The City

Jason looked around. For once, he was actually a little disappointed. This was obviously no city in the clouds. He was surrounded by skyscrapers, but realistic, sober-looking ones; they weren't in the gaudy colors and ultramodern designs he'd subconsciously expected. The streets and sidewalks seemed unnaturally neat and clean—nary a dot of chewing gum nor a sliver of a cigarette butt could be seen on the pavement—but were otherwise quite ordinary. There were a few cars, but they were indistinguishable from Terran models, at least to Jason's thoroughly non-car-savvy eye. On the whole, the scene seemed more like an idealized version of your average American metropolis than an alien city in an alternate reality. He noted that it, too, was in the same time zone as home.

They seemed to have teleported right onto the doorstep of wherever Roland wanted to go, for he entered the nearest building and motioned for Jason to follow. As he did so, Jason noticed a sign above the big glass doors. Presumably, it gave a clue to the building's function, but he couldn't tell. It was written in a script he'd never seen before, consisting of unusually simple symbols. Each character was only a slight alteration or two away from a line, rectangle, or ellipse.

The lobby of the building was small and sparsely furnished. The doorman, sitting at an ancient, dented metal desk, looked at a card Roland showed him and conversed with him in an alien tongue. Roland then led Jason down a long hallway and up a short flight of stairs to what struck Jason as a profoundly mundane place: a waiting room. He'd be waiting for a long time: the folding chairs that lined the walls were nearly all occupied. The waiters were a diverse bunch—male and female, young and old, light- and dark-skinned. I can't very well describe these people as "black" or "white", for those words are properly names of Terran ethnicities, and as much as the citizens of Gyeeds looked like Jason, every gene he and they shared was, in theory, accidental.

Even as he sat down, many of the waiters openly stared at Roland. Several spoke to him in the same foreign language, and he responded likewise. Mostly, he seemed to be trying to politely fend them off, but he apparently took offense at a joke cracked by a suited man. It occurred to Jason that they were probably just reacting to his celebrity status as Adventurer of Gyeeds.

Once Roland seemed to have finished with public relations, Jason piped up "So, what is this place?"

"This is the Gyeeds Central Orphanage." said Roland, without any visible annoyance. "There are some living quarters here, but mostly this building is for general administration regarding orphans, whether or not they live in an orphanage." Responding to Jason's puzzled look, he went on "This is where I have to go to apply to be your legal guardian. It's just a bit of red tape. All you need to do is sign a form."

After a moment, Jason said "I hope the form's in English."

"Actually, there is an English translation of it, specially prepared for this possibility."

"What possibility?"

"That a resident of Earth might end up in another verse for some reason, like you did."

"So… do you have it in every, uh, Terran language?"

"Oh, no. Just English, Spanish, and Simplified Chinese. Everybody agreed that that was more than enough preparation for such an unlikely event."

"Has it ever happened before, then?"

"No. You're the first Terran to ever leave―" (more nonsense) ". That's your verse's ID code."

"Are these ID codes for verses in another language, or something?"

"Actually, they're not really in any language; they're just a string of Common characters. People do read them in Common, though."

"Now you're not making any sense at all."

"Look." he said, taking a magazine from an end table and showing it to Jason. On the cover was a woodcut of a camel and more of the strange symbols. "See these letters? They're Common graphemes. Common with a capital C. It's a language, remember? In fact, it's the official language of the IDC, plus Gyeeds and most other verses that have representatives in the IDC."

Jason mulled that over for a while, then said "Which begs the question, why do you know English?"

"Because I am what we call a scholar of Earth. You see, as I mentioned before, we can observe other verses without interacting with them. Some people take a great interest in a foreign verse despite how it would be criminal to visit it, immersing themselves as much as they can in its culture and politics. They are called scholars of that verse."

"So you learned a language solely in order to learn about a planet you'd never be able to go to? I mean, you never foresaw this, did you?"

"Yes to your first question and no to the second."

"But if your knowledge of English is primarily academic, how do you speak it so well?"

"Well," said Roland sheepishly, "I admit that not all of my study of Earth is entirely serious and academic. I and my fellow hobbyists enjoy conversing in English as a novelty, especially at conventions."

"Then… then… O God, you're like a Trekkie who speaks Klingon!"

Now Roland looked much more embarrassed. "Yes, that's a pretty good analogy. But at least it's a real language, and a very nice one, I think, even if it isn't so concise as Common. And look, it turned out to be useful."

"But now that I think of it, is it really a coincidence? I mean, there aren't too many Gyeeds-ites or whatever who are very interested in Earth, right? And only a few of those are enamored with it enough to learn one of its languages, right? And only a few of those learn English as opposed to Yiddish or something, right? What are the chances that you came as my knight in shining armor?"

"All right, your concerns are valid. No, it's not entirely coincidental that I noticed you. I fibbed a little when I said I just happened to see you. You see, much like how hardcore Trekkies secretly hope that "Star Trek" is real, we scholars of Earth have always dreamed of the chance to somehow meet a Terran face-to-face. It's gotten to the point where I've got a setup that constantly monitors any interdimensional travel from Earth. I promise I didn't sic the dragon on you, though."

Jason smiled wearily. "That would be punishable by death, right?"

"Right. And by the way," he added, "I also speak Spanish, though not quite as well."

Eventually, a clerk summoned the pair. He and Roland talked in what Jason supposed must be Common. In a minute or so, the clerk gave Roland some kind of tablet computer. Roland wrote something on it with a stylus and handed it to Jason.

On the screen, which somehow seemed to be not backlit but still as legible as a piece of paper, was the contract. It was surprisingly concise and easy to understand, and the device's GUI was intuitive enough to let him scroll the document, so Jason read it in full. Basically, it entitled Roland and Jason to the same rights over each other as if they were father and son, though Jason was pleased to note that it gave Roland little power over him, except if he was incapacitated, except in case of suspected abuse. It also granted him citizenship of Gyeeds. There wasn't any fine print. He gave it his best John Hancock and returned it to the clerk.

"All right, we're done here." said Roland, and turned towards the exit.

"Have a nice day." said Jason to the clerk, though he knew he wouldn't be understood.

The pair emerged from the building, back into the morning sunlight, and Roland led them along the sidewalk to…

"So, where are we goin' now?"


"Is it nearby?"

"No, we're going to take the train."

"Train? Can't we teleport?"

"We could, but it would be a waste of energy." He looked at Jason. "Spellcasting may be magical, but there's no such thing as a free lunch. Casting spells eats away at a man's stamina. Given that I have a full-time job, I need all the energy I can get. Not to mention that reagents don't come cheap."

"I see, I think." said Jason. "But really, this whole thing about magic, well, really existing is a bit bizarre. Is there a scientific explanation for it all?"

"The short answer is, there is no short answer."

"I was afraid of that. Go on."

"No, no, I mean that there isn't any decently-sized answer at all. It's what would be graduate school-level stuff, if it were taught on your planet."

"Oh. Do you even have graduate school, then?"

"Not in the same sense. The American and Gyeedian education systems are very different. And here we are."

They had arrived at a staircase leading down, under the sidewalk, to a train station. It was, surprisingly enough, just as well-lit as the Gyeeds Central Orphanage. Roland took another card out of his pocket and waved it twice at a turnstile, and they both went through. The tracks were sealed off by a glass tunnel, so you couldn't walk off the platform, but at that moment a boxy silver train slid silently into view. Once it came to a complete stop, the doors on its side lined up with doors in the glass, and all of them popped open. A flood of people poured out, while another, into which Roland directed Jason and himself, went inside.

The interior of the train was crowded and covered with advertisements. The pair nabbed two adjacent seats while they were open, and Roland immediately turned to Jason.

"Let's keep talking, so I look busy." he said over the noise of everyone else chatting, while ignoring the curious stares of many. "Celebrity is overrated, you know. So, this is a vacuum maglev. Do you know what that is?"

"Maglev, yes, but what does a vacuum have to do with anything?"

"Did you see how the tunnel is sealed off from the platform at that station?" Jason nodded. "It's to keep air out of the tunnel. Running the train without touching the track and through a vacuum eliminates friction, so that it can move at great speeds using relatively little energy."


"Isn't it? But let's change the subject to something lighter. Remember how I told you I explored a swamp last week?"

And so Jason and Roland passed the time engaged in small talk, or the nearest approximation they could manage, considering how little they had in common. Eventually, they came to the stop that Roland wanted. Another few minutes and they were in an apartment building. They took the elevator to the sixty-fourth floor and entered Roland's apartment.

"Pretty neat for a bachelor pad." said Jason.

"We Gyeedians place a high value on cleanliness."

It was a pretty spacious place, too, Jason thought, for a home in such a huge apartment building. While the ceiling was low, the square footage was generous. It was laid out in a familiar fashion, with clear divisions between the kitchen, living room, and bedroom, and Jason could easily recognize such essential appliances as a desktop computer, television, refrigerator, stove, and bathtub. But—"The hell is this?" he said, indicating a squat basin that sat beside the toilet.

"It's a bidet, of course. Haven't you ever seen one before?"

"No," he said doubtfully, "I don't think we have these things on Earth."

Roland laughed. "Oh, I remember, they don't have them in the States. They're more popular in Europe and the East."

"I'll take your word for it." Jason glared at the thing. "But what, exactly, is its purpose?" Just as Roland began to speak, he interrupted "No, never mind. I think that's one thing I don't really want to know."

For good or for ill, Jason died without ever really knowing what a bidet was.