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This Machine Called Man (4/7)

Masterpost | Chapter Three | Chapter Four | Chapter Five


John sits very still, looking at his knees, trying to pretend he hasn’t noticed the aerotaxi is not going to his flat. If this is an accident, then no harm done, he’ll just tell the driver to turn around once he’s sure. If this is not an accident, he’s hoping to buy himself some time.

Not much more than twenty-four hours after meeting Sherlock, and the promised chance of danger has already come to fruition.

His hand doesn’t shake.

John examines what he can see of the taxi driver, trying to be subtle. Collar of a grey jumper, short scruffy hair, back of the neck. In the rear-view mirror, he can’t see much more than a forehead. The only possibility John can imagine is that this is related to Sherlock’s case, though why that would necessitate his kidnapping, he doesn’t know.

After another ten minutes, John realises the taxi is beginning to descend. He looks out the window, wishing he recognised the street they’re on.

“Here we are,” the driver says cheerfully.

“Where are we?”

“Where you need to go.”

“This isn’t my flat.”

“No? I guess that isn’t where you need to go, then.”

John opens the door. He’s a bit surprised it isn’t locked and even more surprised when the driver just lets him get out and slam the door behind him. John looks around himself, backing away from the taxi. The nearest street lamp is dark, and none of the houses at his back spill any light into the street. The shops across the road are shuttered and dead-looking. John starts walking. When he looks back he sees the taxi lifting into the air. This was not a mistake, but the taxi driver doesn’t seem to be the source of his problems.

A nondescript black car turns onto the street and rolls to a stop next to John. John keeps walking. The car door opens.

“Get into the car, Mr. Watson.” It’s a bland, feminine voice. John can’t see the speaker.

“Why should I?”

“Because you want to know what we want.”

John gets into the car. His therapist would probably have something to say about that. His self-preservation instincts really are shot to hell.

He finds himself sitting next to a pretty dark-haired woman, well-dressed, with a small com in her hands. She doesn’t look at him.

“Hello,” John says. “What’s your name? Since you know mine.”

“Uh... Anthea.”

“Is that your real name?” God, what kind of world does he live in where that is a reasonable question?


John tries to look out the window, but the night is dark and the tinted windows make it darker. By the time the car slows to a stop, John has even less idea where he is than before. He gets out of the car.

They are inside a large empty warehouse, the gel lighting too bright and too high to be comfortable.

Standing alone in the middle of the room is a man in a suit, leaning on an umbrella. “Have a seat, John,” he says, pointing his umbrella at a plain metal chair. John simply keeps moving forward, feeling slightly violated by the casual use of his name.

“Most people make appointments,” John says, coming to a stop a few feet away from the man, ignoring the offered chair. “Or you could ring my com. As it is, you know, a com. For communication, and all. But I suppose that would be the obvious thing to do.”

“Do sit down. Your leg must be hurting.”

It’s not. It’s stiff, and he knows he’ll limp if he moves, but it’s not painful. “No, thank you.”

“Suit yourself.” He taps the umbrella against the toe of his shoe, and looks at John speculatively.

“Is there a reason you kidnapped me, or did you just want to stand there and look at me?”

“I never kidnapped you,” he says, sounding mildly affronted. “You always had the option not to get in the car.”

But he hadn’t known that at the time, had he, so it still amounts to kidnapping. Always best to comply until you know exactly what the situation is. “Aerotaxi takes you to the wrong place, you can’t exactly just open the door and hop out.”

“Yes, I suppose that’s true.” He looks at John a while, still tapping his umbrella, and then says, “You don’t seem very afraid.”

“You don’t seem very frightening. You did just tell me you weren’t actually kidnapping me.”

He smiles. It is not reassuring. “What is your connection to Sherlock Holmes?”

“He’s my new flatmate.”

“Odd choice for a flatmate.”

“Or maybe it’s the other way around. Who’d want me for a flatmate?”

The man chuckles. That’s not reassuring either. “I understand you are a robotics technician, invalided home from Afghanistan. You must be looking for work.”

“Not really,” John says tightly. Not when his hand shakes every time he thinks about doing any kind of normal robotics work.

“Perhaps it is looking for you.”

“Look, who are you?”

“An interested party.”

“Interested in Sherlock? I doubt you’re really interested in me. And I doubt your interest in Sherlock is friendly.”

“John. You know as well as I do that Sherlock Holmes does not have friends.”

That sounds like it means more than the sum of its parts, like this man knows Sherlock does not have friends, is not capable of the emotional connection required to make friends, like he knows why. Who is this man, that he may or may not know what Sherlock is? “What does he have, if not friends? What are you to him?”

“As I said. An interested party.” He says “interested” like he might say it about a business or an investment. Like he takes an economic interest in Sherlock. Like Sherlock is a possession. John tightens his fingers around his cane. The next thing he says only confirms it. “As you do plan to move into 221B Baker Street, I shall make you an offer. I would be happy to pay you a meaningful sum of money on a regular basis to... ease your way.”


“Because you are not working in your chosen profession. I am offering you a job.”

He does know. He knows Sherlock is a droid. “What do you get out of it? You want me to make modifications? You want me to hack?” John knew Sherlock was dangerous, that working with him was a gamble, but this is not exactly what he had in mind. John is a moral and ethical man, even about robots, even when others consider them nothing but machines. He will not perform robotics work for anyone he does not trust.

“Oh, no, not at all. Merely deliver some... updates. I do like to know what he’s up to.”

From a mysterious man with mysterious motives and the means to kidnap John and pay him unknown amounts of money, updates sound like hacks. “No.”

An infuriating amused smile. “I haven’t mentioned a figure.”

“Don’t bother.”

“You have an intermittent tremor in your left hand. That’s why you aren’t looking for work. Your therapist thinks it’s post-traumatic stress disorder.”

John stills, his body settling into a mess of tenseness and loose, ready muscles. “Who the hell are you? How do you know that?”

“Show me your hand.”

John clenches his hand into a fist. The man steps across the space between them and looks him up and down, slowly. John uncurls his fingers, almost painfully, and holds up his hand.

“You’re under stress right now, and your hand is perfectly steady. You’ll be able to work, John, if you’re working for me.”

“No, thank you.” Sherlock is undoubtedly aware of the tremor, but it doesn’t seem to concern him. John doesn’t need this man’s money and he can work with Sherlock without breaking all the rules and his own code of ethics. Just knowing there are people like this in the background, watching, is enough. John knows what his therapist thinks, and he knows how this tremor works. His hand shakes if he tries to fix a robot without the sound of gunfire in his ears. His hand shakes if he tries to fix a robot without a countdown in his head, if nothing bad will happen if he doesn’t do it now.

This may not be a kidnapping, but John knows it is dangerous. He knows that if he goes back to Baker Street and Sherlock wants him to adjust a small, fiddly bit of hardware, he will be able to do it. John stands his ground, and feels cold when he sees the smile directed at him.

“It’s your choice. I do hope you’ll reconsider. Good evening, John.”

John doesn’t watch him walk away. He looks down at his left hand, and knows he’s made the right decision.


Sherlock has finished organising the available data and is looking up the companion bot rental company’s hub, when he hears John clunking up the stairs. One wheeled suitcase, one suitcase without wheels big enough to bump against each step. Sherlock sets aside his com and gets up, stepping to the living room doorway and watching John climb the stairs. John moves awkwardly, manoeuvring his cane and the wheeled suitcase with the same hand.

“Give us a hand?” John says, breathing heavily. “There’s a trunk by the door.”

He lets John get to the top of the stairs and dump his suitcases on the landing, before passing by him down the stairs. The dark grey polyethylene footlocker is sitting by the bottom of the stairs, scuffed around the edges but clearly cared for conscientiously. Sherlock estimates its weight (approximately 40 kilograms) before he picks it up. It’s heavier than expected; he adjusts accordingly, and cycles through a list of its possible and probable contents.

Sherlock carries the trunk up the stairs and into the living room. “Christ, Sherlock, I couldn’t lift that,” John says.

“It was heavier than anticipated,” Sherlock admits. “But I am able to carry up to 200 kilograms. What’s inside?”

“Textbooks, mostly. Manuals. My robotics library.”

“Paper books? How inefficient.”

“Hey, just because you can’t appreciate the appeal of a paper book. I always found it easier to study with, paper. Bit weird for a bot tech, I know.”

Sentiment for outdated modes of transmitting information is so tiresome. Sherlock ignores it and sits down on the floor in front of the trunk, looking at the lock. He could pick it, but that isn’t the socially appropriate thing to do to the belongings of one’s new flatmate. “Key?”

“What are you going to do?” John asks. Sherlock wonders why he’s hesitating, then looks up. Oh, suspicion. Waste of time.

“I only want to examine your books. There may be valuable information in them.”

“What, for the case?”

“The case? No, that’s on hold until 8 o’clock tomorrow. The key, please.”

John hesitates a moment longer, then pulls his keyring out of his trouser pocket and hands it over. Sherlock identifies the correct key with no difficulties, and unlocks the trunk. It is stacked full of books--that explains the unexpected weight. There’s a side compartment, what--? Ah. To be expected. Most roboticists have a remote robot disabling device in case they ever need to quickly incapacitate a robot.

“My room’s upstairs, yeah? Mrs. Hudson said--”

“Yes, yes, the room upstairs.”

John walks to the window and looks out, and then turns back to the room. Sherlock, momentarily distracted from the books, watches him. Body language suggests nervousness.

“Something wrong?”

John twitches back the curtains, looking out again. “I met a friend of yours,” he says.

“A friend?” A familiar word. Noun: a person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of romantic or family relations. Familiar in definition if not in experience, of course. Many suspects in his cases have been friends of the victim.

“Well, an interested party, he said.”

Oh. Mycroft, then. Definitely not a friend, in the traditional sense or any other. Should have known he’d arrange a meeting with John. “Did he offer you money to spy on me?”

“I think he was offering me money to do your maintenance. The way he wanted it done, of course.”

“And did you take it?”


Interesting. Possible motivations: loyalty, ethics (John must have assumed Mycroft wanted him to implement harmful software), disinterest in money, dislike of Mycroft. Sherlock adds it to his growing file on John, and leaves the motivations for later evaluation.

“Who is he?” John asks. “He obviously knows you’re a droid.”

Sherlock calculates the advantages and disadvantages of telling John who Mycroft is. No, no point in not telling. Best to prepare John in case Mycroft makes any more advances. “I should hope he knows I’m a droid,” Sherlock says. “As it’s his fault.”

John sits heavily on the couch, and looks at Sherlock. “You mean, he--he created you?”

Creation. Yes, he did that, but Sherlock’s file on the word is larger than is warranted for what he did. Creation: art (incomprehensible), God (ridiculous), literature and popular culture (annoying but likely to be relevant to cases). Sherlock is a masterpiece of creation, obviously, but that’s only because he is more than the sum of his parts. Mycroft is merely the child that put the model aeroplane together. The design itself was the work of various top-secret parts of government; Mycroft merely modified and improved it. “Yes, he’s a proper Frankenstein.” Not an accurate comparison at all, of course, but calculated to appeal to John.

“He made you and abandoned you?” John asks, showing a better understanding of the plot of the novel than Sherlock had expected.

“Certainly not. I abandoned him.”

John takes a deep breath. “Well, I see why you would. He is a bit of a creep, isn’t he?”

Sherlock grins. “I suppose he knew things about you he had no right to know.”

“He knew what my therapist’s diagnosis was.” John looks down at his hands, and back at Sherlock. “It’s not creepy when you know things I never told you. You’re a robot, it makes sense you can work out things other people can’t.”

“Oh, he didn’t work it out. He’s probably read your medical record. Or your therapist’s notebook.”

John blanches. Fear? Illness? Oh, privacy laws. “Don’t worry, he’ll only use it to intimidate you.”

“It’s working, a bit. So is he a criminal mastermind, or...?”

“Why would a criminal mastermind build a robot that solves crimes for the police? No, officially he is a minor British government official.”

“And unofficially?”

“Unofficially he is the British government.” Not quite accurate, a generalisation, but true enough for John’s purposes. An accurate picture of Mycroft’s resources, certainly.

“The British government is building illegal robots for the police?”

Sherlock’s profile of John is already complete enough not to be surprised that John is focusing on the illegalities involved. “He didn’t build me for the police. He is much more selfish than that. He built his PA because none of his human assistants were efficient enough.”

“Oh God,” John says faintly. What? What’s wrong with him? “His assistant? Pretty, dark hair? She’s a droid?”

“Yes. An inferior one. He improved the design when he built me.”

“I just tried to hit on her...”

“And you were obviously not successful, so it doesn’t matter. Droid 572A is irrelevant.”

John makes a visible attempt to calm himself, and, thankfully, moves on from the discussion of the assistant droid. “So you started working for the police after you abandoned him? But your primary function is still as a detective. What did he have you doing?”

Sherlock runs his hands over the books in John’s trunk. Sometimes stimulating his sensors gives an extra boost to his processing power. “Solving cases. His cases. Doing his legwork. It was all boring. He wasn’t using me to my full capacity. He wouldn’t let me do things in the most efficient manner. He said I was careless, which is ridiculous. I’m a robot; I can’t die. And anyway I can’t truly violate the Third Law.” A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Laws.

“He built you for efficiency and he wasn’t letting you be efficient,” John murmurs. “That’s sort of... beautiful. He did such a good job building you you were too good for him. And that’s why you needed a maintenance tech.” John leans his head on his hand, still looking at Sherlock, but clearly thinking. “Hang on, Sergeant Donovan said you’d been working for the police for five years. You haven’t had a maintenance tech for five years?”

“I didn’t need any maintenance.” A lie. Sherlock lies flawlessly, of course.

John seems to be immune. “Don’t be stupid, of course you did.”

“Mycroft kidnapped me once or twice,” Sherlock concedes. “Fixed me up. But I prefer not to rely on Mycroft’s help.”

“Well, that’s why you have me now, isn’t it?” John smiles. Sherlock’s catalogue of facial expressions reads the smile easily. Warmth. Reassurance. Offer of comfort.

Sherlock doesn’t need comfort. Still, he adds the smile to his profile of John. It might be worth remembering.


The facade of Company Co., the companion bot rental agency, is clean and recently painted dark blue. Cream-coloured curtains hang in the windows, but a sign in front of them says, “Licensed companion bots for rent.” It all looks much classier than John ever would have expected a business that rents sex bots to look. But then, so many of John’s expectations about robots and the businesses that use them date from a time before the increased regulations, back when sex bots were a lot less standardised and probably a lot cheaper to rent.

A sign on the door says they’re open for business, though Sherlock barely glances at it before he’s pushing the door open and striding in. John looks around self-consciously before he follows.

John had hesitated before agreeing to come along on this excursion. Fixing Sherlock when he breaks and upgrading his software is one thing, but joining in his investigations is another. It’s hardly what John imagined himself doing when he thought about life after Afghanistan. He still isn’t sure why Sherlock deemed his presence necessary. He’s seen what Sherlock does now, so observation is no longer the primary reason for him to come along. Nevertheless, Sherlock had overruled his objections. And to be honest, John was curious. It’s not as if he’s ever got off on the idea of sex with a robot, but the fact that other people do fascinates him. The fact that some people rent companion bots not for just for sex, but for actual companionship, worries him.

John’s military instincts always make him evaluate a room when he enters it. White walls, small. A counter with a desk behind it, and one door into the back of the shop. A young, pretty blonde woman is sitting at the desk. She looks up when the bell over the door dings, and smiles. “Welcome to Company Co.,” she says, getting out of her chair and stepping to the counter. “I’m Louisa. How can I help you?” She seems sweet and shy and not who John would have expected to work here, any more than he would have expected the well-kept building.

“Sherlock Holmes and John Watson,” Sherlock says brusquely. “We’re with the police.” He flashes what is evidently a police badge, too quick for anything but the Metropolitan Police logo to be visible. That can’t actually be his, John realises. Lestrade only seems to put up with him out of necessity; he doesn’t actually work for the police.

“The police? Is something wrong?”

“That is what we are trying to determine. Do you have a Rachel Walton in your files?”

“Oh, our client files are confidential, we can’t give out any information unless you have a warrant.”

John winces, thinking they’re probably out of luck, but Sherlock doesn’t seem bothered. Sherlock seems far from bothered.

Sherlock smiles.

It’s the most charming, disarming, and magnetic smile John has ever seen. Even from the side, the smile is overpowering. Being the focus of it must be utterly irresistible.

Louisa melts.

“Are you sure?” Sherlock asks. “I only need to know if you have a file on her; I don’t need you to tell me what’s in the file.” The Sherlock John sees now bears no resemblance to the Sherlock with whom John has spent the past twenty-four hours. He’s cheerful, he’s charming, and it’s working.

“Well...” Louisa hedges.

“Please? I promise not to tell anyone.”

“Well, all right.” She smiles shyly and turns to the file cabinet sitting against the wall next to the desk. She opens the bottom drawer and flips through files, looking for Rachel Walton. “Yes, she’s here.”

John feels a thrum of excitement in his chest. He’s not actually surprised, given what they found on the com, but he can tell they’re getting somewhere with the case

“Excellent,” Sherlock says. “Can you try Jeffrey Patterson, Beth Davenport, and James Phillimore?”

“No Beth Davenport, no Jeffrey Patterson. Hang on, I do have a James Phillimore.”

Sherlock and John exchange glances. They have their connection.

“Excellent, thank you so much. Were you working yesterday?”

“No, I never work Saturdays. I have my dance class that day. My boss was here, Mr. Hope.”

“Does he have a business card we can have? We’d like to get in contact with him.”

“Yes, right there on the counter.”

Sherlock looks down at the counter and sees a scannable business card. “Oh, I didn’t even see that! Wonderful. Thank you, Louisa.” Sherlock swipes his com over the card, automatically transmitting it to his file of business cards. He gives Louisa a brilliant smile again, and then sweeps out of the shop, the door ringing in his wake. John nods and smiles also, and follows.

“So you can be polite,” John says when he catches up to Sherlock on the street.

“It is occasionally expedient to charm the witnesses.”

“Right, yes, that did seem to work. And where did you get that police badge?”

“It’s Lestrade’s. I pickpocket him when he’s being inefficient. I’ve got several back at the flat.”

John has an inconvenient urge to giggle hysterically. Sherlock gives him a quelling look, and he brings his mind back to the case. “So were they all murdered because they all rented companion bots from the same place?”

“Only two of them are proven to have rented companion bots,” Sherlock says, although he seems more vibrant than usual, walking faster. He seems almost excited. “Could be a coincidence.”

“But it’s not, though, is it?”

“No. It’s a connection. We’ll have to contact Lestrade, get him to re-examine the previous cases, find out if anyone knows whether the victims engaged companion bots.”

“Should we look up this Hope bloke, see if he knows anything?”

“Not yet. I want to establish a connection between all four victims first, so we have a better idea what we’re looking for.” He pulls out his com before John has a chance to answer, and scrolls through several screens before he gets Lestrade on a vidcall. John, unable to see the screen, watches Sherlock’s face and listens to the conversation.

“Ah, Sherlock.”

“Are you in my flat?” Sherlock asks, frowning.

“Yes, we’ve found something rather interesting, which you said we ought to look for. And you’ve been stealing evidence again.”

“Oh, honestly. I suppose you think I had something to do with the murders now, do you? And what, did you just break into my flat?”

“No, I don’t think you’re the murderer, but we’re going to have a little chat about withholding evidence and stealing it off our crime scenes. Hurry up and get back here.”

Lestrade breaks the connection before Sherlock can make a retort, and Sherlock puts his com away. “We’ll have to go back to Baker Street. I did want to speak to Lestrade, at least.”

He hails an aerotaxi with somewhat infuriating ease, and once again, John follows.

-> Chapter Five


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

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