Some Timely Exposition

Jason couldn't fly, so he couldn't get home the same way he'd left it; he would've had trouble retracing the dragon's flight path, anyway. For myriad good reasons, he also didn't like the idea of begging the dragon to take him home, if it ever came back here. So, he decided, the best thing to do would be to journey across this strange land on foot and see what he could find.

He walked out of the cave and looked around. The beauty of his surroundings struck him suddenly, like a slap on the face. He was standing on a relatively narrow strip of land, about as wide as a busy thoroughfare, with perilous drops to the canyon floor on either side. To the west, the sun was setting over the opposite rim of the canyon at his left. Now that the excitement of his confrontation with the dragon was over, he noticed that it was rather warm here despite the late time of day, and took off his jacket.

Jason traveled north at first. He had few other choices. After a while, he began to find crooked and wide eccentricities in the path. There were forks that continued at the same elevation, and ramps that led up and down, and short drops to shelves on the canyon wall. On a whim, he decided to quit the straight and narrow road for higher ground.

Surveying the dry and dusty world about him, he found no signs of life at all. There wasn't a single patch of lichen anywhere, never mind a dragon. His dragon would probably starve to death, if it didn't go back to his hometown and eat his neighbor's St. Bernard.

After an hour or so of walking, when Jason was many stories above the cave where the dragon had taken him, night fell. He decided to stop for a spell to take a rest and turn over the recent events in his mind, if not go to sleep. He came to a kind of peninsula in the sea of canyon, where he was surrounded on three sides by unfathomable descents, and lay down on the dusty ground. It was even less comfortable than he'd expected.

The stars had come out in all their glory in spite of the clouds, and they actually outdid the preceding sunset in aesthetic appeal, if at all possible. They were radiant points of bright-white fire woven into a fabric of the blackest possible blue, and even if Jason couldn't tell Ursa Major from the Big Dipper, he could appreciate the view. Then, some clouds parted and he noticed that the sky was graced with two moons.

He was too emotionally exhausted to really be surprised. All the overabundance of satellites did was confirm that he was either in an alien solar system or out of his mind. Or perhaps he was both. Disregarding Occam's Razor for the moment, he tentatively chose the first explanation, since the questions that arose from it were less frightening, even if they were more numerous.

Firstly, and most obviously, how in the world—or rather, the universe—did he get here? The dragon hadn't ever seemed to exit Earth's atmosphere during its flight. Perhaps some kind of transparently-activated teleportation had been involved. If so, had the dragon done it itself, or had it used some kind of gateway? How was it possible?

Secondly, the dragon itself seemed impossibly improbable. What were the chances that such a famous and specific mythical monster actually existed on another planet? Surely it wasn't possible for a creature to actually breathe fire. And how did it know English? The only way Jason imagined it could is if it was secretly involved with other humans, and had learned the language from them. If it was a sapient being, why didn't it seem to have any technology or society? If it lived on this planet, what did it regularly subsist on, other than the life of other planets it traveled to?

Finally, this planet was uncannily like Earth. It was obviously "class-M" (i.e., inhabitable), and it was even the same time here when he arrived as it was in his hometown when he left. Again, what were the chances?

Jason figured that he was probably countless light-years (if not a universe or a reality) away from the little blue ball he'd always lived on. Comforting himself that he might well be whisked out of Fantasyland as suddenly and inexplicably as he'd entered it, and fatigued by fear, he eventually managed to fall asleep.

As soon as Jason's eyes confirmed that what had just occurred over the past few hours hadn't been a dream, he moaned anew. Nothing about this strange world seemed to have changed during his sleep, other than the time of day. The sun (there was only one sun, thankfully) was exposed, but not quite over the horizon. Given that and his degree of grogginess, Jason estimated the time to be about seven-thirty. He'd had only enough time to get up, dust himself off, and check up on the bruises he'd sustained earlier when yet another inexplicable thing happened. Without any warning, fanfare, or special effects, a man appeared in front of Jason. One moment, he simply wasn't there, and the next, he was.

The stranger looked like he was in his mid-thirties. He had brown hair and a matching neatly-trimmed mustache, pale skin, and muted green eyes. He was short, but his expensive-looking, miraculously wrinkle-free business suit and the way he stared at Jason (not coldly, but rather knowingly) through his thin-framed silver spectacles made him look surprisingly imposing. Actually, he was on the whole not very remarkable; if you'd spotted him amidst the sea of commuters on a New York City subway car during rush hour, you probably wouldn't have given him a second thought. But I need not remind you of the curious way in which he showed up, nor need I explain why Jason leapt backwards with alarm.

"Don't worry, kid." said the man with a totally implacable, yet readily comprehensible accent. "I won't eat you."

"That's comforting." Jason spat. After a brief silence, he continued in the same tone "Care to explain yourself?"

"Gladly." the man said as he seated himself on the ground. "Sit down."

"Thanks, I think I'll remain standing."

"Suit yourself. Now, where to begin?" He propped his head on his hands pensively. "I am the Adventurer of Gyeeds, the greatest city of―" here he uttered a long string of apparently nonsensical syllables "―and elsewhere. I―"

"Whoa, Nelly!" Jason interrupted, his anger forgotten in his sheer confusion. "You totally lost me there." He sat down across from the stranger. "First of all, whadya mean by 'the' adventurer of that city?"

"Um, obviously I didn't start at the right place. Let me try again. All right, my name is Roland Moralheart, how about yours?"

"Jason Amadeus Blue. And if you're looking for a good starting point, I would suggest explaining how you got here."

"Ah, good question." said Roland. "A wizard did it. Specifically, yours truly."

"So you're―"

"A wizard, yes."

"Do you expect me to believe that?"

"Yes, I think you have every reason to."

"True enough." sighed Jason. "I'll accept that for now. My next question is, how did you know what happened between me and the dragon?"

"I watched your encounter."

"Using your wizardly powers?"

"More or less."

"Okay then, so, why did you watch me then and why are you here now?"

"That requires the longer explanation I was trying to give you."

"I was afraid of that. Go on."

"I warn you, this could take a while. And if you keep interrupting me, you'll only make it take longer."

"I get it, I get it; just start talking."

"Excellent. Now. Many of your people's fictional works claim that there are multiple dimensions, or realities, or something of that nature, existing in parallel but never or rarely interacting with one another. The many-worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics is the scientific equivalent of this idea. My people have discovered that it has a basis in truth. To wit, there is more than one universe. (We just call them 'verses'.) Furthermore, we've found ways to interact with verses outside of our own. For example, at the moment, both you and I are outside of our respective native verses."

"So this…" said Jason, gesturing to encompass the world that surrounded man and boy.

"Is a different verse than the one you've lived in your whole life, kid. Welcome to the multiverse."

Roland paused to let this sink in. Jason slowly shook his head in amazement. <That explains something, at least.> he thought.

"My people" the man continued "are a lot like yours. We evolved from lower primates on a planet about the same size as Earth. Our planets also have similar chemical compositions, and are both the third satellite of their respective star, which are of similar ages and sizes. Your and my people even have similar histories; it took us about the same amount of time to have the same scientific and social revolutions as you. However, we are a bit ahead of you in terms of technology.

"Most notably, we managed to develop what would now be called a 'verseporter'. It was massive, overwrought, and ridiculously inefficient—it had to be fission-powered—but it was a first for us. For the first time, we could travel to new verses that we had for so long only been able to view. A good thing, too, because our food production had just peaked. But we never used it."

"Wha—whyever so?" said Jason.

"We didn't have to." responded Roland. "As soon as we'd finished testing the machine with a few monkeys, and were about to try it out ourselves, a representative from the IDC crossed into our verse.

"The IDC, as the man explained to us, was the Interdimensional Council, a league of nations from many verses that oversees relations between them. One of their primary policies is that they establish full contact with any verse they can reach the moment that someone, somewhere on that verse creates a viable method of verseportation.

"This policy was made as a compromise between those who wanted to leave other verses completely alone and those who wanted to reach out to all of them. It's quite rational, actually. You see, if there were any legal way for the people of an advanced verse to intrude into the territory of a significantly more primitive one, whole civilizations would be wiped out in the rush for land and resources. Before this policy, countless people who hadn't invented anything more complicated than smelting were slain by interdimensional predators with tanks and machine guns. We're remorseful for those our ancestors slaughtered, and nobody wants to let it happen again. With modern technology, all it takes is a few greedy rogues to exterminate a planet's worth of cavemen.

"So, verses blessed with sapient life are left to develop on their own until they find some way of moving between verses, by magic or machine. Then, an IDC rep shows up and offers to let them join the organization. Doing so allows access to the learning of hundreds of verses, so few refuse." He paused for breath.

"Fascinating stuff!" said Jason, rubbing his chin. "It's a lot like the Prime Directive."

"But much more strictly enforced, mind you."

"Right. But… why did the IDC dude have to explain all this to you? You mentioned that you could 'view' other dimensions before you could go to them."

"Yes, we did know it all already, so it was a bit of a formality." said Roland. "But the IDC's official motto is 'Better safe than sorry.' There are a few nations that learned to travel before they could see other verses. At any rate, we never had to use that clunky verseporter because the IDC showed us how we could verseport in style, like I did just a few minutes ago."

"Speaking of you, you've given me an awful lot of background, but you haven't answered my third question yet."

"Yes, I know. As I said from the beginning, I'm the Adventurer of Gyeeds. Gyeeds is a huge city-state—the size of your state of California—that's the main feature of its verse. That verse is where I was born, and―" again, he said something totally incomprehensible "―is its ID code, but it's generally just called Gyeeds. You usually don't need to distinguish between the city and the verse, anyway, since there's little in Gyeeds the verse to interest the average traveler other than Gyeeds the city. The Adventurer of Gyeeds is an official, elected position, second in rank only to the mayor. As adventurer, my job is to be the mayor's representative, spy, or whatever else he needs me to be that involves travel and swashbuckling."

"Quite some job." said Jason.

"But of course, it isn't nearly as good as it sounds." Roland lamented. "I'm usually not under the mayor's thumb; I do get to act on my own. But it's lonely and often very tedious. Just last week I was exploring a vast swamp. On foot. Alone. Even with magical mosquito repellent, it was, well, awful."

"I see."

"At any rate, let me finally answer your question. Last night, I was on duty but didn't have any assignments. So, I browsed through verses, looking for trouble. Imagine my surprise when I saw a dragon quietly verseport into this wasteland with a small boy dangling from its claws."

"I am not small!" said Jason hotly. "I just turned ten last Thursday."

"That's small to me, kid." retorted Roland calmly. "Not to mention young." Jason scowled. "So I watched and listened to your encounter. I think you did admirably well, actually."

"Uh, thanks, I guess." said Jason, somewhat mollified.

"I wanted to meet you, but I could tell that the confrontation and the shock had exhausted you. I let you get some sleep, and here I am."

"Wanted to meet me?"

"Yes, as I said, I think you dealt with that dragon very well. But besides, it would've been illegal, not to mention immoral, to just leave you on this planet and let you fend for yourself. There's nothing to eat or drink here, in case you haven't noticed. You'd soon die of dehydration."

"So" said Jason with a sinking feeling "I won't magically pop back to Earth after a day or two?"

"I'm afraid not."

"So how do you expect me to get home?" Then, before Roland could respond, he added "Would you be willing to, uh, 'verseport' me yourself?"

Roland cast his eyes down. "This is the hard part, kid. You can't go home again."

"Whaddya mean?"

"You heard what I said about the IDC's policy. I can't do anything to your native verse—even put you back there—on pain of death. Realistically, now, you can't expect me to make such a sacrifice, can you? I'm sorry, but unless Terran scientists construct a verseporter within your lifetime—which is, to be frank, quite unlikely—you'll never meet your friends and family again."

So that was it, then? Everything Jason knew, everything he valued, everything he loved, everything he'd always taken for granted, was gone in the blink of an eye. Of all the awful scenarios he'd imagined, this was far worse than the bulk of them. It was as if every random event that had happened since the beginning of time had been rerolled. All that was left was his memories, his clothes, and himself.

Well, it wasn't quite so bad; he could always "view" his home, whatever that exactly entailed. He could keep up with the times and refresh his memory of those ten long years he'd spent on Earth, even if he couldn't interact with anything.

Jason had never been the type to hold back tears, and he certainly didn't now, despite how the whole force of the blow hadn't hit him yet. He cried; he wept; he wailed. Roland looked away.

"I know it can't be easy to bear." the man said quietly. "I figured it would be best to get it over with as soon as possible. You can at least take comfort in that this is the worst thing you'll hear from me, by far. From your perspective, anyway."

"It's all right." Jason sobbed. "Are you sure there's no way…?"

"I'm sure."

"Even though the dragon got me here illegally?"

"Even though."

There was a long, uncomfortable silence.

Eventually, Jason said "But what am I supposed to do, where am I supposed to go? I have no home and no guardian."

"Well…" said Roland "legally, you're an orphan. So by default, you would go to an orphanage. It wouldn't be like "Oliver Twist", but it wouldn't be all fun and games, either. You'd receive lessons in Common, the standard language, and you'd be fed three meals a day. But you wouldn't get the kind of individual attention a growing boy really needs, and you'd have little to occupy your time."

"You seem to be implying" Jason stammered, blowing his nose on something, "that I have… some other option."

"Well, yes. You see, I… if you like… I'd be willing to adopt you."

Jason stared at Roland through his tears. The man looked like he'd already come to regret his words.

All Jason could say was "Why?"

Roland kneaded his hands nervously. "Jason, when I was younger and more naive, in my late teens, I married. Like a lot of young marriages, it wasn't successful, and we divorced after a few years. No, we didn't have any children. But I carried away with me a deep distrust of love, and, to a certain degree, people in general. I'm a social butterfly when I need to be—which is often, since I am a politician, after all—but in truth, I have no real friends. I'm a lonely man. You're an orphan. I like you. It makes sense to me."

"But really now, how do I know you're not a pedophile?"

Roland cringed. "I thought Americans your age didn't know about that kind of thing. You don't; there's no way I can prove it to you. But you don't have to take my word for it. I'll happily escort you to the orphanage. And if you do take up my offer, I won't keep you on a short leash. You'll be free to run away or call the police at any time if you feel threatened."

Jason thought for a few moments as he dried his eyes, assessing Roland. He seemed like a good man: friendly, eloquent, unstuffy despite his suit. His emotional displays and the things he said certainly seemed genuine—either he was an honest politician, or a very good actor. Certainly, the possibility that the kind old lady who lived in an edible house might be a witch had to be kept in mind. Especially with a name like… uh… well, whatever the man's last name was, Jason recalled that it gave a very unsubtle impression of innocence. But Jason had little to lose, and a lot to gain. In his hour of need, he thought it best to give the benefit of the doubt to those who might help him.

"All right," he said, "you seem trustworthy enough. I'll be your surrogate son until further notice. But, uh, what was your name again?"

Roland smiled with some degree of relief. "Roland Moralheart. You can call me Roland. May I call you Jason?"

"Actually, you already did," (Roland looked embarrassed) "but sure, Roland."

Roland stood up. "Thank you very much for taking up my offer. I do hope you won't regret it. Now, let's head to Gyeeds. Take my hand, please."

Jason hesitantly got up and did so. With his free hand, Roland withdrew a small pouch from somewhere within his suit and swept it through the air, releasing a cloud of green phosphorescent motes. He said something in a strange and airy language that Jason didn't recognize, and suddenly, man and boy were somewhere else.