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Infernal Machines

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Seeing the doctor engrossed in one of the papers in the pile on the workbench, Holmes turned and crossed to his friend’s side. “What is it, Watson?” he asked.

“The future,” he answered without looking up. He turned the paper in his gloved hands so that Holmes, peering around his shoulder, could see the pen-and-ink drawing depicted upon it: a cluster of neurons overlaid upon the innards of some clockwork mechanism, the teeth of the gears interlocked.

“The marriage of man and machine?” the detective hazarded, but Watson shook his head.

“No, Holmes,” he said, still staring intently at the drawing. “Well, to be sure, that must be Moriarty’s design. But it is impossible at present. All of our industry is but crude imitation of Nature—no machine humanity has designed could match the human body in sophistication. Muscle fibres are vastly more efficient than engines, and nervous signals are infinitely faster than the telegraph. Our best efforts, our entire invention are pale copies of the master-mistress.”

“The esteemed professor will settle for functional clockwork men, I am sure,” said Holmes, tapping one of the other improbable diagrams that were piled seemingly at random on the table. “Particularly should he perfect the ability to control them without wires.”

“Oh, certainly. But even if Moriarty succeeds in manufacturing automata, they will be mere machines, not true hybrids. It will take decades, perhaps centuries, for science to meet Nature halfway.”

“And then?” Holmes asked, toying with one of the fragments of clockwork strewn amongst the papers. The tiny gears clicked faintly as they shifted beneath his fingers.

Watson scowled. “A new order, Holmes, a revolution. The very way we think about the world must necessarily change irrevocably in reaction to such a fundamental alteration in human capability.”

“And society naturally change with it,” the detective remarked, setting the clockwork down. He glanced at his friend out the corner of one eye, almost as an afterthought. “And yet there is one great advantage that machines have over men even now, old boy. When one component of a machine is damaged, it is quite simple to replace it with an entirely new part, at no loss of function.”

Of course Watson took his meaning, but for a long moment his face was perfectly still, and Holmes could not be sure of his reaction. “I do not know that I should accept a mechanical leg even were it offered to me,” the doctor said presently. “Just because I can see a new age on the horizon, Holmes, does not mean I wish to live in it.” He did not say, I am not sure I should still feel human, but to the detective the doctor’s sentiment was clear.

“Of course not,” Holmes agreed immediately. He was very careful to hide his smirk, lest Watson think himself being mocked. But having again accurately predicted the doctor’s response gave him a distinct thrill, no less delicious for being familiar.

In point of fact there were very few people of Holmes’s acquaintance whom he could not predict; the vast mass of humanity were creatures of habit and petty motivation, virtually machines themselves, as dull as clockwork. What set Watson apart was not that Holmes could not manipulate him, not that he could not predict him, but that predictable or not the doctor was never boring. Indeed, when one had Watson’s courage, daring, and intelligence, it was not possible to be boring.

“You are thinking again,” Watson observed, setting the paper down at last and turning to regard Holmes. The detective could tell the other man was repressing a smile. For some reason entirely beyond Holmes’s grasp, Watson had never found him intimidating; Watson played his games knowingly, by conscious choice.

That made all the difference.

“Just that a mechanical leg, or more precisely the lack thereof, makes no difference as regards your value to me,” Holmes assured him, as much to see the quirk of Watson’s lips as because it was true.

“I am delighted to hear it,” he said gravely, and Holmes lost control of his grin, which was enough to crack Watson’s features. Smiling, they left the workshop together.

Even then, neither of them could have conceived that their games were spring-loaded, and would grind to a precipitous halt when exposed to water. The future lay in ambush for them, consulting its chronometer, waiting for its hour to strike.