And Grumman was right; there were people there. But as the balloon drifted closer, Lee was surprised to see that they were children. There was not an adult in sight. And he was even more surprised to see the children had no dæmons—yet they were playing on the beach, or running in and out of cafés, or eating and drinking, or gathering bags full of goods from houses and shops. And there was a group of boys who were fighting, and a red-haired girl urging them on, and a little boy throwing stones to smash all the windows of a nearby building. It was like a playground the size of a city, with not a teacher in sight; it was a world of children.
But they weren’t the only presences there. Lee had to rub his eyes when he saw them first, but there was no doubt about it: columns of mist—or something more tenuous than mist—a thickening of the air . . . . Whatever they were, the city was full of them; they drifted along the boulevards, they entered houses, they clustered in the squares and courtyards. The children moved among them unseeing.
But not unseen. The farther they drifted over the city, the more Lee could observe the behavior of these forms. And it was clear that some of the children were of interest to them, and that they followed certain children around: the older children, those who (as far as Lee could see through his telescope) were on the verge of adolescence. There was one boy, a tall thin youth with a shock of black hair, who was so thickly surrounded by the transparent beings that his very outline seemed to shimmer in the air. They were like flies around meat. And the boy had no idea of it, though from time to time he would brush his eyes, or shake his head as if to clear his vision.
“What the hell are those things?” said Lee.
“The people call them Specters.”
“What do they do, exactly?”
“You’ve heard of vampires?”
“Oh, in tales.”
“The Specters feast as vampires feast on blood, but the Specters’ food is attention. A conscious and informed interest in the world. The immaturity of children is less attractive to them.”
“They’re the opposite of those devils at Bolvangar, then.”
“On the contrary. Both the Oblation Board and the Specters of Indifference are bewitched by this truth about human beings: that innocence is different from experience. The Oblation Board fears and hates Dust, and the Specters feast on it, but it’s Dust both of them are obsessed by.”
“They’re clustered around that kid down there.”
“He’s growing up. They’ll attack him soon, and then his life will become a blank, indifferent misery. He’s doomed.”
“For Pete’s sake! Can’t we rescue him?”
“No. The Specters would seize us at once. They can’t touch us up here; all we can do is watch and fly on.”
“But where are the adults? You don’t tell me the whole world is full of children alone?”
“Those children are Specter-orphans. There are many gangs of them in this world. They wander about living on what they can find when the adults flee. And there’s plenty to find, as you can see. They don’t starve. It looks as if a multitude of Specters have invaded this city, and the adults have gone to safety. You notice how few boats there are in the harbor? The children will come to no harm.”
“Except for the older ones. Like that poor kid down there.”
“Mr. Scoresby, that is the way this world works. And if you want to put an end to cruelty and injustice, you must take me farther on. I have a job to do.”
“Seems to me—” Lee said, feeling for the words, “seems to me the place you fight cruelty is where you find it, and the place you give help is where you see it needed. Or is that wrong, Dr. Grumman? I’m only an ignorant aeronaut. I’m so damn ignorant I believed it when I was told that shamans had the gift of flight, for example. Yet here’s a shaman who hasn’t.”
“Oh, but I have.”
“How d’you make that out?”
The balloon was drifting lower, and the ground was rising. A square stone tower rose directly in their path, and Lee didn’t seem to have noticed.
“I needed to fly,” said Grumman, “so I summoned you, and here I am, flying.”
He was perfectly aware of the peril they were in, but he held back from implying that the aeronaut wasn’t. And in perfect time, Lee Scoresby leaned over the side of the basket and pulled the cord on one of the bags of ballast. The sand flowed out, and the balloon lifted gently to clear the tower by six feet or so. A dozen crows, disturbed, rose cawing around them.
“I guess you are,” said Lee. “You have a strange way about you, Dr. Grumman. You ever spend any time among the witches?”
“Yes,” said Grumman. “And among academicians, and among spirits. I found folly everywhere, but there were grains of wisdom in every stream of it. No doubt there was much more wisdom that I failed to recognize. Life is hard, Mr. Scoresby, but we cling to it all the same.”
“And this journey we’re on? Is that folly or wisdom?”
“The greatest wisdom I know.”
“Tell me again what your purpose is. You’re going to find the bearer of this subtle knife, and what then?”
“Tell him what his task is.”
“And that’s a task that includes protecting Lyra,” the aeronaut reminded him.
“It will protect all of us.”
They flew on, and soon the city was out of sight behind them.
Lee checked his instruments. The compass was still gyrating loosely, but the altimeter was functioning accurately, as far as he could judge, and showed them to be floating about a thousand feet above the seashore and parallel with it. Some way ahead a line of high green hills rose into the haze, and Lee was glad he’d provided plenty of ballast.
But when he made his regular scan of the horizon, he felt a little check at his heart. Hester felt it too, and flicked up her ears, and turned her head so that one gold-hazel eye rested on his face. He picked her up, tucked her in the breast of his coat, and opened the telescope again.
No, he wasn’t mistaken. Far to the south (if south it was, the direction they’d come from) another balloon was floating in the haze. The heat shimmer and the distance made it impossible to see any details, but the other balloon was larger, and flying higher.
Grumman had seen it too.
“Enemies, Mr. Scoresby?” he said, shading his eyes to peer into the pearly light.
“There can’t be a doubt. I’m uncertain whether to lose ballast and go higher, to catch the quicker wind, or stay low and be less conspicuous. And I’m thankful that thing’s not a zeppelin; they could overhaul us in a few hours. No, damn it, Dr. Grumman, I’m going higher, because if I was in that balloon I’d have seen this one already; and I’ll bet they have keen eyesight.”
He set Hester down again and leaned out to jettison three bags of ballast. The balloon rose at once, and Lee kept the telescope to his eye.
And a minute later he knew for certain they’d been sighted, for there was a stir of movement in the haze, which resolved itself into a line of smoke streaking up and away at an angle from the other balloon; and when it was some distance up, it burst into a flare. It blazed deep red for a moment and then dwindled into a patch of gray smoke, but it was a signal as clear as a tocsin in the night.
“Can you summon a stiffer breeze, Dr. Grumman?” said Lee. “I’d like to make those hills by nightfall.”
For they were leaving the shoreline now, and their course was taking them out over a wide bay thirty or forty miles across. A range of hills rose on the far side, and now that he’d gained some height, Lee saw that they might more truthfully be called mountains.
He turned to Grumman, but found him deep in a trance. The shaman’s eyes were closed, and beads of sweat stood out on his forehead as he rocked gently back and forth. A low rhythmic moaning came from his throat, and his dæmon gripped the edge of the basket, equally entranced.
And whether it was the result of gaining height or whether it was the shaman’s spell, a breath did stir the air on Lee’s face. He looked up to check the gasbag and saw it sway a degree or two, leaning toward the hills.
But the breeze that moved them more swiftly was working on the other balloon, too. It was no closer, but neither had they left it behind. And as Lee turned the telescope on it again, he saw darker, smaller shapes behind it in the shimmering distance. They were grouped purposefully, and becoming clearer and more solid every minute.