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The Subtle Knife Chapter Twelve

Chapter Twelve

Screen Language

“Tell me again,” said Dr.Oliver Payne, in the little laboratory overlooking the park.“Either I didn’t hear you, or you’re talking nonsense.

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A child from another world?”

“That’s what she said. All right, it’s nonsense, but listen to it, Oliver, will you?” said Dr. Mary Malone. “She knew about Shadows. She calls them – it – she calls it Dust, but it’s the same thing. It’s our shadow particles. And I’m telling you, when she was wearing the electrodes linking her to the Cave, there was the most extraordinary display on the screen: pictures, symbols… She had an instrument too, a sort of compass thing made of gold, with different symbols all around the rim. And she said she could read that in the same way, and she knew about the state of mind, too – she knew it intimately.”

It was midmorning. Lyra’s Scholar, Dr. Malone, was red-eyed from lack of sleep, and her colleague, who’d just returned from Geneva, was impatient to hear more, and skeptical, and preoccupied.

“And the point was, Oliver, she was communicating with them. They are conscious. And they can respond. And you remember your skulls? Well, she told me about some skulls in the Pitt-Rivers Museum. She’d found out with her compass thing that they were much older than the museum said, and there were Shadows – “

“Wait a minute. Give me some sort of structure here. What are you saying? You saying she’s confirmed what we know already, or that she’s telling us something new?”

“Both. I don’t know. But suppose something happened thirty, forty thousand years ago. There were shadow particles around before then, obviously – they’ve been around since the Big Bang – but there was no physical way of amplifying their effects at our level, the anthropic level. The level of human beings. And then something happened, I can’t imagine what, but it involved evolution. Hence your skulls – remember? No Shadows before that time, lots afterward? And the skulls the child found in the museum, that she tested with her compass thing. She told me the same thing. What I’m saying is that around that time, the human brain became the ideal vehicle for this amplification process. Suddenly we became conscious.”

Dr. Payne tilted his plastic mug and drank the last of his coffee.

“Why should it happen particularly at that time?” he said. “Why suddenly thirty-five thousand years ago?”

“Oh, who can say? We’re not paleontologists. I don’t know, Oliver, I’m just speculating. Don’t you think it’s at least possible?”

“And this policeman. Tell me about him.”

Dr. Malone rubbed her eyes. “His name is Walters,” she said. “He said he was from the Special Branch. I thought that was politics or something?”

“Terrorism, subversion, intelligence… all that. Go on. What did he want? Why did he come here?”

“Because of the girl. He said he was looking for a boy of about the same age – he didn’t tell me why – and this boy had been seen in the company of the girl who came here. But he had something else in mind as well, Oliver. He knew about the research. He even asked – “

The telephone rang. She broke off, shrugging, and Dr. Payne answered it. He spoke briefly, put it down, and said, “We’ve got a visitor.”


“Not a name I know. Sir Somebody Something. Listen, Mary, I’m off, you realize that, don’t you?”

“They offered you the job.”

“Yes. I’ve got to take it. You must see that.”

“Well, that’s the end of this, then.”

He spread his hands helplessly, and said, “To be frank… I can’t see any point in the sort of stuff you’ve just been talking about. Children from another world and fossil Shadows… It’s all too crazy. I just can’t get involved. I’ve got a career, Mary.”

“What about the skulls you tested? What about the Shadows around the ivory figurine?”

He shook his head and turned his back. Before he could answer, there came a tap at the door, and he opened it almost with relief.

Sir Charles said, “Good day to you. Dr. Payne? Dr. Malone? My name is Charles Latrom. It’s very good of you to see me without any notice.”

“Come in,” said Dr. Malone, weary but puzzled. “Did Oliver say Sir Charles? What can we do for you?”

“It may be what I can do for you,” he said. “I understand you’re waiting for the results of your funding application.”

“How do you know that?” said Dr. Payne.

“I used to be a civil servant. As a matter of fact, I was concerned with directing scientific policy. I still have a number of contacts in the field, and I heard… May I sit down?”

“Oh, please,” said Dr. Malone. She pulled out a chair, and he sat down as if he were in charge of a meeting.

“Thank you. I heard through a friend – I’d better not mention his name; the Official Secrets Act covers all sorts of silly things – I heard that your application was being considered, and what I heard about it intrigued me so much that I must confess I asked to see some of your work. I know I had no business to, except that I still act as a sort of unofficial adviser, so I used that as an excuse. And really, what I saw was quite fascinating.”

“Does that mean you think we’ll be successful?” said Dr. Malone, leaning forward, eager to believe him.

“Unfortunately, no. I must be blunt. They’re not minded to renew your grant.”

Dr. Malone’s shoulders slumped. Dr. Payne was watching the old man with cautious curiosity.

“Why have you come here now, then?” he said.

“Well, you see, they haven’t officially made the decision yet. It doesn’t look promising, and I’m being frank with you; they see no prospect of funding work of this sort in the future. However, it might be that if you had someone to argue the case for you, they would see it differently.”

“An advocate? You mean yourself? I didn’t think it worked like that,” said Dr. Malone, sitting up. “I thought they went on peer review and so on.

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“It does in principle, of course,” said Sir Charles. “But it also helps to know how these committees work in practice. And to know who’s on them. Well, here I am. I’m intensely interested in your work; I think it might be very valuable, and it certainly ought to continue. Would you let me make informal representations on your behalf?”

Dr. Malone felt like a drowning sailor being thrown a life belt. “Why… well, yes! Good grief, of course! And thank you… I mean, do you really think it’ll make a difference? I don’t mean to suggest that… I don’t know what I mean. Yes, of course!”

“What would we have to do?” said Dr. Payne.

Dr. Malone looked at him in surprise. Hadn’t Oliver just said he was going to work in Geneva? But he seemed to be understanding Sir Charles better than she was, for a flicker of complicity was passing between them, and Oliver came to sit down, too.

“I’m glad you take my point,” said the old man. “You’re quite right. There is a direction I’d be especially glad to see you taking. And provided we could agree, I might even be able to find you some extra money from another source altogether.”

“Wait, wait,” said Dr. Malone. “Wait a minute. The course of this research is a matter for us. I’m perfectly willing to discuss the results, but not the direction. Surely you see – “

Sir Charles spread his hands in a gesture of regret and got to his feet. Oliver Payne stood too, anxious.

“No, please, Sir Charles,” he said. “I’m sure Dr. Malone will hear you out. Mary, there’s no harm in listening, for goodness’ sake. And it might make all the difference.”

“I thought you were going to Geneva?” she said.

“Geneva?” said Sir Charles. “Excellent place. Lot of scope there. Lot of money, too. Don’t let me hold you back.”

“No, no, it’s not settled yet,” said Dr. Payne hastily. “There’s a lot to discuss – it’s all still very fluid. Sir Charles, please sit down. Can I get you some coffee?”

“That would be very kind,” said Sir Charles, and sat again, with the air of a satisfied cat.

Dr. Malone looked at him clearly for the first time. She saw a man in his late sixties, prosperous, confident, beautifully dressed, used to the very best of everything, used to moving among powerful people and whispering in important ears. Oliver was right: he did want something. And they wouldn’t get his support unless they satisfied him.

She folded her arms.

Dr. Payne handed him a mug, saying, “Sorry it’s rather primitive…”

“Not at all. Shall I go on with what I was saying?”

“Do, please,” said Dr. Payne.

“Well, I understand that you’ve made some fascinating discoveries in the field of consciousness. Yes, I know, you haven’t published anything yet, and it’s a long way – seemingly – from the apparent subject of your research. Nevertheless, word gets around. And I’m especially interested in that. I would be very pleased if, for example, you were to concentrate your research on the manipulation of consciousness. Second, the many-worlds hypothesis – Everett, you remember, 1957 or thereabouts – I believe you’re on the track of something that could take that theory a good deal further. And that line of research might even attract defense funding, which as you may know is still plentiful, even today, and certainly isn’t subject to these wearisome application processes.”

“Don’t expect me to reveal my sources,” he went on, holding up his hand as Dr. Malone sat forward and tried to speak. “I mentioned the Official Secrets Act; a tedious piece of legislation, but we mustn’t be naughty about it. I confidently expect some advances in the many-worlds area. I think you are the people to do it. And third, there is a particular matter connected with an individual. A child.”

He paused there, and sipped the coffee. Dr. Malone couldn’t speak. She’d gone pale, though she couldn’t know that, but she did know that she felt faint.

“For various reasons,” Sir Charles went on, “I am in contact with the intelligence services. They are interested in a child, a girl, who has an unusual piece of equipment – an antique scientific instrument, certainly stolen, which should be in safer hands than hers. There is also a boy of roughly the same age – twelve or so – who is wanted in connection with a murder. It’s a moot point whether a child of that age is capable of murder, of course, but he has certainly killed someone. And he has been seen with the girl.”

“Now, Dr. Malone, it may be that you have come across one or the other of these children. And it may be that you are quite properly inclined to tell the police about what you know. But you would be doing a greater service if you were to let me know privately. I can make sure the proper authorities deal with it efficiently and quickly and with no stupid tabloid publicity. I know that Inspector Walters came to see you yesterday, and I know that the girl turned up. You see, I do know what I’m talking about. I would know, for instance, if you saw her again, and if you didn’t tell me, I would know that too. You’d be very wise to think hard about that, and to clarify your recollections of what she said and did when she was here. This is a matter of national security. You understand me.”

“Well, there I’ll stop. Here’s my card so you can get in touch. I shouldn’t leave it too long; the funding committee meets tomorrow, as you know. But you can reach me at this number at any time.”

He gave a card to Oliver Payne, and seeing Dr. Malone with her arms still folded, laid one on the bench for her. Dr. Payne held the door for him. Sir Charles set his Panama hat on his head, patted it gently, beamed at both of them, and left.

When he’d shut the door again, Dr. Payne said, “Mary, are you mad? Where’s the sense in behaving like that?”

“I beg your pardon? You’re not taken in by that old creep, are you?”

“You can’t turn down offers like that! Do you want this project to survive or not?”

“It wasn’t an offer,” she said hotly. “It was an ultimatum. Do as he says, or close down. And, Oliver, for God’s sake, all those not-so-subtle threats and hints about national security and so on – can’t you see where that would lead?”

“Well, I think I can see it more clearly than you can. If you said no, they wouldn’t close this place down. They’d take it over. If they’re as interested as he says, they’ll want it to carry on. But only on their terms.”

“But their terms would be… I mean, defense, for God’s sake. They want to find new ways of killing people. And you heard what he said about consciousness: he wants to manipulate it. I’m not going to get mixed up in that, Oliver, never.”

“They’ll do it anyway, and you’ll be out of a job. If you stay, you might be able to influence it in a better direction. And you’d still have your hands on the work! You’d still be involved!”

“But what does it matter to you, anyway?” she said. “I thought Geneva was all settled?”

He ran his hands through his hair and said, “Well, not settled. Nothing’s signed. And it would be a different angle altogether, and I’d be sorry to leave here now that I think we’re really on to something.”

“What are you saying?”

“I’m not saying – “

“You’re hinting. What are you getting at?”

“Well…” He walked around the laboratory, spreading his hands, shrugging, shaking his head. “Well, if you don’t get in touch with him, I will,” he said finally.

She was silent. Then she said, “Oh, I see.”

“Mary, I’ve got to think of – “

“Of course you have.”

“It’s not that – “

“No, no.”

“You don’t understand – “

“Yes, I do. It’s very simple. You promise to do as he says, you get the funding, I leave, you take over as Director. It’s not hard to understand. You’d have a bigger budget. Lots of nice new machines. Half a dozen more Ph.D.s under you. Good idea. You do it, Oliver. You go ahead. But that’s it for me. I’m off. It stinks.”

“You haven’t…”

But her expression silenced him. She took off her white coat and hung it on the door, gathered a few papers into a bag, and left without a word. As soon as she’d gone, he took Sir Charles’s card and picked up the phone.

Several hours later, just before midnight in fact, Dr. Malone parked her car outside the science building and let herself in at the side entrance. But just as she turned to climb the stairs, a man came out of another corridor, startling her so much she nearly dropped her briefcase. He was wearing a uniform.

“Where are you going?” he said.

He stood in the way, bulky, his eyes hardly visible under the low brim of his cap.

“I’m going to my laboratory. I work here. Who are you?” she said, a little angry, a little frightened.

“Security. Have you got some ID?”

“What security? I left this building at three o’clock this afternoon and there was only a porter on duty, as usual. I should be asking you for identification. Who appointed you? And why?”

“Here’s my ID,” said the man, showing her a card, too quickly for her to read it. “Where’s yours?”

She noticed he had a mobile phone in a holster at his hip. Or was it a gun? No, surely, she was being paranoid. And he hadn’t answered her questions. But if she persisted, she’d make him suspicious, and the important thing now was to get into the lab. Soothe him like a dog, she thought. She fumbled through her bag and found her wallet.

“Will this do?” she said, showing him the card she used to operate the barrier in the car park.

He looked at it briefly.

“What are you doing here at this time of night?” he said.

“I’ve got an experiment running. I have to check the computer periodically.”

He seemed to be searching for a reason to forbid her, or perhaps he was just exercising his power. Finally he nodded and stood aside. She went past, smiling at him, but his face remained blank.

When she reached the laboratory, she was still trembling. There had never been any more “security” in this building than a lock on the door and an elderly porter, and she knew why the change had come about. But it meant that she had very little time; she’d have to get it right at once, because once they realized what she was doing, she wouldn’t be able to come back again.

She locked the door behind her and lowered the blinds. She switched on the detector and then took a floppy disk from her pocket and slipped it into the computer that controlled the Cave. Within a minute she had begun to manipulate the numbers on the screen, going half by logic, half by guesswork, and half by the program she’d worked on all evening at home; and the complexity of her task was about as baffling as getting three halves to make one whole.

Finally she brushed the hair out of her eyes and put the electrodes on her head, and then flexed her fingers and began to type. She felt intensely self-conscious.

Hello. I’m not sure

what I’m doing. Maybe

this is crazy.

The words arranged themselves on the left of the screen, which was the first surprise. She wasn’t using a word-processing program of any kind – in fact, she was bypassing much of the operating system – and whatever formatting was imposing itself on the words, it wasn’t hers. She felt the hairs begin to stir on the back of her neck, and she became aware of the whole building around her: the corridors dark, the machines idling, various experiments running automatically, computers monitoring tests and recording the results, the air-conditioning sampling and adjusting the humidity and the temperature, all the ducts and pipework and cabling that were the arteries and the nerves of the building awake and alert… almost conscious in fact.

She tried again.

I’m trying to do

with words what I’ve

done before with a

state of mind, but

Before she had even finished the sentence, the cursor raced across to the right of the screen and printed:


It was almost instantaneous.

She felt as if she had stepped on a space that wasn’t there. Her whole being lurched with shock. It took several moments for her to calm down enough to try again. When she did, the answers lashed themselves across the right of the screen almost before she had finished.

Are you Shadows? YES.

Are you the same as Lyra’s Dust? YES.

And is that dark matter? YES.

Dark matter is conscious? EVIDENTLY.

What I said to Oliver this morning, my idea about human evolution, is it


She stopped, took a deep breath, pushed her chair back, flexed her fingers. She could feel her heart racing. Every single thing about what was happening was impossible. All her education, all her habits of mind, all her sense of herself as a scientist were shrieking at her silently: This is wrong! It isn’t happening! You’re dreaming!And yet there they were on the screen: her questions, and answers from some other mind.

She gathered herself and typed again, and again the answers zipped into being with no discernible pause.

The mind that is

answering these

questions isn’t human,

is it?



Us? There’s more than

one of you?


But, what are you?


Mary Malone’s head rang. She’d been brought up as a Catholic. More than that – as Lyra had discovered, she had once been a nun. None of her faith was left to her now, but she knew about angels. St. Augustine had said, “Angel is the name of their office, not of their nature. If you seek the name of their nature, it is spirit; if you seek the name of their office, it is angel; from what they are, spirit, from what they do, angel.”

Dizzy, trembling, she typed again:

And Shadow matter is what we have called spirit?





She shivered. They’d been listening to her thoughts.

And did you intervene in human evolution?


Vengeance for – oh! Rebel angels! After the war in Heaven – Satan and the Garden of Eden – but it isn’t true, is it? Is that what you



But why?


She took her hands from the keyboard and rubbed her eyes. The words were still there when she looked again.











But I



I don’t understand. Why me? And what’s this journey? And











Mary Malone pushed back the chair and stood up, trembling. She pressed her fingers to her temples and discovered the electrodes still attached to her skin. She took them off absently. She might have doubted what she had done, and what she could still see on the screen, but she had passed in the last half-hour or so beyond doubt and belief altogether. Something had happened, and she was galvanized.

She switched off the detector and the amplifier. Then she bypassed all the safety codes and formatted the computer’s hard disk, wiping it clean; and then she removed the interface between the detector and the amplifier, which was on a specially adapted card, and put the card on the bench and smashed it with the heel of her shoe, there being nothing else heavy at hand. Next she disconnected the wiring between the electromagnetic shield and the detector, and found the wiring plan in a drawer of the filing cabinet and set light to it. Was there anything else she could do? She couldn’t do much about Oliver Payne’s knowledge of the program, but the special hardware was effectively demolished.

She crammed some papers from a drawer into her briefcase, and finally took down the poster with the I Ching hexagrams and folded it away in her pocket. Then she switched off the light and left.

The security guard was standing at the foot of the stairs, speaking into his telephone. He put it away as she came down, and escorted her silently to the side entrance, watching through the glass door as she drove away.

An hour and a half later she parked her car in a road near Sunderland Avenue. She had had to find it on a map of Oxford; she didn’t know this part of town. Up till this moment she had been moving on pent-up excitement, but as she got out of her car in the dark of the small hours and found the night cool and silent and still all around her, she felt a definite lurch of apprehension. Suppose she was dreaming? Suppose it was all some elaborate joke?

Well, it was too late to worry about that. She was committed. She lifted out the rucksack she’d often taken on camping journeys in Scotland and the Alps, and reflected that at least she knew how to survive out of doors; if worse came to worst, she could always run away, take to the hills…


But she swung the rucksack onto her back, left the car, turned into the Banbury Road, and walked the two or three hundred yards up to where Sunderland Avenue ran left from the rotary. She felt almost more foolish than she had ever felt in her life.

But as she turned the corner and saw those strange childlike trees that Will had seen, she knew that something at least was true about all this. Under the trees on the grass at the far side of the road there was a small square tent of red and white nylon, the sort that electricians put up to keep the rain off while they work, and parked close by was an unmarked white Transit van with darkened glass in the windows.

Better not hesitate. She walked straight across toward the tent. When she was nearly there, the back door of the van swung open and a policeman stepped out. Without his helmet he looked very young, and the streetlight under the dense green of the leaves above shone full on his face.

“Could I ask where you’re going, madam?” he said.

“Into that tent.”

“I’m afraid you can’t, madam. I’ve got orders not to let anyone near it.”

“Good,” she said. “I’m glad they’ve got the place protected. But I’m from the Department of Physical Sciences – Sir Charles Latrom asked us to make a preliminary survey and then report back before they look at it properly. It’s important that it’s done now while there aren’t many people around. I’m sure you understand the reasons for that.”

“Well, yes,” he said. “But have you got anything to show who you are?”

“Oh, sure,” she said, and swung the rucksack off her back to get at her purse. Among the items she had taken from the drawer in the laboratory was an expired library card of Oliver Payne’s. Fifteen minutes’ work at her kitchen table and the photograph from her own passport had produced something she hoped would pass for genuine. The policeman took the laminated card and looked at it closely.

“‘Dr. Olive Payne,'” he read. “Do you happen to know a Dr. Mary Malone?”

“Oh, yes. She’s a colleague.”

“Do you know where she is now?”

“At home in bed, if she’s got any sense. Why?”

“Well, I understand her position in your organization’s been terminated, and she wouldn’t be allowed through here. In fact, we’ve got orders to detain her if she tries. And seeing a woman, I naturally thought you might be her, if you see what I mean. Excuse me, Dr. Payne.”

“Ah, I see,” said Mary Malone. The policeman looked at the card once more.

“Still, this seems all right,” he said, and handed it back. Nervous, wanting to talk, he went on. “Do you know what’s in there under that tent?”

“Well, not firsthand,” she said. “That’s why I’m here now.”

“I suppose it is. All right then, Dr. Payne.”

He stood back and let her unlace the flap of the tent. She hoped he wouldn’t see the shaking of her hands. Clutching the rucksack to her breast, she stepped through. Deceive the guardian – well, she’d done that; but she had no idea what she would find inside the tent. She was prepared for some sort of archaeological dig; for a dead body; for a meteorite. But nothing in her life or her dreams had prepared her for that square yard or so in midair, or for the silent sleeping city by the sea that she found when she stepped through it.

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