“Hard even for me to imagine the wonders they had in those days.”
The old man just could not shut up. And after listening for a while, Lester discovered he did not want him to. Xander's words were like a drink that makes you thirsty – almost every sentence opened more questions than it closed.
Lester shifted in the back of the cart, his legs dangling over the back of it. I could just hop down and start running, he thought. But so far his curiosity prevented it. That, and the fact that it was not quite dark enough yet. The stars were just beginning to poke out in the sky above them. “What do you mean by 'those days'?”
“The days before my time. Before the coming of the Tourists.”
He sensed whole paragraphs buried in that one word. He might as well learn as much as he could before he made his escape. “Why do you call them the Tourists?”
“It's an old word for people who travel to places they haven't been just to see what's there. They travel from star to star, you see, although of course they pick the ones with planets like Earth – planets likely to have life. I expect they heard our radio transmissions.”
More mysteries. He felt a hunger in his head to know them all. “What do you mean, from star to star? You can't live on a star. They're just twinkly points of light.”
“The stars are suns like ours, just very far away. The Earth's a ball going round the Sun, and many of the stars, those distant suns, have planets of their own. Some are like Earth. And some of them have people on them. The Tourists visit them, traveling from place to place like the coach goes from town to town.”
He thought about that. “Do we ever visit them, too?”
“We were planning to, once. But then the Tourists came, and changed everything.”
Back to the Tourists again. Sooner or later Xander always got back to them. Why was he so obsessed with the Tourists? “Why did their coming change everything?”
“Because of their Gifts. They made 'em, as easily as you or I could pump a bucket full of water. They made 'em and left 'em behind like toys given to children.” Xander shifted his weight on the hard bed of the cart. “Well, not exactly gave. It was a trade, their Gifts for our genomes.”
“Have you never wondered what makes you different from a dog or a tree? In every little bit of your body are sets of instructions, like little cookbooks, that tell the stuff in your body how to make muscles, bones, skin, and such. It's called DNA. I'll tell you more about that later,” he added, as Lester opened his mouth to ask about it. “And the DNA is different in every kind of living thing. Different in some ways even in every being. It's why people all have eyes and noses – and also why their eyes are different colors, their noses different shapes. It makes us all the same, and it make every one of us unique.”
The Tourists, he went on to explain, were curious about DNA, and collected it like books. Every planet they visited had different DNA and they always took samples, unraveled it and stored the patterns in case it turned out to be valuable someday.
“How could it be valuable?”
“Does your town have an herbalist? Someone good with healing plants? Well some plants are good for headache, some for indigestion, and so on. And some are poison. It's all because of the stuff the plants make inside them. And what they make is all determined by the little cookbooks in them, their DNA.
“So you never know how useful a plant might be. Or a bug or a fish. And neither do the Tourists, so they collect all the different DNA they can find, from every planet they stop at. Who knows? Someday our marigolds might turn out to cure some sickness of theirs. To them, every planet is a library, and there might be treasure in our cookbooks. So they collect it, take copies. And they paid for our DNA with the Gifts, as many as we wanted. And we grabbed for those gifts like foolish children.”
“Why?” He sensed Xander was working up to something. The Tourists had changed everything with their Gifts. Changed in what way?
“Because people are lazy,” the old man growled. He looked up at the sky, frowning.
“I don't understand. Why was it lazy to trade for the Gifts?”
Xander sighed. “Pumping water is hard work, isn't it? Suppose you could fill a bucket bigger than a house, and put it up on a hill? Then the water would want to come back down, and it would push its way through pipes if you let it. We used to do that. Every house had pipes buried in the ground to let water come right into the kitchen. No one had to pump water to fill buckets or take baths. The water towers were filled by electric pumps, pumps that people had to build. It took money and work to set them up.
“Then along came the Tourists, and they knew how to make something called a swizzle that pumped water all by itself. It looked just like an ordinary pipe, but if you stuck one end in water, the water would get sucked into the pipe and shoot out the other end. Even if the other end was uphill of the water! Perfect for bringing water to houses and farmer's fields. All of a sudden, we didn't need to make pumps anymore.”
“Sounds good to me,” said Lester, who had no great love of pumping water from the well all the time. “It would save a lot of time and money and work. Wouldn't it?”
“Yep. It also drove the pump-makers out of business. And that was just the beginning of the end. It's hard to imagine life without a coldbox, isn't it? Over a thousand years ago they were called 'iceboxes' because people kept food cold by putting it inside insulated boxes with big blocks of ice.”
“But didn't the ice melt?”
“Sure did. But there were men who delivered ice right to your door, from horse-drawn trucks. When the ice block melted you put another one in. That worked for a long time, and then men invented electric refrigeration, a way of using pumps to cool down the icebox without ice. You had to have wires to bring the electricity to every house, and people had to pay for the electricity that ran in the wires, but they could go on trips and not worry about the food warming up, because their refrigerators kept running all the time, staying cold. The ice delivery men were out of business, of course.
“But then along came the Tourists, and they could take a box, any box, and put their magic on it. Then it would stay cold without ice or electricity. Thanks to the coldboxes, we didn't need to make refrigerators anymore. So more companies went out of business.”
“Is the everflame one of the Gifts from the Tourists, too?”
“It sure is.” Xander shook his head. “It really made a lot of people happy. No more pumping oil out of the ground or cutting trees down for firewood, no more burning oil, no more electric heaters for houses to have hot water. Just get the Tourists to work their magic on a piece of metal and you could have heat anytime for free. Saved tremendous amounts of time and work and money. Guess what happened because of it?”
Now he was beginning to see a pattern. “The people who cut firewood and pumped oil out of the ground went out of business?”
“Theres a price for everything, son. Never forget that, like Mankind did. If all a man knows how to do is cut firewood or mine coal for people to burn, guess what happens when people don't need firewood or coal? If he doesn't get another job, his kids starve. Or the government has to pay to feed them for him.”
Lester swallowed. “What you're saying is, the Tourists hurt us by helping us.” He thought about that for a moment. He had never realized that you could do that – could actually hurt someone by helping them. It sounded crazy, but when you thought of whole countries instead of single people, it made more sense. He thought of families starving because their fathers were too old to learn a new trade, and shivered in the cooling evening air. No one wants an old apprentice. If they lost the inn, Gerrold would be laughed out of town if he went to the smith and asked to be accepted as a blacksmith apprentice.
“Hurt us tremendously,” Xander agreed. “Civilization fell, almost back to the Middle Ages level. We lost all of the high technology that it took hundreds of years to develop. Now we're back to peasants and crossbows. All the old low tech still works. Farming with horses, blacksmithing metal tools, weaving cloth with hand looms, and poultices instead of pills.”
“But why? Why didn't we just adapt? Why did things go so wrong?”
The old man didn't answer immediately. An uncomfortable silence grew for long moments before he spoke.
“Two reasons,” he said finally. “The first was, we let the infrastructure rot away.”
“We used to have a thing called a tractor that we used instead of horses to pull plows. You can still find them here and there, rusting away. But tractors were made in factories, and the factories all ran on electricity. In the factories, people and machines made all sort of things. Cars that didn't need horses because they burned oil to make the wheels turn. Refrigerators to keep food cold. Radios so people could talk to each other across long distances.
“But once we didn't need to burn oil any more, once were didn't need fridges to keep food cold, people got the idea that we could make our planet 'greener' by changing over to more and more to things based on the Gifts. They sort of figured somehow that the Tourists would hang around forever, making coldboxes and everflames and all the other magic things we were coming to rely on. We could get rid of the machines and processes that took so much work to build and tended to create pollution for the air and water. When you burn oil or wood or coal, you see, it makes smoke – and that smoke is poisonous, and has to go somewhere or you end up breathing it in.”
“But wasn't that a good idea? Making the world cleaner?”
“Of course it was! No one like to eat and drink poison. But I'm coming to the second reason that really did us in. The Tourists made the Gifts for us, but they never taught us how to make 'em ourselves, or how to keep them working. They gave us the products of a whole new technology, but not the technicians and infrastructure needed to keep it working for the long term. And when the Tourists finally left, off to visit their next port of call, guess what happened? Some of those magic Gifts began to break down. Even the magic of the Tourists doesn't last forever.”
“Why not? Our coldbox and everflame still work just fine.”
“Some of them lasted longer than others. But they all break down eventually if they're not maintained. When it was first made, that coldbox in your father's inn could freeze water into ice. Now it just keeps beer cold. The thing the Tourists did to make the gifts had very little to do with the matter they were anchored in. You could make a coldbox out of paper if you wanted to – the important thing is the change in the space around it. But that change is a little like combing hair. The change in the space stays straight for a while. Years, maybe even a century. But eventually it gets un-straightened again, goes random, like your hair is in the morning when you wake up. And we didn't know how to comb the space straight again. If you want to call it magic instead of psionics, fine. But they didn't train any magicians. So it all started to fall apart. And since we'd changed over to depending on it, our whole civilization fell apart.”
“Why didn't they teach us their magic?” Lester asked.
“Simple economics. It takes a long time to collect the DNA cookbooks of a whole planet, you see. If they'd taught us how to make the Gifts for ourselves, well, we wouldn't need the Tourists anymore. We might stop trading with them. They might miss out on a plant or animal species that would turn out to be a lifesaver. They couldn't risk that. So they kept their secrets. Made all the coldboxes we asked for, all the everflames and swizzles and all the little shortcuts we were greedy for. Then they left, taking their secrets with them.”
The mosquitoes were beginning to come out.. Lester swatted one and grimaced as he wiped his hand on the flat bed of the cart. “How do you know all this, anyway? Did you see it happen?”
“Lord, no,” Xander laughed. “It was long before my time. But records were kept. People always gossip and there were reporters of news back then, just as now. People who saw what was happening couldn't stop it but they could write it down so someone would remember. So I remember things I never saw. And I'm trying to do something about it.”
“What are you going to do?”
“We'll get to that,” the old man said. “And you'll be a part of it.”
“Me? Why me? I'm nobody. I pump water and wait on tables.”
“Well, your pumping days are over, son. They'll have to get along without you at the inn from now on. You're my new apprentice.”
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