The creeps, p.17
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       The Creeps, p.17

           John Connolly
 
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  The groundskeeper indicated with a thumb the stack of firewood and splinters that had once been elves.

  “Elves,” he said. “They trampled on the grass.”

  “So we gathered.”

  “And the flower beds,” added the groundskeeper. His tone suggested that, while some might feel reducing elves to kindling for trespassing on the grass was a bit of an overreaction, no sane person could take issue with pummeling them for stepping on the flower beds.

  He wiped his sweating brow.

  “I quite enjoyed that,” he said. “I think I’ll go and look for some more of them.”

  And off he went, whistling what sounded like “Heigh-Ho, Heigh-Ho.”

  It struck Professor Hilbert that, if the groundskeeper was anything to go by, the citizens of Biddlecombe were taking the evening’s events in their stride. This view was confirmed when they came across the Biddlecombe Ladies’ Football Team standing by half a dozen large and very bruised Christmas-tree fairies who had been tied to tree trunks with stout rope in order to prevent them from doing any further harm.

  Professor Hilbert stopped the car.

  “What are you doing?” said Professor Stefan.

  “Look!” said Professor Hilbert, pointing to the west.

  There was a faint shimmer to the air. Beyond it Maria could see more trees and, some way in the distance, the spire of the church in the nearest village, Rathford, but it was as though a mist had descended upon the landscape, blurring the image. It struck Maria that they shouldn’t even have been able to see Rathford. It was nighttime, and yet the spire of the Church of St. Roger the Inflammable was plainly visible, although there was a touch of shiny gray to it, like an old photographic negative.

  Professor Hilbert stepped from the car and walked toward the location of the shimmering. The others followed, even Brian, although he was not so much curious as frightened to be left alone. As they drew closer, they saw that the ground came to a kind of end at the fence surrounding August Derleth Park. Beyond the boundary it was less actual firm ground than the memory of it, and its level didn’t quite match the grass on their side of the fence. Worse, the other ground was transparent, and beneath it Maria could see a terrible blackness spotted with the odd lonely star. It felt to her as though Biddlecombe had somehow been set adrift in the Multiverse while still bringing with it the memory of the planet of which it had once been a part. The dividing line was the shimmering, like the heat haze that rises from the ground on sunny summer days, except this one brought with it no warmth.

  Reginald/Dorothy reached out to touch it, and only Professor Hilbert’s sudden grip on his/her wrist prevented him/her from doing so.48

  “I wouldn’t,” he said.

  Reginald withdrew her hand. Professor Hilbert’s fingers tingled after touching her. It must be the power of the boundary, he thought.

  “How can we see Rathford?” asked Maria. “We shouldn’t be able to. It’s night, and anyway Rathford is quite far from Biddlecombe. We can’t even see the church spire during the day.”

  “You can see a Rathford,” said Professor Hilbert. “It’s one of an infinite number of Rathfords, or it may be the point at which all of those potential Rathfords are bound together until a decision is made on which one should come into being.”

  “We’ve become unmoored from reality,” said Professor Stefan. “I believe that a dimensional shift has occurred, and we’re just fractionally off-kilter with the rest of the Multiverse.”

  “But what’s on the other side of that boundary?” said Brian.

  “Perhaps a version of Rathford, once you bring it into being by its observation, or nothing at all,” said Professor Hilbert. “Then again, you might thrust your fingers into another dimension, and who knows what could be waiting on the other side? Or your fingers might end up between dimensions, which could be just as bad. It might be like wearing fingerless gloves in space, which would be very unwise.” 49

  “Did we do this?” asked Brian. “I mean, all that fiddling around with particle accelerators and the nature of reality: could it have caused this?”

  Professor Hilbert found something interesting to look at beside his right foot. Professor Stefan whistled and peered at the fathomless depths of space.

  Eventually Professor Hilbert said, “This is not the time to go around blaming people for what may or may not have happened, Brian.”

  “When would be a good time, Professor Hilbert?” said Brian.

  “When I’m not here,” said Professor Hilbert, “but preferably when I’m dead and can’t get into any trouble. I’d advise you to think very hard about your part in all of this as well, young Brian. You’re an important part of our team, which means that you can be blamed, too.”

  “But I only made the tea!” said Brian.

  “Yes, but it was very good tea,” said Professor Hilbert. “If it had been bad tea, then we might not have been so productive, and none of this might have happened or, if it did, then it might have happened much more slowly.”

  “Don’t forget the biscuits,” Professor Stefan chimed in.

  “Oh yes, the biscuits,” said Professor Hilbert. “Don’t get me started on the biscuits. All I can say is that you’re up to your neck in this, Brian, mark my words. If the world comes to an end because of our experiments, you’ll be in big trouble. They’ll throw the book at you, or they will if there’s anyone still around to throw books, or anything else, which there probably won’t be. You know, now that I come to think about it, everything is fine at our end. If the world doesn’t get destroyed, we’re free and clear, and if it does end, then there’s not much anybody can do to make us feel bad about it.”

  Professor Hilbert smiled happily.

  “There, glad that’s sorted out. Still, all things considered, it would be nice if we could prevent the end of the world from happening. With that in mind, onward we go.”

  He began to lead them back to the car. Brian didn’t move. He just stood where he was, looking confused.

  “But I only made the tea,” he said.

  Professor Stefan steered him toward the car.

  “Never mind,” he said. “Try looking on the bright side.”

  “Is there one?”

  “Not really.”

  “Oh.”

  “But if you come up with one, do let us know, won’t you?”

  And high above their heads the stars were swallowed, one by one.

  * * *

  47. Boadicea was the queen of the Iceni tribe in Britain who led a rebellion against the Roman Empire in A.D. 60 or 61. Three settlements were destroyed during her war, including the young city of Londinium, or London. She was finally defeated in a battle in the West Midlands, but died without being captured. The Roman historian Dio said of her that she was “possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women.” Mind you, he said that after she was safely dead and gone, otherwise she’d have cut his head off and stuck it on a spike for saying stupid things about women.

  48. Look, this is going to get very confusing. Unless someone decides otherwise, let’s call Dorothy “Reginald,” but stick with the use of the feminine pronoun. That way, she’ll be Reginald, and we can still refer to her as “her,” if you see what I mean.

  It’s very troubling when characters take a funny unplanned turn in a book. They really should do what their creators tell them to do, but that brings us to the whole thorny subject of the problem of free will. If I knew what was going to happen at the end of this book—which, at this point, I don’t—then characters like Reginald/Dorothy would have to do whatever I told them to do, because that would be what was needed to make the plot work.

  But right now I’m not sure what’s going to happen, and I’m discovering the plot of the book as I write it. This makes me a bit like a god, in that I created these characters, but not the type of god who knows everything in advance. The thing is, if I was that kind of god, and characters like Reginald/Dorothy were, in fact, real, would the fact that I kn
ew what was going to happen to them mean that they had no free will of their own?

  Some philosophers have argued that, if there is a god, and he knows everything that will happen in the future, then free will doesn’t really exist. I’m not sure that’s the case because, if it is, then we are all like characters in a book being written by a writer who knows the ending. Maybe it’s truer to say that, if there is a god, then he just happens to know how our story ends, and the choices we make are the ones that will lead to that particular ending.

  So can we ever really predict what people will do? Perhaps on one level we can: we are biological machines, each of us made up of—remember?—atoms, and those atoms are made up of—yes, that’s right—quarks and gluons. If we can predict how each of these particles will behave in a given situation, then we can predict how lots of them packed together into a single human body will behave, right?

  Yes, theoretically. In practice, it’s a bit harder. We like to think that we’re something more than just a collection of atoms. We use the term I to describe ourselves. We have a consciousnesss. (Philosophers call this experience of mental states—seeing colors, smelling food, feeling pain—the “qualia.”) But what if even consciousness is just an illusion, another product of the actions of all those quarks and gluons in our brains? “I” may not even exist, and if I start having doubts about that, then where does it leave you? You may not exist either. My brain may just have invented you. In that case, you’re as real as Reginald/Dorothy, and I can make you do what I want.

  Right, I want you all to club together to buy me a yacht. You can send it care of my publishers. Thank you. After all, even an imaginary yacht is better than no yacht at all.

  49. Deepest, darkest space is very cold, so cold that all molecules stop moving. This is called “absolute zero” and is calculated as −273 degrees Celsius, although the temperature in space is probably closer to −270 degrees Celsius because of three degrees of background microwave radiation.

  So how long could you survive in space if you weren’t wearing a suit? First of all, you shouldn’t try to hold your breath, as that will cause the air in your lungs to expand and burst things that shouldn’t burst, so you’d die painfully but quickly. If you didn’t hold your breath, you’d probably have about fifteen seconds before you passed out. You wouldn’t get frostbite at first, as you would in cold temperatures on Earth, because there’s no air in space, and frostbite is a result of heat transfer accelerated by air. But your skin would start to burn because of ultraviolet radiation, and your skin tissue would swell.

  Overall, then, you’d probably have a good thirty seconds before serious, permanent injury occurred, and a minute or two before you’d begin to die. In 1965, a spacesuit leaked in a vacuum chamber at NASA’s Manned Spacecraft Center. The gentleman involved, who was rescued and recovered, remained conscious for about fourteen seconds. His last memory of the incident was of the saliva on his tongue beginning to boil. I just thought you’d like to know that.

  XVIII

  In Which Crudford Proves to Be the Smartest Gelatinous Blob in the Room

  THE GREAT MALEVOLENCE, THE Watcher by his side, had been spending a very long time staring at the bits and pieces of what had once been Ba’al, the most fearsome of its allies, its second-in-command, its left-hand demon, and considering the problem presented by them.

  It had seemed like such a good idea to allow Ba’al to travel to Earth, exploiting the gap in space and time created by the experiments with the Large Hadron Collider. Ba’al was an entity of pure awfulness, but Ba’al was also completely loyal to the Great Malevolence, and there weren’t many beings in Hell who could be trusted entirely. This was one of the problems with running a business based entirely around evil, destructiveness, and rage. It attracted bad sorts.

  Unfortunately, the successful planning of the invasion of Earth had required Ba’al to take on human form, and the particular human form that Ba’al had chosen to inhabit was that of Mrs. Abernathy. But Mrs. Abernathy had turned out (a) to have a strong personality of her own; and (b) to be horrible even before she became possessed by a demon. And so the personalities of Ba’al and Mrs. Abernathy had become mixed up in one body, and much of Mrs. Abernathy had come out on top. This had left the Great Malevolence with a demonic lieutenant who liked to dress up in a lady’s skin and clothing. Ba’al didn’t even like being called Ba’al anymore. It was “Mrs. Abernathy” or nothing. Not that this was a huge problem, but it was unusual.

  The Great Malevolence missed Ba’al—sorry, Mrs. Abernathy. It wasn’t as though they had ever played draughts or tiddlywinks or Twister together, or gone for long walks with a picnic at the end. No, it was simply that, without her, the whole business of trying to take over the Multiverse was a lot harder, and the Great Malevolence, in addition to being great and malevolent, was also more than a little lazy. It came with being in charge: if you can find someone else to do the hard work, then why would you do it yourself?

  But now all that was left of Mrs. Abernathy were various body parts in jars, and those body parts weren’t doing much at all. Quite often, when it came to the residents of Hell, you could disassemble them into all kinds of small pieces, and each bit would do its best to continue being evil. Fingers would crawl across floors and try to poke the nearest eye; jawbones would try to bite; and intestines would slither like snakes and coil themselves around the nearest neck. Really, there was never a dull moment in Hell when it came to tearing things apart.

  “Why does she not react more strongly?” asked the Great Malevolence. “Why does this chamber not vibrate with the force of her evil?”

  If Crudford could have shrugged, then he would have. Instead, he lifted his hat and scratched his head in puzzlement. He scratched slightly too hard, though, and his fingers appeared inside his head somewhere behind his eyeball. He pulled them out, thought about wiping them clean, and decided, well, why bother? Slowly, he examined each jar in turn, taking note of its contents on a small notepad that he kept in his hat. When he had finished, he went to work on his notepad. He scribbled and drew. He crossed things out, and did a lot of sucking on his pencil. The Watcher tried to peer over his shoulder to see what was being produced, but Crudford shielded the notepad from view like a small boy worried that his homework was about to be copied by the student next to him.

  Eventually, after an hour had gone by, and two pencils had been worn down to almost nothing, Crudford was finished.

  “I think I may have the answer,” he said.

  “We are waiting,” said the Great Malevolence. It came with the unspoken warning: This had better be good.

  Crudford turned the notepad to face the Great Malevolence. This is what it contained:

  The Great Malevolence looked at the drawing. It then looked at the Watcher. The Watcher shrugged because, unlike Crudford, it could. The Great Malevolence, having nowhere else left to look, looked at Crudford and thought about the many ways in which it could reduce a gelatinous mass to lots of much smaller pieces of jelly.

  “It is,” said the Great Malevolence, “a picture of a lady. It is not even a very good picture of a lady.”

  Everyone, thought Crudford, is a critic.

  “It’s not just a lady,” said Crudford. “It’s Mrs. Abernathy. But see here—”

  Crudford pointed at the question mark beside the heart shape.

  “The heart is missing.”

  The Great Malevolence considered this.

  “Ba’al does not have a heart,” it said. “No creature in Hell has a heart. Hearts are not needed.”

  “But Ba’al isn’t Ba’al any longer, not really,” said Crudford. “Ba’al is Mrs. Abernathy, and Mrs. Abernathy is Ba’al, and Mrs. Abernathy has a heart because Mrs. Abernathy is, or was, human. Those jars contain bits of every organ in the human body except the heart. The heart is missing. All of it.”

  “But what is the heart pumping?” said the Great Malevolence. “Not blood, for Mrs. Abernathy’s body died the moment that Ba’a
l took it over.”

  “I’m just guessing,” said Crudford, “but I’d say that it’s pumping pure evil. What we’re looking for is a big, black, rotten heart-shaped thingy filled with nastiness.”

  “Then where is it?” asked the Great Malevolence.

  “That,” said Crudford, “is a very good question.”

  • • •

  Crudford wandered the halls of the Mountain of Despair, alone with his thoughts. Wandered probably wasn’t the right word, strictly speaking: slimed, oozed, or smeared might be closer to the mark, but if Crudford had said that he was just off to slime around the halls for a while, then he would probably have been advised to take his gelatinous self elsewhere, or someone would have been following him with a mop and a bucket.

  His search of the Multiverse for bits of Mrs. Abernathy had not been entirely random. He had been able to narrow it down to specific universes, or corners of them, either because he could smell Mrs. Abernathy, or his keen eyesight had been able to pick out the blue atoms in the darkness. There were only two places he had not explored: the Kingdom of Shadows, and Earth.

  He had not entered the Kingdom of Shadows because to do so would have been the end of him: the Shadows had no loyalty to the Great Malevolence, and would have snuffed out Hell itself if they could. He had stayed away from Earth simply because he had detected no sign of Mrs. Abernathy there, but now he began to wonder if he might not have been mistaken. Just because he could pick up no trace of her did not mean that she was not there, and it was only recently that he had begun to detect the telltale beating of her heart. Mrs. Abernathy was cunning and wicked. Her dark heart, he realized, must be filled with hatred. And what or, more correctly, who did she hate more than anything else in the Multiverse?

  Samuel Johnson.

  Crudford snapped his fingers. A small blob of gloop was flicked away by the action and landed on something in the darkness.

  “Hey!” said the something.

  “Sorry,” said Crudford.

 
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