[Robert J. Sawyer]  Science Fiction Writer
 ROBERT J. SAWYER
 Hugo and Nebula Award Winner

SFWRITER.COM > Short Stories > "You See But You Do Not Observe"

  You See But You Do Not Observe  

  by Robert J. Sawyer  

Copyright © 1995 by Robert J. Sawyer
All Rights Reserved


First published in the anthology Sherlock Holmes in Orbit, edited by Mike Resnick and Martin H. Greenberg (DAW, 1995); authorized by Dame Jean Conan Doyle.

Reprinted in:

  • The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, edited by John Joseph Adams, 2009.
  • Iterations and Other Stories by Robert J. Sawyer, 2002.
  • Over the Edge: Stories by Members of the Crime Writers of Canada, edited by Peter Sellers and Robert J. Sawyer, 2000.
  • Nebula Awards 31, edited by Pamela Sargent, 1997 (as a sample of the work by the winner of the Nebula Award for Best Novel of 1995).
  • Time Machines: The Best Time Travel Stories Ever Written, edited by Bill Adler Jr., 1997.
  • Hayakawa SF Magazine (in a Japanese translation by Masayuki Uchida), Japan's principal science-fiction magazine, October 1996.
  • Yellow Submarine Science Fiction et Fantasy (in a French translation by Patrick Marcel), No. 119, Mai (May) 1996, French SF magazine.

Honors:

  • Winner of Le Grand Prix de l'Imaginaire, France's top SF award, for Best Foreign Short Story of the Year.
  • Winner of the CompuServe Science Fiction and Fantasy Forum's Annual HOMer Award for Best Short Story of the Year.
  • Honorable Mention for the Hugo Award for Best Short Story of the year.
  • Honorable Mention in The Year's Best Science Fiction edited by Gardner Dozois.

  You See But You Do Not Observe  

  by Robert J. Sawyer  

       I had been pulled into the future first, ahead of my companion. There was no sensation associated with the chronotransference, except for a popping of my ears which I was later told had to do with a change in air pressure. Once in the 21st century, my brain was scanned in order to produce from my memories a perfect reconstruction of our rooms at 221B Baker Street. Details that I could not consciously remember or articulate were nonetheless reproduced exactly: the flock-papered walls, the bearskin hearthrug, the basket chair and the armchair, the coal-scuttle, even the view through the window — all were correct to the smallest detail.

       I was met in the future by a man who called himself Mycroft Holmes. He claimed, however, to be no relation to my companion, and protested that his name was mere coincidence, although he allowed that the fact of it was likely what had made a study of my partner's methods his chief avocation. I asked him if he had a brother called Sherlock, but his reply made little sense to me: "My parents weren't that cruel."

       In any event, this Mycroft Holmes — who was a small man with reddish hair, quite unlike the stout and dark ale of a fellow with the same name I had known two hundred years before — wanted all details to be correct before he whisked Holmes here from the past. Genius, he said, was but a step from madness, and although I had taken to the future well, my companion might be quite rocked by the experience.

       When Mycroft did bring Holmes forth, he did so with great stealth, transferring him precisely as he stepped through the front exterior door of the real 221 Baker Street and into the simulation that had been created here. I heard my good friend's voice down the stairs, giving his usual glad tidings to a simulation of Mrs. Hudson. His long legs, as they always did, brought him up to our humble quarters at a rapid pace.

       I had expected a hearty greeting, consisting perhaps of an ebullient cry of "My Dear Watson," and possibly even a firm clasping of hands or some other display of bonhomie. But there was none of that, of course. This was not like the time Holmes had returned after an absence of three years during which I had believed him to be dead. No, my companion, whose exploits it has been my honor to chronicle over the years, was unaware of just how long we had been separated, and so my reward for my vigil was nothing more than a distracted nodding of his drawn-out face. He took a seat and settled in with the evening paper, but after a few moments, he slapped the newsprint sheets down. "Confound it, Watson! I have already read this edition. Have we not today's paper?"

       And, at that turn, there was nothing for it but for me to adopt the unfamiliar role that queer fate had dictated I must now take: our traditional positions were now reversed, and I would have to explain the truth to Holmes.

       "Holmes, my good fellow, I am afraid they do not publish newspapers anymore."

       He pinched his long face into a scowl, and his clear, gray eyes glimmered. "I would have thought that any man who had spent as much time in Afghanistan as you had, Watson, would be immune to the ravages of the sun. I grant that today was unbearably hot, but surely your brain should not have addled so easily."

       "Not a bit of it, Holmes, I assure you," said I. "What I say is true, although I confess my reaction was the same as yours when I was first told. There have not been any newspapers for seventy-five years now."

       "Seventy-five years? Watson, this copy of The Times is dated August the fourteenth, 1899 — yesterday."

       "I am afraid that is not true, Holmes. Today is June the fifth, anno Domini two thousand and ninety-six."

       "Two thou — "

       "It sounds preposterous, I know — "

       "It is preposterous, Watson. I call you 'old man' now and again out of affection, but you are in fact nowhere near two hundred and fifty years of age."

       "Perhaps I am not the best man to explain all this," I said.

       "No," said a voice from the doorway. "Allow me."

       Holmes surged to his feet. "And who are you?"

       "My name is Mycroft Holmes."

       "Impostor!" declared my companion.

       "I assure you that that is not the case," said Mycroft. "I grant I'm not your brother, nor a habitué of the Diogenes Club, but I do share his name. I am a scientist — and I have used certain scientific principles to pluck you from your past and bring you into my present."

       For the first time in all the years I had known him, I saw befuddlement on my companion's face. "It is quite true," I said to him.

       "But why?" said Holmes, spreading his long arms. "Assuming this mad fantasy is true — and I do not grant for an instant that it is — why would you thus kidnap myself and my good friend, Dr. Watson?"

       "Because, Holmes, the game, as you used to be so fond of saying, is afoot."

       "Murder, is it?" asked I, grateful at last to get to the reason for which we had been brought forward.

       "More than simple murder," said Mycroft. "Much more. Indeed, the biggest puzzle to have ever faced the human race. Not just one body is missing. Trillions are. Trillions."

       "Watson," said Holmes, "surely you recognize the signs of madness in the man? Have you nothing in your bag that can help him? The whole population of the Earth is less than two thousand millions."

       "In your time, yes," said Mycroft. "Today, it's about eight thousand million. But I say again, there are trillions more who are missing."

       "Ah, I perceive at last," said Holmes, a twinkle in his eye as he came to believe that reason was once again holding sway. "I have read in The Illustrated London News of these dinosauria, as Professor Owen called them — great creatures from the past, all now deceased. It is their demise you wish me to unravel."

       Mycroft shook his head. "You should have read Professor Moriarty's monograph called The Dynamics of an Asteroid," he said.

       "I keep my mind clear of useless knowledge," replied Holmes curtly.

       Mycroft shrugged. "Well, in that paper Moriarty quite cleverly guessed the cause of the demise of the dinosaurs: an asteroid crashing into earth kicked up enough dust to block the sun for months on end. Close to a century after he had reasoned out this hypothesis, solid evidence for its truth was found in a layer of clay. No, that mystery is long since solved. This one is much greater."

       "And what, pray, is it?" said Holmes, irritation in his voice.

       Mycroft motioned for Holmes to have a seat, and, after a moment's defiance, my friend did just that. "It is called the Fermi paradox," said Mycroft, "after Enrico Fermi, an Italian physicist who lived in the twentieth century. You see, we know now that this universe of ours should have given rise to countless planets, and that many of those planets should have produced intelligent civilizations. We can demonstrate the likelihood of this mathematically, using something called the Drake equation. For a century and a half now, we have been using radio — wireless, that is — to look for signs of these other intelligences. And we have found nothing — nothing! Hence the paradox Fermi posed: if the universe is supposed to be full of life, then where are the aliens?"

       "Aliens?" said I. "Surely they are mostly still in their respective foreign countries."

       Mycroft smiled. "The word has gathered additional uses since your day, good doctor. By aliens, I mean extraterrestrials — creatures who live on other worlds."

       "Like in the stories of Verne and Wells?" asked I, quite sure that my expression was agog.

       "And even in worlds beyond the family of our sun," said Mycroft.

       Holmes rose to his feet. "I know nothing of universes and other worlds," he said angrily. "Such knowledge could be of no practical use in my profession."

       I nodded. "When I first met Holmes, he had no idea that the Earth revolved around the sun." I treated myself to a slight chuckle. "He thought the reverse to be true."

       Mycroft smiled. "I know of your current limitations, Sherlock." My friend cringed slightly at the overly familiar address. "But these are mere gaps in knowledge; we can rectify that easily enough."

       "I will not crowd my brain with useless irrelevancies," said Holmes. "I carry only information that can be of help in my work. For instance, I can identify one hundred and forty different varieties of tobacco ash — "

       "Ah, well, you can let that information go, Holmes," said Mycroft. "No one smokes anymore. It's been proven ruinous to one's health." I shot a look at Holmes, whom I had always warned of being a self-poisoner. "Besides, we've also learned much about the structure of the brain in the intervening years. Your fear that memorizing information related to fields such as literature, astronomy, and philosophy would force out other, more relevant data, is unfounded. The capacity for the human brain to store and retrieve information is almost infinite."

       "It is?" said Holmes, clearly shocked.

       "It is."

       "And so you wish me to immerse myself in physics and astronomy and such all?"

       "Yes," said Mycroft.

       "To solve this paradox of Fermi?"

       "Precisely!"

       "But why me?"

       "Because it is a puzzle, and you, my good fellow, are the greatest solver of puzzles this world has ever seen. It is now two hundred years after your time, and no one with a facility to rival yours has yet appeared."

       Mycroft probably could not see it, but the tiny hint of pride on my longtime companion's face was plain to me. But then Holmes frowned. "It would take years to amass the knowledge I would need to address this problem."

       "No, it will not." Mycroft waved his hand, and amidst the homely untidiness of Holmes's desk appeared a small sheet of glass standing vertically. Next to it lay a strange metal bowl. "We have made great strides in the technology of learning since your day. We can directly program new information into your brain." Mycroft walked over to the desk. "This glass panel is what we call a monitor. It is activated by the sound of your voice. Simply ask it questions, and it will display information on any topic you wish. If you find a topic that you think will be useful in your studies, simply place this helmet on your head" (he indicated the metal bowl), "say the say the words `load topic,' and the information will be seamlessly integrated into the neural nets of your very own brain. It will at once seem as if you know, and have always known, all the details of that field of endeavor."

       "Incredible!" said Holmes. "And from there?"

       "From there, my dear Holmes, I hope that your powers of deduction will lead you to resolve the paradox — and reveal at last what has happened to the aliens!"


       "Watson! Watson!"

       I awoke with a start. Holmes had found this new ability to effortlessly absorb information irresistible and he had pressed on long into the night, but I had evidently fallen asleep in a chair. I perceived that Holmes had at last found a substitute for the sleeping fiend of his cocaine mania: with all of creation at his fingertips, he would never again feel that emptiness that so destroyed him between assignments.

       "Eh?" I said. My throat was dry. I had evidently been sleeping with my mouth open. "What is it?"

       "Watson, this physics is more fascinating than I had ever imagined. Listen to this, and see if you do not find it as compelling as any of the cases we have faced to date."

       I rose from my chair and poured myself a little sherry — it was, after all, still night and not yet morning. "I am listening."

       "Remember the locked and sealed room that figured so significantly in that terrible case of the Giant Rat of Sumatra?"

       "How could I forget?" said I, a shiver traversing my spine. "If not for your keen shooting, my left leg would have ended up as gamy as my right."

       "Quite," said Holmes. "Well, consider a different type of locked-room mystery, this one devised by an Austrian physicist named Erwin Schrödinger. Image a cat sealed in a box. The box is of such opaque material, and its walls are so well insulated, and the seal is so profound, that there is no way anyone can observe the cat once the box is closed."

       "Hardly seems cricket," I said, "locking a poor cat in a box."

       "Watson, your delicate sensibilities are laudable, but please, man, attend to my point. Imagine further that inside this box is a triggering device that has exactly a fifty-fifty chance of being set off, and that this aforementioned trigger is rigged up to a cylinder of poison gas. If the trigger is tripped, the gas is released, and the cat dies."

       "Goodness!" said I. "How nefarious."

       "Now, Watson, tell me this: without opening the box, can you say whether the cat is alive or dead?"

       "Well, if I understand you correctly, it depends on whether the trigger was tripped."

       "Precisely!"

       "And so the cat is perhaps alive, and, yet again, perhaps it is dead."

       "Ah, my friend, I knew you would not fail me: the blindingly obvious interpretation. But it is wrong, dear Watson, totally wrong."

       "How do you mean?"

       "I mean the cat is neither alive nor is it dead. It is a potential cat, an unresolved cat, a cat whose existence is nothing but a question of possibilities. It is neither alive nor dead, Watson — neither! Until some intelligent person opens the box and looks, the cat is unresolved. Only the act of looking forces a resolution of the possibilities. Once you crack the seal and peer within, the potential cat collapses into an actual cat. Its reality is a result of having been observed."

       "That is worse gibberish than anything this namesake of your brother has spouted."

       "No, it is not," said Holmes. "It is the way the world works. They have learned so much since our time, Watson — so very much! But as Alphonse Karr has observed, Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose. Even in this esoteric field of advanced physics, it is the power of the qualified observer that is most important of all!"


       I awoke again hearing Holmes crying out, "Mycroft! Mycroft!"

       I had occasionally heard such shouts from him in the past, either when his iron constitution had failed him and he was feverish, or when under the influence of his accursed needle. But after a moment I realized he was not calling for his real brother but rather was shouting into the air to summon the Mycroft Holmes who was the 21st-century savant. Moments later, he was rewarded: the door to our rooms opened and in came the red-haired fellow.

       "Hello, Sherlock," said Mycroft. "You wanted me?"

       "Indeed I do," said Holmes. "I have absorbed much now on not just physics but also the technology by which you have recreated these rooms for me and the good Dr. Watson."

       Mycroft nodded. "I've been keeping track of what you've been accessing. Surprising choices, I must say."

       "So they might seem," said Holmes, "but my method is based on the pursuit of trifles. Tell me if I understand correctly that you reconstructed these rooms by scanning Watson's memories, then using, if I understand the terms, holography and micro-manipulated force fields to simulate the appearance and form of what he had seen."

       "That's right."

       "So your ability to reconstruct is not just limited to rebuilding these rooms of ours, but, rather, you could simulate anything either of us had ever seen."

       "That's correct. In fact, I could even put you into a simulation of someone else's memories. Indeed, I thought perhaps you might like to see the Very Large Array of radio telescopes, where most of our listening for alien messages — "

       "Yes, yes, I'm sure that's fascinating," said Holmes, dismissively. "But can you reconstruct the venue of what Watson so appropriately dubbed 'The Final Problem'?"

       "You mean the Falls of Reichenbach?" Mycroft looked shocked. "My God, yes, but I should think that's the last thing you'd want to relive."

       "Aptly said!" declared Holmes. "Can you do it?"

       "Of course."

       "Then do so!"


       And so Holmes and my brains were scanned and in short order we found ourselves inside a superlative recreation of the Switzerland of May, 1891, to which we had originally fled to escape Professor Moriarty's assassins. Our re-enactment of events began at the charming Englischer Hof in the village of Meiringen. Just as the original innkeeper had done all those years ago, the reconstruction of him exacted a promise from us that we would not miss the spectacle of the falls of Reichenbach. Holmes and I set out for the Falls, him walking with the aid of an Alpine stock. Mycroft, I was given to understand, was somehow observing all this from afar.

       "I do not like this," I said to my companion. "'Twas bad enough to live through this horrible day once, but I had hoped I would never have to relive it again except in nightmares."

       "Watson, recall that I have fonder memories of all this. Vanquishing Moriarty was the high point of my career. I said to you then, and say again now, that putting an end to the very Napoleon of crime would easily be worth the price of my own life."

       There was a little dirt path cut out of the vegetation running halfway round the falls so as to afford a complete view of the spectacle. The icy green water, fed by the melting snows, flowed with phenomenal rapidity and violence, then plunged into a great, bottomless chasm of rock black as the darkest night. Spray shot up in vast gouts, and the shriek made by the plunging water was almost like a human cry.

       We stood for a moment looking down at the waterfall, Holmes's face in its most contemplative repose. He then pointed further ahead along the dirt path. "Note, dear Watson," he said, shouting to be heard above the torrent, "that the dirt path comes to an end against a rock wall there." I nodded. He turned in the other direction. "And see that backtracking out the way we came is the only way to leave alive: there is but one exit, and it is coincident with the single entrance."

       Again I nodded. But, just as had happened the first time we had been at this fateful spot, a Swiss boy came running along the path, carrying in his hand a letter addressed to me which bore the mark of the Englischer Hof. I knew what the note said, of course: that an Englishwoman, staying at that inn, had been overtaken by a hemorrhage. She had but a few hours to live, but doubtless would take great comfort in being ministered to by an English doctor, and would I come at once?

       "But the note is a pretext," said I, turning to Holmes. "Granted, I was fooled originally by it, but, as you later admitted in that letter you left for me, you had suspected all along that it was a sham on the part of Moriarty." Throughout this commentary, the Swiss boy stood frozen, immobile, as if somehow Mycroft, overseeing all this, had locked the boy in time so that Holmes and I might consult. "I will not leave you again, Holmes, to plunge to your death."

       Holmes raised a hand. "Watson, as always, your sentiments are laudable, but recall that this is a mere simulation. You will be of material assistance to me if you do exactly as you did before. There is no need, though, for you to undertake the entire arduous hike to the Englischer Hof and back. Instead, simply head back to the point at which you pass the figure in black, wait an additional quarter of an hour, then return to here."

       "Thank you for simplifying it," said I. "I am eight years older than I was then; a three-hour round trip would take a goodly bit out of me today."

       "Indeed," said Holmes. "All of us may have outlived our most useful days. Now, please, do as I ask."

       "I will, of course," said I, "but I freely confess that I do not understand what this is all about. You were engaged by this twenty-first-century Mycroft to explore a problem in natural philosophy — the missing aliens. Why are we even here?"

       "We are here," said Holmes, "because I have solved that problem! Trust me, Watson. Trust me, and play out the scenario again of that portentous day of May 4th, 1891."


       And so I left my companion, not knowing what he had in mind. As I made my way back to the Englischer Hof, I passed a man going hurriedly the other way. The first time I had lived through these terrible events I did not know him, but this time I recognized him for Professor Moriarty: tall, clad all in black, his forehead bulging out, his lean form outlined sharply against the green backdrop of the vegetation. I let the simulation pass, waited fifteen minutes as Holmes had asked, then returned to the falls.

       Upon my arrival, I saw Holmes's Alpine stock leaning against a rock. The black soil of the path to the torrent was constantly re-moistened by the spray from the roiling falls. In the soil I could see two sets of footprints leading down the path to the cascade, and none returning. It was precisely the same terrible sight that greeted me all those years ago.

       "Welcome back, Watson!"

       I wheeled around. Holmes stood leaning against a tree, grinning widely.

       "Holmes!" I exclaimed. "How did you manage to get away from the falls without leaving footprints?"

       "Recall, my dear Watson, that except for the flesh-and-blood you and me, all this is but a simulation. I simply asked Mycroft to prevent my feet from leaving tracks." He demonstrated this by walking back and forth. No impression was left by his shoes, and no vegetation was trampled down by his passage. "And, of course, I asked him to freeze Moriarty, as earlier he had frozen the Swiss lad, before he and I could become locked in mortal combat."

       "Fascinating," said I.

       "Indeed. Now, consider the spectacle before you. What do you see?"

       "Just what I saw that horrid day on which I had thought you had died: two sets of tracks leading to the falls, and none returning."

       Holmes's crow of "Precisely!" rivaled the roar of the falls. "One set of tracks you knew to be my own, and the others you took to be that of the black-clad Englishman — the very Napoleon of crime!"

       "Yes."

       "Having seen these two sets approaching the falls, and none returning, you then rushed to the very brink of the falls and found — what?"

       "Signs of a struggle at the lip of the precipice leading to the great torrent itself."

       "And what did you conclude from this?"

       "That you and Moriarty had plunged to your deaths, locked in mortal combat."

       "Exactly so, Watson! The very same conclusion I myself would have drawn based on those observations!"

       "Thankfully, though, I turned out to be incorrect."

       "Did you, now?"

       "Why, yes. Your presence here attests to that."

       "Perhaps," said Holmes. "But I think otherwise. Consider, Watson! You were on the scene, you saw what happened, and for three years — three years, man! — you believed me to be dead. We had been friends and colleagues for a decade at that point. Would the Holmes you knew have let you mourn him for so long without getting word to you? Surely you must know that I trust you at least as much as I do my brother Mycroft, whom I later told you was the only one I had made had privy to the secret that I still lived."

       "Well," I said, "since you bring it up, I was slightly hurt by that. But you explained your reasons to me when you returned."

       "It is a comfort to me, Watson, that your ill-feelings were assuaged. But I wonder, perchance, if it was more you than I who assuaged them."

       "Eh?"

       "You had seen clear evidence of my death, and had faithfully if floridly recorded the same in the chronicle you so appropriately dubbed 'The Final Problem.'"

       "Yes, indeed. Those were the hardest words I had ever written."

       "And what was the reaction of your readers once this account was published in the Strand?"

       I shook my head, recalling. "It was completely unexpected," said I. "I had anticipated a few polite notes from strangers mourning your passing, since the stories of your exploits had been so warmly received in the past. But what I got instead was mostly anger and outrage — people demanding to hear further adventures of yours."

       "Which of course you believed to be impossible, seeing as how I was dead."

       "Exactly. The whole thing left a rather bad taste, I must say. Seemed very peculiar behavior."

       "But doubtless it died down quickly," said Holmes.

       "You know full well it did not. I have told you before that the onslaught of letters, as well as personal exhortations wherever I would travel, continued unabated for years. In fact, I was virtually at the point of going back and writing up one of your lesser cases I had previously ignored as being of no general interest simply to get the demands to cease, when, much to my surprise and delight — "

       "Much to your surprise and delight, after an absence of three years less a month, I turned up in your consulting rooms, disguised, if I recall correctly, as a shabby book collector. And soon you had fresh adventures to chronicle, beginning with that case of the infamous Colonel Sebastian Moran and his victim, the Honorable Ronald Adair."

       "Yes," said I. "Wondrous it was."

       "But Watson, let us consider the facts surrounding my apparent death at the falls of Reichenbach on May 4th, 1891. You, the observer on the scene, saw the evidence, and, as you wrote in 'The Final Problem,' many experts scoured the lip of the falls and came to precisely the same conclusion you had — that Moriarty and I had plunged to our deaths."

       "But that conclusion turned out to be wrong."

       Holmes beamed intently. "No, my Good Watson, it turned out to be unacceptable — unacceptable to your faithful readers. And that is where all the problems stem from. Remember Schrödinger's cat in the sealed box? Moriarty and I at the falls present a very similar scenario: he and I went down the path into the cul-de-sac, our footprints leaving impressions in the soft earth. There were only two possible outcomes at that point: either I would exit alive, or I would not. There was no way out, except to take that same path back away from the falls. Until someone came and looked to see whether I had re-emerged from the path, the outcome was unresolved. I was both alive and dead — a collection of possibilities. But when you arrived, those possibilities had to collapse into a single reality. You saw that there were no footprints returning from the falls — meaning that Moriarty and I had struggled until at last we had both plunged over the edge into the icy torrent. It was your act of seeing the results that forced the possibilities to be resolved. In a very real sense, my good, dear friend, you killed me."

       My heart was pounding in my chest. "I tell you, Holmes, nothing would have made me more happy than to have seen you alive!"

       "I do not doubt that, Watson — but you had to see one thing or the other. You could not see both. And, having seen what you saw, you reported your findings: first to the Swiss police, and then to the reporter for the Journal de Geneve, and lastly in your full account in the pages of the Strand."

       I nodded.

       "But here is the part that was not considered by Schrödinger when he devised the thought experiment of the cat in the box. Suppose you open the box and find the cat dead, and later you tell your neighbor about the dead cat — and your neighbor refuses to believe you when you say that the cat is dead. What happens if you go and look in the box a second time?"

       "Well, the cat is surely still dead."

       "Perhaps. But what if thousands — nay, millions! — refuse to believe the account of the original observer? What if they deny the evidence? What then, Watson?"

       "I — I do not know."

       "Through the sheer stubbornness of their will, they reshape reality, Watson! Truth is replaced with fiction! They will the cat back to life. More than that, they attempt to believe that the cat never died in the first place!"

       "And so?"

       "And so the world, which should have one concrete reality, is rendered unresolved, uncertain, adrift. As the first observer on the scene at Reichenbach, your interpretation should take precedence. But the stubbornness of the human race is legendary, Watson, and through that sheer cussedness, that refusal to believe what they have been plainly told, the world gets plunged back into being a wavefront of unresolved possibilities. We exist in flux — to this day, the whole world exists in flux — because of the conflict between the observation you really made at Reichenbach, and the observation the world wishes you had made."

       "But this is all too fantastic, Holmes!"

       "Eliminate the impossible, Watson, and whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Which brings me now to the question we were engaged by this avatar of Mycroft to solve: this paradox of Fermi. Where are the alien beings?"

       "And you say you have solved that?"

       "Indeed I have. Consider the method by which mankind has been searching for these aliens."

       "By wireless, I gather — trying to overhear their chatter on the ether."

       "Precisely! And when did I return from the dead, Watson?"

       "April of 1894."

       "And when did that gifted Italian, Guglielmo Marconi, invent the wireless?"

       "I have no idea."

       "In eighteen hundred and ninety-five, my good Watson. The following year! In all the time that mankind has used radio, our entire world has been an unresolved quandary! An uncollapsed wavefront of possibilities!"

       "Meaning?"

       "Meaning the aliens are there, Watson — it is not they who are missing, it is us! Our world is out of synch with the rest of the universe. Through our failure to accept the unpleasant truth, we have rendered ourselves potential rather than actual."

       I had always thought my companion a man with a generous regard for his own stature, but surely this was too much. "You are suggesting, Holmes, that the current unresolved state of the world hinges on the fate of you yourself?"

       "Indeed! Your readers would not allow me to fall to my death, even if it meant attaining the very thing I desired most, namely the elimination of Moriarty. In this mad world, the observer has lost control of his observations! If there is one thing my life stood for — my life prior to that ridiculous resurrection of me you recounted in your chronicle of `The Empty House' — it was reason! Logic! A devotion to observable fact! But humanity has abjured that. This whole world is out of whack, Watson — so out of whack that we are cut off from the civilizations that exist elsewhere. You tell me you were festooned with demands for my return, but if people had really understood me, understood what my life represented, they would have known that the only real tribute to me possible would have been to accept the facts! The only real answer would have been to leave me dead!"


       Mycroft sent us back in time, but rather than returning us to 1899, whence he had plucked us, at Holmes's request he put us back eight years earlier in May of 1891. Of course, there were younger versions of ourselves already living then, but Mycroft swapped us for them, bringing the young ones to the future, where they could live out the rest of their lives in simulated scenarios taken from Holmes's and my minds. Granted, we were each eight years older than we had been when we had fled Moriarty the first time, but no one in Switzerland knew us and so the aging of our faces went unnoticed.

       I found myself for a third time living that fateful day at the Falls of Reichenbach, but this time, like the first and unlike the second, it was real.

       I saw the page boy coming, and my heart raced. I turned to Holmes, and said, "I can't possibly leave you."

       "Yes, you can, Watson. And you will, for you have never failed to play the game. I am sure you will play it to the end." He paused for a moment, then said, perhaps just a wee bit sadly, "I can discover facts, Watson, but I cannot change them." And then, quite solemnly, he extended his hand. I clasped it firmly in both of mine. And then the boy, who was in Moriarty's employ, was upon us. I allowed myself to be duped, leaving Holmes alone at the Falls, fighting with all my might to keep from looking back as I hiked onward to treat the nonexistent patient at the Englischer Hof. On my way, I passed Moriarty going in the other direction. It was all I could do to keep from drawing my pistol and putting an end to the blackguard, but I knew Holmes would consider robbing him of his own chance at Moriarty an unforgivable betrayal.

       It was an hour's hike down to the Englischer Hof. There I played out the scene in which I inquired about the ailing Englishwoman, and Steiler the Elder, the innkeeper, reacted, as I knew he must, with surprise. My performance was probably half-hearted, having played the role once before, but soon I was on my way back. The uphill hike took over two hours, and I confess plainly to being exhausted upon my arrival, although I could barely hear my own panting over the roar of the torrent.

       Once again, I found two sets of footprints leading to the precipice, and none returning. I also found Holmes's alpine stock, and, just as I had the first time, a note from him to me that he had left with it. The note read just as the original had, explaining that he and Moriarty were about to have their final confrontation, but that Moriarty had allowed him to leave a few last words behind. But it ended with a postscript that had not been in the original:

       My dear Watson [it said], you will honour my passing most of all if you stick fast to the powers of observation. No matter what the world wants, leave me dead.

       I returned to London, and was able to briefly counterbalance my loss of Holmes by reliving the joy and sorrow of the last few months of my wife Mary's life, explaining my somewhat older face to her and others as the result of shock at the death of Holmes. The next year, right on schedule, Marconi did indeed invent the wireless. Exhortations for more Holmes adventures continued to pour in, but I ignored them all, although the lack of him in my life was so profound that I was sorely tempted to relent, recanting my observations made at Reichenbach. Nothing would have pleased me more than to hear again the voice of the best and wisest man I had ever known.

       In late June of 1907, I read in The Times about the detection of intelligent wireless signals coming from the direction of the star Altair. On that day, the rest of the world celebrated, but I do confess I shed a tear and drank a special toast to my good friend, the late Mr. Sherlock Holmes.

      

•  The End  •



If you enjoyed this short story by Hugo and Nebula Award-winning science-fiction writer Robert J. Sawyer, how about giving one of his bestselling novels a try? The opening chapters of each of them are right here at sfwriter.com.


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A brief essay about this story

Other short stories by Robert J. Sawyer
Sample chapters from Rob's novels
A bibliography of all Rob's short stories

A profile of Rob from Tangent concentrating on his short-fiction career


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