Science Fiction & Fantasy

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Fiction

The Mysteries

“Light, dust, and water are the alchemy of the universe.”

Ritual words murmured softly by myriad voices, powerful as a roar, effortless as a whisper.

“I will consent to be made and unmade.”

An initiate must never walk in. Many elders raise the cocooned body high upon their hands and process into the open space, to lasers alight in a pin-and-string arrangement of bright green on dark velvet.

“To burn to ash and dissolve in dew.”

The elders guide the still, surrendered form up and into the core of the lattice of light.

“I am but dust and ashes; for me the world was created.”

They step back one by one, they walk away—

“Birthed in water.”

—withdrawing their hands, their support, with a longing, lingering slowness—

“Kindled in air.”

—leaving the initiate to float in a cradle-cage of light.

“Perfected in the void.”

The last elder stays a moment, one palm outward in farewell or blessing, then turns to retreat with the rest. A profound hush mutes the chamber; not a cough, not a shuffle. The ceiling slides quietly open, and all eyes are lifted up to contemplate the dim starlight and sharp lines surrounding the initiate. Here is a blazing ladder of shifting steps and handholds for the shrouded, silent messenger within to ascend and descend, to rise and return. The motion is slight, leisurely, and rhythmic, and continues for over an hour.

All the while, the people watch.

These observers are trained in attentiveness. They have all demonstrated their submission to weightlessness and their embrace of light. They too were once novices swaddled in zero-sensory cloth and frozen in micro-gravity. They are space pilots, this is their religion, and this ceremony is a kind of fast, a forsaking of things needful to life and living—sight, sound, the feel of skin pressing against the rest of creation, and the firm push of stable ground—and yet for every initiate there is a nourishment in the spareness and a comfort in the unseen light.

Each pilot in the gathering remembers their time, and marks time with their newest member; each mind muses on a single phrase. “Perfected in the void.”

It begins, as she knew it would, with an itching in her skin, and when that phase passes successfully, without twitch or scratch, it progresses to an itching in her brain. They are all watching me. She knows this. She knew this would be the case. What if I flounder and they all witness it? What if? She knew they would be there. Breathe, and recall: Perfected in the void.

Inhale, exhale, relax.

But why? Why did I choose this? So many pilots die. So many of us will disappear, as we test our theories and technologies in the vastness of space. I could burn to ash. I could dissolve into oblivion. Breathe. She has already chosen. That is why she is here, seeking the void. Perfected in the void.

Blissful drifting. Then the next distraction comes creeping from behind and leaps fully formed to the front of her head before she realizes she is thinking. This foolish ritual. What is the point? Will it help us die peacefully when our ships crack open or our suits malfunction? Will it help us fall gracefully into the long starvation of an undetectable orbit, or the brief, hellish flash and flare of the shooting star? Breathe. Will we die without screaming? Breathe, breathe. Will I— Breathe. Perfection is in the void. Perfected in the void.

Lines of light glimmer behind her closed eyelids, under the several folds of insulating cloth. They come and go, elusive, uncertain. At times she distrusts them as mere hallucinations. Other times, she includes them in the ebb and flow of her breath, feeling, sensing that somehow they are the threads, the warp and weft of the universe. She could gasp, or sigh, and bend those lines with her breath, make them draw reality with tiny tugs, and change the lie of the landscape, or tilt stability to find a new definition of ground.

She has forgotten words, but she no longer needs them.

The light is within her now, unquestionably present, gloriously sentient. She consults with it, pushes against it, yields before it. Here is the silencing of the superfluous and the focus on the needful. She has found her true senses in the quieting of the old perception pathways. She is caught up in the flex and curve, the bloom and contraction of spacetime. And there is no death in it, only the cycle of light, dust, and water; fire, ash, and extinguishing; sun, earth, and rain.

Rain. It begins to rain.

She can feel the drizzle on her bare skin. The time is over. They have pulled away the shroud. The hands of the elders are anointing her with cool, moist, mica-rich clay. She allows her skin to feel the prickle of the drying unction as the elders speak more words over her, more soothing ritual turned to stark truth.

“We are earth.”

“We reveal the light in the void.”

“We are ocean.”

“We reveal the light in the void.”

“We are fragments.”

“We reveal the wholeness in the void.”

She opens her eyes into starlit night and looks down at herself.

Every part of her body is sparkling. Her feet have come to rest scant millimeters above a shallow puddle. A net of light wraps around her like a royal cape. She looks out into the crowd, unashamed, clad in only light and dirt and water.

The congregation breathes out in approval, soft as a sigh, resonant as thunder. This is as they remember it; this is the old become new. Another pilot is inaugurated into the mysteries, and the tradition continues, strong. They chant the concluding canticle together.

“We are but dust and ashes.

For us, the universe was created.

We reveal the unseen light in the black perfection of void.”

Karen Lord

Barbadian author, editor and research consultant Karen Lord is known for her debut novel Redemption in Indigo, which won the 2008 Frank Collymore Literary Award, the 2010 Carl Brandon Parallax Award, the 2011 William L. Crawford Award, the 2011 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature and the 2012 Kitschies Golden Tentacle (Best Debut), and was longlisted for the 2011 Bocas Prize for Caribbean Literature and nominated for the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. Her second novel The Best of All Possible Worlds won the 2009 Frank Collymore Literary Award, the 2013 RT Book Reviews Reviewers’ Choice Awards for Best Science Fiction Novel, and was a finalist for the 2014 Locus Awards. Its sequel, The Galaxy Game, was published in January 2015. She is the editor of the 2016 anthology New Worlds, Old Ways: Speculative Tales from the Caribbean.