The cathedral was modest, as they all were. A million tons of metal grown into a modest rock and nudged into a heliostationary orbit. Inside the dome was all muted colors, huge and lit so that empty space beyond filled the eye, the heart, and towered above the soul, as it should.
Hatteras placed a withered hand on the view plate of the sarcophagus. The soft blue light from inside shined through the edges of his fingers, making them appeared even thinner, skeletal. His beloved Muri lay within, eyes closed, hair a halo of white, a blur to his old eyes, and beautiful.
Soon, my angel.
Once the last of his fellow lighthouse keepers were finished, they would come here, to his cathedral, and he would send them home.
“Do not stand at my grave and weep,” said Hatteras. “I am not there. I do not sleep.”
Overhead, energies dampened by the dome’s glass such that Hatteras could stare directly at her, Mother Sun shone many times the size she had in the sky of Cinder Earth. No one had stood on Cinder in all of recorded history, or so the synts had told him when he was a boy, so naturally he believed. Only legends remained, and faith in the words of the synts, also now gone, having grown tired and quiet themselves.
Hatteras walked amongst the final souls in his charge. There would be no more, only these and the final three lighthouse keepers. They were encapsulated in faceted sarcophagi like Muri, awaiting, like she, to join Mother Sun. What had been born from Mother Sun, returned to Mother Sun.
“I am a thousand winds that blow. I am the diamond glints on snow.”
All keepers had their rituals. He’d picked his when he’d first accepted the calling, an ancient verse sung to him by a passionate synt, the last before she had shifted the lighthouse to automatic and grown still.
Pausing between two souls, Hatteras placed a hand on each of their vessels and released them. Doors in the deck dilated and, with a rush of air that ruffled his robes, they dropped away from the cathedral. An instant later, they become streaks of light on their journey home.
Light flashed from the dark above, faint rays erupting from the last three cathedrals still alive, two in orbit ahead of his lighthouse, one behind. This was the foretold day. In hours, all but his would be dark, then his as well.
He turned to look back at Muri, stiffness and stabs of pain in his back stopping him from bringing her into view. She was there, he knew. She waited for him. So much had changed since he’d come to the cathedral. Millenia ago—how could it have been so long—how could it not have been—the darkness between six hundred thousand cathedrals, tethered in a string around Mother Sun’s neck, had blazed with spokes of light, so many were the souls joining with her, returning to her, as her days wound down.
“I am the sunlight on ripened grain. I am the gentle autumn rain.”
He rubbed his neck, quieting the ache, tired from looking upward, as he tried to honor those last few travelers headed home from the cathedrals. All of Mother Sun’s children had come home, and no one knew why. The question would soon go unasked, if not unanswered. Knees cracking, he shuffled to the next two, then the next.
“When you awaken in the morning’s hush, I am the swift uplifting rush…”
And it as done. The dome ahead was empty. Hundreds of sarcophagus bays barren. The expanse behind him the same. For the first time since he’d given himself to her service, the cathedral floor was clear, except for Muri, himself, and the shadows cast by Mother Sun.
Short, calculated steps returned him to Muri’s side and he lowered himself to the floor, resting his head against her vessel. A flash of light, millions of miles away, drew his eye. Another, or had he only imagined it.
Soon. With the synts long quiet, he could not know for sure how long the other keepers would take to arrive. Their systems, as automated as his own, were prone to failure, were they not. If Mother Sun could wind down, so might they.
Behind his ears, his skull pulsed, and he forced himself to breathe, pulling his robes around himself, leaning into Muri. Everything failed. Humanity had spread lightyears into the night, crawling, then flying, amongst the stars, but she had come home, hadn’t she? She had seen all there was to see, done all there was to do.
No one had foretold her return though, not the people, not the synts. No one had known that when Mother Sun’s time grew short, all of her children would look to their skies, on whatever world they lived, lower their burdens, and come home. Was the call in their blood? Their heads? Their hearts? Or the aether that entangled them all?
Hatteras woke. Space beyond the dome was dark and quiet except for Mother Sun. Beside him, three sarcophagi waited, their occupants resting, their faces as gaunt as his own, but their burdens lifted.
Resting a hand on each, he let them go.
“Of quiet birds in circled flight. I am the soft stars that shine at night.”
Only he and Muri remained. He had never understood the calling that had brought them home any more than he understood the calling that had brought him to the cathedral to serve, not until now. Mother Sun had burned so long and so bright, whether she lit their world, or twinkled in their night, of course her children would come home.
Blue light framed Muri’s face and reminded him of her touch as he let a spoke of radiant light take her, his robes billowing one last time.
“Do not stand at my grave and cry;
“I am not there.
“I did not die.”
William R.D. Wood traces his love of science fiction and horror back to a childhood filled with Space: 1999 reruns, visits to the Night Gallery, and a worn-out copy of Dune. His work has appeared in Nature, Daily Science Fiction and Cosmic Horror Monthly. A good day finds him on Virginia's Blue Ridge Parkway with a fully charged laptop and diabolical plans.
Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/stores/William-Wood/author/B004FVPPR8
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