THE LAST TEMPTATION
Beauty is but a flower,
Which wrinkles will devour;
Brightness falls from the air,
Queens have died young and fair,
Dust hath closèd Helen's eye:
I am sick, I must die.
Lord have mercy on us!
Thomas Nashe (1567 - 1601)
Henry Curtis buttonholed me in the corridor straight after the board meeting. What the hell was that all about?' he said. He did not look best pleased.
All what?' I replied as soothingly as I could. When Henry gets excited it pays to keep a certain physical distance from him. He's an excellent VP with a great reputation for getting things done, but when he's wound up over something his tiger-daemon tends to thrash about wildly. She has very sharp claws and accidents have been known to happen. Jenny hid in my right-hand coat pocket.
You know exactly what! I spent the whole weekend on that presentation. My people spent months. TDR is set to be our biggest earner in the next five years. And you just squashed it. Flat as a pancake. I want an explanation, John. I'm entitled to one. This is going to screw up my figures for the whole financial year. Godammit, John, that's my bonus you just tore up in there.'
Henry was speaking in short, tense phrases. When he spoke like that he tensed up too and his whole department knew it was time to keep their heads down. I was his boss, though, and that gave me a bit more latitude; tiger-daemon or no tiger-daemon. I remembered there was one thing that always worked with Henry and that was to suggest an afternoon on the croquet-lawns. He's very good at it and winning was bound to improve his temper.
Henry, I understand you're upset. Call Mary, get her to clear your diary for this afternoon and let's go down to Beaumont and talk it over.'
We execs can use the facilities at Beaumont whenever we like. We always like to say that twice as much business is done and three times the profit is generated over mallet and ball as is accomplished in the office. It's really intended as a training college for our managers and we sell a lot of the facilities to other corporations. It's a great little profit centre.
My man Beach drove us down in the Lagonda after lunch. In estate agent's jargon, Beaumont enjoys an idyllic location on the banks of the River Isis, conveniently situated for central London and all communications facilities. They don't mention the annoying drone of the cargo zeppelins flying in and out of Hownslow, of course. Still, it's better than being stuck under the Gatewich flight path, like the poor sods are at UAC.
The receptionist gave us her best business smile, while her chimp-daemon keyboarded our ID badges for us. Come on, then,' I said. Let's hit the lawns!'
The result was predictable. Even when you're trying to butter him up, you don't have to try to lose to Henry Curtis when it comes to playing croquet. I did my best and he thrashed me anyway, over three long humiliating hours. Afterwards we sat in a quiet corner of the bar and talked.
John,' said Henry, taking an appreciative sip at his drink, we both know why we're here. It's been fun wiping your ugly face all over the lawns this afternoon, but you still owe me an explanation and we're not leaving until you give it to me.'
Do I let all my direct reports speak to me this manner? No, but Henry and me go back a long way. He'd done me the favour of not speaking up and embarrassing me in the Board meeting so I owed him one in return. I motioned to the steward, who brought us two more glasses of Pimms no. 5.
Henry,' I said, I know you're upset-' there was a growl from the side of his chair, and I wish there could have been another way of doing this. But I wanted the Board to understand that any decision not to go ahead with TDR was solely mine. The Board knows that you and your people have done a great job and achieved fantastic results. There'll be another meeting next week where I'll have to take the flak over all this. I think it's quite likely I'll resign then.'
That shook him. Now I knew that he'd listen to what I had to say. My red squirrel-daemon Jenny sat on the table and nibbled at the peanuts.
Three weeks ago last Friday, I got an a-gram from the Master.' Henry knew that Jordan College still kept a strong interest in its commercial arm. They didn't interfere, and it often seemed to the outside world that we at Jorco were the dominant partner. Mostly that was true – we ran all the businesses that Jordan used, in their somewhat bumbling way, to manage for themselves – and in their turn they did all those Scholarly things they did best. We shared quite a lot of the research work between us, as a matter of fact. What most people, including the majority of the Board, didn't know was that the corporate constitution made Jorco very much the junior partner when push came to shove. That constitution is iron-plated. We had a great deal of rope to play with, but if we strayed from the path the Senior Common Room approved of, they could very quickly wind us back in and call us to account. As I'm the Managing Director of Jorco, that usually meant a quiet interview between me and the Master followed by a gentlemanly agreement to do whatever he asked.
I drove up to Oxford the following Monday. You know the form – you never know what it is that the Master wants to discuss and he's quite happy to keep you waiting until he's ready. We had lunch, and a long chat afterwards with the Turing Professor of Informatics – oh yes, of course, you met Newman last year in Basel – about the work Jane's been doing in AI and eventually, around four o'clock I suppose, we finally got down to business. We were in his rooms overlooking the Yaxley Quad and I thought it was the wrong time of day to be drinking Jerez – I'd have preferred chai – but there it was. Jerez was what he gave me.
The Master talked about the last quarter's results-'
What on earth for?' interjected Henry, He must have seen them five weeks ago.'
I couldn't say. I think he was reluctant to come to the real point. He was doing that funny thing with his fingers-Yes, that's it. And his Jorge was looking sideways at me over his beak. Anyway, after a quarter of an hour or so of this sort of thing, I was getting rather fed up. I said, you know that I'm always happy to tell you anything you need to know about our operations and strategy, but is there anything I can particularly help you with? he replied, we have worked together for many years, have we not? I said.
Then you know that I trust you to run our business efficiently, profitably and ethically. And you have not betrayed my trust over the past ten years. You have a very fine record. Very fine indeed.I can see where he was leading to,' said Henry, who was no fool,' and why you're telling me this now. But why would he be so roundabout? If he didn't like the TDR work, why didn't he just come out and say it? He has the veto on everything we do, dammit.'
I wondered too. The thing is, I think he was embarrassed. He was afraid that Jordan College would be seen by the world at large as regressive and anti-progress. But let me go on, because there was more to it than that.
We in the SCR have been observing your work in trans-dimensional research with some interest, the Master said. For a long time it seemed that your investigations might, even if they were unsuccessful, nevertheless still produce some useful side-effects which would in themselves prove beneficial to the Corporation and the College. It has happened before, as with the Charge Pump, for example. We never expected that you would actually achieve what you were seeking. Barnard-Stokes research was suppressed during the rule of the Magisterium and much of the supporting work lost following its fall.
It was with some alarm, therefore, that we read in the last quarter's Journal of Pataphysics that your team was very close to successfully generating a trans-dimensional portal. There are very good reasons, which I cannot divulge to you personally, why such research may not be permitted to continue. Call us regressive if you wish, and he smiled, but we can and will continue to suppress any research in this area. We have already done so several times. I said, let's make this crystal clear. Are you saying you want me to shut down Curtis' department, which has spent millions of pounds over the past five years and has done more good science in that period than the whole of the rest of Jordan College and the Corporation put together? That's absurd! Trans-dimensional energy transfer is the key to clean power for ever. No more coal smoke and pollution. No more naphtha and kerosene fumes. No more dangerous atomcraft waste. Just clean power for us all. It's there, Master, it's there for the taking. Not just for Jordan, but for the whole world!' I nearly stood up and thumped the desk.
The Master sighed. You were always passionate, John. It's just one of the qualities that made us choose you for Managing Director. But we have knowledge that you do not have, and maybe a little wisdom to go with it, which tells us that the results of using such a device as the TDR would be disastrous; not just for our world, but for all the worlds. Yes, and he gave me another odd look, Curtis's team are not the first in history to gain the ability to cross between the worlds. What do you know of Jordan College's involvement in the Change and the Slow Revolution?Was Jordan directly involved?' said Henry, I thought that Oxford was in a bit of a backwater at the time – the main events occurred in the north and in Europe.'
From what the Master told me, Jordan College itself was not directly involved. But he said that one particular person who was associated with the College played a key role. He gave me her name, and I must say that I was surprised. I mean, she was never out of the news, especially in the 30s and 40s, but she must have been only a kid when the Change happened – no more than twelve or thirteen.'
Who was this woman of mystery? Don't mess me about, John!'
Lady Lyra Belacqua.'
Lady Lyra? Surely she's dead by now.'
No – apparently she's alive and well and living in Wallingford.'
Well, stone me! She must be really ancient.'
In her eighties, I suppose. Still hale and hearty, according to the Master. He suggested I go and see her. He said she could give me information that he couldn't.'
Will she talk to you? I expect she's gone a bit barmy, you know, not very with-it any more.'
He gave me a sort of password. I don't know - I'm still not altogether sure about going to Wallingford, whatever the Master may say. We'll see'
John,' said Henry after a pause while the steward brought us fresh glasses, there's no need to resign over this, you know. Not if it was the Master who put the stopper on things.'
I'll consider it,' I replied. Good. The afternoon hadn't been wasted, then, even though I still suspected that all along the Master had wanted me to be the one to take the blame for cancelling the TDR, not him.
- 0 -
Beach ran Henry home in the Lagonda. I stayed in a Beaumont guest room overnight and took the stopping train down to Crowthorne the following day. My wife was waiting for me; she's got used to my sudden disappearances, although I can tell – sometimes – that she doesn't like them, and we took the morning off together. We chatted about this and that, and I mentioned Lady Lyra to her.
When I returned to the office the following day, I sent a private letter to the Bach Institute in Wallingford. I got a reply two days later and the day after that I drove down there in the Morgan.
Wallingford is prettily situated on the Isis, about ten miles to the south of Oxford. It's a superb drive all the way from Crowthorne and I enjoyed every minute of it; the Morgan's responsive eight-cylinder gas-engine sending it surging up the hills and its wide wheels tightly hugging the bends. The spring weather was fine, the air was warm, I had the roof folded back, and the roads were nearly deserted. Soon I expect there will be so many passenger cars on the highways of Brytain that pleasures such as this will become increasingly rare. That's progress for you.
I already knew something about the Bach Institute from what my wife had told me the previous day. They prepare remedies for common complaints from tinctures of flowers in brandtwijn. There's a Bach Flower Remedy for almost any ailment you can name and a generic Rescue Remedy for when you're not sure what's wrong, but only that it's urgent. So I was not surprised to find that the place was surrounded by flowerbeds, running up and down both sides of the main drive. What did surprise me was the sight of a number of small children running among the flowers, their butterfly-formed daemons fluttering around their heads. Perhaps they were on a school trip, I thought, but in that case where were their teachers?
The Institute itself was housed in an old manor house; of the 13th or 14th century by the look of it. I pulled up outside the main entrance, got out of the Morgan and entered the building. Inside, it was dim and cool, linenfold-panelled and quiet. I found an old woman in the hall, a servant I presumed, bent over double and flicking at the wainscot with a feather duster. Perhaps she would be able to tell me where Lady Belacqua was.
Excuse me, goodwife,' I said. I'm looking for Lady Lyra Belacqua.'
The old woman straightened herself. You've found her. I'm Lyra.' She held out a dusty hand and, my manners taking fortunate precedence over my astonishment, I shook it.
And you are Mr John Good, I expect. Come this way; there's somewhere to wash your hands. Did you have a pleasant trip?'
She showed me to the washroom, and when I had finished we went to her study. We sat on a pair of old-fashioned horsehair-stuffed couches facing each other across the unlit brick fireplace and I had my first chance to look at her properly. It was the first time I had seen her in the flesh.
There are so many images of Lady Lyra Belacqua scattered across the history of our troubled century. Lyra the artist painting in a Soho gallery, Lyra the Corps commander leading a troop of armour in the Ten Months War, Lyra the diplomat on her never-ending round of peace missions after the War and the Slow Revolution. Then, after her twenty-year marriage to the Laird of Dounray, Lyra the widow. Following that, nothing, unless you count the occasional blurred photogram of Lyra the recluse. And now, extraordinarily, she seemed to have become the head of a pharmacological institute dedicated to making medicines from flowers. I thought I detected the influence of the Master of Jordan here.
This Lyra - this real Lyra - was old; her face lined and spotted with age, her grey hair tied in a bun behind her neck, silver pince-nez balanced on her nose. Her pine marten daemon stayed on her lap except when he leapt lightly across the gap between the couches to make friends with my beautiful Jenny. But she sat straight and upright and her faded blue eyes observed me, cool and alert. She had got rid of her cleaner's overall and was wearing a simple floral-patterned cotton frock.
Mr Good, you told me in your letter that you wished to speak to me about a subtle knife. I assume that the Master of Jordan has been talking to you and told you to use that exact phrase when you wrote to me.'
Yes, my lady, he did.'
Do you know what the phrase means?'
Unless it refers to an assassin's weapon, no.'
Then I will tell you, Mr Good. A subtle knife is a device for opening windows between alternate worlds of possibility. It—'
We were interrupted by a little boy - possibly the dirtiest and certainly the smelliest little boy I had ever met – bursting into the room completely unannounced.
Li-la, Jimmy's fallen over!'
I expected Lady Lyra to shoo the brat and his scruffy rabbit-daemon out of her study. But instead she ignored me and turned to the child.
Is he hurt, Paul?'
His daemon's all right, but he's crying.'
She picked the boy up and left with him, just as if I hadn't been there. I didn't know whether to be insulted or amused, but I decided to humour the old lady and wait and see what would happen next. When after a few minutes she returned, with earth-stains on her dress, I mentioned the children I had seen outside.
Oh yes, Mr Good. This Institute has two functions. We grow and bottle flower essences, true, but we have plenty of spare room to care for orphaned children as well.' She hesitated, and decided to let me a little into her confidence. When I was very young I did a terrible thing to a child who was my friend.
Now then, Mr Good, please tell me. Do you have a subtle knife?'
I was taken aback by her question. It was so direct that I suddenly realised that I had been in danger of greatly underestimating her. Her mind was clearly as sharp as it had ever been.
Yes, Lady Lyra, I believe I may have.' I told her about the TDR research, the board meeting and my curious interview with the Master of Jordan. She followed me with close attention. When I had finished she began to question me.
Mr Good, do you believe that the trans-dimensional resonator is a good thing for you to have made?'
Yes, Lady Lyra. It offers us the possibility of generating infinite amounts of clean power. There will be no more need for dirty power stations, ugly pylons or polluting gas-engines. It exploits the difference in energy levels between adjacent universes to create a current flow. When coupled to a Charge Pump, this current flow can generate anbaric power directly. TDRs are large and unwieldy at the moment, but we are confident that one day we will shrink them down so small that a TDR cell will be able to power anything you like directly – from watches to automobiles to ocean liners to whole cities or even, who can say, cosmic explorers.'
What harmful side-effects arise from the use of the TDR?'
None are known, Lady Lyra.'
But the Master of Jordan has forbidden you to proceed further with its development.'
And he wants you to destroy all the TDRs that the Jordan Corporation has made.'
Yes. And when I asked him why, he referred me to you.'
Mr Good, I realise that all this must seem very strange. You may be wondering if I have some hold – blackmail maybe – over the Master and some crackpot reason for objecting to what you are doing. All I can do to answer your questions is to show you something I wrote many years ago, during the time of the Change. I was very young then, only fifteen or sixteen, and you may be inclined to dismiss what I wrote as the self-dramatising fantasy of a silly schoolgirl. But you will see on the cover sheet that my account was certified as true by the then Master of Jordan and the Head of Saint Sophia's College, Dame Hannah Relf.'
She walked over to her desk, opened a drawer and took out a common school exercise book with faded emerald green covers and a crest printed on the front.
There are children and flowers to tend and corridors to clean, Mr Good. I will leave you alone now. Do come and find me when you are ready.' She extended her right hand to me and I brushed it with my lips.
I was left alone with the exercise book. Under the crest of Saint Sophia's School was written in a round looping schoolgirl hand The Book of Dust, by Lyra SilvertongueI sat back and began to read.
Two hours later, and I didn't know what to believe. In many ways, Lyra's account cleared up things that I had never fully understood about the time of the Change: the sudden alterations in climate, which have since been explained as being the result of a meteor strike, the abrupt collapse of the dominance of the Church and the rise of what we now call secular humanism. Her story could explain the actual reasons for these events, or be merely a skilful rationalisation of them. Some parts were oddly prescient. She seemed to understand how trans-dimensional portals appear to the eye as if she had actually seen one for herself and her accounts of her alleged travels to other worlds were vivid and convincing. We had never dared to send a human through a TDR portal. There had been... accidents. Some parts of her account were obvious fabrications – wheeled animals, angels and harpies. But she claimed to have met an armoured bear in the wild and I decided to see if I could find out more about this. I left the book in her study and set out to find her.
She was in the kitchen garden, weeding among the herbs.
Lady Lyra, I have read your book. Is it really true that you met a wild armoured bear when you were young?'
She glared at me. I have told you that everything in that book is true.'
But the bears! I used to love reading about them when I was a boy. It would have been wonderful to have met one.'
Mr Good, we took the armoured bears, we stripped them of their iron and we put them in cages. In a zoo.'
But that was for their own welfare. Their habitat was disappearing, their food supplies becoming scarcer year by year. They would not have survived otherwise.'
How long did the last bear live?'
He died last year.'
She blazed. Mr Good, Iorek Byrnisen was my friend! He gave me my name.'
Belacqua? But that's an old English name. I don't understand. How could a bear give you a name?'
He gave me my real name, Mr Good. My true name.' She bent again to her weeding, dismissing me.
I wished that we could have parted as friends. I bade her farewell and drove onto the main highway and thence to London. The brightness had fallen from the air and I did not enjoy the drive as I had earlier that day. Once back in the office I kicked off the process of closing down the TDR research operation and reassigning its staff. Henry Curtis didn't speak to me for weeks.
- 0 -
Ours has been a strange and fearful century. Much has altered for good, no doubt, but for many of us the effects of the changes have been terrible. I thought about the witches, who had once flown free over the skies of the north, now running gambling operations and burlesque shows on the ferries that ply the German Ocean. I thought of Iorek Byrnisen, the last armoured bear; found dead one morning in his cage in Camden Zoo, a stream of blood running from a self-inflicted wound in his neck. I watched the old kino Child of Destiny, with Mimsy Gay as Marisa Coulter and Henley Morrison as Lord Asriel Belacqua, and found it flat, stale and unprofitable. I considered the Jordan Corporation, with its outlets covering the globe from the forests of the Peaceable Coast of New Denmark to the pagodas of Kathay and wondered if there was anywhere left in the world that was not within one mile of a Jorco sign, but I also thought of the end of the cruel three-hundred-year dominance of the Magisterium; of the inquisitions and excruciations, the fear and hatred, and the Change that ended them and the Slow Revolution which sealed that end. I thought of the safe, helium-filled zeppelins that carry the world's cargo, but also of the continual engine noise over Berkshire, Sussex and Kent.
We are more free than we have ever been before, but how have we deserved our freedom? At what price was it bought? Who paid that price? Are we using our freedom wisely? And what exactly had Lyra's book meant by The Republic of Heaven?
On these and many other questions Jenny and I pondered all that bright, beautiful summer.
- 0 -
It was one fine morning just as the first leaves of autumn were beginning to turn to gold that I received an unexpected a-gram at the office. It read simply: Please come. Urgent - Lyra. I threw all my appointments to my secretary Baxter to rearrange or cancel as best he could and set out straightaway for Wallingford.
Beach parked the Lagonda in the driveway of the Institute and I went to find Lady Lyra in her study; but she was already waiting in the doorway, wearing a pale blue woollen coat and clearly expecting me. She was holding an old and battered rucksack in her hand.
Mr Good, thank you for coming so quickly and please excuse this haste. There is something I must ask you to do for me. Can you contact the man who used to be the head of the TDR research project?'
I assured her that I could send him an a-gram at his office.
Then please do so and ask him to go home immediately and wait for us there.'
Beach used the apparatus in the car to send a message to Henry Curtis. I was intrigued by the change I saw in Lady Lyra. The previous time we had met she had been cool and self-possessed. Now she appeared uneasy, anxious and disturbed. Clearly something had happened to upset her and in some way it was linked to Henry and the defunct TDR programme. I wondered what.
When the message had been sent and acknowledged, I helped Lyra into the back seat of the Lagonda and we drove south in silence. Henry lived in a large house on the Ridges three miles south of Oakingham with fine views over the heaths and forests down to Hampshire. Over the bridge to Crowmarsh Gifford, through Nettlebed, Henley, Wargrave, Twyford and Hurst we glided, past the unspoiled ancient town centre of Oakingham and down the Finchampstead Road to the Ridges. All the way, Lyra clutched at the rucksack with restless fingers, her daemon Pantalaimon fidgeting on her shoulder, while Jenny retreated to my side of the car.
Henry was waiting for us by the front door as we crunched up the gravel drive which led to his house. I introduced him to my passenger.
Lady Lyra Belacqua, this is Henry Curtis, Vice-President in charge of the Research and Development Division at the Jordan Corporation.'
What's left of it. Pleased to meet you, Lady Lyra. I hope you had a pleasant journey?'
Mr Curtis, let's not waste anybody's time. You have a working trans-dimensional resonator in this house and I wish to see it.'
I was stunned. How could she possibly have known that? I certainly didn't. Henry was supposed to have dismantled all the TDR kit, and anyway it was far too big and complicated to set up in a private house, even one as large as Henry's. The truth hadn't dawned on me yet. 'Is this true?' I said to Henry.
If Henry had been the kind of man to be embarrassed, he would have been now. He knew that he would have to answer to me and the Board if Lyra's accusation were true. I think that he might have tried to bluff his way out of trouble if it had been anyone else but she who had accused him. But, small and old and frail and anxious though she was, she could still demand the truth from him and he replied to her, not me.
Yes, my lady,' he said, I do and you may. Lady Lyra, John, please come in.'
Henry led us through the house into the conservatory at the back. It was large and airy, pleasant in the cool of early autumn. There was a small grey metal box standing on a table by the outside door, connected to a power outlet buried in the floor. A keyboard and screen rested on top of the box and another cable led from a socket in the front of the system unit to the frame of the door.
This is it,' said Henry. The miniaturisation programme had gone rather further than I told you. I'm sorry, John. This is the whole thing. The keyboard controls it and the doorframe acts as the trans-dimensional portal. Let me show you.' He keyboarded a few commands into the system. There was a brief shimmering sparkling glow around the frame and the view through the door changed subtly. Perhaps the clouds looked slightly different; maybe the grass on the lawn beyond was a slightly different length.
The universe you can see through the portal is only a tiny bit distant from ours in terms of probability, my lady,' Henry said. I can make it more or less distant, or choose a different direction of probability shift – the p-vector, we call it – but for the purpose of power extraction the more distant the better. It increases the potential and the current flow, you see.'
Lyra stared hungrily through the door. I suppose, Mr Curtis, that the code you tell your machine determines to which universe it creates a window.'
Yes, my lady, that's correct.'
Is there a relationship between the code and the physical nature of that universe?'
Only broadly, my lady. The p-vector, you see.'
So if I wished to open a window to a particular universe, or world, according to certain properties it possessed, you would not be able to tell me the correct code to do that.'
No, I'm afraid not. The controls weren't designed to work that way. They are optimised for the maximum extraction of energy.'
I see. Then if you cannot help directly we shall have to do things my way instead.' She sat down in a wicker armchair next to the door and opened up her rucksack. Inside it was a small black velvet bag and inside that lay an instrument like a gold pocket-watch. I recognised it at once; it took Henry a little longer.
My God! Is that what I think it is? Is that how you knew I—' he said, but Lyra held up her hand.
Hush now. I need to concentrate,' she said, and she pushed an imaginary strand of hair behind her ear. She held the alethiometer in both hands, turning the three dials, watching the pointer as it spun and twirled, stopping briefly at the Hourglass, the Sun, the Child, the Dolphin Her daemon Pantalaimon sat on her shoulder watching the dial with her.
The reading took a long time; five minutes or more. Lady Lyra's face was stern, intently watching the swinging pointer. Her lips moved voicelessly as she noted its movements. Finally the instrument ceased its motion.
It didn't want to tell me anything,' she said, but we made an agreement. The codes I would like you to put into your machine are–,' and she reeled off a long string of numbers and letters that made little sense to me, but which Henry keyboarded into the system.
The view through the doorway flickered and changed again, revealing another world that still looked very like our own.
Mr Curtis, Mr Good,' Lyra addressed us both. I should not have put you to all this trouble unless I thought I had a very good reason to do so. And although I cannot be sure whether my reason is good or bad, I am going to break a promise I once made to an angel named Xaphania. You,' and she looked towards me, have read my Book of Dust and you know what that promise was. I said I would not try to find or cut a window between the universes, but would dedicate my life to building the Republic of Heaven here in my own world. I would not have cut such a window now, but there is one world I must see just once more in my life. It has not long to run, I think, and I hope that I may be forgiven this single transgression.
Do you remember how, when you were just a child, your heart used to pulse whenever your daemon changed form? This morning as I sat at breakfast, something took hold of my heart and twisted it around itself in a great convulsion, as if the greatest of changes was come upon me - the moment of my death. I felt a terrible fear come over me. It was not the fear of death, for I do not fear death. But if it was not my death that I experienced, nor the death of my dear Pan, then whose death was it? I do not know for certain, but I have a terrible suspicion. Even though I am going to have to break my solemn word, I cannot live another day without learning the truth. I must enter this other world and find out for myself.'
Lyra rose from the chair and stepped through the portal into the other world, into the garden of the other house. Henry and I held our breath and watched as she looked around; north to Wallingford, east to London, west and south-west towards Wykham, seeking something, we knew not what. She stood absolutely still for several minutes.
No one's ever done this before,' Henry said.What if the TDR fails? What if she's killed?'
Wait,' I replied. Wait and see. And pray.' I wondered what Lyra would do. Would she want to stay for ever in the other place? Would she ask us to follow her through the portal and explore it with her? Clearly she could both see and hear us through the doorway; Pantalaimon crouched on her left shoulder and regarded us with a steady gaze. Time was suspended.
Then Lyra bowed her head, sighed deeply and turned and stepped back through the doorway; back into Henry Curtis' conservatory. She sat down with the slow care of great age in the wicker armchair and spoke softly:
Will is dead, then. My Will, gone. I'm such a fool. I knew it all the time really, at home in Wallingford and all the way down here. I knew it before I passed through the portal but I didn't't admit it to myself. I couldn't. I was too foolish and afraid. But how could I not have known? All my life I've known he was there, loving me just the same as he always did. Now he is gone, and there is nothing.'
Lyra buried her face in her hands and wept in great despair. Her daemon Pantalaimon wrapped himself around her neck in that so, so familiar gesture and rested his cheek against hers. She moved her hand and gently pressed him close to her heart. They held fast to each other, rocking slowly back and forth in the chair, each sharing the other's loss, comforting one another, oblivious to us. Jenny scurried up my sleeve and whispered in my ear, Leave them, John.'
We tiptoed out of the conservatory; Henry's daemon following, silent on stately padded feet.
- 0 -
Henry and I tried to watch the England-Frankland pelota match on the big AV in their sitting room. His wife Ethel joined us and brought tea and muffins. Jenny nibbled the raisins – she likes them. After a while, Lyra and Pantalaimon entered the room and sat quietly by the empty fireplace. She sipped her tea while we watched the muted AV.
The Resonator out there in the conservatory;' she said, putting down her cup, 'Do you promise me that it is the only one left in the world?'
Yes,' replied Henry. All the others were destroyed and I wiped the tapes and plans myself.'
And I could come here and use it whenever I liked?'
Yes, Lady Lyra, whenever you wanted.'
I would so like to be able to go and visit Will's grave'
I had never seen an adult's daemon cry before. My lovely Jenny left my side and nuzzled Pantalaimon, comforting him.
Lady Lyra Belacqua sat still for a long, long time. Henry switched off the AV. Her deeply lined face reflected her inward struggle; passionate, hopeful, desperately sad. At last she looked up and faced us.
Mr Curtis, Mr Good. You have tempted me grievously; most grievously. I cannot tell you how much it would mean to me to see Will's world again; even now that he is gone from it. But I cannot – I must not. I beg you; please destroy this last Resonator. It is impossible, you see, to connect the worlds by force; by crudely ripping apart the underlying fabric of space. It does terrible damage; not just to this world but to all the worlds. You have read my story,' she addressed this directly to me, and it is true. Everything I told the Master and Dame Hannah – all those things were true; about the Spectres and the Dust-flood and the World of the Dead. The Knife had to be broken. It was too dangerous and too harmful.
I'd so hoped it would be different this time, but in the end your Resonator with all its cleverness and its new technology is no more than just another subtle knife. Will and I had to break the Knife of the Guild of the Torre degli Angeli and live apart; for the sake of us all. How could I possibly let another Knife exist, knowing what I know?'
I looked at Henry. He nodded slowly.
We finished our tea. Henry and I stood up, while Ethel helped Lyra from her chair and held her arm as we returned to the conservatory. The TDR was still running – the sky in that other world was brighter than ours. Henry keyboarded a few commands into the system and the portal collapsed with a sigh of equalising air pressures. He issued the command that cleared the machine's memory. Then he opened the system unit and took out a small silver-grey component, which he crushed under his right foot. That was the resonator tube,' he said. There are no more left and the plans have all been destroyed, as I told you.'
Thank you,' said Lyra. Thank you with all my heart.' She wept freely and I joined her, unashamed of my tears.
- 0 -
I took early retirement not very long afterwards and we moved to a small house by the river in Remenham. Perhaps I was never really suited to business life; I think that my wife and I are much happier together now. We often take the short drive over the hills to Wallingford to see Lady Lyra and Pantalaimon. She's become very fragile, although she's still nominally the Head of the Bach Institute, or the Republic of Heaven as I prefer to think of it. We sit out in the flower gardens over chai and cake and talk inconsequentially about whatever takes our fancy. Pantalaimon never strays from her shoulder – he seems to weigh a little less every time we see them. I do not think we shall need to make many more visits.
I remember one thing she said when we saw her last Saturday. She was reminiscing about her career in the Corps. There had been a battle, it seems, where the forces she commanded could have taken control of a strategically important town with very little risk to her own side, but at the cost of high civilian casualties.
They were all pressing me to do it. And I thought – my responsibility is to my own people, I can save my own people's lives and shorten the war by at least a month. But then I thought of the children and their parents and their grandparents and I simply couldn't do it. And in the end I found another way to achieve my aims. But what I thought at the time was this: I could order my troops in and let the civilians take their chance.'
She looked brightly over the cups and saucers.
But what could I possibly say to the harpies?'
This is a non-series story and stands completely on its own. It was first published here in the summer of 2001. This version has been slightly revised and clarified.
I wanted to see what an elderly Lyra looked like. What would she have done with her life? What might she have achieved? And because old age is a series of goodbyes - of friends, comrades, relatives and loved ones - how would she face the greatest goodbye of them all?