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The Gates, Page 2

John Connolly

  DEEP BENEATH A MOUNTAIN in the heart of Europe, nothing was happening.

  Well, that wasn’t entirely true. Lots of things were happening, some of them quite spectacular, but because they were happening at an infinitesimally small level, it was quite hard for most people to get too excited about them.

  The Large Hadron Collider was, as its name suggested, very big. It was, in fact, 17 miles long, and stretched inside a ring-shaped tunnel burrowed through rock, near Geneva, in Switzerland. The LHC was a particle accelerator, the largest ever constructed: a device for smashing protons together in a vacuum, consisting of 1,600 electromagnets chilled to -271 degrees Celcius (or, to you and me, “Crumbs, that’s really cold! Anybody got a sweater I can borrow?”), producing a powerful electromagnetic field. Basically, two beams of hydrogen ions, atoms that have been stripped of their electrons, would whiz around the ring in opposite directions at about 186,000 miles per second, or close to the speed of light, and then collide. When they met, each beam would have the energy of a big car traveling at 1,000 miles per hour.

  You don’t want to be in a car traveling at 1,000 miles per hour that crashes into another car traveling at the same speed. That would not be good.

  When the beams collided, enormous amounts of energy would be released from all of the protons they contained, and that was where things got really interesting. The reason scientists had built the LHC was in order to study the aftermath of that collision, which would produce very small particles: smaller than atoms, and atoms are already so small that it would take ten million of them laid end to end to cover the period at the end of this sentence. Ultimately, they hoped to discover the Higgs boson, sometimes called the “God particle,” the most basic component of everything in the material world.

  Take our two cars traveling at 1,000 miles per hour before pounding into each other. After the crash, there isn’t likely to be much of the cars left. In fact, there will probably be only very small pieces of car (and possibly very small pieces of anyone who was unfortunate enough to be inside the cars at the time) scattered all over the place. What the scientists at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, hoped was that the colliding beams would leave behind lots of little patches of energy resembling those that existed seconds after the Big Bang, when the dot of which we spoke at the start exploded, and among them might be the Higgs boson. The Higgs boson would stick out because it would actually be bigger than the two colliding protons that created it, but it wouldn’t hang about for very long, as it would vanish almost instantly, so the scientists would have to be quick to spot it. It would be as though our two colliding cars had come together and formed a truck, which then immediately collapsed.

  In other words, the scientists hoped to understand just how the universe came into being, which is a big question that is a lot easier to ask than to answer. You see, scientists—even the very clever ones—understand only about 4 percent of the matter and energy in the universe, which accounts for the stuff we can see around us: mountains, lakes, bears, artichokes, that kind of thing.3 That leaves them scratching their heads over the remaining 96 percent, which is a lot of scratching. To save time, and prevent unnecessary head injuries, the scientists decided that about 23 percent of what remained should be called “dark matter.” Although they couldn’t see it, they knew that it existed because it bent starlight.

  But if dark matter was interesting to them, whatever accounted for the remaining 73 percent of everything in the universe was more interesting still. It was known as “dark energy,” and it was invisible, entirely hidden. Nobody knew where it came from, but they had a pretty good idea of what it was doing. It was driving galaxies farther and farther apart, causing the universe to expand. This would lead to two things. The first thing was that human beings, if they didn’t start inventing fast ways to move somewhere else, would eventually find themselves entirely alone, as all the neighboring galaxies would have disappeared beyond the edge of the visible universe. After that, the universe would start to cool, and everything in it would freeze to death. Thankfully, that’s likely to happen hundreds of billions of years in the future, so there’s no need to buy a thick coat just yet, but it’s worth remembering the next time you feel the need to complain about the cold.

  The LHC would probably be able to help scientists to better understand all of this, as well as provide evidence of other really fascinating stuff like extra dimensions, which as everyone knows are filled with monsters and aliens and big spaceships with laser cannons and …

  Well, you get the picture.

  At this point, it’s a good idea to mention the Might-Cause-the-Destruction-of-the-Earth-and-the-End-of-Life-As-We-Know-It issue. It’s a minor thing, but you can’t be too careful.

  Basically, while the LHC was being built, and lots of men in white coats were chatting about dark matter and high-speed collisions, someone suggested the collider might create a black hole that would swallow the Earth. Or, instead, it could cause particles of matter so strange that they’re called “strangelets” to appear and turn the Earth into a lump of dead gray stuff. It’s safe to say that this chap wasn’t invited to the scientists’ Christmas party.

  Now you or I, if told we were about to do something that might, just might, bring about the end of the world, would probably pause for a moment and wonder if it was a good idea after all. Scientists, though, are not like you or me. Instead, the scientists pointed out that there was only a very, very small chance that the collider might bring about the end of all life on Earth. Hardly worth bothering about at all, really, they said. Not to worry. Take a look at this big spinning thing. Isn’t it pretty? 4

  All of which brings us back to the important things happening in the Large Hadron Collider. The experiments were being monitored by a machine called VELO. VELO detected all of the particles given off when the beams crashed. It could tell their position to within one two-hundredth of a millimeter, or one-tenth of the thickness of a human hair. It was all very exciting, although not exciting enough for two of the men who were responsible for watching the screens monitoring what was happening, so they were doing what men often do in such situations.

  They were playing “Battleships.”

  “B four,” said Victor, who was German and blessed with lots of hair that he wore in a ponytail, with some left over for his chin and upper lip.

  “Miss,” said Ed, who was British and blessed with hardly any hair at all, and certainly none that could be spared for his face. Nevertheless, Ed quite liked Victor, even if he felt Victor had been given some of the hair that should, by rights, have come his way.

  Victor’s face creased in concentration. Somewhere in the not very vast vastness of Ed’s board lay a submarine, a destroyer, and an aircraft carrier, yet, for the life of him, Victor couldn’t seem to hit them. He wondered if Ed was lying about all those misses, then decided that Ed wasn’t the kind of person who lied about much at all. Ed wasn’t terribly imaginative and, in Victor’s experience, it was imaginative people who tended to lie. Lying required making stuff up, and only imaginative people were good at that. Victor had a little more imagination than Ed, and therefore lied more. Not much, but certainly a bit.

  Ed heard Victor sniff loudly.

  “Ugh!” said Victor. “Was that you?”

  Now Ed smelled it too. There was a distinct whiff of rotten eggs in the room.

  “No, it wasn’t me,” said Ed, somewhat offended.

  For the second time in as many minutes, Victor wondered if Ed might be lying.

  “Anyway,” said Ed, “it’s my turn. E three.”



  “What was that?”

  Victor didn’t look up. “I said it was a miss. That’s what it was: a miss.”

  “No,” said Ed. “I meant: what was that?”

  His right index finger was pointing at the computer screen, which was occupied by a visual representation of all the exciting things happening in the particle accelerator, and w
hich had just beeped. The image on the screen looked like a tornado, albeit one that was the same width throughout instead of resembling a funnel.

  “I don’t see anything wrong,” said Victor.

  “A bit just whizzed off,” said Ed. “And it went beep.”

  “A bit?” said Victor. “It’s not a bicycle. Bits don’t just whiz off.”

  “Right then,” said Ed, looking miffed. “A particle of some kind appears to have disengaged itself from the whole and exited the accelerator. Is that better?”

  “You mean that a bit just whizzed off?” said Victor, thinking, who said we Germans don’t have a sense of humor?

  Ed just looked at him. Victor stared back, then sighed.

  “It’s not possible,” he said. “It’s a contained environment. Particles don’t simply leave it to go off, well, somewhere else. It must have been a glitch.”5

  “It wasn’t a glitch,” said Ed. He abandoned the game and began furiously tapping buttons on a keyboard. On a second screen, he pulled up another version of the visual representation, checked the time, then began running it backward. Twenty seconds into the rewind, a small glowing particle came into view from the left of the screen and appeared to rejoin the whole. Ed paused the image, then allowed it to run forward again at half speed. Together, he and Victor watched as the bit whizzed off.

  “That’s not good,” said Victor.

  “No,” said Ed. “It shouldn’t even be possible.”

  “What do you think it is?”

  Ed examined the data. “I don’t know.”

  Both men were now working on keyboards. Simultaneously, they pulled up the same string of data on their screens as they tried to pinpoint a reason for the anomaly.

  “I’m not seeing anything,” said Ed. “It must be buried deep.”

  “Wait,” said Victor. “I’m seeing— No! What’s this? What’s happening?”

  As he and Ed watched, the data seemed to rewrite itself. Strings of code changed; zeros became ones and ones became zeros. Frantically, both men tried to arrest the progress of the changes, but to no avail.

  “It must be a bug,” said Victor. “It’s covering its own tracks.”

  “Someone must have hacked into the system,” said Ed.

  “I helped to build this system,” said Victor, “and even I couldn’t hack into it, not like this.”

  And then, less than a minute after it began, the changes to the code were completed. Ed tried rerunning the image of the particle separating itself from the accelerator, but this time only the great tunnel of energy appeared upon the screen, filled with protons behaving exactly as they should have been behaving.

  “We’ll have to report it,” said Ed.

  “I know,” said Victor. “But there’s no evidence. There’s just our word.”

  “Won’t that be enough?”

  Victor nodded. “Probably, but—” He stared at the screen. “What did it mean? And, more to the point, where did it go?

  “And what is that smell …?”

  Scientists were not the only ones who had been monitoring the collider.

  Down in the dark places where the worst things hid, an ancient Evil had been watching the construction of the collider with great interest. The entity that existed in the darkness had many names: Satan, Beelzebub, the Devil. To the creatures that dwelt with it, he was known as the Great Malevolence.6

  The Great Malevolence had been squatting in the blackness for a very long time. He was there billions of years before people, or dinosaurs, or small, single-celled organisms that decided one day to become larger, multicelled organisms so they could, at some point in the future, invent literature, painting, and annoying ring tones for cell phones. He had watched from the depths of space and time—for rock and fire and earth, vacuums and stars and planets were no obstacle to him—as life appeared on Earth, as trees sprouted and the oceans teemed, and he hated all that he saw. He wanted to bring it all to an end, but he could not. He was trapped in a place of flame and stone, surrounded by those like him, some of whom he had created from his own flesh, and others who had been banished there because they were foul and evil, although none quite as foul or as evil as the Great Malevolence himself. Few of the legions of demons who dwelt with him in that distant, fiery realm had even laid eyes upon the Great Malevolence, for he existed in the deepest, darkest corner of Hell, brooding and plotting, waiting for his chance to escape.

  Now, after so long, he had just made his first move.


  In Which We Learn About the Inadvisability of Attempting to Summon Up Demons, and of Generally Messing About with the Afterlife

  SAMUEL AND BOSWELL SAT on the wall outside the Abernathy house and watched the world go by. As it was a quiet evening, and most people were indoors having their tea, there wasn’t a whole lot of the world to watch, and what there was wasn’t doing very much. Samuel shook his bucket and heard the sound of emptiness, which, as anyone knows, is not the same thing as no sound, since it includes all the noise that someone was expecting to hear, but doesn’t.7

  Samuel didn’t want to go home. His mother had been preparing to go out for the evening when Samuel left the house. It was the first time that she had dressed up to go out since Samuel’s dad had left, and something about the sight of it had made Samuel sad. He didn’t know who she was going to meet, but she was putting on lipstick and making herself look nice, and she didn’t go to that kind of trouble when she was heading out to play bingo with her friends. She hadn’t questioned why her son was dressed as a ghost and carrying a Halloween bucket when it was not yet Halloween, for she was well used to her son doing things that might be regarded as somewhat odd.

  The previous week, Samuel’s teacher, Mr. Hume, had phoned her at home to have what he described as a “serious conversation” about Samuel. Samuel, it emerged, had arrived for show and tell that day carrying only a straight pin. When Mr. Hume had called him to the front of the class, Samuel had proudly held up the pin.

  “What’s that?” Mr. Hume had asked.

  “It’s a pin,” said Samuel.

  “I can see that, Samuel, but it’s hardly the most exciting of show and tells, now is it? I mean, it’s not exactly a rocket ship, like the one that Bobby made, or Helen’s volcano.”

  Samuel hadn’t thought much of Bobby Goddard’s rocket ship, which looked to him like a series of toilet paper rolls covered in foil, or for that matter Helen’s volcano, even if it did produce white smoke when water was poured into its crater. Helen’s father was a chemist, and Samuel was pretty sure he’d had a hand in creating that volcano. Helen Kim, Samuel knew, couldn’t even put together a bowl made of lollipop sticks without detailed instructions and a large supply of solvent remover to get the glue, and assorted lollipop sticks, off her fingers afterward.

  Samuel had stepped forward and held the pin under Mr. Hume’s nose.

  “It’s not just a pin,” he said solemnly. Mr. Hume looked unconvinced, and also slightly nervous at having a pin rather closer to his face than he might have liked. There was no telling what some of these kids might do, given half a chance.

  “Er, what is it, then?” said Mr. Hume.

  “Well, if you look closely …”

  Despite his better judgment, Mr. Hume found himself leaning forward to examine the pin.

  “… really closely …”

  Mr. Hume squinted. Someone had once given him a grain of rice with his name written upon it, which Mr. Hume had considered interesting but pointless, and he wondered if Samuel had somehow managed a similar trick.

  “… you might just be able to see an infinite number of angels dancing on the head of this pin,” finished Samuel.8

  Mr. Hume looked at Samuel. Samuel looked back at him.

  “Are you trying to be funny?” asked Mr. Hume.

  This was a question Samuel heard quite often, usually when he wasn’t trying to be funny at all.

  “No,” said Samuel. “I read it somewhere. Theoretically, you can fit an
infinite number of angels on the head of a pin.”

  “That doesn’t mean that they’re actually there,” said Mr. Hume.

  “No, but they might be,” said Samuel reasonably.

  “Equally, they might not.”

  “You can’t prove that they’re not there, though,” said Samuel.

  “But you can’t prove that they are.”

  Samuel thought about this for a couple of seconds, then said, “You can’t prove a negative proposition.”

  “What?” asked Mr. Hume.

  “You can’t prove that something doesn’t exist. You can only prove that something does exist.”

  “Did you read that somewhere too?” Mr. Hume was having trouble keeping the sarcasm from his voice.

  “I think so,” said Samuel, who, like most honest, straightforward people, had trouble recognizing sarcasm. “But it’s true, isn’t it?”

  “I suppose so,” said Mr. Hume. He realized that he sounded distinctly sulky, so he coughed, then said with more force, “Yes, I suppose you’re right.”9

  Samuel continued. “Which means that I have as much chance of proving that there are angels on the head of this pin as you have of proving that there aren’t.”

  “Are you sure you’re only eleven?” asked Mr. Hume.

  “Positive,” said Samuel.

  Mr. Hume shook his head wearily.

  “Thank you for that, Samuel. You can take your pin—and your angels—back to your desk now.”

  “Are you certain you don’t want to keep it?” asked Samuel.

  “Yes, I’m certain.”

  “I have lots more.”

  “Sit down, Samuel,” said Mr. Hume, who had a way of making a hiss sound like a shout, a sign of barely controlled rage that even Samuel was able to recognize. He went back to his chair and carefully impaled his desk with the pin, so that the angels, if they were actually there, wouldn’t fall off.

  “Anyone else got anything they’d like to share with us?” asked Mr. Hume. “An imaginary bunny, perhaps? An invisible duck named Percy?”