“Yes, but I’m—we are—more interested in Jacob’s grandfather, and why you brought us here.”
“They are related, I promise. That room, and this house generally, is the place to begin.”
“Okay,” I said. “Tell us about the house.”
Bentham took a breath and steepled his fingers against his lips for a moment, thinking. Then he said, “This house is filled with priceless artifacts I’ve brought back over a lifetime of expeditions, but none are more valuable than the house itself. It is a machine, a device of my own invention. I call it the Panloopticon.”
“Mr. Bentham’s a genius,” Nim said, laying a plate of sandwiches before us. “Sandwich, Mr. Bentham?”
Bentham waved him away. “But even that is not quite bedrock,” he continued. “My story begins long before this house was built, when I was a lad about your age, Jacob. My brother and I fancied ourselves explorers. We pored over the maps of Perplexus Anomalous and dreamed of visiting all the loops he’d discovered. Of finding new ones, and visiting them not just once, but again and again. In this way we hoped to make peculiardom great again.” He leaned forward. “Do you understand what I mean?”
I frowned. “Make it great … with maps?”
“No, not just with maps. Ask yourself: what makes us weak, as a people?”
“Wights?” Emma guessed.
“Hollows?” I said.
“Before either of them existed,” Bentham prodded.
Emma said, “Persecution by normals?”
“No. That is just a symptom of our weakness. What makes us weak is geography. There are, by my rough estimate, some ten thousand peculiars in the world today. We know there must be, just as we know there must be other planets in the universe that harbor intelligent life. It is mathematically mandatory.” He smiled and sipped his tea. “Now just imagine ten thousand peculiars, all with astounding talents, all in one place and united by a common cause. They’d be a power to be reckoned with, no?”
“I suppose so,” Emma said.
“Most definitely so,” Bentham said. “But we are splintered by geography into hundreds of weak subunits—ten peculiars here, twelve there—because it is extraordinarily difficult to travel from a loop in the Australian outback, for example, to a loop in the horn of Africa. There are not only the inherent dangers of normals and the natural world to consider, but the dangers of aging forward during a long journey. The tyranny of geography precludes all but the most cursory visits between distant loops, even in this modern era of air travel.”
He paused for a moment before continuing, his eyes scanning the room.
“Now then. Imagine there was a link between that loop in Australia and the one in Africa. Suddenly those two populations could develop a relationship. Trade with each other. Learn from each other. Band together to defend each other in times of crisis. All sorts of exciting possibilities arise which were previously impossible. And gradually, as more and more such connections are made, the peculiar world is transformed from a collection of far-flung tribes hiding in isolated loops to a mighty nation, united and strong!”
Bentham had grown increasingly animated as he spoke, and at this last bit he’d raised his hands and spread his fingers like he was grasping for an invisible pull-up bar.
“Hence the machine?” I ventured.
“Hence the machine,” he said, lowering his hands. “We’d been searching, my brother and I, for an easier way to explore the peculiar world, and instead we hit upon a way to unite it. The Panloopticon was to be the savior of our people, an invention that would change the nature of peculiar society forever. It works like this: you begin here, in the house, with a small piece of the machine called a shuttle. It fits in your hand,” he said, opening his palm. “You take it with you, out of the house, out of the loop, and then across the present to another loop, which could be on the other side of the world or the next village over. And when you return here, the shuttle will have collected and brought back the DNA-like signature of that other loop, which can be used to grow a second entrance to it—here, inside this house.”
“In that hallway upstairs,” Emma guessed. “With all the doors and little plaques.”
“Exactly,” said Bentham. “Every one of those rooms is a loop entrance that my brother and I, over the course of many years, harvested and brought back. With the Panloopticon, the initial, arduous trek of first contact has to be made only once, and every return trip thereafter is instantaneous.”
“Like laying telegraph lines,” Emma said.
“Just so,” said Bentham. “And in that way, theoretically, the house becomes a central repository for all loops everywhere.”
I thought about that. About how hard it had been to reach Miss Peregrine’s loop the first time. What if instead of having to go all the way to a little island off the coast of Wales, I could’ve entered Miss Peregrine’s loop from my closet in Englewood? I could have lived both lives—at home with my parents, and here, with my friends and Emma.
Except. If that had existed, Grandpa Portman and Emma never would’ve had to break up. Which was a sentence so strange it gave me the tailbone-tingling willies.
Bentham stopped and sipped his tea. “Cold,” he said, and set it down.
Emma peeled off her blanket, got up, crossed the floor to Bentham’s couch, and dipped the tip of her index finger in his tea. In a moment it was boiling again.