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First-order Idiots

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After Sherlock's presentation on the use of non-classical logic for automated reasoning with uncertain premises, it was time for the most hateful part of the whole conference: questions from the audience. As usual, the questions were long-winded and not particularly clever. In order to stay calm and relatively focused, Sherlock followed the advice Molly had given him: whenever he managed to answer a question without being quite rude – signaled by Molly giving him a thumbs up from the back of the room – he was allowed to make a deduction about one of the audience members. Quietly, in his head, of course.

While offhandedly offering some obvious answers to obvious questions, Sherlock examined the first row of the audience:

Late fifties, obviously American, coffee and a doughnut for breakfast, judging from the remains in his scraggy moustache. The cut of his suit and shirt – nineties fashion, and far too tight – in contrast with the lack of wear on it: his outfit was reserved for rare occasions. The man dressed up for this. An empty spot on his ring finger where obviously a ring used to be: recently divorced or concealing his marriage. Either way, on the prowl.

To his left: PhD student from an upper class family, Ivy League, most likely Harvard or Stanford, suggested by the quality of his clothes and shoes. Eye movements and pupil size point to use of Ritalin or XTC or a combination, likely both recreationally and as a concentration aid. Antiseptic socks: bad foot odour. Content of his notebook looks more like a list of names than actual notes from the presentation: looking for networking opportunities. Wouldn’t be surprising to see him as a senator or presidential candidate a few years on.

To his left: probably Scandinavian, suggested by the particular sweater and extremely fair hair and skin colour. Obviously single, questionable hygiene, judging from the empty chairs around her, in an otherwise quite full room. Two or three cats. Not many friends, but probably a rich online social life, judging from the state of her iPad case. Two books – fiction, not scientific – in the bag at her feet, and no less than four notebooks. Aspiring writer?

Two seats to her left: haircut and posture suggest army background, though not recently. Strong, calloused hands: an engineer. Presence at a computer science conference suggests military robotics then, most likely. DARPA researcher? No, mode of dress obviously British, though the Arabic tag on his bag suggests Middle East-based. Bags under his eyes, crease between the eyebrows: sleeping problems. Hasn’t been back home for a while, buried in his work. Single, never been married, not much contact with his family.

To his left: Mike Stamford, one of Sherlock’s colleagues at St. Bart’s. They didn’t work together, but they ran into each other sometimes. It was worth noting he obviously knew the ex-British ex-army man next to him, judging from his posture. Also, the remains of a ham sandwich in his lap suggested a row with his wife: Sherlock knew that Mike disliked ham, so this was most likely some sort of tiny rebellious move to counter his wife’s attempts to get him to give up meat.

After answering a few questions, Sherlock was discharged by a firm “let’s thank the speaker again” from the conference chair. In an attempt to avoid any of the dimwits in the room asking him more dull questions, Sherlock quickly picked up his laptop, but before he could dash off to the hallway, Mike cornered him, eager smile on his face.

“Sherlock! That was good.”

Sherlock could manage a wry smile. “Thank you, Mike. I do what I have to. Including talking to people after I’ve been relieved of my speaker duty, apparently.”

Mike ignored Sherlock’s last comment and stepped aside to reveal the ex-British ex-army man he’d been sitting next to during Sherlock’s talk. “There’s someone I want you to meet. Sherlock, this is John Watson. John, Sherlock Holmes.”

Sherlock narrowed his eyes. Things were falling into place. “Polytechnical University of Kabul or University of Technology Baghdad?” he asked.

John blinked, silent for a second. “Sorry?”

Sherlock supposed this man couldn't be blamed for not understanding immediately. Few people would, after all. The whole explanation, then? Most of the time, the satisfaction of confirming correct deductions (high probability) was worth the risk of getting slapped in the face (low probability – usually, people just huffed and puffed and cursed and got on their high horses about personal space, so nothing too bad, really).

“Your posture suggests army, haircut suggests ex-army, tag on your bag indicates you’re still based in the Middle East, but you adhere to English customs. Your presence at a computer science conference, combined with the calluses on your hands, points to a background in robotics. Of course you could simply be a computer scientist who likes gardening, but then, you know Mike, probably from studying engineering at St. Bart’s or, if I remember correctly from Mike’s resume, doing a PhD at UC London. I told Mike this morning I was looking for an international collaborator with a background in robotics, so you must be at least a decent researcher, otherwise he wouldn’t introduce us. Therefore, probably Kabul or Baghdad.”

John’s mouth had fallen open. He looked at Mike, who was standing there looking chuffed as if he had just performed a trick. John blinked and looked back at Sherlock. “That… Was amazing.”

Sherlock almost smiled in surprise. “That’s not what people usually say.” He inhaled sharply. “So. Are you any good?”

John straightened his back, his bright blue eyes piercing Sherlock's in defiance. “In three years I’ve built up a graduate programme from nothing, I’m leading a group of five PhD students and three Postdocs, got three grants accepted, seven journal papers, eleven conference publications co-authored, including the one that I presented yesterday. You?”

“H-index of 21.”

John’s pupils dilated slightly, his eyes still fixed on Sherlock's, who felt the corners of his mouth turn upwards. “You’ll take the lead in supervising the PhD students," Sherlock said, "I’ll coordinate the research agenda.”

“I’m sorry, what?”

Sherlock sighed. Maybe this man wasn’t as smart as he seemed, then. But alright, he’d explain. “I’m working on a large grant proposal to set up a new research group, but I need a collaborator with international experience to fit the criteria. Someone with a robotics background and–” he hesitated, but oh well, he could just as well admit it out loud, “–people skills.”

John chuckled. “No, yeah, I sort of got that, but… We’ve only just met and we’re going to work on a proposal together?”

“Problem?”

John shook his head in apparent disbelief. He turned around to look for Mike, who had disappeared, along with the rest of the audience. “Look, let’s get to know each other a bit first, alright? How about lunch?”

“Sure. Conference buffet?”

As they walked through the mostly empty hallway, Sherlock couldn’t help but steal a few glances at John. The way he held himself was intriguing: a slight stiffness in both shoulder and leg, a determined but soft look on his face, the sunlight bouncing off of his skin, and an air of desolation Sherlock couldn't completely place. They entered the dining hall, a spacious, sparsely decorated room with well-stocked counters on three sides.

“So, your presentation yesterday,” Sherlock ventured, while they joined the line for the buffet. “It went well?”

“Quite well, if I may say so. I’ve been working on autonomous robotics for landmine detection.”

Sherlock hummed in approval. “Interesting. How far are you?”

“We’re actually testing our prototype now. We can’t compete with DARPA when it comes to things like medical robotics, prosthetics for amputees and such, but when it comes to testing our things in actual dangerous situations, you can’t beat an area that was a war zone until a couple of years ago.”

Dangerous situations? Sherlock felt oddly protective of this man, even though he probably had almost as much experience with danger as Sherlock himself, though likely in quite different circumstances. Not the desk job type of person, anyway.

Before Sherlock had put his thoughts in order, John spoke again. “Your presentation was quite fine, as well.”

“I know.”

John laughed, his face opening up. His eyes met Sherlock’s. “Humility is not one of your greater qualities, is it?”

Sherlock huffed. “Why should it be?” He saw no reason to hide the truth, unless the situation called for it. Secrets had value sometimes.

Having reached the buffet, John piled various foods on a plate, while Sherlock just carried his empty plate along most of the counter. He wasn't truly hungry, but John's appetite fascinated him.

“What's that?” Sherlock asked suspiciously, while John examined a milky-white custardy substance in a bowl.

“Not the faintest idea,” John said. He shrugged and put some of the substance in a small bowl that he placed on top of the small heap of food on his plate. The man was not hesitant to take up a challenge, Sherlock noted with approval.

As they sat down with their plates in an empty corner of the hotel restaurant, Sherlock said: “You never told me, Kabul or Baghdad.”

“Kabul. Good guess, by the way.”

Sherlock smiled. “I never guess. How did you end up there?”

“After my PhD – you were right, by the way, UC London – I went to Afghanistan as a combat engineer. Seemed like an adventure at the time. And it was. It was hard, but great. Never felt more alive.” John shrugged. “Until I got shot. I got invalided out, and when I’d recovered, the war had ended. So there I was, thirty-five years old, PhD in robotics, but hardly any research experience. I had met a robotics professor in Kabul when I was stationed there, and we… Well, he offered me a job. We worked together. For a while. We were – he quit, after a while.”

Sherlock noted the hesitation in John’s words, his slightly drooping posture, the frown on his face, his lips tightening, the toast on his fork seemingly forgotten. Grief. He had lost something or someone. The professor? Sherlock did his best to keep his face neutral, looking at John in expectation.

John looked up, catching Sherlock’s eye. “I couldn’t leave.” He looked away and swallowed hard. When he started talking again, his voice sounded lighter, though his eyes didn’t reflect any joy. “When my professor was gone, I more or less took over his research group.”

So the departure of his professor actually propelled his career. Then why was he sad about it? Presumably, he never would have got the position otherwise. Sherlock filed the thought away in his list of open questions, to be mulled over later.

John continued, “Suddenly, we’re a couple of years on and I’m still at Kabul. How about you then?”

“Not much to to the story,” Sherlock said. “PhD in mathematical logic at Oxford, Postdoc in applied logic and computer science at King’s College. I worked as an independent consulting researcher for a while, but as it turns out, being your own boss mostly means having to answer to clients, so that didn’t work out. Barts offered me a position at the automated reasoning group. The presence of a 100,000-core supercomputer convinced me.”

“A supercomputer at Barts?” John chuckled. “Bit different from my day.”

“Not everything at an engineering college is still tinkering and screwdrivers, John.”

“Yeah, good point.” John chuckled. “I’m not sure why you’d need me on your proposal, though. You’ve got colleagues working in robotics. And I’ve been doing everything by hand, basically.”

“That’s exactly what I need.”

“Really? In what sense?”

Absent-mindedly, John dipped his spoon in the bowl of milky-white substance and took a bite, only to spit it out onto his plate, gagging.

“Oh, Jesus,” he exclaimed, his eyes watering up. “That is foul. Oh. Gah.” He took his napkin and wiped his tongue with it.

Sherlock did his best to retain his composure. “Not good?”

John took a sip of his milky tea, sloshed it around in his mouth, swallowed hard, and exhaled through his teeth. “Bit not good. I thought that would be sweet.” His eyes crinkled in delight. “Well. That was... Interesting. You want to try?”

He scooped up another spoon and held it out towards Sherlock, who was still not hungry, but undeniably curious, and feeling quite exhilarated by John's eyes so focused on his face. Without thinking much – in passing, he noticed that his brain reacted a bit more slowly than usual, as if he were under the influence of a modest amount of drugs or alcohol – Sherlock leaned forward, his eyes not leaving John's. John held the spoon a bit too far from Sherlock's mouth, his eyes shining with glee, making Sherlock stretch out his neck to reach it. Sherlock wrapped his lips around the spoon, noticing that the contents were fairly gelatinous, and more savory than he'd expected.

He sat back, licking his lips and humming in enthrallment at the peculiar taste and texture of the stuff. John's eyes focused on Sherlock’s mouth, his cheeks turning red. Sherlock wondered why: the food was not hot or spicy, no glassy eyes to indicate a fever, no obvious reason for embarrassment, no strenuous exercise. Maybe a medical condition?

He pushed the thought aside, focusing again on the food. “Interesting. Some sort of coconut jelly, but salty.”

Sherlock's words seemed to rouse John from some sort of trance. John coughed, blinked his eyes and leaned back. “Yeah. Cook's experiment gone wrong, presumably. Anyway, the proposal, right? I assume you have some preliminary ideas?”

They discussed the grant application Sherlock had been working on: a new approach to autonomous robotics, with the novel addition of using fuzzy logic to dictate the system to observe new details on the fly. John offered plenty of ideas, which were not always the brightest, although Sherlock had to admit, some were quite novel and would certainly fit perfectly in the proposal.

When Sherlock was about to list the advantages of using a deductive database, the text message alert on his phone interrupted the conversation. Sherlock rolled his eyes. So predictable.

“Aren’t you going to answer that?” John asked.

“No. It’s obviously one my colleagues, trying to get me to join them for dinner.”

John scoffed. “You haven’t even read the message.”

“They’ve been texting me every day around the same time. I don’t know why they bother.”

“It’s nice of them to invite you, isn’t it?”

“They see it as an obligation. I usually find a good reason to refuse.”

John pondered for a moment, then nodded his head. “I see. Well, it’s not polite to keep them waiting for an answer, then.”

Sherlock smiled. Good, John agreed with him. Sherlock picked up his phone, unlocked it and just started typing a reply when John snatched the phone from his hands and darted across the room. Before Sherlock could even get up, John was already two tables away, furiously tapping on the touch screen with both thumbs, the tip of his tongue showing between his lips in a clear sign of concentration.

Sherlock sat back in his chair. It was obviously too late to interfere.

A few seconds later, John tapped the touch screen with a flourish, nodded to himself, wandered back to the table and handed Sherlock his phone.

“There you go.”

“John. What. Are you doing.”

“I let your colleagues know that we’ll be joining them for dinner.”

“You might have asked.”

“You would have refused.”

Sherlock considered for a moment, then muttered in agreement. “I would have.”

With a sigh, he went back to explaining deductive databases to John. But the idea of dinner with his colleagues seemed less of a bother than the previous days.

Without any fundamental disagreements, they were quickly able to work John's ideas into Sherlock’s, work out a very preliminary version of the general course of the project, although they still disagreed on the separate work packages for the various PhD students and Postdocs. John’s teaching and supervising experience proved indispensable, since Sherlock had a habit of either projecting an unrealistic cleverness on the masses, or on the other hand, assessing them with an apparently unjustified dullness of mind.

When John mentioned some students he already had in mind for these positions, it turned out that apart from Mike, they had more common acquaintances in the small intersection of their academic fields. John was amused to no end at Sherlock’s quaint little deductions of their private lives, based on the last time he’d seen them. It turned out that John had actually spoken with most of them socially at earlier conferences, enabling him to offer confirmations of some gossip and stunned looks of incredulity at others.

John’s admiration made Sherlock feel lighter and brighter than ever. He couldn’t tear his eyes away from John’s face, exploring every inch from a distance, the way John laughed, squinted his eyes in shock or confusion, pursed his lips in doubt, and met his eyes sometimes for minutes on end.

When a waiter approached them to ask if they were finished, they looked up for the first time in what had seemed like twenty minutes maybe, and Sherlock was surprised to see the restaurant completely empty. Apparently they had been sitting there for over four hours. Sherlock raised his eyebrows, taken aback by the slipping of time, which usually only happened when he was deeply immersed in some sort of complicated proof or simulation.

“I have to admit,” John said, leaning back and straightening his chequered shirt, “this has been the best scientific discussion I’ve had in years. I like not being the smartest person in the room for once.”

“I am quite unfamiliar with the feeling, but I imagine it must be nice,” Sherlock said.

John scoffed. “You’re a bastard, you know that?”

Sherlock was confused by the contradiction between John’s smiling eyes and the negative content of his comment, but before he could address it, he was distracted by the sudden awareness of their knees touching under the table. How long had they been sitting like that? It felt odd, but nice. Usually he didn’t care for physical contact with other people and even tried to avoid it as much as possible. As John looked at him, his face completely friendly and open, Sherlock felt a little tingle in his stomach. John actually seemed to like him. Curious.