“What’s going to happen, Umaq?”
“Same thing as before. Make all same again. But only after big trouble, big war. Spirit war.”
The driver wouldn’t tell him any more, and soon they moved on, tracking slowly over undulations and hollows and past outcrops of dim rock, dark through the pallid fog, until the old man said: “Observatory up there. You walk now. Path too crooked for sledge. You want go back, I wait here.”
“Yeah, I want to go back when I’ve finished, Umaq. You make yourself a fire, my friend, and sit and rest a spell. I’ll be three, four hours maybe.”
Lee Scoresby set off, with Hester tucked into the breast of his coat, and after half an hour’s stiff climb found a clump of buildings suddenly above him as if they’d just been placed there by a giant hand. But the effect was only due to a momentary lifting of the fog, and after a minute it closed in again. He saw the great dome of the main observatory, a smaller one a little way off, and between them a group of administration buildings and domestic quarters. No lights showed, because the windows were blacked out permanently so as not to spoil the darkness for their telescopes.
A few minutes after he arrived, Lee was talking to a group of astronomers eager to learn what news he could bring them, for there are few natural philosophers as frustrated as astronomers in a fog. He told them about everything he’d seen, and once that topic had been thoroughly dealt with, he asked about Stanislaus Grumman. The astronomers hadn’t had a visitor in weeks, and they were keen to talk.
“Grumman? Yes, I’ll tell you something about him,” said the Director. “He was an Englishman, in spite of his name. I remember—”
“Surely not,” said his deputy. “He was a member of the Imperial German Academy. I met him in Berlin. I was sure he was German.”
“No, I think you’ll find he was English. His command of that language was immaculate, anyway,” said the Director. “But I agree, he was certainly a member of the Berlin Academy. He was a geologist—”
“No, no, you’re wrong,” said someone else. “He did look at the earth, but not as a geologist. I had a long talk with him once. I suppose you’d call him a paleo-archaeologist.”
They were sitting, five of them, around a table in the room that served as their common room, living and dining room, bar, recreation room, and more or less everything else. Two of them were Muscovites, one was a Pole, one a Yoruba, and one a Skraeling. Lee Scoresby sensed that the little community was glad to have a visitor, if only because he introduced a change of conversation. The Pole had been the last to speak, and then the Yoruba interrupted:
“What do you mean, a paleo-archaeologist? Archaeologists already study what’s old; why do you need to put another word meaning ‘old’ in front of it?”
“His field of study went back much further than you’d expect, that’s all. He was looking for remains of civilizations from twenty, thirty thousand years ago,” the Pole replied.
“Nonsense!” said the Director. “Utter nonsense! The man was pulling your leg. Civilizations thirty thousand years old? Ha! Where is the evidence?”
“Under the ice,” said the Pole. “That’s the point. According to Grumman, the earth’s magnetic field changed dramatically at various times in the past, and the earth’s axis actually moved, too, so that temperate areas became ice-bound.”
“How?” said one of the Muscovites.
“Oh, he had some complex theory. The point was, any evidence there might have been for very early civilizations was long since buried under the ice. He claimed to have some photograms of unusual rock formations.”
“Ha! Is that all?” said the Director.
“I’m only reporting, I’m not defending him,” said the Pole.
“How long had you known Grumman, gentlemen?” Lee Scoresby asked.
“Well, let me see,” said the Director. “It was seven years ago I met him for the first time.”
“He made a name for himself a year or two before that, with his paper on the variations in the magnetic pole,” said the Yoruba. “But he came out of nowhere. I mean, no one had known him as a student or seen any of his previous work . . . . ”
They talked on for a while, contributing reminiscences and offering suggestions as to what might have become of Grumman, though most of them thought he was probably dead. While the Pole went to brew some more coffee, Lee’s hare dæmon, Hester, said to him quietly:
“Check out the Skraeling, Lee.”
The Skraeling had spoken very little. Lee had thought he was naturally taciturn, but prompted by Hester, he casually glanced across during the next break in the conversation to see the man’s dæmon, a snowy owl, glaring at him with bright orange eyes. Well, that was what owls looked like, and they did stare; but Hester was right, and there was a hostility and suspicion in the dæmon that the man’s face showed nothing of.
And then Lee saw something else: the Skraeling was wearing a ring with the Church’s symbol engraved on it. Suddenly he realized the reason for the man’s silence. Every philosophical research establishment, so he’d heard, had to include on its staff a representative of the Magisterium, to act as a censor and suppress the news of any heretical discoveries.
So, realizing this, and remembering something he’d heard Lyra say, Lee asked: “Tell me, gentlemen—do you happen to know if Grumman ever looked into the question of Dust?”
And instantly a silence fell in the stuffy little room, and everyone’s attention focused on the Skraeling, though no one looked at him directly. Lee knew that Hester would remain inscrutable, with her eyes half-closed and her ears flat along her back, and he put on a cheerful innocence as he looked from face to face.
Finally he settled on the Skraeling, and said, “I beg your pardon. Have I asked about something it’s forbidden to know?”
The Skraeling said, “Where did you hear mention of this subject, Mr. Scoresby?”
“From a passenger I flew across the sea a while back,” Lee said easily. “They never said what it was, but from the way it was mentioned it seemed like the kind of thing Dr. Grumman might have inquired into. I took it to be some kind of celestial thing, like the aurora. But it puzzled me, because as an aeronaut I know the skies pretty well, and I’d never come across this stuff. What is it, anyhow?”
“As you say, a celestial phenomenon,” said the Skraeling. “It has no practical significance.”
Presently Lee decided it was time to leave; he had learned no more, and he didn’t want to keep Umaq waiting. He left the astronomers to their fogbound observatory and set off down the track, feeling his way along by following his dæmon, whose eyes were closer to the ground.
And when they were only ten minutes down the path, something swept past his head in the fog and dived at Hester. It was the Skraeling’s owl dæmon.
But Hester sensed her coming and flattened herself in time, and the owl’s claws just missed. Hester could fight; her claws were sharp, too, and she was tough and brave. Lee knew that the Skraeling himself must be close by, and reached for the revolver at his belt.
“Behind you, Lee,” Hester said, and he whipped around, diving, as an arrow hissed over his shoulder.
He fired at once. The Skraeling fell, grunting, as the bullet thudded into his leg. A moment later the owl dæmon, wheeling on silent wings, swooped with a clumsy fainting movement to his side, and half lay on the snow, struggling to fold her wings.
Lee Scoresby cocked his pistol and held it to the man’s head.
“Right, you damn fool,” he said. “What did you try that for? Can’t you see we’re all in the same trouble now this thing’s happened to the sky?”
“It’s too late,” said the Skraeling.
“Too late for what?”
“Too late to stop. I have already sent a messenger bird. The Magisterium will know of your inquiries, and they will be glad to know about Grumman—”
“What about him?”
“The fact that others are looking for him. It confirms what we thought. And that others know of Dust. You are an enemy of the Church, Lee Scoresby. By their fruits shall ye know them. By their questions shall ye see the serpent gnawing at their heart . . . . ”