I knew from the outset of this mission that there would be no return trip for me. But I am renewed in my realization that I have come back to the start. That I will be reunited with everything and everyone that ever was.
Now I finally understand my grandfather’s tale of creation.
It’s been only twenty years by my reckoning, but in truth more than seventy years have passed in Earth time since those days when my sister and I sat at grandfather’s feet on the wide wooden porch of our ancestral family home. He held court from a rocking chair as ancient as the house itself, while we ignored the temptation of exploring the overgrown landscape around us to hang on his every word.
In the beginning, there was the darkness. The darkness was absolute because nothing else had ever existed or could have been thought to exist.
Time had no meaning for the darkness. It spent an eternity exploring itself and another eternity pondering what it meant.
After an eternity of eternities had passed, the darkness began to conceive of an “other.” Something ephemeral and uncertain, but apparent.
Grandfather was a horn player, but he also had a talent for vocalization. Every syllable he spoke and sound he mimicked painted a world of magic for us with that tale. And though it needed little other embellishment, we were blessed to have the unpredictable melody of the Mississippi River as accompaniment as it flowed on by.
My sister and I heard the story many times. First it was only when we went to visit in brief breaks between school sessions. But when our parents died in an accident, we moved from our home on one of the satellite suburbs back to Earth to live with our grandparents.
So, the darkness gave birth to light. The darkness now had its other but, like all young children, light was fickle and fleeting.
So, the darkness gave birth to matter. Matter was a wonder and a puzzlement, persistent like the darkness and changeable like the light.
Each time he told the tale of “the beginning of everything,” grandfather was unwavering in the details. Yet somehow, he always made it seem new. I could feel his belief and his passion, but at the time I never fully grasped what the story meant.
Soon the darkness had a new need. As life began to cycle throughout all that had become, there was no way to depict its myriad evolutions.
So, the darkness gave birth to sound. The first sound, the original and only true sound, was music.
To my family’s great delight, my sister cocooned herself in the lyrical linens grandfather wove with that tale and emerged as a butterfly of unmatched proficiency. In the twenty-third century, music penned by anything other than computers was rare. But my sister’s vocal gift inspired latent songwriters. A new generation set out to rediscover themselves and began creating heartfelt human truths once more.
To my family’s great dismay, I chose another route. Although I appreciated the symphony of his story, I pushed aside grandfather’s web of wonder and focused on only one movement within: the origin of everything. Not the beauty of it but the science of it. I wanted answers. I wanted absolutes. I wanted to unravel the mystery, the marvel, the cold and unknowable phenomenon of the meaning of our existence.
Which is why I am here, where I am, when I am. Captain and sole crew for the USS Matthew Henson, 2,300 light years from Earth. My tiny explorer vessel is as inconsequential in the grand scheme of space as a twig would be bobbing along in the Mississippi River of my childhood.
Light and matter became the recalcitrant offspring of the darkness. But even the smallest of cosmic particles still vibrates to its tune.
I am nearing a singularity where cosmic censorship — the state in which nothing escapes the hold of a black hole — is fragmented. In the language of my family, it is an area of dissonance within an otherwise impeccable composition.
I was the first to volunteer for the mission. It wasn’t the glory of making history that appealed to me. It was the overwhelming thrill at the chance to catch a glimpse inside the enigma. I recognized it as the same excitement I felt on those days when I sat spellbound on that porch.
Not that it would have interested grandfather or soothed his troubled soul any. He was already ill by the time I finished my training and not concerned with where my literal flights of fancy might take me. His legacy to me was that story and the guilt of knowing I had disappointed him by breaking a chain of professional performers that stretched back ten generations.
The music of the darkness is the soundtrack of everything that was, or is, or is to come. It is the psalm of being.
It is the stirring score that guides the stars in their dance through space. It is the cacophony of large bodies colliding.
It is the aria of awakening to endless possibilities. It is the atonal refrain of unexpected defeat.
It is the resounding fortissimo of mountains erupting from unobliging earth. It is the dignified pianissimo of falling waters that fade away into mist.
Even that might have been forgiven, eventually, with offspring of my own, but the fact that I was one half of a set of twins was a considerable complicating factor. Because another rarity of the twenty-third century was multiple births.
In the late twenty-first century, as coastal waters rose and forests were cleared to make room for millions moving inland, new diseases spread, and fertility rates around the world plummeted. The fact that my sister and I were alive and thriving was incredible to most people. To my grandfather, it was a sign.
Twice the trouble, our grandmother always teased.
Twice the magic, our grandfather always countered.
No matter that, unlike my sister, I showed little talent either with voice or instrument. Yet despite my incompetence, when we reached the age of consent, I joined my sister in the family custom of replacing our birth names with the names of musical legends.
There were those old souls or aficionados who appreciated our choices — Simone Fitzgerald and Ellington Armstrong. But most people wondered why, in a world where computers could suggest easy-to-remember options that fit your personality and appearance, the Negasi twins would adopt such heavy, old-fashioned-sounding names.
Other than our grandfather’s tale and our grief for our parents, it was one of the few things we shared. My sister and I were not close. We did not see the world in the same way. She never said anything against my decision, but she never said anything in my favor, either.
We are an infinity removed from the very first days, yet some speak as if they bore witness to the beginning. To find the truth, you must only listen within yourself.
Still, I celebrated my sister’s success. I supported aunts, uncles, cousins in all their endeavors. Although my grandfather pushed me, I could never play the part with anything other than my name. The music on this lonely branch of the family tree ended with me.
Perhaps the tradition continues with my sister’s family. Perhaps she told them the tale grandfather told us, and they found inspiration and guidance in it. Perhaps they are not haunted by it, like I have been.
The creation of the cosmos was not a finite percussion of creative and destructive forces. Creation is happening now, always, continually shifting and shaping everything around us.
It is in the heartbeat of the drum, the blood rhythm of the string, the newborn wail of the horn. Music soothes the savage beast because we savage beasts are programmed to remember.
I heard its serenade when I boarded this ship and entered two generations of slumber to get here. I dreamt its chorus in what felt like only an eyeblink between Earth and the void where I find myself now. I awoke fearing its resonance might only be the echoing notes of a childhood fairy tale.
I comb through its verses right now, in my mind, for final truths about my purpose and the destiny that awaits. Because just as surely as that story led my twin to unparalleled acclaim, it led me to what looks to be my equally unparalleled undoing.
Every living thing holds a piece of the original darkness and the original sound. Our bodies and souls struggle the length of our lives between the desire for independence and the desire to return to the darkness from which we came.
We created a multitude of religions to give a face to the impenetrable. But each form of faith has its hymns, its chants, its spirituals — its primal connection to the true spirit behind the façade.
I breathe out.
I haven’t even realized I’ve been holding my breath. How long? Minutes? Hours? Decades?
I no longer have the same fear, because I no longer have the same misunderstanding.
When I came out of stasis, there were new instructions awaiting me. My original mission has been long-since canceled, the scientists who proposed it long-dead with none to take up their charge.
They say Earth is dying more rapidly now. The strain of people escaping to satellite stations while still supporting those upon its weary surface has left the planet unable to focus on anything save survival.
I take a moment to grieve the place I loved and wonder what has become of that old house with that old rocking chair by the banks of the dwindling Mississippi. I wonder if, in a world so desperately scrabbling to stay afloat, there’s any time left for music.
We honor our true nature, our purest selves, through song. It is a universal language that needs no common vocabulary.
It reflects both our freedom and our dependence. It is both our escape and our homecoming.
When we do not cherish and uphold it, we slip back to the flat static of nothingness. We lose our ability to communicate the truth of all that is around us.
I am to transmit data collected during my journey out here about potential new worlds on which to settle mankind. I wonder if it would be any different on a new world and check the computer’s results for suitable hosts. There are none.
None long-term, that is. Certainly a few to cradle the brief lives of those with the power to decide who matters. But I realize that power no longer rests with man. Our time is up, and the lost will be reclaimed.
We are all the children of the darkness. But when you share its likeness, you incur an extra obligation.
Where you find bodies black as coal, you find beings full of soul. It is our birthright, then, a commitment as unchangeable as the dark skin that envelops us.
No matter the cost, it is our responsibility to nurture the language of the darkness. A body enslaved does not a fettered mind make.
No matter the cost, it is our responsibility to be scribes, heralds, and enablers. We are the instruments of change and the band that shepherds believers.
I was wrong before. I think some part of me always understood what I needed from my grandfather’s story, but it wasn’t until I was out here that I believed.
You see, the power of a black hole is in its density. The fact that it holds everything within itself, like the original darkness of my grandfather’s story. And the closer you get to the black hole, the more light slows down, and the more sound speeds up. So, where they meet is the home the darkness created for everything.
Now I will hear my grandfather tell the tale again. I will weep when my sister’s voice rises with the fullness of a choir from a single throat. I will jam with my father and dance with my mother and meet countless generations who have assumed and carried the mantle of song throughout the passage of time and all its tribulations.
Our music should reverberate into the ancient untouched corners of people’s minds. It should delight, confound, and inspire awe, just like its source.
I set my course to creep slowly, as a penitent on grateful knees, toward the black hole. I send the coordinates of a small planet, just on the edge of the hole’s influence, back to Earth to initiate the pilgrimage of all peoples. By the time they arrive, the hole will have absorbed the space between, and they, too, will be ready for that final and first journey.
Mankind does not tremble in the face of the darkness because we think it means the end of everything. We tremble because we know it is the beginning of everything.
I repeat my grandfather’s tale until I find myself singing it with a capacity I’ve never known. Closer and closer still. The ship shudders with anticipation. Everything slows until it seems like waiting on the cusp of forever.
I hear the welcoming music. It is an anthem of perpetuity, pure and strong and familiar.
I feel its pull and its pulse. It is like hearing harmony for the first time, when every fiber in your being dances and you suddenly find your cheeks wet with tears.
With that very first lullaby, the darkness made us a promise. When another eternity of eternities passes, it will return and, with strength matched with tenderness, gather us all and hold us in its everlasting, euphonious embrace.
At long last, I have become a shepherd. I have found a way to offer my fellow humans the redemption of music. Now, in the pseudo-silence before I reach the beginning of everything, I close my eyes and smile.
I finally understand its meaning.
I am finally coming home.