In an ordinary Midwestern suburb is an ordinary two-bedroom house containing an ordinary couple. One of them has a plate of chicken and green beans and the other is kneeling beside him with his hands tied behind his back, opening his mouth to receive a green bean.
[We do. So far as I can tell by looking, people here look like the same species I am. Ah... on my world, if somebody verifiably materialized from elsewhere, versus just saying they'd materialized from elsewhere, there would be very different responses involving, respectively, the largest university-inquisition in the history of time with an uncapped budget, or alternatively, psychiatric intervention?]
[If you want to be admitted to a psychiatric hospital staffed by people who are mostly monolingual speakers of English be my guest but it's not a popular option even for native speakers and I'm not planning to insist as long as you do not appear to be a danger to yourself or others. I am sure some kind of academic would be interested in you but I do not have one in my pocket.]
Thellim is now very confused.
[Things here are very different than they are on my world. Do you not have... research institutions? Collections of specialists, who are supported by venture capitalists trying to capture prizes, which prizes are funded by most of the world's public to produce public goods? And, I mean, it wouldn't be the first thought to cross my own mind, but do you not have venture capitalists who would fly out by the thousands to meet somebody from another world?]
[We have research institutions but you seem to have a remarkably specific preconception of how they should work considering the other-planet thing. I don't have a venture capitalist in my pocket either. Do you want me to get on Twitter and post "hey, somebody I knew in school had somebody who claims she's from another planet land in their kitchen"? Because that will be taken as an experimental fiction project.]
[I am still incredibly confused but adaptation is a virtue so let's do whatever it is that you think is supposed to happen next!]
[Jackson said Brian doesn't mind if you stay in their spare room for tonight, and I can swing you plane tickets for tomorrow to where I am - uh, if you think you can take plane-navigating instructions reasonably well - and that will make it easier to do things like hire a lie detector and, uh, try to introduce you to venture capitalists if that's what you're into.]
There is a dreamlike, unreal quality to the way that Thellim's arrival here is (1) supposedly totally unprecedented (2) being treated with about the same urgency and interest as the observation of a new turtle species. Sure, they'll give her a plane ticket to fly out, rather than rushing every possible form of scientific instrumentation to where she is in case there was any kind of lingering detectable anomalous radiation. Okay. Fine. She'll roll with the dream. At least now she knows this isn't fiction because fiction has to be believable.
[I have no problem staying in a spare room. I can't navigate a plane but I can write down syllabic phrases in my own language to repeat at key points for purposes of getting on a plane. Or, I suppose, Jackson or Brian could write down flashcards for me to show people, so I don't have to make it obvious that I don't know your planetary language. I'm sorry if this is impolite or in some way violates cultural conventions of which I have no inkling, but may I inquire what person has taken charge of this event, and for some precis of their role in the greater society and its factions?] Maybe she got routed to the Chief Crazy Person In Charge Of Crazy People.
(Only after the braintalk does Thellim think to wonder if she's permanently traumatized about planes now. She probably shouldn't be, right? She'll reconsider that if the next plane crashes but, for now, things will definitely be more convenient if she's not traumatized by planes.)
[...there is not a whole big to-do about your arrival. The people who know it happened are Jackson, Brian, and me, because if you'd hung around dithering for another thirty minutes Jackson would have tried emailing me and I'm a precog. I work for a boring private psionics corporation but in my individual capacity think I am better equipped to deal with you, whatever your deal is, than Jackson and his dom are. You could be, like, a weird eclipse accident, if some poorly controlled diabetic kid kicked you a month into the future after somebody else scrambled your brain a little, but even if I were positive you were from another planet there is not a Department Of People Being From Other Planets to submit a form to.]
[Why, I don't think I've ever before heard any statement which has given me so few follow-up questions!]
[Do you want, like, the executive summary of how magic works or something. Jackson says to tell you he's going to show you the spare room now.]
[Both of those things sound lovely.]
Jackson opens a door and gestures into it. It is a spare room.
[On the eclipse closest to your twelfth birthd-
- if you are really from another planet, then actually no matter how old you are you need to act like that the next eclipse might be your eclipse. We don't know how that works because people from other planets are not a routine occurrence. Protocol is that for the two entire days leading up to a total lunar eclipse you DO NOT EAT ANYTHING with ANY calories. After the eclipse if you feel normal you can resume eating, if you feel like you can suddenly do magic you have to get in touch with somebody who can either lock you down or get you into a virtual reality setup to confuse your magic and absolutely should not eat until one of those things has happened, capisce?]
Thellim obediently enters the spare room.
[Eat zero things for two days before a total lunar eclipse, check. When might the next one of those be?] Thellim should feel more alarmed about this, Brain Voice sounds very driven about it. She will pretend she is more alarmed, until she starts believing in it more, and fake making the correct decisions so she can carry them out.
[The next one is this June on the fifteenth. That's in the summer, it's winter now, January 24.
Anyway, on the total lunar eclipse closest to your twelfth birthday you have a small chance of getting one of two categories of magic; there's mages, and there's psions. Psions do things with mental effects - illusion, precognition, talking in your head like I'm doing, etcetera - we can work on computers too nowadays - and mages do things with physical effects - flying, healing, setting things on fire and whatnot. We start out with no control whatsoever over it and every eclipse precogs like me spend all night cleaning up after kids who sneak a piece of leftover Halloween candy or whose birthdays are subject to clerical errors or who can't fast for medical reasons because otherwise there would be lots of enormous disasters all over the place in the real timeline. Once an eclipsed has control it's safe for us to eat food outside of virtuality but we don't know how to do anything on purpose till we teach ourselves and it resists systematic instruction, so we all know whatever powers in our set appeal to us. Questions?]
[It's probably not actually the most urgent question but in fact the first question to cross my mind was whether precognition works for solving NP-hard problems.]
[With the contents of an entire Cheesecake Factory and a cooperative minion I could brute-force one a little faster but not, like, well, for that you want a diviner.]
She's in a world that can convert cheesecake to computation, well, fine, she will deal with that because ADAPTATION IS A VIRTUE.
[I suppose my next question is what happens to me. If there are, for reasons I don't understand, a bizarre absence of swarming funders desperately throwing money at this event, then I suppose I hope there exists a reasonably-priced psion who can give me this world's language so I can poke around your Planetary Network figuring out which pieces of knowledge I have are liable to be worth the most money. We will, I suppose, not bother with having lie-detectors verify the truth of my story and announcing it to your world, because nobody except you would really care, or pay money to talk with me about my own world's institutions and innovations and history, I GUESS?? At some point in the summer I will very carefully not eat anything for two days - or three days, if that adds safety margin surrounding my unknown circumstances? I'm not twelve and am happy to do three days - and then I either end up with magic, or continue doing whatever I was doing.]
[I don't actually know if there's anyone who works as an English installer but I can look it up. Though that's not the world's language, we have kind of a lot of languages. Two days has some safety margin built in as long as you really eat zero calories during that time, otherwise the advice would also include limits on how many calories you can have the day before.]
[I'm in fact slightly concerned because that doesn't match my model of how anything on my world works metabolically - there could still be food in my intestines and my body's caloric reserves would release sustained triglycerides and later ketones into my bloodstream over time - but if the issue doesn't arise until summer there'll be time for me to check for metabolic differences; if your world's metabolic setup looks the same as mine, I'll chalk it up to 'magical rules rather than actual caloric dependency'. Actually... does your civilization understand why the rules are that way, or is it just empirically observing the 2-day limit on food? Because it's also never observed somebody go through their first eclipse at an age much higher than 12. I mean, maybe this isn't the most urgent question, but it sounds like something you or your world worries a lot about, and the thought does come to mind.]
[Just empirically observing the two day rule. I can do magic till I faint from hunger but people don't do it by accident.]
Yeah, she'll be doing some metabolic research and then fasting for a substantially longer period than two days. Unless this whole process is better-understood, or the consequences less drastic, than Brain-Voice makes it sound.
[Again, forgive me if it's rude to ask, but may I ask what form of payment or reciprocation you may be expecting for all the help that you have given me, including with things like plane tickets and perhaps 'English' installers?]
[I make lots of money, don't worry about the plane ticket. If I find and hire you an English installer that will be pricey enough I will kind of feel it so we can talk about that then.]
That's... not really all that reassuring a thing to say in reply, but different world, different customs; Thellim won't press. [Until I've learned English, I'm not really sure how much resource there is that I can make use of, besides food and shelter and help learning the language - I imagine it being hard to do without somebody who already knows both languages, I'm past the window for rapid language acquisition in childhood - and while I'd imagine that your brain-voice skill isn't unique, it seems like, if that skill exists, there might be somebody who can get English into me with less labor than doing a lot of braintalk. I suppose, while I can't read anything or use the planetary network or talk to anybody besides you and people with similar skills, it would be nice to have access to recorded music from your musical genres-that-are-recorded-and-replayed-in-planetwide-competition. Actually, if that's something that Brian or Jackson can supply, it will enable me to be less horribly bored once I run out of energy to think and make notes to myself. Oh, it would also be nice if they have paper and a pen, if your society hasn't advanced beyond that. And if your society's shower controls are much more complicated than my society's shower controls, help understanding the controls in this house might be appreciated before this brain-call ends? But if it's just four knobs that you turn, I can probably figure those out.]
[I have never visited Jackson's house so I don't know how complicated his shower is but it's probably not more than four knobs that you turn or pull or something. Uh, braintalk is a much, much easier skill than implanting languages in somebody's brain; you'd still pay a premium on it being psion labor at all, but you could hire somebody who's like fifteen to do it in conjunction with language tutoring, as opposed to somebody who is thirty and has worked a long time on their language installation skill and is the only person in the country who can do it, or something - I still haven't found one, that's just my guess at how rare it probably is. I assume your hosts have music and I can ask them to put some on but we do not have planetwide competitions. We have a continental competition but I don't think the stuff from Eurovision is actually notably better or more accessible or anything than random pop. Jackson says pen and paper and old iPod are on their way.]
There is a knock at her door.
Thellim accepts pen and paper and presumable hightech computing device 'old iPod'. [I shall of course be grateful for assistance in learning English the hard way, if the easy way is above my budget and I can't get loans and haven't earned early revenue. On my world some forms of music are fine for trained professionals to play on the radio, record, or sell; others are reserved for ordinary people who'd just like to play for their friends or at gatherings. I didn't want to presume on somebody to play me live music, and the first kind is of much higher quality, so I asked for the first kind. What do I do with the 'old iPod'?]