The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth (Book of Dust, Volume 2) (6 page)

BOOK: The Book of Dust: The Secret Commonwealth (Book of Dust, Volume 2)

“And am I going to be allowed to read them too?” he said.

“Oh, for God’s sake.”

They said not a word on the way back to St. Sophia’s.

Lyra made herself some hot chocolatl and sat at her little table by the fire, with the lamp close by, to read the document from the rucksack. It consisted of several pages of lined paper torn from an exercise book, by the look of it, covered with writing in pencil. Pan sat, holding himself ostentatiously away from her arm, close enough to read it with her.

Tashbulak, 12 September

Chen the camel herder says he has been into Karamakan. Once inside he managed to penetrate to the heart of the desert. I asked what was there. He said it was guarded by priests. That was the word he used, but I know he was searching for another that better expressed what they were. Like soldiers, he said. But priests.

But what were they guarding? It was a building. He could not say what was inside it. They refused to let him enter.

What sort of building? How big was it? What did it look like? Big like a great sand dune, he said, the greatest in the world, made of red stone, very ancient. Not like a building that people made. Like a hill, then, or a mountain? No, regular like a building. And red. But not like a house or a dwelling. Like a temple? He shrugged.

What language did they speak, the guards? Every language, he said. (I daresay he means every language he knows, which is not a few: like many of his fellow camel men, he is at home in a dozen languages, from Mandarin to Persian.)

Tashbulak, 15 September

Saw Chen again. Asked him why he had wanted to enter Karamakan. He said he had always known stories about the limitless wealth to be found there. Many people had tried, but most had given up before they reached more than a little way, because of the pain of the journey
as they pronounce it.

I asked how he overcame the pain. By thinking of gold, he said.

And did you find any? I said.

Look at me, he said. Look at us.

He is a ragged, skeleton-thin figure. His cheeks are hollow, his eyes sunk among a hundred wrinkles. His hands are ingrained with dirt. His clothes would disgrace a scarecrow. His dæmon, a desert rat, is nearly hairless, and her bare skin is covered in weeping lesions. He is avoided by the other camel men, who seem to be afraid of him. The solitary nature of his way of living obviously suits him. The others have begun to avoid me, probably because of my contact with him. They know of his power to separate, and fear and shun him because of it.

Was he not afraid for his dæmon? If she got lost, what would he have done?

He'd have searched for her in al-Khan al-Azraq. My Arabic is patchy, but Hassall told me that meant the Blue Hotel. I queried that, but Chen insisted: al-Khan al-Azraq, the Blue Hotel. And where was this Blue Hotel? He didn't know where it was. Just a place where dæmons go. Anyway, he said, she probably wouldn't go there, because she wanted gold as much as he did. That seemed to be a joke, because he laughed as he said it.

Lyra looked at Pan and saw that he was gazing at the page with fierce intensity. She read on:

Tashbulak, 17 September

The more we examine it, the more it seems that
Rosa lopnoriae
is the parent and the others,
R. tajikiae
and so on, the descendants. The optical phenomena are by some way most marked with
ol. R. lopnoriae.
And the further from Karamakan, the harder it is to grow. Even when conditions have been arranged to duplicate the soil, the temperature, the humidity, etc., of K., so closely as to be more or less identical, specimens of
R. lopnoriae
fail to prosper and soon die. There's something we're missing. The other variants must have been hybridized in order to produce a plant with at least some of the virtues of
R. lop
while being viable in other places.

There is a question about how to write this all up. Of course, the scientific papers will come first. But none of us can overlook the wider implications. As soon as the facts about the roses are known in the world, there will be a frenzy for exploration, for exploitation, and we—this little station—will be elbowed aside, if not actually wiped out. So will all the rose growers nearby. Nor is that all: given the nature of what the optical process discloses, there will be religious and political anger, panic, persecution, as surely as the night follows the day.

Tashbulak, 23 September

I have asked Chen to guide me into Karamakan. There will be gold for him. Rod Hassall will come too. I dread it, but there is no avoiding it. I expected it would be hard to persuade Cartwright to let us make the attempt, but he was all in favor. He can see the importance of it as well as we can. In any case, things here are desperate.

Tashbulak, 25 September

Rumors of violence from Khulanshan and Akdzhar, just 150 kilometers or so to the west. Rose gardens there have been burned and dug up by men from the mountains—at least so it's said. We thought that particular trouble was limited to Asia Minor. Bad news if it's come this far.

Tomorrow we go into Karamakan, if it's possible. Cariad begs me not to. Hassall's dæmon likewise. They are afraid, of course, and my God, so am I.

Karamakan, 26 September

This pain is agonizing, almost indescribable, completely imperious and commanding. But it isn't quite pain either anymore. A sort of heart-deep anguish and sorrow, a sickness, a fear, a despair almost unto death. All those things, which vary in their intensity. The physical pain grew less after half an hour or so. I don't think I could have borne it for longer. As for Cariad…It is too painful to speak of. What have I done? What have I done to her, my soul? Her eyes so wide, so shocked, as I looked back.

I can't write of it.

The worst thing I have ever done, and the most necessary. I pray there will be some future in which we can come together, and that she will forgive me.

The page ended there. As she read it, Lyra felt a movement at her elbow and sensed Pan drawing away. He lay down at the edge of the table with his back to her. Her throat tightened; she couldn't have spoken, even if she knew what to say to him.

She closed her eyes for a moment and then read on:

We have come 4 kilometers into the region and are resting to recover a little strength. It is a hellish place. Hassall was very badly affected at first, but recovered more quickly than I am doing. Chen, by contrast, is quite cheerful. Of course, he has experienced it before.

The landscape is utterly barren. Vast dunes of sand from whose summit you can see nothing except more dunes, and yet more beyond them. The heat is appalling. Mirages flicker at the edge of one's vision and every sound is magnified, somehow; the passage of the wind over the loose sand creates an intolerable scraping, squeaking, as if a million insects lived just under the top layer of sand, and under one's skin too, so that just out of sight these hideous creatures were living a gnawing, chewing, tearing, biting life that eats at one's own inside as well as at the substance of the world itself. But there is no life, vegetable or animal. Only our camels seem unperturbed.

The mirages, if that is what they are, disappear as you look directly at them, but recombine at once when you look away. They seem to be like images of furious gods or devils making threatening gestures. It is almost too hard to bear. Hassall is suffering too. Chen says we should keep asking these deities for forgiveness, reciting a formula of contrition and apology that he tried to teach us. He says the mirages are aspects of the Simurgh, some kind of monstrous bird. It's very hard to make sense of what he says.

It is time to move on.

Karamakan, later

Slow progress. We are camping for the night, despite Chen's advice to keep moving. We simply have no strength left. We must rest and recover. Chen will wake us before dawn so we can travel in the coolest part of the day. Oh, Cariad, Cariad.

Karamakan, 27 September

An appalling night. Hardly slept for nightmares of torture, dismemberment, disemboweling—atrocious suffering that I had to watch, unable to flee or close my eyes or help. Kept being woken by my own cries, dreading to sleep again, unable to prevent it. Oh God, I hope Cariad is not disturbed in this way. Hassall in a similar state. Chen grumbled and went to lie apart, so as not to be disturbed.

He woke us when the dawn was the very faintest lightening of the eastern horizon. Breakfasted on dried figs and slivers of dried camel meat. We rode before the great heat began.

At midday Chen said, There it is.

He was pointing east, towards where I guess the very center of the Karamakan desert to be. Hassall and I screwed up our eyes, shaded them from the sun, peered into the dazzle, and saw nothing.

It is the afternoon now, the hottest part of the day, and we are resting. Hassall rigged up a rough shelter using a couple of blankets to throw a morsel of shade where we all lay, Chen too, and slept a little. No dreams. The camels fold their legs, close their eyes, and doze impassively.

The pain has diminished, as Chen said it would, but there is still a heart-deep wound—a perpetual drag of anguish. Will it ever end?

Karamakan, 27 September, evening

Traveling again. Writing this on camelback. Chen no longer sure of direction. Asked where, he replies, Further. More way to go, but is vague about which way that is. He hasn't seen it since yesterday. When asked, he can't say what exactly he saw. I assume the red building, but H and I have seen no sign of it, or of any color except the interminable and almost unbearable monotony of sand.

Impossible to estimate the distance we've traveled. Not many kilometers; another day should surely find us at the center of this desolate place.

Karamakan, 28 September

A better night, thank God. Dreams complex and confused but less bloody. Slept deeply till Chen woke us before dawn.

Now we can see it. At first it was like a mirage, flickering, wavering, floating above the horizon. Then it seemed to grow a base and to be attached firmly to the earth. Now it is solidly and unmistakably there—a building like a fortress or a hangar for a vast airship. No details visible at this distance, no doors, windows, fortifications, nothing. Just a large rectangular block, dark red in color. Writing this just after midday, before we crawl under H's shelter and rest during the godawful heat. When we awake, the last lap.

Karamakan, 28 September, evening

We have come to the building and met the priests/soldiers/guards. They seem like all of those things. Unarmed, but powerfully built and threatening of aspect. To the eye they look neither Western European nor Chinese, nor Tartar nor Muscovite; pale skin, black hair, round eyes; perhaps more Persian than anything else. They don't speak English—at least they ignored us when Hassall and I tried to speak to them—but Chen communicates immediately in what I think is Tajik. They are dressed in simple smocks and loose trousers of dark red cotton, the same color as the building, and leather sandals. They seem to have no dæmons, but Hassall and I are beyond being frightened by that now.

We asked through Chen if we could enter the building. An immediate and absolute no. We asked what goes on in there. They conferred, then answered with a refusal to tell us. After more questions, all unhelpfully answered, we got a hint when one of them, more voluble than the rest, spoke rapidly to Chen for a full minute. In the torrent of his speech, Hassall and I both made out, several times, the word
which means
in many languages of Central Asia. Chen looked at us several times during the man's speech, but when it was over, he would only say, No good. Not stay here. No good.

What did he say about roses? we asked. Chen just shook his head.

Did he mention roses?

No. No good. Must go now.

The guards were watching us closely, looking from us to Chen, from him back to us.

Then I thought to try something else. Knowing that parts of Central Asia had been traveled by the Romans, I wondered whether anything of their language had remained. I said in Latin: We intend no harm to you or your people. May we know what you are guarding in this place?

Immediate recognition and understanding. The voluble one replied at once in the same language: What have you brought as payment?

I said, We did not know payment was necessary. We are anxious because our friends have disappeared. We think they might have come here. Have you seen any travelers like us?

We have seen many travelers. If they come
and they have payment, they can enter. One way only, not so. But if they enter, they may not leave.

Then can you tell us whether our friends are inside that red building?

In answer to which he said, If they are here, they are not there, and if they are there, they are not here.

It sounded like a formula, a standard form of words that had been repeated so often its meaning had worn away. At least that told me that others had asked similar questions. I tried another.

I said, You spoke of payment. Did you mean in exchange for roses?

What else?

Knowledge, perhaps.

Our knowledge is not for you.

What payment would be satisfactory?

A life, was the disconcerting answer.

One of us must die?

We will all die.

That was little help, of course. I tried another question. Why can we not grow your roses outside this desert?

The only answer that received was a look of scorn. Then he walked away.

I said to Chen, Do you know of anyone who has gone inside?

He said, One man. He did not return. No one returns.

Frustrated, Hassall and I retreated to our little shelter and discussed what to do. It was a fruitless, painful, repetitious discussion. We were hedged in by imperatives: it's absolutely necessary to investigate these roses; it's absolutely impossible to do so without going in and never returning.

So we examined it again more deeply. Why is it necessary to investigate the roses? Because of what they show us about the nature of Dust. And if the Magisterium hears about what is here in Karamakan, they will stop at nothing to prevent that knowledge from spreading, and to do that, they will come here and destroy the red building and everything in it; and they have armies and armaments in plenty to do that. The recent trouble in Khulanshan and Akdzhar is their work—no doubt about that. They are coming closer.

So we must investigate, and the inevitable consequence of that is that one of us must go in and the other must return with the knowledge we have gained so far. There's no alternative, none. And we cannot do it.

There is still no sign of our dæmons, and our store of food and water is diminishing. We can't stay here much longer.

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