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This Machine Called Man (1/7)

Masterpost | Chapter One | Chapter Two


1. A robot may not harm a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.

Dead three days. Anderson got it wrong, of course; Molly didn’t. To err is human--Molly may have missed something. No external signs of trauma. Scalpel in.

All the internal organs are where they should be, somewhat changed by death. Sherlock reaches in and feels around the stomach. Liver, pancreas, lungs. Heart. Death changes a lot of things. This corpse is no longer a human being. Dead and gone, rules no longer apply.

Molly says something. Sherlock ignores her. It’s easy to do that, to filter out irrelevant noise.

This case is already solved; getting inside the body himself is not strictly necessary. He hasn’t seen fit to mention that to anyone yet. Bodies are interesting, and unfortunately they have to be dead for him to investigate them. It’s not often he gets a whole one, either. Molly can only be manipulated so far. There’s so much data there, both confirming his conclusions about the case and providing general information.

“May I borrow the spleen?” Sherlock asks Molly.

Her mouth drops open. “What? But-- We have to release him to his family, you can’t--”

“They’re hardly going to notice.”

Ten minutes later Sherlock is hailing an aerotaxi, spleen in a temperature-controlled bag in his pocket. In death, the human being becomes a broken down machine. It’s all just spare parts.


John pulls his com out of his desk drawer, barely looking at the tri-wing screwdriver at the bottom of the drawer. Seeing the driver doesn’t give him the shiver of excitement or fear it gives other people, not anymore. The driver is all but useless to him now. It should be back in the hands of the Robotics Regulatory Service. He isn’t sure why he kept it.

It is very, very illegal.

He sets the com on the desk, unfolding it to the maximum view and smoothing out the thin, flexible material. The creases only take about fifteen seconds to fade on this OriCom model; John thumbs his personalised pattern across the touchscreen to unlock it. The surface of his desk is empty, apart from the mug of tea with the Royal Army Robotics Corps insignia printed on the side.

The barrenness of this room is not a result of too long spent in orderly army barracks. If he were still able to work, John’s desk, his kitchen table, and his worktops would be strewn with tools and spare parts, manuals, husks of broken bots and droids. As it is, his textbooks are locked in his army trunk under the bed, and the surfaces of the tiny flat are clear.

John touches the icon for his blog and it expands across the screen. The most recent entry, from a week ago, is still at the top of the page:

“Nothing happens to me.”


“John, you’re a soldier and a robotics technician. Adjusting to being a civilian will be difficult. I suggested you write a blog, and I honestly think that will help you. It may allow you to reconnect with old friends, and to get some perspective on your life here. Just write down everything that happens to you.”

He thinks back to his last post.

“I fix robots,” he says. “I’m not a writer.”

“Then branching out will be good for you. Robotics is very specialised work, John, and it’s not a hobby. Your chances of being able to do what you did in the army again may be slim. You need to find something else you enjoy.”

And that’s true, isn’t it. Robotics is not and will never again be a hobby. There are too many regulations, too much history. John cannot tinker, cannot use his robotics skills casually. If John wants to be a robotics technician, he has to do it professionally. He needs a licence, and he can’t get a licence without a job.

He looks at Ella’s hands on her com, and reads the notes she’s typing. Consider suggestions for blog entries. What would she do, if she couldn’t be a therapist?

“Are you still having nightmares?” she asks.

John swallows thickly and doesn’t answer, staring into space, trying not to blink. Even without the dark curtain of his eyelids he still sees it, the lingering images of the dream. His fellow soldiers bleeding oil, their broken bones made of titanium. The bots bleeding bright red blood into the sand.

In the dream John is paralyzed, unable to stanch the blood because he isn’t a doctor and doesn’t know what he’s doing, unable to repair the broken robots because his hand shakes too hard to hold the driver.

John is awake, sitting on his therapist’s sofa. His hand still shakes.


Sometimes when he goes for walks, putting his stupid psychosomatic limp through its paces, John goes into the British Library to look at the librarian droids. There are more technologically advanced robots, but these are some of the best publicly accessible ones, and John has always liked them.

A droid at the reference desk is running the digits of one hand over a book, scanning it and checking it in. “If I were looking for information on military robotics, what books would you recommend?” John asks it.

The droid turns its blue metal upper body towards him, unblinking, and puts down its book. “Most frequently accessed books, subject: military robotics: The Design, Construction, and Application of Military Androids, author: Michael Holman, ISBN: 468-1-07-938511-0. Army Androids: The Next Generation, author: Sarah Sawyer, ISBN: 520-3-94-172904-6. Rare and noteworthy printed books, subject: military robotics can be found on the fourth floor, section Q, shelves 9-14. E-books, subject: military robotics can be accessed via indexing at BritishLibrary.hub.com.”

“Thanks,” John says. He looks around at the other droids behind the reference desk and then asks, “How do you like being a librarian droid?”

“I am Librarian Droid 93PF8. I was built for the collection, organisation, preservation, and dissemination of information resources.”

John has always liked asking robots personal questions, knowing such questions confuse them. It’s about the only fun he gets, these days.


Sometimes John finds himself visiting old haunts, masochistically reminding himself of a time when London was his favourite place in the world. When being there, walking familiar streets and stopping by familiar buildings, felt right. One afternoon in January John finds himself in the street in front of the London School of Robotics, his leg hurting, his breath a little short. He wants to sit down more than he wants to avoid seeing how out of place he’ll feel in the LSR, almost twenty years on, and he remembers a bench in the foyer of the main building that’s probably still there.

The bench isn’t still there, replaced by a sad-looking potted ficus, but once inside the building John can’t quite bring himself to just leave again. The LSR is in some ways just as John remembers it--the brick buildings, the lino floors, the bright white walls. John has no doubt its entire contents have changed, though. The display in the echoing foyer makes that obvious--a surgical robot in a glass case with a plaque, like it’s in a museum. John remembers that robot, had worked on it once. It had been the most technically advanced robot he’d ever seen.

John wanders around looking at the other display cases, his cane tapping loudly on the floor. One has the lifelike Japanese true-humanoid android, Actroid-F, which looks like a large, creepy, nearly-human doll. John sees a robot he recognises as an older version of the reconnaissance bots the army uses.

There’s a reception desk that wasn’t there in John’s day, next to the large double doors to the rest of the building. John wanders over to talk to the man sitting behind it, curious. The receptionist is painfully young, probably an undergraduate--John barely remembers being that young.

“May I scan your ID, please?”

John frowns. “What? I was a student here twenty years ago, I don’t--”

“I’m sorry,” the kid says, “you’ll need a current student, faculty, or staff identification code on your com if you want to get past the lobby. Or a registered guest code, if you’re a visitor.”

This is new. Back when John was at uni tri-wing screwdrivers weren’t even registered. Now you need an ID code to get in the door?

“I was just passing, wanted to see if this place still looked the same,” John says. “All this is a bit different from my day.”

“Good afternoon, Billy,” a deep voice says from behind John.

John turns, and finds himself looking at the lapels of a dark grey coat and a man’s broad shoulders. He’s standing a little too far into John’s personal space. John looks up at him.

He is pale and dark-haired and too tall, and he has amazing eyes, and he smells wrong. He smells cold and faintly metallic, and also, disconcertingly, like dry-cleaning. Maybe he’s spent too much time in the robotics lab, and that’s why he smells like a robot. But that doesn’t explain why his clothes still smell like cleaning products. There’s something unidentifiably strange about the man, something that almost reminds John of the slight wrongness in the unnatural flawlessness of the Actroid-F across the room, the Uncanny Valley of not-quite-human.

He’s holding a halfway unfolded com in one hand, sliding his finger across the fingerprint lock. The wrongness can’t be because he is a robot, of course. It’s illegal to give a robot fingerprints. John makes himself stop sniffing the man.

“Afghanistan or Iraq?” the stranger says, opening screens on his com without looking up.

“Sorry?” John asks.

“Which was it, Afghanistan or Iraq?”

“Afghanistan. How did you--?”

He folds up the com and slides it into a pocket, and strides off across the room toward the case with the reconnaissance bot, saying as he goes, “How do you feel about high-functioning artificial intelligence?”

“It’s terrifying,” John says, deadpan, following him across the room.

“But you like it.” He leans on the display case and peers in at the bot, apparently ignoring John while still carrying on a conversation with him. He doesn’t seem to notice John’s sarcasm.

“Yes,” John says, because he does. He’s always thought AI could have so much potential to achieve good things, despite its dangers.

“You’re unemployed,” the man says, out of nowhere.


“I need a consultant. It’s a matter of some delicacy, but I’ve been looking for a roboticist I can trust to do the job.”

“I don’t even know you. We don’t know anything about each other, why would you think I’d be able to do the job?”

The man turns to John finally, and John is suddenly the focus of his attention in a way that is impossible to escape. “I know you're a robotics technician--you told Billy as much--and you were in the army. You've been invalided home from Afghanistan. I know you’re not employed--you wouldn’t be wandering into your former university and looking longingly at obsolete robots if you were--so you’re surviving on an army pension. You don’t have a robotics licence. The fact that you’re carrying a tri-wing screwdriver concealed at the back of your trousers makes that quite clear.”

John steps back, feeling his body shift into controlled tension. Oh god.

“It’s dangerous, walking into the London School of Robotics with an illegal screwdriver on your person, and your experience in the RARC also suggests you’re accustomed to danger. Prior to the moment you realised I knew you were carrying a tri-wing screwdriver illegally, you were exhibiting a tremor in your left hand--could be nerve damage, but the fact that it stopped suggests that its cessation was a response to the danger of the situation. Your hand shakes when you feel perfectly safe, and stops when you’re threatened? You’re at your best when in danger. That’s a valuable quality. You have nothing better to do, you need money, and you need danger. Perhaps we may be able to come to a business agreement.”

“The driver?” John hisses, hoping Billy can’t hear them. “Aren’t you going to do something about the driver?”

“That’s just one of those law things. Not important. I’ve engaged a flat in central London. We’ll meet there tomorrow, seven o’clock. Sorry, I have an appointment at the mortuary.”

Mortuary? “You haven’t told me your name. You don’t even know my name.”

“The name’s Sherlock Holmes, John Watson.”

John is left gaping, staring as Sherlock Holmes turns and walks away. “Is that it?” he says, but Mr. Holmes makes no indication that he’s heard. John watches the swing of the front door as it closes. He is absolutely terrified and he feels better than he has in months.

John’s com pings a message notification. He pulls the com out of his back pocket and unfolds it once, just far enough to read the text.

13:52 29.1.2081 Textual Information Transfer from Sender: Sherlock Holmes. Message Follows...

The address is 221B Baker Street.

Not only does Sherlock Holmes know about John’s illegal driver, he knows John’s com address. The driver, sure, if he were extremely sharp-eyed maybe he could see it, pressed cool against John’s back. It’s stupid to carry it, John knows, completely irrational. It’s backwards to feel safer carrying something that puts him at enormous risk.

But that is, strangely, not the issue. The issue is that Sherlock Holmes knows John’s com address, knows his name, and John has no idea how he got it.

John walks slowly across the foyer and steps out the doors, stopping on the front steps and looking up at the dull grey January sky. Thinking back on that profoundly strange conversation, John realises that for all the excellent reasons to never go near Sherlock Holmes again, he doesn’t actually have anything to lose. And going to the meeting might do something to cure John’s interminable, desperate boredom.

Mr. Holmes was right. John’s hand is perfectly steady.


John is blankly calm, hands certain, shoulders relaxed. He sets the device down on his desk and leans back, fingers curling tight around the arms of his chair. He wasn’t sure that would work, but it seems to have. There’s no safe way to test it, though, not here.

Had John known he’d be using his robotics degree for this... Only there’s not a lot of difference between a remote robot disabling device and the directed-energy guns the army uses.

He doesn’t question why he’s doing this, what he’s planning, if he’s planning anything. He picks up the gun. It has a familiar weight to it now, a familiar warmth. He flips the safety off. Flips it on again. Still functional as an RRDD, but now with boosted power and minor adjustments, it can do more.

John sets the gun back down on the desk and admires its blue casing. He is, dimly, horrified at himself. He sweeps the litter of discarded scraps into one pile and his tools into another. He gets up, picks up the gun, and crosses the room. Kneeling stiffly, he hauls his army trunk out from under his bed, pulls the keys out of his pocket, unlocks it. His hand lingers on the gun as he sets it into the side compartment of the trunk. Finally he pulls away, relocks the trunk, stands up.

The keys clatter against the floor. John looks down at his left hand and finds it trembling; he missed his pocket.

Without a lethal weapon in his hand John can’t even put his keys away without dropping them.


Sherlock is already looking through the LSR’s student database when he overhears John Watson tell Billy that he used to be a student. It’s only a matter of seconds to also register the man’s military bearing and the presence of a tri-wing screwdriver tucked at his back. From his approximate age, subsequent military career, and presumed area of study, Sherlock quickly narrows the search down to those finishing their degrees in 2065, and finds the man in question: John Hamish Watson, born 31.3.2042, went into the Royal Army Robotics Corps, com address: JHW.164.17.394.1.

It isn’t difficult to find further information about John Watson. For a robotics technician who should know better, John Watson (John, use of the given name will establish trust) is appallingly easy to locate. His name is all over the net, given some judicious search terms: public profile, messages, dating hub, uninformative blog.

Sherlock is lying on the sofa, sorting through the net’s combined knowledge on John, when he hears John knock on the front door and Mrs. Hudson answer. He’s already been through the information once, trying to find anything that will suggest the most effective approach to this matter, but a second search brings out different aspects.

John Watson should be boring, ordinary. He shouldn’t provide any kind of new data. Yet Sherlock has never before encountered a person who is in all respects completely dull except for one minor detail that blows all the information out of normality and into the realm of mystery.

Tri-wing screwdrivers are expensive, extremely difficult to fake, heavily secured, and never, in Sherlock’s experience, carried illegally by otherwise statistically ordinary men.

It’s almost enough to outweigh the numerous problems with finding a suitable robotics technician to do the job. John is clearly unphased by a certain amount of breaking the law (sensible of him; laws are frequently unnecessary and tedious). He is not, however, a criminal, and that is what makes him interesting.

John’s footsteps on the stairs (uneven, loud), Mrs. Hudson’s voice (cheerful), and then they enter the room and Sherlock is presented with a more comprehensive set of data: John wearing a checked shirt, all the way buttoned; he looks tidy and normal, and when he turns to thank Mrs. Hudson Sherlock can tell from the way he moves that his driver is once again tucked into the back of his jeans. Not put off by the first encounter, then: he showed up, and he brought his driver with him.

“There he is,” Mrs. Hudson says. “Sherlock, you’ve got a young man here to see you.” “Young” is an imprecise and subjective term, obviously, but John is 38, which is not quite middle age--a somewhat less imprecise term--but hardly young. Sherlock lifts a finger, in the recognised gesture for “one moment”, and then presses his palms back together against his chin. He has on previous occasions noted the advantage of making people wait.

Mrs. Hudson conducts John into the kitchen, chattering about the building and her hip and the scones she’s made for tea. By the time Sherlock is satisfied with the conclusions he’s made and the length of John’s wait, Mrs. Hudson has gone downstairs to make a cup of tea while John sits in an armchair, watching him. Sherlock files away John’s information and sits up.

“Can I borrow your com?” Sherlocks asks. “Don’t want to use mine, always a chance the address will be recognized.”

John clears his throat. “You--you hacked my com yesterday, didn’t you? You must have done.”

“Don’t be stupid, John. When would I have had time to hack your com? I got your name and address from the LSR’s student database.”

“People don’t lend their coms to strangers. They’ve got sensitive information on them.”

Ridiculous. Nothing a good hacker couldn’t retrieve, if it were worthwhile. “I doubt any of your information is very sensitive. The army would hardly have given you classified information.”

“My bank account--”

“You’re living on an army pension; there’s nothing in your bank account.”

John stares for a moment and then takes a very deep breath. The motion is one Sherlock has often observed, especially in those making decisions, deciding to lie, trying not to become angry--it’s supposed to be calming, observation suggests. He watches John deliberate, and then, wordless, take his com out of his jacket pocket, unfold it to the maximum view, and scan his fingerprint to unlock it. He gets up to bring it across to Sherlock, and he doesn’t hesitate before he hands it over.

Internally, Sherlock declares this a victory. The fact that John trusts Sherlock with his com is an excellent sign that Sherlock has chosen well. Coms are intimately connected to personal identification, and because of the fingerprint scanning required to use them they are difficult to steal and use. It’s a sign of something--trust, stupidity, recklessness, Sherlock finds it frustratingly impossible to identify precisely--and it’s that unquantifiable quality which prompts Sherlock to make his decision.

“Maintenance would be fairly simple, except in cases of accidents,” Sherlock says. “Accidents happen at an average of one every five weeks. I am not as careful as is normal. It is inefficient to be careful. Repairs are always possible.”

John’s entire body goes still, as though he knows, on some level, that Sherlock is about to reveal a dangerous secret. “Maintenance? What are you talking about?” John looks around the flat, as though searching for a robot to which Sherlock might be referring.

“I am a true-humanoid autonomous android. I need a maintenance technician.”

John’s facial expression is a perfect match for Sherlock’s catalogued expression of shock. “You--you what? You can’t be. It isn’t possible.”

“Of course it’s possible. You know it is. You see, but you do not observe, John. Really look.”

And John does. It’s not that Sherlock is obviously a robot. It is by no means obvious. Sherlock’s design is so careful, so meticulous, so perfectly humanoid, that the signs are minor details, tiny slightly wrong things that are only noticeable to those who know where to look.

No one ever knows where to look.

Sherlock waits for his cue, the inevitable reaction that will spread across John’s face. He cannot predict what it will be. The unpredictability of the situation is uncomfortable; it is outside of Sherlock’s preferred lines of inquiry not to know how one action will lead to another. The situation is profoundly and unpleasantly human.

Finally, the change in John’s expression: the realisation. When the expression finishes loading Sherlock devotes all his resources to categorising it and comes up with a near perfect fit, and one that is better than Sherlock could have expected.

John’s face is a picture of wonder.

No fear (but John is a robotics technician; he should be long past any fear he might have felt about robots), not even any worry. John takes a breath and says, voice steady, “But you borrowed my com. You have your own com. You have fingerprints.”

“I never claimed to be a legal android,” Sherlock snaps.

“So, you... You haven’t broken all the laws, have you? The Three Laws?”

Humans are so preoccupied with the Three Laws of Robotics--ridiculous, as their concise, pretty ways of stating them are imprecise approximations of the actual Laws. In all practical applications the Laws are expressed in code, with accompanying limits and specifications.

“No, John, I have not and cannot break the Three Laws.”

John’s face expresses relief. “What about the RLT? How many of the robot limitation tests do you pass?”

“I have never been assessed by the RLT.”

“So you could...” John takes a deep breath. “You might pass more than three of the tests. You might count as sentient.”

“Once again, I never claimed to be legal.” In fact Sherlock would pass more than the maximum allowed three out of nine tests that determine a robot’s level of intelligence and human-like qualities. Sentience, of course, is an imprecise term, implying no difference between human and robot. Sherlock is clearly different, and he cannot pass all of the tests. It doesn’t matter. The Robot and Artificial Intelligence Limitations Act of 2046 is just another law, an arbitrary product of human fear-mongering.

“So I have my illegal driver and you have your illegal everything, and if one of us goes down we both do?”

Sherlock doesn’t get to answer before Mrs. Hudson steps back into the living room, balancing a cup of tea. “Here’s your cuppa, dear,” she says to John. “Sherlock, did you want any?”

Sherlock sees the way John’s eyes snap towards him, looking for the reaction a robot might have to the offer of a drink. “No, thank you, Mrs. Hudson.”

“Well, you enjoy your tea, Dr. Watson. Just bring the cup down when you’re done, and remember, you’re only getting it because you’re still a guest. I’m your landlady, not your housekeeper.”

“Thank you,” John says politely, warming his hands on the surface of the cup. Mrs. Hudson pats him on the shoulder and retreats downstairs to her own flat.

Sherlock smiles because he knows John is finding it disconcerting to see such human facial expressions on a droid. “Mrs. Hudson doesn’t know, of course. No one knows.”

“So why did you tell me?”

“I need a maintenance technician.”

Sherlock recognises scepticism on John’s face. No shock, interesting. “You want me to be your tech? I can’t do your maintenance. I don’t know a thing about you, your technology. I assume you don’t care that I don’t have a licence, since you’re illegal anyway, but I don’t even know your numerical designation.”

“I don’t have a numerical designation. I have a name.”

“Robots don’t have names,” John says. Hardly an accurate statement. People give them nicknames all the time, ridiculous as that is.

“I do.” John’s objections are ridiculous. They’ve already established that Sherlock is not a normal, legal, boring android. He should stop expecting Sherlock to conform to all the standardised laws and regulations; it’s irrational.

John accepts this, at least, with minimal resistance. “And what happened to your last maintenance technician, anyway?”

“I found him unsatisfactory.”

“Robots don’t sack their own maintenance techs,” John says, laughing. Sherlock detects nervousness in his laughter.

“I am built for efficiency. He was inefficient. And he wasn’t allowing me to function at my full capacity.”

“You think I’ll be more efficient.” The cup of tea in John’s hands tilts, four degrees away from spilling into the saucer.

“I think you’ll be more interesting.”

John frowns. “And what is your primary function?”

“I am an adaptive analysis and deduction droid,” Sherlock says.

“So, you... do what, exactly?”

“I am a detective. Mrs. Hudson is providing housing at a lowered rate because I solved a small problem for her. A court in Florida sentenced her husband to death.”

“You stopped her husband being executed?” The tea tilts further, and then snaps back upright.

“Certainly not. My function is to ascertain the facts. The facts ensured his execution.” It was the first case he took of his own accord, and as such he is still partial to it. The case file has been accessed more frequently than most of Sherlock’s other files.

John blinks. His face is... unreadable. Sherlock’s catalogue of facial expressions is missing this one. Unacceptable. Sherlock takes a photograph of the expression and stores it in his file. Corresponding emotion: unknown.

“You said ‘lowered rate.’ How are you paying for this? Surely you aren’t paid to fulfill your primary function.”

“It’s not a ‘primary function,’ as far as most people know. I am occasionally paid for cases.”

John stands, still holding his cup of tea. “Look, what am I getting involved in here? You’re an illegal droid, you got rid of your last maintenance tech, your technology is... amazing. I--I’m not sure this is a good idea.”

Sherlock also stands, stepping across the room and leaning into John’s space. He’s found this intimidates people, but he’s also discovered that his design was calculated to be very physically attractive, and his aesthetic superiority likewise gives him an advantage. He wants John to accept. Having a new maintenance tech, a different one, one who won’t try to push him into taking easy cases and letting his processing capacity go to waste... the possibilities are too endless to compute, and so interesting.

“I can also offer housing,” Sherlock adds, having seen a mention on John’s blog of his terrible flat and hoping this will add incentive. It will also allow him to keep John under observation, to see whether John can continue to be trusted and whether he might be allowed to perform more extensive maintenance. “There’s another bedroom upstairs.”

Sherlock pauses, looking at John, calculating the last step necessary to get John to agree. “You are a robotics technician with no licence and no prospects of getting work; you cannot survive in London on an army pension. You are a soldier who misses the war. Become my maintenance technician and my flatmate and all your current problems will be solved.”

“You think I miss the war?”

“Living with a robot--could be dangerous. Accept the offer, John. ”

And that facial expression is in Sherlock’s catalogue. Eagerness. Excitement. Desire. Hope.

“Oh God, yes.”

-> Chapter Two


Parce que c’etait lui, parce que c'etait moi.

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