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Sherlock Holmes in Space -- The Knower -- Chapter 45

a story by jabney based on (the now public domain) characters created by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle


"Something about pennies, Watson?"

I told Sherlock Holmes the morbid bit of gallows humor I had come up with. His answer was, "First of all, Watson, I am told that undertakers no longer use pennies to keep the eyes closed, and second, the fact that I needed to ask you what you were specifically thinking about pennies may mean that the total mind sharing that was so annoying in what we call Hell is starting to diminish."

Evan said, "Why did Dr Watson's thinking of pennies manage to reach your consciousness, Mr Holmes? I would think that the image of a funeral director, that is, undertaker, would be the strongest and most disturbing concept contained in the good Doctor's reverie."

Holmes said, "Because though one could, in theory, rub two undertakers together, one does not. They are best kept in that compartment of the mind devoted to seldom visited concepts. Pennies, however, are a familiar and very common thing. The mind deals with such objects in a much more direct way."

"I'm not sure what you mean there, Mr Holmes."

Otis said, "Evan, think of it this way, concepts are like one of those cartoonish programming languages so popular in the 1900's and early 2000's. Lot's of things going on under the hood, so to speak, but out of view. A physical thing, such as a penny, is more like a printf statement in C. And to anticipate your question, Dr Watson, C is a programming language merely two steps removed from binary code. Only assembly gets closer. At least for general purpose computing. And a C printf statement ...well, I think Mr Holmes is just trying to say that some things are more real to us than are other things. The unimportant, but unversally experienced, penny is more real to us than even the most profound of concepts."

"Barring the realization of the immediacy of a given concept, I should think so," said Holmes. "But for now, our immediacy is to climb these stairs."

"You mean turn around Holmes?"

"No Watson, not at all. If you look behind us, you will notice those stairs now descend. We are now on an upward trajectory."

"I'll be glad when we get back to where up is up and down is down, Holmes."

"It may be more a matter of when than of where, Watson. The affects of our almost total immersion in an atmosphere of rye ergot fungus will take some time to wear off, I have no doubt of that. In the meantime, we must remain alert."

We proceeded, silent for a while, and though it no longer looked to me that we were descending the stairs, a shortness of breath was my only evidence that we were climbing. What sort of stairs neither rise nor fall? Stairs in Hell, I suppose.

I soon got the evidence I was looking for, though. The staircase at some point had become circular, rising in a clockwise direction and would have seemed rather grand, were it not for the absence of a bannister betwixt us and deepening chasm to our right. I hugged the left wall for a sense of safety and I noticed Otis was doing the same. Holmes and Evan, however, seemed to delight in peering over the edge. I decided that if I were to "Keep a lookout" for my friends, they would best be served if I looked up to where we were going, rather than down to where we had been. I'd seen enough of that already. And then I saw it. There was a landing ahead. And as we got closer, I could see that there appeared to be two doors leading from the landing. And offering a third choice, the stairs themselves continued their upward journey. But as a straight uninterrupted flight from this point.

"A puzzle Watson?"

"I fear yet another one Holmes, though I cannot tell from here what the symbols on the doors represent."

Soon, the symbols revealed themselves to be not painted, rather they appeared to have been painstakingly inlaid in heavy, carved mahogany doors. The inlay on the right had a magnificently alien beauty, the red glow of which seemed to attract the eye, no matter how hard one tried to look away. I did not recognize it. The door on the left had an intricately curved inlay of an orange hue. It looked familiar. "It looks like an antimacassar, Holmes. An orange antimacassar."

"Not just any orange antimacassar Watson, this is a rendering of the last antimacassar known to have been crocheted by Annie Chapman, widely assumed to have been the second victim of the notorious Jack the Ripper."

"Knitted?" said Otis.

"Here's an old earth Wikipedia entry, attributed in turn largely to the faned 11th edition of the Encyclopædia Britannica, and it's all about antimacassars:"


Macassar oil was an unguent for the hair commonly used in the early 19th century. The poet Byron called it "thine incomparable oil, Macassar." The fashion for oiled hair became so widespread in the Victorian and the Edwardian period that housewives began to cover the arms and backs of their chairs with washable cloths to preserve the fabric coverings from being soiled. Around 1850, these started to be known as antimacassars. They were also installed in theatres, from 1865.

They came to have elaborate patterns, often in matching sets for the various items of parlour furniture; they were either made at home using a variety of techniques such as crochet or tatting, or purchased. The original antimacassars were usually made of stiff white crochet-work, but in the third quarter of the 19th century they became simpler and softer, usually fabric embroidered with a simple pattern in wool or silk...

"And here's the poor unfortunate woman you spoke about, Mr Holmes:"
...Annie Chapman, the second canonical victim of Jack the Ripper, was said to have made antimacassars for a living shortly before she was murdered.

By the beginning of the 20th century, antimacassars had become so associated in people's minds with the Victorian period that the word briefly became a figurative term for it. (See also: doily).

Promising," said Holmes. "Although I was not aware that a crocheted doily had come to represent the years of my childhood and youth. And what do the eyes of the future have to say about the other door? Otis? Evan?"

"I recognize it," said Evan, "Although I think Otis has been charged with solving whatever riddle that door holds. It is an artist's conception of the black hole at the center of galaxy NGC 1277 in the constellation of Perseus. At one point considered the second most massive black hole in the universe."

"A black hole?" I said, "I thought they were unimaginably small, unimaginably dense, and invisible. That object appears. Which I hardly call invisible."

"True it can't be seen, Dr Watson, but the stars and planets it attracts like a spider attracts prey into its web can be seen as they enter. Is that the tracery of a web Mr Holmes?"

"I think it may be, but perhaps a more pertinent object has already caught the eye of our friend Otis. Are there naturally box shaped structures in the Universe, Otis?"

"Not anything larger than a particularly venomous species of jellyfish. And yet a black box-like frame seems to surround the location where the actual black hole would be. Curious."

My older eyes could not make the image out but soon we'd be close enough for all of us to see. We reached the rather spacious landing and I moved away slightly from the security of the left side. The right seemed to be exerting a comforting attraction.

"Go no further, Dr Watson," said Otis, "Go as far left as you can. All of us, I've figured it out."

"Explain, please," said Holmes.

"This is going to sound far fetched, to Evan as much or even more than to you."

"Go on," said Evan.

"The same intelligence that created the massive fleet of which the SS Oligarch is but a single member also, presumably, created the black box."

"The computer you speak of, Otis?" I said.

"More than that, Dr Watson, it contains the computers of a thousand different planets, the expressions, good and evil, of the great minds of those planets, countless symphonies, poems, advertisements, junk mail and odd socks. In short, everything that fell into a black hole and never came out."

"Except some of those things did come out, somewhat like Pandora and her box, is that your theory Otis?" said Holmes.

"I said it would sound far fetched, but imagine if a black hole could be captured. And then exploited for all the black hole's accumulated data."

"That would have to be one hell of an I/O port," said Evan. "How would you avoid leakage?"

Holmes said, "It would appear that some leakage would be inevitable. Would you not agree, Evan?"

"Yes, Mr Holmes, and probably destined to grow. We must warn the ship, but we need time to figure out a plan."

"Come with us, then. Both of you. We will plan in London. You can then take Cody's cheese curd strainer up to the ship. For unless I'm mistaken, the orange antimacassar is the only way back for Watson and me. Coming?"

We all followed, straining against the seductive pull of the right hand door, and filed past the orange antimacassar into a familiar looking space. There was something else familiar too. Then I saw that Otis and Evan each had a slightly bemused look and an upturned nose. "The horses in the street," I whispered, "One gets used to it."

"Mrs Hudson, can you please set four places at the table," said Holmes in a loud voice.

He needed not to have been loud, for a very flustered looking Mrs Hudson poked her head in the room and said, "I don't know how they got up the stairs past me, but there are two potential clients already here. And they are dressed like these two gentlemen. Should I make that six places? Or five?"

"Why five, Mrs Hudson?" I said.

"Because one of them is a lady, and the other, well I presume he's her manservant."

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