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Masterpost | Chapter Five | Chapter Six | Chapter Seven

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At 17:32:12, Sherlock opens the door of Company Co. and steps inside. He catalogues the changes in the room since their visit earlier in the day. Business card on the counter shifted two inches to the left. Insignificant. The only notable difference is the identity of the person standing behind the counter.

Age: approximately 57. Hair: faded grey, cut short. Eye colour: blue. Height: 177 centimetres. Weight: 89 kilograms. Clothing: pale blue shirt, black and grey striped tie, black polyester trousers. Shoes invisible behind the counter. Facial expression: Cheerful. Welcoming.

“Hello,” he says. “Welcome to Company Co. I’m Jefferson. How may I help you?” Voice: north London, no distinguishing features yet apparent. No information there.

“My name is Sherlock Holmes. I want to rent a companion droid.” There is no reason to suppose Mr. Hope knows who he is, since Louisa wouldn’t have told Hope she’d given information, against company policy, to two policemen. He is undoubtedly aware that the police have requested copies of his files, but there is no reason to connect Sherlock’s name to that. Still, there is a perceptible shift in Hope’s demeanour upon hearing Sherlock’s name. It is not an entirely identifiable shift, not quite what would be expected of a murderer who realises he’s been caught. His shoulders move slightly, his smile becomes more genuine. Sherlock’s analysis of the change: it is relaxation. Mr. Hope has shed his professional body language and is now prepared to speak as though to someone he knows.

Interesting.

“Are you sure about that?”

“Obviously.”

“This your first time renting a companion bot?”

“Yes.”

“Just got curious? Want a bit of fun? Human partner not satisfying you?”

Surely it’s not in the best interests of a business to question the motives of the customers. Hitch in the voice on the last question--significant? Suggestive of past experience, possible motives? Further examination will be necessary. “Testing a hypothesis,” Sherlock says shortly.

“What kind of bot are you interested in? Female? Male? Nonbinary? Tentacles?”

What does it matter? It’s all bodies, all for the same messy ridiculous purpose. “Surprise me.”

“You’ll want the included road vehicle, of course.”

“Yes.”

“Excellent. Wait here while I fetch our best bot for you.”

Mr. Hope disappears through the door to the back of the shop. While he waits, Sherlock analyzes the data.

Hope clearly knows that Sherlock is not a normal customer. Any other customer would have had preferences, little ideas about what the bot should look like--breasts like their ex-girlfriend, a chin like a famous actor--or about what the bot should do. Even before that, before Sherlock had said anything but his own name, Hope had known something. Hope clearly has some idea who Sherlock is. How? Will it skew the results of this experiment?

Or is Hope going to recreate the conditions of the previous murders, just to show Sherlock what he did, how he made four people poison themselves? Why would he do that? Ah, of course. One of the few failings of the genius, of the serial killer. Sherlock is the audience. Someone has to know how it was done, and appreciate it. Well, Hope is out of luck if he’s hoping for appreciation. Sherlock doesn’t appreciate a good murder, it’s simply his function to solve them. But he must know how it was done, he must be in possession of all the facts to make a complete picture of this case, to identify patterns and to file it properly so it may be easily accessed for later use.

Jefferson Hope steps back into the room. He is followed by a companion bot.

Most robots don’t look human. The vast majority are nonhumanoid, commonly referred to as bots, in contrast to androids, the humanoid variety, or robots, the umbrella term. Many bots look like mere machines, a few are shaped somewhat like animals. Androids fall into two categories. The most common are anthromorph, those robots which are human in form without being human in appearance, and without having a full range of human-like capabilities.

Despite being popularly referred to as bots, sex bots are true-humanoid androids, meant to imitate humans in behavior and, to a certain level of detail, appearance. Sherlock is a true-humanoid android, but he in no other way shares traits with a sex bot. He is the only robot he is aware of that is truly able to pass for human in intelligence, behaviour, and appearance.

The companion bot undoubtedly fails to pass for human in intelligence and interactive capabilities, but it comes surprisingly close in appearance. From a distance of at least 18 metres, the robot would appear human. Up close, of course, the pale pink skin is clearly plastic, the short black hair clearly artificial, and the eyes clearly made of glass. In details, it would be impossible to mistake the bot for a human. Its skin is too perfect, its form too ideal. Its movements are not smooth enough to appear natural. It looks like a doll, dressed up in plain shirt and trousers, doll’s clothes.

The bot’s form is clearly male. Sherlock can’t be sure whether this is the same bot that the four victims rented, but he thinks it possible that it is, and adds the bot’s specifications to his files on the four victims.

“Will this fellow do?” Hope asks. “We call him Jim.”

Of course. This was Rachel Walton’s bot. That explains the name in her com.

“Good evening,” the bot says, its voice slightly metallic and tinny.

“Fine,” Sherlock answers. “Shall I fill out the appropriate forms and scan my bank card?”

Mr. Hope smiles. “I don’t think that’s necessary, Mr. Holmes. After all, by the time the transaction goes through, you won’t be around any longer to pay the bill, will you?”

Ah. Well, no need to pretend to be a normal customer, then. “Do you really expect me to fall for whatever trick those four idiots fell for?” Sherlock asks. “Whatever worked on them won’t work on me.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Hope answers. “One way or another, by the end of the night, you’ll be dead. That’s the only reason I’m letting you see how this works. There’s no real proof I had anything to do with it--I have an excellent alibi. It’s only your word, so you’d better not be around to give your word when they ask for it. But I’ll satisfy curiosity. There’s no harm in that. You want to know. How it works. And you don’t know yet. So you’ll go along with it, Mr. Holmes, you’ll find out, and I won’t be the one to tell you.”

Sherlock still doesn’t know how the four deaths happened. Mr. Hope has just admitted his own guilt, but if he wasn’t actually present for the murders, that leaves...

“Come along, Jim,” Sherlock says to the companion bot.

-

Robots don’t kill people. It’s the First Law of Robotics. A robot may not harm a human being or allow a human being to come to harm. The Second Law forbids robots from harming humanity as a whole. To change that would be to change the most deeply embedded part of the base code common to all robots. It is widely believed to be impossible to strip a robot of the Three Laws. The First Law is what prevents Sherlock from shooting anyone.

A companion bot cannot have killed four people. So says conventional wisdom.

Sherlock knows, however, that conventional wisdom is often wrong. A robot able to violate the First Law of Robotics is not an impossibility--it is merely very, very improbable.

Jefferson Hope was not present at any of the four crime scenes. Four people did not simply coincidentally rent companion bots and then commit suicide in the same way. These have been eliminated as impossibilities, and what remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

Jim the companion bot is somehow responsible for these deaths.

-

John waits in the back of the cab at the end of the road, eyes on the bright patch of light that marks the entrance to Company Co. He is extremely conscious of the modified RRDD tucked into the waistband of his trousers, pressing into the small of his back as he slouches in his seat. He’s fairly certain Sherlock doesn’t know that John modified it, and he’s worried about what’s going to happen if he has to use it. John’s still not sure why he did that.

“What’re we waiting for?” the cabbie asks.

John startles, wrapped up as he is in his own thoughts and the tension of waiting.

“We’re waiting for him to come out of that shop and get into one of those cars, and then we’re going to follow.”

“That tall bloke you’re with?”

“Yeah, him.”

“Is this some kind of spy thing?”

John laughs before he thinks about it, and then trails off, realising it might as well be a spy thing, with the gun at his back and the possibility of using it. “I’m not a spy,” John says, because that at least is true.

The tension, slightly dissipated in the course of the conversation, is instantly tight in John’s throat the moment he sees Sherlock step into the pool of light outside Company Co. “Start the car,” John orders. Sherlock is followed by a man, so much the ideal of tall, dark, and handsome that John realises it must be fake--the man is the companion bot. He looks unrealistically gorgeous in the same way Sherlock does, though Sherlock looks more like an unusually beautiful person than a calculated combination of perfect features.

Sherlock follows the bot to a small black road vehicle parked outside the building. John watches as the bot walks around the car to get in on the driver’s side and Sherlock opens the passenger door.

“It’s gonna be a bit hard to follow a road car from the air,” the taxi driver points out, as he switches the car on and lets it rise two feet into the air.

“Just drive,” John says. “I’ll watch where they go, and give you directions.”

The passenger windows in aerotaxis are not built to open, due to the fear that passengers might open the windows and drop things on the people below, but aerotaxis are a favourite transportation method of tourists who want to be able to look down on the city. To this end, newer taxis are built with a viewing window in the floor of the back seat. As they lift higher above the street, John presses the button that pulls back the screen covering the window, and looks down.

He feels an overpowering sense of vertigo, seeing the quickly shrinking people on the road below, and has to focus for a moment on the window itself, seeing not the view through the window but the grime of people’s feet on the glass. When he catches his breath, he focuses again and watches as the car he knows Sherlock must be in pulls out into traffic.

-

“Where would you like to go, Mr. Holmes?” the companion bot asks once Sherlock is seated in the car.

“Oh, do I get a choice?” Sherlock asks.

“Of course. I am here to service you.” The bot’s voice is monotone--impossible to surprise it or upset it.

“Is that what you think you’re here for?” Sherlock calculates the possibility that the bot doesn’t know its own purpose. Jefferson Hope obviously expects the bot to kill Sherlock, but there is always the chance that the bot is able to cause deaths without knowing that is its purpose. That could explain a failure of the First Law, although it would not explain why the bot did not attempt to aid its dying victims, or why it would have crushed Rachel Walton’s com, stopping her from calling for help. Still, there is a slight possibility that the bot intends to play out the farce of its role as a companion.

“My function is as a companion and provider of sexual services, including but not limited to sexual intercourse, oral stimulation, and manual stimulation. If you require such services, I must convey you to a private location. Sexual activity is forbidden in Company Co. vehicles.”

Is that what companion bots normally say to customers? Sherlock spares a moment to wonder whether humans actually find the “services” of a companion bot arousing. His understanding of human sexual desire is limited, though he knows some circles believe that if it exists, there is pornographic representation of it. He also knows that the business of sex bot rental is fairly lucrative.

Fine, a private location. It would hardly be possible to murder four people in public locations. “221B Baker Street,” Sherlock says.

“As you wish, Mr. Holmes,” the bot says. It types the address into the vehicle’s GPS system and guides the car out into traffic.

Sherlock has already calculated the possibility that the bot may disregard the requested destination and take him somewhere else, but it is soon clear where they are going. Sherlock notices and records the fact that had he not known otherwise, there would be nothing suspicious about this. The bot has made no move not appropriate to a normal companion bot, and it is taking Sherlock where he asked to be taken. It is possible the four victims had no idea that anything was wrong until it was too late to stop it.

The bot stops the car outside 221B, and Sherlock gets out. He stands on the pavement for a moment, waiting for the bot, and looks up at the sky. The street lights illuminate the bottom of a taxi, hovering near the end of the street.

Had he been human, Sherlock would have been reassured.

“Come on, Jim,” he says to the bot once it has emerged from the car. He leads the way inside 221B, waiting for more data--he still has no real idea how the four people died. “What’s next?” he asks, when they are standing in the entryway.

“A more comfortable environment would be advisable,” the bot says, looking around it at the stairs and the lack of seating.

Ridiculous. Robots don’t experience comfort. “Fine,” Sherlock says, and points the bot to the stairs. He follows it up and into the living room, where it turns to him and touches the back of his hand. His sensors analyze the touch--body temperature too high to be mistaken for human, skin slightly too plastic.

“How may I service you?” the robot asks.

Sherlock considers the question. How far is he going to have to go with this before he has his answers? The idea of simulating sexual arousal for this companion bot is distasteful and tedious. “Surprise me,” Sherlock says. They are still standing in the middle of the living room, the windows wide and uncurtained, light from the street spilling in and turning the companion bot’s face an unpleasant orange.

The bot reaches into the pocket of its trousers, and pulls out a bottle of pills.

Sherlock’s deductive subroutines immediately start analyzing the input. Plain glass bottle, unlabelled, one pill left. The pill: white, cylindrical, speckled. Could be any kind of pill, not recognisable as a common drug or poison. Jim lifts the bottle to the light, holding it towards Sherlock. “This is a special Company Co. formula,” it says. “Please allow me to improve your experience by taking this pill.”

Oh. That is how a companion bot got four people to willingly take the poison that killed them. It told them the pill was... “What is it?”

“This pill will allow me to better anticipate your desires and your needs. It will enhance the chances of a successful sexual transaction.”

Rubbish. There’s nothing that could be dispensed in pill form that would give a robot a better idea of what kind of sex a human partner likes. Sherlock doesn’t know how four people fell for it, but obviously they did. It sounds, if not particularly effective, at least not harmful. Why shouldn’t they have taken it?

In the seconds it takes the bot to unscrew the lid of the bottle and drop the pill into its palm, Sherlock calculates his possible courses of action. He reaches a conclusion.

Sherlock smiles at the knowledge of a case nearly solved, takes the pill, places it on his tongue, and swallows it.

-

John, sitting in the taxi hovering outside the windows of the living room at 221B, watches the bot reveal the pill bottle. He doesn’t know what it says, but he watches, hand involuntarily creeping to touch the outline of the gun at his back, underneath his jacket. He watches as the bot shakes the pill into its palm, and watches as Sherlock takes it between his fingers. He isn’t worried, knowing that the pill cannot have any adverse effects on Sherlock, that android systems are capable of processing and disposing of the material. He watches as Sherlock swallows the pill.

He watches as Sherlock begins to shake.

A powerful tremor takes over Sherlock’s body, his hands scrabbling towards his throat. The companion bot stands placid. John doesn’t remember, later, whether he screams Sherlock’s name, but he knows that hot, blinding uncertainty takes over his mind. Everything he’s been told, everything he knows about Sherlock, Sherlock’s impossible existence--in the horrible moment in which Sherlock’s body collapses at the companion bot’s feet, John doubts all of it. John wonders if he was wrong. If Sherlock lied, or is mad, or really is a psychopath. If Sherlock is not a droid after all.

John wonders if Sherlock is human.



-> Chapter Seven

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