, and passes the weapon over. “Now you two, get a move on. Go!”
He watches them make a run for it, taking his eyes off the guard for a fraction of a second. And that brief inattention is all it takes for the guard to twist away from him, reach for a button on the door control panel and hammer it with his fist.
And then there’s an alarm screeching and the door is sliding shut, and the guard is coming at him from the side, arms raised to try and grab him around the neck.
John aims a kick at the guard’s knee that knocks his legs out from under him, and dives for the door, managing to squeeze through just in time. The lift’s not an option, so he breaks into a run, and makes for the stairs.
Really, that seemed like a bit of a crazy gesture on the guard’s part. Trying to raise the alarm even though there was little chance of his detaining John in the bunker, and even though he might’ve got himself shot in the process.
When John thinks about it for another moment, though, it’s sobering. The guard was still more afraid of Moriarty than of the guy pointing a gun at his head.
Well. That just makes finding him more important.
* * *
The swerving tyre-tracks, the hanging door, are identical to those Sherlock saw in reality a short time ago. Moriarty works fast, then.
Right now, though, said criminal is leaning in the doorway to West’s flat with his arms folded, smirking as he admires his own handiwork, or Sherlock’s irritation, or both.
“Worked it out yet?” he drawls, sounding bored. “And, God, wouldn’t you rather think about something more interesting? You know. Like my generous offer.”
Sherlock ignores him, and ascends the stairs. He picks his way across the mess of cables and microsofts on the landing, and makes for the room from whose window West must have been pushed.
Moriarty materialises in front of him again, leaning against the bannister this time. “So much easier than walking,” he says, with a grin. Sherlock continues ignoring him, poking his head through the bedroom door, and Moriarty groans. “Aww, come on. If you’re going to insist on solving another dull murder—honestly, aren’t you sick of those yet?—while you decide to stay with me, you can at least keep me entertained while you do it.”
Sherlock turns back in his direction. “If you just wanted to chat, you should have phoned me. Move.”
Moriarty pouts, but sidesteps obligingly.
The mess in the flat isn’t the only sign that West and his fiancée have never been houseproud: there’s a thin layer of dust over most of the furniture; carpet fluff gathering around the temperfoam slab that serves as a spare bed; window-panes grimy from pollution and pigeon-shit, not cleaned any time in the last five years. But the bannister at the top of the stairs has been recently dusted—wiped with a wet cloth, in fact. And the carpet directly around it is startlingly clean, in marked contrast to the clutter that covers the rest of the landing. The post is battered. Not surprising in itself; these flats don’t exactly get frequent refurbishments. But. Sherlock traces the most prominent of the dents with a fingertip. Then he looks up at Moriarty.
“The brother-in-law did it,” he says.
Moriarty inclines his head, minutely. “Go on.”
And it ought to be satisfying, having an audience—a brilliant one, one that won’t stare at him with fish-mouthed disbelief when he’s done, or insist, incapable of separating knowledge from guilt, that he must have been somehow involved himself—but Moriarty is still the wrong audience. All of this feels wrong; empty.
There’s no disbelief. There’s no accusation. There’s no amazement, either.
And there’s the wrench of sentiment in his gut, and he pushes it down, ignores it fiercely. It won’t help.
“Obvious, really,” he says. “The bannister’s been cleaned. The carpet, too. He did that bit with his sister’s shampoo, since she and West didn’t exactly own a wide array of cleaning products. Distinctive smell; popular with teenage girls. Luckily for our murderer—or it would’ve been, if I wasn’t on the case—the carpet’s dark, and nobody was going to look for a bloodstain here when the body had been thrown out of the window. Even if foul play had been suspected, the assumption would have been that West was pushed and died on impact. The situation seemed obvious—a fall, a dead body; a clear correlation—so the police overlooked what else was obvious: the lack of blood on the ground.”
“So you’ve proved he was killed inside the flat. Sounds like a domestic, though, doesn’t it? And cleaned up with her shampoo? I know she’s a quiet one, bit…”
Sherlock shakes his head impatiently. “The fiancée’s petite. To get the better of him in a physical altercation, she would have needed to use a weapon. West hit his head on the bannister, here.” He fingers the spot again. “That indicates he was pushed with enough force to knock him over. She could have caught him off-balance, but it’s unlikely. Her alibi checks out, too.”
“The owner of the Million owes me a favour. He was thrilled that all I asked for was information. But all this is basic. More importantly, she’d have had little to gain by killing West. She had no idea of the nature of the information he’d discovered—no doubt something relating to the existence of your organisation; more likely to the methods used in some of your more ambitious thefts—and in any case, she wouldn’t have known what to do with it. Her brother, though, entertains ambitions of making it as a console man; he wouldn’t be in touch with the Wig otherwise. He won’t make it, by the way. He’s stupid, but just reckless enough to suggest using the information instead of hiding it. Stubborn enough to push the matter, and indiscriminate enough in his use of stimulants to turn aggressive when dismissed.” He pauses briefly. “Naturally, your people were well aware that West knew what you were up to. And when the situation escalated, they were waiting to swoop on the brother-in-law and use him as bait.”
Moriarty smiles at him. “Bait to catch more bait.”
Sherlock does not smile back. “He directed John here, and thought he was off the hook. I expect he’s in your custody right now, if not at the bottom of the Thames.”
“Tsk, tsk, Sherlock. Waste not, want not.”
“Cryptic doesn’t suit you. If you plan on keeping your word and letting John go now that I’ve solved the case, you’re obviously aware that he might pose a threat. If the killer—and, more importantly, his sister, who’s innocent—are in your custody, John will feel obliged to try to bargain for their lives, or to help them escape.”
“So dutiful. Inconvenient, isn’t it?” Moriarty’s expression turns unpleasant. “She’s very pretty. West’s fiancée. Got an eye for that, hasn’t he?”
“Irrelevant. I’ve solved the case. Let John go.”
“You’ll be far out of reach by the time he gets to you. But you know that, don’t you?”
“You seem to be under the impression you’ve achieved telepathy. And to be underestimating me, which isn’t doing anything to persuade me of your brilliance, by the way.”
Moriarty’s smile tightens. There’s something inscrutable in it. “Your loyalty, perhaps. Touching.”
“Let him go.”
“Fine.” Moriarty shrugs. And his gaze finally drifts from Sherlock’s face. He’s looking into the bedroom, now; through it, and out of the window. Sherlock looks at him carefully—this could be a bluff, designed to draw his attention away from something truly important—but no. The gleam in Moriarty’s expression isn’t furtive. It’s anticipatory.
Sherlock glances out through the window. There’s somebody walking down the street, on the opposite side of the pavement.
Somebody he know—or, at least, a close approximation thereof. John.
It’s a construct. He knows it is, however lifelike it may seem.
But he still has to see. A half-second’s hesitation, and he’s pelting down the stairs.
John—‘John’—seems to catch sight of him as he emerges through the front door, and raises an arm in greeting. Smiles, and it’s John’s smile, open and guileless.
“Sherlock!” he calls, and his voice sounds real, too, happier than it has in who knows how many months. He breaks into a jog, making straight for Sherlock. Steps out into the road.
Moriarty is good. Sherlock has to admit that now. Everything here seems real. The car that rounds the corner, moving far too fast, looks real.
The sickening noise it makes as it collides with John’s—no, no, ‘John’s’—body sounds real.
The blood looks real. Red and warm and living. The tightness in Sherlock’s chest—the black and sucking hollow that has suddenly opened up there—the inarticulate gasp that escapes him, torn out involuntarily—the panic and pain on John’s face—and, worse, the fading of them—
And then the world shimmers, and the scene before his eyes fades away. There is just the cold night; the empty street. No car. No blood. No John. And somewhere above him, Moriarty is laughing.
* * *
John takes the stairs, hoping that Ratty and his sister manage to get out of the lift before it gets frozen by the alarm system. Going by the schematic, the room Moriarty is in is on the top floor, seven storeys up.
Reaching the third floor, John hears a clatter of footsteps above him and descending. He ducks out into the corridor, and finds it lined with locked, code-operated doors that open onto apparently empty rooms. Praying that the code Adler gave him earlier is a general one, he punches it in on the nearest keypad. Mercifully, the door opens. He crouches behind it until the footsteps have faded from his hearing. Inside the room, banks of data-storage equipment hum softly. Thick arteries of cable line the walls, and John feels as though he’s inside the body of some vast electronic beast, its pulse driving data instead of blood.
Sherlock would be able to look around this room and derive meaning from it—decide what role it plays in Moriarty’s plan, tell John whether or not there’s any point destroying the equipment—but Sherlock isn’t here, either physically or via the rig. Sherlock is shut away from him in cyberspace, puzzling out Moriarty’s crazy game in a virtual world. Part of John aches with the fear that he might actually find it better than the real one.
There, after all, he’d be free of all those pesky basic necessities like food and sleep. All those parts of human interaction that he seems to find so inconvenient. Politeness. Conversation. Other people and their messy emotions. John.
No. John shakes his head to clear it; he hasn’t got time to start down that track again now. He can’t make Sherlock’s choice for him. The best John can hope to do is make sure that he gets one.
He lets himself out of the room. Ascends the stairs. It’s quiet now. Moriarty’s men have passed, obviously expecting him to have tried to make a break for it from the ground floor.
He finds the room where Moriarty should—according to Adler—be lying unconscious. He keys in the code. Waits for the door to open.
And stands in the doorway, staring.
* * *
The street is vanishing, too, then; the construct folding down into absence. Moriarty’s laughter closer, now, as though he is standing right beside Sherlock.
“The look on your face,” he crows. “Priceless, Sherlock, really priceless. I knew there was more than one reason I wanted to keep you. You should’ve seen it—actually, what am I saying? You can see it.”
He waves a hand, and then Sherlock’s own face is hanging in the nothingness before his eyes. Ghostly, disembodied, and somehow more unsettling than if it were severed and dripping blood. Its features are pale and drawn, its expression aghast.
“That’s what happens,” Moriarty goes on. “You see? The body betrays you. Won’t do what it’s told. All it really wants to do is die. It’s an imperfect container, and you know it. You need better.”
Sherlock will not look at him.
“Stop it,” he says.
He hears Moriarty shrug, and then the construct is rebuilding itself, a new location coming into being, pixel by pixel—data point by data point—from the ground up.
This time, it’s a hotel room. One he’s been in before, though it was a crime scene then. He knows before he turns to see it that there will be a body on the bed, white and lifeless, with faint bruising around the trodes pressed to its forehead. A face he never saw in life. Red lipstick and black hair.
He turns. She’s there.
And then Irene Adler opens her eyes and smiles at him.
She looks just as he always imagined she might have done, animated. Her eyes dart around the room, quick and bright, and then they light on him and her smile turns devilish. The illusion is good—too good (and in West’s living-room Sherlock’s breath catches in his throat) and all he can do is glare at Moriarty and repeat, “Stop it. Stop it now.”
The room folds away again, taking Adler with it into the cyberspace void. “I’m stopping it,” Moriarty says, “but you’re still not getting it. I’m starting to think I’ve overestimated you. I’m trying to tell you, trying and trying and trying, and you just won’t listen.”
“I’m listening. Unfortunately, all you’ve told me so far is that you’re good at magic tricks.”
“No!” Moriarty says, too loudly, and for a second his face screws itself up with what looks like rage. Just for a second, though; then his expression smoothens itself out, and the smug smile is back in place. “They’re not magic tricks, Sherlock. This is a world. It’s just as real as the one out there—” He makes a vague, contemptuous gesture. “—except that it’s mine. All reality is, is data. Sensory input. That’s what you get here, same as out there, only it lasts. No flesh, no blood, no death, no decay, none of that. Entropy isn’t the only option any more. It’s time we moved on—the best of us, anyway. That’s what I’m offering you. You’ll never need to worry about eating or sleeping again. And you’ll never be bored. Just you and me—and anything else we want.”
“You’ll excuse me if I fear I’d tire of the company rather fast.”
“You don’t mean that,” Moriarty chides him, widening his eyes in a fair approximation of ‘wounded.’ “And anyway, you’re still missing the point.”
“I could be lying.”
“I had considered the possibility.”
“About your pet. Johnny-boy. So determined to rescue him, weren’t you? So willing to play the game. But what made you think I was going to abide by the rules? He could be lying dead in an alley right now.”
Sherlock is very still. He is not startled. It is not as though he has been unaware that Moriarty’s untrustworthy. “If so, Lestrade’s team will have found him by now. I’ll know as soon as I get out of here.”
“Mmm.” Moriarty inclines his head. “You’re assuming I’ll let you go. But really—it’d be kinder to keep you, wouldn’t it? You’d never have to know. While you’re here with me, nobody you love ever has to be deader than Schrödinger’s cat.” He waves a hand. “I mean, sure, I can kill them—” (and again the sound of the car rounding the corner, of impact, and in his mind’s eye Sherlock sees blood) “—but I can bring them back, too. That’s what you always wanted, really, isn’t it? To get rid of death. Transcend it, just like your father didn’t.”
And the stutter of Sherlock’s heart, then, the sharp intake of his breath (in a room in another world, more dangerous even than this one)—they must give away the twist of pain inside him, the shock of it, like touching exposed wire.
Of course Moriarty knows his past, all of it; he’s seen the files. Still, the memories are tender to the touch, unaccustomed to the light.
He expects laughter, but laughter doesn’t come. He blinks, and Moriarty isn’t here anymore. Only the construct, shifting and rebuilding itself around him again. And then there is this:
Sherlock, crouched in a child’s body, shivering. He wants to rub his arms to warm himself, but he’s hiding; he can’t afford to make a sound.
A familiar face, still and pale, seen through glass. A technician swearing.
The smell of vanillin.
He opens his mouth to shout, “Let me out!” and the voice that comes out is a child’s, high-pitched and wobbly. And there’s a throb of pain in his temple—
He is on his feet. He’s running down the corridor, then, sweetness in his lungs and tears in his eyes and a shattered world behind him—and the far end stands Moriarty, with shining eyes and outstretched arms.
His smile, now, is not malicious. It’s proud. And—
“You see?” he asks.
“No,” says Sherlock. “No, let me go—”
Moriarty shakes his head, sadly. “I can’t do that. It’s for your own good, Sherlock. You’ll thank me, one day.”
Sherlock glances up and down the corridor, frantic. His eyes light on a set of double doors. The experimental treatment department is located on the top floor of the hospital, and if he remembers correctly, these doors lead to the roof.
They’re heavy, and he only has a child’s strength, so he hurls himself against them full-force. They open, and he lands in a heap on the bottom step, uses the handrail to pull himself upright. Takes the stairs two at a time.
Moriarty (of course) is waiting for him on the roof. Sherlock doesn’t stop to look at him.
If Moriarty won’t let him out of this world, he has only one option left. He’ll have to take it sooner rather than later. (His head hurts.)
It’s cold up here. The wind tearing at his lungs and whipping moisture from his eyes. Moriarty’s London spread out around him in infinite detail. The sickly shining sky. The vertiginous drop.
He runs towards it.
* * *
“What—” gasps John. “How—what the—”
And then he just gives up and stares, because he’s got no words to adequately convey his surprise. He’s in Moriarty’s sanctuary, and Moriarty is lying on a narrow bed still hooked up to the aleph, and his throat is red and slit open like ripe fruit. Mycroft’s razorgirl is standing beside him, watching his blood drip from her fingertips with an expression of mild interest.
John waits for her to say something. She doesn’t.
“Why didn’t you just cut off the life-support?” is the question he eventually settles on.
She shrugs, and glances down at the splashes of blood on her mimetic polycarbon. “I can afford the dry-cleaning,” she says.
John swallows. “Right,” he says. “Okay. Well.” What next? He feels like his brain is short-circuiting a little. Oh, yes: “We need to destroy the aleph.”
“I’ve already severed the connection to the matrix. He’s contained. He’s ours. My mission’s completed.”
The razorgirl just looks at him, and his stomach drops. If Mycroft is involved—and Sherlock’s not safe—oh, God, everything that Moriarty knew—
No. No, he can worry about that later. Sherlock has to be jacked into the matrix somewhere. Maybe at home, but if he went out after John, he’s more likely to be at West’s.
“I gave you the message,” the razorgirl begins. “We’ve been trying to contact him for weeks. If he failed to take note, Mr Holmes can hardly be held—”
“Shut up,” he says. “Just—just leave it.”
He turns and runs.
* * *
Sherlock’s eyes open on tranquillity. Smooth, manicured green lawns; a profusion of flowers in the beds, uniformly neat and bright; and if he turns around, he’ll see the clean white front of his grandmother’s house.
Dark trees border the grounds. And ahead of him, the lake he swam in as a child, its surface shimmering palely in the early morning light. It’s beautiful, and acts as home to hundreds of genetically identical koi—but it’s old. As a child, he used to wonder what else its depths might hold; what might have lurked there for decades, even centuries. He imagined setting sail on it; fighting monsters from the deep. Always winning.
He turns, and enters the house.
He moves quietly from room to room, touching the furniture—clean, free from dust—with careful fingertips. Everywhere is empty. He walks around the outside of the house, after that. Explores the grounds. Comes back inside.
Time seems to flutter and expand; to curl lazily drifting tentacles around him. He stands before the living-room window, looking out, and finds that the sky has darkened without his notice.
At last, he stretches out on the couch and sleeps.
* * *
The next day is much the same. And the one after. He realises that he feels neither hunger nor thirst, and is belatedly surprised by the fact. He isn’t getting tired, either; he sleeps only because there’s nothing else to do.
Nothing else to do. And yet it isn’t driving him mad. There’s no data here to read, no puzzles to occupy his brain, and he feels—nothing. Only emptiness and silence.
Perhaps some remnant of him manages to be frightened at the fact, because on the third day he walks down to the lake, strips off his clothes, and enters the water. It’s cold—the first real sensation he has experienced since waking here—and it makes him gasp. He pushes off the silty bottom, and makes for the centre, where it is deepest. Water-weeds, indistinct and soft, kiss his calves.
He dives, once, opens his eyes and sees only gloom. Surfaces, rubs them with his fingers, and tries again.
Something catches his ankle, this time. He tugs—instinct more than fear—and is unable to free himself. But he feels no panic, and that realisation elicits no emotional reaction from him. He looks at it as though from afar, and finds it strange, but not disturbing.
Faces swim before him in the dark. A woman with red lipstick, pale and still. A man with mad eyes, laughing. He thinks he knew their names, once. His own face, slack-mouthed and vacant-eyed. Another, with the same grey eyes but different around the mouth, older and paler and utterly still.
The water-weeds caress him; curl their tendrils in his hair.
And then another face. Another man—sandy-haired, sad-eyed, his forehead creased with worry.
And the tendrils in his hair are no longer tendrils. They’re fingers. Warm. Solid.
He gasps for air. And there’s a voice. The voice is saying a name. The name belongs to him. And the face has a name of its own. He gropes for it in the depths of himself—fails and tries again—
John is here with him, in West’s flat. John’s hands, feeling for the pulse at his temple, gently parting his eyelids to check for a response. Phosphenes flare at the corners of his vision—like the fade-in of the matrix, and for the moment that the illusion lasts his heart skips, not with the familiar homecoming thrill but with no.
I want to stay here with you.
Apologies (if anyone's still reading!) for how long this chapter's been in coming. Let's just say that it was a tough write, for personal reasons.
Sherlock’s eyes flicker open—at last, at long fucking last, thank Christ. They seek out John’s and fasten there. His fingers work uselessly at his sides, grasping air.
“John,” he says, dry-throated, urgent. Then again: “John.”
John’s hand finds his arm and tightens on its solidity. “Yeah,” he replies, voice unsteady with relief. “Yeah, it’s me. I’m here.”
Sherlock leans fractionally toward him, blinking rapidly. And then all of John’s relief drains away, leaves him cold, because Sherlock is jerking back out of his grasp, one hand flying to his head. He presses the heel of his palm there, wincing. Then looks back at John.
His voice comes out hoarse: “Call Mycroft.”
John stares, his earlier suspicions floating back to the forefront of his awareness. Does Sherlock know? Sherlock always knows, surely?
“Right. Right, sorry.” Sherlock knows more than he does, probably, and later he’ll explain how stupid John is being, now, how he’s causing unnecessary delay by standing around asking questions. There was a phone downstairs in the hallway. John just hopes the bloody thing’s working—
“It’s alright, Doctor Watson. We’ll take it from here.”
He doesn’t recognise the woman standing in the doorway, but judging by her outfit—the same mimetic polycarbon sported by the razorgirl who killed Moriarty—and her unruffled expression, she has to be one of Mycroft’s people. John eyes her with suspicion.
“Will someone tell me,” he says, “just what the hell is going on?”
“Here, sir,” the woman says into empty air. A communicator, of course; a rig much like John’s own, only probably newer and more capable. Then she looks at him and smiles. “Of course. Mr Holmes will fill you in himself, if you’d like to come with me.”
There’s noise down in the lobby, now, outside in the street. The thud of footsteps, clipped voices, an engine starting up. A siren. Figures crowd up the stairs and into the room: not uniformed, but carrying medical kit and moving with the brisk economy of the emergency services. They make for Sherlock, who’s still wincing in obvious pain. The woman’s smile does not waver.
John shakes himself. “No,” he says. “I’m not going anywhere with you. I’m not doing anything Mycroft bastard Holmes tells me to do, and I’m not leaving him.”
To his surprise, Sherlock shakes his head, waving one hand in a weak gesture of dismissal. “We don’t have a lot of choice, John,” he says. “Just go with her.”
“But—Sherlock. Sherlock, listen. I think—some of the things Moriarty knew, I think your brother must have told him. Do you really think we can trust him?”
“Not an inch.” Sherlock is paler than usual, John realises, his eyes half-closed against the light. “But we don’t have much choice about that, either.”
John feels his heart contract. Looking at Sherlock, he tries to call up his medical knowledge, run diagnoses in his head, but perhaps worry is clouding his judgement, because he can’t seem to make any of them fit. No visible injuries. Migraine? Seems unlikely; Sherlock’s never suffered before, and that would hardly merit this level of medical attention. Meningitis? He’s barely left the flat in weeks, so where the fuck would he have been exposed? A toxin or malign nanotech, administered by one of Moriarty’s goons while Sherlock was out?
A medic moves in front of John as he stares, obscuring Sherlock’s face from view.
“Doctor Watson,” the woman says, softly. “He’ll be fine, I assure you.”
John wonders what value of fine she’s working with, but at Sherlock’s irritable, “Oh, just go,” he turns and follows her down the stairs.
Still, he can’t help feeling like they’re both walking into yet another trap.
* * *
She leads John to a black car parked outside the block of flats as the medics carry Sherlock out to an ambulance on a stretcher. It looks like overkill—but what if it’s not? Another twinge of worry in his gut. The ambulance sets off, lights flashing and sirens screeching, and they follow close behind. The route they take isn’t one John knows, and he tries to work out what kind of a hospital they can be taking Sherlock to, before concluding that the answer is probably not one.
Whatever’s going on here had better have a damn good explanation, John thinks, trying to galvanise his impotent fears into rage because the alternative is just sitting there feeling sick and thinking about how little help he’s been so far.
At some imperceptible gesture from the woman sitting beside him, the car’s windows darken. She slides down a panel on the back of the seat in front of John, revealing what looks like an inbuilt simstim deck. Sleeker and more compact than any he’s ever seen, though. John’s no expert, but he suspects that you probably can’t get these on the open market.
The woman pulls out a pair of dermatrodes, and holds them out to him. He looks at her in puzzlement for a moment, and then realisation dawns.
“Oh,” he says, “oh, no fucking way.” The last person who tried to talk to him that way was probably planning on killing him, after all. But, more than that, the idea of being in anybody else’s world right now makes his insides clench with dread. Any world—real or not—that doesn’t have Sherlock in it, he wants no part of. “Whatever your boss has got to tell me, he can bloody well tell me to my face.”
Apparently there’s enough vehemence in his voice to forestall any protest, because the woman just looks at him for a moment, then shrugs, replaces the trodes, and slides the panel back into place.
“I’m afraid not, sir,” she says into the empty space before her, with a roll of her eyes. “Yes. Twenty minutes.”
John doesn’t look at her again. He keeps his eyes fixed on the flashing lights of the ambulance. Wishes he knew half of what Sherlock does, wishes things would start making some kind of sense, and then wonders whether those are wise things to wish.
* * *
The ambulance pulls up ahead of them. The glimpse of Sherlock’s face John catches between the opening doors is pallid, feverish. No sooner have the car doors unlocked than he’s out and on his feet, half-running toward the ambulance.
The woman catches him by the arm before he gets far. Her grip is surprisingly strong, though she doesn’t have any visible augmentations. But then, the kinds of augmentations Mycroft Holmes can afford for his staff are probably mostly invisible.
“You’ll come with me,” she says. “Your presence wouldn’t be of any help to him right now.”
There is a steely edge to her voice, and John glowers as he shrugs off her hand. “What happened to your colleague?” he asks.
“Anthea? I’m not at liberty to say.”
“Yeah, well I think I preferred her.” He glances toward the ambulance again before falling into step beside the woman, but he can’t see Sherlock any more. “At least I knew when she was threatening me.”
She keeps walking.
* * *
They’re admitted to the building via one set of heavy, automated doors, then another and another. They pass down a corridor illuminated by the kind of industrial striplighting that somehow manages to be gloomier than darkness, getting scanned by a startling array of security devices—some of which John recognises, most of which he doesn’t—on the way. The woman escorting him stays quiet, but the echo of her heels on the concrete just manages to make the whole place seem that little bit more desolate. Like they’re leaving London behind, walking down into the bowels of the earth, an extra remove from sanity.
The final set of doors opens before them, and for the second time that night, John feels like he’s just walked into somebody else’s reality.
Only this one can’t be safely locked away inside a stim unit. There’s no escape scenario that doesn’t rely on either the goodwill of Mycroft Holmes (if such a thing exists) or John’s being able to fight his way out. And somehow, he doubts that there’s any friendly digital sprite hidden away in Mycroft’s security mainframe waiting to let him out.
The cold industrial corridors end here. The one that leads off from the final set of doors is plushly carpeted, lit by dim, warm lamps set into holders on the walls, and lined with old-world landscape paintings in frames that look like real wood.
The woman gestures for him to walk out ahead of her, opens the second door on the right, and smiles blandly at him. “Mr Holmes will be with you shortly,” she says. “Please, take a seat.”
John glances around the room with suspicion. It’s more of the same.
Mycroft must have paid to outfit this place himself. John’s been inside government buildings before, and they’re grey, sorry-looking places. You can practically hear them groan as they hold up the creaking vestiges of the city’s infrastructure. Certainly nothing like this. Walls lined with shelves of faux-leather-bound books; heavy brocade-covered armchairs; a fair approximation of a wood-burning fireplace out of some period simstim. It’s all texture, John realises. The damask-flocked wallpaper, the spines of the books with their embossed titles, the way that everything is polished wood and rich fabric. Not just old-fashioned, but solid and tactile. The opposite of any world Sherlock might want to inhabit.
He wonders who Mycroft is trying to convince. What he’s trying to convince them of.
Of course, it’s cosy, too, all warm and unthreatening. Mycroft probably uses it to lull people into a false sense of security, make them forget the dozen varieties of discreet surveillance equipment that are no doubt tracking their every movement, every expression, every thought.
Still. Whatever Mycroft has got planned for him, it’s unlikely to be anything he can fight his way out of. And if it means he gets to find out what the hell is going on with Sherlock, John doesn’t know that he gives a toss what happens to him. After a moment, he shrugs, shifts a few cushions off one of the overstuffed armchairs, and settles in to wait.
Thankfully, Mycroft doesn’t keep him waiting long. He’s still sitting in the armchair, reading the spines of the (possibly real) books on the shelf opposite to keep himself from feeling sick with worry, when a smooth voice behind him says, “Doctor Watson. I hope you haven’t been waiting long?”
They’ve never spoken in person before, but John recognises Mycroft’s face from monitors and his voice from phone calls, and the disconcerting way he looks John over—cataloguing and evaluating his every attribute at a glance—from Sherlock.
Who is God knows where, right now, having God-knows-what done to him by strangers who may be medically-trained, but if they work for Mycroft that doesn’t mean John trusts them one iota. He gets up.
“Mycroft,” he says. “What’s going on?”
Mycroft just smiles at him. “My brother is currently under the care of an excellent medical team. There’s no need for you to worry—though I suppose it’s understandable; no doubt he’s neglected to inform you of the particulars.”
“Particulars of what? What did Moriarty do to him?” Mycroft’s mild expression remains in place, and John lets his voice harden. “What did you let that bastard do to him, more to the point?”
Mycroft’s eyebrows shoot up. “Moriarty?” He is still smiling. “No—no. The current situation has nothing to do with him—or, at least, he’s involved only indirectly. Sherlock might have paid a little more attention to his own wellbeing and contacted my people had it not been for the case—but that’s doubtful. Still. No harm done.”
John just stares at him. “You’re saying Moriarty didn’t do this to him? You didn’t sell him out?”
“Hm.” Mycroft turns away from him. He looks to be examining something on the bookcase that runs along the opposite wall. “That’s a quaint turn of phrase, isn’t it? ‘Sold out.’ Something of an irrelevance in a world where everything has its price—though national security is arguably of greater value than money.”
He’s silent for a long moment. John looks at his back: the immaculate suit jacket, the casual aloofness of his stance.
“Sorry?” he says, at length. “Was that an admission? Am I supposed to say oh, that’s alright then? You fed your own brother’s life story to a criminal mastermind but that’s fine, because he gave you some information or he promised not to fuck with your systems or whatever it was? Jesus Christ, did you even think about what he was going to do with it?”
At that, Mycroft pivots where he stands. He looks at John. Lets the moment stretch out, his expression hanging somewhere between startled amusement and contempt. And then he actually chuckles. “Your concern does you credit, Doctor Watson. But I’m afraid your understanding of the situation is incomplete. Do you really think a man like Jim Moriarty is the type to strike straightforward bargains?”
“Then what did he give you?” John asks. Then he blinks. “Wait. Is? No. No, your assistant—Andrea or whatever her name is—she killed him. I saw his body, she had his blood on her hands—”
“Ah, yes.” Mycroft’s smile thins a little. “Anthea’s actions were—regrettable—but perhaps understandable, given her personal situation. Her fiancé worked in data security for a major finance institution; he was a casualty of the first attack. I had thought her capable of handling the situation with professionalism, but—well. No matter. Nothing of paramount importance was lost.”
“He is dead, then?”
“In the physical sense, yes.”
“Why do I think there’s a ‘but’ coming?”
“A digital construct of his personality—an electronic ‘ghost,’ I suppose, in layman’s terms—survives inside of the aleph, which is now safely in our possession. It’s entirely cut off from the matrix proper. The threat is neutralised, but any information known by Moriarty at the time of his death is still accessible to us.” The thin smile becomes briefly unpleasant. “And we do have ways of accessing it.” A short pause. “We’ve been monitoring Moriarty for some time. We knew of his obsession with my brother, and had a good idea of how he might behave, if given certain information. It’s all worked out quite neatly, in the end.”
“You,” says John. “You planned this? The whole thing? You manipulated all of us, and you didn’t even think to—to let him know? Your own brother? I—Jesus Christ. Jesus fucking Christ.”
“You do keep returning to that point. Yes, there was a small risk—and had Sherlock been trapped inside the aleph too, I confess I would have been saddened. I suspect he might not have been averse to the idea, in truth, but it would have undone so much of my hard work. Still. To place the wellbeing of a single member of one’s own family above the safety—even the lives—of thousands? Would that not seem a little selfish?”
“It would seem human,” John snaps.
But there’s still confusion swirling in the rising tide of his anger, stopping him from knowing whether he can yet let loose his rage. There was a risk, Mycroft said, as though it’s now been averted—but Sherlock’s just been admitted to some kind of a medical facility. Sherlock is still in pain.
“And would you please stop talking in riddles? What hard work? Let me know what’s going on or just let me see him, will you?”
Mycroft’s gaze is level. “Sentiment is often a cause for regret, Doctor Watson, but none of us is immune. Surely you don’t think you’re Sherlock’s only protector?”
Protector? John thinks. What part of this fucking mess is protection? But he doesn’t say it aloud; just folds his arms. “I’m listening.”
After a moment’s pause, Mycroft makes his way to one of the other armchairs, and sits down. He crosses his legs. “You’re aware that our father passed away when Sherlock was very young?”
“I knew your parents were dead. Or, I worked it out, anyway, from a couple of things Mrs Hudson said. And the fact that Sherlock never said anything about them at all.”
“As a matter of fact, our mother’s still alive, after a fashion—but you don’t need to hear about that now. You weren’t aware, then, that my brother saw him die?”
Despite himself, John winces. “No. I—no. God.”
“Our father was a man of the world,” Mycroft goes on. “A lover of travel, of sport, and of fine food and wine, alongside his intellectual pursuits. He loved our mother dearly. He was diagnosed with a rare form of cancer in his late thirties—one that then, as now, lacked any guaranteed cure. The idea of living out his life like other patients—in a vat, existing and communicating primarily via virtual reality constructs—was abhorrent to him, and he elected instead to enter cryogenic hibernation until such a time as a cure should be found. The procedure was then highly experimental—he had designed the equipment himself—and, as I’m sure you’ve guessed by now, he did not survive it. Sherlock had hidden in the freezing room, and saw everything.” For the first time, the vaguest flicker of something else disrupts the surface of Mycroft’s composure, but it’s suppressed before John can guess at what it is. “He maintains to this day that his motive was curiosity, but I suspect that what he was really seeking was reassurance. He was deeply attached to our father.”
John lets out a breath, feeling faintly stunned. “Well,” he says. “That explains a lot.”
“Doesn’t explain everything, though.”
“Perhaps understandably, my brother has had something of an aversion to what we still call the real world ever since. The physical dimension, and the inevitability of its decay—he’s long sought to escape them, and not always by legal means. Drugs, questionable sexual activities, data-theft—well, you know about all of that. I feared that his activities might lead him to self-destruction, so I took advantage of an overdose in order to have certain… safeguards put in place.”
“Safeguards?” John repeats, stupidly.
But his mind is racing. His confusion ebbs; narrows and sharpens into something else.
“You’re aware of some of the common corporate uses of neurosurgery, of course,” Mycroft goes on.
Those pains were just warning shots; signs that something much bigger was about to go wrong. Cortex charges? Not likely; Mycroft likes to do things under the radar. Biochip implants, more likely. Time-sensitive and debilitating. Oh, fucking hell, it’s all starting to make sense now. Sherlock doesn’t really seem to give a shit about physical danger, but then there’s so much worse that Mycroft could threaten him with.
He needs to come in and see us soon. Or.
Or we’ll turn that brilliant brain of his to mush.
John is silent for a long moment. Lips pressed shut, feeling like his head might burst with anger. He takes one deep breath and then another. When he speaks, though, his voice comes out level and deadly calm.
“So,” he says. “You knew he was scared of dying. Of his body letting his mind down. Not being able to escape it. And instead of trying to help him you guaranteed it.”
“Doctor Watson.” There is a pitying edge to Mycroft’s voice, now. “I understand that you are… fond of my brother. I appreciate your concern for his welfare. I hope you’ll come to understand that I share it. There was little chance of Sherlock’s achieving a healthy reconciliation to the inevitable; he’s always been fond of imagining himself able to transcend human limitations. I preferred to ensure that he didn’t manage to kill himself in the attempt.”
“That’s not the point!” John scrubs at his eyes. “You didn’t even give him a chance! How the hell are you supposed to trust anything when there’s a biochip in your brain that’ll shred your mind if you try to run away? He never had a bloody choice, did he?”
“Didn’t he?” Mycroft looks at him intently. “You could have removed it. Why do you think he never asked?”
That brings John up short for a moment—but only for a moment.
Mycroft claims to have done this for Sherlock’s own good. Hell, he even seems to believe it. And for all the effortlessness with which he verbally dissects other people’s, close relationships aren’t exactly Sherlock’s strong point. Christ. Did he think John’s concern for him would end up in the same place? That he’d refuse?
John sets his jaw. “Yeah,” he says. “Well. Maybe he shouldn’t have to.”
A mild eyebrow-raise is all the answer he gets, for a moment.
“I mean it,” he goes on. “I’ve got experience with this stuff. I’m as good as any of your lot. Take me to him and I’ll fix this mess.”
“And why would I consider it in need of fixing?”
John is on his feet before his brain quite registers what his body’s doing. His hand is perfectly steady as it forms a fist, and aims right at Mycroft’s jaw.