He grinned at her. “Fantastic,” he said.
She removed her finger. “One question.”
“I’ll bet I know what it is,” Bentham said.
“Okay. What is it?”
“If such a wonderful thing really exists, why haven’t you heard about it before now?”
“That’s it,” she said, and returned to sit next to me.
“You never heard about it—no one did—because of the unfortunate trouble with my brother.” Bentham’s expression darkened. “The machine was born with his help, but ultimately he was its downfall as well. Ultimately, the Panloopticon was never used as a tool to unite our people, as it was intended, but for quite the opposite purpose. The trouble began when we realized that the task of visiting every loop in the world so that we might re-create their entrances here was laughable at best—so far beyond our abilities that it bordered on delusional. We needed help, and a great deal of it. Luckily, my brother was such a charismatic and convincing fellow that recruiting all the help we needed proved easy. Before long we had a small army of young, idealistic peculiars willing to risk life and limb to help us achieve our dream. What I didn’t realize at the time was that my brother had a different dream than I did—a hidden agenda.”
With some effort, Bentham stood up. “There is a legend,” he said. “You might know it, Miss Bloom.” Tapping with his cane, he moved across the floor to the shelves and pulled down a small book. “It’s the tale of a lost loop. A kind of afterworld where our peculiar souls are stored after we die.”
“Abaton,” Emma said. “Sure, I’ve heard of it. But it’s just a legend.”
“Perhaps you can tell the tale,” he said, “for the benefit of our neophyte friend.”
Bentham hobbled back to the couches and handed me the book. It was slim and green and so old it crumbled around the edges. On the front was printed Tales of the Peculiar.
“I’ve read this!” I said. “Part of it, at least.”
“This edition is nearly six hundred years old,” said Bentham. “It was the last to contain the story Miss Bloom is about to recount, because it was regarded as dangerous. For a time it was a criminal act simply to tell it, and thus the book you hold is the only volume in the history of peculiardom ever to have been banned.”
I opened the book. Every page was handwritten in ornate, superhumanly neat script, and every margin was crowded with illustrations.
“It’s been a long time since I heard it,” Emma said tentatively.
“I’ll help you along,” Bentham said, lowering himself gently onto the couch. “Go on.”
“Well,” Emma began, “the legend goes that back in the old days—the really, really, thousands-of-years-ago old days—there was a special loop peculiars went to when they died.”
“Peculiar Heaven,” I said.
“Not quite. We didn’t stay there for all eternity or anything. It was more like a … library.” She seemed uncertain of her word choice, and looked to Bentham. “Right?”
“Yes,” he said, nodding. “It was thought that peculiar souls were a precious thing in limited supply, and it would be a waste to take them with us to the grave. Instead, at the end of our lives we were to make a pilgrimage to the library, where our souls would be deposited for future use by others. Even in spiritual matters, we peculiars have always been frugal-minded.”
“The first law of thermodynamics,” I said.
He looked at me blankly.
“Matter can neither be created nor destroyed. Or souls, in this case.” (Sometimes I surprise myself with the things I remember from school.)
“The principle is similar, I suppose,” said Bentham. “The ancients believed that only a certain number of peculiar souls were available to humanity, and that when a peculiar was born, he or she checked one out, as you or I might borrow a book from a library.” He gestured at the stacks around us. “But when your life—your borrowing term—was over, the soul had to be returned.”
Bentham gestured to Emma. “Please go on.”
“So,” Emma said, “there was this library. I always imagined it filled with beautiful, glowing books, each containing a peculiar soul. For thousands of years people checked out souls and returned them just before they died, and everything was rosy. Then one day someone figured out that you could break in to the library, even if you weren’t about to die. And he did break in—and then robbed the place. He stole the most powerful souls he could find and used them to wreak havoc.” Emma looked at Bentham. “Right?”
“Factually correct, if a bit artless in the telling,” Bentham said.
“Used them?” I said. “How?”
“By combining their powers with his own,” Bentham explained. “Eventually the library’s guardians killed the rogue, took back the stolen souls, and set things aright. But the genie was out of the bottle, so to speak. The knowledge that the library could be breached became a poison that spread throughout our society. Whoever controlled the library could dominate all peculiardom, and before long more souls were stolen. There dawned a dark time, in which the power-mad waged epic battles against one another for control of Abaton and the Library of Souls. Many lives were lost. The land was scorched. Famine and pestilence reigned while peculiars with power beyond imagination murdered one another with floods and lightning bolts. This is where normals got their tales of gods fighting for supremacy in the sky. Their Clash of the Titans was our battle for the Library of Souls.”