I don’t dislike seeing children portrayed as something malevolent – in fact, it frightens me a bit. I just don’t prefer it. It smacks of something supernatural. It brings to mind Children of the Corn, Village of the Damned, the Omen, among others. Ooo, or how about Ju-On?
I see a child as having no real experience or understanding of the human condition, and seeing a toddler wield a butcher knife with intent and full knowledge of the consequences of death and murder can be more unnerving than a full-grown man coming at you with a chainsaw and a mask made of flesh.
You recognize the unnatural state, you surmise that there is something darker than experience in the black eyes of the evil child, whereas madness in men seems commonplace. A mad man becomes only as fearsome as a rabid dog, but an evil child becomes something much worse.
Not that this story has anything to do with these thoughts – I’m just rambling. I guess what I am saying, deep beneath the commentary here, is that I don’t often write piranha-toothed kiddies with evil intent, but when I do, I try to make them creepier than they already are.
7. Child’s Play
“Sit down, Jeffrey,” the Doctor said to me. His face was stony in the set of his jaw and mouth, but his eyes spoke of something softer.
Calmly, I pulled up Mycroft’s desk chair and sat down. It was not difficult to do so – as higher cognitive function went, my mind had quietly shut itself off after such relentless and repetitive shock, but basic motor skills were unaffected.
“What I’m about to tell you is dangerous,” he said. “I can’t stress that enough. As I tell you this, we may see an increase in resistance against us.”
With a sigh, he ran his hands through his curly, unkempt hair and paced the room for a moment. I was aware that he was struggling with whether or not to tell me the whole truth, and, for that moment, his face betrayed a deep compassion for whatever my dilemma was.
“Please, Doctor. Tell me everything,” I requested evenly. I felt at ease and peaceful. In my mind’s eye, I could see the girl the Doctor had informed me was my daughter.
The Doctor stopped pacing and faced me. “I told you earlier that you’re a brilliant man, Jeffrey. I was being modest on your behalf. Your genius exceeds even my own in some respects. When I said that you were not really here, it wasn’t entirely true. This place is you.”
“I don’t understand,” I admitted.
“I can’t just tell you what’s going on here all at once. Bear with me.” The Doctor began pacing again and stopped short at an end-table with Mycroft’s chessboard on it.
“You’re fond of chess, aren’t you?”
“Are you asking Watson, or Jeffrey?”
“Clever man,” the Doctor said, grinning. “I’m actually telling you, Jeffrey, that you like chess. In fact, you like all manner of games. Your passion is the challenge of a new game, a new battle of intelligence – one mind against the other. And, oh Jeffrey, you’re so very good at what you do.”
“This is a game,” I surmised.
“This is the game,” he corrected.
“Jeffrey, you’ve mastered every game they’ve thrown at you. You’ve beaten the greatest minds of mankind, you’ve even beaten artificial intelligences – oh, rudimentary ones of course, but that’s not the point. People have lined up, filling the streets, to test your mind against the unsolvable, the unbeatable, the unbreakable. You’ve beaten them all.”
It seemed the Doctor had finished his preface to the larger truth he had been hesitating to reveal to me. Placing his hands in his pockets, he strode slowly towards me.
“It’s the year 4213. The human race is expanding their foothold in the galaxy further than ever before. Your species, your beautiful, wonderfully brilliant, and tenaciously headstrong species is making a name for itself among the stars, and by doing so – whether for good or bad – you are being noticed by other intelligent species.
“You – Jeffrey Peterson – have gained notoriety beyond your race. Other species are now challenging you. And with new opponents come new games,” the Doctor paused a moment. “Did you hear that?”
I listened but heard nothing. The Doctor looked up to the ceiling and was silent for a moment. “Probably rats, or squirrels or something – nevermind.”
“Not too far from the human colony on Dreides VII, your home,” he continued, “there is an alien species known as the Huulanix. Brilliant gamers. They’ve perfected virtual reality to the point that to enter a virtual reality game you are actually controlling avatars in a real miniature universe. This is where we are right now.”
The declaration suddenly opened a door in my mind that had been closed. I felt that what he was saying was absolutely true and could begin to piece together the rest of the story myself.
“I chose Sherlock Holmes,” I said.
“You created this version of Sherlock Holmes’ world from your own creativity,” he corrected. “Your favorite books as a child, your greatest hero and inspiration, the Huulanix took your vision of it and made it this reality. You know this world better than anyone else left in the human race and you’ve created a game that has sparked the imagination of hundreds of worlds. Everyone loves to watch you play, side by side with your personal hero, Sherlock Holmes. It’s like television for them.
“You’ve been challenged your whole life, Jeffrey, but have never found a challenge you couldn’t conquer.”
“Until now,” I said, completing his thoughts.
“Not entirely your fault, Jeffrey,” he said sympathetically. “Sometimes our greatest adversaries are ourselves. No one blames you for what has happened.”
“What has happened?”
The Doctor hesitated. I could tell he was still keeping some vital information from me. Just then, I heard the scratching sound coming from above us, followed by the sound of several feet running through the rooms on the second floor.
“Listen, Jeffrey. No matter what happens, you must remember that most of this world is being created through your thoughts. This game was intended to best you,” he explained.
“And the rest of it?” I queried.
The door to the room we were standing in burst open and several ragged looking children filed in.
“The Huulanix weren’t intelligent enough to beat you themselves,” he said, backing away from the urchins moving slowly towards us. “So they built a giant quantum computer, a massive super-intelligent brain to challenge you. They call it the Prime Machine. It controls this world, and you are its opponent.”
I slowly stood from the chair and backed towards the open window which Mycroft’s killer had taken his shot from, bumping into the desk as I did so.
More children poured into the room. To my horror, several of them sprang up and latched onto the walls like spiders and began crawling up them to the ceiling above us.
“And the Firebear?” I asked, preparing to flee out the window with the Doctor who was similarly angling himself to retreat.
“Bit of my own thoughts there – before I was able to block out my mind from the connection with the Prime Machine,” he said, smiling apologetically. “Sorry about that.”
“What happens if I’m killed here – in this reality?” I asked, suddenly realizing what this all meant.
“Actually, that’s a bit complicated. The Prime Machine plays fair until die – it could short circuit your brain at any moment, but it wants to win fairly. You die here in this world, and then you die there, like the power company shutting off the grid.”
The children stopped their movement and stood staring at us. On the ceiling, the ragged youth turned their heads like owls on impossibly limber necks to glower down at us.
“Where is Mr. Holmes?” one of them, a particularly evil-looking child, said.
“Popped out for a late night snack I suppose,” the Doctor answered flippantly.
“You shouldn’t be here,” a little girl said to the Doctor. “You are not connected.”
“You see how fast it realized what I was telling you, Jeffrey? You are connected to the Prime Machine, and it intends to keep you here until you beat it or it beats you. I trust these are the infamous Baker Street Irregulars – a fitting name in the circumstances. Quite, er, irregular.”
“I fancy a late night snack myself,” the lead boy said. His face transformed into a feral, fanged visage – an unholy mockery of innocent youth. “I think I’ll have a bit of the fat one.”
“Look, I’ll have you know I’ve been traveling and I often eat more when bouncing about the universe,” the Doctor said, patting his stomach. “Diets are difficult to maintain when you’re saving the universe from -”
The rest of the street urchins transformed into their malevolent masks.
“- whatever you are.”
The lead boy snarled and crouched to spring at the Doctor. Quickly, I kicked Mycroft’s chair between the creature and the Doctor. The boy sprang at that moment and the chair knocked him off balance, preventing him from reaching the Doctor with an open mouth full of razor sharp teeth. The boy crumpled to the ground, but leaped to his feet with cat-like agility. The rest of the crowd of children sprang forward at us.
“Run!” the Doctor yelled, with an edge of panic in his voice.
We dove through the open window, one after the other, and sprinted across to the garden wall. The children, if they could be consider so, poured out from the house, tearing glass, frame and curtains with them. Deftly, the Doctor scaled the wall and paused at the top to help pull me over.
“Running from children,” I panted, vaulting myself over the top of the wall. “Have you ever heard of something so ridiculous?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” the Doctor said with a smile after we were both on pavement. “I’m used to this sort of thing by now.”
A handful of children leaped over the wall and landed near us, and we took off at a sprint again.
“There’s an alley just through here,” I yelled to the Doctor, leading the way. “Tight quarters.”
The alley was similar to the one I had used to surreptitiously gain entrance to my own home without attracting the notice of the same Baker Street Irregulars that now chased us with their demonic cries. It all seemed so long ago that I had existed as just a normal person in this place. I pondered, as we ran, how realistic it all was. The path we took connected to several other small alleyways between houses and we made erratic turns, losing our own way in the process of trying to evade the Irregulars. For a good while, I heard their pursuit, a cacophonic row of demonic chitters, howls, and screeching. Then it gradually faded away.
After what seemed like ten minutes of continuous flight, the Doctor called for a halt and we stood gasping for air, bending at the waist while trying to catch our breath.
“We’ve lost them, it seems,” I said.
“Jeffrey, this is a game world. The Prime Machine knows where we are. It’s toying with us.”
“How do we get out?” I asked, desperately wanting to exit the nightmare I then found myself in.
“I can leave at any time,” the Doctor explained. “All I have to do is give the signal.”
“And what about me?”
The Doctor stood up straight and stretched his back.
“Well, that’s a bit more difficult.”
“Explain.” My ire was growing. I had not been frustrated with the Doctor in a good while, but my irritation was rising and I felt like punching him again, as I had earlier.
“You’re connected,” he offered. “Wires and electrodes, life-support, all sorts of fascinating little things that go ‘bleep’ and flashy lights and such.”
“So have them disconnect me,” I stated.
“That’s the tricky part,” he said, wagging his finger at me. “Your brain is both transmitting and receiving information directly from the Prime Machine. To sever that connection suddenly without properly having you shut down those connections yourself could completely short out your brain. You’d be a vegetable – not as final as death, but the effect is much the same.”
Roughly, I grabbed him by his lapels. “I want out of here. Now!”
“I wondered if all that anger was part of the Watson persona, or if it was really you.”
“It’s me,” I said evenly. “I’ve always been one for short bursts of temper.”
I let him go and dropped to sit upon the pavement, holding my spinning head.
“What do we do?”
“You’ll need to completely disconnect your senses from this place. Don’t listen to anything, don’t see anything, don’t smell the air. Don’t even think about anything having to do with this place. Your mind must be absolutely blank, Jeffrey.”
“That’s a tall order, considering we’re being chased by an army of demon children,” I said jokingly.
“Yes. Well … I wonder where they went to,” he said. He took a moment to listen to the sounds of the city and walked back and forth up the alley looking for signs of pursuit.
“We should try it now,” he decided. “While we have a reprieve. Close your eyes.”
I eyed him with skepticism. I would be completely at his mercy, and I still was not completely sure I could trust the stranger.
“Trust me, Jeffrey,” he said calmly. “I’m going to get you out of this.”
I closed my eyes and tried to clear my mind.
“Replace every sense you have of this place with something. If you hear a dog bark, imagine an elephant trumpeting. If you smell a trash bin, imagine the smell of roses. Just whatever happens, do not focus on anything in this reality.”
I did as he said. The cobblestones under me I imagined as sand on a beach. The dampness of the air I imagined as sea spray.
“That’s good, Jeffrey,” he encouraged. “Keep it up just a bit longer.”
He pulled his communication device from his coat and spoke into it. “Chief, stand by to extract us. Let me know when it looks safe on your end.”
The device crackled to life and the Chief’s voice came through. “He’s not receiving anything, but he appears to be transmitting something.”
“I’m thinking of the beach,” I said.
“Is he transmitting, or is something -” the Doctor paused a moment. I opened my eyes and saw him staring at a point behind me. “- being downloaded?”
I closed my eyes again, cancelling out the smells, tastes, and feelings of the environment. Then I heard a sound I could not cancel out – a long, rolling canine growl.
“Jeffrey,” the Doctor said with alarm in his voice. “Stand up very slowly and don’t make any sudden moves.”
I opened my eyes and was about to look behind me when the Doctor exclaimed, “Don’t turn around, it’ll only make it worse.”
Slowly, I pushed myself up, the dog’s growls growing louder and closer to me.
“Chief, stay with us,” the Doctor said into his communication device. “Jeffrey, come stand next to me and turn around slowly. We don’t want to provoke it.”
“Provoke what?” I asked, moving to stand next to him.
“You had a very, very, very big dog in your head, Jeffrey,” he explained. “The Prime Machine has pulled it out of your mind and is now using it against us.”
Carefully, I turned around and had to grab the Doctor’s arm to steady myself when the beast came full into my view. I grabbed his scarf instead and accidentally choked him, pulling it so tight.
It was the Uxbridge’s rottweiler and it stood five feet high at its shoulder.
“Oh my god,” I uttered.
“Oh your dog, you mean, ha ha,” the Doctor joked through the constriction of his windpipe, then look embarrassed for himself as he loosened the ridiculous scarf. “Bad timing. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
The huge beast barked and its fetid breath blew back our hair.
“How do we get out of this one, Doctor?” I asked.
“I don’t think running will work this time,” he admitted. “But I may have an idea.”
The rottweiler took a few steps toward us, its growl growing only more menacing.
“That … thing … is a construct of your mind. It exists here because you made it exist, Jeffrey.” Carefully, keeping as eye on the dog, the Doctor spoke to the Chief. “Is Jeffrey still transmitting?”
“Affirmative, Doctor,” came the reply.
“Jeffrey, that image is being pulled from your mind as we speak. You may still have control over it. Try and alter it to something we can handle.”
I closed my eyes and tried to think of something less menacing.
“Jeffrey, no! Goodness gracious me! You’ve been reading Lovecraft, haven’t you?”
I opened my eyes. The rottweiler had become a huge, slimy black monstrosity with tentacles that writhed towards us.
“Sorry!” I apologized and tried to clear my mind.
“Ah!” the Doctor said after a few seconds. “That’s much better.”
Before us stood a small chihuahua.
“Yes, well, not so tough are you now, eh, little guy?” he said, bending down to pet the dog. The dog barked, but its voice was still that of the monstrous rottweiler. The Doctor jumped back with a yelp, snatching his hand back to his person.
“Bad dog!” he barked back at it. The chihuahua barked again and ran at us.
“Run!” the Doctor yelled, spinning on his heel. “Again!”
I followed his lead, the small dog barking and snapping right at our heels, literally. We reached the end of the alleyway and both the Doctor and I skidded to a halt before a small girl standing alone.
“Coraline?” I said, recognizing my daughter.
“That’s not Coraline, Jeffrey, it’s just -” the Doctor broke off as the chihuahua bit into his ankle and shook the bottom of his trousers viciously.
As he struggled to free himself from the ferocious yet tiny animal, which was now dangling from the end of his scarf, I moved toward the image of my daughter. I had not seen her in the flesh for what seemed like decades. She was just as I remembered her, innocent and beautiful.
“Coraline,” I said to her, beaming with a smile. I felt no fear and the Doctor’s interrupted warning was erased from my mind as easily as tissue reduced to nothingness by fire. “Come here to me, my little girl.”
“Jeffrey!” the Doctor screamed, still struggling violently with the tenacious dog. “Whatever you do, don’t touch it! That’s not your daughter!”
But I couldn’t hear him. None of his struggle or his words reached me. I glided forward to receive my daughter into my arms. “Coraline …”
“Daddy?” she said in her tiny voice. “Are you my daddy?”
She was a few feet away from me, moving into my arms. Nothing else mattered. Nothing else existed.
Then I heard: “Chief! Take us out! Now!”
And then all I saw was the deepest darkness my soul had ever known.