فصل 15-16

مجموعه: نیروی اهریمنی اش / کتاب: قطب نمای طلایی / فصل 11

فصل 15-16

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15

THE DÆMON CAGES

It wasn’t Lyra’s way to brood; she was a sanguine and practical child, and besides, she wasn’t imaginative. No one with much imagination would have thought seriously that it was possible to come all this way and rescue her friend Roger; or, having thought it, an imaginative child would immediately have come up with several ways in which it was impossible. Being a practiced liar doesn’t mean you have a powerful imagination. Many good liars have no imagination at all; it’s that which gives their lies such wide-eyed conviction.

So now that she was in the hands of the Oblation Board, Lyra didn’t fret herself into terror about what had happened to the gyptians. They were all good fighters, and even though Pantalaimon said he’d seen John Faa shot, he might have been mistaken; or if he wasn’t mistaken, John Faa might not have been seriously hurt. It had been bad luck that she’d fallen into the hands of the Samoyeds, but the gyptians would be along soon to rescue her, and if they couldn’t manage it, nothing would stop Iorek Byrnison from getting her out; and then they’d fly to Svalbard in Lee Scoresby’s balloon and rescue Lord Asriel.

In her mind, it was as easy as that.

So next morning, when she awoke in the dormitory, she was curious and ready to deal with whatever the day would bring. And eager to see Roger—in particular, eager to see him before he saw her.

She didn’t have long to wait. The children in their different dormitories were woken at half-past seven by the nurses who looked after them. They washed and dressed and went with the others to the canteen for breakfast.

And there was Roger.

He was sitting with five other boys at a table just inside the door. The line for the hatch went right past them, and she was able to pretend to drop a handkerchief and crouch to pick it up, bending low next to his chair, so that Pantalaimon could speak to Roger’s dæmon Salcilia.

She was a chaffinch, and she fluttered so wildly that Pantalaimon had to be a cat and leap at her, pinning her down to whisper. Such brisk fights or scuffles between children’s dæmons were common, luckily, and no one took much notice, but Roger went pale at once. Lyra had never seen anyone so white. He looked up at the blank haughty stare she gave him, and the color flooded back into his cheeks as he brimmed over with hope, excitement, and joy; and only Pantalaimon, shaking Salcilia firmly, was able to keep Roger from shouting out and leaping up to greet his best friend, his comrade in arms, his Lyra.

But he saw how she looked away disdainfully, and he followed her example faithfully, as he’d done in a hundred Oxford battles and campaigns. No one must know, of course, because they were both in deadly danger. She rolled her eyes at her new friends, and they collected their trays of cornflakes and toast and sat together, an instant gang, excluding everyone else in order to gossip about them.

You can’t keep a large group of children in one place for long without giving them plenty to do, and in some ways Bolvangar was run like a school, with timetabled activities such as gymnastics and “art.” Boys and girls were kept separate except for breaks and mealtimes, so it wasn’t until midmorning, after an hour and a half of sewing directed by one of the nurses, that Lyra had the chance to talk to Roger. But it had to look natural; that was the difficulty. All the children there were more or less at the same age, and it was the age when most boys talk to boys and girls to girls, each making a conspicuous point of ignoring the opposite sex.

She found her chance in the canteen again, when the children came in for a drink and a biscuit. Lyra sent Pantalaimon, as a fly, to talk to Salcilia on the wall next to their table while she and Roger kept quietly in their separate groups. It was difficult to talk while your dæmon’s attention was somewhere else, so Lyra pretended to look glum and rebellious as she sipped her milk with the other girls. Half her thoughts were with the tiny buzz of talk between the dæmons, and she wasn’t really listening, but at one point she heard another girl with bright blond hair say a name that made her sit up.

It was the name of Tony Makarios. As Lyra’s attention snapped toward that, Pantalaimon had to slow down his whispered conversation with Roger’s dæmon, and both children listened to what the girl was saying.

“No, I know why they took him,” she said, as heads clustered close nearby. “It was because his dæmon didn’t change. They thought he was older than he looked, or summing, and he weren’t really a young kid. But really his dæmon never changed very often because Tony hisself never thought much about anything. I seen her change. She was called Ratter …” “Why are they so interested in dæmons?” said Lyra.

“No one knows,” said the blond girl.

“I know,” said one boy who’d been listening. “What they do is kill your dæmon and then see if you die.”

“Well, how come they do it over and over with different kids?” said someone. “They’d only need to do it once, wouldn’t they?”

“I know what they do,” said the first girl.

She had everyone’s attention now. But because they didn’t want to let the staff know what they were talking about, they had to adopt a strange, half-careless, indifferent manner, while listening with passionate curiosity.

“How?” said someone.

“ ’Cause I was with him when they came for him. We was in the linen room,” she said.

She was blushing hotly. If she was expecting jeers and teasing, they didn’t come. All the children were subdued, and no one even smiled.

The girl went on: “We was keeping quiet and then the nurse came in, the one with the soft voice. And she says, Come on, Tony, I know you’re there, come on, we won’t hurt you.… And he says, What’s going to happen? And she says, We just put you to sleep, and then we do a little operation, and then you wake up safe and sound. But Tony didn’t believe her. He says—” “The holes!” said someone. “They make a hole in your head like the Tartars! I bet!”

“Shut up! What else did the nurse say?” someone else put in. By this time, a dozen or more children were clustered around her table, their dæmons as desperate to know as they were, all wide-eyed and tense.

The blond girl went on: “Tony wanted to know what they was gonna do with Ratter, see. And the nurse says, Well, she’s going to sleep too, just like when you do. And Tony says, You’re gonna kill her, en’t yer? I know you are. We all know that’s what happens. And the nurse says, No, of course not. It’s just a little operation. Just a little cut. It won’t even hurt, but we put you to sleep to make sure.” All the room had gone quiet now. The nurse who’d been supervising had left for a moment, and the hatch to the kitchen was shut so no one could hear from there.

“What sort of cut?” said a boy, his voice quiet and frightened. “Did she say what sort of cut?”

“She just said, It’s something to make you more grown up. She said everyone had to have it, that’s why grownups’ dæmons don’t change like ours do. So they have a cut to make them one shape forever, and that’s how you get grown up.” “But—”

“Does that mean—”

“What, all grownups’ve had this cut?”

“What about—”

Suddenly all the voices stopped as if they themselves had been cut, and all eyes turned to the door. Sister Clara stood there, bland and mild and matter-of-fact, and beside her was a man in a white coat whom Lyra hadn’t seen before.

“Bridget McGinn,” he said.

The blond girl stood up trembling. Her squirrel dæmon clutched her breast.

“Yes, sir?” she said, her voice hardly audible.

“Finish your drink and come with Sister Clara,” he said. “The rest of you run along and go to your classes.”

Obediently the children stacked their mugs on the stainless-steel trolley before leaving in silence. No one looked at Bridget McGinn except Lyra, and she saw the blond girl’s face vivid with fear.

The rest of that morning was spent in exercise. There was a small gymnasium at the station, because it was hard to exercise outside during the long polar night, and each group of children took turns to play in there, under the supervision of a nurse. They had to form teams and throw balls around, and at first Lyra, who had never in her life played at anything like this, was at a loss what to do. But she was quick and athletic, and a natural leader, and soon found herself enjoying it. The shouts of the children, the shrieks and hoots of the dæmons, filled the little gymnasium and soon banished fearful thoughts; which of course was exactly what the exercise was intended to do.

At lunchtime, when the children were lining up once again in the canteen, Lyra felt Pantalaimon give a chirrup of recognition, and turned to find Billy Costa standing just behind her.

“Roger told me you was here,” he muttered.

“Your brother’s coming, and John Faa and a whole band of gyptians,” she said. “They’re going to take you home.”

He nearly cried aloud with joy, but subdued the cry into a cough.

“And you got to call me Lizzie,” Lyra said, “never Lyra. And you got to tell me everything you know, right.”

They sat together, with Roger close by. It was easier to do this at lunchtime, when children spent more time coming and going between the tables and the counter, where bland-looking adults served equally bland food. Under the clatter of knives and forks and plates Billy and Roger both told her as much as they knew. Billy had heard from a nurse that children who had had the operation were often taken to hostels further south, which might explain how Tony Makarios came to be wandering in the wild. But Roger had something even more interesting to tell her.

“I found a hiding place,” he said.

“What? Where?”

“See that picture …” He meant the big photogram of the tropical beach. “If you look in the top right corner, you see that ceiling panel?”

The ceiling consisted of large rectangular panels set in a framework of metal strips, and the corner of the panel above the picture had lifted slightly.

“I saw that,” Roger said, “and I thought the others might be like it, so I lifted ’em, and they’re all loose. They just lift up. Me and this boy tried it one night in our dormitory, before they took him away. There’s a space up there and you can crawl inside.…” “How far can you crawl in the ceiling?”

“I dunno. We just went in a little way. We reckoned when it was time we could hide up there, but they’d probably find us.”

Lyra saw it not as a hiding place but as a highway. It was the best thing she’d heard since she’d arrived. But before they could talk any more, a doctor banged on a table with a spoon and began to speak.

“Listen, children,” he said. “Listen carefully. Every so often we have to have a fire drill. It’s very important that we all get dressed properly and make our way outside without any panic. So we’re going to have a practice fire drill this afternoon. When the bell rings, you must stop whatever you’re doing and do what the nearest grownup says. Remember where they take you. That’s the place you must go to if there’s a real fire.” Well, thought Lyra, there’s an idea.

During the first part of the afternoon, Lyra and four other girls were tested for Dust. The doctors didn’t say that was what they were doing, but it was easy to guess. They were taken one by one to a laboratory, and of course this made them all very frightened; how cruel it would be, Lyra thought, if she perished without striking a blow at them! But they were not going to do that operation just yet, it seemed.

“We want to make some measurements,” the doctor explained. It was hard to tell the difference between these people: all the men looked similar in their white coats and with their clipboards and pencils, and the women resembled one another too, the uniforms and their strange bland calm manner making them all look like sisters.

“I was measured yesterday,” Lyra said.

“Ah, we’re making different measurements today. Stand on the metal plate—oh, slip your shoes off first. Hold your dæmon, if you like. Look forward, that’s it, stare at the little green light. Good girl …” Something flashed. The doctor made her face the other way and then to left and right, and each time something clicked and flashed.

“That’s fine. Now come over to this machine and put your hand into the tube. Nothing to harm you, I promise. Straighten your fingers. That’s it.”

“What are you measuring?” she said. “Is it Dust?”

“Who told you about Dust?”

“One of the other girls, I don’t know her name. She said we was all over Dust. I en’t dusty, at least I don’t think I am. I had a shower yesterday.”

“Ah, it’s a different sort of dust. You can’t see it with your ordinary eyesight. It’s a special dust. Now clench your fist—that’s right. Good. Now if you feel around in there, you’ll find a sort of handle thing—got that? Take hold of that, there’s a good girl. Now can you put your other hand over this way—rest it on this brass globe. Good. Fine. Now you’ll feel a slight tingling, nothing to worry about, it’s just a slight anbaric current.…” Pantalaimon, in his most tense and wary wildcat form, prowled with lightning-eyed suspicion around the apparatus, continually returning to rub himself against Lyra.

She was sure by now that they weren’t going to perform the operation on her yet, and sure too that her disguise as Lizzie Brooks was secure; so she risked a question.

“Why do you cut people’s dæmons away?”

“What? Who’s been talking to you about that?”

“This girl, I dunno her name. She said you cut people’s dæmons away.”

“Nonsense …”

He was agitated, though. She went on:

“ ’Cause you take people out one by one and they never come back. And some people reckon you just kill ’em, and other people say different, and this girl told me you cut—” “It’s not true at all. When we take children out, it’s because it’s time for them to move on to another place. They’re growing up. I’m afraid your friend is alarming herself. Nothing of the sort! Don’t even think about it. Who is your friend?” “I only come here yesterday, I don’t know anyone’s name.”

“What does she look like?”

“I forget. I think she had sort of brown hair … light brown, maybe … I dunno.”

The doctor went to speak quietly to the nurse. As the two of them conferred, Lyra watched their dæmons. This nurse’s was a pretty bird, just as neat and incurious as Sister Clara’s dog, and the doctor’s was a large heavy moth. Neither moved. They were awake, for the bird’s eyes were bright and the moth’s feelers waved languidly, but they weren’t animated, as she would have expected them to be. Perhaps they weren’t really anxious or curious at all.

Presently the doctor came back and they went on with the examination, weighing her and Pantalaimon separately, looking at her from behind a special screen, measuring her heartbeat, placing her under a little nozzle that hissed and gave off a smell like fresh air.

In the middle of one of the tests, a loud bell began to ring and kept ringing.

“The fire alarm,” said the doctor, sighing. “Very well. Lizzie, follow Sister Betty.”

“But all their outdoor clothes are down in the dormitory building, Doctor. She can’t go outside like this. Should we go there first, do you think?”

He was annoyed at having his experiments interrupted, and snapped his fingers in irritation.

“I suppose this is just the sort of thing the practice is meant to show up,” he said. “What a nuisance.”

“When I came yesterday,” Lyra said helpfully, “Sister Clara put my other clothes in a cupboard in that first room where she looked at me. The one next door. I could wear them.” “Good idea!” said the nurse. “Quick, then.”

With a secret glee, Lyra hurried there behind the nurse and retrieved her proper furs and leggings and boots, and pulled them on quickly while the nurse dressed herself in coal silk.

Then they hurried out. In the wide arena in front of the main group of buildings, a hundred or so people, adults and children, were milling about: some in excitement, some in irritation, many just bewildered.

“See?” one adult was saying. “It’s worth doing this to find out what chaos we’d be in with a real fire.”

Someone was blowing a whistle and waving his arms, but no one was taking much notice. Lyra saw Roger and beckoned. Roger tugged Billy Costa’s arm and soon all three of them were together in a maelstrom of running children.

“No one’ll notice if we take a look around,” said Lyra. “It’ll take ’em ages to count everyone, and we can say we just followed someone else and got lost.” They waited till most of the grownups were looking the other way, and then Lyra scooped up some snow and rammed it into a loose powdery snowball, and hurled it at random into the crowd. In a moment all the children were doing it, and the air was full of flying snow. Screams of laughter covered completely the shouts of the adults trying to regain control, and then the three children were around the corner and out of sight.

The snow was so thick that they couldn’t move quickly, but it didn’t seem to matter; no one was following. Lyra and the others scrambled over the curved roof of one of the tunnels, and found themselves in a strange moonscape of regular hummocks and hollows, all swathed in white under the black sky and lit by reflections from the lights around the arena.

“What we looking for?” said Billy.

“Dunno. Just looking,” said Lyra, and led the way to a squat, square building a little apart from the rest, with a low-powered anbaric light at the corner.

The hubbub from behind was as loud as ever, but more distant. Clearly the children were making the most of their freedom, and Lyra hoped they’d keep it up for as long as they could. She moved around the edge of the square building, looking for a window. The roof was only seven feet or so off the ground, and unlike the other buildings, it had no roofed tunnel to connect it with the rest of the station.

There was no window, but there was a door. A notice above it said ENTRY STRICTLY FORBIDDEN in red letters.

Lyra set her hand on it to try, but before she could turn the handle, Roger said:

“Look! A bird! Or—”

His or was an exclamation of doubt, because the creature swooping down from the black sky was no bird at all: it was someone Lyra had seen before.

“The witch’s dæmon!”

The goose beat his great wings, raising a flurry of snow as he landed.

“Greetings, Lyra,” he said. “I followed you here, though you didn’t see me. I have been waiting for you to come out into the open. What is happening?”

She told him quickly.

“Where are the gyptians?” she said. “Is John Faa safe? Did they fight off the Samoyeds?”

“Most of them are safe. John Faa is wounded, though not severely. The men who took you were hunters and raiders who often prey on parties of travelers, and alone they can travel more quickly than a large party. The gyptians are still a day’s journey away.” The two boys were staring in fear at the goose dæmon and at Lyra’s familiar manner with him, because of course they’d never seen a dæmon without his human before, and they knew little about witches.

Lyra said to them, “Listen, you better go and keep watch, right. Billy, you go that way, and Roger, watch out the way we just come. We en’t got long.”

They ran off to do as she said, and then Lyra turned back to the door.

“Why are you trying to get in there?” said the goose dæmon.

“Because of what they do here. They cut—” she lowered her voice, “they cut people’s dæmons away. Children’s. And I think maybe they do it in here. At least, there’s something here, and I was going to look. But it’s locked.…” “I can open it,” said the goose, and beat his wings once or twice, throwing snow up against the door; and as he did, Lyra heard something turn in the lock.

“Go in carefully,” said the dæmon.

Lyra pulled open the door against the snow and slipped inside. The goose dæmon came with her. Pantalaimon was agitated and fearful, but he didn’t want the witch’s dæmon to see his fear, so he had flown to Lyra’s breast and taken sanctuary inside her furs.

As soon as her eyes had adjusted to the light, Lyra saw why.

In a series of glass cases on shelves around the walls were all the dæmons of the severed children: ghostlike forms of cats, or birds, or rats, or other creatures, each bewildered and frightened and as pale as smoke.

The witch’s dæmon gave a cry of anger, and Lyra clutched Pantalaimon to her and said, “Don’t look! Don’t look!”

“Where are the children of these dæmons?” said the goose dæmon, shaking with rage.

Lyra explained fearfully about her encounter with little Tony Makarios, and looked over her shoulder at the poor caged dæmons, who were clustering forward pressing their pale faces to the glass. Lyra could hear faint cries of pain and misery. In the dim light from a low-powered anbaric bulb she could see a name on a card at the front of each case, and yes, there was an empty one with Tony Makarios on it. There were four or five other empty ones with names on them, too.

“I want to let these poor things go!” she said fiercely. “I’m going to smash the glass and let ’em out—”

And she looked around for something to do it with, but the place was bare. The goose dæmon said, “Wait.”

He was a witch’s dæmon, and much older than she was, and stronger. She had to do as he said.

“We must make these people think someone forgot to lock the place and shut the cages,” he explained. “If they see broken glass and footprints in the snow, how long do you think your disguise will last? And it must hold out till the gyptians come. Now do exactly as I say: take a handful of snow, and when I tell you, blow a little of it against each cage in turn.” She ran outside. Roger and Billy were still on guard, and there was still a noise of shrieking and laughter from the arena, because only a minute or so had gone by.

She grabbed a big double handful of the light powdery snow, and then came back to do as the goose dæmon said. As she blew a little snow on each cage, the goose made a clicking sound in his throat, and the catch at the front of the cage came open.

When she had unlocked them all, she lifted the front of the first one, and the pale form of a sparrow fluttered out, but fell to the ground before she could fly. The goose tenderly bent and nudged her upright with his beak, and the sparrow became a mouse, staggering and confused. Pantalaimon leaped down to comfort her.

Lyra worked quickly, and within a few minutes every dæmon was free. Some were trying to speak, and they clustered around her feet and even tried to pluck at her leggings, though the taboo held them back. She could tell why, poor things; they missed the heavy solid warmth of their humans’ bodies; just as Pantalaimon would have done, they longed to press themselves against a heartbeat.

“Now, quick,” said the goose. “Lyra, you must run back and mingle with the other children. Be brave, child. The gyptians are coming as fast as they can. I must help these poor dæmons to find their people.…” He came closer and said quietly, “But they’ll never be one again. They’re sundered forever. This is the most wicked thing I have ever seen.… Leave the footprints you’ve made; I’ll cover them up. Hurry now.…” “Oh, please! Before you go! Witches … They do fly, don’t they? I wasn’t dreaming when I saw them flying the other night?”

“Yes, child; why?”

“Could they pull a balloon?”

“Undoubtedly, but—”

“Will Serafina Pekkala be coming?”

“There isn’t time to explain the politics of witch nations. There are vast powers involved here, and Serafina Pekkala must guard the interests of her clan. But it may be that what’s happening here is part of all that’s happening elsewhere. Lyra, you’re needed inside. Run, run!” She ran, and Roger, who was watching wide-eyed as the pale dæmons drifted out of the building, waded toward her through the thick snow.

“They’re—it’s like the crypt in Jordan—they’re dæmons!”

“Yes, hush. Don’t tell Billy, though. Don’t tell anyone yet. Come on back.”

Behind them, the goose was beating his wings powerfully, throwing snow over the tracks they’d made; and near him, the lost dæmons were clustering or drifting away, crying little bleak cries of loss and longing. When the footprints were covered, the goose turned to herd the pale dæmons together. He spoke, and one by one they changed, though you could see the effort it cost them, until they were all birds; and like fledglings they followed the witch’s dæmon, fluttering and falling and running through the snow after him, and finally, with great difficulty, taking off. They rose in a ragged line, pale and spectral against the deep black sky, and slowly gained height, feeble and erratic though some of them were, and though others lost their will and fluttered downward; but the great gray goose wheeled round and nudged them back, herding them gently on until they were lost against the profound dark.

Roger was tugging at Lyra’s arm.

“Quick,” he said, “they’re nearly ready.”

They stumbled away to join Billy, who was beckoning from the corner of the main building. The children were tired now, or else the adults had regained some authority, because people were lining up raggedly by the main door, with much jostling and pushing. Lyra and the other two slipped out from the corner and mingled with them, but before they did, Lyra said: “Pass the word around among all the kids—they got to be ready to escape. They got to know where the outdoor clothes are and be ready to get them and run out as soon as we give the signal. And they got to keep this a deadly secret, understand?” Billy nodded, and Roger said, “What’s the signal?”

“The fire bell,” said Lyra. “When the time comes, I’ll set it off.”

They waited to be counted off. If anyone in the Oblation Board had had anything to do with a school, they would have arranged this better; because they had no regular group to go to, each child had to be ticked off against the complete list, and of course they weren’t in alphabetical order; and none of the adults was used to keeping control. So there was a good deal of confusion, despite the fact that no one was running around anymore.

Lyra watched and noticed. They weren’t very good at this at all. They were slack in a lot of ways, these people; they grumbled about fire drills, they didn’t know where the outdoor clothes should be kept, they couldn’t get children to stand in line properly; and their slackness might be to her advantage.

They had almost finished when there came another distraction, though, and from Lyra’s point of view, it was the worst possible.

She heard the sound as everyone else did. Heads began to turn and scan the dark sky for the zeppelin, whose gas engine was throbbing clearly in the still air.

The one lucky thing was that it was coming from the direction opposite to the one in which the gray goose had flown. But that was the only comfort. Very soon it was visible, and a murmur of excitement went around the crowd. Its fat sleek silver form drifted over the avenue of lights, and its own lights blazed downward from the nose and the cabin slung beneath the body.

The pilot cut the speed and began the complex business of adjusting the height. Lyra realized what the stout mast was for: of course, it was a mooring mast. As the adults ushered the children inside, with everyone staring back and pointing, the ground crew clambered up the ladders in the mast and prepared to attach the mooring cables. The engines were roaring, and snow was swirling up from the ground, and the faces of passengers showed in the cabin windows.

Lyra looked, and there was no mistake. Pantalaimon clutched at her, became a wildcat, hissed in hatred, because looking out with curiosity was the beautiful dark-haired head of Mrs. Coulter, with her golden dæmon in her lap.

16

THE SILVER GUILLOTINE

Lyra ducked her head at once under the shelter of her wolverine hood, and shuffled in through the double doors with the other children. Time enough later to worry about what she’d say when they came face to face: she had another problem to deal with first, and that was how to hide her furs where she could get at them without asking permission.

But luckily, there was such disorder inside, with the adults trying to hurry the children through so as to clear the way for the passengers from the zeppelin, that no one was watching very carefully. Lyra slipped out of the anorak, the leggings, and the boots and bundled them up as small as she could before shoving through the crowded corridors to her dormitory.

Quickly she dragged a locker to the corner, stood on it, and pushed at the ceiling. The panel lifted, just as Roger had said, and into the space beyond she thrust the boots and leggings. As an afterthought, she took the alethiometer from her pouch and hid it in the inmost pocket of the anorak before shoving that through too.

She jumped down, pushed back the locker, and whispered to Pantalaimon, “We must just pretend to be stupid till she sees us, and then say we were kidnapped. And nothing about the gyptians or Iorek Byrnison especially.” Because Lyra now realized, if she hadn’t done so before, that all the fear in her nature was drawn to Mrs. Coulter as a compass needle is drawn to the Pole. All the other things she’d seen, and even the hideous cruelty of the intercision, she could cope with; she was strong enough; but the thought of that sweet face and gentle voice, the image of that golden playful monkey, was enough to melt her stomach and make her pale and nauseated.

But the gyptians were coming. Think of that. Think of Iorek Byrnison. And don’t give yourself away, she said, and drifted back toward the canteen, from where a lot of noise was coming.

Children were lining up to get hot drinks, some of them still in their coal-silk anoraks. Their talk was all of the zeppelin and its passenger.

“It was her—with the monkey dæmon—”

“Did she get you, too?”

“She said she’d write to my mum and dad and I bet she never.…”

“She never told us about kids getting killed. She never said nothing about that.”

“That monkey, he’s the worst—he caught my Karossa and nearly killed her—I could feel all weak.…”

They were as frightened as Lyra was. She found Annie and the others, and sat down.

“Listen,” she said, “can you keep a secret?”

“Yeah!”

The three faces turned to her, vivid with expectation.

“There’s a plan to escape,” Lyra said quietly. “There’s some people coming to take us away, right, and they’ll be here in about a day. Maybe sooner. What we all got to do is be ready as soon as the signal goes and get our cold-weather clothes at once and run out. No waiting about. You just got to run. Only if you don’t get your anoraks and boots and stuff, you’ll die of cold.” “What signal?” Annie demanded.

“The fire bell, like this afternoon. It’s all organized. All the kids’re going to know and none of the grownups. Especially not her.”

Their eyes were gleaming with hope and excitement. And all through the canteen the message was being passed around. Lyra could tell that the atmosphere had changed. Outside, the children had been energetic and eager for play; then when they had seen Mrs. Coulter they were bubbling with a suppressed hysterical fear; but now there was a control and purpose to their talkativeness. Lyra marveled at the effect hope could have.

She watched through the open doorway, but carefully, ready to duck her head, because there were adult voices coming, and then Mrs. Coulter herself was briefly visible, looking in and smiling at the happy children, with their hot drinks and their cake, so warm and well fed. A little shiver ran almost instantaneously through the whole canteen, and every child was still and silent, staring at her.

Mrs. Coulter smiled and passed on without a word. Little by little the talk started again.

Lyra said, “Where do they go to talk?”

“Probably the conference room,” said Annie. “They took us there once,” she added, meaning her and her dæmon. “There was about twenty grownups there and one of ’em was giving a lecture and I had to stand there and do what he told me, like seeing how far my Kyrillion could go away from me, and then he hypnotized me and did some other things.… It’s a big room with a lot of chairs and tables and a little platform. It’s behind the front office. Hey, I bet they’re going to pretend the fire drill went off all right. I bet they’re scared of her, same as we are.…” For the rest of the day, Lyra stayed close to the other girls, watching, saying little, remaining inconspicuous. There was exercise, there was sewing, there was supper, there was playtime in the lounge: a big shabby room with board games and a few tattered books and a table-tennis table. At some point Lyra and the others became aware that there was some kind of subdued emergency going on, because the adults were hurrying to and fro or standing in anxious groups talking urgently. Lyra guessed they’d discovered the dæmons’ escape, and were wondering how it had happened.

But she didn’t see Mrs. Coulter, which was a relief. When it was time for bed, she knew she had to let the other girls into her confidence.

“Listen,” she said, “do they ever come round and see if we’re asleep?”

“They just look in once,” said Bella. “They just flash a lantern round, they don’t really look.”

“Good. ’Cause I’m going to go and look round. There’s a way through the ceiling that this boy showed me.…”

She explained, and before she’d even finished, Annie said, “I’ll come with you!”

“No, you better not, ’cause it’ll be easier if there’s just one person missing. You can all say you fell asleep and you don’t know where I’ve gone.”

“But if I came with you—”

“More likely to get caught,” said Lyra.

Their two dæmons were staring at each other, Pantalaimon as a wildcat, Annie’s Kyrillion as a fox. They were quivering. Pantalaimon uttered the lowest, softest hiss and bared his teeth, and Kyrillion turned aside and began to groom himself unconcernedly.

“All right then,” said Annie, resigned.

It was quite common for struggles between children to be settled by their dæmons in this way, with one accepting the dominance of the other. Their humans accepted the outcome without resentment, on the whole, so Lyra knew that Annie would do as she asked.

They all contributed items of clothing to bulk out Lyra’s bed and make it look as if she was still there, and swore to say they knew nothing about it. Then Lyra listened at the door to make sure no one was coming, jumped up on the locker, pushed up the panel, and hauled herself through.

“Just don’t say anything,” she whispered down to the three faces watching.

Then she dropped the panel gently back into place and looked around.

She was crouching in a narrow metal channel supported in a framework of girders and struts. The panels of the ceilings were slightly translucent, so some light came up from below, and in the faint gleam Lyra could see this narrow space (only two feet or so in height) extending in all directions around her. It was crowded with metal ducts and pipes, and it would be easy to get lost in, but provided she kept to the metal and avoided putting any weight on the panels, and as long as she made no noise, she should be able to go from one end of the station to the other.

“It’s just like back in Jordan, Pan,” she whispered, “looking in the Retiring Room.”

“If you hadn’t done that, none of this would have happened,” he whispered back.

“Then it’s up to me to undo it, isn’t it?”

She got her bearings, working out approximately which direction the conference room was in, and then set off. It was a far from easy journey. She had to move on hands and knees, because the space was too low to crouch in, and every so often she had to squeeze under a big square duct or lift herself over some heating pipes. The metal channels she crawled in followed the tops of internal walls, as far as she could tell, and as long as she stayed in them she felt a comforting solidity below her; but they were very narrow, and had sharp edges, so sharp that she cut her knuckles and her knees on them, and before long she was sore all over, and cramped, and dusty.

But she knew roughly where she was, and she could see the dark bulk of her furs crammed in above the dormitory to guide her back. She could tell where a room was empty because the panels were dark, and from time to time she heard voices from below, and stopped to listen, but it was only the cooks in the kitchen, or the nurses in what Lyra, in her Jordan way, thought of as their common room. They were saying nothing interesting, so she moved on.

At last she came to the area where the conference room should be, according to her calculations; and sure enough, there was an area free of any pipework, where air conditioning and heating ducts led down at one end, and where all the panels in a wide rectangular space were lit evenly. She placed her ear to the panel, and heard a murmur of male adult voices, so she knew she had found the right place.

She listened carefully, and then inched her way along till she was as close as she could get to the speakers. Then she lay full length in the metal channel and leaned her head sideways to hear as well as she could.

There was the occasional clink of cutlery, or the sound of glass on glass as drink was poured, so they were having dinner as they talked. There were four voices, she thought, including Mrs. Coulter’s. The other three were men. They seemed to be discussing the escaped dæmons.

“But who is in charge of supervising that section?” said Mrs. Coulter’s gentle musical voice.

“A research student called McKay,” said one of the men. “But there are automatic mechanisms to prevent this sort of thing happening—”

“They didn’t work,” she said.

“With respect, they did, Mrs. Coulter. McKay assures us that he locked all the cages when he left the building at eleven hundred hours today. The outer door of course would not have been open in any case, because he entered and left by the inner door, as he normally did. There’s a code that has to be entered in the ordinator controlling the locks, and there’s a record in its memory of his doing so. Unless that’s done, an alarm goes off.” “But the alarm didn’t go off,” she said.

“It did. Unfortunately, it rang when everyone was outside, taking part in the fire drill.”

“But when you went back inside—”

“Unfortunately, both alarms are on the same circuit; that’s a design fault that will have to be rectified. What it meant was that when the fire bell was turned off after the practice, the laboratory alarm was turned off as well. Even then it would still have been picked up, because of the normal checks that would have taken place after every disruption of routine; but by that time, Mrs. Coulter, you had arrived unexpectedly, and if you recall, you asked specifically to meet the laboratory staff there and then, in your room. Consequently, no one returned to the laboratory until some time later.” “I see,” said Mrs. Coulter coldly. “In that case, the dæmons must have been released during the fire drill itself. And that widens the list of suspects to include every adult in the station. Had you considered that?” “Had you considered that it might have been done by a child?” said someone else.

She was silent, and the second man went on:

“Every adult had a task to do, and every task would have taken their full attention, and every task was done. There is no possibility that any of the staff here could have opened the door. None. So either someone came from outside altogether with the intention of doing that, or one of the children managed to find his way there, open the door and the cages, and return to the front of the main building.” “And what are you doing to investigate?” she said. “No; on second thought, don’t tell me. Please understand, Dr. Cooper, I’m not criticizing out of malice. We have to be quite extraordinarily careful. It was an atrocious lapse to have allowed both alarms to be on the same circuit. That must be corrected at once. Possibly the Tartar officer in charge of the guard could help your investigation? I merely mention that as a possibility. Where were the Tartars during the fire drill, by the way? I suppose you have considered that?” “Yes, we have,” said the man wearily. “The guard was fully occupied on patrol, every man. They keep meticulous records.”

“I’m sure you’re doing your very best,” she said. “Well, there we are. A great pity. But enough of that for now. Tell me about the new separator.”

Lyra felt a thrill of fear. There was only one thing this could mean.

“Ah,” said the doctor, relieved to find the conversation turning to another subject, “there’s a real advance. With the first model we could never entirely overcome the risk of the patient dying of shock, but we’ve improved that no end.” “The Skraelings did it better by hand,” said a man who hadn’t spoken yet.

“Centuries of practice,” said the other man.

“But simply tearing was the only option for some time,” said the main speaker, “however distressing that was to the adult operators. If you remember, we had to discharge quite a number for reasons of stress-related anxiety. But the first big breakthrough was the use of anesthesia combined with the Maystadt anbaric scalpel. We were able to reduce death from operative shock to below five percent.” “And the new instrument?” said Mrs. Coulter.

Lyra was trembling. The blood was pounding in her ears, and Pantalaimon was pressing his ermine form against her side, and whispering, “Hush, Lyra, they won’t do it—we won’t let them do it—” “Yes, it was a curious discovery by Lord Asriel himself that gave us the key to the new method. He discovered that an alloy of manganese and titanium has the property of insulating body from dæmon. By the way, what is happening with Lord Asriel?” “Perhaps you haven’t heard,” said Mrs. Coulter. “Lord Asriel is under suspended sentence of death. One of the conditions of his exile in Svalbard was that he give up his philosophical work entirely. Unfortunately, he managed to obtain books and materials, and he’s pushed his heretical investigations to the point where it’s positively dangerous to let him live. At any rate, it seems that the Vatican Council has begun to debate the question of the sentence of death, and the probability is that it’ll be carried out. But your new instrument, Doctor. How does it work?” “Ah—yes—sentence of death, you say? Gracious God … I’m sorry. The new instrument. We’re investigating what happens when the intercision is made with the patient in a conscious state, and of course that couldn’t be done with the Maystadt process. So we’ve developed a kind of guillotine, I suppose you could say. The blade is made of manganese and titanium alloy, and the child is placed in a compartment—like a small cabin—of alloy mesh, with the dæmon in a similar compartment connecting with it. While there is a connection, of course, the link remains. Then the blade is brought down between them, severing the link at once. They are then separate entities.” “I should like to see it,” she said. “Soon, I hope. But I’m tired now. I think I’ll go to bed. I want to see all the children tomorrow. We shall find out who opened that door.” There was the sound of chairs being pushed back, polite expressions, a door closing. Then Lyra heard the others sit down again, and go on talking, but more quietly.

“What is Lord Asriel up to?”

“I think he’s got an entirely different idea of the nature of Dust. That’s the point. It’s profoundly heretical, you see, and the Consistorial Court of Discipline can’t allow any other interpretation than the authorized one. And besides, he wants to experiment—” “To experiment? With Dust?”

“Hush! Not so loud …”

“Do you think she’ll make an unfavorable report?”

“No, no. I think you dealt with her very well.”

“Her attitude worries me.…”

“Not philosophical, you mean?”

“Exactly. A personal interest. I don’t like to use the word, but it’s almost ghoulish.”

“That’s a bit strong.”

“But do you remember the first experiments, when she was so keen to see them pulled apart—”

Lyra couldn’t help it: a little cry escaped her, and at the same time she tensed and shivered, and her foot knocked against a stanchion.

“What was that?”

“In the ceiling—”

“Quick!”

The sound of chairs being thrown aside, feet running, a table pulled across the floor. Lyra tried to scramble away, but there was so little space, and before she could move more than a few yards the ceiling panel beside her was thrust up suddenly, and she was looking into the startled face of a man. She was close enough to see every hair in his moustache. He was as startled as she was, but with more freedom to move, he was able to thrust a hand into the gap and seize her arm.

“A child!”

“Don’t let her go—”

Lyra sank her teeth into his large freckled hand. He cried out, but didn’t let go, even when she drew blood. Pantalaimon was snarling and spitting, but it was no good, the man was much stronger than she was, and he pulled and pulled until her other hand, desperately clinging to the stanchion, had to loosen, and she half-fell through into the room.

Still she didn’t utter a sound. She hooked her legs over the sharp edge of the metal above, and struggled upside down, scratching, biting, punching, spitting in passionate fury. The men were gasping and grunting with pain or exertion, but they pulled and pulled.

And suddenly all the strength went out of her.

It was as if an alien hand had reached right inside where no hand had a right to be, and wrenched at something deep and precious.

She felt faint, dizzy, sick, disgusted, limp with shock.

One of the men was holding Pantalaimon.

He had seized Lyra’s dæmon in his human hands, and poor Pan was shaking, nearly out of his mind with horror and disgust. His wildcat shape, his fur now dull with weakness, now sparking glints of anbaric alarm … He curved toward his Lyra as she reached with both hands for him.… They fell still. They were captured.

She felt those hands.… It wasn’t allowed.… Not supposed to touch …

Wrong.…

“Was she on her own?”

A man was peering into the ceiling space.

“Seems to be on her own.…”

“Who is she?”

“The new child.”

“The one the Samoyed hunters …”

“Yes.”

“You don’t suppose she … the dæmons …”

“Could well be. But not on her own, surely?”

“Should we tell—”

“I think that would put the seal on things, don’t you?”

“I agree. Better she doesn’t hear at all.”

“But what can we do about this?”

“She can’t go back with the other children.”

“Impossible!”

“There’s only one thing we can do, it seems to me.”

“Now?”

“Have to. Can’t leave it till the morning. She wants to watch.”

“We could do it ourselves. No need to involve anyone else.”

The man who seemed to be in charge, the man who wasn’t holding either Lyra or Pantalaimon, tapped his teeth with a thumbnail. His eyes were never still; they flicked and slid and darted this way and that. Finally he nodded.

“Now. Do it now,” he said. “Otherwise she’ll talk. The shock will prevent that, at least. She won’t remember who she is, what she saw, what she heard.… Come on.” Lyra couldn’t speak. She could hardly breathe. She had to let herself be carried through the station, along white empty corridors, past rooms humming with anbaric power, past the dormitories where children slept with their dæmons on the pillow beside them, sharing their dreams; and every second of the way she watched Pantalaimon, and he reached for her, and their eyes never left each other.

Then a door which opened by means of a large wheel; a hiss of air; and a brilliantly lit chamber with dazzling white tiles and stainless steel. The fear she felt was almost a physical pain; it was a physical pain, as they pulled her and Pantalaimon over toward a large cage of pale silver mesh, above which a great pale silver blade hung poised to separate them forever and ever.

She found a voice at last, and screamed. The sound echoed loudly off the shiny surfaces, but the heavy door had hissed shut; she could scream and scream forever, and not a sound would escape.

But Pantalaimon, in answer, had twisted free of those hateful hands—he was a lion, an eagle; he tore at them with vicious talons, great wings beat wildly, and then he was a wolf, a bear, a polecat—darting, snarling, slashing, a succession of transformations too quick to register, and all the time leaping, flying, dodging from one spot to another as their clumsy hands flailed and snatched at the empty air.

But they had dæmons too, of course. It wasn’t two against three, it was two against six. A badger, an owl, and a baboon were all just as intent to pin Pantalaimon down, and Lyra was crying to them: “Why? Why are you doing this? Help us! You shouldn’t be helping them!” And she kicked and bit more passionately than ever, until the man holding her gasped and let go for a moment—and she was free, and Pantalaimon sprang toward her like a spark of lightning, and she clutched him to her fierce breast, and he dug his wildcat claws into her flesh, and every stab of pain was dear to her.

“Never! Never! Never!” she cried, and backed against the wall to defend him to their death.

But they fell on her again, three big brutal men, and she was only a child, shocked and terrified; and they tore Pantalaimon away, and threw her into one side of the cage of mesh and carried him, struggling still, around to the other. There was a mesh barrier between them, but he was still part of her, they were still joined. For a second or so more, he was still her own dear soul.

Above the panting of the men, above her own sobs, above the high wild howl of her dæmon, Lyra heard a humming sound, and saw one man (bleeding from the nose) operate a bank of switches. The other two looked up, and her eyes followed theirs. The great pale silver blade was rising slowly, catching the brilliant light. The last moment in her complete life was going to be the worst by far.

“What is going on here?”

A light, musical voice: her voice. Everything stopped.

“What are you doing? And who is this child—”

She didn’t complete the word child, because in that instant she recognized Lyra. Through tear-blurred eyes Lyra saw her totter and clutch at a bench; her face, so beautiful and composed, grew in a moment haggard and horror-struck.

“Lyra—” she whispered.

The golden monkey darted from her side in a flash, and tugged Pantalaimon out from the mesh cage as Lyra fell out herself. Pantalaimon pulled free of the monkey’s solicitous paws and stumbled to Lyra’s arms.

“Never, never,” she breathed into his fur, and he pressed his beating heart to hers.

They clung together like survivors of a shipwreck, shivering on a desolate coast. Dimly she heard Mrs. Coulter speaking to the men, but she couldn’t even interpret her tone of voice. And then they were leaving that hateful room, and Mrs. Coulter was half-carrying, half-supporting her along a corridor, and then there was a door, a bedroom, scent in the air, soft light.

Mrs. Coulter laid her gently on the bed. Lyra’s arm was so tight around Pantalaimon that she was trembling with the force of it. A tender hand stroked her head.

“My dear, dear child,” said that sweet voice. “However did you come to be here?”

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