Lester's mind bobbed back to the surface of awareness. What a strange dream, he thought. Groggily, he shook his head and swung his feet over the edge of the bed in the darkness of the room. No time to think about that now. Time to check the chickens for eggs. Well, that and inspect the coop to make sure no foxes had tried to get in during the night. After that he –
His thoughts scattered like a frightened flock of birds when his feet landed on the carpet. There was no carpet in his room. But here there was.
Light flooded the room, summoning the room from his dream.
“So,” said Xander, looking up at him from the chair, “you're awake. Good. Now we can get an early start.”
Les sagged into a chair and glared at the old man. “An early start at what? You can't keep me here forever, you know. I'll find a way to get away!”
Xander laughed. “Of course you will. I'll be disappointed if you don't. If you do, it'll mean you've learned a thing or two.”
Lester sighed. He knew how this would go. He's been through it all ready with Gerrold. They say they teach you, but what you basically get to do is to sweep their floors. If this old man really was a wizard he'd never share his secrets. Not in a million years.
“Let's start with some tea,” Xander suggested. He pulled his chair over to the table next to Lester's, then crossed the room and came back with a small pouch of something which he dropped on the table. Then he went off again and to Lester's astonishment he heard water gurgling into a container.
Xander grinned at his expression when he returned with two cups, a wooden spoon, a metal bowl of water with three stubbly legs, and a small jar of something, all balanced on a wooden tray when he set down next to the little pouch.
“I expect you've never had it before,” the old man said. “Doesn't grow on this continent at all. But Aria has some on the upper floors. No idea where she managed to get the seedlings.”
Lester stared at him. He had no clue what the wizard was talking about, and hardly cared. “How did you get water?” he blurted. “Did someone bring it up while I was asleep?”
“Of course not. There's rain and dew collectors on the roof that drain down to a tank in the basement. The old molecular sieves filter out dust and such, and I've restored the swizzles they put in when the 'scraper was built, shortly before the Fall, so there's no problem pulling it up from the tank.” Seeing Lester's lack of comprehension, he added, “Remind me to show you the bathroom later on.”
Lester had understood very little of that utterance, but he knew that a tank was something like the watering trough in front of the inn. Fording himself to swallow his pride, he asked a few questions and learned that 'scraper meant a sky-scraper, the old name for a very tall building such as this one, and the Fall referred to the collapse of the old civilization that had existed before the coming of the Tourists.
“I still don't understand,” he complained. “If the Ancients were so wise, with all the wonders you've described, then how could they have let it all go? How could they have fallen so far, just because they saw that some things could be easier?” He wanted to pound the table. “There has to be more to it than simple laziness!”
“Don't underestimate the power of shattered pride, lad.” Xander closed his eyes, then opened them. “For those who walk in darkness,” he said, “a little light can be blinding. The technology of the Ancients was difficult and wasteful and often poisonous. When they built their machines, the process generated some nasty by-products. I've told you about electricity, their tamed lightning that ran through metal wires to light their cities.
“But the electricity didn't make itself, like the wind. It came from other sources of power that they set to turning wheels called dynamos. Some of them were turned by waterfalls. Some were turned by the wind. But some were turned by steam-power that came from nuclear energy. And the strange metals they used to power their nuclear power stations grew ever more deadly as they burned, producing a slew of other elements that were both poisonous like snake venom and hot like cold fire that could burn for thousands of years.
“And when they saw that the alien technology wasn't just different, but actually better, cleaner, and safer, well, it broke them. Some of them just gave up, like children who have seen adults do things in a better way than they can. When they saw that the aliens had a way of magicking a wheel so that it turned without a power source, they stopped learning how to make motors and engines.”
Xander reached into a pocket and held out something for his inspection. It was a gold coin, recently struck, with the image of the General on one side and the words “ONE DOLLAR” on the other. “Do you know what the value of this is?”
Les frowned at him. “Everyone knows that. It's worth a dollar. A dollar's worth of food, or leather, or wood.”
Xander shook his head. “You're wrong,” he said. “Some ancients would agree with you, and say because it is gold, a precious metal, that it has intrinsic value. But suppose you were out in the wilderness, with no food or water, no animals or streams, and had this. What would it be worth, when there is no one who will trade you food for it?”
Les shrugged. “In that case, I guess it wouldn't be worth much, then.”
“Wrong again. You have to learn to think of it as not just a lump of metal. All matter is made of whizzing bits of energy, and can be used to interact with energy. Especially good conductors like gold.” The wizard placed the coin on the table top and leaned forward. “Now pay attention. I'm about to make it more useful, more valuable than just a shiny lump.”
Les wasn't sure what he expected. Perhaps some magical words, or else mystic passes over it. But Xander did none of that. He closed his eyes. “I want you to try to feel what I do to it,” he said. “Close your eyes and open your mind.”
“I know how to close my eyes, but how do I open my mind?”
“That's something I can't teach you. You'll have to find your own way. Try to imagine something in your head expanding outside your own skull, and reaching toward the coin as I work the change upon the space around it.”
He tried. But he didn't seem to feel much of anything, and told the old man as much.
Xander opened his eyes. “No matter. It was only your first attempt. You would have to be quick, anyway. I've done it so many times that I can almost do it in my sleep by now.”
“Do what?” said Les, although he was beginning to suspect.
Xander slid the coin under the bowl of water on its stubby tripod legs and regarded it.. “Make it an everflame,” he said.
His hand reached out to stroke the side of the coin. A reddish mote of light appeared in the air above the coin and grew in intensity as he stroked the edge of the coin clockwise, until it was a hot point of blue-white radiance. “What I've done,” he said, it to affect a change in the space near the metal that makes it able to concentrate free energy to a point. It releases heat and light without needing to burn wood or oil, and you can turn the power, the rate at which energy is released into 3-space, up or down by stroking the side. It's just like the one your mother uses to cook back at the inn in Inverness.”
Les supposed he ought to be impressed, but he was used to seeing the everflame back home. “And how would this make it more useful out in the wilderness?” he challenged. “I'd still have no food or water.”
“No,” Xander agreed. “But you could use this to stay warm and keep wolves away. A simple coin couldn't do that.” He drew for a handful of something from the little pouch and sprinkled it on the surface of the water. It appeared to be dried leaves of some kind. Gradually, they began to soak up the water, and waterlogged, to sink down into the warming liquid as he continued to speak.
“Do you remember the trick with the soup?”
“The what?” Les looked up from the water to the wizard's eyes, but the old man was still intent on the submerging fragments.
“When we first met, you wanted to know how I did it. It was in the nature of a test, you know. I'd sensed that someone with the potential to learn magic was in that village.”
Lester's brow compressed. “A soup test?” But he remembered now. The bits of cracker had been drifting around the soup. No, he thought. Not just drifting. They were circling, and going in opposite directions. At the time it had seemed strange.
“Most people are too caught up in the eddies of fate, too absorbed in their own muddled lives to notice the truly peculiar, even when it is right in front of them,” said Xander. “We are every day, all of us, surrounded by wonders our entire lives. Sunlight lifts water into clouds that snow upon the distant hills, so rivers don't run out of water. Most life slows to a tiny pace in winter, only to explode into growth again in the Spring in time to save us from starving. We walk on sand that used to be mountains. And most of us are blind to such mysteries. To wonders. But to become a wizard, you must not be blind to them.”
Les quirked a smile. “You're saying the reason I'm here is because I wasn't blind to the wonder of circling soup crackers?”
“In times not long from now,” the wizard predicted, “you will remember that the course of your life was changed forever by two bits of cracker in a bowl of soup.”
“Whatever,” said Les. “So how did you do do it?”
“With magic,” thee old man answered. “Not the sort from storybooks, with flaming swords and summoned demons. The magic of psionics, the effect of the mind upon space.”
Now Les frowned. “You mean, on the crackers. There's nothing to affect in space. It's empty, or else we couldn't move through it.”
“I mean what I say. I affected the space around them, and the crackers just followed where the space wanted them to go. I call it pathspace. I don't know what the Tourists called it. I didn't push the crackers. I set up the paths that they followed.”
“But how? How did you do it? Now he found that he really did want to know. The old man said he had the seeds of greatness in him. Him! Useless Lester! Could it be true? Could he ignore the chance? Father, he prayed, help me become what is required to avenge you.
“Your mind,” said Xander, “is mapped onto the world. Projected upon it. Written upon it. While we live, while we live in this space, we are affected by it. We can perceive events that take place within it, aided by our senses born of flesh and wired to our very souls. And this goes both ways. We are affected, AND we can affect. You can see and draw, be touched and sculpt, hear and speak.”
“But how?” he begged the old man. “I can touch the table with my hand. I can speak with my tongue and the wind of my lungs. But how do I touch space? ”
“A man with eyes, kept forever in dark, will never learn to see, or to paint what he sees,” answered Xander. “But you were fortunate. The Gifts of the Tourists are fading, but you, unlike many of your fellow humans, grew up exposed to the magic, to the altered paths of space and energy that make your inn's coldbox and everflame work. You have been exposed to light, and your sense is growing.”
“But I felt nothing!” he insisted. “Whatever you think, I'm still blind, still deaf to it!”
“No,” said the wizard. “I'm not wrong, not about this. The process has begun in you, and it never stops, never goes backwards. Stick with me me. lad, and you'll flower yet, trust me. Every day we'll expose you to more, and more kinds, and before you know it you'll see that I'm right.”
Then there was a knock at the door, and for a time Les forgot his frustration, forgot his hopes and despair, when the most beautiful girl in the world brought in their breakfast.
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