The world broke open when I was seven, and the Bish closed it up again. They repaired my life the way they repaired reactors and turbines and engines—mysteriously, magically. Casually and without explanation. I don’t want to sound ungrateful. I am grateful.
But I have been putting things in order for a while now. Sending notes and giving money. Writing this story, because I think my mother would have wanted me to. I find myself dwelling on that day in particular. The hundreds who died, the ruin and chaos. And all my old heresies are coming back again.
They’re so powerful, the Bish. So able to build and fix and teach. They’re beyond us in every way. But they care for us, or at least they take an interest.
So why did they let it happen? What is power, or knowledge, or even simple technology, if you don’t use them to stop suffering?
They did stop my suffering, and I am grateful. But of course, it’s not as simple as that. Not for me, and not for the Bish. Nothing is ever simple for the Bish.
I was born eighty-seven years ago, in transit between Earth and H377. I was an infant when we arrived, and so was the settlement. My mother carried me out into the blowing red sand, wrapped inside her storm coat. My two older brothers Eric and Walls, also born in transit, she led on a rope.
Our father drove the carrier with the travois—light work by comparison, since my mother would also have had her pack, crammed with as many items as it could hold. Delicate replacement parts for the generators and distillers; dehydrated protein and vitamin supplements; the flash-frozen livestock embryos that needed careful tending and quick transfer to the settlement labs (and still they lost three cows and half the chickens, Mum lamented); seed packets; our own household items, and the one personal effect every family was allowed to bring. For us it was a tiny picture of Jesus Christ, a soft-looking white man with blue eyes and a beard. Pink clouds floated around his shoulders, and he was looking up as if he expected rain. At the bottom of the picture was a sentence, the first one I learned to read.
Love thy neighbor as thyself.
The settlement was raw as bloody beefsteak. We had just three Bish. If I can believe the government men I’ve talked to since, they ran their formulas to decide how many Bish a place needed, then knocked that number in half and that’s what we got. Colonists were expected to work harder than mortals, and to improvise if things went wrong.
Their new home, when my parents first saw it, was a cluster of hermetic fast-canvas Quonset labs and about a hundred cinderblock shelters, laid out on two hundred acres of screaming flatland the color of dried blood. There were zebra-striped pylons to carry the electrical wires. When the wind died down, which it sometimes did, you could hear the pylons buzzing. They sounded like cicadas, although I didn’t know it at the time. I didn’t hear a cicada until almost twenty years later, when I was living here in California.
When the wind died down you could hear everything—the clunk of your neighbor’s shovel in the dirt, the thrum of the energy plant up in the hills, the workers talking in the sewer tunnel beneath First Street. There was nothing to muffle sound. No grass, no bushes, no trees. The houses were naked boxes with press-poly doors and crackling overhead light tubes. There were no barns or stables yet. Those were for us to build, along with outhouses. Which we needed right away, because the government’s sewer line had filled up with sand as soon as it had gone in.
The failure of the sewer line was a nasty surprise—not as bad as what came after, but bad enough in its way. Picture this: you spend seven years on a Bish economy rocket in dead space, headed for a new life in a settlement that might, for all you know, be storm-wrecked or bankrupt or overrun by pirates by the time you get there. You make it there alive, still married, a parent three times over with a brand-new in-transit law degree and a book-based handle on animal husbandry. You’re seven years older and wearier and less hopeful than when you set out. But you’re there, so you screw up your courage and trudge down the ramp into the sandstorm, dragging the kids behind you.
You have a bad moment when it seems like your house is already occupied by a wind-chapped family of six, and the digital chit that holds your claim means nothing in this world of dirt clods and propane tanks. Then, when that’s finally sorted out and you’ve hauled yourself all the way down to the squat concrete building—so small, even after the economies of space travel—that will be your home from now on, you reach the door and see a few words stenciled on the plastic. They’re barely legible due to the constant sanding every surface gets, and they’re not the formal, familiar font of the government. They’re hand-made, blunt and to the point. They read: PLUMBING NIL. DIG SHIT PIT.
“Jesus Christ, Skua,” Mum said, every time she told the story. “All that way, and when we get here there’s no bathroom. I almost lay down and cried.”
Half the settlement, Mum included, postponed their work assignments to serve on the ad hoc sewer teams. You couldn’t use Bish for something as everyday as sewer lines. Besides, the Bish were busy. They were up in the energy plant, making power to run the sewer pumps once we got them installed, and to keep the stables heated once we grew livestock. In those first critical years no Bish left the energy plant at all, and no one expected them to.
When Eric turned ten and Walls was twelve, Dad started taking them to the plant with him. I remember sitting at the kitchen table, asking Walls if the Bish had arms and legs like us. He said of course. I asked did they look like us and he said no, they had white skin and blue eyes and they glowed from the inside.
It wasn’t until a few days later that Mum told me he was making it up, he’d never seen a Bish either. Only a few senior engineers and physicists ever saw the Bish face-to-face, she said. And it wasn’t until I was much older that I realized Walls must have been looking at the picture of Jesus Christ on our wall, the one thing we had that was the least bit foreign or fanciful—and that was how he’d made the Bish look.
I didn’t see a Bish until I was six years old, and I still doubt my memory. The settlement was growing, doing well. There was talk of an official recognition from the government. When the next supply ship arrived, we hoped it might bring us a message of congratulations and a permanent name. People were already quarreling over what our name should be—New Europe had a lot of votes, Mum said, because everyone knew New China was already taken.
There was a party at the government depot, and as the red afternoon wore into night I remember a thrill of excitement going through the room. The Bish were coming, someone said. Not to the party—no one could imagine the Bish drinking mash beer and watching the foot-stomping, hand-clapping dance we were doing—but to the depot. They were going to pass by as a show of support. They’d already started down the hill so they could pass before dark.
There was a crush to the doors. I was shoved around and stepped on until Walls grabbed me and pulled me out onto the dogtrot with him. I remember it was mild. The sky was pink, and up on the hill the energy plant glowed like a silver tiara. The zebra pylons stretched down First Street, buzzing. We had a decent sewer system by that time, all the way under First from one end of town to the other. We had an intercom system between all the houses, and a hundred irrigated acres.
“Here they come,” said Walls. His palm was sweaty.
In my memory they walked, although I’m sure that can’t be true. They must have ridden in the open back of a carrier; they couldn’t have covered the distance so quickly on foot. But I was six years old, and I remember seeing three tall figures walk past the depot dogtrot. I remember their long storm coats, worn with the hoods pulled up, although it wasn’t windy. The crowd had fallen silent, and I remember the dry crunch of their feet on the road.
That’s all I remember—that short, silent passage in front of the depot as dusk was falling. No one said anything until they’d gone by, and then suddenly everyone was whispering, and Walls leaned over and said, “See? I told you they had legs.” His face was lit up with fear and excitement.
That was the last I saw of the Bish until six months later. And even now, I sometimes wish I hadn’t seen them again.
When the next shipment convoy arrived, there was no certificate on board, no government official in a red frogged jacket to pat us all on the back. There was no new name. Instead there was a cargo hold full of half-starved refugees. The settlement on H379 had failed, so the supply ship had picked up as many survivors as it could carry and brought them along to us.
This will sound heartless, but we weren’t glad to see them. They were in terrible shape. They’d somehow survived for six months with no power; God knows what they ate. The ship couldn’t take them all, so almost everyone who made it out had left family behind on the dead planet. I still think about it. If I’d had to leave Eric and Walls behind, if I’d known they were going to linger, and die alone—how could I have borne it? I don’t know how those people did, and I don’t blame them for how they were when they arrived. But they never should have survived in the first place.
At the time I didn’t know any of this, and even the adults were divided. A few said right away we couldn’t support another thirty bodies. There was a protest at the depot, but it was half-hearted. Too many of us felt ashamed of wanting to turn them away. “After all,” I remember a woman saying to my mother, “it could just as easily have been us.”
That night, I heard Mum and Dad talking after we were supposed to be asleep. “It could just as easily be us next,” Mum said. “We don’t have houses for these people, we don’t have food for them. How are they going to live?” I waited for Dad to tell her the Bish would help us make more energy at the plant, or the government would give us more supplies—but he said nothing.
So we got no recognition and no name, just an extra thirty mouths to feed. We were colonists; we’d already waived our rights to fair treatment. After the supply ship left, most people just got back to work. The survivors were farmed out to any family that could take them, which was none of us and all of us.
Our boarder was a bone-thin, blue-eyed white man named Phebes. He’d had the same kind of job as Dad, as a physicist in the energy plant on H379. Dad said he was very clever, but he said it in a guarded way, as if being very clever wasn’t always a good thing. Phebes had hollow cheeks and chapped lips, and he stared at other things while you talked to him, his fingers drumming his knee or the bottom of the table. “Nervous tics,” Mum said. “And no wonder, considering what he’s been through.”
Most nights Phebes and Dad sat at the kitchen table talking about fusion coils and relays until Mum said some people had to get up and grow barley tomorrow. Phebes slept on the kitchen floor, under a blanket taken from Eric and Walls’s bed. Once I got up in the middle of the night and almost stumbled over him. Half-asleep, I thought that Jesus, or maybe a Bish, was sleeping on our floor.
Like most of the survivors, Phebes couldn’t work at first. He made himself useful by babysitting me while Mum was in the greenhouses. He cooked and cleaned and did the small repairs no one else had time for. One afternoon while he was fixing an old heater unit, I thought to ask him about the Bish. They must have had Bish on H379. There were Bish on every settled planet. They were the ones who had taught us to build ships, and led us out from Earth in the first place. It frustrated me that no one would talk about them.
“What do they look like?” I asked, keeping my tablet and stick in my hands so he couldn’t say I wasn’t studying. “Do they have faces?”
He stopped what he was doing, laid the spanner down on the greasy drop cloth, and wiped his palms down his thighs. For a minute I thought he was going to tell me, as adults always did, that I was too young to worry about the Bish. Instead, he said, “Yes.”
We looked at each other. He seemed to be waiting for me to say something.
“Like ours?” I ventured.
“No. Not like ours.”
I pressed the tip of my stick to my tablet, watching the dark dot grow. “Are they scary?”
He took a deep breath and let it out in a kind of laugh. “Yes. I thought so.” Wind walloped the side of the house and he flinched. There was sweat on his upper lip, though it was cold enough that I had two jumpers on.
A thought occurred to me. “Tell me what they’re like and I’ll draw one.”
“You can’t draw them.”
“Yes I can. I’m a good drawer.” I’d been copying Dad’s technical specs since I could hold a stick.
“Nobody can draw them.” He picked up the spanner again and bent over the heater.
I turned to my tablet and drew what I remembered from the day of the party: three tall figures in long storm coats, with hoods over their heads. I turned the tablet to Phebes. “I’ve already seen them, anyway. They look like this.”
He glanced at the tablet. His eyelid had started to tic. “Those aren’t Bish. Those are just the bodies they use.”
“They use bodies to walk around and talk and do work. But the bodies aren’t really them. They’re just...” He studied the heater. “Devices.”
I thought of the long storm cloaks, the grit cracking under their feet. “I saw them.”
“You saw bodies,” he said, bending over the heater. “Not Bish. No one really sees them.”
I stared at my picture for a while, then wiped it from the screen. “What happened to the Bish on your planet?” I asked. “Did they make a mistake?” I didn’t think Bish could make mistakes. “Did they blow up the energy plant?”
Phebes was prying with the spanner at the back of the heater. His thin face and arm were tensed, the cords standing out.
“Why didn’t they come with you on the supply ship?” I asked. Something cracked inside the heater, and Phebes threw the spanner across the room. It bounced off the window and skittered across the floor. I sat still, watching Phebes bury his face in his hands.
After a couple of minutes he sat up, wiping his nose with his forearm. “I’m sorry,” he said, looking at the spanner. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”
I told Eric and Walls about it the next day—that the Bish weren’t really Bish, that Phebes had thrown the spanner. They were doubtful.
“Dad says they’re all half-crazy,” said Walls, “from the trauma. You can’t take them seriously.”
“We saw the Bish,” said Eric. “They had boots on, and gloves.”
“Phebes is scared of them,” I said. Walls scowled.
“What’s there to be scared of? They’re brilliant. We wouldn’t even be here if it wasn’t for them.”
I knew that was true, but I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I remembered the quiet that had fallen over us at the depot, when the only sound was the buzz of the electrical lines and the dry crunch of feet on gravel. I thought of Walls crushing my hand, sweating with fear but still straining to see.
After a couple of weeks Phebes started going to work at the plant with Dad, taking Walls and Eric with them. I was still too young to go, even just to learn basic circuitry like Eric. I had to stay home and watch everyone else lace up their boots and cinch their sleeves closed while the dirty breakfast dishes sat in the sink, waiting for me to run the pressure hose over them.
“I want to come,” I said every morning, as Mum and Dad zipped up their suits. Phebes wore an old one of Dad’s—well, not that old, but one Dad said he could spare. “I hate staying by myself.”
“You can’t come to the plant,” Dad said. “Not until you’re Eric’s age. And you can’t go to the greenhouses either. Authorized personnel only.” He nodded at Mum, who was struggling with her boot. “It looks bad if the boss breaks the rules.”
“Next year,” Mum said, pulling her boot on with a grunt. “Be patient, Skua.”
I sat in the kitchen by myself and sketched Bish on my tablet. Not the three tall figures I remembered, but all kinds of other things. Things I’d seen, like dust devils and stillborn calves. Things from my tablet, that were supposed to exist on Earth—octopi and crocodiles and little four-legged frogs as big as your thumb. And things I’d never seen anywhere, that came to me in the moments between sleep and waking. Something between an electrical filament, an open flame, and a red-faced infant, like the screaming Chopa baby.
“This isn’t going to work,” Mum whispered to Dad late one night, when Phebes was snoring on the kitchen floor. “It doesn’t matter how we do it, there’s not enough to go around.”
“There’s always enough to go around,” Dad said.
“There was enough for us,” Mum said. “Just barely. You know it. We got the bare minimum to start with. Thirty extra people... it’s too much.”
There was a long silence. Phebes, I remember, had stopped snoring.
“I’ve done the math,” Mum said. I could barely hear her, even though the wind had fallen silent. “I’ve done it and done it, Wiri. There’s not enough.”
Not long after that I noticed that there was always just a little less in my bowl than I wanted to eat, and that Mum and Dad were starting to look thin. Dad caught a cold and had to stay home from work. Phebes stood by the front door in Dad’s old storm coat, his hands fussing with the fastenings although they were already closed.
“I can come back at lunchtime,” he said to my mother, who was boiling water for Dad’s tea. “I can bring a doctor.”
“It’s just a cold,” she told him. “He’ll be fine—you go on.”
Phebes lingered. His cheek and eyelid were both jumping, as if there were a flea under his skin. Finally he opened the door to the howling wind, and went out bent almost double.
“And on top of everything,” Mum said, bringing Dad his tea, “the sewers lines are backing up again. We’re going to have to dig another trunk line.”
“Black gold,” said Dad, winking at me.
“Sometimes,” said Mum, carrying our bowls to the sink and standing eye-to-eye with Jesus Christ, “I wish the bloody Bish would come down off their hill and lend a hand.”
I spent that day at home with Dad, happy to have an excuse to ignore my lessons. I made tea and porridge, and crawled into his bed to nap with him. When he woke up he looked better. He taught me a song about a meat grinder, and tied a doll out of the corner of the sheet. I remember he had a little grey in his hair, just around his ears. He was thirty-eight years old.
Mum came home, then Eric and Walls, who’d gone to the plant with Mrs. Chopa. Together they made dinner, chattering and laughing while Dad sat wrapped in jumpers and scarves at the kitchen table. Finally Mum looked at the clock with a frown. “Where’s Phebes?”
“Working late,” Dad guessed, but he got up to use the intercom. We all watched as he asked if Phebes was in the energy lab. “No,” he said. “He’s not here.”
“Maybe the depot,” Mum suggested. People went to the depot to drink, or to have meetings. Dad called, but no-one had seen Phebes there either.
We stood in silence while the wind tore round the eaves. Outside the plexi window it was dark.
“He might be driving back,” Dad said. “Let’s give him a little while.”
We went on making dinner, but we were subdued now. I saw Walls give Eric a funny look. They both looked at Dad.
“We saw him going into the reactor room,” Walls said. “Where the Bish are.”
Dad said nothing. Walls added, “We weren’t spying. He was acting funny.”
“Funny how?” said Mum. She’d put down the frying pan and turned to face them.
“Talking to himself,” said Eric. “Saying numbers.”
“He’s a physicist,” Dad said. “Physicists work with numbers.” Mum gave him a sideways look. “And it’s his job to be in the reactor room.”
“He was twitching,” Walls said.
“Of course he was,” said Dad. “He has post-traumatic stress disorder. They all do. It doesn’t mean he’s not a good scientist.”
“I don’t know,” said Mum. “The boys think they saw something.”
“No witch hunts,” said Dad. “Let’s sit down and eat dinner. Phebes will come back on his own.”
We ate and tidied up quietly. It was only much later, when I was already in bed, that I heard the front door open and close, and heard Dad murmuring with Phebes in the kitchen. Whatever they said, I couldn’t hear it.
When I woke up the next day Dad had already taken Eric and Walls to work, to make up for his sick day. Phebes was gone too, and Mum was getting into her heaviest, grubbiest storm clothes.
“We’re digging sewer lines today, Skua,” she told me. “You can come along, but bring your lessons with you.”
I was so glad to be allowed out, I didn’t mind that it was what we called a “breezy” morning, with the wind blasting sand and pebbles down First Street. Mum kept hold of my storm coat, waving to Mrs. Chopa as we passed her on her way up to the plant. We went up as far as the depot, where a group of zebra pylons stood off to the side of the road. Next to them was a giant hole in the ground. I went up to the edge and peered in to see the concrete forms inside, holding up the tunnel beneath First Street. The first tunnel had been too small—it had filled up with silt and shit and nobody had been able to get inside to mend it. This tunnel was five feet around and clean as a whistle.
Mum tapped my shoulder and pointed to the depot, telling me to go inside. I went in. A few other kids were already sitting by the propane generator. I sat with my friend Mundi Shao – funny how I remember full names – and we played Beggarman Thief.
After a while the wind died down and Mr. Shao came in for a cup of tea, clapping dust out of his coat. I pulled out my tablet and turned it on, but something was wrong. There was a long string of strange figures on the screen. It made no sense to me and when I tried to delete it the button wouldn’t work. I pressed it over and over, but it stayed. Finally I went outside and called for Mum.
She was inside the tunnel, and she came out annoyed. “What’s the matter?”
“There’s something on my tablet,” I said. “It won’t come off.”
“Honestly, Skua.” She came up to the depot porch and took the tablet from me. For a minute she stared at it. Then she looked at me. The wind had died down again, the way it did a few times a day. It was just strong enough to move her coat tails. The sky was pink and fine.
“Where did you get this?”
“It was just there.”
She touched the screen with her dirty fingertip, then pulled it away as if it were hot. “Skua,” she said. “Go tell Mr. Ocampo to call the energy plant.”
“Tell them something’s wrong with the reactor.” She pushed me toward the door, then seized my shoulder. “No, wait. I’ll go.”
She turned away and yelled for Suri, the woman on the excavator. “Get everyone inside!”
Everyone had stopped work to watch us. I grabbed Mum’s coat and clung, so that I was dragged with her as she ran into the depot.
“Natal,” she said, “call the plant. Something’s wrong with the reactor.”
Mr. Ocampo stared at her, then went to the radio. While we stood watching, he put on the headset and called the plant.
“Is anything wrong?” he asked. He listened. “Ngaio Hall says so.” He looked at Mum. “All clear,” he said. “No problems.”
Mum took the headset and asked for Dad. When he finally came on, she “Wiri, there are equations on Skua’s tablet. They look all wrong.” She paused, listening. “I’ve seen enough maths to know when something’s fucked, Wiri. It must be Phebes. He’s trying to...” She glanced at the tablet again. “It’s like he’s trying to do Bish maths.”
She listened again, then nodded. “Okay,” she said. “Be careful.” She hung up.
“Get everyone away from the windows,” she said to Mr. Ocampo.
And then the world exploded.
I was knocked down, still clinging to Mum’s storm coat. Something heavy hit me across the back. I saw my tablet on the floor beside me, its screen cracked and blank. At first it was silent, and then everyone was screaming.
Mum grabbed me, hauled me up, and ran for the door. There was a gigantic whump, and we fell out onto the porch together. Mum grabbed me again. My ears felt full of cotton. The side of my face was hot. The sky was white. Mum shoved me along the porch and down into the dirt, then into a great black hole in the ground. The sewer tunnel, I realized.
“Run,” she said—although she must have screamed it. I turned and ran into the black. I had no torch. I couldn’t hear. I ran stooped over with my hands out in front of me, away from the light at the tunnel’s mouth. The sky had been white. I’d never seen the sky white before.
After a while I realized I was running through muck as high as my shins, and the air stank of shit. I stopped, afraid I was lost. It was pitch black in the tunnel, and all I could hear was the ringing in my ears. I called out for Mum, but I couldn’t hear my own voice.
We lost two reactors that day. Three hundred and sixty people died. Later we learned someone had done something strange in the reactor room, probably trying to boost the power. Whether it was Phebes, I’ll never know for sure. It’s never really mattered to me, because Phebes was dead. And so were Dad and Walls and Eric, and everyone else who’d been near the plant that day.
Almost fifty people got into the sewer tunnels, and another sixty or so survived in the stables and in the houses farthest away from the hill. The greenhouses were shattered, and lots of people died inside them. It was just lucky, Mum said later, that she’d been digging shit pits that day.
For a while she thought she’d lost me too. I’d run so far into the tunnel, and it took me so long to make my way back out, that she thought I’d been trampled. When I finally crawled out she was wandering around the mouth of the tunnel, grabbing kids and wiping at their faces, trying over and over to find me. I was stunned, half-deaf, covered in shit, but she wrapped her storm coat around me and squeezed me till it hurt.
We sent an SOS, and stayed alive until a supply ship came for us. They were the worst months of my life. There was only one reactor left, and it kept failing. Most of the physicists had died in the blast, and everyone was afraid of the radiation in the ruins. Of the radiation, and of the Bish.
The Bish hadn’t died. They hadn’t come down, either. They were still up there keeping the last reactor on line, even though half the hill had been blown away and the silver tiara was a mangled clump. For all the months we waited for rescue, the Bish stayed in the ruins, wringing trickles of power out of the reactor. They never sent any word down the hill to us, no questions or condolences, no encouragement or blame. They were like ants, Mum said later. More like God, I thought, later still.
That might have been the end of my story, or near enough. People like us, if we were lucky, the government hauled us on to the next colony and dumped us there. If that had happened, I feel sure I wouldn’t be telling this story. I would have died long ago of starvation and exposure, overwork and heartbreak. I would have given up, as I know others did.
But it wasn’t the end. There was something else.
We got a signal that a ship was coming. Early on the morning it was due to arrive, the ringing in my ears was so bad it woke me up before dawn. Mum and I were alone in the house, except for Jesus Christ. All we had left for food was a bit of barley bread. I soaked a crust in a cup of filtered water and stood chewing it, studying Jesus. It seemed like just the day before that Walls had told me what the Bish looked like—pale skin, blue eyes, an inner glow. And didn’t Phebes still sleep on our kitchen floor? I was always surprised to look down and see the big crack in the foundation where he’d lain.
As I stood chewing I realized the wind had died. The windows showed a bit of pink light. I went to the front door and pulled on my boots, then Eric’s old storm coat. It wasn’t too big anymore.
I sat on a zebra pylon outside our house, chewing my crust. The pylon lights were dead, but the wind had dropped so low I could see all the way up to the other end of First Street. Three figures were walking toward me.
They wore long storm coats with the hoods pulled up, heavy boots, and gloves. As they drew near I could hear the gritty sound of their feet in the dirt. The world seemed to hold itself still, waiting. They came even with me, and stopped.
I couldn’t think of anything to say. They weren’t coming with us, I knew that much. The Bish didn’t travel on supply ships.
Then the one in the middle raised its hands and pulled its hood back, and I saw it had Phebes’s face. Not quite Phebes’s face—not perfectly. Phebes, I knew, had been obliterated by the blast. Not even ashes were left. But this body had a face that was very close to his, with blue eyes and pale skin, hollow cheeks and a long nose. It was only off in a few degrees, the kinds of minor mis-measurements that an artist might make in the process of learning how to draw. Or a sculptor, working a material just a little too stiff to ever be true to life.
I stared at the Bish—its body, its device—and then at the two behind it. I didn’t want to know who they looked like.
Maybe they understood that, because they didn’t lower their hoods. The Bish that looked like Phebes took something from its pocket and held it out. It looked like a polished stone. I stared at it. The Bish moved its gloved hand closer.
I started to reach for the stone, then drew back. The Bish offered it again. I held out the crust, which was mostly gone anyway. The Bish took the crust off my palm without looking at it. I took the stone. It wasn’t a stone, I could feel that right away. It was cool and heavy and smooth, but it wasn’t a stone.
Then the Phebes-Bish raised its hood again, and all three of them turned and walked back up First Street, straight through town, all the way up to the ruins. A few people came out of the depot and watched them go by.
I put the not-stone in my pocket, and went inside to pack.
We’d been on the supply ship twelve days when I started having dreams. At first they were always the same. Strings of numbers, punctuation marks, strange signs I didn’t recognize. I tried ignoring them, but they didn’t go away. I started copying them into a tablet someone gave me. One day Mum looked at it, and came running to find me.
“Who did this?” she asked, shaking me by my shoulders until my teeth clacked. “Skua, who wrote this in your tablet?”
I told her I had done it. She didn’t believe me, so I wrote it out again. I could see it all clearly in my mind, even when I was awake. It went on and on, there was no end to it. Mum took me to the ship’s captain, and again I had to write it out, line after line. My hand hurt. I started to cry.
“How old is she?” the captain asked, and Mum picked me up and marched us straight back down to the tenement holds.
They sent it all off to Earth, and got back excited responses: it was Bish mathematics, more advanced than any they’d seen. They wanted more. The captain wanted to move us into the officers’ quarters, where I could write all day. He wanted the ship’s medical team to evaluate me. And Mum, thank God, remembered that she was a lawyer.
She told him that our liability waivers were only binding for the venture on H377, that due to the failure of the enterprise we were free agents with the option to buy out the remainder of our contracts, and that anyone who tried to separate me from my legal guardian would be hit with a suit so hard it would knock their teeth down their throat. The captain said that was fine, but if we didn’t have the capital to buy out our contracts, he’d set us down on H375 in a couple of weeks so we could serve them out. Mum didn’t flinch.
“Skua’s writing fluent Bish,” she said. “You’re not going to drop her on a rock seven years from Earth. You’re going to take us both back there, and you’re going to stay out of my way while I make the arrangements.” And that’s exactly what he did.
It took seven years to get back to Earth. Seven years I spent learning to read the language behind my eyelids, to understand its flow even if I never got its meaning. I wrote an hour a day, no more. Mum read it, then passed it to the captain, who sent it ahead to Earth. After just one year, they said they’d boosted reactor outputs by a hundred percent.
How can I describe what it was like to see Earth for the first time? I was almost fifteen years old, and I’d spent my whole life in dust and space. When I finally stepped out onto the heat-blackened tarmac at the Houston Spacefield, I couldn’t believe the color of the sky. Blue as Jesus Christ’s eyes, I thought.
Mum and I moved to California, to this little wooden house overlooking the ocean. We lived together thirty years, until she died of a heart attack out in the garden. I stayed put and kept writing. I’ve written forty volumes of Bish for the government, an hour a day, no more. They built the Atlantic wind farms from a set of equations I wrote when I was twenty-one.
It wasn’t as simple as that, of course. After a while it wasn’t just maths I was dreaming. It was their space, the way they move, like sand through a sieve. Their time, which is different from ours. Their energy makers, their baby stars and heat sinks. Their strange inarticulable minds, their incomprehensible desires.
I probably know more about the Bish than anyone else on the planet, or off it. And I know something else. I know what Phebes was trying to tell me, all those years ago. It was that the Bish aren’t human, and standing too close to them could make you less human too.
I have been standing close to the Bish for more than seventy years.
I sleep less these days, but I dream more. When I wake up I see a dizzy flicker of something, like an afterimage from staring into the sun. Something between an open flame and a bare filament. A little longer every day. I can feel my world cracking again, the old fissures opening.
The government took the not-stone away from me a long time ago. I think they were disappointed when it didn’t work for anyone else, and I just kept on writing. I can see it all just as clearly as I can see the grey hair above my father’s ear, or Walls shrugging into his storm coat, or my mother hanging Jesus Christ on the wall above our sink. As clearly as I’ll see the true face of the Bish, sometime in the not-too-distant future.
Bish don’t die, not the way we do. They carry on, somehow. And I’ve become so close to them over the years, I think death won’t end me either. That’s what the not-stone was for, I think. Not only to teach, but to induct.
I’m afraid, of course. Afraid, but also strangely angry. I see my mother carrying me out into that blood-red sandstorm, frightened and resolute. What can we ever prepare ourselves for? Only details. I’m past details. I’m only waiting now, for my world to break open. If there is anything left of me I intend to grab hold of the ineffable and shake it, and demand an explanation.