The Tough Questions

Sleep did not come easily to Jason that night, and when it finally arrived, he found it full of nightmares. Once his nocturnal ordeal was over, his body was purged of fatigue, and he climbed out of bed happy that the night had finally ended. He and Roland took the day off from school and work, respectively, in order for Jason to recuperate and Roland to catch up with him.

After man and boy had finished with their breakfast and morning ablutions, they sat down on the living-room couch to talk.

"So." said Jason (in English, as always). "I think my story's going to be a lot longer than yours, so why don't you go first?"

"Fine." said Roland. "When I looked for you once, in the middle of the convention, I couldn't find you. I figured that you'd just gone off somewhere for a moment, but I searched several more times over the next couple of hours and still couldn't find you. Once the convention ended, I began to worry. After looking all over the place, I finally figured that, for one reason or another, you'd decided to go home without even telling me. I wasn't really surprised to find the house empty.

"I couldn't imagine where you'd gone. I doubted that you'd just run off—you're definitely not that type of kid. Still, I decided it would be best to wait at least a day or two before declaring you a missing person." He sighed. "I'm sorry if that made things more difficult for you, if it did. I just didn't want to seem overprotective."

"It's all right. I don't think your announcing my disappearance would have done me much good, anyway."

"Well, that's all I have to say, so… why? What happened to you?"

And so Jason launched into the harrowing tale of his capture and subsequent escape. Once more, Roland was impressed by Jason's actions in the face of danger. But he was furious about the old man. He clenched his teeth, trembling with rage. Jason was astonished. He'd never seen Roland get more than slightly annoyed, never mind positively wrathful.

"That depraved monster deserved nothing less than what he got, Jason." Roland spat. "I'm only sorry that you turned him into a cat instead of a maggot, or something equally base. That would've been much more fitting."

"Heavens, I don't know." Jason sighed. "He's weak and helpless enough as it is, without being an invertebrate. Don't take his crimes personally. You weren't the one who nearly exploded in a shower of rainbow sparks, or died of natural causes as a teenager."

"Yes, I know." said Roland coolly, somewhat calmer than before. "I'm your legal guardian, and I have a responsibility to protect you." He bit his lip. "I wasn't there to help you."

"But it wasn't your fault, Roland!"

"I know, I know! But still." He shook his head dejectedly.

"Just don't kill yourself over it." Jason pleaded. "Okay?"

"Don't worry about it. I'm fine, just a little righteous."

"All right, all right."

They lapsed into silence. Jason wondered at what had just happened. Who knew Roland could be so emotional? Did he really blame himself? This was hardly the confident, collected man who'd suddenly appeared before him one fateful morning. Well, Jason figured, it was only natural that a man who'd gone through divorce had at least some psychological difficulties—though Jason wasn't sure which was the cause and which was the effect. Eventually, he spoke up and changed the subject.

"So." he said. "It should come as no great surprise to you that I've got a lot of questions. About this episode, and about everything—everything that's happened to me since that dragon carried me away a month ago."


"Let's—well, let's stick to the topic at hand. What d'ya think happened at the convention? How did I go unconscious, and how did I end up in the old man's hidey-hole?"

"First," said Roland, "it's worth noting who that old man is. His name—or rather, that of his first body, the one you saw in the leftmost portrait—is Ernest Seadweller." The Adventurer's face darkened. "He was one of the most famous sprinters in Gyeedian history, until he 'mysteriously disappeared' shortly before his thirtieth birthday. Of course, now we know that he owed his entire success to a performance-enhancing spell."

"Don't get worked up about him again." said Jason quickly.

"No, I won't. Let me answer your question. Ernest was probably among the crowd at the convention. Whoever actually knocked you out did it with a stunning-spell. That can make anyone faint for as long as several hours, and it's widely known for the momentary feeling of cold it causes."

"But if I just conked out in front of everybody, wouldn't someone have raised a hue and cry?"

"Yes, that's the problem. I suppose the people around you were in on the plan. They probably encircled you while you were trying to make your way through the crowd, to hide the crime from view."

"Which means that old Ernest had some buddies."

"It's completely possible, even if you never saw them again. Ernest probably hired some crooks just for that purpose. Once he picked you up from the floor, I suppose he could've said that you were hurt and he was bringing you to the hospital, if anybody asked."

"No, he was way too weak to cart me around. I bet he got those guys to bring me to his house, too."

"Or he might've used magic to transport you. It's all possible."

Jason nodded. "And speaking of magic, why do you suppose he wore that ridiculous hat?"

Roland shrugged. "Earth fetish. He liked to think of himself as an archmage in addition to an athlete, I'm sure."

"What about that spellbook? Is it illegal, or rare? Do many people try to pull off those sorts of tricks?"

""Miraculous Wizardry", you mean? No, it's legal to own, at least. Gyeedian law does not condone book-burning. And even if it's hard to find in print, any text is easy to find on the Internet. The thing is that people generally can't afford the time or the reagents to cast those spells, and the caveats really are awful. Not to mention that few wizards have the great skill necessary to cast such difficult spells. That said, it's quite a famous book."

"I'm sure that some people have tried to pull off what Ernest did, right?"

"Not exactly what he did—that is, use those two spells in tandem. I don't believe anybody ever thought of it before. Even if someone did, there'd be plenty of good reasons not to do it anyway. Few people want to pubesce twice, never mind snatch the bodies and destroy the minds of ten-year-olds."

"I'd think that there'd be some people crazy enough…"

"Yes, and once this all becomes public knowledge, I suppose we'll know who they are. Come to think of it, that could be a real problem. Not that there's much we can do about it."

"Couldn't we keep Ernest's trial all hush-hush?"

"Not really. The knowledge would get out there, someday. Hopefully, nobody will have the resources or the chutzpah to pull it off. I suppose we could try to find a way of detecting whether an athlete is under the effect of that steroid-spell. Regardless, parents will be guarding their children more carefully than ever before."

"And speaking of the trial, we can convict him for murder, right?"

"Most definitely, and the premeditated kind, too. He's committed numerous other crimes, and I suppose we could charge him with those as well, just for the record. Gyeeds has capital punishment, and it's a lot harder to avoid than it is in the States."

"Really?" said Jason, raising an eyebrow.

"Really. We are a very pragmatic people, and we don't want to pay for a convicted murderer's food and board for the rest of his life."

"Yes, that is rather pragmatic."

"Do you oppose it?"

"Actually, I dunno. I mean, I can understand the hypocrisy argument. But capital punishment is hardly murder. The criminal isn't killed all of a sudden because some psycho had a grudge on 'em, they're killed because they've had a fair trial, and a jury of their peers has decided that society doesn't want them anymore. Besides, just ten years in prison—in an American supermax, anyway—is a fate worse than death. What do you think?"

"I agree, more or less. I also think execution is important for another reason. What goes around comes around. If a man kills an innocent in cold blood, he deserves to die."

"'Deserve'? Should justice be meted out like divine judgment?"

"Why not?"

"Because society ought to seek compensation, not retribution."

"Retribution is compensation."

"If you think so." He stared at his foster father for a moment. "One last thing about this episode. What was up with that bird?"

"Based on your description, I believe it was a bloodbreast. That's a fairly common species of bird in Gyeedian parks. I can't account for those strange sensations, though. In real life, there is no such thing as a familiar, and I can't think of any magical effect that could cause something like that. Are sure you weren't just nervous?"

"Positive. I'm a relatively emotional guy, but I've never felt anything remotely like that before. Something queer was going on, I can assure you. What, I don't know."

"Nor do I. It's possible that magic was involved, somehow. And keep the possibility that it was just you in mind."

"I will. I still have lots more questions, though. Big ones."

Roland smiled. "That's only natural. Go ahead."

"Well…" Jason took a deep breath. "Let's begin with the first thing I met on this fantastic extraterrestrial journey." He got up and began pacing around the room. "The dragon. How can there be a dragon? Who, what, when, where, why? It doesn't make a whit of sense."

"That's more or less exactly what Ivan Coolzephyr said about eighty years ago, when he first saw a real specimen. Ivan was a biologist, and one who was rather ahead of his time, at that. Gyeedian scientists had just discovered how to see into other verses, and Ivan was one of the first people to take what they saw seriously. At the time, it was generally believed that these images of other dimensions were only illusions. Anyway, Ivan was fascinated when he heard that scientists had seen real dragons. There are some very strange animals in foreign verses, to be sure, but none that are anything like dragons.

"First of all, they have a basis in traditional mythology: the folklore of both Earth and Gyeeds, as well as many other verses. It's Jung's collective unconsciousness in action! Like the giant, the dragon seems to be a fantastic creature that has an essential place in human psychology. Except, apparently, it isn't fantastic.

"Second, although dragons are sapient, they don't have any real culture. They lead very simple lives. They spend their early years with their parents and siblings, then live alone for the rest of their adolescence, then settle down with a mate and start a new family. They don't form communities, they don't bury their dead, they don't have a religion, they don't have any way of recording information—no pictograms, no writing, no nothing. So, some anthropologists and philosophers argue that they're not really sapient at all, just unusually smart.

"Third, they have a number of strange abilities that nobody has ever been able to account for. They can learn to speak and understand any language just by listening to a single word of it. They can fly like birds, and verseport just as effortlessly. They can breathe fire. None of these things make any sense in relation to a dragon's anatomy, or any established laws of physics. They're a lot like magic that way, except even worse understood.

"Most of this was figured out by Ivan and his colleagues. Since him, nobody has made much progress. Dragons are mysterious creatures, all right."

"Hasn't one ever been dissected?"

"Yes, what the scientists found just raised new questions without answering any of the old ones. For example, a dragon has tough bones, with the same density as those of your average terrestrial mammal. But an animal must be very light in order to fly. Its body isn't exactly aerodynamic, either."

"Curiouser and curiouser!" said Jason. "I don't suppose anybody has tried asking the dragons?"

"We have. They don't know, either. No wonder, since they also don't know the Pythagorean Theorem, or the fact that planets orbit stars instead of the other way around. It's not as if they're stupid; they just have no curiosity or imagination. They're always surprised by how fascinated we are with science, and they don't understand art at all."

"Man, it's kinda pathetic! I mean, all of the Terran mythological dragons are described as mighty, imposing, and often cunning and wise. But the real ones mostly seem apathetic. At least they can understand philosophy—at least mine could, anyway."

"Actually, I'm not so sure. You will recall that the dragon let you go only after you used the 'imagine if you were in my place' argument. It couldn't apply your logic to itself without your help."

"Anybody could've made that mistake!" Jason protested.

"Take my word for it: while dragons may have an ethical sense, they don't understand ethics."

"I think I ranted about how sapient beings can create things and thus be above the animals. But dragons can't?"

"That's right. Come to think of it, it's unlikely that that dragon had any real idea what you meant. It wouldn't have had any way of getting the necessary knowledge, since it obviously hadn't ever met a human before."

"So do you think it was just pretending to get what I meant?"


Jason chuckled nervously. He felt profoundly unsettled. He'd been greatly influenced by the dragon's aspect—its form as well as its manner, how it had exuded confidence and poise from every pore. Now he could see that, in the grand scheme of things, it had been about as intelligent and knowledgeable as the beasts Jason had professed he and the dragon were above. Draconic smugness was hardly more justifiable than the feline kind.

Roland stroked his mustache thoughtfully. "I'm ready for the next question whenever you are."

Jason slowly sat up. "Something else about dragons, then. What do they usually eat? There wasn't anything at all to eat in that wasteland."

"Oh, they're pure carnivores. They eat any meat they can get their claws on. They just travel from verse to verse until they find something edible. It's worth noting, though, that they can't perfectly control their verseportation."


"Well, they have only a limited ability to choose which verse they arrive at when they verseport. Exactly how limited isn't clear. The point is, your dragon (being young, after all, and thus even less in control of its abilities) probably didn't intend to visit Earth."

"It was young?"

"Quite young. It was relatively small, so I believe that it had just left its parents at the time."


"Yes, they get much bigger than that runt—up to twice its size!"


"Yikes is right. In the course of my duties as Adventurer, I've had the pleasure of dealing with some particularly large specimens. I was, to be frank, terrified."

"I can imagine." Suddenly, something occurred to him. "Wait a minute. The dragon did enter Earth's verse illegally, albeit unintentionally. Will it get the death penalty?"

"Well, actually, it's already dead."

"Then did―"

"We killed it." Roland said quickly. "I know, I know, it seems ridiculous. It is ridiculous, in a way, that we had to kill the poor beast just because it stumbled into the wrong verse. We had no choice."


"This is not something the IDC can afford to be flexible about. Just imagine what would happen if it were more lenient. 'Oh, silly me, I just happened to bumble into that verse by mistake. My apologies.' People will do anything to plunder the wealth of planets."

Jason frowned. "Oh, well." he said. "It did me a deal of harm, after all, and almost did much more." Roland nodded. "Does this happen very often? Has Earth ever had any other extradimensional visitors?"

"No and no. There are a great many verses, after all. Few dragons are quite so clumsy, and when people illegally verseport on purpose, they generally choose a planet with more resources remaining and fewer nuclear powers. Even if Terrans don't know how to cast spells, all the magic in the world pales in comparison to a hydrogen bomb."

"Uh… I don't think there is any magic on Earth."

"No, Jason, 'world' isn't just a synonym for 'planet' or 'verse'. It comprises the entire realm of human experience: the known multiverse."

"So nobody has magic more powerful than nukes?" Roland nodded. "Somehow, I find that comforting. It's nice to know that there aren't any doomsday spells."


Jason nodded. "Now, there's still something I don't get about this notion of verses. From what I've seen and heard, all of them are very similar. They all feature a relatively hospitable planet, one that's more like Earth than any other body that Terran astronomers have seen. And the sorts of creatures in them tend to be strikingly similar, too. In the time I've been in Gyeeds, I've heard that there are Gyeedian equivalents to two Terran creatures: sloths and hammerhead sharks. Those are very distinctive animals. I'd think that the chances that they'd convergently evolve would be slim to none.

"Not to mention the people. Not only are humans singular in the multiverse for their intelligence and creativity, their cultures tend to resemble each other more than superficially. So, why are they all so dang similar?"

"That's a thorny question, Jason. It's another one that people have been bickering over for nearly a century. But here's the thing: verses aren't really stacked on top of one another like the floors of a skyscraper. A better analogy would be stars drifting around in space—they're different distances from one another, and there's some amount of empty space in between them. In fact, the primary obstacle to verseporting correctly is getting all the way through the extradimensional space to the desired verse without going too far. Modern methods of verseportation, useful as they are, are limited in how far they can take one. There are verses out there that we just can't reach.

"Now, the interesting thing is that the distance between verses seems to be inversely related to how similar they are. That is to say, the nearer two verses are to each other, the greater the similarity between them. So, Earth and Gyeeds are fairly easy to travel between, because they're much alike and therefore interdimensional next-door neighbors. On the other hand, Psyzok, a world that bears a greater resemblance to your planet Neptune, is too far to travel to—we can only view it."

"But all these similarities and differences concern planets, and each verse contains plenty of galaxies, right?"

"Yes, and that's where things get even trickier. The verses we can observe and travel to tend to center on a wide variety of planets, ones at least as diverse as the planets of your native solar system. Yet the suns that these featured planets orbit are all relatively the same, and all of the galaxies, each taken as a whole, are nearly indistinguishable from the Earth's. So, there's speculation that we just need better verseviewers, and then we'll be able to see radically different planets, galaxies, and maybe even forms of universe.

"There's another theory, though." Roland continued. "Some people question whether what we call verses are really separate planes of existence. We might actually all be in one universe, and whenever we look at or travel to another verse, we're really just slipping through 'wormholes of similarity' that lead to different parts of the same universe—parts that are so physically distant from one another that we can't see one we aren't in with our best telescopes.

"Although this idea isn't popularly accepted, I think it has some merit. In a way, it makes more sense than the standard hypothesis, even if it would be strange if we could make huge jumps through the universe while remaining unable to visit stars a parsec or two away from us. (Nobody has ever visited planets outside of their own solar system but within their own verse.) I suppose the only way we'll find out is if intergalactic spaceships from two different verses bump into each other."

"Yeah, sounds possible." said Jason. "In a way, it's what we ought to believe, if we abide by Occam's Razor. Anyway, that covers all the big questions, I guess. Now for something a little more personal.

"So far, I've been kidnapped twice. I realize it's pretty unlikely that it'll happen again. But I can't help but feel a little paranoid. I think that if I knew a bit more about magic, I'd be better equipped for defending myself against dragons, wizards, and whatever else might be out to get me. In fact, if at all possible, I'd like to learn how to use magic."

"Defensively, you mean?"

"I guess. Whatever would help."

"A right decent idea, Jason." said Roland. "I was thinking the same thing. As soon as you finish your Common classes and enter regular school, we can enroll you in a sorcery program. How does that sound?"

"I'll actually be able to cast spells?" said Jason, eyes aglow.

"With any luck, and some patience."

"Awesome! Eat your heart out, Harry Potter!"

"Fair warning, though, that you'll have quite a bit on your plate besides that."

"Like what?"

"Like school, for one. Although it isn't mandatory, I certainly hope you'll want to attend."

"I guess I will."

"Good, because it'll come in handy. As soon as you get your certificate of Common fluency, you'll be eligible for a seat on the IDC."

Jason was dumbfounded. "I will?"

"Yes, solely by virtue of being the only Terran who can attend. The IDC is supposed to have a representative from every verse with a human population, you see, whether or not that verse is a member. Now, given, you won't have very much power at all. How much the vote of an Interdimensional Councilman counts for is directly proportional to how many people he represents—and since you can't communicate with your fellow Terrans, you're considered to represent only one person: yourself."

"So the representative of Gyeeds, whoever they are, will be two billion times more powerful than me?"

"No, five and a half billion, since he represents the whole planet."


"He's also the mayor of Gyeeds, so all in all, he's one of the most powerful people in the world."

"Oh yeah, his name's… I've heard it before… his name's Stanley Ironbone, right?"

"That's right. He's my boss, too."

"Right, I remember."

"It's won't be that bad. Although your vote will count for nothing, you'll have the right to attend meetings and make speeches, and you'll receive a modest salary."


"And the IDC headquarters are conveniently located in Gyeeds, so you'll be able to attend in person."

"Some don't?"

"Yes, they just use a videoconferencing sort of setup."

"I see. Now, speaking of, for example, 'Ironbone', what is it with Gyeedian last names?"

"Well, it's a matter of tradition. The general idea is to combine two words that seem poetic together. Sometimes the result has a basis in fact. Most of the time, it's pure invention: although my surname is 'Moralheart', for example, I don't think I've had any especially kind kin.

"Actually, surnames don't matter quite so much in Common as they do in most Terran languages. On Earth, the family name takes priority—you're alphabetized by it, you're called it when you're formally addressed, etcetera. In Common, nearly the reverse is true. It's considered quite informal, if not pejorative, to mention someone's last name without at least using his first initial—we believe that a man's given name is essential to his identity. So, I could be called 'Roland', 'Roland M', 'Roland Moralheart', 'R Moralheart', or even 'RM', but never just 'Moralheart'. The tabloids, bless 'em, call me 'Immoralheart'.

"Bear in mind that the way Common names are conventionally translated to English is a little inconsistent. Whereas 'Moralheart' is the literal translation of my last name, 'Roland' is the nearest phonetic equivalent to my first. I guess you've already noticed that by now, though."

"Yeah, I have. Here's another linguistic mystery: what in the world is a goozack?"

Roland laughed. "Gyeedian slang for 'door'. It was coined purely as a joke; it has no real etymology. It's like 'frindle', meaning 'pen'. Where did you hear it?"

"The old man—I mean, Ernest used it."

"I see."

"All right, I think that covers everything! Thanks for answering all those questions."

"Anything I can do to help, Jason. You're my ward."

"But not your son. I knew my father well."

"No, not my son. I don't intend on pulling a Darth Vader on you, trust me."

"That reminds me. I have one last request."

"What is it?"

"Well—I was wondering if it would be possible to use a verseviewer or whatever to see Earth—specifically, my family."

"Are you sure that that won't make you feel worse?" said Roland carefully.

"I've thought about it a lot, actually, and… well, yeah, it will probably make me feel worse, in a way. But I can't stand living like Arthur Dent! I want to keep tabs on what's going on with my folks, my country, and my planet, even if I can't visit them."

"All right, then."

They got up and walked over to Roland's computer, a beast of a machine that had more memory than the Blue family computer had hard-disk space. Roland typed a few keys and soon enough, he was receiving streaming data from a public verseviewer. On the screen, it seemed rather like they were looking down on Earth from a satellite. Roland input the address Jason gave him, and the monitor showed a view of Jason's house as if the two were standing on the sidewalk. They could hear everything nearby, too.

The house was empty, which made sense—it was late in the morning on a weekday, so Jason's parents were at work and his sister was at school. The scene was still nostalgic enough to make him cry, a little.

When Jason checked again later, he did see his family. The verseviewer couldn't enter a closed structure or see through walls, but it could peek through the windows and hear the family talk.

It was infuriating, in a way, to get so close to them, to hear their voices and see their faces, and never be able to say a word to them. They had no idea what had happened to Jason, of course. Several townspeople who'd seen the dragon fly away had reported it as a UFO; nobody had made the connection. The Blues knew that Jason wouldn't have run away, so the only explanation they could think of was that he'd been killed or kidnapped. They missed him nearly as much he missed them.

As far as Jason was concerned, his only hope was that Earth might invent a verseporter within his lifetime—or, even less likely, his family might somehow end up in another verse themselves. Barring the former possibility, he was doomed never to walk American soil again.

At least he was free from the rule of the Bush administration.