Chapter One: Noughts and Crosses
Sherlock Holmes had been through twenty sleeping cycles – sixty Earth days – before the aliens brought him a mate.
Umber Triangle, who was responsible for his care and feeding, had told him that the mate was coming. Not that he'd believed it. In his thirty-four years on earth, he'd encountered no one of interest. Various matchmakers of his own species (his brother, his primary contact at the Met, his landlady) had tried unsuccessfully to set him up, so what was the likelihood of the job being completed by sentient columns of thick, golden soup with geometric shapes where the noodles should be?
Not high, thought Sherlock. He calculated the odds at roughly 3.6 percent.
Nevertheless, here the man was, having materialized in a heap on the floor of Sherlock's sleeping quarters as if sent down the chimney by an intergalactic Father Christmas. His short hair was blond and brown and silver all at the same time, and his blue eyes were the size of handcuffs, linked together by an upturned nose. Sherlock ran over to peer at him.
"Eurgh," said the mate, staggering to his feet. The fact that he was able to get himself vertical so soon after transit, despite being obviously hung over, indicated that he was in excellent physical condition. He had a fine torso, a case of five-o'clock shadow, and a rather dashing scar indicating a bullet wound to the left shoulder.
Police? Criminal? No. Stance, recovery time, and haircut say military; stubble says ex-military. Ex-military, spectacularly unlucky, or both.
The imprint on the man's right cheek was consistent with him having rested facedown for several hours on top of his engraved phone. Clearly, at the time of abduction, he had been unconscious. Alcohol poisoning, thought Sherlock, hence the hangover. The lack of any signs of struggle – no purpling at the jaw, no finger marks on the neck – suggested the dose was self-administered.
Curiously, Sherlock read the backwards text emblazoned on his future partner's face. "Harry Watson – from Clara xxx."
He instantly recognized the brand from the dimensions of the case. Young man's gadget. Top of the line. Finicky. Not consistent with the man's rough-and-ready appearance. No signs of regular computer use; no callouses on the undersides of the wrists. He's not technologically savvy; he's stubborn, a Luddite. He wouldn't have picked the phone out for himself. No one who knew him well would have chosen it for him. Second-hand, a cast-off. Harry: relative or friend?
"Mggh," complained the mate. He pawed at his head, as though hoping he could get it to pick up some channel other than the one it was on.
Sherlock felt a wave of irritation sweep over him. It was unfortunate that the aliens were no longer beaming captive entities on board with their clothing and accessories intact, as these were excellent fodder for deductions. This they blamed on him. He'd been beamed aboard directly from the kitchen in Baker Street while holding a tin of ammonium nitrate and a small flask of petrol, and the resulting fireball had singed off his own eyebrows and terrified the welcome party. Ever since then, Ut had given him to understand, all abducted life forms were to be transported on board nude and devoid of belongings. He'd have to deduce whatever he could from the man's own body.
Not that he could see all of it. Although the aliens had stripped the man of his terrestrial effects, they'd coquettishly wrapped his middle in one of their own olive sleep coverings. Sherlock took this as a sign they'd begun researching human customs. He wasn't sure if the mate's wrapping was meant to designate him as a present or to protect his modesty, but whatever the situation, the wrap suited him. He looked attractive. Sherlock was glad that his eyebrows had grown back.
"Merciful fuck," announced the man, who seemed to be regaining the ability to protest in English. "What did I drink last night?"
Sherlock took his mate by the chin – more prominent than his own, it made a good handle – and sniffed him.
"Oi," sputtered the mate, and pushed him off. He was a feisty one. Cautiously, Sherlock checked the capillary patterns in the whites of his eyes. They formed a red filigree as detailed as the whorls of a fingerprint.
"Four Newcastle brown ales," observed Sherlock. "Also two pints of Guinness and a cement mixer."
"The hell?" The mate possessed a rich knowledge of profanity.
"Cement mixer," said Sherlock, annoyed at having to repeat himself. "Bailey's Irish Cream. Lime juice chaser. Produces a curdling effect in the mouth of the recipient. You don't bear the marks of someone who enjoys pain; furthermore, you don't even know the name of what you drank. Conclusion: You didn't order it for yourself. You must have been out with 'friends.'" Sherlock was careful to enunciate the quotation marks.
"How do you know that? That's ama—"
Sherlock glanced again at the man's short, sensible haircut. "No, what's amazing is that well into your thirties, a man like yourself – not intelligent, per se …"
"Hang on …"
"But with a certain amount of the uncommon attribute known as common sense – chooses to consort with weeknight drunkards given to practical jokes bordering on abuse. You submit to these kinds of rituals because you understand that they're a method of testing masculinity and loyalty to the group. There's a shared history there, or you wouldn't put up with it. You're too pugnacious for that." Sherlock scanned his mate's two-toned wrists. "Army? Yes."
"Look, you great git. I don't know who you are…" The mate's eyes, which at first had not been able to focus on anything further away than Sherlock's face, wandered over to the transparent exterior wall of their enclosure. It was displaying magnificent views of the double moonrise over Kepler-22b. The mate's lower jaw swung open on its hinges.
"Sherlock Holmes," replied the man. He considered congratulating the mate on his great luck in being paired with the world's only consulting detective, then decided against it. Although Sherlock was not well acquainted with the practical details of courtship, this seemed the kind of revelation best saved for pillow talk.
"That wasn't a request for an introduc— SHIT."
Sherlock looked behind him to see what his terrified future partner was goggling at. It was nothing of consequence – only their bioluminescent captor, going for a walk, or rather, a jiggle. Finding his mate preoccupied, he took his seemingly boneless hand and shook it.
"That's Umber Triangle," he replied. "Ut, for short. Try to keep up."
"Is it alive?" the mate wanted to know. He reached for his waist, clearly feeling for a gun. Instead, he encountered his olive sheet. To Sherlock's mind, it brought out the blue in his startled eyes.
"Obviously. It's one of the entities that control the ship. Well, not it, individually. It has very low status, as signified by the large triangle floating in the top of its soup. The higher the status, the more sides to its crowning polygon. I rather think this one is my housekeeper. That or my jailer. Why, what did you think it was?"
"I don't know. A giant homemade lava lamp?" The mate seemed torn between staring at Ut, who was undulating towards them in a gelatinous manner, and peering into his sleep covering in the vain hope that he was wearing something else under it.
Sherlock made some shapes with his fingers in Ut's direction. The creature jiggled to a halt, then flashed three olive-colored diamonds in the center of its soup. Other shapes twirled idly in the margins.
"I told it your joke," said Sherlock. "It doesn't understand it. I may not have the right words for 'lava lamp.'"
"You can talk to them?" said the mate.
"A bit," said Sherlock.
"I've been picking things up here and there." Sherlock patted his chest and looked at Ut expectantly. "Ut. Who am I?"
Ut flashed a large plum-colored cross. The cross rolled around two-dimensionally in the center of the soup. It looked like a plus sign or an X, depending on which way it was oriented.
Sherlock made a square sign for yes. He then patted his mate on the shoulder, making sure to select the one without the scar. "Good. Now him."
A silver circle appeared next to the plum-colored cross. It was slightly smaller than its companion. Being a circle, it didn't change appearance based on orientation. It was impossible to tell whether it was rolling around in the transparent plane in the center of Ut's gut or not. Sherlock had to admit that it was a fine shape, down-to-earth, suggestive of restraint and permanence.
"That's you," said Sherlock. "Ut's been telling me about you for days now, although frankly, I wasn't always paying attention. I thought it had made you up."
The mate furrowed its brow. "The hell are they implying with the color? Is it an age thing? Tell it I'm 38. Fuck's sake. It's as if they've mistaken me for Murray."
Sherlock frowned. Had another man – possibly an Army colleague, since the mate, whose accent was anything but public school, called him by surname – already staked a claim on his designated partner? He made finger shapes at Ut. Ut had no answer.
"I don't know why you're silver," said Sherlock, moodily. "You're the only silver thing I've seen in their soup so far. All the other words in their vocabulary are umber, olive, or plum." And it was true; unless they were talking about the mate, all the aliens he'd seen so far were decked out in the hues of a Tuscan restaurant.
"Great," groaned the mate, pawing at his head again. "And I'm a circle. You said the number of lines in the polygon stand for status. The housekeeper has three lines. Even you have two lines. I have one. What does that make me?"
Sherlock beamed. His mate was capable of pattern recognition. "I'll show you." He made finger shapes in the air. "Ut," he translated. "What is his role on board?"
In the center of Ut's glowing gelatin, the circle and the cross spun closer together. Finally, the cross fit inside the circle. There was a flash of light, and small copies of the circle-cross combination began orbiting the central one.
"There," said Sherlock, satisfied.
Sherlock raised one of his newly restored eyebrows, then tossed his curly head in Ut's direction. This didn't inspire any new epiphanies in his companion. Sherlock sighed. "You're my mate," he said.
The mate cocked his blond-brown-silver head.
Sherlock rolled his eyes in time with the X in the center of Ut's soup. "Not mate as in hanging around the pub on Thursday night, playing darts and losing one's incisors after pinching the waitress. The other kind."
The mate blinked. "No."
"You're not say—"
"It's staggering that I should have to," interrupted Sherlock, "given that Ut has already been eloquent on the matter, but here we are. You're to be my lover. They brought you here so we could have sex."
The mate passed out. It was three Keplerian moonrises before he came to again.
Author's note: Much thanks to my eagle-eyed friend ancientreader for pointing out a geometrical faux pas in an earlier draft.