Aaron Preacher hesitated a moment before the grey carbon-composite door, hearing the empty metal echo of his footsteps fade behind him. Only here in all of Final Station were the corridors bare metal, only here were the doors unadorned pressure hatches. Elsewhere the floors were carpeted with lush engineered grasses the walls meticulously painted with inspirational murals, aiflits hovered waiting to serve. Here all was plain, here would be recognizable to even a traveler from millennia past. It is a humble thing to approach the sight of God.
Setting his rounded jaw he grasped the handles and pulled them together, then pushed the door in. It was a slightly awkward motion to him, as he was not used to unpowered doors.
Although the corridor was dimly lit by comparison to most of Final, the room beyond was darker yet. God was not visible immediately, for which Aaron was grateful; the laity often thought that preachers were less fearful than they, but the opposite was true in reality. Seminary classes in astrophysics only made the awful power of God’s face more terrifying yet. No man could look on it with equanimity, and he wished the Singer had not insisted on making his confession here of all places.
I am stardust myself, and worthy to stand, he reminded himself, and stepped forward into the viewing room. As there was less light, here there was less adornment, and for the same reason.
The diamond dome was invisible, and there was no human mercy; he stood on an iron ground, and in the brass heaven above his eyes were drawn irresistably toward God; all Creation pointed the way, for while the stars about his feet were stars still, they became distorted into tears as his view inched upward, then chromatic spears pointing toward toward the Void of Voids.
There should be a roar, a small terrified voice in his mind insisted, a roar of infinite hunger. Everything, everything was being pulled toward that terrible void with an irresistible slow strength, from one end of Creation to the same end again, slow as Time itself and as inescapable. Every lesser Void, every star and planet and person, would feed God in the end; every atom pulled toward God, here at Galactic Center, and all would end here in Glory. As Aaron’s eyes adjusted he saw deeper and deeper into the coruscating deepness, saw the flaring of matter torn by tidal energies, the mad glow between of Hawking radiation as empty space itself split into twin particle-antiparticle pairs at the event horizon, one twin struggling free and the other…
“Purty, ain’t it?” drawled a hoarse, sardonic voice behind him.
Aaron pulled his mind back from the Fall with an effort, and turned to face the Singer. In the dim and uncertain lighting he could at first see nothing but a blacker silhouette against the darkness, but gradually a catlike grin stood out, then the glint of one eye.
“Not the word I would have chosen. Then again, I’m not considered one of the greatest lyricist of all time, so ‘purty’ it is.”
That provoked a surprised choke of laughter, and a sudden chord unlike any the preacher had ever heard. He saw the outline of a guitar now, growing from the Singer’s hands like an extension of them. The chord mutated and blossomed briefly in a flurry of odd gentle notes, then died softly back into silence. The Singer looked up toward God, his single eye gleaming brighter yet. “You’re mistakin’ me,” he said softly. “I ain’t that. Never was. That’s Tim.”
Involuntarily Aaron followed the Singer’s gaze. That gaze was direct and steady, not searching, but even so following a gaze is easier said than done and it took a moment before he located the Spire. There were no huds in here, no helpful lines drawn by aiflits to locate the tiny arrow-shaped patch.
Aaron said gently, “The Spire of Song fell over thirty years ago. He… Tim’s gone, Jim. He’s dead.”
The Singer said nothing, at least not with his mouth. From his guitar, though, came a music as eloquent as the preacher had ever heard, that odd-sounding guitar… wept a few heart-tearing strings of clashing, colliding notes, like crystal-beaked wooden birds splintering from insupportable sorrow. Aaron had the strange impression that the man wasn’t even aware of playing the notes.
“Is that why you did it, Jim? Is that why you tried to die? After all this time, why?”
The single eye closed into the Singer’s shadowed head, and a luminescent track of God-shine tracked zig-zag beneath where it had been, reflecting the unending silent fury above the two men. The dark shape hunkered, shrunk down, became a stump; after a moment, Aaron too sat on the floor, more awkwardly despite his relative youth. He reached out a hand, hesitated, drew it back.
The Singer… No, Jim, his name is Jim, Aaron reminded himself, he’s a human being in pain, not an icon! Jim was silent for a moment longer, then began to speak. His words were calm and measured, his tone simple and conversational, but the notes from his guitar skittered and jumped, as of unsure whether to follow the rhythm of the words or the chaotic flares from the Void.
“Tim and I come here some hundred sixty years back, got here when we was fourteen. Earth years; we never used nothing else. Dali years didn’t mean much, don’t match any human rhythms, you know? Nine point six three two… ah hell, don’t even remember.
“Earth meant more to us. Our Grandpappy was the second oldest human on Dali when he died, he come out on the generation ship from Earth. He was third crew, and his own Grandpappy Leffert was born Earthside. He brung this with him.” Jim lifted the guitar over his head. Flarelight gleamed on it.
Oh, it’s not steel! That’s why it sounds odd, it’s wood…
“They thought they’d be able to set a biosphere on Dali. You know it? No? Well, it’s an M star, but Dali is a moon to a gas giant called Parton and in the Goldilocks. Never worked, though, something missing for Earth life I guess. Dali became a shipyard and waypoint, but not a human world. Daddy became a rock miner, mostly, blasting asteroids to rendezvous.”
The guitar neck pointed toward God. “I… me and Tim…” A few more notes quavered off the guitar. “We was musical, and we had a lot of recordings to follow to. Earth sounded like Heaven to us, and the music was all about Earth. We never rode a train, but we knew Turner’s ‘Long Black Train’, never climbed a mountain but knew Denver’s ‘Rocky Mountain High’, never sailed a river but knew Cash’s ‘White River’… you get the idea. We lived in one metal box after another, but the music brought us home to a place we’d never been to.
“Even though he couldn’t really play Daddy had learned the basics from Grandpappy and he showed us. Showed me. There was only one guitar, see. That’s why Tim became the lyrics. He’s the lyricist. I just play, and sing. He writes the words.”
“But…” Aaron had to object. “But after Tim, you wrote…”
“Hush!” The voice held authority, the guitar’s strident chord more. “You don’t know, but I’m telling you.” A momentary lull in the celestial violence turned the room dark. Aaron resisted the urge to shift on the hard iron floor, berating himself for interrupting a confession no matter what the absurdity of what the Singer had said. You just didn’t do that, especially right under the Face of God.
“Grandpappy got religion when a preacher name of Falconer come back from Core. Sorry, from God I mean, but it were called Core to us then. Names mutate faster’n bugs, going world to world. Preacher went on once her ship was fixed, heading back to Earth, and me and Tim begged to go with her, but Grandpappy had his eyes set to God, and bringing us two to sing for Glory, and he made Daddy promise to bring us. He said Tim and I made music together like one soul in two bodies, brought the soul of Earth to the children of Space, and he felt the songs of Earth needed to be sung to God here, so God would have mercy on Earth.”
Aaron resisted the urge to interrupt again, but Jim’s yellow grin showed he’d seen the stifle. “I know, I know, everything comes to God and that’s all the mercy there is. Daddy wasn’t no theologian, just a workin’ man, and he missed the fine points sometimes. Don’t hold it agin’ him, preacher.”
He strummed a few chords, more purposefully this time than before, and sang a few words of a famous song Aaron knew: “Call it fate or destiny, call it simple gravity, but God, oh God, it falls to me, falls to me…” Above, God’s Love ripped some large chunk of matter, making a particularly bright flare momentarily light the Singer fully.
Aaron winced. The Singer’s… Jim’s face was a bloody patchwork of burst capillaries, cut by pale lines where wrinkles had been, and interspersed with pale blotches where tumors had sprouted before they could be turned off. Where his left eye should have been was a blank expanse of vat-skin.
The sight did serve to remind him why he was here. This was the face of a man who had engendered faith and hope in so many… so why had he tried to open himself to the Void?
The flare died. “It took Daddy years to get us here,” drawled the dark blob where the horror had been. “Years of space, no certain place.” The guitar was making a rhythmic strumming melody, one chord slightly overlapping the next. “We never had no solid home, no place to call our own.” The strum continued, with a clickety-clack on top; Aaron realized Jim was wearing a short tube over his ring finger. The music became up-tempo, cheerful” “But we made it to the Church over God, to the Singing Spire!” A jangle of chords, decaying to nothing.
The roarless fires of God’s destruction made the silence deeper.
“And you hit it,” Aaron completed. “And Tim fell into the Burning Ring of Fire…” He was quoting one of the Singer’s most beloved songs. He supposed it must be an original tune, as opposed to a traditional Earth number, given the theme.
“Yes!” Jim snapped. “Yes, and Daddy died right then, and him and Tim fell in along with the Spire, and I was left behind, in the lifepod.” The guitar made angry noises while the heavens burned brighter.
“But Jim…” Aaron paused. This would be delicate. “Jim, that was thirty years ago. You wrote so many songs about the loss, Tim’s falling, ‘the grieving and the leaving’ as you wrote… songs that brought millions to believe…. now, after all this time… Why did you suddenly want to die?”
“Suddenly?” It was a startlingly bitter laugh. “There’s nothing sudden about it. Time isn’t that simple. You’ve been to seminary, right? You learned about Relativity?”
“Well, yes, but…”
“I told you Tim wrote the lyrics. All of them.”
“But that’s not true! You wrote ‘The Burning’, you wrote ‘Oh Brother Lost’, you wrote ‘Time Will Not Wash Away’, you…”
“NO!!!” The dark form rose up from the floor n one flluid motion, impossibly smooth for such an old man. “Tim wrote them! One soul in two bodies! Tim, the other half of me! Tim, forever in my dreams! Tim, the words to my music!! We weren’t just twins, we shared our thoughts, even after he fell! ” The ancient guitar from Earth whirled above the shadowed head. “Tim, forever young, never aging! Tim, forever falling, never dying!! He fell to God thirty year ago, but he didn’t die!! Until NOW!!!”
The Spire hit the tide. The guitar smashed into the iron ground. The brass heavens split apart. There was an ugly, ugly sound, and death.