The sun glittered on the lake and Lyra was happy. She was nine years old and her frame cut against the slight wind, daring it to get past her. She stood alone. There were other children at the playground; they did not notice the girl at the lake, nor did she notice them. The shimmering surface showed nothing but her body encapsulated by the sky. Lyra did not know why she liked the lake, merely that she liked it. She would gaze into the water and see herself and imagine her future. Some days she was a pilot, lighter than air; on others she was the commander of vast cities in the sky, dwarfing the world beneath her. When she went home she heard swearing and screaming and hitting; it did not matter, it was temporary, it was not real. The lake was real, the sky was real, she was real, and she held one truth to be more real than anything she had ever been taught: that one day, Lyra Stellanova was going to do great things.
Lyra was standing by the lake and a boy from the playground walked over to her. “What’s your name?” “Lyra.” “I’m Adrian.” “What do you want to do when you grow up?” Adrian’s face lit up. “I’m gonna be a superhero!” Lyra pursed her lips. Superheroes weren’t as exciting as sky queens, but she’d let it pass. They stood at the lake and talked for what felt like hours but was closer to thirty minutes.
Adrian started joining her at the lake frequently, and occasionally adults would notice the sight of them together and crack jokes. Lyra longed to see whether they thought being targeted by a sky turret was as funny; Adrian assuaged her by declaring that the two of them didn't have to be stupid, even if the rest of the world was.
It was Lyra’s first year of high school and she was determined to be sophisticated. She noted the girls wearing makeup and the ones who weren’t, and made sure to sit near the former. She noted that the girls wearing makeup didn’t talk of being pilots (let alone sky queens) and resolved to be an artist. They dreamed of living in New York; she imagined the lights gleaming in Manhattan. She occasionally saw Adrian; he didn’t seem to understand the importance of sophistication. In her spare time she read about philosophy (for that too is sophisticated; she did not want to be confused with the other type of girl who wears makeup).
Life is suffering, said the Buddha—and she believed him.
Hell is other people, said Sartre—and she believed him.
The self is an illusion, said a "humanist"—and she believed him.
And curiously, the more and more she accepted those tenets, the more and more prophetic they became.
It was Lyra’s senior year of high school and she was venting in her bedroom. Adrian stood beside her, not moving.
“I’m so sick of these people! They’re such losers! I just want to get out of here and be in New York! Why does everything have to be so shitty?”
Adrian said, “It doesn’t.”
She glared at him, her face contorted in a snarl, tears running down her cheeks. “And you! You fucking disgust me! You’re so goddamned pretentious! You think things have meaning, that any of this matters. It fucking doesn’t, Adrian. Life’s pointless, the earth is vastly insignificant, and we die without ever having a reason to live. Grow up.”
He looked at her in silence and walked away. That was the last Lyra saw of Adrian Vale.
She received her acceptance letter from the Plath Institute of Art the next day.
The rain beat down on decaying cement and Lyra was not happy. She was nineteen years old and her frame faded into the cement, bitterly resigned to its existence. She stood on the campus of the Plath Institute of Art in New York, one of the most prestigious universities in the country. It was founded in the 1970s as a result of a schism between existentialist Marxists and their dialectical predecessors, with the former vowing to build a school that befitted their ideals. The buildings were constructed in impeccable Brutalist style, and were praised by a prominent architectural critic as being “the cruel reality of the human condition imposingly represented in physical form.” Lyra’s dorm was dirty and cramped and had bars on its window, installed after a string of suicides at the college had attracted negative press.
She attained top marks in her critical theory class and dreamed of death.
The coroner stood under fluorescent lighting in a room that smelled of disinfectant. He held a piece of paper that was penciled in with the exception of a space next to three words:
Cause of death
— A gaggle of girls in fashionable clothes stood laughing, and one finally was able to get out the words, “Oh, Lyra, you’re so naive!”
— A mother said to her daughter with incredulity, “A pilot? What sort of girl wants to be a pilot? Honey, you’re better off sticking with that Adrian boy, his parents make a hell of a lot more money than your good-for-nothing father.” “I heard that, you bitch!”
— A boy and a girl decided they were better than the rest of the world, and never thought through what that meant about the world or the value of living in it.
The coroner scratched his nose and filled in the blank spot on the paper. It read: