As the red-hot brand touched his forehead, Bering did not stop singing; to do so would mean ejection from the pilgrimage, and an ignoble end to eight bone-wearying years of study, devotions and ceaseless deception. But the pain was incredible, like a lightning bolt from the hand of God, and involuntarily his deep baritone rose two octaves to a startling wail.
“Marked are you forever, forever are you marked,” intoned the preceptor, Marad, plunging the brand into the waiting bucket. Behind Bering, screened from the chancel, twelve other initiates still waited their turn, spared the sight of the pain that awaited them but not the smell, steam mingling with the potent scents of myrrh, hot metal, charcoal and charred flesh, a thick and heady miasma. Don’t pass out! Eight years you’ve spent!
Marad’s young acolyte opened a small jar of balm and passed it to him. Marad scooped up some of the white paste with his two right fingers, raising them to the arched ceiling far above. Bering saw him as a thin dark blur through the distortion of tears, sweat and blood streaming down his face. “By the song are you marked; by the song are you healed.”
When his fingers touched Bering’s forehead, the initiate flinched, but Marad reached with his left hand to grip the back of Bering’s skull, pulling him closer. Roughly the old priest spread the balm across the bloody wound, and to Bering’s surprise, the pain receded. Analgesics in the balm?
Or perhaps more than mere painkillers. As he stood, he noticed how alert he felt, how his senses seemed to expand to fill the great space around him. It could just be the endorphins, but still – his body felt large as a mountain, the sanctum like the great sky of the waiting desert.
And the music – the music! He felt it pulling him outward, toward the open doors at the rear of the chancel, a tremendous outpouring of harmony. His trials were nearly over, it said; now they moved toward higher things. His own voice rose with the rest: the fine and powerful voice that was his gift.
Your voice is the key, his trainer at Intelligence, Silina, had said. The key that can open the most mysterious room in the world.
Outside the desert air was hot as the breath of a brick oven. The sun, now just past the zenith, ran its fiery claws over their faces and spared nothing, gleaming off their exposed skulls, casting black shadows at their feet. There in the stone courtyard the preceptors passed around jugs of cool water. “Drink it all,” Marad advised, having rejoined them. “The climb up the mountain is long, and there’ll be nothing more until you reach the temple.”
Bering didn’t have to be told twice. The water was glorious in his parched throat. “You surprise me, Washiri,” said the acolyte who handed it to him, using Bering’s holy name. (None of the Dinn clergy had ever heard his birth name; if they had, they might have executed him.) “The first time I saw you, I thought, he won’t last a week. Yet here you are.” He shook his head. “The ways of Song are mysterious.”
“Mysterious indeed,” Bering said, handing back the empty jug.
Six thousand steps were notched into the side of Shi Rudu Du, Black Saint Mountain, carved directly from the black basalt, four feet wide. The drums beat the rhythm and together stepped the procession, perhaps a hundred privileged souls of all the five worlds devoted to the Dinn Church. And of these, only the initiates would enter Kadeshi Wa Dewa Dinn, the Temple of Supreme Song.
A thousand years, and no one knows what happens inside that temple, Silina had said. We send our best, and they’re rejected out of hand, or executed, or die in the initiations, or worse – they’re converted. But you’ll make it inside. And come back to us.
Step after slow step, the chant in their mouths like buzzing bees. The mountain was nearly free of vegetation, a carious shark’s tooth of bitter black rock rending the prone and pallid sky. Thrice the stairs turned, left, right and left, and at each switchback the pilgrims paused before a shrine to offer their chants and prostrate themselves before the carven sphinxes there. Two hours’s climb to Jikoso, the muse of mentation and melody, made of multicolored marble, sunlight glittering in its sapphire eyes; seven hours to Jipha, the muse of time, carved of red sandstone, with a heart in one hand and an hourglass in the other.
Under the sun’s actinic glare, the burn on Bering’s forehead had awoken anew, first in a steady nagging discomfort, then a blossoming agony. Sweat ran in rills down his chest and back, dampening his only garment, a wrapped loincloth. As he knelt before the shrine, everything was a throb of pain, his veins taut with blood; and the music matched his pulse exactly, so he felt all those gathered as one pulse, one heart beating beneath the white sun.
Again he thought he might pass out, and resisted it, blinking furiously, but his body was aflame and his mind a field of burning white. He tried to remember what he was doing here, but nothing came to him. His memories had abandoned him. There was just the fire of his brow, his trembling muscles, his gasping breath, and the song. It was as though he was within a vision, or some painful dream, or some life he had lived long ago. Where was he? What was he doing here?
“Up, up,” Marad called, and with difficulty Bering staggered to his feet. Not everyone did: at this final stage, he saw, two initiates lay unmoving on the flagstones.
Another switchback; another half a kilometer along the mountainside, staring at the cracked and dusty heels of the skinny initiate ahead of him. Finally they came to the Last Stair: five hundred high steps, the last before the temple, straight up the mountainside.
Each step demanded tremendous effort. He was will in human form, a magical force animating a skeleton, stomach shrinking to his spine after these many days of fasting. He raised his eyes and saw the mountain above him, a triangle of darkness against the slowly reddening sky, and at its crest stood the Temple of Supreme Song. Built of the same black basalt that was the mountain’s substance, it had two towers on either side of the immense gate, like great horns, and the setting sun fell precisely between them like a deadly light streaking from a god’s forehead. The drums had ceased, but the lead chanter let their voice soar above the ringing of great bowl-shaped bells on either side of the staircase, calling them onward.
Another step; another; another. They crested the top of the stair. They were in a courtyard, a sphinx statue facing inward at each corner. The portal was thirty feet tall, intricately carved with the complex calligraphic musical notation used by the Dinn faithful, delineating the song heard now:
One song are we, one song only
One song, the disc of space
One song, the web of time
Let me be its voice!
But Bering thought, with sudden triumph, his memory and purpose returning: A voice for something, but not for you! For the Union, for the planets you’ve razed, for my parents. For Silina! Like a vision her face swam up in his inner vision, her skin, the pattern of four freckles on her neck. Then he saw her skin crackle and blacken, her flesh melt and burn, as indeed it must have when the Dinn burned the city where she lived down to radioactive glass.
The initiates passed through the gate one by one, chanting slow songs of praise. In the courtyard they ritually washed their feet, and as they entered the temple antechamber, moving at last from desperate heat into coolness, each were ladled out a cup of pure cold water to drink.
But impinging on Being’s triumph was a sense of emptiness. His whole life, it seemed, had led him to this place; but even if he succeeded, it would not bring Silina back, or anyone else. A shade of failure crept into his flush of victory. All was vanity; all things ended. He stood in this temple, on this mountain, on this planet, which spun through the limitless void; and what did it mean?
Unwittingly, his mind was drawn outward, further and further. It was the drugs, he realized, but more than that, it was the song: the song that echoed down the hallway they now trod. Where the antechamber had been elaborately constructed, with interlocking arches and heavy mosaics of gold and precious stones, this hallway spoke a different language, primitive, elemental: bare black rock echoing with sound. All those around him were singing, and he was singing too, in unison, though he did not remember ever learning this song, these words, if words they were. He shut his eyes in the dark hallway. He saw now that all the fury to which he had clung was but the flailing of a drowning man. But he need not flail; he need only dive, deep into the song.
It rose; it crested; they stepped out of the tunnel, into light, into beauty, into an outpouring of music like energy streaming from a dark star, and he opened his eyes.
There were devotees dancing, prostrating themselves, twisting and writhing in the incense-clouded air, bodies slick with sweat and gritty with dust pressing against his own bare and sweat-slicked skin, all red-orange in the light of the setting sun streaming through high clerestory windows. The inner sanctum was fifty feet on a side, and the distant ceiling felt still higher, the walls unadorned black stone. It was ancient, ancient, redolent with time, the stone floor worn smooth by countless feet through the millennia, but streaked with metallic blue and gold.
But all this passed nearly unnoticed, his every sense rising to ecstasy, his eyes pulled ineluctably upward, past the tangled crowd, to the Presence that abided there.
It rested atop a rectangular stone platform fifteen feet tall, well above the upraised hands of the delirious crowd, or perhaps the platform was part of it, perhaps it was one with the mountain itself, because its substance, obsidian threaded with blue and gold, was all one with the platform and flowed directly into the floor. Those silver-blue and gold threads moved at right angles, looking like patterns of circuitry; yet it was evident the creature was not robotic, or not entirely. Atop that platform something was profoundly alive.
It roughly resembled a sphinx, and now he knew wherefrom rose the form of the Dinn deities, though in fact it had no rear legs at all, merely strangely contoured shapes that flowed into the stone. But it had two forelimbs, which extended in long phalanges connected by flaps of skin like flowing golden silk, in constant movement around its face and mouth. Its substance, whatever it was, paled at its height, so its forelimbs and head were a lustrous ivory, and its eyes were milky-white, seeing nothing, seeing everything. It features were not remotely human; the whole head was very large, the skull three feet long at least, the eyes placed to the sides, and the mouth was protuberant and perpetually round, with very long, prehensile lips.
Even as he watched, the creature spun its arm-wings around, modulating the unearthly, celestial sounds that poured forth ceaselessly from its wide-open mouth. Alien, alien! thought Bering, in shock, and it was his last conscious thought for a span of time like infinity.
Because the creature sang. It was itself an instrument, the ultimate instrument, and what it sang was like nothing in heaven or earth. Its song encompassed all, wordlessly; it transported. It seemed to speak to Bering personally, as he fell to his knees, his own voice joining it in involuntary song. It spoke of his struggles, his torment, his grief, his present pain; his losses, his victories, his happiest moments. It knew him.
It even knew his betrayal! It knew that he meant to give the Union the innermost secrets of the Church; and it forgave him. The Church, it said, was no more than an outward manifestation; it was what had literally been built around the Singer. It was of no ultimate importance. Only the Song mattered.
Then he saw it in majesty, saw his true place in the universe: a speck, but a beloved speck. All was light, all was wonder, and all was forgiven.
How long he stayed there, singing, dancing and writhing, pressing his body against the striated base of the platform (it was warm as flesh), he could not have said. But finally the preceptors entered and led the exhausted initiates away, weeping with joy and with sorrow at having to leave that Presence.
When they stepped outside again, into the courtyard, the sun was just rising once more over the edge of the world, and a cool breeze touched their faces like the hand of a lover. One and all they felt reborn, small fawns taking their first steps in a new world. They were given oranges to eat, their invigorating scent widening their eyes and bringing smiles to their faces. And Singer, they were sweet!
Then back down the mountainside they went, singing gentle hymns of gratitude, their eyes ever full of sun and sky. At Kadeshi Wa Suufu, the temple at the base of the mountain where they had begun their journey, they gave final thanks in the nave, and with that their pilgrimage was complete. In the dining hall a feast awaited them, and they broke their fast in quiet joy.
When Bering was done eating, and had washed his hands in the petal-laden water, Marad came and touched his arm. “Come, Washiri.” Bering followed docilely down several halls and across a rear courtyard, into the large vestry. This too was beautifully crafted, but in a simpler style, the walls white stucco framed by dark wood, hung with tapestries and paintings.
Bering had thought he might be led to a dormitory, there to bathe and rest, but instead they ended in a small, windowless interior room lit by glowstrips on the ceiling. Another cleric awaited them there, an old woman with shaved scalp and long ceremonial queue. Marad gestured at Bering to stand where he was, near the closed door, and Marad sat with the priestess at the table opposite, regarding the new pilgrim impassively.
“You have seen the Spirit of Song,” Marad said. “Now you know the greatest secret of our faith. What will you do now?”
Bering hesitated. He hadn’t thought to have to answer so soon, but he did have a response prepared: I will go to Amisa, reverences. He would tell them that he would return to his supposed homeworld, there to spread the Dinn faith among the ignorant.
In actuality, of course, his Union contacts stood ready there for his return. They would whisk him away to debriefing, and afterward he would live however he liked, amply rewarded as per their agreement; and meanwhile the Union would work the end of the Dinn Church.
They can’t! Bering thought then, tears springing involuntarily to his eyes. Because he saw now that he had been wrong, wrong about every single thing. In the Great Song he had heard, not conquest, but peace and understanding; unity, surpassing grace, and forgiveness. He saw now that all the actions of the Church, which he had previously despised, must have some root in spreading this message. Now he judged the Union for what it was: materialistic, shallow and vicious, a blight upon the galaxy, consuming whole planets for nothing but self-gratification. Even Silina, his precious love, had been motivated by a desire for vengeance. How could he countenance that after what he had heard? How could he return to the petty scheming of Intelligence, after what he had experienced?
“I’d like to stay here,” he said finally. “Perhaps I could join the monks.”
Yes: He would abandon the Union; abandon his hatred and thirst for revenge; he would forget his past and lead a simple life of devotion to the Great Song.
“No,” the old priestess said, in a voice like rusted iron.
Bering frowned. “Then maybe…”
“No,” she repeated. “You’re needed elsewhere, Ross Bering.” His eyes widened. They knew.
“Of course we knew,” she said, as though reading his thoughts. “We knew the first time you ever set foot in a Dinn temple.”
“Then why –”
“We need intelligence,” she said. “The Union continues to war with the Church, unaware of what they threaten. Now you have heard the Song; you know the truth of what we preach. But these fools are incapable of understanding it secondhand. And do you think, if they knew its source, they would relent? No. They’d hate it all the more. They would see, not the great cosmic gift we had been given, but an alien slavemaster, corrupting the minds of the weak.”
Once voiced, the thought troubled him. What if the Union is right? What if this… creature… is a sort of parasite, controlling whoever hears it? Whole worlds devoted to its protection, its care…
But the Song! Still its beauty resounded within him, a perpetual rejoicing. It could not be a lie. “Will you kill me?”
She smiled coldly. “Why would we kill you, when we have cultivated you so assiduously? No. You’ll return to the Union. You’ll go to Amisa, and tell them what we tell you to tell them. You’ll work hard, doing all they ask, and rise high in their ranks. And all the while you’ll do as we direct.”
Being swallowed painfully, tears in his eyes. “When can I come back?”
“Never. Or when the Union is broken, and their planets devoted to the Song. Do you think we mean to give you a reward? Perhaps we do – a just reward for your years of deception. A penance. And you will do it; because having once heard the Song, you carry it within you forever.”