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Better Than Life

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"Get him out."

"We can't exactly just turn the thing off!" said Topher Quinn, a harried-looking Onira-Tech UK technician.

"Why not?"

"Uh, because it'll cause irreparable brain damage? Obviously?"

Dr James Dague-Ross from the company's medical-legal division frowned at Topher briefly before returning his attention to their guest.

"To connect to the system the user has an implant, known as a 'BCI'—a Brain-Computer Interface—installed. It sends data via the central nervous system to the cortical neurons, but crucially, integrates with the user's tissue. Shutting down the system would result in the brain connecting to... nothing."

"And can this 'implant' not be surgically removed? Disconnected somehow?"

"Nope," said Topher.

Dague-Ross frowned at Topher again. "Not while it's running, not without risk of permanent harm to the user, no."

"How on earth was this technology ever allowed to market with that level of risk?"

"It's why god invented waivers."

"Not amusing."

"Apologies, Mr Holmes," Dague-Ross said, shooting Topher a warning look. "What my colleague means to say, is that the user knew the hazards involved in use of the system. All of our users do. He signed paperwork acknowledging those risks."

"I am quite dubious as to the legality of a user consenting to 'risk of falling into a seemingly irreversible coma' whilst playing what is essentially a computer game," Mycroft Holmes said, fixing Dague-Ross with a vaguely reptilian, piercing stare, that set his already-twitchy fight or flight instincts on edge.

"Nonetheless, consent was obtained in accordance with the law," he said.

"That is a matter for another day, as is the regulation of what is manifestly an addictive and dangerous product, which I can assure you will be addressed in parliament very soon. What will happen if we leave him in the system?"

"Well..." Topher started.

"Well?"

Dague-Ross spoke, cutting off any ill-advisedly casual explanation Topher might be about to issue, "He clearly has no intention of self-awakening, so he'll stay in a coma and waste away. He might already be past the point of being able to self-awaken. Eventually we won't be able to get him back. And then he'll die."

"You can see how this is of grave concern."

"Looking at the logs, he's always come out within a few hours before, twenty-three hours in his longest instance," Topher said, tapping through a usage log on a tablet.

"How long has he been in there this time?" Dague-Ross asked.

"His handlers weren't as vigilant as they should have been and have been appropriately... dealt with. It has been at least twenty days."

"Twenty days? The longest session I've heard of is sixteen," Dague-Ross said with surprise.

"Current session's been active for twenty-two, actually," Topher added.

"It seems that he self-installed a series of automated feeding drips and a catheter prior to 'logging in'. His extended use of your little system is unequivocally intentional and calculated."

"If you wanna long-term it, I mean, that's the way to do it. Smart," Topher said.

"Can we please marvel at his ingenuity later? What are you going to do to get him out?"

"Yeah, that's... The drip makes it better, but it's still not good. He's not rousing in any of the usual ways. We need to get head office in the States onto this."

"What can your 'head office' do?"

"They have Mara. She'll get him out."

=

"Apertus."

Mara shivered, finding herself on a cold, darkened London street. She took a moment to get her bearings, the misty rain starting to soak her light jacket. She scurried into a doorway to take shelter and saw two figures run past, one tall and in a long coat, one shorter and carrying a gun.

Target acquired.

She knew that the user had prepared quite thoroughly for an extended session in the system, and she had been briefed on the stubborn nature of the man in question prior to his use of Reverie—his addictive, thrill-seeking personality. She had no doubt that this would be quite the challenge.

She followed the duo through the night, watching as they kicked in doors, examined clues and restrained suspects. The pair seemed to move as a cohesive unit, instinctively covering each other and playing off one another's strengths. She found herself marvelling at the amazing system Onira-Tech had created and the way it had fleshed out the fantasy of its user.

Mara could understand the attraction to this type of Reverie. She'd always loved detective stories as a child, in fact, it was part of the reason she'd taken such an interest in psychology and its applications in law enforcement. She could understand wanting to play the lead role, the hero—she'd seen it hundreds of times in every variation of James Bond or Poirot fantasy.

Mara was mystified as to why someone with all the power of Reverie at their disposal would choose to play not the dashing hero, but his sidekick. Sensing her moment to approach, Mara weaved her way through the gathering crowd.

"John Watson?" she asked.

The shorter of the two men looked at Mara, his gaze sweeping quickly from her face to her shoes and back again, eyes narrowed.

"No comments for the press at this time, I'm afraid," he said with a friendly but disinterested smile. "Everything will be on the blog tomorrow."

He turned to walk away and Mara caught his arm. John looked at her hand on his arm, then back to her face.

"I'm from Onira-Tech, John," she said.

John frowned slightly before blanking his features. He shook his head once, curtly.

"I don't know what that is. Excuse me."

He turned on his heel and walked briskly away, his taller colleague falling into step beside him. Mara tried to follow and was stopped by a handsome, somewhat worn-out looking, silver-haired police detective.

"Crime scene, miss, no press," he said, barring her passage.

"I'm not with the press, I need to talk to John Watson," she said, watching John escape.

"Ah, fan of the blog are you?" the detective said. "DI Greg Lestrade."

He held out his hand for her to shake. She took it almost automatically and he favoured her with a dazzling smile, his dark eyes full of playfulness. He also didn’t let go of her hand.

"Mara Kint."

"Cold old night. Fancy a coffee, Mara Kint?" he said, finally withdrawing his warm hand from hers, his fingertips tickling her palm briefly.

"I can't, I have to work," she found herself saying, wondering even as the words were leaving her lips why she was bothering to apologise to a simulated man.

"Shame. Some other time, maybe?" DI Lestrade said, giving her another almost-cheeky, boyish grin. "Some other crime scene?"

"Maybe," she said non-committally with a small smile.

She mentally shook herself, realising she was flirting with a non-playing character. A rather attractive NPC, but an NPC nonetheless.

"Well then, maybe I'll see you around," he said.

She nodded and looked back to where she'd last glimpsed John and his companion, but the street was empty and they were nowhere to be seen.

"Damn it," Mara muttered. "Exitus."

=

After the failed extraction attempt Mara convened with Alexis Barrett, tech genius and founder of Onira-Tech, Paul Hammond, Chief Oneirologist with the company, and Charlie Ventana, head of security. Alexis was tapping away at a tablet containing a diagnostic report on the Reverie session.

"How'd it go?" Paul asked.

"He gave me the slip," Mara said.

"How?" Alexis asked.

"His Reverie threw up an obstacle which allowed him to get away."

"What kind of obstacle?" Alexis asked.

Mara could feel her face heating slightly. Alexis narrowed her eyes slightly, watching Mara.

"A persuasive one," she said. She abruptly changed the subject. "I need more information on Mr Watson. There wasn't much available prior to going in due to the short notice. Charlie, what have we got?"

"Ex-army doctor, became something of a PI on his medical discharge from service, his detective partner committed suicide... 18 months ago... in a swirl of controversy over claims he'd in fact orchestrated the crimes he'd solved," Charlie read from a dossier. "No information available after the suicide. Dr Watson became a ghost."

"Do we have a photo of the partner?" Mara asked.

"Dylan, bring up a photo of Sherlock Holmes," Charlie said, directing his voice to the ceiling.

Dylan was Onira-Tech's childlike-sounding in-house AI, who kept the building, and company, running.

"Done, Charlie," Dylan said cheerfully.

The face of the tall man in the coat from the Reverie filled the screen on the wall, all sharp cheekbones and sharper eyes.

"That's who John escaped with, in the Reverie," Mara said.

"He's using the system to resurrect his dead friend. This could be even more challenging than we initially thought," Paul mused, rubbing a hand over his stubbled jaw.

"You just need to get him to the mandala," Alexis said, referring to a type of exit portal that existed in the virtual world. "The Exitus command probably won't work at this stage."

"Agreed. He's been in longer than anyone in the history of Reverie," Paul said. "Force him to the mandala if you have to."

"It won't come to that. I'll get him out," Mara said. "I just have to get him to listen to me."

"It seems that there'll be something of an international incident if you don't," Charlie said. "I've got the UK government breathing down my neck."

"I can do this."

=

When Mara located John and Sherlock, it was in a small Thai restaurant on a sidestreet in darkest London. They were sharing a meal and the smile died on John's face when he saw Mara in the doorway. His companion's head whipped around to see what the cause of the expression change was, and his eyes swept up and down her form in much the same way as John's had, earlier.

"John," Mara said, walking toward the table.

"Nope," John said, pushing abruptly away from his half-finished noodles and making for the door. "Not interested."

He swept past her, Sherlock hot on his heels, and left the restaurant. She turned to follow them just as a crowd of people appeared in the doorway, blocking her path. She pushed through the throng and looked up and down the street, just in time to see Sherlock's coat tails disappear around a corner.

Mara ran down the street in hot pursuit of the two men, dodging a suddenly-reversing garbage truck and a pizza delivery scooter.

"John Watson!" she shouted breathlessly, and saw the man stop and turn back, a furious smile on his face.

"What?" he said angrily. "What do you want?"

"John, I just need to talk to you. Will you give me five minutes?"

"One minute."

"All right," she said, finally walking up close to him. "As I said earlier, I'm from Onira-Tech."

"Yes, you said. They told me this was a closed system. That it was private."

"Ordinarily, yes, I'm using version 2.0 of the system. It's only used in extreme cases."

"Extreme cases?"

"When the user is in danger."

John shook his head, smiling a little.

"Nobody's in danger here, so you can go."

"No, John, you're in danger, that's why I'm here. You've been in the system too long. You need to come out."

"Not gonna happen, I'm afraid."

"Your body is shutting down, John. You need to leave."

"John," his companion interjected. "Text from Lestrade. We have a case."

"Duty calls," John said with a grin as Sherlock hailed a taxi and one appeared out of thin air.

"John—wait!" Mara said, but it was too late, John was gone.

=

"I need to change tactics," Mara said.

"Change tactics, how? He seems pretty intent on avoiding you until he... dies," Paul said.

"I need to give them a case to solve," Mara said with a small smile. "Time to be bad."

=

Mara was just starting to really enjoy herself, commencing her fifth bank holdup of a planned series of ten, when one of the waiting customers tackled her as she pulled out her gun. The man wrestled her to the ground, knocking the pistol from her grasp and the wind from her lungs. She struggled against his surprisingly strong grip and gasped as he pulled off her ski mask.

"Oh," John said, looking disappointed. "Hello again."

"John," Mara said. "Please, we need to talk."

"Fuck's sake," John said, gesturing to the bank's security guard. "I don't have time for this."

Mara shoved her hand into her pocket and pressed the button on the detonator, closing her eyes as the second floor of the building exploded, shaking the foundations of the virtual bank. John gave her an irritated look.

"Why? Just... why did you have to do that?"

"I can burn this world you've created to the ground, John," Mara said, her hands shaking with adrenaline. "You know I can do that."

John let out an angry noise, pulled Mara to her feet and pushed her toward the bank guard just as DI Lestrade burst into the bank, flanked by firearms officers and firefighters.

"Solved," Sherlock said to Lestrade, going into his customary post-case show-off mode as he brushed plaster dust from his hair, seemingly unaffected by the recent explosion. "Depressingly simple in the end. I noticed that the first letter of the bank managers' surnames could be put in sequence to predict the next target."

He turned his attention to Mara, lifting his chin haughtily as he continued.

"J, O, H, N," Sherlock said. "Did you really think so little of my deductive reasoning and pattern predicting skills as to imagine you wouldn't be caught at the bank managed by Nicholas Watson?"

"Sherlock..." John said, rubbing the bridge of his nose.

"Predictable, boring, predictable—oh."

"Yes, oh," John said. "She wanted to be caught."

"Well that's just... for god's sake," Sherlock said accusingly, looking at Mara. "The least you could do was make it challenging. You were in the police force after all."

"I was pressed for time," Mara said, frowning. "How did you know—"

"Oh, it's obvious," Sherlock said, waving his hand dismissively through the air. "Do better next time."

"There won't be a next time," John said. He looked at Lestrade. "Here's your culprit, lock her up."

"Mara Kint, always a pleasure," Lestrade said with a rakish grin.

In short order Mara found herself being locked into handcuffs by the dashing Detective Inspector Lestrade and led out to a waiting panda. John and Sherlock exited the bank, John looking at her for a long moment, then turning away with a shake of his head.

"John, please wait!" she called, struggling against Lestrade's hold.

John turned back with a sigh and held up his hand as Lestrade started trying to deposit the kicking woman into the car. Lestrade paused with a questioning look at John and Sherlock.

"Give us a sec, Greg," John said, coming back over to Mara.

"Thank you," she said as Lestrade loosened his hold on her forearm.

"I'll be right back, are you okay here with her?" Lestrade asked, heading off to talk to a uniformed officer when John nodded.

"Talk fast," John said abruptly, looking unimpressed.

"You know this isn't real. How could any of this possibly be real?" Mara said, indicating with her handcuffed hands the swarming police officers, the fire engines, the massive blaze the explosion had started on the second floor.

"This is what our life was really like," John said with a small, sad smile. "Solving cases, adrenaline rushes, with the best friend I could ever have asked for."

"Right, okay, but you know you're not in the real world. You know it's a simulation," Mara said.

"Of course he knows it isn't real," Sherlock snapped. "What kind of simpleton do you take him for?"

Mara stared. A self-aware non-playing character in a Reverie?

"How..."

"It's what he does," John said quietly. "What he... did."

"I deduced it, obviously. This world fluctuates around John's emotions and wants. I'm at least three inches shorter here than in the real world, for example, and he's at least two inches taller."

John scowled at Sherlock. "That's not true at all, you arse."

Sherlock smirked and slipped his hands into his pockets.

"And how did you know I don't belong? NPCs aren't supposed to be aware that I'm any different to them," Mara said, tilting her head curiously.

"You're obviously real. If you weren't, he'd be trying to make a move on you. Instead he's trying to evade you or talk you into leaving and views you as a threat. Hence, you are from the so-called 'real world' and trying to extract him. Elementary," Sherlock said. "He's something of a cad you see, can't keep it in his pants. Chases after anything in a skirt," he added with an amused smirk.

"Sherlock..." John said, exasperated. "I don't do that."

"Nonsense," Sherlock said, smiling fondly down at John.

"Well I'm not doing that now, am I?"

"She's clearly your type."

"What, female? Human?"

"Beautiful. Out of your league."

John shook his head and looked away, clenching his jaw, looking pained. Sherlock looked like he immediately regretted what he'd said and wanted to take it back, but didn't know how. Mara gasped in a quiet breath as she put two and two together.

"John, can I talk to you for a moment?" she asked.

"Of course," he said. He didn't move away and neither did Sherlock.

"Alone?" she said gently.

"No point. He's not real, right?"

"All right. Did you tell Sherlock you were in love with him?" Mara said, giving John a sympathetic expression. "When he was alive?"

"NO. You don't—you can't—you don't know what you're talking about. How dare you."

"John," Sherlock said, "why bother denying what we both know to be true? And If I've deduced it, as un-real as I am, I can say with absolute certainty that the real Sherlock knew."

"Why didn't you ever say anything?" John said, a stricken expression on his face.

"I can't say why he didn't, but I didn't say anything because we're happy like this, John. The two of us against the world. We don't need to talk about it."

"Maybe I need to."

"You've never wanted to."

"I just... I didn't want to push."

"You think I can't take it? When have I ever done anything other than push back?"

"Could we... could we have this?" John said, looking up at Sherlock, having moved in close to him.

"We could. Until you have to log off again."

"I could stay."

"John—"

"There's nothing out there for me, Sherlock. My life... if I hadn't met you, my life would have ended in months. I want to stay here with you."

"John, you can't do that. If you stay in here, you'll die," Mara said, touching his shoulder.

He shrugged off her hand.

"I could die, in here, with him," he said, jabbing a finger in Sherlock's direction. "We could go out together in a blaze of glory, like we should have. Find someone big and bad and solve the case and save the day. Or... we could... time has no meaning here. We could keep bees in Surrey and die of old age, we could do anything."

"I do quite like the idea of beekeeping," Sherlock said with a small smile.

"I know you do," John said, looking up at Sherlock again.

"John, I can't let you die. You haven't told me how the real world me died, but I'm certain it was to protect you," Sherlock said. "To save you."

"We can live a lifetime before that happens, Sherlock. We can have the life together that we should have had. The life we deserved, dammit. The life we maybe could have had if I hadn't been so afraid."

"John—"

"You can't make me leave, Sherlock. You can't make me leave you. Who would look after Rosie?"

"Who's Rosie?" Mara asked.

"John's daughter in this world. He fell in love with an ex-secret agent assassin, married her to spite me, wife shot me, had a baby, wife died leaving John a single parent." Sherlock looked thoughtful for a moment. "Then my unremembered secret sister wreaked havoc in our lives—I'm surprised it took me as long as it did to deduce that all this is a simulation really, with that level of hyperreality on offer."

"Hey, that's my subconscious mind you're criticising there!" John said, not looking particularly upset about it.

"Drama queen," Sherlock muttered.

"Twat," John replied.

"Are you going to take me home, then?" Sherlock said, smoothing his hands down the front of John's shirt.

John swallowed and smiled a little, looking up into Sherlock's eyes.

"Yeah, I think I am."

"John, you will die. You can't stay in here," Mara said, getting the sense that she was fighting a losing battle.

"I can, and I will," John said, smiling slightly as he watched Sherlock walk away to hail a cab. "This is where I belong. With that mad bastard over there."

"He's not real, John. He even knows he's not real."

John fixed Mara with a hard stare.

"He was the realest person I've ever known. And this Sherlock? He's real enough. I'll take him any way I can have him. Any small part of him I can have," John said. "You don't understand, you didn't know him. He was unique, and I'll never love like that again. I'll never..." John's voice cracked, and he looked away before continuing. "I'll never get over him, and I don't want to get over him. He's my life."

He gave her a decisive nod and walked off, sliding into the cab beside Sherlock. As the door closed, Mara saw Sherlock take John's hand. Mara watched them go.

=

"Give me another chance," Mara said. "I can try again."

"It's out of our hands now, Mara," Paul said. "We're getting heat from all directions—our government, the board, the military—I don't know who this Mycroft Holmes man is, but it seems rather like, for all intents and purposes, he is the British Government. And possibly a few others besides. He's frankly a little terrifying."

"We're over a barrel here," Charlie said.

"I'm not happy about releasing 2.0 to a representative of a foreign power," Alexis said. "The ethical ramifications of 2.0 in someone else's hands could be... not-great is an understatement. This is a lesson we've already learned, isn't it?"

"Again, this isn't something we're getting a choice about," Charlie said. "Our London office have requested the source code and are preparing a tablet as we speak."

"I don't like it," Alexis said.

"You don't have to like it," Charlie said. "We just need to get it done. I suspect this man has the power to get the code one way or another."

"At least this way we can control the transfer of data and restrict it to one additional unit," Paul mused.

"Who's going in? Do they have their own negotiator?" Mara asked.

"No idea. I can't think of anyone who'd do a better job than you," Paul said, with a small smile at Mara, which she returned.

"I can't see anyone getting through to a man that stubborn," Mara said. "Whoever it is, I wish them luck."

==

Operation Destroying
Angel is suspended.
M

Why?
DA

Trouble at home.
M

Trouble?
DA

The asset is in danger.
M

Am I being recalled?
DA

With urgency. The
asset is dying.
M

Get me a jet.
NOW, Mycroft.

==

"The American failed. Arrangements have been made."

"Arrangements?"

"A specialist is inbound."

"A VR specialist?"

"A John Watson specialist."

==