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کتاب: چروکی در زمان / فصل 10

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10 - Absolute Zero

THE first sign of returning consciousness was cold. Then sound. She was aware of voices that seemed to be traveling through her across an arctic waste. Slowly the icy sounds cleared and she realized that the voices belonged to her father and Calvin. She did not hear Charles Wallace. She tried to open her eyes but the lids would not move. She tried to sit up, but she could not stir. She struggled to turn over, to move her hands, her feet, but nothing happened. She knew that she had a body, but it was as lifeless as marble.

She heard Calvin’s frozen voice: “Her heart is beating so slowly—”

Her father s voice: “But it’s beating. She’s alive.”

“Barely.”

“We couldn’t find a heartbeat at all at first. We thought she was dead.”

“Yes.”

“And then we could feel her heart, very faintly, the beats very far apart. And then it got stronger. So all we have to do is wait.” Her father’s words sounded brittle in her ears, as though they were being chipped out of ice.

Calvin: “Yes. You’re right, sir.”

She wanted to call out to them. “I’m alive! I’m very much alive! Only I’ve been turned to stone.”

But she could not call out any more than she could move.

 Calvin’s voice again. “Anyhow you got her away from IT. You got us both away and we couldn’t have gone on holding out. IT’S so much more powerful and strong than— How did we stay out, sir? How did we manage as long as we did?”

Her father: “Because IT’S completely unused to being refused. That’s the only reason I could keep from being absorbed, too. No mind has tried to hold out against IT for so many thousands of centuries that certain centers have become soft and atrophied through lack of use. If you hadn’t come to me when you did I’m not sure how much longer I would have lasted. I was on the point of giving in.”

Calvin: “Oh, no, sir—”

Her father: “Yes. Nothing seemed important any more but rest, and of course IT offered me complete rest. I had almost come to the conclusion that I was wrong to fight, that IT was right after all, and everything I believed in most passionately was nothing but a madman’s dream. But then you and Meg came in to me, broke through my prison, and hope and faith returned.”

Calvin: “Sir, why were you on Camazotz at all? Was there a particular reason for going there?”

Her father, with a frigid laugh: “Going to Camazotz was a complete accident. I never intended even to leave our own solar system. I was heading for Mars. Tessering is even more complicated than we had expected,”

Calvin: “Sir, how was IT able to get Charles Wallace before it got Meg and me?”

Her father: “From what you’ve told me it’s because Charles Wallace thought he could deliberately go into IT and return. He trusted too much to his own strength— listen!—I think the heartbeat is getting stronger!”

His words no longer sounded to her quite as frozen. Was it his words that were ice, or her ears? Why did she hear only her father and Calvin? Why didn’t Charles Wallace speak?

Silence. A long silence. Then Calvin’s voice again: “Can’t we do anything? Can’t we look for help? Do we just have to go on waiting?”

Her fattier: “We can’t leave her. And we must stay together. We must not be afraid to take time.”

Calvin: “You mean we were? We rushed into things on Camazotz too fast, and Charles Wallace rushed in too fast, and that’s why he got caught?”

“Maybe. I’m not sure. I don’t know enough yet. Time is different on Camazotz, anyhow. Our time, inadequate though it is, at least is straightforward. It may not be even fully one-dimensional, because it can’t move back and forth on its line, only ahead; but at least it’s consistent in its direction. Time on Camazotz seems to be inverted, turned in on itself. So I have no idea whether I was imprisoned is that column for centuries or only for minutes.” Silence for a moment. Then her father’s voice again. “I think I feel a pulse in her wrist now.”

Meg could not feel his fingers against her wrist. She could not feel her wrist at all. Her body was still stone, but her mind was beginning to be capable of movement. She tried desperately to make some kind of a sound, a signal to them, but nothing happened.

Their voices started again. Calvin: “About your project, sir. Were you on it alone?”

    Her father: “Oh, no. There were half a dozen of us working on it and I daresay a number of others we don’t know about. Certainly we weren’t the only nation to investigate along that line. It’s not really a new idea. But we did try very hard not to let it be known abroad that we were trying to make it practicable.”

“Did you come to Camazotz alone? Or were there others with you?”

“I came alone. You see, Calvin, there was no way to try it out ahead with rats or monkeys or dogs. And we had no idea whether it would really work or whether it would be complete bodily disintegration. Playing with time and space is a dangerous game.”

“But why you, sir?”

“I wasn’t the first. We drew straws, and I was second.”

“What happened to the first man?”

    ”We don’t—look! Did her eyelids move?” Silence. Then: “No. It was only a shadow.”

 

But I did blink, Meg tried to tell them. I’m sure I did. And I can hear you! Do something!

But there was only another long silence, during which perhaps they were looking at her, watching for another shadow, another flicker. Then she heard her father’s voice again, quiet, a little warmer, more like his own voice. “We drew straws, and I was second. We know Hank went. We saw him go. We saw him vanish right in front of the rest of us. He was there and then he wasn’t. We were to wait for a year for his return or for some message. We waited. Nothing.”

Calvin, his voice cracking: “Jeepers, sir. You must have been in sort of a flap.”

Her father: “Yes. It’s a frightening as well as an exciting thing to discover that matter and energy are the same thing, that size is an illusion, and that time is a material substance. We can know this, but it’s far more than we can understand with our puny little brains. I think you will be able to comprehend far more than I. And Charles Wallace even more than you.”

“Yes, but what happened, please, sir, after the first man?”

Meg could hear her father sigh. “Then it was my turn. I went. And here I am. A wiser and a humbler man. I’m sure I haven’t been gone two years. Now that you’ve come I have some hope that I may be able to return in time. One thing I have to tell the others is that we know nothing.”

Calvin: “What do you mean, sir?”

Her father: “Just what I say. We’re children playing with dynamite. In our mad rush we’ve plunged into this before—”

With a desperate effort Meg made a sound. It wasn’t a very loud sound, but it was a sound. Mr. Murry stopped. “Hush. Listen.”

Meg made a strange, croaking noise. She found that she could pull open her eyelids. They felt heavier than marble but she managed to raise them. Her father and Calvin were hovering over her. She did not see Charles Wallace. Where was he?

She was lying in an open field of what looked like rusty, stubby grass. She blinked, slowly, and with difficulty.

“Meg,” her father said. “Meg. Are you all right?”

Her tongue felt like a stone tongue in her mouth, but she managed to croak, “I can’t move.”

“Try,” Calvin urged. He sounded now as though he were very angry with her. “Wiggle your toes. Wiggle your fingers.”

 

“I can’t. Where’s Charles Wallace?” Her words were blunted by the stone tongue. Perhaps they could net understand her, for there was no answer.

“We were knocked out for a minute, too,” Calvin was saying. “You’ll be all right, Meg. Don’t get panicky.” He was crouched over her, and though his voice continued to sound cross he was peering at her with anxious eyes. She knew that she must still have her glasses on because she could see him clearly, his freckles, his stubby black lashes, the bright blue of his eyes.

Her father was kneeling on her other side. The round lenses of Mrs. Who’s glasses still blurred his eyes. He took one of her hands and rubbed it between his. “Can you feel my fingers?” He sounded quite calm, as though there were nothing extraordinary in having her completely paralyzed. At the quiet of his voice she felt calmer. Then she saw that there were great drops of sweat standing out on his forehead, and she noticed vaguely that the gentle breeze that touched her cheeks was cool. At first his words had been frozen and now the wind was cold: was it icy cold here or warm? “Can you feel my fingers?” he asked again.

Yes, now she could feel a pressure against her wrist, but she could not nod. “Where’s Charles Wallace?” Her words were a little less blurred. Her tongue, her lips were beginning to feel cold and numb, as though she had been given a massive dose of Novocain at the dentist’s. She realized with a start that her body and limbs were cold, that not only was she not warm, she was frozen from head to toe, and it was this that had made her father’s words seem like ice, that had paralyzed her.

“I’m frozen—” she said faintly. Camazotz hadn’t been this cold, a cold that cut deeper than the wind on the bitterly coldest of winter days at home. She was away from FT, but this unexplained iciness was almost as bad. Her father had not saved her.

Now she was able to look around a little, and everything she could see was rusty and gray. There were trees edging the field in which she lay, and their leaves were the same brown as the grass. There were plants that might have been flowers, except that they were dull and gray. In contrast to the drabness of color, to the cold that numbed her, the air was filled with a delicate, springlike fragrance, almost imperceptible as it blew softly against her face. She looked at her father and Calvin. They were both in their shirt sleeves and they looked perfectly comfortable. It was she, wrapped in their clothes, who was frozen too solid even to shiver.

“Why am I so cold?” she asked. “Where’s Charles Wallace?” They did not answer. “Father, where are we?”

Mr. Murry looked at her soberly. “I don’t know, Meg. I don’t tesser very well. I must have overshot, somehow. We’re not on Camazotz. I don’t know where we are. I think you’re so cold because we went through the Black Thing, and I thought for a moment it was going to tear you away from me.”

“Is this a dark planet?” Slowly her tongue was beginning to thaw, her words were less blurred.

“I don’t think so,” Mr. Murry said, “but I know so little about anything that I can’t be sure.”

“You shouldn’t have tried to tesser, then.” She had never spoken to her father in this way before. The words seemed hardly to be hers.

Calvin looked at her, shaking his head. “It was the only thing to do. At least it got us off Camazotz.”

“Why did we go without Charles Wallace? Did we just leave him there?” The words that were not really hers came out cold and accusing.

“We didn’t ‘Just leave him,’” her father said. “Remember that the human brain is a very delicate organism, and it can be easily damaged.”

“See, Meg,” Calvin crouched over her, tense and worried. “if your father had tried to yank Charles away when he tessered us, and if IT had kept grabbing hold of Charles, it might have been too much for him, and we’d have lost him forever. And we had to do something right then.”

“Why?”

“IT was taking us. You and I were slipping, and if your father had gone on trying to help us he wouldn’t have been able to hold out much longer, either.”

“You told him to tesser,” Meg charged Calvin.

“There isn’t any question of blame,” Mr. Murry cut in severely. “Can you move yet?”

All Meg’s faults were uppermost in her now, and they were no longer helping her. “No! And you’d better take me back to Camazotz and Charles Wallace quickly. You’re supposed to be able to help!” Disappointment was as dark and corrosive in her as the Black Thing. The ugly words tumbled from her cold lips even as she herself could not believe that it was to her father, her beloved, longed-for father, that she was talking to in this way. If her tears had not still been frozen they would have gushed from her eyes.

She had found her father and he had not made everything all right. Everything kept getting worse and worse. If the long search for her father was ended, and he wasn’t able to overcome all their difficulties, there was nothing to guarantee that it would all come out right in the end. There was nothing left to hope for. She was frozen, and Charles Wallace was being devoured by IT, and her omnipotent father was doing nothing. She teetered on the see-saw of love and hate, and the Black Thing pushed her down into hate. “You don’t even know where we are!” she cried out at her father. “Well never see Mother or the twins again! We don’t know where earth is! Or even where Camazotz is! We’re lost out in space! What are you going to do!” She did not realize that she was as much in the power of the Black Thing as Charles Wallace.

Mr. Murry bent over her, massaging her cold fingers. She could not see his face. “My daughter, I am not a Mrs. Whatsit, a Mrs. Who, or a Mrs. Which. Yes, Calvin has told me everything he could. I am a human being, and a very fallible one. But I agree with Calvin. We were sent here for something. And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”

“The Black Thing!” Meg cried out at him. “Why did you let it almost get me?”

“You’ve never tessered as well as the rest of us,” Calvin reminded her. “It never bothered Charles and me as much as it did you.”

“He shouldn’t have taken me, then,” Meg said, “until he learned to do it better.”

Neither her father nor Calvin spoke. Her father continued his gentle massage. Her fingers came back to life with tingling pain. “You’re hurting me!”

“Then you’re feeling again,” her father said quietly. “I’m afraid it is going to hurt, Meg.”

The piercing pain moved slowly up her arms, began in her toes and legs. She started to cry out against her father when Calvin exclaimed, “Look!”

Coming toward them, moving in silence across the brown grass, were three figures.

What were they?

On Uriel there had been the magnificent creatures. On Camazotz the inhabitants had at least resembled people. What were these three strange tilings approaching?

They were the same dull gray color as the flowers. If they hadn’t walked upright they would have seemed like animals. They moved directly toward the three human beings. They had four arms and far more than five fingers to each hand, and the fingers were not fingers, but long waving tentacles. They had heads, and they had faces. But where the faces of the creatures on Uriel had seemed far more than human faces, these seemed far less. Where the features would normally be there were several indentations, and in place of ears and hair were more tentacles. They were tall, Meg realized as they came closer, far taller than any man. They had no eyes. Just soft indentations.

Meg’s rigid, frozen body tried to shudder with terror, but instead of the shudder all that came was pain. She moaned.

The Things stood over them. They appeared to be looking down at them, except that they had no eyes with which to see. Mr. Murry continued to kneel by Meg, massaging her.

He’s killed us, bringing us here, Meg thought. I’ll never see Charles Wallace again, or Mother, or the twins….

Calvin rose to his feet. He bowed to the beasts as though they could see him. He said, “How do you do, sir—ma’am —?”

“Who are you?” the tallest of the beasts said. His voice was neither hostile nor welcoming, and it came not from the mouthlike indentation in the furry face, but from the waving tentacles.

—They’ll eat us, Meg thought wildly. —They’re making me hurt. My toes—my fingers—I hurt….

Calvin answered the beast’s question. “We’re—we’re from earth. I’m not sure how we got here. We’ve had an accident. Meg—this girl—is—is paralyzed. She can’t move. She’s terribly cold. We think that’s why she can’t move.”

One of them came up to Meg and squatted down on its huge haunches beside her, and she felt utter loathing and revulsion as it reached out a tentacle to touch her face.

But with the tentacle came the same delicate fragrance that moved across her with the breeze, and she felt a soft, tingling warmth go all through her that momentarily assuaged her pain. She felt suddenly sleepy.

I must look as strange to it as it looks to me, she thought drowsily, and then realized with a shock that of course the beast couldn’t see her at all. Nevertheless a reassuring sense of safety flowed through her with the warmth which continued to seep deep into her as the beast touched her. Then it picked her up, cradling her in two of its four arms.

Mr. Murry stood up quickly. “What are you doing?”

“Taking the child.”

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