Your guidebook says: Do not ask which ships the lighthouse guides. It’s the same old joke everyone makes when they come, and the sisters who care for their prophetess Quvenle will not laugh. The other pilgrims will not laugh. You will not feel any less uncomfortable, and you’ll feel silly for selling your house and all the memories left inside to buy your passage. To reach the edge of known space, you have shed it all—your job, the house, everyone who knows your name. Everyone has doubts here at the end of the line.
The lighthouse is a needle nearly black, visible only because of the nearby binary star system. Its builders died long before humans walked out of the primordial sea, and they took their secrets with them. It transmits a radio pulse every eighteen minutes, in every direction, and no scholar or theologian has ever been able to explain how that works. If you are watching from the porthole of a docking ship right when a pulse goes out, you can see the point of the needle glow red. This is why it is called the lighthouse. It’s good luck for a pilgrim to see the light—stories say this means you’ll find what you came for.
You don’t know what you came for and it doesn’t matter, because you miss the light. You’re bent over your guidebook instead, trying to reason yourself out of this.
• • • •
When Quvenle the Seer was Quvenle the Explorer, she found the lighthouse. She has told no one what happened when she docked and entered, but she survived in the obsidian halls for four years and only emerged long after everyone had given her up for dead. The lighthouse has bestowed upon her and her alone the gift of sight.
Your first day, your guidebook says, you will encounter someone weeping.
You are sitting downstairs eating plain rice and fried banana with chopsticks. The lighthouse provides only for the seer, and so the sisters grow what they can in improvised hydroponics bays. After the food is served, a woman returns from the upstairs halls and sits beside you. She bursts into tears before her first bite.
You are eating your rice grain by grain to try to soothe the twisting pain in your chest that’s been there for two years, sixteen days, and eight hours (this count in your head never goes away) but you drop your chopsticks and put your arm around her. Her crying is the only sound in the entire hall and it’s profane. Her whole body shudders. Quake after quake after quake.
“I knew it,” she says. “She said I’d die of the same thing my mother did, no matter what I do to stop it. It’s coming soon.”
She presses her hands into her eyes and they leave red palm-prints on her cheeks. When she laughs, it’s the sound of a dam bursting. “I knew it, but no one believed me.”
You lower your arm. She digs into her banana, relishing in the contentment of surety.
• • • •
On the second day, your guidebook says, you will think about leaving.
You stand in the docking bay pressed up against the glassy wall in the shadow of an archway, as if will keep you and your lack of courage hidden, watching those who have already met the prophet board. One woman brought her child, an infant swaddled in dark blue cloth embroidered like the star-dotted emptiness right beyond the hatch. She holds him close and coos into his curling hair like he needs soothing, but he is startlingly, inhumanly quiet. You wonder if she ascended to the seer’s chamber with him, if Quvenle knelt close and whispered into his ears. What would a child who had heard the future before he could speak grow into? You never had children, but now you wonder what yours would have looked like, what you would have whispered to them to get them to sleep.
All at once, it’s too much. You turn away from the shuttle. One of the caretaker-sisters is watching in the hall and your eyes catch. She is silent, of course. Two days here and you have heard only one of them speak, and only when it was necessary. They smile painfully, like a storm breaking still water.
The sister holds her hand out towards the shuttle. An offering. Go home, if you like. You turn your face away.
This is not a test. The lighthouse holds no trials. There are no desert-crossings, no riddles, no sacrifices to be made. No three-headed monsters to fight, no prayers to speak, no weighing of hearts. No one is turned away.
When you watch the shuttle doors close, it still feels like a test. You could leave. You could go home, build a new life on the splintered remains of the old. You do not have to hear what Quvenle sees ahead for you.
When you watch the shuttle take off, thrusters glowing as blue as that sky that you remember like a dream now, something like old scar tissue or the last of your fears tears itself free. The sister is waiting for you, and you follow her back into the lighthouse.
• • • •
Quvenle cannot tell if your baby will have blue eyes. She can’t tell you how to earn your fortune or whether your mother’s marriage to a third husband will go well. She prophesizes only catastrophe—rare cancers, a child’s death, tragedies that split your life in two. Pilgrims come for reassurance, to know that their deepest fears are valid.
On the third day, you ascend. You turn over your offering: two chickens preserved cryogenically at great expense. Livestock can’t stand the lighthouse. Raised here, the chickens would go mad before their first laying. Cows refuse to stand and give milk like sour yogurt. Pilgrims bring animal protein, to be rationed out like sugar in wartime.
A sister walks you up the winding stairs to an open hatch. A sign instructs you to bend your knees and jump. For an instant gravity grabs for your feet and your stomach lurches, then its hold stretches, strains, and finally snaps. You float into the darkness where Quvenle waits cross-legged, drifting.
When you come close, she takes your hands and your frictionless spin stills. She touches your temples with her thumbs. Her hands are as cold as the blackglass walls of the lighthouse, as cold as the vacuum itself. This is not at all like being touched by a person, though it’s been a long time since you have sought anyone’s touch. For the first time, you shiver.
You hold your breath until her hands fall back into her lap. She turns one palm up on one thigh, and then the other. There’s no sound here. You can’t even hear the beat of your own heart.
“I see nothing. You will live a life of perfectly ordinary happiness.”
When you cry, your tears spin around you in dewdrops. Two years, nineteen days, and six hours ago, you would’ve found this beautiful. Now it reminds you of a hospital room, a phone call that nothing could be done, a grave, the ring on your necklace that matches the one on your hand. “Please. I must be dying.”
You’re only thirty-five. You have so much more unbearable time. Now you understand why you came. You wanted someone to tell you this would be over soon.
“Daughter.” She looks no older than you. Rumor is when she dies the sisters will take her thumbs and her eyes for reliquaries. After your wife died, you signed papers to have her corneas transplanted, to have her brain sliced microns thin and studied. No one will remember her name, though you wake up every morning with it in your mouth. “This is only pain. Not death.”
“You could choose to die.”
You shake your head.
“You see? Then you’ve chosen to live.” She squeezes your hands. Comfort rituals, muscle memory, half-forgotten. This comes from the still-human part of her and not the part of her that is the lighthouse, and that is why you start to believe it. “Go home. I’ve promised you an ordinary life. Find it.”
She releases you and you drift toward the hatch. When gravity takes hold again you fall flat on your back in the hall and lay there on the glistening stone while your body relearns mass and momentum. A different sister waits a polite distance away. When you stop shaking, she takes you to the cafeteria, where you cry silently into a bowl of rice and string beans just like you said you wouldn’t.
A new pilgrim watches you with wide eyes. He finds you later that night in the corridors and corners you between the bathrooms and your bed. He smells salty, like fear. Tomorrow, you know, he will linger in the docking bay while you climb onto the shuttle and choose his path. “Did you find what you wanted?”
“Yes,” you tell him, even though it might not be true. All you have is a return ticket to a place you weren’t sure you would ever want to see again and the possibility of an unknown future. One step out of the dark.