I’d been working on another batch of my infamous hooch when I heard the kids playing outside. They knew they weren’t supposed to be within earshot of my place. Normally, the warnings from their parents were enough to keep them away. It appeared those hadn’t worked to much effect today. Time to make an example of someone then, I guess?
I crept over to the ‘scope and took a quick shufty. Then I saw the new distraction. They were playing with a puppy.
I went over to the bench and started flipping through the archive. It had been… twelve years? Really? As long as that? Twelve years since my last dog. Time to make two examples then.
The kids were still laughing and screaming and calling out “here puppy puppy!” as I reached the group. And not one of them spotted me coming. Not good enough, simply not good enough. If an old man like me could creep up on them, how were they supposed to cope with the numerous wild animals known to roam the local plains? I decided to make my presence known.
“FREEZE!” I bellowed. All of them knew my voice, despite having never seen me before. Only the puppy was left running around, until it too got the hint and sat its furry little behind down on the grass.
“NOBODY MOVE!” I knew they wouldn’t dare. All those long nights of scary stories around the fire from their parents and grandparents. Only some of them are true. I leave it to them to decide which, you gotta maintain some mystique, right?
“WHO DARED BRING THIS BEAST INTO OUR CAMP? THE CULPRIT WILL RAISE A HAND, NOW!” I felt the breeze go, that was behind me. I didn’t even have to turn around to know who it was.
“IF YOUR HAND ISN’T RAISED, GET GONE NOW!” They vanished faster than marsh wolves on the hunt. Then I turned around.
It was Marcus, son of Marcus. “Get the dog, come with me. Now.” I didn’t need to shout any more, he wouldn’t dare to disobey me. He trudged over, picked up the dog and followed me back to the cave. Well, to the mouth of the cave. He at least knew one of the stories about me then.
“Permission to enter, sir?”
“Permission granted. Where did you learn that one?” I asked him.
“From my father, sir. ‘Marcus’, he’d say, ‘never enter the wizard’s cave without his permission, for fear of what he may do to you or what he might turn you into’.“
So his father was still telling his children that same story, over forty years later? How badly had he corrupted it by now, I wondered.
“Did your father ever tell you what I did to him? What I turned him into?” It was at that exact moment the poor boy soiled himself rather badly. Detecting his discomfort, the puppy did likewise. I’ve still got it then.
I ushered them deeper into the cave and had the boy stand in the alcove where the mountain water ran through the cave. He was at least able to wash the puppy clean; and his breech-cloth too.
“Sir, is this part of your magic?” Marcus asked. By now he’d placed the puppy onto the cold stone floor of the cave, it ran straight back under the water. I assumed he also meant the water, which was hot enough to be refreshing but not to burn.
I made sure he didn’t see me smiling, innocent fool. “No, Marcus. That’s not magic.”
“But the water, sir? It’s hot, yet you have no fire?” He’d already taken in the whole cave, and managed to notice I had no fire? Not quite such a fool then! I had no need of one; the thermal springs ran under these cliffs and kept the cave warm at all times.
Perhaps he did have the same potential. Perhaps I could teach him something.
Marcus was still standing under the hot flowing water, the puppy seemed to be enjoying it immensely too.
“Boy or girl?” I asked.
Marcus returned me a blank stare.
“The puppy, child. Boy or girl?” I asked again.
Marcus shrugged. He’d taken an animal for his home without checking its gender? Foolish child.
The puppy chose that moment to make toilet. A boy then. I left them there for a few moments, safe in the knowledge that neither would attempt to flee. I found what I wanted much deeper back into the cave.
“Here, boy. It’s clean and dry.” I left the new breech-cloth a few steps from the alcove then walked into the back of the cave to give him his privacy. When I came back a short while later I found him washing the other breech-cloth under the hot water.
“When you’re done there, I’ll show you where you can hang it to dry.”
Marcus’ eyes brightened. “Outside, sir?” he asked.
I shook my head. Spark extinguished. Yes, still got it.
The puppy vigorously shook itself dry then followed me as I motioned to Marcus to come too. I pointed out the stalagmite where I usually hung my own clothes. “Be careful as you place it, the air is extremely hot in that area.” It was one of the smaller vents where the thermal springs funnelled heat. Then I led him over to the bench.
The puppy was quite attentive, it sat without being asked. It would be easy to train him. When I looked at Marcus standing alone nervously, I wondered if the same would go for him too. “Are you nervous, boy?”
“Yes, sir.” Good. At least he wasn’t a liar or a braggart.
“Are you afraid?”
“Yes, sir. Only an idiot wouldn’t be afraid to be here with you.”
Excellent. Good to know. Most of the old stories were still working well then. I just needed to make sure the kids knew to give me my space. “Come over here, son. Do you know what this is?” I pointed to the archive.
“Is that the Magic Book?” Marcus looked utterly petrified at this point. If I pushed him any further he was going to need another clean breech-cloth.
“It holds some modicum of power, that’s true enough,” I said. Then I opened it to my last marker. “Look there, read that out.”
The marker outlined three lines of text. I wanted to be sure his father had stuck to our agreement. At first, Marcus moved to read it without thinking, then just as his finger was about to make contact with the page he caught himself, realising what he was just about to do.
“Is it safe to touch, sir?”
I muttered a few choice phrases beneath my breath. “It is now, son. Read everything inside the marker.”
Marcus read as he followed his fingertip. “The motion of objects through a spacial axis is subject to the usual forces of both gravity and inertia.“
“Stop there. Read the rest.”
I saw him about to read aloud again. “No. Show me the talent. To yourself.” His finger still continued to scan across the words but his lips ceased any further movement. When his finger reached the last word I motioned him to step back. Then I closed the book, to see if his father truly had done his job.
“Can you remember the last few words, Marcus?”
“Show me. Without the book. Aloud, please.”
I could see him look up, trying to remember. “The spacial area of any singularity is a fixed constant.” Then he looked at me. “Was that right, sir?”
“Yes. You’re free to go now, the dog stays here with me though. Tell your father I’ll be taking you as a student next week. And tell your friends if I hear them playing near the cave again, I’ll turn them all into, well I’ll definitely turn them into something. Get your breech-cloth and away with you.”
Marcus snatched it up as he ran out of the cave.
It was almost moonrise three days later when the voice came calling. “Wizard? Wizard? I seek an audience!”
“Come in Marcus, a former student doesn’t need permission to enter.”
The boy’s father hadn’t changed greatly with the coming of manhood and fatherhood. His eyes were just as mischievous as ever. “You’ve taken him to ‘Prentice then, Wizard?”
I shook my head. How much he had forgotten since he’d been here last. “I’ll see to his learning. The boy has the gift for sure, he’s a subaudible.”
Marcus had forgotten his own lessons, with the passage of time.”Will you be keeping him, Wizard?”
I looked at him. “Did I keep you, fool?”
Marcus had been telling his stories for too long, all he remembered were the lies he now fed the children.
“Is your father still alive, Marcus?” Would he lie to me?
“Yes, Wizard. He lives still. Though I fear he has not long left amongst us.”
Then I gave him the look, that one that always made them afraid, no matter how many times they’d visited me. “Go home now Marcus, go tell your stories around the fire. And when you get there, tell your father I wish to see him. Here, tonight.”
Father left the cave pretty much as his son had, quickly, without looking back, and in fear.
An hour passed before he came. “The cave still remains warm then, sir?”
“As warm as the day we first found it as scouts, Marcus.”
“My son angered you, sir?”
I shook my head. “No. His memory isn’t what it once was. It appears my lessons have long since been forgotten. Who reads to the children now?”
The old man looked much like his son, and grandson. Just a little more haggard, hair a little whiter. “I do, sir. He forgets all of his lessons now. But I keep up the tradition, as you requested.”
So Marcus had stopped teaching them? Yet his own father still maintained the order? I beckoned him over to the bench. “Will you take a drink with me, Marcus, in honour of old times?”
The old man’s eyes brightened. “Just a drink, sir? Or the restorative?”
I smiled to myself. Good, he still remembered, even if his foolish son didn’t. “Which would you prefer, Marcus?”
“The restorative, if it pleases you, sir?”
I passed him the bowl, I’d already measured out the smallest dose possible that would still have some effect. Then I raised my own bowl. “To your continued good health, Marcus. May you live to bury that fool you call a son.”
Then we both drained our vessels dry.
“Does he have long left, sir?”
I shook my head. “A month, perhaps two, if he’s lucky. I caught him near the reactor, only last week. Remember to scare the children again, they’ve been poking around again, far too near the ship.”
Marcus nodded. “That I will, sir. That I will. Does he still call you Wizard?”
I laughed. “Yes, Marcus. Only the other day, in fact. You don’t have to keep calling me sir, you know that. The ship has long since grounded for good. You and I are the only crew members left alive. I think you’ll need to send that son of yours off to scout new lands soon though. I know it’s good living here, but if they find the ship? If they find the engines? I’d hate to think what might happen to them.”
“The radiation is still there then, sir?”
“Then. Now. And another ten thousand years more, at least. And me with almost no restorative formula left. Once we’re gone, all they’ll have are the stories we leave them. This dose should give us ten more years, at a guess.”
“Am I free to return to the camp now, sir?”
“Yes, Marcus. And you can stop calling me sir. I’m not the Captain anymore.”
“As you wish, sir. Sorry. Yes, Captain Blizzard. Blizzard, I suppose it does sound like Wizard, yes?”
I’d have replied but he’d already made his way out of the cave. Young Marcus might take to reading, perhaps some of his friends too. Not many left who can still read to themselves any more. We call them the subaudibles. Long may they live, and our memories of Mother Earth with them.
Ray Daley was born in Coventry and still lives there. He served six yrs in the RAF as a clerk and spent most of his time in a Hobbit hole in High Wycombe. He is a published poet and has been writing stories since he was ten. His current dream is to eventually finish the Hitch Hikers fanfic novel he’s been writing since 1986.