I was in the kitchen preparing a snack when I heard an excited shout and a muffled crash from upstairs. Moments later, my roommate, Tom, came dashing down the stairs at full speed, ricocheting off the far wall in his haste, as I stared bemusedly across the top of my sandwich. This wasn't an uncommon occurrence, though I still flinched when he slammed his bedroom door hard enough to jar dust loose from the ceiling. I was still slightly worried: the last time this happened, we'd had visits from three separate extraterrestrial races and the CIA that weekend.
I guess I should try to explain that. I've known Tom for six years, long enough to figure out that he is one of two things. Either he's a complete genius, or he's very, very lucky. I'm not sure which, and I'm not sure that the distinction needs to be made. Whenever he puts his mind to something, he gets it done, and he gets it done well. We have a fully serviceable bomb shelter in the basement because of this fact. We'd never been into space, but he'd talked seriously about the fact that he could, had he any desire to do so, build a ship fully capable of exiting the atmosphere. Which goes a long way toward explaining the tiny person in my head that was voicing its apprehension at that moment.
I gave him some time. I finished my sandwich, flicked the crumbs, first onto the floor and then under the dishwasher, and put the jam back in the refrigerator. I even took the time to note that it was strawberry. Then I headed down the hall to his room. There was a dirty sock flung hastily across his door handle, which signified either that he was getting laid, or that he was engrossed in some project and needed to be left alone. Knowing Tom, and considering the circumstances, I guessed that he wasn't getting laid. I shook my head and walked away, sure that I'd be the first, and, most likely, only person to know when he finished.
* * *
I didn't see him for two weeks after that, except for the occasional emergence from his room to retrieve food, or to scavenge parts from the various electronics around the house. I hadn't seen him use the bathroom once during that time, a fact that scared me a little, but I got over it. Thus, I was kind of surprised when he surfaced one day as I was listening to the radio. Listening to the radio, not watching television, because he had taken that almost a week ago.
"I've discovered magic.”
I nearly snorted Pepsi through my nose. "Excuse me?”
"Well,” he corrected himself, "I didn't exactly 'discover' it, I'd more say that I 'unearthed' it. 'Exposed.'”
"Tom, what are you talking about?”
He gave me a mysterious look, crooked a finger in a "follow me” motion, and vanished into his bedroom. Sighing exaggeratedly, I followed, sidling into his room as he shut the door behind me. In the space where his desk had previously stood was a device that looked like something out of a cheesy sci-fi horror B-flick. It sat there, humming surreptitiously.
"You've been busy,” I observed.
"I'm always busy,” he retorted, fiddling with what used to be the television remote.
"True. What is it?”
"A phase viewer.” A few more button-pushes and the humming increased in volume and pitch.
"Naturally.” I waited.
He put down the remote and looked at me. "Think of it as a pair of beer goggles. Beer goggles that let you see things you couldn't see otherwise. Like magic.”
"I'm thinking. I'm having a hard time picturing it.”
"Let me put it this way: I've uncovered another phase of existence that coexists with ours.”
"You didn't uncover that. Gary Gygax did when he wrote Dungeons & Dragons. It's called the ethereal plane.”
"No, no, no. Gygax had it all wrong. The ether, if you want to call it that, isn't a plane at all. It's a phase.”
I blinked. "Now you're going to explain the difference, right?”
Tom made a frustrated noise in the back of his throat. "If the ethereal plane were real, it would be coterminous with this plane, correct?”
"Remind me what that word means again?”
"Coterminous? It means 'sharing the same limits.'”
"Okay, yeah. The ethereal plane would be coterminous, I guess.”
"Right, in that it exists in the same space as our plane of existence. Following me so far?”
"But the ethereal plane is just that, a separate plane. Even though it shares the same airspace with us, if you will, it's still separate and rather difficult to reach in most cases.”
"I can't believe I'm seriously having this conversation. The ethereal plane doesn't exist, Tom! It's from a game.”
"That's where you're absolutely right!” he proclaimed excitedly, as if I had suddenly "gotten it.” "The concept of the ether is there, but it's nothing like we thought it was! Instead of the 'ethereal plane,' you have the 'ethereal phase!'”
"Oh, right. You were going to explain the difference.”
"With a plane, it's a separate and distinct location, coterminous or not. With a phase, it's the same, but different.”
"The same but different,” I repeated dully.
"Right. Uhm… think of...” He paused a moment to scratch his head. "Think of wavelengths of light. Even though you can't see the full spectrum, it's all there.” He picked up the remote again. "It's not a very elegant analogy, but... I've built the tools that are going to let us see the full spectrum.” He pushed a button.
"Tom, that's my TV.” It was showing some garbled image, like you get when you try to tune to a station that you can't quite catch.
He cleared his throat. "Yeah, um, well. It was.”
"What do you mean, was? Did you break it?”
"It won't catch HBO anymore, if that's what you're asking. Here, watch this.” He twisted a knob to the left. The screen flickered, faded, and then suddenly snapped into focus.
"That's us,” I said, surprised. I looked around for some sort of recording device. "Where's the camera?”
Tom laughed. "Camera? This baby doesn't need a camera, man.” He thumbed something on the remote and the angle of the shot swept around us in a wide arc, and then zoomed in suddenly, focusing in, first on me, and then into me. Into me. I saw something throbbing steadily. "See that? That's your heart.”
I took an involuntary step backward, unsure of what was going on and worried about radiation or some similar badness. "What...?”
He picked up a wrench and went around to the back of the machine. "I told you, it's a phase viewer. It's pretty narrowly tuned, but it can focus its pickups on any point, and I do mean any point, within its operational radius. Which right now is about four feet, so we won't be able to do any spying from here. Just in case you were wondering.”
I knelt next to it. "Tom, think of the applications for this. Doctors could perform full diagnoses on patients without even using a scalpel. It could completely replace x-ray machines for luggage checking.”
His hand poked around the side of the thing, waving in a dismissing motion. "Maybe later. We're about three minutes away from making a major scientific breakthrough.” He paused, chuckled to himself, and added, "Again.”
Scientific breakthrough? "Who do you think you're going to with this? Any respectable institution would laugh at you, right before they had you committed to the crazy house.”
"I'm not going to anyone,” he chided me. "But I don't doubt that somebody will end up with the plans for this thing. There's no such thing as privacy.”
"Doesn't that ever scare you?”
"What, that there's no privacy in the world?” He stood up. "Nope, I've come to accept the fact. You can only fear what you don't understand.” He traded the wrench for the remote again. "Okay, pay attention. We're about to make the maiden voyage into the world of magic.”
He began pressing buttons on the remote, and something within the phase viewer flared brightly. I held my breath, not sure what to expect, but positive that it would do something. Kill us both with some new type of radiation, maybe? The sound coming from the thing was amazing, a train whistle and a peal of thunder at the same time.
"It's working!” Tom shouted above the noise. He pointed to my former TV. "Look!”
I looked. It still showed us, though now in grayscale instead of Technicolor. Other than that, I didn't see a difference. "What are you talking about?” I shouted back. "You already showed me this!”
"No, look again!” He was tweaking a set of knobs furiously. "It's faint, but it's there!”
I checked. I saw the two of us, as I had before, but there was something else. A vapor, or a mist. Faint but visible. "What is it?”
"The closest thing I can think of that you would understand is ether. Or mana. It doesn't matter what you call it. It's raw magic.”
"Has it been there all along?”
"In theory. I'll have to do some more tests, but I'm almost positive that it's fairly ubiquitous.”
"Why's it so faint?” I had moved to stand next to him, in part to make communication easier, and also because I felt safer standing next to the guy with the controls for this thing.
"Resolution issues, most likely. It is just a prototype viewer, after all. Here, let me see if I can make it any better.” He did something with the remote, and the room jumped out of focus. At the same time, the fog sharpened and intensified. The viewer was absolutely screaming by this point.
"Should it be making that much noise?” I yelled in Tom's direction, covering my ears.
He tweaked something that cast the image into fuchsia, and then back again. "Scientific progress has always made a variety of interesting noises.” He had a look of intense concentration on his face, brow furrowed, tip of his tongue poking out of the corner of his mouth.
"Shut it down, Tom!” Smoke was starting to seep from the viewer, accompanied by a series of pops and clanks. Tom was still working the remote, fingers moving as fast as any gamer's on the controls. Tendrils of smoke were spreading, but something was wrong. I didn't smell the burning circuitry that meant the house was about to go up in flames. Neither were my eyes stinging from the fumes of burnt plastic.
The phase viewer had started shaking violently, like a washing machine with an unbalanced load. A shower of sparks sprayed at our feet, and I jumped back. Tom shifted his absently, fully absorbed in whatever he was doing. The smoke, or fog, or whatever it was, was thickening, and – Wait. Fog. "Holy crap. Tom, is that what I think it is?”
He had barely nodded when, with a single unexpected and deafening noise, the entire room filled with a blinding light and a moment of heat and pressure that knocked us off our feet. I lay on my back for what was probably only a few seconds but seemed like an eternity, waiting for the ringing to fade.
The first sound I heard was laughter.
Propping myself up on my elbows, I looked at Tom. He was lying spread-eagle on the floor, clothes smoking from the explosion, shaking with uproarious laughter, tears running down his beet-red face.
"Tom?” I slugged him in the shoulder. "Are you going crazy?”
He sat up suddenly, scaring me, still laughing as he surveyed the wreckage of what, if I understood what was going on, was probably the first documented case of mana burn. The combustion of magical energy. The phase viewer's top half was gone, most likely vaporized in the explosion. He turned to me, struggling to keep his laughter under control.
"Scientific progress goes 'boink.'"