The Subtle Knife Chapter Four
As soon as Lyra had gone her way, Will found a pay phone and dialed the number of the lawyer’s office on the letter he held.
“Hello? I want to speak to Mr. Perkins.
“Who’s calling, please?”
“It’s in connection with Mr. John Parry. I’m his son.”
“Just a moment, please…”
A minute went by, and then a man’s voice said, “Hello. This is Alan Perkins. Who am I speaking to?”
“William Parry. Excuse me for calling. It’s about my father, Mr. John Parry. You send money every three months from my father to my mother’s bank account.”
“Well, I want to know where my father is, please. Is he alive or dead?”
“How old are you, William?”
“Twelve. I want to know about him.”
“Yes… Has your mother… is she… does she know you’re phoning me?”
Will thought carefully.
“No,” he said. “But she’s not in very good health. She can’t tell me very much, and I want to know.”
“Yes, I see. Where are you now? Are you at home?”
“No, I’m… I’m in Oxford.”
“On your own?”
“And your mother’s not well, you say?”
“Is she in hospital or something?”
“Something like that. Look, can you tell me or not?”
“Well, I can tell you something, but not much and not right now, and I’d rather not do it over the phone. I’m seeing a client in five minutes. Can you find your way to my office at about half past two?”
“No,” Will said. It would be too risky; the lawyer might have heard by then that he was wanted by the police. He thought quickly and went on. “I’ve got to catch a bus to Nottingham, and I don’t want to miss it. But what I want to know, you can tell me over the phone, can’t you? All I want to know is, is my father alive, and if he is, where I can find him. You can tell me that, can’t you?”
“It’s not quite as simple as that. I can’t really give out private information about a client unless I’m sure the client would want me to. And I’d need some proof of who you were, anyway.”
“Yes, I understand, but can you just tell me whether he’s alive or dead?”
“Well… that wouldn’t be confidential. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you anyway, because I don’t know.”
“The money comes from a family trust. He left instructions to pay it until he told me to stop. I haven’t heard from him from that day to this. What it boils down to is that he’s… well, I suppose he’s vanished. That’s why I can’t answer your question.”
“Vanished? Just… lost?”
“It’s a matter of public record, actually. Look, why don’t you come into the office and – “
“I can’t. I’m going to Nottingham.”
“Well, write to me, or get your mother to write, and I’ll let you know what I can. But you must understand, I can’t do very much over the phone.”
“Yes, I suppose so. All right. But can you tell me where he disappeared?”
“As I say, it’s a matter of public record. There were several newspaper stories at the time. You know he was an explorer?”
“My mother’s told me some things, yes.”
“Well, he was leading an expedition, and it just disappeared. About ten years ago. Maybe more.”
“The far north. Alaska, I think. You can look it up in the public library. Why don’t you – “
But at that point Will’s money ran out, and he didn’t have any more change. The dial tone purred in his ear. He put the phone down and looked around.
What he wanted above all was to speak to his mother. He had to stop himself from dialing Mrs. Cooper’s number, because if he heard his mother’s voice, it would be very hard not to go back to her, and that would put both of them in danger. But he could send her a postcard.
He chose a view of the city, and wrote: “DEAR MUM, I AM SAFE AND WELL, AND I WILL SEE YOU AGAIN SOON. I HOPE EVERYTHING IS ALL RIGHT. I LOVE YOU. WILL.” Then he addressed it and bought a stamp and held the card close to him for a minute before dropping it in the mailbox.
It was midmorning, and he was in the main shopping street, where buses shouldered their way through crowds of pedestrians. He began to realize how exposed he was; for it was a weekday, when a child of his age should have been in school. Where could he go?
It didn’t take him long to hide. Will could vanish easily enough, because he was good at it; he was even proud of his skill. Like Serafina Pekkala on the ship, he simply made himself part of the background.
So now, knowing the sort of world he lived in, he went into a stationery shop and bought a ballpoint, a pad of paper, and a clipboard. Schools often sent groups of pupils off to do a shopping survey, or something of the sort, and if he seemed to be on a project like that he wouldn’t look as if he was at a loose end.
Then he wandered along, pretending to be making notes, and kept his eyes open for the public library.
Meanwhile, Lyra was looking for somewhere quiet to consult the alethiometer. In her own Oxford there would have been a dozen places within five minutes’ walk, but this Oxford was so disconcertingly different, with patches of poignant familiarity right next to the downright outlandish: why had they painted those yellow lines on the road? What were those little white patches dotting every sidewalk? (In her own world, they had never heard of chewing gum.) What could those red and green lights mean at the corner of the road? It was all much harder to read than the alethiometer.
But here were St. John’s College gates, which she and Roger had once climbed after dark to plant fireworks in the flowerbeds; and that particular worn stone at the corner of Catte Street – there were the initials SP that Simon Parslow had scratched, the very same ones! She’d seen him do it! Someone in this world with the same initials must have stood here idly and done exactly the same.
There might be a Simon Parslow in this world.
Perhaps there was a Lyra.
A chill ran down her back, and mouse-shaped Pantalaimon shivered in her pocket. She shook herself; there were mysteries enough without imagining more.
The other way in which this Oxford differed from hers was in the vast numbers of people swarming on every sidewalk, in and out of every building; people of every sort, women dressed like men, Africans, even a group of Tartars meekly following their leader, all neatly dressed and hung about with little black cases. She glared at them fearfully at first, because they had no daemons, and in her world they would have been regarded as ghasts, or worse.
But (this was the strangest thing) they all looked fully alive. These creatures moved about cheerfully enough, for all the world as though they were human, and Lyra had to concede that human was what they probably were, and that their daemons were inside them as Will’s was.
After wandering about for an hour, taking the measure of this mock-Oxford, she felt hungry and bought a bar of chocolate with her twenty-pound note. The shopkeeper looked at her oddly, but he was from the Indies and didn’t understand her accent, perhaps, although she asked very clearly. With the change she bought an apple from the Covered Market, which was much more like the proper Oxford, and walked up toward the park. There she found herself outside a grand building, a real Oxford-looking building that didn’t exist in her world at all, though it wouldn’t have looked out of place. She sat on the grass outside to eat, and regarded the building approvingly.
She discovered that it was a museum. The doors were open, and inside she found stuffed animals and fossil skeletons and cases of minerals, just like the Royal Geological Museum she’d visited with Mrs. Coulter in her London. At the back of the great iron-and-glass hall was the entrance to another part of the museum, and because it was nearly deserted, she went through and looked around. The alethiometer was still the most urgent thing on her mind, but in this second chamber she found herself surrounded by things she knew well: there were showcases filled with Arctic clothing, just like her own furs; with sledges and walrus-ivory carvings and seal-hunting harpoons; with a thousand and one jumbled trophies and relics and objects of magic and tools and weapons, and not only from the Arctic, as she saw, but from every part of this world.
Well, how strange. Those caribou-skin furs were exactly the same as hers, but they’d tied the traces on that sledge completely wrong. But here was a photogram showing some Samoyed hunters, the very doubles of the ones who’d caught Lyra and sold her to Bolvangar. Look! They were the same men! And even that rope had frayed and been reknotted in precisely the same spot, and she knew it intimately, having been tied up in that very sledge for several agonizing hours… What were these mysteries? Was there only one world after all, which spent its time dreaming of others?
And then she came across something that made her think of the alethiometer again. In an old glass case with a black-painted wooden frame there were a number of human skulls, and some of them had holes in them: some at the front, some on the side, some on the top. The one in the center had two.
This process, it said in spidery writing on a card, was called trepanning. The card also said that all the holes had been made during the owners’ lifetimes, because the bone had healed and grown smooth around the edge. One, however, hadn’t: the hole had been made by a bronze arrowhead which was still in it, and its edges were sharp and broken, so you could tell it was different.
This was just what the northern Tartars did. And what Stanislaus Grumman had had done to himself, according to the Jordan Scholars who’d known him. Lyra looked around quickly, saw no one nearby, and took out the alethiometer.
She focused her mind on the central skull and asked: What sort of person did this skull belong to, and why did they have those holes made in it?
As she stood concentrating in the dusty light that filtered through the glass roof and slanted down past the upper galleries, she didn’t notice that she was being watched.
A powerful-looking man in his sixties, wearing a beautifully tailored linen suit and holding a Panama hat, stood on the gallery above and looked down over the iron railing.
His gray hair was brushed neatly back from his smooth, tanned, barely wrinkled forehead. His eyes were large, dark and long-lashed and intense, and every minute or so his sharp, dark-pointed tongue peeped out at the corner of his lips and flicked across them moistly. The snowy handkerchief in his breast pocket was scented with some heavy cologne like those hothouse plants so rich you can smell the decay at their roots.
He had been watching Lyra for some minutes. He had moved along the gallery above as she moved about below, and when she stood still by the case of skulls, he watched her closely, taking in all of her: her rough, untidy hair, the bruise on her cheek, the new clothes, her bare neck arched over the alethiometer, her bare legs.
He shook out the breast-pocket handkerchief and mopped his forehead, and then made for the stairs.
Lyra, absorbed, was learning strange things. These skulls were unimaginably old; the cards in the case said simply BRONZE AGE, but the alethiometer, which never lied, said that the man whose skull it was had lived 33,254 years before the present day, and that he had been a sorcerer, and that the hole had been made to let the gods into his head. And then the alethiometer, in the casual way it sometimes had of answering a question Lyra hadn’t asked, added that there was a good deal more Dust around the trepanned skulls than around the one with the arrowhead.
What in the world could that mean? Lyra came out of the focused calm she shared with the alethiometer and drifted back to the present moment to find herself no longer alone. Gazing into the next case was an elderly man in a pale suit, who smelled sweet. He reminded her of someone, but she couldn’t think who.
He became aware of her staring at him, and looked up with a smile.
“You’re looking at the trepanned skulls?” he said. “What strange things people do to themselves.”
“Mm,” she said expressionlessly.
“D’you know, people still do that?”
“Yeah,” she said.
“Hippies, you know, people like that. Actually, you’re far too young to remember hippies. They say it’s more effective than taking drugs.”
Lyra had put the alethiometer in her rucksack and was wondering how she could get away. She still hadn’t asked it the main question, and now this old man was having a conversation with her. He seemed nice enough, and he certainly smelled nice. He was closer now. His hand brushed hers as he leaned across the case.
“Makes you wonder, doesn’t it? No anesthetic, no disinfectant, probably done with stone tools. They must have been tough, mustn’t they? I don’t think I’ve seen you here before. I come here quite a lot. What’s your name?”
“Lizzie,” she said comfortably.
“Lizzie. Hello, Lizzie. I’m Charles. Do you go to school in Oxford?”
She wasn’t sure how to answer. “No,” she said.
“Just visiting? Well, you’ve chosen a wonderful place to look at. What are you specially interested in?”
She was more puzzled by this man than by anyone she’d met for a long time. On the one hand he was kind and friendly and very clean and smartly dressed, but on the other hand Pantalaimon, inside her pocket, was plucking at her attention and begging her to be careful, because he was half-remembering something too; and from somewhere she sensed, not a smell, but the idea of a smell, and it was the smell of dung, of putrefaction. She was reminded of Lofur Raknison’s palace, where the air was perfumed but the floor was thick with filth.
“What am I interested in?” she said. “Oh, all sorts of things, really. Those skulls I got interested in just now, when I saw them there. I shouldn’t think anyone would want that done. It’s horrible.”
“No, I wouldn’t enjoy it myself, but I promise you it does happen. I could take you to meet someone who’s done it,” he said, looking so friendly and helpful that she was very nearly tempted. But then out came that little dark tongue point, as quick as a snake’s, flick-moisten, and she shook her head.
“I got to go,” she said. “Thank you for offering, but I better not. Anyway, I got to go now because I’m meeting someone. My friend,” she added. “Who I’m staying with.”
“Yes, of course,” he said kindly. “Well, it was nice talking to you. Bye-bye, Lizzie.”
“Bye,” she said.
“Oh, just in case, here’s my name and address,” he said, handing her a card. “Just in case you want to know more about things like this.”
“Thank you,” she said blandly, and put it in the little pocket on the back of her rucksack before leaving. She felt he was watching her all the way out.
Once she was outside the museum, she turned in to the park, which she knew as a field for cricket and other sports, and found a quiet spot under some trees and tried the alethiometer again.
This time she asked where she could find a Scholar who knew about Dust. The answer she got was simple: it directed her to a certain room in the tall square building behind her. In fact, the answer was so straightforward, and came so abruptly, that Lyra was sure the alethiometer had more to say: she was beginning to sense now that it had moods, like a person, and to know when it wanted to tell her more.
And it did now. What it said was: You must concern yourself with the boy. Your task is to help him find his father. Put your mind to that.
She blinked. She was genuinely startled. Will had appeared out of nowhere in order to help her; surely that was obvious. The idea that she had come all this way in order to help him took her breath away.
But the alethiometer still hadn’t finished. The needle twitched again, and she read: Do not lie to the Scholar.
She folded the velvet around the alethiometer and thrust it into the rucksack out of sight. Then she stood and looked around for the building where her Scholar would be found, and set off toward it, feeling awkward and defiant.
Will found the library easily enough, where the reference librarian was perfectly prepared to believe that he was doing some research for a school geography project and helped him find the bound copies of The Timesindex for the year of his birth, which was when his father had disappeared. Will sat down to look through them. Sure enough, there were several references to John Parry, in connection with an archaeological expedition.
Each month, he found, was on a separate roll of microfilm. He threaded each in turn into the projector, scrolled through to find the stories, and read them with fierce attention. The first story told of the departure of an expedition to the north of Alaska. The expedition was sponsored by the Institute of Archaeology at Oxford University, and it was going to survey an area in which they hoped to find evidence of early human settlements. It was accompanied by John Parry, late of the Royal Marines, a professional explorer.
The second story was dated six weeks later. It said briefly that the expedition had reached the North American Arctic Survey Station at Noatak in Alaska.
The third was dated two months after that. It said that there had been no reply to signals from the Survey Station, and that John Parry and his companions were presumed missing.
There was a brief series of articles following that one, describing the parties that had set out fruitlessly to look for them, the search flights over the Bering Sea, the reaction of the Institute of Archaeology, interviews with relatives…
His heart thudded, because there was a picture of his own mother. Holding a baby. Him.
The reporter had written a standard tearful-wife-waiting-in-anguish-for-news story, which Will found disappointingly short of actual facts. There was a brief paragraph saying that John Parry had had a successful career in the Royal Marines and had left to specialize in organizing geographical and scientific expeditions, and that was all.
There was no other mention in the index, and Will got up from the microfilm reader baffled. There must be some more information somewhere else; but where could he go next? And if he took too long searching for it, he’d be traced…
He handed back the rolls of microfilm and asked the librarian, “Do you know the address of the Institute of Archaeology, please?”
“I could find out… What school are you from?”
“St. Peter’s,” said Will.
“That’s not in Oxford, is it?”
“No, it’s in Hampshire. My class is doing a sort of residential field trip. Kind of environmental study research skills.”
“Oh, I see. What was it you wanted?… Archaeology?… Here we are.”
Will copied down the address and phone number, and since it was safe to admit he didn’t know Oxford, asked where to find it. It wasn’t far away. He thanked the librarian and set off.
Inside the building Lyra found a wide desk at the foot of the stairs, with a porter behind it.
“Where are you going?” he said.
This was like home again. She felt Pan, in her pocket, enjoying it.
“I got a message for someone on the second floor,” she said.
“Dr. Lister,” she said.
“Dr. Lister’s on the third floor. If you’ve got something for him, you can leave it here and I’ll let him know.”
“Yeah, but this is something he needs right now. He just sent for it. It’s not a thing actually, it’s something I need to tell him.”
He looked at her carefully, but he was no match for the bland and vacuous docility Lyra could command when she wanted to; and finally he nodded and went back to his newspaper.
The alethiometer didn’t tell Lyra people’s names, of course. She had read the name Dr. Lister off a pigeonhole on the wall behind him, because if you pretend you know someone, they’re more likely to let you in. In some ways Lyra knew Will’s world better than he did.
On the second floor she found a long corridor, where one door was open to an empty lecture hall and another to a smaller room where two Scholars stood discussing something at a blackboard. These rooms, the walls of this corridor, were all flat and bare and plain in a way Lyra thought belonged to poverty, not to the scholarship and splendor of Oxford; and yet the brick walls were smoothly painted, and the doors were of heavy wood and the banisters were of polished steel, so they were costly. It was just another way in which this world was strange.
She soon found the door the alethiometer had told her about. The sign on it said DARK MATTER RESEARCH UNIT, and under it someone had scribbled R.I.P. Another hand had added in pencil DIRECTOR: LAZARUS.
Lyra made nothing of that. She knocked, and a woman’s voice said, “Come in.”
It was a small room, crowded with tottering piles of papers and books, and the whiteboards on the walls were covered in figures and equations. Tacked to the back of the door was a design that looked Chinese. Through an open doorway Lyra could see another room, where some kind of complicated anbaric machinery stood in silence.
For her part, Lyra was a little surprised to find that the Scholar she sought was female, but the alethiometer hadn’t said a man, and this was a strange world, after all. The woman was sitting at an engine that displayed figures and shapes on a small glass screen, in front of which all the letters of the alphabet had been laid out on grimy little blocks in an ivory tray. The Scholar tapped one, and the screen became blank.
“Who are you?” she said.
Lyra shut the door behind her. Mindful of what the alethiometer had told her, she tried hard not to do what she normally would have done, and she told the truth.
“Lyra Silvertongue,” she answered. “What’s your name?”
The woman blinked. She was in her late thirties, Lyra supposed, perhaps a little older than Mrs. Coulter, with short black hair and red cheeks. She wore a white coat open over a green shirt and those blue canvas trousers so many people wore in this world.
At Lyra’s question the woman ran a hand through her hair and said, “Well, you’re the second unexpected thing that’s happened today. I’m Dr. Mary Malone. What do you want?”
“I want you to tell me about Dust,” said Lyra, having looked around to make sure they were alone. “I know you know about it. I can prove it. You got to tell me.”
“Dust? What are you talking about?”
“You might not call it that. It’s elementary particles. In my world the Scholars call it Rusakov Particles, but normally they call it Dust. They don’t show up easily, but they come out of space and fix on people. Not children so much, though. Mostly on grownups. And something I only found out today – I was in that museum down the road and there was some old skulls with holes in their heads, like the Tartars make, and there was a lot more Dust around them than around this other one that hadn’t got that sort of hole in it. When’s the Bronze Age?”
The woman was looking at her wide-eyed.
“The Bronze Age? Goodness, I don’t know; about five thousand years ago,” she said.
“Ah, well, they got it wrong then, when they wrote that label. That skull with the two holes in it is thirty-three thousand years old.”
She stopped then, because Dr. Malone looked as if she was about to faint. The high color left her cheeks completely; she put one hand to her breast while the other clutched the arm of her chair, and her jaw dropped.
Lyra stood, stubborn and puzzled, waiting for her to recover.
“Who are you?” the woman said at last.
“Lyra Silver – “
“No, where d’you come from? What are you? How do you know things like this?”
Wearily Lyra sighed; she had forgotten how roundabout Scholars could be. It was difficult to tell them the truth when a lie would have been so much easier for them to understand.
“I come from another world,” she began. “And in that world there’s an Oxford like this, only different, and that’s where I come from. And – “
“Wait, wait, wait. You come from where?”
“From somewhere else,” said Lyra, more carefully. “Not here.”
“Oh, somewhere else,” the woman said. “I see. Well, I think I see.”
“And I got to find out about Dust,” Lyra explained. “Because the Church people in my world, right, they’re frightened of Dust because they think it’s original sin. So it’s very important. And my father… No,” she said passionately, and stamped her foot. “That’s not what I meant to say. I’m doing it all wrong.”
Dr. Malone looked at Lyra’s desperate frown and clenched fists, at the bruises on her cheek and her leg, and said, “Dear me, child, calm down.”
She broke off and rubbed her eyes, which were red with tiredness.
“Why am I listening to you?” she went on. “I must be crazy. The fact is, this is the only place in the world where you’d get the answer you want, and they’re about to close us down. What you’re talking about, your Dust, sounds like something we’ve been investigating for a while now, and what you say about the skulls in the museum gave me a turn, because… oh, no, this is just too much. I’m too tired. I want to listen to you, believe me, but not now, please. Did I say they were going to close us down? I’ve got a week to put together a proposal to the funding committee, but we haven’t got a hope in hell…”
She yawned widely.
“What was the first unexpected thing that happened today?” Lyra said.
“Oh. Yes. Someone I’d been relying on to back our funding application withdrew his support. I don’t suppose it was that unexpected, anyway.”
She yawned again.
“I’m going to make some coffee,” she said. “If I don’t, I’ll fall asleep. You’ll have some too?”
She filled an electric kettle, and while she spooned instant coffee into two mugs Lyra stared at the Chinese pattern on the back of the door.
“What’s that?” she said.
“It’s Chinese. The symbols of the I Ching. D’you know what that is? Do they have that in your world?”
Lyra looked at her narrow-eyed, in case she was being sarcastic. She said: “There are some things the same and some that are different, that’s all. I don’t know everything about my world. Maybe they got this Ching thing there too.”
“I’m sorry,” said Dr. Malone. “Yes, maybe they have.”
“What’s dark matter?” said Lyra. “That’s what it says on the sign, isn’t it?”
Dr. Malone sat down again, and hooked another chair out with her ankle for Lyra.
She said, “Dark matter is what my research team is looking for. No one knows what it is. There’s more stuff out there in the universe than we can see, that’s the point. We can see the stars and the galaxies and the things that shine, but for it all to hang together and not fly apart, there needs to be a lot more of it – to make gravity work, you see. But no one can detect it. So there are lots of different research projects trying to find out what it is, and this is one of them.”
Lyra was all focused attention. At last the woman was talking seriously.
“And what do you think it is?” she asked.
“Well, what we think it is – ” As she began, the kettle boiled, so she got up and made the coffee as she continued. “We think it’s some kind of elementary particle. Something quite different from anything discovered so far. But the particles are very hard to detect… Where do you go to school? Do you study physics?”
Lyra felt Pantalaimon nip her hand, warning her not to get cross. It was all very well, the alethiometer telling her to be truthful, but she knew what would happen if she told the whole truth. She had to tread carefully and just avoid direct lies.
“Yes,” she said, “I know a little bit. But not about dark matter.”
“Well, we’re trying to detect this almost-undetectable thing among the noise of all the other particles crashing about. Normally they put detectors very deep underground, but what we’ve done instead is to set up an electromagnetic field around the detector that shuts out the things we don’t want and lets through the ones we do. Then we amplify the signal and put it through a computer.”
She handed across a mug of coffee. There was no milk and no sugar, but she did find a couple of ginger biscuits in a drawer, and Lyra took one hungrily.
“And we found a particle that fits,” Dr. Malone went on. “We think it fits. But it’s so strange… Why am I telling you this? I shouldn’t. It’s not published, it’s not refereed, it’s not even written down. I’m a little crazy this afternoon.”
“Well…” she went on, and she yawned for so long that Lyra thought she’d never stop, “our particles are strange little devils, make no mistake. We call them shadow particles, Shadows. You know what nearly knocked me off my chair just now? When you mentioned the skulls in the museum. Because one of our team, you see, is a bit of an amateur archaeologist. And he discovered something one day that we couldn’t believe. But we couldn’t ignore it, because it fitted in with the craziest thing of all about these Shadows. You know what? They’re conscious. That’s right. Shadows are particles of consciousness. You ever heard anything so stupid? No wonder we can’t get our grant renewed.”
She sipped her coffee. Lyra was drinking in every word like a thirsty flower.
“Yes,” Dr. Malone went on, “they know we’re here. They answer back. And here goes the crazy part: you can’t see them unless you expect to. Unless you put your mind in a certain state. You have to be confident and relaxed at the same time. You have to be capable?C Where’s that quotation…”
She reached into the muddle of papers on her desk and found a scrap on which someone had written with a green pen. She read: “‘…Capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.’ You have to get into that state of mind. That’s from the poet Keats, by the way. I found it the other day. So you get yourself in the right state of mind, and then you look at the Cave – “
“The cave?” said Lyra.
“Oh, sorry. The computer. We call it the Cave. Shadows on the walls of the Cave, you see, from Plato. That’s our archaeologist again. He’s an all-around intellectual. But he’s gone off to Geneva for a job interview, and I don’t suppose for a moment he’ll be back… Where was I? Oh, the Cave, that’s right. Once you’re linked up to it, if you think, the Shadows respond. There’s no doubt about it. The Shadows flock to your thinking like birds…”
“What about the skulls?”
“I was coming to that. Oliver Payne – him, my colleague – was fooling about one day testing things with the Cave. And it was so odd. It didn’t make any sense in the way a physicist would expect. He got a piece of ivory, just a lump, and there were no Shadows with that. It didn’t react. But a carved ivory chess piece did. A big splinter of wood off a plank didn’t, but a wooden ruler did. And a carved wooden statuette had more… I’m talking about elementary panicles here, for goodness’ sake. Little minute lumps of scarcely anything. They knew what these objects were. Anything that was associated with human workmanship and human thought was surrounded by Shadows…”
“And then Oliver – Dr. Payne – got some fossil skulls from a friend at the museum and tested them to see how far back in time the effect went. There was a cutoff point about thirty, forty thousand years ago. Before that, no Shadows. After that, plenty. And that’s about the time, apparently, that modern human beings first appeared. I mean, you know, our remote ancestors, but people no different from us, really…”
“It’s Dust,” said Lyra authoritatively. “That’s what it is.”
“But, you see, you can’t say this sort of thing in a funding application if you want to be taken seriously. It does not make sense. It cannot exist. It’s impossible, and if it isn’t impossible, it’s irrelevant, and if it isn’t either of those things, it’s embarrassing.”
“I want to see the Cave,” said Lyra.
She stood up.
Dr. Malone was running her hands through her hair and blinking hard to keep her tired eyes clear.
“Well, I can’t see why not,” she said. “We might not have a Cave tomorrow. Come along through.”
She led Lyra into the other room. It was larger, and crowded with anbaric equipment.
“This is it. Over there,” she said, pointing to a screen that was glowing an empty gray. “That’s where the detector is, behind all that wiring. To see the Shadows, you have to be linked up to some electrodes. Like for measuring brain waves.”
“I want to try it,” said Lyra.
“You won’t see anything. Anyway, I’m tired. It’s too complicated.”
“Please! I know what I’m doing!”
“Do you, now? I wish I did. No, for heaven’s sake. This is an expensive, difficult scientific experiment. You can’t come charging in here and expect to have a go as if it were a pinball machine… Where do you come from, anyway? Shouldn’t you be at school? How did you find your way in here?”
And she rubbed her eyes again, as if she was only just waking up.
Lyra was trembling. Tell the truth, she thought. “I found my way in with this,” she said, and took out the alethiometer.
“What in the world is that? A compass?”
Lyra let her take it. Dr. Malone’s eyes widened as she felt the weight.
“Dear Lord, it’s made of gold. Where on earth – “
“I think it does what your Cave does. That’s what I want to find out. If I can answer a question truly,” said Lyra desperately, “something you know the answer to and I don’t, can I try your Cave then?”
“What, are we into fortune-telling now? What is this thing?”
“Please! Just ask me a question!”
Dr. Malone shrugged. “Oh, all right,” she said. “Tell me… tell me what I was doing before I took up this business.”
Eagerly Lyra took the alethiometer from her and turned the winding wheels. She could feel her mind reaching for the right pictures even before the hands were pointing at them, and she sensed the longer needle twitching to respond. As it began to swing around the dial, her eyes followed it, watching, calculating, seeing down the long chains of meaning to the level where the truth lay.
Then she blinked and sighed and came out of her temporary trance.
“You used to be a nun,” she said. “I wouldn’t have guessed that. Nuns are supposed to stay in their convents forever. But you stopped believing in church things and they let you leave. This en’t like my world at all, not a bit.”
Dr. Malone sat down in a chair by the computer, staring.
Lyra said, “That’s true, en’t it?”
“Yes. And you found out from that…”
“From my alethiometer. It works by Dust, I think. I came all this way to find out more about Dust, and it told me to come to you. So I reckon your dark matter must be the same thing. Now can I try your Cave?”
Dr. Malone shook her head, but not to say no, just out of helplessness. She spread her hands. “Very well,” she said. “I think I’m dreaming. I might as well carry on.”
She swung around in her chair and pressed several switches, bringing an electrical hum and the sound of a computer’s cooling fan into the air; and at the sound of them, Lyra gave a little muffled gasp. It was because the sound in that room was the same sound she’d heard in that dreadful glittering chamber at Bolvangar, where the silver guillotine had nearly parted her and Pantalaimon. She felt him quiver in her pocket, and gently squeezed him for reassurance.
But Dr. Malone hadn’t noticed; she was too busy adjusting switches and tapping the letters in another of those ivory trays. As she did, the screen changed color, and some small letters and figures appeared on it.
“Now you sit down,” she said, and pulled out a chair for Lyra. Then she opened a jar and said, “I need to put some gel on your skin to help the electrical contact. It washes off easily. Hold still, now.”
Dr. Malone took six wires, each ending in a flat pad, and attached them to various places on Lyra’s head. Lyra sat determinedly still, but she was breathing quickly, and her heart was beating hard.
“All right, you’re all hooked up,” said Dr. Malone. “The room’s full of Shadows. The universe is full of Shadows, come to that. But this is the only way we can see them, when you make your mind empty and look at the screen. Off you go.”
Lyra looked. The glass was dark and blank. She saw her own reflection dimly, but that was all. As an experiment she pretended that she was reading the alethiometer, and imagined herself asking: What does this woman know about Dust? What questions is she asking?
She mentally moved the alethiometer’s hands around the dial, and as she did, the screen began to flicker. Astonished, she came out of her concentration, and the flicker died. She didn’t notice the ripple of excitement that made Dr. Malone sit up: she frowned and sat forward and began to concentrate again.
This time the response came instantaneously. A stream of dancing lights, for all the world like the shimmering curtains of the aurora, blazed across the screen. They took up patterns that were held for a moment only to break apart and form again, in different shapes, or different colors; they looped and swayed, they sprayed apart, they burst into showers of radiance that suddenly swerved this way or that like a flock of birds changing direction in the sky. And as Lyra watched, she felt the same sense, as of trembling on the brink of understanding, that she remembered from the time when she was beginning to read the alethiometer.
She asked another question: Is this Dust? Is it the same thing making these patterns and moving the needle of the alethiometer?
The answer came in more loops and swirls of light. She guessed it meant yes. Then another thought occurred to her, and she turned to speak to Dr. Malone, and saw her open-mouthed, hand to her head.
“What?” she said.
The screen faded. Dr. Malone blinked.
“What is it?” Lyra said again.
“Oh – you’ve just put on the best display I’ve ever seen, that’s all,” said Dr. Malone. “What were you doing? What were you thinking?”
“I was thinking you could get it clearer than this,” Lyra said.
“Clearer? That’s the clearest it’s ever been!”
“But what does it mean? Can you read it?”
“Well,” said Dr. Malone, “you don’t read it in the sense of reading a message; it doesn’t work like that. What’s happening is that the Shadows are responding to the attention that you pay them. That’s revolutionary enough; it’s our consciousness that they respond to, you see.”
“No,” Lyra explained, “what I mean is, those colors and shapes up there. They could do other things, those Shadows. They could make any shapes you wanted. They could make pictures if you wanted them to. Look.”
And she turned back and focused her mind again, but this time she pretended to herself that the screen was the alethiometer, with all thirty-six symbols laid out around the edge. She knew them so well now that her fingers automatically twisted in her lap as she moved the imaginary hands to point at the candle (for understanding), the alpha and omega (for language), and the ant (for diligence), and framed the question: What would these people have to do in order to understand the language of the Shadows?
The screen responded as quickly as thought itself, and out of the welter of lines and flashes a series of pictures formed with perfect clarity: compasses, alpha and omega again, lightning, angel. Each picture flashed up a different number of times, and then came a different three: camel, garden, moon.
Lyra saw their meanings clearly, and unfocused her mind to explain. This time, when she turned around, she saw that Dr. Malone was sitting back in her chair, white-faced, clutching the edge of the table.
“What it says,” Lyra told her, “it’s saying in my language, right – the language of pictures. Like the alethiometer. But what it says is that it could use ordinary language too, words, if you fixed it up like that. You could fix this so it put words on the screen. But you’d need a lot of careful figuring with numbers – that was the compasses, see. And the lightning meant anbaric – I mean, electric power, more of that. And the angel – that’s all about messages. There’s things it wants to say. But when it went on to that second bit… it meant Asia, almost the farthest east but not quite. I dunno what country that would be – China, maybe. And there’s a way they have in that country of talking to Dust, I mean Shadows, same as you got here and I got with the – I got with pictures, only their way uses sticks. I think it meant that picture on the door, but I didn’t understand it, really. I thought when I first saw it there was something important about it, only I didn’t know what. So there must be lots of ways of talking to Shadows.”
Dr. Malone was breathless.
“The I Ching,” she said. “Yes, it’s Chinese. A form of divination – fortune-telling, really… And, yes, they use sticks. It’s only up there for decoration,” she said, as if to reassure Lyra that she didn’t really believe in it. “You’re telling me that when people consult the I Ching, they’re getting in touch with Shadow particles? With dark matter?”
“Yeah,” said Lyra. “There’s lots of ways, like I said. I hadn’t realized before. I thought there was only one.”
“Those pictures on the screen…” Dr. Malone began.
Lyra felt a flicker of a thought at the edge of her mind, and turned to the screen. She had hardly begun to formulate a question when more pictures flashed up, succeeding each other so quickly that Dr. Malone could hardly follow them; but Lyra knew what they were saying, and turned back to her.
“It says that you’re important, too,” she told the scientist. “It says you got something important to do. I dunno what, but it wouldn’t say that unless it was true. So you probably ought to get it using words, so you can understand what it says.”
Dr. Malone was silent. Then she said, “All right, where do you come from?”
Lyra twisted her mouth. She realized that Dr. Malone, who until now had acted out of exhaustion and despair, would never normally have shown her work to a strange child who turned up from nowhere, and that she was beginning to regret it. But Lyra had to tell the truth.
“I come from another world,” she said. “It’s true. I came through to this one. I was… I had to run away, because people in my world were chasing me, to kill me. And the alethiometer comes from… from the same place. The Master of Jordan College gave it me. In my Oxford there’s a Jordan College, but there en’t one here. I looked. And I found out how to read the alethiometer by myself. I got a way of making my mind go blank, and I just see what the pictures mean straightaway. Just like you said about… doubts and mysteries and that. So when I looked at the Cave, I done the same thing, and it works just the same way, so my Dust and your Shadows are the same, too. So…”
Dr. Malone was fully awake now. Lyra picked up the alethiometer and folded its velvet cloth over it, like a mother protecting her child, before putting it back in her rucksack.
“So anyway,” she said, “you could make this screen so it could talk to you in words, if you wanted. Then you could talk to the Shadows like I talk to the alethiometer. But what I want to know is, why do the people in my world hate it? Dust, I mean, Shadows. Dark matter. They want to destroy it. They think it’s evil. But I think what they do is evil. I seen them do it. So what is it, Shadows? Is it good or evil, or what?”
Dr. Malone rubbed her face and turned her cheeks red again. “Everything about this is embarrassing” she said. “D’you know how embarrassing it is to mention good and evil in a scientific laboratory? Have you any idea? One of the reasons I became a scientist was not to have to think about that kind of thing.”
“You got to think about it,” said Lyra severely. “You can’t investigate Shadows, Dust, whatever it is, without thinking about that kind of thing, good and evil and such. And it said you got to, remember. You can’t refuse. When are they going to close this place down?”
“The funding committee decides at the end of the week… Why?”
“‘Cause you got tonight, then,” said Lyra. “You could fix this engine thing to put words on the screen instead of pictures like I made. You could do that easy. Then you could show ’em, and they’d have to give you the money to carry on. And you could find out all about Dust, or Shadows, and tell me. You see,” she went on a little haughtily, like a duchess describing an unsatisfactory housemaid, “the alethiometer won’t exactly tell me what I need to know. But you could find out for me. Else I could probably do that Ching thing, with the sticks. But pictures are easier to work. I think so, anyway. I’m going to take this off now,” she added, and pulled at the electrodes on her head.
Dr. Malone gave her a tissue to wipe off the gel, and folded up the wires.
“So you’re going?” she said. “Well, you’ve given me a strange hour, that’s no mistake.”
“Are you going to make it do words?” Lyra said, gathering up her rucksack.
“It’s about as much use as completing the funding application, I daresay,” said Dr. Malone. “No, listen. I want you to come back tomorrow. Can you do that? About the same time? I want you to show someone else.”
Lyra narrowed her eyes. Was this a trap?
“Well, all right,” she said. “But remember, there’s things I need to know.”
“Yes. Of course. You will come?”
“Yes,” said Lyra. “If I say I will, I will. I could help you, I expect.”
And she left. The porter at the desk looked up briefly and then went back to his paper.
“The Nuniatak dig,” said the archaeologist, swinging his chair around. “You’re the second person in a month to ask me about that.”
“Who was the other one?” said Will, on his guard at once.
“I think he was a journalist. I’m not sure.”
“Why did he want to know about it?” he said.
“In connection with one of the men who disappeared on that trip. It was the height of the cold war when the expedition vanished. Star Wars. You’re probably too young to remember that. The Americans and the Russians were building enormous radar installations all across the Arctic… Anyway, what can I do for you?”
“Well,” said Will, trying to keep calm, “I was just trying to find out about that expedition, really. For a school project about prehistoric people. And I read about this expedition that disappeared, and I got curious.”
“Well, you’re not the only one, as you see. There was a big to-do about it at the time. I looked it all up for the journalist. It was a preliminary survey, not a proper dig. You can’t do a dig till you know whether it’s worth spending time on it, so this group went out to look at a number of sites and make a report. Half a dozen blokes altogether. Sometimes on an expedition like this you combine forces with people from another discipline – you know, geologists or whatever – to split the cost. They look at their stuff and we look at ours. In this case there was a physicist on the team. I think he was looking at high-level atmospheric particles. The aurora, you know, the northern lights. He had balloons with radio transmitters, apparently.”
“And there was another man with them. An ex-Marine, a sort of professional explorer. They were going up into some fairly wild territory, and polar bears are always a danger in the Arctic. Archaeologists can deal with some things, but we’re not trained to shoot, and someone who can do that and navigate and make camp and do all the sort of survival stuff is very useful.”
“But then they all vanished. They kept in radio contact with a local survey station, but one day the signal didn’t come, and nothing more was heard. There’d been a buzzard, but that was nothing unusual. The search expedition found their last camp more or less intact, though the bears had eaten their stores. But there was no sign of the people whatsoever.”
“And that’s all I can tell you, I’m afraid.”
“Yes,” said Will. “Thank you. Umm… that journalist,” he went on, stopping at the door. “You said he was interested in one of the men. Which one was it?”
“The explorer type. A man called Parry.”
“What did he look like? The journalist, I mean?”
“What d’you want to know that for?”
“Because…” Will couldn’t think of a plausible reason. He shouldn’t have asked. “No reason. I just wondered.”
“As far as I can remember, he was a big blond man. Very pale hair.”
“Right, thanks,” Will said, and turned to go.
The man watched him leave the room, saying nothing, frowning a little. Will saw him reach for the phone, and left the building quickly.
He found he was shaking. The journalist, so called, was one of the men who’d come to his house: a tall man with such fair hair that he seemed to have no eyebrows or eyelashes. He wasn’t the one Will had knocked down the stairs: he was the one who’d appeared at the door of the living room as Will ran down and jumped over the body.
But he wasn’t a journalist.
There was a large museum nearby. Will went in, holding his clipboard as if he were working, and sat down in a gallery hung with paintings. He was trembling hard and feeling sick, because pressing at him was the knowledge that he’d killed someone, that he was a murderer. He’d kept it at bay till now, but it was closing in. He’d taken away the man’s life.
He sat still for half an hour, and it was one of the worst half-hours he’d ever spent. People came and went, looking at the paintings, talking in quiet voices, ignoring him; a gallery attendant stood in the doorway for a few minutes, hands behind his back, and then slowly moved away; and Will wrestled with the horror of what he’d done, and didn’t move a muscle.
Gradually he grew calmer. He’d been defending his mother. They were frightening her; given the state she was in, they were persecuting her. He had a right to defend his home. His father would have wanted him to do that. He did it because it was the good thing to do. He did it to stop them from stealing the green leather case. He did it so he could find his father; and didn’t he have a right to do that? All his childish games came back to him, with himself and his father rescuing each other from avalanches or fighting pirates. Well, now it was real. I’ll find you, he said in his mind. Just help me and I’ll find you, and we’ll look after Mum, and everything’ll be all right…
And after all, he had somewhere to hide now, somewhere so safe no one would ever find him. And the papers from the case (which he still hadn’t had time to read) were safe too, under the mattress in Cittagazze.
Finally he noticed people moving more purposefully, and all in the same direction. They were leaving, because the attendant was telling them that the museum would close in ten minutes. Will gathered himself and left. He found his way to the High Street, where the lawyer’s office was, and wondered about going to see him, despite what he’d said earlier. The man had sounded friendly enough…
But as he made up his mind to cross the street and go in, he stopped suddenly.
The tall man with the pale eyebrows was getting out of a car.
Will turned aside at once, casually, and looked in the window of the jeweler’s shop beside him. He saw the man’s reflection look around, settle the knot of his tie, and go into the lawyer’s office. As soon as he’d gone in, Will moved away, his heart thudding again. There wasn’t anywhere safe. He drifted toward the university library and waited for Lyra.