THE DEBATE WAS DUE TO commence in fifteen minutes when they glimpsed the Palace of Knowledge silhouetted against the golden canvas of twilight. The tiled domes of the vast edifice, soaring above the pointed rooftops of the London skyline, fragmented the sun’s last rays into myriad shimmering reflections. Bloated zeppelins, aerostats, ornithopters, and winged cabriolets circled around like a swarm of insects, bobbing amidst the clouds. In one of those very carriages, gliding majestically toward the building, sat the eminent biologist Herbert George Wells, accompanied by his lovely wife. Or should I say, his intelligent, dazzlingly beautiful wife.
At that moment, the biologist looked down from his window. An agitated crowd thronged the narrow streets that snaked between the lofty towers studded with stained glass windows, and connected by suspension bridges. Gentlemen in top hats and capes prattled to one another through their communication gloves, ladies walked their mechanical dogs, children whizzed by on electric roller skates, and long-legged automatons made their way through the torrent of people, stepping over them with calculated agility as they went diligently about their errands. From the waters of the Thames, gilded by the sunset, tiny Nautiluses manufactured by Verne Industries would occasionally rise to the surface, like globefish, to disgorge their passengers on both banks of the river. However, as they drew closer to where the palace stood in South Kensington, the teeming anthill appeared to be moving in one direction. Everyone knew that the most important debate to be held in the Palace of Knowledge in the last ten years was taking place that evening. Just then, as if to remind the ornithopter’s passengers, a mechanical bird flew by announcing the event with pompous enthusiasm before gliding toward the nearest building, where it continued its refrain perched on a gargoyle head.
Inside the flying machine, Wells took a deep breath in an attempt to calm himself and wiped his clammy hands on his trouser legs.
“Do you think his hands are sweating as well?” he asked Jane.
“Of course, Bertie. He has as much invested in this as you. Besides, we mustn’t forget that his problem makes it—”
“What problem? Oh, come now, Jane!” Wells interrupted. “He’s been seeing the best speech therapist in the kingdom for years. It’s high time we stopped thinking he has a problem.”
As though considering the matter closed, Wells settled back in his seat and gazed absentmindedly at the rows of sunflower houses colonizing Hyde Park, turning on their pillars in search of the sun’s last rays. He wasn’t going to admit to Jane that his rival suffered from that insidious problem (which, if necessary, he fully intended to make use of), for if the man trounced him, his defeat would be doubly shameful. But Wells wasn’t going to fail. Whether or not the old man had his little problem under control, Wells outstripped him as a speaker. If he gave an inspired performance that evening, he would beat the old man hands down, and even if he didn’t he would still triumph. Wells was slightly concerned that his opponent might win the public over with some of the syllogisms he used to spice up his rhetoric. However, Wells trusted the audience would not be blinded by a vulgar fireworks display.
Wells smiled to himself. He truly believed that his was the most significant generation to have walked the Earth, for, unlike those that had gone before, his held the future of the human race in its hands. Right or wrong, the decisions it made would reverberate through the centuries to come. Wells couldn’t hide his enthusiasm at belonging to this exhilarating period of human history, when the world’s salvation was to be decided. If all went well, that evening his name might be recorded for all time in the annals of History.
“It isn’t vanity that makes me want to win, Jane,” he suddenly said to his wife. “It is simply that I believe my theory is correct, and we can’t waste time proving his.”
“I know, dear. You are many things to me, but I have never thought of you as vain,” she fibbed. “If only there were sufficient funding to back both projects. Having to choose between them is risky. If we’re mistaken—”
Jane broke off in mid-sentence, and Wells said nothing more. His was the winning theory, he was certain of that. Although there were times, especially certain nights as he observed the lights of the city through his study window, when he wondered whether finally they weren’t all mistaken; whether his world, where the quest for Knowledge controlled everything, really was the best of all possible worlds. During those moments of weakness, as he referred to them in the cold light of day, he toyed with the idea that Ignorance was preferable to Knowledge. It might have been better to allow Nature and her laws to remain shrouded in darkness, to carry on believing that comets heralded the death of kings, and dragons still dwelled in unmapped territories . . . But the Church of Knowledge, the sole religion on the planet, whose Holy See was in London, brought together philosophy, theology, politics, and the sciences in a single discipline. It ruled men’s lives from the moment they were born, encouraging them to decipher the Creator’s work, to discover its components. It even compelled them to solve the riddle of their own existence. Under the Church’s auspices, man had transformed the quest for Knowledge into his reason for being, and, in his eagerness to unravel each of the mysteries that made the universe beautiful, he had ended up peeping behind the curtain. Perhaps they were now simply paying the price for their recklessness.
A red carpet had been rolled out in front of the palace doors, and on either side a noisy crowd was brandishing every sort of placard while a dozen bobbies tried to contain their fervor. Since its construction, the cathedralesque building had been the stage of great symposia regarding the dimensions of the universe, the origins of time, or the existence of the super-atom, all legendary debates whose most memorable phrases and parries had passed into common usage. The ornithopter circled the palace towers, hovering for a moment before alighting on a clear area of street cordoned off for that purpose. The cleaner-spiders had made the windows gleam, and the mechanical pelicans had devoured the garbage in the gutters, leaving that part of the city spotless and crying out to be sullied anew. When the ornithopter had finally landed, a liveried automaton went to hold open the door for its occupants. Before stepping out, Wells glanced at Jane with a look of combined resolve and fear; she responded with a reassuring smile. The crowd burst into a unanimous roar of jubilation as he emerged from the vehicle. Wells could hear shouts of encouragement mixed with the booing of his rival’s supporters. With Jane on his arm, he crossed the gauntlet that was the red carpet, following the automaton and waving to the public as he tried hard to project the serenity of one who considers himself far superior to his opponent.
They walked through the portal, which bore an inscription in huge bronze lettering: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind.” Once inside, the automaton led them along a narrow corridor to a dressing room and then offered to take Jane to the VIP box. It was time for them to part. Jane went over to Wells and straightened his tie.
“Don’t worry, Bertie. You’re going to be fine.”
“Thank you, my dear,” he mumbled.
They closed their eyes and gently joined foreheads for a few seconds, each honoring the other’s mind. After that intimate gesture, with which couples conveyed how necessary and enlightening the other’s company was for them in their collective journey toward Knowledge, Jane looked straight at her husband.
“Best of luck, my dear,” she told him before declaring: “Chaos is inevitable.”
“Chaos is inevitable,” Wells repeated diligently.
He wished he could leave his wife with the slogan used in his parents’ day: “We are what we know,” which so faithfully summed up the aspirations of their generation. However, since the discovery of the dreadful fate that awaited the universe, the Church had imposed this new slogan to raise awareness that the end was nigh.
After saying good-bye, Jane followed the automaton to the VIP box. As Wells watched her walk away, he admired yet again the miraculous sequence of genes that had created this woman, slender and lovely as a Dresden figurine, a sequence he had been unable to resist secretly unraveling in his laboratory, despite feeling that there was something oddly obscene about reducing his wife to an abstract jumble of facts and formulas. Before she disappeared at the end of the corridor, Jane gave him a final smile of encouragement, and the biologist experienced a sudden desire to kiss his wife’s lips. He instantly chastised himself. A kiss? What was he thinking? That gesture had long been obsolete, ever since the Church of Knowledge deemed it unproductive and subversive. Gloomily, he resolved to examine his response at length once the debate was over. The Church encouraged people from an early age to analyze everything, including their feelings, to map out their inner selves and learn to repress any emotion that wasn’t useful or easily controlled. It wasn’t that love, or passion, or friendship was forbidden. Love of books or a passion for research was heartily approved of, provided the mind was in charge. But love between two people could take place only under strict surveillance. It was possible to abandon oneself freely to love (indeed, the Church encouraged young people to mate in order to perpetuate the species), but it was also necessary to spend time analyzing love, examining its hidden motives, drawing diagrams of it and comparing them with those of a partner, presenting regular reports on love’s origin, evolution, and inconsistencies to the local parish priest, who would help scrutinize those treacherous emotions until they could be understood, for understanding was what made it possible to control everything. And yet, none of those emotions survived such scrutiny. The more you understood them, the fainter they became, like a dream fading as you try to recall it.
Wells couldn’t help admiring the Church of Knowledge’s ingenious solution to this thorny issue. By insisting love be understood, it had created the perfect vaccine against love. Prohibiting love would have elevated it, made it more desirable, capable of fomenting uprisings, wars, and acts of revenge. In short, it would have brought about another Dark Era, which would only have stood in the way of progress. And what would have become of them then? Would they have gotten that far had they allowed their feelings to govern them? Would they have amassed all that Knowledge, which as things stood might prove their only route to salvation? Wells didn’t think so. He was convinced that the key to the survival of the species lay in the judicious act of bridling mankind’s emotional impulses, unshackling humans from their feelings just as thousands of years before they had been freed from their instincts. Yet there were times, when he watched Jane sleeping, that he couldn’t stop himself from having doubts. Contemplating the placid abandon of her lovely face, the extreme fragility of her body momentarily deprived of the admirable personality that infused it with life, he would wonder whether the path to salvation and the path to happiness were one and the same.
Brushing aside these thoughts, he entered the dressing room, the tiny space where he must spend the last few minutes before walking out onstage. He stood in the middle of the room, choosing not to sit on any of the chairs. The door opposite led to the auditorium. Through it filtered the excited roars of the crowd and the voice of Abraham Frey, the celebrated moderator, who at that moment was welcoming the various dignitaries attending the event. Soon they would announce his name, and he would have to go out onto the stage. Wells ruefully contemplated the right-hand wall. He knew that on the other side of it, in the adjoining dressing room, his rival was doubtless listening to the cries of the audience resounding through the amphitheater with the same feigned determination.
Then Wells heard his name and the door opened, inviting him to abandon his sanctuary. He took a deep breath and strode forth onto the back of the stage. Seeing him, the crowd burst into feverish applause. A couple of the recording orbs floating above the auditorium whirled over and began circling him. Wells raised his hands in greeting as he gave his most serene smile, imagining it being reproduced on the communication screens in millions of homes. He walked over to his lectern, which bore the stem of a voice enhancer, and spread his hands over its surface. One of the spotlights located above the stage bathed his puny figure in a golden glow. Five or six yards to his right, his opponent’s lectern stood empty. While acknowledging the applause, the biologist took the opportunity to examine the stalls, separated from him by the pit, where a mechanical orchestra had started to play an evocative melody. Music creates order out of chaos, he thought, recalling the words of a famous violinist who had received the Church’s blessing. Amidst the audience, Wells noticed banners and signs sporting his image as well as some of his famous sayings. Up above the rows of seats, beneath an enormous pennant with an eight-pointed star emerging from two concentric circles, Queen Victoria sat on her wheeled throne, in which she traveled everywhere of late. Next to her, on a less sumptuous throne, sat Cardinal Violet Tucker, the highest authority in the Church of Knowledge, who would preside over the debate. Her entourage sat in a cluster on her left, a flock of bishops and deacons with stern, embittered faces, who, together with the cardinal, made up the Budgetary Commission. That gaunt old lady, dressed in a black robe with gold silk buttons, and a sash and beret likewise gold, the color of Knowledge, would ultimately decide his fate. Wells noticed the goblet cupped in her right hand, which if the rumors were correct contained her anti-cancer medicine. On either side of the theater stood the boxes reserved for the authorities and prominent attendees, most notably Jules Verne, the French entrepreneur; Clara Shelley, the heiress to Prometheus Industries, a leading manufacturer of automatons; and various members of the scientific community. Wells could see Jane in the VIP box. She was talking to Doctor Pleasance, the wife of his rival, a handsome woman of about forty who, like Jane, worked as project director in her husband’s laboratory.
Pacing up and down the stage between the orchestra pit and the lecterns was Abraham Frey, who wore a bronze helmet that had a voice enhancer projecting from its right side, leaving his hands free to perform their characteristic gestures. At that moment, he was introducing Wells’s opponent, listing his many achievements over a long life devoted to the service of Knowledge. Inundated by this torrent of information, Wells was able to make out the words “Knowledge Church College,” in Oxford, where his rival had given his celebrated lectures in mathematics and physics, and where Wells himself had studied. There, conversing between its ancient walls and strolling across its verdant meadows, the two men had forged an inspiring teacher-pupil relationship, and although Wells had finally chosen biology over physics, they had continued to meet regularly, incapable of renouncing a friendship they had both deemed fruitful enough to pursue. No one could have imagined that, in years to come, fate would make rivals of them. While in private this was a source of amusement to them, it in no way diminished the ferocity with which each defended his position during the many debates they had engaged in prior to the one taking place that evening, in which the Church would decide which of their projects was most likely to save the world.
“And now, Your Majesty, Your Eminence, leaders of the Church of Knowledge, ladies and gentlemen, please welcome the distinguished physicist and mathematician Charles Lutwidge Dodgson.”
Followers of Wells’s rival broke into loud cheers as their idol’s name was announced. The tiny door to his dressing room opened, and an elderly gentlemen of about sixty emerged, waving to the public as he approached his lectern, just as Wells had done moments before. He was tall and thin, his white hair meticulously groomed, and his face possessed the languid beauty of a weary archangel. As he watched him, Wells couldn’t help feeling a sense of compassion. Clearly, Charles Dodgson would have preferred to be spending that magnificent, golden evening on one of his habitual boating excursions along the Thames rather than arguing with his former pupil about how best to save the world, yet neither man could shirk his responsibilities. They greeted each other with a stiff nod, and each stood quietly at his lectern, waiting for the moderator to begin. Frey called for silence, stroking the flank of the air with his hand.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he exclaimed in the baritone voice for which he was famous. “As we all know, our beloved universe is dying. And it has been for millions of years. Ever since the universe burst forth amidst a blazing cataclysm, it has been expanding at breakneck speed, but it has also been cooling. And that same cooling process that once nurtured life will eventually snuff it out.” He paused, plunging his hands into his jacket pockets, and started pacing up and down the stage, staring at the ground, like a man on a stroll daydreaming. “Subject to the three laws of thermodynamics,” he went on, “the galaxies are flying apart. Everything is aging. Wearing out. The end of the world is near. Stars will burn out, magic holes evaporate, temperatures will descend to absolute zero. And we humans, incapable of continuing our work in this frozen landscape . . . will become extinct.”
Frey gave a woeful sigh and began to shake his head silently, drawing out the suspense, until at last he exclaimed, almost in anger: “But we aren’t plants, or helpless creatures that must resign themselves to a tragic destiny. We are Mankind! And having assimilated this terrible discovery, Mankind began to wonder whether there wasn’t a way of surviving the inevitable, even the death of the universe itself. And the answer, ladies and gentlemen, was yes! But this does not mean we should challenge chaos like a suicidal warrior, defying Nature . . . and God. No, such a display of bravado would be absurd. It would be enough . . . to flee, to emigrate to another universe. Is that possible? Can we leave this condemned universe for another, more hospitable one and begin once again? And if so, how? Formulas have been scrawled on the blackboards of all the world’s laboratories in an attempt to find out. But perhaps our salvation depends on one of the two exceptional minds here with us today.”
Wells contemplated the audience, who were loudly applauding the moderator’s speech. Placards and banners waved about like buffeted trees. Everyone there had been born into a world under sentence of death, and although they might not be around to experience the end Frey had so starkly depicted, the so-called Day of Chaos, they knew that their grandchildren or great-grandchildren would. All estimates now spoke in terms of a few generations, because the cooling of the universe was happening more quickly than had first been predicted. And was this the legacy they wanted to leave their descendants, a frozen universe where life was impossible? No, of course not. God had thrown down the glove, and Man had picked it up. The first thing Wells’s mother had told him when he was old enough to understand was that everything he could see (which at that moment was the backyard of their house in Bromley, but also the sky and the trees peeping out from behind the wall) would be destroyed, because the Creator hadn’t made the world to last forever, although he had been kind enough to give man a short enough life span so that he could have the illusion that it would. Like most young men and women of his generation, Wells had devoured countless books in his compulsive pursuit of Knowledge, spurred on by a romantic ambition to save the world. Could there be a more noble achievement? And perhaps, that very evening, what had once been a child’s naïve dream would become reality, for Wells was the leading proponent of one of the two most important theories about how to save humanity.
According to the lots they had drawn, the chairman invited Dodgson to open the debate. Before speaking, he took a sip of water. His old professor had never been one of those ruddy types brimming with energy and enthusiasm, but Wells could see how old age had blurred his features, giving him an air of painful fragility. He looked incapable of frightening a mouse. Finally, Dodgson balanced his glass on the lectern, gave the usual formalities, and launched into his speech:
“Since receiving the dreadful news that everything we love is destined to die, a single question has been floating in the air: Is it possible for us to engage the powers of science and flee this lost world for another? I say yes, dear audience, it most emphatically is. And I am here this evening to tell you how.”
Dodgson was talking in a calm voice in order not to set off his stammer, doubtless on the advice of his speech therapist. That would render his discourse a little subdued, Wells reflected, whilst he himself could deliver his speech unhampered, thus endowing it with that theatrical vehemence that so easily roused the masses. Wells let the old man continue, waiting for the most opportune moment to interrupt him.
“As many of you know, on the evening when, in this very auditorium, following a memorable debate, it was established that the universe was dying, I was busy trying to find ways of injecting methane into Mars’s atmosphere. My intention was to produce an artificial greenhouse effect on the red planet, raising its temperature and melting its surface to create lakes and rivers in preparation for a first human colony, so that if a meteorite struck Earth or we experienced another ice age we would have somewhere safe to go. Needless to say, the news about the end of the world changed the course of my research, and even my life. I forgot all about Mars, which was doomed like the rest of the universe, and, along with every conscientious scientist, I devoted myself to investigating ways of emigrating to a younger universe whose fate was not hanging in the balance. Ever since the illustrious Newton enlightened our minds”—at this the audience thundered “Hurrah for Newton!”—“we have all known that ours isn’t the only universe, but, as countless studies and experiments have shown, it is simply another bubble in the ocean of infinity. Any law or equation that contradicts this truth is doomed to failure and humiliation. Equally, we know that in this eternal ocean, bubbles are continually created and destroyed. Whilst this may bode ill for those of us who find ourselves in a dying bubble, it also provides a glimmer of hope, for as I speak, myriad universes are being born. And somewhere waiting for us out there is a luminous new world, the ideal place for an exiled civilization to build a new home. But how will we get there? How will we achieve what would undoubtedly be the greatest escape of all time? It is very simple: through the traditional method of opening a tunnel, something with which even the most ignorant convict is familiar. As I have discussed in my numerous articles, the universe is riddled with magic holes that possess an infinite gravitational force that sucks in anything around them. Is it not possible that these holes exist for a reason? Perhaps they are simply the Creator’s subtle way of telling us how to free ourselves from his own snare. But what lies behind these holes? There are many theories, an infinite number, if you’ll pardon the pun. But I am convinced that at the center of each is a tunnel connecting to another identical hole in another universe. Unfortunately, we have no way of traveling to any of those holes, because they are too far away from our planet, and their environment is too unstable. But that needn’t be a problem, for what I propose to do is create a magic hole artificially in my laboratory. I am certain that in a controlled environment . . .”
“But, my dear Charles, your hole would be too small,” Wells interrupted him at last. “I can’t see the whole of humanity passing through it one by one. Even the Creator would lose patience. Besides, I can’t speak for the audience, but personally I have no wish to be devoured, by a magic hole or anything else. You know as well as I do that the sheer force of gravity would make mincemeat of us. We would be sucked into its center and crushed to death.” He paused for dramatic effect before adding with a mocking air, “In fact, the only use for your hole would be to dispose of the evidence of a crime.”
Wells’s quip, which he had rehearsed a hundred times in front of a mirror, elicited the predictable laughter from the audience. Charles, however, was unfazed.
“Oh, have no fear, George. None of that would happen if the hole was spinning, because the centripetal force would cancel out the gravitational force. So that anyone going into it, far from being crushed to death, would be sucked into a neighboring universe. It would be a small matter of balancing the two forces to prevent the hole from fracturing. And once I achieved that, naturally there would be no need for the whole of humanity to pass through it. We would simply send ahead a few automatons, with the genetic information of every person on the planet codified in their memories. Once they reached the Other Side, they would construct a laboratory and implant the aforementioned data into living cells, thus replicating the whole of humanity.”
“By the Atlantic Codex!” Wells feigned astonishment, although he was well acquainted with Charles’s theory. “All I can say is I hope those puppets don’t make a mess of things and we all come out with frogs’ heads . . .”
A fresh round of laughter reached them from the audience, and Wells noticed Charles beginning to twitch nervously.
“Tha-Tha-That way the whole of humanity could pass through an opening the size of a ra-ra-rabbit hole,” he attempted to explain.
“Yes, yes, only first you must create it, my friend.” Wells assumed a weary air. “But tell me, isn’t this all rather complicated? Wouldn’t it be better if each of us were able to leap across to that universe for himself?”
“By all means, George, go ahead. Leap into another universe and bring me back a glass of water; mine’s empty,” Charles parried.
“I’d like nothing more than to quench your thirst, Charles. However, I fear that for the moment I am unable to oblige. In order to leap into another universe I need a grant from the Budgetary Commission.”
“So, what you are saying is that today you can’t take that leap, but tomorrow you can?” Charles inquired with a wry smile.
“Yes, that’s what I’m saying,” Wells replied cautiously.
“Then I fear you are bound to fail, my dear George, for there is no ‘tomorrow,’ only ‘today.’ ”
The audience howled with laughter. Wells cursed himself for having walked straight into it but was undeterred.
“What I mean is I will succeed the day the Budgetary Commission awards me a grant.” He pronounced the words slowly, after making sure he wasn’t leaving himself open to any more of Charles’s retorts. “For as you know, I am busy developing a miracle serum, a virus I have called ‘cronotemia’ in tribute to past experiments, when men from our Age of Enlightenment believed we could travel in time. Once injected, the virus will mix with our blood and the hormones secreted by our brain, producing a genetic mutation that will enable us to reach the other universe without the need to be taken apart and reassembled on the Other Side. I am on the brink of perfecting the virus, of finding a stable solution that will reconfigure almost imperceptibly the molecular structure of our brains, allowing us to see what was hitherto invisible. As our learned audience doubtless already knows, all matter originates from the birth of our universe, and the atoms that make up our bodies are connected to other atoms on the far side of the cosmos. And if a particle floating around at the far side of the universe can communicate with us, then perhaps we can peer into that abyss, see what is behind it, and leap. Whether we like it or not, we are joined to those other worlds by an invisible umbilical cord. All we have to do is find the way to switch that connection from an atomic level to our macroscopic reality.”
The debate went on for the remainder of the allotted hour amid witty asides, abrupt or barbed comments designed to ridicule or bamboozle the opponent, and even a few outbursts from Dodgson, who became increasingly flustered as he realized his ex-pupil was starting to win over the audience. In contrast, the biologist kept his cool throughout, smiling to himself as his rival became more and more excitable and his stammer began to render his speech almost unintelligible. Finally, just before the debate concluded, Wells uttered his much-rehearsed closing statement.
“A pinprick, a mere pinprick, of my serum is enough to make us superhuman, supernatural beings capable of living in any dimension. Trust in my project, Your Majesties, allow me to transform you into gods, and let us leave my dear opponent playing with his rabbit holes.”
Charles was about to reply but was stopped short by the bell. The debate was over. The voice enhancers retracted into the lecterns, and Frey’s voice could be heard celebrating their thrilling contest and inviting the Church of Knowledge to deliver its verdict. The orchestra struck up another evocative tune and the clerics conferred in whispers among the audience, but Cardinal Tucker immediately rose to her feet with the aid of her staff, and silence descended once more upon the auditorium.
“Having heard the two applicants for the Save Mankind Project Grant,” she announced in her faltering voice, “we have come to the following decision: notwithstanding Professor Dodgson’s celebrated wisdom, we believe that the task of saving us all must rest in the hands of the promising biologist Herbert George Wells, to whom I hereby extend my congratulations. May Knowledge guide your path, Mr. Wells. Chaos is inevitable!”
Wells felt his head spin as the theater exploded into triumphant roars on hearing the verdict. Hundreds of pennants bearing the Star of Chaos danced about like waves in a stormy ocean. He raised his hands, into which the fate of humankind had now been entrusted, saluting the excited audience, which immediately began chanting his name to loud cheers. He saw Jane and his team applauding and embracing one another in the box of honor, while Charles’s wife remained in her chair, hands folded in her lap, oblivious to the surrounding uproar. Her eyes were fixed on her husband, who had lowered his head in defeat. Wells would have liked to comfort him, but the gesture would have been tasteless. Frey signaled to Wells, who walked over to him and allowed the chairman to raise his right arm as the audience cried out his name. Above the clamor, only Wells could hear Charles muttering angrily behind him:
“Eppur si muove.”
Wells chose to ignore the reference to Galileo and instead gave a beaming smile, basking in the adulation of his supporters, who had started to descend from the rows of seats. A group of young girls climbed onto the stage and asked him to autograph their science textbooks. He did so with pleasure as he located Jane amid the crowd gathering to congratulate him in front of the stage and gave her a conspiratorial smile. Wells did not see Charles turn from his lectern and walk toward the dressing room door, nor did he notice the huge man who intercepted him before he was able to slip away. He was too busy drinking in his success. Charles could say what he liked, but Wells was the one who whose task it was to save mankind. That was what had been decided.
It took Wells eight months to hit on the magic potion that would enable the human race to flee to a neighboring universe without the need to dig any tunnels. Eight months, during which he and Jane and the rest of the team worked day and night, practically camping out in the state-of-the-art laboratory they had set up with the Commission’s money. When at long last they thought they had synthesized the virus, Wells asked Jane to fetch Newton, the Border Collie they had acquired three months before. Wells had decided they should give a dog the honor of leading mankind’s intended exodus rather than a rat, a guinea pig, or a monkey, for whilst the intelligence of the latter was more celebrated, everyone knew that dogs had the most developed homing instinct of any species and could find their way back even over great distances. So, if the leap was successful, there was a slight possibility the dog might follow its own scent and leap in the other direction, and if that happened, they would be able to study any unforeseen side effects of the virus, as well as the physical toll it might take on the animal. Jane had regarded as less than scientific her husband’s belief in the popular idea of canine loyalty, but when she first saw the puppy cavorting in the shop window, with its eager little eyes and an adorable heart-shaped white patch on its forehead, any doubts she had melted away. And so, little Newton arrived at the Wells’s house, with the mission of vanishing into thin air a few months later, although before that happened nothing prevented him from being simply a pet.
When Jane appeared with the puppy, Wells placed him on the laboratory bench, and, without further ado, pinched his haunch and injected him with the virus. Then they shut him in a glass-walled room designed for that purpose, and everyone on the team observed him. If they weren’t mistaken, the virus would travel through the bloodstream to the puppy’s brain, where it would pierce the cells like a needle, introducing new elements that would heighten the brain’s sensitivity to the point where, to put it simply, the dog would be able to see the thread that joined it to that other part of itself drifting on the far side of the universe.
They took turns doing six-hour shifts outside the glass-walled room, although Jane preferred to keep watch inside, playing with the puppy and stroking it. Wells advised her not to become too attached to the animal, because sooner or later it would disappear and she would find herself caressing the carpet. However, the days went by and Wells’s ominous warning didn’t come true. When the time limit they had set for the leap to occur ran out, they entered the phase where the likelihood of error began to grow exponentially, until one fine day Wells realized that continuing to wait in front of the window for the puppy to disappear was a question of faith or stubbornness more than anything else, and he announced that the experiment had failed.
Over the following weeks, they retraced one by one each step they had taken in engineering the virus, while Newton, freed from captivity, frolicked at their feet, showing no sign of physical decline, nor any sign of performing the miracle that would send shock waves through society. It had all looked foolproof on paper. The damned virus had to work. So why didn’t it? They tried tinkering with the strain, but none of the modifications they made had the stability of the first. Everything pointed to that being the correct virus, the only viable one. Then where was the error? Wells searched in vain, becoming increasingly obsessed with finding what had gone wrong, while it began to dawn on the others, including Jane, that the theory on which everything was based had been incorrect. However, Wells refused to accept that conclusion and would fly into a rage if any member of the team hinted at it. He wasn’t prepared to concede defeat and determinedly kept up his research, growing increasingly irritable as the days went by, so that several members of his team were obliged to decamp. Jane watched him working feverishly in silence, ever more tormented and isolated, and wondered how long it would be before he conceded that he’d wasted the Church’s funds on a misguided theory.
One morning, they received an invitation from Charles Dodgson to take tea with him at his house in Oxford. During the past months the two men had corresponded occasionally. The professor had benignly inquired how his ex-pupil’s research was going, but Wells had been evasive. He had decided to tell Charles nothing until he had succeeded in synthesizing the virus and had shown that it worked by injecting Newton. Then he would write to him, or call him through the communication glove, and invite him to his house, bestowing on him the privilege of being the first scientist outside his team to discover that mankind had found a way of saving itself. But since Newton had not disappeared as he was supposed to, that call had never taken place. Two exasperating months later, Wells received the invitation from Dodgson. He considered refusing it but didn’t have the heart. The last thing he wanted was to have to admit to Charles that the virus did not work. Jane told him he might benefit from his old friend’s advice. Besides, Charles still lived at Knowledge Church College, Wells’s alma mater, and perhaps the memories associated with those noble edifices would inspire him with new ideas, not to mention allow him to take a walk in the beautiful surrounding countryside, for it never hurt to get some fresh air. Wells agreed, not so much because the idea appealed to him, but in order to avoid an argument with his wife. He didn’t even raise an objection when Jane suggested taking along Newton, who when left alone at home would amuse himself by chewing up cushions, books, or other objects accidentally left within reach of his jaws. And so, one cold January afternoon, an ornithopter left the couple and Newton in front of the college gates, where Charles was awaiting them, his carefully groomed hair mussed by the downdraft of the vehicle’s propellers.
When the ornithopter had taken off again, Wells and Charles regarded each other for a moment in silence, like two men who had agreed to take part in a duel at dawn. Then they burst out laughing and embraced affectionately, slapping each other vigorously on the back as if trying to warm each other up.
“I’m sorry you lost the debate, Charles,” Wells felt compelled to say.
“You mustn’t apologize,” Charles admonished. “Just as I wouldn’t if you had lost. We each believe the other is mistaken, but provided you think me brilliantly mistaken, I don’t mind.”
Then Charles gave Jane the warmest welcome and excused his wife, Pleasance, who was busy giving a lecture. If her students didn’t keep her too long, she might see them before they left.
“But what have we here?” Charles exclaimed, addressing the dog, who instantly began wagging his tail.
Before Wells could explain that it was a constant reminder of his failure, Jane said: “His name is Newton, and he’s been living with us for the last five months.”
Charles stooped to stroke the tuft of white hair between the dog’s eyes while uttering a few words to it, which only Newton appeared to understand. After this exchange of confidences, the professor, smoothing down his tousled hair, led his guests through a small garden to his chambers near the cathedral spire. In one of the larger rooms, where the wallpaper pattern was of sunflowers the size of plates, a domestic automaton was arranging a tea set on an exquisitely carved table, around which stood four Chippendale chairs. Hearing them come in, the automaton swung round, placed its metallic palms on the floor, and walked over to them on its hands before reverting to the normal hominid posture and greeting them with a theatrical bow, doffing an invisible hat.
“I see you still can’t resist reprogramming your automatons, Charles,” Wells remarked.
“Oh, I’m just trying to give them a bit of personality. I can’t abide those tedious factory settings.” The professor grinned, and then, addressing the automaton, he added: “Thank you, Robert Louis. No one can balance the cups and saucers on the sugar bowl quite like you.” The automaton acknowledged the compliment and appeared to blush, doubtless the result of another of Charles’s additions to its original programming. Wells shook his head in amusement while Robert Louis, knee joints creaking, went over to the door to await further orders. Wells’s domestic automaton was also an RL6 Prometheus, but it would never have occurred to him to give it a name using those initials, much less open up its skull and rearrange its wiring to give it the soul of an acrobat. Charles, on the other hand, was unable to accept things as they came; he had to put his stamp on them, and that was precisely why Wells had learned to appreciate him more than his other professors.
While Charles and Jane finished laying the table, Wells took the opportunity to stroll around the room. Alongside some of the most technologically advanced appliances (Wells saw a food warmer, a writing glove, a heat transmitter, and even a dust-swallowing mouse stretched out on a pedestal table, its innards exposed, as though Charles were halfway through performing a dissection) was a different type of object that offered a glimpse into the professor’s more eccentric side, including some antique toys and a collection of music boxes. Wells walked over to where they were stacked on a shelf and stroked a couple of them the way he would a dozing cat, but he did not venture to open them, refusing to unleash their music and the minute ballerina that might lie squashed inside. At the back of the room a heavy curtain separated the formal part of the room from the terra incognita of the professor’s laboratory.
Then Wells studied the walls, adorned with several of Charles’s own drawings, illustrations from his textbooks on mathematical logic for children. Notwithstanding the playful spirit in which they were written, the Church, accustomed to indulging Charles’s foibles, had given his books its blessing, for they were thought to help children develop their intelligence from an early age. Even so, fearing his reputation as a scientist might be compromised, Charles had taken the precaution of publishing them under the pseudonym of Lewis Carroll. He had written most of them whilst sitting on the banks of the river Thames, in the honey-colored spring light, for the professor was in the habit of boating on the river, gently cleaving its waters with his oars. More than once, when Wells was still his pupil, he had enjoyed the privilege of accompanying him.
“Come and sit next to me,” Charles had said to him one afternoon on the riverbank, “and try to imagine a perfectly useless object.”
“A perfectly useless object,” Wells had repeated, sitting down with his back against the tree. “I’m afraid I wouldn’t know how. Besides, what would be the use?”
“Oh, it’s more useful than you think.” Charles grinned and, seeing that his pupil was still puzzled, added, “I have something here that might help you.”
He produced from his jacket pocket an ornate porcelain pillbox. He opened the lid by pressing a spring, the same as a pocket watch, revealing a tiny mound of golden powder. Wells raised his eyebrows.
“Is it . . . fairy dust?”
To Wells’s astonishment, Charles nodded. It would never have entered Wells’s head that his professor might take such a substance. It had been banned by the Church for more than a decade, because they thought it stimulated the brain in a negative way, inciting people to imagine unproductive things.
“Take some, and then try doing what I said,” Charles exhorted, taking a pinch himself and raising it to his nostril. Then he offered the box to Wells, who hesitated.
“Oh, go on, George, be a devil. Why do you suppose humans have noses, to smell the lilies of the field?”
At last Wells took a pinch of the fairy dust and snuffed it into his nose as his professor smiled at him approvingly. Once the ritual had been consummated, Charles put the pillbox away, leaned back against the tree, and slowly closed his eyes.
“Now let your mind drift, George,” Charles ordered in an excited whisper. “Find out how far you are able to go.”
Amused, Wells grinned and leaned back as well, closing his eyes. For a few moments, he tried to do what Charles had said and imagine a perfectly useless object, but he couldn’t stop his mind from reflecting about whether it was possible to diagnose a person’s illness by analyzing his breath, as was done with blood or urine. It was something he had been speculating about for days. Vaguely disappointed, he thought of remarking to his professor that the fairy dust hadn’t worked on him, but he decided to sit still with his eyes closed and wait for Charles to stir. He didn’t want to interrupt him in case the professor was making his mind fly the way children flew kites. Wells concentrated on enjoying the delicious cool breeze riffling the water, amusing himself by trying to discover a break in the constant buzz of insects in his ears, and presently he started to feel drowsy. In his sluggish state, he noticed his mind begin to reel, and his thoughts rolled around in his head as they slowly began to lose all logic. He was momentarily seized with panic as he realized that each idea he formed instantly floated away, like a ship adrift, but he managed to calm down, telling himself that nothing bad was happening to his brain, that his altered state was an effect of the fairy dust, and he abandoned himself to it with a sense of curiosity rather than fear. A flood of nonsensical images, as impossible as they were suggestive, began filling his head, swirling and intermingling to create outlandish configurations. He saw Martian airships flying toward Earth, invisible men, and strange creatures, half pig, half hyena. And he felt a stab of excitement. This was like riding a wild horse bareback. Mesmerized, he let the feeling intensify to see if he might not be able to ride a dragon, too. Wells had no idea how long he remained in that state, creating and demolishing stories, with only the logic of delirium as his guide. He assumed Charles was doing the same at his side, but when it began to grow cold and he opened his eyes, he discovered his professor gazing at him with a wry smile.
“What you’ve been doing is imagining, my dear George, and although there are many who believe it has no use, I can assure you it does. We are what we imagine,” he declared, rephrasing the old motto. “You’ll find out for yourself soon enough.”
And so he had. That very night, while Jane was asleep, Wells had shut himself in his study and donned his writing glove. Only this time not with the intention of penning any essays or articles that might help advance mankind’s understanding of the world. This time he was going to write down the tales inspired by the images he had glimpsed under the influence of the fairy dust. He took a deep breath and tried to conjure them, but it was as though his mind, having reverted to its natural state of rigidity, refused all attempts. After hours spent trying to regurgitate them, he gave up and went outside onto the patio. The night sky was swarming with dirigibles, but Wells had no difficulty making out the Albatross, the airship bristling with propellers commissioned from Verne Industries by one of the richest men on the planet: Gilliam Murray, known as the Master of Imagination, because, while his business card described him as an antiques dealer, everyone knew he was involved in the manufacture and sale of fairy dust. That rotund braggart controlled his increasingly vast empire from his flying fortress, without the ecclesiastical police ever having succeeded in infiltrating his impenetrable web of bribery, threats, and extortion. And so, immune to the world’s highest authority, the omnipresent Albatross cast a tainted shadow over the London evenings, reminding men that if they wished to explore the limits of their imagination, all they needed to do was take a pinch of Gilliam Murray’s golden dust.
Wells had never imagined he would one day go in search of the substance manufactured by that despicable individual, and yet, not without a sense of shame, this was precisely what he found himself doing the following day. Not wishing to importune his professor, he made his way to Limehouse, an area of the city inhabited by so-called Ignorants, those who had decided to turn their backs on Knowledge. Wells had been told it was easy to get the dust there, and he was not mistaken: he came away with a full pillbox. During the night, he locked himself in his study, snuffed a pinch of the powder, put on his writing glove, and waited. His mind soon began to reel, as it had on that golden afternoon he had spent with Charles. Three hours later, with only a vague memory of his fingers flickering incessantly over the paper, Wells discovered that he had managed to fashion a story. He repeated the ritual the following night, and the night after, and so on, until he had a pile of stories invented on a playful whim. He had no idea why he wrote them, only to let them molder in his desk drawer because he dared not show them to anyone, not even to Jane. He didn’t consider them worthy examples of a craft capable of producing useful insights. The protagonists of his tales were scientists caught up in strange, unwholesome experiments that contributed nothing to society, ambitious men who used science for their own ends, who sought invisibility or turned animals into humans, and he doubted the Church would give them its blessing. Perhaps that was why he enjoyed writing them.
However, the guilty knowledge that he was deliberately and regularly producing something sinful began to plague him during his waking hours, especially when he encountered an ecclesiastical policeman in the street. Indeed, his anxiety reached such a fever pitch that one night he gathered up those stories, which he had begun to realize contained more wisdom than all the dry essays he wrote, and threw them on the fire. That pile of ashes put an end to several months during which he had acted like a madman, and not like the acclaimed biologist he was. From then on, he was content to behave the way society expected and scrupulously avoided spending any more golden afternoons with his professor.
Nine or ten years had passed since those rapturous nights. During that time, Wells had imagined nothing. At least nothing that wasn’t related to making things work, such as the accursed virus, cronotemia.
Wells shook his head, ridding himself of those memories, and went over to the table to lend a hand. When they had arranged the tea things, the three of them sat down and began a pleasant conversation about this and that, which Wells followed with a mixture of wistfulness and apprehension, aware that it was only a polite preamble before Dodgson ventured to ask about the thing that really interested him. When at last the conversation appeared to run out of steam, and a hush descended on them, Charles cleared his throat. Wells knew the moment had arrived.
“T-Tell me, George, how is your r-research going?” Charles asked, trying hard to control his stammer. “Y-You don’t give much away in your letters.”
Wells glanced at Jane, who nodded, encouraging him to come clean with Charles.
“Oh, excellently,” Wells replied, with unerring enthusiasm. “I assure you it is progressing in leaps and bounds.”
Charles looked at him skeptically.
“I-In leaps and bounds, you say? Is that a fact? I know you well, George, and from your tone of voice and posture, not to mention the fleeting look you just gave your dear wife, I would say the exact opposite is true. Look at you bolt upright in your chair, legs crossed, one swinging to and fro like pendulum. I-I’ll wager you still haven’t achieved any satisfactory results.”
Wells looked slightly shamefaced and shifted in his chair, glancing once more at Jane, who nodded more forcefully this time. Then he turned to Charles, who was still smiling at him, and at last gave a feeble sigh.
“You’re right,” he confessed with a defeated air. “I’m at the end of my tether. We managed to synthesize the virus, only it doesn’t work. I tried it on the dog”—he pointed to the constant reminder of his failure lying on the rug—“but without success. We’ve been over everything a thousand times but I still can’t see what went wrong.”
“A thousand times? Coincidentally, the same number of pieces a cup always breaks into when dropped on the floor . . . ,” Charles jested, but when he saw that Wells made no attempt to laugh, he adopted a solemn expression, before adding, “Although I do understand, my friend. I sense you are on the verge of giving up.”
“Absolutely not, Charles! That is unthinkable!” Wells declared, contemplating his wife’s forlorn expression, which merely strengthened his resolve. “I assure you I shall carry on my research until I have discovered my mistake and put it right. The Church has given me the task of saving mankind and I have no intention of letting it down. If I did, I’d never be able to look myself in the face again.”
“Y-You’d have great difficulty shaving if that were the case, George. But let’s not be overdramatic. Perhaps you are right,” Charles said reassuringly. Wells raised his eyebrows. “You must retrace your steps one by one, discover your mistake, and put it right.” He gave a mischievous smile. “E-Even if that means going farther back than you thought, right?”
Wells remained silent.
“It’s true, Bertie,” Jane said softly. “Perhaps the time has come to accept that . . . Charles’s theory is the correct one.”
Wells looked at his wife and then at Dodgson, who was waiting for a reply. Charles had drawn him into a trap, but he still wasn’t prepared to surrender.
“I’m afraid I can’t pronounce the words you wish to hear, Charles,” he replied with as much grace as he could muster. “My failure is only a temporary setback. My virus may not have worked, but I remain completely convinced we are on the right track. And that you could never succeed in creating a magic hole even if you had all the funding from the Budgetary Commission.”
Charles looked at him calmly for a few seconds, but then a smile gradually appeared on his lips.
“Is that really what you think? I wouldn’t be so sure if I were you.”
“What do you mean?” Wells asked uneasily.
“Much as I adore your company,” Charles said, looking at the couple with affection, “it isn’t my only reason for inviting you here. There’s something I want to show you. Something you say is impossible to create.”
Wells stared at him, bewildered. Charles gestured to the automaton.
“Would you mind drawing back the curtain please, Robert Louis?”
The automaton walked over to the curtain, on its feet this time, took hold of one end, and, moving in reverse, began to draw it back, revealing what was behind. Wells leapt from his chair as if someone had just screamed “Fire!” and Jane’s cup clattered into its saucer. Even Newton stiffened on the rug. It took a few seconds for them to understand what they were seeing, for it wasn’t something that was easy to grasp. Somebody had sketched a hole on the fabric of reality, an orifice measuring roughly two yards in diameter, which appeared to be gyrating slowly. Around it was a ring of shimmering, grainy mist, slightly ragged at the edges, while the center was an absolute black, a frozen blackness like the one threatening the existence of the universe. Right next to the hole, reality seemed to bend as though wanting to pour through it. The hole was hovering about eighteen inches from the floor, above a metal stand bristling with levers and valves, and was surrounded by various complex constructions that seemed to be holding it in place.
“What the devil is this?” Wells spluttered.
“It’s a magic hole, George,” replied Charles.
Wells edged his way toward the phenomenon, closely followed by Jane, while Charles watched them from his chair with a satisfied grin. Wells let the purr of the machines calm his stupefaction and, keeping a safe distance behind the invisible boundary of the curtain, studied this rent in the air. The edges appeared to be made of gas, and because the hole curved slightly inward, it gave an impression of depth, although no sound came from within and all that could be seen was a dense, smooth blackness.
“You’ve done it . . .” Wells was incredulous.
Charles stood up and went over to join them.
“That’s right, my friend: I’ve done it.”
“But how? Where did you get the money to pay for all this?” Wells pointed to the machinery shielding the hole. “There’s at least seven hundred thousand pounds’ worth of equipment here.”
“Eight hundred thousand, to be precise,” the professor corrected him.
“But that’s more than the entire Budgetary Commission grant!” Wells exclaimed, with mounting astonishment. “Unless you’ve inherited money from a string of rich uncles, I don’t understand how you laid your hands on that amount . . .”
“My dear George, just because the Church has no faith in my project, it doesn’t mean nobody does. A lot of people thought I was right—which is more than I can say for my friend and ex-pupil Herbert George Wells. And one of them happened to be wealthy enough to fund my research,” Charles added enigmatically.
“Who the devil might that be?” George stammered.
A smile flickered across Charles’s face for a moment.
“You mean the Master of Imagination? Did he lend you all this money?”
Charles nodded, and Wells raised his hands to his head in disbelief. This was more incredible than the magic hole itself. Gilliam Murray . . . By the whiskers of Kepler, what had Charles got himself into? Everyone knew that Murray was one of the richest men on the planet, and the last person anyone should do business with.
“Are you out of your mind, Charles?” he cried. “You know what a reputation that crook has! I doubt very much he actually believes in your theory. And even if he does, do you really think he would use your magic hole for the common good? My God, Charles, your naïveté outweighs even your ingenuity!”
“What did you expect me to do?” Dodgson protested. “After the Church turned its back on me—thanks to you, my dear friend—Murray was the only hope I had of being able to continue my research.”
“But at what price, Charles, at what price?” Wells said reprovingly. Dodgson pursed his lips in resignation. It was plain he, too, was unhappy about the action he had been forced to take. Wells felt sorry for the old man before him, who was shaking his head as he looked down at his shoes, like a child ashamed of its latest act of disobedience. Wells gave a sigh and inquired in a calmer voice: “When do you have to pay him back?”
“Well . . .” Charles hesitated. “A couple of weeks ago.”
“But that doesn’t matter now, George!” Charles hastened to reassure him. “What matters is that I did it. I created a magic hole! Look, there it is. I was right, George, not you! Still,” he added, contemplating Wells with a serious expression, “I didn’t invite you here to crow over you but to ask you to put in a good word for me with the Church. The hole needs perfecting. It is stable enough to send simple objects, but I don’t know what would happen with something as complex in information and energy as a man.”
Wells looked at Dodgson, who was clasping his arm with a frail hand and gazing at him beseechingly. Then he glanced suspiciously at the hole.
“What do you suppose might happen?”
“I have no idea,” Charles confessed. “I expect anyone who tried to pass through it would be crushed to death. But if you could convince the Church to back me, I’d be able to finish perfecting it, and I wouldn’t need to worry about finding the money to pay Murray back, because I’d have more than enough to last the rest of my life. Will you do that, George? Will you help me? You can’t deny my theory was the correct one.”
Wells cast a weary eye around Dodgson’s laboratory. Gathering dust in a corner, like a symbol of his ancient hopes, was the discarded model of the colony Charles planned to establish on Mars, east of Mount Olympus. Then he contemplated the hole, and Newton, still slumped on the rug, symbols of the ominous present.
“You’re right, Charles,” said Wells, nodding dolefully. “Your theory was correct, not mine. Have no fear. I’ll talk to the cardinals.”
“Thank you, my friend,” Charles replied. “I’m confident that in three or four months the hole will be ready. I only need to make a few slight adjustments.”
“A few slight adjustments? You don’t know how glad I am to hear it,” a voice behind them said.
Surprised to find they were not alone in the room, Wells, Charles, Jane, and even Newton turned their heads as one. Three men were standing in the doorway. Only the one in the middle was unarmed, yet he seemed the most threatening of them all. His splendid, bullish physique was hidden under a luxurious overcoat that almost swept the floor, and a self-satisfied smile played on his fleshy lips. The man on his left was a redhead, almost as tall as he was, and looked strong enough to juggle oxen. On his right stood a much younger man with a jutting jaw and a penetrating gaze. He looked agile rather than strong, capable of dodging all the oxen the redhead might throw at him. Both men were holding guns, marking them out as hired thugs of the man they were flanking, who in turn was pointing a strange device at Robert Louis. The automaton was standing next to the wall, where it had gone after drawing back the curtain, slumped forward like a rag doll, its arms dangling at its sides and the red light of its eyes extinguished. Wells supposed that, if pointed at an ornithopter, that thing could bring it down, and he couldn’t help wondering about the circuitry it contained.
“Mr. Murray, how nice to see you again!” Charles pretended to be pleased but made no move to approach him. “You’ve arrived in time for tea; please sit down and join us, if you wish.”
The Master of Imagination put his device away in his coat pocket and, remaining where he was, studied Charles for a few seconds, smiling at him almost affectionately.
“You’re too kind, Professor, only I didn’t come here to drink tea with you.”
“Naturally, naturally,” Charles said, glancing uneasily at Wells and Jane, who were standing close to each other only a few yards from the hole, scarcely daring to move. “I—I imagine you came for your money. I—I’m aware the payment was due a fortnight ago, but we scientists are the most absentminded people on the planet,” he laughed, twisting the hem of his jacket between his fingers. “Although you were kind enough to remind me in your amiable and not in the slightest bit intimidating telegram, which makes my lateness all the more inexcusable . . . However, let us not dwell on that!” Dodgson declared excitedly. “As you can see, the m-magic hole is almost finished, and it is going make me extremely r-rich, so that I shall be able to pay you back double the amount you generously lent me. For any trouble I’ve caused—”
“Is that so?” Murray grinned from the doorway. “You are truly generous, Professor. Unfortunately, I’m not interested in your money.”
With that, he walked over to the shelves containing the pile of musical boxes, wearing a smile of feigned curiosity. Despite his heavy build, his movements were effortless and possessed an almost sensual elegance. Charles, struggling to overcome his bewilderment, watched Murray run his finger over the lids of a few of the boxes.
“Do you have any idea how much I am worth, Professor?” he asked, lifting the lid of an ebony box and setting off a jingle imported straight from childhood. He let the melody float in the air for a moment before imprisoning it once more. Then he looked at Dodgson, who shook his head. “You don’t? Neither do I: my fortune is incalculable.” He pressed his lips together with an air of disappointment. “And yet, even with an incalculable fortune, I am unable to have everything I want. Alas, there are many things I cannot buy. Can you imagine what they are, Professor? No, I see that you can’t . . . Perhaps that is because you have never needed them. I’m referring to dignity, admiration, respect . . .” Murray gave a chilling laugh while Charles contemplated him with mounting unease. “You look surprised, Professor . . . Perhaps you assume that a man in my profession wouldn’t care about such things. But you see, I do care, I care a great deal.” He sighed theatrically. “I’m tired of the hypocrisy of this world. You and countless others like you consume the drug I produce . . .” Dodgson and Wells exchanged worried looks. Like everyone else, they knew Murray had not amassed his fortune through being an antiques dealer, and yet, like everyone else, it suited them to pretend they didn’t. However, the cards were on the table now, and the Master of Imagination’s sudden display of honesty did not bode well. “The Church denounces me from its pulpits the world over,” Murray lamented, “and yet conveniently looks the other way, allowing my business to enjoy the necessary impunity. Indeed, it often does more than look the other way . . . But I’m fed up with being the Church’s scapegoat, and that of Cardinal Tucker and her entourage of putrid old fogies,” he declared in a sudden outburst of rage. “They need me because they desire the power I give them over the people, and the people need me because they desire the happiness I give them. And yet, to all of them I am undesirable! The devil incarnate! Ironic, don’t you think?” he asked them, putting on a sickly-sweet smile.
Wells swallowed hard. He no longer doubted that this scene was going to end badly for them, and yet he couldn’t help considering Murray’s impassioned speech with a sense of fascination, for what he had just said confirmed a surprising fact: the Church was covertly involved in the fairy dust industry. It was easy enough to go one step further and realize that the Church had devised a cunning plan to repress man’s imagination, the same way it had his capacity for love: it knew that preventing people from imagining would only make them want to imagine more, and so it had decided to make them doubt their capacity by creating a substance that artificially enhanced the imagination, and then making it illegal, so that it became at once fascinating and dangerous. Thus mankind had become addicted to fairy dust, convinced they needed it to be able to imagine, even though they had doubtless always possessed that gift. However, the Church still had to supply its devotees with the illegal substance, for it didn’t wish to eradicate entirely that quality in man, which, like love, could lead to Knowledge. Only in order to reap the benefits without losing control over its subjects, the Church had to transform it into a sordid, clandestine addiction. And that was where Murray, the Master of Imagination, came in: by having him traffic in the illegal substance, the Church remained untarnished. Murray wasn’t the first to have played that reviled but necessary role. The Church had produced other shadowy figures embodying everything that was despicable about the world, for each new generation. But it seemed Murray was to be the first to rebel against his fate.
“I’m tired of doing the dirty work for that bunch of old busybodies,” Murray went on, “while they go around pretending to despise me. I’ve had enough of grinding up fairies with my pestle and mortar so the world can go on imagining.” He gave an embittered laugh. “I don’t want to continue being the Master of Imagination. I don’t want to be remembered as the villain of the story when I die. No, I can think of a far better sobriquet. I want to be remembered as the Savior of Humanity! Could there be any greater achievement?” He grinned, his eyes moving from Dodgson to Wells, then back to Dodgson. “So, Professor, despite all your wisdom, you are a complete fool if you think I am simply going to accept your money and discreetly step aside so that you can take all the glory. That’s not how the story is going to unfold.”
Murray looked into his eyes, waiting for a response.
“And h-how is it going to h-happen?” Charles replied at last.
“I’ll tell you,” Murray said calmly, still staring straight at him. “It will happen like this: the eminent Professor Dodgson will blow his brains out on the afternoon of the fourteenth of January 1898—that is to say, this afternoon—after battling with depression for months, having been defeated in a crucial debate by his former pupil”—here Murray grinned at Wells—“to see who would save the universe.”
“My God . . . ,” Jane murmured, moving closer to Wells, who wrapped his arms around her as he observed with dread Murray’s thugs, their bodies gradually tensing as their boss went on.
“It will be a great loss,” Murray continued, a sardonic smile playing on his lips. “A terrible shock, Professor, but after a few months everyone will have forgotten. And then the millionaire Gilliam Murray will announce that his team of scientists has succeeded in creating a magic hole in their laboratory, just as the great Professor Dodgson had planned to do—a hole through which humanity will be able to escape its dreadful fate.”
“What!” Charles exploded. “But the hole is my creation! I—I won’t let you steal it!”
“Listen, Charles . . .” Wells tried to calm him, as he saw the two thugs raise their guns and aim at Dodgson.
“You won’t let me?” Murray gave a hoarse, rasping laugh while Charles fidgeted nervously on the spot. “In case you hadn’t realized, Professor, I didn’t come here to ask your permission. I am Gilliam Murray, and I take what I want.” He gestured to the redheaded giant. “Martin, please. Aim at the temple. Remember, it has to look like suicide.”
The killer nodded and strolled over to where Charles was standing, unable to move. Wells made as if to help his friend but was stopped by the other man pointing his gun at him. Wells put his arms around his wife once more, and the couple watched the redheaded man press his gun against the old man’s temple with theatrical delicacy. Dodgson, too bewildered and scared to do anything else, shifted his weight from one leg to the other.
“A few last words before you leave, Professor?” asked Murray, amused.
Charles scowled and tilted his head slightly, as though leaning against the gun that was about to kill him.
“W-When you don’t know where you are going, one path is as good as any other,” he replied.
Wells swiftly placed a hand over his wife’s eyes, and everything went dark. Jane didn’t see what happened; she only heard a blast, followed by the muffled thud of a body hitting the ground. Then silence. A few seconds later, cracks appeared in the darkness as Wells moved his fingers away from her eyes, and Jane saw Murray gazing impassively at Dodgson’s outstretched body while the redhead stood over him, holding a gun with a wisp of smoke rising from it.
“My God, Bertie . . . ,” she sobbed, burying her head in her husband’s chest.
Murray turned to the couple.
“I have to confess, Mr. Wells, I wasn’t expecting to find you here, accompanied by your wife, and”—he looked at Newton, who had started to bark ferociously—“your pet dog, so I’m afraid there is no part for you in my little play. But as I’m sure you’ll understand, I can’t let you live. And after I’ve killed you, I shall throw your bodies into the hole. As you said yourself, a magic hole is the perfect place to dispose of the evidence of a crime.”
“Damn you, Murray,” Wells hissed in disgust as he held on to Jane tightly. “I hope your Albatross sinks under your vast weight and crashes, preferably into the Church’s Holy See.”
Murray gave a loud guffaw, then signaled to the thug whose weapon was trained on Wells.
“Go ahead, Tom. It doesn’t need to look like suicide, so you can shoot them anywhere. Oh, and kill that damned mutt while you’re at it.”
The young man answering to the name of Tom looked at the picturesque trio he was supposed to execute. He decided to start with the man. He cocked his pistol, extended his arm, and aimed at Wells’s head. But Wells did not flinch. Rather than beg for mercy, close his eyes, lower his head, or improvise some last words, he stared straight at the youth. And for a split second the two men looked at each other in silence. Wells’s bravery seemed to take the lad by surprise, or perhaps he was laughing to himself at this stupid display of courage, but in any event he delayed pulling the trigger. Wells guessed that, despite all his experience, the killer had never had to shoot someone who showed such dignity when helpless, moreover with the addition of a sobbing wife in his arms and a faithful hound at his feet. Realizing that the time it would take for the lad to pull the trigger was the only time he had in which to act, he wheeled round, grabbing Jane by the arm and pulling her toward the hole. If they were going to go through it, better alive than dead.
“Jump, Jane, jump!” he cried, shielding her body with his as they bridged the short distance between them and the hole Dodgson had managed to tunnel into the air.
Wells feared he would receive a bullet in his back at any moment, but as he lunged forward and his body started to go through the hole, he knew the killer would not have time to shoot. Newton followed them, leaping through just as the orifice folded in on itself with a deafening roar. Then what could have been a gust of cosmic wind swept through the room, accompanied by a flash of white light that blinded the three men left behind.
After the thunderous explosion, a heavy silence fell. Murray blinked a few times and finally saw that the hole had vanished. All that was left of it were a few strands of mist hovering above the metal stand. It took several moments for him to realize he no longer had anything to trade in, and that he would never be the savior of mankind.
It seemed History wasn’t going to happen the way he had imagined either.
• • •
“IT SEEMED HISTORY WASN’T going to happen the way he had imagined either,” Jane read. It was a good way to end a chapter, she reflected with a satisfied smile before blowing on the paper to dry the ink. Leaning back in her chair, she observed with delight the freshly cut roses on her desk. She had picked them from the rosebush that very morning as the sky chose the colors of dawn and the cold night air still lingered on their petals.
At that moment, Wells tiptoed into her study with his habitual reverence, as though afraid his manly presence might disrupt the delicate feminine atmosphere floating in the room. He spent a few moments contemplating the charming orderliness around him, whose enchantment was so alien to him, and his eyes flashed as he caught sight of the scribbled pages on his wife’s desk.
“What are you writing, my dear?” he asked with feigned nonchalance.
Ever since his wife had told him she wanted to turn one of their unoccupied rooms into a study, Wells had resolved to spend part of his extremely limited and valuable time trying to find out what his wife was doing in there. Direct questioning had failed, because she merely replied with a shrug. Joshing hadn’t worked either. “Are you drawing pictures of animals in there?” he had once asked, but Jane hadn’t laughed the way she usually did when he said such things. Her silence was tomb-like, and since torture was not an option, Wells had been forced to resort to surprise incursions. Thus he had discovered that Jane went into her study to write, which wasn’t much of a discovery, as he could almost have worked it out without having to go in there. She was hardly likely to use the room for breeding rabbits, practicing devil worship, or dancing naked. Besides, she had half jokingly threatened him with it. Now all he had to do was find out what she was writing.
“Oh, nothing of any interest,” Jane replied, quickly hiding the sheets of paper in her desk drawer, the lock of which Wells had unsuccessfully tried to force open. “I’ll let you read it once it’s finished.”
Once it’s finished . . . That meant nothing. What if it was never finished? What if for some reason she decided not to finish it? What if the world came to an end first? If it did, he would never know what Jane had been doing during the three or four hours she spent in her study every day. Was she writing a diary? Or perhaps a recipe book? But why be so cagey about a recipe book?
“One of the things I most hate in life is couples who keep secrets from each other,” Wells said, being deliberately dramatic.
“I thought what you most hated was the fact that no one has invented an electric razor yet,” Jane chuckled. She went on talking to him as she took his arm and led him toward the door, trying not to give the impression she was getting rid of him. “But don’t be such a grouch. What does it matter what I write? Your work is the important thing, Bertie, so stop wasting your time spying on me and get writing.”
“At least you know what I’m writing,” he grumbled. “I let you see everything I do, whereas you’re . . .”
“. . . an unfathomable mystery to you, and you can’t bear it, I know. I already explained it to you once: this is the only way of keeping your interest in me alive. I have to stop you from deciphering me, dear. Because if you understood everything about me, you would soon tire of me and start looking for other mysteries, and your crowning work, your true masterpiece, would never be written . . . So go back to your study and leave me with my trivial entertainments. They’re not important. They aren’t even as good as your earlier stories.”
“Don’t you think I should be the judge of that?” Wells retorted, surprised rather than annoyed at suddenly finding himself on the other side of the door. “But I suppose you’re right, as always. I should get back to my work and—”
Jane gave her husband a parting wink and withdrew into her sanctuary. After shrugging, Wells went down to the ground floor, where he hid away in his study. Ensconced in his chair, he glanced wearily around him. Despite having placed all his books and knickknacks on the shelves as carefully as Jane, his room only gave off an atmosphere of sterile sedateness. However much he changed things round, the room never felt warm. Wells sighed and contemplated the sheaf of blank pages before him. He proposed to record on them all his hard-earned wisdom, everything he had seen. And who could tell: perhaps that knowledge might change the fate of the world, although Wells couldn’t help wondering how much he was driven by altruism and how much by vanity. He reached for his pen, ready to begin his “crowning’ work, as Jane had called it, while the sounds from the street and the neighboring park seeped in through his window, noises from a world that went by immersed in the smug satisfaction of believing itself unique . . .
The Map of Chaos
When the person he loves most dies in tragic circumstances, the mysterious protagonist of The Map of Chaos does all he can to speak to her one last time. A session with a renowned medium seems to offer the only solution, but the experience unleashes terrible forces that bring the world to the brink of disaster. Salvation can only be found in The Map of Chaos, an obscure book that he is desperate to uncover. In his search, he is given invaluable help by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Lewis Carroll, and of course by H. G. Wells, whose Invisible Man seems to have escaped from the pages of his famous novel to sow terror among mankind. They alone can discover the means to save the world and to find the path that will reunite the lovers separated by death.
Proving once again that he is “a master of ingenious plotting” (Kirkus Reviews), Félix J. Palma brings together a cast of real and imagined literary characters in Victorian-Age London, when spiritualism is at its height. The Map of Chaos is a spellbinding adventure that mixes impossible loves, nonstop action, real ghosts, and fake mediums, all while paying homage to the giants of science fiction.
- Atria Books |
- 592 pages |
- ISBN 9781451688184 |
- June 2015