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.
- The Sherlock Holmes Megapack, edited by John Gregory Betancourt,
- 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),
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.
- 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.
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
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
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
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
"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.
"Because, Holmes, the game, as you used to be so fond of saying,
"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
"In your time, yes," said Mycroft. "Today, it's about eight
thousand million. But I say again, there are trillions more who
"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,"
"I keep my mind clear of useless knowledge," replied Holmes
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
"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
"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.
"And so you wish me to immerse myself in physics and astronomy
and such all?"
"Yes," said Mycroft.
"To solve this paradox of Fermi?"
"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
"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!"
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."
"And so the cat is perhaps alive, and, yet again, perhaps it is
"Ah, my friend, I knew you would not fail me: the blindingly
obvious interpretation. But it is wrong, dear Watson, totally
"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."
"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
"Aptly said!" declared Holmes. "Can you do it?"
"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
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
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
"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
"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
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
"Having seen these two sets approaching the falls, and none
returning, you then rushed to the very brink of the falls and
"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
"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
"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
"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
"Which of course you believed to be impossible, seeing as how I
"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."
"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 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
"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
"Precisely! And when did I return from the dead, Watson?"
"April of 1894."
"And when did that gifted Italian, Guglielmo Marconi, invent the
"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 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
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
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
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More Good Reading
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