Chapter One: The Vision
“I can find no explanation for this curious malady,” the doctor said.
The patient, young Nikola Tesla, clamped his hands over his ears to block out the street noises. Dogs barked; boys shouted; a horse and carriage clattered past. The rattles, thuds and jingles echoed in his head, until he thought he would explode.
“Perhaps a dose of laudanum would help.” The doctor turned to Niko’s friend Anton. “Keep him in a dark room, or the stress may cause heart failure. I’m afraid there is nothing more I can do.”
The doctor left, closing the door. Niko felt the vibrations like an earthquake, shaking him apart. He squeezed his hands more tightly over his ears.
“He thinks I’m going mad,” Niko whispered. “You think so too…don’t you?”
“Come now.” Anton did not meet Niko’s eyes. “Have your senses become so acute that you can hear what a fellow’s thinking?”
Indeed, thought Niko, perhaps so.
“It’s all because of that infernal electric device,” said Anton, “the one Herr Professor showed us. You’ve not been the same since you saw it.”
“Yes. The Gramme Dynamo,” Niko murmured.
“Electricity, it is a dangerous force,” said Anton. “Perhaps the currents affect the brain.”
The currents, thought Niko. Anton was right: it was the electrical dynamo that was making him sick. As soon as he had seen the crude little motor that threw off all the sparks, he knew he must design something better. And so he had obsessed over the problem day and night, refusing food and sleep. His brain worked so hard that every nerve fired at once. Lightning flashed continuously inside his head.
“I must make the currents flow as nature intended.” Niko struggled to speak, while holding onto his head. “He said…it couldn’t be done. Thinks I’m a dreamer—says I sh-should have been a priest!”
“Now now…take it easy,” Anton murmured.
“Have to show him he’s wrong!”
Niko lay in bed shaking and sweating, consumed by visions: great rotating magnets and glowing coils of wire. His senses grew ever more acute: he heard a pocket watch ticking in the next room, and a fly crawling up the wall. A train rumbled across a bridge, several miles away, and the deafening vibrations threatened to shake Niko apart.
Surely if he were to rise from his bed…the movement itself would kill him.
Then again, perhaps not. Could he cheat the Reaper once more? Niko had narrowly escaped death a number of times: from the cholera, and other wasting illnesses…from the childhood accidents, near drownings, falls from high places… and of course, the lightning.
It had all started with the lightning. He saw the childhood memory, clear as the day it happened.
“Mother! Lightning is coming!”
The boy stood at the doorway, jumping up and down with excitement. The clouds flickered and a rumble of thunder echoed from the hills. “The bolt will strike right there!” He pointed at a huge tree across the yard.
“Nikola―come inside at once,” Mother cried. “It’s dangerous!”
No―not dangerous. Wonderful! Rain began to pelt down. Niko dashed out toward the tree. He could feel the channels of power building up in the sky and within the earth. Reaching higher, towards each other, ready to jump―now!
“Nikola,” his mother called.
Crack! A blinding flash as the two channels of power met and exploded directly overhead. The impact sent the boy flying, every cell vibrating with the glory.
The next thing he saw was the worried faces of Mother and Father gazing down at him. Father, a priest of the Serbian Orthodox Church, murmured prayers.
Mother pulled him into her arms. “Oh, thank God, Nikola! You almost got killed―”
No, the child thought, I was almost alive!
Nikola’s father fixed him with a piercing frown. “How did you know where the lightning would strike, boy?”
“I could just feel it,” Niko said. Had he done something wrong? “Couldn’t you feel it too?”
“Saints have mercy.” Father made the sign of the Cross. “Does the boy have a demon in him?”
A throng of boisterous students passed by beneath the window. Niko tried to blot out the sounds by calling up visions in his head.
He had always seen the flashes of light, waking and sleeping. Other times, more elaborate visions came: fields of stars, vast flaming spirals, glowing filaments that spanned the universe.
As a boy, he noticed that currents of energy streamed from his fingers and surrounded every object. Mother’s copper pot practically glowed with the hidden power. Especially when he stirred it with an iron spoon. “Look, Mama! It’s full of spinning fire!”
“By the saints, you have an overactive imagination. Give me back my spoon!”
He turned to his father, who had had some education. Perhaps he’d understand? “Can’t you see the currents? They’re in everything. Rocks—the trees—my little Mačak.” He picked up the black kitten and stroked its fur, producing a shower of sparks.
“What in God’s name are you talking about, boy?”
The child struggled for words. “It’s like water flowing, but it’s not wet.” Frustrated, he tried a different metaphor. “It feels bright…it tickles in my head, my hands. Where does it come from? Is it from that Other Place?”
“Which Other Place? Do you mean Heaven? Or Hell?” Father’s eyes darted toward the crucifix on the wall.
“No…it is right next to this place.” Niko’s arms spread to indicate the whole world. “There’s a whole lot of other places.”
Father and Mother exchanged glances. “There’s a new doctor in town,” Father murmured. “A specialist in diseases of the brain. Should we take the boy?”
Niko clamped his lips shut, and resolved never to speak another word about the things he saw.
He tried to control his runaway brain with ruthless self-discipline. Every morning at dawn he plunged into an icy river and swam across. He ran until he nearly passed out. At school he memorized entire books and did complex math problems in his head.
But with all of his efforts, Niko could never completely stop the
visions and flashes of light. He could only divert them. So, Niko channeled his visions into creating imaginary realms. He spoke with the ancient Serbian heroes, built castles, designed mighty siege engines and saw their gears turning.
Eventually he outgrew fairy tales and took on a greater challenge:
invention. I will build a flying machine…a great light in the heavens to vanquish the night! Yes, I will harness the power of a mighty waterfall to perform the brute labor of mankind…
At college he devoured books and lectures like a starving man. “Why must you always work twice as hard as everyone else?” his friend Anton said. “You need to get out and live a little.”
“I must succeed at engineering, Anton. Or Father will be right!”
“What do you mean?”
“He thought I belonged in the clergy. Because of my ‘otherworldly’ nature!”
So Niko learned everything his professors could teach about Faraday’s Law, Maxwell’s Equations and Ohm’s Law. Electric current is the movement of charged particles through a conducting medium.
But none of them could explain why Niko himself seemed to be the most conductive medium of all. As if the forces of Nature flowed through his fingers. Where he had once visualized castles, he now imagined machines to weave the current. “Is it possible,” he asked Herr Professor, “to harness the full electrical power of the lightning bolt?”
“That’s impossible.” The Professor laughed. “Such power cannot be controlled by Man. You’re dreaming, son.”
Dreaming? That was the worst thing the Professor could have said. “I’ll prove it’s possible,” Niko resolved, “if it’s the last thing I do!”
And indeed, now it seemed that the challenge might drive him to madness or death.
“Come on, Niko, this is absurd,” Anton scolded him. “What you need is some exercise and fresh air.”
“Go away. You’re a tormentor from Hades!”
“And you’re a lunatic. Pull yourself together or I’m having you sent to the asylum.” Merciless Anton pulled on Niko’s arm, sat him up and placed a mirror before him. “For starters, you need a shave.”
A stranger looked out from the mirror—a slim-faced youth with a small mustache, high cheekbones, deep-set gray eyes beneath dark brows. His wavy black hair, parted in the center, swept back from the high forehead…’where there is plenty of room for great thoughts’, as one of his professors had said. How could anyone know the strangeness behind that handsome exterior?
“Here’s a razor. Comb.” Anton placed them in Niko’s hands. “Come on, how are you going to charm the ladies? And―what about your challengers at the Black Peacock? Hadn’t you better go and defend your crown?”
“I’ve given up gaming,” Niko managed to say.
“What? But you were the king of the billiard table! You could always calculate the perfect angle…”
“Not anymore. Bigger challenges.” What could appeal to his fiery nature more than electricity: the very power of the gods. Much more exciting than mere gambling!
Anton made a rude noise. “Your challenge today, Herr Tesla, is to get yourself out of this stinking room.”
With much prodding, Niko forced himself to move his legs and stand up. My body is the engine. My mind is the driver! Still every sense remained agonizingly sharp, but now his will took firm control. With Anton’s help, he made it down the stairs. They navigated through the tormenting city blocks and reached the refuge of the city park.
Anton took his arm and they walked along the garden paths, through the mazes of hedges and flower beds. “See? Isn’t this better?” Smiling, he turned to look at a group of young ladies strolling by with their parasols. “The scenery is exceptionally fine today.”
Niko did not hear. As they walked, he lost track of his surroundings. Perhaps it was the lack of food: he seemed to be floating in a void. The park had faded into a landscape of bright, glowing streamers…like a forest of sun-rays. The air felt dense, almost like water, only more sparkling and filled with current.
People gathered around, but their bodies seemed no more than swirls of current. They seemed to be surrounded by a huge transparent bubble, which floated in a sea of clouds. He glimpsed streamers of gold and purple; lattices of blue…vast distances beyond his comprehension.
Within this airy enclosure, the beings kept their places with a graceful wave of wings. Their shape appeared to constantly change. A feathered edge, a flame, a suggestion of a prism. They had no faces, yet he sensed their moods: they noticed him and their gazes focused upon him like intense beams of light through his whole being.
Then, as light is passed through a prism and transformed to color, these rays became voices which spoke in his mind. He heard them as faint chimes, as if crystals could speak.
<What has come into our midst? Is it a conscious being?>
<Surely it must be.> The apparitions spoke to each other. <But not like us. So strange! Could it be a live being from the Star Sea?>
<But it seems to be a dense-matter being. How is it possible that…>
A tremor of awe gripped Niko. Could this be a memory of his childhood imagination, come back to haunt him? Or have I died, and gone to a heavenly spirit realm? The beings seemed equally exalted to see him. Their joyful exclamations resonated all through his soul. He reached out and his fingers brushed against one of the Wing People. The tingling sensation coursed though his body. <Who are you?> he tried to say.
<I am Alu of the Aon. My colleagues, the Seekers, have been searching for intelligent life in the universe.>
Niko tried to orient himself. This place appeared to have no land…just clouds of hot gases. Another world, like Venus or Jupiter? <But…you are a vortex of currents,> Niko realized. <Where am I?>
<Esteemed Visitor, this is the world of Lumina.>
At first Niko perceived the names as abstractions, but as the communication became clearer, his brain somehow translated them into sound. <You have altered your frequency,> Alu told him, <so that a part of you has passed through the Gradient to contact us.>
With his fierce will, Niko collected his thoughts. This was no fevered delirium…his illness must be the effect of his body and mind learning to focus, like a blurry pair of microscope lenses…adjusting his senses until he could perceive these Winged ones. <How is it that I can hear your words?>
<We communicate on the frequency of thought: frequency 333,> said the being. <Your brain is a receiver of great sensitivity. It must be translating our thought-waves into your familiar terms.>
Frequency…333, Niko repeated to himself. Like the telegraph messages: electrical pulses converted into words. He must not forget any of this dream…or whatever it was.
<We search for beings from other stars,> said Alu. <We wish to exchange knowledge.>
<I would like that very much.> He tried to speak with his thoughts, as the Aon did. <Can you teach me how to harness the electric currents? I can’t solve the problem. That’s what’s making me sick.>
Alu didn’t have a mouth, but Niko felt as if the wing-being was smiling. <Our kind, the Aon, know much about waves, energy and matter. It would take many turns to teach you everything. Listen, my bright friend…>
Alu slowly morphed into a flame, emanating a powerful aura of kindness. <We exist to learn. If you can master your frequency and resonance, perhaps you can return and study with us…>
Niko tried to answer, but the energy seemed to be leaching from him. He felt himself sinking down…he reached out, but the visions began to fade.
<Friend, come back,> Alu called. <We are losing your signal…you are falling out of resonance.>
<Wait,> Niko called in desperation. <Don’t go…>
But he could no longer see the shapes of the Aon. He gasped; opened his eyes. His friend Anton’s concerned face came into focus.
“Nikola? Are you all right? You fell into a swoon!”
Niko blinked, finding himself lying on the ground. “What…”
“You were talking to yourself.” Anton looked worried indeed. “Something about a frequency. We’d better get you to a hospital.”
Niko brushed his hand across his face. In God’s name, what had happened to him? A hallucination? A true visitation with otherworldly beings? “Hospital? Why―I feel tremendous! Better than normal…every cell in my brain has been awakened!”
He sprang to his feet and beheld the glory of the sinking sun. It glowed copper red, like a brilliant coil of wire, spinning around a celestial magnet. His vision came back to him: the Aon, vortexes of electrical currents.
His imagination blazed up. The same hypersensitivity that caused his illness, had stimulated his mind to make the connections. The sun became a celestial dynamo, generating a rotating magnetic field…he saw the currents, like an endless braid, forming a stream of power. The vision was so real he could feel the heat coming off the machine—so intense he felt sure it would pick him up and whirl him through the air.
“Bože moi,” Niko cried. “I understand—I know how to do it!”
“How to do what?” Anton squinted at him.
“How to generate the alternating currents—how to harness the lightning power!”
He caught his perplexed friend up in a hug and whirled him around. “Anton, my dear friend, I’ve solved the problem! Look at my motor here,” he said, picking up a stick and drawing in the sand. “Now watch me reverse it! See? We can produce alternating currents in three phases…” his hands moved at high speed, tracing a series of elegant diagrams. “We’ll put them out of step with each other, to create a rotating magnetic field: a kind of electrical whirlwind, creating power to turn the world!”
“You must excuse my poor friend,” said Anton to several onlookers. “He has had a nervous breakdown.”
The girl held back tears.
“You must be silent, little bird.” Uncle put a hand over her mouth. “We have to hide here till they leave.”
They huddled in the basement of the family shop, concealed behind tools and crates. She pressed her hands to her ears, trying to shut out the sounds from outside: breaking glass, screams, the shouts of the mob, the stomping hooves of huge, fierce horses.
“Here…hold onto this.” Uncle hugged her tight and pressed a warm, metallic object into her palm: one of Father’s pocket watches.
She loved watches: for hours she would sit mesmerized by the shining balance wheel as it spun back and forth. Tick-tick-tick...what time is it now? That was a game that Father used to play with her. Now she concentrated on the gleaming second hand: how many times it would circle round until the killers went away?
Tendrils of smoke began to waft through the air. The mob must be setting fires. She tried not to cough, for fear of discovery.
“When will they stop?”
“When the yetzer ha-ra, the Evil Inclination, has finished possessing them. Come, little bird. Let’s work on lessons,” Uncle whispered. “Can you tell me about the attributes of the Most Holy?”
She smiled through her fear. In her family, study of the Wisdom came before anything else. She closed her eyes and focused: one must learn to control emotions, taking refuge in the world of the Mind. “The Attributes…once called keter…hochma…binah…tiferes.”
“Very good. What else do we call these attributes?”
“The…the elements. Hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen… carbon.” She couldn’t remember any more.
“And what are the Flames of the Serafim?”
She knew that Uncle was trying to distract her from what was happening outside. The flames. “Th..the Flames of the Serafim are…gravity, magnetism, electricity.”
“Very good! Now, listen to today’s lesson,” said Uncle. “The flow between the human and divine is likened to the flow of electro-magnetism, as it turns the wheel of the world.”
Upstairs, a door shattered. “Death to the Zhidy,” the mob shouted, charging into the shop. Their heavy boots shook the ceiling above. The girl gripped her uncle’s shirt and buried her head against his chest.
“Little bird, why don’t you do some reading.” Uncle picked up the girl’s satchel, which she brought everywhere. “Let’s see what you’ve been studying.” He pulled out a volume.
While the mob smashed and looted above, her hands closed around one of her favorite books. She loved books―more than dolls, even more than candy. You could climb right into a book, and escape from the world. Now would be a good time to escape.
Principles of Physical Science. A shaft of light came through the basement window to illuminate the headings: Faraday’s Law. Magnetic Attraction. Electromotive Force.
She began to read the words, though she did not understand all of them. Uncle had taught her about the mysterious power of lightning: the Divine Spark which lay dormant in metals and earth. Her family had always known about those forces. Grandfather spoke of the Wisdom of the Ein Sof, the Infinite. Now the Teaching had a different name. It was called Science.
She meditated on the flow of the Divine Spark until she could see the whirling electrons. She imagined waking the Power―a lightning bolt stabbing down from the sky, to strike the murdering mob.
Someday I will be that lightning bolt she thought. I will be Electricity!
“If we survive this slaughter, let us leave this country,” said Uncle. “There is no life for us here anymore.”
“But where shall we go?” said the girl, wiping her eyes.
“To the Promised Land. America!”
A large cylindrical shape floated through the void of space. Its inhabitants called it Abode.
In one of the great habitat’s monitoring rooms, a machine spat out a load of data. A Specialist studied it for several rotations, then reported his news to the Abode High Council.
“Council Lords, the Analyzer has detected a likely world,” he informed the circle of tall figures. “It is of the proper size and contains water, iron, trace minerals, oxygen. It appears to support abundant life—I have all the readings right here.”
“Have you detected signs of high civilization?” said the Abode Lord, august master of the High Council. “Space traffic, communications, military orbiters?”
“We have seen none, Lord.”
“Very well. Let us take up orbit nearby, and send the fleet ship Void Stalker for further studies.”
The Abode Lord then made his way to a chamber at the center of the great habitat called Abode. Touching his head to the floor, he bowed to the huge female who lay on a vast spongy platform.
“Holy Queen Mother,” he said, “we have found a world, and are moving in to investigate.”
“Excellent! May good fortune favor our noble, exiled race.” She reached out from beneath her coverings and pulled him toward her. “I am pleased indeed. Come and share Bliss.”
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