She gave him a little horn cup containing a hot potion whose bitterness was moderated by honey, and presently he lay back and fell deeply asleep. The witch covered him with leaves and turned to Lyra, who was still gnawing the rabbit.

“Now, Lyra,” she said. “Tell me who this boy is, and what you know about this world, and about this knife of his.”

So Lyra took a deep breath and began.

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. 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.”

“Who?”

“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.”

“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.”

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