Lyra's Paris, 1896.
It does Marie's heart good to be surrounded by so many experimental theologians. She's still reeling from the fact that she won't be allowed a teaching job where her family still lives in Muscovite-occupied Pologne, though she's as qualified as any of the male physicists at this conference. At least here, they know her well enough to respect her research.
She's even asked to give a short speech about her theories of radiation to the annual alethiometrists' consult.
Her husband, too, gets an invitation to the exclusive meeting. "I'm almost embarrassed to be allowed in," he admits the night before, while their daemons — Marie's determined alpine marmot, Pierre's brilliant finch — cuddle in the basket beside the bed. "I've tried to be clear that your theories are your own...but perhaps they haven't believed it."
"Whatever the reason, I'll be glad to have you watching," says Marie, and means it. At least she'll be sure of being appreciated by someone in the room.
The consult features more than two dozen experts and luminaries from around the world, but mostly from Heidelberg and Oxford, the two universities that have a real alethiometer to accompany their theories. Not all of them are men — although at least one of the women, a young blonde who looks younger than Marie herself, is almost certainly a witch.
Marie and Żora stand before the group and talk about radioactive elements, about her theory that atoms can be divided into something smaller...and about the implications this has for Rusakov particles.
Afterward she is crowded with questions — almost too much to notice that the blonde is talking earnestly to Pierre.
Marie answers the physics discussions as thoroughly as she can before approaching. "What are you talking about, dear?" she asks, trying not to appear jealous. If anybody has no illusions about the superior intelligence of human men, it's witches.
To her surprise, a furry brown head pops up at the blonde's side. Some kind of marten daemon, not a bird at all. He trots over and politely touches noses with Marie's marmot, while his human says, in heavily-accented French, "I asked of the theology of spirits."
"Pierre is very interested in spirits," says Żora politely, covering for Marie's agnostic disinterest. It invites attention from the Magisterium that's dangerous to court. Even when you're fairly certain none of their agents are in the room.
"This is the Lady Asriel, from Oxford," adds Pierre. "She swears she knows for a fact that ghosts, Rusakov particles, and the many-worlds theory are all related...."
Now Marie is even more startled. This is the accomplished alethiometrist? Famous ally of the witches and the armored bears, unsubtle enemy of Magisterium interests? But she's so young!
Her surprise must be obvious, but Lady Asriel politely ignores it, taking her hand and turning a handshake into a compatriot squeeze. "I understand the experimental theology of your man more...but I understand the yours is good. Very good. It is honor to meet you."
Will's Oxford, 2015.
Pre-med is grueling. Mary doesn't need her amber spyglass to tell. The stress is visible even on Will's normally-stoic face when he comes home for winter hols.
"Probably not as grueling as defeating death and saving the multiverse," says Marzi matter-of-factly, sharp eyes flicking over the shelves at the corner market. "Get the oolong. He likes that."
"Oolong," repeats Mary, as if to herself. Her chough daemon, unlike Kirjava, is intangible, and invisible to anyone who doesn't know how to look in the right way. She's gotten good at listening and responding, even in public, without seeming like she's hearing voices.
Will knows how to see her daemon. That's all to the good. Even now, when his mother has been safely in a well-funded care facility for years, he still goes still and hyper-alert when he thinks he might have to deal with someone who sees things that aren't there.
Mary bags the oolong and a box of mince pies and, yes, a package of marzipan. Plus bread and milk and a few other staples that a healthy young man runs through like a mower through a lawn.
It's quiet when she gets back to the flat. She puts away the shopping as softly as possible, guessing Will must still be asleep on the couch.
She gets a bit of a start when she finds him sitting up. Not studying one of his texts, either, which would have been her second guess. Instead he's looking through the amber spyglass, watching Kirjava, while she sits on the coffee table and looks back at him with big unblinking eyes.
"Knock knock," says Mary gently, rapping on the doorframe. "Can I get you some tea?"
Will shakes himself, pushing his dark hair back from his face. "Yes. Would you? Please. And do you have time to show me the thing again?"
Over matching mugs of oolong, Mary has a look through the spyglass, studying the gentle swirls of Dust around the room. She still can't do this cold; she has to see the currents she's stepping into. After half a minute or so, she eases her ghost out of her body and into the flow.
"I should be able to pick this up," says Will gloomily. His knife hand, the one with the last two fingers missing, drums an incomplete rhythm on the kitchen table.
"Serafina said it can take a whole human lifetime. And while you're also trying to learn how to take apart a body and put it back together again? You can't rush any of it."
She doesn't add Lyra wouldn't expect you to. It goes unspoken.
After a moment, Will nods. He looks up at Mary, then through her, and smiles a little at the medal and the Nobel diploma hanging framed on the wall. "All that and astral projection too. I haven't even been home since the ceremony. Can I get you dinner or something? To celebrate?"
"Absolutely not!" chides Marzi, while Mary thinks about the heft of gold and the taste of mince and the crunch of frosty grass under her heels, all bodily sensations that let her settle back into physicality again. "You're a student. You have no budget as it is. And, I don't know if you know this, but the fancy diploma comes with some cash. We can have a nice dinner, but we, meaning me and my body here, are paying."
Lyra's Oxford, 1907.
The young lady is back again. McGruder seen her every midsummer for twenty years now, since before his knees started aching all the time and his squirrel daemon took to riding the wheelbarrows instead of scampering along by his side.
He was meant to weed over by that bench today, but he leaves it for later, so he can keep an eye on her from a distance without being a bother. He doesn't spy, only sometimes the male students like to harass a girl out on her own like that.
"Not much of a girl anymore," says Archie, perched in a tree for a good look. "Not after twenty years. Remember when she was all knees and elbows? Now she's a lady, and no mistake."
"The boy she's missing don't know what he's missing," says McGruder, contemplatively pruning a shrub.
There was a time he thought it might be a girl being missed, on account of how the young lady has never gotten married, and on a few midsummers she's talked about coming to remember someone while carefully leaving a lot out. McGruder knows how that is. He had a first love when he was her age, or at least the age he thinks of her as, before his knees ached at all and when Archie could still be a hawk or a wolf or a skink if the mood took them.
But a few years ago she let slip a he, so it's not that. And the way she talks makes McGruder think the boy's not dead, either.
"Don't know what he's missing," he repeats...when right out of nowhere his daemon sends him a flood of alarm.
He looks at the bench.
His pruning shears land in the dirt with a thump.
"Well," he says at last. "I'll be damned."
The Botanic Gardens with the three wheel-tree saplings fades away, and a very different Botanic Gardens sparkles into view, as Will slips out of his body and into the next world over.
There's still a bench in the same place, by the same ponds, though the plants around his feet and the trees reflected in the water are all in different configurations. Will's ghost holds perfectly still, staring at the distant garden wall, afraid to look to his left. If she's not there....
A snicker, then an outright pealing laugh echoes across the garden.
Will turns, blushing, to see Lyra laughing so hard it bends her over. She's got long hair and glasses now, and an adult face with sharp cheekbones that startles him for a second in how much it looks like her mother, but it's her, it's so obviously her, with Pan sitting up bright-eyed in her lap.
"I've been working on this for years now," says Will crossly. "The least you could do is act impressed."
"Sorry! I am, I really am. Not surprised, is all," says Lyra, beaming. Pan, who still looks exactly the way he did when Will put a hand on his fur a world and a lifetime ago, hops onto the bench where Will is not-sitting and rolls around in him. "I saw you coming. I've gotten awfully good with the alethiometer — so all the time, I saw, I knew this would be your year — but, oh, Will! You've no idea how glad I am to see you."
Will's London, 2028.
Just Derya's luck, Eurovision is in the middle of Turkey's performance when her pager goes off. She's watching at a bar a few blocks from the hospital, so it's ten minutes through a fine spring drizzle before she's in scrubs, chanting cardiac mnemonics while a fresh heart gets airlifted to Oxford.
If only it had happened during a political debate. Derya has vague memories of those being tense and exhausting, when she was a kid just starting to pay attention to what adults outside her little world got up to. Since the Atal laws passed, nobody makes it to a debate stage without the public getting to see what they're made of. Now they're just heartwarming, in a way that doesn't get any less if you put them off until morning.
The rotation manager leans in while she's scrubbing up. "You know who you're treating?"
"The woman from 4B," says Derya. "Ischemic. Five-foot-four, one-sixty-five. Big fan of Doctor Who."
"And you know who's heading the surgery?"
"Remember the rules for working with Parry?"
Derya pulls back her hair and takes a deep breath. "Don't touch the cat."
There's another thing that's changed since she was a kid! Magical talking animals didn't used to be real. She's not sure she believes the rest of them all have an invisible one hanging about...but Parry's is right there for the seeing, and anyone whose life they've saved can testify to their combined gift for feeling around inside a person and making exactly the right subtle cut.
Lyra's Lake Enara, 1918.
"Auntie Lyra, take off your coat!" pleads Stella, while Herääminen scampers around their boots in the form of an alpine mouse. The stars are out, and there's no way her beloved "aunt" can feel it through all that fur.
"I can't, little bird," says Aunt Lyra, in her own Southern language. She understands the witches' tongue well enough, but it always sounds funny in her mouth, so she doesn't talk in it. That's okay. Stella wants to learn. "I'll freeze right through."
"You won't! Only short-lives freeze."
"And you think I'm not a short-life, huh?" Aunt Lyra picks her up, swings her around — Stella kicks and laughs — and balances her on one hip. "You think I got grey hair and lines on my face because it's in fashion?"
"No-o-o," admits Stella. Up close she can see the lines all right, and she knows her auntie's daemon isn't a bird...but he isn't tied to her side all the time, which proves she's a normal person. He's not even in this country right now. Short-lives don't do that. "You have grey hair 'cause the Magisterium made it that way."
Aunt Lyra laughs, along with Aunt Paivi, whose Lapland longspur daemon is circling in the sky overhead. "You got my number, kid."
Stella looks at Aunt Paivi, confused. "What number?"
"It's an expression," says Aunt Paivi, which explains nothing. She looks up at the starlit sky with narrow eyes. "Lady Asriel, perhaps we should take you into shelter until the Queen returns."
"Serafina tell you to do that?"
"No," admits Aunt Paivi, while Stella giggles. Aunt Lyra is the only person who gets to call Mama "Serafina."
"And it en't like the World Consistorial Court is coming up this far north to look for me."
"I expect the Queen to take care of this affront before they even see her coming," says Aunt Paivi firmly. "I just thought...well...you are cold. Aren't you?"
"Too cold to take off my coat, that's all," says Aunt Lyra. "Not too cold to get this little bug into a snowball fight."
Stella's eyes widen. "What's a snowball fight?"
"What's a snowball fight? Good thing you have a short-life for an auntie. Think of what you'd miss out on otherwise." Aunt Lyra puts her down, and addresses Herääminen: "Better turn into one of those furry snow monkeys. For this, you'll want all the hands you can get."
Will's New York, 2035.
You see just about everything selling drinks to New Yorkers, and as of yesterday Cortez figured she had.
Now she's looking at some sweet old grandpa having lunch with bae, except that bae is clearly some kind of ghost, and also, talking cat? Who says she doesn't need to eat, which, cool, cool, even though with the age and all Cortez was totally expecting her to say "I can has cheeseburger?"
Grandpa has straight black eyebrows and thinning black hair and like an Asian-y face, something about the cheekbones? Sweet British accent, just like the cat. And the ghost. Sweet old lady, mostly-grey hair, steampunk jacket that is totally on point even though you can, like, see the chair right through it?
"Balloons are on their way out. Mr. Scoresby would be horrified," the ghost is saying, as Cortez pours the old guy a glass of water. "We'll have a real commercial airline any day now. Especially since intentioncraft works better even than any of your fuel options. No offense."
"None taken. Did you tell them to avoid square windows?"
"Made a big deal of it at the consult a few years back," says bae with a laugh. "The junior alethiometrists were dying to know how I interpreted that. Can't exactly pass along your security secrets, though, since we haven't invented Atal lenses. How did you get Kirjava past them, by the way?"
"I am subtle like a shadow," says the cat. Is that, like, a pun, because of how her fur is all shadowy?
"She rode in a backpack," says grandpa dryly. "They're not looking for daemons. All they see in the Dust flow is one person, who intends to celebrate his birthday in New York with his true love." He looks up at Cortez. "Can I get the chicken quesadillas? With a side of guac, and some of these little pastries."
"Yes, sir. Right away."
"Wonder if they got 'guac' in ol' New Amsterdam," says bae. And now, on top of all the other weirdness, Cortez is gonna have an oldies song stuck in her head for the rest of the night.
Lyra's Oxford, 1931.
"It's a sacrilegious question, isn't it."
Alan catches his breath. His daemon, a beetle, gives nothing away, but in this case it doesn't help. He hasn't even touched the alethiometer in its velvet-lined case on the desk, let alone started picking symbols that Dr. Belacqua could read. How did she guess?
"You've got a certain look in your eye," says the professor, not waiting for him to ask. "I see a lot of it. Please don't be afraid. I don't let the Magisterium touch my students."
"A-all right." Alan swallows. "It was. A bit."
"Do you want to talk through the formulation?"
"I wished to know...what the alethiometer would say about the soul continuing. After death."
Dr. Belacqua can surely guess what that means, and is gracious enough not to ask who Alan lost. She talks him through it, more to reassure his anxious heart than to advise him on the symbols, which are simple enough. The Bird represents the daemon; the Hourglass signifies death; the Anchor can stand for preservation.
Almost immediately the needle-fine fourth hand begins to spin. Alan makes shorthand notes on all the symbols it touches, and tries not to be unduly distracted by the Apple, which seems to be calling him out directly with accusations of sin and vanity.
By now he's had all the text of the Books of Reading input into an ordinater. A program he developed can search for any given text and return every matching meaning of every symbol within a few days — which is far slower than an intuitive expert flipping pages, but, crucially, accessible to a complete amateur. Provided that amateur has access to one of the universities that has a functioning ordinater.
When Alan lets his mind drift into a certain state, he can see the future of ordination, all the connections and algorithms and functions suspended around them. Input-searching machines are only one possible application. There's no reason you couldn't develop a single, universal machine to do any task at all — even, perhaps, to duplicate the function of the alethiometer itself....
Most people can't get their heads around Alan's ideas. Or they say it's a lovely fantasy, but the technical hurdles are insurmountable.
Dr. Belacqua is startlingly different. The first time he described his universal-machine theories, she responded by conjuring an image more fanciful than his wildest dreams. A world where such machines were coordinating more data than even Alan can picture, all while being small and cheap enough that the average person could buy one and carry it around in their pocket.
If only he can live to make that happen...if only the Magisterium won't find out....
"Alan. Are you all right? You've gone pale."
...He's stopped writing. Guiltily, he realizes the needle is still spinning. Perhaps he doesn't want to know the answer after all. "I...."
The professor's marten daemon scampers up onto the desk and gives her a meaningful tongue-click, gesturing with his furry brown head. Dr. Belacqua scratches between his ears and nods. "The short answer is, yes, the soul continues. But not in the way the Magisterium would have you believe, and not under the conditions they ask you support."
"Yes, ma'am," says Alan politely. Because of course there's no way she can be sure. Is there?
"I think there's something else I ought to tell you," says Dr. Belacqua, lowering her voice. "I mentioned you to a...gentleman friend...of mine. Said I had the brightest young student I'd seen in a generation. Mind works in a way that reminds me of myself, when I had the gift of reading the alethiometer without ever touching the books."
Alan is quite sure he's turning pink. "Thank you, professor."
"That's not all. He said your name sounded familiar, and we ought to look you up."
"On the alethiometer?"
"On something called Wikipedia. It's a long story. Ask me next spring, around midsummer, and I may have something to show you. Point is — it suggested you might have even more reason to fear the Magisterium than working on experimental theology they don't like, under a professor they've tried to kill a few times."
Mouth dry, Alan finds himself saying: "I might."
"Well then." Dr. Belacqua sits back in her plush-lined chair. "It's about time someone told you there en't nothing wrong with you. Even when I'm gone, the alethiometry department will only be passed into the hands of someone else who knows that, and is still prepared to protect you. From the Magisterium or the government or anyone else who might try to give you hell. And by the time that person leaves, I fully expect you to be ready to take over, and do the same thing for the generation of little experimental theologians coming up next."
The tube station is perfectly clean and perfectly empty. Will has a look around, exploring the whitewashed tiles and blank windows and unreadable maps to nowhere, then sits on a bench and waits for a bit.
It isn't long before Lyra wanders in.
"Thought I'd find you here," she says warmly. "Or you'd find me, I guess. Do you remember what it was?"
"I was up for a pacemaker replacement. Probably went wrong. Sometimes they do. How about you?"
"Can't tell. Think I must've gone in the night."
Will stands to greet her, realizes the rules must be different now that neither of them is corporeal, and puts his hands on her waist. The lines on Lyra's face multiply as she smiles from ear to ear, cups his face, and draws him into a kiss.
Eventually they come up for air...or whatever it is you come up for, in this world...and Lyra takes her first real look around. "The place sure has changed since we were last here, hasn't it? I can't even hear the river anymore. I suppose it was always a metaphorical river, but still."
"There's a book series, in my world, where it looks like this," says Will sheepishly. "Came out a good while after I got home. But I can't imagine the real one changed just to match one piece of fiction, in one part of the multiverse."
Lyra shrugs. "Maybe once the fans started dying, they decided to renovate."
They trail off into silence, soaking in the joy of each other's presences, of being able to hold each other for the first time in...well, it's no longer clear, but the point is that it's been too long.
Presently, the ground under their feet starts to rumble.
"Must be our train," says Lyra happily. "In another fifty years it'll probably be an airport. I don't suppose any of the maps say which stop Pan and Kirjava are at...?"
"Not that I could read," admits Will. "But I have a feeling we'll know it when we get there."