“I’m heading out, do you need anything?” Joan calls into the kitchen, buttoning up her jacket.
“A murder would be nice,” Sherlock replies. He doesn’t budge from the table. She can hear him clicking morosely at his laptop.
“I’m pretty sure the store is all out.”
“Fine, I’ll try aisle three,” she answers before heading out the door. Adjusting the strap of her purse, she gets perhaps ten feet away from the front steps before stopping.
She looks up the street.
She looks down the street.
She turns around and gets back in the house. “Sherlock, check the news!” She drops her purse onto the table and rummages her phone out of it. Definitely a phone-in-pocket kind of day.
“Hm? Watson, I’ve been checking it. There is nothing going on today...” Sherlock looks up at her curiously. “Except whatever has given you a fright. What is it?”
“There’s no, I don’t know, no emergency warning or something?”
He shakes his head with an expression of wide-eyed innocence, a look both intentional and sincere. “One moment, I will check.” A quick smattering of typing and his eyes scan his screen. “No, no results for today. Watson, what is it?”
“You need to look outside,” she says. “It’s deserted.”
“Oh,” he says. He stands, briskly closes his laptop and goes for his coat. “Lovely, something to do.”
His good cheer lasts until he steps outside.
“Oh,” he says again. His voice is the only sound on the street. No cars pass, no pedestrians walk, no buses or trucks rumble by. The silent stillness presses upon them.
“Deserted,” Joan repeats. “I told you.”
“You did…” He looks up and down their street, going so far as to stand on tiptoe. “Well.”
“I’m calling Gregson.”
Sherlock murmurs vague agreement, stepping down onto the sidewalk. Joan shuts the door behind them, hesitates, and ultimately locks it. She follows him down the block, listening to her phone announce number after number is out of service.
“Nothing’s getting through,” she says. At the intersection, she can see a long way in four directions and there is no one to be seen in any of them.
“It’s very quiet,” Sherlock remarks, pulling out his own phone. He shakes his head while he thumbs through the internet. “I don’t like it.”
“Me neither. What’re you looking up?”
“There are a number of security cameras open to public viewing,” Sherlock says. “Pet shops, areas trying to gain attention, that sort of thing… And three of them are down.”
“Out of how many?”
“Out of the three I’ve checked. Now four.”
Joan nods slowly. Very consciously, she continues to breathe at the same rate. Then she turns, goes up to the closest residence and rings the bell. Repeatedly, obnoxiously, the way her brother would as a kid when he’d forgotten his key.
“But if there’s been no emergency signal, no warning--”
“Then where has everyone gone, yes,” Sherlock finishes for her, still working away on his phone. “It is puzzling.”
“Puzzling. Deserted New York City streets aren’t puzzling, Sherlock. They’re something you get off and stay off.”
Sherlock glances up from his phone, some fresh dam across the river of his thoughts. “You were here on September 11th, 2001.”
Joan nods. “Can we get off the street now?”
“I think,” Sherlock says, his gaze sliding past her, “we can get onto a different street.”
“I don’t want to be on any street.”
“What about a London street?” he asks with perfect seriousness.
“Watson…!” Shifting his feet in a small, uncomfortable dance, he points behind her. “Look, there. Look, actually look.”
Joan turns around. “Okay,” she says after a small pause. “The CVS is gone.”
“Yes it is. If you note the change of architecture and materials--”
“How the hell did that happen?”
“—you can plainly see that this is Maryleborne Road, London.”
Joan simply stares before a frantic thought in the back of her head reminds her that her phone has a GPS. She pulls up the GPS on her phone. Her phone still thinks they’re in New York. “We’re still in New York,” Joan says.
“But if we were to walk over there...” Sherlock muses.
“Is this real to you?” Joan asks. “This doesn’t seem real to you. And it’s getting very real for me, so am I the only one wondering if we woke up in Inception?”
“Fell asleep, you mean.” He catches her glare with a slightly unsteady gaze, but seeing him shaken does Joan some good.
“Okay,” Joan says. “Let’s walk over there. Load your GPS?”
“One moment…” He nods. “There. Would you like to be the control group, Watson?”
Joan nods but follows him. The farther they go, the more the abrupt change of geography becomes apparent. It’s as if two streets have been cut and set together without regard to their respective sizes. If someone had tried to stitch half a hot dog to half a bratwurst, the result would be something similar. The sidewalk jumps abruptly, the buildings cut away, the very shade and texture of the street alters on one very clear dividing line.
They stand at the edge of the New York section. Sherlock toes up right to the line, then slowly reaches over into the London section, holding out his phone.
“Ah, there it goes. Marylebone Road, London.” He turns the screen so she can see. She shows him her unchanged screen. When he pulls his hand back over the line in the sidewalk, his display takes a moment to adjust and reload back to New York.
Both of them look down at the sidewalk. In unrehearsed unison, both stick out a foot and tap the pavement on the other side. Sherlock taps the ground a second time before lowering his foot and shifting his weight, straddling the line.
“It seems to be fine,” he says.
Bracing herself, Joan steps across entirely. She exhales a sigh of relief and turns around. “Impossible, but fine.” She checks her phone again, watching her reported location jump across an ocean. “God, I really don’t like this.”
Sherlock hums in agreement, chewing his lip. “I do believe you were right, Watson.”
“About getting off the street?”
“Hm? No. It’s not real to me. Surreal, yes.” His eyes slide up the buildings beside them where American architecture gives way abruptly into British. “But this is not reality.”
“Inception,” Joan says.
“Possibly,” Sherlock says, tone unreadable. “Shall we go deeper?” He looks at her with his eyes too round, with his face too willing. If she decides to go home, Sherlock will follow her at a jog, if not a sprint. The thought tempts. They could go back, hole up, be safe. Joan could test them both for drugs. But that wouldn’t solve this and they’d need to come out again later.
“I think we should try to check the news, um, here?” She can’t quite find a way to word it. “See if this really is London.”
“Watson, this is London,” Sherlock promises her. “I know London. This is London.” He jerks his thumb over his shoulder. “That is New York.” He sweeps his hands wide. “And this makes no sense, at all!” He turns in a quick circle before staring at her in growing panic.
“I couldn’t find you a murder, so I brought you a surprise instead,” Joan says. “Okay?”
“This isn’t what hallucinogens feel like,” Sherlock says, gesturing frantically before inspecting the jump between the buildings by hand. “I know what hallucinogens feel like. And this is clearly a shared delusion, unless I am imagining you, which I don’t think I am.”
“Sherlock,” Joan says. “Sherlock.” That gets him to look at her. “We’re going to sort this out.”
“Yes. Well. Obviously. Of course we are, Watson.” He takes a deep breath, then coughs it out. “Looking around, yes. More data, always more data. Relevant data preferred, but data.”
“On foot or by car?” Worst case scenario, stealing a car puts them in contact with someone. “Though I’m not sure either of us is fit to drive.”
“And on which side of the road? Mm, no, best keep to foot.” He looks at her as if for approval, then nods before she can answer. “On foot, definitely.”
Joan nods and sets across the dividing line with a suppressed shiver. “This looks like it should be a busy street.”
“It should be, yes. Whatever has fused these neighborhoods has also rid them of the traffic. Or any other sounds, for that matter.”
“I feel like I’m in a zombie apocalypse film.”
“All the more reason you should have accepted training--”
“Don’t start that again,” Joan says and they fall uneasily into the rhythm of a familiar argument. The longest twenty minutes of her life ensue as they walk across their second deserted city of the day. Then: “Look, is that…?”
Sherlock rises on tiptoe before nodding like a British meerkat. “Another section break.”
“What city is that? Or town.”
He hums. “Shorter buildings, yes. Very well preserved, too.”
It isn’t until they’re only a block away that the thought nudging at the back of Joan’s mind becomes entirely clear. “When you say ‘preserved,’ do you mean extremely old-fashioned?”
“Apparently, I mean streetlamps with gas and hand painted window signs, yes,” Sherlock agrees, stopping before the dividing line. “Look at the construction of the street, not to mention the wear patterns. Fascinating. Even to your untrained eye, the differences in materials must be clear.”
“Yeah, and it’s creeping me out.” She hangs back while Sherlock barrels ahead to peer into a store window. “I feel like we just walked into Historical Reenactment Land.”
“Watson, you must see this.”
Hugging her arms about herself, Joan follows. She peers inside. “God, the register’s ancient.” Everything is. The advertising and the fonts especially.
“And yet it looks brand new. Fancy that.”
Joan fights down a shiver. “I’m heading back to London, maybe to New York.”
“This is London,” Sherlock says.
“No,” Joan says. “That is London. That over there.”
“Except this is also London.”
“That doesn’t even make sense.”
Sherlock turns and simply looks at her.
Joan mentally replays the last moment before sighing. “Fine, okay. This is also London. Why are Londons in New York?”
“That’s the mystery, isn’t it,” he agrees.
“I’m walking back now!”
“All right! Yes, I’m coming.” A few jogging steps bring him in line beside her. “We should stick together.”
“No complaints here.”
“Good. Speaking of, have you seen Clyde this morning?”
“I… don’t think so.”
“I’d like to check on Clyde,” Sherlock says. “See if tortoises are being whisked away with so many cars.”
“Yes, them too.”
They walk a bit more briskly than before, but only because they’ve reason to do so. When they cross the line back into New York, the air seems lighter, easier to breathe. Sherlock’s shoulders come down from their new position beside his ears.
Then, a male voice: “Hello? Anyone there?”
She and Sherlock stare at each other before darting around the block. There, across the street and wandering away from them, is a blond man in a black jacket and jeans.
“Hello!” Joan shouts. “Hello there!”
“Hello!” Sherlock adds.
The man across the street turns. It’s a bit far to make out his expression, but the relief in his body is obvious. He lifts a hand in greeting before jogging over to them. He’s mid-thirties, white, brownish blond, a few inches shorter than Sherlock but still taller than Joan.
“Morning,” greets the man amicably.
“You’re British,” Joan says with surprise.
“You’re American,” says the man, also with surprise.
“I’m not,” Sherlock says. “I imagine you wandered over from the immediately adjacent London, correct? Welcome to New York.”
The man blinks at Sherlock before grinning faintly. “That explains the cars.”
“What?” Joan asks.
“The side the wheel is on,” Sherlock clarifies for her. “Not to mention any stop signs.”
“You’re definitely Sherlock Holmes,” says the man. He offers his hand but Sherlock ignores him. The man offers his hand to Joan instead. “Dr Watson.”
“No, I’m,” Joan begins to say automatically. “I mean, it’s just ‘Miss,’ now. Call me Joan.”
“John,” says the man as they shake.
“You were expecting us,” Sherlock accuses. “Why? And how?”
John looks between the two of them before sticking his hands in his pockets. “It’s a long story. Do you want to sit somewhere? It might help if we go back to my flat. We’ve records there, sort of.”
“‘We’ being?” Sherlock asks.
“Me and… mine,” John finishes lamely.
“Your what?” Joan asks.
Looking at Joan, John points at Sherlock.
“Your… sarcastic British man?” Joan asks.
“I’m my own sarcastic British man,” John says. “My flatmate, I mean. His name is also Sherlock Holmes.”
“Dear god, really?” Sherlock asks. “Poor man.”
“Okay, that’s a bit unusual,” Joan says.
John’s mouth twitches in exactly the sort of amusement that is never, ever comforting to see. “It’s a surprisingly common name around here.”
“Which ‘here’?” Sherlock asks. “So far today, we’ve seen two different Londons.”
John nods as if expecting this. “There are more after that.”
“Wait, how long have you been here?” Joan asks. “Because you’re taking this way too much in stride.”
“A while,” John says.
“Tell me you mean an hour.” She’s not joking.
John shakes his head. “About a year.”
“You’ve been living in a hodgepodge of replicated cities for a year,” Sherlock summarizes flatly.
“Yep,” says John, pressing his hands deeper into his pockets. “That sums it up.”
“One moment, we’ll be right back,” Sherlock says before taking Joan by the arm. Without so much as a glance at one another, they continue the half-block to the brownstone. While Sherlock unlocks the door, Joan holds up her hand to John in an unmistakable One minute! gesture. Standing right where they left him, John simply nods.
Sherlock gets the door open, they go inside, and Sherlock closes the door. They look at each other.
“Find Clyde, get answers?” Joan asks.
“Yes,” Sherlock says, nodding. “And breathe. We should also breathe.”
“Breathing,” Joan confirms.
Sherlock keeps nodding. “Also breathing.”
“Do you think he’s in on it?”
“In on what? Kidnapping and city-replicating? He’s an army man, that’s obvious enough, but I fail to see how he could have pulled this off.”
“I fail to see how anyone could have pulled this off,” Joan points out.
Sherlock pauses, then shrugs. “Fair.” He pauses for a moment longer. “Clyde?”
“Clyde,” Joan agrees.
“I had him downstairs.”
“Okay.” One long, increasingly panicked minute later: “I found him! We really need to get him a terrarium.”
Sherlock emerges from the kitchen with a relieved sigh. “I’ve been meaning to. Never seem to find the time.”
Joan looks down at the tortoise in the desk drawer. “I kind of want to bring him with us.” She glances up to Sherlock, half-hoping he’ll dismiss her fear that everything they know will suddenly vanish.
Instead, Sherlock nods. “Would he be happy in your purse or shall he go in my pocket?”
After further, more serious discussion, they reemerge onto the street. John stands up from where he’s sat on the curb. Not only does he stand: he stands at attention, hands folded behind his back. His smile is small and polite.
“We were disoriented when we first showed up,” John says. “That’s normal, apparently, not that much is normal.”
“Who else is here?” Joan asks.
“It’s two per section,” John says. “Except for the trio.”
“How many sections?” Sherlock asks. “By section, you do mean patch of city?”
John nods. “Not sure how many. I mostly stay in four.”
“Would that be section number four or four sections?”
“And what are the names of the other seven residents?” Sherlock asks. “Or eight, as you mentioned a trio.”
John’s face does something very pained and very unfortunate. “John Watson and Sherlock Holmes.”
“Your last name is Watson?” Joan asks.
“That’s only two names,” Sherlock says.
“I know,” John says. “Everyone here is named Watson and Holmes.”
“…Do you realize how incredibly stupid that sounds?” Sherlock asks.
“God yes,” John says. “Still true, though.”
“How haven’t you starved?” Joan asks. Both men look at her abruptly. “If there are only nine people here total—well, eleven including us—then how are you getting food?”
“The shops restock in the morning,” John says. “No idea how they do it, but I don’t think that’s any stranger than a patchwork London entirely made of Baker Streets.”
“Okay…” Joan says slowly. She exchanges a glance with Sherlock, who is clearly holding Clyde inside his pocket. “Is there anyone else we can talk to?”
“You can try, but you’re not going to have much luck,” John says. He’s apologetic but frank. “And if you think it’s strange now, that might only make it worse.”
“Worse than everyone sharing one of two surnames in a replicated city?” Sherlock asks.
“Well, yeah,” John says. “Two of the others are a bit recognizable. I mean, they are if your world is anything like mine. They look like Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law. Nearly exactly. Except it’s Robert Downey Jr. with a shit accent.”
Joan bites her lip. “Right,” she says. “That sounds really weird, but I think it would cheer me up.”
John laughs, just a quick chuckle. “Depends on the day.”
“And how many days have there been?” Sherlock asks.
“They arrived a short while before we did. My flatmate and I, I mean.”
“Two questions,” Sherlock says.
“Oh, just two?”
“First, how short is ‘short’ here? Second, how do we leave?”
John grimaces. “One, longer than I’d like. Two, no idea.”
“Lovely,” Sherlock says. “Thank you, you’ve been very unhelpful.”
“Is there anything else you could tell us?” Joan asks.
“Not really,” John says. “That’s pretty much it. Oh, there is one more thing. Until you two came, we—my flatmate and I—were the only ones around here from the twenty-first century.”
Joan and Sherlock stare at him.
“Right, okay,” Joan says. “We’re just… We’re going to explore on our own for a little bit, I think.”
John shrugs a little, as if a piece of him would like to apologize for something that is not his fault. “If you want to come round and talk, you know which London I’m in. 221B Baker Street, that’s us. All of us, really.” With a small wave and a tight smile, he turns and walks away.
Sherlock waits for him to round the corner before quietly saying, “He wasn’t lying. At any point.”
That’s what Joan had thought but not at all what she’d wanted to hear. “Now what do we do?”
“What you said we would do. Explore on our own. Get the measure of this… place. Find a way of contacting someone outside.” One hand still inside his coat pocket, Sherlock thumbs through his phone, dials and puts it to his ear. “Still no luck. So much for a hired snowplow.” He looks pointedly to a nearby parked car. “Watson, if you would? Your hands look steady enough and I hate driving American.”
“You get it open and I’ll drive. I can’t deal with an alarm right now.”
He makes quick work of it, quickly enough that Joan thinks worriedly of Alfredo and how quickly she’ll be able to get Sherlock back to his sponsor.
“Data, Watson,” Sherlock reminds her as she climbs in behind the wheel. “Data first, always.”
Buckling herself in, she takes a steadying breath. “We’re going to be okay,” she says.
“Of course we are,” Sherlock says, reassuringly dismissive. “We’re us.”
Joan nods and pulls out onto the street.