science fiction and fantasy writer

The Dao of Stones



The first time the shi-ren came to Yin Xi, it found him picking lettuces in the eastern greenhouse dome. He was engrossed in his task and it was several moments before he noticed the other standing expectantly a few feet away.

Remaining seated on his stool, Yin Xi spun himself around to face it, brushing dirty hands on his apron before he flicked the translator patch on his collar.

The shi-ren was a runt of its kind, barely four-feet high to the top of the protuberance that passed for its head. Its cylindrical torso rested on several dozen locomotive toes, which investigated the bare stone floor like a nest of fat worms. Six spindly, multi-jointed arms were tucked neatly into its sides while its four eyestalks scanned the greenhouse, following the movements of other human workers along the aisles between the planter troughs.

The shi-ren’s low stature and its variegated blue-and-purple carapace – most locals were coppery or bronze-green in colour – led Yin Xi to guess that it was a foreigner or recent immigrant.

Technically, ‘it’ was a ‘he’, Yin Xi knew, but he could never quite manage to think of the mindless, coral-like flower pods that the shi-ren tended in their rock-pool gardens as ‘females’.

“Hello rock,” he said.

The two nearest eyestalks focused on him. The shi-ren replied in its own language, grating and clicking like a radiation counter. Yin Xi’s collar patch burbled a translation. “Am other-self Yintzu?”

Yin Xi winced at the translator’s mangled syntax. The patches were supposedly state-of-the-art, but he always felt they made the shi-ren sound like primitive AIs from those execrable historical adventure sims the children were always playing.

He was surprised to be named. Personal names were a concept that the shi-ren struggled with, since they didn’t use them among themselves.

 “I am Yin Xi,” he said, “I do not presume to claim the title of ‘master’.”

The shi-ren rustled its arms quizzically. “Why not, when other human-selves apply label to other-self?”

“While I accept the choice of others to label me as they will, a label cannot set me above others. One cannot truly aspire to enlightenment if one sets one’s self apart so.”

Yin Xi knew that he was being perverse, but at his age and after so many decades of bullying students into thinking for themselves, perversity was habitual. In any case, he enjoyed seeing what shi-ren made of his cryptic responses. Having never seen a non-human sapient until he left Wangwei, he remained fascinated by the shi-ren to an extent that most of his compatriots on Hai found mildly eccentric.

“Hypothesis that one cannot acquire knowledge so long as one accepts separateness of identity appears flawed,” the shi-ren clacked.

So, Yin Xi thought, a philosopher. “Enlightenment is not the same as knowledge,” he countered. “Knowledge is a phenomenological map of the universe. Enlightenment transcends phenomena.”

The shi-ren made a rapid chittering noise that the patch was unable to translate. Yin Xi guessed the sound equated somewhat to a harrumph of dissatisfaction. Watching it wriggle its toes and jiggle its arms, he surmised that it was working its way along the probable trajectory of their discussion: foreseeing, as he did, the mutual befuddlement that so often resulted when humans and shi-ren attempted philosophical discourse.

With another ‘harrumph’ and a shiver of its arms, the shi-ren changed tack.

“One-self curious,” it said, “One-self heard that other-self a great teacher of the Way. One-self wishes to acquire knowledge.”

Yin Xi’s interest pricked. This was not a line of inquiry he had encountered before from shi-ren. “How do you propose to acquire such knowledge?”

“Other-self will tell self.”

Yin Xi suppressed a smile. “Ah, but the Way that can be spoken is not the true Way.”

The shi-ren’s toes froze.

Its eyestalks slowly extended to their full length and went rigid. It raised its arms, then banged them loudly against its sides. At the same time, it emitted a rude blattering sound. It was as close to a display of anger as Yin Xi had ever seen a shi-ren come.

It picked itself up on its toes and scuttled away. Yin Xi scratched his goatee as he watched it go, then shrugged and returned to his lettuces.


The second time the shi-ren came to Yin Xi, he was outside, down by the sea.

He sat cross-legged on his favourite ledge above the retreating tide. The breeze plucked at the quilted fabric of his robes and played with the wispy hair that fringed the naked dome of his head. The rumble of the waves shivered up through the rock and into his bones, in time with the rhythmic crash-and-hiss that reported in his ears.

Something tiny skittered behind him in search of even tinier prey.

He opened his eyes. The vast, orange and rust arc of Liyuan touched the horizon. He watched the planet slowly set through the punctuating plumes of his breath, majestic and unattainable, drawing the waters of Hai along in its wake.

Yin Xi’s reverie was penetrated by awareness that he was no longer alone. He glanced over his shoulder and once again found the shi-ren standing behind him.

With its arms extended to bask in the sunlight, it looked like an animated silicon tree stump. Its toes fidgeted with the pebbles and other flotsam at its base while it waited for his acknowledgement.

 Yin Xi shifted himself around and flicked his collar patch. “Hello, rock.”

The shi-ren lowered its arms and extruded its eyestalks.

“Other-self’s language is inadequate,” it said.

Yin Xi frowned, not understanding.

The shi-ren evidently recognised the expression. It explained, “If Way that can be spoken is not true Way, then other-self’s language is inadequate.”

Yin Xi chuckled, then roared with laughter. He slapped his thigh and quoted: “‘Those who speak do not know, those who know are silent; I heard this saying from the old gentleman. If the gentleman was one who knew the Way, how was he able to write five thousand words?

“So said Bai Juyi, regarding the Great Master and his book.”

The shi-ren’s eyestalks twitched, a blink. Yin Xi waited, wondering if it could make the leap to understanding. After a while it ventured cautiously, “Other-self agrees?”


The shi-ren relaxed and resumed tossing pebbles between its toes. “Why does other-self sit here?”

Feeling mischievous, Yin Xi smiled and in expansive tones replied:

“‘You ask what reason I stay on the green mountain,

I smile, but do not answer, my heart is at leisure.

Peach blossom is carried far off by flowing water,

Apart, I have heaven and earth in the human world.’”

The shi-ren’s eyestalks contracted almost completely: a sign it was thinking fiercely, Yin Xi knew. Translation of his response would have been instantaneous. Shi-ren augmented their silicate brains in much the same way that humans might load new programs onto a dryware processor, without need for the implants and devices that humans used to augment their own wetware systems.

After a considerable pause, the shi-ren said, predictably, “Other-self are not sitting on a phenomenon to which the label ‘mountain’ would be applied.”

Yin Xi laughed again.

 “But I am,” he said, “even though most of it is under the water. We sit atop one of the greatest peaks in all the world, so high it even breaks the surface of the waves when the tide is low.”

“Hmmph. Other-self’s semantic flexibility is distraction. Self does not need label for fissure in the ground in order to recognise that one-self will get stuck if self falls into it,” the shi-ren replied, causing Yin Xi to reflect that its kind were as well equipped for sarcasm as any human. Pedantically, it added, “Other-self’s ‘mountain’ is not green, nor is there detection of ‘peach blossom’ in this location.”

Yin Xi sighed, amused. On the colony worlds they inhabited together, humans and shi-ren had found a state of what he thought of as ‘perfect alien-ness’. They were neither too similar nor too different to bring them into conflict and lived their parallel lives in a state of mutually bemused tolerance. It was only when individuals tried to bridge the culture gap that aggravation arose.

“It is poetry,” he said, “Written long ago by a person named Li Bai, during the High Tang period of Old Zhongguo. It is meant to convey feelings, which are able to bridge the gulf of time and space where the poem’s literal description cannot. The poet alone on his mountain is at one with his world, as I am when I sit here alone on this ledge.”

The shi-ren absorbed this in thoughtful silence. Yin Xi let his attention wander while it mused.

Behind the shi-ren, rock shelves rose erratically to a low peak, where the translucent domes of the settlement clung. Before the domes, human gatherers harvested seaweeds and fossicked for leafy worms and liar crabs and other crawling delicacies, while down by the edge of the surf, a handful of shi-ren pottered about in their leeward gardens.

“You are a student of humankind?” he asked, after a time.

“One-self is,” the shi-ren affirmed. “Have journeyed many twelves of years since leaving world of birth. Some twelves of years have lived among humans. Have studied Xian-ren immortality cult on Shihuangdi. Have studied collectivism of Han Commune on Maotzu and Lunari of ship-worlds. These one-self have studied and comprehend, although foundations of human belief and contortions of rationality are bizarre to self.”

With an agitated flick its arms, the shi-ren continued, “Yet understanding of Way has been denied. In contrast to investigations of other society-forms, one-self have experienced active impediment to acquisition of knowledge from informants regarding Way, for example, by Yintzu-self.”

“Words can only explain,” Yin Xi replied. “The Way is a matter of enlightenment, rather than knowledge. It cannot be explained.”

“Define enlightenment. How does self acquire?”

“Enlightenment is what lies at the end of the rainbow, and there are many roads to it. Like the roads to the rainbow, the paths to enlightenment have no end.”

The shi-ren shuffled its toes in sequence, indicating uncertainty. It was a gesture that reminded Yin Xi uncannily of a nervous human child hopping from one foot to the other before their stern-faced schoolmaster.

“One-self wishes to acquire,” it repeated.

Yin Xi frowned to himself. It would be specist to reject the possibility out of hand, he thought, although he had no idea whether shi-ren psychology was compatible enough to assimilate a human concept of ‘enlightenment’. He rather suspected not. Then again, this particular individual exhibited a scientific curiosity about humans that was comparable to human xeno-sapientologists.

In fact, he realised, the shi-ren was actually an anthropologist. Yin Xi enjoyed the irony of that, in an age when humans had largely abandoned the study of each other in favour of more clearly externalised Others.

Besides, he chided himself, if the philosophy of the Way were truly universal, then any sapient being, human or otherwise, should be able to find a path to enlightenment.

He said, “Let me consider the matter, rock, of how best I might assist you. I will seek you out.”

The shi-ren dipped its head as much as it was able and splayed its arms slightly, imitating a human bow. Without turning around, it trundled away, leaving Yin Xi to his meditation.


The third time Yin Xi spoke to the shi-ren, he found it in the tideward rock-pool gardens with its fellows.

It was low tide, a Late Sun Day, with only the sun and a handful of Hai’s fellow moons standing high in the sky. The edge of Liyuan’s orb had just crested the horizon. Yin Xi climbed the stepped path from the docks to the domes, a tally book tucked under his arm. A procession of younger townsfolk trudged ahead of him, bearing cartons of goods: crafts and produce from other settlements; manufactured goods brought down the space elevator. A second procession passed in the other direction, bearing the town’s produce and other trade goods for the junk’s return journey.

Yin Xi paused to look down at the shi-ren in their garden.

Their numerous toes operated like caterpillar tracks as they moved around and through the breeding pools, their torsos tipping at precarious angles over the steep rocks. They moved around each other without ever getting in each other’s way, even though each was apparently absorbed in its own, self-appointed tasks.

Half-grown juveniles worked among the adults with varying degrees of diligence. The youngest rarely applied themselves to any task for long. Every so often, a few of would race around the pools, in hectic pursuit of nothing that was visible to Yin Xi – perhaps in simple excitement at being outside.

Very young males were kept inside, along with the very old, under gentle light condensers in the nutrient rich ponds of the northeast dome. They were carried there at the time they detached from their mothers and remained until they were strong enough to reliably anchor themselves against the tide.

Yin Xi’s recent interlocutor was easy to pick out among its bronzed native-born companions.

He had given its request a great deal of thought over the last few days. He returned to worrying at the problem as he watched the shi-ren now.

Getting nowhere at all, he thought. That there was a path to the Way for any sapient being did not mean that he, Yin Xi, could necessarily identify it.

On a sudden impulse, he hurried up the path and fell into step beside the rearmost of the stevedores. The man was one of the sons of the Wang family, he saw.

“Wang Yangming,” Yin Xi said, “I have a difficulty, on which I would like your advice.”

Wang was a burly, slow-spoken man who rarely offered his opinions but was – Yin Xi knew, having tutored him as a child – secretly pleased to be asked for them.

“Of course, Master Yin.”

 “Brother Wang,” said Yin Xi, “You are an enlightened man…”

 “Thank you, Master Yin.”

 “Quite. A shi-ren has come to me with a request that I am unsure how to answer.”

“Don’t have a lot of dealings with the rocks myself,” said Wang, after a moment’s consideration. Yin Xi waited, hearing the unspoken ‘but’ at the end of the sentence. After a long pause, Wang continued, “But when I have a problem like that, where I’m not sure where to start – like the ones you used to give us in school – I just start trying things I already know, just to be doing something, you see? And then I go from…”

Yin Xi had stopped in his tracks, his face fallen into an expression of chagrined revelation.

“Thank you, Brother Wang,” he said, faintly.

The younger man glanced briefly over his shoulder. Seeing his advice was no longer required, he continued on his way.

Yin Xi realised he had never let go of his initial assumption that the matter was one of unprecedented difficulty. He had fallen unconsciously into an old pattern of trying to intellectually solve the problem before he acted.

Enlightenment is spontaneous, you old fool, not premeditated.

Shaking his head at his own folly, he left the path and marched down to the shi-ren gardens. He picked his way to the pool where the anthropologist was working. He paused to let a pair of shi-ren pass, hatchlings cradled in their hands. The anthropologist looked up at his approach. Yin Xi squatted at the edge of the water, knees creaking as he did so.

“Hello, rock.”

“Hello, Yintzu-self.”

The shi-ren continued what it was doing. All six of its arms worked under the water, picking dirt and small crustaceanoids from the coral-like stems. The females responded to its touch by flicking exploratory tongues from their numerous orifices. It was a mindless reflex, but one the shi-ren seemed to enjoy, trailing its fingers through the questing tentacles.

“Rock,” said Yin Xi, “I will give you what meagre assistance I am able.”

“Self have gratitude,” it said.

Yin Xi held up a warning hand. “First, you must recognise the truth of what I have already said: that there are many paths to find the Way. The path I have found is what works for me. It may not work for you. Likely it will not, in fact, since our natures are alien.”

The shi-ren dipped its eyestalks, ceding to Yin Xi’s wisdom.

Yin Xi cast about himself, seeking inspiration. With an exclamation of triumph he picked up a nearby pebble. He held it out for the shi-ren to see. “Now tell me, rock, what do you see in my hand?”

The shi-ren extended its eyestalks to examine the pebble more closely. It reached out a dripping arm and carefully lifted it from Yin Xi’s palm. It rubbed the smooth surface with sensitive, tentacular fingers.

Dropping the stone back into Yin Xi’s hand, it said, “Identified substance as being of volcanic origin; approximately…” The translator paused while the shi-ren chattered on, needing a moment to convert dodecimal fractions into a percentage figure, “65.82% silica, with moderate amounts sodium and potassium, estimates processing; self estimates mass at approximately…” Another pause for number conversion, “0.17 kilograms; given dimensions, specific density approximately…”

Yin Xi held up a finger in a gesture the shi-ren recognised as requesting silence. He said, “It is a pebble. It is worn to a pleasing roundness by the sea. It fits comfortably in my hand and it is warm from the sun. Which of us is right?”

The shi-ren blinked. Its fingers curled tightly for a moment, a gesture somewhere between a shrug and a grimace of frustration. The shi-ren said, “One-self not understand.”

“Therein lies your problem,” Yin Xi said, grinning. “As did mine, for the past several days. Understanding is irrelevant. Understanding is a matter of knowledge. The Way is not.”

“Self does not… Do not…”

Yin Xi took pity on it. “Come with me,” he said, standing.

The shi-ren tucked up its arms and drove, tank-like, up the side of the pool. It followed Yin Xi down to the seaward edge of the gardens, where he sat.

“Sit beside me,” he said.

The shi-ren shuffled over and lowered itself onto the base of its stump beside him, toes splayed around it, arms tucked against its sides. Yin Xi swept his hand across the breadth of the horizon. The sails of distant junks dotted the ocean, beating their slow paths against the tide.

Yin Xi said, “Give your attention to the sea. Do not tell me what you perceive, but focus on it with your whole being.”

He waited in silence while the shi-ren’s eyestalks wandered about, scanning the ocean from the surf below all the way to the horizon and back, then out again and up to the rising planet beyond. It raised two pairs of arms, fingers splayed, to examine its environment with senses that Yin Xi could only guess at. Tension radiated through the shi-ren’s body as it concentrated.

Yin Xi’s own gaze drifted upward, to Hai’s lesser siblings in the sky: Bailian the white face, old Gui the tortoise and the luminous brothers, Big and Little Ming. Between the moons and the greater arc of the planet, the sun pierced the sky, its fierce blue-white light shattering into a rainbow where it touched the edge of Liyuan’s corona.

Twenty times brighter, that star, than the dim red sun under which Yin Xi had been born. But Liyuan and its brood of supplicants orbited at a far greater distance than the close embrace in which Wangwei danced with its slowly dying parent.

After a few minutes, the shi-ren’s eyestalks drooped. It gave out a hiss of static that to Yin Xi sounded uncannily like a sigh.

“Self not understand,” it said, adopting a posture that cried mournfulness in every line.

“Do not be discouraged,” said Yin Xi. “Tell me, rock: is your whole life ruled by intellect? Are you but a thinking machine, or do you feel as well?”

The shi-ren twisted its eyestalks to look at his face. Yin Xi noted the significance of the action. Its species did not have ‘faces’. This shi-ren clearly had spent an enormous amount of time in human company.

“One-self feels.”

“What things do you feel?”

The shi-ren shrugged its fingers. An arm waved randomly as it struggled for a translatable answer. When it did finally respond, the translator patch had just as much difficulty, offering: “Hurt-feeling, fright-feeling, warm-feeling, joy-feeling, well-feeling…”

Yin Xi interrupted, “When you choose companions, do you do so purely on the basis of reason?”

“It depends upon purpose for company,” the shi-ren answered, uncertainly.

“And if the company is not brought together for an intellectual purpose?”

“Then for joy-feeling and well-feeling,” it said, more confidently.

 “When you tend your gardens, what do you feel?”


“And with what part of you do you feel it?”

It hesitated. A couple of its eyestalks wandered to the garden pools. Eventually, arms rustling to make its answer half a question, it said, “All parts.”

Yin Xi nodded. “And when you tend your gardens, do you have concern for anything else but the females you tend?”

The eyestalks examined his face again. Clearly it was wondering where this line of questioning was headed. It replied, “Sometimes consciousness strays to matters of idleness or theory. But for most times: no. Is an absorbing task.”

Yin Xi asked, “Why is it so absorbing?”

That got a blink. “Because… because females are important. Because are wombs of self’s species.”

“And does that knowledge explain your feelings when you tend to your gardens?”

The shi-ren stuttered for a moment and fell silent.

Yin Xi stood, gathering up his tally book and brushing down his robes. “I will leave you with that question. Come to me when you know your answer.”


The final time the shi-ren spoke to Yin Xi, it found him on the observation deck at the top of the main dome.

He was polishing the dome’s upper viewports, a task for which he often volunteered. It allowed him to watch the rising tide beat against the dome walls, and to stand as long as possible in the breeze before the high vents were sealed. The smell of the sea mixed with the fragrance of fruit trees wafting up from inside the dome. The laughter of children playing cut across the hiss of the waves.

Yin Xi found he wasn’t surprised to see the shi-ren, even though its kind typically avoided the higher gantries. The anthropologist hugged the dome wall as closely as its rigid body allowed, eyestalks resolutely averted from the drop on the other side of the deck. Yin Xi stopped what he was doing.

“So, rock, does the knowledge that the females are the wombs of your species explain your feelings when you tend to your gardens?”

It gave a sharp double-click. “No.”

Yin Xi nodded. “When one is wholly absorbed in the present, when one’s actions are passionate and spontaneous, then one is in harmony with one’s true nature, and one flows in the current of the Way.”

The shi-ren shuffled its toes non-committally.

Yin Xi said, “Shi-ren and humans have similar understandings of physics, yes?”

 Its eyestalks twitched in evident surprise at his apparent change of topic. “Yes.”

“It is a truth of physics that mass is merely a form of energy and that all forms of energy are convertible into other forms of energy. Therefore, all phenomena are part of a single, dynamic continuum. Correct?”

“Is sustainable interpretation, yes.”

“So tell me, rock: are you any less intrinsically connected to the rest of the universe than you are to the rest of your species?”

Yin Xi watched it closely as it teetered on the brink of epiphany.

“Come,” he said. “We will seek our paths to the Way together.”

He led the way up a short ramp to a nearby maintenance hatch. The shi-ren followed him onto the external gantry, holding the side rails tightly. Yin Xi left the hatch open, so that the breach alarm would trip before the water came too high. Knees complaining, he lowered himself cross-legged onto the metal grating. The shi-ren planted itself beside him.

Yin Xi said, “Hear the beating of the waves against the dome. Feel the attraction of great Liyuan. Feel the world and its fellow moons in their eternal dance. Feel the wind, the warmth of the sun. Smell the ocean. Turn your passion to it all as you would turn it to your garden.”

He fell silent, and saw calmness descend over the shi-ren. Its grip on the railings relaxed somewhat. He broadened the focus of his attention and opened his consciousness to the world around him.

He breathed in time with the sea, taking its briny respirations into his core and giving back the moisture of his body with every outward breath – made one with the ocean, the wind and the world by that simple conspiracy.

He felt the pull of Liyuan, drawing him upward. He was filled with the ocean’s yearning, his frail vessel overwhelmed and destroyed by its ceaseless pursuit of Liyuan’s grace. In turn, he absorbed the sea and rendered it to nothingness. The deck upon which he sat and the shi-ren beside him were erased. Even great Liyuan was swept into oblivion.

Yin Xi flowed, undifferentiated, in the current of the universe.

After an unmeasured time he returned, gently, to himself. He allowed his mind to drift freely for a while and recalled old fantasies of sailing ships and storms at sea. Dreams from a boyhood trapped on a world of rocky crags and crater-scapes, oceanless and only half terraformed.

The flood alarm on the access hatch rang its first warning: ten-minutes until it automatically shut and sealed itself.

With a sigh, Yin Xi dragged himself back to the present and opened his eyes. The water was nearly up to the gantry. Liyuan hung balefully overhead, streaked with storms and impossibly heavy in the sky. Yin Xi gazed up at it, awestruck as always.

Cooking smells drifted out of the hatchway with the smell of fruit blossoms. His stomach grumbled.

He turned to his companion. The shi-ren was still absorbed in its meditation. It had raised two pairs of hands to feel the wind and sun.

Yin Xi said, softly, “Enlightenment is not intellectual, it is felt. It is a state in which all action is spontaneous and every gesture is filled with passion. In it, the self is extinguished in the continuum of all things. Of course, these are but poor words: they explain and do not enlighten. Enlightenment cannot be spoken. It is like a dream that, upon awakening, one remembers but cannot tell.”

After a pause, the shi-ren said, “Self haven’t word other than ‘understand’.”

“That, my friend,” said Yin Xi, with a slow grin, “is because your language is inadequate.”

The shi-ren blinked, then clapped its forearms together to show its appreciation. Yin Xi laughed as well, delighted that his slight witticism had bridged the culture gap.

He stood and rubbed his knees, gesturing for his companion to precede him through the hatch.


(c) Ian McHugh, 2003



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