by Maureen S. O'Brien, 6/5/00

The corridors were dark and deserted. They smelled of damp and old decay. Beth Lestrade walked gingerly on the slippery stone. Watson kept scanning, but the stone was so thick that it defeated many of the frequencies he could use.

"Carefully now, my friends," Holmes cautioned them. "There's no telling what sort of obstacles that Moriarty might have left behind him...."

Moriarty walked around the corner. "Do I feel my ears burning? Glad to see you've finally caught up, Holmes."

"Speak of the devil," Lestrade said dryly.

"They're not burning that much, I assure you. But perhaps you _humans_ can bring me tidings." Watson huffed at the slur as Moriarty's jovial tones hardened. "For you have hampered me long enough."

"Dear me," Holmes said mildly, "that same old song. I've heard it from the mouths of so many delightful fellows. Yet I am the one still walking about the earth."

"Not for long," Moriarty said grimly, and lunged for him.

Holmes hit out at him with his cane for a bit, but within a few seconds, Moriarty had knocked it aside and they were back to wrestling. Holmes smiled and began practicing his baritsu again. "Hurry," he called to his friends standing by. "And remember, Lestrade -- you're the key!" In a moment, he was submerged in the struggle again.

"Just what we needed -- another cryptic clue," Lestrade sighed and jogged away. "Come on, Watson! You heard the man."

"But shouldn't we stay? Holmes may need our aid."

"Holmes is trying to buy time for us," she insisted. "We can't waste it! Let's go." She ran ahead, not waiting to see whether Watson would follow. After one last look back, he did.

They hurried around the scuffle and proceeded up the corridor. But not very far. "A locked vault door!" Watson exclaimed.

"Yeah, with an oh-so-medieval alphanumeric touchpad. Very twentieth century. What's it doing in an old abandoned castle? And more importantly, how do we get past it?"

"I can try and...er...hack in," Watson offered.

"Hmm...maybe. But let me try something first." She reached for the pad. "So far, all of the obstacle puzzles have had something to do with one of us. And Holmes said I was the key...." She tapped in the final letter and waited a moment. Slowly, the door slid aside.

"So what was the password?" Watson asked.

"LESTRADE." She closed the door behind them, and silence fell. Now she could no longer hear the faint sounds of struggle that told her Holmes was still holding off Moriarty.

No wasting time, she reminded herself.

Soon they saw a glow of light intruding on the darkness from around a corner. "Someone's gotten ahead of us," Watson cautioned Lestrade.

"Fenwick, no doubt." She drew her ionizer, put her back to the wall, and peered around the corner. "Yeah, there's the little creep now. He's close to the door with his back toward us. Could be a trap. Or could be he's just a little bit too cocky.... On three, Watson."

Watson sighed, opened his stomach panel and drew out a lariat.

Lestrade held up a finger. Then two.

Lestrade and Watson charged into the room like two shoppers with platinum e-credit. Fenwick jerked around and went for his weapon, but he wasn't nearly as fast as Lestrade's ionizer.

"Lestrade!" he hissed. "You can't be here!"

"Wrong." She kept moving. "So this is what was keeping you so interested, Fenwick! A bank of computers? Hidden in this old castle?"

"They...they are nothing!"

"I'd better find out what's on them," Watson decided, extending his networking plug. He turned to the computer. "Open wide and say ah."

Lestrade grinned and guarded the door. No sense repeating Fenwick's mistake.

"This is most peculiar," Watson murmured in a few moments. "These computers have the wrong date on them."

"Guess whoever owned them didn't fix that pesky Y2K thing we read about in history class."

"Not at all, Inspector. They claim that the date is 2003. And they have all sorts of algorithms for some sort of primitive virtual game. But strangely enough, the algorithms seem to correspond to... us."

"What?!" Lestrade strode back to Fenwick. "Show me, Watson."

The monitor lit, and Watson flashed screen after screen of information across it. The game algorithms were busy running subroutines that described -- no, commanded -- that the Watson character be found in this room, running data through a computer, while the Lestrade character guarded the door and the Holmes character fought the Moriarty NPC.

"Where's the information coming from? Are we being tracked?"

"Well, yes...but it doesn't seem to think we're moving much."

"What?" Lestrade maneuvered herself over to where she could keep one eye on the console and the other on the door. "Show me."

"Telemetry," Watson indicated with a gesture. "Labeled with our names. But the telemetry isn't that of a conscious person; it seems much more similar to that of a human dreaming. Even mine."

"Anything else?"

"Nothing that's not restricted access. And I'm having trouble looking things up. The system's a bit different from what I'm used to."

Lestrade muttered a few words which Watson, like a gentleman, ignored. "....And next thing, somebody'll be asking me to choose which color of pill to take!" She broke off. "Watson, guard the door. I need to get up close and personal with this computer. Now."

"Be my guest, Inspector."

Lestrade started hacking away. The first thing that struck her was how slow and storage-poor the computer was. It wasn't a matrix or even holographic, and all the files were in antiquated formats that Watson would never have been programmed to understand. Fortunately, that meant that the security was equally antiquated, and Lestrade found her fingers flying to really ancient dodges, so old she couldn't even remember why she knew them. Probably'd run across them on the net archives when she was a kid and downloaded everything.

But that didn't matter, because she was in, and finding still more telemetry, from a group of people who had microphones channeled into a voice recognition system. They seemed to be talking about...well, everything. The way the world worked. Whatever they said went onto the net, or into the files for News on Demand. And News on Demand seemed to be...an algorithm that generated the newscaster? Well, Lestrade'd joked about the newscaster being an artificial person before, but....

"What if the world _was_ artificial?" she muttered to Watson as she worked. "How would we know? And if we found out, how could we wake ourselves up?"

"Beth," Watson said uneasily, "are you sure you're quite well?"

"Quite," she said crisply. "Now, if I were running an artificial world, where would I hide the exit switch?"

She heard footsteps running down the hall. "Holmes or Moriarty?" she asked Watson, not bothering to look up from her work.

"Moriarty, I'm afraid," Watson said quietly.

Lestrade said nothing. Her fingers flew faster. The sound of ionisers filled the air, but she kept typing. Then she stopped. "Zed it all, what's the object of this game?" she demanded absently.

"To win, my dear Lestrade," said Moriarty urbanely.

Time had run out. She suddenly realized that her ears had registered the sound of Watson's losing fight, but she had had no attention to spare. She knew that soon she would feel guilt for that and sorrow for Holmes, but right now she had no time. She kept paging down with one hand, reading Fenwick's files. "Ah, but how _do_ you win?"

"By sweeping one's opponents from the board, as I have done."

Her hand snaked out to her ionizer and fired at Moriarty before he could move.

She stood up and saw the master criminal writhing in the coils of her ionizer. "That's right. And I win."

Fenwick moaned.

And suddenly the world wavered and went away.

"Are you all right, miss?"

"Agent," another voice corrected. "Special Agent Akimori, you can wake up now. You won."

"I won?" she murmured. She reluctantly raised her eyelids. The light was ungodly bright, and she flinched and closed them again. Patterns flared on her eyelids, dancing like the lights on her cruiser.

"Normal dilation," the voice said with satisfaction. "I don't think the drugs he administered to her did any permanent damage," it explained to someone else. "Hopefully the others will be just as lucky."

"Drugs? Damage? The others?" She stopped and rubbed her head. "No. My name's not Akimori. It's Lestra...." She stopped again. "No. It is Akimori. Elizabeth Akimori. And I was born in the year 1970. What's going on?"

"A lot," another voice, a male one, said dryly. "But opening up your eyes would be a start."

She cautiously shaded her eyes first. No more bright lights attacked, so she turned and looked. She was in an old motel room, but there were cables and sensors and saline things all around. Police were everywhere, both inside the room and roaming out in the hall, and there seemed to be an awful lot of EMTs and their equipment as well. The short redheaded woman bending over her wore a suit, but she felt like law enforcement. The shorter guy with the fingerless gloves felt more like a computer guy. She was sure she knew him, but she couldn't think of his name.

"Special Agent Dana Scully. I'm a doctor. Follow my finger with your eyes, not your head, if you would...good. What's the last thing you remember?" the woman asked.

"I figured out the game and captured Moriarty before...." she said automatically, then stopped. "But that's not what you mean, is it."

"No." The woman traded glances with the short man, then turned back. The woman's voice grew kinder. "Take your time. The drugs are still in your system."

No, not Beth Lestrade, she thought slowly. Elizabeth Akimori. And suddenly the years clicked into place, and it was Beth Lestrade who seemed the stranger, and the year was 2003.

"I was chasing a cracker," she said. "Martin Chuzlwik, he calls himself, and I've been trying to take him down for years. But he finally got careless. I couldn't get backup quick enough, so I came after him myself." She glanced around her. "Guess that was pretty stupid, huh?"

"You'd been on his trail so long, he knew you as well as you knew him," the man answered, trading wry glances with the woman. "We're familiar with the problem. Anyway, he'd obviously been planning this for a long time, to capitalize on his Victorian fixation and your Sherlockian studies."

"You work for the Bureau. Your disappearance was noticed. It let us connect him to all the others he captured. And we've got him now."

"Better make sure," Akimori said with sudden paranoia. "Let me see him."

"You've been drugged for two weeks. You shouldn't be getting up just yet," Agent Scully told her.

"I can walk." Akimori slid off the bed and stood up shakily before anyone could stop her. "Show me where he is," she demanded, looking down at them from all of five foot eight.

Scully looked indignant, but the man laughed. "The immovable redhead meets the irresistable nethead."

What would that little con Deidre have said? "I won't be able to rest until I've seen him," Akimori tried.

Agent Scully raised her eyes briefly to heaven. "Call me when she collapses, Frohike. I'll be down the hall." She left, high heels clicking with irritation.

"She's pretty worried. A couple of her friends were trapped in here, not to mention those three kids." The older man extended his arm to her, and she took it automatically. "Good work on tracking Chuzlwik, by the way. That guy was a real nuisance. But how did somebody as talented as you wind up working for the Bureau, instead of doing real programming?" he asked, walking her slowly out of the room and down the hall.

"Somebody has to get rid of the nuisances," her mouth said as if of old habit. She hated feeling so weak, but she refused to lean on the man. "Where is he?"

"In here. And not in too good of shape, either."

A man sat slumped over at a computer desk. Saline and drugs were plugged into his arm, and wires into his head. Paramedics stood over him, doing their best, but from the orders they were snapping to each other, his prospects obviously weren't good.

She peered at his face, when she could see it between bodies. It was Martin Fenwick, his looks greatly improved...no, Chuzlwik! She shuddered and turned away.

"That what you wanted to see?" The short man's voice was gentle.

"No," she said quietly. What she wanted to see was Baker Street, and Watson with tea, and Holmes explaining everything in urbane tones. "But I had to."

He patted her shoulder. "C'mon, kid. Let's get you out of here."

He led her further down the hall and she leaned on his arm without shame. She felt tired and sick to her soul. Beth Lestrade would have done something -- fought, argued, yelled at the top of her voice -- but she wasn't Beth Lestrade. Lestrade was a lie, like the rest of her world. Like the Irregulars, and Greyson, and Watson. Like Holmes.

And yet, he had seemed so real! His voice still rang in her ears as he sent her away to...to kill them all, do worse than Moriarty could. She had destroyed the world. He was nothing but the ghost of an illusion, but she could still hear his elegant tones....

She stopped dead in her tracks, unable to look into the doorway they were about to pass.

"It was a truly incredible enterprise," said a familiar voice. "How could such an small-minded and evil creature create such a diverse and wondrous world?"

"The same way Hollywood does. He used other people's brains to do it for him," a stranger answered in a monotone.

"Come on," the short man said, pulling at her arm. She shook him off absently.

"But the people there were so real!" Watson insisted, his voice not metallic but warm and human. "Inspector Lestrade, for example...."

"My dear Watson." The voice was so familiar, but she had seldom heard so controlled. "You will do me a favor if you never mention Miss Lestrade to me again." His voice grew quieter. "I should have known such a woman was a creature of fiction. Indeed, she was always too good to be true."

Her mouth twisted with annoyance, and she stepped forward briskly into the room. "Too good to be true? Fictional? Zed, Holmes, I'm not even that unusual!"

Watson jumped up when he saw her. "Beth! You're alive! You're real!" Forgetful of all Victorian gravitas, he took her by the hands and danced her around the room. He looked trimmer than he'd ever seemed in the old photos -- a bit worn by his ordeal, but delight put color in his cheeks. "But my dear girl, I had no idea you were an oriental!"

She didn't take any offense; it was a fairly obvious observation. "And you look rather nonmetallic -- not to mention being pretty young for a man of a hundred and fifty or so. Shouldn't you be...well...dead?"

"Dead? Without an obituary in the Times? As for the looks, well, that was Holmes' little experiment with the royal jelly. Tell her, Holmes!" he said, motioning over her shoulder.

She turned, still clutching Watson's kindly hands. Holmes sat there, looking equally well-preserved. His luxurious sideburns were gone and he had lost the first bloom of youth, but noone would have guessed him to be a day older than thirty. His eyes were a very dark blue, and they bored into hers as he slowly rose from his bed and paced to her side.

"Your name is not Lestrade, surely, and you don't work for Scotland Yard."

She shook her head slowly. "Special Agent Elizabeth Akimori," she admitted. "I work computer crime for the FBI. But I'm just a computer geek, not a buttkicking nametaker like Lestrade."

He took her hand, turned it over, and looked at the musculature of her palm. "Yes, here are the signs of keyboard use...but you also practice some martial art, do you not?"

"Well, I know a little karate, if that's what you mean."

"She's got a second-degree black belt, Holmes," the monotone guy added helpfully. "Not to mention nearly as many commendations as I used to get."

Holmes' face twitched in annoyance, and he turned his head. "As much as I appreciate your rescue, Mulder, you are now very much de trop. Go elsewhere."

"But I need to know...."

She wanted to watch the little drama unfolding beside her, but she could not stop staring at Holmes' face, living and real. Once those eyes turned back to hers, she could not have moved if she wanted to. And she did not want to.

Watson's hands disengaged gently from hers. "Come along, young Mulder. You can interrogate our Beth later." His voice faded away with the sounds of two sets of footsteps. "Much later, if I have anything to say about it!"

Holmes cleared his throat. "Lestrade...Akimori, I mean...."

"Just call me Beth," she suggested quietly.

"I would like that," he said, his voice deepening.

"So would I."

They stared at each other for a moment.

Holmes cleared his throat again. "Chuzlwik called you Lestrade as a taunt, Beth. He meant you to be an ineffectual fool, unable to solve a mystery on your own. But although he could stack the deck against you, he could not destroy your native ability. Little did he know!" He brightened. "I'm only sorry that I missed seeing you defeat him and Moriarty. I should have liked to have seen their faces."

"I'm just glad you're all right. When I thought you were dead...."

"Moriarty didn't kill me. He just brought out one of those confounded grenades he'd filled with tear gas. You and Watson were in danger, and all I could do was choke."

Their eyes locked again.

Time spun around her, and suddenly it didn't matter who she was or what world she was in. She wanted this man who wanted her, and she meant to have him before anything or anyone else could interfere. She flung herself into his arms, knowing that he would catch her. Her lips captured his, and he utterly failed to resist her.

She couldn't help one ignoble thought, before all thought vanished from her head: So much for Irene Adler!

After a timeless time, their faces parted. Holmes' hand curled around her cheek. "Beth," he breathed.

She leaned into him. "Not interested in women?" she carolled. "Boy, you sure can't believe everything you read."

"You are but a speck upon the lens of my intellect," he pronounced solemnly, then kissed her brow. "An adorable distraction." He kissed her nose. "A weak creature who, despite being the better shot and fighter, stands in constant need of my protection." He kissed her eyes. "Clearly I will have to marry you just to...."

She found a way to shut him up.

Characters and situations from The X-Files belong to Chris Carter, Ten-Thirteen, and Fox. The Matrix ain't mine, either, but I liked it.

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