John Watson carefully poured nails into the metal shaft of the pipe bomb. Reaching in with his forefingers, he grasped the ends of the copper wires that would eventually attach to the mercury switch. He pulled a strip of black electrical tape with his teeth, reached his free hand for the box cutters.
And noticed that his Sig was missing.
“Which ever of you has my gun, you have two seconds to give it back,” he said, spitting away the tape. It crinkled uselessly. Annoyed, he balled up the piece. “It’s not a toy, you idiots.” He stood up and looked around the dismal studio apartment. Though it was noon in Portland, Oregon, the sky was the colour of slate, and a steady drizzle made the surrounding trees and buildings look foggy. John did a double take on the window.
Oh, god, it was amateur hour in here.
“And who opened the hell opened the blinds?” asked John. He limped over to the window and pulled down the mini blinds again. There was little difference in the light level. James and Kirkpatrick looked up from the foam they were shaping to eventually secure the bomb in the cardboard box. James eyes glanced towards the toilet.
“Duncan did it,” said the former slave.
All his team were former slaves. That was the one thing that he'd insisted on when he took on projects. Only slaves understood viscerally the situation their brethren were in. James and Duncan had been slaves since childhood. James due to being orphaned, Duncan from birth. Kirkpatrick was stripped of his citizenship in debtors' prison. All were ready to stick it to the man who had stuck it so hard and heavy to them.
“Duncan!” John shouted through the door. “What did I say about security? Leave the blinds alone!”
“Fuck off, Limey.” It was muffled by the wooden door, but full of anger.
John was about to say something more, but at that moment the front door burst open, and the apartment was teeming with men in black body armour. Imperialist Guard — the Crown’s not-so-secret police. James and Kirkpatrick leaped to their feet, scattering to flee a hail of AK-47 fire. The room seemed to erupt in noise and bits of foam. Instinctively John dived behind the kitchen counter. He heard nothing but his heart pounding in his chest.
They'd been made. How? Who'd ratted them out?
Where was the goddamn Sig?
Too late. The soldiers poked their gun muzzles over the counter and down at John's head. He winced and raised his hands to either side, expecting the sudden but brief pain of a bullet tearing through his brain. But it didn't come. Instead one of the soldiers handed off his weapon and then grabbed John's wrists, twisting him around and securing them behind his back. He was pressed down until he lay on his stomach on the kitchen linoleum.
“Target identified and secured,” one of the guard said. “Two dead.”
Another voice: “Strike that, they've got collar scars. Mark them down as property loss.”
John heard the bathroom door open up. He turned his head to look. To John's surprise and anger, Duncan walked out with a smug smile on his freckled mug and John's Sig hanging by the guard off his finger. Traitor, he thought, swallowing his surprise.
“Yeah, that's him,” Duncan said. His accent was faintly southern. That should have been a tip off. The southern colonies had always been less sympathetic to abolitionism. But Duncan was a runaway himself, how could he do this? He couldn’t possibly want to go back into slavery, could he? One of the guard was now latching a standard issue collar around the boy's neck. The boy winced slightly as the collar was fixed in place.
John considered a biting retort, but a sudden commotion alerted him that he situation had changed. The soldier next to him stood up and saluted. He forgot what he was going to say, in favour of sizing up this new development.
A new voice, English and upperclass by the accent, rang out. “Now where is he? Ah, there you are!”
A smartly dressed gentleman stepped around the counter. He appeared to be in his early 40's, with slightly thinning brown hair and an expensive three-piece suit. He was using an umbrella like a cane, which suggested that it wasn't actually meant for the poor weather.
“John H. Watson, British national, citizen and Army doctor until two years ago. Unrepentant abolitionist terrorist ever since.” With an offhanded gesture, he signalled John be lifted up to standing. “I'm Mycroft Holmes, Intelligence Consultant to His Highness, King of England and Regent of the Civilised Realm. Good to finally catch up to you.”
John said nothing. He'd never heard of an intelligence consultant. It sounded suspiciously off the books.
“Not much to look at, now, are you.” The voice was easy, almost kind sounding despite the words. Smug. John could sense a psychological agenda behind it. Impressing on me his importance, John thought.
“I wasn't aware that you needed to be impressed,” said John. “I'll try better in the future.”
“Oh, but I am impressed,” said Holmes, faux contrite. “Did I give you the impression I wasn't? Forgive me. I would hardly be here if you were a run of the mill terrorist. I have better things to be doing.”
“Well then,” said John, defiantly.
“You've been very busy on this trip. Since you've come to visit this lovely colony, you have coordinated the destruction of two slave records centres, an intake facility and a collar distribution warehouse. There are now over twenty thousand slaves with no proof of ownership, and another five hundred crowding the jails, waiting for their collars when they should already have been sold and set to work. Thanks to you, the Oregon Colony has taken a rather severe hit to its economy. Taxes are down. Naughty, naughty.” He waggled his finger.
Mycroft then stepped closer and reached up a hand to touch the front of John's throat. “I can see why the property might like to strike back, but what would make a freeman like yourself take up this cause?”
“Slaves have as much right as us to their lives. They aren't property. We are all human. We are all equal.”
“You are far too smart to be this naive, Watson,” said Holmes, patting John's cheek gently. “The British Empire runs on three things: Loyalty, Ingenuity, and Labour. Without slaves, and the revenue they generate, our economy would fall apart. Our standard of living would crumble. The world would be plunged into a new dark age of chaos.”
“Codswallop,” said John. “This is morally wrong. Who decides which humans are worthy of full rights and which aren't?”
Mycroft leaned forward, his brows raised with condescending patience. “I decide that. John.” The switch to first names sent a shiver down John's back.
He reached out a hand to one of the black clad men, who passed him a silvery object. A collar. John suddenly shook and tried to pull away from his captors, but was held still. “Forgive the ordinary workmanship, this is only a temporary collar. The real one will be much more sophisticated.”
John blanched. “No. You can't strip me of my citizenship like this. I haven't been tried.”
Mycroft's brow rose. “Oh, but records can be manufactured as easily as they are destroyed.”
“Don't do this. My family has friends --”
“Who will be far too embarrassed by your behaviour to speak up for a black sheep like you. And really, it’s only a matter of time before you’d have been put in one. You’ve been caught red handed, John. There’s no question of your guilt.”
John tried to squirm out of the way as Holmes reached forward and put the collar around his neck. It was cold and solid seeming and it latched tightly around his throat just below his adam's apple. He hissed as the needles entered his spine, just between the C4 and C5 vertebrae.
Mycroft smiled pleasantly at him. “Did you even know what that facility makes? The one whose CEO you were attempting to blow up with this crude device?” he pointed his chin at the pipe bomb.
“New innovations in collars.”
“Yes. Internal collars they are called,” said Holmes with that gentle smile again. “The one we have on you now is crude but effective. Three levels of enforcement: pain for the minor offences. Unconsciousness for more unruly ones. And finally death, for when the other two fail to make a proper impression on the slave. Not very nuanced, I think you'll agree. And rather prone to occasional malfunction, which has at times killed perfectly useful slaves.”
“The new collars are surgically implanted. They can't be accidentally set off by impact or a poorly tuned radio. They also can't be removed by hacking. They use the slave's own brain to help regulate their behaviour. Imagine it, John! A perfectly content and happy slave. There would be no need to inflict painful punishment, or expensive death.” He touched John's face again. Gently. Lovingly. “Even an unrepentant terrorist like you could be salvaged into a useful, productive asset for the crown.”
“I'd rather die.” John gritted his teeth.
“Well,” said Holmes backing off. “I imagine you would. Which is why we don't offer slaves those sorts of choices.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out a remote. “Hold him steady, I don't want him injured when he falls.”
John opened his mouth to say something, then Holmes pressed the button and the room telescoped away.
“Now, John, hold out your arms and touch your nose with your forefingers.” Dr. Riner smiled unctuously.
John gritted his teeth. What he wanted to do was to rip the leads from his hospital-gowned body. He wanted to jam his fingers up into the incision at the base of his head and yank out the wires that now threaded through his brain. What he wanted to do was to grab the metal tray and smash it against this Colonial doctor's face and then storm his way up to the viewing gallery and strangle Mycroft Holmes.
What he did was hold out his arms and touch his nose with his forefingers. Immediately he felt a mild wave of euphoria. His body relaxed into it.
“As you can see by his heartbeat, complying with orders reduces the stress to his body.”
“Will it effect his judgement or his abilities?” asked Holmes.
“It's non-narcotic and localised, it consists of electrical stimulation of certain centres of his brain. He should remain sharp and capable. However it's not wholly without risk.”
“Addiction mainly. Psychological addiction, I should clarify. A slave can get used to being ordered about, they may require it or become despondent. On the other hand, you'll need to make sure that he's given a reasonable number of orders to fill each day, if you want the collar to have its proper effect.”
“And what happens if he chooses not to comply to orders. Will it punish him as well?”
Dr. Riner turned back to his patient. “John, heel!”
John gasped and fell to his knees. His skin was on fire. All thought left him and he was at mercy to the agony. It lasted the space of a second, then his skin cooled and he found himself on all fours, sweating and staring at the tiled floor. “While pleasure is automatic,” Dr. Riner said. “There is no way to predict how much time a slave needs to comply with an order, therefore punishment must be induced by specific verbal command. The actual wording may be changed to suit the owner's preference. I suggest something that is unlikely to be casually mentioned, but not easily forgotten.”
“Forgotten, would that really be a problem?” Mycroft frowned. “Is positive feedback really that effective?”
“You'd be surprised!” Dr. Riner grinned. “So far with my other test subjects, punishment was not required after the first week.”
Mycroft brought his hands together in a soundless clap. “Ah! Fascinating results!”
“This is the wave of the future, Mr. Holmes,” said Dr. Riner proudly. “Clean, effective, and best of all ethical slavery. A life of service and pleasure instead of service and pain. I really don't understand why the abolitionists targeted my technology.”
“I imagine it's because it rather undermines their message. Why would slaves wish to be freed if this is what it entails?”
“You're right,” said Dr. Riner. To John he said, “Up.”
Shaking John rose up and got his expected burst of calming pleasure. He gritted his teeth as soon as the brief bliss was over.
“What is the security on the device,” asked Mycroft Holmes. “What's to keep him from simply ordering himself – or from taking orders from unauthorised personnel?”
“The software is keyed to his own recognition centres. Once authorisation is set, he will recognise visual and verbal commands from those programmed to be in authority over him. He will not, however, recognise written orders, nor second hand ones. This might be inconvenient, but better that than allowing loopholes that could be exploited.”
Dr. Riner frowned. “Tell me,” he said, almost reluctantly. “There's a rumour that John is a freeman. When I went in to operate I saw only very recent marks on his spine from a collar.”
“He's newly acquired. Did John tell you about the pipe bomb he was planning on killing you with? This man is one of the most blazon abolitionists it's been my pleasure to apprehend.”
Dr. Riner shook his head and jumped back away from John, looking at him for the first time as if he might be dangerous.
John considered reinforcing this, but the memory of the pain was too fresh. He needed a plan.
“Well then,” said Mycroft. “I don't think the rumour about his status is something that needs to make its way into your report. Besides, having data on someone who is not prejudiced by prior slave conditioning is invaluable, wouldn't you think?”
Dr. Riner nodded. “Absolutely.”
“When can I take him back with me?”
Dr. Riner reached over and began disconnecting the leads. “Any time. I'll leave you a sheet on the aftercare for the incision, but otherwise he can be treated like any other property.” He smiled up to the viewing gallery. “It's good to see you in person, Mr. Holmes. And thank you so much for the support with my research.”
Behind the glass, Mycroft smiled down. “No, no. Thank you.
Mycroft had a chartered a jet for the trip back to London.
John hoped to use the confusion of the airport as a way of dislodging the man long enough to send a coded message out. He needed to let his people know to go to ground. He'd been held incommunicado for four days, who knows what had happened in his absence. But they bypassed the main terminal entirely and drove right into a hanger farther down the access road.
John did his best to seem invisible, expressionless, watching the seamless dance of Mycroft's underlings. It seemed almost choreographed. As Mycroft exited the limo, four black clad minions (and John could only describe them as such, if they had rank or insignia, it wasn't visible on their uniforms) swarmed around him. A languid reach in one direction was answered immediately with a mobile being offered. A tap to Mycroft's temple and other people raced on some task or other. Mycroft managed to give the impression of relaxed, almost lackadaisical composure while dealing with one situation after another.
For the most sake Mycroft ignored John, allowing him to hang back a few feet, seemingly uninterested in what he was looking at. John scanned for holes in the security. The hanger itself was large, and other than the limo it contained a single Lear Jet and not much else. Attempting to run to its wide open doorway would invite attention, but smaller movements, standing farther and farther off against one of the walls, for example, seemed to elicit no alarm. The minions seemed to dismiss his presence entirely, as though they thought him of no significance. As well they might if they considered him a slave rather than a prisoner. While Mycroft instructed the porter on the handling of his luggage, it seemed for just a moment that no one was watching at all.
John drifted nonchalantly towards an unmarked door.
“John, stop,” said Mycroft casually. He hadn't even turned around. The porter craned his head over Mycroft's shoulder to look at him curiously.
Startled, John held still and then tightened his lips as the thing in his head rewarded him. Distracting, annoying. Like a pat on the head every time he behaved like a dog. He didn't want to feel good every time he followed this man's orders.
“Come along then,” Mycroft said a moment later, finally turning around. Then, glancing at the door John had been considering, he let his lips quirk up. “You wouldn't have gotten far. That door is locked, and even if it weren't it only leads to an office.”
John gave nothing away with his expression. He had no illusions of escape at this point, but an office had a phone. He had a duty to alert his people to go to ground.
Mycroft's eyes narrowed. “You might want to take a look at this before you do anything rash.” He reached out and a minion handed him a rolled up paper.
The headline read: LARGEST ABOLITIONIST BUST IN LAST 25 YEARS. In smaller letters it went on to say that twenty three citizens had been apprehended and over a hundred runaway slaves had been liquidated in a series of raids. Liquidated. Killed. Mycroft finger slid down the column until it reached John Watson's name. “You've made it to the papers. Congratulations. Your fifteen minutes of fame.”
John hung his head. God. His family must have seen that.
Out of masochism, he read the article and silently checked off people who he'd worked with, liked, trusted. Dead. Dead. Dead. Most had been slaves. As property they'd been simply disposed of on site, no trial, no chance. Not even a grave. Those weren't used for medical research would have their useful organs removed and then burned to ash in the colonial run crematoriums. All their dreams and hopes simply ended. Friends. Gone without a trace.
“I do so love a happy ending,” said Mycroft, unironically. “Good triumphs over evil. Justice wins out. Very satisfying. But I suppose you wouldn't see it that way. Yet. Give it time, John.” He clapped John's shoulder in a sympathetic way.
John turned his head away.
Mycroft shrugged and stepped toward the plane. “Step lively, John. Here we go.”
Two bright young flight attendants stood by to help them up the steps of the Lear Jet. Mycroft jauntily climbed up into the plane. John followed more slowly, his sore leg twinging with every step. Inside, Mycroft had settled into one of the posh cream coloured chairs. A laptop was flipped open in front of him and he was already tapping away.
“Sit down,” said Mycroft, offhandedly pointing at the seat opposite.
John took it. Breathed. One more followed order.
“I don't want you to take this the wrong way, but I'm afraid I won't be keeping you, John. The nature of my work really precludes the kind of energy needed to properly train you.”
John's breath hitched in. Perhaps the only silver lining to this whole degrading episode had been the small comfort that someone, at least, wanted him. Much as he loathed and feared Mycroft, he was a known evil. At least there had been some sign of affection from the man, a sense that under his calculating demeanour he still recognised John's personhood. He'd heard stories of the trauma of the auction block. The embarrassment. The uncertainty. John held off panic with sheer determination.
Mycroft glanced up at him and gave a tight smile. “Now, none of that. You'll be in good hands.”
He turned the laptop around and showed John a picture of a striking young man, about thirty, with dark hair in loose sloppy curls.
“This is my brother, Sherlock.” Mycroft turned the laptop back around to face himself. “Your new owner. Outside of myself, he's the most brilliant man you'll ever meet. And also one of the most difficult. You won't be able to live up to his standards – just accept that – but if you work diligently, it's possible you might be able to keep on his good side.”
John couldn't suppress a shudder.
“As you seem not to shirk at challenges, I'm certain it's not beyond your ability to deal with,” Mycroft gave him an encouraging smile. “It will be your duty assist him in all his endeavours. Make sure he has the equipment he needs, cooperate in any and all experiments. You will also take care of any appointments, run errands and the like.”
“Be his P.A.” John felt his panic rolling back. Sherlock sounded like a right pretentious git, but John could work around that. Perhaps the professor would be absentminded enough to let John do his own thing.
“In addition to that, you'll be responsible for his domestic needs: preparing regular meals, seeing that both he and his flat are clean and presentable. He has a distressing habit of neglecting his health in favour of his intellectual pursuits.”
“So I'll be his manservant, as well,” said John, flatly.
“And should he become injured, as he is wont to do, you will tend to his injuries.”
“And finally,” Mycroft hesitated a tick. “You will provide any sort of diversion, companionship, or stress relief he might be in need of.”
John stiffened. It was common for slaves to provide sexual services for their masters. Since the proliferation of birth control, it wasn't even considered scandalous. However usually it fell on much younger slaves to perform that odious task. It hadn't even occurred to John that he might be called on.
He felt faintly nauseous.
Mycroft coughed a slight laugh. “Of course, I don't know why I'm saying this to you. Sherlock will instruct you as he wishes. As a slave it's your duty to perform in any manner he requests.” Mycroft met his eye. “But as he is unused to having a servant, it will be somewhat on you to remind him of what you can do for him. A certain amount of proactive spirit wouldn't go amiss. Remember, any order he gives will be an opportunity for happiness for you. The more useful you can make yourself, the better off everyone will be.”
John turned away and looked out the window. If he spoke now, he'd likely break down in tears or punch Mycroft. Either way, the consequences were more than John wanted to face.
“I see,” said Mycroft after a while. “You have much to think about, and I have much to do, so let's not disturb each other for a while, shall we.”
John could see why Mycroft thought Sherlock needed a servant, the flat was a mess. Books, papers, clothes, and take out boxes cluttered up every available horizontal surface. The sitting room was navigable by a series of narrow paths. From the smell, John suspected there might be a dead mouse or two rotting under one of the stacks.
Sherlock himself was marginally more presentable. His clothes were extremely expensive, though a bit rumpled. His face was shaved. His hair had clearly grown out of whatever fashionable cut or styling it once had. Despite this, he managed to have a feline sort of attractiveness.
“What is it this time,” Sherlock growled from the sofa. “I'm busy.” John couldn't see what he was busy with.
Mycroft delicately removed a layer of detritus from one of the chairs and sat down. “I'm aware of that. I've come to give you some aid.”
Sherlock raised a single brow. “Really, are you planning on helping with my ink drip analysis? Would you mind terribly shopping around for pens?”
Mycroft smile deepened. “Better than that, I've brought you an assistant.”
For the second time, Sherlock glanced in John's direction. The first time had been a momentary appraisal when he walked in the door, during which, true to Mycroft's warning, he'd found John clearly lacking.
John for his part was attempting to encourage that notion. He listened to everything, took in everything, but gave away nothing. All he needed was for Mycroft to leave him, and John imagined he could make a run for it. Perhaps Sherlock would forget about him, the way he had apparently forgot about the half-full container of curry noodles on the table.
Sherlock tsked. “You're attempts at manipulation have reached a new low. Are you even trying to pass him off as a slave? Why bother.”
“I'm not trying to pass him off as a slave. He is one.”
Sherlock leaped up and walked over to John. “Well, I think you are a fool,” he slipped a finger between the collar and the back of John's neck. “This is a dummy, a prop.”
“Yes, it is,” Mycroft's smiled didn't waver.
Sherlock stood back and frowned. He held John's face between his hands and moved it one way, then another. John for his part stared back and considered an impertinent remark. Is he going to check my teeth?
“His neck is evenly tanned. His eyes have been scanning the room since he entered, looking for weapons, exits. He hates you, which means that he can't be all bad,” Sherlock paused. “He's had recent surgery to the back of his head. Too clean for injury, no sign of infection.”
“It's the new collar they've been designing out in Oregon.”
“A collar seated in the brain,” said Sherlock. “What does it do?”
“It uses positive reinforcement to ensure behaviour.” Mycroft stood up and joined his brother. “I thought it might pique your interest. John here is experimental, one of the first batch to receive one. It's all a bit of a mystery how well it will work, though Dr. Riner assured me he'd had good results with others. I would very much appreciate if you put John here through his paces. Find the flaws in the design. Discover the advantages. I'll expect weekly reports on how well he's doing.”
“I knew there would be strings attached – and hold on, I know you,” said Sherlock, grabbing John's face again. “I've seen you quite recently. You are John Watson, the Oregonian abolitionist.”
John couldn't stop a smug smile. “Not just Oregon,” he said.
“Looking to see what you could blow up in my flat?”
“I could blow up quite a bit,” said John. “Or short of that, there are quite a few things I could improvise as weapons.”
Sherlock, far from being appalled or intimidated, smiled fiercely. “You fancy yourself to be a dangerous man, don't you.”
“I don't fancy myself to be anything. But you were right earlier. I'm not a slave. I haven't been tried or sentenced. Your brother simply upped and decided to stick a collar on me. So, I'm having a hard time recognising your legal or moral superiority over me.” He tsked.
“So this is your definition of assistance?” said Sherlock, rounding on Mycroft. “A fanatical terrorist, unbroken, in an experimental collar? I wasn't aware that my problem was that I slept too well.”
Mycroft didn't appear perturbed. “If you don't want him, I can put him to some other use.” He glanced at John. “Come along, John. Back to the car.”
John took a step back towards the door and then sniffed in a breath as his implant shot yet another dose of happiness through him. He fisted his hands.
“Wait --what was that,” said Sherlock sharply.
“The collar. When he obeys even the tiniest of orders, it gives him small amount of electrical stimulation to his pleasure centres.”
“Really?” Sherlock squared himself to John. “Look at me.”
John looked at him with stretched patience. To his surprise nothing happened. No pleasure. Of course, Sherlock wasn't his master.
“I haven't signed him over yet. John lift your arm.”
“No,” said John, still staring at Sherlock.
“Heel, John,” said Mycroft, impatiently.
John bit back a scream and leaned against the wall. He nearly tripped on a bundled stack of newspapers. For a second, agony rippled through his flesh. There didn't seem to be a nerve in his body that didn't hurt. Then it was over and he was breathless.
“John,” said Mycroft, more patiently. “Lift your arm.”
“No,” John repeated, angrier.
“Heel, John.” Agony. John was sitting on the stack. His heart raced.
“Lift your arm!” barked Mycroft.
John lifted his arm. Bliss. He shuddered.
“At attention. Turn to the left. To the right. Clap your hands.” Mycroft ordered rapid fire. John barely had time to follow one order before the next was given. On and on. All simple things. Meaningless. The pleasure assaulted his brain. Insidious. Addicting.
“Please, stop,” begged John. His muscles were so loose, he feared he was going to collapse.
“Kneel,” said Mycroft.
John fell to his knees. He didn't even feel the bruises over the warmth and well-being that suffused him. All rational thought had long since left. He was practically a puddle.
He felt a hand tenderly stroke his hair, looked up and saw Mycroft's sleeve. “There, there, good boy.”
“I'll take him,” said Sherlock, sharply. “Transfer him to me.”
John dared to look up at him. Sherlock had his chin cupped in his hand and a look of avid interest on his face.
“I thought you might,” said Mycroft. “Just, Sherlock, try not to break him.”
Sherlock didn't break him. In fact, almost as soon as Mycroft left, he seemed to forget about owning John at all. He answered a text message, then started pawing through the rubbish by the couch. A moment later he pulled a nicotine patch out of a tan box. Slapping it onto his forearm he settled back for what appeared to be a midmorning nap.
John stood for a few minutes in the clean spot by the door, expecting some sort of orders, which never came. Then, inevitably, John started to feel like complete idiot.
“Would you like me to – “
“Shhh,” said Sherlock.
John stood, shifting a bit wearily on his aching right leg, getting rapidly more bored. After about fifteen minutes, he decided to take Mycroft's suggestion and become proactive. If he was stuck here, it would be nice to have a place where he could at least sit down. This place was a heap.
He carefully picked his way through the mess and explored the various rooms in the flat, looking for a good place to start what promised to be a mammoth clean up project. There were two floors: the sitting room, kitchen, toilet and bedroom resided downstairs; up a narrow set of wooden stairs in the back was an peaked attic space that had been converted into a laboratory. Turn-of-the-prior-century flasks and bunsen burners shared bench space with a very expensive looking high-powered microscope. There were shelves of books and folders, filing cabinets, and a plethora of devices from various eras gathering dust in the corners.
Mycroft hadn't really explained the nature of Sherlock's work, but John was beginning to suspect it might be “mad scientist.”
A question popped into John's head as he looked around. “Where am I supposed to sleep?” he asked himself as he made his way back down to the sitting room. There was only the single bedroom and single bed. He supposed he could sleep on the sofa. But then what of his things? He looked around for a place to put his meagre possessions. The Imperialist Guard had confiscated everything of his former life: tools, clothes, computer, mobile. Mycroft, in a fit of miserliness, had given him a spare change of clothes and an inexpensive canvas bag to put them in. That was fine for the day, but he couldn’t simply wear the same two shirts over and over again. Clearly, Sherlock was expected to provide the rest of his basic needs. But would he? For someone who has just been handed a major responsibility, Sherlock sure wasn’t taking it that seriously. And why would he? He clearly didn’t care for himself.
To offset the growing desperation, John explored the kitchen. The refrigerator was empty except for several shelves of rather contagious looking petri dishes and a half-empty pint of milk sitting in the door. Mycroft had fed him a decent sized breakfast that morning, but John realised with a twist of his gut, that from now on meals weren’t assured. Not that John would have really trusted anything that came out of this kitchen in it's current state.
There was a rather bad smell coming from the overloaded sink. John stared at it for the better part of a minute. Then reached into one of the drawers, found a pair of rubber gloves and a sponge, and began taking apart the mess.
He's much more likely to realise I have needs if I don't just act like an inanimate object, John rationalised. Perhaps I can pretend this is a paying job? He worked his way through the dishes, then began clearing the counters, filling up a rubbish bag with long-gone take out. Cinching the bag closed he headed to set it out on the curb for collection.
He paused a moment at the door, bag in hand, waiting for Sherlock to say something. Acknowledge the fact that he was working, or ask him where he was going. Something.
Sherlock didn't open his eyes. His mouth had gaped open and he looked like he was fast asleep. John sighed and turned around.
“Skip's at the bottom of the stairs through the rear door. Just behind the fence. Put the rubbish there.”
John spun back. Sherlock hadn't opened his eyes.
“Thanks,” said John. Shivering, he took the rubbish down.
There was a brief flare of pleasure as he put the garbage where it should be. It was the first order that Sherlock had given him, but it wouldn’t be the last. John stood for a minute outside looking at the foot traffic down the alleyway in back of the building. A cat shrieked out annoyance and went dashing out in front of him before making a series of jumps over a fence and out of sight. Christ, he was spooked.
John turned around and saw Sherlock behind him. He jumped, momentarily scared out of his wits. Sherlock just glanced his way, casually. He was wearing a long coat and fastening a scarf around his throat.
“John, I need to nip out for a bit. Do you have any needs? Food, bedding, clothes?”
“I am a bit hungry,” John admitted, getting his composure back.
Sherlock nodded. “I'll be gone a few hours. Feed yourself and buy whatever you feel you need. If you return before I do, knock on 221A and ask Mrs. Hudson to let you in. She has a key.” He turned around and headed back inside. “While you are at it, pick up some pad thai from down the street. Enough for two, we can have it for dinner.”
“Wait, wait,” said John, following him through the hall and out the other door. “I haven't any money.”
“None at all?” said Sherlock, looking dismayed.
“I'm a slave. They don't let us keep bank accounts. We don't get paid.”
Sherlock sighed. “Pshh. Very well, take this,” he handed John a debit card. “The pin is easy to remember. First four digits of Eurer's constant – not e, the constant, mind you. People tend to mix the two up.”
“I don't know whoever's constant.”
Sherlock looked at him like he was being astonishingly idiotic. “Five – seven – seven – two. Hopefully your memory is a little better than your maths. Well, good-bye!” And with that and a dramatic swish of his coat, he strode away.
John stood, numbly watching him until he climbed into the back of a cab.
Then he looked at the card in his hand. His brows rose up. Clearly, Sherlock knew even less about being a master than John knew about being a slave.
He let out a roaring laugh of relief, then began walking happily enough to the nearest cash point.
Five minutes later, John was in the Underground's men's toilet with a cool £250 making a nice wad in his trouser pocket. So far, so smooth.
Using a paperclip, he picked the lock to the dummy collar that Mycroft had put on him. It was perhaps the most nerve wracking moment, since it didn't look good. And sure enough, he was interrupted mid pick by a slightly alarmed looking gentleman.
“My mate's idea of a joke,” John said apologetically, then made a show of how loose and obviously not imbedded into his spinal cord the collar was. “It's fake. Bachelor party wouldn't you know. Proverbial ball and chain and whatnot.”
The other just nodded and went off to pee in one of the urinals, relieved in more than one sense.
John sucked in a deep breath and tried again. This time he was able to feel a snap and the lock opened. He felt the pressure off his throat and rolled his head in relief. Running his finger over his neck he felt the two tell-tale scabs from his brief encounter with a real collar. Yeah, he'd have to be careful about that. With any luck he wouldn't form too obvious a scar. Biting his lip he pulled up his shirt collar, since the last thing he needed was to tempt fate even more. The fake collar was tossed into the nearest rubbish bin, where it sank until it was lost in the nest of paper towels.
Then John left the toilet, bought himself an oyster card and “lost” the registration. He then took a slightly round about route to Bart's, his old alma mater. With any luck at all there would still be someone there that he recognised and was on good terms with. If he truly got lucky, that friendly person would be a brain surgeon.
He got half his wish. Mike Stanford was working in the teaching end of the hospital. If ever there was a friendly face, it was Mike's. The two of them had had some pretty crazy times back in their uni days. Mike didn't have access to the PET or CAT scanners and they dared not try an MRI with wires running through John's brain, but there was an elderly X-ray machine in the radiology classroom. Mike set it up while John lay on the table.
“So.” Mike said as he positioned the arm. “What, John. Was fighting guerillas in Afghanistan not dangerous enough for you? You had to go to the Americas and start up a war there, too? You should have stayed here, with me. We could have set up a practice together.”
“It's not something I wanted to do,” John replied. “It's something I had to do. Surely you must know some slaves, Mike. You can't think that they are truly lesser people than you and I.”
“You mean lesser than me and me,” said Mike. “Hold still.” He ducked behind the shield and snapped the picture. “You aren't a citizen anymore.”
“I wasn't convicted, Mike. I never had my day in court to argue my reasoning.” Mike moved the X-ray arm and John sat up, shrugging off the lead coat. “And think about it, if someone like me can be just arbitrarily made into a slave – it could happen to anyone.”
“Anyone caught trying to blow up a hospital. I read the papers, John. Can't say I always believe them, but in this case, the proof’s pretty strong. How could you do it? I just can't wrap my head around you being a master criminal. Yet...”
John tsked. “It's a war. A real war, not like Afghanistan. A war of principles. Of decency.”
Mike turned his head. “It's not like I'm a huge fan of slavery. I'll give you that,” he said. “You were always a very decent person. Apparently, you are also a bit of a blooming idiot. Won't your owner be wondering what's up with you?”
“I don't think so,” said John. “I was more or less foisted on him, and he sent me off with a debit card and smile as soon as he could. I suspect he wanted me to take off. Solves him the problem of figuring out what to do with me.”
Mike put both hands down on the table and levelled an unsmiling look at him. “What are you going to do? Even if you can get that collar out of you, your name's in the registry. If you get pulled over for any reason at all, you'll be back in a collar again, if you aren't just summarily executed. Don't you think you'd better go back to your master, and see if you can argue your way back to citizenship? I've heard that occasionally it can happen.”
John laughed bitterly. “Not for me it won't. I've lived off the grid for two years, I can do it again. If I cross the channel, there are some people in France I know. They can help me reestablish myself.”
Mike sighed. “Well you can't say I didn't warn you. Let's look at the film.”
“Yes,” said Sherlock from the door. “Let’s.”