The Black Orb




“Good God, Holmes.”

Letting himself in with the key, he’d carefully removed his galoshes, muddy from the street.

A constant drizzle had been coming down for days. He’d put his Homburg, getting heavier by the minute, on the rack and hung his Mackintosh up to dry if that were even possible—he’d suspected it wasn’t, not really. Not in an hour or two or even three. Next came the shoes. More likely never, he thought. He sat on the boot-bench and put on a pair of slippers that were there for his convenience. He’s spent a lot of time there, over the years. Anyways, it would just get wet again. A dark thought, which he had shrugged off. Lately, there was no such thing as a sunset, which could be glorious and took forever, at this latitude and this time of year. No, lately it was just an interminable dimming from day into night.

The house was strangely silent, what with Mrs. Hudson off to visit a sick relative. Early evening traffic was light outside. Lately, Holmes hadn’t been playing the violin much, something he took up and dropped just as frequently. Perhaps that was a good thing, although he had his surprising moments of musicality. It was only upon entering the drawing room, closing the door, and then turning, when he saw the most extraordinary thing.

A black orb, easily three times the size of a man’s head, hung in midair, suspended by God-knows-what. There was no wire that he could see, not a rod or a prop or even the careful lighting of the illusionists. It was at the end of the room, in front of the closed curtains of the big window overlooking Baker Street.

“Good God, indeed, my dear Doctor Watson.” The cultured voice, its habitual tone of sardonic humour, subdued but still evident, came from the figure of his friend, seated comfortably in a sumptuous high-backed wing chair.

Only the top of his balding head, black strands carefully combed into position, one shoulder, an elbow, and curlicues of pungent blue smoke were to be seen from this angle.

“What—what is it?”

He moved into the room.

“It would appear to be an orb of some sort, ah, one that is presently hovering in mid-air, right here in this room, Watson.”

“Well—well—I can see that.” He stood there, mouth open for a moment, before making his way, on strangely rubbery knees, to the chair beside Holmes.

They sat, Holmes puffing on his pipe, with no sign of the violin, no syringes, nor his bottle of cocaine in sight. The doctor found his hands were shaking. Better to clench the arms of the chair with palms that were sweaty, but then it was a sticky day.

The usual litter of books, newspapers and half-written but no doubt erudite monographs, covered all horizontal surfaces. All this taken in over one interminable second.

Watson let out a long breath—mouth open, chin up, as he contemplated the unthinkable. His hands were better now.

“As you know, Doctor Watson, I have never believed in magic, only misdirection.”

“Is this a joke, then?”

“Not by me, doctor. I can assure you of that.” Holmes nodded sharply. “It would be a damned good one if it was, though—”

“But what is it doing here?”

“That, my friend, is a very good question, and one which I have been contemplating.”

“How—how long has it been there?”

“Not long. I fell asleep, right here in this very chair. I couldn’t have been out for very long—not since half-past seven, anyways, and I’ve only just woken up. And when I did—well. There it was.”

The limited grey light was fading, the sounds of the city muffled by the wind and the sheets of mist.

The clock ticked in the corner, a hansom cab clattered by down below, and the orb, the object, whatever it was, bobbed slightly for a moment as the curtains billowed and a damp freshet of air invaded the room. The weight of the thing, its very solidity, gave the impression this was not a child’s toy balloon…hovering there in Holmes’ study, with its smell of a very wet and very hot London at the height of summer. Which is to say not the best smell, but it was the only one they had other than Holmes’ Meerschaum and possibly a bit of stale pomade from the antimacassars.

Together, they studied it. It was black, shiny, featureless, a globe or sphere made of glass or crystal or some other similar material. Obsidian—it reminded Watson of obsidian, black volcanic glass, highly polished but otherwise it had no details, no markings, and no protuberances.

With a sigh, Holmes put down the pipe for a moment and heaved himself out of the chair.

Idly, ever so calmly, he sauntered over to the fire. He half-knelt and stirred it into some semblance of life, taking his time and doing a job of it, finally putting on another scoop of coal…the room was already warm enough, but it was damnably damp, and a man had to do something.

Watching the thing carefully, Watson could not say for sure as to whether it moved or rotated or made any reaction at all. The light was too uncertain. His friend’s curving reflection had moved across the surface, distorted and small, getting smaller as he moved to the left front corner of the room.

Turning, Holmes regarded it.

He rubbed his jaw, and then went over.

“Careful!”

“Relax, old boy. Whatever this is, it isn’t inimical.”

“And how can we be sure of that?”

“Because it really hasn’t done anything yet, has it, my dear Watson.”

“Perhaps it’s lost—” Where that one came from, the doctor couldn’t say. It just popped out—

“Yes.” Homes cleared his throat. “Possibly.”

Bending a little, he peered more closely at the thing, trying to see if there was anything inside.

But it was impenetrable. Reaching out with a finger, he gave it a little push, and it moved slightly. It seemed to want or to be able to hold its position. With a stronger push, Holmes gave a funny little gasp.

“What? What?”

“It pushed back.”

“Don’t—don’t muck about with it, Holmes.”

“Oh, but surely, we have the right, doctor.”

“Oh, surely.” Watson gave his head a little shake.

And surely, we also have the right to run screaming from this room. To run, and to just keep running.

This was unbelievable.

This was fascinating.

He’d never imagined anything like it in his life, and yet he was a man of science.

*

“Er, brandy, Holmes?” Watson busied himself at the sideboard.

It was difficult to sit still, and not to think. To think was to dread.

“Yes. Yes, I should bloody well think so.” The elementary, my dear Watson part could be left unsaid. “Let’s make it a good one, shall we.”

“We shall. Is there anything in the literature?”

Holmes knew what he meant. He sucked on his pipe for a moment.

“Well. Of course, there are all sorts of stories. Mysterious beings, creatures, ghosts, goblins, leprechauns for that matter. Wheels within wheels, burning bushes if you will. But, uh—no. No, I should have to say not.” The ravings of lunatics and the obsessions of crackpots notwithstanding, as he put it.

Much of which had been published. Perhaps mercifully, most of it was just tales told and repeated by credulous people.

There would always be lurid newspaper stories that no one took seriously, except the claimants.

Watson settled into his seat. He felt better now. Holmes was right. The thing hadn’t actually done anything, had it. It just hung there, like the dot under one big question mark.

They had been observing the object for some time, or perhaps it had been observing them.

Again, the thought came out of nowhere, and yet Watson, insofar as he saw himself, was sober, thoughtful and not prone to such impulsive insights.

Yes, he thought—perhaps it is observing us.

“Ah.” His friend spoke after a long silence. “Time for some deductive reasoning. Doctor. What nation on Earth, in your opinion, has the scientific potential to make such a…such a device. One with no visible means of support…”

“None that I know of.”

Holmes nodded.

“What organization, scientific or otherwise, is presently engaged in any sort of endeavour that would result in such an infernal object?” Between the pair, they were members of a good dozen such scientific and philosophical organizations, Watson in his position as a medical practitioner, and Holmes as, well, as Holmes—

The scatter of learned as well as popular magazines, heaped up in neat stacks on end tables in some ordered disorder, would tend to reinforce that. One thing Watson could say about Holmes, was that he had a curious streak, a very keen mind, one that missed little and forgot even less. He was also prone to boredom and the deep reading helped with that.

More than one case had been solved, sometimes quickly, by a quick dig through some old files.

In a recent case, a twenty-year-old newspaper clipping had been enough to hang a man.

“I can’t think of any—” The doctor sighed, pursing his lips. “And yet—we live in marvelous times.”

“There’s Moriarity.”

“Holmes—Moriarity specializes in biology, chemistry, and a certain knowledge of human nature. A good con takes the better side of human nature into account. People just naturally want to help, when approached the right way. They don’t want any trouble. Extortion, simple fear. He puts on a show, one that mystifies and intimidates his victims. But—but. This is downright otherworldly. I say that in the best sense of the word.” Watson rose, strangely confident.

Circling around behind the thing, he took a good look. It was entirely featureless, other than his own and other reflections. The impression was of a cat’s eye, all deep, and glassy, without the details of the iris, the pupil, the cornea or the orbit—the impression of depth was just that, an impression. Just a ball of glass, with one pin-prick of the blackness of infinity at the centre, radiating outwards—or sucking everything inwards, perhaps. It was almost poetic, rather uncharacteristically for him.

Other than that, there was nothing in there. There was an involuntary shudder at the notion that the object might represent some sort of evil. That one was difficult to contemplate, but such power, such power.

“It seems to me, that if anyone had ever seen such a thing, the first thing they would do, would be to contact someone. If not the press straight off, then certainly the authorities, the police. If nothing else, almost anyone else, besides you and me, I mean, would scream. Just scream, Holmes.”

His friend was nodding.

“In which case, we really ought to have heard about it, or read about it before.”

Bringing his hand close, he felt nothing. Not even a tingle.

He reached up, he put his hand on the side and then he gave it a push.

Oh, Lord—

The thing really did push back. He pushed harder—and the object pushed back proportionately.

Taking his hand away, there were no smudges, no fingerprints visible. Leaning in, he breathed on it, but there was no sign of condensation. Whatever it was, it was at roughly room temperature.

“Huh.” Hmn.

“As you say, Doctor Watson. It really isn’t doing any harm, is it?”

“Er, well, no.”

“Not yet, at any rate. Ah. In matters of the stomach, Mrs. Hudson was kind enough to prepare for our needs. I believe there is a steak-and-kidney pudding on the menu tonight. Baked yams, small green peas, and I believe there is a cherry pie as well. I’ll just pop all that in the oven and then we can continue our examination…of this thing.

*

“How does it manage to just float in the air like that?” Watson was struggling, but had another question.

“Yes. A remarkable achievement. One has to assume that this is not an animal, Watson.” He bit his lip. “Unless it is an animal that has learned, evolved, to take advantage of phenomena of which we are presently unaware.”

“Hmn.” Watson had been wishing that he could smoke—unfortunately he had quit, many years ago.

After all, it really was unhealthy.

“So. As the world’s foremost authority on mysterious black orbs, I think I can say that this one is definitely a bit of an enigma.”

Watson laughed in spite of himself.

Fortified with a good meal (and Mrs. Hudson was a wonderful cook), a glass or two of port wine, the world seemed a much cheerier place. He really had been hungry—hours had passed since a light lunch hurriedly taken in between cases. His practice had been picking up lately, almost more than he could handle at times, and he’d been considering taking on a junior colleague.

“What are we going to do?”

Holmes shook his head.

“It’s too fascinating. Amazing. But sooner or later…we must sleep.” He sighed. “I can’t think of anything. Nothing at all.”

“True.” Watson’s eyes were already getting heavy, and he had a long trip ahead of him, across town to get home, and a wife waiting there when he did.

“Maybe when we wake up, the thing will be gone.” There was this tone.

Holmes seemed almost sad at the prospect.

“Let’s be logical. It wasn’t here before, and then it was here. It’s difficult to see how it could be created in place. It has the power, or the ability, to move, Watson. No, the real question is not so much what it is, as where did it come from?”

He bit his lip. He couldn’t really argue with that.

Damn—Holmes was right.

This was truly fascinating.

*

In the end, Doctor John Watson, G.P., had admitted defeat. Without any other information, this was one mystery that would never be solved. Certainly not tonight. Pleading exhaustion and another busy day on the morrow, he had bid Holmes adieu and headed for home. Admittedly, it had been difficult to tear oneself away, even though the thing hadn’t actually done anything.

There was the terrible feeling that sooner or later it would, it must. Otherwise, what was the point, as Holmes had put it.

His blood pulsed in his ears, and yet he was keyed up to the extent that he wondered if he would be able to sleep at all. Watson wondered if it was a joke after all, and if so, perhaps Holmes would let him in on it next time he called round there again—

Edgy, tense in the back of the neck, the upper body and shoulders, he paid off the driver and looked around in a sheepish manner. But there was nothing there. The street, a cul-de-sac in Mayfair, was preternaturally quiet, and thank the devil for that.

There should have been a dog barking somewhere, and, as if on cue, one started up half a block away.

Cursing the gloom, he finally found the keyhole, wondering about an old case, where Holmes’ sure observation had concluded that the gentleman had a problem with drink…Watson had enjoyed a few drinks as well, he thought. Finally, he was in.

“Honey. I’m home—” Again the ritual of taking things off and hanging them up.

A proper gentleman didn’t just chuck things all over the place, relying on others to pick up after him.

“Honey?”

The place smelled like cooking, which he didn’t mind. His only regret was that he couldn’t be home for dinner more often. And yet, he didn’t much want to change, either.

Mary seemed content with their domestic arrangements, hopefully understanding her husband’s profession and his idiosyncratic relationship with Holmes well enough. They’d settled into a kind of bliss, he thought.

“Oh, there you are, dear.”

“Mary, I—”

Her hand flew up to her mouth, eyes wide in shock, staring over his shoulder. Her mouth opened and she began to scream.

Turning, there it was—or another one very much like it. He could have sworn that wasn’t there a minute ago.

“Get out of here! Go away, and leave us in peace.” The thing hovered in front of the door, roughly five feet above the ground, silent and featureless as ever.

“This is our home. Go, and don’t come back.” Fists clenched at his sides, he resisted the urge to get his pistol, as Mary clung to him, sobbing.

Yes. It’s observing us—that’s it.

He shook his fist at it.

It took some doing, to peel off a sobbing Mary, and to open the door.

Grabbing the thing with both hands, he gave it a shove, and to his eternal relief, it seemed not to resist after one strong initial push back…it was outside, and he slammed the door before it could get back in.

He stood there, sweating in the damp heat and wondering.

Just wondering.

It was just as Holmes had said. It wasn’t evil, it wasn’t inimical.

It just was, it was here and now, a thought that was troubling enough. It might even be a little bit stupid.

It could not have come from this Earth. The conclusion was almost inescapable, and he wondered just what Holmes would say. He’d probably contradict me—

He sighed, deeply.

“Come, come, my dear. There’s nothing to worry about. I do believe it’s gone.”

And now, for a nice cup of tea.






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