AUTHOR'S NOTE: I have to admit it, Sherlock Holmes in the 22nd Century is a guilty pleasure of mine. As someone who voraciously consumes every Holmes pastiche he can get his hands on, as well as being a fan of cyberpunk settings and cross-genre fiction generally, the idea of Sherlock Holmes falling down a gaping plothole and emerging in a cyberpunk dystopia (Corporations doing illegal biotech experiments on humans? A ruined underground where even New Scotland Yard isn't allowed to go except in force? An inversion layer over the city that makes the sky permanently yellow? The government forcibly brainwashing criminals as part of a legal sentence? Go on, try to tell me that isn't a cyberpunk dystopia!) pretty much made me dance in the streets. The only thing better would be for it to be an ordinary prime-time show, so the writers wouldn't have to "kiddify" things...
Since the show's episodes are based, however flimsily, on the actual Holmes stories, I figured that a pastiche of an episode should be based on an "untold case" Watson refers to but was never written by Conan Doyle. Not that Conan Doyle would have written about spaceships; that was more an H.G. Wells type of thing...
"Control to Prescott; we have you for departure vector 04."
"Copy that, Control; we're locked in and outbound. Jettisoning booster core now."
"Goodbye from New London, Prescott."
Keith Robey cut the communications link and leaned back in his chair.
"Hey, Jack, what're you doing, growing the beans in there?"
"Ah, hold yer horses," called back the other tech. "Hey, did'ja catch the match yesterday? Inverness evened it up against the Aussies."
"Cricket again? Would it kill you to get with a game played by people born in the last fifty years?"
"Cricket is the quintessential British game, exemplifying the true national spirit of sport," Jack responded in an artificially nasal voice, mocking the vidscreen commentator who covered the matches.
"Oh, please, I--hey!" Robey sat bolt upright as alarms flashed all over his panel. "We've got a rogue inbound!"
The coffee forgotten, Jack was at his own seat in an instant.
"Her transponder's reading her as a private cutter, the Alicia."
"Control to Alicia. This is New London Control to cutter Alicia. You are not repeat not cleared for approach. Break off your approach at once."
There was no response.
"Zed!" Robey cursed. "Jack, she's halfway between Vectors 08 and 19. Could veer either way."
"Keith, the Stanburton is outbound on 19!"
"I know, Jack. Stanburton, this is Control. We've got a rogue inbound in your direction! Shift your course to Vector 17 now."
"We copy that, Control."
"Control to Alicia. Break off, repeat break off now!"
"She's not stopping, Keith. Accelerating at full speed."
"Control, Stanburton!" another voice shrieked. "We have a misfire in our starboard thrust pods! We've lost control!"
"Oh, God," Robey whispered. "Rescue and medical shuttles stand by."
"Alicia still inbound at full. She'll impact in Control in eighty-four seconds. Stanburton veering off-course. She's lost ascent."
"Oh, God," Robey repeated. It was all he could say. There was nothing he could do, only watch helplessly as his screen showed the Moon shuttle veering wildly out of control to impact in the Thames River. Rescue vehicles were already on the way, but given the force of the crash it was almost a lost cause even if there were no secondary effects.
"Alicia still inbound! Thirty...twenty-five..."
When it hit, the damage would make the Stanburton's crash seem like a footnote to the real disaster.
"No response from Air Defense, Keith. Twenty..."
Robey lifted his eyes to the window. Another few seconds and he'd be able to see the Alicia, a blazing star on its inbound course, Jupiter's thunderbolt levying its toll on a sinful humanity that had dared to reach into the heavens.
He wondered if his atheist wife would offer a prayer for him or if, at the last, she would be right.
"Robey, it's gone!" Jack suddenly exclaimed.
"The Alicia! She's not on my screen any more!"
The astonishing claim was backed up by the evidence of Robey's own eyes. There was no blazing star, no plummeting angel of death in the sky outside.
"Did Air Defense...?"
"No, it just vanished, like it was never there!"
Robey looked out at the plumes of smoke rising from the Stanburton's crash site.
"It was there, Jack. It was there."
-X X X-
"This is a Methkelan Industries 2097-model cutter, Mr. Holmes. It has a wingspan of forty-seven feet and is a hundred and ninety-four feet long. I am certain you would agree that a craft like this does not just vanish!"
Sherlock Holmes nodded once.
"I quite agree, Lord Engleston. Although the popular press have already been speculating as broadly afield as unidentified flying objects and holes in the space-time continuum, it is self-evident that something more substantial must have taken place."
"Good, good," enthused the bronze-bearded chief of the British Astronautics Bureau. "I admit, I'd wondered about calling in a man from the nineteenth century to solve a problem in the twenty-second, even with the testimonials from New Scotland Yard, but it's clear you've got the right attitude for this business."
If there was a slight tightening of the lips, a flicker of discontent in Holmes's eyes at the mention of his revivification centuries after his death, it passed too quickly for Lord Engleston to detect.
"The popular press also reports that nineteen people, passengers and crew, died on board the Stanburton during the incident. I find it curious that you did not choose to begin with that." While he spoke, Holmes looked over the gleaming silver spaceplane shown in three-dimensional holo-image before him. The Alicia would have been a private craft, a sleek yacht for a rich individual or for corporate space travel.
"The Stanburton isn't a mystery, Holmes," Lord Engleston snapped, no doubt nettled by the detective's insinuation that he might be assigning a lower priority to the deaths. "It's a tragedy, a criminal tragedy if you ask me. When it made its evasive maneuvers, the thrusters misfired due to the extreme stress being placed on them. Poor maintenance and the insistence of the shuttle company in using an outdated craft not suitable for our present spaceport system told that tale. The Bureau's been sending warnings for years to Astra-Transit and reporting on industry conditions to Parliament for almost as long."
"Has it, indeed?"
"Those blasted politicians, though, won't look farther than corporate contributions, so they won't pass any additional space-travel safety laws with teeth or give us active police powers before the fact, making a disaster like this inevitable. No, Mr. Holmes, there are no mysteries to be solved in the Stanburton crash. The Alicia's a different matter. It was here, and then it was gone. Find out where and how, and you'll be--well, zed, you already are Sherlock Holmes, aren't you?"
"I sometimes wonder. Nonetheless, Lord Engleston, I would be more than happy to accept this case. Please make the Astronautics Bureau's report on the incident available for Watson to download."
"Watson?" Lord Engleston harrumphed. "Oh, yes, your robot partner. Where is he, anyway?"
"As always, Lord Engleston, Watson is doing his job."
-X X X-
"That's it, man, that's all there is," Robey said. "I've been over it a thousand times before."
"Then talking to me was equivalent to only one-tenth of one percent of your previous time spent on this matter. That should not cause such a negative response as you are displaying."
One-tenth of one--! This was why Robey hated to deal with droids. This one seemed to have pretensions of humanity, since it wore a Scotland Yard-issue elasto-mask which lent it a broad, well-fleshed face that actually went well with its large-framed metal body. The bushy moustache, muttonchops, and bowler hat were obvious affectations, as was the long brown coat. And he'd introduced himself as "Watson," not by some compu-droid registration number.
"All right, all right," Robey gave up. "Me and Jack--"
"That would be Jack Colston?" Watson interrupted.
"Yeah, yeah...Jack Colston. We were working the third shift in the tower. That's four to ten P.M.; the spaceport's up and running twenty-four hours a day so the shifts are six hours each so nobody gets too tired at the switch."
"A commendable precaution."
"Jack and I have worked that shift for two and a half years now; we make a good team. He was in the back room making coffee when the scanner tells me we've got a rogue inbound--that is, a ship entering the spaceport's flight space without clearance. It gets pretty congested, as you can guess, and it's necessary to keep flights in tightly ordered channels, which we call vectors. Our tower computer"--he tapped the panel--"transmits flight map data to any ship whose transponder interfaces with the system, so everybody's on the same page, so to speak."
"I see. Do go on."
"Well, the Alicia's transponder tells us who she is, and the tracking sensors tell us what and where. She didn't respond to any of our communications, so we tried to wave off the Stanburton. Of course, an outbound ship can't just abort launch; those main boosters have to be cranked to full to achieve escape velocity, but she can shift to a different vector. Only..."
Robey shuddered. Crashes were a fact of powered travel; they'd happened ever since the first time someone had decided to get on a horse and ride. This had been the first one on his watch, though, the first time that he'd been at the board when a ship went down in a flaming pyre.
"I have sufficient details on the Stanburton crash," Watson said...sympathetically? From a droid? Nah, it couldn't be. "Please continue from that point."
"The Alicia just kept on coming, and she didn't slow to descent speed. Jack and I figured something was wrong on her, that there'd been some computer malfunction or something, 'cause she just kept right on. Then--nothing!"
"Nothing. Poof! She was gone. Nothing on screen, and nothing we could see with our eyes. It was like the Alicia had never been there!" Robey shook his head. "The spaceport's tech staff and the Astronautics Bureau's investigators all but took apart the computer, but they didn't find anything wrong with it. But...if it wasn't some ghost in the machine, then where did the Alicia go?"
-X X X-
"It seems evident to me, Holmes, that there never was an inbound cutter, and that the tower operators reacted to a spacecraft that existed only in their equipment."
"Does it, Watson?" Holmes replied.
As usual it was the droid who was flying their hovercraft, a boxy vehicle whose shape was vaguely reminiscent of a 1920s automobile. Holmes strongly suspected it was this shape which had led him to select it over sleeker models, a touch of something from the era in which he'd died. Holmes was capable of flying--indeed, he was all but compelled to master the skills of living in this strange future by his own need for independence--but he preferred not to when working on a case. Brain-work was something which should never be done with divided attention.
"Several dozen metric tons of cutter cannot be made to vanish into thin air. No witnesses observed the Alicia in any form other than as electronic data."
"I agree that data is more easily manipulable than are the laws of physics, but I must point out that two separate teams of investigators examined the spaceport control computer and found no evidence of an electronic error or of hacking. In addition, the tower's report of the Alicia's behavior was echoed by the nearby spaceships Prescott, Adventure, and Nyland. No, if it was as simple as all that, then Lord Engleston would have had no need to consult me. Nor does it explain the most intriguing aspect of this case, which we are even now on our way to investigate."
"What is that, Holmes?"
The detective smiled thinly.
"The fact that there is indeed a cutter Alicia."