Authors: Félix J. Palma
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”âhe pointed to the constant reminder of his failure lying on the rugâ“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 floorÂ .Â .Â .Â ,” 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 thatÂ .Â .Â . 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 itÂ .Â .Â .” 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 amountÂ .Â .Â .”
“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 rightâwhich 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 MurrayÂ .Â .Â . 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 naÃ¯vetÃ© outweighs even your ingenuity!”
“What did you expect me to do?” Dodgson protested. “After the Church turned its back on meâthanks to you,
my dear friend
âMurray 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?”
“WellÂ .Â .Â .” 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. “IâI imagine you came for your money. IâI'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 inexcusableÂ .Â .Â . 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 causedâ”
“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'tÂ .Â .Â . Perhaps that is because you have never needed them. I'm referring to dignity, admiration, respectÂ .Â .Â .” Murray gave a chilling laugh while Charles contemplated him with mounting unease. “You look surprised, ProfessorÂ .Â .Â . 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 produceÂ .Â .Â .” 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 wayÂ .Â .Â . 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
the power I give them over the people, and the people need me because they
the happiness I give them. And yet, to all of them I am
! The devil incarnate! Ironic, don't you think?” he asked them, putting on a sickly-sweet smile.