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:
ASK A QUESTION.
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 CORRECT. BUT YOU NEED TO ASK MORE QUESTIONS.
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? NO. BUT HUMANS HAVE ALWAYS KNOWN US.
Us? There’s more than one of you? UNCOUNTABLE BILLIONS.
But what are you? ANGELS.
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:
Angels are creatures of Shadow matter? Of Dust? STRUCTURES.
And Shadow matter is what we have called spirit? FROM WHAT WE ARE, SPIRIT; FROM WHAT WE DO, MATTER. MATTER AND SPIRIT ARE ONE.
She shivered. They’d been listening to her thoughts.
And did you intervene in human evolution? YES.
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 FIND THE GIRL AND THE BOY. WASTE NO MORE TIME.
But why? YOU MUST PLAY THE SERPENT.
She took her hands from the keyboard and rubbed her eyes. The words were still there when she looked again.
Where GO TO A ROAD CALLED SUNDERLAND AVENUE AND FIND A TENT. DECEIVE THE GUARDIAN AND GO THROUGH. TAKE PROVISIONS FOR A LONG JOURNEY. YOU WILL BE PROTECTED. THE SPECTERS WILL NOT TOUCH YOU.
But I BEFORE YOU GO, DESTROY THIS EQUIPMENT.
I don’t understand. Why me? And what’s this journey? And YOU HAVE BEEN PREPARING FOR THIS AS LONG AS YOU HAVE LIVED. YOUR WORK HERE IS FINISHED. THE LAST THING YOU MUST DO IN THIS WORLD IS PREVENT THE ENEMIES FROM TAKING CONTROL OF IT. DESTROY THE EQUIPMENT. DO IT
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 worst 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.”