JOHNNY WATSON lay in his bed like he did most mornings, in winter to keep warm, and in summer because he had nothing better to do. He’d been unemployed most of his life and his condition was a constant reminder of how accurate his mother’s description of him as a child was when she screamed he’d never amount to anything. The fact that her comment had in part been triggered by his destruction of the family car should have been taken into account by him…but never was.
He toyed with the idea of shaving, but decided to save that excitement up for later in the week. His mother had mentioned he had a weak chin, and he’d always felt that a beard might solve that particular problem. Though he’d never had the courage to go through with a full beard, he felt that wearing a few days of stubble was a token gesture. He wrapped the duvet around him and shuffled into the kitchen. He set about making a cup of coffee without losing control of either the kettle, cup, or duvet.
Johnny looked out of the grimy window at the bustling world below. With both of his parents dead, the only advantage he had over the rest of the unemployed masses was that he had inherited a miniscule flat…more of an attic in reality, but with the unique bonus of having the address 221B Baker Street. His father had worked and lived above the museum, which had been set up to satisfy the huge tourist following of the fictional detective Sherlock Holmes. As a child Johnny had loved to listen to his Father read from the many short stories he had collected by Conan Doyle over the years.
His favourite had been The Hound Of The Baskervilles…he’d especially liked the part where his father howled like the fabled hound at the appropriate moment. A high point of Johnny’s morning, was to don an old deerstalker hat he’d stolen from a charity shop and wait for a crowd of unsuspecting tourists to gather in the street below. He would pop his head out of the window and without fail a frenzy of camera phones would be aimed in his direction. This enabled him to flick an old tea bag down into the crowd. On a good day he would score a direct hit on one of the unsuspecting gawkers below. But this morning there were no tourists, and so his world was emptier than normal.
He’d often fantasised about getting a curators job in the museum below. That way he would never have to visit the outside world. He had thought that having the surname Watson should have counted for something. But instead they’d hired some university lecturer with letters after his name. He coaxed the ancient gas water heater into life and ran a tepid bath, which he augmented with a few kettles of boiling water. Submerged in the water up to his chin he ran through what had passed for his career to date. A talent for getting into trouble saw him come through through the education system without an education, while a series of dead end jobs cemented his belief that he would never find something he enjoyed that paid enough to live on.
A brief spell at the local library came to an end when it became obvious that the constant flow of customers was going to cut into his “me” time with the novels he was happy to devour throughout the day. Pointing vaguely across the library as an answer to every question was only going to get him so far. As he wiped the steam from the mirror in the bathroom he saw himself as an alien. Barely recognising the gaunt face that stared back at him. What had happened to the young man that had his whole life ahead of him, and when was he coming back?
The alarm klaxon blared out. Reverberating along the length of the vast PRISON SHIP that floated in the Orion Nebula amongst a billion glittering stars. Warden JAGOR studied the screens that showed the various prison areas within his charge. BACOL, his second in command, a multi-tentacled specimen from one of the outer colonies, slithered in…his beaked mouth quivering with emotion. Jagor had always admired Bacol’s skill with keys. His many suckers could handle an infinite number of tasks, and he never had to search in his pockets for anything vital. Whatever he needed was always on the tip of a tentacle.
The only problem with his species was that they were very emotional. This wouldn’t have been such a problem, if it weren’t for the ink. Bacol quivered in front of him “One of the Gagulas has escaped.” His eyes bulged precipitously and the warden eyed his ink sac with trepidation. You’d usually get a bit of warning from the change in this skin colour…but still; there was always the risk. He tried to calm the Cephalopodan down before things got out of hand. “Have you searched everywhere? The Gagulas are masters of disguise. He paused. “But of course, that’s one of your specialities.” Bacol twisted his tentacles together nervously. Jagor kept a wary eye on his skin tone. Are you’re sure he’s not still on the ship?” Bacol looked at him. Jagor held up his hands. “Okay…so what do you think…?
Bacol quivered. “One of the supply shuttles is missing. It left this morning on a standard collection route but never reached its destination.” Bacol’s tentacles swarmed over the control desk in the warden’s office. Once again Jagor marvelled at his dexterity. “We think he’s headed for this planet.” A green and blue planet swirling with white clouds came up on the monitor. Jagor stared at the picture. “Is it inhabited?” Bacol produced a printout from one of his tentacles.
Jagor studied it. “So it’s fairly primitive. Does it have a name?” Bacol nodded. “Earth. It contains one of the original species apparently. There’s even a theory that we are all descended from the inhabitants. Rubbish of course.” Jagor nodded. “Of course.” Bacol rotated his tentacles like a dog shaking wet fur. It seemed to help calm him. The warden thought for a moment. “Do you have a plan?”
The creature made a sucking noise with its beak. “It’s illegal to mount an attack on an alien planet, but we can’t let a Gagula into any kind of civilization. They’re too violent. And if we attack we risk enormous casualties.” Jagor waited. “Go on” Again, the tentacles wind milled in front of him as Bacol tried to remain calm. “One of the guards found some information on an abandoned space station he thinks originally came from Earth.” Jagor nodded. He liked it when someone came up with an idea he could later claim as his own. He signalled for Bacol to continue.
“He proposed an alliance. We join up with someone on their planet, an expert on criminals and get them to help track the Gagula down.” Jagor nodded. This made sense. “Good idea. Then if things don’t work out we can always blame them.” Bacol made a sucking noise. “Yes. Apparently the Guard found an ancient non electronic form of information, it gives details of a rudimentary location and a name.” The warden smiled…as much as a creature with a face like a sea anemone could. “Okay. Take a shuttle and two Chemmeliques for support. And if something should happen to the Gagula, don’t lose any sleep over it.”
Bacol looked confused. Jagor laughed to himself. “I’m sorry, I forgot, you don’t sleep do you?” He watched as Bacol slithered urgently away, marvelling at the diversity of the staff he had working for him. Jagor had worked with Chemmeliques before. Bacol was good at camouflage but the skill of the Chemmeliques was way above that. Some sort of physical mirroring ability that enabled them to not only adopt the look of those around them but also to cloak anybody working with them as well. With any luck they could land on Earth, capture the Gagula and be back on board before anybody noticed.
Johnny pushed the baked beans around his plate. The blackened remains of a piece of toast made an uneasy foundation for what passed as his first meal of the day. He’d long ago run out of variations with potatoes. And after a brief flirtation with pot noodles and a disastrous affair with scrambled eggs he’d fallen back on an old school favourite. Beans on toast. Things were much simpler back then. Music, girls and food. He’d always thought that people who said that school days were the best years of their lives were simple. But as the years had passed he realised that it was probably true. All of that unfulfilled hope, a roof over your head and absolutely no knowledge of how bad things could really get.
The traffic was subdued outside. The distant sound from a nightclub leaked through the walls as he slept fitfully. He remembered when he was young being able to identify the records from the bass notes whenever he was near enough to hear somebody else’s party in full swing. Nowadays he couldn’t even tell you the names of the groups when he listened to the radio…which wasn’t very often. He preferred to wallow in his misery against a backdrop of silence…as silent as it ever got in the middle of London.
It was no good. No matter how he tried he couldn’t get to sleep. In fact he was convinced he could actually remember the chimes of Big Ben right up to midnight…either way he was certainly alert enough to hear the sound of the strange breathing when it started. If the three silhouettes that stood against the glare of the streetlights through his thin curtains weren’t enough to shock him…their strange gurgled breathing was.
He slowly sat up. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to turn his bedside light on. After all, there was a chance it was just some weird dream he was in the middle of, and if he kept very still it would all go away. It only took a few minutes to realise it wasn’t a dream, and it wasn’t going away.
What convinced him of this was simple. One of the gurgling silhouettes spoke. It was English, but not in any form that Johnny had heard before. Rather it sounded like someone feeding a conversation through a food blender…like the words were fighting to be heard through a particularly thick vegetable soup. In his rising panic Johnny vaguely remembered that one of his maths teachers had sounded quite similar due to his ill-fitting dentures.
The silhouette continued to talk as Johnny struggled to understand. After a few minutes he was able to pick out some words, and pretty soon the sense…such as it was, became apparent. They wanted Johnny’s help to find someone. One of them held up a deerstalker…it was Johnny’s; he must have left it in the kitchen. It seemed to make them all very excited. As the grey skies of dawn hung over the London skyline, Johnny gradually pieced together their story.
For story was what it sounded like…because what they were telling him made no sense at all. For a start they kept referring to him as Sherlock. He ignored that for a bit as he took that to be their way of saying he was smart. But as the hours passed he realised they actually thought he was Sherlock, Sherlock Holmes, a fictional character…one of them held up a battered copy of The Sign Of The Four, a story in which Sherlock Holmes tracks down an escaped killer. Johnny had always been amused by some of the tourists that actually thought Sherlock was a real person, but these people didn’t look like tourists, and if they were, it was from a very long way away. Johnny tried to explain that his name was Johnny Watson, not Sherlock Holmes…this didn’t seem to worry them, they were happy enough when they heard the name Watson, and Johnny was scared enough not to push it. He noticed that alongside their weird manner of speaking their faces seemed to shimmer as if they couldn’t decide on their own identity.
Johnny thought long and hard about his situation. He was unemployed, with no money and no prospects in a life that was empty and without meaning. How much worse could it be if he helped three weirdoes to locate an escaped prisoner? His father had always said “Don’t ask, don’t get.” And so Johnny saw nothing wrong in asking for an advance, just to cover expenses. One of them held out a small box…indicating that Johnny should open it. Johnny didn’t have much experience of life, but what he did understand was what a box full of uncut diamonds looked like. As they headed out into the sleeping streets Johnny was sure of two things. One, his luck had definitely changed, and two, he would never be eating baked beans again.