“It will be your greatest achievement,” said his editor. “Thousands of copies sold, and your name forever remembered as one of England’s greatest writers.”
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sneered and took a drag from his pipe. “If in 100 years I am known only as the man who invented Sherlock Holmes, then I will consider my life a failure.”
John Wilson sewed the last seam into place and stepped back, dropping his needle to the floor as he gazed upon his life’s work. It was two black and white deerstalkers. He had sourced and made the fabric himself, stitched every seam with his own hand, and paid an inordinate amount of money to some rather questionable figures, all to ensure the hats would do what he needed them to.
In John’s world, time travel was the pastime of the very rich. Business moguls shelled out millions to lunch with Rockefeller or Carnegie. Young royals spent their weekends with Queen Victoria. The Wilson fortune– built from the work of Mary Wilson, who invented a surgical technique that rendered death an inconvenience of the past– was large enough to allow John all the frivolities of time travel technology. But he had no interest in the sterile white rooms and restrictions of the time travel industry. John’s obsession, his reason for life itself, was a series of short stories first published in 1887 – the best work of literature to emerge from collective thought in millions of years.
With his project completed, he had no time to waste. He was already dressed in the correct clothes for Doyle’s time, a habit he had picked up after his third read through of the series. John donned one of the hats and clutched the other tight in his right fist. All it would take was a simple verbal command.
“Activate,” he said. “Username: Wilson. Destination: Edinburgh, Scotland, 1889. Departure time: Immediate.”
His ears popped, his knees went weak, and a reverberating clap of thunder bid him goodbye. All that remained of John Wilson’s present was a puff of smoke.
Three rapid knocks came at Arthur’s door. He steadfastly ignored them, lost in the flicker of the fire, contemplating his next great work. His butler answered the incessant knocking.
This latest novel would be spiritual. Already the ideas were mostly written out, but they were too close to experiences from his real life. An element of fiction was needed. Something fantastical, to raise this work to the notoriety that his other books had not yet earned. The title would be A Duet with an Occasional Chorus, and it would be his masterwork.
“Sir,” said his butler with a bow, “a man is here to see you. He claims to be a close friend of your brother, Innes.”
Arthur waved an impatient hand. “Send him in then.”
The figure who stepped in from the threshold was the tallest man Arthur had ever seen. He had long, gangly limbs, an innocent expression, and a scraggly head of hair hidden beneath England’s most offensive hat. If Arthur’s wife could see this man’s blatant disregard for fashion, he felt sure she would collapse on the spot.
“Well?” Arthur said.
Fanatical light shone in the man’s eyes. “It’s really you,” he whispered. “I’ve come so far to find you.”
A frown settled onto Arthur’s face. “Innes does not live far. Tell me, from whence have you come, and why?”
“For one simple reason.” The man knelt in front of Arthur’s armchair and held up an identical hat to the one on his own head. “To show you what your greatest work has done for the world.”
“My greatest work?”
The man nodded. “Of course, sir. Your magnum opus. Your most inspiring and enduring work. The stories of Sherlock Holmes.”
Arthur’s frown morphed into a grimace. “Sherlock Holmes is a black mark on my record. He is hardly worth discussing, and certainly not with strangers. Do you bring news of my brother or not?”
“I don’t,” the man said. “But–“
The fire popped and sent a shower of sparks flying into the air. In the same moment, Arthur shot to his feet. “Enough! You disturbed the peace of my home to no purpose, and now you have destroyed my peace of mind as well. Begone with you.”
“I suppose I have no choice,” the man muttered. “So be it.”
He leapt forward. Using his considerable height, he reached above Arthur and crammed the black and white hat onto his head. Arthur bucked and kicked, but he was a sedentary man and he was caught unawares. The stranger pressed the hat onto him with both hands and said, “Usernames: Wilson and Doyle. Destination: London, England, 2134. Departure time: Immediate!”
With a boom and another shower of sparks from the fire, they were gone.
Arthur came to his senses in a sparsely decorated room. He was propped up in a small plastic chair, the stranger next to him. An odd roaring noise filled his ears.
“Oh good,” said the man. “You’re awake.”
“Where in the devil are we?” Arthur demanded.
“The Tube. I figured it would be busy enough to pop into unannounced, and no one here will bat an eyelash at our odd manners of dress.”
Arthur looked around him, noticing for the first time that they were not alone. Swarms of people walked past the bench on which they sat, rushing to and fro, getting in and out of large metal rooms that bore a passing resemblance to the luxury trains he was accustomed to. It was the people in these crowds, he thought, who had ‘odd manners of dress.’ They wore very little clothing in general, and what clothing they did wear was so brightly colored that it began to give him a headache.
“I’m sorry for my actions earlier,” the man said. “It’s just that I couldn’t think of another way to get you here. You would think me mad until you saw it for yourself.”
Quite on the contrary, thought Arthur. It is I who has gone mad.
He had many questions about the sights and sounds bombarding him, but Arthur settled for the simplest. “Who are you?”
The man’s jaw dropped open slightly and he slapped his forehead with the palm of his hand. “Of course,” he cried. “I’m an idiot. So sorry, sir. My name is John Wilson, and I am a great fan of yours. In fact, I would brag that I’m your biggest fan in the twenty-second century.”
Arthur, who had been thinking about standing up, decided to remain firmly in his seat. He looked out at the crowds and then at the earnest face of John Wilson. “It is the nineteenth century,” he managed. “Not the twenty-second.”
“Well, you see…”
Wilson spoke for several hours. He explained the sleek, lighting fast trains that passed them by. He brought out a small black rectangle from his pocket and did all manner of miracles with it. He even went as far as to ‘look up’ information on Arthur’s life after 1889. While Arthur could confirm none those facts, the other evidence before his eyes was overwhelming. He had traveled to the future.
“Sir?” John asked. “Are you alright?”
Was he? Arthur wasn’t certain. But he knew one solution for even the most impossible of problems. “I need a cup of tea.”
John brought him to a ‘vintage’ teashop a few blocks from the Tube station and Arthur ordered some nice, strong Earl Grey. He sat down and watched with bewildered fascination as John paid with coins.
“Haven’t you moved away from coins by now?” he asked.
John laughed. “You’d think so, wouldn’t you? We moved all the money online for a while, but the banks could never stay ahead of the hackers. So many people got robbed blind that the government decided to take us back to good old physical money.”
Arthur understood most of the individual words in that explanation, but placed together they were incomprehensible. He nodded into his cup of tea. When John tried to speak again, Arthur waved him silent. He took his time finishing. Once the tea was gone and his thoughts had settled, Arthur set down the cup.
A furrow appeared between John’s brows. “Why?” he echoed.
“Why have you brought me here? You mentioned my work in my parlor this morning, but for the Lord’s sake, it has been two hundred years! Surely by now I have faded into antiquity.”
John shook his head. “You’re more famous than ever.” He pushed back from the table and adjusted his hideous hat. “Come on, I’ll show you.”
He took Arthur to a bookstore. It was a relief to see that, even in this technological future, books were still sold. And they were still arranged alphabetically. John led him to the D section. Right there, on a shelf two hundred years from when Arthur woke up that morning, was The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.
“Merciful God,” he said.
Arthur ran his hand along the spines of the books. There were more Sherlock stories than he remembered writing. They must be his later work. It moved him to see them there. And yet..
There were no other books under his name.
“Where are all the rest?” he asked despairingly.
“Do you mean the adaptations?” John said. “I think they would be filed under other authors. And the movies and shows are in the digital section.”
“No,” Arthur spat. “The rest of my work. My spiritual writings, my histories. Beyond the City and The Stark Munro Letters. What has become of them?”
John shrugged. “Never read them. I know of your other books, but everyone nowadays knows you as the man who invented Sherlock Holmes.”
Arthur dropped the book he was holding and strode out of the shop as fast as his legs could carry him. John followed him out into the street.
“Wait! Where are you going?”
“I don’t care. Take me anywhere else. Anywhere but here.”
A grin split John’s face. “I know just the place.”
He led them to a small, silver coated alcove and dropped some coins into a slot. At Arthur’s confused look, he explained. “It’s a transportation machine. Most people prefer cheaper ways to get around, but I think the convenience is worth it.” Tilting his face to the ceiling, he declared their destination. “221 B, Baker Street, please.”
The machine deposited them in an identical contraption several miles away. Arthur emerged from the device with a growing headache. A few yards away, a young woman with a hat identical to John’s caught his eye. She carried a pipe and had a magnifying glass tucked into her breast pocket.
“Nice costume,” she called, pointing to her own head with a wink. “Looks really authentic.”
Arthur raised a hand to his own head and realized, with mounting horror, that he was still wearing the deerstalker. John came up beside him and swept his arms towards the street with the grandeur of a performer’s final reveal.
“Behold, your legacy!”
The street was a madhouse. All manner of people walked around in strange coats and deerstalkers. Some wore matching blue scarves. Many carried pipes. Women stood behind carts on the corner, selling books that all bore “Sherlock” somewhere in the title. There was Sherlock in Baghdad, The Adventurous Misadventures of Sherlock Holmes, and Sherlock and John Watson: A Love Story. One cart carried cartoon books for children with names like D is for Detective, or The Sign of 2+2= 4.
“This,” Arthur whispered, “is my legacy?”
“Don’t you see?” John asked. He came up behind Arthur and set a hand on his arm, imploring him to feel the same joy that was clear on John’s face. “People love your work. They love Sherlock Holmes and John Watson. My mother loved Watson so much, she named me after him. Sherlock is in movies now, and spin-offs, and even tourist attractions. You are remembered as one of England’s greatest writers.”
It was more than Arthur could stomach. His spiritual work, his historical writings, his missionary work– all of it was for naught. His life was a failure.
“Take me back,” he ordered.
“But why? Aren’t you proud of what you’ve created?”
Arthur turned on John with a snarl. “No. It is worthless, horrible writing, and you have twisted it beyond recognition.”
“No I haven’t,” John defended. “I have nothing but respect for Sherlock and your writing. I have his best friend’s name.” John gestured at the matching hats they both wore. “I even have his hat.”
“Sherlock never wore a hat, you fool! I did not write him that way. And even if I would have, sometime in my unknown future, it will surely not happen now.”
John’s face was ashen. “You don’t mean that.”
“Take me back,” Arthur said.
“I won’t,” John shouted. “There’s still too much for you to see.”
“So be it,” Arthur said, and he kicked John right in the knee. He collapsed, too shocked to catch himself. Arthur snatched the deerstalker from his head and repeated the words he remembered from earlier.
“Username: Doyle. Destination: Edinburgh, Scotland, 1889. Departure: Immediate.”
He arrived home two weeks after his mysterious disappearance. It was a cause of great stress to his family. Unbeknownst to him, his whereabouts during those weeks were a subject of heated debate for his later biographers. Arthur’s siblings welcomed him home, and while they were suspicious for most of the day, he managed to explain away the mystery as an author’s flight of fancy.
In the dead of night, Arthur pushed open the creaky doors to his writing room. A Sherlock story, The Hound of Baskervilles, sat unfinished in his typewriter. He pulled the pages free of the machine. Then he gathered all the copies of his other books, his notes, and every other scrap of paper in the house that bore the accursed name of Sherlock Holmes. He stacked them in neat rows on his desk, stared at them for a long moment, and then threw them, one by one, into the fire.