Part Four: Onclemac
I was awakened in the morning by the sound of the barn door being shoved open, followed by that of heavy boots on a wooden floor. A voice – male, human – said, “He’s here? What do you mean? Who’s here?” The accent was somewhere between American and British, like that of a Scots or Irish person too long in America or vice versa. It was a friendly voice, matched, as I peered down from the loft, by a friendly face. He was about sixty years old, overweight and balding, and dressed in a blue wool Inverness-style cape. In his rectangular, wire-rimmed spectacles he looked like a younger Ben Franklin.
“Hello,” I said. “I expect they mean me.”
The man looked up. “Well, hello there!” he said. “What are you talking about? Who means you?”
“Your horse and your cow.”
“Ed and Elsie talked to you? Remarkable!”
I was astonished. “Their names are Ed and Elsie?”
“How did you come to choose those names?”
The man shrugged and smiled. “Long story. I’m called Onclemac. What shall I call you?”
Something in the man’s twinkling eyes told me he was inviting me to make up a name rather than give my real one. “Uh, Robin Hood?”
Onclemac shook his head. “No, I’ve met him. Try again.”
“Joshua. Joshua Wander.” It was my uncle’s first name, and the surname of some distant relatives. Besides, I liked the associations. The way I’d started hopping from place to place, I’d truly become a wandering Jew. And hadn’t the original Joshua also used waveforms to dramatic effect?
Ontlemac nodded approvingly. “That’ll work, assuming it’s not your real name.”
“Good. If you’re who I think you are, you should keep your real name to yourself.”
“Okay,” I said. “Why?”
Onclemac’s eyes narrowed. “Have you ever read A Wizard of Earthsea?”
That settled it. This man was from the world I knew, or something like it. “Yes, I have.”
I digested this. In the Le Guin books, a character’s true name could be used against him magically. “You’re not from around here, are you?” I asked.
Onclemac grinned. “Neither are you.”
“How did you know?”
“Well, for one thing, you’re wearing an S.U. sweatshirt. For another, you’re speaking American English.”
“So are you.”
“Well, yes, but the people outside this barn do not.”
I nodded. “I was beginning to suspect that. Where am I?”
“Similar, but not quite the same. So where are you from, exactly?”
“Dewitt, New York, originally. Yesterday I was a student at Syracuse University.”
Onclemac laughed. “Figures. Have you ever been to Economy Books downtown?”
“Sure. Lots of times.”
“I disappeared out of the Economy Books basement, five years ago.”
“I read out loud from a spell book, just sounding out what seemed like nonsense words.” He shrugged. “Stupid thing to do, really. What about you? How did you get here?”
“I think I kind of did it to myself.” I explained about the experiments, and the electromagnetic lightshows that had sent me from lab to battlefield, from battlefield to lab to the caverns near Onclemac’s barn. It felt good to talk to someone who seemed to understand my situation. “I didn’t set out to leave the lab the second time, but I wasn’t quite in phase with it or something. Maybe I can’t really go back.”
Onclemac nodded. “Maybe not. Do you want to?”
I thought about this. “Well, I’d like my parents and friends to know I’m alive, but other than that, no, not really. I’d be in a terrible mess if I went back, because of Rachel.”
“Probably,” Onclemac agreed.
“What’s it like here? Did you manage to hang onto that spell book? Is magic real here?”
“It’s peaceful but interesting, yes I did, and yes it is. Are you hungry?”
I nodded. “Starved.”
“Come in to breakfast, then. After that I’ll show you the secret of my success.”
“Okay. Thanks.” I climbed down the ladder, adding silently, “And thanks again, Ed and Elsie.”
“Any time,” the cow answered silently. The horse just snorted.
I followed my human benefactor out of the barn.
Meet Joshua Wander, Part One
Meet Joshua Wander, Part Two
Meet Joshua Wander, Part Three
Meet Joshua Wander, Part Five
Saturday, November 27, 2004
Sunday, November 21, 2004
Wherever I was, it was night, and too dark to see anything. Unlike the lab, though, I was really there, all the way. The ground beneath my cheap winter boots was hard and uneven, like natural stone. Wind was blowing noisily somewhere nearby, but it wasn't reaching me. This was lucky, because wherever I was, it was winter-cold, Syracuse cold. I still had on a couple of layers of clothing - a Wings T-shirt and a navy S.U. sweatshirt - but my down jacket was back in the lab. Well, I'd just have to do without it. Maybe forever. As angry as Professor Grayson had looked, the lab didn't exactly seem like a safe place to go back to, even if I figured out how to do it. And anyway, I wasn't at all sure I could generate any weird electromagnetic effects to get me home, not from this damp, dark place.
The wind was coming from the same direction as a slight lessening of the darkness, somewhere off to my left. It probably wouldn't hurt to explore a little, as long as I mostly stayed out of the wind. I felt my way along wet, lichen-covered walls of stone, running my fingers and my feet over bumps and indentations, dripping grottos and sharp bits of crystal. I thought about a family trip to Howe Caverns, many years before, and about Injun Joe's cave in Tom Sawyer. The passage I was in wasn't especially narrow, though, and it didn't seem terribly dangerous. No yawning chasms opened beneath my feet; no cave-ins blocked my way. Soon I was at the mouth of the cave - a mouth of it, anyway. The opening was about seven feet high. A wall of rock extended another twenty feet or so on my left, blocking the worst of the wind. Loking up into the night sky, I couldn't see the moon, but there were hundreds of stars, obscured in places by fast-moving clouds.
It was the sky I knew, and yet not quite the same. I found Orion, and the Big Dipper, and Cassiopeia; but there were far too many stars in them, and in between them. Every tiny star that was normally dimmed by city lights shone for me that night. There were no city lights. Ahead of me was countryside: grassy hills, a field that might be post-harvest stalks of corn, a small forest, or possibly an orchard, and a few buildings in the distance: a farmhouse, maybe, and a barn or a stable. Clean snow lay on the ground in crusty, half-melted patches. The way to the buildings was marked by what looked like a dirt road. There were no street lights, no manmade lights of any kind.
Option one: I could wait in the cave until morning. It was cold, but not so cold that I couldn't manage for a few hours. In the morning I could scout things out properly, and use the daylight to practice my new abilities, to defend myself if necessary, or to try to travel again to some other time or place or world. Option two: I could venture out now, take shelter in the barn or stable, or even knock at the door if I saw evidence that the people here spoke English, or even French or Spanish. I'd struggled in my foreign language classes, but I did know enough to get by in an emergency--which this was.
I decided to get a better look around, so I could make an informed decision. If this was somewhere in the modern world, I might find a street sign or a mailbox, something to tell me whether it was possible to get home from here. If I was in the past, or someplace even stranger, there ought to be evidence of that instead.
The wind picked up as I stepped out of the cave. I crossed my arms inside my sweatshirt for warmth and started walking. The nearby road was grassy and full of rocks, a pair of muddy tracks too narrow for a truck or even a large car. It was utterly deserted. The moon rose behind the cave as I got far enough away. It was half full. The barn, when I got to it, had a thatched roof. That settled it. This wasn't New York State as I knew it. Was I in the past, or in England, or someplace else entirely?
Now that I was within a few feet of the barn, it seemed silly to retreat to the cave, regardless or where and when I was overall. I found the large iron ring that served as a handle on the wooden door, and pulled it open. It was as dark inside as out, if not darker, but it was warmer, and filled with the smell of hay and animals.
"Close the door!" said a voice. I stepped inside and pulled the door shut. "It gets cold enough as it is, without you standing around gawking with the door open," the voice said. I wasn't quite sure whether the words had been spoken aloud, or inside my head. There was also a whiny, whinnying, snuffling quality to them, more animal than human.
"Sorry," I said. "I didn't know anyone was in here."
The sound I heard next--and this was definitely a sound--was halfway between neighing and laughter. This was quickly followed by the equally extraordinary mooing chuckle of a laughing cow. So help me, a laughing cow. La Vache Qui Rit.
"What did you think a barn was for, just storing hay?" asked the voice. "We live here."
"Am I speaking to a horse?" I asked. "A talking horse?" Childhood memories of Mr. Ed almost made me choke on my words.
"No, just a telepathic one. Make yourself comfortable, wizard. Your coming was foretold to us."
"A wizard? You think I'm a wizard?"
The horse snorted, apparently in amusement. "Maybe not yet," it said, "but you will be."
"What makes you think I'm going to be a wizard?" I asked. It occurred to me that, in a world of telepathic livestock, my electromagnetic manipulations might well be seen as magic.
"The prophecy, of course," said the horse. "Look, human, I don't know what it's like where you come from, but around here we like to sleep at night. Morning will be soon enough for your questions."
"Okay, but where do I sleep? I can't see a thing in here, and I don't want to be in your way." I also didn't want to be stepped on in the middle of the night.
"There's a ladder about ten steps in front of you," said the cow. Her "voice" was melodic and motherly. "It leads up to the hayloft. That should be comfortable enough, and you definitely won't get stepped on." The cow laughed again. I wondered whether the animals were "hearing" even the words I left unspoken.
"Thank you," I said. I stepped forward, feeling my way in the dark. The cow's stall was on my left, judging from the sounds and the smells. The horse's stall was on my right. Beyond them I found the ladder: not quite vertical, made of sturdy wood and bolted in place. It hardly moved as I climbed to the top and felt my way onto the loft. The ladder came up through a small hole in the middle of it. I crawled well away from the hole and from the railing at the end of the loft, back against the wall. The hay was soft and sweet-smelling, more strewn than stacked or bailed. I lay down and burrowed in. To my own surprise, I was soon asleep.
The Real Joshua Wander
Joshua Wander: Two Fragments
Joshua Wander Lives (the history of the character)
Meet Joshua Wander, Part One
Meet Joshua Wander, Part Two
Meet Joshua Wander, Part Four
Sunday, November 14, 2004
Traces of the lab's psychedelic lightshow swirled around me as I stood up properly, my feet straddling Rachel's right leg. I spread my arms wide, palms outward in a stop gesture directed at each group of would-be combatants. The colors red and orange lit my fingers and spread out, dissipating in the late afternoon sun. "Help me!" I shouted. "Please!"
The two groups of medieval fighters paused to stare at me. The better-equipped ones hesitated, looked at each other, and started forward again. The ill-equipped peasants of the other group huddled together, muttering. I could not hear what they said, but it wasn't in English as I knew it. Clearly, I wasn't going to get any help from either group. There was nothing they could do for Rachel, anyway, not if they were as they appeared to be, people from a time before science or medicine.
I knelt quickly, and felt for Rachel's pulse. She didn't have one. I tried to apply CPR, and even managed to create an electric shock from the ions in the air. Her heart didn't start again. And now both groups of fighters were advancing on me. Some of them were shouting. From the way they glared at me, I got the impression they were now more angry with me than with each other.
The group in chain mail were within fifty yards of me as I stood up again. The peasant group had more ground to make up. They were perhaps seventy-five yards away. I figured I had three choices. I could try to reason with them, frighten them, or find a way to leave this place, fast.
"Please! You don't understand!" I shouted. "I was trying to save her life!" There was no reaction. I don't think they knew what my words meant. They only knew I was desperate and afraid, and probably a murderer. So much for reason or explanations. Tactic number two, then. I raised my arms again, drawing to myself the local fields of electromagnetic force. A lightning bolt flashed from my hand toward the sky, startling me as much as everyone else. Either my ability to manipulate the electromagnetic spectrum had increased geometrically over the past half hour, or there was something about this place, wherever it was, that was especially susceptible to manipulation. Or both. Probably both. I didn’t really know what I was doing, but that didn’t stop me from feeling the forces around me and manipulating them experimentally.
The two groups stopped again to stare at me as a second lightning bolt shot from my hand into the sky, accompanied by a crack of thunder. In the excited babble that followed I heard a word that sounded like "magus," but nothing else intelligible. Playing with lines of force as if they were a cat’s cradle string, I next managed a burst of color and a small sonic boom. The ill-equipped group turned and ran away, shouting. The group in chain mail held their ground, watching.
If I was going to make another attempt to save Rachel, now was the moment to try. I directed my arms downward. A small flash of white light leaped from my fingers to caress her skin, but there was no reaction, no convulsion, no sign of life or hope. Then a pale blue crackle of electricity arced up from Rachel's dead eyes to my lowered hand, and made its way up and down my spine. More electricity pulsed through the coated wires that still hung from my forehead like dreadlocks. I shuddered and staggered, but did not fall. Rachel's body still did not move.
And now the men in chain mail were starting to encircle me. One of them, taller and better dressed than the others, pointed a long and shiny sword at my waist, and shouted a command I did not understand. These people might be wary of my demonstration of static electricity, but it wouldn't stop them from trying to capture or kill me. Time to go, I thought.
If I merely ran away, these people would probably catch me, and be even less intimidated than they were now. Besides, I could not leave Rachel's body behind. Nor did I want to stay in such a dangerous and savage place. But how was I to get home? The only way I could think of to do that was to recreate the strobing lights and colors that had brought me here. I wiggled my fingers. A ball of light formed between me and the guy with the sword, eight feet off the ground and nine inches across. It pulsed and it spun. Bands of color like Saturn's rings encircled it, throwing off sparks that flashed down the sword blade, causing the sword's owner to drop it with a shout, shaking his fingers in startled pain.
I spread my arms again, fingers wide. "Back off, if you don't want to be hurt," I shouted. My would-be attackers seemed to grasp the concept, if not the words. They backed away, but only a hundred feet or so as they continued to watch my fumbling attempts to do what I needed to do. Soon I had the light and the colors looking as they had before, just before the world went away. I grabbed Rachel's hand and concentrated on the lab, praying that my improvised lightshow would get me there.
When the lab reappeared around me, I found myself standing with a table through my waist. I could no longer feel Rachel's fingers as her arm fell to the floor beside her. John Grayson stared at me in horror.
"What did you do?" he asked, his voice shaking. "What the hell did you do to my wife?"
"I'm sorry, Professor! I didn't mean..." I began, but now the lab was fading away again, and the Graysons with it. John Grayson yelled "Stein!" just as the last of the flourescent light winked out, leaving me in darkness.
Saturday, November 06, 2004
Wherever I go these days, I introduce myself as Joshua Wander. No one disputes the name, even in worlds where nobody else has the name Joshua, and where Wander isn't even a word. In some worlds I wear the name with some renown, or at least notoriety, as the meddling wizard who leaves chaos in his wake, but who probably means well.
What these people don't know, for the most part, is that I wasn't born with that name, or with magical talent, or even in a world where wizards are real. I was born in Syracuse, NY in 1957, with the name Christopher Stein. I was no different from any other baby in that gray city in that gray year, except that I was born with curly black hair.
I think my parents must have had a strange sense of humor, giving a Jewish kid the name Christopher. True, my mom was originally Roman Catholic, but she converted, didn't she? So why give me the name of a Christian saint, that even had the name Christ in it? But she did, and Dad agreed to it. I never got around to asking how they chose the name, and now, of course, it's too late. I can only figure that either I was meant to be reminded of my dual heritage, or I was meant to fit in with all those Christian kids at school.
Fat chance. I was smart, and scrawny, and Jewish, I wore glasses at an early age, and my best friend in elementary school was a girl. Five strikes and you're out.
Eventually I moved away, and started over with a new school and new kids, just as puberty hit. I got contact lenses, I wasn't scrawny any more, and it was okay to like girls. Best of all, the sons and daughters of politicians, bureaucrats, college professors and NIH employees had nothing against my being interested in science. So I won science fairs, aced my bio and chem and physics classes, and wrote science fiction in my spare time. I even played soccer, so that I wasn't considered a complete nerd. My parents got divorced, but that was just more raw material to be worked into my writing. Neither of them tried to make me choose sides, for which I'm grateful.
I ended up with a scholarship to Syracuse University, not far from the suburb where my earlier social failures took place. S.U. had a good physics department, and a fun bio prof, and an eccentric Chem 101 prof who was great, too. I made friends, and played D&D, and even got my homework done most of the time. Everything was fine, until I met Rachel.
Dr. Rachel Grayson was a biochemist, and the wife of my physics professor, Dr. John Grayson. They were researching the effects of the physical environment on brain function. Light, heat, electricity, pressure and other factors were applied to their paid volunteers. Dr. John figured out what parameters to use, and Dr. Rachel measured the effects, both objectively with EEG and so on, and subjectively through interviews afterward. Don't ask me what exactly they did, or how. I never knew all the details, and anyway, I'd prefer not to give anyone the means of repeating the experiments.
I was one of their subjects, not just for one experiment but for a whole series of them, lasting over a year. After a while, I was their only subject. Three things happened during that time. One: the experiments got weirder and weirder, as Dr. John found ways to play around with quantum theory on a macro scale. Two: I started to feel that I personally was getting weirder with each experiment. Sometimes colors looked different to me, as I became more aware of the electromagnetic spectrum. Sometimes I heard radio in my head, and I don't mean through fillings in my teeth. Time didn't seem to go at the normal rate, and I wasn't always sure it was going in only one direction.
Three: I fell in love with Dr. Rachel. I was pretty sure she knew about it, and maybe even reciprocated my feelings a little. I thought about talking to her about this, but I didn't have the nerve. Instead, I played out theoretical conversations in my mind. I wanted to say, "What do we do about this? Nothing, of course, but what else?" By which I meant that I wouldn't ever ask her to sleep with me. I'd seen how much damage adultery could do. Yet how could I pretend that I didn't care about her? That is what I did, though. I never said a word about my feelings.
One reason I didn't say anything was that I couldn't stand the idea of quitting the experiments. It wasn't just Dr. Rachel that drew me to the lab every Monday. It was also the way I was changing with each session. I felt smarter, and more aware of the way the world around me worked. I'd begun to crave the changes. The time might come when I'd be able to manipulate the physics of my surroundings, being there and not there at the same time, like Schroedinger's Cat, or pushing aside the molecules in a door like the man on Camazotz in A Wrinkle in Time. Even Dr. John began to think this sort of thing might be possible for me.
In the end, though, that wasn't quite what happened.
The last session had to do with strobe lights, the kind that sometimes cause epileptic seizures. I could see the light as waves and as particles, stretch them and contract them, and split them into colors. I thought at first that maybe this was just perceptual, something happening in my mind only, but Rachel said she saw it, too.
Then she began to have a seizure.
I fell all over myself, and tripped over all the equipment, trying to get to her. I tried to shut down the strobe with my mind alone, even as I tried to find the control to shut it down properly. I only succeeded in making the light brighter and weirder, swirling colors like something out of a psychedelic sixties film or seventies special effects. Except this was real, and it was clearly killing Rachel. She had slumped to the floor. I wasn't even sure she was breathing. Dr. John was out of the room. I shouted for him, and I shouted her name, too, as I struggled to reach her, diodes and wires dangling from my skin. I thought I saw Dr. John at the door, just before the world went away.
The next thing I knew, I was stumbling through a field. On my right were perhaps a hundred men in chainmail, carrying spears and a few swords. On my left were more of the same, but mostly without the chainmail. Somehow I knew that these people weren't in an S.C.A. campaign. They were really out to kill each other--and I was right in the middle.
And at my feet was Rachel's body.
The Real Joshua Wander
Joshua Wander: Two Fragments
Joshua Wander Lives (the history of the character)
Meet Joshua Wander, Part Two
Thursday, November 04, 2004
If you've been reading my fiction blog all along (and who has?), you may recall an early posting about my favorite non-Mâvarin character (well, mostly non-Mâvarin), Joshua Wander. I also wrote about the character in my LiveJournal blog.
J.W. was the lead non-player character in a live D&D session in college, but I probably created him sometime before that, possibly in high school. In the live dungeon under the Vincent Apartments in Syracuse, Josh had a nemesis who called himself Xerxes Grayman, who blamed Josh for the death of his wife. Both characters became wizards more or less by accident after a science experiment went awry, killing the wife and sending J.W. tripping involuntarily through the multiverse. That much of John's story I managed to get on paper at about this time, but the full expression of his relationship with Xerxes pretty much came from the Vincent campaign.
The story went nowhere, but I used Joshua Wander extensively in D&D, though college and for a few years after that. Along the way he ended up with a castle with the same quantum(?) instability he had, called Toujours Chez Moi because he was able to take it with him from world to world. He also ended up with a daughter, Ariel Allegra. I don't remember who the mother was.
The only problem with the character is that I've never been able to get his story plotted and written. Someday I will, I hope, but probably not until I'm a lot less obsessed with Mâvarin than I am now.
Now, the names Joshua Wander and Xerxes Grayman were designed to be obvious pseudonyms. Joshua Wander's real name was Christopher Stein, and he was a college student when his story began. His professor, John Grayson, was the man destined to chase him from world to world.
So you can imagine my surprise when, a couple of years ago, a rather large family named Wander bought tickets at Worldwide Travel where I work. I checked the invoice. Sure enough, one of the passengers was named Joshua Wander. I felt as if my fictional character had stopped off in my reality, just long enough to remind me of his existence.
Well, I posted about all this in July. In August I heard from another real-world Joshua Wander, who'd Googled up his name and found the Blogger post. He is evidently not the man who bought tickets at Worldwide Travel, but, like that man, he does travel. In fact, like the fictional J.W., this second namesake travels a lot.
How do I know this? I just heard from him again. He wanted to let me know about his new club and web site, the D4DR Club. No, it has nothing to do with SUVs, at least not directly. D4DR is apparently the designation of what might be called the adventure-seeking gene. The purpose of the club is to reach out to other people with the "elongated" D4DR gene.
This real-world JW has strong symptomatic evidence of the adventure-seeking trait. According to the D4DR web site, he's been to 50 countries, and reported news from Iraq, Haiti, Northern Ireland and other "hot spots." There's more to the resume, but you get the gist. How appropriate - my most adventurous, well-traveled character has a real-world equivalent with many of the same traits.
Unless, of course, they really are the same person. ;)
And lest we think this is all a hoax (the thought did cross my mind!), a reporter named Josh Wander is all over the web, as a quick Google search reveals. One of the links was to an NPR story. When I saw that, I remembered that I thought I'd heard the name on NPR at least once, but decided I'd been mistaken.
The family name really is Wander, and the man is definitely a reporter in the Middle East and elsewhere. Josh Wander was also behind a controversial, possibly satirical proposal to return the Statue of Liberty to France, at about the same time as the nonsense about "freedom fries." He appears to take his Jewish faith and family ties very seriously, as may be seen on the Wander's Web site. Well, my Chris Stein is Jewish, so that fits, too. (It occurs to me now that I shouldn't have given a Jewish wizard character the first name Christopher, but I was young then, and didn't think it through.)
I'm not sure about that Statue of Liberty thing, though. I suspect that this J.W. and I may be worlds apart politically.
Then again, I never asked the fictional Joshua Wander for his opinions about France or Iraq.