Philip Pullman: Once Upon a time in the North

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Philip Pullman Once Upon a time in the North
  • Название:
    Once Upon a time in the North
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    Фэнтези / на английском языке
  • Язык:
    Английский
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The battered cargo balloon came in out of a rainstorm over the White Sea, losing height rapidly and swaying in the strong north-west wind as the pilot trimmed the vanes and tried to adjust the gas-valve. The pilot was a lean young man with a large hat, a laconic disposition, and a thin moustache, and at present he was making for the Barents Sea Company Depot, whose location was marked on a torn scrap of paper pinned to the binnacle of the gondola. He could see the depot spread out around the little harbour ahead - a cluster of administrative buildings, a hangar, a warehouse, workshops, gas storage tanks and the associated machinery; it was all approaching fast, and he had to make quick adjustments to everything he could control in order to avoid the hangar roof and make for the open space beyond the warehouse.

The gas-valve was stuck. It needed a wrench, but the only tool to hand was a dirty old revolver, which the pilot hauled from the holster at his waist and used to bang the valve till it loosened all at once, releasing more gas than he really wanted. The balloon sagged and drooped suddenly, and plunged downwards, scattering a group of men clustered around a broken tractor. The

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE NORTH

ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE NORTH

gondola smashed into the hard ground, and bounced and dragged behind the emptying balloon across the open space until it finally came to rest only feet away from a gas storage tank.

The pilot gingerly untangled his fingers from the rope he'd been holding on to, worked out which way up he was, shifted the tool box off his legs, wiped the oily water out of his eyes, and hauled himself upright.

'Well, Hester, looks like we're getting the hang of this,' he said. His daemon, who looked like a small sardonic jackrabbit, flicked her ears as she clambered out of the tangle of tools, cold-weather clothing, broken instruments, and rope. Everything was saturated.

'My feelings are too deep to express, Lee,' she said.

Lee found his hat and emptied the rainwater out of it before settling it on his head. Then he became aware of the audience: the men by the tractor, two workers at the gas plant, one clasping his hands to his head after the near escape, and a shirtsleeved clerk from the administrative building, gaping in the open doorway.

Lee gave them a cheerful wave and turned back to make the balloon safe. He was proud of this balloon. He'd won it in a poker game six months before, in Texas. He was twenty-four, ready for adventure, and happy to go wherever the winds took him. He'd better be, as Hester reminded him; he wasn't going to go anywhere else.

Blown by the winds of chance, then, and very slightly aided by the first half of a tattered book called The Elements of Aerial Navigation, which his opponent in

I lie poker game had thrown in free (the second half was missing), he had drifted into the Arctic, stopping wherever he could find work, and eventually landed on this island. Novy Odense looked like a place where there was work to be done, and Lee's pockets were well

nigh empty.

He worked for an hour or two to make everything secure and then, assuming the nonchalance proper to a prince of the air, he sauntered over to the administrative building to pay for the storage of the balloon.

'You come here for the oil?' said the clerk behind

the counter.

'He came here for flying lessons,' said a man sitting

by the stove drinking coffee.

'Oh, yeah,' said the clerk. 'We saw you land.

Impressive.'

'What kind of oil would that be?' said Lee. 'Ah,' said the clerk, winking, 'all right, you're kidding. I got it. You heard nothing from me about any oil rush. I could tell you were a roughneck, but I won't say a word. You working for Larsen Manganese?'

'I'm an aeronaut,' said Lee. 'That's why I have a balloon. You going to give me a receipt for that?'

'Here,' said the clerk, stamping it and handing

it over.

Lee tucked it into his waistcoat pocket and said,

'What's Larsen Manganese?'

'Big rich mining company. You rich?' 'Does it look like it?' 'No.'

'Well, you got that right,' said Lee. 'Anything else I got to do before I go and spend all my money?'

'Customs,' said the clerk. 'Over by the main gate.'

Lee found the Customs and Revenue office easily enough, and filled in a form under the instructions of a stern young officer.

'I see you have a gun,' the officer said.

'Is that against the law?'

'No. Are you working for Larsen Manganese?'

'I only been here five minutes and already two people asked me that. I never heard of Larsen Manganese before I landed here.'

'Lucky,' said the Customs officer. 'Open your kitbag, please.'

Lee offered it and its meagre contents for inspection. It took about five seconds.

'Thank you, Mr Scoresby,' said the officer. 'It would be a good idea to remember that the only legitimate agency of the law here on Novy Odense is the Office of Customs and Revenue. There is no police force. That means that if anyone transgresses the law, we deal with it, and let me assure you that we do so without hesitation.'

'Glad to hear it,' said Lee. 'Give me a law-abiding place any day.'

He swung his kitbag over his shoulder and set out for the town. It was late spring, and the snow was dirty and the road pitted with potholes. The buildings in the town were mostly of wood, which must have been imported, since few trees grew on the island. The only

rxceptions he could see were built of some dark stone I kit gave a dull disapproving air to the town centre: .1 glum-looking oratory dedicated to St Petronius, a (own hall, and a bank. Despite the blustery wind, the town smelt richly of its industrial products: there were refineries for fish oil, seal oil, and rock oil, there was a tannery and a fish-pickling factory, and various effluvia from all of them assailed Lee's nose or stung his eyes as the wind brought their fragrance down the narrow streets.

The most interesting thing was the bears. The first time Lee saw one slouching casually out of an alley he could scarcely believe his eyes. Gigantic, ivory-furred, silent: the creature's expression was impossible to read, but there was no mistaking the immense power in those limbs, those claws, that air of inhuman self-possession. There were more of them further into town, gathered in small groups at street corners, sleeping in alleyways, and occasionally working: pulling a cart, or lifting blocks of stone on a building site.

The townspeople took no notice of them, except to avoid them on the pavement. They didn't look at them either, Lee noticed.

'They want to pretend they're not there,' said Hester.

For the most part, the bears ignored the people, but once or twice Lee saw a glance of sullen anger in a pair of small intense black eyes, or heard a low and quickly suppressed growl as a well-dressed woman stood expectantly waiting to be made way for. But both


bears and people stepped aside when a couple of men in a uniform of maroon came strolling down the centre of the pavement. They wore pistols and carried batons, and Lee supposed them to be Customs men.

All in all, the place was suffused with an air of tension and anxiety.

Lee was hungry, so he chose a cheap-looking bar and ordered vodka and some pickled fish. The place was crowded and the air was rank with smokeleaf, and unless they were unusually excitable in this town, there was something in the nature of a quarrel going on. Voices were raised in the corner of the room, someone was banging his fist on a table, and the bartender was watching closely, paying only just enough attention to his job to refill Lee's glass without being asked.

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